How do I begin a post after what, two months? I don’t want to subject anyone to a series of excuses and reasons why there have been no updates. Quite simply life has gotten in the way. And I’m a lazy bastard. You put those two things together and you have weeks and weeks with no writing. Not that I haven’t thought about it! I’ve written some impressive stuff in my head. I wonder if other people who write blogs go through this, they must. So what have I been doing if I haven’t been writing?

Well, guiding a bit, thank God. Though that has only taken a small part of my time. Lots of riding however, which means my spirits are good. The Giro d’Italia was a major distraction, a daily ritual which I was unable to disengage myself from.

Spring Time in the Maremma

Spring Time in the Maremma

Many of my cycling friends are just as enamored as I am of pro racing, others have no time for it what so ever. Maybe because I live in Italy, have been a part of it from the inside to an extent or have simply been in love with it for decades. Fact is I can’t give it up for all its faults. And this year’s Giro was a good one in many ways. With the final week being over the top in terms of challenges; weather, terrain and hard racing .

The biggest part of my time however is taken up by my main gig, the one where excuses don’t wash and no one even wants to hear them. House Man. That’s right my friends, I answer to two people and one dog who are accustomed to a certain level of care. Two meals a day, fresh home made sourdough bread, a clean house, ironed clothes (everyone irons everything in Italy, we don’t use dryers here. I would be considered only a very average housewife though because I don’t iron sheets) and a well stocked larder. Fresh veggies daily, fruit too, in season only please. All of that takes time, especially cooking and food shopping, both big deals here. A real food shop entails at least three or four different shops, green grocers or more typically, the grower him/herself. The butcher, the baker (for those who don’t make bread), the cheese and salami shop and finally the supermarket. I’m in the business of taking care of people, both on the bike and off the bike.

Fresh bread, three times a week.

Fresh bread, three times a week.

Some of you who have had the patience and go back far enough with this blog might recall a post about some old riding buddies that I wrote last year. I called them the pain brothers. Their names are Jeff, Andy and Rick. The fourth brother Eric was unable to attend this year as his company had posted him across the country from Colorado to Indiana. Apparently in the midst of a major move, wife, kids, household, new schools etc. it was deemed unwise to follow through on a ten day cycling vacation to Italy with the boys. I can see how that might be a bad move marriage wise. Next year he’ll be back. In years past I’ve always had my ass kicked by these guys, not intentionally mind you, it just happens on long rides with maniacs intent on inflicting as much pain as possible. On themselves first and foremost, those around them by mere proximity. Like second hand smoke. But this year I was either lucky or fit or a bit of both. Or maybe they’re aging!

The Pain Bros and me in Suvereto

The Pain Bros and me in Suvereto

Notice from the photo how we are dressed so differently, they’re freezing but they like it, all part of the pain package. I’m in a vest and arm warmers and I’m wearing a wool jersey under the vest and I’m just right.

Anyway, I was saying, I was either lucky or fit this year because I did two rides with them and not only held my own, I felt good! In years past I was groveling on their wheels praying for a flat tire just so we could stop for a few minutes. Not this year. Granted, the first ride together came on day three for them, so they probably already had over 450 km in their legs. Plus they were fully loaded (with seat-post mounted luggage) as they were riding from Castagneto Carducci to Monte Amiata and the hotel “Le Macinaie” at 1400 meters. A trip of 160 km at least. This was a four day outing, hence the luggage. I met them in Suvereto and road half way with them before turning around to ride home….with, can you believe it, a TAIL WIND. Porca Puttana! I had a tail-wind for 75 km and was just hauling ass all the way home. Wondering the whole time which cycling Gods were pulling favors to make this happen. And how much was the pay-back going to be in the future. But hell, you only receive those kinds of blessings once a decade, why not enjoy it? I did.

However that meant that those poor boys had a massive head-wind all the way to the foot of the punishing 9 km climb up to the hotel. They then spent three days there riding themselves into a stupor, down and then back up each ride to Le Macinaie, a truly punishing climb from any of the three or four possible routes up. Wanting to add an additional ration of hardship to the vacation, on the fourth day away from Home (Hotel Zi Martino’s in Castagneto) they loaded everything back onto their bikes and returned north. Somehow the tail-wind that had pushed me back to Campiglia the previous Sunday, blowing south to north, was a sustained north-south that day making it that much harder

On our first Pain Bros. ride  this spring. Notice the Masi,  been using that a lot this year.

On our first Pain Bros. ride this spring. Notice the Masi, been using that a lot this year.

. So that when we rode together the following day they were toasted, like coffee beans, dark and crunchy. They were putty in my hands, I could almost hear their legs moaning each time the road angled upward. For all that however they were still plucky, no complaining at all, ready for anything, game for climbs galore and kilometers. But they weren’t on the gas the whole time, that was the big difference. Which made it totally pleasant for me. Though I sort of missed the pain factor. I’ll have to ask them to dole it out more carefully next year, leaving just enough for a taste on our rides together.

One of my most faithful readers and long time friend, Kevin Flaherty of California, seems to enjoy my rants. Because he never fails to provoke me when he mentions Filippo Pozzato of the Lampre-Merida team. Any of you who follows professional cycle racing knows of or has heard of Pozzato, called Pippo, a diminutive of Filippo. He turned professional with Mapei team back in 2000 as little more than a junior, he may have been 18 years old, he certainly wasn’t any older. Mapei was a cutting edge team at the time and had a collection of some of the best minds in cycling in terms of staff and they brought him along slowly and steadily, careful not to let his flame burn too brightly too soon. His crystalline talent was evident for all to see, he truly was a pre-destined champion and it was with great expectation that Italian journalists and fans waited for his star to shine. And waited and waited some more. Not that results weren’t forthcoming, they were. For example:
2002- 3 stages at the Tour de Normandie plus 2 stages at the Tour de l’Avenir.
2003- Trofeo Laiguelia (Italian semi-classic) plus Giro dell’Etna plus a stage and over all G.C. at the Tirreno-Adriatico
2004- Laigueglia plus a stage at the Tour de France
2005- HEW CyClassics plus Giro del Lazio (Italian semi-classic)
2006- Milano-San Remo YES! A monument win, that lit the fuse to even greater expectations. Plus one stage at the Tour of Britain
2007- Tour de Haut Var, plus Om Loop Het Volk, plus a stage at the Tour de France, plus Trofeo Matteotti (Italian semi-classic) G.P. Commercio di Prato
2008- a stage at the Vuelta di Spagna
2009- E3 Prijs Vlaanderen plus a stage at Three Days de La Panne, plus Coppa Placci, plus Italian National Road Race
2010-Herald Sun Tour, plus 4th at the World’s Road Race in Melbourne
2011- not much
2012- not much…well there was 2nd place at the Ronde. More on that below.
2013- Laigueglia, plus G.P: de Quest France

Here he is, as pretty as can be.

Here he is, as pretty as can be.

Obviously he has an impressive palmares. But as someone who has watched him race his entire career and followed his results I think it’s safe to say that he has not lived up to the enormous expectations that have continued to dog him. He has partially himself to blame and by that I mean his approach to the press, he is perhaps too forthcoming. He talks a bit too much before the race about where he’ll attack, how good he feels and then afterward when it’s come to naught, he’ll have ready excuses for why he didn’t perform. He could have used a press coach even more than he needed Professor Ferrari, again a little did-bit that came out in an interview and which resulted in a three month ban which he served during the winter a few years ago. Not for testing positive mind you, but for frequenting Ferrari who is an official persona non grata.

Now that he’s slipping into the twilight of his career the expectations have dwindled to a flicker, he’s barely touted by the Italian press anymore, forget the rest of Europe. Though he’s still good for a colorful quote. I’ll include below the rant that must have brought a smile to Kevin’s face from an email to him of a day or so ago. The episode that most sticks in my mind and sums up Pozzato’s approach to racing is his 2nd place at the 2012 Ronde Van Vlaanderen behind Tom Boonen. He willingly tossed a chance to win a second monument Classic after his 2006 Milano San Remo victory, eager it almost seemed, to finish behind Boonen but in front of the other break-away companion, Alessandro Ballan. Who, by the way, has won the Ronde himself. The rant below:

I know you are only trying to get a rise out of me mentioning that pretty boy Pozzato. I wish I could figure out why teams are still willing to pay him money to wear their kit and ride their bikes. I mean, he doesn’t do any work for the riders who could actually attempt to win and he clearly can’t win himself. Is it because he’s so cute? Is there a big enough female TV audience to warrant that type of investment? It gives one pause. At least time for him is running out. It won’t be long before we’ll have listened to the last of his sorry ass excuses. Was more talent ever so wasted on a bicycle? He’ll go down in sports history as the one of the greatest could-have-beens of all time. And earned (?) a boat load of money in the process.

That shameless showing in the Ronde of two years ago said it all; in the winning break with Boonen and Ballan (who is a neighbor, training partner and friend of his!) all he could do, his highest expression of cycling savvy in one of the calendar’s biggest races, was to sit on the wheels and do nothing. Content with second place. Ballan attacked at least four times in the final kilometers, Pippo bless his loser’s soul, didn’t counter one time. He let Boonen do it, hoping in his stingy soulless way that it might be enough. But he knew it wouldn’t be, he settled for second, was happy with it even. Rather than do what any weekend warrior would have done, counter attack. Two Italians, two Venetians, buddies, they could have worked over Boonen until he popped. Ballan deserved to win, hell, Boonen REALLY deserved to win. Thank God Pozzato didn’t because they would have had to arrest him for grand theft at the finish line!

There, you succeeded! That almost qualifies as a Rant. I’ll be cheering for the best man to win on Sunday, safe in the knowledge that any one of a dozen guys could pull it off. That Pozzato however won’t be among those riders. If he even gets to the finish line, if he’s on a great day, he might finish in the top 50.

Wanna bet?

Dear readers and fellow cyclists, I hope this finds you all well. Funny how time flows so quickly between posts, it seems like only yesterday that I put up the last one. Alas, it was three weeks ago. Since then I’ve been to the Tirreno/Adricatico, seen my daughter turn 16, witnessed the arrival of Spring and had some decent bike rides. Actually it was even longer seeing as how I wrote this draft several weeks ago and never finished it. Now we’re deep into the core of the Spring Classics, tomorrow is the Ronde or Tour of Flanders and this piece is mainly about the Tirreno-Adriatico. But so be it.
This years Tirreno promised to be another hard fought race, just like last year’s, even though defending champion Vincenzo Nibali had opted to ride the Paris-Nice this time around. When Chris Froome was forced to back out of the Tirreno due to back issues Sky detoured Richie Porte to Italy in his place, pissing off mightily Christain Prudhomme the organizer of Paris-Nice as well as other BIG races. He did sort of have a point, Porte was defending champion and being French, Prudhomme was not keen on seeing an Italian race gain an advantage. But that was the situation when the teams lined up in Donoratico for the stage 1 TTT. It’s almost too easy to see pro races in Italy, especially if you know the roads. Again I was with my buddies the La Mura brothers, Giovani and Roberto, the two marathoners. We parked our car in the lot of a petrol station just off the Via Aurelia and calmly walked the 40 meters to the over-pass and waited for the next team. Which just happened to be Orica-Greenedge and they were flying. Orica has a real rivalry with Omega Pharma and this was the first show down in a TTT for these two teams in 2014. Team Time Trials aren’t for everyone, in fact there were no other fans where we were, it almost felt as though this spectacle was taking place for our benefit. I think you need to be a student of the sport or at least very aware of nuance and detail, all in the space of a few seconds as they speed by you at 60 kph.

Stage 1 of the 2014 Tirreno-Adriatico on Via Aurelia

Stage 1 of the 2014 Tirreno-Adriatico on Via Aurelia

When you’re that close and there’s no crowd noise or the usual race caravan madness it’s possible to hear the riders shouting at one another, communicating, cheering or swearing for something amiss. The loudest noise is that of the time trial wheels that create such a hum. As they draw closer it seems as though they aren’t traveling all that fast but then as they go by in a WHOOSH the sense of speed is amazing. And they are all so close to one another, at least the good teams are. But at this level all of them are good, you can bet these guys have spent countless hours practicing this discipline over the winter at the team training camps. However three teams are noticeably faster, Orica, Omega and Moviestar. The latter team has emerged as somewhat of an authority in the TTT lately, turning in impressive performances wherever they race. Perhaps an asterisk is necessary for Moviestar though, one stating that they’re really astounding at the TTT….for a Spanish squad. In the end it was Omega by 11 secs over Orica with Moviestar in third just 18 secs. back. Cavendish was in the Blue leader’s jersey.
Trek is rolling at the '14 Tirreno TTT

Trek is rolling at the ’14 Tirreno TTT

It was interesting to watch where the strong riders were, noticing that Tony Marting, for example, led his team for the entire time we had them in sight, a long time indeed. In fact in the following day’s Gazzetta dello Sport Cavendish revealed that Martin led for at least half of the route. Or Cancellara, he moved to the front just as they came by us and his authority and poise was palpable. The rider who had just swung off was gritting his teeth to stay with team over the small rise of the highway fly-over, such was Cancellara’s speed.

All in all it was a good week of racing with some very challenging stages, especially considering how early it is in the season. It also signaled a return to the higher level of the pecking order by Alberto Contador who impressively won two stages along with the over all victory. It might also be worth noting the victory by Adriano Malori of the Moviestar team (he is one of their big engines in the TTT) in the final stage individual time trial, distancing Cancellara, Wiggins and Martin in that order.

Daria blowing out the candles on her birthday cake…sweet 16.

Daria blowing out the candles on her birthday cake…sweet 16.

For someone of Irish origin, having a child born on Saint Patrick’s day is a special honor. And having a daughter as Irish looking as Daria who celebrates her birthday on St. Pat’s, well it never fails to make me smile. We’ve been to Ireland twice since Daria was born and both times it was funny to watch the faces of the Irish people who treated and spoke to Daria as though she were a local child, only to learn she was Italian/American. And didn’t speak English! That last detail has changed, she now speaks English fluently and loves to speak it, such a change from the first 12 years or so of her life when it was sore point with her. Probably because she has an American father everyone just assumed we spoke English at home but that wasn’t the case. Any time it became clear that she didn’t readily speak English even total strangers would think nothing of chastising us. Every time that occurred the pressure would mount, until it became an issue.

It was when we went to the States for 15 days in the summer of 2010 that the situation changed, dramatically. Daria, being a voracious reader had packed along half a dozen Italian language books thinking that this would keep her in reading material for the duration. When she discovered 5 days in to the vacation that she’d finished everything she had with her she was a bit lost. My sister suggested that they go to the public library and see what was there, knowing that Daria would be blown away by an American library. Nothing of the sort exists in small towns like Campiglia, not for nothing do the Italians read less than any other nation in Europe. She came back with several books and began what she assumed would be a frustrating attempt at reading in an unfamiliar language. She emerged from the other room 45 minutes later almost ecstatic, practically shouting that she could read in English. That was the break through and from there to speaking, reading and writing was the quickest transition I’ve ever seen to becoming fluent in a second language. I was almost indignant, I mean it took me years and years to become fluent in Italian. By the time we left Florida she was speaking almost without error, enjoying her newly won proclivity in English. I should point out that my sister Kathy played a huge role in this, during Daria’s “formative years” she would continue to speak to her in English even though it annoyed Daria and she would only respond in Italian, when she even understood what Kathy was saying. Also, before she spoke, as an infant I would speak and read to her in English when we were alone and some of this must have lodged in her brain somewhere, a place that she then accessed that summer in the States not quite four years ago. Now, as a high school student, this is proving to be enormously beneficial. To say nothing of simply being proficient in another language, it opens all sorts of doors for her. All I can say is, Thank God for small miracles!

It’s that time of year again, the real races have begun in Italy. It seems to sneak up on me every year, the long months of the off season and suddenly they’re here, the race caravan is on our roads. Last week I saw the Cannondale team on their TT bikes re-conning the team time trial course between Donoratico and San Vincenzo for the upcoming Tirreno-Adriatico. Several Pro Tour teams have been in the area recently due a packed racing schedule in Tuscany. As this is already a well known corner of Italy for cycling teams and with the Strade Bianche, Roma Maxima and the Tirreno-Adriatico grouped together they’ve set up a sort of temporary HQ.

Saturday dawned bright and clear, a welcome change from the sodden weather we have been suffering with all winter. Together with my two buddies the La Mura brothers, Roberto and Giovanni, we set off to see the Pro version of the Eroica; The Strade Bianche. We decided to stick with our strategy of hop-scotching around the course in an attempt to see the race in three places, the dirt sections of Radi and Monte Sante Marie and the brutal climb just after the red kite up Santa Caterina in Siena. Getting to the first section was straight forward and we were there in plenty of time to grab good positions on the 12% climb off of dirt section number 4 (of 10). As so frequently happens there was an early break of four, as they came by us their lead was just under 11:00 minutes. A few vocal on-lookers thought that they would get all the way to the finish and contest victory, we rolled our eyes in disbelief. Never mind the hounds chasing behind them, for it was a fox hunt at this point, the bracing wind out of the east would inexorably drain them, along with the climbs on dirt roads.

Early Break on the stretch of dirt road after Radi

Early Break on the stretch of dirt road after Radi

We discovered anew one of the charms of watching this race; eating the race caravan’s dust, lots of it. Some of the vehicles actually slowed as they passed us but most of them barreled on by raising clouds of thick white dust that coated us for the rest of the day.
After what seemed like just a few minutes the chasing group came cantering up the climb seemingly with ease, not even breathing hard, bent to the task of bringing the fox to heel.
Chasing group on dirt section number IV

Chasing group on dirt section number IV

After the group was by there was a mad scramble as everyone took off, those of us in cars were going back to their vehicles parked on the main road a kilometer back towards the village of Vescovado. Those on bikes disappeared quickly, racing to make it to their next viewing post before the race did. We weren’t in too big a hurry as we knew there was time to not only get to the challenging climb of Monte Sante Marie but also to grab sandwiches in the village of Monteroni d’Arbia down in the valley. As the race sped further south towards Montalcino and Pienza we cut straight east. I know this area really well from all the tours I’ve led around here and so was well acquainted with the neighborhood grocery store in Monteroni. They have an excellent meat and cheese counter and are very happy to make delicious panini, we were in and out in less than 15 minutes and on our way. There’s a beautiful road that cuts across the hills between Monteroni d’Arbia and Asciano, right through the heart of the Crete Sienese, those strange geological formations that characterize this whole area. Unfortunately I chose to disregard a sign warning of a road closure thinking that we would be able to get through. Well we weren’t able to, there had been a huge land slide due to the insane amount of rainfall which had washed out the entire two lanes of road. The cyclists who were doing the very same thing we were didn’t have to turn back, they were able to tip-toe past the barriers and continue on after skirting the 100 meter missing section. We had to back tracked though, all the way to Monteroni and then we detoured to a section of dirt road on the amateur Eroica route that I knew. This brought us back to the same paved road as before but several kilometers after the land slide. However, all this running around had cost us precious time and sure enough, the turn off to Monte Sante Marie was now blocked by police. There was nothing for it but to park the car at the side of the road and hoof it up as far as our legs would carry us before the race came through. Which turned out to be quicker than we’d anticipated as we soon heard the rotors of the TV helicopter above the village of Asciano just a kilometer away. I wondered how much of that big lead the four break-a-ways would still have, not much I figured with this biting headwind.
Break-away begins the climb of Monte Sante Marie

Break-away begins the climb of Monte Sante Marie

However they were hanging tough and maintained a margin that still topped over 3:00 minutes but we looked at each other and said in unison, “they’ll be on them by the top of this climb.” The break was just over the rise when we could hear the horns of the cars in front of the main chasing group as they roared through Asciano. Then we were enveloped again by that thick cloud of Crete dust as the caravan came through, by now the hard men were near the front of the bunch. This is where the gloves came off, the end game was approaching, by the top of Monte Sante Marie the selection would be brutal, no appeals allowed.
Chasing group on M. Sante Marie

Chasing group on M. Sante Marie

The same drill as before, almost running to get back to the car and make our way as quickly as possible to Siena itself for the finale. The road that takes you from Asciano to Taverne d’Arbia is stunningly beautiful, if you don’t know it I highly recommend riding that stretch of road. Well, we hadn’t been able to get up to the really steep slopes of Monte Sante Marie but perhaps in the end this ensured we were well placed on the climb into Siena, the fabled ramps of Santa Caterina. The red kite of the final kilometer is right at the bottom of the climb, almost 800 meters of that are on the climb itself, a stinging 18% at its steepest. We even had time to duck into the same cafe as last year, the one with excellent espresso and a TV televising the race live. There were four or five older gentlemen watching the race, commenting knowledgeably. This phenomena used to catch my attention, imagine walking in off the streets in the US and finding older guys sitting around watching a bike race and being able to talk about tactics they way these guys were. Here it’s normal.
The Red Kite. Final climb begins here.

The Red Kite. Final climb begins here.

We had the luxury of watching the race move into the final act as they approached Siena, Quick Step was sitting in the driver’s seat. An Italian rider from this team, Matteo Trentin, attacked off the front of a select group of roughly 12 riders including all the pre-race favorites. He was acting on behalf of the eventual winner Michal Kwiatkowski, a young racer with enormous talent. When Trentin’s attack was thwarted after just a few kilometers, Peter Sagan launched away from the group, moving up the left side from the middle of the chasing pack. He chose the ramps of a short, steep little hill and seemed to catch the group napping just a bit, opening up a nice gap with the initial attack. For a second it looked as though Sagan was making a lone go of it but suddenly Kwiatkowski came flying up to Sagan’s rear wheel, as the rest of the best looked at one another. As this duo stretched out an advantage that seem to establish itself around 40secs we began to think about the finale. With little more than 10 km remaining we decided to leave the cafe and walk up the climb closer to where we assumed the real action would take place, as it had last year. I was able to make headway all the way to the 500 meter banner and there was forced to stop, the narrow strip of sidewalk behind the crowd barriers was solid humanity the rest of the way up. No matter, I staked out 50 square centimeters of room and began craning my neck to see above those closest to me, back down the road. Luckily I am taller than the average Italian, or at least it comes in handy at times. I don’t think so when I constantly bang my head on low hanging objects that they calmly walk under but on these occasions it’s nice. Soon the motos began streaking upwards carrying photographers who needed to be in Piazza del Campo where the finish line was, it wouldn’t be long now. And then there they were, coming around the corner below, past the big fountain and onto the steepest part of the climb. Just when they were coming past where I was standing Sagan arched his back and launched what I assumed would be the winning attack.
Sagan's attack on Santa Caterina. It wasn't enough.

Sagan’s attack on Santa Caterina. It wasn’t enough.

Normally it would have been too, how many riders can withstand a blistering acceleration by Peter Sagan on a 18% grade after 200 km of racing? Apparently Michal Kwiatkowski is one of those select few for not only did he glue himself to Sagan’s wheel, as soon as Peter showed the slightest sign of slowing, Kwiatkowski was by him in a flash. The last I saw was his Polish national champion’s jersey disappearing over the crest of the climb, 200 meters from the finish line. Sagan was a few seconds behind already, having lost meter upon meter in a very short distance. At that point we waited for the small group of chasers who would round out the podium and watched as Valverde lit his turbo, distancing a surprising Damiano Cunego, Roman Kruizeger, Fabian Cancellara and Cadel Evans in that order.
Later, unable to leave a parking lot just inside the red kite and therefore still officially on the race course, I spotted this sign as I sat in the car.
Unintelligible translation

Unintelligible translation

How nice that they put it right below the original Italian version. I see these things all the time though I have to admit, over the years things have improved. What I find incredible is that we’re talking about English here, not Hindi or Vietnamese or Thai but a language that is spoken by plenty of people. Which would make it relatively easy to translate a simple parking lot sign like this, if doing things correctly was a priority. At least it’s funny! By the way, in order to read the sign well it’s necessary to click on the photograph with your mouse which will enlarge it.

Dear fellow blog followers; my once weekly offerings have gradually slowed and now seem to be on a monthly schedule. One would think that with an entire month to come up with witty, remarkable subject matter that it would be easy to sit down and fill page after page with writing. That might be the case for some people, it isn’t currently with me. My ability to tap into whatever creative vein I possess for writing seems to be inexorably linked to how much I am riding my bike. And it isn’t much currently. Which might explain the miserly amount of posts lately. It isn’t like I haven’t been riding at all, that would be truly bad news. It is more the case of not riding enough. How do you define “enough?” To me it is quantifiable in terms of well being; as in, “I am riding a lot and feel great”, sort of periods. When health, available time, weather and other life factors combine to allow me more than 10-12 hours on the bike per week. It doesn’t appear like too much to expect, perhaps it’s too much to expect ALL the time.

The view out the kitchen window at mother-in-law's house in Umbria last weekend

The view out the kitchen window at mother-in-law’s house in Umbria last weekend

After coming back from a rainy weekend in Umbria at the in-law’s I was chomping at the bit and went out Monday morning, hell bent for leather. I was hood-winked by the weather Gods though, every now and then they like to throw you a curve ball to see if you’re paying attention. Apparently I wasn’t. Being spoiled, I like to leave around 9:30/10:00 so that the chill is off the air and you have a decent idea of the temperature,the conditions you’re likely to meet etc. And Monday it was sunny and about 15 degrees C, roughly 60 F. I was practically rubbing my hands together in glee as I came home with Spino from our morning walk and set about changing.
This is how Spino looks when he sees me change into cycling kit. He knows he's not coming along...

This is how Spino looks when he sees me change into cycling kit. He knows he’s not coming along…

No legs warmers, no tights, no winter gloves or wool hats under the helmet…just knee warmers and only because I’m a whimp, two layers on top, no shoe covers a quick bottle fill and I was off. When you ride from a hill town you’re never quite sure of things until you’re down on the flats and can really take stock. You then know for certain which way the wind is blowing for example, or if your assessment of the general weather situation was accurate, or as in this case, how far off you are. I was off by a bit. The sun was starting to play hide and seek behind dark clouds which 30 minutes earlier hadn’t been there at all. A strongish wind was coming in off the water and it had a little bite to it. By the time I was an hour into the ride I was just hoping it wouldn’t rain before I was home, all thoughts of a romp in Spring-like conditions had long since been forgotten. But hey, I was out there, right? I wasn’t home trying to convince myself to ride like I imagined so many other local riders were doing at that moment, seeing as how I was totally alone on the roads. I was dry, the wind was no longer blowing straight into my face and my tires were full of air. How much more do you want from life anyway?
As I climbed back home to Campiglia though, I felt a strange burning in my thighs. As though I was riding hard, a weird lactate burn but which didn’t make any sense since I was going easy. It was then that I noticed a tickle in my throat as well. At that point I knew it, a bug had its grip on me. I know these signs, you know these signs, I knew that I wouldn’t be riding again for at least four or five days. Years ago I would have fought through it, determined not to be defeated by a virus. How simple minded I was, how arrogant. There’s no fighting a virus, the only smart strategy is immediate surrender. Though active therapy is a strategy, like going to a thermal bath, which Donatella and I did yesterday. Oh mercy was that wonderful. Here’s a link to the place: http://www.termedisassetta.it If you ever get the chance do not hesitate to visit. I know thermal baths and have been going to them for over 20 years and this is my favorite one.

Will I ride this weekend? Probably not. Both my health and the weather have conspired to keep me off the bike but I’m not going stir crazy nor am I even grumpy, any more than usual.

Those of you who don’t know our dog Spino can probably tell that he’s a poodle. If you know him there’s no doubt what he is, he is a personality. He will be 10 years old in a few months and over the years he’s trained me well. I was under the mistaken notion that I was training him but had to quietly concede years ago that the reverse was true. For poodles are truly a different breed of dog. Far too smart for their own good, they are as insightful as shrinks with regards to their owner’s weaknesses, strengths and psychological make-up. It took Spino quite a while to bend me to his way of thinking but he managed to do it. He is also smart enough to know that he can’t be too obvious about his conquest, it wouldn’t be on for me and everyone else to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has me wrapped around his paw. So he plays along, pretending to be a dog just enough to keep the charade alive. Some poodles go overboard or don’t have owners intelligent enough to handle their dog’s power over them, conceding everything. It can get ugly. Spino however is a gentleman, generous with his affections, eager to please (when it suits his needs and looks good) he is only obstinate about affection that isn’t directed towards him. And he is a gourmet, most of all he is a gourmet. He is also a fine athlete and can walk/run all day long, doing triple whatever distance we humans do with his doubling back and back again to check on our slow progress. He is even possessed of a sense of humor and has demonstrated this time and again. Only one thing truly defeats his sense of superiority and that is when we are forced to leave him for extended periods (never longer than two weeks) at a “Dog Hotel” in nearby San Vincenzo. Where, by the way, he’s treated like visiting royalty. But it galls him to no end that we could actually survive for such a long period without him at our side. To underscore this, upon returning from our trip the States last September be began sleeping on our bed at night, a thing he’d never done before. Gradually, over the years he’d convinced me to move his cushion into our bedroom and he slept almost next to our bed but on the floor. Which is where I figured he belonged. Now he sleeps on our bed and takes up as much room as his medium sized body is capable of.

Politely at the foot of the bed…later on he'll be in the middle, spread out.

Politely at the foot of the bed…later on he’ll be in the middle, spread out.

Two weeks ago it was Valentine’s day. I bought my wife Donatella a bottle of perfume, something she generously told me she needed, thereby keeping me from getting another fleecy pajama or wool scarf. She asked me what I desired and I said “chocolates” and she took me at my word. And they were as good as they look!

An assortment from the chocolatier "La Conca d'Oro" in nearby Venturina

An assortment from the chocolatier “La Conca d’Oro” in nearby Venturina

For all its fame regarding sun, heat and rolling brown fields of wheat, Tuscany in the winter can be a bitter season. This year is proving to be one of those winters that people will talk about in the future. Not so much for the cold which has been normal more or less, rather it will be because of the staggering amount of rain that has fallen and continues to come down. As I write this it’s actually not raining, a brief respite of a few hours as it has already rained all of last night, this morning and will no doubt rain some more this evening. Not only has it caused damage in the form of mud slides, flooded rivers, washed out roads and fields, it has underlined once again the gross mismanagement of Italy’s infrastructure. The amount of expenditures that the central government in Rome allots for territorial security has shrunk drastically in the last ten years, down from over 560 million Euros in 2004, currently Italy has budgeted slightly less than 100 million Euros for such work for the fiscal year 2014. With drastic results. So every time there is an above average rain fall, which is becoming the norm, rivers flood, people die and we all tear our hair out, with politicians promising that it won’t happen again. Words that are soon forgotten. Italy seems incapable of investing in public works, it doesn’t create immediate returns on investment, it raises public debt and the Central European Bank and the International Monetary Fund won’t accept that. So here we are.

It’s hard to get excited about the inability to ride one’s bike in the face of natural calamities, it’s so unimportant as to be irrelevant. But it does impact my mood, oh boy does it. I managed to ride eight times in January but the final two weeks saw me get out one time, for two and a half hours in a pelting rain. So as it continued to rain part or most of each day I turned to other forms of exercise like walking, gymnastics and eating. Perhaps eating isn’t exercise but it does help the mood. Incidentally, during that ride in the rain I saw one other group of cyclists, the riders from the professional Cannondale team who were here on a preseason training camp in a nearby village. If possible they looked even wetter than I was, they’d probably been out for hours and hours.

The Masi looks good in any weather. I couldn't quite capture the wheel spray though. Notice the soaked foot however...

The Masi looks good in any weather. I couldn’t quite capture the wheel spray though. Notice the soaked foot however…

I am sure that people who live in places where the winter is a real one won’t have any sympathy, that’s fine. I don’t expect any, I mean there are positive and negative aspects about any place we choose to live. The positives far outweigh the negatives for me in this place. If I weren’t so spoiled by the mild winter climate here in coastal Tuscany I would have mounted fenders on one of my bikes for wet weather riding. I may have to yet, there’s no sign that this is going to change any time soon. Generally I like rain, I like the winter with its damp, misty mood, glistening flag stones, dripping stone walls and the quiet streets of Campiglia. However the almost total lack of sunny days is getting to all us, the sun is a constant companion here, crisp blue skies and a biting winter breeze are what we’re accustomed to in February. Not endless days of rain and black clouds. Things will change though, they always do.

This was before the storm.

This was before the storm.

I don’t know about you all but every year when all the festivities are over, I feel a great sense of relief. Sure, it’s a bit deflating too. It’s either back to work, or school, no more parties and get-togethers to look forward to. No more sumptuous meals, thank goodness, or the kilos gained would be even more. I thought I had done a good job this time, without a bike while in Perugia for 10 days, (where we always go at Christmas time to stay with family) I was disciplined enough to do a energetic gymnastics routine five times. I also did five long walks, on December 31st together with two friends I did 4.5 hours on foot with some challenging climbs. By climbs I mean the type you would do on a bike, not mountain climbing.

Umbrian countryside

Umbrian countryside

So I was sort of surprised and chagrined to return home to Campiglia, climb on the scales and discover that I’d put on 2 more kilos in spite of everything I’d done not to. But just think if I’d simply let the hand brake off and coasted through the holidays, eating.

While in Perugia over the holidays I noticed some photos in my phone of the final trip of the guiding season, early October to be exact. And made a mental note to write about it. It was a longish trip lasting nine days, considering there were only two clients it was surprisingly easy. Paradoxically “groups” of two are often more work than a normal sized group, not in this case however. Both gentlemen were from New York, just to show you what a small world cycling is, they both know and ride with one of my oldest friends, Eddie A. who used to live in Brooklyn and now lives in Westchester County. Both of them, Jonathan and Lee, were much stronger than me on a bike. Or at least faster, I wasn’t really able to challenge them on my terms, super long rides. But I don’t think it would have made any difference, they were just strong! We started out by staying two nights in Orvieto, doing a transfer to San Quirico d’Orcia for three nights and then a long transfer to Monforte d’Alba in the Piedmont. On the transfers I did the driving, with only two people it made little sense to have an additional staff person. Which also meant that on rides it was just us, which I actually like for small groups. Unfortunately the weather was unstable, though my weather mojo was working overtime and we only caught real rain on one or two occasions.

Orvieto's clock tower at night

Orvieto’s clock tower at night

One of those occasions was also a day that saw us climbing up Monte Amiata, via Castiglione d’Orcia and Abbadia San Salvatore. All in all over 100 km with huge amounts of elevation. Outside the hotel in San Quirico however the sun was shining and temperatures were mild, perfect Tuscan weather for October. But all you had to do was cast an eye over your shoulder and you could see dark clouds gathering around the cone of Amiata, an extinct volcano that tops out at 1700 meters. Knowing the area, it was apparent to me that our odds of catching a storm were better than 50-50. So when Jonathan and Lee came out dressed to ride with summer kit on I asked if they had foul weather gear with them, they laughed. I had to actually insist that it was necessary and watched as they clambered back upstairs to fetch a rain jacket. When Lee tried resisting I said I wouldn’t go on the ride if he didn’t. My advice is to always copy the local guy, do what he does, wear what he wears, bring what he brings. Chances are he’s done this a few times.

Road signs in Umbria

Road signs in Umbria

A few hours into the ride, as we climbed out of Abbadia, the thunder started, I wondered if we would be lucky enough to make it to a restaurant-hotel I knew well just below the top of the climb, Le Macinaie, before the rain began. What had been a mild sunny day just hours before was now a cold, windy storm blowing in with a vengeance. It sprinkled briefly then began to rain hard and then to simply pour. I had on a water resistant vest with a rain jacket over the top of that and I was soaked in less than a minute. I could see my breath in big clouds of vapor as I climbed, chasing the duo up the road, calculating how far it was to the Macinaie, remembering the descent and freezing just thinking about it. I came around a corner and saw the guys sheltering under the awning of a hotel-restaurant that I’d never seen open before, ever. Hallelujah, the gods were with us. Not only were they open, they had a wood burning stove going full blast with a vacant table next to it. I couldn’t believe our luck, this was fortune on a grand scale. A thermometer outside the door read 8 degrees Celsius, the rain was coming down in sheets. We ate a home cooked meal with gusto, our wet clothing steaming as it dried out next to the stove, arrayed on chairs.

Turn off for the Eroica, near San Quirico. Wasn't able to ride it in 2013....

Turn off for the Eroica, near San Quirico. Wasn’t able to ride it in 2013….

After lunch we tipped toed down the approximately 15 km of technical descent, the rain had stopped but the run off was intense, the roads were awash with water and debris, until we reached a much lower road that was 600 meters above sea level and had been out of the brunt of the storm. From there back to San Quirico and our hotel the weather was clement with us and we saw no further rain.

From Tuscany we journeyed north, to the Piedmont, where we stayed in the small village of Monforte d’Alba. I was officially out of my territory up there. I had guided one time in the Piedmont, exactly 21 years earlier on my very first job as a cycle guide. Needless to say I didn’t recall very much with regards to roads or routes. Jonathan, who knew the hotel from a previous stay, was also friends with the owner. I should say that Jonathan is a true Italophile, this was his 21st visit to Italy since his university days. He even seems Italian in appearance, helped by his Mediterranean looks and his Italian cycling kit, everything he wore from day one was either from small Italian trade teams or small cycling shops. Our first ride, done after a day long drive up to Monforte, was necessarily short but still quite intense. Hurrying to beat sun down we flew down the long, long descent from Monforte towards a nearby valley. It was as we were screaming down this seemingly endless descent that I began to remember bits and pieces from my long ago trip to the Piedmont…it was all valleys! You were either descending or climbing, the valley roads tended to be more traveled by cars so cyclists kept to the roads that climbed in and out of the valleys.

Barolo vineyards near Monforte d'Alba

Barolo vineyards near Monforte d’Alba

We had one day for a long ride and we made the most of it, 110 km and over 2000 meters of elevation, or was it 2500 meters? Our gracious host at the hotel in Monforte quickly jotted down the towns we were to ride through and I plotted it out on the map. We didn’t even have to spend much time searching for the route during the ride, it just flowed. The roads were fantastic, well paved and virtually no traffic. We went over hill and dale, it was up and down, all day. We stopped for lunch in a small village and were back before 4.00 PM, five hours of ride time though and I definitely felt it.

Lee on the road near Monforte d'Alba

Lee on the road near Monforte d’Alba

That afternoon we drove into Alba, a larger town about 30 minutes away. I had never been there before but Jonathan had and told me it was beautiful and he was right. We strolled around the large pedestrian area of the ‘centro storico’ window shopping and people watching. Jonathan was on the look out for a bike shop, he wanted to add another shop’s kit to his collection. And boy did we find one! Cicli Gagliardini, in the same location since 1916 and you could sure tell, I’ve never seen a bike shop so full of stuff, quality things too. Old bikes, new bikes, accessories, clothing, everything you could possibly think of, full to the rafters. Jonathan picked up their lycra kit, I spotted their wool jersey and got that.
Cicli Gagliardini since 1916 in Alba

Cicli Gagliardini since 1916 in Alba

The Piedmont was really a great place to ride bikes, I highly recommend it. Thanks to Jonathan and his wish to ride there I was able to visit it again. You’ll want to be fit however, at least in the area where we were.
Memorial to a partisan killed in Monforte in the final months of the war.

Memorial to a partisan killed in Monforte in the final months of the war.


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