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WORDS: Tom Southam
In my first real pro race in Italy, I had a particular stroke of luck – I crashed. Crashing in itself is rarely lucky but it was who I crashed next to that would later turn my fortunes skywards. It was in 2004, during the GP Costa Degli Etruschi, the traditional Italian season-opener on the Tuscan coast (and my first race after my first winter living in Italy), that I was caught up in a crash with Mario Cipollini.
The night after that first race I was having dinner at my (then) girlfriend’s parents house in my adopted home, the small Tuscan town of Sansepolcro. They knew I was a professional cyclist and they appreciated what I did; like all Italians they were a warm and hospitable family who made sure I never ate alone and never went hungry (until I lost interest in their daughter). But that evening, as we sat around the table eating homemade pasta with the television blaring, as it does in any Italian household at mealtimes, the news came on and with utmost drama showed the great Cipo in his first race of the year picking himself up off the floor.
And there I was, right there next to him, untangling my bike and looking pissed off. The whole family fell silent and looked at me, eyeing up the cuts on my elbows and I almost literally heard the penny drop. Before the news bulletin intervened, they had known that I was a cyclist; now they knew that I was a ‘real’ cyclist.
“You ride with Cipollini? Well why didn’t you say.”
That’s how Italians are. They don’t much love a sport or a team but they really love people. They love characters. And they love Cipollini. There are, of course, many genuine cycling fans in Italy but the general public just love stars. If they see a football player who has character, they will love football. If they see a cyclist as flamboyant as Cipollini, well, they can’t help but feel romantic about cycling.
Italians see things in different dimensions to the majority of the English people I know. They seem to have an innate ability to remove themselves from a situation and take it in on a purely aesthetic level. It’s called la bellezza (‘the beauty’) and it is the measure by which they can find value in everything. Having la bellezza in your life might mean taking longer to prepare some food so it looks good, or taking a slower road home because the view is better. It is a way of thinking and seeing things that I certainly didn’t appreciate until I was living and racing there.
La bellezza confused me at first. On one occasion, my girlfriend came to my house and, on seeing a loaf of bread remarked: “Oh, what a beeeautiful loaf of bread.” Being English, my only thought was: ‘What on earth is she talking about?’ It might be tasty bread, it might even be delicious bread but how the hell could bread be beautiful. But I stopped and looked and saw she wasn’t looking at the bread as someone who wanted to eat it but rather as an object of beauty. Which, it had to be said, did look rather nice, sat there on the dark wooden table top.
Only once in the UK have I experienced anything like this. I was eating dinner at the artist Anthony Frost’s house. As the portions were being cut out of a large lasagne he jumped up and started pointing at the food shouting, ‘look at the colours in that lasagne, oh wow! Its amazing!’ Perhaps, being the son of Sir Terry Frost, he has an artist’s eye and sees the world that way. The fact is, what is a relatively singular way of looking at things in the UK seems commonplace to every Italian.
It explains a lot, it explains why sometimes things take so long to get done in Italy. It also explains why everything looks so damn good and it also explains why cycling, one of the most aesthetically perfect sports, is more suited to this country than any other.
When I moved to Italy I was already 23 and had raced for years in Holland, Belgium and France. But I feel I learned more about cycling in Italy during three months than I had in the 10 years before.
In Italy, I learned the value of work on a bike. Not simply the idea that I had to go out of the house and make myself tired in an indiscriminate way but that I had to question every kilometre I covered on the bike.
The Italians take their training very seriously. Each day’s training was set by my coach, written out on tape and stuck to my bike’s stem. For the first time ever, I stopped doing circular routes and instead would be sent off to a hill, never more than 20 minutes from home, to go up and down on for half the day doing various different efforts. Then I might ride a little way, to a different hill, and do yet more efforts on that, before simply rolling home again.
These rolling Tuscan hills felt like my tormentors but they were indifferent towards me. It didn’t matter how many times I charged at them – with a run-up or without – or which direction I came from, they just stood there, utterly implacable as they looked down upon the town where I lived.
It might sound dull but somehow it wasn’t. The efforts were so very hard and yet the rewards seemed so great. When I trained in Italy I could hurt myself much more because I wanted to be able to feel like I was honouring my vocation. The tradition of cycling in Italy felt noble and serious enough that being lazy, even for a day, would have felt like I was abusing the privilege.
Italy was a place that made it a pleasure to be a bike rider. From the first cappuccino in the morning at the café opposite my house, where I would go to try and chat up Elisabetta, an optometrist who worked further down the street; to the last swig of grappa in the evening that perfectly complemented the salty Tuscan food, red wine, coffee and company. I went to bed each night grinning, exhausted and full (and, sadly, without Elisabetta). Everything seemed just right.
Life, like cycling, and like everything else in Italy, has that extra dimension. La bellezza, that beauty that makes the everyday seem more profound. This is where I think Italians get cycling just right. It’s such a damn hard sport, one so full of toil that it makes life, and indeed everything else away from the bike, seem comfortable, pleasing and delicious. Somehow, this seems to make the suffering more bearable and easier to get through. If that isn’t the way to do it, then I don’t know what is.