Tuesday, 2 December 2014


May 2006

Given how much we had enjoyed our experience in Bath before Christmas, Mike, Sam and I agreed it was time for some serious riding and we needed mountains for that. After scouring the internet for ideas, we settled for the Granfondo delle Alpi, a relatively low key sportive in the Italian Alps, set between Bergamo and the border with Switzerland. Its patron was Gimondi and he was scheduled to ride part of it. As he is one of my childhood heroes, I relished the thought of meeting the legend so we registered.
Then disaster struck.
While playing football during a lunchtime kickabout, I was tackled hard on my right ankle and it swelled up really quickly to the size of a Zeppelin. A brisk, yet hoppy, visit to A&E revealed the break in the bone. This was six weeks before we would leave. Talking to the physiotherapist, she assured me that after resting it for a couple of weeks it would have been ok to start exercising the muscles around it and that cycling would be perfect as long as it wasn't too vigorous. What I actually heard was: "All clear, do as you like".
As we had already paid for the ferry, Mike and I decided to go after all (Sam had by then booked a different holiday). I couldn't predict how much cycling I'd be able to do and I didn't want the pressure of a timed granfondo. The best option for us would be to go to Italy and just ride.
My family lives in Genoa, so with the prospect of free lodging we set off for a trip of cycling indulgence. To keep the costs at a minimum we planned the journey by car, petrol was still cheap then. It would take us 17/18 hours from door to door. Once we crossed the Channel, the route took us through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland and finally Italy. That way, the only tolls we would have to pay would be for a little section in France and once in Italy.
We set off at night and drove all the way, stopping only for pit stops. Once we crossed the border into Italy I started to brighten up as the sun was rising and my spirits lifted at the sight of familiar surroundings. But all the excitement drained from us as soon as we entered Milan's notorious Tangenziale, the ring road around the capital of Lombardy. It takes an insane person to drive on that road, the cars come right up to the boot of your car, leaving just enough space for a hair to fall through the gap; and they flash, constantly, to warn you, no, to shout at you: "Get out of the way you're only doing 130km/h!".
That day, stage 6 of the Giro d'Italia would start from Busseto, home of composer Giuseppe Verdi. This would be a transitional stage, pan flat, one for the sprinters. My parents live in Genoa but they originate from Parma, a mere 30 kms down the road from Busseto. I knew the area well as I was always going there to visit grandparents. An extra hundred kilometres wouldn't make a difference, right? So with 15 hours of driving under the belt already we diverted in an eastward direction and headed for the historic town. Parking around the start of the stage would have been impossible so we opted to park and ride, cycle ride that is, it's not like we were tired or anything.
We stopped in nearby Cortemaggiore, in a quiet road, beside a line of trees. There, we went about changing into our lycra kit. All was well until Mike pointed to the opposite building, and on closer inspection it transpired that it was a girls school run by nuns... we left the place rather quickly as we might have revealed a bit too much of ourselves to the wrong audience.

The atmosphere around the start of a Giro stage was electrifying. Entering Busseto's main square, our eyes were bathed in cycling heaven: stalls, tents set up by the sponsors, the sign-on stage by the start line where riders would parade before riding, cars donning all sorts of merchandise and advertising. Best of all I managed to meet my uncle, a cycling enthusiast, who had come with some friends to enjoy the day. He's really the main inspiration for me to take up cycling as he was always out on rides with friends and club. We then said our goodbyes and carried on perusing the area.

It was the first time I'd seen pro riders close up and I was surprised how trim and fit they looked, all pristine in their fresh kits, seemingly relaxed before the race. Seeing all those kits proved too tempting for both of us and as soon as it was possible we got our hands on a pink jersey. Happy.
We didn't know about neutral zone, therefore, when the peloton finally left the square, we were puzzled at seeing some of the big names, (ahem!) Basso, (ahem!) Di Luca, hanging around another five minutes to sign autographs.

Danilo Di Luca
Ivan Basso

I was panicking for them, not realising that the race proper wouldn't start until a few kilometres down the road, once the peloton was all together and clear of urban areas.
With all the riders, cars, trucks, stalls gone, we were going to ride back to the car, but the weather was glorious, the excitement still lingering and our tummies needed replenishment.
Busseto is set in an area of outstanding food. An array of impressive cheeses (Parmesan) and most of all cured meats, of which Prosciutto Crudo (Parma Ham) is the most famous and rightly protected. If Parma ham is the diva of Italian cuisine, Culatello is the pinnacle. Similar in taste to the former but with added finesse and sensitivity, it looks, when hung from the ceiling to be cured, like a pear-shaped salami. It is prepared between October an February, when the land is cold and foggy, in one place only: Zibello, a tiny village on the shores of Italy's longest river, Po, only a few kilometres away from where we were.

The thought of trying some of the delicacy was too tempting. We headed north towards the river and coasted its banks to the east until we saw the sign for the town and we started looking for a restaurant. I had heard of one called Trattoria La Buca and found it soon enough. We settled our bikes against a little wall and made way for a table in the shade just outside the kitchen.
We ordered Culatello for starters, a plate of pasta and a jug of local Lambrusco. Lambrusco, here, is not at all what it is in the UK. It is red, slightly fizzy and about 11% proof. It is the local water.
We were then greeted, half way through the meal, by the chef and owner Miriam Leonardi. She looked like someone's granny, and we chatted about food, Noceto (a nearby town where my mother was born) and Carluccio, who she knew quite well. Slightly giddy and very full, we left and decided for a longer ride back in order to sober up and digest before the drive to Genoa, 200 km down the road. And so we zig-zagged across the land, which is very similar in outlook to Belgium's, with narrow country roads, 90 degree corners and arable fields.

Wearing that rather attractive ankle brace

Charged by Giro/culinary overexposure, our average speed was a lot higher than usual. The heat wasn't helping, though, as the over 30 degrees temperature was melting parts where there was newly laid tarmac and thus threatening to burst our tyres. We allowed ourself one last stop for a quick photo in Roncole, by Giuseppe Verdi's family house.

Roncole, Giuseppe Verdi's childhood house

I had been driving and most of all riding with an ankle support, which threatened to bust my lovely cycling shoes. Surprisingly the sensation was good as there was no pain, only a tenderness around the calf muscles. Cycling was not going to be a problem.
Finally we were back to the car after a short but obligatory sprint to the town sign.
The adventure had began early and we couldn't wait for the next two days of riding.
Robbie McEwen won that day's stage, Basso would go on to win the Giro.

ride length: 57km
ride time: 1h47m
average speed: 31.9km/h
total elevation gain: 94 metres
highest point: 56 metres

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