In the face of a world where we have watches that can control our fridges, multiple screens bombarding us with messaging, and computers that can analyse our speed, cadence, heart rate and power output for any given second of a bike ride, Italian culture remains staunchly simple.
Through the ages, Italian culture has celebrated simplicity. They keep things simple, but do it oh-so well. I’ve come to experience this attitude first-hand in recent months via a trip to the Dolomite mountains, and an immersion into the world of Veloforte nutrtition, whom I am now very proud to be working with.
Keeping it real: Italian Ideologies
For the Italians, less is more, but that ‘less’ is done with huge attention to quality and experience. Whether it be the marriage of fresh and local tomatoes, basil, and garlic, expertly roasted coffee beans and a meticulously calibrated espresso machine, or the finest wools married with a lovingly designed jersey, Italian culture is one of perfectionism. Perfectionism, done simply.
The most apparent example of the Italian ethos is in the kitchen. Pasta sauces and pizza toppings are prepared from the most streamlined selection of ingredients – you’ll find no barbecue chicken toppings here – but that produce is so local and fresh that it leaves the buying and marketing departments of Sainsbury’s, Tesco et al weeping with jealous frustration. Chef and Italian food expert Mario Bartali captured the essence of Italian cuisine perfectly when he said that “Food, like most things, is best when left to its own simple beauty”.
This belief also spans into the cycling culture. Marco Paniani – Il Pirata – one of the most loved and tragic of Italian cycling legends, famously said of the heart rate monitor, that “I can think of no device which has done more to remove the poetry from our sport“. Pantani rode based on the feelings in his legs, not the numbers on a computer.
In a similar way, Vincenzo Nibali, the multiple grand tour and monument winner, races on verve and instinct – a far cry from the UK model of power-meter based pacing and attritional riding. The ‘shark of messsina’ is famed for his heartfelt, instinctual racing, particularly his ruthless yet poetic grace when descending mountain passes. Watching Nibali descend is a white-knuckle experience, an observation of a man so at one with his bike and so aware of his senses that defies belief for even the most experienced amateur. Take, for example, his bunny hop over a wet patch on the descent of the Stelvio at the 2017 Giro…. Something that he performed at around 80kph, with a hairpin looming ever closer. Fearless, effortless, as though he were stepping over a puddle on his way to the coffee shop.
And it’s not just those who make cycling a living that display this emotional connection to their bike; it expands throughout the tifosi. This love for riding seems to stem from the environs in which Italians find themselves.
Italy is one of the most stunning countries in the world; from the dusty planes of Sienna, to the limestone drama of the Dolomites, the verdant coastlines of the Amalfi, or the whitewashed rocks of Puglia. Indeed, the Giro D’Italia brands itself ‘the toughest race in the most beautiful place’ in the world. It is hardly surprising, then, that the 100th edition of the Giro, held in 2017, was based on a route that race director Mario Vegni states was designed to ‘showcase the natural and historic places of Italy’. This route, perhaps unlike other word tour races, never has been based on pleasing corporate interest or seeking revenue, but on venerating stories and landscapes: the simple, timeless, beautiful things.
Amur and the Maratona Dles Dolomiti – it’s more than a bike ride
The Maratona Dles Dolomiti is the epitome of this ethos underlying Italian cycling culture.
The annual single day Gran Fondo, held over the same route every year, is the Italian answer to the French Marmotte or Spanish Quebrantahuesos. 9,000 riders take on a stunning lap of the most beautiful and most challenging passes in the Dolomites. Of these entrants, around half take on the longer route covering 138km, climbing eight passes on the way. In 2017, the 31st edition of the event drew 33,500 entrants to the ballot – just showing how popular the event is. Notably, around half of the successful entrants are Italian – no better a symbol of the Italian love of this very Italian ride.
There’s a unique beauty to the Maratona that separates it from other Gran Fondos. It is as much a carnival and celebration as a bike ride. The love shown by the hosting region of Corvara for both the event and all those that come to participate in it is staggering.
For the whole week prior to the Maratona, the area hosts something approaching a festival of cycling, with roads closed to traffic on certain days, towns bedecked with bunting and painted bicycles, and riders welcomed with open arms. At feed stations, riders are provided with locally produced meats and cheeses, and cakes and strudels have been freshly produced by local bakeries. Locals line the passes and cheer on weary riders, brass bands make the Dolomites their stage, performing through the day and inspiring entrants to greater feats, and the whole event is shown live on local TV. The event becomes more than just a silly bike race; it transforms into a celebration of everything that the Dolomites is so good at. Just as the Maratona embraces the Dolomites, Corvara embraces the Maratona.
This bike ride is an exploration of the amazing area in which the residents of the Dolomiti live, and the clulture that they know is so wonderful. The Maratona has not been created or adapted to be ‘the hardest / fastest / highest / most tear-inducing’ ride in the Gran Fondo calendar (althogh, the eight mountain passes over 138km make it that almost by accident). There are no King Of The Mountain Strava challenges, convoluted team prizes, or other unnecessary paraphernalia; just a celebration of what’s there.
For the Maratona organisers, cycling, and the event as a whole, is a simple and pure experience, and one akin to the strongest and most fundamental emotion we can experience – love. The team behind the event, much like the organisers of the Giro D’Italia, decided to theme the race for 2017, and ‘Amur’ – love – was chosen. Michil Costa, president of the Organising Committee of the Maratona, stated in the riders’ booklet that ‘Love is like riding a bike…. Without love, we would not be able to take on the hills, descents and hairpin turns along the roads of the Dolomites. When up on the hilltop, facing the horizon, love reveals itself in all its wonder… it is at this point from the peak of effort, that one reaches the pinnacle of joy’.
The Maratona’s organisers know they’re onto a good thing – a route so beautiful it will never be forgotten, and a community that embraces that. The event is designed to celebrate the simple and wonderful act of pedalling, and reduced to as fundamental an experience as that of the purest of emotions – love.
Veloforte; perfection in simplicity, power in simplicity.
Given the ethos behind the Maratona, it just felt so right that I was powered around the passes by Veloforte. To use nutrition created by a couple of Italian origin, and based on the ancient Italian recipe for Panforte, during an event that was the epitome of Italian culture and all things Dolomiti felt incredibly fitting.
I went into the ride feeling off-colour, with a bad stomach, a depressed appetite, and lack of energy. Just the notion of spending the six hours of the ride shovelling plasticy energy bars down my throat turned my stomach. Fortunately, I had my pockets full of Veloforte. This simple and delicious nutrition was something that I relished the prospect of eating. Devoid of the synthetic tastes and stomach-unsettling properties of many products on the market, the bars were appealing to my tongue, and more than satisfying to my legs.
The Veloforte sat strong and comfortable in my stomach, the simple ingredients and superior recipe keeping me settled, yet keeping me strong. The assortment of fruits, nuts and sugars in the bars – ingredients fought for and treasured through the centuries – gave me the instant energy and the slow burn needed for such an epic ride as this.
Sure, the Maratona is not a race, and whilst many don’t treat it as such, a great many do – with teams from all round Europe riding in formations, pacing each other, and controlling the peloton. I felt strong throughout the ride, without a hint of a sense of fading in a fiercely contested event. Although it wasn’t really my day from the outset, the bars went a long way to salvaging something – I finished a satisfying 437th time of the 4,000+ riders taking on the full route.
And perhaps more importantly than slightly meaningless placings and timings, a ride that could have become a horror on a day when feeling 90% became an experience I’ll never forget, and will always look back on fondly. The amazing environs, inspiring atmosphere, and knowledge that I can hold my own, even when up against it, is something I’ll never forget
Just like the blend of basil, garlic and fresh tomatoes in the finest pasta sauces, or perfectly cured ham and locally farmed mushrooms on a pizza base, Veloforte is the simple stuff, done properly. Marc Giusti, the founder of the brand, is passionate about the provenance of his ingredient and the simplicity of the recipe. All of the bars are based around some of the most basic ingredients, those that we have been foraging and hoarding for centuries gone by; nuts, fruits and natural sugars.
The recipe that informs a Veloforte bar – the Panforte that filled the bellies and muscles of the Roman armies and the Crusaders (read more on this here)– was one that was perfected over centuries of trial, error, and evolution, not science and synthetics. Once into the hands of Marc and his team, this amazingly evolved recipe was tweaked and optimised to make it potent sports nutrition; a swap here, an addition there. Notably, the age-old requirement for Brandy was jettisoned – Tommy Simpson’s memory lives on, but his practices (Tommy famously carried brandy in his bidons) perhaps aren’t an exemplar.
With these minor amendments, Panforte became Veloforte. These wholly natural bars do everything, and more, that your rubbery science food does, without the influence of masses of chemicals and processes. And just as the bars are a product of nature, each little piece of Veloforte you’ll be lucky enough to eat contains a little of the blood, sweat, and tears (no, not literally) of each member of the team behind it.
Before you’ve even unwrapped the bar and got your teeth into the delicacies within, you can see the love behind every product. The wrapping is performed by hand, bar by bar. On lining up a row of the product and looking at each one, there’s slight differences in the exact wrapping of each one, betraying the fingers behind the packaging. There’s no machinery here, no mass produced rubbish. Once you’ve got into the lovingly folded foil, the irregular sized chunks of fruit and nut further symbolise the labours behind each bar; the ingredients are hand selected and picked, and then hand chopped. There is attention to detail and quality in every bite you take.
The team at Veloforte ensure that these essentials are done properly. The process hasn’t been mechanised and overcomplicated. Three recipes, a basic set of ingredients, and a basic, and painstakingly loving, creation process. This isn’t about a quick churn with complex production mechanisms to increase output and force savings in areas where costs should not be cut. This process, and the whole thinking behind it, just feels so Italian. So perfect in its instinctual, honest, and simple nature.
The Italians keep things simple and real – whether it be simple yet stunning recipes, racing bikes based on love and instinct, or creating rides that celebrate environment and community rather than Strava and sponsorship.
And the results are always breathtaking. Watch Nibali descend a mountain. Eat a Pizza in Naples. Ride the Maratona Dles Dolomites. Fuel with Veloforte.