The Case for Women-Only Camps

Jamie Bookwalter's Women's Cycling Group

The five-year-old son of one of my friends has the uncanny ability to find the fastest route to any mud puddle or pile of dirt within 10 meters. Within 30 seconds of opening the car door, this kid, guaranteed, will have dirt on his face. It seems that boys will be boys, no matter what nationality they are.

The other day I went mountain biking with a group of middle-aged men. In the middle of the ride, one of the guys just disappeared. I inquired about his whereabouts, and the other guys told me that the fellow was upset that one of the other guys in the group was stronger than him. Apparently, the disappearing dude is usually the fastest, and couldn’t handle the possibility he might have been de-throned. On a Thursday. On a fun group ride. If the adage “boys will be boys” applies worldwide,
“men will be men” might apply as well.

Women's Cycling Camp ToscanaMy point is, as a woman, sometimes you just don’t need MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra) around. We can be just as competitive and just as muddy, but there is something affirming and positive about exercising with a group of only women. Statistics show women are more likely to pick up cycling later in life than men, and it’s often difficult to learn new skills when more experienced (and often louder)
“experts” are around, giving advice and regaling all those around with play-by-play analyses of a Masters race that happened around the time leisure suits were still hot.

I think it’s important to note that the historical relationship between women and bikes actually goes back to the very first bicycles; one book I’ve come across is Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. This book discusses the way bicycles helped subvert the traditional notion of femininity by emancipating women from huge dresses and corsets; women couldn’t wear 20lb bustles and ride bikes. Less-constricting clothing was necessary for women to ride these new mechanical inventions, and fashion followed.

We’re past bustles, but I’m a huge fan of women-only camps…

Velo Veneto is embracing the Women-only concept whole-heartedly. This August, experience a unique week at our Women’s Dolomites Cycling Camp. Not only is it for women, but it’s been designed by women and run by women.

Monte Zoncolan: Tailgating at 5,700 Feet

Steve Morabito Fans on Monte Zoncolan

Stage 20 of the 2014 Giro must go down as one of my favorite days of race watching. The race finished in the Friuli region, on Monte Zoncolan. I arranged to go to the finish of the stage with the extremely nice family of Brent’s swiss-french teammate, Steve Morabito. They picked me up from the train station in Padova, and when I climbed into their car for 2.5 hour drive to Zoncolan, I immediately began to sweat. It was a hot day and their air-conditioning was barely on; the French are famous for their distaste of air conditioning. I texted Brent, who was rooming with Steve, and he replied that he was a hotel room with Steve, sweating his ass off as well because the air conditioning was not on in their room either.

Steve’s wife had arranged to meet with a local Italian fan to get us press passes. I’m still not sure what happened, but after a lot of hand waving and rapid Italian, we were ushered into the press hotel, our pictures were taken, and the new credentials complete with our photos were hung around our necks. Then we proceeded to tailgate “Italian style” in the parking lot for the lift to Zoncolan, joining the hundreds of drunk joyous and boisterous Italians drinking homemade Prosecco and eating almond cake. No one seemed that concerned that the race would be finishing soon and we were still at the bottom of the lift and the race finished at the top, 3 miles and a 1000 feet of altitude away. When the time seemed right (i.e. the Prosecco ran out) we loaded onto the press-only ski lift and trundled to the top, loaded with Morabito flags. (Steve Morabito’s fan club runs like a well-oiled swiss machine- there are Morabito flags, hats, jackets, etc., and yearly dinners raise money for all the fans to travel to cheer him on at international events).

Monte Zoncolan in 2014 Giro d'ItaliaOnce at the top of the mountain, we marched toward the finish with thousands of other fans, most of whom in various stages of inebriation and disorder. It’s hard to describe the Friuli mountains—superlatives fail me when I think of this region. The rock formations and the epic cragginess of these mountains are stunning; you feel like you are on top of the world. Combine this with campers and tents and people grilling food and yelling and singing and blowing trumpets. It’s overwhelming. It was like an American football game, but at 5,700 ft. The last 3km of road to the finish line was absolute chaos. People of all different nationalities jostled for the best place to cheer, and there was a great sense of anticipation waiting for the cyclists to arrive. Even the police and Alpini (the Italian mountain army) that lined up and linked arms to stop the fans from running into the road with the cyclists had cameras and huge smiles, exactly the opposite of the police in the Tour de France.

When the police motos that herald the head of the race began appearing, the zeal and enthusiasm and eagerness of the crowd almost knocked me off my feet (literally), and the roar of the fans reached a fever pitch when the first hollow-eyed cyclists came zipping up the mountain. Brent ended up in a breakaway that day and got 5th! What an experience. The mountains (and people) in this part of Italy must not be missed.

Friuli with Craig LewisWant to experience this region, and in fact this very mountain, for yourself? Join our Friuli with Craig Lewis Camp, from August 30 to September 5. This year’s itinerary includes a ride with a summit finish on the Monte Zoncolan!

Meditations on Italian and Spanish Cooking

Fresh Pasta at Hotel Montegrappa

One of the things that interests me most when I travel is the food. Just like the Roman aqueducts in Segovia or the Alhambra in Granada, the local flavors of a place display influences of past invaders, settlers, or traders. Spain has been colonized by Greeks and Romans (olives and olive oil) and Moors (rice and gazpacho); Italy’s pasta has Arabic origins. The first encounter a traveler has with a country is usually through food, often before the traveler even steps foot in the country!

Spanish and Italian Mediterranean food is very different from Latin American food. One of the biggest differences is that Spanish and Italian food is generally not spicy. My Catalan neighbor Cristina spent a year as an au pair in Massachusetts, and claims she almost starved to death. “The family’s cook was Mexican and the family told me that I would love her cooking, since I am Spanish, and the cook speaks Spanish. I couldn’t handle any of it—it was waaaay too spicy. I would go to my room and eat chocolate after dinner because I could never eat her dishes!”

Last night Cristina cooked me dinner. It was a salted cod dish from the Basque region. She put (I’m not kidding) a piece of mild cayenne pepper the size of a bit of glitter in the pot. “Ah!” she yelled after she tasted the dish. “I over-spiced it!”

Collecting Fresh Mushrooms in the DolomitesDespite the Italian and Spanish aversion to spicy foods, Mediterrean food is fresh and terrific… especially Italian food. If you join a bike tour with Velo Veneto, there is a good chance you will stay in the Hotel Montegrappa. The Bolzon family that runs this hotel are incredibly hospitable. Luca, the owner, is also the chef, and he takes great pride in his menu. The food is simple and incredibly tasty, and he makes his own pasta fresh daily. Food like this would easily cost twice as much in the US.

Wine Tasting in Alt Emporda – Catalonia

Cantallops Countryside

One of the societal differences I’ve noticed between Spain and the USA is the lack of commercialization here in Spain.

Jamie and Brent Bookwalter at Camp NouLast year when we went to a Barça soccer game, we were very surprised we could’t buy alcohol in the stadium, Camp Nou. This team is one of the best in the world in the most popular sport in the world, and their stadium is the largest in Europe, with a capacity of almost 100,000 people and it didn’t even have a Jumbotron screen. It barely had ads anywhere in the stadium. It was pretty enjoyable not to be bombarded with commercials, but it was difficult to understand what was going on without a huge screen in your face or an announcer yelling about Coco-Cola and talking about the game. We were able to tell which team got the red card only by the energy in the stadium. (In a side note, it was interesting to note they put the opposing team fan seats in a cage surrounded by guards.) We left thinking if they put an American in charge of marketing things would be very different.

Last year Brent crashed in a race and came home depressed. We decided that drinking his troubles away in public was probably more healthy so we planned the a wine tasting day in alt emporda using a wine tourism book a friend gave us. Alt Emporda is a region of Catalonia north of Girona and south of the Pyrenees. The area is with mineral rich soil that is buffeted by a strong north east wind called the Tramontane. With some difficultly (my Spanish isn’t terrific) I had reservations for three tastings for a Saturday. On a whim, I invited our Catalan friend David.

We woke up early and drove north on tiny roads to Cantallops, a tiny and quiet town situated on dry hills gently rolling up to the rocky expanse of the eastern Pyrenees. We parked outside the town and wandered around in the ancient stone streets looking for the winery. We finally found it, housed in an otherwise normal looking 600 year old house tucked on a street corner. We knocked and knocked on the door, and no one came. Finally, an old lady next door stuck her head out the window and yelled something in Catalan. I thought she was telling us to go away but David translated and said that she was the matriarch of the winery family. She eventually made her way down to the street and let us in.

Half the winery was a museum, where they had artifacts of the family history dating back 600 years. In fact, the whole winery was a working museum. The room where they kept the barrels had been used for that function for 600 years, and they still had ancient, working presses. The matriarch, our tour guide, spoke it rapid Catalan the entire time, and David translated. One of the things she touted in the growth of their 600 years of wine selling was that they used to only sell their wine store in one store in Cantallops. Now, they sold their wine in five stores in Cantallops! Tastings were not offered, but cases of bottled wine for sale for 5 euro a bottle were. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, they did not take credit cards. Nor was there an ATM in Cantallops. We were able to cobble together a few euros and bought some and had the bottle later at dinner. It was great.

Brent Bookwalter in Alt EmpordaWe visited two more wineries that day and had tours given by the owners. The other two actually did offer tastings, and did sell their wine beyond 6 stores, but it was still way more relaxed and much less polished than the typical Napa wine tasting experience.

I think going to the Barça game and wine tasting in Europe is a great example of how marketing is not the strong suit of the Spanish, whereas if you can name it, Americans can find a way to make a dollar off it. However, I think the over commercialization and maximized production of America has a price, and that is the one-on-one relationships and experiences between the consumer and the producer. I don’t think you can go to many wineries in Napa and get tours by the owner of the winery. The wineries are small and take pride in producing a small amount of quality wine. Furthermore, the idea of a distinction between “estate wine” and blends of grapes not grown on site barely exists, as ALL wine sold by the wineries are estate wine. The idea of importing grapes for blends is foreign.

If you get a chance to go wine tasting in Catalonia, I highly recommend it. Just don’t expect a gift shop.

Want to see this for yourself? Join our Catalonia with Craig Lewis trip and ride through these small towns and visit small family-run wineries. Limited places remain on the exclusive trip!

Unexplored Girona

Bookwalters riding in Girona

Velo Veneto is very excited about our first trip outside of Italy. Join us in the Catalonia region of Spain this June! Of course, we called on local experts when building this trip; Ex-pro and Girona resident Craig Lewis will be our special guest, and our own Jamie Bookwalter has provided her advice as well. Here’s her take on why the area is such a great place!

One of the things I love most about Girona is that this place continues to hold surprises for me. Brent and I first began spending time here in 2010. I remember my first week here; I told my coach I was just going to be on the bike 4-6 hours every day because the riding was so alluring. The first time a person rides Spain’s equivalent of Highway 1 (GI-682) is not an experience they easily forget. It was easy to binge on riding; incredible views await around every single corner on every single road. Girona has a network of tiny mountain and country roads, seemingly to nowhere, I wonder why anybody bothered to pave. You might think that after a few years, the novelty of mountain-ocean-cliff-tiny-chapel-in-the-middle-of-it-all views could wear off. They don’t.

Brent’s job as a professional cyclist gives us the opportunity to live anywhere in Europe that is blessed with good weather and close to an airport. In fact, a lot of professional cyclists keep coming back here; the cycling community swells to over 80 pro-continental or pro-tour riders in the spring. Lance Armstrong famously lived here in the late 1990’s and I’ve had Catalans tell me he still lives here (nope, definitely not). We bought our car from Levi Leipheimer when he was retiring, who bought it from Chan McRae, when Chan was retiring. I think there is something about this city that draws cyclists in and keeps them here, and it’s not the weather or community alone. It has more to do with the fact that a person can live here for years and keep stumbling upon a road they still have yet to ride, a trail they have yet to hike, a new restaurant that just opened… the richness and depth of this place keeps us coming back. (That, and the fact that dealing with the bureaucracy here is like adopting a really crappy cat&emdash;you spend way too much time trying to get it to understand the litter box and it still craps in your house, you’re positive it doesn’t like you and sometimes you wish it would just disappear, but at some point you realize you’ve invested too much in the damn thing to give it up).

A few weeks ago, I was on a solo mountain bike ride in the hills behind our apartment, and I came across a chapel (Sant Joan de l’Ern) from the 13th century. The plaque next to it said the nuns that lived here all died in the Black Plague. It’s incredible to me that I can stumble upon a chapel built in the 13th century in what is basically my backyard after 5 years of spending weeks and months in Girona. (And it’s incredible that ANYTHING could be still around from the 13th century. At home in Western North Carolina, we give historic designation to houses built in the 1930’s. But I digress.)

Hiking in Girona
There’s a 1,500 foot drop on the left – maybe a bit scary!

Today, I hiked with a friend in a canyon near Castellfolit de la Roca, a short drive outside Girona. I’ve spent quite a bit of time riding near this area, but I had no idea this canyon existed. The walls of the canyon were so tall they blocked out much of the sunlight, and water in the river was crystal blue. We lunched at Sant Aniol chapel (built in the 11th century) and saw one person in 4 hours.

When we finally got back to the car, adventure craving sated, I noticed another sign: “3.5 hours to the peak of Bassegoda.” It seems a bit rude to leave that mountain unclimbed… This part of the world is something quite special, and while speaking Catalan will probably always elude me, I’m staying comfortably antsy exploring the back country each year, and continuing to fall in love with this place.