That is so Euro…

Il Giro

A little over a week ago I made the short drive from Ljubljana to the town of Cividale del Friui in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in northeastern Italy. Wine is one of the primary industries in the Friuli region so a glass of wine seemed appropriate while I sat down to write this post. The Giro d’Italia will be passing through this region in late May and the finish of stage 13 will be in the town of Cividale del Friuli. Ever since the Giro route was revealed last year we have been looking forward to watching this stage since it will be passing so close to our home. It will be a very rare opportunity to us to go and see the Giro live; something I have wanted to do for a long time.

The stage should be pretty exciting as it has several climbs including two category 1 climbs,meaning they are long and steep. The reason for the drive over was to go and ride part of the course and see if I could find a good spot where we could plant ourselves, set up a picnic and watch the stage go by. The stage makes a couple of different loops around the region as it heads up and over the local mountains. There are several great places to watch. One of the best, and the spot where I think will be a critical point in the race is the category 1 climb up to Cima Porzus. The top of the  climb comes just over 30kms from the finish. The problem with the climb, from this spectator’s point of view, is that there will not be enough time to get down to Cividale del Fruili to watch the exciting finish. The alternative is to watch the race as it climbs up the first category 1 climb up to Montemaggiore. The climb is steep and weaves back and forth on a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. There are plenty of places where we can set up our picnic, watch the race approach, lose our minds as they pass and get back to Cividale del Fruili with plenty of time to watch the finish.

I packed my bike in the car and made the one hour drive to Italy. The town of Cividale del Friuli is a few short Km’s from the border with Slovenia. Almost immediately upon entering the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region you are surrounded by vast rolling vineyards. It is early in the season so the vines are still small with only the beginnings of new growth but it is not hard to see why this is such a massive and important wine growing region. In fact wines from the Friuli region are regarded along with those from Tuscany and Piedmont as producers of some of the worlds finest wines. Cividale del Friuli sits above a river that is a deep shade of jade. It is clear and rich with color. There is an old stone bridge that crosses the river in to the center of town. It is a truly a stunning sight.

Deep green and clear. The town of Cividale del Fruili is built above this river. You can see the Julian Alps of Slovenia in the background.

I hopped on my bike trying to mentally trace the map of the Giro stage hoping that I would be able to remember the route I was supposed to follow. A few Km’s into the ride I saw a banner on the wall of a building welcoming the Giro to town. I stopped to snap a photo and just after I took the photo a group of cyclists went rolling by going the same direction as I was headed. Just like my first trip to Italy last January I rode up and asked if I could join them for a while. As with my last ride this group of Italian riders was happy to have me join. One of them, it turns out, works for Cannondale in Italy. He and I were riding the same bike. We rode for a while passing through several villages in the flat agricultural land. Everywhere I looked there were banners and “pink” decorations welcoming the Giro to their region. If you come and don’t know the route of the Giro all you have to do is follow the banners, ribbons and quirky pink decorations. There is also a  lot of road work being done along the route. The racers will be welcomed with fresh asphalt and freshly painted white lines. There is still some road work to be done and some lines to be painted but I am sure that by the time the race pass through the riders will enjoy some immaculate roads.

Saluto il Giro
This was the first of many banners hung all along the Giro route.
Giro Banner
The banners are up, the road is freshly paved and after the white lines are painted the only thing missing will be the fans and the Giro caravan.

The group stopped at a sports park to refill water bottles. Giorgio, the guy works for Cannondale, told me they were going to ride one of the climbs that the Giro would climb. Cool, that was what I came here to do. It would be great to have these folks guide me. As we approached the climb, Alberto, one of the other riders, said something like “supra la montagna, “piano”. Perfect, I thought, that is just what I was hoping for. I could see the road rise up ahead and it looked steep. I guess that makes sense considering the Giro has classified it as category 1. It turns out that on this day “piano” translates roughly to steady tempo until this foreigner cracks and then we pick up the pace one more notch. I was clawing at my handlebars, sweat dripping off my forehead and up ahead of me I could see Alberto comfortable chatting away. I think that 4-5kms means something different in Italy as well. As we passed through 5kms I could not see a summit anywhere near us. Finally, after climbing for 9Kms we reached the top.

mediterranean view
If you look off in the distance you can see Venice and the Mediterranean Sea.

We had only covered about 30kms on the day to this point and I was tapped. Holy smokes, that was a steep bugger of a climb. The view of the Italian Alps was remarkable. The skies were so clear I am sure I could see all the way across Italy. It was also a good opportunity for the requisite selfie.

calm before the climb
I think Alberto and his buddy were discussing the meaning of “piano” and the meaning of ~ 4-5Kms. I learned… ~9Kms later.
Summit Selfie
Summit selfie with Alberto and I. The Italian alps stretched out to the west as far as the eye could see.

At least we were at the top and where the fun part begins. I love flying downhill on my bike and I love going fast. A steep winding Italian road would be awesome! Off we went. OK, awesome is a bit of an overstatement. The road was steep, the road was windy and with the brakes off my bike quickly picked up speed. The problem was that the road was narrow with super tight switchbacks that came in very rapid succession. When I say narrow I mean narrow single lane wide. The corners were tight and blind. More than a few times there was a car coming up the road which required us to stay tight, pull in our elbows, stay out of the gutter on the right and avoid nailing the driver’s side view mirror all while banking hard into a turn at mach speed. That was easily the most stressful 9km descent I have ever done. Alberto and crew flew down the mountain seemingly with out fear or regard for the fact that a car could appear around the next blind switchback. I couldn’t keep pace with them going up but there was no way I was going to let them ride away from me on the descent. We dropped a couple of guys but I kept on the wheel of Alberto and another rider. The other rider, I never caught his name, was using carbon rims with special carbon specific brake pads. On more than a few occasions his rear wheel would momentarily lock up as we entered a super tight switchback. It was driving me nuts. I was sure that at any moment he was going to go sliding off the road. If that wasn’t bad enough the smell of burning carbon brake pads was awful. I had no idea bike brakes could smell as bad as burning car brakes. But then, I guess I have never been on a descent quite like this one. At the bottom I was relieved we were finished. I am not sure I would call that descent fun. Actually, yeah, it was fun.

Alberto and his group had, for the most part, completed their ride. Alberto rode up to me and said “now we drink caffe. Do you drink caffe?” Do I drink coffee. Hmmm, are Ferrari’s Italian? After one more small climb we rode up to Alberto’s favorite cafe. We walked in and Alberto said “Ciao” to the two gals working behind the counter. He looked at me, and as he motioned to the baristas said “Italy has the most beautiful women, no?” The two gals gave him a congenial smile but I think I saw them both roll their eyes. I could not argue, those two were beautiful but I was not sure how to respond. I was pretty sure that one of them was Alberto’s girlfriend. I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth so I said that all Italians were good looking. It is true, Italians are all good looking. Who knows, maybe it is something in the wine. I’m not sure but just in case I think I will pour myself one more glass.


That is So Euro

Group Rides

The better part of my time here in Slovenia I find myself going out for solo rides. There were not many, or any group rides during the winter and early spring so finding folks to ride with was not very easy. I would see plenty of others out on the roads but, like me, they were usually solo. Heading out to explore the roads around Ljubljana on my own was certainly not a bad thing. My routine was to get on the google machine and study the roads that would eventually become my route for the day.

Over the Hill
Sometimes I am not sure what I will find over the hill in front of me.

The beauty of having my road bike with me here in Slovenia is that I find myself riding on roads that I would not otherwise have any reason to be on. There are small roads that head off in all sorts of random directions and many head into small valleys or up to hilltop villages or simply come to an unexpected end. For the most part there is no reason to be on those roads except for the simple pleasure of exploring or occasionally getting lost. The other unintended consequence is finding plenty of interesting and unique place to go hiking with my family on the weekends.

Vivapava Village
Over each hill or around the next bend are villages like this one. I met a super talented winemaker in this village. Sarah and I returned for a tour.
Logarsak Dohlina
The Logarska Valley. My words and photos cannot even begin to describe the magnificence of this valley.

With spring finally arriving the group rides have also begun. I met a fellow rider at the top of a pass between Austria and Slovenia. He and I were headed back the same way in to Slovenia so we had the chance to get to know each other. He invited me to come join his club’s group ride the following week. I have not been on a group ride in ages. I don’t know when the last time was I joined in the “Hell Ride” or weekend rides in Missoula. I was eager to join a group again.

I showed up Tuesday evening and found a group of about forty riders waiting to depart. If it has been a long time since my last group ride it has been even longer since I have been in a group this size. Aleš, the ride leader, was happy to have me join the group but was also very clear that I had to follow the rules of group etiquette. To ensure that I knew what I was doing and not cause any problems in the group he would ride next to me. He made sure that I knew to point out (the very rare) obstacles or debris or bumps in the road. He made sure I didn’t pull through to slowly or too quickly. After several Km’s I think he decided that I was able to handle myself. We rode next to each other the entire ride. Aleš it turns out is a professional sports photographer and he has been to the last 14 summer and winter Olympics among all the other sports events he photographs. He is a super interesting fellow. It was a blast riding tempo and sitting behind a few wheels waiting for my turn at the front. Just as all was going well I promptly managed to crash on a round-about. I’m not sure how it happened. I was near the front of the group as we entered the round-about and I felt my bike slip. I looked at my front wheel and in super slow motion I watched it lose purchase and every so gracefully glide off to my right. In a matter of a fraction of a moment I remember the impending embarrassment flooding in and thinking “hmmm, this is not good” and “oh man, are they going to want me to still ride with them after this?”

It was such a weird crash. The pavement was super smooth so I just slid a bit, feet still locked into my pedals and my bike shorts providing the friction necessary to bring me to a stop. Instinct said get up and keep going. Before the last rider in the group had passed me I was back on my bike – embarrassed as hell – and riding again. I rode back up to Aleš doing my best to hide my embarrassement. “Are you fine?” he asked.  “Oh yeah, no problem. I’m fine” I said trying to pick up the conversation where we left off before my little diversion. That was not a good way to get back into my first group ride here. Fortunately there were no other incidents on the ride and I hoped most of the folks in the group would forget it even happened.

Team Bam*Bi out on the road.

The weather and other obligations here in Ljubljana kept me from joining the ride for the next couple of weeks. The crash was still on my mind when I rode up to where the group meets. The folks on this ride are all pretty skilled riders, not all of them race but they are all very comfortable in a group. My goal for the ride was just to stay upright this time. It was a strange goal especially given that I cannot even remember when the last time was that I crashed on a road bike.

The ride was mostly without incident and I can happily report that I did not crash. The only incident, and I suppose it was more than just a small incident, was getting pulled over by the police. We were zooming down a typically narrow two lane road riding in a side by side paceline when a local police car went driving up the road past us. The car pulled over and two officers stepped out and waved us over to a small driveway off the side of the road. Just about everyone started pulling out their ID cards. I didn’t have my Slovene residency card so I was getting a bit nervous. The police asked who was in charge of the ride. The ride leader/club president, another person named Aleš stepped forward and was the group spokes person. I understood some of what was being said but not much. They asked what the team name was (Team Bam*Bi – more on that later) and where the team vehicle was (No team vehicle this evening – a big no no). There was a short but animated exchange and in the end we were let off with a warning.

Valley Rainbow
I had to stop and take this photo from the top of the climb in the group ride. Ironically the point where the rainbow is touching down is the same place where the police pulled us over. What could it all mean?

As we rode off and returned to our double paceline formation I asked Grega, the rider next to me, what the problem was and why we were pulled over. He launched into a tirade about how archaic the Slovene laws are regarding cyclists on the road. “I wish the laws were the same as they are in the rest of Europe” He said. The brief synopsis goes like this regarding the archaic laws. If you are in a group of four or less you need to ride single file. A group of six or greater must ride two abreast. There is an exception it turns out. If your are in a group of four AND you possess a Slovene cycling association racing license you may ride two abreast. The reason we were pulled over was that we were in a large group riding as a team training ride and we did not have an official team vehicle following us this particular evening. If we had a team vehicle and we had our racing licenses we would have been just fine. The riders were not pulling out their ID’s when the police pulled us over, they were pulling out their racing licenses. That is archaic? I guess in other European countries you can ride in a large group without the team vehicle as long as you have your racing license. Something like that but I have not looked any deeper into the law as it is written. The Slovene laws I verified.

All in all I think the whole episode was a bit of a bonding experience for the group. An opportunity for everyone to gripe and complain about the impractical laws and the over zealous police. I also felt like I was part of the group having shared in the experience. The ride continued in usual fashion, one long climb, a wicked descent and a flat 20km run in to the village where we began our escapade. The group invited me in to the pub for a beer after the ride. They reluctantly, but with some prodding of Aleš, sort of filled me in on the reason behind the team name – Bam*Bi. When the four founding members formed the team they named it using the first letter of their girlfriend’s (at the time) names. I am sure there is much more to the story given the glances and snickers they were giving each other but the details were not forthcoming. Just before I got up to leave Grega said “you have not replaced you bar tape yet.” No I had not. My handlebar tape was still a little bit torn from my little dance with the asphalt three weeks prior and one of the other guys asked Grega to mention it to me. I guess they had not forgotten that I was That Guy. At least they still let me ride with them.