Coffee, cake, ice-cream and sunshine - it can only be a return to Italy!
But first, let's rewind: it's 9.00am on the third day of the 2019 London Bike Show at the Excel Arena, and my day has not gone well so far. As an exhibitor, I am able to walk the hall before the public arrive so that's my plan for the Sunday morning.
Unfortunately, my good friend Poorplanicus has decided to follow me to the Bike Show - and I sense his presence when an Excel security guard 'refers' me to the exhibitors' office instead of letting me in to the hall.
Why? Well, I'm not wearing my exhibitor's wristband and he's got to make sure that I'm not there for some nefarious purpose.
Sometimes, you just know it's going to be painful.
The looks of anguish, pity and WTF that travel over the event administrator's face tell me that she has little sympathy for my plight.
"Last night, my hotel room was so hot that I had to cut my wristband off to prevent my circulation being cut off..." I explain.
"We don't have any more to spare," comes the unsympathetic reply.
Not since the Clanton gang met the Earps at the OK Corral has there been more of a standoff. I hold my ground, waiting for a solution to be announced. At last the tumbleweed blowing between us is swept away by a supervisor, who simply hands me a couple of wristbands from a desk drawer.
Fuming, but relieved as well, I ambled into the hall and headed off in a direction that I had not explored before. I don't recall exactly how the conversation started but I was soon chatting to Sarah, who had arrived early to ensure the Castello di Santa Cristina stand was ready for the morning onslaught.
Sarah told me that she was one of the horse-riding guides at a family-owned Agriturismo establishment in the south Tuscany area.
My face must have betrayed my surprise, as she quickly explained that horses AND cycling are the mainstays of the holiday side of their business. Phew, I was beginning to think I had blagged my way into the wrong exhibition!
I made a mental note to never again refer to the Castello di Santa Cristina as a 'hotel', and that the business owner's name was Antonello. "I'll be back later", I said to Sarah before returning to my home for the next three days, stand LB318. As an aside, Sportive.com readers can see all of the best bits of the 2019 London Bike Show from the online Showcase magazine.
Later that morning, Antonello Mancini Caterini is easy to spot in the floodlights of his stand when I head back for a chat. He's around six foot tall and - unlike the vast majority of visitors and trade folks at a UK exhibition scheduled for the end of March - he's very tanned. I approach confidently to shake his hand, then jump back as a static electric shock leaps between us. When will event organisers learn that nylon carpets and shoes don't play nicely together? We all need to wear shoes, so don't lay nylon carpets. Easy!
We chat for several minutes about cycling, holidays and Marco Pantani before I walk away (after carefully shaking hands again) with an A5 flyer secure in my hands. Plot hatched, partnership in mind!
Three months later, Antonello and I have agreed that our businesses could work together as a partnership, referring prospects and clients to each other, as well as providing incentives for those clients. Sportive.com readers can find details of the referral scheme and the incentives that are available ove at my Sportive Cycle Coaching website: www.sportivecyclecoaching.co.uk/partners/.
All that remained to complete the partnership was to spend a weekend in Grotte di Castro, experiencing the riding terrain first-hand with Antonello and his chief guide, Massimo. So, in June 2019, I set off into the heatwave raging across Italy and France to renew my riding acquaintance with southern Tuscany, first experienced in 2016 (and, coincidentally, also in a heatwave!).
The first thing that strikes you about the Castello di Santa Cristina is that it is, as the name implies, a castle. There's even an armoury to remind you of some of the more turbulent times that the castle has seen and Antonello will gladly explain the history of his ancestral home on a guided tour. I did find it quite amusing to count how many times the name Antonello occurs in the large, ornate, family tree that is proudly displayed - but you'll have to visit yourself to know the answer!
It's been in Antonello's family for over 300 years and, even in the dark of night time, it is impressive. The fact that it was built by the Caterini family and only ever owned by them makes it even more amazing. The experience of diffused light, faded yet beautiful tapestries and natural coolness endowed by thick stone walls make the castle feel like it should be owned by the Italian equivalent of the UK's National Trust.
It is, though, first and foremost a family home, and that feeling permeates through to the often hard-nosed world of the holiday-maker industry. If you stay at the Castello di Santa Cristina, it as if you are staying with a family.
As the castle was designed for purposes other than sunbathing, most guests stay in apartments and bedrooms in the 18th century farmhouse which is located just 50m below the main castle. This farmhouse was converted to retain its authenticity yet provide the comfort and privacy that we all want from an 'escape'. However, I stayed in the castle itself - and it is no exaggeration or embellishment to say that staying with a family with such longstanding connection to their home was, truly, a privilege.
Saturday morning dawns cloudy and somewhat cooler than had been recently experienced. I am quietly pleased that it's not going to be a roaster but I still make sure that the Factor30 has been sprayed everywhere that the sun might reach. Then it's off to breakfast to fuel up and, if you've never experienced authentic Italian breakfast cuisine, you're in for a treat.
At my level of riding, cyclists from the UK tend to keep the coffee and cake for the mid-ride treat, swapping stories about car drivers, biblical downpours and Bob's worrying love of lycra as they imbibe, scoff and socialise. Not so, in Italy where coffee and cake or, more specifically, sweet things in general are the staple of breakfast. I'm soon full of cappuccino (sorry, Costa, but the 'children's drink' is only really permitted at breakfast), sweet croissant, yoghurt, cake, ham, bread and cheese, as well as having safely stashed a couple of hard-boiled eggs just in case!
Feeling thoroughly fed up - in the best possible sense - I wander back round to the front of the castle and keep going round the side, as instructed by Antonello. My mind is telling me that I will see a cycle workshop but all I can see is the walls of the castle.
Fortunately, the head of the chief ride guide, Massimo Ubaldini, suddenly appears from a doorway with an aimable "Ciao".
Massimo is every bit the epitome of how a road cyclist should look. Even though I met him at dinner the previous night, I am still impressed at the sight of him in his cycling kit: tanned, sleek, stylish and weighing about the same as my right leg!
I fight back my thoughts of worry about power-to-weight and all of those other metrics that, as a professional coach, I tend to go on about. They'll be easy on me, I tell myself, suddenly wishing that I hadn't gone for the extra slice of cake a few minutes before.
Soon after, Antonello, Massimo and I are safely clipped in and starting down the 3km roughly surfaced track from the estate to join the main road. The SP144 is not really 'main' at all though, as there's hardly any traffic whatsoever - but not having to listen to the irritating, grating, unmistakable wind-rush sound of cars hurtling towards me is a big attraction for this weekend.
"Keep on the right, Andy" Antonello reminds me, without too much of a tone to give away the fact he probably says it to every rider from the UK. He softens the comment by adding that there's not many cars, but they do tend to come around the corners too fast.
"Oops, sorry," I reply, deftly piloting my trusty Trek Madone 4.5 back to the right side of the road - just as a box-shaped Fiat does, as predicted, rail it through where I had been just seconds before.
We take a left turn on to the SP49 and follow it for the next 20km or so towards Sorano, rising and falling repeatedly over a succession of minor bumps in the landscape. The road surfaces are poor and Antonello admits that one of his concerns for his business growth is the lack of infrastructure investment in his area. I advise him that the best policy is to be honest with his prospective clients and make sure they have the correct expectation, especially if they are planning to bring their own bikes. Very few places, save for those in France that need to spruce up for a Tour de France visit, invest in perfectly smooth tarmac roads. A practical solution, of course, is also for the clients to hire a bike and Antonello's business provides road bikes, mountain bikes and e- Bikes, so they've got the situation covered in all reality.
Just as I'm settling into my rhythm, the unexpected happens - it rains!
It's not quite at the same level as the rain I had at the Wicklow 200 sportive but it's still rain. Warm, wet and, to be honest, quite nice.
The shower is all too brief but it seems to do something unexpected to the flora. I had been aware of the smell of jasmine for some time, emanating invisibly from the glorious yellow flowered bushes that are everywhere in this part of Italy. Now, after the rain, the smell is somehow turbo charged, as if each bush has been given a new lease of life. It is a beautiful, intoxicating smell. That odour alone will make me return one day!
We make a brief stop to take a couple of photographs with Sorano in the background. There are a number of towns in the area that seem to be hewn directly from the rock face, such is their close connection and construction. I marvel about the engineering of times gone by, and can't help thinking about how intimidating and impregnable the towns would have seemed.
No wonder, then, that Italian society was much dominated by powerful families, each with their own fortified strongholds, until Giuseppe Garibaldi came along to drive the unification of city-states, republics and other independent entities in to modern-day Italy.
With photos safely recorded, we start the 16km gradual rise towards the eastern edge of the Riserva Naturale Monte Penna. It's a beautiful ride all of the way - expansive views, steady, manageable gradients and the smell of jasmine all combine to mitigate the fact that we've climbed about 300m from Sorano.
Massimo has 'dragged' his 60kg frame to the junction with the Strada Provinciale 199 Cellena Selvena where I find him waiting for the diesel engines to catch up. We wait around just long enough to unclip before Antonello arrives and, as he rides on by, he encourages up to keep up which we both take in good humour.
Neither of my hosts mention, however, that this junction is significant because it marks the start of the Cat 3 Salita di Selvena fino bivio terni dall'Elmo climb (4km, 250m ascent, 6% average).
By the way, the name of the Strava segment translates to "Ascent of Selvena up to the junction of Terni from Elmo", which surprised me for its lack of imagination. I'm more used to segments named according to somewhat curious English humour, my two local favourites being 'Cobb's Bell end climb' - and 'My humps, my humps, my lovely lady lumps'.
The climb to the summit of around 800m takes me 19m 35s at 212W but then I back off the power a little, to track across the national park on the SP40 towards our coffee stop at Castell Azzarra.
It's approaching mid-day as we pull over to a small café and become part of a scene that is playing out in almost every Italian village. A number of small groups of locals are chatting away outside in the pleasant weather, probably enjoying the fact that it's only about 23C rather than 43C. I understand little of the conversations happening around me, but the words are softened into a hypnotic melody and I have no doubt that the world is being put to rights.
Antonello's question for my choice of coffee yanks me back to the present-day world - and, as you might expect, the coffee is superb.
Powered by espresso and the hard-boiled egg that I spirited from breakfast, we're soon on the road again, descending for around 16km and 300m as we track south, then east towards Castell 'Ottierri. The roads from there back to the castle are gently rolling with just a couple of short, sharp, rises into Onano to quicken the pulses again. Progress is rapid and I am thankful that the sunshine gods are having a day off.
As we turn off the SP144 on to the single-track road back to the castle, Massimo announces we just have to do the 'three crosses'. My mind is a flurry of connotations - does he literally mean some bizarre ritual involving crosses or is this more of a language translation thing? Fortunately, the answer is immediately evident as we climb the first of three mini ramps, each of about 5-7%. I hadn't really noticed them on the way out, but now they are clear: three crosses = three hills, designed to make sure you have a few last deep breaths of the jasmine-infused air. Absolutely wonderful!
With the ride now complete, there was only one thing left to do in the afternoon to turn it in to a perfect day. Sure, it could be clean the bike, or oil my chain perhaps but instead, I headed out to Capodimonte on the edge of the nearby Lake Bolsena.
There, while watching yachts gently bobbing in the harbour it was time for the thing that Italy is really famous for... gelato!
Castello di Santa Cristina: How to book your own cycling tour
The route followed by Andy, Antonello and Massimo can be found at ridewithgps.com/trips/37282953.
For more information on Castello di Santa Cristina, its facilities and the surrounding area, visit www.santacristinacastle.com.
If you would like an introduction or referral to Antonello and his team, feel free to contact the author: [email protected]
For details of Sportive Cycle Coaching and partners, visit www.sportivecyclecoaching.co.uk.