MY RIDE An easy day to help recovery after the Tour de France
DISTANCE 41 miles (65km)
CHALLENGE Three climbs of the Albano mountains
It’s three weeks since the end of the 2007 Tour de France. Quarrata in Tuscany, the place where British Cycling has made its European base, is opening its eyes after a post-lunchtime snooze.
Cafe owners languidly drag chairs into place, shutters are lifted on shop windows, and Geraint Thomas blinks into the daylight outside his flat in the town square.
“Hope the rain holds off,” he says, eyeing the dark clouds that are bubbling up on a hot and humid August afternoon. Unfortunately it doesn’t, a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder precedes an almighty downpour and we rush to the car, bundling his Cannondale bike inside, and take stock.
“It does this sometimes, maybe it won’t last long,” Thomas says, eyeing the sky hopefully. But the rain continues to belt down and we begin to compare notes as to when we could get together and do this ride again. Unfortunately, there isn’t another free date.
“Look, I’ve got to ride anyway. I’d go on my turbo if you weren‘t here, but sometimes it can rain in one valley around here and be OK in another. If we head over towards Vinci in the car it might be OK there,” Thomas suggests.
In the absence of any better plans we go for it and get lucky. It means starting out with a climb that features in the Tour of Tuscany, but as Thomas says, he has to ride his bike.
“Even if I’ve been travelling I like to go for a ride once I get to where I’m going, it’s good for your legs after sitting still on an aeroplane or something like that.”
The climb takes us over the Albano mountain and down to Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the eyes that go with the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile follow Thomas as he rides past the Da Vinci museum from a huge mural on the outside wall.
This cultural environment isn’t lost on the young Welshman. “I like the feel of the old towns and cities, they are much more relaxed than ours. I like the atmosphere where people are interested in you, but you can sit and talk without any hassle.”
Still on track
Thomas is part of Britain’s world champion team pursuit squad, and despite finishing his first Tour de France just before we met, he still sees himself as primarily a track rider. “My big ambition next year is for the team pursuit at the Olympics. After that I’d like to think I could do more track events when the Olympics are in London. I’d love to do the Madison with Cav [Mark Cavendish] in London,” he says.
The Tour made a difference to Thomas though. “It was an incredible experience. Although I didn‘t go into it with the idea of stopping before the finish, I didn’t realise what a big deal it would be for me to get through it. When I saw the Eiffel Tower on the last day it felt incredible.”
The Tour also did something to Thomas physically, and that is why British Cycling wants its top endurance track riders to ride the biggest road races if they can. “I’m stronger, I know it. I’ve lost some top end now, but it will come back when I start doing track training in the winter.
“My attitude to what is tough has changed. Bradley Wiggins told me it would. He said that four kilometres would never be the same for me after the Tour.”
Riding track and road means a 12-month commitment to cycling; does Thomas find that mentally difficult? “Not really. By the time the road season is coming to an end I’m looking forward to getting back on the track, and the same happens towards the end of the track racing season in spring. Just changing what you focus on is like taking a break.”
How does he cope physically with the transition between the two disciplines? “It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s just the speed when you switch from road to track, the technique is second nature. Switching from track to road is OK once I’ve got some long road rides in, with maybe a few climbs like these mountains in Tuscany.”
They are perfect for training. Not too high or too steep, the roads south of Quarrata sweep constantly up and down a range of medium mountains that are studded with olive groves, vineyards and honey-coloured stone villages.
With the rain gone, Thomas makes good progress along the chain, before descending to Pontassio for the flat run back to Quarrata. He’ll soon be racing on the track, and maybe the Tour de France will be missed next year in favour of the Olympics, but it will definitely feature again in Thomas’s future. And you can bet he won’t simply want to get through and finish next time.
YOUR GUIDE: GERAINT THOMAS
* Age 21, single and born in Cardiff. Lives in Quarrata, Italy during the summer; Manchester for most of the winter and Cardiff when he can get a break in his schedule
* Won his first world title in the junior scratch race on the track when he was 18. His rainbow jersey is framed and hung up in his parents’ home
* Current world team pursuit champion, a title the team won with the third fastest 4,000-metre time in history
* Lost his spleen as a result of a crash in 2005. “I’m fine, but I have to be extra careful because the spleen is part of your immune system. I have to have a flu jab at the start of winter like old people do”
By air: From Pisa airport take the E24 north and E76 east to the Pistoia/Empoli turn-off. Head south following signposts to Quarrata. From Firenze airport follow the E76 east and leave it at the Pistoia/Empoli turn off, following the directions above.
By road, Tuscany is best approached from France by heading to Chambery and then Turin. From Turin take the E70 to its junction with the E26 and head south past Novi Ligure, the birthplace of Fausto Coppi, to Genoa. Then follow the E80 to Lucca and E76 east to the Pistoia/Empoli turn off, and follow the directions above.
From Quarrata head due south, following directions to Empoli. The first crossing of the Albano comes after just a few kilometres. Descend to a main road that has directions to Firenze to your left and Empoli to your right. Turn right and first right again to Vinci. Go through Vinci towards Pistoia and climb the Albano again through Tigliano and Fornello. Turn left at the summit and descend to Lamporecchio. Turn right in the direction of Monsummano Term and turn right to Cecina and Pontassio. Once in Pontassio follow directions to Quarrata.