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THE BARTALI RIDE

I can’t actually recall when the idea for this adventure was first hatched. What I do remember was that it was launched by Michael Haddad, spurned on I think by reading a chapter from a biography of Bartali that I had translated. The book, written by Italian author Paolo Alberati, is entitled “Gino Bartali, Mille Diavoli in Corpo.” Published by Giunti of Florence in 2006, I had obtained permission to translate the book on the premise that I find an English language publisher. I wasn’t successful in that endeavour, however I still had the translated chapter, specifically the one that recounted Bartali’s incredible resistance activity during the long years of WWII. At some point I sent it to Michael because I knew he would enjoy reading it.
Michael and I had ridden the 2012 Eroica together, after not having seen each other in more than 22 years. That day on the dirt roads of the Chianti was quite an adventure and only whet our appetites for another epic ride, preferably tied in some way to the period of cycle racing that most captured our hearts and imaginations; the years between 1930 and 1960. When Michael wrote me proposing to re-trace Bartali’s courageous rides between Florence and Assisi I was hooked from the first lines in his email.

Bartali completed the 320 km round trip ride in one day, astounding when you see the terrain and try to imagine what it must have been like on mostly dirt roads. To say nothing of the Germans and Fascists on patrol, looking for any and all resistance activity, ready to haul in (and imprison and torture) anybody suspected of being a partisan or of aiding them. Though apparently no one can say with certainty on how many occasions Gino completed this ride between 1943 and the end of the war, logic would lead us to believe it was done numerous times. Informed accounts say upwards of forty times.

Gino Bartali

Gino Bartali

At the behest of the Bishop of Florence, Elia Dalla Costa, Bartali became the courier of forged documents that were supplied to hundreds of Jews and anti-fascists who were being hidden amongst the dozens of convents and monasteries scattered around the religious city of Assisi. Although the Pope and the Vatican were officially silent regarding the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their Italian Fascist allies, individuals within the Catholic church were moved to help the persecuted Jewish and dissident Italians attempting to flee round ups and deportations. An underground railway was created and a network of people painstakingly pieced together that would insure hundreds of people, using these forged identity papers, were able to flee Italy to safer havens around the world.
Michael, bless his organized soul, did all the research for this adventure. He pieced together the route that Bartali had ridden, discovered some of the names of people Bartali used to alert him to troop movements along the way as well as several of the stops he normally made on his way to Assisi.

The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi

The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi

It wasn’t long before our itinerary began to take shape. Using the surnames of people long deceased, he was able to unearth descendants who might be related to folks who had known and aided Bartali directly. Such as Bartali’s cobbler, the man who made his racing shoes and lived in the hills between Florence and Arezzo, Gennaro Cellai. Or, at the time a youngster now in his 80’s, Ivo Faltoni, who is from Terontola and lives right in front of the train station where Gino would stop on his way to Assisi. Faltoni apparently became one of Bartali’s mechanics as a young adult. Michael also found the street address of where Bartali lived during the war years with his wife Adriana and two young sons as well as the location of where Bartali picked up the material to be carried to Assisi in his bicycle frame. Daunted by his investigative attention to detail, I did little more than make follow up phone calls. I did manage to secure a visit to the Bartali museum, a structure that is run voluntarily just up the street from where Gino had grown up in the village of Ponte a Ema on the outskirts of Florence.
As summer drew to close a wrench was thrown into the works, I had a rather dramatic crash just kilometres from our house in Campiglia. I spent a night in hospital in observation after a battery of tests such as a CAT scan, ultrasound and X-rays. All of which proved negative, I had somehow managed to crash at speed while descending and come away with only road rash, banged up ribs and a serious concussion. Or so I thought. I did contract a nasty phlebitis in my right leg, a condition that was going to plague me for several months. I assumed that a few weeks would clear it up, October was over a month away and I couldn’t see how it could last that long. It did, despite blood thinners and not riding, it persisted. Plans went forward, it was too late to postpone or cancel and at worst I wouldn’t ride.

Another rider from Brooklyn just happened to be in Italy at the same time, John Pergolizzi. He and Michael are close friends from way back, I remembered him from when I too rode in Prospect Park 25 years ago. He was kind enough to volunteer to join us as driver/mechanic/support crew and it made a real difference. It also meant that I could suspend the blood thinners for a day or two and attempt to ride at least part of the route.

The two NYC cycling legends: John Pergolizzi & Michael Haddad in Florence

The two NYC cycling legends: John Pergolizzi & Michael Haddad in Florence


So it was that we found ourselves sandwiched into a Fiat rental car heading up the motorway from coastal Tuscany where I live, to Florence. There were five of us, Michael, his wife Celie, daughter Sarah, John and myself. Plus two bikes on the external bike rack, this too a product of Michael’s incredible attention to detail. The real fun began once off the motorway and onto the urban streets of the city. In my 22 years of living in Italy I thought I’d witnessed creative, improvised city driving. I had forgotten how New Yorkers drive, Italians have nothing on them when it comes to negotiating intricate city traffic. Florentine traffic intimidates even hardened Italian drivers, not Michael from Brooklyn. With nonchalance he performed U turns and blasted through round-a-abouts while simultaneously interpreting the nonsensical directions of the Garmin navigating system. Somehow we managed to find our way through mid-day rush hour chaos to their hotel. More on that Garmin later…

After an improvised lunch we began the itinerary, first the visit to the museum. But not before managing to find “Piazza Gino Bartali,” an ugly modern square with nothing denoting the name of its bearer. Once at the museum we met the custodian, Marcello Santini, a living encyclopaedia of cycling history. His idea of conducting a visit was to explain in exhausting detail each and every piece displayed. We might still be there if the man responsible for the museum’s existence, Andrea Bresci, hadn’t showed up. The museum really is impressive, their collection of bicycles and paraphernalia went well beyond what I expected to find. It’s truly a labour of love, for they receive no help financially or otherwise from either Ponte a Ema or Florence. Much of what is displayed comes directly from Bartali’s personal collection. He bequeathed it for this purpose before he died. In fact he insisted they cart it away from where it was stored, knowing that once he was gone a battle would ensue over ownership. Bartali knew that his quarrelsome family would try to lay claim to it and in fact several lawsuits have since gone to court. The museum has managed to see them off, so far.
After several hours spent in the museum we obtained good directions to the cemetery where Gino and his brother Giulio are buried. Giulio was the younger brother and, according to Gino, was the more gifted of the two. Tragically he died from injuries after crashing in a race just outside of Florence, the Targa Chiari, at the age of 20.

Fausto Coppi's 1953 World Champion jersey on display at the Bartali Museum in Florence.

Fausto Coppi’s 1953 World Champion jersey on display at the Bartali Museum in Florence.

Once back at the hotel we established a meeting time for the following day and I walked to my friend Goffredo’s house on the other side of the River Arno where I was staying. At 7:00 AM however I was back and changing into riding kit for the first time in five weeks. I was both excited and intimidated, riding again was going to be wonderful but how long would I last? I didn’t know the route out of Florence nor the terrain towards Arezzo but I knew it was going to be hilly. Though Michael had programmed every step of the way into his Garmin and appeared infinitely confident that it would guide us, I began to have my first doubts when it couldn’t deliver us to the Eugenian Chapel where Bartali had picked up the documents he smuggled to Assisi. None the less it was exhilarating riding through the early morning Florentine streets over damp flagstones. Michael was resplendent in a yellow wool Bartali jersey that matched his Bartali bicycle of the same colour, he looked as though he had just stepped out of a sepia photograph from the mid 1950’s. I had opted for a more modern machine, not wishing to add additional challenges to what promised to be a long day. Things went smoothly enough until we were well outside of the city and climbing to San Donato. At that point the Garmin began taking us off course, determined to deliver us to the Autostrada somewhere to the west. My instincts knew better and I was kicking myself for not having brought a map with me, a cardinal sin for a professional guide. Even a guide though can ask directions and I did so repeatedly for there is nothing more frustrating than feeling lost on a long ride.

Michael standing in front of the house Gino and his family lived in during the war.

Michael standing in front of the house Gino and his family lived in during the war.

Eventually, after stopping to insure we were on course several times, we arrived at our first meeting point with John in the “team” car, the town of Reggello. This sleepy berg was where the cobbler Gennaro Cellai had lived, the man who was able to supply Bartali with up to date information on Nazi roadblocks and troop movements. It is also where the beautiful road named “Via Sette Ponti” begins its curvy journey towards Arezzo and the plains. By now it was late morning and we had covered roughly 50 kilometres, we were behind schedule and I could sense the pressure mounting. Normally it wouldn’t have been a problem but my body was feeling the exertion of having climbed most of those 50 km at a lively pace. The great form I had enjoyed until my crash in late August was going to carry me only so far on this day. My stomach was also beginning to protest (I was riding without breakfast) and while streaking through a village I caught sight of a small store out of the corner of my eye. I yelled that I was stopping, I needed something to eat or I was going to wilt. I had begun to recall the 2012 Eroica ride, being amazed that Michael never ate anything except what he had brought with him, bars, gels and an energy drink that he mixed copiously at every water stop.

Reluctantly we all stopped. John was in the car and Michael astride his bike, as they waited for me to have a panino made. Once that was out of the way we began again, keeping a decent pace mostly downhill, slowly drawing Arezzo closer. The cramps that had started to make themselves felt earlier were returning with a vengeance, I knew my kilometres on the bike were numbered. My biggest concern was not slowing the pace too much. Once I was certain that I could no longer lend a hand in the pacesetting nor hold Michael’s wheel without struggling, the time had come to climb into the car. Disappointed but realistic, at our next pause to check the map I told them of my decision. Michael hardly broke stride and was off, I got into the back seat of the car and changed out of my riding gear.

Pergolizzi drove as though he’d been behind the steering wheel of a team car for years. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Using a map in the car and trying to decipher the Garmin’s crazy instructions, we followed Michael from a distance. The next time we saw him he was towing a group of Italian riders. I wanted to roll down the window and tell him to sit on and work less but I knew he was on the front of the group because they were going too slow for his liking. Waiting for him at an intersection that required a change in direction, we saw the group go straight as Michael turned to follow our route.

At a certain point, coming upon him, as he pedalled Michael told us that he was having problems with the bottom bracket. We soon found a place to pull over. After he was stopped he explained that the fixed cup was coming loose and causing the crank arm on the left side to hit the chain stay on each pedal stroke. The left side? I didn’t realize that on older bikes the fixed cup was on placed on the drive side, making any adjustments very awkward indeed. We had precious little in the way of tools, basically what would fit inside a saddlebag. This was going to require a bike shop, one well equipped with tools that would function on an antique bike. As I mulled over where we could look for one, John was pulling the rental car’s tool bag apart looking for something. He came up with a jack for changing flat tires. Wondering how this was going to work, I watched spellbound as he took the end of a screw driver, placed it in the notched cleft of the fixed cup and gave it some resounding whacks with the jack. He looked up smiling, “try that, it should hold for while” and put the makeshift tools back in the car. In less than five minutes he had solved what had appeared to be an insurmountable problem. Needless to say, the fixed cup didn’t budge the rest of the ride. fixedcup fix

Our next rendezvous was the train station in Terontola, just across the regional border in Umbria. We also had an appointment with Ivo Faltoni, an elderly man with the energy of a despot. I soon discovered what Andrea Bresci, our friend the museum curator had meant when he’d told me that Faltoni was a tireless self-promoter. All in good faith mind you, he was indeed a true believer, in Bartali first and foremost. We were looking for the marble plaque in the station dedicated to Bartali’s role in the resistance. Ivo took us right to it and we snapped several photos. He explained that Gino would wait at a nearby bridge that spanned the tracks until he saw the train coming from Perugia. He timed his pre-arranged arrival at the station so that his presence would cause just enough of an uproar amongst the local populace that the Fascist gendarmes would be distracted, allowing fleeing Jews and dissidents to board the train while the authorities’ attention was diverted. Ivo explained that he himself, a youngster at the time, gave Gino the signal to ride down to the station from the bridge.

The plaque commemorating Bartali's role in the resistance at the Terontola train station

The plaque commemorating Bartali’s role in the resistance at the Terontola train station

Michael hadn’t waited around for the long-winded stories. After a few quick photos he was back on the bike and had disappeared up the road. Our next meeting point was to be in the village of Passignano, nestled on the shore of Lake Trasimeno. John and I drove straight there thinking that Michael would be along shortly, the distance wasn’t great and the hills were behind us for the most part. We found out later, quite a bit later, that once again his impertinent Garmin had directed him off course. It was determined to get him onto a nearby four-lane highway, and it wouldn’t be satisfied until it did. Driven to distraction, Michael eventually shut if off. Perhaps the wisest move of the day. This meant however that we would be guiding him with the car from Passignano until we reached Assisi. Which wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it hadn’t been necessary to ride through the city of Perugia. Or more precisely, the chaotic hinterland of Perugia. He needed to see us frequently, at each traffic round-about, intersection and interchange. Once again John’s ability as a driver saved the day, because for the next hour and a half he found a way to pull over, slow down just enough and stop completely in the most impossible places in order for Michael to keep us in sight and stay on course. With me giving John directions, we negotiated Saturday afternoon meltdown traffic through some of the ugliest mall ridden urban outskirts you could hope to find in central Italy. Ghastly is the term that comes readily to mind. I couldn’t help but wonder what the diabolic Garmin would have had Michael doing had it been turned on. Or what Bartali would have thought had he been able to see what a mess the once bucolic Umbrian countryside had become over the decades since he had ridden there.

All of that not withstanding, we eventually found ourselves on the long, straight run-in towards Assisi. We could see it there, perched on the side of Monte Subasio in all its glory, with the magnificent Franciscan Cathedral resplendent in the fading afternoon sunlight. This leg of the journey then was done and dusted. Michael wound his way up the final climb, riding through the arched gateway and into the ancient walls of Assisi, just meters from where the German HQ had been during the war years. The sun was slowly setting into the horizon as we finally found our hotel, though the Garmin in the car did its best to lead us astray even there.

After we had unpacked our few belongings and put the bikes away, we turned our attention to where we would eat. A decision that is never taken lightly in Italy. Once that was cleared up thanks to a recommendation of the hotel concierge, I called my sister Kathy who was joining us for dinner. She lives in Perugia and did me the favour of driving over, I hadn’t seen her since June.
By coming to Assisi I was in a sense, returning to the spot where so much had taken place in my life. Together with a childhood friend, Hugh White, I had lived in Assisi for over two years when just out of High School. My family was living in Rome then, my father worked for the UN, those years in Italy would make a good story, but for another time. Kathy had remained in Umbria ever since, making a good life for herself and her two children. On the other hand I had returned to the USA and had never been back to Italy. Until 1991 when Hugh and I made plans to meet in Milano and ride our bikes south, all the way to Perugia. Naturally we stayed with Kathy, we even rode our bikes to Assisi for a visit. Far too soon it was time to leave, I only hoped it wouldn’t be another 15 years before I came back again. Little could I imagine what was in store for me. In the days prior to our departure I met Kathy’s best friend Donatella, who grew up not far from Assisi. As in many good stories, fate intervened on my behalf. She and I have been married since 1993.

With those thoughts going through my head, I stepped out for a walk through the quiet streets of Assisi after dinner. Unfortunately neither John or Michael joined me, they were too tired. While I lacked the energy to walk very far, I did make it over to the Franciscan Cathedral and marvelled at its beauty as I had done so many times over the years.
The next day we set off early, Assisi was still sleeping as we rolled out of town. The crisp autumn morning held a promise of good cheer, the green countryside of Umbria appeared vibrant and luxurious below us. No longer riding,I was now officially part of the support crew. I had wanting to complicate my recovery from the pesky phlebitis I was back on blood thinners. It wasn’t long before we came upon Michael, again going around in circles trying to decipher the Garmin’s instructions. We had covered 15 km since leaving Assisi. Thankfully, I knew these roads from having lived in Perugia for 5 years before moving to Tuscany in 1997. After guuiding him from the car for a while, his Garmin apparently decided to behave and we settled into a rhythm, the villages of the Tiber River valley clicking by. It became apparent that we were making good time, the predominantly flat terrain, not to mention Michael’s sustained pace, meant progress.

After we had passed the town of Umbertide we pulled alongside our rider and told him we were stopping for a café at the next available place. He said that was fine, he needed to fix a slipping seat-post anyway. Soon we found a roadside café and went in. Full of Sunday morning locals, it was a typical country establishment. I ordered two espresso cafes, we decided not to wait for Michael as we knew he wouldn’t want one anyway. To my dismay it was one of the worst espressos I’ve ever had, truly vile. Wondering how I was going to get the awful taste out of my mouth, I went outside to wait for Michael as John lingered in the cafe. Soon Michael was pulling up to the car,. I brought him water and as he mixed more of his magical energy drink, we spoke of the seat-post. He had already had to tighten it twice, he said, and was afraid of snapping the seat-post bolt, a mishap that could potentially end the ride. “No sweat,” said John, walking up to us, taking out the seat-post and glancing around. Watching him keenly, for by now I was aware of his talents as a problem solver, I saw him bend over. After sticking a finger in his mouth to moisten it, he tamped the same finger in the fine dust on the ground. Standing back up, he began applying the dust carefully all around the seat-post. Michael and I exchanged a look, at that point John inserted the seat-post back into the frame, finding the exact height from a mark he had made on it before pulling it out. After tightening the bolt very carefully he turned to Michael and said that in his opinion it wouldn’t move again. Of course it didn’t, not one millimetre. In almost 30 years of riding it was the very first time I’d seen that done. This was a trick to be filed away for future use.

One of the greats, Luciano Sumin, talking to Michael and John in his work shop.

One of the greats, Luciano Sumin, talking to Michael and John in his work shop.

Now we were into the meat of the ride, Michael was well warmed up and pushing that old Bartali as it hadn’t been pushed in decades. If yesterday I had been wondering how on earth Gino Bartali had ridden this route round-trip in a single day, now I was beginning to understand. Thus far we had encountered only one or two short climbs, most of the morning’s terrain had been flat to rolling. There was also an absence of wind. This too was making the endeavour easier, not to mention the balmy temperatures. However, I still couldn’t quite figure out how things would go when all the climbing started. I’d ridden the roads between the Tiber River valley heading west, both to the south as well as to the north of Arezzo and knew those climbs. They are long and challenging and again I started to worry about sunlight, as we were still a long way from Florence. What I didn’t know was that the road towards Arezzo, which follows the Sovara River, a tributary of the larger Tiber, doesn’t climb above 575 meters. As we turned onto this road, which passes alongside the town of Anghiari, it began to climb. Here we go I thought, now it’s starting. The road did climb, for a brief stretch it looked as though it would be serious. We discovered it was only for a few kilometres, then it began levelling out and continued at an easier gradient. We were gaining height but gradually, which meant that Michael’s pace didn’t slow very much at all. Was this a temporary reprieve or had Bartali made this his route because it flowed smoothly, without the leg sapping climbs thatI knew?
Some time later I managed to talk John into stopping for a sandwich in a small village, at one of those country cafes that have offer good bread and cold cuts. We kept our eyes peeled for Michael so that he wouldn’t ride straight by without seeing us. I can’t recall if he actually ate anything but knowing him, he probably didn’t. After roughly 30 minutes we were back in the car keeping an eye on our rider, both of us instinctively looking for signs of fatigue. I know I would have been suffering had I been riding, good form or not, two days back to back like this would have stretched my limits. Michael however seemed to be fine, John and I marvelled at him, he was riding as though he were on a mission. We were also far enough along at this point to realize that the return leg of the route was less challenging in terms of terrain, than the outbound portion.

Now we were just to the north of Arezzo, about to reach the same road we had descended yesterday, the Via Sette Ponti. This was one of those winding country roads that belong in a film highlighting the wonders of Tuscany. I had enjoyed it immensely yesterday on the bike, sitting in the car it was possible to really look around and I was quite impressed. We would pull over every now and then to wait for Michael to come by, just in case. He was on a 62 year old bike that he barely knew with more than one potential mechanical issue. Each time he would thunder by, smiling and give us a thumbs up, after which we would clamber back into the car to set off in pursuit.
Much sooner than I anticipated we reached Reggello, the village where we had stopped the previous day to get water and look for the team car. I directed John back to the same water fountain and we got out to drink and stretch our legs, waiting for Michael. Still looking good upon arrival, he mixed more of his energy drink and we discussed strategy for the next segment of the journey. From here to San Donato it was going to be strenuous for there were some real climbs ahead. Michael also knew what was coming. By now however, we knew that daylight was not going to be an issue. It was early afternoon and once in San Donato it would be a long descent to Florence. One less thing to worry about, it lent an air of having this in the bag, so different than yesterday’s angst over the approaching dusk.

Michael during a break on day 2 of the Bartali ride.

Michael during a break on day 2 of the Bartali ride.

In the end it did become a test, of stamina, determination and character. The sun was exacting a price as well, Michael was sweating bullets as he muscled over the steeper sections, exerting himself to push the heavy Bartali upwards. I had the impression that his Bartali weighted twice as much as my modern steel Tommasini. Sitting the in the car, John and I knew exactly what he was going through. Not much later the payoff arrived as the descent started. I noticed that on day 2 Michael was more at ease with the Bartali going down hill. He was a quick study, he’d already learned its quirky nature after a few scary moments in front of me the previous day while I was still riding. He told me afterward that the bike would not tolerate being corrected once a trajectory had been established. But since it wanted to under steer it meant correction was essential. True to Gino’s nature, the Bartali bike was a stubborn, irascible Toscano with a well-defined character.
Then, soon enough, we were back in the streets of Florence. Far different than the chaotic situation of Friday, Sunday afternoon traffic wasn’t bad. Sure, Michael’s crazed Garmin got him turned around several times, we even managed to lose him until he called us. We had an actual map of the city in the car so I was able to direct him to the Arno River, the only landmark he needed. I felt as though a welcoming committee with a large banner should have been at their hotel, waiting for our arrival. Along with a small brass band perhaps, playing Fratelli d’Italia, the national anthem. There was none of that however, no fanfare, not even his wife and daughter. We unloaded and put the bikes away, realizing that this great adventure was concluded. Thankful that we would have time to compare notes and impressions in the coming days back in Campiglia, we simply shook hands and congratulated ourselves. Knowing that we’d done something special, shared unique moments that we would reflect on for many years to come. With that, I walked into the sunset, marvelling at the light and how it played on the stucco facades of Florentine buildings.

The day following my mini-mutiny was to prove the most challenging, for me at least. Though I can’t recall the name of the town we rode to nor the route, if in fact I ever actually knew them, I can remember the day. Again we rolled out and stayed together for the first part of the route. After a sandwich for lunch, Alan, Kenji and Debbie (the other lead Chinese guide) made the wise decision of putting most of the group on a train. Debbie went with that group and the rest of us, with Hari following in the van, continued on. I had no idea how much further we had to ride nor where we were bound for. A strange situation for a guide to be in but that’s how it was. At a certain point we began to climb and continued upward for a long time. The road was beautiful, no traffic and a steady gradient. We kept a nice pace, these were the strongest riders of the group and it was becoming good fun. I was a bit surprised when we topped out that there wasn’t a pass but a high plateau instead. We continued pedaling, keeping a tempo as the terrain leveled off. We rode and rode, before long I received word that we were near the town where the others were arriving. Once in town we detoured to the station to greet the rest of our group as they climbed off the small regional train. I assumed, wrongly, that this must be where we were staying. I learned that from the station they would be taking a bus to the city where we would be for the night. So we got back on our bikes and continued onward. By then it was late afternoon, we were in more or less the middle of nowhere.

Alan Wholhuter, the cycling gypsy and guide supreme. That's Gaga on his right.

Alan Wholhuter, the cycling gypsy and guide supreme. That’s Gaga on his right.

Slowly other riders began climbing off and getting in the van as their strength waned and then finished. I marveled at the van’s ability to hold all of our stuff; the trailer was packed to bursting, bikes and luggage filling every square centimeter. Luckily the van had an ample rack on the roof and that’s where our abandoning riders had their bikes put. We soldiered on into the Swiss twilight, with me wondering where this hotel might be. At a certain point I rode up next to Alan and asked him how much further, “the next city” is all he said. We were really pushing it now, riding as fast as our group’s energy allowed us to. I noticed that even Kenji was looking concerned, it was the latest we’d been on the road thus far and darkness wasn’t far off. And then we saw it, in the distance, a city’s lights. But it still took us another 30 minutes of hard riding to reach it, by then evening darkness had enveloped us. Before getting to our hotel we had to negotiate this smallish city and found our way to a sort of extra-urban industrial/office park area, bristling with a forest of building cranes. Apparently the economic crisis is different here than in Italy, where much construction has come to a halt. We hurriedly unpacked everything and hustled to shower and change for dinner.
Back down in the lobby I learned that we were walking to dinner. Where, was all I could think, out here in the middle of black un-lit nowhere was there a restaurant for 30+ people? I soon found out, as we strolled 30 minutes to what must normally be a lunch spot for office workers, my stomach grumbling the entire way. Picking our way carefully back to our hotel in the semi-darkness, I could barely believe how tired I was. I fell into bed and was sound asleep in minutes, even Hari’s riotous snoring didn’t disturb me.
The next day was the final riding day, hallelujah. Our first stop was the UCI Headquarters in Aigle. I was curious to see this place having heard so much about it. Alan was a personal friend of former UCI president Pat McQuaid and still worked for the organization in their women’s development program. Over the years I’d heard plenty of stories from him regarding the workings of the UCI. Of course it took us the better part of the morning to reach the UCI center but it was well worth it. The building is structured around an impressive velodrome with the offices and everything else all tucked neatly in, surrounding it. There is even a nifty BMX track outside and of course, a major bike path rolls right past it.UCI VelodromeThe upper part of the velodrome is a sort of museum, lined with posters recounting the story of professional racing through the decades. We took a long visit moving from one exhibit to the next, reading and photographing everything. A lone rider circled the track silently as we walked about. I should mention that it was a Sunday morning and we simply walked in, the only person present in the building besides the rider on the track was a woman working in the cafeteria. UCI Poster Just in case you were curious, all traces and references to a certain American rider whose initials are L.A. have been removed. Sort of reminded me of Lev Trotsky in the old USSR, once a hero of the revolution, by the time Stalin was in power his image had been removed from all official photographs. Though I’m not inferring any connections between what happened to LA and what happened to Trotsky. LA hasn’t had to flee in fear of his life and I doubt seriously if he’ll be assassinated in Mexico with an ice-axe the way Trotsky was.

It took longer than anticipated to get everyone out of the building and back on their bikes. Again we were starting the bulk of the ride near mid-day and we had to reach Chamonix that afternoon.

A group shot in front of the UCI HQ in Aigle.

A group shot in front of the UCI HQ in Aigle.

The bike path running by the rear of the UCI building was great, what else would you expect? Unfortunately we set off in the wrong direction and only discovered the error about 10 km further on. Turning around we roared off heading south-west on the final stretch of the week’s adventure. Soon I was noticing a familiar grumbling coming from my stomach, it was well past 1:00 PM and we were more or less in the middle of nowhere. How was Alan going to save the day here? I had faith though, he had managed to find the most amazing lunch places the entire week. As we began approaching the hills that would eventually become mountains, I noticed a dearth of towns or villages. Alan blasted off the front in search of food, our outrider on a mission. Twenty long minutes later as we came around a curve we saw him motioning to us, “follow me” he yelled and rode off towards some nondescript buildings a few hundred meters away from the main road. Even my practiced eye would have glanced at this cluster of buildings without discerning any sign of a restaurant. Alan on the other hand had done it again, this time he had scored a pizzeria. Not only a pizzeria in the middle of nowhere, well past lunch time in Switzerland, but one equipped with a wood burning oven AND an Italian pizzaiolo. (The person making the pizzas) You’ll forgive me for not having any photos of this place. As we took our seats the wait for pizzas was short, they began to arrive pronto, already sliced. We didn’t have to await single pizzas this way but ate as they came, reaching in a grabbing a piece. The number of pizzas was impressive, I was awed that this guy would have had that many balls of dough ready to go and the oven at the right temperature to turn them out assembly line fashion. I felt like a new man after that lunch. This was food that my body knew and fully appreciated. I was now ready for the final act, the Col du Forclaz.
A vineyard in southern Switzerland

A vineyard in southern Switzerland

Fate decreed however that the curtain would close with some drama and the mountains are the best place for drama on a bike. As we gradually climbed into this corner of the Alps the all too familiar sight of dark clouds was gathering above us. I was thankfully near the front of the group as some of the stronger riders, natural climbers, decided to have a go at the climb. My radio crackled in my ear, telling me it was my job to stay with the riders and meet the rest of the group at the top of Forclaz. Grazie! I wanted to yell. With any luck we would get there before the rain did. And with my cajoling and encouraging them, we did. Though we were caught in a violent rain/hail storm the last kilometer, rushing into the restuarant at the pass. The temperature dropped significantly in a matter of minutes, strong wind sending the rain almost sideways as thunder crashed. I felt a bit guilty about the rest of the group that I knew was being lashed by the storm, some of them with very little in the way of foul weather gear. I on the other hand had my Rapha vest as well as their rain jacket, please forgive this plug for their clothing but it really works excellently.

Of course it took forever before the entire group was on top. So long that the initial storm had passed and another one was moving in. Knowing that we had a long, cold descent awaiting us, I did my best to hustle people to prepare for it. Amazingly the two Chinese guides were relaxing, drinking coffee and chatting as we watched the dark clouds move closer. Alan and I insisted at this point, a full scale mutiny was forming. We convinced the weaker, older and the most tired riders to get in the van and got the rest of them rolling. I noticed Kenji and Debbie hurrying to pay their bill as we left, descending away from the pass. The cycling Gods smiled upon us that afternoon, the storm passed over us without unleashing its fury and our descent was almost rain free. Though the roads were still wet from the previous rainfall, drenching us to the bone. Still, no one went down, we got off the climb and onto flatter terrain and were closing in on Chamonix. Sure, we were wet, cold and totally wiped out but the final kilometers flew by without any issues. Once we reached the hotel we had to deal with getting everyone’s bike disassembled before dinner. The proverbial fire drill.

I went straight to bed after the goodbye dinner, too tired and needing some downtime to participate in the wild final evening. A long day of travel was in front of me the following day, by train no less. Alan needed the van for another week, they had a second group showing up late the next day, again in Zurich. I would have four days off before beginning a 10 day stint of guiding on home roads. That will be the next story.

A church in southern Switzerland.

A church in southern Switzerland.

The riding didn’t become really challenging until after Yverdon-Les-Bains. Sure, there were climbs but almost everyone made it each day on their bikes to the next hotel. And the weather held which was great. Both before and after that week’s tour Switzerland was hammered by rain. I can’t recall more than a few sprinkles while on the bike, we were really lucky. On day 3 we rode from Yverdon to Lausanne where we had lunch, another improvised arrangement that went off without a hitch. Getting through Lausanne in mid-day traffic was a real experience. The term “herding cats” was never more apt with regards to how the guides felt. Somehow we managed to stay together, the radios were worth their weight in gold here.

Lunch stop in Lausanne

Lunch stop in Lausanne


Alan and I sat in a park with the bikes as everyone ate lunch, for us it was a respite. After lunch, 90 minutes later, we rode along the lake until reaching the Olympic Museum. Everyone trundled in for an additional hour there. Actually the statues on the grounds in front of the museum were worth the price of admission. The museum itself was underwhelming. I did have a thrill when I set off an ear spitting alarm by touching the saddle of a racing cycle from the early 1900’s. One of my more embarrassing moments. What was I thinking? In Switzerland of all places, I’m lucky they didn’t arrest me.
Olympic Museum Sculpture

Olympic Museum Sculpture


From there it became interesting. I figured we would be riding along the lake to the hotel, little did I know. Our route took us climbing into the hills above the lake, up into some impressive vineyards. Then up, and up some more. We eventually topped out and began descending but by then a good portion of the group had been convinced to take a train to the town where the hotel was, Bulle. Damn good thing too, as we didn’t arrive until dinner time. 12 hours and 115 km kilometers after leaving Bern. The van’s bike rack came in mighty handy then, it was full to capacity with 12 bikes. Not to mention the trailer towed behind, hauling everyone’s luggage.
More Olympic Sculpture

More Olympic Sculpture


Day 4 was another interminable march, 110 km and 12 hours on the bike. I was developing a Zen like approach, it was useless to try and push the pace. The only thing we could do was try and make it all happen seamlessly. That meant not losing anyone, making sure the rest stops went as quickly as possible and staying on course. Riding “coda” or the tail end of the group, was a real effort. For the slowest riders were really slow, so slow that by now we knew after lunch there would be a steady selection of people getting into the van. But folks were loathe to climb off because this ride was a fund raiser, that’s right. They had raised money by pledging to cover the distance from Zurich to Chamonix in order to help construct a potable water plant in the mountains above Hong Kong. The funny thing is that slowest people were also the youngest, the guys with super heavy MTB’s.

Day 5 began easily enough, to start out we rode about 20 km to the village of Gruyere, famous for its excellent cheese. Of course ancient Gruyere was at the top of a hill, as all ancient villages seem to be. Once there we had our first extended stop of the day.

Gaga with a local in Gruyere

Gaga with a local in Gruyere

Roughly 90 minutes later we were finally ready to roll out and I was hoping we would make some progress towards the next hotel. That lasted less than 10 minutes as it was decided to stop at the Gruyere factory/museum just a few kilometers down the road. Another hour went by. Now it was later morning, soon it would be lunch time. I was becoming discouraged, I had to admit it even to myself. The planned route had us riding over Col du Pillon which topped out a just over 1800 meters, full distance was 100 km. Fortunately Alan knew of a short cut which lopped 40 km off that and avoided Pillon and we convinced Kenji(the tour leader)that it was the only way to get everyone to the hotel before midnight. There were no trains on this route. Having made that decision, Alan took over half the group with him and the remaining riders came with me. We rode through the famous Swiss ski station town of Gstaad on our way to Col du Pillon, for some reason I expected something more. Gstaad seemed quite provincial to me, the only glitz visible were the numerous designer label shops catering to the truly wealthy. And the big budget cars, several Ferraris passed us on our way up Pillon.
Swiss mountain village

Swiss mountain village

After we made it to the Pass there was a nice long descent awaiting us which went smoothly. Now we began our daily race against darkness. All the stopping coupled with the climbs and route distance were catching up to us. Not to mention the continued photo opps, each one seemed to take handfuls of minutes. I called Alan on my phone during one of the forced stops and asked him where he was, he told me they had just arrived at the hotel. Lucky him. I wanted to know how the final part of the route was and he said it was all up hill. Great. I had the name of the hotel and I was leaving, a guide mutiny. I explained the situation and with a bit more conviction than is normal for me, I said it was time to MOVE! They did too, I told myself I should have used this approach sooner. Coming up next……..the final days in Switzerland OH! Happy Thanksgiving!

Raise your hand anyone who has pronounced those words to someone they were dating or in a relationship with. I’m sure I did a some point. This will be the first time I’ve said it to a group of people, the readers of this blog. More than one of them has encouraged me to get back on the horse and try to stay on this time. I was shamed beyond words, literally, and was frozen in time. I’ll spare you all the introspection and drama. So, let’s try this again. I’ll take things more seriously this time around. Perhaps some catching up is in order…

A lot of asphalt has gone under our wheels since I last was on these pages, too much. However, I’ll try and back-track my way through them and bring people up to date. We were already well into the season the last time I posted, the Giro had ended and the riding was good. My friends from Boulder had left for home and my next assignment was to be a new one, guiding for a group from Hong Kong, in Switzerland no less. I accepted the job for several reasons, first and foremost because it had been brought together and organized by an old friend and colleague, Alan Wholhuter. Alan is a cycling gypsy. Originally from South Africa he’s lived and worked all over the world, as a pro cyclist, guide and national team coach. I worked together with him guiding on many tours over a span of five or six years for Connie Carpenter and he and I got along great. He’s settled in Serbia of all places After stints as the national team coach for the South African Women’s National team as well as developing track racing programs in many countries, including Serbia. He has an extensive track racing background, he raced for years on the six-day circuit here in Europe.

He wrote me last winter to involve me in the Hong Kong group and as things progressed and were finalized, plans were made. I traveled to Zurich to meet Alan and two of the other guides, Serbians, who would be working with us. It was my first time driving to Zurich, in a van no less, and I discovered just how long that takes. All day! By the time we’d made it out of the Zurich airport and to our hotel it was late, almost too late to get dinner. The Swiss aren’t quite like the Italians, flexible I mean. Fortunately for us the soccer World Cup was in full swing so the streets were full of people and we managed.

Alan had already done a full ride through of the week’s itinerary months earlier, a trip that would take us from just outside of Zurich to Chamonix, in France. We had two days to do some scouting of restaurants and routes for the first part of the tour, a chance to catch up and do some great riding without clients to shepherd. Though I’d been to Switzerland before I hadn’t ever been able to ride there. I discovered that cyclists are quite respected, the network of cycle-paths is extensive and well marked. A real change from Italy.

After two days that went by in a wink, the 30 riders from Hong Kong arrived. We met them in a park near a lake and it was strange to see 30 people setting up bikes in a grassy field. That took all morning, it also gave me a chance to check out this mix of cyclists. I discovered that there were more women than men and the group was made up of all ages, from 20 to 70 years old and everything in between. The bikes too covered the full range, from MTB’s to fancy carbon road bikes. This promised to be an unusual tour! Before setting off on our first ride we had lunch at a lake side sandwich stand that we had arranged for earlier. Our first ride would take us around the lake, less than 75 km over mostly rolling terrain, ending in the town of Lucern. There were five official guides on bikes, the three Europeans, Alan, myself and Gaga, a professional racer on the Serbian National Women’s team, as well as two riders from Hong Kong; the organizers of the event. In the van was the Serbian mechanic and driver, Hari. Close to 2 meters in height, Hari and I roomed together, I discovered that he’s an enthusiastic snorer.

When we had done a per-tour ride two days prior the route had taken us 3 hours, I knew it would require more time with the group but even my generous time estimate proved wrong. I think it took us over 5 hours with no official stops other than to re-group. That first day almost turned into a debacle, we were forced to stay in one place for over 30 minutes as one of the Chinese guides (the team leader!) was lost with a few other clients. Bad phone reception compounded our lack of cohesion. That night, once back at our hotel, we had a hastily organized team meeting. Kenji, the team leader, was quite irritated with how the day had gone. I was starting to have a few doubts about the rest of the week if this was how things were shaping up on the first day. Luckily Kenji had brought short-wave radios with him so the next day all of us would have a race radio, the earpiece snugly in our ear.

A Swiss clock tower, must be another photo opportunity.

A Swiss clock tower, must be another photo opportunity.

As this huge group rolled out of Lucern, we relied on Alan up front to verbally direct each guide via radio. Initially it felt cumbersome, probably because in all the years of guiding I had never worked like this. Also, half of the chatter was in Chinese. I was accustomed to memorizing the route before hand so there were no surprises, this was like flying from the seat of your pants. After a few hours however I found that it worked. The pattern was that each guide would wait at intersections until he or she could make eye contact with the following guide, that way no one could ride off course. In that way the first part of day 2 went off without a hitch. What soon became evident however was that these riders had no idea of how to proceed as a group. Nor even a concept that we needed to stay together. All of them had cameras and were absolutely crazy about taking photos, as soon as one rider would hop off his bike, everyone behind him would do the same. Often 20 minutes would go by before we could get them up and going again. Near lunch time I recall asking Alan via radio where the lunch stop was planned. “What plan?” My heart sank as I realized that from there until Chamonix each and every lunch stop was going to be improvised. It seemed an impossible task. I wouldn’t have dreamt of trying such a thing in Italy. We were too many people, more than 30, how could we hope to find eating accommodations on the fly, in Switzerland? I began imagining a mutiny when folks became too hungry to ride, no hope of finding a restaurant willing to accept the group. In the middle of the Swiss countryside no less. But I had forgotten Alan’s ability to pull rabbits out of his cycling cap. Not only did he find a restaurant that day, well past 1:00 PM, he managed to do the same thing day after day. As lunch time approached he would take off up the road, it resembled a break-a-way. He would ride ahead until he found something suitable, go in, and mention that 33 cyclists were coming that way with big appetites. Might they be interested in having them to eat? It was the number that snared them, it was simply too tempting to turn away. Sure, some days we would only eat a couple of sandwiches but no one ever complained or even seemed put out. That was a quality that continued to astound me every day, these people were always in a good mood.

A few of the riders. Note their aversion to sun exposure.

A few of the riders. Note their aversion to sun exposure.


Being Switzerland, the route went up hill and down. The amount of elevation gain each day was considerable, often close to 2000 meters, on a few days well over that amount. Add in the incredible variation in riding ability, the types of bicycles and the desire to stop to take photos countless times, the hours in the saddle added up. On several days we rolled in to our hotel at dusk, one day it was actually dark. A pattern became established, each day would turn into a marathon of between 10 and 12 hours on the bike. Once you added in the breakfasts before the ride and the dinners afterward, the days were upwards of 15 to 16 hours long. Coming up…SOON…the rest of the story.

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!

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