Saturday, 1 February 2020

Navigli of Milan and suburban bike ride

Darsena bassin, at the start of the Navigli
Ever since I left Milan a few years ago I have made a habit of returning there once a year. I didn't manage to get back last year, so I thought I would redress the balance as soon as possible.

What better time to do it than right before "Brexit Day", the day the United Kingdom officially left the European Union. Although we have to resign ourselves to this fate I am not particularly happy to see happening. So being away from the UK when it all kicked off would make me feel completely dissociated from what was going on, which for me, was no bad thing.

Hoping to get to Pavia

Once I had dropped off my bag in my flat near Porto Romana I caught up with my friend Ilaria, and then went to collect my hire bike from Biciclette Rossignoli in central Milan. Given that I would only be in Milan for a couple of days, and would be travelling to Courmayeur and Chamonix for skiing, hiring a bike was the practical option.

Furthermore, it can cost up to £90 to take a bike on a flight. Rossignoli were charging 90 euros for two days' bike hire. So the decision to hire was a no-brainer!

All set to start my afternoon ride
It was nice of them to have a bike ready for me at short notice, and after my quick trip over to Corso Garibaldi in the Brera I emerged with a carbon fibre Cinelli Saetta.

Friday's ride started with a quick trip along the Naviglio Pavese, with my intention of getting to Pavia - a place that I regularly used to go to and found really pretty.

It all seemed to be going well in the afternoon sunshine, until I got close to Binasco, not far from the start of the professional Milan - Sanremo bike race. The path, which is normally beautifully surfaced was closed off and undergoing works, so I made a detour along a quiet road through some fields and a nearby village, but things did not get better.

Not knowing where to pick up the Naviglio Pavese, I asked some local walkers, who pointed in the direction of a trail, saying "yes ride along that path and it will take you all the way to Pavia." What the man didn't tell me was that it was a dirt track, and I was on a road bike.

Normally, I wouldn't be so phased by a bit of off-road. After all, folks ride road bikes in Strade Bianche races on unmade roads. But this path was very rough, with massive ruts and stones, and it wasn't clear how long this would last for.

The Naviglio Pavese - how it should be (photo from a previous trip)

With a full schedule of things to do, today was not the day to have a frustrating ride, so I decided against going to Pavia, and instead opted to stay within the Milan area.

Sadly no Pavia, but a bit of Abbiategrasso

My ride then took me across some suburban roads to places like Noviglio, Rosate, and many places called Cascina something-or-other. The terrain was pretty unchallenging and in parts, slightly dull being surrounded by arable fields, but it made for very easy riding, and was a place where you could get in a good bit of chaingang riding. In fact there were a few groups out. Some of the roads in this area had a cycle path alongside them, which was quite handy given that the main carriageway had quite a lot trucks on their way to the nearby motorways.

Even though this area was a little non-descript it felt quite refreshing and peaceful to be there on this sunny, Friday afternoon. It was also made a change to just see how ordinary folks, away from the hurly burly chic of Central Milan, lived.

I passed one village called Gudo Visconti where it looked like the kids had knocked off from school early - or maybe it was the school holidays - and they were out dancing and having a barbecue - in January!

Eventually I reached the Naviglio Grande, which was the prettiest part of the ride. At least that canal towpath wasn't dug up, which was a relief. Nearby, at the end of the Naviglio Grande is the Roman suburban town of Abbiategrasso. This place used to be one of my regular training ride destinations when I was based in Milan. On one occasion during the summer I remember seeing people walking around the town dressed in flamboyant medieval costumes.

At first I thought it was just what folks normally wear out there, until someone told me they were holding Il Palio - a crazy barebacked horse race that is most associated with Siena! No one was dressed like that today; folks were just going about their normal business, which included enjoying a stroll or a ride along the Naviglio.

Home-run to Milano

Naviglio Grande at Gaggiano
Other places I passed along the way included the pretty suburbs of Gaggiano and Trezzano sul Naviglio, where a man, in typical Italian style shouted "Ciao" to me and attempted to strike up a conversation, asking me what I was doing and where I come from. I would have loved to stop but I was in a slight rush to get back home and get ready to meet my friend, Silvia. Italians do like to talk.

My ride back into central Milan was straightforward and quick as the road surface was smooth, perfectly flat, and mostly traffic-free. It was also a trip along memory lane, as I passed Corsico, a place where I would go for my early morning runs prior to going to work. There was also San Cristoforo church, which was on my cycle route to get to work; Porta Genova where there was a flea market and also a place for finding stolen bikes - probably including my Specialized road bike that was lifted by a scumbag while I lived there.

Naviglio Grande at Trezzano
The last part of the Naviglio is not so easy to ride as you are weaving around tourists and locals at the canal-side cafes having aperitivos. So it was better to get onto the road at this point and join the rush hour traffic, and bounce the bike over the cobbles and tramlines to reach my base at Porta Romana.

My cycle route on Strava

Related posts
My Tour of Lombardy: Naviglio Pavese and Naviglio Grande

Giro dei Navigli - Naviglio Martesana

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Cyclists of Paris

When I was in Paris to attend the launch of the Groupama-FDJ bike racing team, I took a stroll around the centre of the city and did a bit of people watching as it was quite a sunny day. By people watching, it was more about watching all the various cyclists go by. I didn't need to go very far to see cyclists as there were quite a lot of them around, so I just stayed within a narrow zone between Hotel de Ville, Rue de Rivoli, and the Pont Notre-Dame.

It's good to see that more segregated cycle lanes have been built around Paris, and the Velibs seemed to be back in use again as well after the catastrophic failure of the system over the last couple of years. There weren't quite as many cyclists as you see in some of the cycle superhighways in London at rush hour, but the lanes were still well used by scooters and skateboarders as well as by cyclists.

Rue de Rivoli

Velibs at Hotel de Ville

Commuters on Pont Notre-Dame

Quai de Gesvres

Boulevard de Sebastopol
Rue de Rivoli

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Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Catching up with Groupama-FDJ

Marc Madiot (left) and Thibaut Pinot (right) at the presentation
Earlier this month I took up an invitation to attend the unveiling of the Groupama-FDJ team for 2020. The event took place at the headquarters of the Groupama insurance company in Paris.

To the fanfare and glitz of the mini theatre, the riders and staff appeared on-stage before a packed audience of friends, family, management of the Groupama insurance company, the FDJ lottery company, other team sponsors, and journalists.

It was the first time I was seeing the team in the flesh, and the first thing I noted was that the key figures.

Team manager Marc Madiot, plus riders Thibaut Pinot and Arnaud Demare were just the same in their demeanor as they appeared on television.

Marc Madiot was ebullient in his delivery, and feisty in his statement on how the team planned to challenge the big teams this season - even give them sleepless nights.

Anyone who has seen his highly animated reactions when watching his team knows that Madiot has a lot of fire in his belly and overflows with passion for cycling.

He also seems to take pride in injecting that passion and emotion into his team.

Clearly he wants the team to get results, but it almost seemed as though for him it was more about the team living really strong moments regardless of the outcome.

He just wants the riders to sweat emotion. It is more probable that he expects good results but he is quietly confident that they will come when the emotion is there, rather than when doing things in a highly robotic and calculated way.

Although he never mentioned Team Ineos by name, it was obvious who he was referring to when he talked about not wanting a team that works like machines, but preferring a team of human beings with emotions.

Having said that, this year they are working at little details in order to get significant performance improvements. Far be it for Marc Madiot to use the term "marginal gains" but I think that was what he was alluding to.

Marc Madiot (centre) with two riders, notably Stephan Kung (right)
Overall, Marc Madiot came across as all fired up and ready to go fearlessly where other teams may fear to tread.

A slightly embarrassing moment was when the on-stage compere commented on how Marc Madiot likes to go about his objectives the hard way round, and the team manager said that he thrives on the emotion of those moments. To which the compere responded, "yes, it's like a drug" and there was a slight gasp and a groan from the audience!

Not the best choice of words when dealing with a cycle racing team! Marc Madiot just gave the compere a friendly pat on the back and took it in good humour.

It was good to see Thibaut Pinot looking in good spirits and raring to get his 2020 season underway. My last image of him had been the heartbreaking moment when he was riding through the Alps with tears in his eyes during the Tour de France last year, at the realisation that he would not be able to continue his ride. Hitherto he had been in fifth place, 20 seconds behind the eventual winner and was ready to challenge for the top spots. Then he and the whole world saw all his dreams of podium glory crumble away. Even the television commentators got emotional seeing him climb off his bike.

After the presentation on the stage, journalists had the chance to interview the riders in the mixed zone. Around ten of us surrounded the the interviewee in question and we randomly fired questions at him.

We got to interview Marc Madiot, Thibaut Pinot and Arnaud Demare in this way. I liked the way that when Thibaut Pinot's turn came to meet us in the mixed zone he took the effort to shake hands with every one of the journalists before we began our questions.

All of the journalists were French, apart from myself and a Spanish guy. It seemed like he didn't speak French and Marion, the Groupama-FDJ press officer was doing live interpreting for him. For once I got the chance to use my French skills to their fullest extent!
Although there was no particular order to the interviewing given that it was a mixed zone, it was all very orderly.

All the different journalists having the opportunity, if they wished, to put their questions clearly, and without it being a verbal bun fight.

There was one guy who was a bit older and looked like the elder statesman of all the journos.

Thibaut Pinot warming up, with his brother and coach Julien
I think that he was from L'Equipe, and the others seem to defer to him and let him open the questions session; then we all took turns - at least those of us who wanted to ask questions.

I must also say that there were only two female journalists present, including myself.

I asked a number of questions to each of the three guys that we interviewed, but there were a few journalists including the other woman who just taped everything but did not ask any questions at all - which I found a little surprising.

After our questions we were then free to tuck into the buffet with all its delightful canapés that were very French, dainty, and exquisite.

It had been quite an enjoyable morning. Even though I went there on my own, not knowing anyone I managed to still make a few contacts. There was a guy called Xavier Louy who was the assistant director of the Tour de France at the era of Felix Levitan, and also a director himself the year Pedro Delgado won. He's also been a politician too serving in the cabinet of past French Prime Ministers. It was very much by chance that I ended up sitting next to him during the presentation and he said he would send me a book he had written called Sauvons Le Tour (Save the Tour).

I also met Stephen Delcourt, the Team Manager of the women's FDJ team, (also co-sponsored by Nouvelle Aquitaine and Futuroscope). Their star rider this year will be the newly signed, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, an exciting rider.

Along with Stephen was the marketing manager of LaPierre, the bikes that Groupama-FDJ and FDJ women will be riding.

Finally, it was a very pleasant surprise to see Claire Floret and Mathieu Istil from Donnons Les Elles au Vélo. This is a team I met last year at their civic reception in Paris after they'd cycled the whole route of the Tour de France, one day ahead of the men's pro race. I think what they are doing is a great initiative. Claire told me how they had selected the women who will be on the team for this year's ride, and are due to have a launch event.

So all in all it was a good morning out, and Paris looked as beautiful as ever in the January sun.

Here are a few of the main points made by Marc Madiot and Thibaut Pinot when I and others interviewed them in the mixed zone.
(Translated from French)

Marc Madiot 

"We try to put ourselves in the best situation to be perform well throughout the year. Our performance is built well in advance with the whole team, including with those who are not necessarily going to the Tour de France. 

It's necessary to have confidence, serenity and solidarity and that starts from the framework within the team. 

Right from when a rider is on the massage table the masseur has to transmit a positivity when doing his job and this dynamism passes throughout the team in order to get good results. This is what we want to create during 2020. 

We managed this in 2019, notably during the Tour de France. Even with the famous stage where we lost out in the cross-winds in the Tour de France we remained serene and Zen, because we had the ingredients to react. And it is for that reason that I am confident that we are capable of facing up to difficulties.  

Previously, we would look at the big teams and just be ready to react to them, But now, our objective is to be there right in the heart of the action.

I don't know for sure if Thibaut would have won the Tour last year had he not had to quit early. We will never know. But what we saw that we were capable of challenging the big riders, and all the potential was there to do well. It is this strength from 2019 that we feel good about challenging the top teams next year. 

For Thibaut we had done everything we can for him, and fate does the rest. There is always going to be something that we have no control over. However, if you observe Thibaut he has always been very strong after encountering difficulties. He's not someone who will go under. He alway knows how to pick himself up and start again. Each time he has to climb a step he does so, even if there is a bit of pain. And I think today, he is completely capable of being in the match this year."

Thibaut Pinot

"I have acquired quite a lot of experience and matured a lot. It's true that before I wasn't ready for the all the attention. 

But now I've got good results coming through. 

The journalists and the public are paying more attention to my results, but now I enjoy racing in front of my fans and I take pleasure in doing so. That's why I am happy to be racing in France this year.

I realised that there are some really nice races to do in France. I have found that it's not always interesting to race abroad. It's true that for two or three years I have wanted to return to France and do the Dauphine rather than the Tour of Switzerland, and do the Paris-Nice instead of the Tirreno-Adriatico, which I know very well and I have performed well. 

I know it's going to be a risk to do the Paris-Nice, especially because it's not really a terrain that suits me. But at the age of 30 I think that now is the time to do these races.

I don't know what the cause of my injury was last year, and I don't think it's linked to other injuries I've had. It was an injury to my thigh - something that I had never felt before. I don't know where the injury came from, and it just went away like that. It was strange. The year before that I had dropped out of the Giro with pneumonia. It just seems like I have a fragile body.

I know that there are critics who talk about how I always get ill or injured at Grand Tours. It just seems that stuff happens to me, that doesn't happen to others and I keep thinking that one day things will take a turn for the better and I will finally have the opportunity to finish a Grand Tour in favourable conditions.

Abandoning the Tour de France last year was the toughest moment in my career, after dropping out of the Giro d'Italia the previous year. It was so hard both mentally and physically. I just felt so bad having it happening just two days before reaching Paris. It was especially frustrating that it happened the year after what happened in the Giro where I was so close to the podium when I had to drop out. In the Tour de France I had never thought that I wouldn't finish, and that is the most frustrating thing - to have not made it to Paris.

For sure, after what happened last year in the Tour it seemed that everyone was talking about it, and that raised my profile. I have now learned to be a bit more well-known. Wherever I train in France I get recognised, even when I am just in my hi-vis jacket. No matter where I go, or which town I'm in people recognise me. It feels quite unusual. Previously I was only known in certain regions of France, but after the Tour everything changed. People are generally nice, and so it doesn't bother me."

Photo credits apart from the top one: Nicolas Gotz/Equipe Groupama-FDJ

Related posts
52 Cycling Voices - 25: Monica and Paola Santini

Ciao Felice Gimondi

52 Cycling Voices - 24: Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig

Saturday, 25 January 2020

More from a couple of my favourite poets for Burns Night

It's that time of year again when we think about poetry and/or eat haggis with tatties and neeps, and even have the odd tipple of whisky for Burns Night. I'll probably indulge in it a bit, given that I've not allowed myself to get drawn into this "dry January" or "Veganuary" fad. 

It's probably the only day of the year I'll bother to eat haggis so why not go the whole hog (or sheep even!) and throw in a bit of rhyme and verse too. 

I did this last year with my family, and my nine-year old nice really got into it. I couldn't believe she even knew some Shakespeare sonnets. Clearly I had a mis-spent childhood just reading Enid Blyton when I was her age. Anyway, here are a couple of verses by poets I like - John Cooper Clarke, and Murray Lachlan Young. Not exactly Shakespeare or even Rabbie Burns. But I think they're fun, and for once they're not even about cycling. Yes, I do think about other stuff outside of two-wheeled things!


(by john cooper clarke)

Does Superman wear blue tights
And keep away from kryptonite
Do old ladies get mugged at night
Are you the business
Do workers want a living wage
Do rock stars lie about their age
Would a tiger run from an open cage
Are you the business
Are you the fuck off business
Is my first name John
Is strangeways full of prisoners
Am I over twenty-one
Are the royal family really rich
Is Scooby-Doo one son-of-a bitch
Is Wembley stadium a football pitch
Are you the business
Did Noriega knock out coke
Did Bob Marley like the odd smoke
Was Jesus Christ a decent bloke
Are you the business
Does Oliver Reed ever get pissed
Can Chubby Checker do the twist
Was Karl Marx a communist
Are you the business
Was James Dean a cool cat
Was Kennedy a democrat
Do Hacedic men wear hats
Are you the business
Will narcotics get you hooked
Did Dostoyevsky write the odd book
Was Al Capone a bit of a crook
Are you the business
Did Buddy Holly wear horn-rimmed specs
Is czechoslovakia full of czechs
Did Sigmund Freud consider sex
Are you the business
Did Elvis ever rock ‘n roll
Did James Brown have any soul
Will I touch you with a ten-foot barge pole
Are you the business

If ya gonna go Keith (don't do it like that) 
(by Murray Lachlan Young)

What the hell did you think you were doing?
So blind that you just could not see
Not a thought for your legion of worshipping fans
When you shinned up the trunk of that coconut tree

If you’re gonna go Keith go Keith go
If your gonna go Keith go Keith go
If your gonna go Keith go Keith go
Don’t do it like that Keith no Keith no

Go in the middle of a hard blues riff
Go at the end of a smacked up spliff
Speedball death plunge, Lear jet smash
Coked up gunfight, high-speed car crash
Kohl black eyes cracked rock-n-roll skin
With your hand on the fret board, cigarette grin
Do it like a king pin Debauchee
But not falling out of a coconut tree

Keith, man, what goaded you on?
Was it Ronnie Wood? That said you should?
Or was it Elton John that you tried to prove wrong?
When he called you King Kong, did you snag your sarong?
C’mon, C’mon, C’mon C’mawn!
Keith, baby, tell us please what the hell was going on?

Cause if you’re gonna go Keith, go Keith go
If you’re gonna go Keith go Keith go
And if you’re gonna go Keith go Keith go
Don’t do it like that Keith
No Keith