A blast of hot air from Africa found its way to a small mountain town in northern Italy. It cleared cloudy skies and melted away all of the winter snow. On the same day a bus, a plane, another plane and yet another bus transported us to this tiny piece of Italian paradise: Baselga di Pine. The stars aligned and we chanced upon a perfect day in this sleepy little spot.
It is not often these years that we find ourselves competing on outdoor tracks. In the interest of fairness and consistency most World Cups have made their way indoor, leaving these old-school outdoor relics in the dust. Only once every two or three years are they given the opportunity to shine and allow us new-schoolers a chance to experience what it was like back in the day.
There aren’t many outdoor tracks left that are eligible for World Cups these days. The last natural ice surface that hosted international events was in Davos, Switzerland, and the last time there was a World Cup there the weather was so warm they lost the ice and the competition was cancelled. Unfortunately I never got the chance to race there and likely never will. Now outdoor World Cups can only be held on artificial tracks and World Championships are no longer held outdoors, ever.
Outdoor tracks are a blessing and a curse. When the sun is shining, the air is warm and the flags are limp there truly is nothing better. Everyone is happy and smiling on days like those, even on the toughest of training days. But on the days where the wind kicks up, the chill bites and the snow blinds you have to put your head down and tough it out.
So here we are in Baselga di Pine for a week, where the track is nestled in among the nearby mountains and Italian villas. Coming here is like going back in time a few decades. The shops close at noon and re-open at three. We eat dinner at seven, but are usually served at seven-thirty or later. People say hello to one another on the street and their pace is decidedly slow. You cannot get a latte ‘to go’. The silence in the surrounding hills seems foreign to my urban ears and the night is so dark you can almost touch it.
The evening we arrived it had been an astounding seventeen degrees during the day. After a three-course meal of pasta, ‘carne’ and dessert we rested our tired bodies and awoke to clear blue skies. The sun was already on the track when we arrived for training and there was not a stitch of wind. It was glorious to feel the warmth of the sun on my face as we skated our easy laps. Perhaps I would regain a little bit of colour in my pale Scandinavian face!
One thing I remember from past trips to Baselga is the abundance of delicious food. We came back to the hotel and were treated to another three-course meal (every meal here is a three-course meal!). To us it seemed like they serve two meals at lunch and two meals at dinner. The pasta comes first, which is usually a meal in itself, followed by a plate of meat and vegetables, then dessert! After a couple of days we generally have to cut back a little and we’re met with head shakes and tsk tsk’s by our kind hosts for turning away excess food. Needless to say everything is drenched in olive oil, salt and plenty of flavour.
After lunch I rolled myself upstairs and sat on the sun-drenched patio with a good book. I was later joined by a couple of teammates and we frequently marveled at the warm weather, the good food, and relaxing atmosphere. It was hard to distinguish between skating and vacation, as at that moment in time they felt like one and the same. It was wise to savour that moment a little, as we knew full well it could change in an instant.
Our second workout of the day was a bike ride, which we would normally do in the hotel hallway on a trainer, a somewhat uninspired locale. But on this day we eagerly hit the road in search of a nice quiet route, which was rather easy to find as most any road around here is nice and quiet. We rode through the next small town after which the road narrowed and we wound our way down through the valley forest, the sun streaming through the trees. I could not wipe the smile from my face and felt giddy with exhilaration.
After the ride we hit up the hotel cafe for a cappuccino. I opted in fact for a ‘cioccolata caldi’: hot chocolate. Hot chocolate here is not like it is elsewhere. It is not very sweet, but just enough, and it is so thick you have to eat it with a spoon. Absolutely delicious and wonderfully priced at 1€! Starbucks could never compete…
Yet another tasty meal, followed by a movie and a deep, restful sleep rounded out this perfect day. I have been around long enough to know that days like this do not come along very often – unexpected, spontaneous and wholly enjoyed. But every once in a while they do and I cannot help but feel incredibly fortunate, if not entirely worthy, to live the life that I do.
Thankfully, even on the days that are not so good, where I skate like garbage and feel rather blue about it, I know enough to know that doesn’t matter. Good days or bad, it seems that I have followed the right path because I am truly happy to do what I do and am continually amazed that this is actually my job.
If you’re sitting at your desk, eyes rolling, reading this thinking ‘give me a break’, (as I might be if I were in your shoes), or if it seems as though I’ve laid it on a little thick and you rather feel like cursing me for my ‘job’, I must take a moment to mention that come race day the clouds returned with a vengeance, bringing with them snow, sleet and rain.
A thick fog shrouded the track and the ice had about as much glide as the living room carpet. It got so bad during the men’s 5000m they cancelled the race halfway through and wiped the results sheet clean – an unprecedented turn of events! It was one more black mark against the increasingly endangered outdoor track. I wondered if perhaps it was the last nail in the coffin.
In spite of all that I managed to eke out my first ever World Cup victory in the 1500m. A little luck and some good skating conspired to make that happen. All those years of training in inclement weather at Brewer Park in Ottawa emerged from my bones and helped me win, living room carpet and all.
That night, tucked tightly in to my cozy bed, I began to wonder which of the two had in fact been the perfect day.