Day 8: The Forbidden City
If you ask most cyclists where the birthplace of cycling is, the majority will say “Italy”. Those that don’t are likely either French or Belgian, and are most probably drunk. When I think about cycling in the classic sense, the pure essence of the sport and its history, I think of Fausto Coppi, Marco Pantani, Gino Bartali, Felice Gimondi, and a score of other racers who’s names fly off the tongue like an exotic Italian buffet. I think of the Giro and of rich espressos drunk from tiny ceramic cups held by gloved and blackened fingers. And I think of Campagnolo. No other company embodies the passion and history of Italian cycling like Campagnolo, and today I am going inside the great factory – something precious few people have had the privilege to experience. I feel profoundly unworthy.
This morning is the first in eight that I haven’t woken up and dressed myself in semi-damp and rank-smelling lycra. It feels nice, but strange, and I still feel like shit. Under normal circumstances, the past week would have been appallingly difficult. But this week has been anything but normal. It has been glorious.
After a short ride in the Super Ban, we are met at the front entrance of the Campagnolo factory by our host, Joshua Riddle. His name is appropriate, given the fact that he is something of an anomaly. On first glance you would take him for a local – he speaks beautiful Italian and is completely at home here. But when he speaks English, it is almost impossible to identify his accent. A mix of soft European sounds mixed with a slight Southern drawl, and a twinge of … what is it? Australian? It turns out he is from North Carolina, but his mannerisms, his personality, his hospitality, even his fiancé, make him 100% Italian. Even Sergi, when I ask about Joshua, shrugs his shoulders and tells me “he is more Italian than most Italians”.
Nevertheless, I am notably disappointed when he does not greet us at the factory entrance with a top hat on his head and accompanied by an army of Oompa Loompas.The inside of the factory is impossibly clean. But considering where I am I should not be surprised.
Almost every single thing Campagnolo makes is made by a machine that Campagnolo made to make it. Every chainring, gear, sprocket and do-dad is inspected by hand and made to adhere to impossible tolerances. Then it is tested, in the factory and on the road by a multitude of engineers, scientists and professional bike racers.We are, quite literally, kids in a candy store.I am particularly pleased when Joshua tells us about the rigorous testing Campagnolo chains are subjected to. They are built to stand up to the repeated application of incredible force, and three days ago I broke one. I see the sideways glances of Jordi and my fellow riders and smile. I wish my boyfriend Valentino was here.
We also get a rare peek at “Mr. Ghibli” – the one man who is responsible for making every single Ghibli disc wheel that comes out of the factory. Made only to order, he does not make one wheel that will sit on a shelf. He works behind plexi glass and Joshua tells us they take very good care of this man’s health. If Mr. Ghibli gets sick, the production of Ghibli wheels grinds to a halt.You don’t have to be around other cyclists for very long to see the respect and reverence people hold for Campagnolo. But walking through this factory, I am starting to understand why.
In spite of a new, more open policy at the factory, Campagnolo still has its secrets – vast parts of the plant where new technologies are built and tested that must remain hidden from our curious eyes and cameras. As Joshua leads us through the factory, he often skips ahead to make sure there is nothing lying about that we are not supposed to see. In addition to bicycle parts, Campagnolo makes parts and wheels for Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, to name a few, and even made satellite parts for NASA back in the late 1960’s, when they knew more about working with metal than the egg-head science guys did.
If I make it sound serious and impressive, it is. But there are small glimpses of the fact that this is a place full of friendly and exuberant Italian craftsmen and women. They are clearly proud of their work – you can see it as we walk by – the shy smiles as they go about their task trying to pretend they are not being stared at and photographed by a crowd of curious onlookers. In one of the areas there is a dirty joke hanging on the wall. We are, after all, in a factory, where a complete absence of off-colour propaganda would be highly suspect. It’s written in Italian, but the combination of the picture and the use of the word “Sushi” is enough that I get the joke.
When the tour is finished, the next item on the day’s agenda is a short 55 km ride to the Astoria Winery in Arcugnano. We will be accompanied by Joshua, who will lead the group along with some very special guests, including Davide Malacarne from Team Europcar. I try to be cool. I’m not. We get all kitted up at the factory. I have applied a special tattoo that Joshua gave me. If there was any company logo in the world I would even half consider tattooing on my body forever, I think this would probably be the one.
The ride is fairly relaxed, flat, and not necessarily the prettiest we’ve done. But riding with Joshua and the handful of very experienced riders he has brought along is amazing. I watch the pros and marvel at their smoothness, the casual confidence they have on the bike – no doubt the result of spending most of their waking hours in the saddle, likely since they were old enough to walk. It is a beautiful thing to see.And then there is the obligatory stop at a castle for an espresso. Just another day in Italy.We continue to ride. The 55km route has now turned into 110, but I don’t mind. Joshua is a little stressed about being late for lunch, but this is Italy, and we are not German, so it’s all good. For the second half of the ride we kick things up and let the group break apart into natural pace groups. I am in heaven as we tear down the road in a fast and smooth single pace line.
We finally arrive at our destination, Astoria Vineyard – the makers of the official podium wine for the Giro d’Italia. As we turn into the driveway, the road slants up to a bit of a climb. By now, this is normal and I don’t feel the panic I used to when faced with going uphill. I stand and push the pedals, rocking back and forth to get the bike and myself up the hill. I pass the small gaggle of pros we’ve been riding with, and wonder why they are going so slow.
Then the road turns a corner and I am at the bottom of what must be a 30% grade climb that goes up for about 500 meters to the top, where a crowd of people are waiting for us. With wine. And cameras. I panic – this climb is ridiculously steep, and on gravel, and represents the last pedal strokes of this incredible week of riding in the Italian mountains. The pros pass me easily, chatting. I can barely move the pedals, but I cannot walk up this stupid hill. Somehow, I make it to the top, and am greeted by the applause of a ridiculously stylish group of Italians holding cameras and champagne glasses. I am a mess. Many pictures are taken.Then we are treated to such an incredible showing of Italian hospitality, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. In the front room of the winery, we are served a magnificent spread of antipasto, accompanied by a special edition Campagnolo prosecco made here at Astoria for their 80th anniversary.
When we are led into the lunch room I am already full and a little drunk – but unfortunately not quite drunk enough to not care about how awful I must look and smell. I sit down next to Benjamin Fitzmaurice, editor of Conquista magazine. Benjamin and his lovely family (his wife and two incredibly well-behaved little boys) were with us at the factory tour and have met us here for lunch.
They are Australian, living in Switzerland, and we get along famously – something we attribute to the strange but undeniable affinity between Australians and Canadians. We talk easily about cycling, wine, family and Italy, and I quickly forget about my less than stellar appearance and odour. Between each course, glasses are rung with forks to get our attention. Dignified and imposing, the owner of Astoria rises from his chair at the head table and addresses the crowd in Italian, offering praise, respect and gifts to the Campagnolo family.
These presentations are countered with a presentation by Joshua to Astoria on behalf of the Campagnolo family.
“Joshua parla!” Mr. Astoria announces, causing the entire room to fall silent. He presides over the room in a way that makes Don Corleone look like a waiter at Pizza Hut.
Lunch is served in a progression of courses, each more fantastic than one before, and each accompanied by a perfectly paired Astoria wine. I don’t really believe in heaven, but if it does exist, I sure hope it looks like this.
The final presentation is extra special – each one of us from the tour is given a bottle of the 80th anniversary Campagnolo prosecco, complete with an 11 tooth cog.Life does not get better than this, my friends.
We wrap up the day with a tour of the winery, a veritable museum of cycling royalty, with some beauty queens for added colour.With that, what will probably stand up as one of the most incredible days and weeks of my life comes to an end. Looking back, it still seems like an incredible dream.
I cannot say enough about our guides – Sergi, Jordi, Pablo and Daniel. They were incredible hosts and I’m happy now to call them friends.My fellow riders were equally amazing, and this shared experience will always make us family. Augustus Farmer, the wonderfully snarky photographer from Peloton, is going to be stuck with me whether he likes it or not, and I have every confidence our paths will cross again. Joshua Riddle from Campagnolo made the mistake of encouraging me to contact him if I need anything – a privilege I will try my very best not to abuse. Much.
My heartfelt thanks goes to Thomson Bike Tours, for creating this incredible tour, and bringing me along for the ride of a lifetime. If you love cycling and want to experience the best riding the world has to offer in style and comfort, I cannot recommend them enough.
Ciao! Viva Italia!