Thursday, 31 May 2012

My Cycling Moment of the Week - 5

Interview with a Legend

A few weeks ago I rode the Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi cyclosportive. While I was there I had the pleasure of interviewing the great man himself.

When people talk about great Italian racing cyclists they mention Alfredo Binda, Fausto Coppi or Gino Bartali, and from more recently, Francesco Moser, Marco Pantani or even Mario Cippolini.
But when it comes to the 60s and 70s Felice Gimondi is the man.
At that epoch his great rival was Eddie "The Cannibal" Merckx, who effectively gobbled up every cycle racing title in his blistering path. But "The Phoenix's" successes can't be underestimated.

This racer from the Bergamo hills is one of only five road racers to have won all three of the grand tours - the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia (which he won 3 times) and Vuelta a Espana. He also won the Tour of Lombardy, Paris Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and the World Championships.

Felice raced against Britain's Tom Simpson on many occasions and got to know him over his sadly shortened career.

Nowadays the sprightly Italian, who will soon turn 70 is still very much involved in cycling and it is apparent that this sport is still his great love.

I enjoyed talking to the charming Mr Gimondi and it was definitely the highpoint of my couple of days at the event!
The interview will be out in due course. (photos - GF Felice Gimondi Press Office/Bianchi(C))

Monday, 28 May 2012

Giro dei Navigli (Canals of Milan) - 2

Last time I wrote about the canals of Milan it was about the Naviglio Grande, the canal that leads from the Darsena channel out towards Abbiategrasso and then North to Lake Maggiore. I spend alot of time on this waterway as it is within five minutes of where I live. I ride along it to get to work, I go running along the canal, and when it comes to weekend drinks this place is a no-brainer given the number of bars and restaurants. And after a night out it's easy to stumble home without worrying about catching trams or taxis.
This time I will focus on the Naviglio Martesana - the canal which starts from near Milan's Central Station and heads north-west towards Bergamo and Lecco. This is a little bit out of my zone as it is to the North of the city. It takes around half an hour to cycle to the start of the canal.

The Naviglio Martesana has a different feel to the Naviglio Grande. There are no bars at all along here. You just see the backs of people's houses and urban parks, some adorned with residential tower blocks. If drawing comparisons with south London, you basically see a bit of Dulwich, and a bit of Peckham along this section! In any case, you get a good slice of what life is like in Milan.

If there's one thing I also know about the people in that part of Milan it is that they like their sport. Lots of people are out rollerblading, playing football, running and cycling - people of all shapes, sizes and ages are active. The whole family may be out cycling, including the 3-year-old on stabilisers. If you are too young to ride a bike you end up either going on a special child's seat attached to your parent's bike, or being seated in a specially constructed carriage that is attached to the front or back of your parent's bike. People learn about cycling at an early age here!

The other thing that people are into - at least the authorities seem to tolerate it is graffiti. There is lots of it here. This stuff would give Banksy a run for his money. There are all kinds of designs and slogans - Tags, declarations of love, and more and more with these difficult economic times, political statements. I don't know alot about TAV and Bossi, but it seems like they are not well liked in Milan if the graffitti is anything to go by!

Once across the city limits of Milan, you get to the canal proper. A sign lets you know how far it is to the various villages, which is handy. It's actually 23km to a place called Cassano d' Adda which is on the border between Milan province and Bergamo province. Bear in mind that it is 23km from that sign, which comes in at 5km into the canal ride. As I have an 8km ride to get from the southwest of the city up to the north-east then by the time I've done the whole journey it is 72km round trip. That makes for a pretty decent work-out as well.

Before reaching Cassano there is a series of rather picturesque villages - Cernusco sul Naviglio, which has a forest and picnic site, and then there's Gorgonzola. And don't think of finding any cheese in Gorgonzola. It's produced in Piedmont nowadays. Nevertheless Gorgonzola is a pleasant village with a 16th Century church. Some say that a piece of cheese was left in the church and that is how the town got its name. I guess no one will be eating that mouldy cheese any time soon!

After alot of rolling over very flat, easy terrain through the countryside you arrive in Cassano. Not only is it a convenient stop-off point for a picnic along the River Adda, but there is also an ice cream parlour that does very tasty gelatti. Mind you, is there a place in Italy that doesn't do nice ice cream??
Then when you're done you can either ride back, to Milan, or skip across to the nearby train station where you can be whisked back to the city.

Route map is here

Monday, 21 May 2012

My Cycling Moment of the Week - 4

Boris Rides Again!

So BoJo has been voted back in as Mayor of London. That's quite a coup since the Conservative Party did pretty badly in most other parts of the country during the local elections. Also, the fact that many  who voted for Boris Johnson normally vote Labour goes to show that Boris got in because people like him, rather than because he's a Tory.

I saw him at a meeting last autumn in Sutton and he certainly seemed to be a hit with the folks in the packed theatre, even though that borough is Liberal Democrat.

Whether you like it or not, it has to be said that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson seems to know how to win people over. Where many Londoners dismiss the likes of George Osborne and David Cameron as out-of-touch toffs, people in the Capital of all classes and races warm to this posh Etonian with a blonde mop that hardly ever sees a comb!

Boris Johnson is always willing to have a go at activities and get down with the people, despite being quite clumsy and even pretty rubbish sometimes! Who could forget his feeble attempts at trying to shoot at basketball when visiting a youth centre, or when he ended up waist deep in a river while visiting an environmental centre. But people like the way that he keeps it real. Folks can identify with that.

As well as his Mayoral salary, his extra £250,000 for writing a newspaper column means that he is not short of a penny or two. He could be chauffered around London, but instead he chooses to ride a bicycle. He may be in a different socio-economic class, but riding a bicycle immediately puts him at a classless level and makes him closer to the ordinary man or woman in the street - literally! 

Having said that, many people are not impressed with his track record so far. He has not fully delivered his cycling plans and cyclists in London do not feel any safer than they did prior to 2008.  The blue hire bicycles work well, but the system is heavily subsidised by Barclays Bank. The Cycle Superhighways are nothing more than existing cycle paths that have been painted in Barclays blue! Even worse, we had a sharp increase in the number of cycling fatalities last year, including two people who were killed right on this special cycle lane at Bow Roundabout. But still, we voted him back in!

During this year's mayoral campaign, Boris pledged his commitment to the London Cycling Campaign's "Love London Go Dutch" initiative.

In case he has forgotten what he promised, Britsh Cycling and London Cycling Campaign (LCC) recently wrote to our re-elected Mayor. (Letter below).

Hopefully this will serve as a good aid-memoire whenever he goes to his offices at City Hall!

"Congratulations on your victory in the London Mayoral election - one in which cycling was a major issue as never before. We would like to wish you the very best in meeting the many challenges London faces over the next four years.
"Please allow us to also reiterate our immense appreciation for your public pre-election commitments to appoint a cycling commissioner, put a cycling representative on the London Roads Task Force, and meet the three key tests of LCC’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign. We also look forward to working with your Sentencing Unit to assist you in making representations to the Ministry of Justice to strengthen the criminal justice procedures and sentencing guidelines that deal with cyclist deaths and serious injuries.
"We stand ready to help in the delivery of these very important commitments and in particular would greatly welcome a meeting with you to discuss their implementation. We do hope you will be able to look positively on this request given your undoubtedly hectic schedule as you begin the next mayoralty."

On yer bike, Monsieur Sarkozy!

While Boris Johnson was cracking open the champagne, poor old Nicolas Sarkozy was drowning his sorrows after being voted out of his presidential seat. He is the first president, since Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981, to be voted out after just one term. Bear in mind too, that back in those days one term was 7 years. The French had enough of Sarkozy after just 5 years!
Ironically, the international community had really been rooting for him as it was believed that he had a more robust economic rescue plan in place for France and the wider European community compared with the woolly, unrealistic ideas of his socialist contender.
Unfortunately for Nicolas Sarkozy, no amount of bike riding and charm could win over the French public! Pas de Chance - Quel dommage pour vous, Monsieur Sarkozy! Au Revoir!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Shoot Story - South East London and Docklands

In this month's issue of Cycling Active I have a ride story about south east London and Docklands (entitled Industrial Revolutions). That was the feel I had about quite a few of the different venues we were in when taking the photos.

It was another of those cold, but sunny days in January. One of the problems when you do photo shoots at that time of year, when the days are short, is getting everything done before dark.

On the day that we did the shoot we rode from Crystal Palace to Blackheath, went around Greenwich and the Thames Path, through the tunnel to Docklands, then onwards to the Excel Centre and Royal Albert area.

Ideally I would have preferred to have done it in the order that I did the reccie and eventual route - an anticlockwise loop starting at Blackheath, over to Greenwich, through the tunnel, on to Docklands and Excel, back to South London via the Woolwich Ferry and then along the Thames Path to reach Greenwich and Blackheath.

Because the Woolwich Ferry was closed on this date, we had to do the former itinerary described above, so in effect we went back on ourselves on both sides of the river and that took more time. By the time we finished, it was getting dark. I didn't have any lights on me so we had to take public transport. Fine, I thought - we can ride along the Cycle Superhighway to Shadwell and pick up the East London Line - Not possible, engineering works. Ok, so we continue along the Superhighway to Tower Hill and pick up the District Line to Victoria. (Bikes are allowed on the District Line on Sundays). Not possible, engineering works. Oh dear - we then ended up riding to Waterloo to get a suburban train to Clapham Junction and get a connection to Crystal Palace. Trains were running as far as Streatham Hill and there was a replacement bus service to stations beyond. Crystal Palace is beyond Streatham Hill, however bikes are not admitted on replacement buses! The plot thickens.

I ended up going to Higg's place and staying over till Monday when I could cycle home in daylight. London Transport is great!

After all our frustrations, the photos turned out well in the final article.

As well as learning how rubbish London Transport can be, I also learned that there are a few places around London that make for unlikely tourist spots.

Naturally there were lots of families out on Blackheath, and loads of tourists in Greenwich. Surprisingly though, we saw alot of people walking along the Thames Path, especially the section by the Thames Barrier. People were intrigued by this construction.

There were still lots of folks who had come to see Docklands and Canary Wharf as well. It's not just finance professionals and management consultants who are attracted to the glassy jungle then!

The theme of our ride story had been to reflect on the industrial age in London - past and present. With that in mind we drew references from the song "Jerusalem". A few of the locations we were at made me think of some of the lines from that song - "England's green and pleasant land", "clouded hills" etc. Some lyrics that particularly struck Higg as I rode past the Canary Wharf complex under cloudy skies were "dark satanic mills". In keeping with that theme, I have included a few photos of experimental shots that Higg put into sepia tones when we were recce'ing the Industrial Revolutions itinerary.

Photos by Higg

Sunday, 6 May 2012

My Cycling Moment of the Week - 3

It is great to see a national newspaper take up the cause for cyclists up and down the country.
For the good people at The Times this campaign had a very personal meaning since a number of their staff will have witnessed directly the consequences of roads unsafe for cyclists. Six months after being crushed by a lorry The Times journalist Mary Bowers remains in the trauma unit of a London hospital as a result of the very serious injuries she sustained.
The accident, which happened in November has been a catalyst in spurring the newspaper to take on the cause for cyclists.

Campaigns for cycle safety have been taking place for many years thanks to the likes of CTC, Roadpeace and local groups such as London Cycling Campaign, where I am from.

But when a newspaper of reference is taking on the cause, this makes people sit up and take even more notice.
Councils are beginning to adopt The Times cycle safety manifesto, which consists of an eight-point plan to improve conditions for cyclists around UK cities.
The Department for Transport has asked local councils, including Transport for London to review dangerous junctions and consider redesigning them with cyclists in mind. 
A cross-party debate on cycle safety took place in Parliament in April and at the recent London Mayoral election campaign a questions and answers session to all the candidates was organised by The Times.There haven't been any significant tangible changes made yet, but the campaign continues as baby steps are made at local and central government level.

Not only has this campaign been taken up by various bodies in the UK, but associations overseas have also been inspired to lobby on their respective cycling issues.
In Italy, a group of cycling bloggers have clubbed together to spearhead the "Salva i Ciclisti" campaign.  The campaign was initially publicised in the newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, which had lost one of it's members of staff in a road traffic accident. Pier Luigi Todisco, a journalist at the sports newspaper was knocked down and killed by a truck in Milan while cycling to work last October.
Like the The Times' "Cities fit for Cycling" campaign, "Salva i Ciclisti" also propose an eight-point plan for the government to adopt in order improve cycle safety around Italian cities.

Furthermore, when thousands of cyclists took part in the London Cycling Campaign's "Big Ride" last Saturday week, a similar rally took place in Rome, in which 50,000 cyclists gathered in the Imperial Forum. This demonstration served to raise the profile of the issues facing cyclists and also to remember the 2,500 cyclists who have been killed in Italy over the last 10 years.

It all sounds very positive. Hopefully improvements can be made for cyclists in both countries. 

Friday, 4 May 2012

Giro dei Navigli (Canals of Milan) - 1

Among the items that I have brought with me for my stay in Milan is my bicycle. Having this with me in Italy was a no-brainer. I had all these ideas of riding my bike around the Pre-dolomites and Pre-alps of Veneto, Lombardy, or into Piedmont. I haven't done extensive riding in these places yet, but it's very much in the plan.
What I have done though, is to ride around the canal paths of Milan. These are routes which don't get talked about so much, but they are very much in the local cyclist's daily bread. The routes are pretty flat and so not a challenge for a new rider. They are certainly do-able even on a hybrid bike. For a club cyclist they make for good areas to time trial your way from one village to the next. They stretch quite a long way out, and you can even get to the Lakes (Maggiore, Como, Lecco) which are around 40 miles north of the city. If you go south you can get to the historic city of Pavia, about 25 miles away. And you don't do a single climb along the way! This is a joy for non climbing cyclists out there!
The Navigli are popular places to cycle and you see all types of cyclist - commuters, recreational cyclists, club riders and even pros. I saw some guys from the Lampre team riding along once - and who knows, I may even bump into one of the most famous non-climbing professionals, Mario Cipollini! Whatever your two-wheeled persuasion, the Navigli have something for everyone.
If you want to go south of Milan into the Pavese area try out this circuit, which goes down the Naviglio Grande to Abbiategrasso, continues along to Pavia via the Naviglio Bereguardo, and then back to Milan via the Naviglio Pavese. It's around 50 miles round trip and includes some pretty places en route where you can enjoy decent coffee and even ice cream. The paths are well sign-posted and tarmacced apart from a section along the Bereguardo which is a bit gravelly. The route is here
A bit of background. The Nagivli are the network of canals in the Milan area that were built between the 12th and the 15th century. The served prinicipally for trading purposes and made Milan a very important hub town for reaching other parts of Italy and Europe. Today the canals are no longer used for these purposes. The Naviglio Pavese and Naviglio Grande, which both flow into the disused harbour known as Darsena in central Milan, have been revamped with trendy bars. Nowadays these are very popular neighbourhoods for socialising and entertainment.