Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Italy on a Road Bike and Becoming a 'Roadie'

It seems natural to follow up Italy on an mountain bike with Italy on a road bike; sadly this blog will be in no way chronological. Due to reliance on my frazzled memory it shall be based on what I can recall, when I remember it and the photographs I happen across whilst trawling through my hard drives. I'm not sure if this is a blog crime? If it is, I apologise.

Becoming a Roadie...
I happened across road cycling as a 'cross training' solution and an answer to the issue of sitting on the UK's dire Midlands Motorway Network for some four hours in order to ride a trail for 3 hours. Sadly I live in a mountain biking void in terms of the UK. If you are from The States, think Dakota, Europe? Think Holland. As time and fuel became more scarce/expensive I looked for a way to get some miles in locally without starting and ending each ride with a soul destroying car journey usually involving the M1 at 50mph (which it has been since the immaculate conception) or the M6 at 15 mph, which is the average speed of said strip of misery. A road bike seemed a good idea given the rides start and end at the front door. My employer had joined the 'Cycle to Work Scheme' meaning just one thing, I was getting a Boardman. I'm not a bike snob, I love little steel hard tails with a Pike up front, usually with 'On One' written in the down tube. I still can't tell any difference between SLX and XT, X7 and X9, 105 and Ultegra, that is probably just me so please don't send any hate my way. I will not get onto the Campy debate as I do not want to attract the wrath of The Rapha Rouler Regiment as I may one day need a filling, thus need a dentist. Getting a Boardman meant going to Halfords, not something I had ever done other than to buy bulbs, oil or an in car mini disc player in 2003, consequently devaluing my 1988 VW Golf by eighty quid. I had heard the rumors, brakes falling off, forks on backwards, bars not tightened etc. Upon collecting my Boardman Team Pro (the alloy one) I was not disappointed, the headset contained only upper bearings and front QR was done up so tightly I had to use a breaker bar to get it off. A quick trip back to the 'mechanic' saw me leave with a new bike due to the now knackered front fork, I asked for it 'factory fresh', built it myself and all was well.
My first ride? Attire; baggies, flat pedals, 661 Filter DH shoes, piss pot helmet and a t shirt. Looking the part I headed off, immediately wound it up to 23mph and fell in love there and then. My first corner on crap wired and slightly soft 75psi tyres was a joy, knee down, looking through, accelerate out. Having covered a massive 13 miles I headed home, very happy and a bit worried that I actually enjoyed it. On reflection I'd love riding Susan Boyle, I just love riding. The road bike came to Morzine a month later (more on that later), the transition had begun. I'll write more about the transition in future blogs, thematic if you like?

Italy on 700c (or 650b if you are a midget)

I have taken my road bike to Italy some three times, I'm going to cover all of the trips here as I can encapsulate all of the different trips in one go; I'm handy like that.

First Outing - May 2012

The trusty Boardman made it's way over with me in the hold of an Easy Jet winged bus wrapped up in a cardboard box, the trusty box method has never let me down and all was good on this trip. The destination was Liguria again, I was still 90% mountain biking but for reasons I can't remember decided to take the road bike, I think it was something to do with a broken Marzocchi Fork. The trip was great, great because I knew nothing about road cycling, I wore t-shirts and baggies with a pair of padded shorts, I did not even own bibs. My clunky Shimano AM45's meant I could walk normally upon my many pizza and gelato stops, a few bags of jelly babies were wedged into my pockets and my single 750ml bottle contained just water. Imagine that! Just water, aqua, no powders or tabs, a travesty really. I can't tell you how many miles I did, I never used a computer, I know it was a lot. The sun shone, wind held off and rain fell in Spain. I remember realising that mountain biking had actually made me fairly good at this road malarkey, I was a bit top heavy at the time but found myself overtaking a lot of lycra clad De Rosa riding serious looking gentlemen who seemed a little put out by my soaked cotton t shirt with jelly babies stuck to it. I also remember my baggies getting stuck under my saddle nose on a 40mph decent and my most impressive endo ever performed straight into an olive grove provoking me to reflect on the benefits of the lycra option. I rode the last 70km of the Milan - San Remo but at the time had no idea what the MSR was. I think this trip was the start of my now 80/20 split between Road and Mountain swing (except for winter, 50/50 I'd say). I recall the excellent and patient Italian drivers, chugging away behind me on climbs without complaint and then pulling over to let me past on descents, shouting encouragement into wind swept ears. The roads were great, some of the 1000 metre plus roads get a bit battered by snow in the winter and have to be fixed in spring but most have been sorted by May.
Final word - I think it was so good because I was so clueless. I just rode it and enjoyed it. If you're looking for a first challenging foreign trip, try Liguria; a good mix of coastal rolling roads and inland mountains makes for a varied challenge to test yourself with. The weather is good, food great and drivers friendly. You can also relive stage one of the 2015 Giro on the coastal bike path, a truly beautiful and traffic free route from San Lorenzo al Mare to San Remo. Don't eat on the coast at San Remo (or in San Remo), overpriced and not great quality, Trip Advisor would give it '£££' for an average meal. Stop on the trail and peel off at Arma De Taggia - Head into the beautiful medieval centre, take the second exit from the island with the obelisk in the middle, hit the cobbles and find the pizza place under the via on the left. It's the best!

Second Round - Taking it Seriously - March 2013

My second trip followed spinal surgery the previous August which had/has left me dealing with some issues in my left leg. I made the journey from 'London' Luton (this is the trade description equivalent of 'Paris' Vatry Airport, 131 miles from Paris) to Nice (which is in Nice) on National Express, Britain's Greyhound but not as cool (book your bike onto the coach or perfect negotiating skills before you travel) not really knowing how it would go, sadly Warwickshire does not offer much in the way of 20+km climbs to 1400mt above S.L at 9% average. I had used the turbo a fair bit and ridden for two weeks at a steady pace across Thailand in January,  apart from some ankle issues all was well but I was nervous. During my rehab from a dead lift induced spinal disc explosion I had read 'It's Not About the Bike', we were still in he era of 'B.C' (before confession) and I took some inspiration from his tenacity. I'd bought some DVD's of the Tour and Giro, read some books about cycling as 'training' and not 'fun', discovered Eddy, Fausto and Bernard. Sadly, on reflection I'd changed in terms of my outlook, more performance than piss about.. This time I was armed with a self built Chinese OEM carbon framed sleek black beast, lycra bibs, jerseys with little rear pockets, Ultegra gruppo and silly shoes which make walking difficult. I'm not sure Giant would appreciate the blatant TCR copy but it was a good frame from FLYXii and I can't fault them for service and quality.
A few things I should have researched, adhering to the PPP-PPP doctrine, piss poor preparation leads to piss poor performance. Firstly, it was March. Now, March on the Italian Riviera is usually warm, at sea level. My first ride took in the long 21km to 1200mt above climb into the valley beyond Pantasina intending to drop into Dolceaqua, ride south to Ventigmilia then along the coast to Imperia, turn left, climb back to Prela. Simple. I set off well enough, I packed a jacket and some jam sandwiches and a muesli bar, heading off into the mountains finding my one and a half legs to be working fairly well. After a few hours it started snowing, then hail, then rain, then hail, then snow again. Climbing uphill, hard, in a jacket was O.K, warm enough if not a little moist. Sadly what goes up needs to come down, fast. I began my slippy descent and noticed that my 'windproof' jacket was a bit of a trade description issue, I then started to go a bit blue, shiver a lot and my hands started to cease to perform their agreed function, that being pulling on the brakes. After around 4 km of downhill I had to stop, get off and jump up and down whilst waving my hands around, another 3km, same again... Then I stopped shivering, felt a little odd and a bit sick. After around another fifteen minutes of misery I found a little town called Isolabona, with a bar. Tearing into cake and coffee as quick as the owner could supply it I wedged myself into a radiator and watched the torrential rain hammering the street outside. Sadly the radiator was not turned up to 11 and I was struggling to warm up, some tentative questions around 'how far is Ventigmilia?' sadly revealed I have another 25km to ride. Then, a strange moment in my life, one of pure luck and an affirmation as to how excellent the Italian people are. An elderly well dressed guy who had been enjoying the standard espresso and pastry elevenses addressed me in the queens; 'I would ask you don't ride on my friend'. I was a little taken aback by this advice, my initial response was to agree in entirety with this suggestion but could see few other options, a taxi would be very expense and may not take my bike, there were no buses and again my bike would be an issue. The small Italian continued 'I'm a doctor, retired now but I must tell you, you have onset hypothermia, your blue my friend, if you ride on you will become very sick, I have a car, I will take you to Ventigmilia train station'. My initial thoughts around serial killers were quickly dispelled by the reasoning that I was going to die anyway so I quickly agreed. Sure enough, he put me in his Mercedes, put my bike in the boot and drove me all the way to the station, speaking avidly about cycling all the way there, shouting a little over the sound of the blazing heater fans set to hotter than the sun. He then refused all offers of some damp euros and sent me on my way. One beautiful thing about riding here is the coastal train line, the stations are 10-15 km apart at most, the trains are cheap and all take bikes on board. A quick train trip with ass wedged against a heater saw me delivered to Imperia, a short climb back to Prela in now pleasantly warm conditions saw me home and showered, a Lidl run the previous day meant I was fueled with much pasta an museli, all of which was smashed to pieces with tuna and salad. Pure bliss. So, my first outing was not my best. Lessons learned? Check the weather, it's cold up there even it is warm down there. Windproof jackets are not windproof.

The rest of the trip? mixed, the weather was a bit harsh, I watched the Milan San Remo crest the Poggio from a cosy bar, it needed to be cosy as the weather was awful, check the 2013 MSR on YouTube, note that the riders has to be put onto coaches for some of the race due to weather conditions! I did my first 100mile ride, to Genoa and back along the coast, a glorious ride with some harsh winds but beautiful scenery and cities to pass though. Finale is a great place to stop and get a meal, a real cycling mecca for all the disciplines. Riding back into the mountains is fine in March if you keep to the lower roads (sub 750mt) and the options are endless.

Round Three - Guiding - June 2013

After the mostly successful trip in March I took some friends and my lovely wife over for a guided cycling trip in the same region. We hired a big place in Dolcedo from Blumen Riviera, a great German site for places to stay. Then initial enthusiasm of four friends to ride the Alpi ended up with my wife and one friend bringing a bike, the others decided to leave the bikes and bring suntan lotion/a good book. This trip took in similar roads but at a steadier place, my riding buddy was a naturally larger chap and suffered some. I admired his 'grinta' on the hills and on reflection, I think he enjoyed it, some of it. My wife and I spent a day riding the coastal road, heading east along the Via Aurelia from Imperia to Cervo. Now, I like going fast, pushing hard and taming the hills. However, this ride was most definitely one of the best days I have had on a bike. Mrs M and I gently rolled the smooth tarmac, stopping to look at churches, views, villages and vias. Having ridden the road some twenty or more times I saw beautiful things I had never noticed before, smelt the mimosa and sipped at cappuccinos in piazzas I'd never even noticed other that passing in a blur, avoiding Vespas and Ape's. We chatted about pointless crap, made fun of the Euro fashion victims and chased eachother down the descents without really hammering the climbs. We stopped for gelato and some pie in Cervo, met up with some of our friends who got the train and had a good giggle. Mrs M and the rest jumped back on the train and I rode back to Dolcedo in the falling sunshine, drafting a lorry at 28mph for a great deal of the way. A great day, bought it home that it's not just a out 'training and sport' but can  just be about riding with friends, healing for the soul.
Other things from this trip - Well, everyone did ride, we hired tandems and four seater bikes to ride the above mentioned old train track to San Remo, a great day out, just good fun, good company and good food. Hire the bikes at San Lorenzo where the track starts and just do an out and back as far as you feel, you can grab bikes all along the trail if you stay further along the coast.
We all met up in Albenga to take on the gelato challenge, a perfect follow up after you have explored the great medieval quarter. Head to the coast, find the road just off the sea front, I think it is called Viale Italia, if you can manage an ice cream at every stall on the street, you pass the challenge. It's difficult but not a chore.
 Finally, when in the area, make the effort to grind the climb to Bussana Vecchia, just above Taggia. The village was destroyed in an earthquake in the late 1800's. Sadly most of the residents took shelter in the church shortly before the roof collapsed, killing most inside. The ruins remained deserted until the 1970's at which point some German Hippies moved in and formed a commune. One thing led to another and the village slowly returned to a community, mostly occupied by artists and small craft business owners. It's a fascinating and unique place, the bar and pizzeria overlooking the valley don't accept cash, you can cook your own pizza and grab your own beer, just leave a donation on the way out if you feel like it. The owners are great and will give you the full low down on the community. The pub does a mean BBQ and cafe a killer crepe, you will need it at the top. It's steep.

I've not put routes on here as I did not use GPS but can point you in the right direction, if you need help, get in touch.