My work here is done!

Okay, it’s confession time. I’ve spent the better part of this year accosting young scantily clad men and asking them for a favour. No coercion has been necessary, they’ve been willing accomplices. They’ve happily done what I asked because it’s all in a good cause. I am, of course, talking about my project to get signatures from professional riders featured in Book du Tour which will be auctioned for charity on Friday 25 September in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Signed by 2014 Tour de France winner: Vincenzo Nibali
Signed by 2014 Tour de France winner: Vincenzo Nibali

The project didn’t get off to the best of starts. I’ve previously written about the delivery problems with the books and the challenges in obtaining Vincenzo Nibali’s signature. I’ve never been an autograph hunter, so I wasn’t sure exactly how I would fare. I was a woman on a mission and, more importantly, I had a plan. I went to the start of every race clutching a list highlighted with the names of my quarry. Lesson number one: it’s easier to collect signatures at the start and not the finish of any race.

The first race of the season on my programme was the Tour of the Med – cancelled.  At the Tropheo Laigueglia riders stay in local hotels, riding to the sign-on and start line. Lesson number two: you have to approach the riders when they’re not on their bikes or you need to be a lot fleeter of foot than me.

There was torrential rain on day one of the Tour du Haut Var. Lesson number three: water and books don’t mix. It has to be dry. Day two I staked out Tommy Voeckler and Cheng Ji. Success  – merely because their team buses were parked next to one another. Lesson number three: don’t be too ambitious. More rain at Paris-Nice meant no signatures.

At this point in the season I wasn’t worried, I had an ace up my sleeve – the Tour of the Basque country. It’s a decidedly relaxed event and it’s easy to trap catch the riders at the morning sign-on. It didn’t hurt that I stood next to the two lovely podium girls, Miren and Eiharne, who had kindly offered to help me. Fortunately, there was no need for them to restrain or wrestle any of the riders to the ground. I say fortunately but I dare say the boys might have enjoyed the experience. Lesson number four: enlist the assistance of younger, leggier, beautiful girls or borrow a doe eyed poppet.

Reigning world champion Michal Kwiatkowski
Reigning world champion Michal Kwiatkowski

As a minimum, I wanted to collect the signatures of all the stage winners, jersey holders, top ten overall and the big names such as Alberto Contador and Chris Froome who were sadly DNFs. All but two of the top ten riders feature in the book. Laurens ten Dam managed to avoid Greig’s brush but, like Jose Serpa and his bandito tache, would have been instantly recognisable with his beard. The other MIA was Basque rider Haimer Zubeldia. I remember post-Tour everyone joking about Zubeldia on Twitter. He tends to finish well without anyone noticing. Greig didn’t either but I still collected his signature on the classification page.

The organisers made my job more difficult at the Amstel Gold race by restricting access to the snake-pit to VIP guests while official press, photographers and team PR people were kept to the outer edges. With riders streaming in and out from both sides, catching anybody for a signature was fraught. However, once they’d lined up for the start it was a much easier task and I collected signatures from stage winners (Ramunas Navardaskus) and contenders (Alejandro Valverde) alike. Lesson number five: be prepared to change tactics.

Seven times a grand tour winner: Alberto Contador's signature
Seven times a grand tour winner: Alberto Contador’s signature

La Grande Partenza of the Giro d’Italia held just up the road from me in San Remo offered more opportunities. I hung around at team hotels and press conferences, securing Alberto Contador‘s signature in the hotel garden. I struck out at the team presentation and on stage one. Lesson number six: don’t bother trying to collect signatures on the opening stage of a grand tour, the riders are too keyed up.

Chris Froome signed this page with a wry smile
Chris Froome signed this page with a wry smile

A day in the Alps for the Criterium du Dauphine landed a couple of big fish namely Romain Bardet and Chris Froome. Riders of their stature tend to stay in the team bus until the very last moment. Lesson number seven: stake out their bikes and don’t move until they appear.

Next up, the big one, the Tour de France. Getting signatures at the press conferences was much more problematical. Some teams held them in their hotels, others came to the press centre but not always with the entire team. Undeterred I managed to catch a few less in demand riders. In fact, one or two of them looked positively relieved that someone wanted  to talk with them. I kept my powder dry until stages two and three, (see lesson six). Again, patience paid dividends. On later stages I managed to get the autographs of stage winners Mick Rogers and Alexander Kristoff plus a whole parcel of riders who feature in the book such as Jack Bauer and Luis Angel Mate.

Peter Sagan left his mark too
Peter Sagan left his mark too

A few days back up in the Alps yielded Peter Sagan, a clutch of Europcar and Lotto-Soudal riders, but Mark Cavendish proved elusive. Ironically, he’s one of the few riders whose signature I’d previously secured on two separate occasions for friends. Just not this time. At the Clasica San Sebastian I successfully tracked down stage winner Blel Kadri.

It's Spartacus aka Fabial Cancellara
It’s Spartacus aka Fabian Cancellara

On to my last throw of the dice, the Vuelta a Espana. After failing to collect any signatures at the team presentations of the other two grand tours, I left the book behind for the Vuelta’s. Rookie mistake and lesson number eight: never make assumptions and always have your book with you. The teams were all relaxing in the nearby hotel and I could have collected autographs agogo. I skipped the opening team time-trial, but scored in subsequent stages securing signatures from Fabian Cancellara, Niki Terpstra and Mr Combativity, Alessandro de Marchi, to name but a few.

I have secured the signatures of around 70 riders. My job is complete – well almost. Alas, my path has not crossed that of four-time stage winner Marcel Kittel, whose autograph I secured for a friend at the 2014 Tour de France. Nor have I managed to get signatures from any of the fabulous women riders in La Course. However, there’s a couple of days before the book is auctioned on Friday 25 September so I’ll be on the look out beforehand.

Postcard from Tuscany

My annual road trip to the World Road Race Championships is usually a solo trip although my beloved has accompanied me to both Mendrisio 2009 and Melbourne 2010. This year he decided once again to take a bit of a break and join me in Tuscany. I generally make my hotel bookings about a year in advance  so it was lucky there was room for him in my rental apartment about 30km south of Florence. You might wonder why I selected somewhere so far from the action. It’s just over 30 minutes by car or train in a quiet dormitory town along the Arno valley adjacent to the Chianti hills, an area where we’ve stayed on previous trips, with plenty of great bars and restaurants within walking distance.

Town piazza viewed from our favourite bar
Town piazza viewed from our favourite bar

The drive over was surprisingly quick but then our previous trips have been at the end of July when the holiday season is in full-swing. We arrived with time to spare to wander the cobbled streets, check out the shops and an enjoy a Prosecco before selecting a restaurant for dinner – our Tuscan adventure started now. We’d fortunately arrived early and secured the last unreserved table in a small family run establishment where we could observe the small seasonal menu being made in the kitchen. Sated we returned to the apartment knowing it would take a long ride to eliminate the excess calories!

While the daytime temperatures were around 4-5 degrees warmer than back home in Nice, it was quite fresh first thing as my beloved attested on his return from fetching La Gazzetta – required reading in Italy – and the pastry crème croissants for breakfast. I know, that’s many more calories to be eliminated but I might as well be hung for a crème filled as a plain one!

This was my first ride since my fall and, proudly wearing my new aerodynamic Specialized lid, I was ready for action. My beloved hovered over me like a mother duck might a new-born duckling but he soon tired of that and rode past me up all the inclines. There’s loads of racing in Tuscany as we were forcibly reminded every time we ascended a climb to find the markings of a finish line from a recent race. The roads are relatively quiet, the terrain is undulating and, while there are some steep ramps, they’re not as steep as in the Basque country.

This rather set the tone for our days. A ride in the morning followed by watching the racing in the afternoon. Although I didn’t ride every day, my beloved did  – apart from Monsoon Sunday – and he enjoyed testing himself on the final race circuit. Racing over we generally headed back to our HQ for dinner. We didn’t eat out every evening as I was quite keen to cook with some of the excellent local produce, washed down with the local wine – Chianti.

Italians really embrace and celebrate cycling
Italians really embrace and celebrate cycling

With races starting at different places in Tuscany, we took the opportunity to watch both the start and finish of some.This did mean that I didn’t watch all of the racing but it’s fair to say I didn’t miss much of the action. I was however disappointed at the lack of or poor television coverage of some of the races.

I’ve only been attending the Worlds since 2006 and, by and large, the weather’s been fine particularly for the final men’s elite road race. This year proved an exception, storms were forecast but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen so much rain, not even in countries which suffer from monsoons. The roads were awash. I’d have been a DNS, never mind a DNF!

No trip to Chiantishire would be complete without a trip to my favourite butchers
No trip to Chiantishire would be complete without a trip to my favourite butchers

Since we got back I’ve been prolonging our Tuscan adventure with the produce I bought there: funghi porcini, porchetta, salamis, tomatoes, figs, wine. Of course, I can’t eat all of it so I’ve rustled up a few dishes for the freezer and preserves store to be enjoyed in the coming months.