Talking Turkey: Part I

Greetings Cyclingnews readers! I hope you all are well and, like me, are living your dreams out on the bike every day that you ride. Right now, I'm writing to you from Izmir, Turkey, on the eve of the start of the International Presidency Tour of Turkey, an eight-day UCI stage race in - you guessed it - Turkey. This time around I'm back racing with Team Whistle, after being loaned to our sister squad Bianchi-Cinghiale for the Volta a Sao Paulo in Brazil last month.

That race was another great adventure, though from a sporting perspective for me it was a huge disappointment. My form was waaaaaay off and the best placing I managed was 6th in the second stage. I should've/could've/would've won the 250km fourth stage after a perfectly-timed sprint, except for the fact that my cleat broke in the final 50m, launching me out of the pedal and half-way across the road. Thankfully I didn't crash, though I came close to doing serious damage to a very important part of my anatomy.

There was some redemption for me and the team on the penultimate stage when, after almost having abandoned, I led out Vladimir Smirnov for the field sprint for third. He won it handily - our only podium finish of the tour. So, while Brazil proved to be an incredibly beautiful country from a variety of perspectives, the race itself was in no way professionally pleasurable and I was happy to return to Italy.

Alas, after 1100km in under a week, I was again creeping like an invalid and not looking forward to my next race, the GF Selle Italia Prestige, one of the more mountainous one-day events on our schedule. In the hopes of avoiding total anonymity, I went with the early break to represent Team Whistle and take some pressure off our leader for the day, Juan Torres. It paid off, as half-way up the third-climb, when Raimondas Rumsas flashed past (in the big-ring) Torres was comfortably lodged on his wheel. At the end of the day, Rumsas still won, with Bianchi-Cinghiale's Gianluca Cavalli in second, but Juan hung on for third.

After I was dropped, I found myself in a group that included Gilberto Simoni of Saunier-Duval. Of course, I didn't know he was in the group until I'd blown my nose before looking back - only to see that I'd sprayed the Giro winner with my snot. Shit. Not one of my prouder moments, but another brush with fame nonetheless.

We had a week off with no racing following Selle Italia, but it was back to the office on April 15th for the GF Lambrusco in Parma. Rumsas collectively spanked us again, winning his umpteenth race after breaking away with Andrea Paluan, but I posted a good result. I finished 10th after attacking out of my small chase group in the final km's. This race was a classic, and we rode it like a boxing match, slugging the crap out of each other in the final 30km when it was obvious that third place would come out of what was then a 15-man chase group. I thought I had a good chance to podium until we made a left turn with 12km to go and faced a short, 1.5km long wall. Definite "doh!" moment, as I'd been on the attack on the flats before the hill and quickly found myself spit back into the second group. This group then fractured as three more riders went up the road, to make a total of nine. With everyone looking pretty grim as we approached the red kite, my teammate Igor Pugaci gave me a wink and a grin and I took off, claiming 10th spot on the line.

A note on Rumsas: say what you want about the Lithuanian with respect to his various brushes with the law and anti-doping authorities, but the guy's natural talent is incredible. It's a shame that he is remembered for his mistakes and transgressions, when the reality is that he really is one of those rare humans who is naturally world-class-fast on a bike. When he is on-form and shows up on the start line of a granfondo, it's no longer a question of who will win, but rather, who can finish second. But hey, let's keep it all in perspective:

Back to the racing - two days later, we were in Perugia for the 150km GF Umbria Verde, where my teammate Andrea Gurayev took a surprise win after rolling off the front with one other rider with just 20km to go. Third place went to ex-Acqua e Sapone rider Kyrilo Pospeyev (Ukraine) who attacked in the final kilometer, while Igor Pugaci led me out for fourth. "Puga" and I are really getting on much better now, and his betraying me at the GF Ceriale is conveniently forgotten. He's a cool guy, but definitely mas raro que un perro verde (sorry, I don't know how to say that in Italian, hence the Spanish). It's all fine, though, because I'm a quirky dude too and the result is that we're pretty compatible as roommates. Still, I'm trying to break him of the habit of hanging wet clothes all around the room like ever so many soppy mobiles.

My form through this period of racing was not the best in the world and I was definitely still searching for peak fitness. So when we embarked on an epic road trip to the south of Italy for the Giro di Terra D'Otranto in Puglia on April 23rd, I was flattered that the team made me the designated leader but trepid about actually having the legs to do the job.

I'm a worrier by nature, but even my gloomiest predictions of heavy legs and a too-high pulse rate weren't going to get in the way of enjoying my first visit to Italy's south. Yes, it's as beautiful as you've been told, and no, I didn't meet anyone who identified themselves as belonging to Cosa Nostra. Nonetheless, I saw more than a few men who could have played parts in "The Godfather" movies. Besides the natural beauty of the place, one of the highlights of the trip was having a coffee and beer (great combo) with my teammate Igor Pugaci in a bar/caffé located off of the town square in Bagnolo del Salento. I wish I'd taken some photos, but I felt too conspicuous as it was, walking around with an Italian speaking ex-Soviet. So I played it safe and tried not to offend the locals while still taking in the spectacle of a South Italian town and all the color and flavor it has to offer.

Speaking of flavor, Italian coffee is the best in the world, and every morning when I'm in Montecatini I simply jump out of bed and bound down the stairs to fire up the espresso machine. However, in case you didn't know - and I didn't until I arrived here - you can order far more than just the standard espresso or cappuccino. For example, there is caffè alla valdostana (with grappa, lemon peel and spices), caffè americano (long and black), caffè corretto (with a dash of liqueur), caffè doppio (long, strong and black), caffè macchiato (strong coffee with a drop of milk), caffè ristretto (super strong black coffee) and ristretto (very short black coffee). Don't order a latte unless you're after a glass of milk! Instead, request a caffellatte, but keep in mind that it's something usually only served at breakfast.

But back to the racing... The weather at the start in San Cesarea Terme was gorgeous, the course was fantastic, the scenery was beautiful (along the Adriatic Sea), and my team was strong! On the second climb we launched a flurry of attacks, shattered the field and eventually, after Pugaci and I bridged up to the first group, put five riders into a 7-man escape! It didn't make for the most exciting of races as we rode a team time trial to the finish, but there was some excitement in the final 10km as I had to attack three times to finally get away with my teammate "Falza" (Alfonso Falzarano) and Michele Laddomada. Fabio Ciccarese, who'd sat on the entire time, insisted on chasing me down because he thought he deserved third! Doh! We had offered him fourth if he would work with us in the break and not cause trouble, just as we'd offered Laddomada second, but Ciccarese insisted on riding his own race and instead finished sixth. That bit of cycling mafia drama aside, after we were finally up the road, I completed the last formality of the escape and attacked with 2km to go, taking my first win in Italy.

I'm never one to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, but this wasn't the most satisfying victory for me. Don't get me wrong - a win is a win is a win and I'm happy to have one to list on my results sheet for 2006 - but the team definitely gifted it to me. I was the weakest of the five of us in the break (our last teammate, Antonio Marotti, was chasing on his own and would finish eighth) and finished first only because it was the will of the squadra.

Leaving the realm of racing for a second to comment on training in Tuscany - I have died and gone to heaven. In my short time here, I have been on training rides with guys from Saunier Duval-Prodir, Lampre-Fondital, Quickstep-Innergetic, Team Milram, Amore & Vita-McDonald's, Acqua & Sapone and Naturino-Sapore di Mare. I also ran into one Jan Ulrich on Monte Serra, which is the major "testing" climb in this part of Tuscany. I think Basso holds the record for the 6.125km climb at 16 minutes and change, though Thomas Dekker supposedly broke the Italian's record for a "winter" ascent during this past off-season. Anyway, Jan was super-gracious and actually stopped with me on the climb so that I could snap a photo of us together. In my excitement, I forgot to save the picture to my camera phone, so you'll just have to believe me. And he didn't look fat.

Tuscany seems far away now as I listen to the azan, or call to prayer, emanating from a nearby mosque. But I know that I will soon be part of the traveling circus of international cycling and I hope that the good sensations that finally returned to me during my last few days of training in Italy carry over to the International Presidency Tour of Turkey. Stay tuned to find out!

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