“Fancy going to Lake Como to ride with some of the guys from Tinkoff-Saxo? asked the editor. Not a hard question to answer, especially not when you’re on your way there anyway for the final Monument of the cycling season.
After a long Sunday running around after il Lombardia, who wouldn’t want to tack on an extra day, riding bikes for fun while being able to call it work? It can be hard, sometimes, to keep a straight face in this game.
The invitation had come from Sportful, the Italian clothing brand that supplies Tinkoff-Saxo. They were hoping that a small group of journalists would get the chance to put their new harsh-weather Fiandre range through its paces, so naturally as we rolled out of the hotel, it was an unseasonably sunny day in Northern Italy.
Fiandre, as you might have guessed, is Italian for Flanders, the idea being that this clobber is best suited to the most miserable of conditions. And in this humble hack’s opinion, the advances made in clothing over the last few years far outstrips developments in frame materials or electronic shifting in terms of real world performance because, assuming you’re willing to play loose with your wallet, there’s an outfit for every conceivable situation.
Meshy summer jerseys so thin that you’ll get sunburned ‘à la Froome’ if you’re not careful; heavy-duty, multi-panelled bibs to ward off winter; rain jackets that aren’t just expensive plastic bags; and everything in between. To the uninitiated, we’re still oddballs in lycra, but at least we’re comfortable oddballs. It was not always thus.
On the day, the Fiandre no-rain short sleeve was perfect. Protective enough to shut out the chillier gusts and fend off light showers while still breathable enough for when the sun came out or the climbing got aggressive.
I can speak to said breathability because the gents from Tinkoff, while probably close to their own resting heart rates, put us through our paces on Como’s famous climbs to Madonna del Ghisallo and the Colma di Surmano. It was fun to follow Ivan Basso, Roman Kreuziger and Sergio Paulinho around the lake, but even though they were clearly taking it easy, they didn’t exactly hang about.
Some advice for anyone who’s not been to this part of Italy: book your ticket. The climbs are not as high or as long as those you’ll find in the Dolomites or the Alps, but the slopes can be as brutal as the views are beautiful. The region around Como is full of small towns – lakeside and hilltop – and tight, serpentine roads that wind past small farmhouses and impressive palaces in no particular order.
Everything about it, the gruelling gradients, the changeable weather, the thrilling descents and the wonderful views, gets right to the heart of why we love cycling.
This is the sport’s spiritual home, and from the monied dolce vita crowd by the water to the agrarian hamlets up in the hills, characterised by unpainted buildings, rusted railings and cracked tarmac at the edges of cramped hairpins, you get an innate sense of Italy’s stratified, complicated charm. It seems to change around every bend.
It was an unusual day for our illustrious guides because, though we didn’t know it, one of them would leave us to make an important revelation later that afternoon. Basso, now 37 and fresh from the chance discovery (it’s doubtful a cyclist has even been so fortunate to have crashed) and subsequent swift recovery from testicular cancer during the summer, had to leave for Milan and the 2016 Giro d’Italia route presentation.
The Giro was were he’d made his name, where he’d twice finished in the maglia rosa, and where fans by the roadside still scream his name fervently, so it made a fitting backdrop to announce his retirement, calling time on a career that had spanned 16 years and seen some dizzying highs along with a painful low.
Basso, the Smiling Assassin, remains one of Italian cycling’s most popular figures and it’s good to know he will be staying on with the Tinkoff team next year in a technical role. After spending more than half his life as a racer, however, it can’t have been an easy call to make, to give up everything you know when you are – outside the crazy world of elite sport, at least – still a young man.
On a day like that, I’m not sure I’d be in the humour for entertaining. But being a consummate professional, he’d kept pedalling in those team colours, alongside his colleagues, for as long as he’d been able before saying goodbye to the happy bunch of sweaty journos.
His next ride would have to be a solo one and it was time to turn down a different road – hopefully, towards a long, happy future.
This article was originally published in issue 59 of Rouleur magazine.