come monday 1 june, the very opening gambit of summer (so you would think or hope), was welcomed in the hebrides by freezing rain and galeforce winds of sufficient force to cancel all but the early morning ferries to islay. though the latter situation is hardly one we've not come across before, i can't recall the last time it happened at this time of year. it's of no great comfort, in both senses of the word, to pop out for an early morning walk dressed in a survival jacket from the north sea and a portland design works woolly hat. and according to recent evidence, the pharmacy has not been overrun by hordes requesting sun cream.
this contrasts sharply with the weather witnessed during last week's giro d'italia. though snow was in plain sight on the upper reaches of the stelvio and mortirolo, there was scarcely a cloud in the blue sky and those remaining in the final week's peloton seemed content to ride in shorts and short sleeve jerseys. those are items of apparel not seen on these shores since august of last year. though the giro is ostensibly about three weeks of superb racing, the scenery and weather portrayed via motorbike and helicopter succeeded mostly in instilling a hankering after a visit to the land of neapolitana and gelato.
which may not be the bridge too far that some of us have taken it to be. though the highways and byeways of islay are considerably less than onerous (it's sort of difficult to get totally lost), italy has one heck of a lot more on which the geographically challenged such as yours truly could easily disappear from public view for longer than is quite seemly. while i have been happy to guide several through the maze of cattle grids populating the back roads, there's not a chance in velocipedina i figure i could find my way back home from the deepest recesses of italy's chianti country.
it therefore occurs that i am the very customer at which andy mackie's testa della corsa guided tours are aimed at. so far so good, but how many of us figure that, as one of the original hubs of cycling culture, isn't italy a tad overrun with the wannabe pelotonese?
"I would have to say 'no'" said andy. "In comparison to Majorca, Italy hasn't even scratched the surface." but, on the basis that testa della corsa' is his brainchild, wouldn't we expect him to say that anyway?
"Having lived in Tuscany for eight years, I was always suprised at the lack of cyclists. Typically Italians go out and ride on their extended two hour lunch break. There are always big groups at the weekend, but they ride early and finish around mid-day in order to get home for lunch.
"But if you were to go up north to Bolzano for example, you'd see a massive number of exploring sports cyclists. I think it stamps a seal of approval when you see lots of people out on bikes in these areas, and there is plenty of room for everyone."
so, if there's plenty of space for visiting cyclists, why does the testa della corsa website offer only three visits this year? aside from two rides in the chianti region in august and september, and a weekend on the stelvio this past may, the only other offering from tdc is a mid july visit to the hebridean isle of skye (about which more later). surely as a recently incorporated venture, andy would be keen to fill those italian roads with visiting cyclists?
"I've firmed up these three dates for this year, as I don't want to stretch myself too far. I want to make sure that everyone who comes has the best experience possible. It is very easy to try and do too much at one go. Experience has taught me to walk before I run, if you'll excuse the analogy, but it's true. Without a doubt I'll be building for next year with a view to perhaps ten trips in total including a few three day weekend style trips as well."
the latter option, though perhaps a smidgeon heavy on the travel front, would offer time-starved cyclists the opportunity to indulge their passion after a long week in the office and before jumping into the next one. if even that seems an option that might hardly squeeze into your tight schedule and busy social calendar, there's little doubt that the isle of skye is somewhat closer for even those ensconced in london village and all places south. however, as one domiciled not too far away from the isle of the cuillins i can testify that italy's climate bears as much resemblance to that of skye as does a boris bike to bradley's pinarello bolide. isn't skye something of a quirk in the testa della corsa firmament?
"The inclusion of Scotland came to me on a weekend cycling trip on Skye last November. I rode with four friends, and despite the weather being pretty foul, it was an amazing experience. Two of the guys were Swedish and they raved about it. I am amongst the least patriotic of Scotsmen, but I was blown away by the natural rugged beauty of the area.
"To add to the experience we dined at the Michelin starred 'Three Chimnies' restaraunt. That brought me full circle to the thought of a weekender style trip. It's specifically aimed at the time-poor amongst us and also the London centric population who can escape on a Friday night to have two days great riding with everything taken care of."
i confess i'm struggling to find a flaw in all this, so suppose i take the plunge and sign up for one of testa della corsa's italian trips. what can i expect when i get there? do i need to faff about in airport departure lounges dragging a recalcitrant bike bag round duty free displays, incurring the wrath of those keen simply for a week at the beach?
"First of all, you'd be signing up for the cycling experience of a lifetime. I'm well aware that pretty much anyone can fly to Italy, rent a bike and find roads to ride and places to eat. However, finding the best roads, the best places to eat and forging relationships with others of like mind, is something built on time and experience and not something you're likely find in a book from the library or Amazon.
"I moved to Italy in May 2005 to learn Italian and ended up staying to set up Tuscany Bike Tours with a friend a year later. We started out with an old blue van amd ten bikes, growing the company to a fleet of four vans 50 bikes and a fleet of 15 Vespas. I╩sold up at the end of 2013 season, at which point the company had over 5,000 paying customers per season. I'm now placing this learned experience at the service of Testa Della Corsa's customers.
"You can therefore expect a fully comprehensive tour and service, including even the smallest details such as the ordering of coffees and pastries, to eating in some of the╩most select local establishments. There are many off-the-beaten-path places you won't find in any guidebook.
i have perused the testa della corsa website on my very own to find out what i'm likely to be riding; no need to take my own bike it seems which is, need i point out, something of a travelling boon for one living on a rock in the atlantic, escape from which necessitates a two-hour ferry trip (skye has a bridge). i truly have little enthusiasm for persuading a west coast motors bus driver that, yes, that bike bag will fit in the hold of his bus. but unlike the true professional who basically rides what he/she is given, what if i don't like what's on offer?
"We╩provide a fleet of flawless Giant Propel frames with perfectly-tuned Ultegra Di2╩groupsets, complete╩with full mechanical support. Additionally╩each guest receives a personalised bag that includes jersey and bib shorts, arm and leg warmers, socks, cap, and water bottles."
but assuming i've popped over for most of a week, surely a jersey and shorts is scarcely going to keep me in pristine condition for several days? "Not a problem. We'll wash your kit after each ride and have it ready for you the following morning. There's even the option of a post-ride massage."
testa della corsa's italian rides are villa-based ╩in a tiny hamlet in the heart of chianti country, just outside the town of san donato in poggio. quite frankly, as a cyclist with a self-confessed aversion to geography, i'm happy to take andy's word for that last bit. short of clicking through to google maps, i have no real idea where that is, but it definitely sounds italian enough to be highly inviting. however, harking back to the ride on the isle of skye, as one currently well aware of what the hebrides can bring in the way of weather even in the summer months, aren't riders on this island more than likely to experience a degree of unexpected meteorological adversity as an added attraction?
A very apt question. As you probably know better than most, the Hebridean weather can be╩particularly adverse. This tour will be marketed with this in mind, all guests being made well aware of the fact it might rain on both days. That was also was a factor in designing the tour as a 'weekender' tour. In my experience guests can handle a couple of days' rain, but any more starts becoming a bit of a slog.
"With full back-up, we're able to carry extra rain jackets and wet weather gear to allow guests to change mid-ride. That said it could be blazing sunshine. Either way there is a degree of epicness involved, and I believe it's an area that needs to be seen and experienced either in rain or sun. I also believe that any bad weather could be just as easily seen as an attraction."
though the heavy climbing of the gavia and stelvio have passed for this year, there's still time to sign up for a weekend of rain in skye or for the softies amongst us, a couple of weeks riding italy's white roads in the chianti region.
if i can throw mrs washingmachinepost off the scent, i might even see you there myself.
wednesday 03 june 2015..........................................................................................................................................................................................................