One bonus of having no direct flights to Italy from Vancouver means that I ease into the Euro-experience with at least one stop in another country – this time it was a quick transfer through London’s Heathrow airport. The upside is that when the ever-cloudy English skies cooperate, one is rewarded with spectacular views of one of the world’s great cities.
On my flight in, the skies parted just in time to reveal Buckingham Palace – which played backdrop to the Tour de France prologue in 2007. Another memory I can’t escape is hearing a tourist enthusiastically lose his lunch during the famous changing of the guard. Mrs. Pez and I were there on holiday a few years ago, and coincidentally recorded the splashy soundtrack while videotaping the Queen’s daily ritual.
It wouldn’t be the Giro without a negroni, …every day.
After 5 years of trying, and several trips to the continent, I’ve surrendered to the fact that there’s no easy way to shift my internal clock by 9 hours. This year I managed to sleep most nights, induced by a mix of prescribed sleep aids and booze, and full days that made sure I had not one ounce of wake-time left in my body by day’s end.
Day 1 for stage 8 to Bergamo was ‘all systems go’ from dawn, as we rode the final 100km of the corsa, then got onto race coverage from the classically Italian ‘old town’ of Bergamo’s Cittб Alta.
Bergamo’s Cittб Alta gets back to normal after stage 8.
I lived here for a spell 11 years ago, and I love returning to stop in at my favorite restaurants and bars. I walked back up the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle to find dinner within the old city’s walls, and not much was left of the day’s proceedings except a lot of garbage, and crews pulling down what was left of the finish village. The town was at last peaceful, and I was good ‘n ready for my first negroni of this tour…
My Day 2 was completely reinvented at dinner the night before. A 5:00AM wake-up call to ride the Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi today was re-worked into Plan B to see the race in Milano, and catch up on some work. No matter how you plan it, there’s no avoiding getting behind with posting our reports, and somewhere on my Tours I always need a day to ‘catch up’ – it’s just usually not the second day…
My catch-up efforts were somewhat aided by the ‘non-stage’ 9 in Milano, as hot as it was boring to watch. By the scheduled finish time of 5PM, they still had 3 laps to go, so just before I went in search of a cold beer and air conditioned bar, I snapped a pic of some photogs’ cameras, idly pointed at the big screen… hopelessly waiting for something to happen.
The Day 3 plan of a big ride in the Alps also needed a re-work due to closures of the passes of the Agnello and Izoard, but my inspection of the final climb for stage 10 was the perfect antidote.
The haze had lifted and the clear skies made the snow-capped Alps even more impressive. I was struck by the region’s beauty as I drove to the stage start in Cuneo, (Day 4 for me) and the town’s spectacular backdrop.
This shot missed my roadside post from Stage 10, but serves to show a certain reality to our Roadside ramblings – the glamour of chasing the Giro loses a bit of shine when you’re parked in an exhaust filled tunnel somewhere on the autostrada. Trust me – there’s no buffet lunch, big screen tv’s or press room wifi here…
For Day’s 5, 6, and 7 I stayed at the Hotel Stella Maris in Levanto, situated on the second and 3rd floors of one of the town’s couple-hundred year old buildings. The entire hotel is painted in immaculate detail, and each room has 14 foot ceilings decorated by unique frescos like this…
The stage 12 TT corsa’s first climb peaked about 19km after the start, and rounded a corner formerly occupied by an old fortress – now just a crumbling pile of rocks – but also an excellent vantage point to snap a few pics. Mark Cavendish plowed a lonely furrow in the heat, but did not go unnoticed as he made his way by in the first half of the field.
Further along the TT route, just before the descent to Levanto, we passed this pink painted roadside monument. I’d seen it the day before and thought it would make a cool backdrop for some race shots. Atop the pink stones was a handcrafted work of art, and it turned out the artist himself was here to watch the race – that’s him on the left. The ensuing chitchat, fueled by our press creds and cameras, led to this impromptu photo session.
My Day 8 took us from Firenze to Bologna, and a great day with my good Italian bud, Mino – who’d agreed to drive my car for the stage, which took in 5 climbs, including the 777 meter Passo della Collina here at just 35kms in.
Driving the stage is guaranteed good times – just from the roadside sights alone. The streets are pretty much empty, you get to enjoy the countryside and especially the fans, who sit patiently for hours as the race approaches.
The heat seemed to peak on the stage 14 finish climb to San Luca in Bolonga. This 2 km gut buster, with an avg. grade of 9.7% features every year in the Giro del’Emilia. It sits facing the sun, and the fresh black tarmac was almost sticky from the heat – all of the several thousand fans on the climb were pretty much melting. Even the moto–guys were hanging on for dear life…
Watching the riders after 171 kms of hard racing was quite the sight. The leaders pretty much ripped it, but the further down the pack, the more expressive and pained became the faces. Pavel Brutt stuck out his tongue at me like an old hound when he saw my Pez shirt, but LPR’s Alessandro Spezialetti was the best. Maybe he had some family on the climb, but he was watching for someone, and flashed ‘em a huge smile as he passed by. A couple seconds later the smile was gone and he was back on the job… only 1800 meters to go.
And Haid Saddou of Bbox got my prize for most pained effort on the climb. I wasn’t sure if he was gonna make it – but he did: 179th of 180 on the stage, 19:32 behind the winner Simon Gerrans.
Until now, my previous trips to bike races that involved Lance were marked by a distinct lack of Lance-sightings. I recall after two weeks at the 2003 Tour, I only saw him one time. So I planned a mini-mission to snap as many Lance pics as I could, just to pad the archives and see what I got… This trip went much better with several sightings though the week, including my closest on the finish climb to San Luca on stage 14’s Bologna. I’d snapped a decent pic of Lance going up, but then got lucky when I spied him heading back down after the stage. I started shooting and just followed him as he came by… “Lance – how was it?” I called out… But I guess he didn’t hear me.
The Sunday morning after my race-stint ended, I awoke in Bologna to what seemed to be the first truly peaceful moment of my trip. Nowhere to be and all day to get there. Maybe because it was Sunday and the city was still asleep, even at 9:00 AM, Piazza Maggiore was empty. But this cafe was open, and the bleary-eyed barista managed to serve up my cappuccino and brioche promptly.
No visit to Italy is complete without embracing the full food experience – and thankfully it’s impossible to avoid. Although pasta and pizza top the charts when talking Italian cuisine back home, I’ll take a good risotto any day of the week. And in spite of the heat wave that roasted much of the country during my stay, there was no way I was going to miss out on the perfectly cooked Arborio rice dishes. I like ‘em all, but my fave remains the Risotto Milanese – flavoured with saffron and cooked al dente – with just a bite to the rice kernels. It goes best with a nice red wine (I like Valpolicella), but I opted for a chilled pinot grigio to help beat the heat in Milan.
I shot hundreds of photos, and collected as many memories, and no two are ever the same. After covering 5 Giros, I’m already thinking about what next year will hold…
Day 13 and my flight home started with a scenic pass over Lago di Como – a prominent feature of the season ending Giro di Lombardia. Saying arrivaderci to Italy is never easy, but neither is being away from my home and family, who continue to indulge me and this indulgence. They’ve waited long enough for me to return, and now I’ve got just 352 days to enjoy them until next year’s Giro…
Thanks for reading –