Monday, February 27, 2012

A Taste of La Dolce Vita in Lucca

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!

Live Strong, Train Safe, and Live Well!!!

This is Bill and Liam signing out.

Monday, February 20, 2012

In France the Meal is Serious Business

Getting in the all important lunch - Mountain bike outing

It took me awhile to realize the full extent of the importance and place of the meal in France. I knew that the French like their food; I also knew that the food was a cultural thing, but I never realized just how deep this goes. All meals are important in France, but lunch is the most important. It seems that the whole country shuts down for this mid-day meal. Lunch is usually served between 12 noon and a half past the hour. It will last anywhere from 1 to 2 hours. The French also do not believe in lunch on the go. The idea of grabbing a sandwich and eating it on the run is barbaric to the French. I once made the mistake of eating a sandwich on a street corner of Paris. I got all kinds of strange looks, however, the looks of horror were usually followed by a polite “bon appetite.” It just took the people a few seconds to recognize that my barbaric act on the curb was actually a form of the sacred ritual of eating a meal, and, once they had made the connection, their instinctive manners and meal etiquette kicked in.

It is a cultural thing and people need to be accommodated. In all the major department stores you will find restaurants, and at noon, sure enough, you will find people sitting down for proper meals. Cloth napkins, real silverware, entrees, main courses, wine, cheese plates, and desserts are all very common - even at the local sporting goods store cafeteria.

Proper meal presentation and prep is all important

I don’t think there is any aspect of French life where the lunch priority principle doesn’t apply. I was a chaperone for Liam’s school mountain bike team a couple of weeks ago. It was an all-day biking “raid” (serious group riding) on some pretty radical trails out in the local mountains. It was cold and the conditions were very difficult with lots of snow and ice on rocky trails. We biked for a few hours in the morning - doing a loop to end at the parking lot just in time for lunch. I was thinking that we would just grab our sandwiches, and then head back out on the bikes....Not a chance. I quickly realized my mistake when we got the looks of disbelief when Liam and I grabbed our sandwiches out of the car and almost started eating. No, it would not go down this way, not in France. We would all sit down together at some very cold stone benches in near freezing temperatures and enjoy nearly an hour lunch. The adult accompagnateurs were at one bench and the kids were at the others. We had our sandwiches, but there was also cheese, fois gras, wine (yes, even on a mountain biking trip), some small cakes for dessert, and coffee and tea at the end of the meal. I made the mistake of asking for some tea mid-way through the meal. (When you stop riding you get cold quickly). Although I was given the tea, I discovered that it was not proper etiquette. The French all waited till the end of the meal to have their tea and coffee because that is just how it is done. Never mind that we are sitting out in the woods on a mountain bike trip. It was a nice lunch with great conversation, but not what I had expected. After lunch we hopped back on the bikes for another three hours of riding (red wine and all).

Snowball fight after lunch

Another example of lunch taking priority over all occurred last weekend at Liam’s first swim meet here in France. Liam has started swimming again with a club at the piscine Alain Bernard in Aubagne. Liam had been away from competitive swimming for 2 years and he was starting to miss it. Swimming is really an important piece of his training and the conditioning really pays off on the bike. More about that in a future blog post, but for now back to the importance of the meal here in France.

The Benjamin Group of Liam's new swim club

Liam was swimming the 800 meter freestyle and the 50 meter back stroke in the morning and then he had a butterfly event in the afternoon. I noticed on the schedule that there was 2 and ½ hours between the sessions. I have been in France long enough to know that the lunch principle had to be involved. When we arrived at the meet the organization was handing out flyers that included directions to a cafeteria where the entire competition would meet for lunch. At 11:30 the competition stopped, the pool facility was locked up tight and everyone (teams, coaches, parents and judges) got in their cars and headed a few miles down the road for an hour and ½ lunch. We ate together as a team and it was very enjoyable, but the whole affair seemed somewhat odd from the American perspective. After the meal everyone got back in their cars and headed back to the pool, where at exactly 2 pm the doors were opened and the meet continued where it had left off.

In France the people take their meals seriously, because it is during these times that human relationships are cultivated. I guess back in the US we would be known as lunch snobs - turning our nose up at fast food and paper napkins. I think that after you become used to eating in this "civilized" manner it is hard to go back to grabbing lunch on the run, not to mention, what havoc it wreaks on your new found digestion.

By the way, Liam won the 800 meter freestyle on Sunday in his first competitive swim meet in two years. It must be due to all those great meals he has been having!

Live Strong, Train Safe, and Live Well!

Bill and Liam signing out.