In September, Martini teamed up with London’s award-winning Bar Termini to invite amateur cyclists from the world of food and drink to complete one of the oldest Italian classic racing routes. Tom Leahy stepped into the saddle…
After almost 200km of cycling over two days and probably one too many Negronis at Caffe Torino I collapsed face first onto the plush bedding of my hotel room with the requisite groan. I lay there spread-eagled for a good while; I may have even nodded off; but once I had regained enough strength to roll over and inspect my surroundings, something caught my eye: the picture hanging above my bed.
I blearily stared at it, trying to get some sense of what the depiction of a fairy-like figure being pursued by a coterie of characters in some sort of Dionysiac procession could mean. A closer examination revealed an important clue: it was titled ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’. Finally, after another minute or so pondering the evidence before me, the light flickered on in my befuddled mind: it was an allegory, wasn’t it? A Victorian lesson in morality and a warning against the perils of untrammelled pleasure.
I wondered whether the Victorians would have approved of my previous forty-eight hours spent cycling across northern Italy. Probably not, because I had endured plenty of pleasure, both on and off the bike: mid-morning coffee stops in beautiful piazzas; the joy of whizzing through an endless landscape of rice paddies, punctuated by ancient farmsteads, in the company of professional cyclists; the rolling valleys of truffle country around Alba; an encounter with a 10th century tower over lunch; aperitivi hour; wild boar tagliatelle for dinner. The list goes on. Hardships? Some, maybe. Not many though, and more of which later.
In any case, what was a pale Englishman doing in the company of lithe Italian cyclists with shaved legs and razor-sharp tan lines on this journey? The whole shebang was the brain child of London mixologist, bar-owner and James Beard award-winning-writer Tony Conigliaro, who, last year, dispatched the bartenders from behind the counter at his Soho outpost, Bar Termini, on bike to travel between Milan and Turin in aid of Great Ormond Street hospital. This year, with Martini on board, the event expanded to a team of 45 cyclists. The bearded-tattoo (my new collective noun) of bartenders from across Europe included Eric Lorincz, who is in charge of the American Bar at the Savoy, which was recently announced as the world’s best bar, as well as some of the main men and women from Martini and yours-truly as one of the representatives of the fourth estate.
Why Milan and Turin? Well it is obvious, isn’t it? Say Milano-Torino and two things should come to mind: the famous one-day bike race that first ran between the cities in 1876, and the classic cocktail of bitters from Milan and vermouth from Turin. Martini, who were founded in Turin and are now based in Pessione, 20km away, have a foot in both camps, as a cornerstone of the Italian aperitivi tradition and with a heritage in bike racing that goes back to the 1920s. The company have also just launched their very own bitters, so you can have your Mi-To, To-To if you prefer.
Unlike the professionals who take less than four and a half hours to travel the 199km route between the two cities, our ride would be a relatively relaxed affair, taking two days with an overnight stop in Casale Monferrato. However, we would be cycling in the company of some pros, including Daniele Ratto, a man with a mountain stage victory in the Vuelta a Espana on his CV, to provide us with a taste of the Grand Tour.
An 8am departure from outside Milan’s Duomo provided the first two-wheeled test, as the group negotiated the city-centre cobbles and tram tracks, not without the odd casualty, before we made our way out of the city, heading south-westerly. Here, we found the flattest, most generous landscape for cycling one could imagine. The sun shone, the pace was easy and my hand-made, carbon road bike proved a livelier mount than the entry level model I use on London’s pot-holed streets.
Morning coffee was taken in the breath-taking renaissance piazza at Vigevano, where we arrived just in time for a cappuccino (never after midday). Thirty kilometres later, lunch was in the village of Rosasco, where I clumped up the four floors of the 10th century tower in my cycling cleats to take in the view of the surrounding countryside: a chequerboard of rice paddies, the omnipresent poplars and terracotta tiles.
Rolling into Casale Montferrato that evening I felt surprisingly fresh, and after an early dinner and bed rose the next morning raring to go. The landscape for the second day’s ride could not have been more different, as the billiard table had been replaced by something topographically more ‘interesting’. The hills of Asti and Alba were more of a challenge on the bike, but the sweeping descents and short, sharp climbs between cobbled, hill-top villages in a kaleidoscopic autumnal landscape was far and away my favourite riding of the whole trip.
At Pessione, where Martini has been based since 1864, we were applauded by half the town as we rolled into Casa Martini for lunch and a tour of the museum. An hour later and fortified by a pair of panino, cake and another espresso, we cycled out of town for the last leg into Turin. The archway into Casa Martini bears the legend ‘Volere é Potere’ – where there is a will, there is a way – which was a suitable slogan for those still on their bikes, because between us and our Negronis stood the category three climb up from the village of Revigliasco: three kilometres of tarmac with gradients up to 20%.
Positioned in the middle of the peloton as we started to ascend, I saw Daniele and one other rider accelerate ahead of the rest of us and decided the only way I could rest easy that evening would be to catch them. Easier said than done, but as I left the rest of the group behind and found my own stretch of road, alternating between stints in the saddle and standing on the pedals when things got tough, I got into the groove.
Transformed from a pastel Yorkshireman, I had visions of myself as Fausto Coppi, Michele Bartoli or Marco Pantani, dancing up the hill in my vintage Martini jersey. As the climb started to flatten out I got back into my saddle, dropped a couple gears and accelerated ahead; a glimpse of Daniele was all the encouragement needed and working hard I caught him and his fellow rider on the second to last bend, greeting them with a magnificently insouciant ‘ciao!’.
Elation? Gratification? Fatigue? Yes, yes and yes. Was Daniele impressed that I’d caught them? I’m not sure as he was on the phone having a chat at the time and barely acknowledged my presence. In fact, as I examined him I looked in vain for any evidence of the struggle I’d endured up the hill. Maybe a bead of sweat on the brow, possibly two even, but certainly not more than three.
Some hardships for me then as I struggled up the hill chasing my own vision of pleasure in the form of a lycra-clad ex-pro cyclist. But satisfaction at the top, on the descent into Turin and finally at the bottom of my first and second celebratory Negroni in the Piazza San Carlo. More satisfaction a few days later when my bike app, Strava, told me I was the quickest person up the hill that day. You might say that the pros weren’t trying, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
All cyclists were riding in aid of two charities: Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London and Wine to Water, who work to provide clean water for those who need it around the world. Donations can be made here and here.
For more information about Bar Termini, visit www.bar-termini.com.