Friday, August 27, 2010

The Eve of Five Parlees

Last night I witnessed my boyfriend sneaking onto his iPad to check out the latest updates as we tried to fall asleep. Although he denied it being anthing fanatical - saying it's "more about the business of it" now - a girl's got to wonder: is cycling sort of like an addiction? Or does a bike get more beautiful knowing the price, weight, and company history of ceramic bearings and brake pads? It's now 1:04 am. I'm seated in the Fast and Furious bike shop in Lucca keeping a certain someone company as he builds up his precious five Parlee bicycles for the big trip up to Germany on Monday. I've been known to pull all-nighters on behalf of thesis papers and last-minute suitcase packing (holding my breath for Sunday), but I never in my life have I sat in a messy, tire-trodden bike shop on a broken stool.

At the same time as I continue to have my "identity crisis" with the sport and the bicycles that captivate my boyfriend's attention, there is something humbling about being in the presence of a bike that was designed by the master of carbon fiber, Bob Parlee, and his company.

Bringing them to Eurobike will be like seeing children off to their first day of school - knowing they'll see a lot of amazing things, and hopefully they won't get too beat up along the way (I am fully aware that this is a horrible analogy).

May the Border Patrol Angels Have Mercy

I spoke to my parents yesterday while they drove from the North Shore to Walker, MN. They were realizing how beautiful the iron range really is in late August while I, on the other hand, suddenly realized that simplicity of my life here in Lucca was going to vanish with a vengeance very soon.

First of all, Phil and I are head up to Fredrichshafen, Germany on Monday for the EuroBike show. As someone who has attended furniture and interior design trade shows as both press (Coverings, Cersaie, ICFF) and PR at a booth (Royal Botania at ICFF), I know how chaotic they can be. It's like you almost need to expect a handful of things to go wrong or you'll be thrown off your game when the potential clients show up.

Five action-packed days of bottom bracket, fork stiffness, and carbon fork talk later I'll get on a plane to jet back to Portland, Maine for the wedding of my dear San Francisco friend Chelsea Holden Baker. I am pretty sure I love going to weddings. Some people complain about attending loads of weddings, but seriously, I could name the number of weddings I've been to on less than two hands. Wait...that would be one hand then...but you know what I mean. The truth is though, I'm not a sappy marriage girl. I just think any excuse to gather a ton of old and new friends together and enjoy one of the biggest days in someone's life is pretty freakin' awesome. I'd go as far as saying it's an honor to be chosen as one of the select few people that they meet in their lives who get to witness such a day.

Moving on... Tuesday, the 7th of September, I head back to good old Minnesota for a few weeks while the leaves - and my age - turn color. I'm pretty stoked that for the first time in my life I can buy a plane ticket with my accrued miles on Delta. Just a small detail, but a great one at that.

After I return it's all gets a little fuzzy. InterBike in Vegas? Visa stuff in Chicago?? Ironman in Hawaii??? To be honest, my main goal in going home is to get my game plan ready for our bike tour company and other freelance gigs. After that, I have been chosen to do a Cannondale/SUGOI photo shoot for their 2011 catalog! It's going to be very exciting, and is sometime in October.

On another front, Phil signed for our sweet little apartment yesterday that we'll begin renting on Oct 1, 2010. It will not be sad to stuff away our dilapidated suitcases and put 20 months of living under 9 roofs behind us! (This doesn't even count all of the hotels, hostels, and friend's houses we've stayed with briefly.) Although it's just wishful thinking, I am writing about an awesome Lago bed called the called the Col-letto bed today for Designer Pages. Not sure I could handle the sides standing up like that since I'm a touch claustrophobic, but definitely flipped over.

The cool thing about other people opening their home up to you is that you feel happy to do the same for them, anytime they need it. That overwhelming appreciation for those who have been so kind makes me want to usher everyone one and make sure they enjoy it here as much as we do. That said, I encourage any and all folks to make themselves welcome, even if we haven't crashed your pad. Lucca has vineyards, cycling everywhere, beautiful views of the tuscan hills, and the beach only 20 minutes by car from our future doorstep.

Did I forget to mention the La Voglia Mata pizza, the Bruton brewery, and Il Rey di Cappuccino's coffee drinks? Shame on me. (I'll leave it at that to make you salivate.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pushing Restart

I'm considering starting the new trend here in Tuscany: screens for doors and windows. Apparently, they don't think it's necessary to use them, even though the night breeze feels great without the 30 bites we wake up to in the mornings. Somehow, large wooden shutters do block airflow along with sunlight and mosquitoes. Who would have thought?!

Nah, I'm just playing. I love dripping in sweat at 11:17 pm as I'm seated at one end of the large sofa at Cristiano's apartment.... He loves this sofa and falls asleep on it a few times a week with the Italian infomercials or MTV Cribs blaring. It's got this upholstery that screams 'modern hotel wall art circa 1992'. You know the kind. It was all over Days Inns I bet, with the squares and circles in gradients of blue, gray, and green like a dulled out Paul Klee painting, only much less cool, with no purpose.

The arm rests on either side are a glossy, powder-coated aluminum too, which totally fits. It's like the slicked back gelled hair thing that never goes out of fashion here, and it honestly couldn't be less attractive even after he decides to mend the two massive rips in it.

Oddly enough, however, he's got an absolutely incredible Ligne Roset coffee table at center of the room with the matching dining room table and an Artemide Tolomeo lamp (see image) that shifts around between rooms. If you're not familiar with the brands, together they're Italian for "don't put me next to that hideous beast of a divano".

If you can't tell, today is Monday and I didn't really do much except for some laundry, grocery shopping, and a hang out session over coffee and dinner with Alison. It was awesome. So nice to kick off a week zoned out a little, with some solid conversation in English - even though I'm still in the process of learning Italian and probably should be tackling that every chance I get.

Meh, what to do. Sometimes your mind needs a mental reboot. Sort of like a computer. A mobile phone even. Yesterday a lot of stuff happened that tuckered me out - long bike ride, tired afternoon, etc. and it was really obvious by the end of the day that I was in desperate need of a break. Plus, I've been getting these weird, dull headaches that have come slowly each day at about 3 or 4 pm. Per usual, I refuse to rely on modern meds to ail my pains unless it's a special case, so I thought about my life and have prescribed myself more water intake.

I figure if that doesn't work, the back up plan may result in a new pair of shoes or a trip to the beach for a day.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Love/Hate Cipollaio Day

This view from the "Cipollaio" climb (Stazzema, Tuscany) is why I got up and rode today. It wasn't the pressure I felt from the guys to get out, or to feel absolute pain, it wasn't me trying to prove something to myself... okay maybe it was that... but, I'd like to think that it really is the fact that I get to witness such natural wonders. Maybe that's the balance in more serious cyclists too. For those of us without major ego trips, a person can only read their spedometer and heart rate, or exchange a few body parts for new carbon bike parts before it just starts to feel like you're losing out on the really marvels that cycling can bring you.

Hanging out with a marbled mountain that provides the very posh Forti dei Marmi (Fort of Marble) with all of its wealth is pretty cool. So was doing this crazy "salita" (climb) last Sunday that brought us into a thick forest amidst hundreds of Italians camping in tents. Later, I learned they hunt for mushrooms there and store them all year or sell them for a cheap buck, er... euro.

So the climb we did today was not super steep, but the 13km I was told that it was ended up being 18km if you count the first false flat that we whipped around.

That's something I get annoyed with on these group rides: Why do we always speed up right before a climb? I mean, I understand if we knew there was like a really short, steep hill in front of us that we might want to go fast to catapult our bicycles up and chug less. That's human nature. But what about a long, pretty level climb? Is it absolutely necessary to be pushing up an obnoxious false flat just to slow down right when it gets steeper? I think not. I pulled back a bit from our group today and ended up sucked right into the middle of a group of leather. They were nice, but had inconsistent speed setters, so I eventually let them pass too, in order to get some physical - and mental - space from the strange mentalities of others who blow up before the climb starts or those who decide that leap frog is equally as efficient.

This tunnel is right at the top of the climb, and its actually another false flat. Today Phil said there was a line of six cars coming from the opposite direction, and that one of the cars didn't seem him coming with Krillo, so they tried passing in their lane. If you'll notice, it's pretty narrow... and I guess they had to leap onto the small walkway lining the lanes. I guess it doesn't surprise me. Sort of like it didn't surprise me today when two different cars hit their horns.

They must think we can't hear their bellowing engines coming from behind or in the opposite lane, so a loud honk makes them feel more safe. Who knows about the weird Italian driving mannerisms though. I have officially stopped caring to know why, and have moved onto figuring out the best way to deflect the irrational behaviors and laugh at them. So far, it's worked quite well. Except for the time I laughed at a guy's Pinarello curvy bike design (since I think they're ridiculous no matter how expensive they are). He didn't like that much. Oops. I guess I'm just obnoxious as they are, in my own way...

Time to go rest before an evening with Cristiano, Simona, and Phil in Pietrasanta. This week will be getting plans set for my travels home to the US the beginning of September, following the EuroBike show of course. I look forward to a lot this fall, and I'll keep my dear blog dialed into everything going on, so check back for more posts...

Ciao a tutti!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bruton, Bike, or Maybe Just Bust

So tonight was our fourth night in two weeks eating at the Bruton Restaurant and Birreria located on the fringe of our dear little city of Lucca.

Now, let's get something straight here: I'm no fan of becoming a regular at bars or restaurants. Not even department stores if I can help it. What's funny is that the young crew that runs this awesome spot feel much more like professional friends than they do like the lady behind the diner counter who knows how you like your eggs every time or how you take your coffee.

Certainly we all know a place like The Bruton in Italy would not offer eggs, but they do serve a mean caffé post-meal if you do the whole caffeinated digestion thing. Their menu, however, does everything from Italian fare of tortellini and thin, wood fire pizzas, to incredible burgers. To top it off, their beer is made in house - artisan-style - to make even the finest Chianti and Limoncello palettes salivate. (We brought our Italian-to-the-CORE roommate there the other night and he sampled our Momus and Lilith glasses with hesitation - since the only beer they get to know is a malty Moretti - but ultimately, he gulped that thing with great pleasure.

Speaking of which, I just gotta say that my favorite of their brews is the Lilith. Since I'm no beer girl normally, I'll give you my best description without it feeling loaded in random adjectives I've heard. It's a light, crisp amber beer that's got a little fruity zest and is semi-sweet. Without much knowledge in beer flavors (since I typically just tax Phil on his glasses of choice when he's mid-cycling lingo) I'm not qualified enough to compare it to what we've got back in the states, or to other wonderous Belgians, but I can say that it's divine. And that's really all I carea bout.

Okay, okay, you've had enough piddly talk about caloric consumption so I think it's caloric extraction time...

I've been riding a ton lately. Today I got a splitting headache halfway up the 3rd of 4 climbs we were doing in 88F humidity. By the time I reached the top, Alison and Phil were there patiently waiting. You know, you never want to be the one complaining when you reach the crest of a climb as the last one up. It's uncomfortable for everyone if you blab on or shake your head - unless of course you can show that you were maybe side-swiped by a vehicle or chased down by a hungry Brittany Spaniel. If you do opt for the mouthful of begrudged moans and pithy information about your legs, you'll just look that much weaker than you normally would.

Fully aware of my predicament, but barely feeling functional enough to make out sentences - I'm not lying, my jaw was sore and my eyes burned to keep open since my head was pounding so hard! - I just said that "I didn't like that one very much. I think I may be dehydrated...let's keep going, nice and easy." Or something to that effect. So, shortly after grabbing fresh water for our bottles, we went along our way. Neck sore, shoulders tight, head heavy, we just about passed Balbano on our left when Phil whips a turn and says "last climb!" with a big smile. I let out a little murmur... Well, not exactly a murmur. I blurted out some angry words that basically meant I wondered why we were choosing to climb so much on a day that was supposed to be steady. I kept thinking about that the entire ride actually - what is the difference between a hard, climbing day and a steady day that includes 3 big climbs and 1 small one that totals 90km after it's all said and done?!?! I mean seriously. The girlfriend's got a bit of a dehydration thing going on here! Thankfully Alison was there or I probably would have tackled Phil to the ground with my crank set ripped out.

Moving on...tomorrow is Sunday.

Sundays here mean we have the opportunity to do a group ride with the Fast and Furious crew. Yet somehow it is the one absolute, no-excuses-accepted obligation that seems to thunder into every weekend like a bull with up to 140km horns.

Once, I felt sort of tired and ill earlier this summer, and I refused the "option". For the next 20 minutes as I sauntered to the kitchen and made coffee, my phone vibrated on silent with different people calling me to say the entire group would be passing right by the apartment to get me. Pretty soon I found it and succombed to the peer pressure even though I was pretty bitter about my relaxing Sunday morning becoming a beat-up-your-body session on some pretty rugged climbs near Montecatini.

For now, let's just say I'll keep you posted whether or not I forge up the infamous Cipollaio mountain for a 13km climb after a 60 km to and from journey....

Monday, August 16, 2010

Weather Reports

Before we left to go on the Fast and Furious group ride yesterday morning, I heard Phil say to Cristiano (in italian), "It looks like it might rain". A very accurate statement, considering the clouds were a dark gray in the distance, it had rained off and on for the last two days, and the wind was blowing hard. Cristiano said while grabbing a clean kit from his wardrobe, "NO. It won't rain. There will be sun all day." Skeptically, we changed into our kits and in the big "furgone" truck we bellowed into town down the narrow roads of Lucca ten minutes later.

There were 20+ people on the ride. The plan was to do 110 km with a 12 km climb at the halfway point and an easy 3 km climb on the way back. Fine. Dandy. Whatever. It still looked like rain.

I was still thinking about the way he responded to the weather comment this morning. Where I come from, unless there was no dark clouds in the sky, you'd at least acknowledge Mother Earth's tendency to throw a curveball by saying "hope not" or "it might".

While riding, it hit me: Since I don't see Cristiano with a doppler radar channel plugged into his TV (I don't think they exist as channels in Italy) and I know that he doesn't have a laptop - or even internet on his blackberry - I wondered if his definitive answer to Phil's earlier question was just to be funny... to convince the skies... or if he actually had proof that water wouldn't drop from the nimbostratus clouds above. Focusing on the busy road on the way to Pietrasanta, I got distracted from my conundrum to focus on Angelo, the old Italian dude cyclist, whose incessant cussing at screaming cars and deep potholes next to me was beginning to make me feel awkward.

Fifteen minutes later, we diverted from the busy road and were starting to climb. I stopped to pee (two strong italian coffees are not a good idea before riding) and the group chugged ahead. Catching up, I passed a couple of people and found a good speed next to the mesmerizing Brazilian woman named Elika. I say that because most Brazilian people I've met exude this vigor for living life. She definitely possesses it. But anyway, she was nice and we chatted in Portuguese-flavored and English-accented Italian between steep sections of breathing. There was one point towards the top of this climb where it felt like we entered into the thick cloud I'd seen in the distance before. I was reminded of Cristiano's statement again from earlier, so I thought I'd see how a Brazilian - who has lived in Italy for 8 years - would respond.

"Hey Elika, it looks like it could rain, doesn't it?" Taking my sunglasses off since it was so dark and stormy looking.

"No," she shakes her head, "There will be no rain."

At this point, I wanted rain more than ever just to prove that the dark, hanging clouds speak louder than word-of-mouth Italian weather reports. Actually, I take that back. Most Italians have voice boxes unlike any I've ever heard (which is probably why operas originated here).

Now, at 11am on Monday morning, Cri is out on his bike. Although I didn't ask him for the weather today, it just began to drizzle.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Racing Gran Fondo #3 in Trento, Italy

"OCCHIO!!! CENTRO!" pointing to the median.
"DESTRA!" heads pop up, arms above heads flagging right.
"DAI! BRAVA!!!" spectators scream.

These are common shouts you'll hear at the start of a 2,300-person Gran Fondo race in Italy. (You may recall my post last year about the poignant first Gran Fondo in Lucca or my much nicer, second Gran Fondo Novecolli.)

Well, yesterday, was my first Gran Fondo race of 2010 in Trento. It typically consists of ex-pros, diehard 70 year old groups of men, and a sprinkling of women.

In the beginning, it is complete chaos (as expected from any large group of primarily Italians). My goal is not move up horizontally to the front of the pack or to stick on the guys wheel in front of me... it's to stay vertical and not crash into those squeezing where there was no space to begin with. It's vicious, it's loud, and it's completely natural to be a bit anxious for the start alone.

Back to my goal of staying in one piece... I landed hard on the chain rings of teammate Grillo in a fast, downward slip to the cobblestone just before the race began. Oh well, there's nothing like some blood and bruises to intimidate the rest with my beastly grimace, right?

Our Medio Fondo (109km) consisted of:
- a false flat for ~40km
- a 3 km climb that was stand-up-in-your-saddle-the-entire-way steep
- another false flat with rolling hills for another ~40 km
- then Monte Bondone ~20km climb that finished the race at its top

*Grillo's long 149km Gran Fondo rerouted at about 60 km and did Monte Bondone twice.

I realized a few things yesterday that I'd like to share with all cycling and non-cycling enthusiasts, since I find myself a person constantly battling an appreciation for the sport that is definitely not one like any other I've been good at.

1) I hate the flats.

I feel like you have to be really good at being consistently one speed more than you have to be fast. Trained at a young age in our 'hood to sprint well in capture the flag, I appreciate the art of blowing yourself up, resting, and repeating over and over again until your body fails. I do not like keeping my upper body motionless to where your hands fall asleep and your butt gets sore just to stay at one speed that isn't sprinting and isn't slow.

2) I like to climb... if I know how long it is.

If I'm riding with someone and we turn to go uphill, I want to know immediately how far it is so I can turn myself inside out in a timely fashion. None of this set-one-pace-and-die-a-slow-death thing if it ends up being longer than you anticipated. Seriously. Maybe all mid-distance runners, sprinters, basketball and soccer players struggle with this transition?

3) The coolest thing about being a runner on a bike...

Is that you rarely breathe hard on the climbs. You're so used to a rhythmic, deep breathing that biking up hills feels easy, especially when you stand up in the saddle even if just briefly. Anytime I felt sick of that nasty 20 km climb I stood up, let me abs and hip flexors carry some of the load, and before you know it, you sit back down feeling totally refreshed. This is my theory on it. When I shared this with Phil, he told me it's a proven fact that a cyclist is much less efficient standing. I said I didn't care. I wasn't the girl gulping for air like all of the non-runner cyclists around me!

4) Gauge your success at the point when you see leather.

Once I notice that the skin of the legs in front of me go from toned and tight to toned and loose, I can measure how well I'm doing at the race. If the legs go from toned and loose to not toned and loose, that's when you've really got to amp it up (this happened to me last year). Also, a ponch doesn't matter. A man with a double spare tire can roll past you at any given point and you must totally understand the rule of km under your belt (no pun intended) in order to let this one not affect the ego.

5) All civilian rules go out of the window in a race.

Crowds of us passed by a crash involving 6-8 cyclists, one of which was a 60-70 yr old man with a face full of blood. No one stops, you just gaze and keep going. Later there was a 30-something fashionable guy that I had just passed on a straightaway of the climb. Me and an older dude were plugging away at the stretch, and we heard him scream "ayyyy ayyyy ayyyy ayyyy!!!" I wanted to ask him if he was okay, but clearly he was not as he grabbed his left quad grimacing in pain. It's an odd feeling, but you just have to hope they'll survive til they get swept up by the ambulance if they cannot continue on.

To conclude, I got a kick with about 6km left of the climb, and started buzzing past people left and right. I think it was this nasty tropical flavored gel that shot to the back of my throat at the 13 km mark, but it could have simply been the little crowds of people shouting "Dai! Brava ragazza!" at me - to which i made sure I always responded to with a smile and a "Grazie!" as they clapped even louder.