Early this spring I spent several weeks with InGamba Tours in the Chianti region of Tuscany and their hospitality and support was a key factor in my Tour de France training and subsequent success. The InGamba experience is magical on many levels – surrounded by crazy characters, stupid-beautiful roads and basically the best food on the planet, it’s hard not to be enchanted. For this column and the next, a few remembered tales. Click here
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A Little Fun
João Correia is trying to kill me. Retired from racing now and supposedly "out of shape" the ex-pro has only one speed when it comes to the flat, winding main road that heads out of Lecchi toward Pianella: fast. I've been in town for less than 24 hours and here I am 20 minutes into a ride, gritting my teeth and sucking wheel with a desperation that must look ridiculous.
Every time I think he might let up for a minute, Correia gives it a little more gas. The little workers that run the muscles in my legs are screaming up at me, "This shit is not in our contract!" Then I take my eye off the wheel in front of me for a moment and look around: castles on hilltops, symmetrically sweeping vineyards that disappear up hillsides toward small stone houses, poppies, little puffy clouds. Tuscany in technicolor.
I'm speeding through a postcard fairytale and all I can see is this wheel, all I can hear is my heart and my breathing. So I sit up.
Correia rides away with a smooth motion that indicates he has no idea that I've pulled my parachute. I watch him get smaller and smaller in the distance as the pavement glides and curves toward the horizon.
I slow my pedaling even more and sit up in the saddle to stretch my back. "Hey, hey, paradise." I say to the countryside, "I'm ready to learn all your secrets."
A few kilometers ahead João Correia is realizing that he is missing something: a writer. He waits at the next turn and asks what happened.
"I sat up. That's what happened."
"Why would you do that?" he's laughing, "I was just having a little fun."
"Feel free. Just don't expect me to follow."
The rest of our ride takes us over a short stretch of the regions famous white roads and up a small, punchy climb with a sign posted that says, "24%".
"Are we really going to climb that?" I ask as we approach it.
"That sign is incorrect." is his only reply. l'm several bike lengths back but I can hear him smiling.
Back in Lecchi, the small village where InGamba bases its Chianti tours, the next group of riders is starting to trickle in from the airport. An investment banker from New York, a tall tower of a man named Peter, a feisty Irish guy with an absolutely endless supply of highly inappropriate and hilarious one-liners, a surgeon from Seattle. Some of the guys know each other, some of them don't. We're all here for two very specifc reasons: to ride bikes until we can't pedal anymore and to eat and drink until we are overcome by the sheer glory of unapologetic gluttony. There's a balance in there somewhere and this tour is all about finding it.
We are about to have the most amazing week of our lives.
Love What You Love
Let's be clear: any touring company can take you to Tuscany, put you on a bike, show you some roads and then pile you around a table at a restaurant somewhere at night. What they can't do is make you feel like you've just returned to a home you never knew you had.
When you walk into BorgoLecchi Bed & Breakfast you're met by Morgaro, who is possibly the happiest single man alive (I challenge you to get him to stop smiling - I wasn't successful even when I burst into tears upon saying goodbye on my final night.) Local radio lulls out of his father's stunning art deco 1940's era radio which is perfectly framed on a bookshelf by a promising selection of the region's finest wines. Morgaro's wife Anna puts something in your hand: a glass of sparkling water, a bit of juice, a beer, a bit of chianti – whatever you like.
The hospitality starts here and expands exponentially in every direction. Every guest has a new Giordana kit waiting in their room. Every Pinarello Dogma 2 is dialed into fit dimensions that you've sent ahead of time - a pro sticker with your last name and country flag is placed on the top tube.
One morning after visiting a hobby winemaker who lives up the street, a bottle of his specialty sits on my stoop after I roll in from the day's ride. The label is handwritten: "Vin Santo 2005" Later, I'll dip cookies, called "cantucci", in this sweet dessert wine after dinner and proclaim that it is the best thing that I have every consumed. (A premature declaration and one that I make at least twice daily during my time in Chianti.)
The concept of InGamba Tours is simple: combine the best riding with the best of everything else. What life would we live if we could live perfectly every day? Eat and drink as if this is your last day, ride as if you won't ride again, open your eyes and see the world, feel with every part of your heart. InGamba is not just about cycling, it's about accessing a passion that most people might never get to engage. With InGamba, everything is personal. Everything is special. Everything rises above. These tours are created from intimate knowledge of places and decades-old friendships.
Ride Hard, Ride Well, Ride Happy
In the morning I sit around a long table with 8 of my new best friends (a gang of men who all have the distinct look of "fast") and then walk 50 meters from my apartment down the road that cuts through the center of town. I can see Paolo, who owns and runs the town's only restaurant and cafe (his mother runs the small market next door) outside pulling a delivery off of a truck. He puts an indescribably large hand into the air and calls out, "Ciao, Heidi!" in a way that makes me feel as if I've already lived here forever, instead of just a day.
"Ciao, Paolo!" I call down the road. This greeting ritual will become one of my favorite moments of each morning.
Paolo's cappuccino is an exercise in mastery. Locals file in slowly for their coffee and a brioche or croissant from behind the glass. Someone leans over a newspaper reading headlines.
Just across the street the InGamba service course is open and ready for business: gleaming Pinarellos lined up with military precision outside the door as Jorge the Mechanic finishes off the day's final touches - tweaking brakes, attaching freshly charged Garmin computers and dialing things in. Raul the Soigneur is filling bottles and sliding them into cages. When you sit down in a chair to put your cycling shoes on, he gives your legs a quick rub with oil. The table is lined with ride food that he has prepared the night before.
Fill your pockets - you're going to need it.
Here's your job for the day: Ride hard, ride well, ride happy.
In my case, on my first day in the ManGroup there's one more assignment: don't lose the wheel. I've played this game before. I'm good at it when I want to be.
We roll out to the tune of 40kph and it's not Correia on the throttle this time. Up at the front someone is grinding out a steady cadence of pain. I and Peter the Tower, slip into the impossible vortex of calm that exists behind his 6'8" frame and make myself as tiny as possible.
We hit the first climb of the day and I slide backward down the grade as attacks go off the front. Raul rolls up beside me and puts a hand on my lower back until my heart gets quiet again. These climbs are named after wineries and estates. Later when we open bottle after bottle during dinner we'll feel a little satisfaction as we recognize the names:
"Badia a Coltibuono!" the Irishman says, "Hand me that bastard – I've got a score to settle!"
Right now however, the scores are being settled on a long road flanked by olive groves, vineyards and centuries-old castles. Today the sky is filled with dramatic clouds that threaten rain but don't deliver. Tomorrow they'll make good. Here's a little secret: a rainy day riding bikes with InGamba through the hills of Tuscany is seventeen million times better than the best day you've had on a bike anywhere else. Believe it.
By the time we make it back to Lecchi the boys are laughing and tired, spinning out a high cadence, arms around shoulders. The roads in the Chianti region go in two directions – straight up and straight down. Most of our rides end with a left hand turn off the main road onto a steep climb that delivers you to a village where massages and pasta and wine and showers and smiles and a service course are waiting for you. A town that is little more than 100 meters long and filled with people who are glad to see you. A little town on a hill in Tuscany. Your town for a week. Home.
Frame: Pinarello Dogma 2 Carbon - 46.5 (51 top tube)
Gruppo: Shimano Ultegra Electronic 10 Speed
Crank: SRM Wireless Powermeter - FSA K-Force Light Compact (34X50) - 170 mm - SRM PowerControl 7
Bottom Bracket: FSA BB 8200 Ceramic Bearings
Wheels: Fulcrum Racing Zero Clinchers
Tires: Continental Attack Force Combo
Saddle: Specialized Oura (My own. I adhere to a BYOS policy when traveling) The bike was equipped with a MOST XLR XP Carbon Saddle
Handlebar: Started with a MOST Talon Integrated Handlebar then switched to a MOST Jaguar XF Handlebar and Stem combination to tweak my fit
Get Some (Upcoming Tour Dates)
Sonoma California Weekender - Sept 7-9th
The Pousadas of Portugal - Sept 8-16th
Mangia. Beve. Bici. California and Levi's GranFondo - Sept 23-29th
Mangia. Bevi. Bici. Chianti – Lombardia & l'Eroica - Sept 28th - Oct 8
Mangia. Bevi. Bici. Chianti - L'Eroica - Oct 5 - 12th
L'Eroica Chianti Weekender - Oct 4 - 8th