Italy, Sport

281 – Egg and Spoon Races on the Tour de France

Every Sunday I cycle with the Caussade Cyclo Club. A smattering of hardened veterans, Lycra clad family guys,  grizzled tradesmen, and me. The fresh faced Englishman from Auty who looks after a chateau there in winter. Who appears around November and then disappears again in May, and who only seems to cycle with the club in the ice, freezing fog and howling wind.

This Sunday was no exception as we headed out in storm force winds up to Caylus north of Caussade, then across to Espinas and down into St Antonin in the Aveyron gorge (where Charlotte Gray was filmed). Then we headed up the other side of the gorge on a well known local climb called Côte de Saint Antonin, which as it happens, formed part of Stage 6 in last year’s Tour de France.

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Granted, it’s hardly Alpe D’huez, more a pinprick in comparison, but it’s quite a nice climb all the same: the wide road winding up the side of the gorge giving great views of the valley and town. (You can see the road in the photo below.)

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I’ve done it a few times since I’ve been here and have always found it pretty tough, clocking up times of 15.24 and 14.23 respectively. Both of which are pretty poor.

However, this Sunday after I got back and downloaded my data from my GPS watch (whatever happened to old fashioned speedometers, eh?) I saw I’d done the climb in 11.50 and had risen up to 235th on the Strava leaderboard for the Cote de St. Antonin climb.

If you’re not familiar with how Strava works, think of it like this.

It’s school sportsday, the last day of term, your family are here and you’re approaching the finish line in the egg and spoon race. You’re in the lead. Everybody is cheering, even your grandfather who’s nearly dead, and then calamity! You trip and fall over, break your egg and watch Fatso McGeekan, your longtime nemesis, glide past you and take first place. Leaving you scrabbling around on the yolk splattered grass picking up broken eggshell along with your shattered dreams.

But now let’s imagine that wasn’t the end of it. That you had the chance to rerun the race again and again as many times as you liked in a sort of parallel universe to ensure you came first instead of Fatso McGeeken.

This is what Strava does (more or less).

Let’s take the Cote de Saint Antonin climb, for example. On Strava, this is a Segment. This means that every time a cyclist does this climb, their time is logged and their position ranked on a leaderboard alongside all the other riders who have done it in the past.

An individual can move up the leaderboard by improving their time. Therefore, if my imaginary egg and spoon race was a segment on Strava, which it could be in theory because anyone can set one up, I could rerun the race over and over again and beat my nemesis. (This is hypothetical of course: I’m actually 43 and not still at school.)

I understand that the whole point of races is that the winner is the winner on the day. However, what’s interesting is that after my cycle on Sunday while enjoying a homemade croissant courtesy of Elizabeth (they take three days to make she tells me) I saw on Strava that even though I’d done the Cote de St. Antonin in 11.50 minutes, the quickest time was actually a mind boggling 7.04. Wow! I thought. That’s quick. Very quick! Furthermore, scrolling down the page, I saw there were loads of good times. 7.10, 7.13, 7.15 and so on.

‘Holy Christ!’ I cried out, nearly choking on French pastry. ‘What the hell did these guys think they were doing, the Tour De France, or something?’

Turns out that’s exactly what they were doing, Stage Six to be precise, a Who’s Who of modern day cycling on the same Strava leaderboard as me.  Even one of my favourites, Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour de France winner and double Giro D’italia winner, was there. Look!

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And here’s me on the same leaderboard back in 235th place.

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I then started thinking about my sportsday analogy. If I could beat Fatso McGeekan in an egg and spoon race, then by applying the same schoolboy logic I could beat 2014 Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali. All I had to do was get a time better than his on the Cote de St. Antonin and I’d leapfrog him on the leaderboard. 

Not waiting to see if my logic made any sense, I stuffed a few more croissants down my neck and headed back out on my bike to St. Antonin. You better watch your back Nibali, I’m right behind you…

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Vincenzo Nibali

For more anecdotes and undeniable logic read my book A Man in France. Available here

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Italy, Writing and Books

274 – Jehovah’s Witnesses in Serramonacesca

It’s 10.38 am and I’m lying in bed fast asleep after attending the Night of the Dead carnival in Serramonacesca where I’m currently staying. I’m asleep because of the oceans of red wine consumed at the party. The party consisting of the whole village turning off their lights, putting candles and pumpkins outside their doors and getting smashed on Vina Cotta, a kind of port tasting sherry.

This is why I’m asleep. Perfectly happy in my dreams, my head on a soft pillow, my body spread out on the Italian linen like a man who’s died in his sleep. Relaxed. Content. In Southern Italy. In the mountains. What could possibly go wrong?

Knock knock knock!

I’m ejected from my dreams like I’ve been thrown out of an aircraft, hitting the solid concrete on some abandoned wasteland in Essex with a huge splat.

‘Hello?’ I say opening the door, almost gagging into the prayer book a young man of about 17 is shoving in my face.

He smiles at me pleasantly like a young boy seeing his mother after the first day at school. Kind, caring, affectionate. I look to my right, straining my eyes against the sun which is boring into my head like a raygun. Another boy. Younger, 13 perhaps, smiling, standing smartly dressed in white shirt and black trousers as though waiting for a medal. To his right is another, older, a lot older, maybe 50, looking divinely at the two boys like a shepherd watching his sheep.

‘You’re a bit late for Trick-or-Treat,’ I want to say. ‘About 12 hours in fact, but I’ve got some half opened Montepulciano if you want a slug on that?’

But I don’t say it. Instead my mind is working. Who the hell are these people? And then I get it. Of course. How utterly stupid of me. I’m halfway up a mountain on an old pig farm that’s been converted into a campsite. Who else should I have expected? Campers? Climbers? Walkers? The obvious choice. But no. I should have guessed. The old JWs right there on my doorstep.

The older of the two boys smiles at me. ‘Were you sleeping?’ he says in perfect English.

‘No,’ I lie. ‘I was reading.’

‘Are you OK?’ he then asks looking concerned.

‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘I was only drinking strong wine till three o’clock in the morning. Apart from that I’m fine.’

I look at him blankly and realise his prayer book isn’t a prayer book at all. It’s an iPad.

‘Can I show you a short video?’ he says arching towards me.

This is crazy. ‘Sure!’ I want to say. ‘Why don’t we get it on the big screen. What have you got? Trading Places. Airplane. Rocky. Rambo?’

But I don’t because it’s at this point that I decide to end it. I’m not a man for slamming doors in people’s face. I’ve had that myself trying to sell Scottish Gas door-to-door on a council estate in Plymouth in 2002.

I tell him I’m not well and touch my head. But he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a hangover and forces the iPad in my face again.

‘I’m alright, mate,’ I say sounding like Don Logan from Sexy Beast and close the door in his face. Gently.

I then tell Elizabeth and we laugh loudly listening to them walk off up to the next house about four miles up the road. A family of devout Catholics. Talk about a wasted trip.

It’s funny because at about this time last year, I wrote about the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Caussade Monday Market in South-Western France (Blogley Post 241) and how unusual it was to see them there. But here. Up a mountain. On a campsite in Southern Italy on 1st November, All Saints Day. You couldn’t have made it up.

Well actually you could. All of it.

In a thousand years people will be knocking on the door of my descendents reading out sections from Book II, Verse 34, Drinks Please, taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd (my own collection of short stories). Although of course it won’t be called The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd anymore. It’ll be called The Bible.

You may laugh. But that’s how these things get started. Some buffoonish Englishman writes a book and years later people start believing it. Taking stories that were purely fictional, for the absolute truth. The word of God.

Waking people like me up at quarter to eleven in the morning to retell some ridiculous story written centuries ago. All because they need a few more good guys to help them fight Satan. When everybody knows if you want to fight the armies of darkness, you summon up Gandalf and Viggo Mortensen. It’s in the book by that buffoonish Englishmen, JRR Tolkien. Everybody knows that.

My advice to you people is this (and it applies to all religions/cults/sects):

GO HOME AND STOP WASTING MINE AND EVERYBODY ELSE’S TIME. I’M NOT INTERESTED. THANK YOU AND GOOD BYE!

*The Bible is available from Blogley Books now. Click here.

(In memory of my great friend Stan Mellema who hated all of this stuff as much as I do – See you in hell Stansislav!!)

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Blogley, Italy, Places, Seasons

272 – Blogley in Serramonacesca

I’ve been here three weeks now tucked under the remote Majella mountains in Southern Italy looking after a campsite for my friends. They told me not to expect too many visitors while they were away on holiday. ‘Highly unlikely you’ll see anyone at this time of year.’

Cue a carload of Germans the second they leave. Questioning me about routes up the mountain thinking I was an Italian sheepherder raised on mutton and goat’s milk who knew the valley better than anyone else alive.

I explained to them that I was from Leeds, and raised on dripping and iced-buns and the only exploring I’d done was cycling up to the 1400 metre ski station at Passo Lanciano on my third day here. They seemed pretty impressed and asked if there was a route up there on foot instead of by bike. I said I didn’t know, vaguely pointing up to the bleak, brooding mountains above the campsite. Had I a map they asked. No I replied.

That was three weeks ago and I’m still waiting for them to return. I’m kidding of course. One did make it back and then spent the next two weeks in the pouring rain trying to find his friends.

‘Good for business though,’ I joked with him at the end of his ‘holiday’ as I charged him a full two weeks camping. ‘I’m sure they’ll turn up. When the snow’s thawed,’ I added. ‘And you must come back next year,’ I finished, handing him a loyalty card.

He thanked me for my generosity and left, just as the sun exploded out from behind the thundery clouds, giving me and Elizabeth the perfect opportunity to finally explore the local sights.

The Pennapiedimonte valley being one. A fine example of the perfect rugged gorge if ever there was one. In fact, I must send a memo to a Mr. S. Spielberg of Hollywood Studios saying something like: Stevieboy, if you want to make a new Indiana Jones film combining all the great shots from the others into one spectacular panoramic swashbuckling masterpiece, you could do it here. Signed. Philip Blogley. Pennapiedimonte, Italy.

I say this because as we were walking along the track cut into the sheer face of the gorge, I said to Elizabeth, ‘Do you think this is where they filmed The Temple of Doom?’

She looked at me blankly. I knew what she was thinking. Everywhere we go, he thinks it looks like a scene from Indiana Jones. She cleared her throat. ‘Which one was that?’ she asked warily.

‘The one where all the bad guys fall into the gorge and get eaten by crocodiles in the river below.’

‘What like that!’ she said motioning me over towards the precipitous edge knowing I’ve got the head for heights of a mole.

I looked down into the nothingness below. ‘Yes, exactly the same,’ I croaked, edging towards the safety of the path wall, even though I knew at any minute I could get crushed by a boulder cascading down from the steep gorge walls above.

Earlier on in our walk we’d trekked up to 4000 feet and had our sandwiches at a mountain refuge. Later we found a series of giant caves along what was once – about 500 million years ago – an old river bed, but which were now stranded over 1000 feet above the present one. Enormous entrances and high ceilings that made modern cathedrals, even the really old ones, look like models.

Not so long ago shepherds used them for sheltering sheep and goats, bricking up the entrances with stones to form natural pens. The one we found actually seemed to be in use, the smell of dung floating across the clean mountain air and hitting us like we’d walked into a public toilet on the Champs Elysee. Although I have to admit nothing quite as stomach clenchingly foul as a French squat toilet on Bastille Day.

The other highlight of these past weeks – apart from just enjoying the mountains and cooking rich goulash and arborio rice puddings on open fires – is swimming in the pools down by the benedictine abbey a few kilometres outside Serramonacesca where the campsite is located.

Created by the river that runs down from the Majella range, the pools are deep, blue and extraordinarily cold. Both me and Elizabeth have swum in some cold rivers and lakes on our travels, but these take cold bathing to another level. So cold in fact that it only hits you once you get out. Then you feel your legs splinter and crack like they’ve been doused in liquid nitrogen. Your head feels like it’s been mummified in cold ice cream and your hands have no recollection of ever being attached to your arms.

I’ve realised that the only rational thing to do is to quickly get in again. And again. Three times is perfect to get the heart racing. And after that you’re so cold you can’t feel anything anyway so it doesn’t really matter. The only way to warm up is to pelt it back on foot to the campsite and get into the open fire. I’m not joking either. I actually was half inside the fire in the living room when Elizabeth charged in and tried to rescue me.

‘I’m okay,’ I cried out. ‘Just trying to defrost. I’ll be alright in about two hours!’

‘Well don’t be long, we need that for pizza later.’

And she’s right. The open fire in the living room has a pizza oven built into the back of it and got me thinking that when they built houses here there must have built them round the pizza oven like you build a church round an altar. How practical is that?

You build your fire, let it get up to temperature, slap in your pizza, uncork the 10 litre flagons of wine they sell round here, put on your favourite film, say just for example, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and you don’t even have to leave the room.

And if you get too hot, you just dash down to the pools, immerse yourself, run back up and do it all again. Three times in fact. Raiders of Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade. Love Italy.

The Majella

Blogley on the Pennapiedimonte Gorge

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