After my boys Ed, Ale and Matt had set the roadside bar rather high this year, I staked claim to the final week, and was not completely without some pressure to come up with some good goods. Luckily, Italy never disappoints when it comes to serving up the unexpected, unimaginable, or even the unwanted.
With each day’s stage running through countless towns and villages, it’ll likely pass by your house one day soon.
After the middle week’s 3-day slugfest in the Dolomites concluded with Contador even further ahead, and the race of attrition sinking its teeth in for a big bite of rider morale, The racing resumed with the (once again) uphill test of the ITT from Belluno to Nevegal.
After a nice drive down the valley from Alleghe, I’d arrived with enough time to check into the hotel, dump the bags and set off to the start well ahead of the actual racing – a good feeling after a few days of playing catch up.
Wandering through the small and ancient streets of the bella cittб Belluno – I spied a small cafй serving up birra and Panini con porcetta. With no pressing engagements, this seemd as good a place to start my day as any, so in I went. The deal on these pork Panini is that they’re often best taken atop a long mountain climb – after a good couple of hours of suffering – when the best thing to restore tired muscles and a sagging spirit is indeed a cold brewski and a salty meat sandwich. Since I’d yet to score one of these tasty torpedos, I pulled up and shelled out my 5 euros for the “Giro Special”.
While eating roasted and cured pork in any part of Italy is pretty much a guaranteed treat, this bun was a tad too crusty, and without any sort of mustard or moist accoutrement to balance the textures, the overall snack was on the dry side. No worries – that cold beer made up for any lack of moisture, not to mention adding a certain calm to my next phase of the day.
Driving the TT course was a great exercise in seeing the race through the fan’s eyes. There wasn’t a bare section of the entire 12.8km corsa, and the tifosi numbered in the thousands on the climb proper, with the biggest numbers being concentrated at the top.
One of my favorite parts of following a rider up a climb, is the slower speed lets you really soak in more of the roadside action, and even interact with the fans. While it’s not uncommon for fans to follow the race for several stages, it’s always an unexpected surprise when you see the same folks day after day, in a complelety different part of the country.
I spotted this Aussie van about halfway up the TT climb – and instantly recognized it as the same guy I saw on the Passo Giau two days earlier. Unfortunately our place between two riders didn’t allow me to pull over for a quick hello.
Up at the top, we had a good couple of hours to watch the race from a variety of locations then get dug in just past the finish to see the main gc men arrive. I’d been wondering what happened to Denis Menchov this year – after all he did stomp the competion rather assertively back in 2009. And with his GEOX team not being invited to le Tour (as if that accomplishes anything other than lowering the overall level of competition), I’d expected to see both him and 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre firing on all cylinders here. The reality was somewhat less than inspired.
Then I captured this shot of Menchov seconds after he’d crossed the line in Nevegal. The sweat and snot dripping off his pained looking face said it all – he’d left nothing on the mountain. He even managed to grab 7th on the stage, while losing 52 seconds to Contador. In fact, by the finish in Milano – Menchov’s 12:18 deficit to Bert was still good enough for 8th overall. Nothing to write home about for a former winner, I know, but at least the numbers said his heart was still in it, even if his legs weren’t.
After the stage we got stuck in a traffic jam trying to get of the mountain, and I didn’t get the story posted till just before 10PM. I was in dire need of some dinner, but this being a Tuesday night – there just weren’t a lot of places left open. Luckily, a helpful concierge directed me to a local place open until 11:00, which left enough time for a much needed negroni at the bar under the hotel.
It never fails – every Giro I have one night, (at least), when dinner is so late it might as well be breakfast. It was in fact 11:00 when I placed my order and dialed the cell for my daily check in with Mrs. Pez back home. There were still a few patrons in the diner, but as things were winding down, the family who owned and ran it were settling into their own late meal at the big table in the corner. I guessed there were three generations of the owner’s family, all of whom seemed to be working in the place. With my own work done and still needing some time to unwind, watching the locals in action was the perfect antidote to my huge day which had started some 17 hours before.
I’ll often use these late meals as reward for a successful day, and even though it was an hour past my normal back-home bedtime, I dined like a king – ordering up a plate of the best tasting spaghetti carbonara I’d had in recent memory, followed by the tagliata di manzo – grilled steak, served in sliced strips with arugula, and topped with shaved grana padano cheese. I can’t get enough of this stuff. Washing it down with a ‘mezzo’ of the house red, and balance and goodness in my world had been restored by the time I went lights out at 1:00AM.
It’s always cool passing the team vehicles as they move from stage to stage, and Vittoria Tires move to assume the neutral support at the Giro was a great way to showcase the brand’s big rolling billboard.
And so goes the life of a ‘roadside reporter’… The next day was another blockbuster: use the morning to clear a few days of emails then hit the road for a cross country transfer to connect with the race in Bergamo. The thing about transfers – even if they’re only 200-300km on paper is that they just take way longer than you’d think. And it’s not like the driving is relaxing – I’ve got better things to do at the Giro than tour the autostrade – so it’s 160-170kph as often as possible.
And that means that unlike driving back home where it seems so many drivers pull into the passing lane and simply nod off, blocking traffic as if it’s their God-given right to impose their personal speed limit on anyone behind them – the driving experience in Italy is intense. Sure, people tend to drive way faster here than at home, but I hypothesize that it’s because people are driving a lot faster that they’re also a lot more aware of the road and other drivers around them, making for an overall safer driving experience. I’m just sayin…
And while this day of transferring was another long one that went to 1:00AM after a welcomed dinner with PEZ-Pals Gary Vasconi & Andrew Weber of Capo Apparel, the post transfer pace slowed down to include a cool beer in the Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo’s Cittб Alta – the setting alone enough to qualify as one of life’s better moments.
Italy is a country and indeed Italians, are a people – defined by the senses – the goal here is to look better, dress better, sound & taste better – everything resonates off some emotional check point. I’m convinced that there was no better tasting polenta in the entire Lombardia region cooked the afternoon of stage 17, than that cooked by this family at their house in the tiny village atop the Passo di Ganda. This dish holds such importance to the region, that naturally it was a man in charge of the cooking while two women who would normally take care of these things were relegated to supporting roles in the preparation of the afternoon’s prima piatta.
Piazza Pontida in Bergamo – where I once lived.
Back in Bergamo that night, I took a pre-dinner stroll around the town where I once lived. It dates back several hundred years, and was a great place to live – only about 150,000 people, the all mod cons you’d want to live comfortably, plus access to miles of flat, rolling, hilly, or even mid – bigger climbs right out your door. Superb. I love it when the Giro comes here.
But it wasn’t till after I’d snapped this shot of the GEOX display in one of their shoe stores in Bergamo, that I really smiled. It’s great to see a company as big as GEOX put their dollars and support into a pro bike team… now if they could just find someone in retail who knows how to build a bicycle.
And I’ve learned over the last 7 years that as much fun as covering the Giro is, and it is a blast – there’s a toll that the stress and effort of each day takes that if not managed correctly, can turn the trip into a torturous trek. Of course, these same forces, when handled correctly make me appreciate the moments that are the best part of each day. It’s no secret that one of my favorite times of every day at the Giro comes after the story is filed and I can relax for a few hours (before doing it all again tomorrow), and enjoy the rewards of a good cocktail and delicious meal (both of which are easy to find in this country).
Staying inside the hotel room, alone, is no way to spend any more time than is needed for sleeping or some work. You gotta get out there. Mix it up with the locals – join the fray! There’s a bar I found in Pinerolo at the 2009 Giro – as empty then as it was this year. I can’t tell you why – the room is gorgeous – tall arched ceilings, painted details, and the negronis always impress. Pinerolo is a town worth a visit – it’s sort of the foothill gateway to the French Alps, and will host a finish of this summer’s Tour, but it’s got a rich history and every shop and hotel I’ve seen there has an assortment of historic photos from the last 2 centuries that really show the town as it was – and in great Italian fashion, the center has been preserved.
No meal is complete without a glass of Italy’s best contribution to the world of distilled spirits – grappa.
As the days & weeks separate me from the 2011 race, I spend more time remembering the great food I always eat there and just can’t seem to find anywhere else. On the rare times when I can sit down to eat mid-day, one of my favorite lunches is the cottoletta – which can be either chicken, pork, or veal, and is lightly breaded before a quick pan fry in olive oil. I usually take it with roasted potatoes or grilled vegetables, along with a beer, and an espresso machiatto to finish. Doesn’t stuff you, and tastes so good.
Finishing up with this food theme – on the Monday after the race ended, I still had a story to file, and after a morning combing the shops for Mrs. Pez, I was lucky to find the last open pizzeria near my hotel. It was 2:00 PM, and the place was empty, but since the door was open, I stuck my head in to ask about a table. The owner sized me up and asked what I wanted… “justa pizza” I said.
“No problem – right this way – any table you like!”
I ordered up this delicious quattro stagione, a cool beer, and got down to editing photos. Meanwhile, the owner settled into a table across the room and tucked into his own lunch.
You gotta love this place, country, these people… there’s always time for food.
Thanks again to everyone for joining us for our Giro coverage – and it’s only two short weeks till we land in France for our annual summer pilgrimage that is le Tour.
Until that craziness starts, let’s do like the Italians and take a moment to enjoy something simpler…
– Richard Pestes