Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bettini Day

In what's becoming an annual event, the Commune di Bibbona (city of Bibbona) on the Tuscan coast pays tribute to its most famous son. Bettini Day is an opportunity for lesser mortals to meet, get photographed with, and ride alongside the reigning Italian, World and Olympic Champion. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins went along for the ride.

There may have been more popular World Champions in the past, but - no disrespect to his teammate Tom Boonen - no one in recent years has won the rainbow jersey to quite such universal acclaim as Paolo Bettini. There was a definite feeling that the correct result occurred in Salzburg last year. Il Grillo - the reigning Italian and Olympic champion, and outstanding one-day rider of his generation - had one yawning gap in his palmarès, a gap that has now been filled.

That's the dominant feeling in one corner of Tuscany anyway - the Etruscan coastal area around the hilltop town of Bibbona, including the village of La California where Bettini was born and grew up. The area is off - but not that far off - the usually beaten track of Tuscany: the spectacular, albeit congested, Siena province with its hilltop tourist attractions like San Gimignano and Volterra; the mediaeval cities of Florence and Pisa with their galleries and Torre Pendente; the winding roads of the Chianti region. This area, south of the old port of Livorno, is where the rolling, green hills of Tuscany meet the lapping shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. A great location for combining a beach holiday with a bit of cycling, and, as it happens, for breeding champion cyclists.

Events centre on the beach resort of Marina di Bibbona, a collection of hotels, holiday apartments and campsites situated right on a long sandy stretch of beach that built up around an old fort built by Napoleon's army of the south. The two-day festival consists of a chance for amateur riders - with a certain degree of experience - to accompany Paolo on a 'training ride' on the roads that he loves, followed by a moutain bike ride through some of the off-road trials that criss-cross the region. The next day, is for everyone though, as anyone - young and old - with a bike is welcome to join il Grillo in a promenade around the local area. On this Sunday ride the emphasis is very much on family fun, with a pasta party afterwards (featuring a lot of the local wine) with opportunities for autographs and photographs with the World Champion.

Obviously - because Bettini rides for Quick.Step-Innergetic - events enjoy a certain amount of support from his team, its riders, and especially its sponsors. Consequently, bike supplier Specialized is on hand with bikes to ride - especially welcome as it meant that I didn't have to take one on my flight. My bike for the weekend was to be a Tarmac Pro, with a mix of Shimano Ultegra and Dura-Ace and Roval Fusee wheels. This was good news, as I've ridden and loved the Specialized Roubaix, but not tried the Tarmac before.

Not only would we be riding with Bettini, but he'd also persuaded a couple of his Quick.Step teammates to join us in the shape of Leonardo Scarselli and Giovanni Visconti. Such was the clamour for Paolo's attention though, the pair almost managed to pass unnoticed - but still managed to bask in a certain amount of the glow from their capitano. Visconti in particular, is regarded as one of the next big things in Italian cycling, so he attracted a great amount of attention from the more knowledgeable fans there. The young and the inexperienced just wanted Paolo though…

With the usual relaxed Italian attitude to punctuality the ride began, Bettini, Scarselli and Visconti at the head of things, keeping the pace nice and civilised. Although this was billed as a training ride, it certainly wasn't one - not for these three professionals anyway! As we cruised out of town, we were preceded all the way by a large truck containing various still photographers and video cameramen. Every bit of this weekend was being recorded for posterity as the VIPs took turns to ride next to - or as near as they could get to - Bettini. I managed to maintain a discreet distance though - as I have been guilty of mugging it for the cameras in the past, particularly with my absolute hero Johann Museeuw.

While it was clear that this was no training ride for Bettini, it was becoming one for some of us! One thing that you always notice when you ride with i professionali is that when the road starts to roll up and down and you begin to stomp on the pedals to try and keep the speed up, or change down a gear or two, they don't. He doesn't know it, but I've ridden with Paolo before: I was 150km in to the tourist version of the Amstel Gold Race last year - feeling a bit rough and trying to muster my reserves - when a blue and grey blur flashed past, it was the Quick.Step team on a reconnaissance leg-stretch. I just about managed to up my pace enough to latch on to the back wheel of il Grillo, as he had an animated conversation with then teammate Pippo Pozzato. I managed to stay with them for a few kilometres, enjoying the free ride, but before long the road started to rise and I couldn't hold them. I was left to watch them disappear up into the distance, the two Italians continuing their conversation without pausing for breath.

The same was happening today. Except that, because the pace was something I could live with comfortably, I managed to up my effort and stay with the guys at the front - this was a new experience for me, other people were being dropped! Even on the steep climb into the hilltop centre of Bibbona - surfaced as it was in little cubetti cobbles - I was somehow holding my own against the locals, maybe all my recent suffering in the Dolomiti was somehow worthwhile?

The course for the day took us around the rural area, past vineyards, through wooded areas and alongside various fields of crops and livestock before we arrived - not far from where we'd started - at the village of the Bettini family: La California. As well as being the place where he grew up, his parents still live - and sadly his brother died last year - in La California, which is also the location of the Club Paolo Bettini. Many of the club members were on the ride with us, their distinctive jerseys somehow managing to combine the two rainbows of the (no longer with us) World Cup and World Champion, plus the Italian tricolore, and the Olympic Rings!

This was the serious business of the day, as the wine was opened and several of the members partook in a little club celebration. No one seemed to notice that the club bar is situated on the busy road through the middle of the village, and quite a traffic jam ensued as the cars tried to squeeze past. Now and then the motorists were responsible for their own congestion though, as a driver would recognise the little chap in the striped jersey and stop.

After 10 minutes or so, we were back on our bikes and heading back into the hills towards Villa Caprareccia a local agriturismo (a 'farm' that doubles as a hotel - or vice versa) for lunch. This was to be a traditional Etruscan affair, featuring a large selection of specialities from the local area, including various pasta dishes, some local beef (I had my favourite - grilled cheese - instead!) and some great vegetables. All this was washed down with liberal quantities of their own red wine.

As lunch settled, Bettini was put in the hot seat in an improvised press conference. He answered lots of questions about the disappointments of his own personal Giro and what he thought of Danilo Di Luca's performance, his plans for the rest of the season and how much more he could win - most of which he has already shared with Cyclingnews readers in his most recent diary. As evidence of the relaxed nature of the day, he even told us the name of his dog, in case we wanted to link him to Operación Puerto - this caused something of a ripple of mirth amongst the assembled media.

After lunch had gone down we all changed our shoes for the off-road kind and jumped aboard some mountain bikes that Specialized had brought along. I was given an S-Works Stumpjumper FSR, featuring a full carbon front triangle and four inches of travel at either end. It also had Magura discs to stop the Mavic Crossmax SLR wheels, and a mix of Shimano XTR and SRAM X.0. Somewhat different from my usual fat tyred steed which is a completely rigid steel singlespeed!

Thankfully, for my wine anesthetised legs and the state of the very expensive bike I was now sitting on, the route we were to take was not in the least bit technical. It featured some pretty steep climbs and descents, but I was given plenty of time to think about which button I was supposed to press to change up or down, so I managed to stay out of trouble. The trails we rode were nice wide hiking, cycling and horse riding trails through the protected forest area. I suppose they had once been classed as traditional Tuscan strade bianche (white roads, that are actually, rarely white), but nowadays they were too badly rutted and cracked. Just right for a casual afternoon spin.

The next morning was the real festa that the whole district would get involved in. Bettini Day was the chance for anyone, young and old, on racing bikes, mountain bikes, shopping bikes, new bikes, old bikes, rusty bikes held together with string, to ride with Paolo. Yesterday had been just for us 'experienced' riders, today was for everybody.

Everybody who turned up got a Bettini Day t-shirt, and of course - the most important accessory for an event in Italy - a ticket entitling them to join the post ride pasta party. Sadly, my t-shirt was too small (that's all that was left!), but I put my food voucher in a very safe place as I managed to find my Tarmac Pro from yesterday, reattach the pedals and join the swelling crowds in Marina di Bibbona's main street.

The ride was due to start at 10 am, so dead on 11:15 we set off on a promenade circuit of the surrounding villages, a similar route to much of yesterday morning's ride - but at a far more civilised pace! All the while, il Grillo, on a mountain bike with his daughter Veronica sitting on a seat in front of him rode up and down the massive peloton, giving everyone a chance to ride with him, and probably to thank everyone personally for their support.

After an extended stop just outside the historical centre of Bibbona, we cruised our way back to the start and the second part of Bettini's big day. Pasta parties at this sort of event are always extremely high quality affairs - well they are to me anyway. The food served at a typical event probably doesn't seem anything special to the average Italian, but it's the kind of stuff you could sell in a restaurant back in the UK. You'll never find me not using my food voucher!

Poor Paolo had to go without his food for quite a while though, as main attraction of the day he was required to autograph something for almost everybody there, and pose for pictures with hundreds of people. As this was a big part of the day though, he was really happy to oblige, it was just one way for him to thank his fans for their unwavering support all year round.

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