Perfect execution of a simple idea trumps average execution of a complicated idea.
My stomach is full. The one thing I do too much of on these Italian trips is eat too much food. I don’t know if it’s because I am traveling and the only options are rich, restaurant food, or because the food is starchy, or because my body can’t quickly adjust to eating at biologically different times than at home, but I get fuller and fuller during a trip to the point where the ride home features an almost painful bellyache.
I do it to myself, of course. I eat a full lunch every day, rather than smaller meals when I don’t need a lot of food. I’ve had genuine Italian pizza for lunch (which is an entire American size medium per serving), two three-course, sit-down meals of pasta and cheese and meat, and two banquet buffets with more than a handful of options (of which I had to try all). I have had a full dinner every night, even when I grabbed something quick on the way back to the apartment where I stay in Bergamo. And I eat dessert at every opportunity (which are plentiful and sometimes come in the form of three of four different kinds of pastry at one pass). All of it leads to an increasing bloat and disgust at myself and stress that I will have to purge for a week when I get home to regain control of myself.
Despite all that self-imposed food discomfort, there is one gastronomic joy that I would never miss on my Italian trips. Near the apartment, maybe 150 meters walk, is a kebab shop. I think its called the King Istanbul Kebab and Pizza Shop (although the name is fuzzy because there are competing window signs that could also be the shop’s name). A fast food format more common outside of the United States, kebab is that large, round meat slab that is mounted vertically on a spit. The outer edge of the slab is continuously sliced away as customers order sandwiches and wraps and other meal combinations until the slab becomes a nub and is replaced with a new one.
The slab is Lamb; butchered, seasoned, and pressed into the slabs. And I don’t know what it is about this continuous cooking method that makes it so good but the slightly gritty, thinly sliced meat always seems to come off the the slab perfectly tender, perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, and perfectly textured.
Kebab may be a fast-food format, and the sandwiches and wraps they make there, a relatively simple bread, meat, toppings and sauce combination, but there is something magical about this specific Kebab shop that makes it a pleasure to eat there.
The space itself is not much to look at. The decoration is plain; single-color walls, Formica tables in pastel colors, steel and plastic chairs, silver and glass counter-tops, a simple press-board and plastic printed menu board. The promotional signage (images of the food and cartoon characters displaying joy and pleasure at making it) are cartoonish and dated, as if they were created in the sixties or seventies and have been good enough to serve the kebab shop community since. There is none of the slickly marketed and designed franchise accountramont you get at typical American fast-food franchise outlet. The food is reasonably priced and (a kebab sandwich, fries and a drink for 5.50 Euros). Even the wrapping is somewhat generic (aluminum foil and bulk-purchased paper sleeves and Styrofoam containers for food). The beauty of the King Istanbul Kebab and Pizza shop in downtown Bergamo is in their perfect execution of what seems like a simple and reproducible product.
Every time I've gone in, one or more of the same group of four men is working behind the counter. They carve your portion of meat off the slab only after you order. I have never seen them weigh the meat they carve for my sandwich but they final product has always felt the same. They must be diligent about maintaining their equipment because the spit, the counter-tops, the trays for the toppings, the sauce bottles, are always clean and in working order. They must be diligent about the heat settings and management of the slab, because the meat is, as I have probably said more times than necessary now, is always perfect. They heat/cook/toast the bread when I order, giving a fresh taste, warm feel, and slightly just-made doughy texture to the bread. The vegetables (a coleslaw like cabbage and onion mix, lettuce, tomatoes, yogurt sauce) are always crisp, fresh, flavorful, colorful, and cold to the touch. The sandwich is always wrapped tightly in foil and placed the same way in the wrapper. The exceptional but plain french fries are either made fresh as you wait or, if they had them ready before you ordered, are fresh enough to not matter. Between Keli and myself, we have probably eaten there a half-dozen times and I would have to say that the food we bought was as good as the first time, as the most recent time, as any other time. They are masters at executing the delivery of their product.
So tonight, even though I've eaten too much this week, and I can feel that I am in for a stomach ache on my return flight on Monday, I couldn't resist one more visit to the King Istanbul Kebab and Pizza shop. One more chance to overfill myself. One more chance to bask in the joy of their perfectly-executed and tasty guilty pleasure. One more chance to reflect on the lesson that even if the work you do or the product that you make is technically simple there is great joy for those who receive it if you take care in the way you execute.
In am in Italy visiting my suppliers this week. Today, I went to Salerno in Milan to visit with Georgia and Mascia at Ambrosio, first at the office then lunch at a local pizzeria.
It was a wet and cold day; rained all day. Cold rain. For which I did not pack. But the drive went fast and I was at Ambrosio’s manufacturing plant by 11am. It’s a fifty kilometer drive and I am amazed that even under challenging driving conditions, Italians follow the unwritten (or maybe they are written - I am not sure) rules of driving on the Autostrada (freeway). The rule says that faster traffic drives to the left and slower traffic to the right. And you are always adjusting your lane position relative to the speed of surrounding traffic. You never block the lane from faster traffic and only ever occupy the left lane if you can honor it’s status as open only to the fastest traveling vehicles. The speed limit on the Autostrada is 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour) and on a rainy day that would have been a nightmare drive in an American city, I was able to clock 140 almost the entire way between Bergamo and Milan.
I sat with Georgia in their amazing conference room for an hour. It is an amazing place because it is filled with memorabilia, things the company and its leaders have picked up through their associations with the sport over the past eighty years. There are cycling jerseys from mostly Italian champions throughout history, there are numerous plaques and trophies the company has won or been awarded for various achievements, there are signed posters and artwork on every wall. This is my third trip to the factory and I was still discovering things I had never seen before.
There was a display of three rim builds from the late 1940's through early 1950's. The company produced rims in steel back then so the rims have a patina of galvanization that shows their age. But they are undeniably bicycle tubular hoops, perfect for their purpose and similar to the rims they make today except for the material and quality of finish. Georgia showed me the stamping on the rims and told me the story of how her family came to build Ambrosio.
She said that another family, the Ambrosio’s, built wheels for bicycles. Her family (Mazorati) was also a builder but took over the Ambrosio name when it became available to help them grow. So the oldest rim I saw had her family name stamped on it, and the latter two bore the Ambrosio name.
“When did your family take over Ambrosio?”
“1932,” Georgia said. 80 years ago!
I discovered numerous other new treasures this visit - a Francesco Moser signed skinsuit hanging on a wall underneath a poster of Moser attempting the hour record in the same. As well as a dozen jerseys from racers I had and hadn't heard of. Georgia said that most of the jerseys were for riders whose bikes her uncle also owns, like a matched set. “He has about 30 bikes at his house.”
She also showed me two salesman’s product sample books her uncle made in the 1980's. Each book contained carefully mounted cross-sections of the company’s current (at the time) rim and tire collections. Each rim cross-section was maybe a half-inch deep and glued into a small square on the book’s main page, labeled with the rim name and specifications. The tire sections (all tubulars) were two-inch slices of the entire tire. It made a lovely and simple way to display the product and is remarkable prescient of the way these same products are presented in the current catalog (in print and online), meaning a visual display of showing a cross-section of the product with a name label and written specifications. But the physical nature of the handmade display book is somehow compelling, in the same way that reading a physical book is still (to me) a richer experience than reading the same boon in digital form.
Georgia said that one of their customers has offered to buy the sample books from them every year, even offering 1,000 Euros on their last visit. But the family cares about its history and has pride in the artifacts that help them pass their history down to their children.
A case in point; there is a collection of hand-painted die-cast models of soldiers and cavalrymen from different regiments and time periods from all different countries. There are approximately 100 figures, all about three-inches tall, including several American regiments from the civil and other wars. Georgia explained that a now deceased uncle collected them. Every so often the family has a discussion about taking them down (because they are non-cycling memorabilia and don’t quite fit in the room) but sentimental nephews veto that decision so they stay. Their existence is a testament to that uncle’s curiosity, to his passion, and to his artistic nature. I would love to know the complete story behind them.
I am not big on holding on to stuff for stuff’s sake but visiting Ambrosio is a great reminder of why some things should be held on to. Not for whatever monetary value they might allow you to pass down but for the stories they allow us to tell, stories of moments experienced, people connected with, recognition received, or achievement accomplished. Memorabilia allows us to pass along our life experiences, our personal history, to the generations of our family coming up behind us. The goal would be for them to take ownership of those stories, to use them as fuel to drive their own ambitions, to inspire them to build on our accomplishments.
I have found a number of unusual and quirky objects while out riding my bike. Chuck the rubber chicken was a roadside find. As was Alison the rubber alligator. And Frosty the Pez Dispenser snowman. My latest find is a cast aluminum four-wheel-drive Lightning McQueen toy from the Disney movie Cars.
I found him on my local Saturday morning ride - a 60-mile flat and fast group run through the rural area South and West of my home in Avondale, Arizona. I was riding near the front of the group and at first, Lightning McQueen was just an object to avoid and call out to the riders behind me. All I saw was a set of chubby plastic wheels on what was obviously a small toy car laying upside down on the shoulder of the road. But because I love to find objects like this on a ride, I couldn't help but think about the toy after we passed. I wondered if it would still be there when I ride back by on my way home.
I had an off-day on the bike so took the short route option (cutting off the last 20 miles). I was with a small group so I couldn't stop to grab McQueen as we passed but as soon as I made it back to my car at LifeTime Fitness, I drove back and picked him.
I was happy with the find. He's a colorful addition to my collection of things found on rides. Except for a nasty scar along the driver's side of the hood and roof, he is unscathed enough to look new.
Part of the joy of finding these objects is imagining their story, what sequence of events led to the random chance coming together of this object and a 45 year-old recreational road cyclist out for a training ride. How did Lightning McQueen come to be laying upside down on the shoulder of the Southbound land of Bullard Avenue, 100 meters North of Yuma Road in Avondale, Arizona and five minutes past 7am on Saturday, April 12, 2013?
I imagine that he's been there all night, left there sometime after the sun went down Friday evening. Imagine that Lightning McQueen was a birthday gift-bag item for a seven-year-old boy's party held the previous weekend (he's too expensive to be a fast-food giveaway and maybe not quite big and expensive enough to me a directly-bought toy for a child). McQueen was left in his family's car by it's young owner and the owner's mother, driving home from the 7pm Zumba class at LifeTime, handed the toy to her 30-month-old daughter who was fussing and needed something to keep her occupied for the twenty-minute drive home.
It's a nice evening, not so warm as to need air conditioning and not too cool to leave the windows down. The rear passenger window is down half way. The child continues to fuss and manages to throw Lightning McQueen into the space between the two front seats. The mother, who is alone in the car with the child, manages to hand it back awkwardly to her daughter (who is sitting in the right-hand side of the bench seat in a forward-facing car seat. The child wants her mother's attention, or food, or wants to express displeasure at being trapped in the car seat, so she throws a mini fit and flings the toy out the window. Lightning McQueen travels from the grubby hand of a 30-month old into the cool, fresh night air, scuttles along the hard asphalt first on its hood and roof, then tumbles the last twenty feet, ultimately coming to rest safely off the side of the travel lane. He sits there, upside down, and until our large group of cyclists pass it by the next morning, he is undisturbed.
I also imagine that before he was purchased to be included in a gift bag at a 'Cars' themed party for second-graders, he sat on a shelf at Toys R Us. He got there in a box with 48 other Lightning McQueen's just like him, in the back of a semi-truck trailer from a distribution center to the store. He traveled inside that box with his siblings by rail in a shipping container from the port at Long Beach, where he was offloaded from a freighter that originated in China. He made it onto the ship in the container direct from a manufacturing facility thirty-five miles from the port of Shanghai. Before being placed in the box and into the shipping container, he was an assemblage of pieces and parts, some molded right there in the same facility, some brought in from other manufacturers in the region. The raw materials to make those components were all sourced in China.
So from aluminum ore dug out of a Chinese mountain, to a smelter, to a mold, to an assembly and finishing plant, into packaging, into a box, into a container onto a railway car, onto a ship, onto another railway car, into a distribution center, into the trailer of an American cross-country semi-truck, onto a shelf at Toys R Us, into a gift bag at a second-grade American boy's birthday party, into the home and car of a local second-grader, into the hands of their younger sister, out the window of their mini-van onto the side of Bullard Avenue in Avondale, Arizona and into my hands, that is Lightning McQueen's story.
What have you found on a bike ride? And what is its story?
Cyclo-cross, it turns out, is what road bike racers do in the wintertime because they can't take time off from training. Essentially, the rig up a version of their road bike with knobby tires and race on little circuits in parks and farm fields. Apparently, it's a very big sport in Belgium and American road racers tend to latch on to super Euro things like this so I guess it's no surprise. Although why they don't just take up mountain biking for the winter. Or better yet, skiing.
I am intrigued by the fact that cyclo-cross racers seem to be happiest when the weather is the coldest, nastiest and dirtiest it can be. One of the stars of cyclo-cross in America is a young man by the name of Jeremy Powers. Like everyone else in the world, he has a reality show about his life. His runs on Vimeo.com. It's a neat look into the daily lives of a guy pursuing an off-shoot of the beautiful sport that is professional road cycling. Here are the episodes from this season so far.
So Garmin has allowed Dave Zabriskie to record a session of instructions for your Sat Nav you can download. It may be too obscure a download for regular folks but having been exposed to his quirky personality and mannerisms in my online research into all things cycling, it will be fun to hear the man who brought the world DZ's Nuts chamois creams steer the Dude Who Found Me around in his 1972 Ford Maverick. Here's teaser from Team Garmin on DZ's recording session.
Just in case you're new to the Zabriskie experience, here he is in a promo video for his chamois cream products - his likely post-career business.
And one more. This one with Lance on the Garmin bus during the 2009 Giro D' Italia talking about his upcoming chamois cream for women.