Tuesday, 9 December 2014


May 2006

The journey to Genoa had been a long but ultimately thrilling one, with the ride around the starting location of stage 6 of the Giro and some fantastic food for good measure.
We reached the Ligurian capital in the evening. My parents' house is not far from the centre and only a stone's throw away from the football stadium. I was exhausted but thrilled to see them. Mike, my adventure companion, needed some help to make sense of our quick conversations in Italian. While recounting our journey at the kitchen table we savoured more delicious food made by mamma's own hands and some helpings of local focaccia, an amazing delicacy not found anywhere else, accompanied by a few glasses of wine.
During the conversation I learnt that next day my dad would travel to Casale Monferrato, between Milan and Turin, to play the cello for an amateur orchestra travelling there for an evening concert. He had been a professional cellist for Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice for the good part of 30 years and since his retirement he has kept his skills sharp by playing for a small local orchestra, made up of wannabe and retired musicians.
Quick on the calculation, I came up with the idea of riding there late morning, so we'd have time to catch up with some sleep. My dad simply thought we were crazy and, not knowing how we were on the bike, he was more than concerned we wouldn't make it, thus worrying him while he had to concentrate with the task at hand.
After a rather heated discussion (I had to reassure Mike this is how Italians sort things out), I seemed to convince him that it would be ok. My parents would drive there, then, after the concert, my dad would come back on the orchestra's bus while Mike, myself, my mum and the two bikes would squeeze in the Fiat Punto.
I quickly worked out a route and planned to set off around 11am.
Genoa is a big city, with about three-quarter of a million people living in a 20km strip along the Mediterranean coast. The buildings reach inland through valleys carved by mostly dry seasonal rivers, grabbing the slopes in improbable fashion, seemingly climbing on top of each other. It is steeped in history with maritime hegemony during the middle ages and up to the 19th century thanks to the position of its port. It is still one of the busiest in the Mediterranean.

But we would leave the sightseeing for the next evening, for now we were heading out of the city, past the arc of mountains, theatre to the Giro dell'Appennino and various Giro d'Italia stages, then onwards through the plains which are the core to Italy's food supply.
The first 30 or so kilometres were going to be the hardest. Up to that point, the highest climb either of us had done had been Box Hill so we were going to climb double that in one go. Not a big deal to many experienced cyclists, but to us, back then, it was a daunting prospect.
First we had to cross Genoa, through the busy centre, then west towards the Airport crossing the port and a series of industrial estates and then north where the Apennines goaded us to challenge their gradients.

Genoa's main square, Piazza de Ferrari
The port, divided between cargo and cruiseliners

There's something magical as a child when back home after a long holiday, you start looking around the rooms for familiar things and smells. It was the same for me with the bike. I finally had the chance to ride in my patch, which I had always deemed impossible. Rather excited, I set off at a searing pace, causing Mike to question my sanity. I blamed it on our brand you pink jerseys. That didn't last long, of course, and the traffic made sure our speed would be more sedate.
The first thing that I noticed was how much more tolerant drivers were to us on the bike. Perhaps it was because we were more of a novelty than the norm. Riding around the region of Liguria it's only for the experienced riders, as there are not many flat sections while climbs spring up from every direction. We entered the valley that would take us to our big climb of the day. By big I mean less than 500 metres, still...

As we left the village of Pontedecimo (where the local cycling club organises the Giro dell'Appennino) the road started going up, winding its way to the outskirts of Liguria, towards the Passo dei Giovi. We managed to stay together and once at the top we took the customary photos to immortalise the moment. After that we had a very fast ride on the long downhill, which would take us to Busalla, where we would then ride along the river Scrivia to Serravalle. Here came the first deviation as we were heading towards the Piedmont region.

Along the river Scrivia
The road here was flat as a pancake, hot and with slight headwind. We passed Novi Ligure, home to one of the most famous museums dedicated to cycling, but couldn't stop as we wanted to make sure we'd get to Casale on time. The course was straight, flat, wide and for that reason we kept our speed high.
We caught up with a local rider who then latched onto us, only to be dropped irreverently a few minutes later. Our speed there was around the 36km/h average and we reached Alessandria earlier than expected.
This is not a particular spot of interest for the main tourist trade, even though its centre is rather attractive. The central square, Piazza della Liberta', now basically a car park, is flanked by trees and a myriad of shops set under its colonnade along the perimetre.

As we were early we decided to have lunch and opted for an unostentatious little restaurant on the corner of the piazza. We ordered sandwiches and beer and tried to soak in the rather debonair atmosphere, the cool shadow of the colonnade more than welcome as the temperature was above 30C.
All good things come to an end and we had only done 90km with 35km more to go. Legs felt a bit tired at this point, not so much for the amount of riding we'd done but for a combination of speed, tiredeness from the long journey in the car the previous day and all the exhilaration for the whole adventure. Mike was keeping a steady pace and as the road ramped up rather gently, my legs started to ache. Thankfully that didn't last long and as soon as we passed a more than welcome fresh tunnel at the top, it was all downhill/flat from then on. We entered Casale Monferrato to a hero's welcome as soon as my parents saw us. The streets were cobbled but with a less jarring type of stone than the ones used in the Northern Classics.

The end of the ride, Casale Monferrato
After taking a few snaps to prove we were still alive, we headed to the car to change. This time we made sure no girls' school was within sight (see previous post). Casale is a charming town with 17th to 19th century architecture as the main outlook.
I carried my dad's cello for him through the narrow roads and while they would then rehearse for a couple of hours before the concert, Mike, my mother and I went for a pizza nearby.

Carrying my dad's cello
The concert was magical, the church proved a perfect setting for Bach and co. It was nice to see my dad at play once more as for me, living so far away, the chances to attend are rather slim. I could see he was happy to have us there. The acoustics of the vaulted ceiling reverberated the chasing sounds of the choir and the orchestra, in a musical dance of vibratos and timbre, joining them to form a smooth, velvety melody delivered to the people in the nave.
The day had not finished for us as we had to drive back to Genova and once we dropped mum at home, we retraced our steps all the way to the east of town to collect my dad from the coach's final stop near the airport.
Rather than being too tired once we hit the beds we were only planning next day's trip along the Ligurian coast, when we would tackle Monte Fasce, close to 800 metres in height and with a 9km climb from sea level.

ride length: 122km
ride time: 3h52m
average speed: 31.5km/h
total elevation gain: 1,099 metres
highest point: 480 metres

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