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Behind the Scenes: Puglia

Residing in Ragusa, Italy, veteran guide Gabe Del Rossi knows the ins and outs of Italy like only a true local ever could. He has been known to serenade guests as they climb through the Dolomites or impresses them with his knowledge of four languages. Below Gabe has shared a behind the scenes look at a day in the life of a Trek Travel guide in Southern Italy.

The bus stops in Bari, but I don’t understand where I am. The light of the rising sun prevents me from spotting the train station. “È lì,” the bus drier tells me. “Right there. You’re on the other side of it.” I couldn’t recognize where I was because I was on the other side of the thing I knew.

A new point of view in a familiar place. My day began by taking a bus from Sicily, through Calabria and into Puglia — all beautiful areas, but the night ride is something unique. As my friend Fabio would later say, “You cross southern Italy by bus and you expect nothing to happen? Anything could happen!” This is not the Fabio that belongs on a romance novel cover. He is from Monopoli, Puglia and studies medicine. He helps his father with their taxi business, and he helps his friends get out of trouble. Friends like me.

Anything can happen, that’s why we travel to southern Italy. PugliaIt’s a far cry from the Piedmont palazzos and the Tuscan villas. But that is part of its allure. I drag my bags into the station looking for the train headed for Martina Franca. There is no sign. There is no conductor at 7:00 in the morning. I have to make an educated guess: small town, small train, small track. Maybe a track at the end of the station? The back of the station? The back where the bus dropped me off. I double check the big yellow time tables that are on the walls and, sure enough, my guess pays off. I’m on my two-and-a-half-hour train ride to Martina Franca – about 70 kms away.

I pass out. The rocking of the train helps me catch up on the sleep that I couldn’t get on the bus. At around 9:30 I get a text from Sonja, my colleague who was kind enough to pick me up from the station: “I’m here.“

I drop my bags in the back of the van and we head for breakfast. Sonja is a light-framed, two-handed cappuccino drinker. We head straight for the bar and get three cappuccinos and one café macchiato, for the two of us. We wash that down with a few mezzatonda: a pastry popular in Puglia’s Murgia filled with cream and blackberry jam. That will do it. I’ve had my coffee and pastry fix. Let’s get to the bikes.

The ride to our base is simple. About ten minutes away from Martina Franca in a couple of trulli: those characteristic cone-topped houses. Puglia TrulloHistorically they were a means of tax evasion. Now they house Sonja, myself, and our other colleague Diane who has been working on all kinds of trip details such as written instructions and .gpx files. She’s happy to see me.

There is something uncommonly romantic about tuning bikes in the front yard of a trullo pugliese. Between each prep, I look around me and appreciate my surroundings at every wretch stroke. I live in southern Italy, and there is something familiar about this part of the world. It is a very comfortable place where the people and environment make you feel at home.

At lunch we go for a ride. The rolling countryside is alive with the feel of spring. The orange blossoms are blooming and at the top of every small ride sits another trullo. We stop for some simple focaccia for lunch: ham and local caciocavallo cheese, or broccoli and local mushrooms. We keep it light since we still have a few kilometers until we get back to our trullo. And then it’s showers, time to organize the trailer, upload the routes to the Garmins and a few other tasks before the day is done.

The afternoon sun presses down. Puglia SunsetIt is usually warmer in the afternoon around here. The morning will often bring rain and the late-day sunlight just makes the rest of the day humid. But not in our trullo, where the temperatures stay cool throughout the day and night. So cool in fact that we have to turn on the heat in the evening. A strage fact for Riccardo (the owner of the trullo) since most people don’t ever ask for heat in Puglia.

It’s six o’clock and just a few hours before dinner. This is also the time that Diane shows her true colors, namely “crimson” , “brink red” and randomly “rosé.” From her stash of red wine Diane pulls out a negroamaro, and a primitive. Naturally, it would be a sin to be this far into the soul of Puglia and not know its wines. And six o’clock is a great time to get to know them well. We chat and relax as night falls upon us, nibbling at sundried tomato paste, tarralli, and local cappocollo from just down the road in Martina Franca. Sonja whips together a fantastic salad with local veggies she had gotten earlier in the day and there is our evening: three bottles of wine, salad, and fresh meats and cheeses.

By now the sun has long disappeared and the moon and stars sitting clear in the night sky tell us tomorrow will have spectacular weather. I shuffle into my bedroom and begin to organize my clothes. Day one begins and I’ll be unloading ten bikes by myself. I’ll need to make sure I have a clean pair of clothes on when Diane arrives with our guests. Sonja is on picnic duty and judging by her salad tonight I think our group will be blown away by her magic. In this region of southern Italy, it is the element of surprise that is so appealing. “Anything can happen.” Yes it can, and it does. There is no pushing or stress. Everything works out as it should, whether it is an impromptu bike ride, another slice of focaccia (thank you, grazie!), a surprise three-bottle night, or a four coffee morning. No one is held to conventional standards here. Just enjoy.

Ok. Shirts folded. Pants ready. Now all I have to do is organize my route guide and make sure my phone and GPS are recharged for the morning. Done.

Time to set the alarm for 7:00. Before you know it, 7 will be here…..

That’s A Wrap! The 2014 Cobbled Classics

With Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the books, the 2014 spring classics are now over. Although there is a lot of fun still to be had this season, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the extraordinary racing that was witnessed during this year’s monuments. Katy, a Trek dealer at Corley Cycles, was gracious enough to share her experience from Paris Roubaix. With true British wit, her thoughts vividly illustrate why every cyclist should experience the pain and glory that are the Belgian cobbles.

Ok where to start…It’s the beginning of March, the phone rings. It’s Mark, our Trek account Manager, offering up an amazing opportunity to have an all-inclusive 5-star trip to Paris-Roubaix. A swishy hotel, tour guides, VIP tickets, the list of “wow’s” goes on. Trek had kindly offered Phil a place on this exciting trip.

Here is where it gets interesting.

Our resident king of the Jollies (Phil) happened to be on a “jolly” in South Africa participating in Cape Argus and being wined and dined by Cervelo.

Heard the phrase, you snooze you lose? Never so apt in this case.

It was left to myself and Nick to argue over who would go. This argument involved me telling Nick that he should go and Nick telling me that I should go. Seriously, what’s wrong with us?!

After some [not so deep] thought but mainly logistical workings out—the daughter, the dogs, the shop, and the husband…not necessarily in that order—I took the opportunity and accepted the invite.

Mrs. Excited from Milton Keynes!

Friday 11th April. All set for my trip, smooth Eurostar, great breakie, easy transfer to Kortrijk, time for some shopping, and all finished off with a nice spin on the Trek Domane 5.9 that Gabe from Trek Travel had set up for me.

Here is where the dilemma started (to be precise, 9pm just before dinner). Since the March phone call I was doing the 45-mile route, taking in 6 sections of cobbles including the infamous Carrefour d’labre. To be honest I always knew that 45 miles was a bit short for me but the jump to the 90-mile route was never going to happen. I can count on one hand the amount of times my bum has been on a saddle for that long, all of these rides have taken place in Majorca on smoother roads, in the sun, and in a whooshing peloton.

A quick decision: do I eat for 45 miles or go to town with the Chateaubriand and Dame Blanche. This is me and food we’re talking about…90 miles it was!

An early start, time for a power nap on the bus before myself and 22 other lucky Trek customers arrive in Roubaix. We arrive to thick fog and a temperature of 2 degrees. I’m not sure about women being indecisive, but as the only female with 22 men, I left them to worry about clothing choices, take jackets on and off, apply copious amounts of Chamoix cream and generally faff while I stuffed my back pockets full of food and wondered what would be ahead to me.

We rolled out from Roubaix, myself and Mark Jaggard had made a pact to keep a steady pace of around 16mph. This in theory should be achievable for 90 miles. No heroes, just get round. After all, our theory was “We’re on holiday, right?”

After 2 hours and 15 minutes we had averaged 19.5mph and we were getting close to the Arenberg Forest—the first section of Pave. Boys will be boys! In reality it did bank some easy flat miles very quickly.

We arrive at Arenberg. Gabe had positioned himself perfectly, we met him with a big smile, and he was chuffed to bits to see me here. I think deep down he expected me to head for the cut off point some 15 miles prior to the Arenberg.

We offloaded our gilets, topped up with extra fluid, took a big deep breath, and hit the cobbles. Nothing prepared me for it. Everything shook, the speed that I carried in to it from the slight descent soon declined, and here unlike later sections there was no easier line. With white rope fencing off any slightly smooth line, it was a case of sticking it in the 50-13 and holding on for dear life.

At no point was I going to feel smug about passing hoards of riders with puncture; karma will always bite you on the bum.

I got through the Arenburg Forest still smiling and enjoying “my holiday”. The rest of the day was spent looking at my top tube and working out how much relief I’d get on the roads before the next pave section. My sticker had 18 pave sections all with stars categorizing difficulty and also denoting the feed stations, or my name for them—waffle stations.

Coming from an MTB background I’m pretty good at picking a line. On around 7 sections of Pave you could ride in the verge, half on the grass and half on the gritty, less cobbled edge of the road. We were ticking the secteurs off surprisingly quickly. Bunch riding was virtually impossible, on each road section you would just about create a group then before you knew it more pave and yet again you were on your own, left to fight your own personal battle.

I had one “moment” when the group of four we had created diminished to just myself and Mark (aka the cobble monster). We were in theory about 8k away from the next and last waffle station. Hunger, shakiness and my sense of humor started to wane.

I looked at Mark and stated that if the feed station wasn’t round this corner I’m stopping regardless, consuming whatever was left in my pockets, finding anything that was big enough to hide me for a much needed comfort break and giving my bum a much needed rest. To quote the cobble monster: “oh me arse”. Thankfully there it was; waffles, toilets, water and a rest from the saddle. 30k to go now and after a nice break I was feeling good. The sun was blazing the remaining secteurs were tough, long, and wearing on the whole body.

Mark and I ducked and dived in between groups and before we knew it we were on our way back into Roubaix. No major mechanicals, no punctures, no breakages in bikes or bodies, maybe sore some sore bottoms, but all in all a very successful jaunt. We may have developed a little bit of tourettes combined with a fit of giggles which was fun, but we did it, we really enjoyed it, and we were left feeling pretty proud of ourselves.

Neither Mark nor I had realised that we would actually finish in the Velodrome. This was pretty special, although I am bearing a grudge with Mr. Jaggard. After towing the cobble monster into Roubaix, he went and did me on the sprint for the line. Rude, plain rude.

We were handed our medals, posed for a few photos, then headed straight to a bar for frites and recovery drink (leffe). Here we re-grouped and the story telling of everyone’s ride began.

Back to the hotel for a quick shower then out for more food. Gabe from Trek did an absolutely sterling job of organising every little detail. I’m not quite over the fact that our Saturday night Brasserie was up two flights of stairs though…ouch!

Sunday and a 4.30am alarm clock; I thought I was on holiday? More sleep on the bus meant the ride down to Compiegne went quickly. We all sounded like OAP’s getting up but we made it off the bus without a stair lift. The early alarm was worth it. Up close and personal with the main men and their machines. A fantastic atmosphere and the excitement was building.

The pro’s set off and we headed to St. Python, or Corley corner as it was named on our trip last year. The peloton flew through and we were left eating their dust. The reality of how quickly they ride over the cobbles in relation to Joe Bloggs really hit me. The power and strength was phenomenal.

Our bus had a TV so we watched the race unfold, devoured our baguettes and headed in the direction of Roubaix. VIP entrance, trackside seats, beer and nibbles. Oh yes, yet again we were spoilt. My family arrived to watch with me; the race was really heating up and the day was perfect.

With 10k to go, Amelia and I got one of the best seats in the house and our tummies were full of nerves for the powerhouses that were about to hit the Velodrome.

Terpstra had attacked and at first we thought there was no way he would hold that gap, but the velodrome was nearing. He could actually do this…when he hit the track the stadium erupted. His wife was directly opposite us and the emotion was overwhelming.

Quick Step had done it. Not in the form of Tom Boonen, but Niki Terpstra had won the Hell of the North! Cancellara was in a small group just behind with Geraint Thomas, Peter Sagan, Brad Wiggins et al. A good sprint completed an awesome race…one not to be forgotten.

My holiday was fantastic, the Trek Domane I rode handled every cobble superbly, and the weather was on our side. I highly recommend a trip to see The Queen of the Classics; it is one event that every cycling fan should experience.

See you on a 2015 spring classics trip!


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