A late dinner with Tonkov

Friday, 20 May 2016

The start of Friday’s stage was in Palmanova, an extraordinary octagonal-shaped town built on a grid system that looks, from the air, like a pizza cut into slices.

Part of the beauty of covering a fortnight of the Giro d’Italia has been discovering new places and seeing areas of Italy that I am not familiar with. Having covered the Tour de France since 1999, there are inevitably places we revisit over the years and, at the risk of sounding blasé, about it, there are moments when the heart sinks as you realise the press room is in the same stuffy gymnasium we spent a soporific afternoon in two years previously.

Everything about this Giro has been pretty much brand new for me and sitting having a coffee in Palmanova, watching as the race rolled out of town, reminded me of what it is about the grand tours that is so appealing. On a macro level, a three-week race can showcase the best a country has to offer. While the sports fans tend to get wrapped up in what’s going on in the race, it cannot be overlooked that the beauty and longevity of these events relies heavily on the landscape of a nation. Those who are trying to monetise and grow professional cycling by breaking cash-rich territories such as China or the Middle East tend to overlook or play down the importance of the major races taking place in areas where people want to go on holiday. Having the Giro race through Umbria or head towards the Dolomites is perhaps the greatest advertisement for the Italian tourist industry there is, and its why so many local industries are keen to showcase their wares to the journalists working on the race.

The standard of the buffet lunches laid on for the press each afternoon has varied during the Giro. Some days have been excellent – Bibione was particularly plentiful and of a high standard with lots of small bite-sized things to enjoy. Others have been a let-down, particularly the places where lunch was packed up and put away at 2pm, often before the majority of journalists had even arrived at the press room.

The local ham, cheese and wine on offer at Cividale del Friuli was excellent but there wasn’t a lot to go round. The precision with which the ham man cut his ham so it was almost see-through thin was really quite impressive. Having queued up for quarter of an hour to get two tiny roundels of bread with two slices of translucent ham and a couple of cubes of cheese, I decided to pretend I was also queueing for a colleague so I could get a double portion. I know, I know, this is a blatant example of buffet doping.

I was also relieved that I had bought a slice of pizza topped with pepperoni and chips at the services on the way. I only bought it to annoy Daniel, really, but it was actually okay and it filled a gap.

In the evening, we were running late and so I dropped Daniel at the only restaurant in our one-horse town while I went to check in. I was relieved that there was no palaver checking in here. The owner waved away my passport and said the formalities could be completed in the morning because I mustn’t risk missing dinner.

As I headed up to the restaurant, Daniel texted to say he was sitting at a table next to Pavel Tonkov, the Russian winner of the 1996 Giro and a bit of a hero of Daniel’s from the years when he first got into cycling.

I always thought Tonkov was a bit icy and so I wasn’t surprised at the lack of warm conversation when I arrived. Daniel had interviewed Tonkov in the past so they were at least on nodding terms.

Anyway, dinner was presented to us without a great deal of consultation, which was no bad thing on this occasion. A platter of cold meats was followed by a half-and-half dish consisting of Prosecco risotto (as we were in Prosecco country) and pasta with a wild boar ragu, both of which were excellent. I know the Prosecco risotto looks a bit unappealing but it was very tasty.

The Cycling Anthology

Sports writing at its best

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Chips on a pizza

Chips on a pizza

There was a dog in the press room today

There was a dog in the press room today

Ham

Ham

A dish of two halves. Prosecco risotto and wild boar pasta

A dish of two halves. Prosecco risotto and wild boar pasta

A frustrating day

Thursday, 19 May 2016

An Italian working on the race had explained to me a few days earlier why he could not see himself moving back from England any time soon. ‘Nothing works,’ he said. ‘It’s so hard to get anything done.’

I’d been trying not to be too harsh on the Italian hotels, partly because so many of them had been incredibly, unbelievably cheap. My room in Catanzaro, down in the south, cost €28 for the night so I didn’t mind in the slightest that the wifi didn’t work or that the breakfast was a bit quirky. But as we worked our way north, the prices rose (admittedly nowhere near as high as the chain hotels in France) but there were still the same flaws. There was the ever-running toilet in Maranello, the weak, dribbling or sometimes cold showers, wifi that just didn’t work or breakfast that consisted of a cup of coffee and that weird toast-shaped biscuit that turns to dust on contact with a knife, or butter or jam.

Several hotels and restaurants also did not accept cards, which is fine if they let you know in advance. After all, I’m well aware the card companies apply fees and charges, even on debit cards, which nibble into the profit margin.

What is most irritating is when a hotel says it takes cards but then the machine doesn’t work, and this is what happened in Trebaseleghe. With a 1pm start to the Giro stage a short drive away in Noale we were looking forward to a relaxed start to the day. Daniel worked on his latest episode of Kilometre 0 for The Cycling Podcast and, because my laptop had run out of battery and Daniel’s power charger was not compatible with mine, I had a lazy morning sitting around in the hotel. We had bags of time and I used it to recharge my own batteries.

When it came to check-out, my card refused to work because the hotel’s phone line was down and the card reader was not connecting to the bank.

Although the hotel owner was flustered, we both knew the inconvenience was going to be shoved across the desk in my direction. There was no way we could just drive off and say whatever the Italian equivalent of ‘hard cheese’ is. ‘Formaggio stagionato,’ perhaps?

I ended up driving a 25-minute round-trip to the nearest town to withdraw cash, by which time we were running late.

After watching the Giro roll out of Noale, we took a minor 60-mile detour to visit an out-of-town shopping centre near Venice so I could spend €89 on a new charger for my laptop. I’d felt completely out of sorts since leaving my charger in the hotel in Maranello. This Giro is the third grand tour in a row I’ve managed to do this, so I’m well past being angry about it and am more resigned to one moment of costly forgetfulness per race.

Then it was on to Bibione, on the coast along from Venice, where the stage finished with a third victory for the German sprinter Andre Greipel. Not being terribly familiar with this part of Italy, I wondered out loud to Daniel whether Bibione would have some beautiful beachfront restaurants serving wonderful seafood to go with stunning views of the blue sea. Daniel scoffed.

I thought he was joking until I saw the run-down buildings and a shabby-looking funfair on the horizon. Bibione looked like a cross between Blackpool and Coney Island which had fallen on hard times.

Fortunately, we were staying a little way inland from Bibione, up towards Udinese, rather than in the rather tacky seaside town. We arrived at our hotel at around 9.25pm and walked into the restaurant and bar area to check-in. I had high hopes that I’d be able to grab a quick pizza and then be in bed in under 10 paces, but the way the waitress was wielding the broom concerned me. She looked like she’d done all the serving she was going to do for the evening.

Surely the restaurant would keep the kitchen open another 15 minutes or so to ensure their new arrivals did not have to go to bed hungry.

We asked whether we could have a table for two but the lady doing the checking-in said we were too late. Never mind, she said, there was a restaurant 500 metres up the road which would still be open. Probably.

It immediately annoyed me to be told, while standing in the middle of a restaurant watching people finish their desserts, that we’d have to go to a restaurant just up the road but that was nothing compared to the lengthy faff and palaver of the checking-in process.

I understand now that hotels in Italy are required by law to take a copy of every guest’s passport but it adds to what is already an inefficient process. I never understand why it takes so long to check in at a hotel. Usually the booking has been completed online and the hotel, or the booking agent, knows pretty much everything about me already – name, address, credit card number and so on – so why do they have to take many of the same details again? And why do you have to sign something? What’s the point? Has anyone ever run into a dispute with a hotel that has required some sort of adjudication whereupon the hotelier produces a little piece of A5 paper and the prosecutor says: “This is your signature, Mr Birnie?”

Anyway, my manners had pretty much deserted me as the clock ticked towards 10pm and I began pacing around like some sort of demented bear in a zoo wondering why the keeper hadn’t delivered dinner yet. Daniel demonstrated remarkably good humour as the lady photocopied the passports, fished around for the keys, explained where the rooms were and told us where breakfast would be served in the morning.

Just when we thought we were done, she offered us a glass of some sort of sweet wine as a welcome drink and I, rather unfairly, said: “I’d rather have some dinner.”

Although they weren’t thrilled to see two people walk into their restaurant at gone 10pm, we managed to get a meal, although I suspect they got their own back on us.

Having become accustomed to Italian waiting staff making suggestions and bringing what’s good, we agreed to the idea we should have the beef tartare. It was excellent, the waiter said, and we were in luck because there were only two left.

It was excellent, but later on, when I realised we’d been charged €15 each, I felt like we’d been taken for a couple of chumps who’d help them make a decent profit on a couple of dollops of raw minced beef to save them having to scrape it into the bin. This is the sort of thing that happens in France – they casually point you in the direction of the special, which turns out to be the most expensive thing on the menu.

By the time my pizza arrived, it was gone 11pm and so I struggled to finish it, which made me think back to all my fretting about missing dinner and wonder whether it was worth it. Let’s face it, I’m not going to waste away if I go to bed hungry one night.

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All the fun of the fair in Bibione

All the fun of the fair in Bibione

Expensive minced beef

Expensive minced beef

A late pizza

A late pizza

A trip to the Maserati factory

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

We had to get up quite early because we’d been invited to tour the Maserati factory in Modena. I know, I know, I can sense your sympathy from here. Of course, I wouldn’t swap covering cycling for any other job but there’s something about the rhythm of working at a grand tour that makes any detour from that routine a jolt to the system. It’s as if life outside the race is put on hold for the three weeks (or in this case, two weeks) that you are there. Having to leave the bubble to do anything else can be discombobulating.

Our hotel was right opposite one of the Ferrari factories and at 8am, an army of workers in red overalls made their way to start their shifts. Not for the first time, Maranello felt a little bit unreal – like the set of a sequel to the Truman Show for petrolheads. Although there was almost a cultish aspect to it, there was also a tremendous sense of pride in the quality and prestige of the brand. Anywhere else the black horse logo and bright, bright red of Ferrari would seem clichéd, like those 1990s pictures of the Manhattan skyline, a martini glass and bright red lips that a single bloke taking his lifestyle choices from the sitcom Men Behaving Badly might choose. (I used to work with someone who had exactly that picture above his fireplace in his flat)…

We headed up to Modena, a lovely town, and home to balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese and Maserati. Spotting the imposing Maserati trident logo on one of the buildings too late, we had to do another lap of the ring road before we finally arrived for our tour. I was very glad we’d made the effort to clean our Maserati before taking her back home, because the car park was full of gleaming cars.

Other than a childhood interest in Citroëns, which has led to some foolhardy purchases of a couple of unreliable ‘classics’ over the years, I am not much of a car enthusiast. I don’t enjoy Formula 1, for example, because everything about it bores me to tears. I have no opinion on the latest models of car and I don’t much enjoy driving. I tolerate it as a way to get from A to B, and I enjoy watching the landscape of a country change before my eyes as I travel round it in pursuit of a grand tour, but the actual process of sitting at the wheel steering a car is something I tolerate rather than embrace. Because I don’t commute to work by car, my other half always marvels at my surprise, whenever I do drive somewhere, that the roads are full of other people always trying to go to places. “Where on earth are all these people going?” I’ll say. 
Every grand tour, I manage to block out the annual two-hour traffic jam getting off a mountain after a stage and every grand tour it hits me by surprise at, say, Alpe d’Huez or Luz-Ardiden or wherever it happens to be that we have to sit in a huge queue for ages.

But, having said all that, the experience of driving is improved immeasurably by a nice car, and the Maserati Quattroporte is a nice car. It’s comfortable and it never feels like it’s working too hard. It is perhaps a bit too large for some of the narrow Italian towns we’ve visited, but it has certainly attracted a bit of attention as we’ve driven round Italy.

At the Maserati factory, we were introduced to Giorgio, who worked for the company for most of his career but has retired. Immediately, his passion and knowledge of his subject grabbed my attention and I found myself becoming interested in the history of Maserati, how the brothers found the company, how it changed ownership over the decades and how, now, 10 hand-built cars come off the assembly line in Modena. Each one is already bought and paid for before it is put together, and it is assembled according to the owner’s wishes. There are, Giorgio said, 40 million different customised combinations. Red stitching or black or yellow. Different coloured trim, or seats, or dashboard options.

And there are no robots. Everything is fitted and bolted by hand and each worker at each individual station has 48 minutes to complete his or her step before the car moves along to the next point. As the chassis moves around the factory it gradually turns into a completed car and finally it is tested, sprayed with high-pressure jets to make sure it doesn’t let in water, run over a treadmill to check for any unwanted noises or vibrations. The level of attention to detail was as remarkable as Giorgio’s knowledge.

When we arrived at the Giro d’Italia press room in Asolo, I realised I had left my laptop charger in the hotel in Maranello, a good 250 kilometres behind us. No matter how well I organise my bag, assigning each cable and gadget to a different pocket and running through a checklist before leaving each morning, it seems that, on average, I lose one charger per grand tour. A quick Google showed there was an Apple Store near Venice, which we’d be passing the following day, so it could have been worse.

Our stop for the evening was a smart-looking but quiet hotel in Trebaseleghe, which had a very nice restaurant. However, for the first time, I missed the simplicity and flavour of the south. The food was good – a lightly poached egg in a spinach broth to start with, then a light pea broth with cod wrapped in pasta, followed by delicate tuna with a hint of vegetable.

It was all very nice but it was lacking the punch and hearty flavours I’d become used to. There also wasn’t very much to eat and so, for the first time this Giro, I went to bed feeling peckish.

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The Maserati trident in Modena

The Maserati trident in Modena

Delicate egg

Delicate egg

Delicate pasta

Delicate pasta

Delicate tuna

Delicate tuna

Taking the Maserati to Ferrari town

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The first thing you notice when arriving in Maranello, the home of Ferrari (that’s the sports car manufacturer, not Lance Armstrong’s blood-doping doctor) is that the roads are much better quality than they are in many other places in Italy. The second thing you notice is the number of speed bumps, and that is because of the number of fast sports cars buzzing around the place.

Even at 10pm, there were plenty of Ferraris driving around, often in twos and threes. The engines growled as the cars crept over each speed bump and most of the drivers could not resist revving hard between the speed bumps, like a sprinter doing shuttle runs.

There was quite a lot of testosterone in the air, and a place offering a chance to test drive a Ferrari stood on every other street corner.

We eased the Maserati over every speed bump at a snail’s pace for fear of grounding it and, entering the town so cautiously, it did feel like we were taking the car behind enemy lines, even though Ferrari and Maserati are part of the same company these days.

We’d arrived quite late, because we’d had quite a drive from the hill-top town of Sestola to Maranello, so it was a relief to park up and find that although the hotel and its restaurant were 600 metres away from each other, the restaurant was at least still serving dinner.

While Daniel and I pondered the menu, the waiter brought some puff-pastry pillows topped with parma ham, which were delicious, although having eight between two of us felt a bit like too much of a good thing. That was followed by a polenta cake with a hint of seafood, with rocket and plenty of balsamic vinegar, which is from just down the road in Modena.

For the prima piatti I opted for twirly bits of pasta with ham, vegetables and a topping of rocket, and then I had a steak, which didn’t look all that appealing, being quite charred on the outside and with a streak of bloody juice leaking from it, but was very tasty. However, I still find the idea of eating just a slab of meat or fish without much to accompany it quite peculiar. I was too full from the starters and pasta to order any side dishes, but perhaps it’s years of being used to meat and two veg that means I’ve not quite got used to the Italian way.

The Hotel Planet was a decent enough hotel – the sort of place someone who’d booked a long weekend to drive Ferraris around might enjoy – but I kept being woken up by the toilet, which refused to stop running. The lid was screwed shut too, which prevented me from opening it up and fiddling around with the mechanism inside to stop it running.

It was like sleeping next to a babbling brook and every two hours my bladder seemed to take its cue from the sound of running water to wake me up.

Then, at about 7am, the Ferraris started revving around again.

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Pillows with parma ham

Pillows with parma ham

Polenta cake

Polenta cake

More pasta

More pasta

Meat, no veg

Meat, no veg

Ferrari factory

Ferrari factory

A rest day in Tuscany

Monday, 16 May 2016

Rest day on the Giro d’Italia meant a trip to the laundrette in the morning.

I am always impressed by the fact that there seems to be no stigma attached to visiting the laundrette in Italy (or France). Back in England, it’s an activity that has been long consigned to the past – so much so that the idea of people in EastEnders visiting the laundrette seems preposterous.

But here, people bring their bags of washing and sit and wait and have a chat.

The machines are just as baffling as they are in France. You need to the patience and dexterity of a bomb disposal expert to get the machines to work. Some take the money first, some you have to put the soap in first, some you have to put the clothes in first and select the setting. All the machines gobble up the money if you complete the steps in the wrong order, or fail to give change. With the instructions in Italian I had to spend 20 minutes translating all the phrases, longing for someone to take pity on me and explain the process.

The vending machine had three options: Large packet (or bag, depending on Google’s translation), detergent liquid, detergent powder.

In a bit of a flap, I spent €1.50 on the large packet or bag, thinking it would be a large packet or bag of powder, only to realise, when it fell into the little collection tray at the bottom that it was, in fact, a large bag. So I spent another €1.50 on some powder.

Eventually, I’d worked out the correct sequence and the machine whirred into life. I felt a sense of elation, liked I’d just won on an episode of the 1990s TV challenge show, The Crystal Maze. I expected to be showered in gold ticker tape and congratulated by Richard O’Brien, such was my sense of achievement.

A little later on, we headed to Pisa airport to drop off Richard and pick up Daniel Friebe, my companion for week two.

As a joke, I typed ‘Friebos’ into my phone, enlarged the image so it filled the screen and stood at the back of the arrivals hall with the other drivers meeting people and holding signs like: “Tony Burton”, “Anthony Walker” and “Mr Udigowa.” (That last one is a 1980s Neighbours reference for anyone who likes that sort of thing, though if I have to explain it, it probably didn’t work.)

A couple of minutes after Daniel’s arrival he suddenly realised he’d left his wallet on the plane and so dashed back to retrieve it. In the meanwhile, and in the mistaken belief that Richard was heading out of Pisa on the same plane Daniel had arrived on, I texted Richard to see if he could ask the stewards whether Daniel’s wallet was near his seat.

As events moved on, it emerged that Daniel had flown in on a different airline from a different airport to the one Richard was bound for and so this was a monumental waste of everyone’s time. I was just trying to help.

About an hour after he’d first emerged through the doors at arrivals, Daniel was back, with his wallet, but it meant my relaxing rest day afternoon was spent instead sitting in Tuscany’s rush hour traffic.

Daniel more than made amends by seeking out a very decent restaurant – the Ristorante Daniele e Riccardo – for the evening. Montevarchi is not the most attractive town but this restaurant was certainly a jewel. The waiter said he’d just bring whatever was good.

The antipasti was excellent – Tuscan beans on toast, some pâte, some beef carpaccio and a fried rice and meat ball among the highlights.

That was followed by two types of pasta – tortellini stuffed with vegetable and cheese, and fat spaghetti with beef ragu. This course was let down only by the decision to serve it on a roof tile which meant every stroke of the knife made an unpleasant scratching sound that set the teeth on edge.

By the time I’d finished that lot, I was pretty full and turned down the meat course. The waiter looked a bit put out and tried to persuade us to have a little bit.

I declined and opted for some cheese. The selection of cheese was excellent but there was a bit too much. It was a real wrench not to be able to finish it.

And after all that, the bill for two, and including a bottle of wheaty Italian beer not that different to a light version of Belgian Leffe, plus some wine, was €50.

A meal for two in a bog-standard pizza-pasta chain restaurant in Britain often costs more. Mind you, the ingredients here in Italy all come from the doorstep, back home, the ingredients for the chain restaurants have to be delivered on a lorry, so you can see where the cost adds up. #sarcasm

So, I think we have a new leader in the Giro’s pink napkin competition for best restaurant.

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Pink napkin antipasti

Pink napkin antipasti

A slate of pasta

A slate of pasta

Lots of cheese

Lots of cheese

A bad/good night to be designated driver

Sunday, 15 May 2016

It was a time trial day on the Giro d’Italia and I spent much of it with the Australian Orica-GreenEdge team so I could make this episode of Kilometre 0 for The Cycling Podcast.

I was in the car following Orica’s former under-23 world time trial champion Damien Howson, and so I got to see just how twisty the roads were and how treacherous they became in the heavy rain. It was a handy reminder that grand tour racing is not just about power output and the relationship between watts and weight. Going downhill and round corners is just as important too, especially on a day like this when the stiff time trial bikes made cornering a science rather than an art.

It was hammering with rain at the finish so I ducked into a café to get a hot coffee (espresso, just in case the coffee police are reading) and to watch the top riders come in on TV. The cafe was busy but I noticed that Lotto-Soudal riders Tim Wellens and Andre Greipel (who had three stage wins between them) were sitting in the corner watching TV too.

In the evening, there was a dinner hosted by the Chianti Classico people. The time trial had been officially named the Chianti Classico Stage, a piece of branding and sponsorship that passed me by during the day. A lady from Chianti Classico came round each table to explain some of the problems wine producers had been having. One issue was that winemakers from further afield were cashing in on the Chianti name and calling their wines Chianti. Other grape varieties than the traditional Sangiovese were being used too.

So, Chianti Classico was born and the name can only be used by a winemaker in an area of around 100 square miles. The wines have a distinctive logo – a black cockerel – and they must be made with at least 75 per cent Sangiovese grapes and other approved red grapes.

Anyway, as The Cycling Podcast’s designated driver, I was unable to sample the wines but some thoughtful colleagues made sure to tell me how delicious they were.

The Giro d’Italia’s boss Mauro Vegni was a the dinner too and he was presented with a large fiasco, or flask similar to the straw baskets that Chianti bottles are traditionally served in. The basket was a sort of cross between the Giro trophy and a traditional basket and it was made of cork.

Our meal was interesting but not outstanding. Catering for 60 at 9pm in a small restaurant can’t be the easiest task. After some bruschetta topped with olive paste, chicken liver pate and pâte we had a couple of platters of traditional Tuscan fare. One was tomatoes and bread mashed into a paste, the other was basil and beans. After a bit of a wait some lamb chops and very rare steak arrived with some white beans and salad.

It was pretty late by the time we’d finished the meal and we had a long drive over very twisty Tuscan hills to negotiate. It went on for ever and the squiggly line on the Sat Nav looked like a toddler had been playing with Crayons.

As the road switched this way and that, for the first time in the evening, I was delighted to be the designated driver.

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Things on toast

Things on toast

Mashed Tuscan things

Mashed Tuscan things

Meat with beans

Meat with beans

A long day without lunch

Saturday, 14 May 2016

It’s always on the straightforward days at the Grand Tours that something goes wrong. Perhaps it’s because we relax a little in the belief that the logistics are so simple and everything will take care of itself.

Today’s stage, from Foligno to Arezzo, looked easy enough on paper: A short drive from the stage start to finish, an early arrival and a good lunch.

Everything was going swimmingly until we made a bad decision on the approach to Arezzo. I’m still not quite sure how it happened. Richard had looked at the race manual and knew we had to swing round Arezzo and approach from the north. However, the directions and instructions in the manual are quite ambiguous so when we saw what looked like a team bus ignore the motorway junction for Arezzo and head straight on, we followed it.

When we passed the bus, we realised it was not a team bus at all, but a coach load of German tourists. In our defence the bus was painted in a very similar design to the IAM Cycling team’s bus and, from a distance it was an easy mistake to make.

Unfortunately, it meant we now had a 25-kilometre drive to the next motorway junction, followed by 25 kilometres back.

That should have been the end of it but when we got off the motorway we got confused by the tangle of roads and found ourselves heading towards Florence instead of Rome.

That meant another 20 kilometres driving in the wrong direction. In all, we added an unnecessary hundred kilometres to our drive and arrived at the correct motorway junction for Arezzo well over an hour after we’d first passed it.

Hitting Arezzo at the same time as the Giro d’Italia’s publicity caravan vehicles meant another delay, followed by a hot hike to the press room. Richard decided to head to the finish line, via a cafe and a bite to eat. I opted to try my luck with the press buffet which was, naturally, done and dusted. A little later I got a text message from him saying: “There’s a muesli bar in the bottom of my bag,” but by then the hunger had passed.

It was gone 10pm by the time we got back to Montevarchi and restaurants were beginning to pack up their tables and chairs and switch off the lights. The congealed pizza slices in the takeaway joint next to our hotel didn’t appeal much so we took a stroll and found a place that was still open.

The fresh pepperoni pizza was the first thing I’d eaten since one small pastry at 8.30am and it barely touched the sides.

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Pepperoni pizza to the rescue

Pepperoni pizza to the rescue

Friday the 13th

Friday, 13 May 2016

The one up-side of the chain hotels that sometimes feature too regularly during our travels at the Tour de France is that they at least have a long check-in window.

Two days before arriving at the Residenza San Bartolomeo in Folignio, I received a call from our booking agent asking what time we would be checking in. I said between 8pm and 9pm but was asked to narrow the arrival slot down a bit, so I said between 8pm and 8.30pm.

We arrived at about 8.10pm, driving up the long gravel path to a large, beautiful villa with a couple of outbuildings.

I walked round the outside of the main building a couple of times but there was no sign of anyone around, so I called the B&B’s number. A woman answered and, once again, my language skills were found wanting. I’d looked up a few phrases to explain that we had arrived but, as I couldn’t understand the responses, it was more or less useless.

We waited another ten minutes, and I called again. This time a man answered and he sounded grumpy. He rattled off something in Italian and then said: “Ten minutes, ten minutes.” Clearly, the owners didn’t live at the property.

Now, we had to get back to Foligno for a meal with some colleagues and the Giro d’Italia’s press team, so we didn’t really have ten minutes to stand around waiting so I said: “No, no. We are here now. Two minutes please.”

He hung up without me understanding whether he going to get a move on or not, so I rang the booking agency to see if they could help. I was in a queue on the phone for a while, and so by the time I was half way through explaining the situation a car made its way up the drive in a hurry.

The grumpy man got out and the gist of what he said was, I think: “You said you’d be here at 8.30, so we came to meet you at 8.30.”

I tried to explain that I’d said between 8 and 8.30 but he wasn’t having any of it.

So, with a shrug of the shoulders we agreed to disagree.

The odd thing was, the woman I’d spoken to on the phone emerged from the main building, so it seemed she had been there all along. Perhaps she hadn’t wanted to let us in until her husband arrived (because the grumpy man at least had a couple of words of English) or perhaps she simply hadn’t understood.

Anyway, with the help of Google’s translate function we managed to smooth things over a bit before we were shown to our beautifully-decorated rooms. The man also explained that we’d been quoted too high a price by the booking agency and so were due a €20 discount. He also offered to drive us into town to the restaurant where we were meeting our colleagues. Suddenly I felt terrible for being irritated that they’d taken 20-odd minutes to meet us and for calling the booking agency to tell tales on them.

The rest of the evening went by in a bit of a blur. There was a pizza covered in shaved parmesan and rocket (which I forgot to photograph), a lot of laughs, a very long anecdote that I couldn’t keep track of, a shot of limoncello, a lot of standing around outside a very busy bar in an attractive square, a Jägerbomb (a shot of Jägermeister dropped, glass and all, into a larger glass of a popular caffeinated energy drink) and finally a rum and Coke that ended up being poured into a flower pot.

I’ve never had a Jägerbomb before. Rightly or wrongly, I associate it with students trying to get as drunk as possible, bad skiing holidays and idiots having one last drink that is definitely the wrong side of one too many. I guess, given the circumstances of the evening, the last one was an accurate perception. How the rum and Coke ended up in my hand was a total mystery – a round of drinks was being bought and I was too tired to resist.

Covering a Grand Tour can be a funny business. We’re just over a week in and the long days and the disrupted nights of sleep in strange and ever-changing surroundings are beginning to take their toll. And yet, somehow, we all manage to make the same mistake of getting carried away once during the race – even though we know the consequences are an even worse night’s sleep followed by a long, uncomfortable day with a headache.

But there’s something about the shared experience of being away from home, working in an environment that can be as stressful as it is enjoyable and the hyper-stimulation of thinking and over-thinking that means that when a dozen or more people who are going through the same thing get together there’s the temptation to let things go a bit and try to postpone stepping back onto the Grand Tour carousel by extending the evening.

As it approached 1am Richard and I began to flag and so we asked an Italian colleague if he could ask the bar staff to order us a taxi. He wasn’t hopeful. Another half-hour passed and there was no sign of one arriving.

I asked him what people in Italian towns do when they want to get home after a night out.

“They drive home more slowly,” he said.

Judging by some of the driving we’ve witnessed this week, that must mean they drive home very nearly under the speed limit.

Fortunately, we were saved a 40-minute yomp up into the hills on foot by a sober, designated driver from VeloNews and we were extremely grateful for them going out of their way to drop us off so late.

I went to bed cursing the Jägerbomb and swearing never to do it again, until the next time.

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A leader in the pink napkin competition

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Having criticised Italian breakfast a few days ago, the Adriano B&B near Benevento restored the reputation of a nation with a very nice spread. They still had the weird toast-shaped dusty biscuits but there was so much else that it wasn’t necessary to go near them. Fat pastries stuffed with jam, a sweet cake, fresh strawberries and an excellent cappuccino got the day off to a good start.

We drove most of the race route from Ponte to Roccaraso, the first uphill finish of the Giro d’Italia. After a couple of hours in the car, I needed to answer the call of nature and, knowing we were well ahead of the race, we pulled over to the side of the road. I was a bit unsure of etiquette but when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. Then I saw a police car approaching and worried I might be apprehended for urinating in public or some other offence. As he passed, the policeman gave a hearty thumbs up, which I took as permission to go.

Considering it was so far south, between Rome and Napoli, I was quite surprised to find that Roccaraso was a ski resort. It was a pretty run-down place, though, and the one large hotel looked like it had been relocated brick-by-brick from an Eastern European capital city before the Berlin Wall came down.

Taking its lead from the surrounding architecture, the press buffet was a bit like prison food. We were handed a plastic tray-plate with slices of pork so uniform they had to have been processed, and a ratatouille-style vegetable dish that was the same shade of dark grey and had a mushy texture.

Fortunately, the evening meal more than made up for it and we have a new holder of the pink napkin for best dinner of the Giro.

We’d arrived in Sulmona quite late, and, because it was the start town for the following day’s stage, we had to drive through the Giro d’Italia’s start village to get to our B&B. While I checked in, Richard checked TripAdvisor for restaurant recommendations.

He settled on the Trattoria Don Ciccio where we ordered the antipasti. The dishes kept on coming. First, a generous wooden paddle loaded with some excellent ham, mozzarella and a firmer cheese. Then some finely-sliced beef with a balsamic vinegar and mustard sauce. Then some warm chick peas and vegetables. Then some pearl barley. Then a steaming hot soufflé with smoked cheese and ham. Finally came the only dud note, a pot of tripe. It didn’t change my opinion that no one needs to eat stomach lining any more.

I was actually quite full by this point but the food was so good, Richard and I both ordered a pasta dish. I was presented with quite a large bowl of eggy tagliatelle with chick peas and cod. It was quite an effort to finish it.


After the meal, the chef came out of the kitchen and we tried to piece together a conversation with the help of the waitress, who spoke pretty good English. He was a keen cyclist, was very excited the Giro was in town and was keen to show us his bike, an early-1980s era Legnano, which was mounted on the wall near a picture of Gino Bartali, winner of the Giro three times either side of the Second World War, hanging his bike on a wall.

And after all that, they offered us a bottle of wine as a gift and wished us well for our travels.

If you ever find yourself in Sulmona, drop in, enjoy a meal and thank them again from me.

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Delicious ham and cheese

Delicious ham and cheese

Delicious beef carpaccio

Delicious beef carpaccio

Excellent chick peas and vegetables

Excellent chick peas and vegetables

Tasty pearl barley of some kind

Tasty pearl barley of some kind

Hot egg soufflé

Hot egg soufflé

Utter tripe

Utter tripe

1980s Legnano bike

1980s Legnano bike

A picture of Gino Bartali

A picture of Gino Bartali

Richard and me with the chef and his bike

Richard and me with the chef and his bike

Cream sauce with everything

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Giro has headed north in more or less a straight line from Catanzaro, which has meant a lot of time on the road each day. Apart from the odd ugly motorway junction, or long tunnel the scenery has been beautiful. The towns of the south are quite scruffy, even if the architecture is attractive, and the road surfaces are often terrible. Rutted, cracked, full of holes, pretty much like the country lanes of Hertfordshire only these are the main arteries of the south of Italy.

Having missed the press buffet the previous day, and knowing we still had a long drive ahead to get to the finish in Benevento, we stopped at the services for a snack. For petrol station food, it was exceptional – €5.40 got us a huge slice of hot, cheesy pepperoni pizza and a hot, strong machiato coffee.

Benevento was what I’d expected of a southern Italian town – teeming with people, cars and mopeds. Every traffic jam is an excuse to honk the horn, to try to find a short-cut round the car in front to get off the roundabout first. Mopeds slalom their way between the cars. The same happens on the pavements too.

As we pulled out of the car park in Benevento, a group of local teenagers who had been admiring the Maserati stopped to applaud Richard as he pulled away.

Our journey took us out of Benevento and into the countryside to our lodgings for the night, the Adriano B&B. It was a beautiful villa, immaculately furnished and decorated, and the sort of place you could spend a relaxing week on holiday. In fact, our accommodation in Italy has been wonderful so far. Italy (well, certainly the south) has not been infected by the same pox of chain hotels that affects France now. There’s not an Ibis, Campanile, Formula 1 or Novotel to be seen. That’s not to be unnecessarily harsh on the bland uniformity of those chains because there’s a time and place for them, but they say nothing about the country apart from the fact that it’s on the verge of giving up on offering a pleasant experience.

During the Tour de France, it is a relatively rare treat to stay in a place that has character and charm and it does wonders for morale. Here in Italy, we’ve had a little run of pleasant family-run places. The only downsides are that the owners tend not to speak English, which makes our lack of Italian embarrassingly apparent. In France they listen to my mangled pronunciation and reply in English. I then persevere in French or give up, depending on my mood.

Here, the hotel owner had an App on his iPhone which Richard spoke into. The problem was, I think the Scottish to Italian function was faulty.

Another downside of the small, family-run places is that they only take cash. That’s not an issue as long as you’re organised and prepared but covering a Grand Tour, sometimes organisation and preparedness fall by the wayside. Fortunately, Richard had withdrawn enough cash to cover the bill.

We managed to make ourselves understood enough to explain that we wanted to find somewhere nearby for dinner and the owner and his wife very kindly got in their car and led us to a restaurant.

It was very quiet, with only two other diners, but we enjoyed a welcoming aperitif and appertizer followed by pasta with a cream and mushroom sauce and finally a piece of fillet steak with a cream and Gorgonzola sauce. Delicious, but perhaps a bit too rich for a late meal.

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Aperitif & appetizer

Aperitif & appetizer

Mmmm, creamy.

Mmmm, creamy.

Ah, creamy.

Ah, creamy.

To be beside the seaside

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The mopeds in southern Italy finally fall quiet at about quarter past five and start up again at about quarter to six. Car horns start at about 7. Traffic jams last all day. That seems to be the rule.

Our little guest house was perfectly charming, and very cheap – €28 per room – and the owner was very friendly, although we struggled to communicate much beyond ‘grazie’. But breakfast was a bit peculiar. There was a nice slice of cake with icing sugar on the top, and some very sweet, almost artificial juice. The coffee was good, of course, but there didn’t appear to be anything to actually eat, apart from the cake.

The staple was a plastic bag of very dry squares of something that wasn’t quite biscuit and wasn’t quite toast. These are apparently called fette biscottate, and they are absolutely useless. As soon as I tried to spread butter or jam on them, they disintegrated to dust. They were impossibly dry too, making it very hard to swallow.

After breakfast, we attempted to get our car inside the Giro d’Italia ‘bubble’. My immediate impression of the Giro was that it was less well-organised than the Tour, but harder to make a wrong turn too. At the Tour, a press car has to stay inside the ropes, following the right signs and park in the designated place. At the Giro it’s a little more free-form. For example, in Catanzaro, at the start of stage four, there wasn’t a large car park for the journalists covering the race. Instead we had to pick our way through the tight streets. 
We’re in a Maserati, remember, a car that attracts quite a bit of attention. It’s also very long, and very wide.

Inevitably, we made a wrong turn and Richard had to do a 16-point turn to get back out of a dead-end. Fortunately, everyone in Catanzaro is an expert on driving, and parking, so before long we had about half-a-dozen people waving their arms and shaking their heads as Richard inched backwards and forwards and I checked there was no chance we’d come into contact with the walls. In the end, it worked out fine.

At the press room in Praia a Mare, we failed to find the press buffet and so headed across the road to a little restaurant, where I had a plate of pasta bolognese. Although the pasta was good, we later learned that the press buffet had been a five-star spread, so I was a little disappointed.

Our hotel for the night was up on the hill overlooking Praia a Mare, albeit with a busy main road between us and the twinkling sea.

The owner of the restaurant quickly decided what we’d be having for dinner. He suggested home-made pasta with seafood, which was packed with mussels and other fishy bits, followed by lightly grilled tuna served with caramelised onions and lettuce, which sounded an unusual combination but really worked. All that was washed down with a bottle of Falanghina, a white from the Campania region.

This meal took the pink napkin as best of the Giro d’Italia so far, although it wasn’t so outstanding as to think it would challenge for the overall title.

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Terrible, dry biscuit-toast

Terrible, dry biscuit-toast

Press buffet substitute: pasta bolognese

Press buffet substitute: pasta bolognese

Fusilli with seafood

Fusilli with seafood

Tuna with lettuce and onions

Tuna with lettuce and onions

A search for dinner in Catanzaro

Monday, 9 May 2016

While the Giro d’Italia’s riders flew direct from Amsterdam to Lamezia Terme in the south of Italy, Richard and I went via Rome with just a pretty decent tomato and mozzarella salad to during our brief stop at the Italian capital’s airport to keep us going.

At Lamezia Terme, we were met by our car for the Italian leg of the Giro d’Italia. This has been very kindly supplied to The Cycling Podcast by Maserati. I hadn’t realised how much it would turn heads as we arrived in Catanzaro, our stop for the night and the start town for Tuesday’s fourth stage.

What was immediately apparent on arrival in Catanzaro was that long, wide modern cars were not necessarily designed with trips to old, tight towns. I fear that negotiating our way through some of the smaller towns on the Giro’s route might be like threading a very sleek, black and expensive length of cotton through the eye of a needle.

Our hotel was actually a couple of rooms in a small guest house, concealed behind old iron gates. From the street you would never have known it was possible to stay there. From first impressions, it didn’t feel like Catanzaro was a place with a large tourism industry. The buildings were quite grand but some of them were run-down to a point just beyond a sun-beaten charm.

When we went out for dinner, the streets were crowded with people taking their early evening stroll. The fact the Giro was in town and had brought with it the start village and the cars seemed to add to the buzz in the air but I suspected this was a nightly occurrence. People stopped right in the middle of the street and chatted to one another. There were small groups of people deep in conversation here, there and everywhere, all talking with their hands as much as their mouths.

However, there seemed to be a distinct lack of restaurants. On the main street, we saw a couple of small bars and cafes and at least three ice cream places, but no restaurants. Richard checked his phone for TripAdvisor, which then took us off the beaten track, up some steps, where the streets were narrow and contorted. We were heading up to the duomo, which we imagined might be the focal point of the town.

But it was not. It was deserted and dark and there was a bit too much graffiti on the walls. One of the best-ranked restaurants in Catanzaro turned out to be a bar that didn’t look like it had served a meal for a long while.

We spotted a chalkboard outside an anonymous-looking shop. Inside were tables and chairs laid out in the traditional way, but they were all empty. In the doorway stood a rather menacing looking man. His expression suggested that although officially his place was a restaurant, he was doing everything he could to deter customers from stepping through the door.

Finally, we found a little place calling itself the Carpe Diem pizzeria, which seemed appropriate. It too was empty, but it was more welcoming, so we went in. The signs weren’t good. A flat screen TV was blaring out Europop and the big fridge in the corner had a Tennant’s lager logo on it, bizarrely.

We ordered the antipasti, which was €6. A long wooden paddle arrived with soft oily artichoke, cured meats and ham and some soft cheeses. Apart from the flavourless white cheese that had a texture of blancmange and ridges on it which clearly indicated it had been plopped out a plastic pot just moments earlier, it was all delicious.

I followed that with the Carpe Diem pizza. Our colleague Ciro Scognamiglio from La Gazzetta dello Sport is from Napoli, the home of pizza, later told me that pizza in the south tends to be softer and more doughie than the crisp thin bases that are more popular in the north. That’s a general rule, though, and it varies from town to town and restaurant to restaurant.

After all my jokes to Daniel about where to find the best deep pan pizza with stuffed crusts, this pizza actually did have a stuffed crust. The centre of the dough contained some kind of black olive paste a bit like tapenade. The topping was some sort of ham and more artichoke and lots of cheese but very little tomato sauce.

The prices were very modest, only €7 for the pizza, but the quality has taken a big jump up compared to food we had in the Netherlands.

Scroll down to read previous posts.

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Tomato & mozzarella salad at the airport

Tomato & mozzarella salad at the airport

Antipasti

Antipasti

Cheesy pizza

Cheesy pizza

Your cupboard for the night, sir

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Dutch were brilliant hosts for the weekend. In fact, I’d say the towns of Apeldoorn, Arnhem and Nijmegen put on a better party than Utrecht had done when the Tour de France started there last year. Partly, that’s because the Giro was contained in a very small area all weekend. The idea of having Saturday’s stage run from Arnhem to Nijmegen and Sunday’s going from Nijmegen to Arnhem was a stroke of genius. It meant both towns were central to the action over the weekend.

We left Nijmegen pretty soon after the finish to get to Schiphol airport at Amsterdam, where we had a reservation at a Yotel.

On paper, it seemed a devastatingly simple plan. We’d check in to the Yotel – a sort of miniature hotel with small cabins a bit like those you’d find on the lower decks of a cruise ship – recharge the batteries for a few hours and get up for our flight knowing we only had a few dozen steps to make from bed to plane the following morning.

The Yotel was ‘air-side’, which meant we were in for a bit of a palaver. We had to leave our large bags in luggage lockers overnight, then go through check-in and security and then walk through two departure lounges to get to the Yotel. In the morning, we’d have to go back to the arrivals lounge, collect our bags and go through the whole check-in process again.

I feared the worst about the Yotel when we stopped and asked an airport worker for directions. She said, with a kind, sympathetic face: “It’s a shame because it’s not a nice hotel. There are much better ones over the road.”

But the Yotel was a pleasant surprise. This sort of cabin-style accommodation is popular in Japan and, for a stay of only a few hours, it makes perfect sense. The inside was mostly plastic but it was well-designed, clean and had a sparse logic to it. There was a comfortable bed, a tiny bathroom with a little toilet, shower and sink and everything else a traveller might need – two coat hangers, plenty of plug sockets and a little flat-screen TV. The lights and temperature were controlled by a small control panel on the wall next to the bed. And the lighting had a pink glow, which, I suspect, had nothing to do with the fact the Giro d’Italia had been in the Netherlands and more to do with it being quite a restful colour. I slept surprisingly well.

At €96 it wasn’t really a budget option, and the faff with the luggage meant the convenience was compromised, but it was a different experience and not an unenjoyable one.

Having said all that, we missed dinner and so I went to bed thankful I’d had the presence of mind to grab a plate of pasta and strange meatballs, which tasted like hot dogs, in tomato sauce at the press room. On a grand tour, you grab whatever you can, when you can, just in case there’s an extended gap between meals.

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Yotel Schmotel

Yotel Schmotel

Not so super schnitzel

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The hotel complex slash conference centre slash university halls of residence slash holiday camp had a strange atmosphere about it. Simon joked that it felt like a large number of the guests were members of a strange cult but as the days passed it started to feel less like a joke.

At breakfast, each table had a name badge on it indicating which group they were part of. There wasn’t a badge for ‘The Cycling Podcast’, so we just sat wherever we wished.

One of the name badges said ‘John De Ruiter’ and I noticed there were posters up around the place with the same name featuring a photograph of a grey-haired, tanned man looking a bit too pleased with himself. He had one of those skin-coloured microphones that curled round his cheek and looked, from a certain distance, like some sort of growth on his face.

I don’t understand Dutch, but even I could work out that John De Ruiter was some kind of spiritual guru or life coach delivering his advice to less happy mortals for money. A quick look at his website told me that the full four days would set you back €240. For that there were eight meetings to attend and a chance to chat with John one-to-one in an informal setting, as long as you accepted that your conversation might be recording for promotional purposes.

It would be unfair to speculate on De Ruiter’s methods without having seen him in action but many of his guests did seem to have a very calm air. With each passing morning at breakfast, they seemed to be slowing down, as if unplugging from the frenzy of modern life. By contrast, The Cycling Podcast team was getting swept along by the giddy wave of excitement the Giro had brought to the Netherlands. By the time it came to check out of the Hotel Mennorode, I felt like checking back in for a few days of rest and relaxation.

Nijmegen was in party mood after the stage. Hundreds of young people were dancing to an outdoor disco in one open square. Every restaurant and bar was busy and there wasn’t a lot of choice for a large group (we’d met up with Ned Boulting and Dan Lloyd, who are doing TV commentary for the world feed, which is broadcast around the globe).

The restaurant we chose had an outdoor seating area and a menu that immediately lowered expectations. It was brightly-coloured plastic, with dozens of items on it, and came with a quirkily-translated English version. The waitress told us that because it was busy, they were only doing about eight main courses, so we had to cross-refer from the list of daily specials to the English version to see what was on. This narrowed the choice down to steak and chips, chicken and chips, fish and chips, pork and chips or schnitzel and chips.

I opted for the Super Schnitzel, which Ned said was unlikely to be veal and more likely to be pork. Ned lived in Germany for a while and reckoned that if it was veal, the establishment was more likely to mention this.

I’ve always found schnitzel a bit strange. Why take a perfectly nice piece of meat and hammer it flat until all the flavour has been beaten out of it? And then coat it in breadcrumbs and fry it so it tastes of ‘fried’ rather than food.

Anyway, it was a large piece of white meat (probably pork) with the texture of one of those kitchen sponges that has a scouring surface on one side.

Clearly, we’ve struggled in the Netherlands and I refuse to believe that a nation’s cuisine can be as bad as the meals we’ve had over the weekend. However, I’ve looked back at last year’s Gourmet de France and realised that the food in Utrecht wasn’t much better.

Bring on Italy and it’s pizzas, pasta, antipasti and intriguing primi and secondi piatti.

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Not so super schnitzel

Not so super schnitzel

Every day is pancake day in the Netherlands

Friday, 6 May 2016

Every day is pancake day in the Netherlands, it seems, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

My grasp on this sort of thing is pretty loose, so forgive me if this is wrong but pancake day, or Shrove Tuesday, is when people use up all the tasty things in the fridge before abstaining from everything nice for Lent.

Pancake day also gave the world plastic squeezy lemons with lemon-flavoured juice in. When I first saw one of these things I genuinely thought it was something to squirt down the toilet to keep it smelling fresh and so I was aghast when a friend held one over a pancake and squeezed it.

Anyway, the buffet laid on for the press at the velodrome in Appeldorn was pretty good. Lunch was a selection of meat and cheese sandwiches and after the stage they brought out trays of beef stew, mashed potatoes, cauliflower cheese and chicken satay skewers. 
As a result, I wasn’t terribly hungry when we arrived at a restaurant ranked the second best in Elspeet according to the users of TripAdvisor. The menu was dominated by pancakes and I opted for one with ham, cheese and mushrooms.

I have to say, it wasn’t the most appetising looking thing and it didn’t over-deliver on taste either. The texture was closer to that of a chamois leather.

There’s nothing unusual about a cooked base made mainly of flour, topped with a range of tasty ingredients. After all, pizza is one of Italy’s national dishes. But a crisp, thin pizza is the perfect platform in a way that a soggy pancake is not. I generally like a savoury pancake but the toppings should be the star and the ratio should be heavily weighted in their favour.

When it came to paying the bill, we were told the restaurant didn’t accept cards and so Simon and Richard had to drive off into town to find a cash machine. They returned about about 15 minutes, empty-handed, having failed to find one and I had visions of Daniel and I having to do the washing up. Luckily, on their second circuit of the town, they found a cash machine and we handed over what felt like rather too much money for the quality of the food. However, I suppose when the staple offering of a restaurant is fried batter with toppings, perhaps we were expecting too much, but I’ve not been too impressed with the cuisine in the Netherlands.

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A disappointing pancake

A disappointing pancake

Four kinds of meat in Elspeet

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Four of us are covering the opening weekend for The Cycling Podcast – Richard Moore, Daniel Friebe and me – and we’re travelling with our photographer Simon Gill. After that, we’ll be operating a squad rotation system. Richard will accompany me to the second rest day in Tuscany before Daniel joins me for a week. I’ll then bail out and leave the other two to follow the race through the mountains to Turin.

The first job was to get to Apeldoorn in the Netherlands – a task that sounds simple enough. The plan was to collect Richard and Daniel from the train station at Ashford in Kent, which is just a short drive from Folkestone in Kent, where the Channel Tunnel starts, in Kent.

Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, Richard and Daniel set off in the direction of Ashford in Surrey.

Simon and I were around half-an-hour from Ashford when Richard called to say that they were in the wrong place, heading towards an even wronger place. They had reached Clapham Junction when they realised their mistake. Even Richard, who has form for this sort of thing, realised that it was a tall order to expect a train bound for Surrey to swing round and reach Kent in under 25 minutes. I promised I wouldn’t mention that on a trip to the Tour of Flanders he once programmed Lille (Belgium) into the Sat-Nav instead of Lille (France) and wondered why there wasn’t an international railway station in a town with a population of 15,000.

To be fair, travelling at the Grand Tours is fraught with potential confusion. There’s usually a system of signs put up by the race organisers to direct people working on the race to the start and the finish. But if you miss one of those signs and find yourself off-piste, so to speak, it can lead to an afternoon of frustration, irritation and light swearing.

Richard and Daniel’s detour only cost us half-an-hour and we were soon the other side of the channel and on our way to the Netherlands.

Our hotel for the opening weekend is a curious place, although perfectly pleasant. It’s a large complex hidden in a clearing in the woods near Elspeet – sort of a cross between a conference centre, a holiday camp and a university campus.

By the time we’d checked in the buffet was winding down, so we walked 20 minutes to the village of Elspeet and chose the restaurant with the best rating on TripAdvisor, ’T Edelhert.

Although it was only 8.45 when we set foot in the door, the staff were reluctant to serve us. Eventually they relented on the condition that we had only a main course. We didn’t realise it at the time, but it was Liberation Day, a national holiday in the Netherlands, and so the staff probably wanted to get home.

It had been a long day, and so I went for the only sensible choice, the mixed grill, on the basis that mixed grills are always large.

This was no exception. It consisted of enough protein to see me through the opening week – a piece of steak, a pork medallion, a piece of chicken and some spare ribs in a not-quite-barbecue sauce.

The meat was all very tender and well cooked although the selection of vegetables that accompanied were a little bijou.

Then it was a 20-minute walk back through the dark woods to our halls of residence.

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Pictured from left: Meat, meat, meat and meat.

Pictured from left: Meat, meat, meat and meat.

Giro d'Italia 2016

Thursday, 5 May 2016

This year, I am covering the first fortnight of the Giro d’Italia for The Cycling Podcast and, due to something closely resembling popular demand, I’m also reviving the Gourmet de France blog to document my culinary journey from the Netherlands to Italy.

There’s been some debate about what the title of this blog should be. Some have suggested a literal translation of Gourmet de France, which would be Buongustaio d’Italia. Daniel Friebe said it should be Goloso d’Italia, although that means Greedy Italy and I’m not having that. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to catch me out that easily.

Anyway, Buongustaio d’Italia it is. I’m expecting the usual range of fare, from the outstanding to the diabolical. I’ve already been winding Daniel up by asking who does the best deep pan pizzas in Italy and whether you can get a Cornetto south of Rome. I think he’s getting bored of it now because whenever I ask him if the Starbucks in Italy are as good as the ones in London he just rolls his eyes.

If you have enjoyed the Gourmet de France and would like to buy Lionel a coffee or demi-pression, or contribute towards the assiette de fromage, feel free to donate below. However, if you think Lionel could do with losing a few pounds or just don't want to make a donation, please carry on reading the Gourmet de France for free.

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