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A slice of Italy in Sheffield

We talk to Sheffield restaurateur Gian Bohan about the La Squadra cycling club, his passion for cycling and his plans for the future.  Words by Tony O’Donnell, photographs by Jodi Hinds.

The stylish black and red jerseys of the La Squadra cycling club have become a familiar sight in the hills west of Sheffield over the last couple of years.  You will see them in all weathers: singly, soaring seemingly without effort up the steepest of inclines (or, just as likely, weaving tortuously uphill with much inelegant huffing and puffing); enjoying a brisk weekend morning ride in gaggles of three, four or five; in long, snaking lines on the climb out of town; and, occasionally, en lycra-clad masse, at their de facto clubhouse and favourite watering hole, Nonnas Italian restaurant in fashionable Ecclesall Road, where they will be enjoying pasta and Peroni and swapping tales of that day’s ride, while passers-by eye the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds’ worth of machinery leaning against the railings outside.  In an elegant sans-serif typeface, each jersey bears across its shoulders the maxim Non riguarda sempre e solo la bici: “it’s not always about the bike.”  So, if it’s not always about the bike… what is it about?

La Squadra (Italian for “The Team”) is the brainchild of Sheffield restaurateur and co-owner of Nonnas, Gian Bohan, who founded the club with a group of like-minded friends a little under two years ago.  In person Gian is as genial and engaging as you might expect of someone in his line of work.  Tall and with a cyclist’s lean frame, his Irish-Italian parentage is evident in his appreciation of la dolce vita and his love of the craic.  We meet at his new “pizza and cycling” concept, Nonnas Pizza, just round the corner from the flagship Nonnas restaurant.

The Outdoor Times: Take us back to the beginning.  How long has Nonnas been open?

Gian Bohan: 16 years.  We opened our doors in Sheffield in 1996.  Nonnas Chesterfield opened in 2009.

OT: Have you always been into cycling?

GB: No, actually it’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve got into it.  Actually it was through our restaurant manager, Stefano.  He’s from Montecatini, always cycled, classic Italian.  Anyway, he suggested we go off and do this event in Italy called the Marathon of the Dolomites, and I thought, why not.  So a group of us signed up, and we went to this event in the Dolomites with great organisation, fantastic scenery and all these people in great kit, and I thought “Maybe we could do something like this”.  It just kind of morphed out of that.

OT: So that was the origin of La Squadra?

GB: Yes, exactly.  After that, so many things just kind of dropped into place and gathered momentum.  We developed the kit and the website, and there were little guerrilla marketing things like the Dallaglio-Flintoff Cycleslam, where we managed to get Freddie [Flintoff] into La Squadra kit.  We found ourselves involved in more and more events, like at the Sheffield Cycling Grand Prix where we provided the VIP hospitality.  This was nothing like anything we’d ever done before.  But the passion was there to make it work.

OT: You could do this full time if you wanted to…

GB Well, I’ve got to work in between all this!  But it’s exciting!

There has never been a better time to start a cycling club, thanks to what is widely referred to as the Bradley Wiggins effect.  In fairness, the current boom in cycling predates the besideburned one’s exploits in this summer’s Tour de France and Olympic Games; while cycling has enjoyed a steady increase in popularity in this country in recent years, the catalyst for the explosion was Mark Cavendish’s victory at last year’s World Championships in Copenhagen, the first British winner since Tom Simpson1 in 1965.  Even a few years ago, the idea that both the rainbow jersey of the World Champion and fabled maillot jaune of the Tour de France would both be worn by British riders was simply unthinkable.   Thanks to Lottery money, a complete overhaul of what used to be called the British Cycling Federation and the careful stewardship of British Cycling and Team Sky performance director Dave Brailsford (whose philosophy of “aggregation of marginal gains”, once the object of much cycling hack mockery, turned out to make perfect sense), Britain is, for the first time in history, a world power in a sport traditionally dominated by the French, the Belgians, the Italians.  In the summer of 2012 there was simply no hiding from cycling.  After the wholesale mugging of the Tour by British riders (over a third of the stages being won by Brits, and a serious case to be made for renaming the Champs-Élysées “Boulevard Mark Cavendish”), and Wiggins’ riotously exciting time trial gold, the British track teams swept all before them at the Olympics and Paralympics.  Cue massive media exposure, and our cyclists becoming household names and national heroes.  Where ten years ago even the very best British cyclists were unknown outside the sport, nowadays they’re advertising shampoo and appearing on Strictly.

The boom in cycling as a participation sport is the natural consequence.  Suddenly, everyone with a rusty old banger in the shed was out on the roads, while those with the means rushed out and bought shiny new racers.  The Middle Aged Man In Lycra, or MAMIL, has quickly become a cultural stereotype; the professional male of a certain age with a bit of disposable income, who chases his lost youth by dropping several grand on a carbon bike and a replica Team Sky kit.  While anything that enhances the health of the nation (and the wealth of the sport) has surely to be considered a Good Thing, newcomers to the sport find themselves too often an object of derision within the established cycling community.  Internet forums and social media are awash with jibes about “chubby dentists on Pinarellos”, with “all the gear and no idea”; they aren’t “proper cyclists”.  While not exactly a secret society, cycling has similarities with freemasonry in its arcane rituals, its opaque language, its sense of brotherhood and an experience shared.  The notion of cycling as fad or fashion statement does not sit well with the clubman of a conservative bent.  While new boys the “Squaddies” seem happy to have a laugh at their own expense, and the colours of many other clubs are seen at La Squadra events, I wondered how Gian feels the nascent club is seen by the Sheffield cycling establishment?

GB: Well, I’m sure there’s a bit of rivalry between clubs, and I’m sure some of the others think we’re the posh boys with the nice kit and the nice bikes who can’t ride, but the great thing is that there’s such a spectrum of ability.  Some of our best riders are pretty good; we have people with great potential.  On the other hand everyone’s got to start somewhere.  We’ve had so many people tell us that it’s really good and that what we’re doing is different, so I’m not going to get too hung up about it.  We’ll continue to do things we like to do, and people can take it or leave it.  I don’t lose any sleep on that front.

OT: Historically, Sheffield has been a hotbed of cycling with a heritage all of its own, hasn’t it?  Like you’ve got the Downing brothers2, who come from a tradition of hard-as-nails northerners…

GB: Absolutely.  We’ve teamed up with them to do their cycle ride.  You find there’s that small world of connections that builds and builds, it’s all connected to that heritage with people like them and Malcolm Elliott3… I mean, Ben Swift4 is a regular.  It’s amazing that we have a world champion cyclist coming in from just round the corner.

OT: When you say “we…”

GB: I couldn’t possibly do all this by myself… Tim Hubbard [of Sheffield design firm 93ft] has put in a huge amount of work, designing the website, the kits and so on.  Also Marco Mori [of Gusto Cycling] and Nick Cotton… Nick plans all the routes for the events. Maurizio [Mori, Marco’s brother and Gian’s partner in Nonnas] and Chiara [Albrizio, of Nonnas] muck in too.  It’s a great little team, always bouncing ideas around.

OT: Do you think Sheffield cyclists were looking for something like this?

GB: I think that because we come from a non-cycling background, we do things we like to do, how we like to do it: food, wine, socialising… getting on bikes just adds another dimension to that.   But when we put on events, and people tell us this is so good, this is so different, you’ve got a lovely community that’s worth belonging to, I think, “Hmm, maybe we’re onto something here.”

Gian shows me round the new outlet.  The pizza counter offers freshly baked pizza by the slice and a wide range of pizzas to take away (in a rather striking box).  I sampled the Pollo and Margherita and can report that they’re a little bit of il bel paese right there in Steel City.  There are also wines and beers (including some obscure Italian artisan brews) to take out from the “drinks den”.  Round the corner from the counter is the “cyclists’ space”.  A large flat screen TV shows a cycle race; bidons and chapeaux (that’s water bottles and cycling caps to the uninitiated) jockey for position with copies of upmarket cycling magazine Rouleur and a range of books.  The walls are bedecked with evocative monochrome prints of heroes from cycling history.  The overall effect is “retro cycling chic”.

OT: So, you’ve been open just a couple of weeks… how’s it being received?

GB: What we’ve found already, especially on a Saturday, is that so many people walk in and say “I’m just getting into cycling, what’s this over here, what’s that on the TV…”  And I think for us the nod to the Italian heritage is great.  They go hand in hand, the Italian café, ciclismo and all that.  Like, I’ve wanted to do these [La Squadra branded espresso cups] for so long.  I see it developing and evolving, maybe a coffee brand… and we have the events.  We’ve already spoken with Rouleur about staging an event for [cycling journalist] Herbie Sykes’ new book about Fausto Coppi5; they’ll have an event in London, and another here, with Herbie in attendance.  We’re also staging a gallery event with [artist] Bruce Doscher, a little exhibition of his work with the possibility to buy.  We want to have a constantly evolving space that will capture people’s imagination.  I mean, for the Tour de Force night, they’re doing an event at the Rapha shop in London, and at the Ronde bike shop in Edinburgh, and here.  It’s really nice that we’re already thought of in that kind of bracket.

So what does the future hold for La Squadra?  Energetic entrepreneur’s plaything, or premium cycling lifestyle brand?  On this, Gian will not be drawn.  “We’ve got lots of dots,” he says, carefully and cryptically, “that slowly, slowly are being connected”.  It will be interesting to see what Gian’s dot-to-dot puzzle looks like when it’s finished.

Nonnas Pizza, 7-9 Hickmott Road, Sheffield S11 8QF, tel. 0114 327 2331

Opening times: Tuesday-Friday 4pm-10pm, Saturdays noon-10pm

www.nonnas.co.uk/pizza 

________________________________________________________________

1 Britain’s first road cycling world champion, Tom Simpson, came from Harworth, Nottinghamshire, and was Britain’s most successful cyclist on the world stage before the arrival of Bradley Wiggins.  He died of exhaustion and dehydration on the arid slopes of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France.  He was 29.

2 Rotherham brothers Russell and Dean Downing currently ride for the Endura Racing and Rapha Condor Sharp professional racing teams respectively.  They are the driving force behind a charitable foundation, Out of the Saddle.

3 Sheffield’s own Malcolm Elliott is something of a local legend.  He was a member of the ill-fated ANC-Halfords team, the first British team to enter the Tour de France in 1987 (the story is entertainingly told in Jeff Connor’s Wide Eyed and Legless).  In 1981 Malcolm set a course record of one minute 14.2 seconds on the famed Monsal hill climb – a record that has yet to be beaten.  He was still racing professionally at the age of 50.

4 Sheffield professional Ben Swift rides on the road for British superteam Team Sky, but is equally accomplished on the track.  He is the 2012 scratch race world champion.

5 Fausto Coppi (1919-1960) – il campionissimo, the champion of champions.  Arguably Italy’s greatest ever cyclist, Coppi collected the world championship and multiple Tour de France and Giro d’Italia wins.  His rivalry with countryman Gino Bartali was the stuff of sporting legend.  Over 50 years after his untimely death from malaria, Coppi still enjoys near-mythical status in Italy.

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2 comments on “A slice of Italy in Sheffield

  1. Pingback: A slice of Italy in Sheffield | The Outdoor Times | cyclesheffield | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Out of the Saddle with Russ and Dean | The Outdoor Times

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2012 by in cycling, food, news and articles, UK.

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