Australia: six handy hints

That’s right! Just when you thought I had totally mined my trip to Australia, I pop up with another post.

A number of friends have asked me if, on reflection, I would have done anything differently. The answer is no. Though it would have been great to go for longer. However, I do have a few handy hints to pass on if anyone is thinking of doing a similar trip.

1. Do your homework beforehand

a) I firmly believe that planning and preparation is the key to getting the most out of your trip. It’s fun too – or at least I think it is!

b) Ensure that you have adequate travel and medical cover for the entire trip. You won’t want to make use of it, but if you have to, you don’t want any nasty surprises.

c) It almost goes without saying, shop around for the best deals on everything.

2. Car hire

a) Don’t hire a GPS, head straight to the branch of Harvey Norman nearest to the airport, (find out its address and print out the directions before you fly) and buy one for a fraction of the hire charges. Alternatively, consult the Australian RAC site.

b) If you’re planning on driving into the Outback – and you really should – hire a car with good suspension, a 4×4 rather than a saloon car. You’ll thank me for it.

c) Main roads in the major towns have tolls. Opt to pay the actual toll charges and an admin charge, rather than a set daily fee, it’ll be cheaper.

d) Familiarise yourself with Australian parking regulations. Fines, and I speak from experience, are expensive. As are those for speeding!

3. Public transport

a) Internal flights are plentiful and relatively inexpensive.

b) Train, tram and bus services are great, particularly in the major cities.

c) Many major cities have public bike hire schemes.

d) Make use of 24 hour tickets from hop on hop off buses to travel around. To get your money’s worth, buy your ticket at mid-day on day one and use it until mid-day on day two.

e) There are some great trips you can do across country either by rail or by sea. Investigate and book these before you fly.

3. Entertainment

a) Australia has a lively restaurant scene. Book any highly rated restaurants before you travel.

b) Once you’re there, don’t be afraid to ask locals for their recommendations of what to do, what to see and where to go.

c) Do go and watch some of the available superb sporting action. It’s not expensive.

d) Looking for a great coffee, see where the cyclists have stopped.

e) In smaller towns, many of the cafes only open until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. So you may need to scout out beforehand somewhere for dinner.

f) Do try the pies and other baked goods from the many local, privately-owned bakeries. My beloved will testify that they’re delicious. Greggs would have no chance in Australia.

g) The national dish appears to be fish and chips, preferably eaten at a seashore shack where the fish was landed that morning.

4. Outside of the major towns, accommodation is largely provided by motels

Many are indistinguishable one from the other so look for those that have good ratings from other travellers similar to yourselves. Book in advance, don’t travel on spec or you might be disappointed.

5. Don’t try to see and do too much

It’s tempting, it’s a big country.

6. Never, ever go out without sun protection or a hat

You know it makes sense.

Above all enjoy!

I love riding on my lonesome

Cycling Weekly had an article this week entitled “Eight reasons why riding alone is better than riding in a group.” This resonated with me because, I much prefer riding alone. I agreed with their reasoning but have put my own spin on it.

I can go when I want

The clubs here all have set-in-stone times throughout the year for the start of club rides which pay little heed to the weather or traffic. For most of the year I like to head out around 10:30, when the mercury has risen and the traffic has calmed down. The exception is high summer when I leave at around 07:00 to avoid the heat of the day. There’s no hanging about as I don’t have to wait for anyone, or meet anyone en route. Nor is there any problem if I leave earlier or later for my ride.

I can go where I want

I generally ride with a route in mind but, depending on how I feel – and the weather – I can extend or foreshorten it. I typically like to warm up on the flat before heading for any climbs. I also have routes that I only ride at certain times of the year. In winter the chill keeps me off the climbs and I hug the coast.

I confess that there are certain routes I’ll only do at the week-end when I know there will be other cyclists around, just in case I have a problem. These are areas where the mobile phone coverage is non-existent, the roads are very quiet during the week and there’s little or no habitation.

It’s easier to stick to my training plan

I like to ride to a training plan, even though I’m not training for anything in particular. It’s unlikely I’ll find anyone, should I even be so inclined, who’s following a similar plan. It’s hard to do interval or climbing training with anyone else, although it is handy to have someone else look at the stopwatch and shout encouragement. That’s where a trainer comes in handy but not a riding companion.

I can ride for as long (or as little) as I want

The length of my rides tend to be determined by the training plan but occasionally I’ll want to ride further and sometimes I’ll want to ride less. I can just head for home wherever and whenever I want.

I can ride at my pace

I found when I rode with the club, I wanted to ride faster on the flat and downhill but was slower than most going uphill. I tended to ping off the front and drop off the back of the group. I wasn’t really riding with anyone and once I had to keep stopping for them to catch up, well………. Of course, it also means I can’t get dropped and others don’t have to wait for me.

I don’t have to keep stopping

When your riding companions are largely elderly (male) retirees, you have to stop a lot for comfort breaks. And, if it’s a particularly long ride, lunch. I don’t like to stop at all on long rides, particularly not for any length of time because it makes me feel far less inclined to get back on. I find it all a bit of a waste of time. I don’t mind stopping for a quick drink, or to fill up my bidons, or to use the facilities but that’s about it. I’m not one to hang about.

Though I can stop as many times as I want

Conversely, when I’m on my own I can stop to take pictures, answer my phone, or blow my nose without anyone minding. Sadly, I’ve never mastered the art of blowing my snot into the wind; it usually ends up on my face and jersey – not a good look! Nor can I do anything, such as answering my mobile, while riding hands free.

It gives me time to think

This is by far and away the best reason to ride on my own. I can enjoy the peace and quiet, clear my head and drink in my spectacular surroundings. I don’t have to make polite conversation or listen to inane chatter. If I’ve got a bit of a challenge, I can chew over the options for resolving it while I’m riding. I also find the kilometres seem to go by much faster. I know it’s an illusion, but it’s a good one.

I can fix my own punctures

Touch wood, it’s rare for me to get a puncture. But, if I do, I know how to change my inner tube. I should add that I’ve never once had to do so myself on the road. Usually, before I’ve even stopped, some gallant Frenchman (or men) will come to my rescue and within a matter of minutes, I’m back pedaling once more.

I should add that on the off-chance I lose my chain – rookie error – I keep a pair of disposable plastic gloves in my teeny, tiny saddle bag to put it back on without getting oily hands.

I’m never really alone on the road

Cyclists are a friendly bunch and I’m constantly waiving at riders I know, and don’t know, on the other side of the road and exchanging quick pleasantries with those I overtake or who overtake me. The latter group is much larger than the former. I know many of the local riders and they love shouting “Salut Cherie.” You’d have thought by now that the novelty would have worn off!

I can see the road ahead

In a bunch, you’re reliant on others to identify hazards. Some are better at doing this than others. I like to see the road ahead so I either ride at the head of the bunch or on my tod.

No one is sucking my wheel

Okay, so I’m not sheltered from the wind either but frankly you need to know how to ride in a cross or head wind and I’m pretty nifty in both.

No one is going to cross my front wheel

Hands up, how many times have you been taken out by a club-mate who hasn’t maintained his line and crossed your front wheel? Yeah, everyone! Not a problem if you’re riding on your own.

No one is training on my mountain

With so many professional riders and great amateurs training around here, the chances of getting a QOM are practically zilch. However, I have my own mountain, I’m training to be its Queen and no one else knows about it.

Postcard from Sanremo

Saturday was just the most perfect spring day, perfect for a bike ride. Instead, I drove to Sanremo on the Italian Riviera to watch a bike race. I love the drive over there: 45 minutes on a motorway with one of the world’s best coastal views. I like to get over there early, in time for a cappuccino and custard-filled croissant, while I pore over La Gazzetta dello Sport’s run down of the race favourites. Obviously, coffee and croissant are off the cards for me but not for my beloved who freely indulged. After all it was going to be a long day with nearly 300km of riding. That’s a lot of television viewing!

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Race coverage doesn’t start until just after lunch giving us plenty of time for a spot of food shopping followed by a stroll around in the sunshine, a spot of fare niente or, in my case, some serious window shopping. The fine weather and the race had combined to bring out the crowds all doing pretty much the same as us. Window shopping’s thirsty work so my beloved needed fortifying with an Aperol spritz, a recent addiction.

MSRFinish

We walked along the via Roma for a better look at the finish line where harried staff were still assembling everything while the peloton hurtled from Milan to the coast. After checking out a number of restaurants, my beloved decided to choose one I’d eaten at before and we were soon tucking into some delicious seafood. I’m particularly partial to octopus and our starter came with clams, waxy potatoes and artichokes. We followed it with lobster  spaghetti. Carbo-loaded, I was now ready for action just as the television coverage started.

After an hour or so, I had to head off for a meeting with one of the teams but fortunately they have television coverage in the team bus and I was able to watch it relatively freely while still taking notes and contributing to the discussion. I believe that’s called multi-tasking. The meeting was thankfully short and we could all return to more intently watching the race unfold.MSROldies1

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The crowds had swelled, I’d missed the Old Timers who’d set off from Milan just after midnight. Now, that is an epic and heroic ride! They rolled across the finish line, posed for photographs and the cheers of the crowd. The participants provided many with a welcome diversion after several hours standing, watching the big screen.

With fine weather and no wind to speak of, once the early break had been reeled in, the leading bunch seemed larger than in recent previous editions, and nervous as it approached the last two obstacles before the mad dash through Sanremo. There had been a number of nervous spills, involving both Italian riders and some pre-race favourites, though the majority still seemed to be in with a shout and at the pointy end of the race.

Riders pinged off the front only to be swiftly brought to heel. The crowd became excited when Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian national champion, chased down escapee Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky). But it was all for nought, and the sprinters prevailed. As they approached the line, a number were in contention. Neo pro Fernando Gavira (Etixx-QuickStep) went down, hindering those behind. Former French under-23 world champion, 24 year old Arnaud Demare (FDJ) burst from the bunch and powered across the finishing line ahead of Britain’s Ben Swift (Sky) and Belgium’s Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal). The first French winner since Laurent Jalabert (1995) and only FDJ’s second monument after Frederic Guesdon‘s at Paris-Roubaix in 1997. The latter was in the following car, working as FDJ’s directeur sportif.

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MSRchamp (2)

That’s what I love about cycling, sometimes it’s just so unpredictable. Demare had dropped out of Paris-Nice after winning a stage and had returned home to rest, recover and train. He’d ridden 205km on Wednesday, half of that behind his father on a scooter, but wondered whether he’d perhaps done too much.

Apparently not! We were left wondering how he would fare in the forthcoming Belgian cobbled Classics. A happy end to a wonderful day? Well not before another quick Aperol spritz to toast the winner.

 

Postcard from Nice

Yeah, I know it’s just up the road but it occurred to me that I don’t bang the drum enough about my home region and, this year, the final two stages of Paris-NeigeNice were both around Nice and the Niçois hinterland, and it WAS a race to the sun.

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Every time I attend an ASO organised event I am reminded of what a superb job they and their staff do to make the race run seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly. However, if like me, you’ve been involved in arranging or managing any mass participation events, you’ll appreciate how much work goes into it. In addition, ASO are constantly innovating. This year there was a sizeable village with plenty of stands and activities for all the family.

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And that’s not all. Last year ASO organised Challenge #ExploreNice, a multi-stage sportive showcasing the area. This year the one-day Paris-Nice challenge saw amateur riders, including my beloved, tackle Sunday’s stage on Saturday. I dropped him off nice and early in Nice on Saturday morning, well before the sign on for that day’s stage, leaving me to hang around to collect him later. He calculated he would be back at 13:30, and he was.

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Meanwhile, I watched the start of the queen stage of Paris-Nice where anyone who harboured GC ambitions would have to make their move on a parcours which proved probably more difficult that many imagined: a summit finish, seven climbs and barely any flat, apart from the roll-out on the Promenade des Anglais. The stage didn’t disappoint with the leading protagonists enjoying a ding-dong battle royal up La Madone d’Utelle where, cruelly, the steepest section is in the last 500 metres. It’s a deceptively long and difficult climb and I’m speaking from experience.

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I had whipped up my race-winning brownies for a couple of my friends (and their teammates) who were taking part. I felt they deserved a treat given the cold and snowy conditions they’d had to ride through on Wednesday. You might wonder why I call them race winning brownies. Suffice to say those who have eaten them in the past have won the stage or gone on to win the overall race. This time the teammates of my friends won the overall and finished third on the podium. Ironically, I was rooting for runner-up Alberto Contador. I really must make him some of my brownies.

At most ASO events, while the race unfolds, someone will engage with the spectators and ask them questions about the race. If you answer the question correctly, you get a prize, typically a bidon. I love Cycling Quizzes. After an embarrassingly large haul of bidons, my beloved pulled me away before the quizmaster started saying: “Does anyone other than Sheree (yes, he knows me by name) know which of today’s participants has won the most stages?” Easy, peasy that’s Tom Boonen with six stages. Am I the only person who knows the correct answer? It would appear so…………….

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Sunday morning we were down bright and early to enjoy breakfast in the Cours Saleya in the Old Town, always worth a visit. There’s a flower, fruit and vegetable market every morning save Monday (antiques) and the better stands with local producers are to be found at the far end of the market.

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Suitably fuelled, we headed back to the start area to catch up with friends and acquaintances all enjoying the warm spring sunshine and the prospect of another day’s great racing. Before the riders signed on, ASO and Astana held a touching presentation in memory of Andrei Kivilev who, while riding for Cofidis, crashed and died 13 years ago last Friday. It’s a nice touch and helps young Leonard Kivilev, who was born after his father’s death, and his mother keep his flame burning bright in their and our collective memories.

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While my beloved took photos of the sign-on, I looked around for riders to have a quick chat to for VeloVoices or team press officers to set up future longer interviews with certain riders.

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Once the boys had ridden off, I got to see my little cupcake race around the Promenade des Anglais in the Louis Nucera. He’s a little lacking in form having spent three months off the bike due to growing pains in his back. It was a tough event to debut his season thanks to the presence of a few ex-pros, now riding for amateur teams.

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Once the race was over, my beloved required feeding (again) so we headed to one of our favourites, the roof terrace at Le Meridien which affords a great view of the finish line, though we were back down in time to see the television coverage and the unfolding of an absorbing final stage. Despite his efforts, Alberto Contador couldn’t put enough time into Geraint Thomas to take the title for a third time and was noticeably disappointed on the podium.

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All in all it was a magnificent weekend and there’s more to come on 14-18 September 2016 when Nice/Monaco hosts the European Road Championships which will be organised by ASO.

 

 

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Postcard from Siena

My beloved and I recently enjoyed a romantic tryst in Siena. It wasn’t our first visit to the town but it was our maiden trip to watch the Strade Bianche races. When I saw this year’s edition started and finished in Siena, I knew we had to go. It was a very pleasant five-hour journey, in fine weather, in Tom IV, which was badly in need of a run out.

Duomo from Piazza San Giovanni
Duomo from Piazza San Giovanni

We were staying in a hotel opposite the cathedral in the old town which made use of a car valet service. You drive to the valet and then he drives you in your car to the hotel, drops you off and takes the car away. Fine, except it doesn’t work for a two-seater with two passengers!

Best press centre ever?
Best press centre ever?

We navigated our way to the hotel with our spare GPS, as Tom IV’s didn’t recognise a road that’s been there since 15th century. Unfortunately, we inadvertently drove the wrong way down a one-way street only to meet the strong-arm of the law who then walked in front of the car for the remaining 200 metres to the hotel. Fortunately the hotel owner, a man with connections in all the right places, talked the police officer out of giving us a fine. Once we’d checked in, the valet service collected the car, promising to return it later that evening. Meanwhile, we hot footed it around to the press centre, surely the most magnificent I’ve ever seen with views over Il Campo, where the famous Palio horse race is held.

Double trouble: two world champions
Double trouble: two world champions

At the press conference there were contrasting demeanours from the two UCI road world champions: Lizzie Armitstead, for whom these affairs are still something of a novelty, and Peter Sagan, a man who’s endured more stupid questions from the press than I’ve had hot dinners.

As promised, the valet service brought the car back and, with the aid of GPS systems in stereo, we attempted to find our way out of the old town which is riddled with very narrow one-way streets. But we merely succeeded in going round in circles until, ignoring the by now raised GPS voices, we followed our instincts. We’d been advised the town we were seeking was a mere 10 minutes up the road. I’d allowed thirty minutes to get there but we’d already wasted 20 getting out of Siena and the hotel was seemingly in the middle of nowhere down –  yes you’ve guessed it –  strade bianche.

Our late arrival meant the rider I had arranged to interview had already gone into dinner. We agreed to meet up back at the hotel later while we went in search of our dinner. More fruitless driving in circles until we spotted a small restaurant on an industrial estate serving wood-fired pizzas. After quite probably the cheapest dinner ever, we headed back to the hotel to interview Daniele Ratto of Androni-Sidermec.

It’s not the first time I’ve interviewed him, having gotten to know him well while working for one of his former team’s sponsors. We chatted for around 90 minutes, giving me plenty of ammo for my article for VeloVoices, before heading back to our hotel while studiously avoiding any one-way streets.

We woke bright and early to the sound of various church bells and, after a quick breakfast, headed to the start of the elite women’s race. Stupidly, I had handed the map to my beloved who took us the long way round, which included both a descent and an ascent of THAT hill leading to the finish. We arrived just in time to grab a few shots before they set off on the first race of the inaugural women’s WorldTour.

The world champion braving the cold in short sleeves
The world champion Lizzie Armitstead ((Boels Dolmans) braving the cold in short sleeves
Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5)shedding layers at the start
Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) shedding layers at the start

This meant my photographer had plenty of time to take photos of the boys signing on while I took refuge from the rain which veered from deluge to light raindrops.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) fresh from his recent victory in Belgium
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) fresh from his recent victory in Belgium
Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) prepared for rain
Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) prepared for rain
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) sporting a teeny, tiny ponytail
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) sporting a teeny, tiny ponytail
Who is that?
Who is that?
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) unmasked
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) unmasked
Race favourite Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) chatting to Southeast's Pippo Pozzato
Race favourite Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) chatting to Southeast’s Pippo Pozzato at the start

Once the boys were on their way we retired to a local coffee shop where my beloved had a heavenly hot chocolate and I had camomile tea. Sometimes I feel a bit frustrated with my regime and then I remember the alternative (surgery) and realise it’s all worth while. We indulged in a spot of sightseeing/window shopping until the women’s race was due to finish whereupon we took our places on the last climb.

Lizzie powering up THAT hill with ease.
Lizzie powering up THAT final hill with ease
Nicole Braendli (Servetto Footon) giving her all
Nicole Braendli (Servetto Footon) giving her all
You can tell that it's hurting as these two weave all over the hill
You can tell that it’s hurting as these two weave all over the place. I can quite understand why!

Having cheered the women home we retired to a nearby Osteria for lunch, reappearing in time for the finish of the men’s race.

Gianluca Brambilla(Etixx-QuickStep) led up the hill
Gianluca Brambilla(Etixx-QuickStep) led up the hill
The leading riders went by in a flash.
The leading riders went by in a flash
Is Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the right gear?
Is Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the right gear?
Fabian Cancellara's (Trek-Segafredo) third win in this race
Fabian Cancellara’s third win in this race
Il Campo
The race finished in Il Campo

The heaven’s opened shortly after the conclusion of the podium ceremony and we returned to the Osteria for further fortification, largely because it was opposite the restaurant I had booked for dinner. To be honest, one is spoilt for choice in Siena where good restaurants serving local specialities abound. The following morning, after a bit of a lie in, we headed for home wishing we could have stayed for longer – next time.

On the way back we decided to leave the motorway in search of somewhere for lunch. We chanced upon a packed restaurant in Sarzana where the owner promised to squeeze us in. While waiting for our table, my beloved noticed the karaoke machine and musical instruments in the corner and joked I should just start singing to clear the restaurant and our table.

We had just started lunch when, lo and behold, the band started to play and the largely elderly clientel sprang to their feet for a local version of “Strictly.” My singing, not much worse than that of the band leader, would have had the restaurant’s customers on their feet to leave, not dance. It was an amusing intermezzo on our journey back home.

Postcard from Chicago

I’ve recently returned from the Windy City, my first visit there since February 2007. You’re probably thinking, hmm not the best time to visit Chicago. I agree, but I was with my beloved who was attending a Dental Congress while I played hooky at a number of art and architectural museums.

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I love the architectural melange in Chicago, not as built up as New York, with plenty of old buildings in the centre interspersed with skyscrapers. It’s a town you can “see” in a week-end providing, like me, you’re prepared to pound its pavements – or should that be sidewalks?

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The Chicago skyline owes much to Daniel Burnham, architect of the Flatiron building – one of my faves – in New York, who sought to create Paris on the Prairie in Chicago, and Mies van der Rohe whose buildings are all over Chicago, if you know where to look.

My first port of call was a bookshop. I knew I had plenty of room in my suitcase for at least three more books. I’m rapidly building my collection of vegan cookery books. After my breakfast of avocado on toast at a nearby restaurant, I spent much of the morning in the bookshop before heading up the Magnificent Mile to The Art Institute of Chicago. I visited The Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Museum of Contemporary Art on subsequent days.

My beloved was busy with meetings all day long but free in the evenings leaving us to explore Chicago’s excellent restaurant scene on our own. Lest I get homesick, we stayed at the Sofitel, where I got a great deal on booking.com. Over the years we’ve stayed in a variety of hotels in Chicago but the advantage of working for yourself means you get to pick where you stay.

We’ve eaten at a number of Chicago’s long-standing restaurants such as Morton’s – where I once tussled with and defeated a 3lb lobster – and more upscale establishments such as Alinea and Charlie Trotter’s, the latter sadly closed after the chef’s demise. There are plenty of fish and Mexican restaurants where I could feed my love of shellfish and spices – just hold the butter, mayo, sour cream and cheese!

We arrived in a snowstorm but thereafter the weather was unseasonably mild. I still recall my first trip to Chicago, back in the early 90s. It was so cold I felt as if my sinuses were freezing. At times, the cold wind whips off Lake Michigan making it feel so much colder than the numbers on the mercury. Even so, on that trip I spent a very pleasant Sunday in Oak Park, exploring historic homes, including those of Frank Lloyd Wright.

I also found time to feed my beloved’s new found addiction to lululemon sportswear, adding to the collection we started for him in Australia. That man has so much sportswear – swimming, golf, tennis, cycling, gym – he could open his own sport shop!

I’m not normally much of a shopper. Twice a season, I’ll go through my wardrobe, toss out the overworn, unworn and unloved and make a list – what else? – of what needs replacing. I’ll then go out and buy them, preferably in one fell swoop.

I have been searching for a new pair of jeans for some time. My problem in France is that they love the extra skinny legs which don’t fit my arms, let alone my legs. I favour what they call the “boyfriend” style but don’t want them pre-ripped, overlong or over wide. I tend to find the US, where I’m miraculously two sizes smaller than in France, and Germany, fertile hunting ground, though I had struck out last year in New York.

In Chicago, I chanced upon a pair which fit perfectly and indeed a few pairs of other trousers which also fitted the bill. Add in a couple of jackets and tops and that was my summer wardrobe sorted in a couple of hours – perfect!