Monday 25 March 2013

My moment of the week - 6

Classicisima Primavera!!

I have been to watch the Milan-Sanremo race a couple of times now. A few years ago Higg and I waited on the Cipressa climb to watch them go by. That was quite an experience, especially as it was the year that Mark Cavendish won.

Last year, shortly after I arrived in Milan I went to watch the riders at the start of the race. On both of these occasions the weather was generally spring-like.
However, talking to my Italian colleagues at work they claimed that for them the Milan-Sanremo bike race was synonymous with bad weather. Even when spring is in the air and the weather is fine, you can be sure that on the day of the Sanremo race the weather turns cold and rainy.
Given my previous experiences I found it hard to believe them, but then again these people are Milanesis of a certain age so they will have witnessed more editions of this race than me.

Last Sunday week, once again, I went to watch the start. It's not far from my flat in Milan so I could just scoot over on my bike and be there within 10 minutes.

My colleagues' predictions were being borne out, as it was quite grim and rainy. In fact, I had made a point of doing my cycle training ride the day before, because I knew that Sunday's weather would be pants!

Despite the weather, many folks had nevertheless come out to watch. But I must say, it all looked rather grim at the Castello Sforsezco. The day was damp and grey, and the riders were all wrapped up, displaying a grave sense of foreboding on their faces.

I managed to snap a photo of one of my cycling heroes, Fabian Cancellara. Unfortunately for me, the result wasn't great - partly because I failed to instantly recognise him when he was all swaddled in a black overjacket and scarf, and partly because he shot by rather quickly in his characteristic Spartacus style!

Anyway, if people were moaning at the start of the race at the prospect of 300km in the rain, they must have been losing the will to live as they passed through Alexandria province in snow and hyperthermic conditions.

I am sure the guys must have been mighty relieved to have been told that they would be going over the Passo Turchino by bus, and they would not have to climb Le Manie either. But then getting back on the bike to resume racing after spending an hour trying to thaw yourself out and warm up must have been a mammoth task. I'm not surprised that grown men were crying on their bikes. When my colleagues had talked about bad weather is this what they really had meant?

Unsurprisingly, almost half the field dropped out of the race. Credit to Gerald Ciolek for a well deserved win. But, as 3rd placed Fabian Cancellara said at the finish line. "I may not have placed first but the fact that I have made it to Sanremo feels like a win. We were all winners today."

I felt very inspired by the guys who battled on through one of the worst conditions in a cycle race. Fair enough, they are paid to do this. But you still need to have a fighting spirit present within you to carry on when you can hardly feel your hands and your feet, or when you are shivering on your bike. I will aspire to have that spirit the next time I have a sporting challenge in apocalyptic conditions!

Back at work, my colleagues admitted that when they said bad weather, they had only meant wind and rain. Not even they could have imagined conditions as terrible as this during 104th edition of the Milan-Sanremo race!
Photos of how the day went including those incredible "spring" conditions have been captured here.

Oh, and spare a thought for the guys who did the race in 1910. Sixty three of them took the start line in pouring rain, which turned to snow. The route was not shortened and there was no bus to take the riders over the Passo del Turchino. The eventual winner, Eugene Christophe got so cold that he had to stop at a hotel to thaw himself out for some time before continuing. Only seven riders managed to complete the race, but unfortunately three of them were disqualified at the finish line! One guy missed the time cut-off. As for the other two, Luigi Ganna had done a few kilometres by car, and Piero Lampaggi was caught getting on a train. Thank Goodness race organisers are kinder these days!

Sunday 24 March 2013

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 4 & Conclusion

After more twists and turns and drops I reached a T-junction with a main road. At this point there were streetlights and even a few cars. Not being entirely sure where I was, I consulted the map and found that I was in Cicagna. On the map it did not look far from the coast, but talking to the locals I realised I still had some way to go. And, guess what? More climbing!!

I popped into a bar where there were alot of people singing, dancing and merrymaking. It looked like the folks were having a salsa evening and people were speaking in Spanish. They were a little bemused to see a cycle tourist walking into their joint! "You want to go to Rapallo? Seriously, my friend. It's too far for you to travel. You've got a 10km climb up a steep hill and at this time of night going up that steep twisty road with no proper lights would be dangerous! Stay here, have a party. We have a spare room."

I still felt keen to stick to the plan. Anyway, my legs were too tired to do any salsa dancing and dancing in cycle racing shoes would look ridiculous, and may even be more dangerous! The woman then ended up having a debate with another reveller who seemed a bit drunk, but was suggesting that I ride 20km down to Chiavari and then ride up a shorter easier climb to Rapallo. I didn't really know who I should believe, but in any case I was fed up of cycling. It was after midnight. If I could find a taxi that would be the best solution for me.

The folks were friendly and they offered me a mojito, which made a change from the energy drinks I'd gotten a bit sick of. The guys were from Colombia and they were having an end of summer party. They were impressed at my cycling challenge, though the woman seemed worried about me. She probably thought I was half crazy! Maybe I was! The revellers wished me a safe journey, but not without warning me again not to take the direct road to Rapallo.

A few streets away I found an old man's local bar, and asked them about taxi ranks. Initially they said there was no firm in Cicagna, but if I headed 18km down the main road to Chiavari I would find taxi companies there and they could take me to Rapallo. I really wasn't in the mood to do any cycling. I had had enough of turning pedals. I asked if they had a telephone number of a firm but no one did.

The guys must have read the pained expression on my face when I realised I may have to do more riding. In the end, they called over another man who was a taxi driver but was not on duty that night. He agreed to take me to Rapallo. His usual catchment area was Genoa, but he would be able to take me to Rapallo. At that point Higg rang me, hoping to ask me how my ride had been. "You haven't arrived there yet??" He said, shocked. "But it must be going to 1 o'clock in the morning over there!"

"Er, yeah. But it's ok, I've found a guy who is going to give me a lift to the hotel." I explained to him.

He was mystified. "But what are you doing out riding at this time of the night, and who is this man?"

I was trying to talk to him but the taxi driver was asking me what time I wanted to leave. He was having a coffee and wanted to finish that before leaving. The bar man was also asking if I wanted a coffee, and the pals of the taxi driver were curiously asking about where I was from, how far I'd ridden etc. I couldn't properly answer Higg's questions while trying to make pleasantries in Italian with the blokes in the bar. Higg was a little annoyed at not being able to get proper answers from me, and being in London, powerless to help me out. The the last thing he heard from me, was when I told him I had to go, as I needed to load my bike into the taxi man's car.

The sight of a bona fide taxi cab gave me reassurance that this guy was not a crazy or a pervert, so I was happy to get in.

Rapallo was not far away - about 13km. However, it was quite a climb to get there. The taxi driver, who was called Giovanni, agreed that this would have been a pretty tough and dangerous climb to do at that time of night. It was different to the previous climb I had done from Montebruno. This climb to Rapallo was steeper to climb and to descend. It was narrower, twistier and the road surface was poor. I was quite relieved to be now sailing up this climb effortlessly!

Rapallo - not a bad view to wake up to
We talked about different elite bike races in the area, and Giovanni mentioned the Milan-Rapallo cycle race that takes place in late September - a race I hadn't realised existed. Apparently it is roughly 210km, so not quite as long as the Milan-Sanremo but equally challenging. Again, the riders face a few climbs near the finish though they are tougher than the Poggio and Cipressa ascents of the Classica di Primavera.

I am sure that riding this section over to Rapallo during the day would have given some beautiful views of the sea below. The area looked quite dramatic, with lots of rocky outcrops mixed with palm trees and other interesting vegetation - at least that's what I could only vaguely make out at 1.30am!

Finally, I arrived at my hotel in Rapallo, forever grateful to Giovanni, who made sure I got there safely. The receptionist at the hotel was pleased and quite relieved to see me. "We knew you would arrive." (which probably meant they'd privately been worried about what had happened to me!)

I was pleased to see my bed, and the room looked very comfortable - exactly what I needed. From what I saw of Rapallo at almost 2 o'clock in the morning the place had a Riviera feel about it. I went to bed, looking forward to what I would see in the morning - but not without texting Higg to let him know I had reached my destination safely. My long Saturday was finally over!


Overall, I enjoyed my ride, but as you have probably gathered, it was a little bit long! I made a few mistakes in the mapping out of my ride. I did not have a GPS and I had not researched the route properly beforehand. I completely miscalculated the distance - which was almost 210km - and the amount of climbing, which was God knows how many metres! My lack of fitness had not helped either.

Thankfully, I had set out with a back-up pack in case of the unexpected (as I usually do). The fact that I did this ride on a sunny day in September when the days were still reasonably long meant that conditions were not too miserable!

Finally, the people I talked to along the way were very helpful, friendly and kind. That made all the difference to this trip.

I would not set out to go through these inconveniences again, and maybe I should put a "don't try this at home label". However, when I look back at it I think it was quite an interesting and somewhat fulfilling adventure. It doesn't do much harm to test yourself sometimes. And I did not come out too badly in the end. Though next time, I think I will do some Salsa dancing in Cicagna!

Related posts
Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 1

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturdaay - Part 2

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 3

Friday 22 March 2013

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 3

Not wanting to dwell too much on the fact that my day of climbing was still not over, I set about riding uphill. The gradient was steep and very quickly the Saturday night revellers in Montebruno became a small detail a long way below me. The road went into woodland and there were no longer any streetlights. It was scary. No way would I be able to ride through that!

So I dropped back down to return to the village and ask the locals about taxi firms. The old boys in the bar gave me very intriguing looks as I walked in. To them, I might as well have been a martian. I guess cycling Lycra can hardly be described as typical Saturday night glad rags!

When I told the folks where I was headed they immediately told me not to bother. At this rate I wouldn't get to Rapallo until the following day! There was no taxi firm in the village, so I would have to contact a company in Rapallo or Genoa and it would cost me a fortune. I should stop giving myself a hard time and just stay in Montebruno. They knew a lady who ran a B&B - I could stay there.

I was duly pointed in the direction of the hostellerie, and knocked at their door - silence. I rang the bell, and asked a few locals if they knew of any other B&Bs in Montebruno, but this was the only one. There had been a village festival that day so many people, including the proprietor of the B&B had gone out for the night.
When I rang the taxi firm they confirmed what the locals had said. The fare would cost a fortune - 200euros!

So, there was only one thing for it - ride over the hill. By this time it was around 10.30pm. I rang the hotel in Rapallo to say I was still on my way. The man I spoke to didn't seem phased at all, even though I said I was on my bike in Montebruno. It was probably the night porter who answered the phone and he may have just thought that Montebruno was a suburb of Rapallo!

It's a good job I had remembered my motto from the Scouts - "be prepared". I put on my flourescent jacket, some city lights and wolfed down some cereal bars had a swig of energy drink and set off. Even though I had taken precautions in case of unexpected events, I still felt pretty scared.

Every sound through the trees gave me the jitters. I suddenly kept thinking some strange creatures might leap out and bite me. Even a bogey man might grab me and drag me away somewhere. Sometimes I'd jump at the sight of my shadow when I suddenly passed a farm with its lights on.
The road twisted and turned and my lights were not bright enough to show the the road surface in detail. The only sure thing I knew was that the road was going up! I needed to watch out for where there might be potholes or ruts or gravel in the road. At one point the bike went over a big rut, and I was sure I'd got a puncture. Thankfully, the bike was fine.

About two thirds up the climb I stopped for another snack as I passed through a hamlet. A little dog came up to me and sniffed around curiously. I thought it might have barked at the sight of a stranger in his manor, but he was friendly. Some people who were returning to their home after dining in another house across the street saw me and bid me good evening, like it was the most natural thing in the world to see a cyclist sitting at the side of the street in their village at 11.30 on a Saturday night. Maybe it was normal, and I was just making a fuss over nothing! Afterall, I had never been on these country roads late at night before. How would I know what was customary practice in these strange parts?!

Eventually, the road plunged downhill. Thank God. Sadly, I couldn't enjoy it since my eyes were peeled, focused solidly on every hairpin as the road girated through the pitch black. It was quite cold and an autumn fog had now descended. I was glad I had high vis clothing, and also an extra coat. Although I was going downhill for over half an hour, I had no idea which way I was facing. I had expected to see something glistening in the distance that looked like the sea. But all I saw were trees.

In fact, it looked as though I was even going further inland and away from the coast. It was pitch black so there was no chance of reading a map. I had come up to a few junctions and not been entirely sure which way to go so I had plumped for a right turn on a hunch that this road led towards the sea. Could I have missed a turn? Might I be heading back towards Montebruno? I wanted to panic, but realised I really needed to keep myself together. There was no one around, and I had to somehow make sure I arrived somewhere that had warm, indoor accommodation!

Related posts
Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 1

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 2

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 4 & Conclusion

Thursday 21 March 2013

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 2

Grinding my way through the vineyards of the Oltrepo Pavese
Continuing my two-wheeled excursion from Milan to the Ligurian coast via the hilly Oltrepo Pavese.....My ride up Monte Penice did not fail to disappoint! At an average of 5% over 15km the climb was not so difficult, however since I had already ridden around 25km uphill to get to this point things were not so easy! I was passed by a father with his young son who both approached Monte Penice with a certain trepidation, though they were still faster than me.

I was also overtaken by a few club riders who sailed up the climb like it was just a teaser. Maybe it was a teaser, but I was weighed down by my day pack and an overnight bag. That's my excuse anyway! Just like with any road that has lots of switchbacks on it, there were lots of motorbikers around who were really enjoying the hairpins. If only I could have had a small piece of their engine!

I must admit, this climb was beginning to test my force of will. I had already been climbing for 3 hours getting over the initial section of the Oltrepo Pavese, and I was beginning to get bored of being in the same old granny ring. I needed a new faster ring that would be easier to pedal - a supergranny ring! Also, I had gotten my fill of cute hilltop villages that I could only look at without touching. They were beginning to lose their charm, as I began to struggle upwards. Where are the boring flatlands when you need them?

I stopped at the side of the road for a snack, while mentally regrouping. Nearby, a wedding reception was taking place in an old palazzo. If only I could have snuck in and joined the celebration. My ride was no longer that joyful, so I could have done with doing something uplifting! Not knowing when I would reach the summit of this beast was getting rather frustrating.

Finally, just when I wondered how much more I could take, the road levelled off and began to descend. This was no false dawn either, since the sight of other cyclists in coats and longs riding in the opposite direction meant that there would be a significant amount of downhill to ride. I had reached Monte Penice -yay! At last, my legs could get some respite!

I savoured every moment of the descent. I had a permanent smile on my face as the bike sailed around the smooth curves in the road, all the way down to Bobbio.

The mountain gateway village of Bobbio was a meeting point for all travellers - motor bikers, motorists, walkers and of course cyclists. I would have loved to have stayed to visit the cathedral and the abbey in this old town which apparently forms the backdrop to Leonardo di Vinci's Mona Lisa painting. But time was marching on. In fact, so much time had passed, and as the clock struck half past four I wondered if I should call it a day and maybe just stay in Bobbio.

By now, I was 70km from Genoa and it was touch and go as to whether or not I would reach my hotel in Rapallo before dark. Even worse was that where I had thought the road would be downhill from Bobbio, it was actually climbing! Oh God!

Feeling that it was too early to stop, and not wanting to throw away the 70 euros I had paid for my hotel reservation in Rapallo, I continued along the road to my next milestone, Montebruno. Surely this place would be so close to the coast that from that village it would be just a 1-hour mad descent to the coast. Yes, that would be something to look forward to.

In the meantime I would content myself with a false flat along the SS45 road which meandered round rocks and gorges, following the river and occasionally dropping under crags.

If I hadn't felt in a stressed out rush I would have really appreciated this area known as Val Trebbia. Many people had stopped to go sunbathing or bathe in the thermal springs. Oh well, this would be yet another venue to note on my increasingly long list of places to return to in the future!

I had to climb hills, and more hills to reach the Ligurian coast
En route I rang the hotel to tell them I would be late and that my estimated time of arrival would be 9pm.

When I mentioned to the receptionist that I was on a bicycle about 5 miles from Montebruno she didn't seem phased and said that my ride would be downhill after the village.

Of course it would be downhill. After all, I was in the mountains and Rapallo is right by the sea! It would be a piece of cake getting to Rapallo once I reached Montebruno. I was really looking forward to arriving at Montebruno, knowing that once I arrived there it would be the end of my hard work.

Just as night fell I reached Montebruno. It was a quarter to nine. Okay, so I was going to arrive in Rapallo an hour later than scheduled. I may have missed dinner but I was sure I would find a late-night snack-bar in the town somewhere if room service had finished.

According to my map, a left hand turn in Montebruno should have taken me towards my destination. But the lane I saw was too small to be a real road. There weren't even any streetlights.
I asked directions from a local, and he confirmed my fears.

"Sure that's the right road for Rapallo. Just go over the climb and follow the road. You'll get there."
"Go up?" I asked, bemused. "Don't I go down?"
"Oh yes, you go down - after you've done the 10km climb. You look strong, you'll be fine!"

My heart sank. I couldn't believe it. I'd managed to hang in there, thinking that things would be plain sailing after Montebruno, and here I was faced with another long climb - at nightfall!!

Related posts
Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 1

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 3

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 4

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 1

It was meant to be a mini cycling challenge - a fun jaunt from the city to the coast with the reward of sun, sea, sand and a bit of ice cream. Back in London we would do this all the time - London to Brighton, sometimes riding back. In Yorkshire the folks do Hull or York to Scarborough. So hey, why not do Milan to the Italian Riviera. It would be a slightly classier, more continental, and warmer destination than other seaside club runs I've done.

I chose to do Milan to Rapallo, which was immediately due south of where I was staying. That would make it a bit shorter than the classic Milan-Sanremo, which travels southwest and gets up to almost 185 miles. Also, the return home by train would be easy, since trains from Genoa back to Milan are direct and regular. I would just have to get on with the 100-mile bike ride first. That should be straight forward enough; I've ridden that distance before; and hey, I would be spoilt rotten with picturesque scenes while riding through the vineyards and rolling hills of the Oltrepo Pavese. All the ingredients were there for a fun, challenging ride, while still being, hopefully.....

I set off from Milan at 8am under clear skies. The ride to Pavia was very easy - just a flat blast down the canal path, the Naviglio Pavese. There was nothing of note to report apart from a religious procession along the road. I'm guessing this was just a normal occurrence on a Saturday morning as none of the motorists seemed bothered by the tailbacks as the happy crew paraded down the road singing songs of praise.

Riding through the vineyards of Oltrepo Pavese - a bit like Tuscany but less pretentious!
A section of the canal path was fenced off for resurfacing. That was a snag because there was no easy way to divert back onto the road, so I had no choice but to try and ride through the section. I crawled through the fence and winched my bike over it, then hoped that there would be no massive manholes and I wouldn't get a puncture riding the 3 mile section of dirt track on my road bike. Luckily, the bicycle survived that section unscathed and incident free.

Once past Pavia I left the canal path to join the motorised traffic on the roads. My route went towards Voghera, and then just before that town I turned off the main road onto some quiet roads. From there on in, my route would be on roads with very little traffic.

Also, from here onwards there would be no more flat terrain and it would be all about the hills for the next few hours. It was all good though, as the views were very pretty. I was riding through the picturesque villages and vineyards of the Oltrepo Pavese.
This wine-produing area set among rolling hills does not get alot of press, despite its attractiveness. Everyone talks about Tuscany it seems, but a stay in one of the agroturismos of the Oltrepo Pavese is worth a stopover if you have time and is not an experience to be sniffed at. I would have certainly enjoyed a glass of wine there, but sadly, I didn't have that much time to stop. Although I was missing out on this pleasant experience there were enough bellavistas in the area for me to enjoy my ride.

Lunchtime soon arrived and I had reached a highpoint near Passo Carmine. It was time for a quick snack while admiring the panorama and imagining coming back here on a day when I had more time - on a day when I could join the villagers for lunch on a high terrace and enjoy what they were enjoying on this sunny afternoon.

But I had to press on to reach Monte Penice, and Bobbio. I believed that once I'd crested this significant mountain in the area there would be a long descent all the way to Bobbio and then from there my ride would just be gentle undulations all the way to the coast.


Related posts
Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 2

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 3

Milan to Rapallo - The Long Saturday - Part 4 & conclusion

Sunday 17 March 2013

Hills near Milan - Brianza

It has taken me a while to come to terms with the fact that there are no hills in the Milan area. It's all a bit ironic really because when I was in London I used to spend time, effort and money putting my bike on a flight to come to Italy to ride my bike or do a cycling holiday to improve my biking and hill climbing.

I felt that the hills in the UK just weren't challenging enough, and coming to Italy would be so much better, and even more scenic. But here I am, living in a part of Italy that has no hills apart from one man-made mound near San Siro football stadium.
I would even say that my hill climbing and fitness went decidedly downhill as a result of me only pounding the flatlands of the province of Milan.

I can definitely say that London is a better place to be for finding hills (and other types of cycling). The Kent and Surrey hills are very easy to get to, and you can even do hills just on your commute to work by bicycle. The place is actually quite pretty, and if you don't want to ride on the road there is off-road stuff you can do, as well as riding the velodrome.

Anyway, here I am in Milan so I have to find some hills. As I find hills to ride I will note them down here.

The first area that I have found which I quite enjoy cycling in is Brianza. It's a scenic area between Monza and Lake Como that has rolling hills with quaint villages and lots of chapels. It essentially consists of two long ridges. So if you want to get from Monza to the Como you have to cross two chains of hills. Within those chains there are various climbs to do. They remind me of some of the climbs in England because they can be really steep with gradients of up to 15%, and some of the hills hardly have any switchbacks. You get your money's worth of hill climbing!
One route which I do is to get from Monza to Como area by going over two big climbs - the Montevecchia climb, and then over the Colle di Brianza.

I rode this area a few weeks ago, while there was still quite alot of snow around. The roads were clear so they were still rideable. It was pretty scenic, if a little cold.

You can ride straight to these places from Milan, though it means it's a 20-mile meander through dull flatlands. The initial stage along the Naviglio Martesana to Cernusco sul Naviglio is pretty, but then you have to put up with industrial estates and out-of-town shopping centres all the way to Monza. If you have time, why not ride there and enjoy all that Milan has to offer, landscapewise!
Unfortunately, I tend to be pushed for time, so I generally catch the train to a place called Arcore, one stop after Monza. It's a small town so is not too busy. There are a few supermarkets, cafes and a bike shop so you can stop there if you need any provisions before heading into the countryside.

From there, head onwards to Usmate where you feel yourself having to change to an easy gear. The road is on a false flat - and it is even continuing to go uphill. It is a strange feeling for me if I have spent all your time riding around Milan province!

There is some pleasant woodland to enjoy, and when I look above me I see a hill in the distance with a church on the top. That is Montevecchia, and that's where I am headed. How the hell will I get up there? Scary thought! The answer comes when I reach the crossroads in Montevecchia village, and I have to follow the signs for Montevecchia Sopra. Immediately after the crossroads the road climbs steeply and I get out of the saddle to give myself that extra push to get over the climb. It's tough, but just when I wonder how long the gradient will be I see the road levelling off and I feel a certain amount of relief! It's worth stopping to enjoy the views of the pretty terraced farmsteads around before leaving the road and dropping down to Valfredda.

After a short stint of off-road (strada bianca) through Valfredda I pass through some more pleasant woodland to reach Pianezzo. From there I cross another junction to take the climb up Colle Brianza. Feeling confident from having overcome the ramps of Montevecchia I feel ready to take on the signature climb of the area. This one is more of a challenge though. It lasts around 4 miles, and the switchbacks are of a relentless steepness. Near the top, I am working so hard I think I will explode! In fact, I even have to stop and have a breather, as I am so worn out I fear I won't be able to keep the bike in a straight line on the narrow road!

Once I reach the pizza restaurant the road levels off and I realise the really hard work is over. Thank Goodness!
From here the gradient is alot easier. Then just before Giovenzana the road drops downhill and it is a lovely descent to the other side, and I get my first view of the lakes. I am headed towards Pusiano, where the roads are flatter and I have a nice breather.

I ended my ride at Erba, but in fact it is possible to go up to places alike Canzo, and Sormano before heading south and finishing the ride in Como. The Canzo/Sormano route involves another long climb, more Alpine in style, with switchbacks and a gentle gradient. Alternatively, there is a route to Como that goes on an undulating road which also provides a good workout but without any particularly steep or long hill.

There are various options when in Brianza. In fact, it is possible to just stay in Brianza without going to Como and there are enough hills to keep you busy for half a day. These places are very pretty, peaceful, and easy to get to from the hustle and bustle of Milan. I hope to explore these hills more over the coming months, and as a result, get stronger!

I don't have a map of this route described, but this map here follows a similar route within Brianza, starting from Monza.
(The route goes to Monticello, though if you want to follow the route described in this blog post then follow the signs for Montevecchia when in Usmate. Also for Colle Brianza go towards Santa Maria Hoe from Pianezza and then follow via Risorgimento to do the challenging climb up to Giovenzana, and then down to Colle Brianza.)

Friday 15 March 2013

My moment of the week - 5

Habemus Papam!

Whatever your religious persuasion the extra-ordinary events over the past five weeks in Rome cannot have escaped people's notice. After Joseph Ratzinger, we now have the very humble Jorge Mario Bergoglio occupying the top spot in the catholic church. And it seems this new pope errs on the side of sustainability too.

As a cardinal, he declined to live in the opulant residence reserved for cardinals in his native Buenos Aires in , but chose instead to stay in ordinary appartments.

And when it came to transportation he shunned a chauffeur-driven car, instead preferring to take the bus or metro, and even, ride a bicycle. That would have not just been deemed humble, but also sustainable. In fact, given that Buenos Aires has not always been seen as a cycling friendly city, riding a bicycle borders on the avant-garde!

Knowing that Pope Francis I is happy to ride a bicycle is another illustration of him getting level with the local population, rather than putting himself on a pedestal above everyone else. Now that's a pope who gets my vote! Urbi et Orbi!

Tuesday 12 March 2013

First club run in Milan

I have finally joined a cycling club in Milan. Big wow, what's so special about that? Some might say! Well actually, it has been a bit of journey to reach this stage. To those of you in the UK who just turn up at the various organised bike rides from CTC or British Cycling with your bike and a spare inner tube - even those who fill out a form and pay £30 to join a cycling and get their BC membership for the insurance: count yourself lucky at how easy it is to get out on your bike and get out on a club run! The amount of red tape one goes through in Italy to do the same thing, is almost eye-watering!

For me to join a club I had to provide my name, address and pay my membership - fair enough. But then I had to provide my codice fiscale and inside leg measurements: undergo a 70euro-physical examination - after waiting for the club to put in a request for me to have the medical, then waiting for my licence finally to be sent to me by the club.

To Italian and French readers they're probably thinking - "what's the fuss about?" But for readers back home in the UK this is a very strange concept for us.

So, here I am, a member of the Cassinis Cycling Team, in Milan. It's quite an active club, and the great thing is there are lots of women riders. There always seems to be something planned - be it different club runs, people taking part in cyclosportives and randonnees, or other social (non-cycling gatherings).

A couple of weekends ago, while Higg was on a visit to Milan we joined the riders for the spring pedalata sociale.
It was quite an early start for us, as we had to get to Sedrina, near Bergamo by 9.30am. That involved us catching a train from Milan at around 7.30am. On our arrival we had a choice of 3 routes to choose from. I felt a little self conscious arriving on my old heavy bike which was weighed down even more by a rack and my rucksack. Everyone else there seemed to be on lean mean machines in their club kit, and they zoomed up the false flat quite effortlessly. Very soon the main group left us behind as they proceeded to do the 120km route, while we did the short route. We decided to opt for the group following the short course - a 50km-route that involved around 800m of climbing. Given that we also had to ride to and from the train station, that meant that by the end of the morning we would have done 80km of cycling - which wasn't too shabby!
Led by our group leader, Vanni, an old hand at riding epic cyclosportives like Eroica and Milan to Slovenia, we enjoyed a very pleasant day discovering the quiet roads on a snowy but sunny March morning around Bergamo, San Giovanni, and San Pellegrino.

Luckily for me, I only had to deal with one hill - a 13km climb up the Forcella di Bura - which wasn't too steep. The rest of the ride was mainly downhill or flat. For a first ride, that was fine for me, since I had been quite apprehensive about how I would cope with the level. I was just keen to ride within myself, not bonk and enjoy the morning - which is what I did!

Getting involved in a cycling club can be a bit of a pallava, but on the basis of what I've experienced so far, I'd say it's worth it. :-)

Friday 8 March 2013

Girl Power!

As it's International Women's Day I thought I might big up some of my favourite female athletes.

I'll start with Marianne Vos, world cycling championship (in many cycling disciplines!) who celebrated her first road race victory of this year yesterday. (It's not her first victory this year as she had already won a few cyclo cross events including the world championships.)
If Ms Vos were a bloke she'd be a millionaire based on her achievements. As it is she just ploughs on through the sport that she loves while earning a 10th of the salaries of people like of Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara. 
Ok, enough of the complaining. I just want to salute Marianne Vos and wish her a "Happy Women's Day."

While on the subject I would also like to salute other female sportswomen that I admire:

Jessica Ennis (London 2012 Gold medallist Hepthalete)

Hope Powell (England Women's Football Team Manager)

Venus Williams (Tennis Star)

Emma Pooley (Team GB Cyclist/Beijing 2008 Time Trial silver medallist)

Martina Navratilova (Former Tennis Ace)

Chrissie Wellington (Four-Time World Ironman Triathlon Champion)

Nicola Adams (London 2012 Gold medallist Boxer)

Lizzie Armitstead (London 2012 Silver medallist - road cycle racing)
Laura Trott (London 2012 double gold medallist - track cycling)
Carmelita Jeter (London 2012 gold, silver and bronze medallist - 4x100 relay, 100m, 200m sprint)
Sally Pearson (London 2012 gold medallist - 100m hurdles)
Perri Shakes-Drayton (2013 European indoor 400m champion)

and many more.....


Wednesday 6 March 2013

My moment of the week - 4

From Mario the Lion King to Maria the cat burglar

I don't really care to waste time on drug cheats. These people are the scourge of sport and I feel saddened that cycling has been, and still is being tainted by dishonest folks.

However, I must comment on the rider formerly known as The Lion King, who I had previously been a fan of.

Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper recently published details of drugs and practices employed by Mario Cipollini who is alleged to have been a client of the notorious Dr Eufemiano Fuentes.

According to sources, Mr Cipollini is alleged to have paid the doctor for his "doping services" using the pseudonym "Maria", between 2001 and 2004. This could therefore throw into doubt his 2002 World Championship title, his Milan-San Remo win of the same year, as well as numerous victories at the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of Spain.

All this has yet to be proven, and is under investigation by the Italian anti-doping agencies.
If these facts, which Cipollini strongly denies, do prove to be true, then once again we will have to deal with yet another fall from grace of a deceitful athlete. Someone who many admired has conned us and furtively stolen from others the chance of genuine glory. He has robbed prize money and sponsorship by stealth from all those who work for the good of promoting cycle sport. That disgusts me.

That's all I have to say.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

And the February Yellow Jersey goes to....

Miss Joanna Rowsell MBE!

I can't imagine she needs a yellow jersey when she has a couple of UCI World Champion Rainbow jerseys and an Olympic gold medal for the team pursuit track cycling race.
It sounds strange saying all this about a young lady I remember seeing as a teenager doing the local cycle races around South London about 9 years ago.

It is true that even back then, she was pretty quick for a fifteen-year old and it was hard for even the guys to stick on her wheel. But to be honest, one sees alot of pretty nippy youngsters on the local cycle racing circuit. Back in 2004 there were a number of girls of Joanna's age who were also very quick.

Some of them have since fallen by the wayside and given up cycling. Others have continued to cycle and are doing well at local level - which is as good as one would normally expect. But to see one of these local youngsters winning gold at the Olympics, talking to BBC Sports presenters, even becoming television pundits, and then going on to meet the Queen is just quite surreal!

From what I can see, Joanna has worked very hard to achieve what she has. It is not easy to get out and train and race at that level continuously for years. It is not easy to keep on training on rainy days in winter, or to get back on the bike after a big crash. Joanna, like many cyclists will have had off days to contend with - knocks to her confidence when a race didn't go her way. But Joanna has soldiered on tirelessly, and I for one, think that she deserves every one of her World Championship titles, her Olympic Gold Medal, and the MBE Honour that she was awarded by the Queen last week.

Very well done young lady!