Bar Galligani-Il Re Del Cappuccino. The Cappuccino King. The tales were always out there about this mecca of mid-ride refreshment if the ears were attuned. In fleeting conversations with those who live and ride in the area, a lucky visitor introduced by someone in the know, or online, hidden amidst the din of social media to be picked up and pieced together as an intelligence officer might from the cacophony of intercepted global chatter.
“The race is passing close to Montecatini..now, there’s – a cafe there..”
Matt Stephens’ instinct to fill airtime cast its line into long plumbed memory banks, his race coverage acquiring the target but not quite locking onto it during this year’s Tirreno Adriatico; the location, the list of legendary patrons, the pictures of the greats on the wall and that Mark Cavendish is a huge fan were etched into Matt’s mind, but what was its name? For Matt, a moments vocal fumbling on Eurosport’s time, but my ears had already pricked up; there it was again, through the din- this was the place.
Jet forward 3 months.
“Si, Certo-I know this place..This area is known as the Cycling’s University”.
Dano, Mechanic to a raft of Italian high-profile pro outfits across the decades, is one who should know. And if the region around Pistoia is known as the University of Cycling here in Tuscany, one of, if not the, world’s most history and folklore drenched cycling heartlands, Il Re Del Cappuccino is surely the bibliotecca, the hallowed library in which generations of its legendary alumni are recorded and, so legend has it, the finest cappuccino in the world is served.
I’d dived into the backstreet Lucchese bar, all high ceilings, linoleum floor, tall, ornate wooden counter and ubiquitous RAI station babbling away from up on high in the corner from a dusty TV, because I’d spotted the white POC helmet and rear triangle of Tim Lindely’s Pinarello disappear around the corner to the side entrance. Tim, a Sheffield born adopted son of Lucca, runs iGuideRide, unparalleled guided cycling days around the Tuscan hills and vineyards, and has agreed to take us to this most fabled of cyclist’s coffee stop venues on the planet..
“Ok-all set- I’ll see you at ten-thirty on Thursday at Pult, on the corner of Via Fillungo” Tim confirms “A few of the boys are coming” We talk at the bar to avoid the coperta, the additional surcharge for imbibing whilst seated, on an espresso costing only a Euro or so. Dano slinks off to settle the bill but is headed off by an insistent Tim Lindley, his espresso cup cast aside and left rattling on the saucer as he darts skatily off in his cleats towards the till in pursuit of the Mechanic. I leave them to engage in that most loved of Italian pastimes- passionate debate about the meerest of detail and, of course, who settles il conto..
Tess, my fiancee, and I roll through the mid-morning bustle of Lucca’s Piazza San Michele towards the meeting point for the day’s ride, a smart cafe on the corner of Via Fillungo, elegantly rustic cobbled central thoroughfare of the breathtakingly beautiful walled city of Lucca. Already assembled and casually sipping espresso are Team Sky’s engine room piston Andy Fenn; Tinkov Saxo’s Jay MCarthy, Tour of Turkey GC podium place tucked in his pocket after what he says was pretty much his first race ‘properly off the leash'; BMC’s Tour of California TTT winning crew member Joe Rosskopf; Brian Nygaard, Communications officer for Orica Greenedge and Tom The Dane, former Danish National Squad MTBer (until a knee injury put paid to that career) and brother of Tinkov-Saxo’s Chris Juul Jensen. Tom greets me in English with his somewhat confusing warm and pleasing Irish accent before launching back into his native, impregnable Danish to continue his conversation with his compatriot Brian Nygaard.
Chat is of that evening’s Danish National Time Trial in which Chris Juul Jensen starts with the deserved tag of favourite. After his demonstration of sheer power and determination in the previous week’s Route Du Sud, the murmurs around the table are quietly confident. The rangy figure of Garmin- Cannondale’s Criterium International Yellow Jersey wearer Ben King appears through the promenading throngs. He too props his bike against the growing stack of World Tour bling. Finally Tim Lindley rolls up with his visiting mate from the UK, Max. MTN Qhuebeka’s Nick Dougall has had to bail (“I was looking forward to a nice couple of hours with you guys but I got a call that I had to take the Tour de France squad out and show them the way round..4 hours and thousands of metres climbing..” he explains in resigned tones).
The bill is settled -“make sure she knows I drank mine at the bar!” the canny Lindley impresses upon the payer- and we’re off in search of decidedly elevated levels coffee. We weave through the narrow streets, the coffee ride’s composition like that of a World Tour breakaway. “Riding through these busy little pedestrian streets is probably some of the best training you can get for making your way through the pro peloton” quips McCarthy as he nips agilely through the crowds. The level of experience quickly shows as the pros are soon 100 metres ahead of Max, Tess and me, not through any physical superiority, though that is a given, but via their effortless ability to thread through the tumult of tourists, shoppers, vespas and city bikes that create the tapestry of daily life in Lucca’s maze of winding streets. Upon reaching open roads we quickly re-group and start clipping along at a brisk yet comfortable pace in two disciplined lines. The pairs rotate and the general chit-chat of cyclists fills the air, no egos here, nobody darting out for Strava segments.
A coffee ride is a coffee ride. A sometimes forgotten art these days. The route gently rolls for 30km or so, past Collodi, home of Pinocchio and into the outer reaches of Montecatini, scene of the 2013 World Time Trial Championship, before Lindley swings left and we take in a pleasantly twisting climb of a couple of km at a steady gradient of 6 or so percent to Montecatini Alto. Tess decided to throttle back just a tad in the heat and the group reaches the summit some 30 or so seconds ahead of her. Ever the gent, Jay McCarthy sets back off down to offer a helping hand on the back an injection of wattage. “If anybody else did this on a club run they’d get a bollocking for being patronising!” Tess informs him as she is accelerated up past her regular climbing speed threshold “But as it’s you I’ll let you off..” The McCarthy chairlift does it’s job and we set off down a fun, technical descent into Monsummano Terme.
A few turns through the quiet town, a wave and a “Ciao!” with the Lampre squad as they pass in the opposite direction on their training ride and we arrive at an unassuming, glass fronted cafeteria of the sort that grace many a roadside in provincial Tuscany. The difference here is what is served inside, by whom and who has partaken of the offering. ‘Bar Galligani Il Re Del Cappuccino – Dal 1948′ the frontage announces. This is it. Matt Stephens- make a note. The realm of Umberto Galligani: The Cappuccino King. Friend to the giants of cycle sport.
Aside from Andy Fenn (who has to turn straight around and head back to prepare to catch a flight back to the UK in order to race the National Road Race Championships in Lincoln that Sunday) the order is placed: Cappuccino all round. Anything else simply does not come into the equation. There is talk of an Australian friend of Jay’s girlfriend who deigned to request a skinny-frappo-no suger boho type variation as if she was standing in any one of the millions of Coffee Solutions Emporiums that sell endless concoctions of ‘a coffee’. Umberto simply paused briefly from his artisanal endeavour behind the counter, looked at her from under his eyebrows and placed what she was going to drink in front of her without a word. Full fat, full froth, caffeinated, sugar coated splendour. And drink it she jolly well did.
Umberto has dedicated 60 plus years of his life to serving the finest cappuccino in existence after taking his first Barista position in Milano where he had moved to with a friend to seek his fortune and start making his way in the world as a young man. There is a dreamy, movie star-esque photo depicting him in those early years on the wall surrounded by an arc of Lavazza espresso cups, each one representing a year of hard work. There are many cups. It is a calling in his eyes, the passion of a lifetime. Heartfelt artistry is poured into each and every cup. This is his life’s work and each couple of euros that drops into his till buys not just a coffee but a slice of a caring man’s pride.
As the coffees are made, I stroll around the establishment. Tic Tac and Mentos stands adorn the counter top, an encyclopaedic array of cigarettes towers behind the bar. “Merckx was a chain smoker, y’ know” Tess informs the group as chairs are pulled up “Nah, get out of it!!” “Seriously, I use an old ‘R6′ German cigarette advert image in a lecture I do for work!”. The usual variety of pastries sit nonchalantly inside the glass counter. But it is what covers the walls that arrests the attention: a whole peloton’s worth of signed team and champion jerseys, framed prints of Umberto with some of the truly stellar names of cycling’s history, easy smiles on all parties faces and arms around the shoulders. Pantani. Cavendish. Moser. Opinions may rail against each other and divide on the forums or during post ride debate in the rest of the world, but here, all are merely friends passing through, warts and all. Hey, this is the cafe stop, guys, leave the polemic at the door..
Our coffees are made by Francesca as Paolo, Umberto’s son in law, appears from the door to the rear of the bar, but no Umberto. “Umberto is in bed- he is not too well today” Any disappointment at not meeting the great man, The King himself, is instantly shelved and wishes for a quick recovery to full health are voiced. In any case, the hospitality shown as Paolo ducks behind the bar to retrieve the fabled photo-albums and autograph books and Francesca delivers the works of frothing art to the tables is in no way a second string affair.
The photo books are a veritable trip down memory lane for some and a history lesson for others. It’s a generational thing. After watching cycling since the very first Channel 4 Tour de France broadcasts and devouring any and all printed cycling media since about 1993, I fall firmly into the former category. In truth there is too much to take in during any one sitting- the photo albums fill multiple boxes. Each of us takes one and starts to leaf through. The result is you spend half of your time looking at photos not in your own specimen but over the shoulder or across the forearms of someone else.
“Here’s a VERY young Nibali! can’t be more than about 16..”
“Ullrich- look, carrying a fair few extra kilos, eh!”
“Extra?? That’s pretty much his Tour weight!!”
“Salvatore Commesso!! Remember him?!”
“Yeh.. Round little..Yeah.. I remember, alright..”
“Look at Gerraint!!! Look! Certainly ain’t the Classics machine he is now!” a group of pale young cyclists, now known to millions around the world, stare out from underneath the cellophane covering looking for all the world like nervous participants at a school sports day rather than some of the UK’s biggest hitters, riders who have taken the cycling world by storm in the last few years.
And there’s Umberto, Flanked by Vinokourov and Contador in the early Astana years. Like I say, opinions can be divided but the sheer weight of history that echoes around the four walls and permeates the air cannot be dismissed.
But what of the cappuccino themselves? In a word: Utterly Magnificent. Sorry, that was two. And still nowhere near a fitting enough description of the experience that is a cappuccino made to The King’s exacting standards. The froth stands at least 6cm deep and is creamy and full, the little cocoa powder heart adorning each one is perfect. The coffee itself.. well, do I really need to tell you? Tom Juul Jensen let it slip on the ride in that he has never in his life drank a cappuccino “Even when I worked in a coffee joint for a while, I never touched one, didn’t see what the fuss was about” He is now a convert – but you have to appreciate the bar has been set as high as it can go which paves the way for many a future disappointment..
Paolo insists on filling our bidons with fridge cold spring water before we are allowed to leave and then we’re off. The ride home takes on a somewhat friskier nature. Jay and Ben are playfully skipping up and down curb stones and over road furniture like it was some free for all Flemish Kermesse, simply for the fun of it, without breaking pedal-stroke. I’m riding next to Joe. “Do you think it’s the tailwind we seem to have picked up or the coffee hit?” I pontificate. “Probably a bit of both!” Joe smiles.
I reckon it’s a case of 70/30 in favour of the coffee, especially as Ben saw fit to down two. “It’s a great ride out to here” Ben explains “Especially when you want the motivation to do a slightly longer recovery run” Right now both he and Jay have the demeanour of two mates racing each other down their hometown streets on their childhood bikes. That the sport can be uncompromisingly tough, sometimes unfair for many reasons at times, is taken in his stride when it all boils down. “I mean I get to ride my bike everyday in this beautiful place. It’s not lost on me, believe me..”
The Montecatini traffic lights and queueing cars fragment the group once more as we head back to Lucca. Joe, Tess and me find ourselves 150m off the back. Out of a Junction Joe flies past me with Tess on his wheel.
“Jump on!!” She yells and drops her wheel back for me to slot in.
I glue myself onto Joe’s wheel and place my total trust in his lines and road judgement. Joe’s lines are rock solid, his pedal stroke unfailingly smooth. “Yup, this is not lost on me either”, I think to myself as I draft along the pristine road surface behind the BMC TTT powerhouse. The wheels of our friends are soon regained.
The next day I’m sitting at a table outside a bar on Corso Garibaldi in Lucca. Tom appears from around the corner and somewhat sheepishly comes over to say ‘Hi’. His brother had indeed been crowned Danish Time Trial Champion the previous evening and Tom’s sheepishness turns out to be more delicateness after a night of celebration. A coffee may help but Tom settles for a coke. It’s pushing on for 4 o’clock in the afternoon and ordering a cappuccino at such an advanced hour would simply not be acceptable here in Italy. Nor, I’m afraid, would it be one of The Kings.
If you too would like to enjoy the King’s Cappuccino, point your wheels towards:
Via Garibaldi 1
Since this article was published, we have learned that Umberto Galligani, the Cappuccino King has sadly passed away. We'd like to extend our heartfelt sympathies & thoughts to his family at this difficult time.