Now I look back on that day, I realise two things. It was in a continuous pattern of working in Italy and becoming ill or damaged, and there was always something bad going to happen when the day started with my turning down a bowl of cereal.
Half way along the A4 to Milan it began. This, the third of five days photographing Italian cycling royalty having already covered Castelli and Pegoretti and aiming to finish at the mothership of Campagnolo tomorrow after a morning with the legend Ernesto Colnago all to myself. Just he and I, a factory and museum tour, a two and a quarter film camera and all the stories I could hear and film I could shoot. Interesting things this way must surely come. Unless your head begins to spin in the opposite direction to your stomach and you start projectile vomiting out of the window of your friend’s new car at 130kph on an Italian autoroute an hour before you’re supposed to arrive. Then interesting things might well bypass you today and take you on a roller coaster ride you didn’t plan on. I don’t remember as much of that part of the day as I fear Campag Joshua has seared into his memory, but I do remember him holding on to my shoes while I tried to take off from the open passenger window groaning and leaving foot prints all over the headlining of his new motor (and worse across the windshield of the artic behind).
Two pits stops and a toothbrush purchase later we arrived at Colnago after Josh tried to warn them and cancel the appointment to which Ernesto with all his energy shrugged off the idea of my spreading the plague across his factory and ushered us in and caffeinated us. I was very aware that this elder statesman of cycling was 80something and presumably both potentially less able to fight off infection and obviously of more importance and value to the cycling world than I and generally felt like he should keep me at arm’s length or better still on the end of a phone at all times through this experience. I could see the headlines in my mind and that rightly scared me, here in one of the churches of cycling in the country of it’s religious roots.
During the tour of the factory and having only grabbed a couple of photographs, we were shown the famous floor of the museum of the bicycles the great and good and the holy had ridden to applause from races to velodromes to the Vatican.
The place is of such a high cycling calibre that mortals like me feel suitably mere just walking across it’s shined marble flooring. What they feel like collapsed across those tiles groaning and rolling their eyeballs around is a shame and awkwardness I hope never get to repeat anywhere. Let alone in front of royalty. I dare say what was one of the worst experiences of my life might have been a unique experience for this church of cycling to witness so there is chance I won’t be forgotten there, admittedly for all the wrong reasons. I remember little but as I lay looking up at shiny gold wheels and 70s red paint jobs all around me above, I do recall for some reason saying “what a place to die”. to which Ernesto’s retort was perfect. “Wheech bike you ride in ‘eaven?” Only one answer to that really isn’t there? ‘The pope’s gold plated one obvs’ I blarted.
After being carried up to Ernesto’s office that I had planned to photograph rather than pass out in, I got a close up and slightly angled view of the series of paintings on the walls. I seem to remember The Mona Lisa carrying a frame to my right at one point, but there was much in the way of brand lineage in oil on canvas dotted everywhere.
T shirt gold I’d imagine, but back in the room his doctor was called and he wrapped me up on his turquoise velour office sofa with baroque gold legs, laying his jacket over me and left me to sleep (next to a bin in case) and wait for a cycling doctor to come and rescue me. It was at this point that colleagues Jered and Ashley Gruber came up the stairs and not wanting to be infected mid season left me to die in peace on Ernesto Colnago’s sofa. Oddly I had the constant aroma of fresh cake wafting into my nostrils. I imagine a secretary had just unpacked elevensies somewhere, but my addled brain, confused with where the hell it was imagined people saying later, ‘oh you smelled cake’ that’s always the last sensation before the end bell chimes.
Josh came to check on me as we waited for the doctor and snapped the moment so amongst the handful of snatched files on my cameras was one digital portrait of my rennaissance self draped over a gold legged turquoise sofa in an Italian portrait scene all be it more evocative of avoidance than allure.
That and one portrait I barely had the gumption to record but was ordered to as I wobbled to the door on the way out a few hours later by a still far too close for infectious comfort Ernesto Colnago. I remember shooting three images of him before stumbling away, leaning on Josh’s shoulder with that old Bronica two and a quarter, looking down into the waist level finder and gesturing and mumbling, ‘That way a little, ok, now a bit more. Ok there. Don’t move’. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Done. One roll of Tri-X with just three frames of a cycling legend on it. It seemed like the way I’d imagine heroes like Richard Avedon or Peter Lindbergh might approach a portrait. walk in, frame by hand/ eye, talk, smile, charm, snap. Leave. I doubt either of them shared my portrait session warm up, but I thought I’d lump us all on together here anyway, as if this was going to be the end of a career in cycling before it had begun, I might as well dream I was in the major league before being crashed out on injuries.
Before we left (physically, as my mind had gone hours before), Ernesto insisted on signing me a book as a reminder of the day. I suppose I’d already signed his visitor’s book to be honest, but if I could replay that day a little less crassly, I wouldn’t hesitate.
I don’t really remember the return trip but I don’t really remember the next two days lying with gastric flu in Josh’s spare room either. What a house guest. But the one thing that did come out of it all for me was a new caricature in Northern Italy. Not a good one no, and what you could do with even a funny nickname given to you by a master, but when I saw Ernesto next a few months later at a team launch a mutual friend re-introduced me and he and his colleague turned and immediately that caractature’s image made them both both burst out laughing. Not the ideal reaction you want from a hero but far from forgotten is at least I suppose something. Then Ernesto gave me a big hug so I could know i hadn’t killed him with plague and we sat and ate together. And I haven’t been back to darken their door since. But I still consider his hospitality and candour impeccable, even to an alien with plague. A legendary master yes. And also a true gentleman. Grazie Mille Ernesto.