THE BLACK COW was the nickname of the steam train that ran along the Astico Valley and up the west side of the Asiago Plateau. Though the tracks were pulled up long ago, the Vaca Mora’s legacy lives on the the form of a picturesque rail trail and in the enchanting ride that bears its name. As befitting its nostalgic origins, the VacaMora is a vintage ride: old bikes and old-fashioned attire are the order of the day.
When I first read about the VacaMora it immediately captured my imagination; it seemed original, evocative, charming, and magical. So I repatriated the 1975 Campagnolo Nuovo Record components that I’d carefully stored in my garage in the states, and had them remounted on my 1979 Vetta frame (Vetta bicycles have nothing to do with Vetta bike computers and related products; they are still constructed in Padua by Feruccio Taverna and his son Antonio, who are among the few remaining frame builders).
On Sunday morning I headed to the city of Schio (pronounced SKEE oh), northwest of Vicenza, in a scenic location at the junction of the Astico and Leogra valleys, at the foot of Monte Pasubio, the Monti Lessini, and the Piccole Dolomiti. I signed in, received my carnet,* had my bike approved (bikes must be pre-1987 and if racing bikes, have exposed brake cables, down tube shifters, and pedals with toe clips), was given a tag to attach to the top tube, and received coupons for a free coffee at a nearby bar and the post-race gnocco party (the singular form of gnocchi). After that I picked up my pacco gara (race pack), wondering what the heck was in it because I’d never felt one so heavy. There was: a pen, a sample of bike lube, a bottle of mineral water, a bag of Marano cornmeal (grown nearby), a jar of pickled onions and a packet of dried local funghi porcini, both with the Vaca Mora label, a Vaca Mora cycling cap, an attractive, useful Vaca Mora coat hanger, and a full-sized bottle of local merlot, also with the Vaca Mora label!
I went to the bar, observing the amused looks on customers’ faces as they watched us old-fashioned cyclists having our coffees.Then I headed to the start.
The ride was everything I’d fantasized and hoped it would be. An antique car preceded the group, setting a pace of 15 km per hour. The course was along little country roads, some of them unpaved, and on the wonderful rail trail along the Astico river (I can’t wait to go back and ride it again, because there were spectacular sights and views that I was had no time to savor and photograph). There were three feed stops with salami sandwiches, cheese, wine, slices of crostata, and more. There was also water and snacks at the carnet control points. The leisurely pace and numerous stops provided many chances to meet and chat with other riders. It was a very friendly bunch, young and old (80‘s) alike. It was enjoyable to be on a ride where everyone was there just for the pure fun of it, not to try to outdo other riders. These were cyclists who really loved bicycles: not the latest, lightest, most hi-tech, expensive bikes, but handmade machines with a history and tradition…bikes with soul. There were some unforgettable images, like riding along the unpaved bike path between two lines of tall, shady trees. I felt as if I’d stepped into a photo of a long ago Giro d’Italia. People along the way waved, cheered, and took photos, captivated by the delightful scene.
Only a few of us were wearing helmets; most were wearing caps or “hairnets.” I was not about to give up my helmet just to achieve a totally vintage look. Accidents can happen in the most banal circumstances, and indeed, when we were only a few km from the finish, we came upon one participant who had made a brusque move and fallen; he was lying in the road with blood streaming from his head. He was immediately tended to, and the ambulance arrived shortly after and took him to the hospital. Another man fell and required stitches in his arm.
After arriving at the finish we went to the ”gnocco party,” where were served gnocchi al ragù, several varieties of salami, assorted cheeses, rolls, wine, and water. There was much cheer and good fellowship. This was cycling as it should be.
There were prizes for the oldest bike (1905), the best vintage kit, and more. They called me up front because I had put the VacaMora on my site’s ride calendar (I hadn’t told them about it), and thus considered me a friend of the event. They asked me to speak about my site, and to thank me, gave me a beautiful Selle San Marco Concor replica saddle with a white perforated leather cover.
The cost of the ride, bag of souvenirs and goodies, feed stops, and gnocco party? €10 – $14 US!
Vintage rides have really taken off here, and it’s not difficult to understand why: they are a relaxing antidote to the expense, freneticism, and especially, the exaggerated competitiveness that have taken over many gran fondos (which are losing popularity). Sure, cycling can be about challenging yourself and testing your limits, but it doesn’t always have to be–it can also be about the simple, carefree, old-fashioned joys of riding a humble bicycle at a tranquil pace that allows you to savor the lovely countryside and the company of your companions, all the while dressed up in costume of sorts. I know I am looking forward to doing more of these rides.
• Bici d’Epoca magazine also did an extensive feature on the ride.
* the carnet, shown above, is a folded control sheet which the rider has to carry with him and have punched at various stations along the route