It is not easy to write about the unfolding problems in
cycling and... particularly about the allegations against Lance Armstrong. It has taken awhile to process what it all
means to the sport, to the cancer fighting community, and to us
personally. I don’t think we are alone
in this regard. It has been conflicting
and sad in many ways. The stories in the
news of systematic cheating, lying, and general ugliness don’t correspond to
the reality that we have experienced over the last five years on the ground. Heck, we moved to France, we have been in the
trenches, ridden our bikes all over Europe and North America, followed 4 Tours de France and many other great bike races, spent lots of time training and
generally hanging out with professional cyclists. During all this time, besides hearing stories
in the press, we have never experienced any of the “dark side” of cycling.
Classic Camargue- Amazing the things you see on a Mountain Bike
It may sound naïve and Pollyannaish, but in our eyes cycling is a pure sport with a bright future. For us, it is not about money or pressure to perform. It is about a boy, his father, two bikes, and a passion for riding. It helps, of course, that we live in a European playground filled with mountain passes, coastal roads winding along an azure blue sea, beautiful hilltop villages steeped in a rich tapestry of history and tradition, and that we are immersed in a culture which understands and respects cyclists and cycling in general. We ride in the light - on the positive side of cycling - in the sweet spot of a sport that has given and continues to give us a lot of joy.
Hanging in the sweet spot of cycling
In any human activity (with money involved) there is always going to be a temptation to cheat and people who do cheat. The cheating can be self-justified by saying that everyone is doing it, but in the end of the day cheating is cheating. Just as, in the end of the day, a lie is a lie. Cycling at the professional level is an incredibly difficult sport. The difference between 1st and 70th place is often in seconds not minutes. With careers in the balance it is a real temptation to “put your hand in the cookie jar” and take short cuts by cheating. The cookie jar, however, turns out to be filled with poisoned apples. The trouble is that once an athlete cheats and dopes, it becomes a crutch and it is easy to be convinced that it is the only way. It is like a reverse placebo effect. An athlete becomes limited by a belief that certain levels of performance are impossible without drugs. The truth is that a lot of the effects of doping and doping products can be achieved naturally and safely without taking drugs. For example: altitude can be used in place of EPO, diets high in zinc can stimulate the bodies natural testosterone production, learning how and when to rest and a proper diet can combat fatigue, acupuncture and massage – these natural methods are time intensive, sometimes difficult to maintain, and require listening to one’s body, but they work.
If the allegations are true, it appears that Lance Armstrong believed that it was impossible to win without cheating. He decided to cross the line, and to me that is disappointing and sad. Not just because he cheated and lied, but because he probably could have won without cheating. He apparently gave his power over to some poisoned apples - apples that became an ingredient in the cement that formed the foundation of an incredible sporting career. A house is only as strong as its foundation, and in the end it brought down the legacy of his cycling career. In the end of the day, Lance still went out and rode all those Tours, fought the fight, and inspired us all in the process. He just made some bad choices, and, in this, it shows that he is human.
All weather - Liam putting in the work
But, don’t tell me that just because cyclists have cheated in the past that it is impossible to be at the top of cycling without cheating. I know that there are cyclists in today’s peleton who are riding clean at the highest levels of the sport. I have a son who at 8yrs old was climbing alpine mountain passes, at 10 years old he was riding 100 mile cycling Fondos, now at 12 years old Liam is riding entire stages of the Tour de France and racing with a lot of success in Europe - all things that might be thought of as impossible. The secret to Liam’s success is hard work and the belief that anything is possible. It is my hope that he never has to face some of the decisions other cyclists had to face in the past, and when faced with difficult decisions he will have the strength to make the right choices. The magic of cycling is real – I know because we live it almost every day!
For the last four years, Liam and I have been in Paris in July - on the Champs d'Elysees - for the finish of the Tour de France. Each year we do many of the same things in Paris - our "Tour ritual." We check into the same hotel on the Left Bank. It is a quirky place straight out of a Hemingway novel. There is no elevator, only old worn stairs and exposed beams. I don't think the place has changed much since the early 1900's. Its no-frill decor makes it pretty cheap by Paris standards, but you can't beat the location and there are showers in most of the rooms. Through the years, we have gotten to know the husband and wife who run the place. We even know their little dog who sits and mostly sleeps in the 2nd floor room/lobby. The dog has become more and more disagreeable throughout the years, but the owners have really warmed up to us. Each year they treat our arrival as a pretty big deal. They marvel at how Liam has grown and how amazing it is that he now speaks perfect French with a Provençal accent. They love to hear about the mountains that Liam has climbed during that year's Tour adventure. In fact, they even move the dog over so that there is room for our bikes in the lobby. (Perhaps this is why the dog has become more disagreeable over the years.)
La Crêpe Française
Once settled in, which is usually pretty late on Saturday night, we head out for a celebratory crêpe. We eat a lot of crêpes while in Paris. Besides riding his bike and watching the Tour, eating crêpes is Liam's favorite thing to do in Paris. The crêpe is a great way of replacing lost calories from our time riding in the Alps and Pyrenees. In fact, we eat alot over that weekend in July - Lebanese, French, Vietnamese... Paris is an exceptional city in which to have a big appetite, and it brings out the foodie in Liam which, for a time, I didn't think was possible. Most of the time with Liam it is, "put some ketchup on it and it is good to go!" You can take the American kid out of the States, but you can't take the States totally out of the kid. That is starting to change, however, especially when we are in Paris.
Tour Eiffel - Always a cool part of our ride!
Sunday morning always starts out with our bike ride through the streets of the French capital. The ride has expanded over the years as we have become more and more comfortable with the city. The ride is a celebratory loop of great monuments and buildings ending at the Arc de Triumphe on the Champs d'Elysees. First we hit the Pantheon where people of great importance to France come to rest. We ride down the Boulevard Saint Michel (just because I like to say the name as we are heading down the street). We pass Notre Dame cathedral. I like to glance up at the freaky gargoyles sculptures which guard the towers of the ancient building, and give a reverent nod to Charlemagne mounted in eternal glory on his imperial stead. Then we head down the river cycling past the Louvre through Napoleon's cobbled courtyard. It is amazing that even early on a Sunday morning there is a line of tourists stretching out around I.M Pei's Pyramid to get into see the great works of art within the old palace walls. Then it is down along the banks of the Seine. On Sunday, the road down next to the river is closed off to vehicles giving cyclists and runners free reign. We pass under the arches of many of the timeless bridges that span the waterway connecting the Right and Left Banks. The river divides the left from right - the yin from the yang of the city, but somehow its dividing presence makes the city complete -- whole. We cycle around and under the Eiffel Tower craning our necks to look up and take in its enormity and scope. It's cool! Then it is a sprint down the Champs de Mars, out through Rue Cler and the market streets of the 7th Arrondissement, a pass by Rodin's sculpture gardens, and a respectful salute as we pass by Invalides - the resting place of the Emperor from Corsica. As we head back across to the Right Bank the grand boulevards get - well - more grand. We pass Tuileries immediately followed by the Egyptian Obelisk standing in the middle of the Place de la Concorde. I always marvel at the ancient hieroglyphics carved in this 23 meter high stone. Although I can't read hieroglyphics, I know that this monument stood with another at the entrance of the Luxor Temple in ancient Thebes, and that the writing praises the glory of King Ramses II. (I often wonder about the possibility of Egypt wanting this little piece of history back.) Once through the Place de la Concorde, we hit the French Presidential Palace, and then make our way up the Champs d'Elysees, passing the world famous shops, hitting Louis Vuitton at the corner of George V. Finally, we reach our finish line. It stands at the end of the Champs in the middle of one of the largest roundabouts in the world, it is appropriately a symbol of glory and accomplishment - the Arc de Triumphe.
Egypt - think they want the other one back?
Paris - Don't think they will part with it.
The ride on Sunday morning is a pretty special couple of hours. At the finish, there is a sort of carnival atmosphere the morning of the Tour's arrival. I always get this incredible sense of accomplishment as we stand along the Champs waiting for the riders of the Tour to arrive. This year we got a front row position along the barriers of the Champs and were really able to
see the race up close.
Front row seat to the action
For Liam and me, each year the day at the finale in Paris bookends and solidifies our participation and small place in the Tour de France, an otherwise greater than life event. It is the conclusion of another Father Son Tour. A crazy idea that a father and his then 8 year old son came up with on a spring training ride in California 4 years ago.
It is hard to imagine the size and scope of the organization and logistics of the Tour de France, but it is huge. As this massive race travels around France, the event affects all the towns and people in its path. There is literally a palpable wave of energy and excitement that gets pushed out in front and to the sides as the Tour passes through. This year we were able to get out in front and catch this wave on a couple of occasions and, man, it was good!
Stage 17 profile - Surf's up!
Liam's riding ability has improved to the point that he can now pedal out and catch the outside waves of the Tour. These mythic, outside waves are entire stage routes one day before the actual Tour de France passes through. These routes are marked, the roads are in good shape, the towns are all shiny and sparkling in anticipation of the Tour's arrival and, more importantly, you are out in front - on the wake of the greatest bicycle race on earth.
First Category 1 Climb of the Day
In years past, we had been a day ahead of the Tour on a col or for a shorter time trial, but we had never ridden an entire mountain stage. We were inspired this year from meeting the ladies from the Reve Tour and the folks from the Tour de Concorde. Both these groups were riding the entire Tour de France one day ahead of the race for specific charities. We thought, "hey, why not try one entire stage of the race?" We studied the Tour route in the Pyrenees and decided that Stage 17 from Bagneres de Luchon to Peyragudes was well suited. It was difficult, with loads of climbing (over 10,000 vertical feet), but at 143k was relatively short in distance. Because the finish of the stage happened to overlap with the finish of stage 16, we would actually be able to and spectate the finish of that day's pro race if we went fast enough.
Top of the HC climb - Epic day in the Pyrenees
We decided to head to the Pyrenees to catch a wave, but first we had a stop in Provence to pick up Sofiane who is on the same cycling team as Liam. Sofiane is a few years older than Liam, and has really been a role model when it comes to racing in France. Although Sofiane lives just outside of Marseille, he had never been to the Pyrenees and had never seen a mountain stage of the Tour de France. To say that he was pumped would be an understatement.
a very cool day on the bike
We pulled into Bagneres de Luchon on the second rest day of the Tour de France and started to make plans to "paddle out" for stage 17 the following day. The next morning was bright and clear and the day promised to be very hot. The first 80k were very tough with Col de Mente, the Col de Ares and the Cote de Burs. One of the highlights of the day was stopping by a mountain stream at the foot of the Port de Bales with about 100k in our legs and cooling off. After a dip in the stream, we hit the massive 19k climb of the Porte de Bales. Liam had been getting continually stronger throughout the ride. On the climb of the Bales he took off like a rocket. There was no way that I - nor Sofiane - could follow. I think he beat us up the mountain by about 10 minutes. After spending some time on the top with the folks from the Tour de Concorde and the Reve Tour, we dropped down off the mountain to do the final Peyragudes climb. We couldn't do the last section of the climb because the actual race was coming through. We did, however, get to see the riders as they dropped down off the mountain for the final run in to the finish of Stage 16. What a day! When it comes to following the Tour and riding on the wake of the race I don't think it gets much better than this.
Start of Stage 17 of the Tour de France
The following day we were able to see the real stage 17 depart and then head back up into the mountains to cheer on the riders as they rode the exact same course as we had done the day before! It was an epic couple of days.
Watching the race on the same stage we rode the day before
Livestrong, Train Safe, and Live Well!!!
This is Bill and Liam signing out!
Strava Profile for the Stage 17 ride. Liam was at least 10 minutes faster on the Porte de Bales!
Unfortunately, the Father Son Tour Blog has taken a bit of a back seat on the Tour this year. A few days before the start of the Tour de France, Liam had a head on collision with another cyclist on a bike path near Annecy, France. The collision happened in a tunnel at the end of a 70 mile ride. Neither Liam nor the guy he ran into saw each other, and they hit at pretty much full speed. It was an awful thing to witness for a father or, for that matter, anyone. Liam was immediately knocked out and didn't fully regain consciousness until we were in the hospital. Liam was wearing a helmet which took the brunt of the impact, and luckily there were no broken bones. In six years of cycling this was the first real accident that Liam has ever had. Liam's speed has increased so much this year. Our rides lengths have also increased. It is almost like a child who has a growth spurt and ends up bumping their head on a counter ledge that they could fit under just a month before. Things come at you a lot quicker when you are moving at 40k an hour than when you are moving at 30k an hour.
When Liam was discharged from the hospital he wanted to continue on to Liege, Belgium for the start of the Tour de France. He was still a bit groggy and clearly shaken so it became apparent that we needed to head back home for at least a week and see how things went. We headed back to Provence and watched the first week of the Tour from our home on the couch. It was hard for Liam to know that the Tour was going on, and that he couldn't be there to see it in person. The race is definitely easier to watch on television, however, over the years (this is our fourth Tour in a row) being at the Tour, in person, has really been one of the highlights of our year.
Heading to catch up with the Tour - Take 2
After a few days on the couch, Liam slowly started to get back on the bike on a roller (stationary trainer). On his first attempt, he managed 15 minutes. The second, he was on the roller for 30 minutes and studying the Tour de France map to see where we could meet back up with the the race. After 5 days, his soreness started to go away and he had to make a decision. He could either call it a season and pick the bike back up again in the fall, or he could commit and rebuild for the Youth Tour in Assen which is at the end of July. I don't think there was ever a question as to which course of action he would choose. We decided to catch back up with the race on the Swiss/French border. We threw our bags (which were never really unpacked), the bikes, the tent, and the sleeping bags into the van and off we went -- Father Son Tour 2012 - Take 2.
Healing ride in Switzerland in the rain
Getting ready to hit La Planche des Belles Filles
We headed to Switzerland and stayed there with some of our very good friends. It is a place that is familiar to Liam. It is also a country where the roads, and the drivers on them, are extremely courteous to cyclists. It does rain there a lot though, and our first ride was around Lake Thun in a light rain. It was a 35 mile healing ride. I have to say that it was pretty difficult to be back on the bike. I found myself hyper-aware of any passing or oncoming cars and cyclists. It took awhile to get back in the groove. But, by the end of this ride, I felt like I could breathe again. It was the first time in about 2 weeks that I had felt this way.
The next day we headed to the Jura region of Switzerland with our friend Thomas to ride the Cote de Saulcy loop from Glovelier. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Glovelier, Thomas realized he had forgotten his bike shoes. A local biker happened to be coming by at that exact time who also happened to have the same size feet as Thomas. To show you what kind of place this region of Switzerland is - this guy not only lent Thomas a pair of biking shoes, but also a spare bike because he used a different type of pedal system. We ended up riding some very tough hills which would be included in the next day's Tour stage and then headed off to France for the finish of stage 7 on the Planche de Belles Filles. It was on the Planche - on a section that was about 17% grade - that Liam started getting his power back. We had also finally caught up with the Tour de France. We were suddenly in the thick of things again - on a mountain with thousands of cycling fans eating baguettes and waiting for the race to come by!
With Thomas - Nothing like riding in the Swiss Alps
We ended up riding a few more days in the Swiss Alps. Switzerland is incredibly beautiful at this time of year and it was tough to leave, but the Tour was moving on and so were we.
The Rhone River and Lake Bourget from the Grand Columbier
Next, we spent a few days on a very special mountain in France. The Col du Grand Columbier is an hors category (most difficult climb) in the Jura mountain range in France just across from the Alps. The climb itself is 18k long and tops out at 1500 meters. All along the climb are sweeping views of Lake Bourget and the Rhone River running along the valley down below. This year was the first time for the mountain to be included in the Tour de France. We had two spectacular days on the mountain (which you can see in the video). It was really inspiring to meet the ladies from the Reve Tour who were riding the entire Tour de France one day ahead of the pros. Wow! This is very, very difficult. These ladies were not just slow pedaling up the mountain - they were flying! The Reve Tour is raising money for an organization called Bikes Belong which promotes cycling by building bike paths and trails. Good luck to these awesome athletes. We look forward to seeing them again celebrating on the Champs in Paris.
New friends up on the Columbier
Ran into Lucas and his dad taking in the Tour
Well, it took awhile (to get some time and distance from the accident) but we are back in step with the Tour. Tomorrow, we head to the Pyrenees for another awesome few days in the mountains and then it is up towards Paris for the final time trial, and, of course, our annual ride along the Seine and the finale on the Champs-Elysees.
Tejay looking good in White - even better in Yellow next year!
By the way, our Friend Tejay Vangarderen is having a really great Tour. You will probably remember him from our blog post from Lucca, Italy last February. If you didn't see it check it out on the blog. He is in the Best Young Rider - wearing the white jersey - and currently in 7th place in the general classification of the race. It has been fun to cheer him on as he rides by. Go Tejay!
I don't have to look at the calendar to know that summer has arrived here in Provence. I can literally feel, smell, hear and taste it. As soon as I step out the door, I'm hit by a wave of heat that arrives early and stays well into the sunlit evenings. The purply, deep, at the same time uplifting and calming scent of newly sprouted lavender fills the nose and resonates with the soul. The whirring, drilling, chirping sound of cicadas comes and goes in waves in scattered pockets of trees throughout the countryside. The tangy, fresh taste of local fruit and rosé wine are back on the palate. It seems that the whole body starts to relax and soak in this omni-present feast for the senses. This will be our fourth summer spent in France, third since moving here. It is June. The windows and shutters of the house have been opened, we have started to eat outside, afternoons are filled with the sounds of the boys and their friends playing in the pool. The garden is in "full-on" mode with the scent of the fresh herbs of Provence, peaches and plums are on the trees, and everything is green and colorful.
Planning the 2012 Tour de France Trip
June is also a big month for bike racing for the boys, and it is the time of year that we start preparing for July, more specifically - Le Tour de France. Some of our preparation is glamorous (trips to the Côte d'Azur and the Alps to ride and train on mythic climbs), some is not-so-glamorous (weekends spent in hot industrial parks racing criteriums). It is all, however, done in the name of a sport that we love (cycling). Last weekend we had the the "not-so-glamorous" GP Les Estroublans which was the last race in the Trophée de Les Bouches du Rhone championships. The series was made up of 10 races - 3 cyclocross, 3 piste and 4 route (road) races. Liam ended up second overall (Vice Champion). It was a great result, representing a lot of hard work over the last few months. To celebrate we turned to the "glamorous" with two days of ocean swimming, running and cycling in the Cote d'Azur near Nice and Monaco.
When you first hit the Côte d'Azur the first thing you notice is a lot of bling. It is pretty much the opposite of the little village we live in. I have to say that I prefer down-to-earth Auriol, but it is fun to check out the flashy lifestyle now and again. Once you are out of the cities, the biking in the coastal mountains all around Nice and Monaco is truly epic. Our two days of Father Son Tour training ended up being just that -- epic. Day one we had a out and back run along the Promenade des Anglais followed by a mile open water swim in the Mediterranean, followed by a 20 mile evening bike ride over part of the Ironman France bike course. Day two was legendary - for lack of a better word. We started out on our bikes from Nice and headed up and over the Col d'Eze, then dropped down through Turbie and Cap d'Ail and then into Monaco. Once in Monaco we pulled up on our bikes to the Monte Carlo Casino and the Hotel de Paris. Liam is at the age that he is starting to appreciate sports cars. Here in front of the Casino was parked a stable of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Aston Martins, Maseratis, Porsches and Bentleys. We were checking out the cars when a casino concierge walked up to us. I thought he was going to tell us to move on, but instead he came over to talk about bikes. He said that he had the same bike that I have, a Trek Madone, and then proceeded to point up at the Col de la Madone, towering nearly 4000 ft above Monaco. I knew immediately how we would be getting back to Nice. Through conversations with the concierge, we found out that if you ride out of Monaco towards the Italian border you can climb the Col de la Madone from the town of Menton and return to Nice the back way over the mountains. The challenge was set.
The Col de la Madone climb starts out at sea level on a very steep little road called Corniche des Serres de la Madone. As you weave your way up through the many switchbacks, the views down to the coast below are breathtaking . . . or perhaps it was the 11% grade that was taking my breath away. After about 7k you come upon a beautiful cliff-perched village called Sainte Agnes. It is here that the road splits into three directions and there is a fountain of fresh mountain spring water just inside the forest. While filling up our bottles and drinking at the fountain we met an older lady who had - well - a saintly presence. We spoke to her in French about the town and the peace and tranquility of the surrounding area. While talking, this petite gray-haired rather fit woman seemed to radiate the calm and tranquility of which she spoke.. We pulled out of Sainte Agnes after meeting "Sainte Agnes incarnate" with an almost surreal feeling.
From Sainte Agnes, it is another 5k to the summit of the Madone. This part of the climb is made up of long straight sections that go up, up and (you guessed it) up some more. The top is not so obvious, and, unfortunately, the sign that marks the top has been stolen. For Liam and me, it was a very special milestone along our Father Son journey.
We dedicated the ride and the climb to a person that is going through a rough patch at the moment. An athlete and cancer survivor who has been an inspiration to many. Someone, who, in 2009, took the time to ride over an Alpine pass with a father and his then 8-year old son and give them inspiration to turn dreams into reality and courage to make a positive difference in the world. We dedicated the day's epic ride to Lance Armstrong.
In one week's time we will be up in Liege for the Grand Depart of the Tour de France. It will be our fourth Tour in a row. It is a journey that has - and continues to - challenge, unite and strengthen us both as father and son and as citizens of this incredible planet on which we live.
An example of some of our spring training - a Sunday 70km ride with Peter - hang on!
The col de le Petit Galibier is a classic switch-backed, 6km, category 3 climb very close to our house in Provence. We have a fun little 30km loop which takes us from our door to the summit and back. The Petit Galiber is a standard "go to" for after school rides, times when we just feel like cruising, and, other times, when we want to test our legs with a timed sprint up the col's switchbacks to its pine covered summit.
I have so many memories on the switch-backs of this little picturesque col. It was one of the first rides Liam and I did together when we arrived in Auriol two years ago. I still remember the joy of finding this little cycling gem right in our backyard. There are bigger climbs around, but this one is just really special.
Yesterday, Liam nearly dropped me on the climb. It was all I could do to just hang on. I had to dig really, really deep just to keep contact. There were no cameras or videos rolling it was just a moment shared between a father and son - a sort of right of passage. I was recording the ride on Strava and we set a new record and KOM on the climb. I suppose that these moments will become more and more frequent until one day, probably in the very near future, Liam will just spread his cycling wings and off he'll go. He has earned those wings. At this point, I've taught him just about everything I know about cycling. Liam has worked really hard and, as a result, is starting to cultivate some real success in the sport.
Last summer after a very difficult 90 k ride in Switzerland, a close cycling friend of ours said to Liam, "its hard to think of you as a kid, because when you are on the bike you are a man."
A recap of a very busy Spring:
View from the balcony of the Nice Promenade
Paris-Nice: In March we headed to the Cote D'Azur for a fantastic weekend of taking in some professional bike racing. We had some great digs right on the Nice Ville Promenade looking out on the Mediterranean sea. From the balcony of our room we could look down on Saturday's stage finish. On Sunday, we rode along the coast and back up the Col D'Eze to take in the final time trial of the race. We, in fact, ended up riding most of the Col with the Sky team and eventual winner Bradley Wiggins. The team was doing a recon before the stage and they were all very cool. On the way up we also rode for a few minutes with our friend Tejay Van Garderen who was in the white young rider's jersey and was in 5th place overall in the race. In Lucca we promised Tejay that we would be making some noise up on the mountain. The only disappointment was that our friend Levi Leipheimer had had a terrible time on Saturday with there crashes on the final descent into nice. It was a testament to his character that he even started the time trial on Sunday. We had an excellent day on the mountain, and , for Liam, seeing the riders that he has come to know so well over the years up close doing their thing was, as always, very inspirational.
Liam with Paris-Nice winner Bradley Wiggins
Liam Making some noise for Tejay
Liam cheering on Levi Leipheimer
FatherSonTour back in action
Spring Junior races in Provence:
After Paris-Nice we headed straight into the Spring races here in France for the boys. At the Grand Prix Sisteron Liam had an incredible race for a 1st place finish.
A win at the GP Sisteron
Liam has improved an incredible amount on the piste (velodrome). The track races are short and fast and very tactical. At the races at the velodrome in Port de Bouc Liam had a 3rd place podium finish which is his best result so far on the track.
Rolling on the Velodrome
The biggest road race of the year was the Trophee de Provence. All the cyclists from the South of France were there for a tough downtown circuit in Salon de Provence. The conditions were windy and cold. Liam had an absolutely incredible race to finish 2nd overall. This is by far the best result for Liam so far. Last year, he was 17th in the same race. "Il a beaucoup progresse!" is the saying in French.
Huge result for Liam at the Trophee de Provence
Last weekend both Liam and Roan finished on the podium in 3rd place in their races in Berre l'Etang. It has been a very successful start to the season. The boys have been working at cultivating this success with consistent training, lots of passion for the sport, and dedication and patience. It has been pretty cool to be around it all here at chez Flanagan!
The final time trial of Paris-Nice will take place on the Col d'Eze which is a climb that starts from the heart of the seaside city of Nice in the Côte d'Azur. Last Thursday we loaded up the bikes and headed to Nice for a day of fun. We made a recon video and also tracked the ride on Strava. Hope this gives you some insight into what is in store. We will be back on the mountain tomorrow. Two weeks ago, in Lucca, we promised Tejay VanGarderen that we would be in Nice cheering our "asses" off for him, and that`s where we'll be.
I have often wondered "what is the deal with Lucca, Italy?" How does an ancient walled city located in Tuscany, 30 kilometers from the Méditerranéen coast, become a stealth center for professional cycling? I figured there must be a reason that Mario Cipollini, Taylor Phinney, Ben King, Tejay Van Garderen, and Phillipe Gilbert- just to name a few - have chosen to base out of Lucca for much of the year. Liam and I had discussed this topic on many occasions; and, in the end, we decided a training trip to Tuscany was the best way for us to figure it out for ourselves.
Lucca - old city and surrounding wall
Last week all the stars aligned (Liam had a school vacation, the weather forecast looked excellent, my wife, Tavi, could stay with the boys). The window was open for us to be able to break away from our lives in France for a three-day cycling trip. The plan was classic "FatherSonTour"-- ride our bikes, check out the city, meet up with friends, and, of course, experience first-hand the pizza, pasta and gelato that makes this town famous.
Liam taking it all in
Lucca would not disappoint, in fact, the trip went well beyond anything we had ever dreamed. I had a clue that things were going to go pretty well when I started e-mailing back and forth with Ben King before we left France. Ben was "down" for pizza and gelato with us in Lucca on Friday night! We first met Ben at Levi's Gran Fondo a few years ago. He was fresh off a win at the US Pro Road Championships. Since that time Ben has ridden for team Radio Shack and he puts in a monumental amount of hard work and sacrifice for his team. Ben's work ethic and attitude are first-class. That is just how Ben rolls. Liam really looks up to Ben, and the fact that he would take the time to spend an evening with us was very, very cool.
Impressive architecture throughout the city
We left our home in France on Wednesday afternoon, and, 5 hrs later, we arrived in Lucca at the Piazza Santa Maria which is located at the entrance to the heart of the old city. Lucca is known for its fully intact Renaissance-era walls and ramparts which surround the old city. When I first heard about a walled city I had pictured something closed-in and a little claustrophobic, but in reality the structure is built in a way that adds and enhances to the allure and appeal of the city. Although the wall is about 6 meters high, you don't feel crowded by it; and the 4 km tree lined path running around its top makes for excellent cycling, running and promenades. Over the years, residents of the city must have felt the same way because, as Lucca expanded, instead of tearing down the walls, they just built the new city around outside of them.
Liam up on the ancient wall
The Lucca wall quickly became the centerpiece of our three day trip. It formed the book ends to almost every ride we did in Lucca. We would start our rides with a spin around the wall to get a warm-up before heading out into Tuscan countryside and into the surrounding mountains and towns. After the rides we would finish up with a victory lap around the wall as we returned to the city. We got the idea of the victory lap from Ben King's Lucca rides on his Strava profile. So if you are in Lucca and looking for some ride ideas, Strava is a great place to start.
On Thursday, our first day of riding, we had a basic idea of where to go, but the roads around Lucca are a little confusing. Unlike the States, roads in Italy are not laid out on a grid. They kind of curve around everywhere. The best way to get around and find the general direction you want to go is to read the road signs, but you need to know the names of the small surrounding towns and where they are located in order to do this. Neither Liam nor I speak Italian so that added another layer of complexity. ("Do we want to head towards Camaiore, or Cappannori ?" Two similar names that are, at first, easily confused if you don't speak Italian).
First day in the Tuscan hills
Day 1 - We headed out of town following the river to the North. We didn't know exactly where we were going, but we found some roads that climbed up to beautiful little hamlets perched on mountain sides with terraced olive orchards dotted by peaceful little churches and monasteries. We got some great video of the day's ride with our new Go Pro camera. GoPro® HD Cameras can be mounted on a bike helmet or bike frame making it is possible to have two hands on the handlebars while filming. These days it is never easy to follow Liam up a mountain, but it is a whole lot better with both hands.
When we got back to town we grabbed a late lunch at an outdoor cafe in a little sun soaked Piazza in the old city. It was here that we had the pleasure of meeting Jessica (Phillips) Van Garderen who was grabbing a quick coffee after a ride of her own. Jessica is a professional cyclist from Aspen, Colorado who lives in Lucca for part of the year with her husband Tejay Van Garderen, who is also a professional cyclist with team BMC. It was really fun for us to talk with a fellow American, especially an American who is passionate about cycling. Jessica is really cool. She is also very modest. We only found out later that she was, in fact, the 2009 US national time trial champion. After our conversation Jessica offered that, if Tejay was up for it, perhaps we could all start out on a ride together the next morning. Wow, only in Lucca!
After a few e-mails back and forth it was confirmed -- we would meet Tejay and Jessica the next morning for coffee, and then all start out on a ride together. Jessica had one condition for the ride, and that was that Liam come up with some questions to ask Tejay. (I think she will make an excellent parent someday). That night over a pasta dinner at Da Leo (a restaurant that I highly recommend), Liam was tossing around question ideas. I was just shaking my head a little in disbelief of what an incredible next day we had in store -- morning coffee and ride with Tejay and Jessica Van Garderen and a Friday night out on the town for pizza and gelato with Ben King. The Tuscan cycling gods must have been smiling on us.
The next morning, we met Tejay and Jessica at a cafe just off the Piazza Santa Maria. Tejay is an extremely talented bike rider. At age 23 he already has 2 grand tours (La Vuelta and the Tour de France) under his belt. Liam was very impressed by all this, but what he found even more interesting is that Tejay had been riding competitively since he was 10 years old. Liam could really relate to this.
Over coffee and hot chocolate Liam asked the question that he had chosen. The question to Tejay was "who have been his mentors in cycling?" Tejay's response was really cool. He said that he had had many mentors over the years, but that the first one he can remember was his father. His dad, who still races in a masters group, was his first mentor and he taught him the basics of cycling. I think I related to this as much as Liam did. I have been and continue to be Liam's mentor, but very soon, Liam's cycling ability will start to pass mine. I don't know if Liam will become a professional cyclist. It is a really tough sport and a very long road ahead, but if he does choose that path he will need some really good role models and mentors. In many ways that is what our trip to Lucca was about. For three days Liam had the opportunity to meet up with and spend some time with first-class young professional bike riders that could quite possibly be showing him the ropes in ten year's time.
Tejay and Liam talking about the Pro peloton
During the ride, Liam got to ask Tejay some more questions like "what it was like riding in the peloton of a grand tour?" It was a great morning and both Liam and I learned a lot. After about 20k, we parted ways as Tejay had some intense training to do on his time trial bike. (He is preparing for Paris-Nice, an 8-day tour, which starts on March 4th). Jessica continued with us on the ride leading the way to one of her favorite loops in Lucca. It was a beautiful ride on a mountain circuit up past the village which is know as the birth place of the fictional character Pinocchio.
After the Pinocchio loop, Jessica showed us another killer little loop in Lucca itself. This route was complete with a classic-style, cobble climb that had a beautiful view of the city. Half-way through the loop we stopped by a beautiful villa which is the Italian branch office of SRM. SRM is a company that was founded by engineer Ulrich (Uli) Schoberer who in 1986 designed and patented a system for measuring an athlete's power output while cycling in competition. Liam got the opportunity to spend some time talking power meters and watts with technician and super cool guy Rob Love. We may see Rob again this year in France when he passes by Provence on his way from London across Europe to Italy on a new custom motorcycle.
Talking power meters with Rob at the SRM house
That evening, Liam and I headed to the Antica Drogheria to meet up with our friend Ben King for what is quite possibly the best pizza in Italy. The Drogheria is an old general store that has has added a wood-fired pizza oven. It is a bit eclectic, which only adds to its appeal. The mouth watering pizza also enhances the effect!
Possibly serves the best pizza in Italy
It was great to see Ben again. When we met up, his sun-burned face gave him the appearance that he had just come off a stage of the Tour de France. It turns out, Ben had put in a monster ride that day - with 3500 meters of climbing. On Strava he appropriately named the ride "I need a Pizza ASAP." It was definitely a well earned pizza and gelato. We had a lot of fun chatting about cycling and life in Europe. Ben related some of his race experiences from his first year as a pro. We talked about seeing him pass by in Paris-Roubaix at the Trouée d'Arenberg last April. It was cool to hear his first hand account of racing the Queen of the Classics, the "Hell of the North." It was also good for Liam to hear from Ben just how hard it is to be a professional cyclist.
Ben and Liam out on the town
After pizza, we headed over to the new city where Ben showed us his favorite place for killer Italian gelato. We had fun making a little video in the gelateria, and the ice cream was really, really good! Ben walked us back to the Piazza Santa Maria and we said our goodbyes. When you are training hard, at 9:30pm the eyes start to get heavy and you instinctively head towards the barn. In Lucca, on a Friday night, this is just about the time that people start to head out to dinner. Although Liam was tired, he was also very happy. It had been a huge day -- one that Liam will likely remember for the rest of his life.
Great ending to a perfect day in Lucca
The next morning, before heading back to France, we got in an early ride all around our new favorite Tuscan training grounds. There is one word that is a perfect description for the riding in and around Lucca - "phenomenal." The cyclists we met on our trip all agreed. If the weather is good, Lucca is the place to ride. Well, the weather was great with sun and temps in the high 60s°F (18°C) for all three days that we were there. The company was also great. We met up with some really awesome folks who were willing to take the time to give us an introduction to a city -- a home away from home that they obviously loved. In the words of Ben King, the area "kind of sucks you in." Well, we're hooked. Now that we have a taste of "la dolce vita," we will be planning more trips to Lucca - si certo!