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From Inside Peloton: The Campagnolo Experience

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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 kilometers 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, 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 and I have just a few moments to capture something before they’re gone, cashing in the climb for 20 minutes of gravity round this last switchback.

Words & images: Augustus Farmer

Thinking back only a day of my first time arriving in Rome, I wonder if they make the baggage reclaim area at the airport quite that chaotic on purpose, to prepare you for what is about to unfold in front of your taxi as you race through the streets of seemingly endless architectural delight. There are no rules of giving way to oncoming traffic. Here, only a handful of miles away, it couldn’t be more different.

The call had come a couple of weeks before, the plan was simple: 800 km over Italian mountains in 4 days, the day after the 100k Roma Campagnolo Granfondo, and ending up with more riding with the Campy people after a tour of their headquarters in Vicenza at the close 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-the-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. It’s what Italy does as well as anyone, basically: atmosphere and chain rings.

This little adventure began with leaving the bustle of Rome behind and heading 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—preparing a breakdown of the planned route out of the Roma region across the Apennine mountains and up to Vicenza. It looked pretty tough going to be fair—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 wall in front of them.

As we sit down to dinner, characters start to reveal: 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 teammates 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 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 chaperones. The two guides for our intimate group make up front and back markers and keep the cadence smooth within the respective groups—always 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 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’ve always considered that pretty much helps any situation. As Aussies so often do, Joe and Mike will turn out to be the lifeblood of humor for the week. Even the hungriest, most tired, grumpy cyclist can’t gripe with an Australian, 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 craving for bananas. 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 175 km away. It seems popular with the punters as well. Jeroen (the Dutchman and my roommate) tells me over dinner how he has been on a quite a few of these type of excursions and this one feels quality already, with the main focus being on the quality of the 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 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 where I had the egg sandwich that I thought was mozzarella.

The Apennines aren’t mountains like you think of mountains, all snow capped and jagged and some kind of scary wonderful. They’re rounded and friendlier in a way. There are green pastures and deep wooded sections on either side as you climb up on tarmac, but they can still pack a high-altitude climbing punch at over 2,000 meters 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 of the roof and gander around and suddenly you’re looking out across the top of the world, peaks as far as you can see into the distance. “Stunning” is a word too easily bandied around but it is rarely out of place in a mountain range, this one being no different.

Andrea, the Winnipeg Cycle Chick herself, is looking like the bright star climber of the trip. A dark horse indeed, she’s strong and ready to go off the front with Todd the resident Californian. The eight riders set sail for the payoff, another 2 km of climbing will be rewarded with half an hour of hairpin descents. There really is nothing like a mountain road—parallel stretches above each other joined by a u-shaped hairpin every few hundred meters dropping you down or picking you up, whichever way you’re pointed. Oh to have my dream Porsche 964RS here: clear visibility, smooth tarmac roads and bends like they were designed by a bike racer. It’s almost disconcertingly quiet, I suppose it being a post-summer and pre-winter limbo around here, but the result is clearly good timing for attacking hills.

The landscape just keeps coming, too. Spinning down through a picturesque village across Lago del Turano, the views are breathtaking—almost overwhelmingly serene and beautiful—a view like you might imagine was reserved for model railways or Swiss pencil cases. It almost seemed a shame to watch the gang spin through at 30 km/h, but chatting over dinner that evening, itself a pretty special affair of illuminated ancient piazza Italian life, it is clear everyone took it in.

My last day with the group 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 ask for a sandwich. We are presented with a lump of bread, a lump of cheese and a lump of salami just about big enough for two sandwiches. This peasant chic back-to-basics approach to refueling is actually rather refreshing after endless courses of haute cuisine night after night. Headed up the hill go our team, and we follow onto the white roads. Not perhaps as romantic as a Tuscan dust affair, but suitably challenging after a 100-km warm up before lunch and enough to spread the field out. As the white track turns grey and nears its summit, the cloud lies low and we are drawn into it’s tractor beam, as silently 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 15 minutes 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 town 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: Chiappucci, Pantani, Riis, Schumacher. They’re everywhere. 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 sucked into Italy’s charms, the place is just so rich in culture, so much in fact it can make you feel slightly impoverished at your own environment, especially if you hail from a damp little island like I do.

Back at the house of Campagnolo a detailed tour around the hallowed and somewhat secret factory floor ensues as our 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 there with Ted and Sharon and Joel watching the man who makes Ghibli wheels, I ask how important this part of the trip was to them in making a decision to travel so far to ride these hills. This was truly the deciding factor for these guys, to see where the hallowed Super Record they all use actually comes from. Seeing how hands-on the processes really are, who makes it, and getting to know how Italian the whole thing feels, could be the cherry on the cake for these guys this week. Could be, but isn’t quite.

Suitably in awe of what is truly awesome, we are all kitted out and the bikes assembled for one last 125-km hurrah up into the local hills to a very special and exclusive afternoon lunch at the Astoria prosecco vineyard—the go-to choice of local posh, but also the official supplier to the Giro d’Italia. Eating local cuisine, slow cooked all day on an open fire and accompanied with Campagnolo-labeled prosecco as the sun fades without a cloud in the sky—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 this group of cyclists.

As my new best friends compare their swag and file out to return their visitor badges, I feel we all share a bond now. I find myself quoting 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 one by one and we all go our separate ways. Sitting in the airport later that evening, waiting, the first e-mail and friend request arrives within hours and I realize it’s just the beginning.

Twitter: @augustus_farmer; @thomsonbiketour

From Issue 28. Buy it here.