Thursday, October 28, 2010

Finishing Up With New Friends

It’s hard to believe that the season just ended. It feels like it was yesterday when I was lining up for France’s Etoile de Besseges, my first race of the season, but in reality that was early February. Somehow since then winter ended, spring began and turned into summer and now we’re on the tail of autumn. I’m about to pack up my apartment and head back home to Brooklyn and my family. Since early December I’ve spent around 25 days at home, so I’m looking forward to a longer stretch of time there.

But before heading home, I’d planned a trip around Chianti for a week—to be able for the first time this year to savor the food, drink the wine and ride the roads I love without guilt. I decided to turn it into a tour and see if anybody was willing to come. To my surprise I signed up four guests, who came from South Africa and Canada. We rented out a bed-and-breakfast called Borgo Lecchi (in Chianti near where I live) and started a week of eating at my favorite restaurants, drinking my favorite Chianti wines and riding my favorite roads.

We had Gary and Kevin from Canada and Robin and Jason from South Africa. On our first day we went out and did the Badia a Coltibuono loop that goes up to the Badia, where my wife Tiiu and I were married six years ago. It’s a 7km climb that I do at the start of each day and often multiple times per day. For me it was kind of like my first cup of coffee in the morning: Gotta do it every day. One of the challenges of running a tour like this is that you aren’t sure where everybody stands in terms of fitness. I had said that people should be riders who ride several times per week but that this wasn’t going to be a hammerfest. Luckily for me we ended up with four people who, although at different levels, were close enough to let us have a little fun being competitive while still putting together a two- to three-hour ride.

I kept telling everyone the eating and drinking part of the trip was the most important, and that the riding was really just to enjoy the bikes a little bit and give us excuses to be able to eat and drink more. But a cyclist is always a cyclist, and I suppose most of the time there is no such thing as eating and drinking guilt-free.

Lunch every day was at Paolo’s. Paolo runs a café/wine bar/osteria in Lecchi next to his mom’s grocery store. Technically the place has no name but it’s one of four businesses in this very, very small town—similar to what most people’s idea of a small town in Tuscany should be. Paolo’s was always the place I started my day before training. I live in the village of Galenda, about 3km up the hill from Paolo’s, so everyday on my way out I stopped there for a quick coffee, read the headlines in the Gazetta Dello Sport, Italy’s pink sports newspaper and busted some chops. It’s a nice way to start the day. After our morning rides on the tour, we’d go there for lunch and feast on plates of pasta, bruschetta, cold cuts and incredible salads. The wines were my local favorites, including Castello di Ama, Isole e Olena, Monsanto and Cacchiano.

I had planned a trip to a winery, Castello di Ama. It’s not only known to produce some of Chianti’s best wine and olive oil, but the family has a passion for modern art and often host artists on their property. As we started looking around, Gary and Robin turned to me in shock and said that this place had a Kendall Geers exhibit, “Revolution,” and that it was the only place they’d ever seen a permanent exhibit of the South African’s work. I kind of nodded my head and took credit for the great find, even though I had no idea who the guy was. As it turns out Ama has eight permanent exhibits from internationally renowned artists.

Dinners were mostly at restaurants, but on some days we ate in. The first night Paolo came over with his wife, Vanda, and daughter, Francesca, and made us a splendid Bistecca Fiorentina dinner with meat from the local butcher in Gaiole in Chianti. On our last night we ate at my friend Alessandro’s house in Galenda, and in between we had some incredible meals at some of my favorite restaurants around Chianti. By day three Kevin was saying how he had already re-notched his belt one hole—the wrong way. We needed to ride more if we were going to eat like this!

My favorite memories from the trip happened both on the bike and at the table. We managed to lose Robin twice on rides, but luckily found him both times. (He developed a nasty habit of flatting on downhills while he was at the back of the group.) On the next-to-last night I fractured my foot by stepping in a hole in the woods, and Gary kindly stayed up all night to help me. The next morning, I got a cast at the hospital in Siena. Jason found out that Chianti isn’t flat, and we quickly dubbed him the big guy. Every meal we had was amazing, and the guys all thought they had ridden into heaven. I met some great people and was able to share with them the passion I have for this area. Next year I’m doing it again, but unfortunately the tour is already sold out because these four are coming back. Maybe I’ll add one in the spring.