Monthly Archives: July 2014

Calvignano to Piacenza

Last night’s restaurant proved very much as feared – no menu, extremely rich and saucy food that turns out to be very expensive. At least the local Reisling was excellent!

Back to proper countryside today, up a lovely green valley and a steep 400m climb to a pass. There were vineyards everywhere and it all felt very remote and rural. The views back were fantastic, with Monte Rosa in the distance.

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Hard work, but much better than yesterday’s nondescript flat stuff – motorways, warehouses etc. After coffee on the pass we descended some decaying hairpins (memories of eastern Europe), past a lake, and then followed Val Tione back down to the Po floodplain. Even the flat stuff was properly rural – fields of onions and garlic – until very close to Piacenza.

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In Piacenza we started along a promising looking cycle path which ended like this.

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I’ll have to upload it to the website of the world’s worst cycle lanes. Still not so bad as in Rodez last year which ended in the rubbish dump.

So here we are in Piacenza. This is the first of a sequence of northern Italian towns that are the counterfoil to cycling through/over the Alps. So far the culture count is quite low, because the cheap hotel is exactly that – but things can only improve now we are showered and drinking beer in the Piazza Duomo.

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Helen’s track of the day:
Pusher man by Curtis Mayfield

So there is just this last push, he said, only this hill to climb over, just 400m of ascent to go. This is for my Pusherman.

Acqui Terme to Calvignano

Andy has gone to check out the wifi and to see over the menu, as we think we might be getting above our station here. Turns out this place we had booked to stay in is a restaurant with rooms, and I fear a strained evening ahead coping with a pretentious menu and surroundings. We were met on our arrival by a crisp and smart gentleman owner who had spent the day in Milan. Handshakes were not exchanged as he looked at our hot and sweaty features.

The room is modern, nay chic, matt grey finish everywhere and, as ever in Italy, a shower room of great style. So I prepare a cup of tea, recover from 54 sweaty miles, that’s 54 miles, and see what the evening has in store.

The day was what Andy calls a transition day (as in the TDF!) i.e. not really very interesting though flat as he tries to navigate a manageable course to Piacenza and beyond. Perhaps the most interesting thing throughout was the fine view of the distant alps to the north – though not very photographable.

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We leave behind the best of experiences in Acqui Terme – a lovely guesthouse where we rested for a couple of nights. The young couple running the place were Marco and Silvia , they were kind and friendly and had 2 bambini, 2 dogs and they also ran a vineyard so had their own red wine on offer. With the toddlers wandering in pyjamas to pinch yogurts from the breakfast table, scrambled eggs made specially for us and conversations in 3 languages , English being my preferred choice, there was much to be charmed by. I shall go back as soon as ever I can.

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Track of the day:
Mixtape by Jamie Cullum.
After 2 quiet days with no music in my head I started out with this today, his karaoke tune, and it brings back good memories of a JC concert at The Sage last year with Catherine.

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Day off in Acqui Terme

This is a little gem – lovely buildings, loads of history, and still thriving. It was packed with people on market day and we seemed to be the only tourists. Much to Helen’s delight there was a town walk to follow round all the sights.

First was the hot spring that brought the Romans here – curative water at 74.5C from out of a cupola dating from 1860.

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Locals were filling plastic bottles with it to take home. Next was the remains of the Roman theatre, overlooking the spring and baths.

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There was a castle with great views, loads of winding alleyways, beautiful mediaeval buildings, all kinds of shops, and some great places to eat. We had huge plates of pasta, meat and salad to make up for a slightly thin food day yesterday!

There was also the remains of a Roman aqueduct on the edge of town.

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Best of all, Helen was mistaken this time for Swedish! Clearly because she is now so blond from the sun and slim from the cycling – and a step up from Dutch, she says.

Having to cycle back up the steep hill out of town was well worth it, given that we have this lovely villa to relax in for what is left of the day.

Helen’s tracks of the day:
Yesterday: Hold On by Alabama Shakes.
I am missing a few things/people from home now as I knew I would and one of the things I enjoy on usual days off at home is 6 music’s breakfast show. I managed to set up a podcast yesterday but it is not the same, anyway the track was one of Mr Keaveny’s favourites from 2012.
Today: in celebration of my new friend from Sweden who thought I was a compatriot
Wolf by First Aid Kit, who are Swedish.

Alba to Acqui Terme

Alba was a lovely small town with red brick towers everywhere. Last night the locals were all promenading for the evening, so we joined in – before pizza in the piazza.

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Today has been hot and sultry, with a storm brewing, and we have spent the day climbing steep hillsides covered with vines (the Barbera grape lives here, apparently). Climbing hills in the heat at this low altitude is much harder without the cool mountain air. But the views were excellent.

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The reason for all the toil was that we had decided to visit Acqui Terme – and that meant heading south over some hills. In fact, we are now close to the coast, with Savona and Genoa prominent on the road signs. We are holed up in a beautiful luxury villa, with a pool and its own vineyard, on a hill above the town which we will visit tomorrow on a day off from cycling. This is the life!

Pinerolo to Alba

So we got back on the bikes today and set off across generally flat country lanes in the headwaters of the Po valley. Crops now include peach trees and pumpkins as well as maize and grassland. With a sunny morning we had great views on both sides as we rode of the long outline of the Alps circling almost right around us.

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We started out at 9am with the temperature at 21C with 50 miles to cover and by early afternoon it was in the mid 30s. We had a peaceful lunch in a shady restaurant in Racconigi, overlooking some posh palace once owned by Umberto 1, no I didn’t know him either. Anyway the good burghers of Racconigi were very friendly to two hot cyclists and fed us and sent us on our way. They all stayed in the shade chatting of course.

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We did another 20 miles in the heat and reached Alba well before 4pm. Our hostess at the B&B doesn’t speak any English but seems very kindly and I have had some tea, a shower and now watching the finale of TDF. Life is Ok.

Track of the day:

Yesterday: Goin’ Places by The Jacksons. Very silly song but manages to convey the excitement of travelling to new places!

Today: Iron Sky by Paolo Nutini.
Partly influenced by the massive blue sky above us now we are on the flatlands, and partly from reading my emails from Oxfam and 38 degrees about the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. Makes you angry, makes you cry, makes you feel that life’s good things are not being shared out fairly. I know the situation is complex but people there now have no water. I hope the big powers get a ceasefire to
hold soon.

Day off in Pinerolo

Well, actually, lovely though Pinerolo is, this was a day trip to visit Turin, by train. Yes, I know we could have cycled to Turin directly by turning down Val di Susa instead of climbing the Colle del Sestriere – but the Susa valley is full of big roads, and getting in and out of Turin by bike also looked tricky. So we are cycling the quiet route and visiting Turin by train.

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The Piazza Castello was suitably grand, and the indoor shopping arcades were strangely reminiscent of Leeds!

For our dose of culture we visited the Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento – the history of Italy since 1706 in over 20 detailed rooms. And what a complicated story! Luckily, Helen and I had both read David Gilmour’s ‘The Pursuit of Italy’, so we had a head start. But even so! Perhaps the best thing was that the building had housed the 1848 Subalpine parliament (before unification) and the original circular chamber was still there, unaltered. Cavour woz ‘ere! There was also the hall intended for the post-Risorgimento parliament of 1861, but by then the capital had moved to Florence.

But most of the time we just pottered and drank tea before returning to Pinerolo.

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One disconcerting incident on the train was when the electronic ‘next station’ display said ‘None’. Was it never going to stop? Turns out, to our relief, that None is a town!

Cesana to Pinerolo

We did it – we crossed the Alps on bicycles, and I am feeling very pleased with myself. We had a sunny morning climb up to the top of the col, the Sestriere, at about 2036m, and sat in warm sunshine to drink in the view, and the tea in my case.

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The top was a ski station with all the trappings that come from that, ski lifts and chalets and general man-made clutter and Andy wasn’t keen on what had been done to the mountain, but the views we saw on the way up there were wonderful.

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At times the ride up was tough with sections of steepness where I would usually get off and push but not this year.

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We are getting acclimatised to Italy, it takes awhile to adjust to changing language, customs, menus and so on especially as we don’t know a lot of Italian. I managed to order 2 beers though so I think I am going to like Pinerolo. Very sad to leave the mountains but there is a lot of exploring ahead.

Track of the day:
Not Giving In by Rudimental ( John Newman) , reference that bit on the climb that was at 12%.

Briancon to Cesana Torinese

We were sad to leave Briancon. The old town is traffic free, with steep streets behind huge walls, dominating the valley below.

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There had been the customary evening thunderstorm and heavy rain overnight, but it cleared as we left town.

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A French cyclist pulled alongside and first assumed we were Dutch. (This happens so often that Helen is considering changing her name to Helga van Gaal). He wanted the full technical spec on bikes and bags, while riding down the middle of the road oblivious to the traffic – making Helga very nervous!

Soon we were on the 500m climb to Montgenevre – a spectacular sequence of about 20 hairpins.

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After coffee on the summit, admiring France’s highest golf course, (insert your own derogatory remarks about golf – I’m not writing them in case Del’s reading), we descended about a mile, across the border to Claviere in Italy, where we stopped for lunch. This was the shortest gap ever from coffee to lunch – one mile all downhill.

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Finally, a spectacular steep descent through a gorge and several tunnels to Cesana – another lovely village at about 1300m, with super mountain views. We’ll savour it because tomorrow is our last day in the Alps for a while.

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Helen’s tracks of the day:

Yesterday I just rested up in
the old town drinking tea and reading and wandering round the craft shops:
You’ll Get Me in Trouble by Zara McFarlane

Today:
Ac- Cent- Tchu- Ate The Positive
By Rumer (and Jools Holland and his Band) which also reflects recent listening and came into my head whilst climbing yet another mountain.

Day off in Briancon

Except that I could not resist the impulse to ride up something big and steep! So by 9.30 I was on the lower slopes of the Col de l’Izoard – brain complaining that this is a stupid use of a rest day and suggesting giving it up, but legs soon settling into a rhythm whose upwards momentum proved unstoppable. The final 6 km are the business end, with steep ramps of over 10% and rocky terrain above the tree line. Fantastic! And a piece of cake without camping gear and wash-bag. Over 1000m of ascent; summit at 2360m, my highest ever on a bike.

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I was back by noon, after a very fast descent, to meet Helen for lunch and a lazy afternoon.

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La Grave to Briancon

We woke to rain and low clouds. But the forecast was for improvement – so a good excuse for a leisurely breakfast and a slow start. The views from La Grave of the glaciers high on La Meije were stunning, but too grey for pictures. But, sure enough the rain stopped, and Helen got dressed up in all her twinkly lights ready for the two scary tunnels just beyond the village. This time I managed an action photo of the twinkles in the final tunnel.

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Above the tunnels we reached alpine pastures and the clouds started to lift.

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After about 3 hours of effort and 600m of ascent we reached the Col de Lauteret – very pleased with ourselves. I had spent the past few miles hurling abuse at drivers climbing to the col with their shiny road bikes on the roof. You’re supposed to ride them! So I had to resist the urge to go round the car park and bollock the lazy posers. Smile nicely!

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We celebrated at the cafe with the ‘menu du cycliste’ – a rich soup and bread, massive spaghetti bolognaise and fromage blanche – about 1500 calories! By a happy coincidence this was exactly what we had used on the way up.

A bit higher up the hillside and we reached an Alpine Garden. This was a beautiful spot with stunning views. At 2100m this was the highest point either of us had reached by bike. It also had a memorial to Robert Falcon Scott, who stayed on the Col in 1908 in training for his trip south.

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Having spent two and a half days cycling up here we weren’t in a hurry to leave, but what goes up must come down, so, after more tea, we hurtled down to Briancon. Tomorrow is a day off before the passes over to Italy.

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Helen’s track of day: Madness by Muse.
A favourite at spinning class when we are working hard on hill climbs and an obvious one for me today. And I am so glad I did some practice.