Dirt and Espresso

Riding (with) Cannondale’s Best in Italy.

Cannondale massed its global mountain bike teams for a week of riding the trails along the coast of northwestern Italy. The seaside town of Finale Ligure was our home base. As you can guess, this did not suck in the least. Photo courtesy of Cannondale.

By: Vernon Felton

It was snowing outside when I got the call from Cannondale; in truth, the ringing phone was a welcome break from my winter routine, which consists of scrubbing mud from my chamois, battling lung infections and coughing up things that resemble a cross between a squid and an artichoke. Cannondale's marketing manager wanted to know: Will you come out to Italy to ride with our team in Finale Ligure?

Let's see: I can either spend the next week in soggy Washington, reorganizing my extensive mold and tuberculosis samples, or I can jump on a plane and ride the sun-drenched trails of the Italian Riviera?

It was a straightforward decision.

What was less straightforward, at first blush, at least, was the premise of the trip. There'd be no new bikes (those will arrive this summer), nor any never-seen-before technology on display in Finale.

Just to be clear here, Shiny New Stuff is basically the bread and butter of press launches. Not this time though.

This time around, Cannondale wanted to focus on its riders. In fact, this launch in Finale would mark the first time ever that Cannondale had gathered all of its top-tier global mountain bike riders (all 19 of them) in a single place. The world's press would be introduced to the pros, we'd take a few 2012 "OverMountain" and XC bikes for some outstanding rides and we'd spend quality time getting an up close and personal view of the personalities flying Cannondale's flag this year.

Cannondale Sports Marketing Director, Rory Mason, put it this way: "Our athletes are the window into Cannondale for people all around the world."

In other words, figure out what Cannondale's athletes represent and you get a sense of the company that Cannondale aims to be.

Hardtails and Greyhounds

Cannondale's CFR squad is filled with heavy hitters—five Olympic hopefuls deep, including American, Jeremiah Bishop (far left). Photo courtesy of Cannondale

Nineteen men and women make up the ranks of Cannondale's two global racing teams. The first squad, Cannondale Factory Racing (or "CFR"), consists of nine riders who focus on cross-country racing in its myriad forms: World Cup, Olympic cross-country, stage and endurance racing, etc. It's a heavy-hitting group of riders that includes five 2012 Olympic hopefuls (Germany's Manuel Fumic, Italy's Marco Aurelio Fontana, Switzerland's Marin Gujan and the United States' Jeremiah Bishop and Krista Park).

CFR is also a team that spans generations. On one end, you have 50-year old Tinker Juarez still landing on podiums; on the other, you have American up-and-comers Taylor Smith and Keegan Swenson, who raced out of birth canals at about the time Tinker Juarez raced for national titles.

In addition to hanging out with the riders, we journalists we're also treated to a couple rides with both the CFR and OverMountain teams.

The CFR team ride was classic XC fare—we rode out of town and immediately began climbing the hills that sprout along the coastline. This is probably a decent point in the narrative to mention that Finale Ligure, despite being a beach town, is mountain bike heaven. Despite the town's laid-back sea-side vibe (imagine Orange County with great food, tiny cars and nary a boob job in sight), 95 percent of the area surrounding Finale is either mountain or hillside. In short, there's a hell of a lot of elevation gain and loss to be had here. What's more, thanks to a couple thousand years worth of peasants hacking terraces and trail into every conceivable inch of hillside, Finale is home to an amazing network of hand-hewn trails. This place is made for mountain bikers.

Is there a bad trail anywhere around here? Nope. An impressive 95 percent of the Italian state of Liguria is composed of either mountain or hillside, and it's all riddled with excellent singletrack. Photo courtesy of Cannondale.

CFR team riders have their choice of four bikes during the season (the Flash 26 and Flash 29 Carbon hardtails and both 26er and 29er Scalpel full-suspension bikes). Most of us magazine hacks, however, we're straddling Flash Carbon 29er hardtails. As race whippets go, it's an impressive machine: roughly 18 pounds of pure acceleration.

Our job for the day, so to speak, was to ascend to the forested plateau above town and ride the town's 24-hour-race course, which is part of the 2012 World Endurance Mountain Bike series. The climb up and descent back down included a few technical rocky sections, which the big wheels made short work of. The excellent angle of attack and lack of weight made for an easy haul up the hills.

Acknowledging that 29ers can suffer from awkward handling due to sprawling wheelbases), Cannondale designed its Flash and Scalpel 29ers with the same wheelbases and trail figures as its nimble 26er counterparts. Short chainstays are, naturally, part of the recipe here, and the Flash 29er handles accordingly. While I personally prefer a slacker head angle when that fork starts compressing, there's no denying the Flash's capabilities. If crossing finish lines in a blaze of anger whilst decimating other people's sense of self is your idea of fun, the Flash is about as good a platform for punishing others as you can find.

From the Snow to the Sea

Cannondale's OverMountain team focuses on Enduro and adventure-riding, and includes legends such as Aaron Chase, Mark Weir and MegaAvalanche winner, Jerome Clementz. Photo courtesy of Cannondale.

The second Cannondale global team is the OverMountain squad: four riders focused on Enduro, Super D and adventure riding. The team consists of slalom and slopestyle legend Aaron Chase, 2010 MegaAvalanche, and 2011 Trans-Provence winner–as well as 2011 French Enduro Series and French Cup Champion–Jerome Clementz, all-around strongman and racing legend, Mark Weir and up-and-coming badass, Ben Cruz.

It's rare thing, indeed, when an assembly of pros are all in awe of one of their teammates, but clearly everyone on the OverMountain has huge respect for Jerome Clementz's bike handling skills. Apparently, they don't just willy-nilly toss out national endure titles in France—this dude has skills. Photo courtesy of Cannondale.

While the XC ride was enjoyable, the OverMountain trip was a hoot-inducing, grin-plastered, forearm-pumping blast. We were treated to three shuttle runs, including an hour-long descent that started high in the snow and finished down at the beach. I lost count of the bermed corners pretty early on, but damn, the trails here are amazing…sort of like an alternate universe in which Marin County is Swiss-cheesed with bike-legal singletrack and smothered in hero dirt. Un-friggin-believable.

Check out this short clip (courtesy of Aaron Chase) to see what I'm talking about:

Our bike of choice was the Cannondale Jekyll. OverMountain team members can choose between the Jekyll and the Claymore. Chase runs the longer travel Claymore while Clementz, Weir and Cruz run Jekylls in various personalized configurations. Much like the team itself, the Claymore and Jekyll models blur mountain biking boundaries. Flip the handlebar mounted travel adjuster and the Claymore and Jekyll convert from squishy 180- and 150-millimeter bikes (respectively) to snappy and efficient 110- and 90-millimeter bikes. The heart of both models is a crazy-stout frame and unique Fox Racing Shox-built DYAD RT2 rear shock: a pull-shock that features completely different spring rate and damping settings in each of its two modes.

The basic marketing spiel is that these are "two-in-one" bikes and, while that kind of thing gets printed in an awful lot of catalogs, this time around, the ad copy is remarkably accurate. Geometry, suspension feel and travel all change significantly with the mere flick of your thumb. The only truly comparable bike that comes to my mind is Scott's Genius LT.

Here, Mark Weir–who joined Cannondale last season–shows off his personal rig and explains why it's important that he occasionally sit on his fellow teammates.

Mysterious Toilets, Men on Mopeds

You can't turn a corner without being confronted by some ridiculously picturesque view of town. Apparently, they aren't keen on strip malls here. I guess you can't have it all.

So much is lost in translation to the American traveling abroad. Some things are clearly crazy, like trying to make an airline transfer at Charles de Gaul airport in Paris. First off, the airport is nowhere near Paris. It's stuck in a field with no name in some of alternate-reality dimension…oh, and it also appears to have been designed by MC Escher on one of his famed "bad acid trip" days. If the French had made the Maginot Line this confusing and impenetrable, Hitler's blitzkrieg would never have made it to Paris in the first place and World War II would have ground to a halt within weeks.

But I digress…. You get off your plane, filled with optimism and a sense that you might actually get on another plane or, at the least, find a bathroom. A skinny man smoking a cigarette yells at you for five minutes and then seems to mime that you should climb on a bus. That particular bus proceeds to circle aimlessly about the runway for at least 40 of the 45 minutes that you, theoretically, had at your disposal to board your next flight. Next, you stumble into a terminal and try and find the gate for your connecting flight, but no dice there, because your flight isn't posted on the Departure/Arrival monitors and the flights the French actually feel like posting aren't organized alphabetically or numerically…. In short, the moment you hit Euro-soil, you realize you're not in Kansas anymore.

Sometimes, of course, the culturally confusing moments are less annoying and more of a revelation. What, for instance, is the first thing you do after finishing a long ride with friends? Apparently, you down a beer and do this:

And then there's the widespread phenomenon of grown men riding mopeds around town. Clearly men don't heckle one another in Europe because you'll see hundreds of guys proudly tooling around town on motos that appear to be powered by sewing-machine engines. I ask you this, if your friends aren't willing to step up and give you shit about the fact that you ride a moped while attired in a V-neck and purple shoes, are they really your friends at all? We're supposed to help each other out, right? I did my bit by personally heckling a few men wearing V-neck blouses, which are illegal for men to wear in America if you are anyone other than David Bowie and the year is not 1977.

Strap a 40-cc engine to this baby and you instantly become the King of Cool in 90 percent of European countries. No, really, this is 100-percent true. We can't explain it either.

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block for Americans traveling the continent are the toilets. For one, they seem to be filled with as little as half a cup of water—there's not even a splash to be heard when you finish grappling with your intestines…. Look, I'm a fan of water conservation, but your toilet bowl gets downright barbaric real quick with this setup. No amount of flushing will rectify the situation. Every time I walked into the bathroom, I'd immediately look around to see if a monkey had got loose in my hotel room and had attempted to use the crapper. Apparently, however, I was the culprit. I got a lot of angry, wounded looks from the hotel's maid. I apologize here and now to the cleaning staff of the Hotel Florenz, but hey, start putting at least eight ounces of water in that toilet bowl and then we can have a conversation about how a toilet should look after you've flushed it.

The most confusing aspect of European bathrooms are the low-slung, ass fountains. I probably go a good 10 years between my encounters with these things, so my first thought whenever I see a bidet is, "Hey, I can fill up my CamelBak bladder really easily in that little sink." This, however, is not the intended application for a bidet.

I figured that the senior-most members of Cannondale's OverMountain team—Aaron Chase and Mark Weir—could explain the proper use of a bidet given their years of globetrotting experience.

Seriously, though, Finale Ligure is an amazing place. The trails are great, and the town is just as cool—it dates back a good thousand years and is home to a walled city within the city (every city worth its salt once having boasted great vantage points from which to dump vats of boiling oil onto visitors). Picturesque doesn't even begin to describe this place, so I figured we'd let this video from Aaron Chase do the talking.