Sunday 29 March 2009

Primavera Travels - Milan - San Remo

What had spurred me to go on our trip to Italy had been the prospect of riding the San Remo cyclosportive the day after watching the pros in the Milan - San Remo event. So the Saturday and Sunday of our trip was pretty much focused on that.

The Milan - San Remo pro race does what it says on the tin. It goes from Milan to San Remo in 298km, taking in lots of short climbs especially towards the end of the race. The Miilan - San Remo cyclosportive (also known as the Milan San Remo Cicloamatoriale) starts and finishes in San Remo and lasts 120km taking in the well known climbs that feature in the pro race plus a big climb in the middle of our route. It may have looked like I was taking the lightweight option by only doing less than half the distance of the pros, but this event, for me was not a piece of cake to get through! (More on that later.)


Ady dropped us off at San Remo and we made our way to the Lungomare Calvino where all the stands and gazebos were set up for the big bike event. We headed to the registration tent, where I had to confirm my details and pick up my goody bag prior to racing on the Sunday. I needed to produce my racing licence to show that I was "tesserata", otherwise show a medical certificate. Luckily I'd remembered my British Cycling Licence so that was all pretty straight forward. While there, I caught sight of Barbara Lancioni, the number one female cyclosportive rider in Italy, with her Renofin Sintesi team. Her team was basically a posse of about 8 guys from the same team. They would be responsible for pacing her around the course and ensuring that she won - as they have done for her on many other occasions. Barbara certainly came across as popular and many riders were only too happy to stop and chat to her.

We looked around the area contemplating all the scaffolds and advertising hoardings, as well as the TV cameras that had been set up to capture the all important finish line drama.

The site of the Livestrong banners, as well as the buzz all around the area underlined the excitement in anticipation of the arrival of "The Boss". Apparently Lance Armstrong's appearance in the Milan-San Remo had triggered off a record number of press accreditation pass applications for the occasion.

We headed over to Cipressa which was the nearest interesting part of the course to our base at Molini di Triora. As it's a pleasant hilltop village we also figured that we would have a better chance of seeing the peloton here than on the crowded Poggio di San Remo.

At Cipressa village alot of fans were already out on the road, but it wasn't crowded.

At around 3.30pm we watched a 15-minute procession of official vehicles and police passing through. The appearance of the low flying helicopter signified the arrival of the peloton. The crowd clapped and cheered as the various groups of riders passed.

I could have done the same, but I was too busy trying to snap half decent pictures. I therefore failed to identify anyone in the peloton at the moment they were passing. Nevertheless, this specatacle was by no means an anticlimax.

The Cipressa climb seemed to cause damage to the peloton as there were around 6 or 7 groups of riders that went past, and apart from the 2 front groups they weren't riding so fast. In fact, I was caught out when I put my camera away, thinking that all the riders had passed, but then a gruppetto of around 10 riders bringing up the rear, suddenly came through. Surprisingly, Mr Armstrong was in this group. He was finding things a little tough be this point, and it showed.

Once the group had passed, everyone then filed into the cafe in the village. It was pretty crowded with mainly men. Everyone was focused on the TV screen and everyone watched in complete silence as the riders attacked the Poggio. The sound of people taking sharp intakes of breath echoed around the room as the commentators became excited for Fillipo Pozzatto and Davide Rebellin as they tried to break away. When Mark Cavendish shot out from nowhere to take the victory the commentators were extremely animated - as much with surprise that an Italian hadn't won, as with admiration for the pace that the young British guy had turned.

I have never seen a room empty so quickly as when the largely Italian audience saw Mark Cavendish cross the finish line first. There was no interest shown whatsoever, and the remaining old Italian guys in the bar immediately resumed their game of cards/dominoes and descended into a state of nonchalance. It was just down to me, Fred, and a South African bloke to toast the victory!


Ady gave me an early morning lift to San Remo again. This time I was on my own. The sun was bright and gave me a vigour to want to get going - even if it was 7.45 on a Sunday morning. The sight of loads of Italians at the start of a bike race is always pleasing to the eye - tanned legs, neatly combed hair, brightly coloured lycra enveloping well toned bodies. It doesn't matter which region you come from, how old you are, whether you are tall or small, fat or thin. As long as you're Italian you just look chic! That's my opinion anyway!

We got going to a shower of confetti, the sound of a loud klaxon set off by the Cannibal himself, Eddie Merckx, and lots of applause. We whizzed our way through the twisty streets of San Remo before hitting the main coast road out of town. It was windy and undulating, and I was glad to have the shelter from a peloton of around 50 riders. I didn't see any women in my group - just blokes - mainly Italians plus a few French guys. As ever, people like to talk. Whether it's just to say "ciao", or to ask where you are from.

A French guy kept using the "I've seen you somewhere before" line. I didn't mind speaking to him, but it got on my nerves a little when he spent about 3 miles running through every possible cyclosportive where he could have seen me previously -Were you at the Time Megeve? Les Bosses du treize? Les Beaumes de Venise? La Maratona? Le Daytona?? The One man and his dog??? Le Bla Bla Bla !! I politely replied "non" to all of his questions (which was true) but deep down I just wanted to say "fous moi la paix!" (bloody leave me in peace!). If he had enough energy to ask all these questions he should have been in a peloton a mile up the road from me. And anyway why did he just randomly start speaking to me in French when we were clearly in Italy and I was wearing a jersey that said London Cyclesport? That's what happens when you're just one of a handful of women in a cyclosportive abroad, I suppose.

I was really enjoying the landscape - the sea, the sun, the blue sky. The road was fast and we covered speed very quickly. I was amazed at how quickly we reached Taggia and Imperia, near where we were staying.

Shortly after Imperia the road began to climb significantly and I could feel myself slowing down. We went through a series of tunnels that were taking us upwards. At the other end we saw a sign indicating the start of the climb up to the Passo di Ginestro - 13km at an average of 4.5%. At the same time, many people slowed down to say ciao to a young guy at the side of the road. It was Ivan Basso climbing off his bike and getting into the Liquigas team car! Oh, well having ridden the big one the previous day he had every excuse to stop now! The climb was ok, but I couldn't keep with the pace of the main group and I ended up riding in a gruppetto of about 8 riders. The guys were nice and did what they could to keep us together. One guy who knew the course kept urging us not to go too fast as we would pay for it later on the Poggio di San Remo. The last couple of kilometres of the Passo Ginestro were tough as they steepened to 10%. We were rewarded with some beautiful views though. The descent was really fun and I was glad to have skilful wheels to follow to get back down to the coast.

We found ourselves back in Imperia and on the coast road again. The wind was tougher for us as we were a much smaller group. Also we no longer had vehicles to escort us as we were towards the back of the field. That meant having to ride through all the Sunday morning traffic. Thankfully, Italian drivers show more deference to cyclists than they do to other vehicles!

Cipressa seemed tougher to me than when I rode it the previous day. Probably because I was riding faster and had more miles and more climbing in my legs by the time I reached it. In addition, I had only just recovered from riding up Capo Cervo, and a toughie called Capo Berta. This climb is not well known or even infamous. But for me, it was hard work. Capo Berta was short - only around 3km, but it averaged about 8%. I hadn't anticipated that climb and it was hurting my legs. Cipressa was 5.6km at 4.1% (max 9%) and twisted it's way up to the village where I'd been the previous day. Now I understand why many pros rode up this climb quite slowly. I only had 100km in my legs compared with the 278 they'd have endured, but I was still crawling up the hill!

The descent was lovely - the views were truly wonderful. Even the Italians around me marvelled over the view of the coast and the clear blue sea. Back at Taggia I began to get tired, and struggled to keep with my group. So in Lance Armstrong style, I drifted off the back and took it easy. I would have to get up the Poggio somehow. It was 3.7km long with a 3.7% climb (max 8%).

Not a massively challenging climb, but I was getting the hunger knock and so any effort seemed too much for me at that point. I sauntered up the hill, willing myself to get to the summit before getting some food.

Once at the summit I definitely needed something, as I was sweaty and dizzy - not the best state to be in when you have the sharp hairpins of the technical descent to negotiate. The fruit cake definitely hit the spot and I was able to forge ahead and rejoin a group at the bottom of the descent. I'd been thinking I was in last place as I hadn't seen anyone at all on the Poggio climb. But then, on the run in to San Remo I was caught by a group of around 20 riders - some of whom I had last seen earlier on the Passo Ginestro climb. It was good to meet up with them again, and we crossed the line together. All in all, it had been a fairly sociable event, even if it had been challenging for us at times.

The race was won by ex-pro Sergio Barbero in a sprint finish. The winning woman, as ever was Barbera Lancioni, who apparently only finished 15 minutes behind the winning men - astonishing !!

The San Remo cicloamatoriale was organised by Gazetta dello Sport newspaper. It was well organised and I'd recommend it to any club cyclist who can comfortably ride 100km. They will be organising the Giro di Lombardia cyclosportive in the Autumn, and so I will try and get to that one.

Friday 27 March 2009

Primavera Travels - Menton and Ventimiglia

Menton is such a quaint town. I can definitely see why artists were inspired by this delightful place.

We stayed over at Claridges - well, Menton's answer to it, which was a fairly bog standard b&b along one of the principal roads through Menton. It seemed like a family run affair with all the goings on between the staff that reminded me of the cafe in that French film, Amelie (Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain). There was a young attractive laid back receptionist, and an older woman who appeared to get all stressed out and neurotic when the machines didn't work. There was a man who spoke like he smoked 80 cigarettes a day. I didn't notice anyone eyeballing me and taping my movements, or any strange goings on in the stock cupboard though!

Anyway, the service was good and the rooms were neat enough.

We walked along the main drag that had all the restaurants and shops, rue St Michel. We also walked along the coast, which looked really idyllic - even nicer than Nice.

Dinner was at La Coupole, which I'd recommend as it was very French - so that meant good quality food. Alot of the other places were doing pizzas - probably to cater to the prominent Italian community.

So we left Menton on Friday morning under the beautiful morning sunshine. We continued up the road our hotel was on to start the climb up towards the Col de Castillon. It was pretty easy to find. Our intention was to wend our way up to the mountain village of Sospel.

The scenery changed from semi-urban to village like, then it became deserted and only the dramatic rocky mountains became our friends. Unfortunately the sky turned grim as dark clouds began to emerge. By the time we arrived at Castillon the atmosphere was seriously threatening as it looked like a heavy shower was imminent.

Even though there were other cyclists still heading up the road towards Sospel we made the decision to turn back and return to Menton, as we did not fancy being stranded up at 1200m in what would probably have been snow. We were lucky, as the rain began to fall from about half way down the decent. Even there at 500m altitude it was snowing. I had to take alot of care on the switchbacks as I was on racing tyres and the bike was laden with panniers.

So half an hour later we were back at Claridges in Menton. The reception staff made a lot of fuss about our return: the weather is normally lovely here, they said, what a shame you got wet etc., would you like to sit down and dry off, sorry there's no more breakfast but have a nice cup of coffee to warm you up.
One of the guys there said he'd seen us on the road and was glad we'd made it back safely. When I told him we had been hoping to get to Olivetta San Michele across the border in Italy, he said we did the right thing not to go there. The roads are not brilliant on the Italian side, he said, not like on the French side. It's really narrow, poorly maintained, loads of gravel and you would definitely have got a puncture. No, you're better off staying on the French side!

Once we'd dried off we made our way into Italy on the low road, following the coast line. After about 8 miles we were in Ventimiglia and got there just in time to catch the municipal market. Great place for bargains - clothes, food, household items etc. We figured we wouldn't really need pots, pans or picture frames though, so we just stuck to getting a nice salami tramezzini.
Ventimiglia does not get a good press as many people just pass through the part of the town near the main road.

True, that's nothing to write home about. But the old town of Ventimiglia Alta is very quaint, and definitely worth stopping at if you have the time.

Sadly, we didn't have the time, so just admired it from the distance before pressing on towards Bordighera, Ospedaletti, San Remo, Taggia, Badalucco and our final destination, Molini di Triora.

We were glad see to our friends, Jo and Ady - it had been a long day, what with the hills and the wind we'd had to contend with along the coast. But it was worth it and we'd seen some amazing views.

Local Heroine

Well done to our women's 3,000m pursuit team on coming out top at the UCI World Track championships at the Pruszkow velodrome in Poland yesterday. It was especially exciting to see local girl Joanna Rowsell (on the right of the podium) along with Lizzie Armistead and Wendy Houvenhagel get a gold medal.
It's always inspiring to see people that do your local race achieving so much. Well done, Jo - see you at the Crystal Palace circuit!

Thursday 26 March 2009

Primavera Travels - Cote d'Azur (Part 2)

On we pressed up La Grande Corniche, admiring the view of the coast below us. It was great to be above all the action that was happening in Nice and around. You could be part of it, while not having to be in it. There wasn't much traffic on this section of road - just the odd car and a few motorbikers. I imagine this is a bit of a boy racer route at the height of summer.

Just before La Turbie the road levelled off, before suddenly plunging down. We rounded a rapid succession of lovely sweeping bends, which brought us around rocky outcrops. The view down below us changed and we had our first sighting of Monaco, and the very opulent Cap Martin. We still had a lovely coastline to view and lots of vegetation. But this was now interspersed with lots of blue squares - swimming pools. The architecture was also less quaint as the Principality below us consisted of a number of tower blocks. There they stood - tall and mighty in their audacity, above the Mediterranean landscape - an ugly symbol of the wealth of those who live in Monaco.

Once we were level with Monaco we noticed an increase in the amount of traffic, and from here up to Roquebrune Cap Martin we had to be careful on the descents as we crossed junctions and cars slowed up. The increased traffic might have been due to it being rush hour as well. This would definitely be a road that's worth doing on a quiet day, as the descent from La Turbie to Roquebrune is a real joy. The road alternately twists towards and away from the coast - switchback between jagged rocks and smooth sea, with the sun looking over you the whole time.

Once at Roquebrune we were back at sea level, and it was just a short ride to our resting place for the day in Menton.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Primavera Travels - Cote d'Azur (Part 1)

Our trip started last Thursday with our flight from Heathrow into Nice. A French air traffic controllers strike meant that we didn't touch down in France until almost midday - two hours late.

On our arrival, we dropped off our bike bags in left luggage at the airport, and then set up our bikes ready to ride. Two great things about Nice airport - they have a special bike assembly area for people to set up their bikes, complete with a Tacx stand ; the other thing is the cycle path that leads straight out of the airport around the Baie des Anges and onto the Promenade des Anglais. In no time at all you are cycling along the beach.

That's the path we took which led us to Nice old town (Vieux Nice). We had lunch at a brasserie right opposite the flower market. The lady of the house said they were celebrating 30 years of the being in business, and they were offering aperitifs. Sounded a good plan to us, so we started our lunch with a Kir, before setting about carbo-loading.

Around 2.30pm we bade farewell to the staff and were on our way Eastwards. Snapped quick photos of the beautiful bay and the promenade, zoomed past the port, then we began to climb towards the Observatory. I'd seen this road from my table while having lunch earlier. This should have been a hint not to overstuff myself. But the hearty plate of ravioli they'd prepared was delicious and I don't regret scoffing all of it down.
So I had to haul my somewhat heavier frame up and over the town. First we passed the Observatory, then we were onto the Grande Corniche itself. La Grande Corniche - one of the most famous drives - not just because it was where Grace Kelly was killed, but also because that road was used in lots of old films with romantic couples, all looking chic, driving off into the sunset in vintage sports cars through the French riviera.

And here were the two of us waddling up the hill with our panniers in the afternoon sun. We did not look chic. I can't say there was much romance in the air either. It felt more like I was getting heartburn! Fred kept bugging me asking me to speak in French. I was not ready to speak in English, let alone a foreign language!

After the col d'Eze, we got some great views of the sea. There were lots of pine trees, olive groves and citrus trees. The road was so peaceful. There was hardly a soul around - very few cars and even fewer people. It was great to just be able to pedal freely and peacefully while contemplating the spectacular views over the cote d'azur.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Allez, on y va !

Hang on, I don't need French - more like Italian ! Well, we're flying into Nice before crossing into Italy, so what the hell!

I booked the trip a while ago on a whim - It all seemed a long time away back then. But now, here I am on the verge of leaving for San Remo.

Once in Nice we'll roll off the plane on our bikes, and within 5 minutes of cycling out of the airport we'll be pedalling along the seafront path known as the Promenade des Anglais. I'm so looking forward to it. Nice - my favourite French city after Paris.

We won't hang about too long though as we'll take the scenic and hilly route over to Menton via La Grand Corniche - one of my favourite coastal rides.

Then there'll be more climbing on the agenda as we cross the Alpes Maritimes and the Mercatour mountains to get into Liguria, Italy. It should be quite a buzzing atmosphere as there'll be all the fanfare of the Milan - San Remo cycle race.

Hopefully I'll have enough energy to do the cyclosportive mini version of this event.
With Eddie Merckx as the guest of honour and Ivan Basso riding the sportive, this will be quite an occasion. At Italian cyclosportives women often get put in the front grid along with the elites and the VIPs. Hopefully I might get to rub shoulders or even wheels with one of them. Interestingly, Ivan Basso will have already done the pro race the previous day, so I imagine he will use the sportive as a recovery ride. Embarrassingly, his recovery pace will still be quicker than my race pace, so I imagine I won't get to see much of him at all!

Well, whether or not I see Eddie, Ivan or even Lance, I'm sure it'll be an interesting trip - lots of hills, beautiful sights, and the chance to drink good wine and eat tasty ice cream without worrying about calories.

Trip report to follow.

Monday 16 March 2009

50th Dulwich Primavera - Wally Gimber Road Race

Yesterday my club put on one of the key classic season opener road races, the Wally Gimber Road Race.

As it was the 50th anniversary of this event we wanted to make more of an occasion of it. It seemed like all of the club turned out for this one - either to help at the event or to race in it. Even the sun came out for the occasion and graced us with its presence for the whole day, to our joy!

There was a full field of 80 riders, with many still tapping at the door to get in - especially after the Premier Calendar Bikeline (held on the same weekend) stage race had been abruptly halted.

Nigel, the race organiser, who had put in months of preparation for this was busily running around on the morning making sure that all was in place. Considering all the logistics involved in staging an 80mile race on the open road - full motorbike and car convoy, technical and medical assistance, marshalling, commissairing, timing/judging, photographers and catering - Nigel looked remarkably calm, even when the race ambulance was late arriving, thus leading to a delayed start.

In the car park of the Woodchurch Community Centre there was alot of milling around of the South-East's finest racers, as they made last minute finishing touches to their race preparation, or teams had last minute chit-chats about tac-tics. I was amazed at how many thousand ££s worth of bike was sitting out there in the sun - especially considering that these guys are still classed as amateur racers. Most have day jobs and many do not get sponsored.

Finally the race started at around 12.20 and the convoy hit the lanes of the Tenterden/Appledore area of Kent.

It was a really active contested with an attack which was made right from the gun. The guy was eventually brought back to the peloton. Another attack ensued with a 4-man break staying away for almost a lap. Then another group of 10 managed to bridge to them, which led to more groups of 2s and 3s leaving the main bunch and joining the front groups of riders. As the course took it's toll with a tough climb to scale each lap, riders were shelled out of the front group and were eventually brought back into the main bunch. The peloton was by no means complacent and teams battled on and on to have riders get away and stay away. As one attack succeeded another the main group again became reduced as more riders joined the front group, and by the end of 3hours the race was made up of 2 distinct groups. Had the course been a little longer a single peloton would have formed again, as the second group definitely rode with mission in the closing stages.

The winner, Rob Hurd (Colnago), won by making a breakaway 8km from the end. The remaining contenders in the lead group were then left to battle it out for second place.

Sadly the mad gallop for position led to a rather nasty crash with one rider being taken to hospital. (Fortunately he didn't sustain any serious injuries, though he did need stitches.)

It had been a very active race, with all the drama and suspense associated with a one-day Spring classic.

Not being eligible to take part in this meant that my part in the event was as a helper.
In fact, I was duly assigned the role of co-driver in the one of the race cars. Seeing the race unfold from a following car gives a very exciting inside view. However, it's not all just about sitting there watching pretty coloured lycra on pert bums! There's alot of multi-tasking and thinking ahead involved. With my club-mate Rob, who was driving, we had to protect the main peloton. That meant alerting oncoming vehicles and other users of the approaching race, while taking instructions over the radio from the commissaire and the motor bikers, recording numbers of riders who made attacks.

The trick to this, especially in this race which was quite lively, was in being able to judge when to pull into the side and allow a breakaway group to move past us. Many riders attempted to breakaway - some more successful than others. In the car you need to be able to judge via the rear view mirror whether or not each break would come to anything. At the same time you need to stay far away enough to not let the riders take assistance from the car, but not get too close to another group that is in front of us. Overtaking a group of racers on a country lane again needed forethought. For part of the race we lost the signal on the radios so in the absence of instructions we had to make the judgement calls ourselves.

On top of all that were also the significant changes of pace - crawling pace on the hills, and during the occasional lull in activity, followed by a screechingly fast pace as the riders hurtled down the mini descents at around 40 miles per hour.

At the end of 80 miles and a little over 3 hours we were rather tired - Rob's left arm must have been knackered after all the signalling he'd had to give to drivers to slow down, the whole time! I enjoyed being in the car and seeing the race from a different angle. What I like the most was playing on the CB radios - it was like being a kid again!

Anyway, well done to the winner, Rob Hurd, who I understand had been on the verge of giving up racing altogether, not long ago.
Huge thanks to the event organiser and our Chairman, Nigel Wood for co-ordinating such a great day out for competitors and helpers alike.
Roll on Wally Gimber 2010!

Rob Hurd victory photo (above) by Belinda Sinclair

Friday 13 March 2009

This week's training

Monday - Rest and Massage

Tuesday - Stretching




Saturday - Start tapering !

Sunday - Back on the bike !

Sunday 8 March 2009

Track is Back - Great News!

It's that time of year when I know the spring road season is well and truly here because I don't need to get up on a Sunday morning to travel to a muddy field somewhere. Also you see more and more road riders coming out of hibernation as they cram in the extra miles, hill reps or other training in time for that all important road race in the Surrey or Kent lanes next week!

The other reason I know we are out of the winter racing season is because Herne Hill is open for track cycling again. Yes, it's back on my cycling menu, as well as the menus of at least a hundred other local cyclists - as I noted while riding around the crowded velodrome yesterday.

It's great to see so many people out riding at Herne Hill, and even more impressive how the coaches at Velo Club de Londres (VCL) manage so many riders at such busy times.

Why am I so glad Herne Hill is open?

Well, for me, track cycling is a very good element in my cycle training. It forms that link between the steady tempo ride and the training pace chain gang. I am comfortable enough to do 3 or 4 hours of steady riding. I am not quite back on the fast chain gang stuff though. The various mini races that we do on the track on Saturday mornings will be a great help in training to ride at high pace, for a sustained amount of time in a group.

Herne Hill track is also a great place to meet up with all the local club riders. Yes, I know it's training, but it's still good for the psyche to have a good old chin wag and press the flesh while you're up there (preferably not while sprinting for the line).

Furthermore I don't need to worry too much about how my bike is. Track bikes are low mainenance compared with cyclo cross bikes and road bikes. No gears, deraillers or brakes to think about. I just take a train or ride over there on my old hack, unclip my track bike from its peg and, Bobs your Uncle, I'm ready to ride on the track - it's simple. I like it like that.

I am also looking forward to the traditional Good Friday International meeting that'll be held at Herne Hill next month. It's always an actioned packed day out, with the chance to watch Elite and club riders compete on the same stage. All of London's cycling fraternity turn out in force to spectate and it's a great chance to catch up with cycling friends, old and new, over a beer.

So yes, I'm glad that Herne Hill is open again.