Postcard from Piedmont

This past week-end, we went back to Italy to watch a couple more stages of 100th Giro d’Italia and deliver some of my brownies and vegan banana bread (recipe coming soon) to a few of the teams. Storms were forecast on Friday and my beloved was keen to finish off some work before we left for stage 13’s finish in Tortona. A place we’ve often seen sign-posted on the motorway but have never visited.

My beloved is a terrible passenger seat driver (there’s no back seat in the Smart) which is why I typically allow him to drive however he currently finds driving my car too painful, so I’m in the driving seat. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from telling me how to drive, forever startling me with shouts of “watch out he’s braking” or “get over, he’s coming out”. I’m startled because I’ve been concentrating on the job in hand. Yes, I’d spotted the red brake lights and no the lorry’s not coming out, merely signalling his intention to do so once I’ve passed. Frankly, if he doesn’t shut up he’s going to suffer the same fate as his missing crutch!

Sadly we arrived too late to get into Tortona to watch the finish. However what we could see as we drove around it and onto our B&B for the night looked promising. We were staying in a small farming community not far from the finish of Friday’s stage and the start of Saturday’s. Our studio room was a beautiful hayloft conversion and our hostess had thought of everything. It was charming. Furthermore, the bed was comfortable, the towels were where they should be – in the bathroom rather than artfully piled on the bed, a pet peeve of mine. She’d even left us aperos and nibbles which we enjoyed while watching the end of the stage. Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) picked up his fourth stage win, not bad for his maiden Grand Tour!

We decided to eat dinner in the only restaurant in town, a bustling family one which was serving an all you can eat special Giro menu. My beloved could only manage one pizza! Mind you before that he had some delicious stuffed farinata and finished with strawberries and ice cream. I blew the budget with a mixed salad and marinara pizza that I struggled to finish for Euros 7. This was an uncharacteristically cheap night!

Back at base, the WiFi was excellent and I drifted off to sleep missing the second half of Versailles! We were woken at 8 o’clock by the nearby church bells and enjoyed a copious breakfast before heading to Castellania, former home and final resting place of Italian cycling god Fausto Coppi. We were the wrong side of the village to get to the PPO without which we couldn’t get to the press parking. We ditched the car, grabbed some of the cakes and started walking the 3km to the village. This was to be my beloved’s longest walk for three months and he managed just fine.

According to the Giro road book, the buses were parking some 1500m from the start, which meant I was looking at walking another 3km. Once we reached the village, I couldn’t see any signs and asked one of the many Giro staff where the buses were parked. He told me 10km away in Tortona. I thought he was joking, he wasn’t. I was beginning to regret having lugged some of the cakes with me.

Luck was on my side. I bumped into Laura Meseguer, one of the hardest working journalists I know and certainly one of the nicest, and prettiest. She explained that the Eurosport crew were just about to head to the buses and she’d be happy to take my cakes and distribute them for me. She noted down the names of the lucky recipients, took the cakes and shot off.

The crowds were suitably large, I admired the various homages to the Coppi bros, while my beloved took photos and we lunched on delicious home-made focaccia before trekking 3km back to the car. With a stage of only 130km, we stood no chance of making the finish before the riders. We stopped en route to fill up the car, and us, and watched the last 45km on the television. The result was unexpected with the current race leader Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) getting the better of race favourite Nairo Quintana (Movistar) on a summit finish.

We drove to our next B&B, not too far from the finish, in a leafy suburb. It was yet another house where empty nesters had turned their excess space into guest accommodation.  We settled in before heading back out in search of dinner. To be honest, it didn’t looking promising. There were loads of Bars and Gelaterias, but no restaurants. Finally we spotted a hotel restaurant advertising Tex-Mex Pizzas. Concerned that this might be a fusion step too far, we nevertheless ventured inside to discover a busy, bustling family restaurant thankfully serving Pizzas and Tex Mex.

Our dinner was interrupted twice by my car alarm going off. No reason why, but I’m even more convinced this was the cause of my recent flat battery. Replete with spicy Tex-Mex, we dove back to our overnight stay and a good night’s sleep. We breakfasted early and headed to the start in nearby Valdengo. Bizarrely, the stage started close by the town’s churchyard with a number of the buses parking up in its car park. I had the rest of my cakes to deliver and wanted to catch up with Trek-Segafredo’s youngster Mads Pedersen.

Mission accomplished, the peloton headed in one direction  – and a mad dash stage won by Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) – and we pointed the car in the direction of home. As we drove towards the motorway junction, my beloved suggested we stopped for lunch. We spotted a sign-post for a restaurant off the main road. It looked fairly unprepossessing but there were a number of large expensive cars parked outside. Inside we found my default white linen tablecloths and napkins and luckily a vacant table for two. We enjoyed a magnificent seafood lunch and set off with smiles on our faces as we sped back to our home in France. We’d had an excellent week-end in Piedmont, a place we should visit more often. The countryside is charming, quieter but no less picturesque than Tuscany, plus its hotels and restaurants represent great value.

Season underway

The amateur cycling season is now underway. Last Sunday saw the 62nd running of ES Cannes’ Gentleman (51st Souvenir Fausto Coppi). A “Gentleman” is a two man time-trial where the combined ages of the participants have to exceed 60 years. This race starts and finishes in front of the Hotel Carlton in Cannes and is 13kms in length,  circumnavigating the Cannes Croisette. Despite the chill, a new record was set on Sunday by Messrs Heck and Lemoine of nearby SPOC, Nice, – 16.18 mins, av speed 48.21km/hr.

Casting my eye over the list of participants I see lots of former members of my cycling club, including the afore-mentioned Heck. Our best placed twosome was a male/female combo of our best female rider and a former French amateur time-trial champion, Cristel Pastorelli, paired with Ludovic Boyer, part of last year’s winning 4-man French amateur time trial team. They were a respectable 30th and the first, by some way, of the mixed pairs.

A father and son pairing finished third. While the Jacques Guissart prize, given in honour of the chap who’d won the most titles, most notably with Jacques Anquetil, went to a combo from the host club.

Also taking part were a couple of locally based pros, Christophe Le Mevel and Yauheni Hutarovich, both limbering up for the forthcoming Tour Mediterranean, riding with local riders, not one another. Jeannie Longo often takes part in this race with her husband but I can find no mention of her on the start list. My LBS (local bike shop) owner and his partner were a very respectable second. I’d like to have taken part but I need to find myself a more reliable partner than my beloved. We’ve ridden a gentleman together but it was a bit of a disaster as he kept riding off and leaving me!

The event was covered by our local newspaper, the Nice Matin which regularly features local riders and events. For example, last week, it featured an article on one of the Monaco firemen, who’s aiming to win the World Championship crown this year in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Yes, there are World Championships for a number of professions, the most fiercely contested tend to be for those who work in the public sectors.

Franck Giusta a 32 year old who rides for UC Monaco frequently trains with the Pro Tour riders who call Monaco home. He won a silver in the time trial last year and a bronze the year before. Not unnaturally, he’s aiming for gold this year in the same event. It’ll be more difficult to do as well in the road race as he’s the only representative. In the run up to the World Championships in August, he’s riding in a team time trial in Tuscany, organised by Michele Bartoli, followed by the Monaco Criterium.

Franck gives thanks in the interview to the support, assistance and advice he’s received from Alexandre Vinokourov and his regular training rides with Philippe Gilbert. Franck’s a friend of a friend and we’ve met a couple of times so I’ll be rooting for him in Ostrava. I wonder if there’s a World Championship for retired accountants?

Garibaldi’s Giro III

I recently treated myself to a copy of Herbie Sykes’ “Maglia Rosa – Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia” but have held back from reading it. I’ve been saving it for the start of the Giro. I bought it because I so enjoyed his previous book “The Eagle of Canavese – Franco Balmamion and the Giro d’Italia”.  Who? Yes, that’s what I thought; but I still bought the book which is a totally charming, insightful and absorbing read.

Balmamion won back to back victories in the Giros  of 1962 and 1963. A feat no one has since replicated. Herbie, who I understand lives in Turin (wonder if I’ll bump into him), has a real feel for cycling, Italy and its culture. He makes the post-war era come to life, showing how cycling is woven into Italy’s social and economic fabric. While the book’s focus is very much on the first of Balmamion’s Giro victories, he includes stories about Balmamion’s contemporaries, both on and off the bike, which provide context and colour for this charming, parochial, rose-tinted tale.

I only have one other book about the Giro; Gazzetta dello Sport’s “Un Secolo di Passioni – Giro d’Italia 1909-2009”, choc- full of wonderful photographs, which celebrates its centenary but accords Balmamion little more than a name check. Of course, one cannot read any biography about il Campionissimo (Fausto Coppi), or indeed Il Pirato (Marco Pantani), without being treated to a run down of the Giro but, it’s not centre stage. I think it’s fair to say that by comparison with my books on “The Tour”  (25 and counting), The Giro is woefully underrepresented on my cycling bookshelves.

I shall attempt to redress the balance when I’m in Turin where I will be heading straight for the nearest book shop to check out what (if anything) they have on cycling, particularly on the Giro. I will then stray over to the cookery section to see if there’s any tomes which I simply, absolutely have to add to my library. I’m hoping I’ll be lucky on both counts.

A good read

This month’s Cycle Sport magazine opines on “the best 50 cycling books of all time [in the English language]”. Lists are always interesting, open to debate and, ultimately, very subjective despite their authors proclaiming their objectivity. Given that I have quite (typical British understatement) a large collection of books on cycling, I was keen to see where we agreed, where we differed and which books were in their list which I had yet to acquire and read.

I guard my books and only a favoured few are allowed to borrow them. I say this from bitter experience as a number of books have been borrowed and never returned and, as they are now out of print, are proving difficult to replace. For example, my beloved, one of the worst culprits, may borrow any book but cannot remove it from the premises. I don’t keep lists of who has what book at any point in time, I don’t need to, I know by heart where they all are at any given time.

You will note that I qualified the list as, not unnaturally, Cycle Sport has only included books either written in English or those subsequently translated into English. So, for example, “Tomorrow We Ride” written by Jean Bobet, “A Century of Paris-Roubaix” by Pascal Sergent and “We Were Young and Carefree” by Laurent Fignon make the list as they’ve been translated from the original French into English.

For similar reasons, the biographies feature largely English speaking riders notably Tommy Simpson, Barry Hoban, Robert Millar, Graeme Obree, Allan Peiper, Greg LeMond, Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and many tomes about that man Lance. However, a couple of my favourite books feature cyclists who are not so well known and they’re both on the list. “A Significant Other” by Matt Rendell covers a former domestique of Lance’s from Columbia, Victor Hugo Pena. While, “Kings of the Mountains” looks at the role of cycling within Columbia’s most recent history and the Columbian riders who’ve ridden in Europe.

Stories about a few foreign riders make the cut, again solely because they’re written in English: Paul Howard’s revealing “Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape” about Jacques Anquetil, Matt Rendell’s excellent “The Death of Marco Pantani” and William Fotheringham’s “Fallen Angel – The Passion of Fausto Coppi”.

I have read a number of books about Pantani and I would say that while Rendell’s is undoubtedly an excellent read, and certainly a measured account, it falls short of Philippe Brunel’s tale “Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani” simply because Brunel had greater access to Pantani while he was alive.

My favourite book about Il Campionissimo was written by Jean-Paul Ollivier “Fausto Coppi La Gloire et Les Larmes”. As a historian, the author weaves his tale about Coppi against a backdrop of the social and economic history of Italy. As a consequence, he breathes more life and meaning into his subject and leaves  the reader with a greater understanding. I’ve also enjoyed the same author’s insights into Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor.

A book I’ve read recently, and whose words really resonated with me, is “Le Metier” by Michael Barry. The book is a seasonal account of the last year Barry rode for Columbia-HTC,  beautifully illustrated with photographs. In my opinion, Barry most accurately conveys to his readers what it’s like to be a professional bike rider. Even as a hobby cyclist I found I could empathise with his accounts of training on his own.

Doping looms large as one of the most frequently covered topics in books on Cycle Sport’s List: specifically, Will Voet’s “Breaking the Chain”, Jeremy Whittle’s “Bad Blood”, from “Lance to Landis” by David Walsh and Paul Kimmage’s “A Rough Ride”.  For me, the most illuminating book on this subject is  “Prisonnier du Dopage”  by Philippe Gaumont a former pro-cyclist who rode for Cofidis 1997-2003.

There are a few surprising omissions. To my knowledge there’s only one book in English about the Vuelta “Viva la Vuelta – the story of Spain’s great bike race” by Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell and for that reason alone it should be on the list. “The Giro d’Italia – Coppi versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy” is the only book on that race on Cycle Sport’s list. For some reason, neither the Vuelta nor the Giro have spawned the same number of books as the Tour, not even in their native languages.

There’s a few other books I would put on my list which are not on Cycle Sport’s. I rather enjoyed David (Talking Heads) Byrne’s “Bicycle Diaries”  which chronicles his thoughts and observations as he pedals through some of the major cities in the world. 1960’s Italy and Italian cycling culture in brought to life in Herbie Sykes “The Eagle of Canavese” about Franco Balmamion who won back to back Giro titles. I loved “Indurain: una pasion templada” by Javier Garcia Sanchez which showcases one of Spain’s sporting idols, the very modest and humble Miguel Indurain whom I have been fortunate to meet. For those of you whose better halves don’t share your passion for cycling, can I suggest a Xmas stocking filler: “Roadie: the Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer” by Jamie Smith.

I don’t have all the books on Cycle Sport’s list and that in itself raises some concerns as I’m now bound to try and obtain copies,  even though many are probably out of print,  because my collection just won’t be complete without them. Amazon and eBay, here I come………………………….