There is no better way of experiencing what a country has to offer than by going for a bike ride. You get to see first hand the countryside, the architecture and, if you have enrolled in one of their most popular sportive’s, meet the locals and observe how they like to ride to their bikes. In Italy they like to ride their bikes fast, just like they drive.
I travelled to Bormio in Italy with my friend Anthony and a group of his bike riding mates from the UK to participate in the Granfondo Stelvio. They had organised everything and I was incredibly fortunate to just be able to tag along. Great roads, good company and all I had to do was ride my bike.
Travel broadens the mind and it also highlights the differences between cultures. I have ridden in France, this weekend was the full Italian experience. Having spent the day amongst the locals here is what I observed:
A MAMIL (Middle Aged Man In Lycra) would seem to be a generic look regardless of their nationality. The Italians just do it with more style and panache. From the coordinated club casual wear, down to the team kit, there didn’t appear to be a fashion faux par anywhere.
The Italians love fluro colours, yes it may seem a little contradictory to talk about style and then mention fluro in the same breath, but somehow it seems to work. The brighter the kit the better from what I could see. If it was you or me wearing it we would look like some sad 80’s throwback, on a well groomed Italian with designer stubble they get away with it.
Bells and Whistles
Italians like their bikes. I have not seen so much expensive carbon on a start line before. Normally on these mass participation races you get a segment of hardcore cycling enthusiasts who ride their steel bikes and do so with pride. I only saw one steel clunker yesterday and it turns out the rider was from London.
Only in Italy could you be greated at the top of a climb with a man with a tray of focaccia and pizza. I almost looked around for the red wine and was willing to call it a day there and then. It doesn’t matter if you are on top of a mountain there are standards to uphold and at every rest stop the food and drinks were marvellous.
The Mortirolo may only be 11km in length but it is brutally steep. Lots of switchbacks have you weaving up the mountain on a single track road. Then once you are near the top, the road becomes a concrete path; super steep and slippery. Most people have the sense to get off and walk. There are a few riders who demonstrate their strength and bike handling skills and ride up this “goat track” and there are others like me try to emulate them and fail. For a while I was looking good, shouts of bravo from the other walking cyclists echoed around me as I ground my way upwards. Then I lost traction, hit a rut and next thing I am on the deck. Fortunately I was going so slowly you couldn’t say I crashed, I just fell sideways. I am not sure what the others were saying as I lay on the ground still clipped into my cleats, but I sprung up, dusted myself down and pretended like it never happened. I even thought about trying to get back on but opted for the far safer option and started to trudge to the top with the others.
Nature may be accountable for the stunning scenery but at some stage somebody has to decide to build a road up it. The Stelvio pass is as picturesque as any. An iconic climb for any cyclists and it does not disappoint. A 20km climb, it tops out at 2,750m with snow still on the ground. Any other nation would have left it to its own devices. The Italians built one of the highest paved road in Europe up it. Tunnels, numerous switchbacks and crazy Italians climbing and descending (once you complete the race to the summit you have to rug up and descend back down) only adds to the fun.
It can be difficult not to make generalisations and revert to nationalistic clichés when you describe different cultures. The reality is that these observations are grounded in the truth and that is why they stand the test of time.The Italian bike riders (men and women) like to ride with determination and intensity. I have never been overtaken on the descents by so many people. I am at best a cautious descender. I can normally hang onto a bunch but not this lot. Maybe it’s their superior bike handling skills or familiarity with the the mountains, either way they race down them as though their life depends on it. This passion was evident all day. Without understanding a world of Italian, if you listened to some of the conversations going on in the bunch you would have sworn there was about to be a punch up, then there would be a cheerful “ciao” and riders would move on. They were probably discussing the quality of the focaccia at the last stop.
All bike riders love riding their bikes, the Italians just seem to do it with a little more style