Cycling, Italy, Travel

The Lure of a Grand Tour

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I didn’t even know the Giro d’Italia existed two years ago. So the blank looks and polite smiles were no surprise when I told people of our plans to follow it. Of course it’s a cycling event . . . in Italy, but it’s effectively Italy’s ‘Tour de France.’ That said, I’d never understood why anyone would want to sit up all night for three weeks, watching a bunch of men in lycra ride across Europe. But being there was different. There was something about seeing the pros ride the same relentless climbs I’d slogged up myself. Seeing the pain on their faces. The breakaways. The teamwork. Our own Aussie riders smashing it out in the home of cycling. Something that made me want to understand more of this big game of chess on wheels.

Stage 8 – Foligno to Arezzo

My skin was sticky and uncomfortable under the fresh set of jeans I’d thrown on over my knicks as we strolled through the historical centre of Arezzo, searching the perfect vantage point to catch our first glimpse of the race. We’d spent the morning riding the hills of Chianti Classico in our own version of stage 9, (the time-trial to be held the following day), before jumping in the van and speeding across Tuscany to catch the stage 8 finish. The sleepy cobbled streets reflected my own yearning to curl up and nap, yet the pink streamers flapping in laneways and rose coloured bikes in every store front only built to the excitement of what we were being funnelled towards. The whole of Italy was behind the race.

“The Italian style of racing is dictated by so much more than the race routes and the riders themselves. It is a culmination of geography, history, aesthetics, passion, celebrity and that deep-seated Italian desire to see something beautiful.” – Charly Wegelius, Domestique

The finishing straight was wedged into the narrowest street in town, VIP caravans and commentary boxes taking up what little space there was, leaving only a slither of pavement between the steel barriers and ancient buildings for the crowds. Dance music pumped from the caravan floats which had screeched to a halt on the course and we were swept from the stillness into the hundred surging fans, all arms waving in the hope of scoring a Eurospin flag or plastic wrist band.

Rare rays of sunshine beat down as we burst from the human sea, into a slightly less claustrophobic pocket on the final bend. I turned from the rider-less crowd-lined course to the action on a big screen where the teams were thrashing it out in a rising cloud of dust. There was no better illustration of ex-pro Charly Wegelius’ sentiments: “The race routes never follow common sense: why would you if you could deviate to take a climb with a picturesque backdrop, or go past a historic chapel.” The peloton was falling apart on the double-digit gravel climb, a single Etixx rider opening up a break in a bid to take not only the stage win, but the pink race leader’s jersey. Who knew who the guy was? Personally, I was still acquiring my taste for stage racing, but I was drawn in by the drama. I was suddenly rooting for the faceless athlete. The crowd erupted and I swung around as he flashed onto the finishing straight his figure growing, bigger and bigger as he surged past then shrunk to cross the line a minute ahead of the pack.

“Giannnn-luca Brrrrrambilla!” The loudhailer was more like a faulty engine as we pushed our way out of the mayhem, a world away from the podium where the stage winner and Maglia Rosa were being announced. For a moment my intolerance for crowds waned and I was touched with excitement. The rider, who minutes earlier had been gritting his teeth up the gruelling climb, was being presented with his winner’s jersey – and I’d been there to witness it.

Stage 9 – Individual Time Trial – Radda to Greve

After a couple of glasses of red I needed little coaxing to stumble into the centre of Greve with our fellow Perth-ites, Dee and Mark, and re-live the hype of the stage finish. A sea of people wedged into yet another slender finishing straight and I revelled in a rare celebration of my height . . . until my tiny friend Dee, who had disappeared only minutes earlier, appeared like an apparition above it all. Colby and I shot each other a perplexed glance as she beckoned from a rooftop balcony nearby, poking a passionate finger in our direction and leaning closer to a pot-bellied Italian man to explain that we were her friends.
“Well they’re family too!” He shrugged, throwing two palms in the air and reaching down to drag us up, out of the crowded streets and into the best seats in the house.

The rolling course we’d ridden the day before, winding it’s way through the vineyards and olive groves, was a world away from the final crowd lined hair-pin. Riders slowed to a crawl to take the bend, every so often misjudging and crashing into the barriers before jumping out of the saddle to pick up speed again on the final straight.

Thick drops of rain began to fall as we wandered up the pink mummified road and out of the thinning crowds, making for a very different race. The soggy minute between riders stretched to an eternity, huddled in a narrow doorway, a pink Barbie staring over my shoulder. Giro app in hand, I passed the painful minutes trying to understand this business of bike racing. Not only had the rain made for uncomfortable viewing but the race order had forced the best riders, the general classification contenders fighting it out for the overall race win, to set off later in the day, and therefore slow in the slippery conditions. In with a real chance for a podium finish and in sixth place after the previous day’s stage, Aussie team, Orica Greenedge’s rider Esteban Chaves added another aspect of excitement to following the race. I could almost feel his frustration as he flew down the waterlogged descent, forced to jump from the aero-bars to the brakes and wipe off all his speed for the upcoming bend.

“Forza Maglia Rosa!” The Barbie door swung open minutes before the final rider slid past. An old woman tottered out hunched over a pair of 6” heels and shot me a sympathetic look. “Vai, vai, vai!” The streaks of pink in her greying hair barely moved as she shook two fists in the air, but her beaded pink earrings made good time on her boobs in their own race to the ground. She’d spent all day getting dolled up just to watch the final time trialist. The Maglia Rosa.

Stage 10 – Campi Bisenzio to Sestola

The rain cleared nicely for stage 10 and our new friend Paolo offered to take us to his local vantage point at the top of the first climb. Riding a stage was far more exciting than pushing through a sea of people on a finishing straight. Grinding the course ahead of the pros, cultivated the tiniest slice of empathy for their pain. And I lapped up the atmosphere of the crowd lined streets.

We pedaled out of the medieval city of Pistoia and straight into a swarm of Caribinieri. “No.” An officer shrugged with finality, waving a disciplinarian finger in our faces as we gazed, dejected at the course ahead. A group of defiant cyclists rolled past muttering Italian obscenities, and disappearing up the course and as her adamancy dissolved into a half-hearted protest we hesitantly followed their lead. Stumbling across the road on foot, we jumped back on our bikes and pedaled away, not another word from the constabulary.

Three kilometers into a supposed two kilometer climb, and I was pushing way above my threshold in a bid to stay ahead of the race. Sweat trickled into the small of my back and I glanced out at the spectacular Tuscan scenery below, wondering when it was going to end. But still my friend pushed on.

Like a small ray of mercy, a nonchalant Carabinieri stepped into the road as we passed. “The breakaway is on the bottom of the climb. Might be an idea to get off the road soon.”

The ‘breakaway’, Perth rider and Australian road champion Jack Bobridge, had been swallowed up by the time race reached us on the next bend. Team Astana were setting a lightning pace in a last ditch bid to set up their man Vincenzo Nibili, the so far underperforming race favourite, reigning champion and local hero, for a win. The peloton had been smashed to pieces, unusually early in the stage. It was going to be a difficult day for the remaining riders who burst up the hill in small groups. As the final rider trickled past, (possibly Jackie Bobbie if I remember correctly) a cloud of disappointment descended. I wanted more. I wanted to race across to the next vantage point and catch the riders again. But more than anything, I wanted to understand the tactics and the strategy. The great big game of chess on wheels.

Stage 18 – Muggio to Pinerolo

It was stage 18 by the time we got the chance to catch the race again. We packed a picnic, and headed for the final Category 2 climb out of Pinerolo. Either my confidence in my own ability had soared or I’d temporarily forgotten everything I ever learned about physics. A kilometer into the climb I was regretting the useless crap I’d hastily shoved into my backpack. “Cat 2 Climb!” Colby snapped as he rifled through it, reloading a change of clothes and several books into his own bag. A group of Pantani wannabes sauntered past as the burn in my legs intensified. The size of my pack was not my only problem.

“Brava! Brava!” An old man sensing my pain leaned across my line clapping. I could barely manage a grimace in response.

I began zig-zagging my way across the road, echoes of Dave Mechanic’s hill ringing in my ears, only this time I was picking my way through the Pantanis, the screaming souvenir vans and the group of blokes who, even in a foreign language, I gathered were scoffing at the idea of being ‘beaten by a girl.’ Only I wasn’t trying to race anyone. Pure ambition to stay on the bike kept my legs turning. There was no hedge to soften the landing here.

The silence of the forest was broken only by the hum of race cars and press motorbikes at the switchback where we settled to watch the race. A smattering of claps filled the air as the breakaway appeared grinding up the steep slope, and looking only slightly better after two hundred kilometers than I had just felt after two. So close I could reach out and wipe the sweat from their faces, the silent blood curdling screams of their broken bodies drowned out even the throbbing roar of the chopper, which hovered surreal through the trees.

There was a thud at my feet and I glanced down, a fluorescent yellow bidon staring back from the pine needles. It was mine! I never thought scoring a water bottle could be so exciting but the icy condensation against my hands fuelled my child-like enthusiasm. And it was still full! I can only guess that professional cyclists have a better grounding in the physics of carrying excess weight up steep hills than some of us engineers.

With no-one in the break to threaten the overall standing of the leaders, the peloton appeared, almost 10 minutes behind the leaders and looking decidedly fresher than the group who’d spent the entire stage attacking.

“C’mon Damo! Let’s go!” Colby clapped from the roadside. From the center of the pack the Orica rider turned, the pain on his face turning to a smile as he shot a thumb into the air. Colby may well have copped a smack in the head from his teammate Heppy however, who was coming close to dead stinking last and looking well and truly over it . . . if only he had anything left to lift a fist from the handlebars.

I stood on the pedals and buzzed with a crazy mix of excitement and fear as we coasted back down the brutal slope. If it’s hair raising on the way down, it’s been epic on the way up. Throw in a backpack of useless crap and I had something to be really proud of.

Stage 19 – Pinerolo to Risoul

The Giro crossed the invisible line through the mountains into France and suddenly it was grinding to a different drum. Flanked by more fellow Perth-ites, Kath and Chris, we rolled to a stop, the sound of unclipping and foreign profanities echoing around us. A group of young, handsome Gendarmerie standing watch over a road closure looked far more dapper in their garrison caps than our own boys in blue. “Non!” They shouted, arms crossed in front of them as we approached. “Ferme!”

It was at least two hours before the race was due to head up Risoul, yet they were adamant. The road was closed. Finding an alternative route up the mountain saw a heartbreaking loss of altitude, bikes carried up switchbacks and some opportunistic movement around distracted Gendarmerie. But as the Aussie flag was laid out and the beers cracked, it had all been worthwhile.

With a real chance to take the Maglia Rosa on stage 19, Orica rider Esteban Chaves flew up the mountain in a battle with fellow contender Vincenzo Nibali, two minutes ahead of the peloton. And as the peloton disappeared around the next switchback we were left with the buzzing anticipation of a leaders jersey for our Aussie team.

Their work done for the day, the remainder of the field began rolling up the switchback in small disheveled groups.

“Go Damo!” Colby stepped into the road as the solitary rider in blue and green spun toward us. He was hoarse with excitement.

“He’s in the pink!” Damien Howson turned back, tugging on his own sweat-drenched jersey and tapping his ear piece. “Pink Jersey!” Chaves had taken the race lead and we’d heard it from the pros. From his team mate who had played, and would play, as much of a part in the success as the man himself.

Riders continued to trickle by. Far less pained than the previous day, Heppy rode around the switchback, teammate Sam Bewley breaking out his imaginary crop and unleashing it on his arse.

“It’s my last beer!” Chis held out his stubby as the riders inched closer, reached out and took it. Not only had we heard the race result from the pros, we’d handed them a beer to celebrate.

Stage 20 – Guillestre to Sant’Anna di Vinadio

After yesterday’s road closure debacle my heart pounded as we motored over the Col de Vars in the van, praying we’d make it before the road closed. The bitumen folded back on itself, teetering on the edge of the sheer drop below and zig-zagging down the mountain. In only hours the riders would fly down the same switchbacks at speeds in excess of 90 k/hr. My fingernails dug deeper into the vinyl trim. Those blokes had balls of steel.

The Col de Bonnette, which claims to be the highest paved road in Europe, had been closed due to snow as recently as the previous day. But finding the route yet to be closed for the race itself, and with all the time in the world to spin up to a vantage point, I loosened my grip on my handlebars and settled into a rhythm. Stone buildings crumbled at the roadside, the ground plunging meters into the valleys below. Steep rock faces opened into green rolling hills, marmots scurrying around a wide open lake. The smell of tar rose from freshly laid bitumen. The snow capped peaks, beckoning all the while from above.

At 2400 m, the altitude shook me like a subtle slap in the face. Overcome by the sense I could go no further, my instinct was to lash out at the Swiss cheer squad who stepped into my line. Yet their words only gave a voice to the awe-inspiring mountains. “Allez, allez, allez,” they yelled, as if my pained pedaling was as inspirational as the pros they’ve come to see. Like a chemistry experiment, the acid in my legs dissolved and I looked back at the road, snaking hundreds of meters down the mountain below. Of course I could go on.

My teeth chattered as we gazed back down the switchbacks from a deserted military barracks near the top. I threw on every piece of warm clothing I’d crammed into my pockets and still spent the next half hour pacing the road, willing the riders to ride faster.

It was on a big screen in a warm bar later that afternoon that our hopes of Esteban Chaves taking out the Maglia Rosa were dashed. I slumped further into my seat as he lost painful seconds, then minutes of his lead, Vincenzo Nibali smashing him on the final climb. In only two short weeks, the Giro d’Italia had drawn me in by it’s drama and passion. A week earlier I would have been non-plussed to see the Aussie team on the podium, yet in a fit of self-indulgence I was disappointed to see them take second. It was all true. I’d witnessed the history and geography. Been touched by the passion. I’d seen something beautiful and I was already making plans to go back. But for the time being, I let out a pained sigh and tucked my chair back under the table. The Italians had also bought us Gelare and Gelare could fix anything.