Michael Chiarello is the acclaimed chef and owner of Bottega restaurant in Yountville, an Emmy-winning Food Network host, tastemaker behind the NapaStyle retail company, vintner and cookbook author.
The 52-year-old Red Bluff native has also been an avid cyclist for nearly 15 years, having completed about a dozen long-distance rides of 75 to 100 miles. He’s ridden a Tour de France stage that climbed 19,000 vertical feet, a stage of the Giro d’Italia, and a stage of the Tour of California in Marin County.
On Sunday in San Francisco, Chiarello will tackle a different sort of challenge — the 18-mile bike leg of the 34th annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. He’s been teamed up on a celebrity trio with former professional surfer Sunny Garcia and the former drummer of the band Goo Goo Dolls, Mike Malinin, who has completed several ultra-marathons.
After 16-year announcer Eric Gilsenan — a Napa resident who will be competing in his 26th straight Escape — signals the 7:30 a.m. start from the San Francisco Belle Ferry parked just off Alcatraz, Garcia and 2,000 others will swim the 1.5-mile opening leg to Marina Green Beach and jog a half-mile to Marina Boulevard.
Chiarello will then do the twisting, out-and-back bike ride through the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. Malinin will run the final eight miles, under the Golden Gate Bridge and down to Baker Beach, turning around in the deep sand and up the steep, 400-step Equinox Sand Ladder, before heading back to Marina Green.
“They wanted to put three folks who have a passion for one of the disciplines and put them together in celebration of the legendary race that it is. It was an amazing offer that I couldn’t turn down,” Chiarello said. “Sunny and I have been fans of Mike on the music side, and I know he has a passion for the sport as well, so it’ll be a lot of fun and a big challenge. We’ve met to put a strategy together, see what the pass-off looks like, and go through the route.”
Chiarello has been training on Old Howell Mountain Road and other steep valley roads with coach Chris Carmichael, a former pro cyclist who coached Lance Armstrong and other top riders.
He’s trained on the Escape course three times.
“They made the loop as challenging as they can, with a couple of chunky spots and some steep parts,” Chiarello said. “No stretches are particularly long because it’s through the Presidio, but the curves sneak up on you. You don’t have long downhills to freshen up. I’m also training for a 75-mile ride, which is very different. This ride has more of a sprint start and sprint finish. With a shorter ride, you don’t have to worry about what to eat because in essence your body stores an hour’s worth of fuel anyway.
“The upside with having a lot more riders is you can pick nice groups to get in with and do your pulls and they push you further because the wind is not all on you.
You have to schedule it like everything else.”
He said actor Robin Williams once rode the bike leg in 1 hour, 3 minutes for a celebrity team.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind event. There’s nothing else like it in the world,” he said. “The talent of athletes there is spectacular and it’s a very hard race to get in. People try for years, no matter what their times are.”
Chiarello opened a Spanish restaurant on Pier 5 in San Francisco called Coqueta last year, taking away even more of his training time. But he’ll always make time for cycling, which he started doing to stay in shape. He bikes with his wife of 11 years, Eileen, and 8-year-old son, Aidan. He also has three daughters who are in their 20s.
“Cycling is my No. 1 addiction other than cooking,” he said. “My daughters think I’m nuts. But with anything you do in life, you set a goal and train for that goal. Ultimately the one you’re competing against is yourself, watching the clock and beating your time for that course and having a good strategy.
“In my business, doing things that can keep the stress down and keep the fitness up is really important,” he said. “I love it. My wife and I ride together. It’s a sport you can do in your 70s. Wherever you go in the world, you can bring your demo bike and see much more than you would from a car or a hike. It’s a social thing to do with my wife, to relax, cut the stress out, get the endorphins going and stay on the happy side.”
Though he swam and wrestled as a youth, he said he would never try this triathlon by himself.
“I wouldn’t want to swim those waters, even though it’s a short swim,” he said, “because it’s treacherous and you have a couple thousand people next to you.”
The bike leg will be challenging enough, he said.
“You have top amateurs and a lot of pros and guys are going all-out, so you run the risk of blowing up halfway into it,” he said. “I have a strategy for the turns and how hard to go into them. I’ll map it and tape it to my leg so I know what’s coming up. I’ll set up a protocol on what I can handle going through them. What you don’t what to do put your ego over smarts and go butt-over-end going 30 miles an hour.
“I think we have a solid chance against other celebrity teams. It’s one of those sports that on any given Sunday somebody’s going to have the legs and the arms for it. We’ll pick a couple of teams to target. You want to really enjoy the ride, but you can’t help but be competitive, right?”