John Reay’s Giro d’Italia

‘Leaning towards Pisa’

25th- 29th  May ’05

A tour of the Alpe Apuane (in Italy!)

2005 Team Leader - JR

The Team - JR, K1, K2, Dave, Frank, Mike, Rob (3 day specialist)

‘Boxing Clever’ – Villains and Heroes

Pisa Airport has an excellent marketing ploy – it advertises free beer, dancing girls and left-luggage; the trouble is that when you arrive the beer’s run out, the dancing girls ain’t dancing and the left luggage isn’t accepting (big) luggage,– too late, you’re stuck in Pisa!  Villains!  No problem – a short train trip to Pisa and a left luggage that does take luggage.  Heroes!

Great Locations for Starting a Tour

The Portsmouth Road in Surbiton?  Cobham car park? Clapham Common?  Or maybe the Champs Elysses?  Well, the Piazza del Duomo in Pisa has got to be up there.  And if you look from the right perspective the Torre Pendente (bull on a chain?) isn’t leaning; a remarkable piece of corrective geotechnical engineering.  A traditional team photo in front of the non-leaning tower and we’re off. 

Pisa to Lido di Camaiore

Distance: 54 miles

An early beer in Lucca is the real start of the holiday, followed by a well-trafficked climb to Montemagno and a descent to the coast following the Camaiore late-afternoon beer stop.  There is one important rule to holidaying in Italy - avoid the coastal plain!  Few of the locals live in the hills; they all live, work and drive their motors on the narrow coastal plain.  On the map it looks like a pleasant cycle up the coast with the Med to port and hills to starboard.  In reality the road is long, straight and dusty with much traffic; the sea is intermittently visible.  Some entertainment was provided by the local peloton who demonstrated how to skip the hundreds of red traffic lights.  In the excitement, one guy even managed to remove his pedal in his clip-ons.  Marina di Massa was gladly reached as a team time trial.

A Night to Remember – You’ll Never Walk Alone in the Pizzeria

The Hotel Patricio looked rather isolated, with the unhappy prospect of long walk in search of food and drink.  However, you only need one place, and the local had everything one desires; pizza, beer and football.  The Italians were considerably more interested in the 2005 Champions League final than their French Mazamet counterparts were of Monaco’s exploits in the 2004 version; at one stage there were at least five locals watching the game!  A rather strange evening with the scousers 3-0 down at half-time and hence no need to interrupt the pizza eating; then as the recovery ensued our Team gradually migrated to the TV room.  A late night penalty shoot-out provided a fitting end to a long, arduous day.

Marina di Massa to Villafranca

Distance: 54 miles

Now, you probably know that Carrara is considered the world marble capital and you may have romantic visions of Michelangelo searching for the lump of marble incubating David; before the invention of the internal combustion engine there may have been some truth in this romantic view.  However, for cyclists Carrara’s streets make Kingston’s one-way system a pastoral scene.  Marble lorries, cars, buses, cratered roads and even modern-day Michelangelos firing marble dust with an angle-grinder.  Some worries (completely unfounded) about the traffic conditions out of town – certainly the best part of Carrara is the road out.

Interuption No. 1. The Dit

At this stage, on the first serious climb to 560 m, your author is introducing a new unit of measurement; please welcome to the family of newton, pascal, joule and watt the SI unit of cyclists’ climbing pain – the ditchling (Dit).  Without being too pedantic, the climb of Ditchling Beacon is about 150 vertical metres (500 feet) and about 1 mile long with an average gradient of 1 in 10; it takes about 15 minutes and the number of walkers demonstrates that it is reasonably tough, especially if you feel the urge to race.  The climb of Ditchling Beacon is the standard for 1 Dit; presumably all the other climbs of the North and South Downs are roughly 1 Dit.

And, now finally back to the main narrative; a 560 m climb (that’s metres not feet, folks) is roughly 4 Dit and hence it is not recommended that one attacks at the bottom or goes mad to stay with the fastest man – it will take over an hour and you’ll be knackered at the top.  A group discussion on atmospheric physics or even post-modernism ensures that the pace is sufficiently steady.  Time for a round of large Birre Morrettis methinks in the bar 20 metres from the wall on which we sat for half an hour bemoaning the lack of village bar.  Lunch was in Fivizanno, accompanied by an unsolicited translator, despite our evident fluency in the lingo.  If you know the local mafia and ask very, very nicely they fry up some home-made chips. 

Interuption No.2. A dozen ways to be painfully unsaddled from a bicycle

  1. Run off road due to excessive speed at hairpin bend.
  2. Cycle into roadside ditch
  3. Fail to spot ‘danger – gravel on road’ sign
  4. Slow sideways topple due to unclipping failure
  5. Fail to appreciate the low friction coefficient of wet leaves on the road
  6. Lack of balance due to excessive liquid refuelling
  7. Lack of balance due to inadequate solid refuelling – a bonk
  8. Gigantic pothole in the road
  9. Catastrophic equipment failure due to poor maintenance
  10. Sudden unpredictable bobbing and weaving in the peloton
  11. Collision with a marble lorry (nasty!)
  12. Taken out on hairpin by kamikaze Italian mountain bike descender

Relevance of this tosh?  Back to the main narrative again.  Your author was within inches of a No.12, but a rapid application of brakes turned the scenario into a far less harmful No. 4, leaving our maniac descender to his fate in the form of a vertical limestone cliff.  However, miraculously, defying known laws of mechanics, he managed to execute a right-angled turn and continue nonchalantly on his way, ears assaulted by Anglo-Saxon invective.  Of course, none of us have ever been out of control on a descent!  An afternoon beer in Bagnone and a descent to Villafranca, where Dave’s poor navigation skills (see later for more) gifted the stage win to your author, a rather reluctant contender. 

Apologies – that was far too long.  It’ll get shorter

Thursday Nightlife in Villafranca

An enjoyable Al Fresco dinner in the Hotel Manginelli, with German motorbikers demonstrating the less than amusing consequences of a two-wheeled unsaddling.  Then into town for the much-anticipated Thursday nightlife.  Just managed to keep the only bar open, but this soon closed as the patron appeared to have a moonlighting job sweeping the main road and buffing up the white lines.  It has to be said that the Manginelli was the best (and only!) hotel in town; old photos indicated very little change in the last century although the US airforce tried in 1944.

Villafranca to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana

Distance: 54 miles

Some serious climbing this day, including a hopeful detour to Olivola for beer/coffee/ice cream - of course it didn’t have any, but the view was nice.  The long climb to Foce Carpinelli at 700 m was another example of the failure to spot a 5 Dit climb resulting in the Team split between the upper restaurant and a lower intermediate bonk stop.  Frank and JR had a sort of race to this summit (good luck to them!).  The restaurant stop, when we all assembled, was excellent.  On the general descent to Castelnuovo we had a choice of swim in one of two lakes; fortunately the waiter informed us that one promising lake lacked water – hence it’s Lagodi Vagli for the traditional swim.  Bidding arrivederci to Rob (train to catch) the reduced Team took a short detour to the lake;  this involved a multi-Dit climb, horribly steep in sections, to 700 m again and then the lake turns out to be an inaccessible reservoir precluding bathing.  Never mind, it was good training and the concrete arch dam was impressive.  To finish, a long descent to Castelnuovo, with some much-needed beer and bike servicing en route.


Non Parlo Italiano in Castelnuovo

It’s important to learn enough of the lingo to avoid a port aperitif when you really desire a glass of acqua naturale.  Fortunately the Hotel di Carlino restaurant has a special of trota and a very helpful painting to confirm that trota is indeed trout – so why, when you attempt to order the special trota, does it generate much waitress mirth and gesticulation?  That’s not a major problem; we’ll go for some other tasty fish species.  Peach and chips will do nicely!  We discovered the following evening that perversely the advertised special trout was in fact ‘off’. 

Friday nightlife in Castelnuovo is really rocking; after some fruitless searching we found the action just down the road from the hotel.  Chess and draughts are no substitute for pool and arrows, but Jenga-Jenga provided much amusement.  The mystery is that despite a day of arduous cycling, some strong beer, a noisy bustling bar and a less-than-firm foundation, some reasonably successful towers were constructed – no disastrous premature collapses.  Conditions were even worse on Saturday, but still the good form continued.

The ‘Big Climb’ on the day off; Castelnuovo to Castelnuovo

Distance: 34 miles

The traditional ‘day off’ for swimming; this year we cycled up a mountain to Foce di Radici and finally Alpe San Pellegrino (1700m, 5600 feet).  This 8 Dit climb was tackled by the longer, less steep route, a very wise decision as the steep route involved long stretches of 20%; could have been some walking!  JR beat Frank to the points, but were they actually still in the race?  Late for breakfast and failing the drugs test for lack of beer!  Excellent food at the Radici.  The scenic descent to Barga looked promising, but there was some doubt over road surface quality due to map inconsistency.  Hero status awarded to the walker who stated 10 km of no tarmac and a 3 km stretch of walking over rocks – now the map makes sense.  The downhill almost too steep to be enjoyable and wheel rims dangerously overheated.  A beer stop with a bonus of watching some of the alternative Giro d’Italia.  34 miles in one day sounds pathetic, but the climb did take 2 hours on the bike.

‘Just One More Beer’ – Thirsty Men in Castelnuovo

For some reason we were banished outside for the evening meal – maybe something to do with the pesky lingo problems.  We could have said ‘gradiremmo i pesci e patatine fritte, non pesca e patatine fritte’, but frankly it was much easier pointing at the fish.  Some grumbling about traffic noise seemed to lead to an aural assault by a little light night muzak, which strangely led to an attempt to identify film theme tunes and a brief discussion of favourite films (a good rabbit filler when there’s no darts).  It was obviously time to hit the Saturday nightlife – ‘una benna in pieno di birra forte per favore’.  A guided tour of the beer keller was followed by more Jenga-Jenga and a gradual migration to stronger beers as the Morretti/Peroni lost their appeal.  After a few to many it’s a very short walk back to the hotel.

In the words of Jimmy Hendrix ‘If a six turns out to be nine, well I don’t mind’; unlike Jimmy, your author does mind.  The idiots from room 6 had used key 9 to open (successfully) room 6.  Meanwhile your author was bumbling around with a 2 am beery head attempting to open room 9 with key 6 (thanks to Mike for pointing out the obvious), which didn’t work.  No sign of life in the hotel, but free British passports on offer to any intruder!  It was at this stage that it was noted that four team members had failed to make the 50 m walk from bar to hotel.  The search party located these chaps in a bar that they had failed to pass on the way home – for amnesiac Frank’s benefit the bar resembled a mainly empty neon-lit sweet shop where Frank was looking liable to initiate some aggro with the locals.  On later return (2.30 am) to the hotel, key 15 successfully opened room 9 – bleedin’ obvious, eh?

Castelnuovo di Garfagnana to Pisa

Distance: 74 miles

Sto male!  Ho mal di testa!  That final beer has its predictable effect.  The 8.30 breakfast lacks two Reays.  JR produces a fine performance of ‘I thought it was 8.20’ whereas Frank simply admits to not bothering.  The Majorca Report (2002) gives clear warning of the effects of overenthusiastic imbibing on the last night.  KS has a puncture, probably due to smashed beer glass.  Dave sets a tough final route with a 4 Dit climb to Foce di Trebio (735 m, not feet!)).  With the two specialist climbers incapacitated by that final beer nightcap, a rare trio contested this mountain stage which included a large number of optimistically early attacks (4 Dit!), with KA romping home.  The local restaurant, with the Scottish waiter was an excellent find; pasta with an assortment of local wildlife; those with robust constitutions were back on the pop!  After a long descent and a tour of some gravel paths the final climb (maybe 5 Dit) through Buti towards Monte Serra was a less than pleasant experience.  Frank had recovered sufficiently to take the stage; your author was merely pleased to finish, having been reduced to a pathetic 4 mph for long stretches.  A scenic descent to Calci for a beer stop and Dave taking the risk of occupying Luigi’s chair.  Dave and Mike decide to sprint for a random road sign and make a long break for the Pisa finish; it’s a great success, as the peloton is dropped out-of-sight – a great pity they were heading rapidly in the wrong direction, clocking an extra 5 fast miles on a 74 mile day.  How many more times, if you’re a sprinter, you’ve got to study the finish!

A terrific finish past the leaning (this time it was) tower for traditional photo call and a rapid bike boxing session (why is this so knackering?) at the station.  Rapid was the planned mode, but it was still necessary to attempt to delay the airport train.  The tannoy announcement that the train would be running 5 minutes late indicates some success in this enterprise, the first time it had run late since Mussolini got them running on time in the 1930s.

Nothing more to add really – an excellent trip all round.

Distance:                                              270 miles
Food:                                                   tops
Drink                                                   quality dubious, quantity fine


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