Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mangia, Beve, Bici by Graham Howard

Fat Man Tours - 2011

Joao - The Fat Man

"So where's the fat man?" We were routinely asked following introducing ourselves.

"I'm the fat man" Joao always proudly replied, embracing their confused looks with satisfaction.

And he's serious. Sort of. At 5' 8" and no more than 160lbs it's not the simplest thing to understand. He still fits in his Castelli kit. "Yeah, they make it in lots of sizes" He'll tell you. A look at the man's belt displays that he means what he says, however. Every hole shows signs of wear. Extended wear. He has been the fat man and he has come back, cinching his belt up along the way. Thankfully, he still dabbles. Though no longer the 205lbs he once was, he'll still eat with the stomach of his once larger self. Not always of course, but in the autumn, in Lecchi, with his handful of disciples he rarely holds back. And he won't let you either.

Everyone fears the unknown

Brad was sitting on the edge of his bed. Slumped over, elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. He was rubbing his cheeks and forehead as if he was going to be able to wake himself up from this.

"I think I'm going to explode" He said through his hands.

We'd just come from dinner. My pants were also unfastened. This trip does require a certain level of fitness. I, thankfully, had some idea of what I was in for. I've known Joao for some time, but his talent is elevated higher still while on home turf. I would modestly estimate that for every hour we spend riding we spend two hours eating and drinking. This may strike some as surprising. But Il Palio di Siena lasts only ninety seconds, and the Sienese party for four days before that, so what's the big deal? Sadly, Brad isn’t from Siena. None of us are. Yet somehow we all wake up hungry the following morning, ready to do it all again.

A master's wisdom

Da Vinci was really onto something. If the bicycle was indeed conceived in this area, it makes sense. This is the way riding should be. Or most of it is at least. If asked at a rest stop mid-way through L'Eroica some may weigh the issue momentarily. But L'Eroica happens only once a year and is the sort of event that feels better the further you get from it. The 42x21 gearing, the twenty five plus pounds of cutting edge six speed technology, the recently changed and glue-less tire you're leaning on through the corners, all that discomfort is somehow forgiven and forgotten, melting seamlessly into an unrestrained hope to do it again. Maybe it's the Ribollita (traditional Tuscan bean soup), maybe it's the wine, maybe it's the eighty year old man breathlessly passing you up a climb on his three speed. You simply know you want to come back.

Si, grazie

I finally looked up the Italian word for "no" after about three or four days in Lecchi. I try to arm myself with a few helpful words and phrases when in new places. I'd been lazy here though and hadn't gone through this educational exercise in Italian. I figured it started with an "N" but I hadn't heard it spoken and I hadn't found myself in a position to need it. There simply isn't anything to say no to in Lecchi. Cappuccino? Lasagna? Salad? Vino? Aqua con gas? Si, Paolo, si. Grazie. Bene, molto bene. Grazie, Paolo. Going to Paolo's everyday affords you the false sense of actually knowing Italian. He offers, you agree. No miscommunication. Ever. An enthusiastic nod and quick regurgitation of glad phrases I’d heard from others hadn't led me astray yet, but still, on principle, I thought I should look it up. Not that I was going to change my approach. No, non √® una possibilit√†.

Venturing out

We packed into the Great Wall - Hover 5 (the archetypical made in China automobile) and headed to the Bologna area to catch the 94th edition of the Giro dell’Emilia. It’s a classic in its own right, as a list of recent winners quickly showcases – Ulrich, Bartoli, Basso, Simoni, Rebellin, Schleck, Di Lucca, Gesink - but it's also an important part of many riders preparation for the Giro di Lombardia, held one week later. Laurens Ten Dam shared with us over dinner a couple of nights ago that this was going to be his approach. Strive for a good result at Emilia, but with a sharper eye on Lombardia. He'd been with us Fat Men in Lecchi for a few days. He swapped his fork and Lebowski - el duderino tee shirt for a Rabobank bike and jersey and we were anxious to cheer him on. The race did a big loop and then finished with a five laps on a finishing circuit which contained a nasty 2.2k climb at about 15%. Just looking at the hill made us hungry. LTD didn't win, but he looked the happiest of the bunch, so we chalked it up as a victory. Following the race we headed to the Liquigas hotel with another wise pro, Ted King, who had also been sampling the Fat Man life with us for the past few days. He says he didn't gain any weight, but that's bull shit. Teddy picked up a bike from the mechanics and the rest of us looked around. Basso didn't seem fazed by the 200k he'd just done. He looked as though he'd just woken up from a nap and could go for a coffee. We eyeballed carbon tid bits for a while and then set to finding dinner.

Differences

The roads are inspiring and tempting. In no time you can feel at home, sliding your bike through tight switchbacks like a jockey ripping around the corners of Piazzo del Campo, bareback on a powerful horse. But unlike Il Palio, should a fellow fat man contradaioli lose his machine or his way, we wait. We set him right and aid him to dinner.

Advice?

We weren't following the three on one off schedule that the trainer suggested. Nor were we bringing the nutritionist to dinner. I think I caught him wiping away a tear during his power point presentation. Poor guy. We were all sweating, hungrily looking at out watches. It had been a good three hours since our last meal. Lipids? Not now.

I, Fat Man

Siena has seventeen contrade. It was all clearly explained to us by Dario who kindly showed us around the museum of his contrade, that of the Lupa (she wolf). Each contrade has its own neighborhood, building, museum and patron saint. We certainly felt a part of that spirit. Fat Man Tours contrade, located at the Borgolecchi in Lecchi in Chianti. Patron Saint - Joao Miguel da Silva Correia - part Dionysus, part pro cyclist. A chaotic and beautiful union of gastronomic over indulgence and athletic discipline.

Ying and Yang

Jorge rarely speaks. His expression never changes. He wakes, he works, he eats, and he sleeps. Raul never stops talking. I bet that's what happened to his voice - one day he lost it and just talked through it, into that sweet cough his voice has become. Day and night he talks. "The guy should have been in theatre." Joao commented during one of Raul's presentations. Neither Raul nor Jorge speaks English, but Raul's energetic theatrical presentation and George's calm silence transcend spoken language. And besides, even Joao doesn't know what Raul's saying half the time. He just shakes his head "he's talking... talking about... he's just talking."

Ask and you shall receive

Raul and Jorge are a sort of Portuguese pro cycling version of Penn and Teller. Jorge is a picture of professionalism. Every task is met with a soft smile and an understanding nod. Raul differs stylistically. Instead of a smile and a nod, Raul favors wild gesticulations, a terrific spectrum of facial expressions and what is likely a detailed description of all of the gross human rights violations he and Jorge have recently been subjected to. 4am airport runs, cleaning bikes, tuning bikes, stem changes, bike changes, fit changes, departure times, meeting places, bottles, ride food, laundry, six massages... not a problem. If it's met with a smile and a nod, or a performance worthy of a Tony, consider it good as done.

RaulSTRONG

We were driving back from dinner. Raul was our designated driver and he was asleep in the backseat. There was a discussion going on between Jorge and Joao. Every once in a while Raul would stir and slip a few words in. "Raul Strong" Jorge kept saying, with a voice full of energetic conviction. "Raul Strong." We pulled over shortly thereafter. Raul roused and took the wheel. He talked the whole way back, likely cursing us for sticking him with the driving. Conveniently, however, if you don't understand Portuguese, everything Raul says sounds warm and poetic. This gentle man, upset? Impossible. Jorge reassured him the whole way. "Raul Strong." Yes. Raul Strong.

Paolo

Paolo, Lecchi's paternal overseer, eats faster than anyone I've ever seen. Working from 6am-9pm spurs an appetite. Every morning Paolo, aided by his only employee Samuel, restocks his mother's small grocery and has his cafe open before the rest of Lecchi has set a foot out of bed. He also has some of the largest hands I've ever seen. These powerful mitts serve the fastest and finest post ride ravioli, lasagna and tuna salad you'll ever find. And not surprisingly, these hands can also grip handlebars with expertise. Every once in a while he'll swap his apron for a cycling kit and show you how Italians descend. Of course he goes downhill fast. I wouldn't fear oncoming traffic either had I hands like that. He eats faster than he descends, I would wager, but not by much. And should his meal be at the bottom of the hill, all bets are off.