Wednesday 27 June 2012

The Hills are Alive in Tirano

I finally made it to the proper high mountains. It took a while coming, but it has happened now - and I'm glad to have overcome that very big hurdle! Just because you're in Italy does not mean that you are always riding up the legendary climbs featured in the Giro d'Italia - far from it! Milan sits in a plain and for about 30 miles in each direction there is barely a ramp in the road - a bit like the Vale of York. The local cyclists around here ride the flat lanes and canal paths between Milan and Pavia where there are only gentle climbs. The cycling is far from gentle though, as the folks are damn quick sprinters from what I can see. There is one hill here in Milan - basically a rubbish dump that has been reclaimed to look like natural land - how pretty! I know a girl whose hill training consists of just running/cycling up and down that hill for about 3 hours - what fun!
If you go further out, towards Bergamo and the lakes (Como/Lecco/Maggiore) you are in the Brianza area which then gets hilly. At that point you are faced with lovely switchbacks that take you up to around seven or eight hundred metres above sea level, with the highest peaks around 1300m. That is more like what you get in the North of England or Cornwall, but less grim and without the comically steep climbs. For those, you need to go a little bit further North. Try the Valtellina area - which is where I went.
Earlier this month I took the train to one of the gateway towns of Valtellina, Tirano, and was based there for a couple of days. It is quite a touristic town, on account of the church, known as the Madonna del Tirano. It is also a start point for the Bernina Express, a mountain train that goes through some of the most spectacular landscape, to reach St Moritz and other areas in Switzerland.
Tirano is also a hub for getting to some of the most famous mountain passes - the Bernina Pass, Passo di Gavia, Mortirolo and the mighty Stelvio. These, along with various other climbs to reach mouintainside villages are the diet of any road cyclist who comes to the area - and I am glad to have been there.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Milan keeps it real for the Giro

Being in Milan is handy for seeing some of the cycle races. Earlier this year I went to Piazza Castello to see the start of the Milan-San Remo. Later this year I plan to see the Tour of Lombardy, which will start in nearby Bergamo.

At the end of May I was lucky enough to go and see the queen of Italian cycling events, the final stage of the Giro d'Italia. I would have liked to have seen a few of the other nearby stages as well, like the team time trial in Verona, or the mountain stage to Lecco. But like with alot of things, life got in the way so it wasn't possible.
So, I just had to settle for an afternoon around Piazza Castello and Piazza del Duomo!

Last year I saw the final stage of the Tour de France, so was interested to compare the atmosphere of the final stage of these two grand tours.

What struck me about the Giro, and very similarly with the Milan-San Remo was how easy it was to get near the action. There was a cordoned off section for the press and VIPs - though that was mainly to get clear photographic viewing points, or easier access to Prosecco's and aperitivos.
The time trial started at Piazza Castello and went around the Parco Sempione before doing a circuit of Milan and returning to Piazza del Duomo.
Even on the early section of the route it was easy to get a clear view of the rider as there was a lot of space to see what was happening. I saw the mighty Geraint Thomas of Sky power round the corner, but my photographic skills were only good enough for me to snap his back wheel as he sailed away through the trees!

The start gantry area was a little bit more crowded, but again there was a clear view of riders. Also, as it was a time trial the various riders warmed up on turbo trainers next to their team buses and all these areas were open season to the public. I got a good view of Michele Scarponi warming up.
You could even accompany a rider right up to the green room as he rode along to the start. At one point a huge crowd ran alongside a rider. I didn't know who it was, until I realised Ivan Basso had just brushed past me!
Once these guys are at the green room you see them all sitting, waiting their turn to start racing. In some cases the sense of nervousness and tension was palpable - even when standing 10feet away. You didn't need to be a fly on the wall to sense the atmoshphere between Ryder Hesjedal and Joaquim Rodriguez before their rides!

It was interesting to wander around the different team buses and see the gear that these professional teams come with to such events. The mechanic's van would be like paradise to the gadget geeks! I also noticed the various suitcases of the riders. It looked as though many of them would be leaving Milan right after the presentation ceremony. It was a clear message to say - "I'll get this ride done and then I'm out of here as soon as...!"
Well, why wouldn't you? If you've been away from your family for the best part of 3 weeks getting a sore bum riding round some of the toughest roads in Italy, it's quite normal to want to get home and relax at your earliest convenience!

Anyway, the whole thing was set up in such a way that the public could mill around, mixing with riders taking photos of them - sometimes even with them. There were expo stands of different bike related items, and other side shows, including an urban DJ sound system. Piazza del Duomo lends itself very well to the presentation as the square is big enough to accommodate everyone. There was exciting commentary both in Italian and in English (care of London's finest, Anthony MacCrossan), a big screen alongside the actual presentation stage so that everyone got to see the action.

On balance, I would say I preferred my day out at the final day of the Giro, over my final day at the Tour de France. Granted, the Tour also makes for a great day out, but the Giro certainly has a more relaxed, human feel about it and you feel closer to the action.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Sixty years of turning those wheels!

Just wanted to say a very Happy Diamond Jubilee to Queen Elizabeth II. I managed to find this old photo of her as a child, riding her bike in Hyde Park. How would this young carefree child have known that less than 20 years later she'd be crowned queen - and even more, that she'd be doing the same job more than 70 years later!
Such a thought would have properly freaked me out!

I guess being a royal and the head of over 60 million subjects as well as millions around the Commonwealth countries must have its priviledges. I wouldn't mind having regal homes in St James's Park, Windsor Castle or up in Scotland. It would be great having a chauffeur to drive me around in my Bentley, or even a few horse drawn carriages - not to mention a stable of horses and 100 corgies!

But when it comes down to it, being the Queen must be a bit of a chore sometimes - having to get up everyday to visit various people, opening museums and attending functions up and down the country - and beyond. Even having to meet with Gordon Brown or David Cameron every week!!

You always have to look immaculate and smile, or at least not frown. You can't look tired and you can't complain. You just have to get up every morning and do it all again, following all the formalities and doing what is constitutionally correct. The wheels are continuously turning. You can't break a chain or slip a gear.

If I were her I'd certainly wish I could just be an ordinary young woman, (or even and older woman!) just riding my bike and enjoying a life without so much ceremony.

So I must say, I have alot of admiration for Queen Elizabeth II. Through the good times and the difficult times of the Royal Family she's had to show continuity and correctness. I think that for her 60 years on the throne she hasn't done badly at all, and is a good example to us.

Anyway, I'm off to ride my bicycle, and will give a thought to our admirable and dutiful Queen who over all these years has never thrown a sickie at the prospect of having to meet with a slimey Prime Minister or stand through a rainy river pageant!

And if you do, decide to just bunk off for one day and ride your bike, I don't think people would mind too much!

Happy Diamond Jubilee!