João Correia was not the man I'd expected to see centre-stage at the winner's press conference in Florence for the 2013 Worlds. But there he was, having been volunteered to translate for the resplendent-in-rainbow Rui Costa. The Portuguese delegation, it seemed, hadn't thought to bring an interpreter. “Why not stick around and join us for dinner?”
Why not, indeed. We made the drive to Montecatini Terme with some juniors and a couple of emotional mechanics, and that night I was the lone foreigner at a table of lively Portuguese. A week later, I was still in Tuscany, making excuses to my girlfriend as to why I hadn't made it home. For the record: honey, it was his fault.
It was the third time in a year I'd ended up with João, not doing much of anything other than riding bikes, eating too much and trash talking. We'd first met back in April, when I'd travelled to Lecchi in Chianti to see first-hand what his tour company, inGamba, does.
I wanted a break, and for my sins, they gave me one. The invitation was last minute, but more than a little enticing. Ride around Tuscany with support cars, WorldTour mechanics and a soigneur who was once the Portuguese national champion. Follow that with food and wine, and repeat as needed.
I know this is going to sound ungrateful and joyless, but I'll say it anyway: there was some hesitation. It clashed with a job, and groups aren't really my scene because I don't always get along with the other kids. In the end, I saw sense. A few days riding bikes, a nice meal or two – it's the sort of thing anyone would look forward to. Even a spoiled, miserable hack. And there was that very promising disclaimer I'd gotten via email, which read: “I apologise in advance to your liver … ”
It was fair warning, because within about a minute of meeting João, he handed me a bidon full of red wine and told me to drink up. We were late for lunch. Welcome to Chianti. Home of good food and better wine. Local customs include taking it easy and looking after yourself.
I'd arrived a couple of days late to his first trip of the year, so the spiked bottle was to catch up on the gang he had back at the bed and breakfast. Before a pedal had even been turned, I was already lagging behind … but so it goes. A lot of what happened over the next week is a blur, either because it transpired at speed on Tuscany's backroads – often on gravel – or because there was libation taken. Anyway, to spare the dignities of those involved, that article would need more redactions than a USADA report. (Don't worry, “Paul”.) What happens in Lecchi, stays in Lecchi, as the Italians don't say. It suffices to note that some fun was had, and only one wild boar was harmed in the process.
One rainy afternoon merits a mention, though. We were just over the half-way point on a 180km jaunt across Chianti's back roads, with a lot of the famous strade bianche gravel thrown in for good measure. The ride the day before had been longer, but in kinder weather. On the climb up to Montalcino, we were tired and we were hungry. We were also a long way from home.
There was really only one thing for it – in João's mind, anyway. A couple of decanters of Brunello and a three-course meal. It wasn't the sort of restaurant that would ordinarily accept a gang of guys in lycra, but a case was put forward and exception was made. Against a former New York publishing exec, the poor restaurateur didn't stand a chance. And after a good feed and a large glass, the row of red-and-black Pinarellos, perfectly lined across the narrow street, looked more tempting than tortuous. Some coffee, and a chance for the mechanic to throw his eye over the fleet, and we were good to go. Incidentally, that same mechanic was in the car for Costa. We were well looked after.
That João knows how to treat his guests – both on the bike and off it – makes sense, once you know a little about him. Growing up in Portugal, he was riding from an early age. His dad was the DS for a local team. And when the family emigrated to the US, he continued to race, returning to European teams and even making it to three junior world championships.
But instead of carving out a life as a young pro, he went to college, and carved out a promising career in publishing. Then, like a lot of guys with desk jobs, João got fat. But unlike the other fat guys with desk jobs, in his early 30s he ditched the suit for spandex, lost the weight and became a professional cyclist. Again. Not just for a low-level outfit, either. When he retired from riding a second time, João was at Cervélo TestTeam, working as a domestique for the likes of Carlos Sastre and Thor Hushovd.
These days, when he's not wining and dining guests in Lecchi, João's an agent. Which will be apparent the moment you shuffle downstairs in the morning to find Ted King or Laurens ten Dam at breakfast, or arrive back from a spin to find that some boys from Trek or Tinkov-Saxo have stopped by for lunch.
He chose the brand name well. Essere in gamba is an Italian expression that defies direct translation. Literally, it's “to be in leg”, but it's meant to signify being smart, clued in. The English colloquial would be “on the ball". I can think of an Irish demotic equivalent as well, but like so many of the colourful, nuanced expressions from my homeland, it's totally unpublishable.
In a cycling context, then, the Italian works best, not least because there's an obvious play on words. No mixed metaphors, offensive language or balls to get in the way. If you've got it in the legs, you're OK. João's in gamba. And good company.