Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Three Days in the Alps with Eros Poli, Part I

Guest writer Buzz Yancich returns with his account with Italian Cycling Journal friend Eros Poli ( as they explore the Gavia, Stelvio and Mortirolo passes with a stop in Verona before the fireworks start. Enjoy!

Three days in the Alps with Eros, Part I
Stelvio view

The idea for a quick foray into the Alps was hatched over a few drinks one winter’s evening in California. A late night e-mail was sent to Eros and by the time we awoke the following morning Eros had replied with an itinerary, timetable and an invitation to come join him in Italy. Well, what can you say but yes!

Prologo Verona
We have long since learned that it is best (and frankly more cost effective) to leave all the bookings to Eros: a master of details and planning. Hotels, meals, wine, transfers and even bikes are all arranged and waiting. Better yet because of Eros’ long standing association with Pinarello (having won his Mt. Ventoux stage on a Pinarello) we get to ride brand new top of the line Pinarellos.

And so it was that six months later we arrived in Verona (Eros’ base of operation) greeted by the man himself at the airport. We like the fact that Eros will often start his trips in the Verona area for the first couple of days to allow everyone time recover from their flights, find their legs but more importantly to give yourself time to relax a bit and let the atmosphere of being in Italy sink in.
Four hours post arrival and the celebrations have already begun.

You couldn’t ask for more atmosphere than our accommodations in Verona, the San Mattia Agrotourismo: a beautiful property perched in the hills overlooking the old city. Eros insists on family run hotels and restaurants to assure the best quality and the San Mattia is the embodiment of that attention to detail and pride of ownership. What topped it off for us was waking up every morning to the clanging sounds of church bells rising up from Verona and nearby villages. That’s pure magic and the signal that you are truly in Italy.
Verona from the San Mattia Agrotourismo

Verona is love at first sight and anyone that’s been there understands why - better still if residents such as Eros and his lovely wife Michelle are there to show you their perspective of this beautiful, historic and vibrant city. The Veronese are rightfully proud of their region, its’ culture and cuisine (a trait that is of course common throughout every region in Italy) but let’s just say that the Veronese make a compelling case.
Only in Italy: And yes, she did just get off that bicycle with those shoes…

Our group this trip was relatively small – myself, my wife Maria, our neighbor in California, Kevin and Kevin’s wife Janice(a hiker who doesn’t ride). Eros prefers smaller groups ideally no more than 10 or so riders (but is able to accommodate smaller or larger groups) so he can get to know everyone and develop a personal bond with them. Eros’ tours are quite unique in that he acts as the sole guide and rides every kilometer side by side with you. He employs a driver but everything else is taken care of by Eros. When not “guiding” he is your coach, director sportif, culinary director, story-teller and by the time you leave your friend. If you want total immersion with a former professional racer this is it.

Our first few days in Verona were a mixture of interesting rides in and around Verona and the Valpolicella Valley many of them along routes that Eros trained on as an amateur and later as professional racer often along paths and hidden roads that I am sure have not been discovered yet by Google maps. The Verona area is rich in many possible routes and terrain.
Secret road in the Valpolicella hills

This is when having a local guide really pays off as we passed through vineyards and forests, up the sides of mountains and into tucked away villages that remain unknown to cyclists outside of the Veneto. In fact, on each visit Eros has presented completely new routes and territory which speaks to the wide variety of rideable terrain. In addition, Lake Garda – the largest lake in Italy is just 35 minutes from Verona along with Monte Baldo – an equal to any climb in the Dolomites. Better still, as we have reported before Eros knows the location of every fig tree and water fountain in the region…and every cafĂ© where a friend of his is always ready with a drink.

Speaking of friends we were cruising down a road when a guy in a Land Rover sped past and then abruptly pulled off the side of the road in front of us. He jumped out waving his arms and screaming at us but no worries it was Wilson - who turns out is a man of unbelievable enthusiasm– yet another friend of Eros who he seems to have tucked away in every corner of the region. He saw us and wanted to invite us to his bakery for an appertivo. Eros is well recognized in the region and this scene seemed to repeat itself, to our good fortune, nearly every day that we rode with him.
Tifosi on the road

Later on at Wilson’s bakery. And yes we managed to polish off that magnum of Champagne

One of the reasons we keep coming back to Italy and to Eros is the fact that he is takes a lot of time and effort to find us authentic experiences to complement our cycling. This means meeting his friend’s and family, sometimes a home cooked meal by Eros and Michelle (and if his mom invites you to her house drop everything and go for a meal you will not soon forget.) So as much as you will remember the rides and scenery what sticks with you in the days and months later are the new friendships and moments of laughter and joy and of course the great food and wine!
Appertivo at the Poli house

Momma Poli (a lovely and warm hearted woman) and Maria

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the mussels prepared by Eros’ wife Michelle one evening. Kevin and I agree that they are the best mussels either of us have ever eaten. They were prepared over a bbq with an amazing seasoning. When we asked her what the seasoning was Eros’ wife looked at us a bit dumbfounded. “There’s no seasoning…ah, that is the sea you are tasting…” Which reminds me of a comment that I overheard one day in Verona: “What you call “organic” in America we call regular food in Italy.”

We really enjoyed our stay in Verona but we came to ride big mountains and ride we would. But before we departed for the Alps Eros had a final treat for us: a bit of inspiration and motivation.
Eros sharing his Olympic Gold Medal with Kevin

Pretty cool.

Now on to the big stuff.

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