Anticipation

Can you feel it? It’s almost here. I’m talking about the Tour de France, in many minds the high point of the cycling season. We’ve had months of anticipation, merely heightened since the end of the Giro d’Italia. We’re now eagerly awaiting the battle of the big six (Aru, Bardet, Contador, Froome, Porte and Quintana) who have plenty of pretenders young and old nipping at their heels. Speculation has been fevered, who will win what could be one of the most hotly contested and eagerly awaited Tours since………last year.

It’s true each Tour is eagerly awaited by its legion of fans while the riders are chomping at the bit, happy to see the back of the endless press conferences and presentations. I’ve witnessed countless riders patiently answer the same set of questions, some in a multitude of languages, time and time again. Pros to their cores, responding to each and every question with smiles on their faces.

Of course, I’m still a relative newcomer to the sport, my first Tour was 2004 ahead of our permanent move to France. I’ve been watching stages live since 2006 when I saw the same stage that had earlier been undertaken by my beloved on l’Etape du Tour. In truth my interest really ramped up when I was given a priviledged glimpse behind the scenes in 2012. I accompanied a friend who was reporting for Eurosport and witnessed the first British winner on the Champs Elysees. It was magnificent. But more than that it gave me an appreciation of the fantastic job done by ASO who make everything work like clockwork throughout the three-week juggernaut as it careers around France. I tried to find an analogy and the only thing I could come up with was organising 21 royal weddings in succession, but all in different locations.

This fantastic infographic, courtesy of ASO, explains why.


Dusseldorf will be my sixth Grand Depart after my first in London. Back in 2007, cycling was regarded somewhat quizzically by the British public. But it was free and everyone had been cooped up inside thanks to three weeks of rain, so why not? That was the start of Britain’s love affair with cycling which has since taken off into the stratosphere, particularly since 2012 and the Tour’s first British winner which, coincidentally, gave me bragging rites down at the cycle club.

In many ways, London set the pattern for my attendance at subsequent departs. I like to walk some or all of the prologue/opening time-trial route to understand where it would be best to watch the race. More importantly, I like to check out the facilities. Am I near to toilets, refreshments and a big screen? Yes, then that’s three big fat ticks. The greater my level of pre-race planning, the greater my enjoyment of the event on the day. In Dusseldorf, I note from the website, I will have the option of splashing out Euros 675.00 for a fully catered VIP view!

I was an insider in 2009 at le Grand Depart in Monaco where my range of linguistic skills got me a gig looking after Prince Albert’s guests, initially in his air conditioned pavilion with refreshments on tap, and then in the VIP Tribune, which afforded me a ringside view of the opening time-trial. That was special, particularly as Prince albert went round and personally thanked all of the volunteers. It isn’t every day a girl gets kissed on the cheeks by a Prince!

In 2014 I was blown away by the crowds in Yorkshire and have to commend the organisers for the facilities laid on for the thousands of people who turned out to watch. That was a tough one for Utrecht to emulate in 2015 but I think it rose to the challenge and got bonus points for a free team presentation –  Yorkshire’s was ticketed. Utrecht, like Dusseldorf this year, made use of its excellent exhibition facilities.

Last year’s Le Grand Depart took place in Normandy and gave us the opportunity for a trip down memory lane, visiting an area in Brittany we hadn’t been to for 20 years. It also meant we were able to visit a few places on the way there and back, such as the Loire, which we’d not visited before. It turned out to be a wholly delightful and restful break. We’re always saying cycling takes us to places we might not otherwise visit.

But, as mentioned earlier, the key to attending any Grand Depart, is plenty of forward planning and preparation. For example, I always book my hotels well in advance, usually at least nine month’s ahead – early birds, worms and all that. I generally try to avoid hotels that might be used for accommodating teams, though am not always successful. This year we’ll be at the same hotel as Astana, Bahrain Merida and Dimension Data as we’ve elected to stay adjacent to the exhibition centre. Typically, we’ll stay midway between the first couple of stages so as not to have to change hotels too frequently.

My beloved often meets with clients in the days running up to Le Grand Depart where he’ll be primed and on duty with his camera ready to capture all the action at the start. We’ve learnt over the years that it’s easier just to go to the stage starts as it’s often well nigh impossible to get to both start and finish. Rather than stress too much, we opt for the start, locate somewhere for lunch after the peloton has departed and generally make it a fun day out. We watch the finish on the television in our hotel. I’ve oft thought in the past that it would be great to follow the Tour for the entire three weeks. With advancing age has come greater wisdom. It’s a punishing routine and it’s much better to dip in and out of the race route. that’s what we’ll be doing again this year.

 

 

 

Everyone’s a Winner

If only this were true about cycling. It’s a team sport but only one of the team can win, unless it’s the World team time-trial championships. For many riders, the best they can hope for is being on the winning team, taking satisfaction from doing their job and helping a team-mate to win. Actually, the more you know about cycling the more you realise how few riders win races. Even those that are prolific winners, like Alejandro Valverde, lose more races than they win. I guess it’s what keeps the riders humble.

I derive enormous pleasure from watching friends race, it certainly adds a further dimension to my enjoyment and nothing, nothing beats seeing them win! The past week or so I’ve been thrilled to see one of the young American riders I know win two races. I have this theory that victories are like buses, they come along in twos and threes. I say that because, once you’ve got that first-ever win in the bag, the monkey’s off your back.

Witness, after the Tour de France starts this week-end, how much better teams ride once they’ve achieved their goal. Obviously, some of those goals may seem quite modest but a Tour de France stage win or just a day in one of its treasured jerseys is a BIG DEAL for any rider and any team. As a fan there’s nothing better than seeing a rider take their first ever professional victory and I consider myself privileged to have seen friends take their first WorldTour victory. A win moreover which has often set them on a long and successful career path as a professional cyclist on a WorldTour team.

I particularly enjoyed seeing my young American friend win as he’s had a testing time thus far in his short career and at one point last year even thought it might be over. Fortunately it wasn’t, thanks to his own self-belief, the rock-solid support of his family and friends, and a new team. His victory was incredibly popular, not just among the fans but also among his peers who were happy to show their delight for him on social media.

Larry Warbasse takes heroic maiden win for himself and his team

After spending a month at altitude to prepare specially for this race, one of his favourites, Larry targeted this particular stage, which started in the historic city of Bern and traveled initially across flat terrain to a summit finish in Villars-sur-Ollon. He had gotten in the day’s break with three other riders shortly after the start and the quartet had worked well together to build an advantage of over seven minutes.

With the gap rapidly coming down, Larry dropped his break-mates on the final ascent and rode off, cutting a determined, focused figure as he battled pain and a fast-advancing peloton. His advantage was under a minute as he rode under the flamme rouge to the encouragement of the crowd and gave it his all to solo across the line, arms aloft. Thereafter, he collapsed exhausted allowing the realisation of what he’d just achieved to sink in. His first ever professional victory, moreover in a WorldTour event and his new team’s maiden win.

Goodness knows what my neighbours thought as I cheered Larry every step  – or should that be pedal-stroke? – of the way. I knew he couldn’t hear me but I was willing him onto victory and I wasn’t the only one. As the enormity of his achievement sunk in, Larry gave in to tears of joy and relief and we all joined in. THIS is why I follow the sport. It gladdens the heart and lifts the soul to see wins like these from riders like Larry.

Larry Warbasse is Captain America

Larry’s moment of glory wasn’t over. Disappointed with his performance in the US elite men’s time-trial (fifth), he got into another break in the road race with two other riders and, while he may not have been the strongest rider on the day, he was most definitely the smartest as he left them trailing in his wake to seal gold in Knoxville, Tennessee with his very proud family watching on.

Post-race, Larry declared:

I’m in disbelief. I think this has been the best two weeks of my life. I had a really great race in Suisse a week ago. Yesterday, I felt pretty bad in the time trial, I was a bit disappointed, and I told some friends ‘I guess I work well with disappointment, so hopefully tomorrow will be good’. Honestly I didn’t feel good the whole day. At the start I was suffering – actually I was suffering the whole time. I don’t think I was the strongest today but I think I was the smartest. I can’t believe it, I’m so happy.

I cannot stress that this is such a heartwarming story. Goodness knows how many congratulatory tweets and emails Larry must have received but I bet he’s responded to each and every one of them.

If you want to know more about this charming young racer, who’ll be 27 tomorrow, head over to VeloVoices to read my recent interview with him.

 

Things my beloved says: Celine Dion’s in town in July!

Yes, Celine Dion’s in town on 20 July and there are still unsold tickets! This isn’t as unusual as you might think. The French don’t like to pay for things months in advance, they like to be more spontaneous. When my beloved unleashed this astonishing news I merely advised that if he wanted to go he would  a) need to buy a ticket and b) go on his own. I’m perhaps being unfair on Celine here. I’m sure her show will be fabulous and the woman has an undeniably fantastic voice but she’s just not my cup of tea, she’s my beloved’s.

In years past, I would’ve immediately acquired two tickets for the show and then, on the night, my beloved would be unavoidably detained somewhere and unable to attend. Leaving me with two tickets to a concert I never wanted to go to in the first place. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened over the years. However, I’ve gotten wiser in my old age. If he wants to see something, and I don’t, he has to buy himself a ticket. I can tell you now, he won’t be going to the Celine Dion Show. Even though, according to the office diary – not always the most up to date record – he’s in town that night, along with Celine.

The new arrangements work well from my perspective. If he wants to go to see OGCN play football, I’ll be happy to join him but he has to buy the tickets. If I want to see something, I’ll always check beforehand whether he wants to come too. He hardly ever declines. This way I’m spared seeing things I never wanted to see in the first place or wasting my money. Okay, so I sound like a bit of a philistine. I’m pretty much always up for a sporting event, less so the ballet, opera or a classical concert. Though most years, I’ll get tickets to one or more of the various Jazz events in the area and he’s happy to come along too.

Friends recently had two tickets available for a Depeche Mode concert which I’d happily have taken off their hands except we were away for the event. I’ve seen the band a number of times in the past and would have enjoyed seeing them again. My friends were surprised largely because last year I turned down their offer of two tickets for Coldplay which my beloved would’ve accepted. Again, I have nothing per se against Coldplay but I couldn’t sit through one of their concerts. My beloved was most disappointed. Well, actually he wasn’t. That night, the wind was blowing in our direction and he listened to the concert from our balcony for free. Sadly, that won’t be an option for Celine as she’s playing at OGCN’s home stadium which is way down the Var valley. No amount of wind will carry the sound of her concert to our balcony.

My beloved’s frequent business trips to London afford him the opportunity to indulge in his (misguided) love of musicals, something I abhor. Nothing would persuade me to see another one. Been there, got the t-shirt, never ever going again.

Now I love the theatre and would see at least one play per month when we lived in London. I’ve been to see plays here in France and have not had any trouble understanding what’s going on. Not so my beloved. We started going to the new multiplex that’s opened near us and watching the latest films in French. It was only when I realised that my beloved’s understanding of the plot was flawed because of a linguistic misunderstanding that we reverted to seeing films in their original language. Plays would similarly probably be a step too far. Also, he doesn’t share my interest in exploring situations. He likes plays with a start, middle and end. Yes, we’re culturally estranged though united in our love of sport, particularly live sport.

The Musette: Farinata

Farinata , socca , torta di ceci or cecina are all names for thin, unleavened pancakes made from chickpea flour which originated in Genoa but are popular from Nice around the Ligurian Sea to the isle of Elba. Farinata is made by stirring chickpea (garbanzo) flour  into a mixture of water and olive oil to form a loose batter. Typically seasoned with fresh rosemary, pepper and sea salt, it’s usually sold in pizzerias, bakeries and on market stalls.

The best example I’ve ever tasted was made by an Italian friend who also makes divine focaccia. One of these days I’ll get her to show me how she makes them. Meanwhile, here’s my version:-

Ingredients (serves 6 hungry cyclists as a starter or snack)

  • 300 g (3 cups) chickpea flour, sifted
  • 1 ltr (4 cups) filtered water
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 30 ml (2 tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for frying

Method

1. Put a litre of filtered water, two teaspoons of sea salt and the sifted chickpea flour into a bowl with 30 ml olive oil and stir with a whisk to form a thick batter. Let the mixture stand at room temperature in a warmish place for at least 4-5 hours or, better still, overnight. (This will allow the mixture to start fermenting, which gives the pancake its light, airy texture).

2. Preheat the oven to 220ºC(425ºF)/200ºC Fan(400ºF)/gas mark 7. Heat a large, heavy ovenproof frying-pan (skillet) or tray on the stove until it is almost smoking. Cover the bottom generously with olive oil and pour in the mixture. It should be no more than two thirds of a centimetre thick, turn the tray or pan as you pour to ensure it coats the bottom evenly.

image

3. The mixture will begin to bubble. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook for 10-12 minutes until the farinata has set and the edges are crispy. Cut into slices, remove from the pan and repeat with the rest of the mixture. Serve warm, either on its own or with antipasti. I had it for breakfast with avocado and tomatoes. It made a lovely change from smashed avo on toast.

I’d like to be able to tell you…………..

One of my friends recently asked me how long I’d been cooking. I would’ve liked to tell her that I learned to cook at my grandmother’s or mother’s knee but that would be a lie. I showed very little interest or even aptitude for cooking until my late teens. Home economics had been a disaster with most of my offerings ending up in the waste bin, deemed unsuitable for human or animal consumption.

This changed when I had a Saturday job waitressing at a restaurant in Birmingham. One day, when the restaurant was short staffed, I found myself cooking English breakfasts. It wasn’t exactly a success but no one died and no one complained. I set about this new task with vigour, adding grilled tomatoes and fried bread to the restaurant’s cooked breakfast offering. Eventually I got a rave review in the local rag and a number of bookings for wedding breakfasts. Try cooking breakfast for 32 people at the same time – it’s a challenge!

A year or two later, at university, I met the love of my life and wooed him via his stomach. It worked, we married and, having very little money, I started making edible presents for family and friends. We entertained at home, rather than dining out, and I started to acquire what has now become an extensive library of cookery books, and limited expertise in the kitchen.

We moved to London, life got busier and I had less and less time to spend cooking. We still entertained, but less frequently. Years passed and my cookery books started collecting dust. A few years ago, I decided to throw it all in, move to France and spend time doing the things I wanted to do, including re-discovering my love of cooking.

Our first Christmas in France, we held a cocktail party to thank our neighbours for their understanding during the lengthy renovations of our flat. I was delighted when they asked me where I had purchased the delicious nibbles I’d served and they were astonished when I told them I had made them myself. Yes, quelle surprise, the British can cook.

A few of my French friends joke that I’ve got a Michelin star – if only! But I’m never happier than when hordes of friends are coming over and I’m cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Many of these friendships have come about through our mutual love of cycling, rather than cooking.

It was my husband who first took up cycling. At week-ends, I would get up early to cook him an energising breakfast and would have lunch waiting for him on his return. I experimented – not always successfully – with energy bars to sustain him on his rides.

When I too started riding, I began to help out at cycling club events. France doesn’t have a tradition of ending a ride with a coffee and cake. There’s no need. Clubs take it in turn to organise rides most Sundays. Drinks and snacks are provided at a pre-agreed rendezvous point. Some of these pointages are spectacular with the local villages providing untold goodies to tempt us to visit, while others are downright shameful. Personally, I think the clubs should be awarded stars, or maybe toques, for their efforts.

At our cycling club’s various events, I decided that our unique selling feature would be a selection of my home-make sweet and savoury cakes to supplement the shop bought ones. It was a universally popular move  among the local cycling fraternity. At one such event, the local mayor declared that:

 Not only have the British taken over the Tour de France but their women are clearly much better cooks than we thought.

I think that was a case of being dammed with faint praise, but hey ho! In addition, I have catered for participants (up to 500) in a number of local races, club events and for our large and merry band of volunteers to say “thank you” for their tireless efforts at said events. It’s a strategy that’s made me (in)famous the length of the Cote d’Azur. My hand has been sought in marriage by many a local rider and there’s now a long list of pretenders to my husband’s throne.

 

Happy Father’s Day

Just because my Dad’s no longer with us doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate Father’s Day.

Like most of you, I’ve been bombarded with gift ideas for today. None of which my Dad would have wanted. While he was a very thoughtful and generous gift giver, he was a nightmare to buy for. Probably because if he needed or wanted something, he’d just go out and buy it!  It used to drive me and my two sisters wild with frustration particularly when he’d show us things he’d bought just before his birthday, or Christmas.

After a while, I gave up buying him and my mother gifts for specific events and would just buy them things they liked, as and when I saw them. Gifts of hankerchiefs were always welcome. My Dad liked his to be made of Swiss lawn, hand rolled and in pale colours. I tended to buy these as small mementoes of my trips or holidays abroad.

You could buy Dad a tie, but only if he was there with you to choose it. The last tie I bought him was a blue and brown one from French brand Façonnable, from their shop in Aix-en-Provence, on my parents’ last trip together to visit us in October 2010.

His favourite present, particularly for Father’s Day, was a meal out with all the family. So, today, my beloved and I will be raising a glass to him – obviously one of his favourite wines – and I’ll be whipping up a Sunday luncheon fit for a king, in his memory. I know he’d approve.

 

The Musette: Gazpacho

It’s only the middle of June and already temperatures are in the late 20s early 30s centigrade! It’s been hot and humid. Could we be heading for a summer heatwave? To my mind, that can mean only one dish – a freshly made, ice-cold, refreshing gazpacho. This perfect hot-weather soup is simply a salad in liquid form, which means it’s one of the easiest dishes to make. All you need to get started is a blender or food processor and some super-tasty, juicy tomatoes.

I make a litre or two of this most weeks to enjoy immediately after I get back from my morning ride. It’s delicious, cooling, contains at least three of my five-a-day and is low in calories – what’s not to like? Of course, it’s one of those recipes where there are more versions than Andalucians. I’m just adding to those with my very own take on it.

Gazpacho

Ingredients for a low calorie and refreshing lunch (Image: Sheree)

Ingredients (serves four)

  • 1-1½kg (2-2¼ lbs) sun-ripened, juicy, fresh organic tomatoes
  • 3 sticks celery
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 3 spring onions (scallions)
  • 1 large cucumber
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 4 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 tsp Tabasco (optional)
  • 5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Method

1. Roughly chop the vegetables and whirl in a blender or food processor in batches until they’re all reduced to a fine rubble.

2. Pour into a large glass bowl, add the oil, vinegar and condiments to taste. Cover the bowl with cling film (plastic wrap) and leave it in the fridge for at least eight hours for the flavours to develop.

3. To serve, pass the mixture through a coarse sieve or food mill. Test the seasoning, pour into a glass jug and return to the fridge to chill.

4. Serve either as I have below in a long chilled glass with a stick of celery or ladle it into bowls and garnish with whatever takes your fancy.

And no, it's not a Bloody Mary

And no, it’s not a Bloody Mary (Image: Sheree)

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. The tomatoes are the star of the show. If yours aren’t quite as ripe and juicy as you’d like you might have to top up the gazpacho with some good quality bottled or fresh tomato juice.

2. I only ever use red peppers in gazpacho simply because I prefer the taste.

3. If you’d like the soup to have a thicker consistency soak a few pieces of stale bread in water, squeeze dry and add them to the blender along with the vegetables or add back some of the sieved rubble.

4. I often add fresh watermelon juice to the soup and a further teaspoon of tabasco to counter the sweetness along with a tablespoon or two of freshly squeezed lime juice. This is delicious served in a bowl over a pile of white crab meat or a few plump juicy prawns and cubed avocado.

5. To give the soup an Italian twist, add freshly torn basil leaves and pour over torn chunks of burrata (a yummy mix of fresh buffalo mozzarella and crème fraiche).

6. There are of course both white and green versions of gazpacho, but let’s leave those for another Musette.

A Wonderful Win

I love watching cycle races. I enjoy them even more if friends are competing but nothing tops watching one of your friends win. As a cyclist, you’ll lose more races than you’ll ever win, period. Doesn’t matter who you are or how good you are, you’re going to lose more often than you’ll win. I think this is what keeps riders humble.

Fans often become frustrated by what they see as negative tactics when riders seek to conserve their position in the overall general classification rather than risking it all on a do or die attack. Which is probably why those riders known for their attacking style, and willingness to shake up races, are so popular with the fans.

Fans also love it when a rider takes their first ever professional victory. Often this’ll be from a breakaway with the peloton breathing down their necks, where we’re hoping and willing them to succeed over those last few hundred metres or so. We’re screaming at them not to look around, to just pedal. Pedal as hard as they can to get across the white finishing line. And when they do, it’s so sweet. The spectators will be in appreciative raptures while the rider will be so overcome with emotion that he’ll have collapsed into the arms of his waiting soigneur or be lying on the ground gulping air.

Goodness knows what my neighbours thought yesterday during stage four of the Tour de Suisse, when American Larry Warbasse, a key member of my crack cake tasting team, earned his first WorldTour victory. He and three others escaped on the 142km course from Bern to the summit finish in Villars-sur-Ollon. Larry shed his breakaway companions on the uphill finish, managing to stay ahead of the fast-closing peloton containing the favourites for the overall classification. Aside from tweeting encouragement, I was screaming so loudly at the television, Larry could probably hear me in Switzerland.

This was Larry’s first-ever professional victory. He’d started his career in the BMC development squad, spent two-years with the BMC Racing team followed by two years with another Swiss outfit, IAM Cycling which folded at the end of last season leaving Larry desperately seeking another berth and wondering whether this might be the end of his racing career. Fortunately, it wasn’t. He’s dropped down to Aqua Blue Sport, a Pro Continental rather than WorldTour team whose owner, Irishman Rick Delaney, has espoused a holistic rider-centric philosophy which is yielding impressive results. In only their first year of racing, the team has raced aggressively and animated every race in which they’ve participated. An approach which has garnered invitations to prestigious WorldTour races such as the Tour de Suisse and, amazingly, a grand tour, the Vuelta a Espana.

The team’s approach, his hard work ethic, plus being reunited with his coach from his days at BMC, Bobby Julich, has helped Larry to further shine this season with top-15 finishes in the Tours de Sarthe and Yorkshire and top-10 finishes in the Tour des Alpes and Norway. I just felt he was on the cusp of a victory and how lovely that it should come in a race he clearly adores. Unsurprisingly, since I know he’s a charming and really lovely guy, it was a very popular win in the peloton with many like Alex Dowsett (Movistar) showing their support.

It was an emotional victory with Larry shedding tears of joy (and relief) and many of us, me included, joining in.

This is what bike racing is all about – chapeau Larry. Now let’s just re-live those last few kilometres (with French commentary) and keep your ears peeled for my screams of encouragement.

Even sweeter, another friend Damiano Caruso (BMC) took the leader’s jersey at the end of the stage.

(Header image: Tour de Suisse 2017, winner stage 4, Larry Warbasse ©Sirotti Photo)

 

The Musette: Almond Macaroons

I’m always on the look-out for recipes which use up left-over egg whites. I typically freeze these in batches of four until I have need of them for financieres, meringues, pavlovas, brutti ma buono or, in this case, macaroons. Now these are not the fancy flavoured macarons  – notice the different spelling – piped onto baking trays and filled with delicious buttercream and jam. No, these are a much more rustic affair and are spooned, or scooped, rather than piped into muffin trays.

Ingredients (makes 20 or so)

  • 150g egg whites
  • 200g ground almonds
  • 250g golden caster sugar
  • 100g flaked or chopped whole almonds

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4 (350°F/325°F fan). Beat together the egg whites, ground almonds and sugar until thick and smooth. The batter will be quite runny. Don’t worry, this is what makes them gloriously and satisfyingly chewy.

2. Rest the batter in the fridge for at least half an hour.

3. Scoop (I use a range of different sized ice cream scoops) or  plop a tablespoon of the batter into each non-stick muffin hole. Sprinkle the top of each macaroon with chopped or flaked almonds.

4. The small ones bake in around 20 minutes, or until lightly golden, and set on top. The larger ones need 30 minutes.

5. Cool completely  – if you can wait that long – before serving with tea or coffee.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. The almonds can be replaced with ground hazelnuts, or ground pistachios. In which case, instead of topping with flaked almonds, top with chopped hazelnuts or pistachios.

2. For a lemon flavour, add a drop of lemon essence and the zest of a lemon. Top with glace lemon peel.

3. I like that the centre of these resembles and tastes like marzipan but you could, insert a dark chocolate chip into a hazelnut macaroon or a fresh raspberry into a pistachio one. or maybe even a cherry. The possibilities are endless.

4. I’ll often serve these warm with some fruit compote for a dessert.

 

Postcard from Mugello

I love lying in bed listening to birdsong. I find it really uplifting. So I was delighted to discover our chosen hotel lay slap bang in the middle of a Tuscan forest full of trilling birds. Yes, we were back in Italy again. This time for the Oakley Italian MotoGP at Mugello which is not far from Florence.

My beloved chose our hotel but with my blessing. It’s a small family run affair, sympathetically restored with a modern interior, small bar and great restaurant. Our drive over in glorious sunshine passed smoothly with a couple of stops for lunch and refreshments. We exited the motorway at Florence skirted round the town and headed cross-country to our destination through typical Tuscan countryside, lush and green with those distinctive trees and ochre clad properties.

I’ve wanted to attend another live MotoGP race since we last went to Catalunya in 2012. While the television coverage of all 18 events is excellent you can’t beat live sport for its atmosphere and noise. With MotoGP, I love the mix of Free Practice, Qualifying and Sunday Race Days. Lots of short, sharp, action packed sessions, none of which extend beyond 45 minutes. In between it’s good to stretch one’s legs and wander round the circuit and merchandise stalls. No rider sells more merchandise than Valentino Rossi and, with this being his home GP, pretty much everyone is decked out in blue and yellow.

We picked up our tickets at the accreditation centre where we bumped into a German guy who was staying in our hotel and was looking for a lift to Mugello. He works for Oakley, principal sponsor of the event, and had been parachuted in at the last moment to help. We happily obliged.

Quite by chance we parked near the entrance closest to the stand where I’d booked our tickets, which was under cover, in the shade, on the home straight, opposite the boxes. We were a tiny spot of red and black in a sea of blue and yellow, right opposite the Yamaha box. The stand was well served by refreshment stalls and facilities with proper toilets, unlike those scattered around the circuit which offered hole in the ground amenities which I (thankfully) haven’t seen in donkey’s years.

My hopes had been raised by a sign advertising vegetarian panini but they were dashed when the vendor revealed they were tomato and mozzarella. Ah well, I won’t pass away if I miss lunch though I was regretting not bringing some fruit and snacks from home.

Mugello Teaser

This weekend, a third of the way into the championship, Michelin (the sole tyre provider) changed its front tyre for the remaining 13 races to one which features a stiffer casing, which I’m reliably informed deforms less during braking. You might be thinking, so what? But in MotoGP nothing is more important than the front tyre. Everything comes from the front tyre: the all-important rider feel, corner-entry speed, mid-corner speed and therefore corner-exit speed. So, would the tyre change be a game-changer?

Preliminaries

Crowds were sparse on Friday, largely those who were staying under canvas or in their camper vans at the circuit. The main grandstand was about 30% full while the others were pretty much empty though there was a goodly number on the grassy hill overlooking the circuit which sits in a bowl surrounded by the Tuscan hills, thickly clad with forest and basking in the sunshine. Had it rained, it would have been Dantesque with mud and water everywhere.

The crowds increased by a factor of twenty over the week-end and, despite arriving in time for the start of the day’s action, we were some way back in the car park. This meant it was much easier to exit the circuit. As anticipated, many of the race favourites had shone in both free practice and qualifying. While to the delight of the partisan crowd, Italian riders were well placed though championship leader, Maverick Vinales – surely the best name in MotoGP – was on pole for the blue riband event despite not favouring the tyre change. His team-mate Rossi was second on the front row.  Obviously, the crowd was hoping for nothing less than a Rossi victory in the blue riband event and for Italian riders to shine

Throughout the week-end, the press were always at least 10 deep at the Yamaha garage, though largely only over at Rossi’s box. He only had to appear on the many screens around the track for a massive cheer to erupt from the crowd. Barely anyone, not even the other Italians, got a look in. Makes you wonder what’ll happen to the sport when Rossi (now aged 38) finally retires.

My beloved likens MotoGP to chariot racing of old and there’s something very gladiatorial about the whole spectacle, including when, and in what order, riders emerge from their boxes and the pit lanes.

I mentioned the noise. It’s not as noisy as F1. But if Moto3 bikes sound like mosquitos, the bigger bikes throb like Concord and your whole body vibrates as they pass flat out on the home straight. It’s not quite loud enough for ear plugs, but almost.

On Saturday, at half- time, a few brave/foolhardy souls have the opportunity to ride pillion on a Ducati once round the circuit. I’d love to do this but I suspect once on the back of the bike I’d be holding on so tight I’d probably suffocate the pilot.

Race Day

On Sunday, the place was stuffed to the gills with over 160,000 spectators, many of whom were sitting on the hill overlooking the circuit.

After warm up for all three classes, a moving homage was paid to the late 2005 World Champion Nicky Hayden who recently died from injuries sustained from being hit by a vehicle while riding his bicycle. You could tell how well he was regarded by current riders and crew from the emotions of their face during the 69 seconds (Hayden’s MotoGP number was 69) of silence followed by applause.

The dynamics of each race are very different. In Moto3, all the bikes have the same engine (different chassis) and the front group is highly competitive with the race lead swapping frequently. The leading twosome only managed to break free from the pack on the final lap, with a spectacular duel on the home straight. Italian Andrea (a Rossi protegé) taking his maiden GP victory, and on home turf, with fellow Italian Fabio di Giannontonio coming in as runner-up. Needless to say the crowd were delighted.

Moto2 featured a stunning three-way fight with veteran racer Mattia Pasini – yes, another Italian – recording his first victory since 2009. Another veteran, Thomas Luthi was runner-up.  Another home win and already the Italian commentators were running out of superlatives.

Finally, the race everyone was waiting for. Would Rossi avenge his defeat last season at the hands of the current world champion, Marc Marquez, back in sixth place on the grid?

Yet another Italian, Andrea Dovizioso, took only his third GP victory with a significant margin and amazing turn of speed on the straight. Current championship leader, Vinales was second, with Italian, Danilo Petrucci, on another Ducati, was third. Rossi was fourth. Three Italian wins! We heard more  Mama Mia’s from the commentators than you’d find in an Abba song.

Time to go Home

With most of the crowd heading for the track, we raced back the car park and headed for the motorway. I would’ve stayed until Monday but my beloved had a business trip on Monday, despite it being a Bank Holiday in most of Europe. Our quick get away meant we avoided potential hold ups and arrived home at a reasonable time. We’d enjoyed our trip to the MotoGP in Mugello and vowed not to leave it so long again before visiting another circuit.