Cycling

George Hincapie Still Riding High

As they start the 106th edition of the Tour de France this weekend in Belgium, 17-time Tour finisher George Hincapie knows what the riders are feeling.

“All of the Grand Tours are hard,” Hincapie said, looking fit and relaxed as we talked sitting in the study of his bike-centric Hotel Domestique in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. “There are a lot of nerves early on.”

Best known as Lance Armstrong’s “Loyal Lieutenant” (also the name of his autobiography), Hincapie helped Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans win the Tour de France as a teammate and “super domestique.”

“Domestique” is a French cycling word describing team members whose main job is to help the team leader win the race. Nobody was ever better at that than Hincapie.

Over the next three weeks, George will be part of Armstrong’s daily podcast reviewing each stage of the Tour de France for the second straight year.

“I was nervous and anxious about putting myself out there,” he explained. “But now I’m back into it. I know what they’re thinking and ask my guys who are still out there what’s going on.”

His role with Armstrong on the podcast is to add perspective, and stands in stark contrast to his role as Armstrong’s lieutenant when they were on the bike. He’s not afraid to disagree, but it’s clear when he has the needle out, he and Armstrong have been friends a long time.

“What people are seeing now is what our relationship was on the bus,” George said with a laugh.

now, he’s anything but a “domestique.” He’s the main attraction and the model of what a professional athlete’s post-career should look like. Retiring as a rider after 2012, Hincapie slipped seamlessly into roles as team owner, hotelier, commentator and cycling apparel mogul.

Or at least it looked seamless.

“My brother Rich got the whole thing started while I was still competing,” Hincapie said. “It was just supposed to ride my bike fast.”

George’s older brother Rich was also a professional rider for two years before a serious crash pushed him into the business world. From his job as a salesman for a computer distributing company, Rich saw an opportunity to market his brother’s good name in the cycling apparel market.

“I started it when George was still riding,” Rich explained from the Hincapie Sportswear offices in Greenville. “Most guys start when they retire. They’re brand is dipping. We were in a position when George was riding so we got free marketing.”

While the Hincapie Sportswear riding apparel is now a powerhouse in that market, it started piece by piece out of a factory in Italy. When they grew out of that, Rich turned to an uncle in their dad’s home country of Columbia for help.

“In 2002 I got an order for 50 cycling caps,” he explained. “My uncle was in an associated business and he made a mock-up for me.”

Rich saw some potential there so he went to Columbia. He and his uncle went to a fabric store, and then went somewhere else to get the art screened on the fabric. But to get the finished product they needed someone with special sewing skills.

“We dropped the bag of printed, cut fabric to a lady at a hot dog stand at the bus station,” he said with a laugh. “She sewed at night. Three days later we had the hats. Then we did jerseys.”

Little by little over two years, they brought the process in house. Now they have150 employees at their factory in Columbia.

Meanwhile as George’s riding career was winding down the sport was ablaze with charges of illegal doping. Armstrong famously denied any wrongdoing until he couldn’t, in large part to Hincapie’s own admission of guilt to the United States Anti-Doping Agency. (Coincidentally led as the CEO by Bolles School Graduate Travis Tygart)

“I didn’t give a lot of details because, at that point, I really couldn’t,” Hincapie told the New York Times at the time. “I told them that I was part of a time in cycling that was really screwed up. I can’t take that back, but I rode clean for six years and contributed to changing the sport for the better.”

George’s mea culpa and the reservoir of good will he had built up over his career with his hard working, good guy reputation perhaps saved Hincapie Sportswear and George’s post-riding career.

The week of USADA’s announcement, Rich had already organized a retirement ride on George’s behalf and was surprised by the over 1200 riders who showed up. “Only one person asked for their money back,” he noted.

And now, in part because of Hincapie’s efforts and stricter controls by international cycling organizations, George believes the sport is “nearly” clean.

“There’s been a culture shift,” Hincapie said. “Back in the day it was 90% were doing it. Now 90% just want to go fast and do it right.”

The Hincapie “Gran Fondo” or “Big Ride” grew out of the retirement ride and now they have events in four cities with numerous other towns asking for more.

“We’re going try to be really good at what we’re good at for now,” Rich said, leaving the door open for future expansion.

By their own admission, neither George nor Rich knew anything about the hotel business when they bought the 13-room, closed, wood and stone structure in 2012.

“The first five years were rocky, but we’re in a stable place,” George said of Hotel Domestique. “We have our best team we’ve ever had here in place. Service and food quality is the best ever.”

“It’s absolutely authentic,” Rich explained. “There’s really no other place, the look and feel of the structure, the roads, the authenticity, the bikes, the Garmin’s, the ride guides. The camps we have with George, Christian (Vandevelde) and Lance. People are looking for the most authentic.”

Hotel Domestique is also home to a destination restaurant fittingly named, “17” after the number of Hincapie’s Tour finishes. Much like the other businesses the Hincapie’s are in, “17” is high end, well respected and trying to get better.

“George’s brand was the highest standard,” Rich explained. “He was very well liked, so I could only damage his brand by not doing it right. So I try to do things at a very high level.”

While the Tour de France will captivate much of Europe, Asia and South America over the next three weeks, the interest in the U.S. has dropped because of the lack of American contenders. Hincapie, a cycling team owner himself, thinks that could change in the future.

“I think it can get better,” he said of the pro cycling scene in America. “The mountain bike talent is growing and it can trickle over to the road scene. We’re developing talent. We need more high school programs, it needs to be across the board.”

Almost single-handedly, Hincapie is turning Greenville into an international cycling destination. And one of the most cycling friendly towns in America. Rich moved to Greenville after his college career in Charlotte brought him there to ride. George followed him there a couple of years later and trained there his entire career. He now does television and radio PSA’s for cycling awareness. Cyclists are commonplace, and respected on the roads and trails around town.

“We’re forming a task force to get more awareness about cycling,” George explained. “This community knows the resources they have and what cycling can do for the economy.”

George still spends plenty of time on his bike and tries to do one “challenge” each year. He rode the “Cape Epic” mountain bike race this year in South Africa. But he knows his business now is business.

“I’m getting better,” he said of his foray into the boardroom. “The variables in business are so much more that makes it successful. As a rider I knew pretty much how things would go if I trained right and rested right. Business isn’t like that.”

So far, George and his brother Rich have been successful in the things they’ve gotten involved in. It’s a combination of George’s popularity, Rich’s hard work and ingenuity and the diversity of their endeavors.

“There’s a story behind what we’re doing,” Rich said. “That’s where we’re unique. People who know cycling know the story.”

A Bike Ride In The Tennessee Mountains

When my friend Alex sent me the info on George Hincapie’s first Gran Fondo in Chattanooga last January it looked like a great idea. Riding in a different city with different terrain and supporting some of the efforts George’s, charitable and otherwise I’m usually up for. From the one day 50-miler on Saturday, the trip expanded to four days when we hired Velo Girl Bike Tours to guide us around the area leading up to the weekend.

Riding out of town and even out of the country has given me a chance to meet many new people, an unexpected positive consequence to this thing I generally started for fun and fitness. In fact, that’s how I met Alex, a lawyer living on Long Island who’s become a good friend and riding partner. No matter the season or the trip or what kind of shape he’s in, he can ride, climb, drink a beer and provide plenty sparkling repartee. That was one of the things I found in common with Jennifer and David Billstrom, the owners/operators of Velo Girl. They’re in it for the right reasons.

Jennifer is a very sweet woman who is also a very solid rider. I take it she’s the “Girl” in Velo Girl. When I asked her how she got into this gig, she said, “I was in the corporate world behind a desk and knew I needed to get out. I like people. I wanted to meet new people.” And that’s just what she did.

While her husband David does a lot of the nuts and bolts work during the tour, Jennifer is the soul of the operation, tending to clients needs, riding when possible or necessary and providing a nice calming presence. Not to say she’s just there, hanging around either. She also designs all of the rides, scouts and picks the restaurants and hotels. Her pre-ride packet of what to expect was thorough and complete, easy to understand and lets you know about any surprises.

You can have plenty of ideas as a tour operator as to how you’d like things to go but executing them is another situation. That’s where David blends perfectly into the operation. Admitting he’s not a chef but “I’ve always liked to cook,” David prepares all of the on-road meals, a delicious mix of sweet and salty, clearly put together with the knowledge of what riders are looking for when they get off their bike. Past the normal PB&J, the Velo Girl “ride food” included local selections as well as a custom chicken salad David made that got my attention. He also provides bike support, helping me assemble my bike and providing mechanical support throughout the trip. If you needed it, drink, food, water, repairs, a pep talk, whatever, David was going to try to get it done.

Oftentimes tour operators are looking to ride their bike with you coming along and basically paying for their trip. That’s not the case with Velo Girl. There’s no question the client is the focus and the experience of the whole trip is important to them. Even their van/trailer set up is first class and organized, able to transport our entire group, including bikes, food, equipment, tools and whatever, wherever we were headed.

Our riding included climbs up Suck Creek (honest, that’s really the name), Signal, Lookout and Raccoon mountains. We rode all along the Chickamauga Reservoir (built by the TVA in 1940), climbing and descending from water level and even crossing the Tennessee River. One day we rode through the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the site of a pivotal battle in 1863 that eventually led to the Union troops taking control of the city. Beautiful landscapes, wonderful vistas and plenty of history to be found on this trip.

My trip didn’t start too well as American Airlines cancelled my original flight from JAX to CHA because of a mechanical issue with our original plane. Better to find that out on the ground than in the air but I was three hours late getting to Chattanooga.

A city of 350,000 or so residents including the surrounding counties, Chattanooga has always had a “second city” reputation to Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis and even Atlanta, just under two hours to the south. The home of UT-Chattanooga, it still has a college town feel but there’s plenty of work there with VW employing over 2,000 workers at their nearby plant. What was impressive, and apparently new in the last few years, was the “vibe” in the city. A walking downtown with a flourishing restaurant scene, I was impressed with every meal we had. Part of that was Jennifer’s selections but the food, the atmosphere, the décor and design of every place we went, all independent operators was top-notch. From an expansive full-service place like “Stir” to the hole-in-the-wall “Bitter Alibi,” every meal was a real experience.

By the way, we stayed at the Chattanoogan Hotel, a good, convenient spot. Not fabulous but very nice, kind of like a Hyatt, the staff was very attentive. They took care of receiving and shipping my bike without a blink of an eye. Nice spa as well.

I don’t have anything bad to say about this trip. At 6’3″ and 240lbs, I’m not built for climbing and I know it. But I did navigate the 4000′ elevation when asked. George told me to get a new setup on my bike in the future to make it a little easier going uphill so I’m asking Phil at Champion Cycling and SRAM for some advice.

Here are my only suggestions for Velo Girl:

Maybe it’s just me but while I really like riding my bike, the history and happenings in a region I’m riding are a real reason I’m there. I know, some people just want to shut up and ride. When I’m traveling, I’m looking for a little more. While I’m not looking for a full treatise on what’s going on there, maybe a couple of paragraphs in my pre-ride packet on the significance and history of the reservoir and the same about the battlefield would have given me a chance to do some additional research if I chose. I’d like a little time built into a day like the one we rode through the national park to read some of the signs and monuments. Not a ton, just a little.

I saw the Velo Girl van a lot, which was great. Logistically, David (and Jen when she wasn’t riding) was right there when I was hoping he’d be. Again, I’m not much of a climber so I’m usually last up the mountain. I don’t have a problem with that but there were times I was climbing that I didn’t see a soul. Not a car or another rider for an hour or so. That’s one of the beauties of doing something like this but I got to thinking about a potential flat or mechanical problem and what I might do about that. With spotty cell service at best along some of the climbs, I’d have been stuck for a while, looking for help. When it’s just the two of them, maybe an e-bike or a scooter in the trailer to come and check on us stragglers would be a thought.

Our tour was small with some last minute cancellations and their friend Nancy; a local rider rehabbing an injury was also very helpful.

Riding your bike, meeting new people, and seeing something different. If that’s what you’re looking for, Jennifer has the same thought with Velo Girl.

Velogirlrides.com

Mt. Acosta Classic Is Something Special

Now in it’s fifth year, the Mt. Acosta Classic might be the most unique and interesting running/cycling/endurance event in North Florida.

“To be able to have the bridge shut down and not have any vehicles on the road gives everybody an appreciation of how beautiful the city is,” said Marie McMaster the Race Director and an architect at the Haskell Company.

Well-known triathlete Jared Bynum was killed in Nocatee when he was run over by a car while on his bike training for his next race. Bynum was very involved in helping at-risk kids in North Florida graduate from high school and helping them continue their education. The Mt. Acosta Classic is held in his memory and through this year will have raised over $50,000 for the scholarship fund. Here’s how the organizers describe it:

“This scholarship fund was established to help students who complete the mentoring program at Julia Landon College Preparatory and Leadership School, go on to finish high school in four years and are accepted to college. It will help them go to college and achieve their dreams. Jared believed in being an encouraging and supporting role model for the young students that were a part of the school’s mentoring program. This scholarship focuses on those students who have overcome early childhood challenges and continued on through high school and to college. These students want to be something that they and their families can be proud of, something that brings joy to others.”

There are one loop (2.2 miles), one hour and three hour options, all starting at 4:30 PM for both cyclists and runners.

“As a participant in the run myself, the bridge is entirely different running on the road than running on the sidewalk,” McMaster explained. “The event is closed to traffic, every cyclist is aware of what to look for and we need the community to look after us as well.”

There is race day registration and the organizers say they’ll try to squeeze in everybody who shows up.

“One hundred percent of the money goes to the kids in this community, the future leaders of Jacksonville.”

And I can tell you from personal experience, this is a great event. Without any hills or mountains here in the Jacksonville area, there are cyclists and runners on the Acosta Bridge all the time. To get a chance to traverse the span, unencumbered by traffic, is something special.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Lance Armstrong and a Bump On The Head

I like to ride my bike. I’ve ridden for years. I have some friends who got me into it nearly 30 years ago, teaching me some of the nuances of the “sport.” It’s not just jumping on the bike and riding. The clothes you wear and why, the rules of the road and how to protect yourself in most situations. Riding my bike has also allowed me to raise some money for charity and travel a bit as well.

Last weekend I was in the Lance Armstrong Foundation “Ride for the Roses” in Austin, Texas, part of his big LIVESTRONG weekend celebration every year. Lance has personally raised millions to fight cancer and his legions of followers have followed suit.

I’ve been a guest of my friend Alex at the ride each time I’ve been there. Alex lost his Dad at 42 years old to cancer and has focused his fundraising on helping the LAF. Alex is a lawyer with a lot of friends so he usually qualifies as one of the top fundraisers every year. The ride is the culmination of the weekend with more than 3,500 participants riding from 90 miles down to just 10, all to raise awareness and money.

Austin, Texas has four seasons, “hot, hotter, very hot and blistering,” one cab driver told me. So despite the fact it was late October, temperatures in the high 80’s are not unusual. That was the prospect of the ride on Sunday as we lined up in darkness just outside of Austin in a little town called Dripping Springs. Armstrong has a “little ranch” there, so he’s familiar with the roads and warned us: “It’s always windy here, and the roads are bumpy, but it’s beautiful.”

He’s right on all three accounts. .

Lance, the actor Patrick Dempsey, NASCAR’s Max Papis, Levi Leipheimer and several other “celebrities” from the cycling world were on hand and they got started right after 8am.

It was cool and overcast, and the cyclist’s enemy, windy. Alex and I cruised through the first 25 miles or so, stopping once to adjust my handlebars but it was going great. I even commented to Alex, “I always forget how much I like being on my bike.” We both laughed and commented that it was going to be a scorcher before long with the sun burning off the clouds.

I’m used to riding in a group. Phil Foreman from Champion Cycling has taught me a lot about that. I’m comfortable in close quarters. But something went wrong that I’m still not sure about.

Riding next to Alex I suddenly felt my bike headed to the left, right for him, going about 17 mph, not too fast, not too slow. I put my hand out on Alex’s shoulder and said something like, “Careful, look out.” I shoved him forward and tried with my right hand to slam on the brakes but realized I was going down. I looked down just in time to see my front wheel clip Alex’s rear wheel and quickly reminded myself how to fall.

I’ve probably fallen a hundred times on my bike. Some worse than others but nothing I probably couldn’t have avoided. I really felt powerless in this situation but figured I’d roll out of it and with a few scrapes; we’d be on our way. The problem was, that’s the last thing I remember.

When I came to I was laying in the middle of the road, on my back gasping for air and I could hear myself moaning. I also had a little dream right before I regained consciousness. Something about a truck, but I can’t really place it. (I know that sounds funny but that’s exactly what happened.)

I saw Alex standing over me, a Med Tech and a woman off to the side. The Med Tech asked me a series of questions, which I answered with no problem but told me to stay down. I was really in a fog and couldn’t remember a thing about what happened. But I felt well enough to get back on the bike so I did, headed for the rest stop and the medical tent. The Med Tech rode with me and monitored my progress.

It was so weird, feeling myself coming out of the fog bit by bit. I did ask Alex “what happened” and he looked at me and said, “That’s the fifth time you’ve asked me that. One more and I’m going to have them SAG you in.”

I rode the last 35 miles, hot, windy and hilly but thought about the different cancer victims who undergo chemotherapy and figured I could get done despite a knock on the head.

I’m aware of the concussion situation and how serious it is. I’ll keep an eye on myself but I can tell you, head injuries are nothing to play around with. I’ve been knocked out twice, both times in high school during the course of games (football and baseball) but now having that experience as an adult, I’ve got a whole new respect for what’s going on there.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Armstrong’s Already a Winner

I don’t care if Lance Armstrong wins the Tour de France.

Honest.

I’m happy with what he’s already done and if he falls apart and doesn’t finish, (which won’t happen by the way) I won’t care.

Armstrong’s performance, both on and off the bike in the first third of the tour has be nothing short of amazing. His 10th place finish in the opening individual time trial seemed to be an expected result. Wait a minute! The guy is 38 years old, he’s been off the bike, drinking beer and having fun for more than three years. He decideds to return, sheds about 20 pounds, trains like a maniac and goes back to the highest level of competition and finishes tenth?

Really?

I mean it was possible for him to finish 100th and it still be a great accomplishment. But 10th shows that he’s fully committed and in the right form. He hangs with his team through the first few stages then whips them through the team time trial, crushing everybody else. Remember, this guy is 8, 10 , 12, 15 years older than everybody else out there. Even he admitted that the 7th stage, the first mountain stage into the Pyrenees would be the first “real” stage of Le Tour. And as we’ve come to expect, Lance sat at the front with the leaders, crusing to the top.

It was some effort, but it’s not like he was cross-eyed when he crossed the line. Armstrong says “the team is not going to be the problem” which I interpreted as saying, “I’m going to have to beat one of these guys on my own team if I want to win the Tour.” And it’s possible that Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andres Kloden present the biggest hurdle to Lance taking the yellow jersey.

But I’m not sure that’s even what his goal is.

As competitive as he is, if he’s near the lead, he’ll try to win, but I really think he’s about the team and the cause.

Raising awareness for cancer research is what this comeback is all about. “It’s been tougher than I thought,” he said after stage 4, but if anybody can be focused on what needs to be done, Armstrong has shown he’s the guy. His updates on Twitter.com have given us insight regarding the day to day life of a professional cyclist, particulary the most famous one in the world.

“Doping control today,” Lance noted on Friday. “And that’s a good thing,” he added. Armstrong has been dogged by so many accusations of illegal doping throughout his career that submitting to some kind of testing is somewhat liberating for him.

I don’t care if he wins the Tour.
No matter where he finishes.
He’ll be in front.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Doping Woes

I was all set to pay homage to Floyd Landis, Tour de France winner. Bad hip and all, Landis did what seemed to be the improbable if not the impossible, losing eight minutes one day and getting almost all if it back the next. Then winning back the yellow jersey in the time trial and become the third American to win the Tour de France.

And now this: Landis is accused of doping to win stage 17.

His testosterone level in his “A” sample was too high according to the reports.

I say accused because testing always includes an “A” and a “B” sample for comparison purposes. Landis and his team, Phonak, say they’re completely surprised by the allegations and say they’re false. They’re waiting for the “B” test to prove his innocence, according to a statement on Phonak’s website.

An elevated testosterone level would indicate that he took something for recovery that would allow him to be stronger for the next stage. The timing would be right for extra testosterone for Landis, right after his “blow-up” and near miraculous recovery.

So there is one of four things going on.

  1. The test is wrong, just a mistake and he’ll be exonerated.
  2. He has an abnormally high level of testosterone (too high is a 4:1 ratio while normal males are at 1:1).
  3. The French press is on another witch-hunt.
  4. He cheated.

I’d have a tough time believing Landis cheated, but I also am the guy who thought Tyler Hamilton would be the last guy to try blood doping in order to win. But that’s just a little naive thought I suppose.

With the money involved, cheating is always part of the equation.

Of course, Lance Armstrong has been accused of doping and cheating and just about everything else ever since he returned from chemotherapy. And he’s the most tested athlete on the planet, with never a single positive result. If Armstrong cheated, it’s the best cover-up ever, and the biggest fraud perpetrated on sport in history.

But I don’t believe that and I don’t believe Landis is guilty either. He’s been around too long, he’s too smart and there’s too much at stake for him to take that chance. He knew from the beginning of the tour that he had a chance to win, with Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso in or out. He had great success in stage races at the beginning of the year and felt strong going into the Tour.

The thing that bothers me the most is the black-eye that cycling gets, again. The sport is great, it’s fun, it has a team aspect, uniforms, personalities and real competition. It’s been rife with drug use in the past but supposedly after 1998, that was cleaned up.

It’s fun to ride your bike and to see how you can ride and how your endurance stacks up on long ride. There’s nothing like seeing the countryside by bike, much different than a car and more expansive than walking. The sport is big in Europe, and in Belgium they’re crazy about it. But it doesn’t need a pro level of the sport to make riding your bike popular.

I like wearing the uniforms and kicking around on my bike, but if this proves to be true, they’re pushing the limits of me paying attention in the future. And I’m not alone. German public television is thinking about dropping their coverage if these allegations are proven and I can’t imagine OLN continuing to support cycling if everybody thinks it’s full of dopers.

Who’s going to buy advertising on that programming?

Part of the problem is the complicity over the years of dope testers, race organizers and competitors. The public needs to trust that everything’s on the up and up, or that it’s all dirty.

For that, we’re all waiting.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tuscany – The Journey Home

It’s always good to come home after being out of the country. And at least this time I did get a “Welcome Back” from the Immigration (now Homeland Security) agent while clearing customs through Atlanta.

After the seven days in Tuscany, I headed to what’s called the “Amalfi Coast” south of Naples on the southwestern coast of Italy. Taking the Eurostar from Rome to Salerno (and don’t we wish we had that kind of train service in the States) it was just over two hours but you really thought you were in a different country when the doors opened in Salerno.

Southern Italy has a rhythm all of its own, with crowded, bustling streets and a heat and humidity index that’s akin to the southeastern US. If Tuscany is bucolic, the Campania region is just plain busy. Perhaps it was the season, but there were people everywhere.

The driving in Italy is something you have to get used to and along the coast it’s somewhere between a theme park ride and an adventure all rolled into one. Buses, trucks (big ones) cars and motor scooters all complete for a space on the asphalt, no matter how wide or skinny, no matter how curvy or blind it might be. Add to that the 500 or so foot drop at just about every turn, and you get the picture. Just plain scary.

You do get used, or immune to it, and it seems everybody understands the rules, if there are any. There’s no problem with road rage because everybody is cutting everybody off constantly with no seeming regard for safety or property. Add to the mix a bunch of aimless walkers all over the roads and it probably looks most like a video game.

But the coast is breathtaking.

Mythology says that the sirens at Sorrento seduced Ulysses, and you can see why the stories come from there. From a boat, the walls to the Mediterranean are sheer and imposing. The water is a true azure blue, and clear until the light runs out. My first thought was “why did these people move here?” But of course, people have been going to the Amalfi Coast for thousands of years.

The Romans made it part of their Empire and used it for a getaway (obviously arriving by boat).

Salerno is a working city, with a big port that takes in business from all over the world. Working north, Amalfi is over run by tourists and reminded me of beaches in the Northeast US. I half expected carnival barkers. But it is the gateway to Revello, a natural plateau rising over 1000 feet over the sea. Gorgeous, cool and quiet, some people think it’s the best place in Italy, and I can see why.

There are numerous small towns along the drive, some more discovered than others. Praiano is a small, expanding village while Poisitano is a hotspot for eating and shopping. The Island of Capri is all about see and be seen with high-end shops; restaurants and hotels perched high above the sea. The famed “Blue Grotto” is a free-for-all but worth the wait (and the 8.50 Euro somebody is collecting from a boat out front. I couldn’t figure out who they were.)

The rich and famous from all over the world come to Capri to “escape: but their pictures are everywhere, even with framed tabloid covers in the windows of the local restaurants.

The people along the coast were friendly and courteous, very unlike Rome or any other big city. I stayed at the Hotel Tritone (www.tritone.it) with sweeping views of the mountains and the Med with just a turn of your head. It was 690 steps from the hotel down to the beach (yes I walked and counted them) on a staircase that looked straight out of Lord of the Rings. I half expected Saran to be at the top. It’s a great place for a getaway because it’s so remote.

“The road is our friend,” Giuseppe, the manager told me. “It’s hard to get here so trouble doesn’t come out this far.” That’s one way to look at it and I’m sure if you live there, it seems like paradise.

Because it is.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Reports From Tuscany, Italy

TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 1 (The Journey & Arrival)

I was hoping it would be an adventure, and it certainly, inadvertently, started out as one. I lined up my ticket to Italy in March and for some reason I didn’t have a seat from Atlanta to Rome assigned. “No problem,” everybody with Delta assured me, from the agents in Jacksonville (who are always very helpful) to the people on the phone (usually not so helpful).

“They’ll issue it day-of when you get to Atlanta.” Fair enough, I thought.

When I arrived at JIA, two hours early, they still said, “No problem,” when I asked about my seat. Upon arriving in Atlanta, I realized it would, in fact, be a problem. Nobody at the desk would really talk to me.
“We’re working on it,” was about all I could get. When they called the flight and everybody got on, the gate agents still ignored me until I finally asked about going.
“Well, we don’t have a seat for you,” was the explanation.
“Wait,” I said, “I have a confirmed ticket on this flight.”
“Right, but we don’t have a seat for you,” was the terse response.

If you’re a regular reader you know of my problems with Delta so I half expected it. After about a half hour, they motioned me over to the desk and said, “We’re sending you to Rome, via Brussels and you’ll get there 3 hours late.” “You better tell my friend Bill (Dodge) who’s already on the plane,” I asked.

So I was headed to Belgium (again) with a $400 Delta voucher in my pocket. The flight from Atlanta to Brussels was an hour late, so I missed my connection to Rome and two hours later (five hours all told) I was in Italy.

Bill was nice enough to wait at the airport and people watch while I was making my excursion to Rome. My luggage actually made it (thanks to Alitalia) and even my bike. The shuttle train from the airport to the main train station in Rome was very utilitarian, and as usual, it took me a few minutes to get my bearings geographically, and emotionally as well. The Italians don’t put a big priority on organization or signs, so you have to get used to feeling your way around.

When I finally figured out where the train left from for Florence, we missed it by about 30 seconds, lugging our bike boxes along. We caught the next one; 30 minutes later and finally were settled. Nice train, non-stop to Florence.

My Italian is not good, but when I try to speak it, at least the locals help me along and compliment me when I get it right. The Florence train station was a zoo, as usual, but even more so with so many students in town. It seems to be more of a destination for studying (if you can get any done in a big party town like that).

The people running the bike tour, Ciclismo Classico sent a van to pick up Bill and me about 30 minutes later. He spoke zero, I mean zero English, but was very pleasant and helpful and agreed to drive us around Florence before we headed to our destination. We got to see the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio but, of course, thanks to Delta, didn’t get to see Michelangelo’s David, because the museum had just closed.

That’s twice I’ve been in Florence and missed one of the classical pieces of sculpture of modern times. At least I’ve seen it once and there are a few pictures around (everywhere!)

The drive to Fattoria Degli Usignoli (The Farm of the Nightingales) was full of switchbacks and pretty steep. (Perhaps a sign of things to come?) Once here I understood what all the fuss was about. It’s a farm on a hillside overlooking the valley where the main river runs through Tuscany. It was built by monks in the 14th century and converted to a farm and now a sprawling resort, Italian style. They have horses, pools, two restaurants and a beautiful view! In less than 24 hours I’ve seen two wedding receptions as well.

Since we were the first to arrive, we ate at the hotel restaurant, outside and since we’re in Italy, the food, of course, was fabulous.

We met Andreas and John Paolo, our guides for the next 6 days and watched the Italy/USA world cup game. We were, of course, the only Americans in the crowd, so we kind of kept quiet. But the Italians are very polite and afterwards several shook my hand since it was a 1-1 draw. “We were bad,” one patron, said, “you were worse,” he added.

Probably right, but It was funny that they were more mad at their own guys than blaming the ref or the Americans. I was beat so even though the bed in my apartment was like the floor, I slept like a rock.

I woke when successive calls from Bill and the front desk reminded me of: 1) where I was and 2) I had to move to a different room. I met Bill for breakfast on a terrace overlooking the valley. Very solid, strong coffee and other typical European morning fare. Packed up my stuff and moved it to a second room, this one overlooking the pool.

We walked up to put our bikes together and Andrea and John Paolo were already working on the rest of the group’s rides so we joined in, a little. They helped me put my bike together and checked it out, very different than the experience last year in Belgium. We met at 1 o’clock for lunch to meet with the rest of the group: a couple from California. A father and son from Minnesota, a family of four from Mississippi another family of three from the west coast, a guy from Boston and us.

Lunch was very nice, very Italian, and very Tuscan with salads, breads, some ham and the like. Andreas and John Paolo went over the rules, told us to get dressed and head to the bikes. I was pretty pumped to get on my bike after sitting there and talking about it. Once we got everybody ready, John Paolo went over the rules of the road once again, and we were off.

Well kind of off.

It’s a straight up climb out of the hotel that gets your attention real quick, especially with no warm up. Bill and I were cruising up front and agreed that the Italian idea of “rolling hills” and what Americans think are very different. We stopped a couple of times in the first 8 miles to get the group together and look at some of the historical buildings.

I did get to see a very old church with what’s considered the first Renaissance piece of art from about the 11th century. It’s called Massaccio’s Triptych nobody seems to know how it got there. With Tuscany being considered the birthplace of the Renaissance that was kind of fascinating.

From there we headed back up the hill and the group split off into those who wanted to go “long” or the short way back to the hotel. I picked long (surprise!) and headed up with John Paolo and three other guests. Soon it was just John Paolo and me going up the hill, about 7 miles at about 10%, (really). I thought about quitting a couple of times but slogged through, stopped once to get my heart rate down to a manageable level and made it to the top.

It was worth it going through the little village of Villambrosa with all of the people on a Sunday afternoon and the view was spectacular. We stopped at a natural flowing fountain to get some water, waiting in line while the locals filled up their bottles with their weekly visit. The descent was, as John Paolo described it, “technical” which means very curvy and very fast. It was pretty scary and when we stopped, I checked my back wheel and almost burnt my hand it had heated it up so much.

Two shorter climbs and we were back at the Fattoria, headed to dinner. The guides on this tour, Andrea and John Paolo are very attentive to small things like ordering the wines and setting up the dinners. They both have an even hand and seem to enjoy meeting the different people from the tour each week. The menu tonight had a local salad, two pastas and a beef filet. They explained why they picked certain wines and dishes and talk about the Tuscan eating style in an historical context.

We had some grappa and headed off for bed.


TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 2

It seems like one night whenever I travel to Europe; my sleep system gets turned around. Last night was that night.

I wasn’t tired, and lay in bed for about two hours and “napped” for a little bit, but when I looked at the clock and it was 4 o’clock, I was wide-awake. I took a walk; I visited the reception desk, (which was closed) and watched the sun come up. It’s a weird feeling being up and around when everybody, and I mean everybody else is sleeping. Finally the breakfast room opened and I met most of the group for coffee and the route meeting.

Sam in Tuscany, Italy Off we went at 9 AM, with Andreas riding along this time. He’s a former racer and obviously a very strong rider. He was attentive but not obtrusive and we actually made it to Lorro Cuifenna in the late morning. We “regrouped” at Coffee Centrale (apparently there’s a coffee centrale in every town in Italy) and drank espresso.

It’s the only picture I wanted from the trip, so Bill took my picture sitting on a chair on the sidewalk drinking espresso. It even sounds silly when I write it!

Anyway, we rode the two miles, straight up to a small church in Gruppo, a very small village. The church was built in the 8th century and Andreas gave us a tour and explained the symbolism through out the main part. Pretty fascinating stuff.

It was a steep downhill going back, and Josh didn’t make the turn so he slammed into a fence and some earth barriers. Luckily he wasn’t hurt (he’s young!) but his rear wheel was destroyed. We headed to the restaurant “Vino de Vino” in the center of Lorro where the Head Chef “Antonio” took all of us into the small kitchen and gave us a demonstration on how to make pasta. He spoke zero English, so he had their waitress translate, which was amusing and entertaining by itself.

Antonio literally made the pasta from scratch; so more than an exhibition it was basically us watching him do what he does everyday. I remember interviewing David Letterman once and asking him about Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” on his show and how amazed he looked. Letterman said “I’m amazed every night at the talent level of the people who sit in this chair. It’s amazing what they can do.”

I thought about that when Antonio was making the pasta, thinking he was truly gifted when it came to his craft.

We ate at Vino de Vino and it was, of course, fabulous. Back on our bikes after doing a report for Lex and Terry and it was funny to see the town deserted around 1:30 in the afternoon. I mean nobody was on the street. We headed down into the valley, going about 30 on the long straight-aways that had a mile downhill grade.

I was thinking we’d pay for this, and turns out, I was right!

We made a sharp right turn and headed nearly straight up out of the valley at an 8% then 10% then around a 15% grade. It was pretty taxing and I stopped once in the shade to recover. I was amused and disappointed to know that I stopped about 100 meters from the top!

I figured the rest of the ride would be uneventful, but it was a lot of climbing and then a significant downhill around curves at pretty high speeds. We were getting close to home when I took a wrong turn and headed back down into the valley, taking Bill and Guy with me. I was bombing down this road when I realized it wasn’t familiar at all! So I stopped with Bill, but we couldn’t yell loud enough for Guy, who was off the front.

We were lost, no question.

I called John Paolo and he asked where I was. “There’s a wall and a lot of trees,” I responded, which sounds pretty inane. “Get to somewhere where you know where you are and call me back,” JP responded. I could only laugh, knowing that the way out was straight back up.

“We’ve got to go back to Reggello and turn left,” I told Bill.
“UP THERE,” was his immediate response.

But Bill got back in the saddle and pedaled back up, only stopping once to recover and refuel. At the top he was rightfully proud of himself, and for that feat, I presented him with the “cappelinno,” the hat for the day. JP finally found us, but we were so close to home, I rode in and we had a lot of laughs recounting the day.

“How hard is it,” Bill asked JP in the middle of the road. “I can’t say,” John Paolo responded in his Italian accent. “It’s pretty easy in the van,” he added with a wink. I laughed myself silly when he said that and headed home.

Sam in Tuscany, Italy We met for the Italian lessons, which weren’t only about the language, but also about some of the Italian culture and a lot about the wines in Italy. I couldn’t get enough of it, but we had dinner reservations. The food again was perfect, a blend of Tuscan specialties, which I’ve found out is what I like. The wines were perfect, with Andreas and John Paolo explaining each course and how the wines blended in with the meal.

Andreas had hired a musician to entertain. Salvatore was talented and had a music machine with him. It turned into a karaoke for some of the staff, which made it much more amusing. Yes, they asked me to sing, and yes, I did some of the old standards as well as a few songs in Italian. Wrong keys, no monitors but plenty of fun nonetheless.

I think I’m actually tired tonight, so I’m hoping a few hours of sleep is in my near future.


TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 3

Leaving the “Fattoria” for the first point-to-point ride of the trip it was billed as mostly downhill and a fun day. Turns out, better than advertised. It was the first time that most of the group stuck together, with some shortcuts on farm roads thrown in for variety.

Coming out of the hills of Reggello I was getting more comfortable on my bike at higher speeds but trying not to be over confident. I’m happy with my bike, but if I do a trip like this again, I will put a triple on in order to make some of the climbs easier to spin through.

We stopped at a real Italian bike shop. That means it’s serious business when it comes to the bikes. They’re not messing around. It’s about the bikes the riding the setup and how it all works. This shop was pretty big with all kinds of bikes everywhere. The funniest scene was the owner going over a kid’s bike with a mountain bike set up with the young boy’s father. They looked. They debated; they looked again, all the while with the son sitting on the bike. It didn’t look like a serious bike purchase, but it was clearly getting the attention of everybody involved.

As expected, they didn’t really have much in my size. For Italy that would be “Giagante.” Off to lunch, a picnic in a vineyard was our next destination. There were a couple of small climbs involved, and one pretty serious steep that needed plenty of focus and effort. The countryside was changing, riding in the valley and the vineyard turned out to be quite an experience.

Andreas had gone ahead and set up the lunch, under a round, thatched roof picnic area. We sat around like the Knights of the Roundtable while the owner of the house and the vineyard conducted a true wine tasting. The whole, throw the wine out over your shoulder and everything. They were great, and went great with lunch that was prepared.

Some of us headed over to the actual wine production facility for a tour. It was fascinating to see the different styles of making the wine, from wooden casks to glass lined refrigerators it’s quite a science. They even took us up to their private wine area, wine that is only made for guests, family and important clients. I liked everything about it, so I bought some wines. The only question is whether they’ll make it back to the States!

Some of us rode over the “Il Borro.” It’s a small, and I mean small, 15 full time residents, village that’s been completely restored by Salvatore Ferregamo. It sits on a hill (what a surprise!) but is connected by a bridge. At the bottom of the hill, a guy pulled up in a little tram. I noticed he was wearing a nametag that said “Phil.” So I asked, “Phil, can we ride our bikes up there?” “Sure,” he replied, and drove off.

The guys standing around were pretty amazed that I spoke to “Phil” in English and he responded right away. I figured that “Phil” was an American name, and probably was an American. Turns out, he works for Sara Lee and they had rented the whole place out for a senior managers meeting.

The ride to Arrezo was pretty good, with the last 10k or so on a pretty busy road into town. We did stop at the “Mona Lisa” bridge, where Da Vinci reportedly painted the Mona Lisa using the hillside across the river as the background. Of course, we had our pictures taken there.

Arezzo is a pretty bustling town, and our hotel was right in the middle. Hotel Vogue has only been open a few months and it’s very nice. The rooms are named after Italian artists. I might have thought more of it if I had gotten one of the other rooms. Mine was pretty straight forward, (they all had big plasmas). Bill’s was Michelangelo” and had a whole wall behind the bed set up as the shower. It was very avant garde. There was a lot of discussion about the other rooms and they sounded pretty neat.

We went on a walking tour of Arezzo, but the guide was condescending and boring as all get out. I really enjoyed learning a few things but she made it tough! It was our night to eat out on our own, so the group split up. Bill and I sat with Andreas and John Paulo in a café and watched the world go by for a while. Then we wandered around looking for a place to eat. Andreas found a place with a bunch of locals eating there, so we stopped in. What a surprise, the food was fabulous! Plenty of wine, lots of laughs later, we headed back.

Two of the other guides from Ciclismo Classico came through town (and brought our bike boxes) so we went out with them while they ate. Lots of people walking around late, but we headed back to the hotel. The ride tomorrow has a couple of climbs that are apparently serious!


TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 4

I wasn’t sure how this day was going to go to start with. The “Hotel Vogue” in Arezzo was very nice and brand new and the rooms were all named after famous Italian artists. They had grand showers and towering high ceilings but somehow, my room didn’t match many of my “teammates.”

It was on the busy street with pretty standard amenities, except for the bed(s). They were typical European “twins” meaning small people will sleep fine in one. But, as Andrea described me “Il Giagante” had to stay in one position or he’d fall out.

And his feet hung over the foot.

But the place was very nice, the staff accommodating and the breakfast was outstanding. Plus it was very convenient, right in the middle of town.

When I walked out the front door after eating, I still wasn’t sure about the day because I had a flat. Andreas recognized it immediately and went to work. I’ve seen tire changing, and comparably, this was a work of art. It rivaled the moves Phil from Champion used in the freezing cold and rain of Belgium last year when one of our fellow riders was bumbling around.

Andreas grabbed this thing and replaced the tube; with all of the quick checks you’re taught to do, in about a minute! We were off through the roundabouts and the old gates of the city and into some real Italian farmland countryside in no time. Fields of sunflowers and I don’t know what else were on both sides of us for most of the first hour of the ride. It was flat, so I got on the front and spun along with Bill and Dan through what looked like a painting.

Our first stop was the hilltop town of Monte San Savino where it was “market day” in the town square. It was a little climb up to the town but it was bustling with action when we got there. Just about everybody in our group was along as we strolled through the street market looking for bargains. I looked for some shoes, but got some laughs when I asked about my size. Bill and I did buy some traveling photographer/fishing vests. They were 8 Euros each (not much) and Andreas encouraged me to ask for the “sconto” (discount). When I turned to the merchant and said “Sconto?” he immediately blurted out “due? quindiche” ( two for fifteen) so I laughed and paid him with the 1 Euro discount!

Andreas took us into a butcher shop that’s apparently famous for their fresh meat. He bought a bunch of “porchetta” that was absolutely amazing and passed it around as we shopped. He offered it to several merchants and even the police but they said they didn’t eat pork without bread. That kind of surprised all of us, even Andreas. Too bad, more for us!

Back on our bikes and off to Lucignano another hilltop town that was very cool. The climb was pretty straightforward but sunny and hot and it got my attention. I was climbing better but I’ll never be a good climber by any stretch of the imagination. Dan was sitting on my wheel for over a mile and I finally asked him if he was going to be there all day. He’s a bit competitive (a former college runner, he’s strong but new to cycling) and I was probably a bit cranky so I told him he could get in front for a while. We finished together, but it was a foreshadowing of a later climb, that’s for sure.

Bill wasn’t far behind as we joked that he was “riding into form.” You actually have to use your Phil Leggett voice for that phrase to get the whole effect. There was something about that town I really liked. I’m not much for vibes but maybe I should be. As we passed through the massive stone gate, it was just very cool to see how the town was laid out in a spiral with spectacular views of the countryside.

We actually went into a supermarket to look around for something different (I actually drank a Fanta Orange for the first time in about 20 years) and had our mandatory espresso.

We set off with Andreas to the next town for lunch. The four of us tooled along easily and stopped in Foiana della Chiana, a town like something you’d see in North Carolina. Tree lined streets, very easy living, and common touch feeling. Andreas picked one of his regular spots for lunch, right on the main road. We were the only people in there, and the waitress was a hoot. Several tattoo’s, loud but engaging, and, once again, absolutely no English whatsoever.

We ordered pasta and the plate she brought was enormous. I, of course, ate the whole thing. Andreas reminded me “It’s Italy” and allowed me to wipe my plate with my bread to finish it off, as my Greek ancestry yearns for. (Probably another thing the Italians stole from the Greeks!) The ride from Foiana to Cortona was flat for the most part, and a good thing based on the size of the lunch.

I stopped by the roadside to chat with Lex and Terry, which brightened my mood as well. The fields were mostly in full bloom as we could see Cortona on a hill in the distance. I was taking video with Bill’s camera as we rode along and out of one field on our left a pheasant just walked right in front of me! Luckily he saw me at the last second and flew off to our right. I happened to get it on video and it’s pretty amazing.

The twists and turns in this valley gave us a bunch of views of farmhouses and plenty of chances to get lost but Gian Paolo was always there at the tricky intersections to point us the right way. Of course, he chuckled a bit as he pointed the way to Cortona and noted “Up there” as I asked exactly which way we were going. This climb was billed as 4K at 6% and it was all of that and more.

Again, Dan sat on my wheel, so I just told him I was going to go 1 mph until he got in front. It was a silly little game, but something to make the hot and steeper than 6% climb to go by a little faster. I did see a blind turn up and ahead, so I jumped out of my saddle, clicked in a couple of gears and put about 200 yards between me and Dan. Now I know why Lance and those guys scout the route beforehand. I made that move and faced the steepest and hottest part of the ride immediately. “You’re an idiot,” I screamed in my head, but laughed as well at my impetuous attempt at “strategy.”

I won’t do that again.

I did stay in front all the way to the top, but on the final switchback, my phone rang. Gian Paolo wanted to tell me that one of those coolers in the van had leaked and gotten my luggage wet. I really appreciated the thought, but I was dragging pretty badly at that point and probably heard every third word or so. Alora (kind of “and so” to start a sentence) was the thing that stuck in my head.

I parked my bike and sat in the main square in my biking kit, waiting for Bill. The waiter indulged my improving but still not good Italian as I ordered, water, then a beer then an espresso. After about an hour (they shot “Under the Tuscan Sun in Cortona” and I swear I saw Diane Lane walk through the Piazza) I went back to the hotel only to find Bill showered and ready to sit in the café. So back to the piazza we went, joined by several others including Andreas and Gian Paolo.

They ordered me a “panache” which was beer and sprite. “The perfect cyclists drink on a hot day,” is how it was described. It sounded dreadful, as did the “radler” which is beer and lemonade but it was actually quite good and refreshing.

An Englishwoman who had moved to Italy more than 25 years ago because, “I was tired of living in England” conducted our walking tour. She was very knowledgeable and pleasant, handing out tidbits about Cortona, the Cortonese, their history and habits. The views from up there were just great all over the city as it has sweeping vistas of the valleys below. It even looks at Lake Trasimeno where Hannibal defeated the Romans around 100 BC (I think).

Our dinner was a pizza feast, and I confirmed (to myself) that again, I was going to put on a few pounds on a cycling trip despite the miles I was putting in. The pizza was great, Tuscan specialties. We finished with some “limongello” which everybody tells me you can’t buy in the States.

It was a very memorable day


TUSCANY WRAP

Knowing it was going to be the final day of riding, I was looking forward to some fairly upbeat pedaling. I skipped breakfast, opting for a little more sleep instead. (I did have breakfast at the Hotel San Michele the next morning before our departure and it was very nice, including real scrambled eggs, very complete.)

As I was about to walk out of the room, Gianpaolo called to ask if I had taken my front wheel up to my room. That might sound strange, but when I rode into the garage the previous afternoon, there were about 5 bikes sitting there without the front wheel on. I figured it was a safety measure, so I took mine with me. “Sam, do you have your wheel,” Gian Paolo asked with a bit of hopefulness in his voice. “Sure,” I answered, which was followed by a sigh and a cajoling expletive, in English, wondering why in the world I would take the front wheel. I explained and Gianpaolo said, “Sure, they were on top of the van!” with the words “you idiot” implied I’m sure.

We got a good laugh at the time, but apparently he and Andreas were scurrying around for a while, looking for my wheel. I made a quick Internet stop on the way out of town, so Bill and I were the last to leave. No matter. The first 5k or so were straight downhill along the switchbacks we had climbed the previous afternoon. I had gotten more comfortable on my bike at higher speeds and with a little coaching from both Gian Paolo and Andreas, I was a bit more “technical” over 35 mph.

Bill cruises downhill, so we didn’t have any difficulty hooking up with the main group in no time. We took Dan off with us and had a good discussion riding three abreast through the countryside. The roads were very lightly traveled, so it was a nice cruise. We changed that though, dropping into a line and riding over 25 mph for quite a while. That ended at Castiglione della Trasimeno, a castle on the hill overlooking Lake Trasimeno. It was pretty neat, but it was obvious we wanted to do some riding and Andreas was more than happy to oblige. We zipped back down the hill and started the trek around the lake. As we turned west the wind kicked up in our faces and stayed pretty steady for the next 15 miles.

We took turns at the front with Andreas still doing most of the work. We stopped for lunch at Café de Moro a funky truck stop looking place half way around the lake. Turns out it really is a truck stop with all kinds of people going in. They serve pretty much one thing: fabulous giant pizza crust with all kinds of toppings and fillings on the side.

The guy cooking the crust had a dough ball of about 30 pounds in front of him with these giant round stone pizza cookers he kept shoving into the oven. There was no line (queue) so everybody was just jostling for position around the place where you order. If you didn’t know what you wanted, they just went past you and on to the next person, kind of like the Varsity in Atlanta. It was hilarious and delicious and I, of course, ate too much.

I mean way too much and when I got on my bike, I knew I was going to pay for it. Luckily, the climbs were minimal for the first 10 miles or so.

As we went around the bend of the lake the sun came out and the wind abated, so no tailwind all the way home! It was very different on that side of the lake. Much more tourist oriented, many beaches, camping sites and a couple of small towns oriented around the lake. “Only the Germans swim in there,” one Italian told me with a laugh.

I was in line with five others, when we got to a carnival looking town with boat rides and a park next to the lake. (Bill was walking toward the soda stand when his cleat hit a piece of very slippery marble and went to the ground. His leg got caught against the curb and twisted his knee and ankle in a very awkward way. It was bad enough for him to get into the van and eventually head to the hospital for x-rays. They put a supporting cast on the sides and Bill continued, without riding, with a limp. He actually was a trooper knowing it could be fractured according to the pictures. The hospital was empty because he went during the Italy World Cup game so nobody had time to be sick.)

I headed out with 5 other riders, sans Bill, at a pretty good clip with my stomach still as full as could be. Eventually, I got to thinking about spending a few minutes with my self. “Amphiloskepsis,” is what the Greeks call it and the Italians talk a lot about as well using the standard word, “meditation” so I dropped off the back and just took in the sights and smells heading toward Cortona. It was pretty fantastic even if it was hot and I was gradually gaining elevation along the way.

I took a bunch of pictures and some videos as well and got lost in my own thoughts.

OK, enough of that.

I got to a town and made a couple of turns asking the police (carabiniere) for directions. Andreas came back looking for me, which I really appreciated, and I told him about wanting to spend some time pedaling alone. He gave me a very Italian smile of understanding and didn’t say a word. Very nice, very perceptive.

On the start of the serious climb back to town, Josh was on the corner waiting, so we headed up together at a pretty good clip. On one of the serious turns we saw a couple of other riders coming up from another direction. We exchanged a few words in Italian both commenting on how steep and long it was. At the top the town was bustling (with tourists since the Italians were watching the game) so I showered and went to the garage to help Andreas break down the bikes and put Bill’s and mine in our boxes.

A wine tasting followed and I bought some Brunella to send home.

We met for our farewell dinner just above the main piazza on a beautiful Tuscan night. I’m sure we were all a bit sad it was ending as we exchanged the “Golden Rooster” awards with each other. (Certificates awarded from one rider to another by names drawn out of a hat) I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the group for Andreas and Gian Paolo.

I’ve become even more sentimental as I’ve gotten older, so I choked out a couple of sentences about how much we enjoyed it and how difficult it must be to entertain a bunch of people from America, a land of many cultures and show us the rich culture of Tuscany and Italy. I do remember finishing by saying, “Andreas and Gian Paolo, we thank you for not only sharing with us the Italian mind, but also showing us the Italian heart,” and I sat down.

To, I think, everybody’s surprise, Andreas stood up and began to speak, saying that it was the first time he had ever spoken to a group at the end in 25 years of hosting trips.

“I often wonder if what I’m doing makes a difference,” he began. “I’m a musician, but playing drums is that really making something? I owned a bike shop. But putting metal together and making bikes, is that really creating something? But today, I was sitting with Bill and he said something that touched me. He said this has been the time of his life. So maybe I am making a difference.”

And with that we were quiet and raised a glass to the trip and our experience.

As this trip was billed as a “Taste of Tuscany” it was all of that and more. It fulfilled my desire not only to ride and occasionally be challenged, but also to see some of the history of the region, to explore some of the churches and artwork and to hear the history of the people. It’s all wrapped up in the foods and the wines that are part of the culture and everyday life in that part of Italy and we got to experience it firsthand as opposed to from a tour bus or even a car.

I didn’t have any real complaints on the quick evaluation form they ask you to fill out after the last day of riding. The beds in the hotels were average, but the hotels themselves were very nice. I’d like to see one day added to the middle of the trip with an optional ride in the morning and some shopping and exploring time in the afternoon. Perhaps a second night in Arezzo would help.

As a point of disclosure, I paid full price for this trip, over $3,400 and as far as value goes, it’s better than average. Not outstanding, it is a bit steep for the time involved. The guides were outstanding, couldn’t have been better for what I was looking for and a sharp contrast to my trip to Belgium last year. (In fact, I’m wondering how that guy stays in business if these people are his competition.)

I’d go on another trip with Ciclismo Classico in the future, especially if Andreas and Gianpaolo are along.

If you’d like to learn more you can log onto their website at www.ciclismoclassico.com

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Belgium On My Bike

I learned a long time ago that I have eclectic tastes in just about everything. Music, art and even sports. As big a fan as I am of baseball, football, basketball and other traditional sports, I also follow English Soccer and Pro Cycling will an equal fervor. So I’ve always had it in my head to go see some cycling races in Europe and ride my bike over some of the storied routes of what are called “The Classics.” So when my long-time friend and bike guru Phil Foreman of Champion Cycling in Mandarin invited me along for a trip to Belgium this spring, I jumped at the chance.

I know something about Belgium, like where it is and how to get there. Some of the history, especially the country’s role in the two World Wars of the 20th century. And how they aren’t exactly Switzerland, but based on the countries surrounding it (France, Germany, the Netherlands and the North Sea) and as the capital of the European Union, they know how to make alliances and get along. I also didn’t know that cycling is their passion, their hobby, their existence way beyond just being a sport. Brussels is just like any other big city in Europe, a mixture of old and new architecture, two million inhabitants and snarling traffic. I was much more interested in the countryside where they contested the one-day races Tour of Flanders and the much hated and respected Paris-Roubaix.

An overnight flight put me in Belgium on a Thursday morning, dreary and overcast, but to be expected. It is northern Europe in the spring after all. Phil and the other guys in the group arrived a day early for an overnight excursion to Amsterdam, so I had some time to get acclimated to the time change (seven hours ahead of EST), the language barrier (Flemish), the money exchange (1 to 1.3 dollars to Euros!) before they made it back.

To no one’s surprise, Delta hadn’t delivered their luggage, now 36 hours later (you know what Delta stands for, Don’t Expect Luggage to Arrive) so our 1st day warm-up ride was postponed ‘till the morning. It was dark when we finished putting together our bikes, but we were just in time for a minor Belgian pub crawl to sample the local beers.

Beer is to Belgians what wine is to the French. They’re very serious about their beer, serving each beer in an especially logoed glass with a formality that would seem quaint to beer drinking North Americans. Beer wasn’t the only thing we learned about that night. If cycling and beer drinking are among the top pastimes in Belgium, smoking runs a close third. It actually might outdistance the other two combined if you consider the population as a whole. No matter where you were (except in church) everybody, and I mean everybody was lighting up. The restaurants and pubs were so full of smoke you had to step outside every once in a while to get a breath of fresh air. We started picking our watering holes based on the amount of smoke pouring out the front door. The situation did spawn the best line of the trip when Phil asked “anybody got any Nicorette gum? I’ve got to kick this habit before I get home!”

Phil, John Vance, Walter Campbell and Ron Howland from Jacksonville along with Alex Arato from Long Island turned out to be the perfect traveling partners for this trip. All good, strong riders, all very knowledgeable about the pro cycling scene in Europe and all kind enough to look after me even though they could easily have been “off the front.” And, perhaps most importantly, they knew the “non-cycling experience” was just as important as the cycling. In other words, they all can drink some beer.

It didn’t slow us down the next morning when we went off on about a 20 mile spinning jaunt out of the town of Aalst. Back to the town square for lunch (and boy did we get some looks) then off for an “organized” ride from the hotel at 2pm. We rode with CSC Assistant Team Director Scott Sunderland, a recently retired professional rider. An Australian who’s lived in Belgium for the last 18 years, Scott was the highlight of the trip. He’s accomplished just about everything you’d want in a professional cycling career so he didn’t have anything to prove. That attitude allowed him to ride with us, chat about riding, the pro circuit and the personalities involved. He couldn’t have been nicer, more helpful or more customer service oriented.

And that came in handy.

The final five miles of our ride that afternoon involved two steep cobblestone climbs, “The Muur” and “The Bossberg,” both legendary in Belgian cycling. As I struggled up the Bossberg at the back of the pack, I huffed to Scott, “I’ve got 10 years at 80 pounds on all of these guys.” Scott replied “No worries mate, it’s not a race,” as he calmly pedaled his way to the top. It was just the right thing to say at the right time, a knack Scott showed for the duration of the trip, each time we rode with him. That afternoon’s ride was a preview of what was to come. Every ride was full of surprises, changes in the weather and a blend of cruising descents and lung-busting, thigh-searing climbs.

Saturday’s ride was as a part of the Cyclosportif Tour de Flanders. It’s like the amateur ride in advance of the professional competition on Sunday. Outside of a golf Pro-Am, it’s the only thing I can think of that allows recreational athletes to compete on the same playing field as the best in the world will compete on the next day. We chose the 140 km course that included 16 climbs, 13 of which were cobblestones and under 10 feet wide. “You’d have to ride it to believe it,” is the best description I’ve heard about that experience.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to ride the nearly 90 miles with 22,000 other registered riders. The climbs varied from 10 to 22 percent making it a physical and mental challenge as the day went on. I started dreading the descents, not wanting to give up that much altitude, knowing there’d be a climb around the corner to make me pay for this leisurely cruise! I walked the last hundred yards of two climbs, including the 22% Koppenberg where the guy in front of me fell and I had to stop. I unclipped my left pedal, only to fall to the right against the retaining fence, wiping out three sections of metal railing!

We joked that night that if we saw cows on the course the next day, we’d know where they came from! It was about the hardest single-day physical challenge I’ve ever encountered. I was glad everybody else agreed that it was tough, so tough in fact that if we knew how hard it was going to be, we might have said, “No thanks!”

I was anxious to watch the best in the world ride the same course the next day. Their ability brings you right back to earth. If you ever think you’re a good rider, just go watch how professional cyclists ride and climb. It’ll humble you right away.

That night after dinner, five of us headed off to the town square in Bruges to see what was going on on a Saturday night in Belgium. After a couple of “Leffe’s” a big group of young people came rolling out of the pub next to ours, with two guys in the front in a heated argument. They eventually separated themselves from the pack, and squared in the center of the small plaza. It looked pretty serious as they danced around and eyed each other, until one guy reached out a slapped the other to the ground.

“Slapped?”

That’s right, and the guy went to the deck and stumbled to get up. We just stood there laughing at the slap and the subsequent kicking display. Some young girls tried to break it up, but they were quickly brushed aside. We laughed that if this was in the US, some bouncer would have already taken care of this, and whatever was left over would be picked up by the sweeping local police. “Anybody can start a fight,” I told the group. “Finishing it is the key.”

You’ve got to be dedicated to be a cycling fan. They show up early, brave the weather, stand five deep throughout the course to see the “Whoosh” of the leaders and the peleton go by. We were part of that scene on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders. On the side of the mountain known as “The Muur” our group fanned out to find a good vantage point to see the climb and the leaders as they went by. Phil and I found a spot near the top, with a TV screen across the course and the beer tent behind us. We watched the leaders cruise by with much better looks than we had the day before, and waited for the peleton and Lance Armstrong as well.

Lance had apparently done a lot of work for teammate George Hincappe earlier in the race and looked pained as he ascended the second to last climb. Once they were by, we retired to the beer tent to watch the rest of the race unfold on television. And we weren’t alone. There were about a half million fans on the side of the mountain that day, and after the race went by, they were all looking for a place to see the finish. After about 10 minutes in front of the TV, I looked around to see the fans were about 15 deep behind me. The whole place went nuts when a Belgian, Tom Boonen won the race in a solo breakaway.

Generally, Belgians are pretty reserved, but overhearing Phil and I speaking English on the way down, the guy walking in front of us asked where we were from. “Florida,” I responded. “Oh, I’ve been to Florida,” he quickly answered. “Disneyworld?” I asked. “Yes, and many other places in Florida on holiday for three weeks last year,” he proudly said. Turns out the guy was about as nice as can be, so we spent about an hour talking to him and his young son before making our way to the rallying point.

Surprise, surprise, the rallying point was bar in the middle of town.

The rest of our group was already camped at a corner table, so we just jumped into the festivities. The group at the next table had one guy who spoke English (kind of) so we exchanged banter with them about the race. “Where are you from,” the guy asked me. Again in answered, “Florida.” “You’re Americans?” he said with an incredulous look on his face. “Sure. Why?” I asked. “I live about 200 miles from here and I’ve been coming here to this race for 20 years and I’ve never seen an American here. Are you here for the race?” “Of course, and we rode this yesterday,” I added as an aside. “Really! You rode this? Buy these men a beer!” our new found friend shouted to the waiter in both English and Flemish.

We spent plenty of time there, and the guy thanked me twice for being an American and for the sacrifice our country has made over the years for his. That seemed to be the general thought process as well. Maybe it’s just the Parisians that have a problem with Americans because in the countryside of Northern France and throughout Belgium, we were treated well.

We rode out of Bruges on Monday and Tuesday, the highlight being Monday’s ride with Scott. We were in his backyard basically, so he took us through a bunch of farm roads and saw plenty of that part of the country. We headed to the famed “Koppenberg” where the cobbled climb in matched by an equally as steep cobbled descent. It was cold and wet and about halfway up my bike completely flipped out from under me and I went down hard. Nothing really hurt by my pride, and Scott advised all of us to walk down the descent because it was so slick. Christian decided to give it a whirl and carefully navigated his way down. Pretty impressive. Scott took us to the Discovery Team’s hotel and we spent some time talking with Discovery’s “director sportif” Dirk De Mol.

Wednesday we were back at the start of the mid-week race, Ghent-Wevelghem a so-called “mini classic.” It was freezing, so I headed into the town of Denzie to see the start. The stage where the sign in happens was a quarter the size of the one at Bruges but the announcers/hosts were keeping things light and moving. One guy did the entertaining while the other did all of the interviews. He spoke to six different riders in six languages, none of them English.

Our group headed to the Koppenberg to watch the race as it comes over that climb twice. Only about 40 riders were left by the time the peleton got there. Apparently a big crash had taken a lot of guys out and the rest abandoned, saving their strength for the weekend and Paris-Roubaix.

There are a lot of sights in Belgium, but one of the most stunning is seeing men urinate in public just about everywhere. You might think I’m exaggerating but I’m talking about up against buildings, in bushes while scores of people are promenading by. It’s a little bit of culture shock to say the least. Occasionally we’d see a four-sided outdoor urinal, unenclosed. I theorized that if they could get the guys to use that at least, it’d be a step in the right direction. No American modesty there!

Thursday was one of the toughest riding days any of us had ever experienced. It was chilly but the ride from Ghent to our next stop, Tournai, was 65 miles dead into a 40 mph headwind. It was brutal. Why we didn’t drive to Tournai and ride to Ghent, downwind, I don’t know. Not enough advance planning I guess. We were slogging across this one stretch between towns that was wide open for as far as you could see. Walter dubbed it “The Killing Field,” it was so tough. I felt like I was going across Antarctica or something. I passed out in my room in Tournai for two hours when we got there.

Tournai is a neat town and very French, being right on the border. In Brussels they speak Flemish and some English. As we worked our way west, they spoke more Flemish and less English. And when we got to Tournai, they spoke no Flemish, no English and all French. I took French in High School, so I knew enough to be dangerous and get along.

Friday broke cold and rainy, but we were headed to the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix so the excitement and anticipation was pretty thick. We stopped a few kilometers from the start of section 20 of the cobbles (there are 26 sections). The beginning of our ride was a continual climb so I, of course, was dropped immediately, but hung on the back, just in sight of the group.

Scott was along for this ride and had given us just a quick “Cobbles 101” course before we headed out. Stay relaxed, don’t grip the handlebars too tight, ride the crown when you can and KEEP PEDALING, were the main points.

You can talk all you want about the cobbles, but nothing prepares you for riding them the first time. They’re wet, slick, muddy and rough doesn’t describe the ride. The pros go through the cobbled sections at about 26 mph. I was doing somewhere between 12 and 15, so instead of hitting every third one, I was getting the full effect. Your helmet is banging on your glasses, your hands go numb, your bike is fishtailing all over the place and the seat is bouncing so hard you’re convinced your bike will break apart at any second.

And that’s just the first hundred yards or so.

I was following Alex on a particularly muddy and slick section when his front wheel went to the right and his back wheel dropped off the crown to the left and he had no choice but to go down. I was trying to maneuver around him, but I was sure I was going to run right over him! I jinked right, then further right, heard Scott yelling in my head “Keep Pedaling” and just about made it around Alex when he stuck his hand out for balance and I ran right over it! I was absolutely mortified, but Alex yelled “I’m fine, keep going,” in a rather sporting fashion so I did just that. “You OK?” I yelled back. “Keep going,” was his only reply.

Luckily Alex wasn’t seriously injured by the fall or by his hand getting run over. It was kind of funny to see the tire tracks later on his glove though. He might have cracked a rib in the fall and was done riding for the day shortly thereafter.

We got through 15 sections before it really started raining and getting cold, so we made a direct move to Tournai, all of us except for Christian that is. He kept on, heading for more cobbles and Roubaix. When we finally say him that night he had finished but looked like a Zombie. “I was thinking about that hot shower for the last 20 K,” is what he told us the next day.

We returned to the cobbles on Saturday, but not before it started snowing while we were sitting at breakfast. There was some talk about calling the day’s ride off but that was quickly quashed by thoughts of coming all this way and not finishing the job. It was downright freezing when we left, around 28 degrees Fahrenheit and didn’t feel like it got above freezing the rest of the day. More cobbles lead to the town of Roubaix and the Velodrome. WE tooled around the Velodrome a couple of times but up high the white paint on the track was pretty slick. My back wheel slipped down making an “Ack, Ack, Ack” noise before it caught the pavement. I heard the same sound as Phil fell at that same spot. Luckily without injury, but with a little paint on his handlebars, a small memento from the trip.

We opted out of chasing the race the next day and instead; six of us joined John the Englishman and his friends at the Pave’ Gourmand restaurant in a small town for lunch along the course. We had met John and his friends at the hotel in Tournai and kind of invited ourselves along for the day. He and his friends were very gracious, adding us to their reservation. Our table of 15 had our own TV in the corner. It was a fabulous meal, and great company. After the main course, we walked outside, saw the race come through, and then headed back to our table for coffee and dessert.

The drive back to Aalst was uneventful and we packed up our bikes for the flight home.

Despite five calls to confirm taking our bikes on an international flight was free, Delta (typical) stuck us for $90 each coming back home.

It was a great adventure and as Walter told us “the group makes the trip.” He’s right, that group made the adventure fun and hopefully we’ll get together and do this again soon. Preferably somewhere warm. And flat.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tour 2004 Team USA

There were a couple of dynamics working at the USA Basketball exhibition game against Puerto Rico Saturday. Team USA had been in town all week working out at UNF and staying at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club. The morning practices had been open to the media (at least the last half hour) and the team members for the most part, had been incredibly cooperative. The guys who cover players like Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson on a regular basis had been shaking their heads all week at how laid back and forthcoming the players have been. Maybe that’s part of the deal when you agree to play for Team USA. You’re not an NBA superstar anymore, so talk to the media, and be nice. At one practice, assistant coach Greg Popovich stopped play and yelled, “Hey, forget that NBA stuff, this is the Olympics.

It’s a new theory, instead of pass and stand around, its pass and MOVE!” It is pretty funny to watch the coaching staff, Popovich, Roy Williams and Head Coach Larry Brown deal with the NBA superstars like they were college freshmen. Anyway, it’d had been a great week, and the Exhibition game was supposed to be the cap. But because they were late for a meeting, Brown suspended Iverson, James and Amare Stoudemire and didn’t let them play at all. Nobody knew that until the team arrived at the arena and the PA Announcer told everybody that the three had been suspended. Brown shot a nasty look at the press table, incredulous that the announcement would be made.

What did he expect?

The place was sold out, and people were paying top dollar to see Iverson and James play. They’ll play hundreds, maybe thousands more basketball games. They’ll be rock stars in their home towns and treated like gods when they play in Europe this coming week. But this was the one, the one chance for people in Jacksonville to see them play. It was their only appearance on US soil before heading to the Olympics. I’m big on discipline and following the rules, but there were plenty other punishments Larry Brown could have handed out to three NBA superstars to get his point across. Make’em run. Pay a fine. Humiliate them in front of the media. Don’t let them play against Montenegro for goodness sake. But put them in the game here in Jacksonville.

The only people punished were the fans in the stands, the ones who paid the money. The team, on the other hand, handled Puerto Rico with only two guards. They’re good when they run. When they run a half court game, they’re not a shooting team that can win against the other elite games on the International Stage. But when they run, they can win the Gold, no question.

The other thing going on was how Jacksonville handled the game. Having the team here was a big coup. Where else can they stay at the beach in a five star hotel, have a nice facility to work out in close by, and not be bothered. People in Jacksonville are pretty non plussed about celebrity athletes. They can walk around, have dinner, go to clubs, and people, generally, don’t make a big deal about it. Dean Smith and David Stern were among the visitors to Jacksonville to see the team. It was a big deal.

And the game should have been conducted as such.

Fanfare, celebration, an introduction fit for the magnitude of the game. Sure, it was an exhibition for everybody else, but it was THE game for Jacksonville. Where was the National Anthem? For both countries. I know there’s a tendency to overdo things in the NBA, but a little flourish, a little pizzazz couldn’t have hurt. And besides that, the concession lines were entirely too long. The Arena needs to make sure it’s a fan friendly experience, not a fan frustrating experience.

“I’m worried about our city,” my friend Dan told me at halftime. “If we can get this right, what are we going to do with the Super Bowl?” I haven’t worried about the Super Bowl because the NFL won’t let that fail, but the city’s run up hasn’t been impressive. We can do better, and we know it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tour 2004

In the third week of the Tour de France, the focus should be on the riders, particularly this year as the top competitors have been waiting for the mountains to make their moves. But again, much of the press has been about what they call the “real” tour, the drug and doping that’s been part of cycling since anybody can remember.

Dave Kindred of the Sporting News wrote a scathing indictment of the Tour in the NFL preview issue, claiming that the final week of the tour is the time French authorities are waiting to raid the teams and expose the rampant drug use. Three-time Tour winner Greg Lemond has said that doping is a part of the business and his discussions with Lance Armstrong have never elicited a denial by the Texan. Lemond is right when he says that Armstrong’s performance is “either the greatest comeback or the greatest fraud in the history of sports.”

Fans of the Tour or even just fans of sport have a large investment in Armstrong, his team, and the rest of the competition of the Tour. Major international corporations including Nike, AMD and Subaru have millions of dollars invested in the Tour, and Armstrong personally. The riders are tested and retested everyday. Armstrong has proclaimed to be clean every day during the tour and reiterates his position in his books. Certainly his quest to become the greatest rider of all time by winning six Tours has spurred some jealousy among other riders, fans and the European press.

One television crew tried to gain access to Armstrong’s hotel room last week during the tour, apparently trying to go through his stuff, looking for doping evidence. In 1998, French authorities blew up the Tour, raiding the teams and exposing evidence of drug use throughout the entire tour.

Allegedly, the testing procedures have rid the Tour of drug use, but Kindred contends that the drug use has just become more sophisticated, avoiding detection by current testing procedures. It would be incredibly disappointing to find out that Armstrong, and his comrades are doing incredible things, and it’s all fake.

But there is another side to the equation. Could it be that Armstrong and his coach, Chris Carmichael have discovered another training method that’s just better than what’s been done before? Armstrong has a completely different approach to the Tour, planning each stage, preparing his body to adapt to each climb, time trial or sprint. They work on things like weight to power ratio, pedal cadence and heart rate and carbohydrate and protein intake.

Armstrong has also assembled the strongest team in the history of the Tour, with each man knowing his role and accepting that their job is to help Lance win. In exchange for this, Armstrong distributes his winnings among the team, not accepting any of the prize money. A small nod to the work the Postal team does over the three weeks of the Tour.

I admit, I’m a fan, and have great admiration for anybody who tests their limits and finds how good he can be. But I’m not naive and know the whole thing could come crashing down. I just hope not.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tour 2004

I was asked the other day why I was such a big fan of the Tour de France. The answer was easy. It doesn’t have anything to do with Lance Armstrong or the U.S. Postal team. I’ve fervently followed the Tour for more than two decades. It’s a competition that is among the most pure in sport (at least now it’s supposed to be since they’ve “cleaned up” the blood doping problem.) It reveals weaknesses and strengths just the same. It doesn’t discriminate. There’s still a certain amount of sportsmanship involved, and professional etiquette.

The preparations are arduous, but exactly how can you prepare for more than 2,000miles on your bike over less than three weeks? To just finish the Tour, you have to be complete in body and mind, willing to test your physical limits as well as your mental toughness. You know you’re going to suffer. You know your mind is going to say STOP before you make the first pedal stroke on a particularly difficult mountain stage. You know your legs are going to hurt, and not feel better for a while. And you know you’ll be emotionally exhausted almost every day. On top of those tests, this most grueling of all individual sports involves a team aspect as well. Each team with a leader, each leader with the goal of wearing the yellow jersey. Each teammate has to be physically ready to ride and as important, have no personal ambitions whatsoever.

How do you approach a race knowing that you’ll spend the next 2,000 miles on your bike, wearing yourself out, trying to help somebody else win! It makes no sense, yet dozens of “domestiques” line up each year just to say they were part of the Tour de France. As well as a physical and mental struggle, the Tour is also dangerous, with numerous broken bones, dislocated joints, and even a few deaths part of the Tour’s history.

Greg LeMond upset the international cycling community when he won the Tour, and came back to do so twice more after being accidentally hit with a shotgun spray fired by a friend on a hunting trip. LeMond wasn’t supposed to be able to win the tour. He’s an American, for goodness sake! This was at a time when only Frenchmen, Belgians and the occasional Italian and Spaniard had won the race. It wasn’t supposed to be part of the American psyche, the American culture to allow an athlete to develop into a world class cyclist. But Lemond won and might have kept winning had Miguel Indurain not come along.

Lance Armstrong was never supposed to win the Tour de France. In fact, he wasn’t ever supposed to finish it. He was too big, too muscular and not able to stay with the best climbers in the world during the Tour’s mountain stages. After recovering from cancer, Armstrong came back to cycling lighter but with the same power, enabling him to climb like never before. His approach, like every other cyclist in the Tour, is very scientific. So much so, that his training is worked on down to the heartbeat. Work at this intensity, for this amount of time and you’ll be world class. And even though it’s scientific, there’s something else to it that’s not easily explained by numbers and calculations. There’s will, there’s heart, there’s something intangible about the guy who gets to the top of the mountain first.

And that’s why I’m such a fan of the Tour de France.