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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Great ending to a perfect day in Lucca
Live Strong, Train Safe, and Live Well!!!
This is Bill and Liam signing out.