I sit on a small stone wall in a closed ski station car park, pretty much atop a mountain camera and long glass ready waiting for a bunch of cyclists a couple of kilometres back down the climb. This place will be thrumming in a few weeks but for now it’s eerily quiet. Dropped off by the support vehicle to be picked up in half an hour images bagged, I suddenly feel like I’m in the crop dusting scene from North by Northwest when a bus appears and drops off another lone figure on the opposite side of the car park who like me just stands there waiting for the next stage in his journey. Then a cycle helmet bobs slowly up above the horizon like a flouro yellow rising sun and heads in my direction quickly dissolving the sense of perspective through a viewfinder. This is the big climb of the week, the one that stood out on the route card above the others. Nearly two hours of hairpins up banked and I have just a few moments to capture something before it’s gone, cashing in the climb for 20 mins of gravity round this last switchback.
The call had come a couple of weeks before with a simple plan. 800k over Italian mountains in 4 days, the day after the 100k Roma Campagnolo Granfondo and ending up with more riding with the people of Campagnolo after a tour of their house in Vicenza at the end of the week. This was to be the first ‘Campagnolo experience’ by Thomson Bike Tours and my first experience of a cycling tour of any kind. The aim of this new end of season trip was to connect these two rather special events with a reasonably intense but enjoyable cross country route taking in all manner of Italian-ness from mountains with sea views to passes across lakes and post ride dinners in beautiful moonlight piazzas. What Italy does as well as anyone basically, atmosphere and chainrings.
This little adventure began with leaving the bustle of Rome behind and heading north east to a hotel high on the hills above Tivoli looking back to the capital and the Vatican in the distance. I walked in on our guardians for the week, Daniel, Jordi, Sergi and Pablo setting up a breakdown of the planned route out of the Roma region across the Apennine mountains and up to Vicenza. It looked pretty tough going and not for the faint hearted I imagined as I looked around the room at the contrasting characters sitting eagerly watching their cycling holiday unfold in a powerpoint presentation of gradients and distances on the charming rustic wall in front of them.
Characters are revealed as a sumptuous dinner ensues. The Canadian graphic designer, the former American naval pilot, the Australian that’s jacked in his job to come to Europe for a month and ride bikes. Strangers a day ago will become team mates over the next few days. Bonds reaching out in different directions, friendships born from a mutual reason for being here together. Everyone with different stories and abilities and similar goals. It faintly reminds me of ‘The Breakfast Club’.
It doesn’t take long after the grand depart the next morning for this mix of ages and nationalities to find it’s natural riding balance and groups form organically as the peloton is spread out with it’s blue and white chaperones. The two guides for our intimate bunch make up front and back markers and keep the cadence smooth within the respective groups always it seems with one eye to the clock and the available daylight but never taking their sight off the main attraction, the enjoyment of a hard earned holiday on two wheels overseas. It’s a healthy mix of roots here this week. Three Americans, a Canadian, a Filipino, two Australians and a Dutchman. A great cycling tapestry to weave then and one crucially containing Australians, something I am told by Daniel always helps a group dynamic and something I consider pretty much helps any potential situation. Joe and Mike will turn out to be the lifeblood of humour for the week as Aussies so often do. Even the hungriest, most tired grumpy cyclist can’t gripe with an Australian around, it’s just impossible.
As clock hands spin round and we wind through seemingly infinite hillside olive groves climbing higher and higher into a deep Italian blue sky our driver for the day Sergi tells me this idea of riding each hotel point to point avoiding as much van transfer as possible is one of the fundamental draws of a Thomson trip. These guys have come a long way to ride these hills so Sergi and the team have planned this route to be able to accommodate a day’s riding, hopefully only seeing the inside of the support vehicle to answer a bi hourly banana craving. This seems like it could punish as much as it could reward, but I can see the logic here. If the route is right, there’s a real sense of accomplishment in starting a day in a pair of cleats in one hotel lobby and taking them off in another 175k away having covered every single step on a bike. It seems popular with the punters too, Jeroen (the Dutchman and my room mate) tells me over dinner how he has been on a quite a few of these type of excursions and this one feels quality already but crucially with the main focus on the quality of each day’s riding.
It’s weird how day after day of stunning vistas, perfect climes, deep descents and long gradual climbs can start to blend into one mashed up memory with odd moments of clarity here and there, but by the end of this week it will appear I’ll find it hard to remember which day we did ‘that’ hill or ‘those hairpins’ or indeed the egg sandwich that was sold as to me as mozzarella.
The Apennines aren’t mountains like you think of mountains, all snow capped and jagged and some kind of scary wonderful, they’re kind of rounded and more friendly in a way. Green pastures and deep wooded sections either side as you climb up on tarmac but they can still pack a high altitude climbing punch at over 2000m and can throw up a view and a half round each corner. It’s odd, you feel like you’re rolling through high countryside and then peek out and gander around and suddenly you’re looking out across the top of the world with peaks as far as you can see into the distance. Stunning. A word too easily bandied around in the internet age but rarely out of place in a mountain range, this one included.
Reformed as a group hydrating and nut crunching the Winnipeg Cycle Chick herself, Andrea is looking to be the bright star climber of the trip. A dark horse indeed she’s strong and ready for the off with blink and you’ll miss him Californian Todd up front. The eight set sail for the payoff, another 2k of climbing will reward with half an hour of hairpin descents. There really is nothing like a mountain road, parallel stretches above each other joined by a u-bend hairpin every few hundred metres dropping you down or picking you up whichever way you’re pointed. Oh to have my dream Porsche 964RS here with empty clear visibility smooth tarmac roads and bends like they were designed by a bike racer, but we make do with a 9 seater mini bus and all envy switches to all the sets of two wheels as they whisk away freewheels clacking. Only two cars up and not a single one down. There would have to be a nationwide zombie plague in the UK to get those kind of odds, though here it seems normal like it’s a hidden secret only cyclists know about. It’s almost disconcertingly quiet, down I suppose to it being post summer and pre winter limbo round here, but the result is clearly a good timing for wheels attacking hills.
The landscape just keeps coming too. Spinning down through a picturesque village across Lago del Salto the views are breathtaking, almost overwhelming with a serene beauty you might imagine was reserved for model railways or Swiss pencil cases. It almost seemed a shame to watch the gang spin through at 30kph, but chatting over dinner that evening, itself a pretty special affair of illuminated ancient piazza Italian life, it is clear they all took it in.
My last day with the group, before we depart and re-convene at the Campagnolo Mothership on Friday sees us head into strada bianca territory Scooting on ahead with an early and surprise pick up, we stop off at a one horse town in the middle of nowhere and sit in the sun waiting for cyclists. Daniel and I head for the bar and on asking for a sandwich are presented with a rough chunk of bread, a lump of cheese and salami just about big enough for two sandwiches. This peasant chic is actually rather refreshing after endless courses of haute cuisine night after night in a kind of back to basics approach to refuelling. Headed up the hill go our team and we follow on to the white roads. Not perhaps as romantic as a Tuscan dust affair but suitably challenging in the rain after a 100k warm up before lunch and enough to spread the field out. As the white road turns grey and nears it’s summit the cloud lies low and we are drawn into it’s tractor beam and silently and without resistance cyclists disappear into the fog one by one. What unveils on the other side of the curtain is to be absorbed for a moment, another 15mins of hairpin heaven to the soundtrack of sunshine and cow bells all the way to the destination of coffee and cakes in a sleepy square down there at sea level.
Waving the guys off the morning after the best pizza I have ever tasted the night before I wander round the hotel fascinated and addicted to the sheer volume of photographs of famous cyclists and motor racers on the walls posing with the owner. Chiappucci, Pantani, Riis, Schumacher. They’re everywhere, at all stages of their careers. Nice as this hotel is, it does seem a touch random that all these people have been here, it’s not exactly in the middle of anything, but come they do and pose and eat it would appear. I can’t blame them, it was as I have come to expect this week, a rather good dinner. The next time I see my new pals will be at Campy’s headquarters in Vicenza. They have a shorter spin to get there by this evening and I am on a different path that allows a spot of reflection. It’s hard not to get repeatedly sucked into Italy’s charms so rich are they in culture. They have so much it can make you feel slightly short changed by your environment if you hail from a damp little island as I do.
Back at the house of Campagnolo it’s only been 24hrs since I saw my new cycle breakfast club but it already feels like it’s another trip. So busy are the streets and industry at the Italian component kings, that all those mountains and valleys seem like another world. A detailed tour around the hallowed and somewhat secretive factory floor ensues as our intrepid adventurers take in the work that has gone in to create the gears and brakes and wheels that have got them over a mountain range to be here today. Standing watching the man who makes Ghibli wheels with the remaining Americans Ted and Sharon and Joel who heads back to the Phillippines tomorrow, I ask how important this part of the trip was to them in making a decision to travel so far to ride these hills. Pivotal seems the consensus. This was truly the decider for these guys. To see where the hallowed Super Record they all use actually comes from has meant a lot to them. Seeing how manual the processes really are, how smelly, oily and loud these machines churning out cranks and cassettes actually are. Getting how Italian the whole thing feels, that could be the cherry on the cake for these guys this week. Could be, but isn’t quite.
Suitably in awe of what is frankly awesome, they are all kitted out and the bikes assembled for one last 150k hurrah up into the local hills to a very special and exclusive afternoon lunch at the Astoria prosecco vineyard, the go to choice of the local culturati but crucially among this company also the official supplier to the Giro d’Italia. Eating hand made local cuisine, slow cooked on an open fire all day to a Campagnolo labelled prosecco accompaniment in the fading sun without a cloud in the sky and a care in the world…what a way to end quite a week. This was almost the cherry on the cake, but there was one last surprise. A Campy goody bag with your name on it and a bottle of that prosecco complete with Super Record 11t cog as a bottle medallion. It clearly doesn’t get much cooler than that for these tourists.
As my new best friends compare their swag and file out to return their visitor badges it’s like we all share a bond now. Kind of like a class of ’13. I find myself becoming Anthony Michael Hall and ask if we will all still talk to each other when we’re back in our normal social groups on Monday? My own private Breakfast Club get picked up outside school and we all go our separate ways. Then the first email and friend request arrives within hours and I realise it’s not the end, just the beginning.