One from the vaults: Don’t call me, I’ll call you

My month of July is typically dominated by the Tour de France, but not this year. Here’s a real golden oldy from July 2009 where I talk about my typical daily Tour routine. This was well before I started writing about cycling for VeloVoices.

While careful planning and preparation is one of the cornerstones of winning a Grand Tour, it’s also key to watching each stage. I don’t like to miss a moment’s action, so my planning and preparation also start well in advance of Le Grand Depart.

No trips, meetings or holidays, unless they involve going to watch a stage. In which case, hotels are booked as soon as the Tour route is formally announced. No visitors, unless they’re cycling fans. No one else understands. Work commitments are rescheduled. All records, returns and invoices for the second quarter of the year are completed as soon as possible and delivered to the accountant.

Most mornings, I rise early to ride my bike, eating breakfast and collecting my newspapers (L’Equipe and Nice Matin) on the way back. Once home, I shower, throw my kit in the washing machine and clean my bike. I prepare a quick lunch, usually a salad, and eat it while dealing with that morning’s email. Next, I tackle a few things on my prioritised “To Do” List. That way I’m ready to enjoy the afternoon’s transmission on TF2.

I will have saved a few chores to do while watching the Tour unfold: tackling the ironing mountain, darning and sewing on buttons, cleaning shoes, cleaning silver, sorting out my recipes etc etc You get my drift, I like to multi-task. With the whole three weeks mapped out, I can easily tackle any unforeseen emergency without it intruding on my viewing time.

My husband knows not to expect collecting from or being taken to the airport while a stage is in progress. Close family and friends do not call me during a stage. My sisters, who are currently staying just down the road, know not to call round until after the stage ends. At a minimum, I am out of commission from 14:20 until 17:30 each day.

Thank goodness for rest days, which allow me to take a longer ride, shop for food and do anything else that needs to be done.

One from the vaults: Postcard from the Giro d’Italia Part II

Here’s Part II of our trip in May 2016 to watch part of the Giro d’Italia.

At the start of Tuesday’s stage, in a suburb of Florence, we caught up with staff we know at team Bardiani-CSF and evaluated their riders’ chances of a stage win. My parting comment was “I’ll keep my fingers crossed, who knows, today could be the one!” Prophetic or what? One of their promising neo-pros, Giulio Ciccone, won the stage.

Impressed by my cakes, one of the Sky boys challenged me to come up with a bar for their musettes. They gave me one prepared by the wife of one of soigneurs. It was okay but rather dry and tasteless. I promised to work on it the following week and will return to the final few stages with a much improved product, along with some of my brownies.

Go, Joe, go!
The King of Utah, Joe Dombrowski
Cannondale's chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!
Cannondale’s chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!

After watching the peloton depart, we headed to a town we’d never before visited. Yes, this was our maiden trip to Bologna, a town about which I had little or no expectations but it blew me away. We stayed in a delightful, modern, three-roomed bed and breakfast in the old town, just a short stroll from the main attractions. Before checking in, we had lunch in a restaurant nearby which had been in situ since 1957. If it’s lasted that long it’s got to be good – right? Absolutely! We enjoyed yet another magnificent meal in a family run neighbourhood institution. The owner had passed away in 2007 but his widow still helps out while the three children now run the restaurant.

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Much to my delight, the restaurant featured an old childhood favourite, the sweet trolley. I couldn’t indulge but my beloved had the house speciality Zuppa Inglesi. He proclaimed it “nice” but a pale imitation of my and my late mother’s rum soaked trifles. Then it was time to walk off those calories around the magnificent old town whose monuments are built almost exclusively of brick, many dating from the 14th century. Some of them are very tall, underlining how wealthy the city was in former times.  The shops are under attractive stone porticoes which have beautiful frescoed ceilings and wrought iron lights, clocks and shop signs. This is one of the most beautiful cities in northern Italy and deserves to feature more prominently on tourists’ itineraries. I shall return particularly now I know how close it is to Mugello, home to last week-end’s Italian MotoGP.

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The following day we headed directly to the Giro stage finish in Asolo, the Pearl of Veneto, where one of my dearest friends lives. A fabulous cook, she whipped up a delicious feast for lunch which we enjoyed before watching the peloton stream through Asolo’s beautiful old town in dribs and drabs. Dinner at a local restaurant followed, before we headed to our hotel for the next few days in Pordenone.

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From time to time my beloved works with a company based here. We know the town well but haven’t visited for a while so it was good to renew our acquaintance with our favourite restaurants and watering holes. Thursday’s stage hugged the Venetian coastline though Wednesday’s warm sunshine had retreated behind clouds and heavy rain. We went to the stage start but when it’s pouring down with rain, it’s difficult to do much more than wave at the riders one knows. Understandably, no one wants to spend a moment longer than necessary in the inclement conditions.

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Friday’s stage started close to Udine in a medieval border town and fared better weather wise, though the boys were looking nervous as the stage heralded a triptych in the mountains before another difficult week ahead of the finish in Turin. I promised to return in the Southern Alps with more baked goods to see them through the penultimate day of climbing.

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Saturday we headed to Trieste to meet with potential clients from Slovenia. We’d briefly visited the city when the Giro d’Italia finished there in 2014 but hadn’t time to have a good look around as we needed to get back for Cannondale’s farewell Giro party. It was great to get another opportunity to visit this fascinating town which still bears the influence of its former occupiers, the Austrians, on its buildings and cuisine. Sadly, I couldn’t find a cake shop doing vegan equivalents of any of those delicious Austrian cakes.

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It was a great trip. The Giro is a beautiful race and I love the way the Italians embrace it by decking themselves, their children, pets and shops in pink. It’s much more of an individual and not a community effort and, as you might expect, it’s generally done with great style, panache and much reverence for the Giro’s history. I consider myself fortunate to live only 45 minutes from the Italian border.

One from the vaults: Postcard from the Giro d’Italia Part I

It’s May, It’s time for the Giro d’Italia. But not this year. So I’m dragging out one of my many posts about our various trips to Italy to watch the Giro. This one’s from May 2016, part II follows later.

My beloved and I consider ourselves most fortunate to often be able to combine work with pleasure. We spent the European mid-May Bank Holiday week-end in Tuscany watching the Giro d’Italia and cycling around the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Although typical wet Bank holiday weather was forecast, it was better than anticipated, with rain falling either overnight or just in the late afternoon.

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We stayed in a hotel we had first visited back in 2005 while spending time with one of my beloved’s German clients, who has a house to die for in Chiantishire. Over several subsequent trips to the region we’ve spent time in a number of  Tuscan towns and have always been delighted (typical British understatement) with the food, wine and culture on offer. Plus the cycling, on undulating roads with little or no traffic, has always been fantastic.

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On Saturday, after a quick ride, we headed over to Arezzo, the finish town for stage 8 of the Giro d’Italia which included some of the (in)famous Strade Bianche. We made the mistake of steering clear of the motorway in preference to the country roads and found every which way was blocked by the race some 4km out of Arezzo.

Undaunted we elected to walk only to later discover that the finish line was actually 8km from where we’d left the car. Now I usually love a brisk walk but found this tougher than anticipated in the warm late afternoon sunshine. We arrived at the finish the same time as the tail-end Charlies from the stage. More significantly, we arrived at the Accreditation Centre seconds after it was supposed to close only to discover everyone had packed up early and moved on. Neither of us could face the hike back to the car so we took a taxi.

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By this point in the proceedings, and having missed lunch, my beloved and I were both famished. On the way back we stopped off in the town where we’d stayed during the 2013 World Championships. Our good humours were revived with an Aperol Spritz at a nearby bar followed by dinner at an Osteria, both of which we’d previously frequented. The owner of the Osteria, who runs front of house, remembered us and his wife duly whipped up a truly delicious meal. Sated, we could finally laugh about our afternoon of mishaps. I slept well that night.

After misfiring on Saturday, we had to collect our accreditations at the start of Sunday’s time-trial stage but this process wasn’t without its tribulations. I was fifth in the queue but none of those ahead of me had pre-registered. The convoluted process took over an hour, added to a further 30 minutes waiting for the accreditation staff to turn up. I managed to while away the time chatting to the other journos and former pro Paolo Longo Borghini, who’s now responsible for rider safety at the Giro, and part of RCS’s management team.

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Next up, and more importantly, I had to deliver my cakes to the respective teams before we headed to the finish in nearby Greve in Chianti with our wet weather gear. Yes, the sun was shining but we’d seen the weather forecast. Most of the peloton would be getting a soaking.

 

The Mighty Boz
The Mighty Boz, aka Ian Boswell

Monday’s rest day involved a recovery ride around the glorious Tuscan hills. We were fortunately back before the afternoon downpour and ate a superb meal in a nearby bar packed with locals. It was so filling we only needed an ice cream from the gelateria for dinner, where I was delighted to discover they did two flavours of vegan ice cream (coffee and raspberry) which, in the interests of research, I just had to try.

One from the vaults: Postcards from the Basque Country – Part II

Continuing my Basque flavoured theme this week, here’s the second-part of my post on one of my favourite stage races, Vuelta al Pais Vasco #Itzulia.

Pretty much like the riders, when you’re following a race, your days follow a very similar format. Turn up at the start 90 minutes before the race start which, weather permitting, enables you to catch up with the riders and take photographs. It’s always easier if the team buses are parked close to the sign-on which isn’t always possible in some of the smaller towns. However, once the weather deteriorated, this became a bit of a logistical nightmare with the riders, understandably, not wanting to spend a moment longer than necessary in the freezing, wet conditions. Luckily, the weather doesn’t dampen the appetite of the fervent Basque fans who line the ascents in their hundreds and thousands.

The peloton departs and we race to our car or, in this case, our rented Renault Kangoo, to drive to the finish. We head first to the press room to bag our places, set up our laptops, enjoy the plentiful buffet and chat with a few of the photographers and reporters. Then it’s time to check our email and start writing up the summary of the day’s racing as it starts to unfold on the tv screen.

When the peloton’s 10km from home, the press room empties, everyone races to the finish line and listens to the two-handed Basque-Spanish commentary team, awaiting the arrival of the riders. Race over, we drift to the podium to congratulate and photograph the winners, then it’s back to the press room to finish the day’s report, download and edit the day’s photographs.

Job done, our thoughts drift inevitably towards dinner. We were staying in a charming family-run hotel close to a national park, in a town with a couple of restaurants and bars, one of which was excellent and where we ate most evenings. We didn’t manage to work our way through the menu as we often opted for the day’s specials. A relaxing glass of Rioja and we were both tucked up in bed, fast asleep, well before most of the riders.

Towards the end of our break, we popped in to see the owners of the hotel where we stayed last year. We couldn’t stay there this year as it was fully booked! I knew I shouldn’t have written them such a glowing review. We were greeted like long-lost family members and the welcome and cooking was as warm and as fantastic as we remembered. Given the dreadful weather conditions, my beloved is suggesting we opt for the Tour of Turkey next year. I’m not so sure. I really enjoy our sojourns in the Basque country and am already looking forward to our next trip at the end of July for the Clasica.

One from the vaults: Postcards from the Basque Country – Part I

I did say that I wouldn’t recycle too many cycling posts but, frankly, I’m having severe withdrawal symptoms with there being no live racing, anywhere. Ahead of what would have been this year’s Tour of the Basque Country, I’m recycling one from April 2013 which is lacking my trademark photographs – apologies! However, my husband provided plenty from the race for VeloVoices.

I know, I’m back home and I’ve not sent my postcards! We’ve all done it, haven’t we? But, to be honest, it’s the first time I’ve had any real opportunity to write about the trip and not the race which you can read about over on VeloVoices. Well apart from the shenanigans with the Russian visa application.

First up the weather was initially much better than anticipated meaning my beloved was able to ride for the first few days and I even accompanied him despite his unerring ability to find every steep climb in the neighbourhood. Admittedly that’s not difficult in the Basque country although this time he succeeded in finding one or two of the longer, more taxing climbs.

Of course, when I say I rode with him, I meant I trailed behind him. My beloved, despite our lengthy marriage, constantly fails to appreciate that if he runs, skis or cycles with me I’ll make an effort to keep up. Disappear 500m or more up the road, leaving me to my own devices, and I’ll amble along admiring the countryside or get into conversation with other cyclists. As a result, we rarely cycle together.

The first Saturday morning dawned bright, albeit overcast, after Friday’s torrential downpour,and my beloved wasted no time in hustling me out the door though, half-way into our ride, the heavens opened again and we turned tail and fled back to the warmth of our small family-run hotel.  In the afternoon we drove into Navarre to watch the GP Miguel Indurain where conversely the weather was dry with a chilly wind. The race weaves loops around the pretty old town of Estella where, after a truly magnificent lunch, we exhorted the peloton, surprisingly split into a multitude of small groups up the final climb.

Sunday morning we opted to further explore the countryside on two wheels. The sun shone although there was still an early morning nip in the air. The scent of word-burning fires, the bright lime-green shoots on the trees, the blossoming hedgerows, the sound of dogs barking and the tinkle of bells around the necks of goats and sheep gave everything a distinctly alpine feel but then we were riding at around 600-900m and some of the hills still had traces of snow.

I love riding in the Basque country where cyclists always seem to outnumber the motorists who keep a respectable distance and toot in a friendly and encouraging fashion as you labour up yet another of those steep, sharp inclines. Sunday was no exception and we saw many groups from the local cycling clubs, I even cycled and chatted with a few of them after being abandoned by my beloved. Ride over, we settled down to a plate of tapas, a glass of red wine and, on the big screen, the rigours of racing over the cobbles in Belgium in the Tour of Flanders.

Monday dawned bright and fair, again contrary to expectations, as we headed over to Elgoibar and the start of one of my favourite races of the year: the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Accreditation secured, we headed to the team presentation and sign-on where I was able to catch up with a number of friends who were riding in the race. There’s nothing nicer than watching and encouraging someone you know. Our early start also gave us an opportunity to catch up with friends old and new in the press corps.

This race is extremely well attended by the bike loving Basques. The biggest cheers, not unnaturally, are reserved for the “home” team of Euskaltel-Euskadi and their lead rider and defending champion Samu Sanchez who obligingly had his photograph taken with hordes of dark-haired, dark-eyed moppets: inspiring the next generation. It’s also very evident that former winner Spaniard Alberto Contador is popular with the on-lookers.

The appreciative and knowledgable crowd also welcomes “old friends” such as Jens Voigt who was awarded a plaque in recognition of his support of this race. Conversely, Sky turning up with only six riders, and failing to attend the team presentation, was seen as disrespectful. As the race progressed, they made a point of arriving more punctually for the sign-on except for their gregarious bearded Basque Xabier Zandio who was an early starter most mornings. By the time they started winning stages, they were forgiven.

I love watching the pre-start interaction with everyone milling around the team buses in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of their heroes, a souvenir or two or just checking out the bike bling. Likewise those five minutes or so before the race starts where some riders wait patiently, composing their thoughts before the day’s challenges while others chat with their compatriots on other teams, no doubt comparing their experiences of the previous day’s racing.

The Vuelta al Pais Vasco follows a similar pattern most years, with the first and last days of racing centred on one town and the four stages in between setting off from the previous day’s finish town. It all takes place within a relatively confined geographic area allowing the teams to spend most of the race based in one hotel, close to the action, thereby avoiding long transfers and early morning starts. I think this is recompense for the fact that several stages take place in the freezing cold rain. This year’s been no exception, the rain started in earnest on Thursday with the Eibar summit finish shrouded in freezing fog. Friday morning we awoke to find a blizzard blowing. Why did no one tell me the locals’ nickname for Vitoria-Gasteiz is Siberia?? (to be continued)

Itzulia: I should be there!

One of my favourite bike stage races takes place in the Spanish Basque Country, usually after Easter, sandwiched between two great Classics’ races, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I saw the latter live in 2011, but for five years in succession (2012 – 2016), prior to my beloved breaking his leg, we have watched the Basque race live.

His leg is now mended but pressure of work has prevented us from attending the race for the last two years and, of course, this year’s edition has been cancelled because of you know what.

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scattered across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soaring high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines sharing the waves. The dazzling architecture of the major towns such as Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz, plus the traditional and thriving small towns, help make the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

I’m going to indulge in a spot of virtual travel and bike racing by looking at what might have been in respect of this year’s race which will now be held in 2021. Fingers crossed, I’ll be there!

The details of the six-stage, 898km route of the 60th edition of the race were only revealed in late February. The individual time-trial has been pushed back to the final day of the competition but before, the riders face 18,845 metres of climbing on the preceding five stages. That’s 20 mountain passes: 4 – 1st category; 7 – 2nd category and 9 – 3rd category. Unusually, the race is front-loaded meaning the battle for the spotted mountain jersey would be fought out and decided early on while the 10 sprints to decide the green jersey are pretty evenly distributed.

Monday 6 April, Stage 1: Eibar – Arrate

The opening stage has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a very pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry, and many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

For fans of the race, we’re in very familiar territory, particularly the final steep climb leading to the Arrate Sanctuary above Eibar. Both my beloved and I have cycled up here and it’s a tough, tough climb followed by a breakneck finish.

As you can see from the map above, the start is only a few kilometres from the finish line, so the riders are taking the scenic route via a rolling section along the coast towards the Bay of Biscay before they head back to Eibar and that testing finish.

Tuesday 7 April, Stage 2: Amurrio – Ermualde

Both of these towns are (unbelievedly) new to us though I’m pretty sure we’ve probably driven through them at one time or another. Again, the start’s not too far from the finish so the riders will be riding the long way round. This part of the parcours could prove to be quite windy and provide the viewers with some exciting echelon action. The stage tops out with an unprecedented uphill climb (av 11.1%) ending at the Ermualde finish line. The final 3kms are particularly tough. But again, this is just half the story. The first kilometre is at 10.7%, the second at 15.6%, and the rest of the ascent hovers around 7%. That’s gonna hurt!

Wednesday 8 April, Stage 3: Vitoria-Gasteiz – Ibardin

The longest stage in this year’s Itzulia, 200 km through Álava and Navarre. After the last two days of climbing, the kilometres could take their toll on the riders’ legs. And, of course, there’s yet another summit finish. The final ascent is just over six kilometres with an average gradient of 5.8%. This climb last featured in the race in 2012. I can still recall eventual race winner Samuel Sánchez outgunning Joaquim Rodríguez and Chris Horner in a three-up sprint.

Thursday 9 April, Stage 4: Bera – Errenteria

This stage is spectator friendly with a number of loops around the area. The riders head south from Bera and the first loop starts near Elogorriana, taking the riders over the Belate (11km at 5.1%) and Saldias (4.4km at 4.3%). The route returns to Bera after 107km and now heads north. Two more loops follow after Irún, the second of which includes the Erlaitz climb, which also featured in last year’s Clásica de San Sebastián. The riders should fly down the Erlaitz to the finish line in Errentería.

Friday 10 April, Stage 5: Errentería to Sestao

Today’s the “flattest stage” in Itzulia and the sprinters’ last opportunity to shine. The riders battling for GC (General Classification) will appreciate being able to save their energy for tomorrow’s time-trial. Of course, in the Basque Country, there’s never an ideal stage for pure sprinters because it’s always so undulating but for those with stamina….this is where they could prevail. There are only two climbs of any note. The road to Areitio climbs for 2.3km at 5.8%, but the La Reineta climb is more likely to have an impact in terms of the stage victory. This 6.4km ascent at 5.6% is just over 22km from the finish which runs slightly uphill.

Saturday 11 April, Stage 6: Bilbao – Bilbao (21km ITT)

As in previous years, the time trial will decide this year’s Itzulia. A 21km ride between the Basilica of Begoña and Etxeberria Park. It’s a fast time trial with two uphill climbs. It’s a false flat downhill for the first couple of kilometres leading to the first climb. It’s short but there’s a double-digit ramp 300 metres before the top. The road then descends for 7km kilometres before heading onto an undulating section before a wall-like intermezzo takes centre stage. The 7km climb (av.12.8%), opens with a 17% ramp for the first kilometre. Then another false flat downhill leads to the last kilometre which starts as a gradual climb before peaking in the last few hundred metres to the line at 11%.

This is the stage which will decide who gets to wear the winner’s big, black floppy “txapela.”

Last year’s edition (summary video above) produced the first Basque winner for a while, let’s hope the tradition continues next year. Meanwhile, I’d better get cracking and book our hotel for next year!

 

Hurrah – Return of the Carrots!

In its heyday (1998-2013), Euskaltel-Euskadi was a legendary team of mountain goats guaranteed to animate uphill stages in any bike race. Nicknamed the #Carrots because of their bright orange jerseys, the team provided social media with plenty of ammunition and before its demise at the end of 2013 was pretty much everyone’s default favourite team because of its so-called plucky riders who had a tendancy to hit the deck with alarming regularity.

At the end of February, Basque telecoms company Euskaltel announced it would return to cycling team sponsorship as a title sponsor of the Pro Conti Fundación-Orbea squad, starting at this month’s (since-cancelled) Itzulia (Vuelta al Pais Vasco – Tour of the Basque Country).

Euskaltel-Euskadi were a lively team of caricature climbers tasked with animating mountain stages in grand tours. But there was serious intent. Only behind the scenes the reality wasn’t quite so glorious, like much of the 2000s. Riders tested positive; plus for all the attacks they never won very much. However, more importantly, they acted as a development team with the likes of riders such as Mikel Landa (bottom row, middle photo), Mikel Nieve, Ion Izaguirre and Igor Anton going on to bigger and better things.

The Euskaltel-Euskadi team was inextricably linked with both a visual and cultural identity. Riding locally-made Orbea bikes in highly distinctive orange kits, the team was one of the most recognisable in the peloton, enjoying an enthusiastic following in the cycling-mad Basque region straddling the French and Spanish border. They were a de-facto national squad for the nationless Basque, who have at various points and with varying degrees of violence, pushed for independence.

For the duration of the team’s existence the roadsides of the Pyrenees and beyond were frequently lined with Basque fans clad in orange, waving the green, white and red Basque flag (above). Euskaltel-Euskadi’s dissolution in 2013 was perhaps only a relief for English-speaking commentators of the sport, who’d spent the last couple of decades stumbling over the complicated jumble of vowels, Zs, Ks and Xs that made up the names of its riders, but the squad’s disappearance was nonetheless a poignant moment.

Mikel Landa, currently active on the road as one of Bahrain-McLaren’s star riders and simultaneously the president of Fundacion Euskadi, is spearheading the team’s return to the upper echelon’s of the sport. Meanwhile, Euskaltel’s president has confirmed:

The relationship of Euskaltel with cycling and Fundación Euskadi has been a success story. We want to repeat the great union and bring back the excitement that it generated in all the fans. This team is something unique; it represents an entire country, and we want to be part of it once again.

It was intended that the reborn Euskaltel-Euskadi would debut at the Itzulia stage race, 6 – 11 April, where they’d be hoping to make enough of an impression to contend for their first Grand Tour berth later in the year at the Vuelta a España. With the cancellation of much of this year’s scheduled races, who knows now what’ll happen. The team has a long journey ahead in order to regain the heights of its glory days, but those (like me) with a nostalgic memory of the orange-clad climbers animating the race will be happy to see Euskaltel-Euskadi returning to some sort of prominence again, and that’s a start.

One from the vaults: Postcard from Siena

I’m digging into my cycling repertoire for a tale about our maiden attendance at an early season race in Tuscany, called Strade Bianche. Its typically held in the first weekend in March and we’ve been fortunate to see the race live three times 2016-18.  I’m always happy to find an excuse to visit Tuscany. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this year’s edition has fallen victim to the Corona virus. The elite men’s and women’s races and the accompanying sportif have all been postponed.

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.

Later, as arranged, 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. Sadly, 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 newly imposed 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 heavens 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 just outside of 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.

 

One from the Vaults: Back in the groove

I’ve decided that once a week I’ll re-post something from my extensive archives. Obviously many of my early posts  2009 – 2014 heavily feature cycling. I’ll try to keep these to a minimum as I know not everyone is a cycling fan.

There’s storm clouds just back from the coast and, if we’re to believe the weather forecast, we’re in for a few more wet days. I’m not complaining as last week was incredibly mild and I rode every day. There’s nothing better than an hour or two riding in the fresh air to restore one’s equilibrium though I might just have to settle for the home-trainer the rest of this week.

I rode today with my beloved, who’s due to fly away tomorrow morning, and he said that finally I’d gotten back up to speed. He had complained about my laggardly progress all over the Christmas holidays but not so today. Mind you my progress was almost halted in its tracks when a large piece of machinery popped off a lorry and fell (fortunately) just in front of me at a roundabout in Antibes. By chance, the local police were close by and remarked upon my near miss. I retorted that it was the lorry driver who’d had the close shave, not me. Imagine how much his negligence might have cost him? A new BMC racing bike at the very least and, at worst, a sizeable compensatory lawsuit from my beloved. The policeman nodded sagely, he could see my point.

My training for 2014 has gotten off to a good start. Initially with the Rapha #Festive500, where I just managed to sneak over the limit. More importantly, since New Year, I have managed to  maintain both momentum and enthusiasm. Of course, it’s helped that daytime temperatures have not dropped below 10ºC rather it’s been a few degrees warmer. I find when temperatures fall I’ll still ride but two and half hours is my limit before I start to feel chilled to the bone.

In the winter months, all cyclists are largely confined to cycling up and down the coastal roads.  This means that one’s constantly crossing the paths of other cyclists. Of course, most are heading back home by the time I venture forth. Locally resident professional riders aside, most cyclists set off at 8:30, the time designated by the clubs for winter rides thereby ensuring that they’re back ready in plenty of time for lunch at 12:30. Everything and everyone stops for lunch at 12:30 in France. I prefer to avoid the early morning traffic and the early morning chill, rarely leaving the Domaine much before 10:30. Equally, I’m happy to have lunch whenever I get back, even if it’s after 12:30. Sacre bleu!

I’m looking forward to the start of the professional cycling season which kicks off next week with the Tour of San Luis in Argentina and the Tour Down Under in Adelaide. It seems such a long time since Il Lombardia. I have dipped in and out of the cyclo-cross season, a discipline that’s quite rightly growing in popularity. It’s just under an hour of lung-busting racing in generally muddy conditions where you need to get out of the start gate quickly to put time into the chasing pack. Like all bike racing, you can be undone by spills and technical fails but it’s a great spectacle and particularly popular in Belgium where I hear  it goes down nicely with a pint or two of beer.

Postcard from Brussels: Le Grand Depart

Last week-end we were ostensibly in Brussels for Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France. However, I did have a hidden agenda. Brussels is another town that I haven’t visited in over 20 years! On our one and only visit all those years ago I was totally charmed by all the Art Nouveau wrought ironwork which I later discovered was largely the work of architect Victor Horta – more of which much later. This time I’m back for a closer look, but first, Le Grand Depart!

We generally arrive in time to attend the team presentation and most of the team press conferences, but not this year as my beloved had only just managed to shoe horn this trip in-between business trips to Italy and London. Also, because of our forthcoming trip to Australia, we won’t be dropping in on any further Tour stages. Mind you, we’ll probably make up for it next year when Le Grand Depart is in Nice.

I’d timed my arrival on Friday afternoon to coincide with the BORA-hansgrohe team press conference where I’d hoped to snatch 10-15 minutes with Peter Sagan’s wingman, Daniel Oss. Sadly, our Sleazyjet flight was delayed and I arrived way too late to nab anyone. You might wonder why I didn’t target potential 7-times green jersey wearer, Sagan. I’ve already interviewed him and he paid me an immense compliment by saying that I posed him questions no one else had ever asked!

For those of you who aren’t cycling fans. The Tour de France is big, really big. It’s the biggest annual sporting event in the world. That’s the first thing that hits you. There are 4,500 people working on it, and only 176 of those are riding. There is no other annual event, not even other bike races, that comes close to this scale. Yes, there are two other Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, yet they are family affairs in comparison rather than this State-like occasion.

Everytime I visit the Tour, I’m always impressed with the level of its organisation, it’s superb. I’m beginning to suspect that ASO’s secret is a very low level of staff turnover. Even the volunteers return year after year. Though, much as I enjoy the Tour, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to spend my summer holidays working at it every year.

I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of Grand Departs. My first was in London in 2007, followed by Monaco in 2009 where, working as a volunteer, I scored a great gig. I looked after HRH Prince Albert’s VIP guests. Next up was 2014 in Yorkshire where the crowds had to be seen to be believed. In 2015, we sweltered in the heat in Utrecht. 2016 saw us dodging rain in Normandy, and again the following year in Duesseldorf, Germany. Last year the weather was glorious in Brittany, and again this year in Brussels. Next year, Nice will most likely be my Tour swan song.

The staging of this Grand Depart paid tribute to the maiden Tour victory, 50 years ago in July 1969, of the Belgian legend Eddy Merckx who was omnipresent in the first few stages, particularly the first stage which passed through WoluweSaint-Pierre, where the five-times Tour winner grew up.

On Saturday, the peloton rode round the city’s narrow cobbled streets before heading out through Molenbeek and then Anderlecht, in the direction of the Mur de Grammont (which was also part of Eddy Merckx’s first Tour route). Riders then raced towards Charleroi, crossing a section of cobbles before heading back towards Brussels. They rode past the base of the Lion’s Mound, the battlefield where the defeat of Napoleon’s troops was set in motion. The last stretch of the route paid hommage again to Merckx as riders traversed the streets where Eddy first learned to ride a bike… as well as where he earned his first maillot jaune. Coincidentally, it’s also the 100th birthday of the yellow race leader’s jersey.

We watched the race start which filed past our hotel after we’d been to the Brussels Expo on the train to collect my press accreditation.

profil-general-etape-01

Sunday we met with some of our many friends from the world of cycling and scored a VIP pass for my beloved so that he could join us in the Village du Depart – much upgraded and enlarged this year – and the Bus Paddock. This enabled us to briefly catch up with some of the riders and team staff we’ve gotten to know over the years.

The organiser typically likes to see the leader’s yellow jersey changing hands during the early stages. And, after the first stage was won by the poisson-pilote (lead out man) of one of the more fancied sprinters, someone who didn’t feature on anyone’s radar, it was (wrongly) assumed that the team time-trial would produce a new race leader. But, the previous day’s winner was in one of the more highly ranked time-trial teams who’d recently recruited a four-time world time-trial champion. Not for nothing is German Tony Martin nicknamed the Panzerwagen. This marginal gain helped Jumbo-Visma to pip all the other teams to the post.

The wide streets of Brussels had provided the ideal route for an impressive team effort, with few turns and a series of false flats, that truly tested riders’ technical skills, terminating at the Atomium, built for the Brussels World Fair in 1958. So the jersey stayed firmly put on the broad shoulders of Holland’s Mike Teunissen for another day.

The newspapers estimated that 500,000 people were in Brussels to watch Le Grand Depart and it was true! Not that I counted them but the place was jam-packed with tourists and fans. Brussels put on a good show, not dissimilar to that in Leeds in 2014, making me wonder whether Yorkshire’s Sir Gary Verity had been acting as a consultant. But no in the land of cycling and Eddy Merckx, there’s an excess of expertise even if they also called their volunteers « Tour Makers. »