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 Sarazan 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 dance, not to leave. It was an amusing intermezzo on our journey back home.

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