Chikashi Miyamoto

philosopher by training, gentleman by accident, pervert by nature, glutton by choice

Category: Italy

Lest We Forget that Cycling Wasn’t Always the Same

I returned to Gaiole in Chianti earlier this month for my third Eroica jaunt. It was a wet one, but like the previous outings, it was delightful on so many levels. On the other hand, it is always a humbling experience. The strade bianche are not for the sensitive cyclist. To ride it on a century-old fixed gear rig takes things to an entirely different level. It’s hardly the same sport.

I said ‘Ciao, Luciano!’ to Luciano Berruti, the Eroica poster boy, as we overtook him on one of the hills. He was riding the same event, but I know that the 72-year old on a rusty, ancient rig wasn’t actually riding the same route as me riding an 80s Eddy Merckx equipped with a 5-speed transmission the size of a luncheon plate. To him, the distance and the gradients meant something completely different.

Today, we ride lightweight bikes equipped with a freewheeling 11-speed transmission. And, we continuously fuss about this stiffness, that stiffness, rotational weight, power output, aerodynamics, etc, etc. Also, outside of the velodromes, we have come to associate fixed gear bikes with a certain urban subculture. Outside of English-speaking countries, all single speed road bikes tend to be called fixies regardless of actually being equipped with a fixed gear or a single speed freewheel. ‘Fixie’ has a certain perception attached to it.

It’s an image that is so far apart from the hard men of decades past, racing through white roads in the Tuscan hills or through the Alps, the Pyrenees and other mountain ranges across Europe. No smooth tarmac. No shifters. No freewheeling. Just one gear.

The men and women who earn their living as bike couriers in San Francisco… I don’t know how they do it on fixed gear every day. Seeing them going up to Telegraph Hill made me doubt my own eyes. It’s even more difficult to imagine how they descend a 31.5% gradient without brakes on the way back…

Thierry Saint-Léger did Evian-Nice in June on a fixed gear bike, assisted but non-stop. He actually used 2 bikes with different gearing: one for climbing and another for descending, but both fixed. 57-year old. A hard man.

It’s humbling to see these hard men and women. They put things in perspective.

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A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words. Not Quite.

The 2015 edition of the Granfondo Stelvio Santini is approaching and called to mind a couple of photos from last year that fail to live up to the adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.

IMG_1069Visual impression: I’m completely relaxed and whistling as I am casually going up the last ramp to the Stelvio summit.

Reality: I’m in the midst of reciting the entire Encyclopaedia of Expletives, from cover to cover, for the umpteenth time. I’m guessing that I was going through the F section at this particular moment.

IMG_1070Visual impression: Utter joy as I cross the finish line.

Reality: At the captured moment, zero cognition with respect to the finish line. I was famished and was overjoyed to spot the sausage stand just 40 m ahead… only to remember a moment later that I didn’t have any cash at hand. I was shattered by the realisation that there would be no Bratwurst for me before the descent back to Bormio.

A picture can be misleading.

Aztec Chocolate in Modica, Sicily

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto

When referring to a particular make as being real, there is always the risk of seeming to unfairly imply that others are not real. However, it is tempting to refer to Antica Dolceria Bonajuto‘s chocolates as the real deal. Celebrated chocolatiers in Europe have earned their reputation by developing their own methods of making chocolates using cocoa (or without any cocoa, as the case may be), in ways that are very different from the older Mesoamerican method. Bonajuto still use the Aztec method of creating chocolates which, for those accustomed to newer receipts, makes one re-evaluate what a chocolate is. The colonial rhetoric has characterised Europe as being Old World and the colonies as being New World, but the Aztec chocolate makes one realise that it might be more appropriate to characterise Europe as the New World as far as chocolates are concerned.

Bonajuto is in Modica, Sicily, tucked away in an alley off Corso Umberto I. Baroque neighbourhood, on the pavement a faint whiff of Turkish tobacco and a toddler navigating the cracks and potholes on his micro scooter, a couple of vintage Vespas out front, sweets behind the door. La Dolce Vita…

Let’s first address the elephant in the room: Italy is not at the top of the list when it comes to chocolates. Actually, I think Italy ranks only marginally higher than the UK and the US, which isn’t saying much. So, of all the things one can eat and drink in Sicily, it seems counterintuitive to include chocolates on the list of things to eat in the south of Sicily. But you must.

In a word, Bonajuto chocolates are distinctive. They are gritty. The cocoa is semi-ground. The sugar is left undissolved in the mixture. The result is a gritty texture that releases bitterness and sweetness separately. They are made entirely of cocoa powder, caster sugar and spices. No dairy products like butter or milk.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to characterise Bonajuto chocolates as being superior to the best that Switzerland and Belgium have to offer, but they are very different in a gloriously primeval way. The simplicity does not allow defects of material or process to be hidden.

I recommend calling them in advance to book a tour of the kitchen. It is surprising how much an immaculate but small kitchen can produce both in terms of variety and quantity. I always enjoy seeing the people behind the product. The people at Bonajuto are very welcoming and take pride in what they do — both heartwarming and reassuring. They charge only a nominal fee for the tour, which includes a very generous sampling plate of chocolates and pastries. You will most probably not be able to eat everything they give you, but do not worry: they will happily pack what you cannot finish for you to take away and enjoy later. Not knowing this at the outset, I tried to eat as much as possible on site, and I was literally bouncing off the walls with all the caffeine and sugar that I consumed in that short period.

One regret I have is not having bought more of their chocolate liqueur. I was initially rather sceptical, but I think it’s divine served cold. You may decide that you do not want to share it with others.

If I Can’t Be in Sicily, Then…

Pasticceria Savia, CataniaSicily is the capital of gelato. I wrote about Pasticceria Russo previously, but they are a true destination since there is probably no other reason to visit Santa Venerina. On the other hand, if you happen to be in the city of Catania, then you must visit Pasticceria Savia even if you do not have a sweet tooth. Unlike Russo, an unassuming presence in a little town, Savia has an imposing presence in the second largest city in Sicily.

To be honest, I was a bit sceptical when I saw the palazzo of dolcezze. In a funny way, a large structure like that seemed counterintuitive when imagining an artisanal establishment. However, my scepticism was entirely misplaced.

Gelato cake at Pasticceria Savia, vintage Oliver GoldsmithWild strawberries. I am not a big fan of fruits, but I cannot get enough of wild strawberries, probably because they are virtually impossible to get in Belgium. So, wild strawberry gelato cake…

Gelato con brioche at Pasticceria SaviaAnd wild strawberry brioche con gelato, aka gelato sandwich. I seem to recall reading somewhere that this is had for breakfast. Speaking of starting the day on the right foot… and abandoning any thoughts of staying slim.

It has to be said that I have had some really underwhelming gelato at random places even in Sicily. You have to know where you’re going, but they’re not exactly a well guarded secret: Savia in Catania, Russo in Santa Venerina, Caffé Sicilia in Noto…

So, what do we do if we can’t be in Sicily? Bring Sicily to us. Well, sort of. We got an ice cream maker, namely, Cuisinart Pure Indulgence. It’s the basic model, but it does the business. A most excellent fatty maker, indeed. It’s also very educational because you learn the practical nuances, such as the difference between an ice cream and a gelato, as well as the range of textures in-between those two, the amount of sugar to suit your palate, the variety of secondary ingredients to corrupt the Italian notion of a gelato, such as adding a wee bit of Skippy peanut butter or matcha green tea in a vanilla receipt… whilst watching your girth expand like you have a mini-me growing inside you.

No wild strawberries, but absolutely delightful.

I Would Never Do That

IMG_1481.JPG

I used to have unkind thoughts about people who posted stuff on the Internet about their rides and show photos featuring their bikes.

I shall refrain from saying anything about my ride.

Pet Bicycle, 1976

Italian, of course. Absolutely fantastic.

via Milano Fixed

via Milano Fixed

 

 

Sun, No Rain on Mortirolo and Stelvio

The excellent news is that we had glorious weather in Valtellina this past weekend. I suppose that the bad news is that I did not have a chance to put my new rain jacket through the mill, for which I am eternally grateful because I think I would have cried if I had to ride up Passo dello Stelvio in the rain.

Sunday was the Granfondo Stelvio Santini. I entered the medium distance, which did not include Passo di Mortirolo. The long distance would have included both Mortirolo (from Tovo) and Stelvio (from Bormio). After having done the medium distance, I am in awe of everyone who completed the full monty. Chapeau to you all.

And to the mad pair that entered on a tandem, a dozen chapeaux to each of you. Nucking Futters.

Having arrived in Bormio on Saturday, I decided to go up Mortirolo (formally known as Passo della Foppa) after a late lunch. The approach from Mazzo is the infamous one, so I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. I had a cursory look at the elevation profile and had seen quite a few red bits. However, I did not bother to look at the actual numbers, thinking, ‘At less than 13 km in length, that is about half of Bonette from Jausiers, so it can’t be that bad…’

Wrong. So wrong.

Mortirolo-Mazzo_profile

It was probably unwise to start at the foot of the climb in Mazzo without any warming up. And just after lunch.

By km 3, I could feel the porcini rising from my stomach, a proto-antiperistalsis in slow motion. By km 4, my legs felt like they had completely lost structural integrity.

As I approached the summit, I could feel the temperature dropping.

Mortirolo

When I got to the top, I did not waste any time descending because it was just a wee bit too chilly. And, yes, I do need to replace the bar tapes…

Mortirolo aka Foppa

I had not done any research on the Stelvio Pass, except for looking at a few photographs here and there. Invariably, the photos were of the other approach, from the east rather than the approach from the west, from Bormio…

Passo-dello-Stelvio-Bormio_profile

The mass start from Bormio was at 07:30, and I just kept at the rear. I have never been at an event where everyone is supposed to start at the same time, and I had no interest in being in the middle of a sprint start. That said, the first 12 km was with a pace car in order to prevent chaos.

Bormio @ start of Granfondo Stelvio Santini 2014

 

Shortly after we exited Bormio, there was a bit of a grande casino at a roundabout, with a few motorists, policemen and race marshals trying to figure out what to do with one another. It was unclear which way we were supposed to be heading but everyone just went straight ahead, through the second exit. As we exited the roundabout, an Englishman asked me whether we were going in the right direction. I told him that I’m not certain, and then he said, ‘I don’t want to end up in Motorola.’

(o_O)

By the time I figured out what he was on about, he was no longer nearby. To be fair, I still think Mortirolo sounds like something you get at a salumeria, so I shouldn’t be surprised that he had it confused with a telecom company…

The first 100 km was a bit more taxing than I had anticipated, so by the time we got back to Bormio to begin the ascent to Stelvio in the afternoon heat, I was actually ready to call it a day and have a beer with a proper meal. However, I had not come all the way to Valtellina to have lunch, so onwards and upwards… My calf looks stronger than it actually is…

Stelvio

One of the unfortunate things about these famous Alpine passes is that they are very popular with motorcyclists, many of whom have no idea what they are doing and have no respect for other road users. Stelvio, like Galibier and Bonette, is extremely popular with muppets on motorcycles. In contrast, Mortorilo is a very quiet pass with very few motorists and motorcyclists because, I believe, the road is too narrow to be interesting for them.

Stelvio

Nonetheless, it is understandable that Stelvio attracts many people, travelling by different means. I even saw a few people walking up…

Stelvio

Quite frankly, it’s a bitch of a climb, but it is well worth the effort. Of course, the entire experience is enhanced by the cheerful, gracious and helpful volunteers and police who were looking after our safety and well being.

Stelvio

Furthermore, the weather was just impeccable. Even though there was about 5 ft of snow remaining at the side of the road, I could see why so many have climbed these mountains in search of God.

Stelvio

However, it is a bit surreal to reach the summit to witness people skiing and snowboarding down the slope in June, in the northern hemisphere.

Stelvio

Exhausted and short on oxygen, I found it almost difficult to fully take in the view at first.

Stelvio

Just some observations on the hotel where we stayed: Hotel Genzianella in Bormio has an attractive web site. The property is well maintained, but the rooms do appear considerably nicer on the web site than in reality. Our room was perfectly adequate, but it was just that, adequate. The hotel is well designed to cater to cyclists and has a dedicated room in the cellar with wall mounted hooks, a couple of repair work stands, full set of tools and pressure washer hose. The room is accessible by using your room card key. Or with the hotel staff’s key, which on the first day I found left hanging in the lock of the door to the bike room, along with a full set of keys for all other areas of the hotel. I am guessing that there were bikes worth upwards of €150k in the room. I brought the keys to the front desk on the way up… The next day, the maid left her master card key in our room. It could have been a jackpot of a hotel stay for me, if only I had a huge lorry to take all my would-be loot.

Genzianella is conveniently located and well maintained. However, it is not as well appointed as it might appear on the web site, and the members of staff are a bit careless with security.

Stelvio

I had absolutely nothing left in the tank by the time I reached the summit. Except, of course, for taking the (obligatory) selfie, that is.

Stelvio

I put on a full set of winter kit for the freezing descent, and I went down slowly as I was a bit too exhausted to bomb down for a laugh albeit I was rather pleased that I had actually made it up Stelvio.

Morti#yolo
Stelvi#yolo
Accelerating and decelerating with Campagn#yolo

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