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WHEN COPPI STOPPED

As the story goes, Fausto Coppi once stopped for coffee during Milan-San Remo and still won by 14 minutes. To separate fact from fiction, we went to the actual café to meet the family that's been running it for over a century, get the facts on Coppi, and indulge in the pastries that help fuel Italy’s cyclists, both mid- and post-ride.

ROUTE SCOUT: MILAN-SAN REMO

WHEN COPPI STOPPED

Somewhere in the world, at this exact moment, this scene is playing out. A cyclist has entered a café and is fishing money from a plastic baggie while awkwardly tap dancing in the direction of a barista. And just as they’re about to order their coffee, their eyes inevitably slide across the contents of a glass display case, right there in front of them. Flaky pastries glisten appealingly under a warm light, muffins the size of toddlers' fists make their presence known, and cookies wait patiently in regimented rows beside them. At this point, calorie consequences will be calculated. Perhaps even gleefully ignored.

“Pastry watts!” they’ll say by way of justification, and their ride companions will laugh, teasing: “Is it offseason already?” For the next 15 minutes or so they’ll trade ride stories, sip espresso, and relax at that café until one of them stands and complains about stiff legs. The group will spring into action, donning helmets, gloves, and glasses before rolling away to continue on.

You recognize this scene because the mid- or post-ride café stop is very much a part of cycling culture. But I’ll wager not one of you has stopped for a quick espresso during a professional bike race. And certainly not while in the lead of La Primavera—the Milano-San Remo.

According to legend, in 1946, Fausto Coppi stopped and drank a coffee before continuing on to win the longest one-day race on the calendar by a solid 14 minutes. His café of choice that day was Caffe Liguri Pasticceria (now Caffe Pastecceria Piccardo), in Imperia, and it’s still giving cyclists their fix to this day.

EVERY TRAINING RIDE, I HAVE TO STOP FOR COFFEE AND SOME CAKE. IN TRAINING IT'S POSSIBLE, BUT DURING THE RACE IT'S IMPOSSIBLE NOW. FOR ME, THE BEST THING TO EAT IS WITH CHOCOLATE. CHOCOLATE CAKE IS GOOD.

Peter Sagan, Tinkoff

THE LABORATORY

The first thing you notice is the smell. It’s the kind of aroma the kicks a stomach into an agitated, roiling chorus of "give me that now!" The pastry laboratory (named "laboratory" to differentiate it from the kitchen where meals are prepared), sits directly above the Café Pasticceria Piccardo. It is the birthplace of all the delicious treats customers will enjoy downstairs, and after a few minutes of observing the pastry chefs in action—the weighing of dough, the piping of pastry cream into golden vessels—you can’t help agree with the name. There is definitely science going on here.

In the early morning hours, William and Luca, cousins from Naples, work quietly in that harmonious way that only people who know each other well can do. We watch as they calmly remove trays of brioche and focaccia from the oven; put the finishing touches on croissants; and perform the methodical clearing of space after each task is complete. It is a constant and calm flow of movement and activity. They speak their Italian softly, and nod understandingly to each other. Working alongside them are several assistants, some from culinary schools here to learn the craft from William, the master chef.

Later, Luca prepares the Krapen, a donut destined to be injected with yellow Italian pastry cream, chocolate, or jam, and lovingly sprinkled with sugar. He carries the tray of raw dough into the kitchen to fry in oil, tending to them carefully. The expanding balls are turned gently before Luca visually confirms their readiness and removes them from the oil. The next batch he brings in have some krapen with holes cut in the center. My friend Marco turns to me, laughing as he explains why I've just heard the word “Seeemp-sons” in the middle of an Italian sentence about this ciambella.

“This donut with the hole,” he says, pointing to it, “is not so typical here. But after The Simpsons came to Italian TV, people started to come in and ask for a donut like on the show. So, they started to produce these with the hole because of that.”

I'M SICILIAN AND I LOVE ALL THE PASTRIES COMING FROM MY NATIVE LAND, BUT THE BEST IS FRESH CANNOLI FROM MESSINA. WHEN I GO OUT, I ALWAYS STOP FOR A COFFEE WITH A NICE RUSK COVERED WITH JAM. IN COMO, THERE IS A SICILIAN PASTRY SHOP, BUT IT'S BETTER I DON’T GO TOO OFTEN.

Vincenzo Nibali, Astana

“Ciao Bambini!”

When Maria Teresa Piccardo, arrives upstairs and passes by those toiling away in the laboratory, it’s as though a cloud of wise energy has entered the room. Born in 1945, the year before Coppi stopped for that famous coffee, she walks with that quick step chefs often have, born of the constant need for movement in a kitchen. Of checking this and stirring that. In the past year, Maria Teresa has transferred her attentions more to the kitchen and lunch preparations, and less to the pastry side of the business. But her history with Caffè Pasticceria Piccardo—and of that of her sister, Carla who also works downstairs—is long. For generations, it has been in their family. It has been in their blood.

We stand with her in the passageway between the laboratory and the kitchen and chat about the life of the café, mixed with stories of Milan-San Remos gone by.

“She can remember very well,” says Marco, translating for me, “the Milano-San Remo in the '50s when she was just a child. This was after the war and there was not a lot of wealth, so the race was a big event for the city of Imperia. She remembers the trucks with all the advertising that came through before the peloton, and of one especially that had free toothpaste samples. At the time, a free sample was not so easy to get, so she remembers very well this day. She says the children went crazy for it.”

At the sound of the camera shutters, Maria Teresa smiles and waves it off. There is no translation needed when she says "Photoshop." or the laugh that comes after it. Her energy is infectious, and she becomes all hand gestures and vibrant voice as she continues her stories.

There’s a long string of an Italian sentence that never seems to stop, but I recognize a name. Coppi. Now, she is talking of Fausto.

He didn’t just come in that one day, she explains. He often stopped in for coffee. And then Maria Teresa asks us a question of her own.

“She is asking,” says Marco, “what the link is between cyclists and pastry?”

It’s a good question. We’ll come back to that.

I AM SUPER IN FAVOR OF A COFFEE BREAK DURING TRAINING—EVEN BETTER IF IT’S WITH A NICE BRIOCHE. IF I’M RIDING A LONG DISTANCE, OR I’M UNDECIDED ON THE RIDE ROUTE, I’LL STOP MORE THAN ONCE FOR A COFFEE. I REALLY LOVE THE PASTRIES, ESPECIALLY THOSE WITH FRUITS, BUT IF I HAVE TO CHOOSE ONE, IT’S FOR SURE MASCARPONE, ALSO BECAUSE IT RHYMES WITH MY LAST NAME.

Michele Scarponi, Astana

RELEASE THE KRAPEN

The morning crowd is shuffling in and out of Café Pasticceria Piccardo, carefully selecting brioche and focaccia from the display before standing at the counter to eat. People sip cappuccino and kick start their day in that moment, while at the rear of the café, a trio of elderly men sit near a window swapping stories. They have the gentle air of old and familiar friends talking of life, oblivious to the constant flow of people as the morning rush passes through.

Aurora Alku, a server at the pasticceria, endearingly takes us on a tour of the sweet treats in the glass case. She is precise and patient as she describes the ingredients of each, points out the ones most popular with customers and those she, herself, loves, and translating some of the names for me as I taste them. The case is enormous and filled to the brim with rows and rows of bite-sized temptations. This whole area, including the pastry case behind me with the brioche and focaccia, is a danger zone for diets. And we’re not even going to mention the ice cream (though I confess Aurora let me taste those, too). But this is why we ride bikes, right? Calorie in, calorie out.

It is time to taste some of the wares from the laboratory. Time for some coffee and conversation of our own. As we sit to drink our cappuccinos and try a selection of pastries, Maria Teresa removes a collection of historical photographs from a worn and much handled paper bag. The early black and white photographs from Coppi’s era elicit smiles—a glimpse of days gone by and a reminder of the pasticceria’s past. The Piccardo family legacy.

In Coppi’s day, the café was actually in a different location, a mere sprint away on the corner of Piazza Dante. For a century that’s where it stayed before moving in 2002 to a bigger, combined space with the Piccadilly restaurant and forming Café Pasticceria Piccardo. Even after moving that short distance along the block, the café retains much of its old charm, thanks to the presence of the original mahogany paneling that lines the long bar, and the lettering on the facades—the Liquoreria, Confettoria, and Pasticceria.

Maria Teresa carefully pulls photographs out one-by-one, describing points of interest as she does. We see photographs of the original location, and images of her mother at the cash register in the '70s ringing up customers, just as Carla and Maria Teresa do today (albeit with a smaller cash register). I bite into the krapen as Marco translates and I’m startled by the softness and sweetness of this treat. It is a pure, sugar-dusted taste bomb. The yellow cream explodes from inside, spurring a frantic motion from me so I don’t end up wearing it. This is the kind of taste that makes you say “oh, to hell with how I look eating this, I’m just going to enjoy it.” A sugary treat and a cappuccino in an Italian café. Does life get any better than this?

Next out is a book covering the history of the Milano-San Remo from the year it began until 1949. The photographs showcase a truly romantic period in cycling—the hard and testing conditions from a time when the Turchino was still a gravel road, and there were cycling superheroes such as Alfredo Binda, Gino Bartali, and of course, Fausto Coppi. Just looking at the elegance of their styles, the dirt and grime and toughness evident in the action shots, and even the official poses they made in their photographs—these riders are of a different time and a different place. It pins us to our chairs.

“What’s the thing that has changed most for you in these years?”

Maria Teresa smiles and replies simply.

"The world.”

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

That Fausto Coppi is a legend is not in doubt, and the story of him stopping for coffee—exaggerated or not—only adds another mythical branch to his legend tree. Any search for the details of his stop leads to multiple versions of it. Some accounts have Coppi casually rolling up, resting his bike against a wall, and then heading inside the café to order and drink his coffee at the counter. Others say he slowed and was handed the coffee before he continued on. Regardless of which version you believe, what is generally agreed upon is that it happened.

“I didn’t see it myself,” says a Piccardo regular, Umberto Borelli, “but I was watching the race and know people who did. They told me it was so.”

Umberto—part of the trio of gentlemen we saw earlier—meets with his friends at the café almost every day, choosing a prime, sun-soaked location near the back of the café to talk, read the news of the day, and drink good coffee. As he comes to join our table to talk of Coppi and days gone by, he removes his hat and runs a hand over his hair for the camera. With an infectious and cheerful grin, he proudly boasts that he has watched every edition of the Milano-San Remo since 1935 (although later confesses he actually missed one in the '90s because he was playing in a bocce competition), and watches from his terrace every year. It has a perfect view as the peloton streams through the Piazza Dante in Imperia.

The conversation is long and he is not one for allowing Marco to complete translations before he begins speaking again, but the highlights of his story are coming through. He describes the excitement of that time in cycling, the toughness of the riders, and the difference between then and now. Gesturing in the direction of the piazza outside, he describes how back then there was a large bidon in the corner for riders to clean themselves. That sometimes, riders were so dirty from the roads that you couldn’t recognize them. And then, of course, there were the rivalries.

“Back then, you were either for Bartali or Coppi,” Marco translates, before he turns to me and smiles.

“This guy,” he says. “He was for Bartali.”

IN MY MIND, COPPI MADE THE RIGHT CHOICE GIVEN THE INCREDIBLE ADVANTAGE OVER THE OTHER RIDERS. IT WOULDN’T BE POSSIBLE TO DO THAT TODAY IN MILAN-SAN REMO.

Michele Scarponi, Astana

The world has changed. Umberto echoes Maria Teresa’s thoughts and describes the shifts he’s seen since the days of Coppi and his hero, Bartali.

In the past, he felt the Milano-San Remo really brought people together. This was before TV when there were only radios. Radios were the link to cycling (and, of course, that other great Italian passion, football). Since many people didn’t have radios in their homes, they’d gather in the café to listen to the race. Some would even telephone to get a progress report (and football scores). And then in the '50s, along came television. Roadside race attendance dwindled further. For Umberto, that’s the biggest change. In pre-TV days, he recalls people being on the Capo Berta at 6am ready to watch a race that wouldn’t come through for hours. At 6am, it was already lined with people who’d arrived on buses and had traveled from all over to watch the race live. And now? Now they roll up to watch at 10 o’clock. It’s very different. Things have most definitely changed.

But while the way people watch the race may have changed—and television does have benefits beyond live race coverage, allowing people of all generations to tour Italy through their screens—there is one thing that has remained constant: The link between cafés and cyclists.

So finally, we are back to Maria Teresa’s question—just what is the connection between cycling and cafes? To the outside observer, it may seem ludicrous. Why would you want to stop in the middle of a sweaty ride to strut around wearing Lycra and awkward shoes, handing a cashier soggy money because you forgot a plastic baggie? You can get coffee at any time. You can buy pastries anywhere.

But cafés are like catnip to cyclists. They’re so ingrained into our cycling lives we sometimes alter routes in order to hit a particular café, simply because the beans are better or the croissants are more buttery. In some countries, the café ride is all about the coffee, while in others, there’ll be cake or café rides that start and begin at a set coffee shop. There are even stories written for cyclists about café etiquette to ensure we, as a cycling tribe, play nicely in our communities.

Still, this doesn’t answer Maria Teresa’s question. And while I’m sure many people have their own theories as to the appeal, allow me to humbly offer mine.

Cafés are the great equalizers.

When you stop at a café during a ride, it doesn’t matter how good you are or what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you’re a climbing god or a slug, a Cat 2 looking to upgrade, or a rookie. Man or woman, meanderer or sprinter? Totally irrelevant. Having a bad day or the good sensations? These are all states in the kingdom of cycling, but none of them matter when you have a hot pastry or coffee in your hand. In the kingdom of the café, milling about with our sweet treats and our espresso, sharing a laugh about the ride and every other subject under the sun, and catching joyous rays of sunlight in the spring and huddling together in the winter, we are all equals. No new riders or old, no amateurs or pros, and not even a man currently leading the Milan-San Remo. In that moment, we are just humans, enjoying our coffee before continuing on.

The real question is: Is it offseason yet?

I DID NOT KNOW THE STORY OF COPPI STOPPING. I PERSONALLY WOULDN’T HAVE STOPPED COMPLETELY, BUT IF I HAD BEEN OFFERED A COFFEE ALONG THE ROAD I WOULD HAVE SAID YES AS WELL.

Vincenzo Nibali, Astana

Credits

Written by Janeen McCrae Photography by Jered and Ashley Gruber

Thursday, 17 March 2016