Monthly Archives: April 2016

Tuscany. The home of red wine, olive oil…and craft beer

Craft beer in the UK is well and truly mainstream and here to stay. You just have to visit any bar or supermarket aisle and you can’t escape it. 200 new breweries open every year. Brewdog, the leader of the Revolution, is going from strength to strength.

Italy on the other hand is not a beer drinking nation, but one of the biggest revelations of my most recent holiday to Tuscany was the prevalence of craft beer. As a regular visitor, I’d seen one or two obscure examples but this time it was present in all the bars and cafes I visited. Here’s a couple of the examples I came across.

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This is a small brewery based in a small village called Caprese Michaelangelo. I know very little about it apart from the fact they make lovely beer. I particularly liked this example which was made with chestnut honey – a local speciality

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Based just outside Siena, this is another craft brewery producing interesting nicely packaged, artisanal beer. I tried their white beer which was delicious.

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No doubt there are many more craft beers popping up in all corners of this wonderful region using local ingredients to create unique tastes and flavours. I’m quite interested in trying out this one – Bastarda Rossa – which is made using chestnuts. It has obviously been inspired by Brewdog’s naming protocol!.

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As can be seen from this directory of Tuscan microbreweries, many have started up over the past few years, so no doubt local beers will become more and more available. In a region with such firmly entrenched wine traditions this is truly remarkable.

So on your next visit to Italy I would suggest you give the Moretti a miss and look for something more interesting instead.

My favourite British cycling clothing brands

In Britain we’re in the midst of a cycling boom. Sales of bicycles are growing exponentially. More people are cycling to work. Our cities are gradually becoming cycle-friendly. Thanks Brad. Thanks Boris.

In parallel, we’ve seen the emergence of new and interesting British cycling clothing brands, feeding our desire to look the part and perform at our best whilst we’re pedalling. Here’s a round up of some of my favourites.

1 Rapha

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You’ve got to start with Rapha which has been at the forefront of driving new trends and styles in cycling apparel. Founded in 2004 it has been phenomenally successful and in 2013 replaced Adidas as the kit supplier to Team Sky. Quite an achievement. The clothing is beautifully made with it’s signature black and pink styling, but comes with price tags to match. It’s a brand that polarises the cycling community. Cycling in the UK has got strong working class roots and some have come to resent Rapha and all that it stands for, accusing it of driving up the price of clothing. However, I’m a fan. I’ve got a pair of their shorts that I love.

2 Vulpine

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Vulpine, which was created in 2012 has clearly been inspired by Rapha’s success and has also adopted a premium priced positioning. It also combines functionality with classic, fashionable design. There are probably two things that differentiate it from Rapha. Firstly, it partners with individual riders. There’s a range created in partnership with Sir Chris Hoy and it also sponsors Laura Trott’s team. Secondly, it has a sharper focus on female riders. 30% of its sales are via it’s women range

3 dhb

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If you don’t want to pay the expensive prices of Rapha and Vulpine, you could look towards dhb, the ‘own label’ brand of Wiggle, the huge on-line cycling retailer. dhb makes non-nonsense, great quality gear. It offers great value for money, probably due to its scale. I’m a fan of their merino wool base layers.

4 Morvelo

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Morvelo is a Brighton based brand of cycling apparel, founded in 2009. Unlike the other brands mentioned so far, it represents a broader spread of cycling interests, including cyclo-cross, mountain biking and bmx. It draws it’s inspiration from popular culture and seems to be less obsessed with the traditions and spirit of road cycling. There’s also some quite interesting examples of creative collaborations with other bike-related brands, so their designs are quite eclectic. Here’s a video the reflects the spirit of the brand

5 Stolen Goat

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Another newcomer to the cycling apparel market, Stolen Goat was founded in 2012, by a bike-obsessed entrepreneur. It offers a nice range of high performance items for both men and women with fairly classic cycling. Being a smaller, newer brand it places a great emphasis on customer service and the ‘small company’ feel of the business. I’ve bought some of their items and which I was really pleased with.

6 Fierlan

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Female cyclists appear to be a growing part of the market and I was interested to discover Fierlan, a brand that focused solely on the needs of women. It’s based in Bristol, a city renowned for its cycling culture and was created in 2013. Their range continues to evolve with the input and insight from the female cycling community. It feels like a young brand on a mission – to champion the cause of women in the world of cycling.

So, that’s my brief round-up of British cycling apparel brands that have caught my eye. However, I’m sure there are many more out there. If there’s others you’d suggest, I’d love to hear from you.

L’Eroica: how we’ve fallen in love with vintage bike rides

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In 1997, in the village of Gaiole in Chianti, 92 cycling fanatics decided to create a bike ride through ‘the stade bianchi’ – the white roads – that criss-cross the Tuscan countryside. The entry rules were strict. The only bikes permitted had to be steel framed road bikes, built before 1987. Gear shifters had to be on the down tube and all pedals had to have toe clips and straps. In addition, riders dressed in vintage or era specific clothing. They called it “L’Eroica”

In 2015, the ride in Gaiole had over 6 000 riders and has reached its maximum limit. It is always oversubscribed. Now there are 9 Eroica events all over the world – including the UK. They all follow the same strict rules of the original Gaiole event. It’s a true Global cycling ‘brand’, with a consistent look and feel. It attracts some of the world’s biggest cycle manufacturers and suppliers as co-sponsors. There’s no doubt it will spread to other parts of the world.

So why has it become so incredibly popular?

 1 It’s a Celebration of Italian Cycling Culture

Italy has always been in love with road cycling. They worship their heroes such as Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. The Giro d’Italia is one of the oldest and most challenging bike rides in the world, second only to the Tour de France. They have wonderful bicycle brands such as Bianchi, Colnago and Campagnola that create machines of true beauty. Taking part in the Eroica allows you to experience the style and passion of Italian cycling.

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2 It’s an Opportunity to Re-discover the Joy of Riding a ‘Vintage’ Bike

Today’s modern bikes are lightweight, made of hi-tech materials and are aerodynamic, but lack the purity and the elegance of the classic steel bikes. Riding an old racing bike feels very different and in some ways more enjoyable that the modern bike. A bit like driving a vintage car rather than a new one. For cycling aficionados, acquiring and renovating a classic bike is a real pleasure. A well known or rare vintage bike brand in good condition is a true collector’s item. I have a vintage Francesco Moser bike and I love it!

3 It’s an Excuse to Revel in Nostalgia

At it’s most basic, it’s a chance to dress up in old cycling gear. Looking the part is an important element of cycling culture and there’s a rich history of cycling apparel, from the old merino wool tops and racing shoes of the pre-war era to the famous team kits of more recent cycling legends. Admiring and discussing all the old bikes and outfits is all part of the experience. For people of a certain age, it’s a chance to relive their youth.

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4 It’s More Than Just a Bike Ride

The Ride itself is only part of the Eroica experience. For example the Eroica Britannia in Bakewell takes place over 3 days and 50 000 people attend. There’s exhibitions, live music, other vintage themed attractions, camp sites. It’s got the same vibe as a music festival. This film from the Eroica Britannia gives you a flavour

5 It’s a Genuine Sporting Challenge

The old bikes are more challenging than modern bikes as they’re heavier and don’t have same range of gears to help you along. Plus you ride on un-tarmaced roads and on steep hills. There are several rides to register for. Some are more than 100 miles in length, so there’s a genuine sporting challenge involved. You have to take it seriously!

The Eroica format has been so successful that it’s spawned similar events elsewhere. The town of Anghiari, also in Tuscany, has a race called L’Intrepida, and follows a similar format, which I took part in last year. It was a wonderful event that galvanised the whole community

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This year I’m taking part in the Eroica Britannia as it will give me a chance to ride through my beautiful home county of Derbyshire. Can’t wait.

Why Uniqlo Will Take Over the World

3036745-poster-p-2-jj-uniqlo-hires-wk-superstarMajor fashion retailers have had a rough time recently and their troubles have been well documented. Earlier this year Next reported disappointing results. BHS is in deep, deep trouble, threatening to close 52 of its stores. Even John Lewis has a tough time recently.

However, one fashion retailer that’s going from strength to strength is the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo. I’m a big fan. With over 1 500 stores worldwide and the business continuing to expand, I’m clearly not the only one. So why is it so successful?

1 The Marriage of Style with Technology

Uniqlo’s products look great and many of them are super functional. Plus they organise them into a series of sub-brands that make it really easy to understand and navigate your way through the ranges. For example HEATTECH, created in collaboration with a materials science company turns moisture into heat and the fabric traps air which heats-up and protects you from the cold. The AIRism range does the opposite. It lets your skin breathe and keeps you cool.

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2 The Clarity of the Offer

Uniqlo occupies the space in the market vacated by Gap (whatever happened to Gap?) – everyday, utilitarian staples, which appeals to a wide breadth of audiences. They ignore fashion trends, choosing not to imitate the latest catwalk offerings. Instead they focus on creating a huge range of bold colours to offer variety and choice

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3 Incredible Value

Because of its simple, consistent ranges and the scale of its business, Uniqlo is able to order huge quantities and negotiate great deals with it suppliers. As a result, its garments are made with high quality fabrics and sold at really affordable prices.

4 In Store Discipline

There is a strong emphasis on staff training to ensure everyone understands the company culture. Store staff have to learn a set series of ‘behaviours’ which translate into a series of phrases that define what they believe to be great customer service. This discipline enables them to maintain high standards and a consistency throughout the world

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The brand is very ambitious and is driven forward by it’s charismatic owner Tadashi Yanai who’s created a thriving business culture and developed a winning offer which really stands out from the crowd.

I’ve no doubt that the brand will continue to thrive and will dominate fashion retailing.