About Gareth Winter
Gareth Winter is a Senior Creative at Sky. He's had the privilege to work with Team Sky, British Cycling and WIGGINS, the names behind transforming and inspiring the UK into a cycling nation.
TUSCANY ROAD JOURNAL: DAY ONE - TRAVELLING TO COLLE DI VAL D'ELSA
Have you ever had one of those days where it feels like the world is against you? Like anything that could go wrong, does? Not through under-planning, ignorance or laziness, but the sea of variables that a new experience throws at you. It’s even harder when COVID-19 enters the equation, right?
Today was ‘one of those days’. Directly or indirectly, COVID made every step of our journey from London to Tuscany harder than I could have imagined.
Why Tuscany? Clearly, watching the Strada Bianchi has filled my brain with white dust. Every time I close my eyes I see this photograph by Russ Ellis. Also, infection rates are very low. Becky and I took a test to minimise the chance of bringing the virus with us, and we are both COVID-19 negative.
The Strada Bianchi breathed hope and inspiration back into the cycling world. Annemiek van Vleuten and Wout van Aert put on a first-class show to remind us what it’s all about.
I was hoping to write about my evening cycling adventure through the Tuscan countryside, however, as you’ll discover… I am without a ‘rideable’ bike, for now…
My alarm goes off. Not an actual alarm clock, my internal one. I have the body clock of a milkman, which is great for road cycling (you can enjoy the sunrise and empty roads to yourself), but not a great when you need to ‘fit in’ with ‘normal society’.
Today, however, pro-solitude-cyclists-body-clock put me at an advantage. While most people would struggle to switch off the snooze button, I’m dancing around the kitchen making a coffee to wake up Becky while humming ‘Ramble On’ - Led Zeppelin.
Don’t you just hate morning people?
Our bags are packed and triple checked, we have our passports, cards, my driver’s licence, all the PPE we need. My Factor O2 VAM is boxed-up neatly, and for peace on mind, I insured it with Laka last night.
(save yourself a tenner on insurance with the Laka collective using this link. After this day, I’m glad that I’m covered.)
The three of us are ready to go. 👯♀️🚲
04:55 PROBLEM 1
Our Uber arrives. After some neanderthal attempts of playing Tetris, we cannot fit the bike box in. Despite the scale of the driver’s car, and the brute force ambition of the driver.
“Please, be careful, it’s not going to fit. I will order another Uber. Don’t worry.”— ME
“No, Sir, I will find a way.”— UBER DRIVER
He admitted defeat. Another driver arrived in minutes. I had built this ‘faff-time’ into my ‘master plan’. We were still ahead of schedule.
05:20 PROBLEM 2
Heathrow airport is a stones-throw from home. At this time of day, it shouldn’t take any longer than 30mins to arrive at departures. It really shouldn't.
…However, I hadn’t considered the possibility of our Uber breaking down. Silly me.
The fastest way to the airport is via the M3 and M25. I couldn’t understand why our driver was travelling 40mph on the motorway? I was also a little concerned about our driver’s ability to ‘hold the line’, we were crossing between lanes for no apparent reason.
“Excuse me, could you help me understand why we are travelling so slowly on the motorway? Are you okay?”— ME
“Thank you, Sir. Yes, I am okay.”— DRIVER
“Could you tell me why we are travelling so slowly?”— ME
“Yes, Sir. My engine is broken.”— DRIVER
You know when you see a broken-down car on the side of a road with stranded passengers sitting next to it and think, “Thank fuck that’s not me.”? Well, I feared it was about to be our turn.
It was hard to communicate with the driver, we had a slight language barrier, a plastic screen between us and masks on. I was beginning to panic about the time so I looked at my Garmin Vivosport watch (basically a FitBit that I use it to keep an eye on my resting heart rate).
We still had enough time to resolve this issue, whether that meant an SOS Uber, AA roadside assistance, etc, however, while glancing at the time, I noticed that my heart rate was 85bpm. My resting HR is 38-44bpm, I was clearly panicking, even though my head was clear. “Breathe, Gareth. Just breathe”.
“How are we going to deal with this situation?”— ME
“I am praying to god. God is on our side.”— DRIVER
Our prayers we heard. By some miracle, our driver made it to departures (I’m not sure how successful his return journey was). Despite the internal panic, we all remained calm. A positive attitude can solve any problem.
Imagine if I became angry, frustrated, scared? Imagine If I projected that onto our driver? It could have turned the situation into a disaster. Instead, we found peace and had a word with his god.
We were running a bit late, but nothing to be concerned about.
06:30 NO PROBLEMS, FOR NOW
COVID precautions have actually made airport procedures more streamlined. It does beg the question, “Why haven’t we done it this way all along?”
I can’t go anywhere in the world without seeing another cyclist. This morning I bumped into Graeme and Bella, who were off to the Alpes, enjoy.
Time to relax, take a coffee and enjoy a good breakfast.
07:30 PROBLEM 3 (MY OWN STUPID FAULT - VANITY IS A SIN)
Here is a first-class case of ‘lockdown fog’, you know, when your brain isn’t functioning properly.
Having lived inside four walls for the past five months, I have gone without a good many things, luxuries, vanities, etc, which I haven’t missed at all… until I walked past Paul Smith in Heathrow T5 and spotted a beautiful tartan suit in the window.
“Becky, look at that… Mind if I try it on?”— ME
“No, go for it. It’s beautiful.”— BECKY
I haven’t been shopping for clothes since, err, January? For the past five months, I have been living in pyjamas from the waist down, throwing on a shirt for video conferences to create a ‘professional’ illusion. Business on top, party downstairs (just remember not to stand up and shatter the facade).
My only other outfit, of course, is lycra - or lack of when I’m on the turbo.
I start with a neat base-layer and bib-shorts. Midway through the turbo session, I am bareback, bib-straps-down and shorts half rolled-up (higher than Sean Yates, yes, think ‘hotpants’), desperately trying to stay cool during intense sessions. (As you can imagine, this is not a pretty picture.)
The global crisis has strengthened my sense of cycling-identity at the cost of my self-identity. My modern-classic archetype has become a lost part of my existence. I relapsed immediately, I had forgotten how important self-identity was, until now.
Becky and I headed in to try it on. They didn’t have my size.
“Let me check downstairs.”— SALESPERSON
A few minutes later:
“I’m afraid we don’t have your size, Would you like me to see if our Floral Street store have it in stock for your arrival back in the UK?”— SALESPERSON
“Hold on, leave it with me and have a browse.”— SALESPERSON
Before we knew it, minutes had passed, we lost track of time. This never would have happened pre-COVID, I wouldn’t have been so easily distracted.
“What’s the time?”— ME
“Oh, fuck.”— BECKY
Time had ‘flown’. We were due to take off in twenty-minutes. We ran from gates ‘A’, down the escalator to catch the rail transport to ‘C’. COVID made this 10minute journey much longer. We had to distance, wait patiently and board slowly. I was screaming at myself inside.
I never run. My legs are always so broken from cycling that I look like a hobbling-pensioner. When the train doors opened, we ran like hell up the escalator and round the empty airport to Gate C63.
We just made it. Luckily, due to the COVID queuing process, people were still boarding in groups. Phew.
This was a good kick up the arse, no more mistakes, Gareth, you twat.
08:40 ONBOARD THE FLIGHT
The flight was short and well precautioned. The chap sitting next to me was even more OCD than me, sanitising his hands every minute, or so. I could sense his anxiety, so regularly sanitised my hands to reassure him that I was also taking things seriously.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”— ANGRY PASSENGER
Yelled an angry passenger. Our plane transformed from silent and anxious, to jaw-dropping (invisibly behind masks) disbelief. The cabin crew quickly retained this outbreak (I believe it was due to them being asked to fit their mask correctly). As if things weren’t tense enough already?
The culprit was looking around for other people to help justify her outbreak, you know, “we shouldn’t have to wear a mask.”, that kind of thing, but the herd stuck together. Our mutual stares of disbelief embarrassed and silenced the situation. Up went her mask as she stared out the window to avoid all the ‘shade’ people were throwing.
We have to live with COVID. We have to respect the process and precautions.
11:30 (LOCAL TIME) ARRIVAL INTO PISA
The moment I was dreading… Standing at baggage arrivals waiting for a big white bike box to unveil itself from behind the rubber conveyor belt curtain, like a dramatic entrance from a play (well, that’s how it felt in my head).
I told myself, “Gareth, whatever happens, you are covered by Laka. It’s okay.”
Everything arrived safely and we’re in Italy. Finally, we can relax and enjoy ourselves, right?
11:40 WHERE IS MY DRIVING LICENCE?
After rolling our possessions for a good kilometre or so to the car rental area - we were presented with another COVID related problem. The precautions taken to protect the staff gave us an ETA of about two hours to receive the keys. I won’t bore you with the details, it required a great deal of patience, while angry Brits vented at the Italian staff members, further delaying the whole process…
“If you can’t change the situation, change your attitude.” Repeating this in my head helped me through to the next stage of our journey.
“Caio, hello, sir. Can I please see your booking reference, your passport, your credit card and your driver licence?”— CAR HIRE STAFF
“Caio, come stai? (no reply, clearly fed-up with everything) Here is my reference number, passport, credit card and my... where is my driver’s licence?”— ME
Between Heathrow and Pisa, I had managed to misplace my licence. Another case of ‘lockdown fog’? Clearly I couldn’t talk or charm my way out of this one, it’s the law.
I had a word with myself, “A positive attitude can solve any problem.”
I followed the DVLA advice and applied for a PDF licence. Time for lap two, another 2hrs of queuing and listening to tourists venting loudly.
One man shouted at the rental manager: “This is not okay…” but before he could launch into full-vent-mode, the manager cut him off: “You are shouting at me without your mask on, this is not okay. Is it?”
Well played and thank you for calling him out.
Anyway, it’s my turn again. I make a joke with the manager to try and lift his spirits. He sends me back to the office to see the same member of staff at the desk. From the look I received, I clearly wasn’t going to get a set of keys…
I presented them with the code on a PDF. “No, this will not work.” I tried to explain it’s authenticity, “No.”
By chance, the manager came through to drop off some keys. They had a quick conversation and pointed fingers at me as if to say, “You’ll never guess what bullshit this guy is trying to pull?”
But the manager looked at me, remembered our joke, smiled and said: “It’s okay, give him the keys.”
He was having a shit day, receiving constant abuse from angry tourists while trying to remain COVID-cautious. He clearly needed some dry sarcastic British humour.
Treat people how you want to be treated yourself, Karma, whatever you want to call it - it is a universal language. Thank you for helping me.
No more problems today, please.
15:00 DRIVING THROUGH TUSCANY
As we drove through the Tuscan countryside with a bike box and luggage filling the entirety of our Renault Twingo, all of our problems melted away in the sun.
I adore Italy, it’s cycling heritage, style, food, history and traditions. I was itching to swap the car for my bike (and the mosquito bite on my Achilles).
04:00 HERE AT LAST
We received a warm welcome from the Pecchi family at our Tuscan Cottage. Gabriele, our host was excited to take me cycling on his home roads in Chianti. Mamma de Gabriele showed us around the farm. Gabriele told her off for being too friendly, “Mamma, COVID.” he gestured for her to wear her mask.
We unpacked our luggage and made some food. Finally, everything is ‘bene’.
The moment I had been dreading… Seeing if my bike had survived.
Not a scratch ‘perfecto’ (phew). I started assembling it for tomorrows ride with Gabriele: Bars and stem, front-wheel, rear-wheel, pedals, and finally the seatpin and saddle.
The seatpin wedge was nowhere to be found. I’m old-school, this is the first bike I have owned with a wedge, rather than a clamp or collar. I think it must have fallen out somewhere while I was packing the frame.
- I looked down the seat tube with my iPhone light ❌
- In the bike box ❌
- On the floor ❌
- In all of our luggage ❌
- On my living room floor at home? Probably. ✅
Can anything else go wrong today?
I messaged Factor Bikes straight away with my SOS call. Rob (Operations Manager) answered my distress signal and sent a new wedge via priority shipping the next day.
After this day, I needed a friend. Rob, thanks for having my back.
Gabriele has a friend that owns a bike shop, Gippo Bikes, for me to go and hire one until my wedge arrives 🤞.
Can anything else go wrong today? I spoke too soon.
“Wheres the camera?”— BECKY
“Don’t worry, I’ve found it.”— BECKY
Travelling here during COVID was tough, not just because of the new precautions and processes, but also because I have lost my ability to think clearly.
There is also the morality of non-essential travel. Here is my take on the situation:
COVID is going to be with us for a long while and is going to present a continuous threat. If you live your life in fear, you will not expose yourself to new experiences.
You are in control of your behaviour and your actions. If you follow best-practice and take all the necessary precautions, you can navigate safely through life. If you feel at danger you can remove yourself from the situation. If you witness something that doesn’t sit well, you can intervene.
Be a part of the solution and test regualry. If you test positive, stricly self-quarentine.
Tomorrow is a new day. I will hire a bike, experience the true heart of cycling in Tuscany with my friend Gabriele, eat breathtaking food with Becky and laugh hysterically at what we went through today.
Will my seatpin wedge arrive so I can ride my bike? Or did I just waste time, money and effort carrying my Factor around like its a designer handbag? So many things could go wrong, What If… it gets lost in the post? What if… I gave Rob the wrong address? What if… It arrives too late? What if…
…We are all naturally pessimistic. I have trained myself to be optimistic, to let go of bad experiences, to look for opportunities where only problems seem to exist, to let go of things out of my control, to help and have faith in other people, to wake up believing that every day is a new day and stand back up when you are knocked down and keep moving forwards.
Without this attitude, I would still be stuck at an airport or broken down on the M25.
I think we can all take a lesson from my Uber driver this morning. Whether you are religious or not, you don’t need a god to have faith. 🙏
Now, I’m going to stop writing and enjoy my holiday. I can’t wait to share part two and three of my road journal with you. Hopefully, my experience of the rolling hills and white roads of Tuscany and the Strada Bianchi can help with your future travels.
Gareth & Becky.
So if you wake up with the sunrise
And all your dreams are still as new
And happiness is what you need so bad, girl
The answer lies with you
’What Is and What Should Never Be’ - Led Zeppelin
Read the rest of Gareth's journal here.