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HomeThe VeloVeritas YearsThe VeloVeritas Years - 2020: Locked-Down on Etna

The VeloVeritas Years – 2020: Locked-Down on Etna

“We flew back to Bologna, panic packed a bag and got back to Etna the day before total lockdown - and that was us for three months, it was surreal.”


We didn’t get to very many races in 2020 due of course to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the clear memory of this year is of everyone simply trying to do their best to get through this awful situation. Even when riders were locked-down they were finding ingenious ways and methods to keep fit and maintain that hard-won condition, but with constant uncertainty around dates for a return to competition, it was a difficult balancing act. Our friend Calum Johnston was at a training camp with his Zappi teammates, when the lockdown curtain came down, and they found themselves with three months to fill as best they could. Calum’s story typifies many people’s year, and so it’s our pick for 2020 for ‘The VeloVeritas Years’ collection.

* * *

This article first ran on 29th June, 2020

It’s a wee while since last we spoke to Scottish ‘Zappi Man’ Calum Johnston who’s out there in Bella Italia, chasing the dream – but when we heard he was stuck on a volcano in Sicily we just had to learn more.

Just to recap, how old are you now, Calum and how long is it you’ve been with Zappi?

“I’m 21 years-old, I’ll be 22 in November and it’s three-and-a-half seasons I’ve been with Flavio Zappi’s team.”

Calum Johnston
Calum Johnston is into his fourth season racing with Flavio Zappi’s team. Photo©supplied

Who’s the sponsor for 2020?

“Holdsworth – we’re on the Holdsworth Corsa Superlight Disc road bike.

“It’s my first time on disc brakes and I’m impressed by them, you just you know you’re gonna stop!

“But as with anything that’s new, you have to learn to look after them, like the using the right cleaner on the rotors.”

Tell us about being marooned on Mount Etna, Sicily.

“It was to be an altitude training camp, there were originally four of us; we’d come back from racing in Rhodes when the virus situation became serious.

“We flew back to Bologna, panic packed a bag and got back to Etna the day before total lockdown – and that was us for three months, it was surreal.”

None of Flavio’s famous morning beach walks then?

“Unfortunately not up there – but the air is really fresh because you’re so high and far away from any big town.

“We were the only ones up there so there was a lot of freedom to go for long forest walks. 

“Callum Ferguson was our DS and he organised things really well; Flavio couldn’t travel out from England because of the travel ban.”

Calum Johnston
Calum Johnston and his team mates had a memorable training camp in Sicily. Photo©supplied

I believe there was an eruption when you were up there?

“It was crazy, we woke up one morning, looked out the window and there it was puffing away.

“It got worse as the day went on, bangs, booms, lava flows – we put some videos on twitter and got 75,000 views.

“There are still the remains of buildings up there which were destroyed by the eruption in 2002.”

And snowstorms?

“The first week was nice weather but then we had the snow and couldn’t get the car out of the drive, it was a white-out.

“Then these wild dogs turned up, we befriended them and they stayed with us for the rest of our stay.”

What was the script on training?

“We weren’t allowed to ride outside for the first three or four weeks but we had rollers and a smart turbo so we were able to Zwift.

“We had weights too and floor mats to do exercises on, we organised a rota between the different aspects and it worked out well.”

What did you do for supplies?

“The town of Belpasso is about a 10 or 15 minute drive down the mountain, there’s a supermarket down there, we took turns taking the car down and joining the queue.”

Where are you now?

“Were near the town of Cesena in Emelia Romagna, it’s a nice spot.”

Calum Johnston
Calum Johnston was locked-down on Etna for three months. Photo©supplied

Any word on ‘normality’ returning?

“The UCI are saying that racing can resume at international level in Italy in early August but we’re hoping that regional and national racing may be permitted in July?

“As far as day-to-day life goes it seems to be pretty much back to normal, you have to wear a mask but people are back in cafes and bars.”

Let’s talk about last season – you rode the Baby Giro.

“Yes the Colombians were one, two, three in that, the level they were at was just insane.

“I was a bit disappointed by my ride there, I had higher hopes but the legs just weren’t there and I gave myself over to helping my team mate Mason Hollyman who was in the top 20 on GC.

“On a positive not though, I came out of it with good form.”

You had a good ride in the Valle d’Aosta stage race.

“Yes, I was 19th overall, I was happy with that.

“The level was high, the guy who won it, Mauri Vansevenant signed a four year deal with Deceuninck over the winter so he’s World Tour this year as a quite few others from the top 20 on GC. 

“I’ve had some decent results too in regional and national races, top 20 finishes and some top 10 results.”

And you rode the Piccolo Lombardia, the race which was Sean Kelly’s stepping stone to a pro contract.

“That’s a cool race, very well organised.

“On the Madonna del Ghisallo climb – the one with the famous chapel at the top –  I was in a lead group of about 25 riders and was thinking; ‘this could go all the way.’

“But the usual, they started to faff about and it came back.

“I was happy to finish in the main peloton though, there were an awful lot DNF that day.”

Are Zalf and Colpack stil the teams to beat in Italian u23 racing?

“They’re still strong, yes but quite a few teams have stepped up to continental level for this year and if it’s an international race you have the likes of the Colombians and Axel Merckx’s Axeon team to contend with too.” 

Calum Johnston
Calum Johnston training in Italy during the Coronavirus lockdown. Photo©supplied

How did Rhodes go at the start of this year?

“We rode the single day International Rhodes Grand Prix then the three stage International Tour of Rhodes.

“I rode an aggressive race in the GP and was 25th out of 123 finishers with a whole lot of guys outside the time limit.

“I had good legs for Stage One of the Tour and took ninth place but on Stage Two I came down in a crash inside the last 200 metres.

“Fortunately it was scuffs here and there – on the bright side, and I had taken the king of the mountains lead so had the jersey on Stage Three.”

What’s next?

“I’ve been on a 10 day endurance block – you have to watch the intensity when you come back down from altitude – just getting the kilometres in.

“The first goal is to gain selection for the Baby Giro, it’s been shortened to eight days and is scheduled for August 29th so I’ll be fighting for my place in that line up.”

VeloVeritas wishes Calum well and hopes to catch up with him after the race.

Ed Hood and Martin Williamson
Ed Hood and Martin Williamson
Ed and Martin, our top team! They try to do the local Time Trials, the Grand Tours and the Classics together to get the great stories written, the quality photos taken, the driving done and the wifi wrestled with.

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