Sunday 30 June 2013

Let's hear it for the girls!

As cycling fans around the world focus on the big race around the France, don't forget that this week also sees the staging of the only grand tour in the women's cycle racing calendar - the Giro Rosa (formerly known as the Giro Donne), which started today.

It will see the top professional female cyclists from around the world contesting a one-week tour of Italy. Today's 118km stage ran from Giovinazzo (near Bari, Puglia) to Margherita di Savoia and was won by Kirsten Wild (Dutch National Team) ahead of her compatriot, Olympic Champion Marianne Vos.

The women will wend their way through Italy to contest the final stage, a time trial in Cremona, (Lombardy).
Nineteen teams (including 6 from Italy, 3 from the Netherlands, 2 from the USA and 1 from Great Britain) are contesting the race, with racers competing to bag one of the different leader's jerseys - exactly like what you find in the men's event. Naturally the maglia rosa for the overall winner is the top prize. The current title holder is Marianne Vos (Rabo Women Cycling Team), will naturally be looking to retain her jersey. It won't be plain sailing though, since the likes of Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products UCK), Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle-Honda) or Shelly Olds (Tibco-To the Top) amongst others will be out to stop Vos in her tracks.

While the racing is likely to be every bit as exciting as the men's Giro d'Italia, this event, sadly will not have the same media coverage or funding. Indeed, the original version of this race, the Giro Donne was cancelled earlier this year due to a lack of a sponsor. A backer stepped in at the last minute and managed to rescue the race, re-christening it the Giro Rosa. It is a good job that this event is being held as it will be the only women's grand tour taking place this year. The women's tour de France (Le Boucle Feminin) was removed from the calendar a few years ago, so eliminating the Italian version of the event would have been a truly negative step for women's racing.

I hope that more coverage is given to the Giro Rosa, and in future more investment can be made into women's cycle racing in the same way that we have seen with the men's game.

Anyway, for more information on the Giro Rosa, visit the event website on


My moment of the week - 9


So you wait ages for a bus and then one (hopefully only 1, and not 3) comes, then at once spoils your party!

Oh dear, this wasn't exactly the dream start for the 100th edition of this year's Tour de France!

It does happen sometimes that a lorry gets stuck in the Blackwall Tunnel in London and causes chaos to traffic in East London. So sure he gets a fine and a reprimand, but at least he remains relatively anonymous and he hasn't got the world's media watching him. He doesn't even trigger any accident or a war of words.

Sadly, it wasn't the case for bus driver Gary Atxa who was just driving the Orica-Greenedge team bus and following instructions, when suddenly his vehicle got stuck under the finish banner.

Gary had had to drop off some VIPs at their team hotel en route from Porto Vecchio to the stage one finish town at Bastia, and consequently arrived late. The Tour de France organisers gave him clearance to drive up through the finish straight, but they did not check that his bus had clearance to get under the gantry! 

It must have been a perplexing sight for event officials - a bus stuck under the gantry right on the finish line with a fast approaching peloton of cyclists sprinting at over 50km/h.
Fortunately, the tyres of the bus were deflated and the bus was eventually moved out of the way in time for riders to safely contest the sprint for the line.

Unfortunately, this incident did not fail to leave a trail of confusion in its wake - organisers giving mixed instructions about where the finish line of the race would be - 3km early or at the original finish line? Team directors facing a conundrum about when to organise their teams for the final sprint for the "finish line", wherever that would be; riders waiting eagerly for instructions through their earpieces - then crash! A massive pile-up near the finish line, instantly ousted most of the key players for the sprint out of contention for the first "maillot jaune" of the most famous cycle race in the world.

An extremely angry Team Director from Francaise des Jeux, Marc Madiot lambasted the race judges on camera, while the judges themselves actually had no camera with which to do the judging - thanks to the damage caused by the Orica Greenedge team bus!

Well, stage 2 gets underway today. Hopefully, Gary Atxa (and no one else) will not encounter any misfortunes getting their bus to the finish in Ajaccio.

Paradoxically, out of yesterday's events there were a few winners. Orica-Greenedge were fined 2,000 Swiss Francs by the UCI for failing to arrive at the finish town within the time limits, but this isn't a lot of money when you consider the publicity the team will have gained from this. How many more times has the team been cited in the media as a result - all for just over £1,000? If you hadn't heard of the team before, you certainly know who they are now! I guess, the designers should have just painted "Orica-Greenedge" on the front of their bus more prominenetly! That is where Vittel have really scored a coup!

Of course Marcel Kittel from Team Argos-Shimano benefited out of this by sprinting his way into the yellow jersey from a depleted field. Another rider to benefit was veteran British pro, David Millar. Having spent the last few years living in the shadows of compratriots Messrs Wiggins, Cavendish and even Hoy, Garmin's Millar was able to profit from the gaps and contest the sprint to finish in 4th place in the stage - not bad for a non-sprinter!

So, while many want to use words like farcical or ridiculous to describe the first stage of this year's Tour de France it hasn't actually been all bad. There has been publicity in the general press and it has given folks something to talk about. On a weekend where Le Tour has had to compete for airtime against Wimbledon, the F1 British Grand Prix, the Confederations Cup, the Lions Tour and even the Glastonbury Festival this cycle event hasn't done too badly at all!

Vive le Tour...and Merci Beaucoup Gary!

Monday 24 June 2013

New in town? Join the cycling club!

So I've joined a cycling club. I haven't only just joined, it was actually a few months ago but I'm only just writing about it now. I am a member of Cassini's Cycling Team.

There are quite a lot of cycling clubs to choose from in Milan. The reason I chose Cassini's was because the club has a lot of women members - and they are not just WAGS or social members, but women who actually cycle and even compete in cyclosportives. From what I hear they are pretty strong too!

Mind you, how fast they are is academic to me as I don't really get on the scale when my plodding is compared to their speed!
What I like about the club is that the people are very friendly. Even though I have not been there long, and have not taken part in lots of events, I have still managed to get to know a few people and share a few jokes.

Folks have been very welcoming, and sociable too. I have met some of them at dinners, in bars and a number of them at the women's We Own the Night running race a few weeks ago. I am a little embarrassed to say that many members have probably never seen me on a bike yet! I'm sure that will happen sooner or later though!

One person who has seen me on a bike is Sarah, an American lady in the club who I rode with a few weeks ago. I rode with her, along with her friend Marco and two other Italians - Franco and Enrico. We met in Monza and I hung onto Sarah's wheel as the guys towed us up to Como.

I'd been a little apprehensive about going, for fear of being too slow. But I survived the part of the ride I did with them and it gave me the confidence to try and ride out with others. Having lost my cycling "mojo" earlier this year, it had been a real effort to get myself together and find the motivation to ride with other club riders. But this little ride with Sarah and her companions was just right for me.

The guys were due to continue on for around 20km to Aregno and do some climbs near there. However, I was a little pushed for time so stayed nearer to Como and did a climb up to Monte Bisbino. I might have bailed out of the main section of the ride, but the alternative road I took was far from being a soft option! Monte Bisbino is not extremely steep, but it was long enough -  13km of straight climbing! After around 2 hours of riding uphill I turned back on myself and returned to Como. I was pleased with the ride I'd done, and I was glad to have ridden with some clubmates that day.

A number of the Cassinis ladies saw me on my bike a few days ago for the summer solstice. Thanks to captains Barbara and Roberta we took part in a 1500m time-trial around Assago, a suburb of Milan. By some fluke I ended up with the 5th fastest time out of 15 women. That was probably the adrenaline in me after racing to the venue when I was running late! The camaraderie and the trip to the pizzeria afterwards made my evening with my team-mates even more worthwhile.

In short, being in the cycling club has improved my social experience in Milan, and it has even helped me to regain my taste for club cycling.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Hills near Milan - Oltrepò Pavese

Earlier in the year I wrote about hills you can ride just to the north of Milan, in Brianza. In the interests of balance I also plan to write about hills in other directions from Milan. Today is about hills just to the south of Milan.

If you head due south from Milan for about 20 miles, you reach the historic town of Pavia. Continue past there for a further 6 miles and you reach scenic countryside with rolling hills. Further in the distance the mountain range around the Ligurian Appenines and Monte Penice come in to view. If you are feeling energetic you may want to scale those slopes and drop down towards the dramatic Ligurian coast.
The good news though, is that you don't need to travel so far to enjoy a scenic hilly bikeride! The Oltrepò Pavese, just south of Pavia is made up of rolling hills on which vineyards are perched, and agroturismos await, ready to welcome tourists wanting to enjoy a full gastronomic and wine-tasting experience.

And the cycling's all very scenic. As you ride along the various valley roads, you quickly realise that everything on either side of you goes upwards - in some cases with a castello or a charming medieval village at the top of the steep roads.

While riding around I notice lots of signs reminding me that I am on the Strada del Vino e dei Sapori - meaning that I can stop off and sample, even buy wines, and other local produce like salami and mushrooms. In fact, looking around, this could be a mini Tuscany - I may not find Chianti here but I could sneak a cheeky Pinot Nero or some local spumante into my bidon! And it'll all taste just as nice!

The great thing is that Oltrepò Pavese, not having been heavily publicised has not fallen victim to the tourist trap. Bikingwise, that means I get the roads practically to myself - well apart from loads of other club cyclists! Yes, Oltrepò Pavese is very popular with club cyclists from the Milan/Lombardy area, so on a sunny Saturday or Sunday you are never alone. However, motorised traffic is very light - which is the bonus of cycling around here.
And if you don't want to go home straight after the ride there are lots of agroturismos providing a very authentic and untouristic experience at reasonable prices.

I have ridden in the Oltrepò Pavese on a number occasions. The first time, was during a ride to Liguria. I went via Montalto Pavese and Zavatarello to reach Bobbio via Monte Penice.
On other occasions I have been  to Lago di Trebecco via Rocca de Giorgi and Passo Carmine.

Either way, the sequence is similar - a nice run-in along a valley road, followed by the road progressively getting steeper and steeper and going on for around 20km. The area becomes more desolate, and every time I think I am at the top I see another castle or church that is even higher up. As I near the top, I put in some big out-of-the saddle efforts as I think that my climbing is coming to an end - but alas, heaving and panting I realise I still have more work to do! Finally, I reach the top - tired, but glad I managed to hang in there and I am treated to a beautiful view. The descents are twisty but exhilarating, and it's hard to believe that these small lanes that provide so much fun are relatively unknown.

I even did a cyclosportive here at Salice Terme earlier this year, which went through lots of other pleasant parts of the Oltrepò Pavese. Sadly, I can't fully describe the route as the weather on the day was grey and abyssmal (to match my performance!). I look forward to doing this cyclosportive again - hopefully when I am fitter and when the weather is nicer.

Getting down to Oltrepò is quite easy. I can get a train to Broni, Stradella, Voghera, or Casteggio. Otherwise I can ride all the way there. I must admit, riding down to this area is much more pleasant than riding up to Brianza, since most of the route to Oltrepò Pavese is done on the traffic-free Naviglio Pavese, and even the less scenic roads around Pavia are not completely choked with industries and factories like some of the roads to the north of Milan.

And of course, at the end of my ride I won't have any trouble finding a glass of something nice! Cheers!

Tuesday 18 June 2013

And the May Yellow Jersey (well actually La Maglia Rosa) goes to.....

RCS Sport - The Organisers of the Giro d'Italia

The Giro, like the other two grand tours (Le Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana) is a massive undertaking - in terms of logistics and publicity.

Here are a few figures from RCS Sport, the event organisers:

·         Athletes: 207 riders from 23 teams (168 started the final stage) and of 30 different nationalities. The first Chinese and the first Greek athletes to participate in the Giro did so this year, and 5 different riders wore the pink jersey.

·         Sponsors: 29 partners have contributed to the success of the Giro, tying their brand with this legendary edition of the Corsa Rosa. Most of all, Balocco who sponsor the Maglia Rosa, and the other sponsors of the main classifications: Blue – Banca Mediolanum, Red – Italo, White – F.lli Orsero and Estathé – the winner of the stage.

·         The media: the press office gave accreditation to 1,595 media professionals, including 1,132 journalists and 463 photographers representing 1,076 international, national and local media. The focus was to get into the breaking news on the main news cycle at national and international level.

·         For the first time the Giro d’Italia was produced in HD, with a great effort by Rai who played the role of Host Broadcaster and allowed the images of the Corsa Rosa to be shown in 174 countries, on five continents.

Over the years more and more people around the world are taking an interest in following the exploits of the professional riders as they snake their way round Italy in a quest to secure the coveted pink jersey, fame, glory and a wad of cash.

But what of all the behind-the-scenes work? The template for organising this is probably not dissimilar to that for the Tour, the Vuelta and many other high profile international multi-day sports events.

However, the organisers of the Giro seem to pull the short straw when they have to deal with that big uncontrollable - the elements. Riding through the high mountains in Italy in May is not that easy. The April showers haven't quite finished and summer hasn't quite started, and there is still quite alot of snow around at altitude. So, bad weather is to be expected during some of the stages - that's part of the challenge of the Giro. However, this year the Giro has come off particularly badly. Even before the Giro began, a number of route changes had to be made owing damage to the roads from floods and landslides.

Of the 21 stages, half of them took place in rain, sleet or snow - sometimes accompanied by low cloud, driving wind and freezing temperatures. One stage, the eagerly anticipated race that would have gone over the Stelvio and the Gavia Passes didn't take place at all due to heavy snow.
Three other stages had to be modified, with riders crossing the finish line of those stages barely able to feel their hands and feet, and barely visible to the spectators through all the mist!

The difficulty for the organisers is providing that balance between a good spectacle for the waiting spectators, while ensuring the safety of the riders.

On the eve of the stage to col du Galibier discussions took place between Mauro Vegni, the technical director RCS Sport and the Prefect of Savoie, in France. It was only on the morning of the event that a definitive decision could be made, and even then, the situation had to constantly be monitored, ready to alter the route during the race.

Then the following week, Vegni and his team were faced with more headaches as they had to decide on a course of action for stages 19 (Ponte di Legno-Val Martello) and 20 (Silandro-Tre Cime di Lavaredo), when faced with atrocious conditions. Attempts were made to save these two key mountain stages - snow ploughs were clearing the passes on the eve of the races. Various technicians actually rode parts of Passo dello Stelvio and Tre Cime to test things out, but to the disappointment of the cycling fans and the riders, stage 19 had to be ditched completely, and stage 20 was re-routed.

So with all those last minute considerations, decisions and alterations to be made, Michele Acquarone and his team at RCS Sport did an excellent job in ensuring that spectators, townspeople, sponsors and riders still enjoy a very exciting Giro d'Italia.

Grazie Mille!

photos: Bettini photo