You’ve been cycling a long time. When did you start riding and how did you get into it?
I started cycling when I was 12, with my dad. He would ride a few times a week with his mates and on occasion, I would tag along. It was a great way to learn the ‘on the bike etiquette’ and enjoy their banter and jokes along the way. It was their approach of camaraderie over performance that still resonates with me today. I still enjoy every opportunity I have to ride with dad, particularly the banter and conversation that seems to be on a different level when you’re on a bike.
So, you’re not Italian but people who know you say you could almost pass as an Italian. Where does that come from?
My earliest memory of having a strong passion for or connection to Italy is from the early 2000’s when I had been studying Italian language for a few years. It was here I developed a strong desire to spend 12 months in one village in Italy to see the changing of the seasons and enjoy life in a little local piazza. I love the attitude that most Italians have for food and wine, eating only what is in season and not accepting mediocre food (near enough is not good enough), and I love the ‘make from scratch mentality’ and ‘preserving the abundance’ of a crop for later in the year. I love the Italian style, in fashion and industrial design, and of course in cycling where many Italian bike brands and their artisan craftsmen elevated their products to works of art.
How was it starting your own cycling apparel brand with A’qto 11 years ago? Then evolving the brand into an Italian cycling tour company over the past 4 years?
Starting A’qto was a huge challenge but one that I was ready for after 10 years in the advertising industry in Sydney. I was fortunate to be able to combine my passions for cycling, art and design into a business and lifestyle. Then when Nancy and I met, one of the first conversations we had was about how we each wanted to live in Italy for 6 months. At the time, we each didn’t know how, when or even if this was going to happen, there was just a strong desire and over the years it has been interesting to reflect on the opportunities that have presented themselves and the doors that have opened to make this desire a reality with our tours.
I’m sure it’s hard to pick just one, but do you have a favourite of all the regions A’qto’s Italian cycling tours visit?
Each region we go to is different from the last; the landscape and roads, the food and wine, and the style of the people and the accommodation. Tuscany and Piemonte have “similar hills and roads” but the landscape, villages and accommodation, gives you a dramatically different experience. So, no, there is not one favourite, they are all pretty sensational for different reasons.
Are there any key Italian climbs you haven’t tackled yet? Where would you like to visit next?
There are plenty of climbs that I haven’t ridden yet, but nothing that I am desperate to do because I figure with all the years of riding in Italy still to come, I’ll get to them at some point. However I do love climbing and would like to explore more of the Maritime Alps in Piemonte, with the long deserted climbs that make their way in to France.
What does a typical day on an A’qto Italian cycling tour look like for you?
A day on tour for me is as near to a perfect day that you could get. An early start to check emails and ensure we are prepared for the day’s ride is followed by coffee and breakfast, before rolling out on the bikes. More riding on quiet roads, stopping for coffee, a lunch of pasta, pizza or panino, depending on the schedule, then back on the bikes for more hills and more descents before rolling into the accommodation mid-afternoon. I’ll enjoy a quick beer and a swim, then while guests are relaxing/exploring I cram in whatever work and emails are outstanding before aperitvo and another sensational 4 course dinner. It really doesn’t get any better.
In your opinion, what is the key to achieving a true Italian immersion?
The key to a true Italian immersion, or an immersion of any kind, is an open mind to differences. With an open mind, the door is open to opportunities and experiences presenting themselves, and when they do, invite them in.
A’qto hosts a number of tours aligned with key Italian cycling events, including La Fausto Coppi Gran Fondo, the Giro d’Italia, and L’Eroica, if you had to pick only one to ride in 2019 which would it be?
I’d pick the original L’Eroica in Gaiole in Chianti. It’s more than just a ride, it is a festival. (And there is always a good chance that you may pick up a new steel machine in the market, which is always a good thing!)
So we know how much you love vintage steel. What is it about a vintage steel bike for you?
Where to start! A vintage steel bike is many things to me. Firstly they are a thing of beauty; the attention to detail, the classic nature of how they look, the pantographing, and the amazing paint schemes from the 80’s are all superb. There also is a connection to past and interesting stories behind some of the most innovative builders and their brands, which adds to the rich history of cycling. I love the handmade nature of the old steel frames and the skill and craftsmanship that went into each one But mostly, they are just an absolute joy to ride.
Any tips on how to ensure you’re adequately prepared for a cycling holiday in Italy? Are there training programs or rides available through A’qto?
My No.1 tip is to ride consistently before you leave. One thing we have found is that some guests look at the day’s distance and elevation in isolation from the other days. What I mean by this is they are good for the daily distance and elevation, but don’t take into account the effect of riding 7 and 8 days in a row, and the cumulative build up of fatigue. We do suggest that you try to get three solid rides in back to back for at least a few weeks before the trip, so that your body becomes used to the work and the fatigue. The more that your body is prepared for the trip, the greater the enjoyment you will have on tour. We offer training programs upon request, and we also host monthly training rides which are designed to take you out of your usual Saturday loop and ride in a new, interesting location with a lot more elevation. If you are interested in joining one of our monthly rides, contact us anytime.
What do you pack for an Italian cycling holiday? Any must-have essentials that you won’t leave Australia without?
Seriously though, it is the one thing I don’t leave without. If you are about to go on a cycling holiday, you want to ensure that you are comfortable every moment that you are on the bike, and a familiar machine goes a long way to ensuring that comfort. If you are going to hire a bike, I would recommend that you take with you everything you currently use and like on your set up at home (shoes, saddle, pedals), with the aim being to minimise any niggling little feelings that are possible on any hire bike. I also pack enough kit for all weather conditions, especially being prepared for cold when in the mountains.
And lastly, my headphones; I love to listen to music so knowing that I have the music set up I like, is important.
You love to cook. Do you have much of a chance on tour in Italy to get in the kitchen?
We try to include one dinner on tour where we have it ‘in” with Nancy and I sharing the cooking with our villa hosts. This is a lot of fun and a great experience, especially in Tuscany, where we go down to the village to pick up supplies from local favourites, including an amazing little butcher. We then build a fire and as it settles, take our time with a drink or two to watch the sun setting over the Tuscan hills before cooking salsicce, costolette di maiale and the iconic Bistecca Fiorentina over a bed of charcoal.
Which is your favourite drink post ride? Aperol Spritz, Limoncello, Negroni?
For me, nothing comes close to a beer for the post ride reward. I do enjoy a lot of the Italian local beers. However for aperitivo, it’s Negroni all the way.
What is your most memorable experience on tour?
As I assist a guest riding to the top of a mountain, having the moment of realisation that this is now what I call ‘work’.
Any chance we’ll catch Nancy on a bike on the next tour?
There has been talk after our recent recce in Puglia that riding through the olive groves and vineyards would be fun. We’ll see.
Find out more about our riding programs led by Damian on all of our Italian Cycling tours.