Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 Recap

Things have been very busy over the last few months for me, so apologies for the silence on the airwaves.

Before I close out the year, here's a quick recap of what I've been up to:

Sport

After a rather sketchy start to the year I managed to get back into my stride and even got in a few running races. While in Milan I ran the Milan Marathon Relay with my work colleagues. I set myself a challenge of doing the first leg which was 8.75 miles.  A few years ago this would have been a fairly straight forward matter but I had to do quite a lot to avoid injury - especially as I had missed out on a lot of regular training. I was pleased with my 67 minutes. I hope the team was ok with that too! I also ran the Nike "We own the night" women-only 10k in Milan with my Cassinis Cycling team buddies. That proved to be a good event too. Since being back in the UK I have been doing Parkruns - mainly on Roundshaw Downs in South London and also Lloyd Park, Hull, and Congleton which is not far from my new home in Macclesfield. I feel that now that I am in Macc I am getting fitter than I had been in Milan, and look forward to doing more races next year - well I'm already signed up for the Wilmslow Half Marathon so the training has started already!

Talking of fitness (or lack of it) my cycling suffered during 2013 - mainly due to being in Milan and not being able to get out and do regular club-runs, particularly mid-week rides.

After all the palava of getting an Italian racing licence I only managed to do one cyclosportive - in Oltrepo Pavese. Although the event was well organised and friendly, I can't say I enjoyed the experience. My performance was p!5s poor and that's probably better left forgotten!

Since moving back to Macclesfield I have managed to do mid-week rides with my local club - Macclesfield Wheelers, and I even get out and do circuits of the hills near my place of work at lunchtime. I feel quite spoiled to be able to get onto some of the hills near the Peak District so easily. This has even given me the confidence to do some cyclo cross races. I have done a few in the Manchester area, plus one in East Yorkshire, one in the Peak District, the Rapha Supercross races, and I now have the National Cross Champs to look forward to early next year! No idea how I will get on, but the fact that I even dared to enter the race is already a big step from while I was in Milan.

You might think that I did not enjoy my experience in Milan. In actual fact, I did! After all, I managed to meet Paul Smith there when he launched his Maglia Rosa jersey for the Giro d'Italia. I met some interesting people through the Italian conversation exchanges that I did (which really helped with my level in Italian), and I managed to go ski-ing quite a few times - which is no bad thing!

Trips

As well as my excursions ski-ing, I did various trips to different parts of Italy - almost always with my bike. I was able to explore more areas such as Liguria, Tuscany, the Alps, plus local regions of Brianza and Oltrepo Pavese. All these visits involved going up iconic climbs like Monte Generoso, Madonna del Ghisallo, Sormano, Monte Bisbino and Bernina Pass.

Then there were a few trips to Lake Garda, one of which involved a photo shoot for a Cycling Active article. Watch this space to see the finished product!

My most memorable trip of the year was the trip to Paris with my other half and my 17-year-old nephew. It was great to be able to show him the sights and introduce him to the delights of travelling, and Paris was no better a place than to do it - especially while the Tour de France was taking place. So once I had shown him all the iconic sights we were then able to bask in the sunshine and watch the racers set off from Versailles and then ride around the Arc de Triomphe.


Life in general

So, the Milan job has finished and I am now back in the UK having started a new job in Macclesfield. The process of looking for a new job while in Italy and then moving my stuff from Milan to London and then up North was quite taxing and there was a fair amount of upheaval. Still, I am enjoying life in this rather small town. Being right on the edge of the Peak District is great for the outdoors, especially for cycling. So two-wheeled fun is very much back on the menu and will be during 2014.

In 2013 I only managed to write a couple of articles for Cycling Active magazine and for Sportsister website, but I already have a few in the pipeline for 2014.

During 2013 I also became an auntie for the third time. My new niece looks gorgeous (if I don't mind saying)!

I also got proposed to by Fred aka Stan, aka Him Indoors - and I said yes! So I am finishing off 2013 looking forward to the prospect of becoming a Her Indoors, though I will always be a 2 wheel chick!

Happy New Year and I look forward to putting up regular posts in 2014.


Sunday, 30 June 2013

Let's hear it for the girls!

As cycling fans around the world focus on the big race around the France, don't forget that this week also sees the staging of the only grand tour in the women's cycle racing calendar - the Giro Rosa (formerly known as the Giro Donne), which started today.

It will see the top professional female cyclists from around the world contesting a one-week tour of Italy. Today's 118km stage ran from Giovinazzo (near Bari, Puglia) to Margherita di Savoia and was won by Kirsten Wild (Dutch National Team) ahead of her compatriot, Olympic Champion Marianne Vos.

The women will wend their way through Italy to contest the final stage, a time trial in Cremona, (Lombardy).
Nineteen teams (including 6 from Italy, 3 from the Netherlands, 2 from the USA and 1 from Great Britain) are contesting the race, with racers competing to bag one of the different leader's jerseys - exactly like what you find in the men's event. Naturally the maglia rosa for the overall winner is the top prize. The current title holder is Marianne Vos (Rabo Women Cycling Team), will naturally be looking to retain her jersey. It won't be plain sailing though, since the likes of Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products UCK), Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle-Honda) or Shelly Olds (Tibco-To the Top) amongst others will be out to stop Vos in her tracks.

While the racing is likely to be every bit as exciting as the men's Giro d'Italia, this event, sadly will not have the same media coverage or funding. Indeed, the original version of this race, the Giro Donne was cancelled earlier this year due to a lack of a sponsor. A backer stepped in at the last minute and managed to rescue the race, re-christening it the Giro Rosa. It is a good job that this event is being held as it will be the only women's grand tour taking place this year. The women's tour de France (Le Boucle Feminin) was removed from the calendar a few years ago, so eliminating the Italian version of the event would have been a truly negative step for women's racing.

I hope that more coverage is given to the Giro Rosa, and in future more investment can be made into women's cycle racing in the same way that we have seen with the men's game.

Anyway, for more information on the Giro Rosa, visit the event website on
www.girorosa.it

    

My moment of the week - 9

Busgate....

So you wait ages for a bus and then one (hopefully only 1, and not 3) comes, then at once spoils your party!

Oh dear, this wasn't exactly the dream start for the 100th edition of this year's Tour de France!

It does happen sometimes that a lorry gets stuck in the Blackwall Tunnel in London and causes chaos to traffic in East London. So sure he gets a fine and a reprimand, but at least he remains relatively anonymous and he hasn't got the world's media watching him. He doesn't even trigger any accident or a war of words.

Sadly, it wasn't the case for bus driver Gary Atxa who was just driving the Orica-Greenedge team bus and following instructions, when suddenly his vehicle got stuck under the finish banner.

Gary had had to drop off some VIPs at their team hotel en route from Porto Vecchio to the stage one finish town at Bastia, and consequently arrived late. The Tour de France organisers gave him clearance to drive up through the finish straight, but they did not check that his bus had clearance to get under the gantry! 

It must have been a perplexing sight for event officials - a bus stuck under the gantry right on the finish line with a fast approaching peloton of cyclists sprinting at over 50km/h.
Fortunately, the tyres of the bus were deflated and the bus was eventually moved out of the way in time for riders to safely contest the sprint for the line.

Unfortunately, this incident did not fail to leave a trail of confusion in its wake - organisers giving mixed instructions about where the finish line of the race would be - 3km early or at the original finish line? Team directors facing a conundrum about when to organise their teams for the final sprint for the "finish line", wherever that would be; riders waiting eagerly for instructions through their earpieces - then crash! A massive pile-up near the finish line, instantly ousted most of the key players for the sprint out of contention for the first "maillot jaune" of the most famous cycle race in the world.

An extremely angry Team Director from Francaise des Jeux, Marc Madiot lambasted the race judges on camera, while the judges themselves actually had no camera with which to do the judging - thanks to the damage caused by the Orica Greenedge team bus!

Well, stage 2 gets underway today. Hopefully, Gary Atxa (and no one else) will not encounter any misfortunes getting their bus to the finish in Ajaccio.

Paradoxically, out of yesterday's events there were a few winners. Orica-Greenedge were fined 2,000 Swiss Francs by the UCI for failing to arrive at the finish town within the time limits, but this isn't a lot of money when you consider the publicity the team will have gained from this. How many more times has the team been cited in the media as a result - all for just over £1,000? If you hadn't heard of the team before, you certainly know who they are now! I guess, the designers should have just painted "Orica-Greenedge" on the front of their bus more prominenetly! That is where Vittel have really scored a coup!

Of course Marcel Kittel from Team Argos-Shimano benefited out of this by sprinting his way into the yellow jersey from a depleted field. Another rider to benefit was veteran British pro, David Millar. Having spent the last few years living in the shadows of compratriots Messrs Wiggins, Cavendish and even Hoy, Garmin's Millar was able to profit from the gaps and contest the sprint to finish in 4th place in the stage - not bad for a non-sprinter!

So, while many want to use words like farcical or ridiculous to describe the first stage of this year's Tour de France it hasn't actually been all bad. There has been publicity in the general press and it has given folks something to talk about. On a weekend where Le Tour has had to compete for airtime against Wimbledon, the F1 British Grand Prix, the Confederations Cup, the Lions Tour and even the Glastonbury Festival this cycle event hasn't done too badly at all!

Vive le Tour...and Merci Beaucoup Gary!

Monday, 24 June 2013

New in town? Join the cycling club!

So I've joined a cycling club. I haven't only just joined, it was actually a few months ago but I'm only just writing about it now. I am a member of Cassini's Cycling Team.

There are quite a lot of cycling clubs to choose from in Milan. The reason I chose Cassini's was because the club has a lot of women members - and they are not just WAGS or social members, but women who actually cycle and even compete in cyclosportives. From what I hear they are pretty strong too!

Mind you, how fast they are is academic to me as I don't really get on the scale when my plodding is compared to their speed!
What I like about the club is that the people are very friendly. Even though I have not been there long, and have not taken part in lots of events, I have still managed to get to know a few people and share a few jokes.

Folks have been very welcoming, and sociable too. I have met some of them at dinners, in bars and a number of them at the women's We Own the Night running race a few weeks ago. I am a little embarrassed to say that many members have probably never seen me on a bike yet! I'm sure that will happen sooner or later though!


One person who has seen me on a bike is Sarah, an American lady in the club who I rode with a few weeks ago. I rode with her, along with her friend Marco and two other Italians - Franco and Enrico. We met in Monza and I hung onto Sarah's wheel as the guys towed us up to Como.

I'd been a little apprehensive about going, for fear of being too slow. But I survived the part of the ride I did with them and it gave me the confidence to try and ride out with others. Having lost my cycling "mojo" earlier this year, it had been a real effort to get myself together and find the motivation to ride with other club riders. But this little ride with Sarah and her companions was just right for me.

The guys were due to continue on for around 20km to Aregno and do some climbs near there. However, I was a little pushed for time so stayed nearer to Como and did a climb up to Monte Bisbino. I might have bailed out of the main section of the ride, but the alternative road I took was far from being a soft option! Monte Bisbino is not extremely steep, but it was long enough -  13km of straight climbing! After around 2 hours of riding uphill I turned back on myself and returned to Como. I was pleased with the ride I'd done, and I was glad to have ridden with some clubmates that day.

A number of the Cassinis ladies saw me on my bike a few days ago for the summer solstice. Thanks to captains Barbara and Roberta we took part in a 1500m time-trial around Assago, a suburb of Milan. By some fluke I ended up with the 5th fastest time out of 15 women. That was probably the adrenaline in me after racing to the venue when I was running late! The camaraderie and the trip to the pizzeria afterwards made my evening with my team-mates even more worthwhile.

In short, being in the cycling club has improved my social experience in Milan, and it has even helped me to regain my taste for club cycling.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Hills near Milan - Oltrepò Pavese

Earlier in the year I wrote about hills you can ride just to the north of Milan, in Brianza. In the interests of balance I also plan to write about hills in other directions from Milan. Today is about hills just to the south of Milan.

If you head due south from Milan for about 20 miles, you reach the historic town of Pavia. Continue past there for a further 6 miles and you reach scenic countryside with rolling hills. Further in the distance the mountain range around the Ligurian Appenines and Monte Penice come in to view. If you are feeling energetic you may want to scale those slopes and drop down towards the dramatic Ligurian coast.
The good news though, is that you don't need to travel so far to enjoy a scenic hilly bikeride! The Oltrepò Pavese, just south of Pavia is made up of rolling hills on which vineyards are perched, and agroturismos await, ready to welcome tourists wanting to enjoy a full gastronomic and wine-tasting experience.

And the cycling's all very scenic. As you ride along the various valley roads, you quickly realise that everything on either side of you goes upwards - in some cases with a castello or a charming medieval village at the top of the steep roads.

While riding around I notice lots of signs reminding me that I am on the Strada del Vino e dei Sapori - meaning that I can stop off and sample, even buy wines, and other local produce like salami and mushrooms. In fact, looking around, this could be a mini Tuscany - I may not find Chianti here but I could sneak a cheeky Pinot Nero or some local spumante into my bidon! And it'll all taste just as nice!

The great thing is that Oltrepò Pavese, not having been heavily publicised has not fallen victim to the tourist trap. Bikingwise, that means I get the roads practically to myself - well apart from loads of other club cyclists! Yes, Oltrepò Pavese is very popular with club cyclists from the Milan/Lombardy area, so on a sunny Saturday or Sunday you are never alone. However, motorised traffic is very light - which is the bonus of cycling around here.
And if you don't want to go home straight after the ride there are lots of agroturismos providing a very authentic and untouristic experience at reasonable prices.

I have ridden in the Oltrepò Pavese on a number occasions. The first time, was during a ride to Liguria. I went via Montalto Pavese and Zavatarello to reach Bobbio via Monte Penice.
On other occasions I have been  to Lago di Trebecco via Rocca de Giorgi and Passo Carmine.

Either way, the sequence is similar - a nice run-in along a valley road, followed by the road progressively getting steeper and steeper and going on for around 20km. The area becomes more desolate, and every time I think I am at the top I see another castle or church that is even higher up. As I near the top, I put in some big out-of-the saddle efforts as I think that my climbing is coming to an end - but alas, heaving and panting I realise I still have more work to do! Finally, I reach the top - tired, but glad I managed to hang in there and I am treated to a beautiful view. The descents are twisty but exhilarating, and it's hard to believe that these small lanes that provide so much fun are relatively unknown.

I even did a cyclosportive here at Salice Terme earlier this year, which went through lots of other pleasant parts of the Oltrepò Pavese. Sadly, I can't fully describe the route as the weather on the day was grey and abyssmal (to match my performance!). I look forward to doing this cyclosportive again - hopefully when I am fitter and when the weather is nicer.

Getting down to Oltrepò is quite easy. I can get a train to Broni, Stradella, Voghera, or Casteggio. Otherwise I can ride all the way there. I must admit, riding down to this area is much more pleasant than riding up to Brianza, since most of the route to Oltrepò Pavese is done on the traffic-free Naviglio Pavese, and even the less scenic roads around Pavia are not completely choked with industries and factories like some of the roads to the north of Milan.

And of course, at the end of my ride I won't have any trouble finding a glass of something nice! Cheers!





Tuesday, 18 June 2013

And the May Yellow Jersey (well actually La Maglia Rosa) goes to.....

RCS Sport - The Organisers of the Giro d'Italia



The Giro, like the other two grand tours (Le Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana) is a massive undertaking - in terms of logistics and publicity.







Here are a few figures from RCS Sport, the event organisers:


·         Athletes: 207 riders from 23 teams (168 started the final stage) and of 30 different nationalities. The first Chinese and the first Greek athletes to participate in the Giro did so this year, and 5 different riders wore the pink jersey.

·         Sponsors: 29 partners have contributed to the success of the Giro, tying their brand with this legendary edition of the Corsa Rosa. Most of all, Balocco who sponsor the Maglia Rosa, and the other sponsors of the main classifications: Blue – Banca Mediolanum, Red – Italo, White – F.lli Orsero and Estathé – the winner of the stage.

·         The media: the press office gave accreditation to 1,595 media professionals, including 1,132 journalists and 463 photographers representing 1,076 international, national and local media. The focus was to get into the breaking news on the main news cycle at national and international level.

·         For the first time the Giro d’Italia was produced in HD, with a great effort by Rai who played the role of Host Broadcaster and allowed the images of the Corsa Rosa to be shown in 174 countries, on five continents.


Over the years more and more people around the world are taking an interest in following the exploits of the professional riders as they snake their way round Italy in a quest to secure the coveted pink jersey, fame, glory and a wad of cash.

But what of all the behind-the-scenes work? The template for organising this is probably not dissimilar to that for the Tour, the Vuelta and many other high profile international multi-day sports events.

However, the organisers of the Giro seem to pull the short straw when they have to deal with that big uncontrollable - the elements. Riding through the high mountains in Italy in May is not that easy. The April showers haven't quite finished and summer hasn't quite started, and there is still quite alot of snow around at altitude. So, bad weather is to be expected during some of the stages - that's part of the challenge of the Giro. However, this year the Giro has come off particularly badly. Even before the Giro began, a number of route changes had to be made owing damage to the roads from floods and landslides.

Of the 21 stages, half of them took place in rain, sleet or snow - sometimes accompanied by low cloud, driving wind and freezing temperatures. One stage, the eagerly anticipated race that would have gone over the Stelvio and the Gavia Passes didn't take place at all due to heavy snow.
Three other stages had to be modified, with riders crossing the finish line of those stages barely able to feel their hands and feet, and barely visible to the spectators through all the mist!

The difficulty for the organisers is providing that balance between a good spectacle for the waiting spectators, while ensuring the safety of the riders.

                                                                      
On the eve of the stage to col du Galibier discussions took place between Mauro Vegni, the technical director RCS Sport and the Prefect of Savoie, in France. It was only on the morning of the event that a definitive decision could be made, and even then, the situation had to constantly be monitored, ready to alter the route during the race.


Then the following week, Vegni and his team were faced with more headaches as they had to decide on a course of action for stages 19 (Ponte di Legno-Val Martello) and 20 (Silandro-Tre Cime di Lavaredo), when faced with atrocious conditions. Attempts were made to save these two key mountain stages - snow ploughs were clearing the passes on the eve of the races. Various technicians actually rode parts of Passo dello Stelvio and Tre Cime to test things out, but to the disappointment of the cycling fans and the riders, stage 19 had to be ditched completely, and stage 20 was re-routed.

So with all those last minute considerations, decisions and alterations to be made, Michele Acquarone and his team at RCS Sport did an excellent job in ensuring that spectators, townspeople, sponsors and riders still enjoy a very exciting Giro d'Italia.


Grazie Mille!


photos: Bettini photo


Thursday, 30 May 2013

My moment of the week - 8

Hit and tweet!

A woman who hit a cyclist while driving along a road in Norwich failed to stop at the scene of the incident, but instead sent the following tweet afterwards:



Naturally her tweet went viral, and horrified people up and down the country. The local police sent the following Twitter response to her:


Norwich Police@NorwichPoliceUK
@emmaway20 we have had tweets ref an RTC with a bike. We suggest you report it at a police station ASAP if not done already & then dm us
 
The woman was questioned by the police and has been suspended from her job.
The cyclist, who was on his way to a cycle race, was thankfully, not badly hurt. He sustained a few scrapes and bruises when he was knocked into a bush, and was naturally badly shaken.
The motorist eventually apologised for hitting the cyclist, claiming she "only thought he had clipped her wing mirror," and is "sorry if he was injured."

So this woman somehow thinks it's ok to knock cyclists out of the way with her car because they don't pay road tax, and she does! Outrageous!!
 
The sad thing is that many people share this view.
Who knows whether cyclists should pay road tax or not? That's a discussion for another day.
 
This woman's behaviour gives no excuse to knock down a cyclist without stopping and then boast about it. The sad thing is there are people out there who subscribe to this abhorrent behaviour, and this is no way helped by high profile personalities who promote these attitudes.
 
What do Matthew Parris, James Martin and Jeremy Clarkson have in common?
Apart from the fact that they regularly appear on TV, they have all written newspaper columns boasting about driving cyclists off the road, and their articles have incited others to harm cyclists. One talked about how piano wire could be strung across country lanes in order to decapitate cyclists. One took great pleasure describing how, when test-driving a sports car he drove dangerously close to a group of cyclists to frighten them and push them off the road. The other one encouraged motorists to run cyclists down, claiming that they deserve whatever they get since they don't pay road tax.
 
These types of open proclamations in newspaper columns completely undo the work of cycle safety campaigners, and those who work tirelessly to improve the way cyclists are treated by other road users. The attitudes expressed in the newspaper articles are just wicked and go beyond any debate on taxes. I hope that newspaper editors will think twice before deciding to publish these views in their publications. They might also want to stop and think about the types of people Messrs Parris, Martin, Clarkson along with Ms Way would like to harm. 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Bye Bye Giro!

So that's it - another Giro d'Italia done and dusted for this year. It was fun, it was exciting, it was eventful, with heightened suspense on the last day.

Work commitments had not allowed me to go out and watch any of the earlier stages of the Giro, but I was pleased to have made it to the finale in Brescia.

The sun shone, it was warm, and I managed to catch up with a couple of friends, including Yvette from Pinarello, who was working with a cycle touring company on the day.

Brescia was jam packed with people from all over the world, it seemed. I guess it is testament to the fact that the Giro has come of age. People are talking about it so much more than they did 10 years ago. The field has cyclists from a broader range of countries, giving the race a wider appeal. All the who's who of international cycling target the Giro nowadays, with this year having a particularly stella line-up of big hitters in the shape of Bradley Wiggins, Vicenzo Nibali, Ryder Hesjedal and Cadel Evans. The organisers have even made an effort to put their promotional messages and materials in English - hence the presence of the ubiquitous Anthony McCrossan doing live commentary for the English-speaking audience. The BBC even included the latest from the Giro in their regular sports bulletins - something we would not have seen a couple of years ago.

So, credit to RCS Sport for putting on a great event and for holding things together even when the weather was challenging.

And thanks to Marco from Gazzetta dello Sport for getting me a ringside seat to see the action, and to Mark Cavendish for providing me with something amazing to watch - especially in the final 200m!



Sunday, 26 May 2013

Brescia Bound

This time last year I went for a bike ride around Lake Como in the morning and returned to Milan in the afternoon for rest, recuperation, a shower, lunch, and a bit of television. Then I popped out of my flat and went around the corner to watch the finale of the Giro d'Italia. I felt quite lucky to have just been able to walk 15 minutes up the road to Castello, Parco Sempione and the Duomo to see all the action.

This year is a different story. I now have to join the masses and travel! Granted, it's only a one-hour train ride to Brescia (+ getting the tube to Milano Centrale station and crossing Brescia town centre), but there won't be time for a good bike ride and a leisurely lunch!

The Giro d'Italia almost always finishes in Milan. But this year our city has lost out somewhat. None of the stages have even come close to here. I think the nearest it came, was last Wedensday's stage when it started from Caravaggio, not far from Bergamo. Hey ho! Maybe next year.


So, I'm off to Brescia, and from what I saw a couple of weeks ago when I was there, the folks are looking forward to the arrival of the riders who have spent the last 3 weeks riding the snowiest, rainiest race in the most beautiful place in the world under a shroud of cloud and mist!
At least the sun is shining today!
So, what do I know about Brescia? Not loads, but here are a few facts for starters - some of them are care of the Giro d'Italia website, and others I gathered from my wanderings:

It is about 100km from Milan and 70km from Verona. It's population is 194,000, making it the second largest town in the Province of Lombardy (after Milan). The town centre (centro storico) is very old and pretty, with the main area being around Piazza Loggia. Nearby are two noteworthy cathedrals - an old one, and a new one. There's also the ancient Monastero di San Salvatore known as Santa Giulia, which houses a Roman museum. This was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When I was there a few weeks ago the proprietor of my bed and breakfast made a point of recommending this place. Oh, and one of the darlings of Italian football, Andrea Pirlo (Juventus player) hails from this fine town.

The Giro d'Italia has visited Brescia on 15 previous occasions - the first time was in 1983 when it hosted the start, and stage 13 finished there. The last time was in 2010 when Andre Greipel won there. Let's hope Mark Cavendish can do something there today.

And the biking for us ordinary folks? I wouldn't bother trying to replicate today's stage as it's nothing to write home about - though a trip around Lake Garda wouldn't be so bad if you could avoid the tourist traffic. And while racing seven times around Brescia town centre makes for something exhilarating and interesting to watch when the Giro is in town, if it is just you and some mates it could be somewhat exasperating for you, and annoying for busy shoppers and tourists!  There are better places to ride around nearby.

For instance, there is a network of cycle paths around the town which allow for family rides to nearby parks. Then, from the centre of Brescia, behind the Castello is the via Panoramica. It is a 10km climb to Monte Maddalena. You get great views of Brescia as you go up, and further up the climb you can also see across to the hills near Bergamo. That's quite a popular climb for the locals. Once at the top there are a couple of cafes. On the day I rode up this, some people were twiddling up it on hybrid bikes, while club cyclists were racing up it cronoscalata style.

If you are on a mountain bike you can easily ride down the other side to arrive in the suburb of Nave. I was on a road bike, and rode down the other side anyway. It was doable, but I must say the road is in very poor condition with loads of potholes, gravel, and in places, barely any tarmac at all. With decent tyres and a very moderated speed you shouldn't get too many problems - it's just a bit tedious. I saw one other person coming down on a road bike. I even saw a brave soul riding up this 12km stretch! Everyone else was on mountain bikes though, and it seemed that roadies would ride up it and then ride back down the way they came up. Still, it's a good work-out.

After that, there is an easy climb heading north east, up to Odolo from Nave, Colle di Sant'Eusebio. The gradient is steady and easy to pedal along.
In a north-westerly direction is the Passo Tre Termini. This is a little tougher, with stretches above 10%. The beauty of this climb is you are very close to one of the nearby Italian lakes, the Lago d'Iseo. When you are above you get a nice view of the sigma shaped lake. If you have the energy you could do a pleasant ride around the lake, or even press on to Bergamo. If you don't, well there are plenty of cafes in Iseo and nearby Sarnico.
A cycle event, Gran Fondo Valli Bresciane is held in the area, and that runs over the main climbs in the area.

So, off I go in a hope that what I lose in the convenience of popping round the corner to the Giro, I gain in an exciting finale on the sunniest day of the toughest race in the most beautiful place in the world - Brescia!



Thursday, 16 May 2013

And Why Not Have Podium Girls?

The Peter Sagan bum-pinching prank on a podium girl at the Tour of Flanders opened the debate as to whether or not it was time to ditch this tradition of attractive girls handing out prizes and jerseys at bike races.
Many deem it at best as tired and outdated, at worst as sexist and degrading to women. As well as the Giro d'Italia organisers promoting their event as being the "toughest race in the World's most beautiful place" they even suffix this accolade by adding "....with the most beautiful girls. A promotional video boasts this fact. Furthermore the main sponsors of the Giro d'Italia organise a Miss Maglia Rosa beauty contest in which the winner becomes a podium girl as well as winning a cash prize, travel vouchers and a modelling contract. I guess the same people who are offended by podium girls will also find this rather offensive.

 
But really, what is so wrong with a lovely lady helping a handsome young man into his cycling jersey, handing him a cuddly toy and giving him a peck on the cheek at the end of his arduous 200km? If I were the bloke I'd feel honoured! And the girls doing the honours don't look like they are not enjoying it either!

Many years ago when I lived in Paris, in a fit of being swept along by the whole "I'm loving being in gay Paris" vibe I went to sign up with a casting agency that specialised in providing models for various types of promotional work. There was a long line of women queuing up hoping to have their name added to the ever increasing list of women hoping to get their break on TV or in some other high profile place. The young women were desperate to get bookings anywhere - whether it was washing powder, motorcar shows or cycle races. I wasn't selected, though I was relieved as I realised I didn't want to pursue this line - mainly because I couldn't guarantee my availability to do the work, and the pay was alot less than my day job.

Around 500 women will apply to a casting agency to become a Tour de France podium girl each year. Of these, fifty of them will be selected for interview. Of these 50, four will be selected to present the yellow jersey. Then pairs are selected to present the green jersey, polka dot jersey, and white jersey. There may be up to 10 vacancies, but you don't need to be Einstein to see that the odds of bagging such a job are very slim - slimmer than the podium girls themselves!

For an activity that is considered degrading there are alot of takers for this role. It appears that being a podium girl is a well sought-after gig!
Many woman would see this as a gold star to add to their modelling CV, and it could be a launch-pad to bigger and greater things - including becoming the wife of a high-profile bike racer!
Certainly the women who have become podium girls really enjoy it.

So why should folks be so outspoken about wanting to deprive women of what for them could be a very positive career move? Surely if the work is so terrible no one would do it? The Giro d'Italia organisers would still be crying out for women to get up on the dias at the end of each stage of the competition.
 
At a stage cyclosportive I rode in Italy a few years ago the organisers invited women from the audience to hand out prizes to the male winners of the stage each day on a voluntary basis. On one of the stages I was asked to play this role. I was quite happy to be asked. In fact, I felt quite honoured to air kiss the likes of Emanuele Negrini and Max Lelli, who were renowned cycle racers at the time! I had been a competitor at the same event and I was interviewed about my sporting activities on the stage. People complimented me on my riding (though I was not in contention), and for me I was happy with that. I did not feel in any way that my talents as a cyclist were being overlooked and I was just seen as a "podium girl." 

I applaud the work of women's groups and others that campaign for women's rights and campaign against sexism, as well as equal pay. But who should be the moral judge on having or not having podium girls?

Why should certain folks decide that this is sexist? Some women are blessed with good looks and long legs and they would like to flaunt that, and they don't want some "do-gooders" to decide that what they are doing should be abolished. It's hardly as if being a podium girl were the equivalent of being sucked into an exploitative prostitution ring, or as if the podium girls are showing off their breasts when on the stage!
 
Surely there are double moral standards going on when women's equality groups who claim they are trying to outlaw sexism are at the same time depriving women of their right to freedom of expression. These women would like modelling to be seen as a legitimate career path which, according to them does require hard work and training.

Podium girl activites are no worse than the models who hang around the stands during Formula 1 practice, cheerleaders at American football, or even the Pirelli calendar models. I haven't heard calls to ban those activities!
In fact, why not ban all instances where a beautiful woman is included in a promotional/marketing campaign!

I think there is something a bit simple and outdated about podium girls, in the same vein as bingo halls, fondu parties, women watching the Chippendales and Miss World beauty contests. There are plenty of folks who like those things but they don't have to be outlawed because I and a number of others don't find them to my taste. Just live and let live. Let these aspiring models get on with enjoying their moment during the podium protocol after a cycle race. It's hardly sitting on Hugh Hefner's lap - which would be a different story!

I think that we will have made a real step when a beautiful woman can show off her looks without it attracting comment or criticism -  and she can be judged on the basis of her intelligence and character attributes, not simply because she is pretty.




Wednesday, 8 May 2013

My own private cronoscalata - Mori to La Polsa!

On a recent trip to Lake Garda I decided to try out what is effectively stage 18 of this year's Giro d'Italia. I picked up the cycle path from Riva del Garda, where I was staying and followed the signs for Rovereto. After around 10km I arrived in a small town called Mori. From there it was an uphill ride to the mini ski resort of La Polsa.


I had been quite apprehensive about taking on this challenge since I had no idea what the route would be like, and from my knowledge of the Giro d'Italia, organisers make the hill climb stages, or cronoscalata pretty tough. I still remember how riders had to use a 34 x 29 gearing in order to ride up the 25% Plan di Corones on a wet day a few years ago.

The area in the immediate vicinity did not appear to have any serious hills, however the upper sections of the climb are only just in the shadow of Monte Baldo - the main mountain range in that area. So this climb would certainly be challenging towards the end.

So off I went up the numerous hairpins. This was all very straightforward with unchallenging gradients and parts of the climb went through the trees so on a warm day it would be nice and shady. As I rose further and further up the mountain the town of Mori became smaller and smaller. Eventually, after 9km I reached the town of Brentonico which had more life going on than I would find for the whole 20km - which wasn't that much at all. I imagine that there'll be alot of crowds here on the day, of the race given the number of cafes and hotels, but on the day I rode up the place was quite deserted.

It was nice to get a little respite on my arrival at Brentonico, for in this town the road levelled off and then dropped downhill quite steeply for around half a mile. Some climbing specialists might feel a little short-changed finding some downhill during a hillclimb, but I wasn't complaining!

Once out of Brentonico the road began to climb gradually again, and after 5km I reached the village of Prada. If I were spectating this event, I would hang out here. It's not a very big place, but there are a few shops and bars. There is also a great view back across the valley where it would be possible to see the riders snaking their way up the road way in the distance. There are also some areas where you can sit in the woods and enjoy a picnic. Even though it was nice and sunny on this Sunday afternoon, the temperature was a little bit too cold for a picnic though. So I pushed on.

Once past Prada, the proper work began. The narrow road rounded a corner and the gradients became steeper, as Brentonico was well and truly left behind and my views were now of the mountains near Monte Baldo.

As I rode up the climb I felt myself become more tired as my breathing became more laboured, and the air became crisper as I scaled past the 1000m altitude mark. There were more and more switchbacks, there was a greater abundance of fir trees, and the carpet of snow showed no sign of going away any time soon. It was a pretty desolate road. Once at the summit I was glad to see a little life at Polsa - even if it was just a handful of sledgers!

Overall, the climb had not been so tough. I have had worse experiences on hills in the south of England! It was a nice and steady climb, with pleasant views of pastures at the bottom and an alpine resort at the top - nothing horrendously challenging, but nothing spectacular to look at, like what you might find in the Dolomites proper either.

One memorable thing did happen though - as I was riding up I saw a BMC car riding down the hill, with a certain Cadel Evans zooming down to Polsa. I smiled and said "Ciao" to him and he managed a quick wave back as he negotiated a hairpin. Surely he should have been the one going up the hill?? Well, I can only imagine he was finishing off for the day after having done a few reps of this road earlier in the morning! I'll let him off!

My planned onwards itinerary had been to drop down the other side of the hill towards San Valentino and San Giacomo and then rejoin a the high road back to Desenzano del Garda (possibly with a stopover for some Bardolino)!
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. I'd been struggling to find the road back to San Valentino. According to my map I should have been able to ride through the resort to continue my journey, however I appeared to be in a cul-de-sac. On asking a local for directions he said, "You want to go to San Valentino? That's the road over there!" And he pointed to a ski track through the snow! Err, that wasn't going to be an option for me on my road bike! My plan B and plan C alternatives were also dead in the water (or rather in the snow) for they also made up part of the network of pistes for La Polsa ski resort! I hadn't expected to see quite so much snow on the roads in mid April. Hopefully that snow will be gone by May or the team cars will need snow ploughs on the front!

So I resorted to plan L - lunch in Rovereto, but not before enjoying the long descent back to Mori. I wasn't complaining about that! 

This climb, like all climbs in the Giro will be interesting to watch. The fact that it is a time trial means lots of time to see lots of riders grinding up the road, as opposed to seeing 200 riders zoom by very quickly. Even if this cronoscalata is no Plan di Corones or Alpe d'Huez it will still make for an exciting scenario by that stage of the competition when the likes of Signori Nibali, Evans Uran Uran and Co battle for vital seconds so close to the end of the Giro d'Italia. 

Out of interest, I timed myself. Including stops for taking photos, eating, fettling my bike and general faffing, the ride up with a rucksack, took me 2 hours and 20 minutes. Most people will do this quicker than me, as I am the queen of faff and fettle, much to the irritation of my ride partners! Anyway, this snail pace will be no comparison to the 40mins or so that the pros will take! That's why they will be riding up the hill on 23rd May and I will be putting my feet up and watching!

Saturday, 4 May 2013

And the April Yellow Jersey goes to.....

Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven














She's not exactly a cyclist, even if her Employment Minister famously said in 1984 that the jobless population should "get on your bike and find a job". The story goes that when Margaret Thatcher ran into financial difficulties at Oxford University some of her upper class friends had a whip-round and raised money towards the purchase of a bicycle.

I am not sure how much Margaret rode her bicycle in the end. She was always keen to show her femininity and wouldn't engage in anything that would make her appear "less ladylike". (She was reportedly never seen without a handbag, and she didn't possess a single pair of trousers.) So the idea of riding a bicycle didn't come naturally to her. Mrs T was conservative with a small c as well as with a big C!

But that's not the reason why she gets this month's yellow jersey. Like her or loathe her Margaret Hilda Roberts has had an enormous impact on British politics and British society in a way that no other prime minister since Clement Atlee (1945-1951) has had.

She infamously destroyed the trade unions, and the closure of numerous coal mines under her watch had a negative impact on various communities, largely in the North of England and Wales. The Scottish have never forgiven her for introducing the Community Charge (aka Poll Tax) north of the border ahead of everywhere else in Britain. And don't even get the people of the Emerald Isle started on her influence on Anglo-Irish relations. Margaret Thatcher died a few weeks ago, 23 years after leaving office, but many people have never forgiven her for her policies against them and their own.

However, some of Thatcher's policies inspired a generation. One of my favourite groups when I was growing up was Soul II Soul. By lead singer Jazzy B's admission the birth of his group was assisted by the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by the Thatcher governnment during the 1980s. This scheme also gave financial help to a number of Britain's most popular comedians, "Britart" artists, recording studios and musicians that pass themselves off as staunchly left wing.

On the day Margaret Thatcher's death was announced four weeks ago people gave a variety of reactions. Mayor of London, Boris Johnson paid tribute by saying that "This country is deeply in her debt. Her memory will live long after the world has forgotten the grey suits of today's politics." At the same time in Brixton, South London an impromptu party was held to celebrate her passing. Thatcher certainly did not leave people feeling neutral about her!

For me, Thatcherism meant the chance to move up in the world - the chance to own your own home and, if you wanted, open your own business or be creative. It instilled into people a "can-do" attitude. Furthermore,  many say that Thatcherism formed the blueprint to the Labour Party that we have today!

How well all her policies really worked is debatable. There were some policies that I did not like at all, for instance her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and her lack of interest or investment in sport. However, the pure principle of effecting a much needed change to the economical and political landscape in the UK, is in my opinion, commendable. That is why Maggie gets the yellow jersey for this month.   

Thursday, 2 May 2013

My moment of the week - 7

The end of two eras


In the last couple of weeks two giants of cycling have announced their retirement from professional competition. On April 18th Britain's greatest olympian cyclist, Sir Chris Hoy announced that he was quitting racing. This was then followed by Italian super-sprinter, Alessandro Petacchi who, on April 20th announced he'd be hanging up his bike for the time being.

I hope it's not something in the water! There are some commonalities between the two athletes though.

In a way, it is probably no coincidence that these guys are ending their professional careers. At 37 years of age, Sir Chris Hoy did not feel that he could be on top of his game for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year.

Ale-jet had started his 2013 campaign with solid performances at the Spring classics, including Paris-Roubaix, but he too realised that at almost 40 years old he could not hold his own against other sprinters. It is also a shame for Petacchi, as it would have been great to see him illustrate his "gentlemanly" brand of sprinting to win at the Giro d'Italia this weekend.

Both of these cycle racers have had hugely successful careers, and are both seen as national treasures in their respective countries.

They are both polite in their behaviour, to the point of being a bit too "goody two shoes" and not very "rock'n'roll". Hoy is very placid and straight-laced in his appearance compared with other great British cycling champions and fellow track cyclists, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. The same can be said when Petacchi is compared to that other great Italian sprinting champion, Mario Cipollini.

There are couple of subtle differences between Sir Chris and Ale-jet though. While both of them are very correct in their behaviour, Petacchi has served a competition suspension for overuse of the asthma drug, Salbutamol. Hoy has never tested positive for any banned substance.

Also, while Chris Hoy leaves behind a few sprinting heirs at the velodrome, notably in the shape of Jason Kenny, the sprinter from La Spezia doesn't seem to have any obvious stallion to succeed him from the Italian stable. There must be a bit of headscratching going on in the Italian cycling federation as they search to identify a strong contender who can produce consistently impressive results.

I guess this also leaves a convenient space for Petacchi to step in as a mentor or an ambassador for a future generation - something which Sir Chris has already sounded out as an activity he will be engaging in over the coming months. We may even also see a range of Petacchi bicycles, rather like we have seen with Hoy and other retired professional cycle racers.

All that sounds great, and positive. I just hope the guys don't go down that well worn path to image denigration by appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, Celebrity Big Brother, or some other trite "celebrity" reality show!

Thanks for your contributions to sport, guys. All the best for the future!


Friday, 26 April 2013

The slippery cycling slope? Answers on a postcard please!

I must admit that in the last year I have noticed a decline in my fitness. I know that since I have been in Milan I have not been able to ride as much as I did when I was in London. I knew that I would be a bit slower in cycle races, but I have come to realise I am just not the cyclist I used to be.

How unfit and slow I am was confirmed last weekend when I took part in a cyclosportive. It was a 100km race which included around 1600m of climbing. I finished dead last, in a time of 6 hours 10 mins. That's barely 10 miles an hour (including short stoppages for various reasons)! The rider who came second last at this race finished more than an hour ahead of me. Practically all the riders who did the longer route - 140km finished before me.
When I finished I was tired, fed up and ready to stop. I had found te hills hard work, and at one point I had had to climb off my bike for a breather.

I guess my current living situation has not helped. Back in London before coming to Italy many people, myself included, thought it would be great to live in Italy and do lots of quality cycle training and racing. I had taken part in cyclosportives on trips to Italy, enjoyed the nice weather, the friendly atmosphere and I'd even given decent performances on the bike. I had therefore thought that a season here would be great for my cycling and my performance would improve.

I am now in Milan, and have ben here for a little over a year. Living the cycling dream? Not really!

Firstly, Milan is in a plain. Any quality cycling to be done involves travelling about 30 miles out of the city to find a training loop that includes any semblance of a hill. Not having a car, I am reliant on trains so in the morning it can be quite stressful making sure I get on such and such a train to Como or Erba, knowing that if I miss one train I have to wait an hour for the next one. Once I get on the train it is a one-hour journey. Monza is a little easier to get to, but it still involves a train journey and therefore an hour's lead time from home before I begin a training ride. And of course I also need an hour to 90minutes to get home once I finish my ride.

Then to compound matters is the weather. Because I know that I will have to sit on a train for around 90minutes  after a bike ride, I get uptight about being caught in the  rain during a ride. For about haf the year rainfall here is frequent, relentless and torrential. With no facilities for changing into dry clothes and the prospect of sitting cold and drenched on a train means that a standard training ride becomes a logistical operation if I wish to tempt my fate at all!

This is all in stark contrast to the days in London where I could just pick up my bike, set off from the house and start my training ride right from my doorstep. Even being caught in the rain is not so bad when on roads local to where you live and you can just ride home and get into a hot bath as soon as you stop riding.

I have always commuted to work by bicycle, and that has been a kind of bread-and-butter training during the week. When I was in London my commute would be 10 miles (16km) each way with a steep hill to ride up and a fast training stretch through Hyde Park. Sometimes I could even do sprint reps at lunchtime around St James's Park. So by the time the weekend came I would have done around 80miles of cycling without even thinking about it. In Milan my commute to work is 3 miles each way on a folding bike through the flat city streets and canal path. There's no chance of doing any training reps as I cycle in my work clothes and there are no showers at the offices where I work. Also, there is no secure area to leave bikes, so riding to work on my road (racing bike) is out of the question. [I have already had one racing bike stolen from me in Milan. I would rather not lose another!!]
Basically I cannot rely on commuting miles to help my cycle training.
Group training rides in Milan start at around 6pm, so no chance of joining those groups since I often leave work around 7pm. In any case I wouldn't be able to keep up!

In a nutshell I can't get in any decent training miles on the road before the weekend, so I rely on my rollers. And given the frequent rainfall we get in Milan it is not often that I even manage to ride on both days of the weekend.

There is no nearby velodrome like what I had at Herne Hill, and don't even think about off-road trails, unless you are happy to ride up and down a short slope at Monte Stella (the only hill in Milan) at least 40 times to get in a decent off-road training ride!

I'm sure that there are parts of Italy where life is good on a bike. But I don't think Milan is the place to be. It is not surpring that I am nowhere near as fit as I used to be back in London.

When I get out to ride local routes I find that by the time I have added in stoppage time to consult maps and find my way, eat, go to the toilet, take on and off clothes etc. I end up averaging 10 miles (16km) an hour. That's hardly breakneck pace. I understand that constantly stopping will impact on my pace, but I like to think that in a competitive situation I will be quicker because I will be in a group and I won't be stopping.

However, my p1ss poor result from Sunday shows that there is a big problem with my cycling. I am just far too slow, and I don't know what to do stop the decline. When I think about what I have ridden in the past - La Marmotte three times, the Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, stage cyclosportives, multi-day cycle touring in the mountains and a number of Italian Gran Fondo events, I find it hard to believe that these were done by me. It must have been someone else!! I feel like a completely different person! Where previously I didn't think twice about riding 70 miles (110km), nowadays the idea of riding more than 80km feels like such challenge.

Parts of me think that it may be my age. I am over 40, so probably not as sprightly as I used to be. But then again, I know of many people my age and even older who can still knock spots off 30 year-olds with their performances! Maybe there's something wrong with me - anaemia or the onset of chronic fatigue. Or maybe doing this activity is just not in my genes. Who knows?

The worst thing is that I am on a slippery slope and don't know how to stop the rot. I joined a cycling club and was looking forward to taking part in races with my team mates, but now I am very reluctant to ride with them. Firstly, most of the rides take place at 9am outside of Milan so it is a stress to get an early train just to get to these places in time. And then when I get there I become anxious about holding everyone up with my snail pace.

Frankly, I'd rather keep my embarrassingly slow performances to myself away from the full glare of everyone else, and ride on my own. Of course this is not going to help my cause as my legs will only know this 10mph (16kph) pace and nothing else. But I really don't know what to do in order to improve my performance, especially now that I have a mental block on getting out and riding competitively. Maybe it's time to retire from this competitive cycling lark.....

If anyone has any ideas I'd be very interested to hear them. Answers on a postcard (as they used to say in the 1980s!)

 





Thursday, 25 April 2013

Escape to a Beautiful City (well, Florence actually!)

These days the weather in Milan is quite grim and unpredictable. One day the sun shines but then for the following 3 days it rains practically non-stop. While I don't mind riding in a bit of rain it begins to get frustrating when you get drenched for hours while apparently "doing your favourite outdoor activity!"

Feeling a little tired of the wet stuff and the greyness in Milan I made a snap decision to travel to the nearest place I could get to and back in a day at reasonable cost and where the sun would be shining. The answer was Florence.

So, at the crack of dawn I jumped on a Freccia high-speed train* to see Giotto's bell tower. By 9.30am I was pedalling through the old narrow streets of the "city of lillies". Already, just being in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy made me feel good. Not only had the sun come out but the temperature was also a good deal warmer than in Milan. I also realised quite quickly that Milan is not Florence! The well-kept streets were bordered by beautiful architecture and neat shutters characteristic of the local area. There was also a distinct lack of graffitti on the walls and dog poo in the streets. Furthermore the Florentine air was clearer and the sunlight was brighter than the usual haziness experienced in Milan.
Don't get me wrong - Milan is nice, but Florence is delightful!
By 10am I was coasting along the strada provinciale in the sun heading for the Tuscany hills. My route was a small loop that went east to Pontassieve and then around the hills and woodland of the Vallombrosa area, and then back to Florence while taking in a northern detour via Fiesole. I was looking forward to riding this route as I found out that parts of it would coincide with stage 9 of this year's Giro d'Italia (San Sepolcro-Firenze).

My intention was not to specifically ride the exact route. For me, just getting a feel for the area and experiencing a few of the local hills on this sunny day would be good enough. From Florence to Pontassieve the road was flat and fast, and provided a good warm-up. Once past the interchange at Pontassieve East the roads become quieter, narrower and started going upwards.

My work began by tackling the long climb from Pontassieve to the summit at Passo della Consuma. For me that meant more than an hour and a half of riding uphill, with just mountains, vineyards and crickets for company! I didn't see many cyclists riding up in the same direction as me. Either they were so much slower than me and much further back down the mountain, or they were alot faster than me and had left me for dust. It was probably the latter! However, I saw so many cyclists coming down in the opposite direction that this led me to believe that people had chosen to experience the climb to La Consuma in the same direction that the pros will on May 12th. Also the way that cyclists were cheering me as I ground up the hill, and they sped down the hill suggested that they may have been impressed that I was riding up to La Consuma via the harder side. I definitely had my work cut out for me!

The distance from Pontassieve to the summit was around 10 miles with a climb of around 7% in gradient. In practice the first 7 miles were harder than 7% and it was only in the last 3 miles that the false flat gave me any respite. The terrain was initially quite open with various cute guest houses and farms producing local items like olive oil and wine. Then further up, the scenery became a little more dramatic with higher mountains coming into view. The snow on the roads made me think I was travelling to another country. In fact the summit of La Consuma was no longer in the province of Florence, but in Arezzo. Despite the presence of snow, the place still felt springlike in the March sunshine.

Near the top of the climb was the right hand turn to Vallombrosa, but I chose to pass this turning and continue to the Passo in order to admire the beautiful views of the Tuscany hills. I must say the summit itself was not anything special. It was just like alot of other summits really - a mountain top with a sign covered in stickers from a multitude of cycling clubs, a car park and a cafe nearby. I guess it's only really when all the excitement of the spectators, the media, the promotional caravan and of course the peloton comes through that the place comes alive. I imagine this place will become something special on May 12th.  

Next I took the descent through the most beautiful part of the route, the Vallombrosa region. This ancient forested area with lots of beech trees and fir trees interspersed with mini rivers and streams was like a cyclist's dream with roads that constantly rolled gently downhill. These descending roads meant there was no need to pedal, and the slight slopes meant braking and cornering were easy enough so I was able to admire the spectacular woodland and rock formations around me. On a summer's day this would really be a lovely place to stop for a picnic. Vallombrosa village itself is very small but quaint. Its abbey and museum provide an attraction for quite a lot of visitors judging by the number of people stopping there. The main square is also big enough to welcome lots of spectators on the big day as the riders (hopefully) do a circuit around it before zooming onwards.

For the time being, my work on riding uphill was done as I continued to drop right down into the valley at Pontassieve while passing lots of pretty villages with various artisanal woodworking and furniture shops. On approaching Pontassieve the roads became a little bit busier and it was obvious that this was a big crossroads area for people going to different parts of Tuscany.
At this point, I was tantalisingly close to Florence and it was very tempting to take the 10-mile main road back to beautiful Firenze and get a gelato in the main square. But I quite fancied heading up to Fiesole of "A Room with a View" fame!

I therefore took a right hand turn through Compiobbi and asked a woman how far I was from Fiesole. "I'm not sure, she said - about 8km, but it will be all uphill. I hope you are ready!" I had to be. The first 2 miles were very tough and I had to grind hard out of the saddle. There were a few American tourists walking down through the nearby woodland area and they egged me on as I struggled my way up. Soon the road levelled off as I arrived at Montebeni. Thank God! This was probably the hardest climb of the day. It is not actually on the Giro d'Italia route. The stage 9 route would have been a road slightly to the east of where I was, but probably equally steep since it was in the same valley. I just hope the racers will enjoy the views!

After Ontignano the road became a false flat, and all along the way, my view to the left consisted of a beautiful panorama of the city of Florence below.
Eventually the road dropped down and I arrived in Fiesole. The last time I was in this place had been roughly 10 years ago. I remember it being a very quiet, peaceful village. It is a shame that the place has since fallen into the arms of a tourist trap and nowadays the square is littered with a stream of coaches dropping off and picking up tourists from all over the world. Still, the views of the Duomo of Florence and the surrounding churches and monuments had not changed at all. When I was last in Fiesole I went up by bus. Today, I could zoom down the switchbacks on my bike and really sense the smells, the sights and the sounds of the area as well as enjoy the process of Florence gradually revealing itself and delivering me all its splendour once I arrived in this majestic city.

Finally arriving in the main piazza in front of the Duomo just as the sun was setting, I was able to enjoy my well-deserved ice cream while watching folks taking their passeggiatta.
Alot of people who cycle in Tuscany focus on the Chianti area and places near San Gimignano and Volterra, but I would definitely recommend a jaunt around the roads in the Province of Florence. And the beauty of routes around here is that you can start and end your ride from the heart of this amazing city.

The route I took can be found here.

*Bikes can be carried on Freccia high speed trains as long as they are in a bike bag and can be placed on a large luggage rack. Once I arrived in Florence I folded up my bike bag and put it in left luggage at the train station. Bikes can be carried on regional trains unwrapped, though you may need to buy a 24hour bike ticket.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Africans and Cycling - 2

In light of Gerald Ciolek's recent victory at the Milan-Sanremo bike race while riding for the African Team, MTN Qhubeka I thought I would revisit a subject which I previously wrote about - Africans and cycling.
Not only was Ciolek's first victory for an African professional cycling team (which only got into the Sanremo race on a wildcard), but the team actually included a black African racer, Songezo Jim. We have seen African racers like Chris Froome and Dan Craven participate in high profile professional events, but for once we saw the first ever participation of a black African guy in the Milan-Sanremo. He has documented his experience of participating in this year's epic edition of the event, which makes for quite interesting reading.
 
There have been black guys participate in other elite races on the UCI African Tour, and other races like the Tour of Rwanda and the Tour of Burkina Faso. At the London 2012 Olympics a number of racers from Eritrea, Morocco, Algeria and Rwanda also competed in cycle races.

It seems that cycling is no longer being seen as a form of transportation for the poor, as was traditionally the case. More Africans are choosing to ride a bicycle for pleasure rather than cycling out of necessity.

Cycling can be a way of overcoming adversity, as is the case for Rwandan cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti. After losing most of his family at the age of seven in an attack on his village during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Adrien found comfort in cycling. As a novice cyclist riding on an old steel bicycle through the Rwandan hills this gave Adrien a sense of freedom and a new focus.

Thanks to events organised in Rwanda by mountain bike pioneers Jock Boyer and Tom Ritchey, Adrien Niyonshuti took up off-road cycling more seriously and joined Team Rwanda which was set up and coached by the two Americans. The full story can now be seen in a new film, Rising From the Ashes, which shows the story behind team Rwanda and how cycling has given hope to the Rwandan genocide victims, including Adrien, who competed in the London 2012 Olympics.

There have been different schemes to encourage cycling in Africa such as the Bikes 4 Africa scheme. Indeed, Team MTN Qhubeka race to raise the profile of children in African communities and donate bicycles to disadvantaged young people in South Africa who would like to take up cycling.

Where cycling was previously seen as something only done by certain classes in society, nowadays different types of people in Africa embracing this two-wheeled pleasure.

As with many countries across the developed world, cycling is a great leveller. Two South African photographers and cycling aficionados Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler, recently published a book entitled Bicycle Portraits, containing various photos that can be viewed on line. The book features ordinary people of all shapes, sizes and races who are bonded by the fact that they travel around by bicycle. (More on their project in this article.)

I for one, was very pleased to see the participation of Songezo Jim at the Milan-San Remo race this year. I hope that in time we will get to see more black Africans in World Tour professional races. Who knows, this could then lead to an African equivalent of the "Wiggo" effect (like what we saw in the UK after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France).
It seems cycling could be about to have a new image in Africa. I look forward to the time when cycling will firmly be seen as a "like to do" activity rather than a "will have to do" activity.