Michael Albasini may well be 37 but like a fine wine – and Alejandro Valverde – the Swiss rider seems to be improving with age.
Runner-up to Wout Poels in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2016 and seventh last year, Albasini is still knocking on the Old Lady’s door once the road rises to the finish in Ans.
The Swiss all-rounder has also proved his pedigree on the steep ramps of the Mur de Huy with seven top-ten finishes in La Flèche Wallonne over the past decade – while in last year’s Amstel Gold Race, Albasini secured third spot on the podium behind winner Philippe Gilbert and Michal Kwiatkowski.
By finishing in the top ten of all three hilly “Ardennes Classics” in 2017, Albasini demonstrated that it’s not too late for him to add an elusive major one-day win to a solid palmarès that includes multiple stages on the Tours de Suisse and Romandie, a stage win on the 2011 Vuelta a España, and the overall title in the 2012 Tour of Catalunya.
But it’s coffee beans and not cycling genes that’s the main topic of conversation when Albasini shares a brew with Rouleur at a Mitchelton-Scott training camp near Almería in southern Spain earlier in the season.
Rouleur: Can you tell us how you became cycling’s most famous coffee bean importer?
Michael Albasini: Well, I was in St Moritz doing altitude training and we were climbing up the Bernina Pass from the Italian side. I stopped at the bottom to have an espresso because it’s a two-hour climb and I thought a coffee shot would make it a bit easier. And yeah, I found that I really enjoyed the coffee there, so I looked into where the company came from and it was just four kilometres down in Tirano, somewhere I knew from a previous finish in the Giro.
So, on my rest day I went there, bought a few bags and brought them home, gave some to my mate – a former mountain biker. We had these coffee machines at home but we always had to search for good Italian beans. When you buy two or three kilos you’re fine for a few weeks but then you have trouble again to find more. It was becoming really expensive to ship it monthly so we decided to import it and sell it, so we could share the delivery costs. It’s just a small import business – we’re not roasting or anything. We did this primarily just to always have fresh beans at home in Switzerland.
What’s the coffee called?
Our company is called Caffè Passione and the beans we import are called San Salvador. They’re named after one of the ships Colombus took to explore the Americas.
What’s the coffee like here in Spain?
Yeah, it’s fine. It’s not like maybe an Italian coffee but this one right here is ok. You have some worse spots in Spain, that’s for sure, and in France. France is hard to get a good coffee. But it’s funny – in Switzerland I don’t really go out to drink coffee, because it costs you five bucks and you have a better coffee at home. But when I start travelling – how do you say this? – I can drink coffee that’s not so good. It’s like I don’t care so much. At home I appreciate good coffee but I can also drink a bad coffee and still kind of enjoy it. Unless it’s really bad!
What about instant coffee?
Well, sometimes an instant coffee is better than what they brew fresh, or a fancy coffee. I have had some coffees that I couldn’t drink. In Switzerland most of the people drink long coffees. When you go further north there are a lot of filter coffees. Like the Americans they like their big cups with lots of milk. I’m not into the hipster-style coffees like cold brew and this kind of stuff. For me, coffee has to be hot.
How do you take your coffee?
At home, in the morning I have cappuccinos and in the afternoon espressos. That’s it.
Presumably no chocolate sprinkles on top of the cappuccino?
No! For sure, not. Just a normal traditional cappuccino.
What’s the variety of the bean that you import?
It depends on the blend. There are always around four to seven different types of bean in there. A lot of them are from Central America where they have a special method of taking the shell off the bean to take out the acidity. It makes it smoother. There’s also some Indonesian and maybe African, for the crema. For the body, a little bit of robusta isn’t bad. I actually don’t know all the varieties because that’s obviously the big secret of the company.
Isn’t the most expensive coffee out there made from a bean that a bird has eaten and then defecated out?
It’s actually a cat! But what happens is that the acidity of the stomach takes out the acidity of the beans. It’s the same system as in hot countries, where they grow coffee and put the beans on a terrace: the sun dries them out, so you can take off the shell and then harvest the bean. What they do in Central America, because they have enough water there, is to soak the beans in water and then it ferments until the shell falls away. This process the fermentation takes out the acidity of the bean, which is the same process (as the cat) but less disgusting.
You ride for an Australian team in Mitchelton-Scott and the Australians are renowned for their love of coffee…
Yeah, they have a really nice coffee culture over there. Sometimes it tends a bit towards the hipster side of things – the cold brews, double shots…
The flat whites?
Well, a flat white is actually just a cappuccino. It’s nothing else but a cappuccino without the chocolate. Then there’s the cortado, which is the Spanish equivalent of a macchiato – just an espresso with a little bit of foam. An espresso they call it here a café solo.
Coming from London, it’s nice to enjoy the €1 coffees here in Europe.
Well, not in Switzerland! It is really expensive there. The other day I was in a town close to my area – not even in Zurich – and a single espresso was 4.50 Swiss francs (£3.30) and a double shot was 6.80 CHF (£5). Which is ridiculous – especially when you compare it to the prices around here in Spain.
But it’s like that for a reason. The girl or guy who serves you the coffee is probably earning three times more – at least – than the waiter here. We also drink coffee differently than the people in Italy, where you go to the bar and drink a quick espresso and you don’t even sit down. In Switzerland you meet people for a coffee, you stay longer in the coffee shop, this sort of stuff. It’s more of a social thing.
And good coffee is expensive. You know when you buy a kilo of coffee for five euros that it cannot be good. There’s a reason why it’s cheap. There should be a roast master standing there, watching the beans until they’re just right. But with machines it’s just an automated programme which doesn’t share the knowledge that the roast master has.
Is coffee something you’d like to get into when you retire?
No, it’s just a hobby – and it will stay a hobby. Like, you need to have really big volumes – and you need to roast your own – if you want to make any profit from it. Still, it’s not only about the coffee. We built this company, so we learned a lot what it means to start up a business. It’s been a good experience. I don’t know what we’ll do. We’ll keep the company running for the moment, but it’s just a side project.
We can’t let you leave without talking about the Ardennes and your targets for the season.
The Ardennes Classics are very important races for me in the spring, of course. I’ve got several top tens in them. Sometimes the differences are really small. I’ve done a few little mistakes – last year in the Fleche and Liège, which could have been podiums. Maybe if I’m on a really good run I can do a good race.
But I’m now quite old and I don’t know if things will get any better, it’s hard to say. But I’ll do my best to be up there again. We also have Daryl Impey, who is made for these kinds of races too. I reckon we can team up together and play some different tactics – like Sky did last year at Liège with [Sergio] Henao and [Michal] Kwiatkowski. There’s also the Tour de Suisse starting my in home area. While I’m never going to win the Tour de Suisse, it’s still important for me.
What about the Grand Tours?
I will ride the Vuelta [for the first time since 2011] instead of the Tour this year so that’s going to be the big goal of the second part of the season. In recent years I haven’t performed in the Grand Tours on the same kind of level as I’ve been in the classics. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the wrong moment. I’m always investing a lot of time to get into shape for the Classics, so maybe that doesn’t allow me to get back on the same level in time for the Grand Tours. Perhaps by September time I’ll be coming back on a high level this year, so it may be better for me to focus on the second part of the season like this.