Saturday, May 21, 2011

A day in Parma

Ale Jet... after 27 Giro wins you are allowed to be called Ale Jet. Petacchi holds off Cavendish and takes the win for Lampre at Parma.


Cavendish seems happy enough with second place. A picture says a thousand words, but its the rest of the story that it misses; Cavendish was not so happy and 100 metres after the line where we were standing he was accusing Petacchi of not riding a straight line.

Mark Cavendish

Di Luca looks nothing less than brilliant on a bike. Sure he failed a test and has been suspended but now he's back. Many don't like that fact, but the Italian tifosi seem to care little about that and I am with them.

The guy in the suit behind him is the owner of Lampre, Mario Galbusera. He seems like a real enthusiast sitting in the team bus watching the stage, I get the feeling he sponsors the team out of passion rather than solely for marketing gains, perfect.

Danilo Di Luca

Lampre. They have had some troubled times as a team of late, but they are still dead flash at the finish line.

Lampre team bus

Lampre Wilier team bikes

Thursday, December 2, 2010

PRO starts young

Felix racing
I was 11 when I rode across town to my first bike race. By my second or third start I had won my first race, but to me a win on handicap was not the real thing.

Felix is 13 and got to start his cycling career in Italy. Three seasons later he has one win to his palmares.

Racing in Italy, he will never understand the tactics of riding as a scratch rider in a handicap race on a bleak and wind swept Wellington day. Instead he will understand the dynamic of riding in the group with 60 to 100 other 13 year olds. Felix will have a baptism by fire in comparison. He will not thumb through magazines to get a glimpse of the sport at its pinnacle and lie in bed at night dreaming of the greatest bike races on earth.

At 13 I dreamed of the Classic's, the Grand Tours and the stars. At 13 he has been fortunate enough to stand on top of the Poggio as the Milan San Remo passed, watch stages of the Giro d'Italia, see Cadel Evans snap the legs off the field and ride away to win the World Championships. Six day racing, World Cup Cyclo Cross, at 13 he's seen much I dreamed of.

He understands PRO, how to look on the start line. That his handle bar tape must be clean and color co ordinated with his bike, that his sock height must be just right, and that greasy chain ring marks on his calves are definitely not PRO. He understands that there are bike riders and then there are bike riders, its more than just pedaling, it's how you pedal.

On Sundays he climbs into his team van at the front gate and goes one way, and I the other way to my own race. I hope that he has a great day, snaps some legs and comes home satisfied. I hope his satisfaction will evolve into a love for the bike race, a love born from the purity of the sport, the highs and the lows, the days of good legs and bad legs, of great races and great moments, that he experiences and sees it through his own eyes, and not through the eyes of his father.

Seeing him start to look PRO in his own adolescent way makes me green with envy. He knows Zipps from Lightweights, Schleck from Contador and can spot PRO at a glance. Maybe like many young riders he will find the commitment cycling requires too hard and decide to chase girls instead. After all, who would blame him for that, especially growing up around Italian girls? Or perhaps he will go somewhere with the sport.

Nevertheless I wish my start came with the opportunities that he considers to be the norm, and at 13 I understood PRO.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Lombardian Summer

Lombardian Race, 12/09/10
The sun shone throughout the season and suddenly it was September with four weeks of racing remaining.

My palmares for the season was looking reasonable, 3 wins, 3 second places and 7 thirds amongst numerous top ten finishes.

The highlight had been finishing third in the Lombardian Championata. But then there were the disappointments. The Italian Championships, 25th. Despite crashing, then going over the top of the final climb in a break of 6, the finale did just not pan out. The European Championships, 15th and a truely dismal day at the World Championships when the 40 plus degrees had me on the ropes all day. I had hoped for more in these three coveted races that I had based my season around, but it was not to be.

In February we had started racing when the snow had only just melted from the ground and the skies were still grey. In June, July and August the temperatures were searing hot and the the skies blue, there just never seemed to be enough bidons as we raced through the feed zones week after week. Now in September the leaves were beginning to turn yellow, signally the season would soon come to an end.

It was a testament to the quality of the racing here in Italy, as after 40 odd starts I still remained motivated for the final weeks of a long year and with good form I was still hungry for that final win.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Going for Groceries

Cycling Tifosi
It's easy to understand why motor racing is such a glamour sport, fast cars and courageous men have long attracted glamourous women.

The bike race, now is that a glamourous sport?

Sure Lance Armstrong dated Sheryl Crow, but do rock and roll country and western singers count as glamourous, now that's debatable in my book.

Cycle racing is no such sport, it's beer and frites at a Belgium Kermesse, it's the peloton strung out in the gutter in the cross wind in Holland, cobbles and rain in northern France, cracking on a mountain climb in the searing heat, so many solitary training miles year after year. Glamour, we chose the wrong sport.

Those countries that are endeared by the love of the sport and hold cycling closest to their hearts, Italy, Belgium, Holland, France and others, have such devoted fans that not even doping scandals dilute their thirst for the sport.

Divided by languages and cultures, even by the style of races they host, the fans are united, they are united by their love of the sport, and in many cases they are working class people.

Perhaps the working class can relate to the 'hard graft' of the bike race, equating that grafting to their everyday lives, factory floors, blue collar work, contented, but hardly glamourous. No holidaying in 5 star resorts on the Riviera this year darling.

Here in Italia it seems little different, wander around the start line and as glamourous as it gets may be a glance of the rather attractive Elisa Basso, Italian star rider, Ivan's sister.

Elisa and Ivan Basso
When you stand atop the podium, one hand will hold the bouquet of flowers, and in the other hand will be the bag of groceries awarded to the top 10 finishers that day.

Return home to put food on the table, it doesn't get more working class than that...

Slim on the Podium
2nd at Trezzano Rosa after a wet and cold 100km.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chapeau Franco

Franco Ballerini & Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, Paris Roubaix
As I flicked on the TV to an ESPN classic program the Sunday before last, little did I think the week following I would hear the tragic news that the great champion, Franco Ballerini had been killed in a motorsport accident.

There I am watching the 1993 Paris Roubaix, the famous Hell of the North, the queen of the classics one day race.

It's something like 30km to go, when Franco Ballerini launches a devastating attack, so hard does he attack, that he is matched only by the Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, a previous winner of the race a year earlier. Duclos-Lassalle is on the edge of his seat, grimily hanging onto Ballerini's back wheel for all he is worth, as they race through the dust and cobbles. Franco has the screw turned right up.

Through the final pave' sections they go, Ballerini is a train, Duclos-Lassalle can not take a turn off him and more than once I thought he would crack and leave Franco alone on his quest to victory at the legendary finish on Roubaix's velodrome. At almost 39 years of age the wily Duclos-Lassalle digs so deep to stay with the Italian, maybe on a handful of occasions does he hit the front, feel the breeze on his face and let the great Franco rest his legs for a moment.

Inside the final 3 km and Franco still has the hammer down despite a 2 minute and 9 second margin back to the chasers.

Only inside the closing kilometers of this monumental 260km race does Franco ease up and ask Duclos to take the front, but no, the Frenchman is not interested in riding into Roubaix with any integrity. Two, three times, Franco asks Duclos-Lassalle to take the front, but he continues to show his disinterest, and they turn onto the velodrome with some 500 metres to go.

It's such a classic strongmans sprint finish. So close that initially Ballerini thinks he has taken the win to add to his palmares, but no, Duclos-Lassalle is declared the winner in the photo finish result. There he is, smiles before the cameras, winners bouquet, wife and children by his side. At that moment I guess poor Franco has his head hung low, feeling the crush of bitter disappointment as he heads towards the showers.

Franco's robbed, and from that moment on my respect for Duclos-Lassalle turning it up to win Roubaix at 38 years of age is gone, hero to villain 17 years later.

And then Franco is gone, Italian cycling looses its charismatic national team manager to a tragic accident.

'Chapeau Franco' the French should be saying, as the rest of us already have our hats off and our heads bowed.

Franco Ballerini, head down

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Saronni, Ballan and I

Slim and Alessandro Ballan's Wilier
Rumor has it that it was Aldo Colombo that nurtured the career of the great Giuseppe Saronni. World Champion in 1982, winner of the Giro d'Italia in 1979 and again in '83 read just a few lines of Saronni's extensive palmares.

Giuseppe Saronni was an Italian legend in a time of great rivalry with Francesco Moser, a rivalry that echoed the famous duels of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali in the 1960's. Every great champion needs a mentor, and Aldo was that man for Saronni. This was of little surprise to me as both these great men are, as the Italians would say, 'Molto Gentile'.

To translate, 'Molto Gentile' is to describe these two men as kind, gentle and humble men. Saronni clearly has great respect for Aldo, as each year they travel together following the Giro d'Italia and Lampre, the professional team of which Saronni is Director Sportif. Given this bond between Aldo and Saronni there is little wonder that the Lampre pro team and my squad, Ceramiche Lemer are closely aligned, as Aldo's son Mario is my Director Sportif.

So when Aldo telephones me at home, I know something big is in the pipeline.

The 2008 World Champion Alessandro Ballan is leaving Lampre for what he believes will be bigger fish at Team BMC. BMC are boosting there standing in professional cycling with some high profile signings for 2010. Ballan, Cadel Evans, the current World Champion and Lance Armstrong's former right hand man George Hincapie will head the BMC roster.

It seemed Ballan's departure from Lampre was to be my good fortune.

Ballan and I had something in common. Unfortunately I did not share his talent nor ability, but we did have one thing in common none the less, and that was height. Aldo thought that Ballan's race bike might be suitable for me for the coming season. Suitable, very suitable, I would have thought!

Waiting at the gate outside Lampre headquarters was Aldo and I was ushered in. There it was, Ballan's '09 race bike, painted in the special paint finish that signified his World Championship race victory in Varese, September of 2008. Bellisimo.

A few adjustments were made, and soon I was sitting comfortably astride a very special bike that I would ride in 2010. In a brief moment I had quickly forgotten all the races where I had given more than my sole for the team. At 47 years old, I had turned myself inside out most weeks for the squadra, and now a new race bike for 2010, and not just any race bike. Brilliant.

Here in Italy you can't just collect your new race bike without staying for lunch, what good is a new bike on an empty stomach? So there I am, lunch with Aldo and the legendary Saronni, some days just don't come much better that.

Aldo Colombo, mentor of Giuseppe Saronni...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Racing in Italia

Slim racing in Italia
Lombardia could arguably be considered as the epicentre of amateur cycle racing worldwide, and if you happened to be a sprinter there was nothing more in the world you could wish for. Here the roads were paved in gold, the sun shone all season long, and week after week 100 plus bike riders would be on the start line beside me, yes the land of milk and honey.

Last season I had raced, but after signing for Ceramica Lemer for the 2009 season, I didn’t race, I really raced. Ceramica Lemer was based in Buscate, home of the legendary Giuseppe Saronni, the 1982 World professional road champion, but other than this fact, Buscate seemed to have little else going for it.

From March through to October I would spend every Sunday driving across Milan to race on this side of the city, here the racing was far more intense and the fields were far larger than I had been used to last season, where I had raced closer to our home in Crema.

Living here in Italy, my heritage laid claim to the Italian blood that flowed through my veins, but it seemed that there could be no claim to Lombardian sprinters blood. Fast twitch fibers it seemed were not part of my genetic make up, and this made Lombardia a very very difficult place to race.

My Italian language skills were coming together as slowly as my sprint, however I quickly learned a few vital words, Fuga; there never was one, Volata; there always was one, and Gregario; I would quickly become one.

Fuga; The Breakaway.
The only chance I had in this sprinters paradise was to get into a breakaway and hope that break away would succeed. That required a 100 percent effort, not only by me, but also by my break away companions. Too many times the breakaway would fail through a frustrating lack of co operation within the group, or worse we would be caught within kilometers of the finish, 5km to go in Galliate, 1km from the line in Liscate and finally in Corbetta we succeeded, however my better judgement was clouded by my enthusiasm and I crossed the line 7th.

Volata; The Sprint.
Lombardia must be the home of the sprinter, here they are fast, they are fearless and they are very good. Given that all the crack teams have at least one crack sprinter, it is in the interests of most teams to chase down the fuga so the finale would end in a volata. Francesco Gionfredo, former World Champion and hell sprinter, Frank was good, very good and when it came to the volata he was king, come August he had notched up 11 wins and 9 second places.

Gregario; or as the French say Domestique.
The gregario is the guy that goes to the front of the race and rides as hard as he can to bring back the fuga, so it ends in another bloody Volata.

Frank was our Capo and it was my job to make sure if I wasn't in the fuga, there sure as hell wasn't one come a kilometer to go leading into the volata. Only then my work as a gregario was done for the day.

Sunday's in Italia, what a brilliant time of the week, and whats more if we still had the legs after racing on a Sunday we could race again on Monday.

Despite the fact at 47 I was unlikely to ever become a sprinter, Italia was one hell of a place to live and race.