January 18, 2024
As I write these words, the fire is crackling in the stove and snow is piling up around our chalet. We’re in the depths of winter, and it’s time to reflect on the highlights of the past season.
How did it start? For my buddy Luca and me, it was a trip to Laigueglia that got us back in the saddle. A trip that we both experienced as a return to our roots, but for reasons that are unique to each of us.
Luca grew up in Turin, and that’s where he raced in his younger years. In winter, he would escape the fog of the Po valley to train on the nearby Ligurian coast. “The region enjoys a micro-climate: even in January and February, you can ride in the warmth of a narrow strip along the sea. As soon as you go a few kilometers further, it’s winter,” he explains as we enjoy our first Italian coffee in an Autogrill, somewhere in the Aosta Valley. We’re already on the other side of the Alps, and there’s less snow than back home in Switzerland: a good sign.
As for me, Liguria reminds me of Milano-Sanremo and the best years I spent at the UCI, in another life. I used to go to the race every year: the first major event of the season, the Classicissima marked the reunion of the microcosm of professional cycling.
Riders, team managers, journalists, team bosses, executives of all kinds: we would all meet at the start, in the gloom of central Milan. Once the peloton and the race caravan were on their way, we headed for the autostrada to Sanremo and awaited the finish in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Nostalgic for the good old days, I was looking forward to a similar experience, as we were invited by the Trofeo Laigueglia organization. Celebrating its 60th edition, this race traditionally marks the start of the season in Italy. It has long attracted the stars of the international peloton.
Famous names such as Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Saronni and, a little closer to now, Museeuw have all won the race. Today, the stars of the peloton start their seasons in Australia, Argentina or the Middle East. But the Trofeo Laigueglia retains a slightly old-fashioned charm that I was looking forward to enjoying.
As soon as we arrive at Hotel Mediterraneo, we’re in for a treat: the Pro Continental Eolo-Kometa team is also staying there. In vain, we look for Alberto Contador and Ivan Basso, the team bosses. The riders look so young – or maybe we’re getting old. The lobby is a busy place, with staff making final preparations. Everyone is eager to get started.
The next morning, on race day, there is less enthusiasm as the skies are grey and heavy rain is forecast. We’ll wait for the spring atmosphere… and to eat our fritto misto outside.
Despite this, we’re going to ride. In fact, we’ve been invited by the organizers to take part in the “pedalata ecologica” on the race’s final circuit. We imagine a ride reserved for VIPs, and that’s more or less what it is. Except that amongst these VIPs are Pippo Pozzato, Davide Cassani, Marco Saligari and Mirko Celestino.
The combined palmares of these illustrious pros, retired for more or less a long time, include a Milano-Sanremo, a Giro di Lombardia, stages of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, a Tour de Suisse, an Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a GP E3, four Giro dell’Emilia, three Milano-Torino and an U23 World Championship. Not to mention four Trofeo Laigueglia.
All are happy to be back together and the group is chatting away. Even when Luca and I are climbing a hill at over 300 watts… we try to keep a smile on our faces, which soon turns into a grimace before we let go. Fortunately, everyone’s waiting for us at the top, but the descent once again puts us in our place: the pros, even long after retirement, have an astounding sense of trajectory, and in three switchbacks we’re far behind again.
After 12 kilometers, which feel like triple, we’re back at the start area. The rain is coming down harder and harder, and the riders are looking glum as they sign on. There are a few familiar faces: Biniam Girmay, Alberto Bettiol, Thibaut Pinot… but the bulk of the field is made up of Italian Pro Continental and Continental teams. With their signature outfits, covered with the logos of their many sponsors.
A quick aside: it’s fashionable to make fun of these teams for being “decorated like a Christmas tree”, but I’ve always admired them. They play an essential role in their country: they’re the ones who enable the majority of riders to climb the ladder to the World Tour. How many riders have Gianni Savio and Reverberi (father and son) given a job to over the last 30 years?
And how many tens of millions of euros have they injected into the sport thanks to the multitude of small and large sponsors who have adorned their jerseys, year after year? There was Eurocar, Kross, ZG Mobili, Androni Giocattoli, Diquigiovanni, Sidermec, Italbonifica, Scrigno, Panaria, Navigare, Bardiani, CSF… and so many others.
Yes, they gave me a hard time when I worked at the UCI, with their shaky budgets and their promises that everything was in order. But at the same time, they’re the ones I most enjoy meeting when I go to the races. They are the last representatives of an endangered species, squeezed out by the “devo teams”. For better or for worse? That’s another story.
But back to the rain in Laigueglia. The start is given and we head back to the hotel to change before bravely heading for the restaurant that serves as the VIP area. At coffee time, after 150km between the seaside and the hills of the hinterland, the peloton (or what’s left of it) faces the final part of the race: 4 laps of the circuit we covered in the morning.
The battle is raging between the frozen warriors who remain in the race. At this game, it is Frenchman Nans Peters who proves to be the strongest and wins solo. At the start, he was one of the few who seemed relaxed: the race was already half won for him.
Despite the deluge now beating down on the Ligurian coast, the crowd swarms to attend the official ceremony. Shivering, the bundled-up riders take to the podium to receive their prizes. Then it’s off to home, the next race or a training camp. The season has only just begun, and Laigueglia returns to the torpor of a late winter at a seaside resort.
The next morning, Luca’s famous Ligurian micro-climate is back and the sun is shining. We set off to discover Laigueglia with the race organizers, a company called Extragiro. Their motto: “Cycling is at the service of the territory, not the other way around”. What does this mean? Traditionally, cycling expects (demands?) a service from the territories it crosses: closed roads, infrastructure at the start and finish, hotels, cash for the biggest races. Nowadays, however, this model is running out of steam. The organizers of most races are finding it increasingly difficult to gain the support of local authorities.
To address this problem, Extragiro aims to turn the paradigm on its head: a bike race is a platform for showcasing a region. It should help to promote everything that makes it special: the beauty of its landscapes, its culture, its gastronomy… The aim is not only to attract spectators during the event, but also to generate visibility that will attract future visitors.
So we spend the morning wandering around the old pedestrian town of Laigueglia in the company of a local guide. He tells us all about the history of this fishing village turned seaside resort, packed with tourists in summer.
Fortunately, this is the off-season. Hoteliers, shopkeepers and winegrowers welcome us with open arms to help us discover the treasures of their region. Luca and I try not to overindulge in the excellent wine we’re given to taste, as we want to get out and ride.
After a glass (or two) too many, we finally set off. We’re still wearing long sleeves, but it’s our first ride of the year without our winter hats and thick gloves. Freedom!
After a few hundred meters, we’re already on the Capo Mele, one of the humps of the Milano-Sanremo finale. At this point, the pros have 240 kilometers under their belts and are probably still twice as fast as us.
Arriving in Andora (with one “r”, not to be confused with the Pyrenean micro-state where half the WorldTour peloton lives), we leave the coast and climb to the village of Testico, perched at just over 400 metres above sea level. The slope, imperceptible at first along a river, becomes steeper as we climb through olive groves. But nothing too difficult for the start of the season: 7% at most.
After 10 kilometers on the crest, we descend back to the sea and the town of Alassio, before returning to Laigueglia along the coast. All in all: 46km, a good warm-up for what lies ahead.
Indeed, we plan to follow the route of the Gran Fondo Laigueglia for our first big ride of the year. The event, which opens the amateur season in Italy, took place the previous weekend with almost 1,000 participants.
It’s Luca’s idea: “in general, Gran Fondos take place on good roads away from traffic, and the route visits the key places in the region”, he tells me as we set off along the Via Aurelia, the road that runs along the coast.
Throughout the day, his premise is confirmed. We take three climbs: Costa Bacelaga, Castellaro and Testico (in the opposite direction to the previous day). The slopes are steady and we don’t climb higher than 500 meters, which keeps us out of the cold. Yes, the micro-climate is a reality!
And it’s not just the roads that are pleasant: we’re riding through magnificent Mediterranean landscapes, between olive groves and typical villages. At first, however, I find it hard to capture our experience with my camera. I’m used to the sharp peaks of the Alps and the mineral landscapes of the high mountains. Here, we do a lot of riding through woods and bushes. The gentle hills don’t catch my eye, and I struggle to structure my images.
Fortunately, I gradually find my feet and frustration gives way to jubilation. I manage to play with the contorted shapes of the olive trees and take advantage of the rare openings in the vegetation to capture the wooded hills that stretch as far as the eye can see towards the mountains.
All this puts Luca to the test, and we stop counting the number of times he has to go back and forth to refine our images. “A little to the right”… “don’t look at the camera this time”… “once again, but out of the saddle”… He knows the music and executes the choreography to perfection.
As the day progresses, our strength declines. By the time we reach Testico, I’ve got my blood sugar down in my socks (as we say in French) and we stumble into a bar. The coffee is excellent and I scarf down a brioche, a kind of croissant with a filling, typical in Italy, that has saved me many a time.
Once I’ve regained all my senses, I notice two men at a table. They speak to us in the local dialect, of which I don’t understand a word. Luca, on the other hand, manages to make conversation, as the idiom of his native Piedmont is not so far off. I take the opportunity to snap a few photos, and we leave with a feeling: life here flows peacefully, and it doesn’t take much to be happy.
A lesson we have plenty of time to ponder as we painstakingly climb Capo Mele just before reaching Laigueglia. We’re completely exhausted, those 125km with our early-season legs having provided us with a great challenge.
Months later, I’m looking back on all the good times of that trip and I hope I’ll be able to return to Liguria. The region is only a few hours from Switzerland and lends itself admirably to a (long) weekend to rack up the miles at the end of winter.
Here is the komoot collection with our rides: