Monday, May 17, 2010

Saturday in Hell (or Heaven?)

The infamous Strade Bianche stage of the 2010 Giro d'Italia lived up the hype! As you can see from these images, it was a day to remember.

My favorite shot is the one of Evans and Vino duking it out at the front of the race, but some of the others also show how nasty the conditions were.
A lot of the riders complained about having a stage like this in a Grand Tour but we say, "perche no?" (why not?) as stages like this emphasize a lot more about cycling than just how many watts a guy can produce or who has the highest Vo2 max.
Many would say riding against the clock is a skill and we say riding on roads like this is one as well. Stage races have flat stages for the sprinters, rolling or hilly stages for those who are good at a lot of things and sometimes uphill time trials for the pure climbers. Stages like this one into Montalcino were normal back in the day of Coppi and Bartali, when cycling was much more popular than it is today. Perhaps in these times of financial crises and dope scandals it's time for stages like this more often?

Larry's day was heavenly: Packed the bike in the car and headed out, planning to park in Montalcino, then take the bike around on paved roads to intersect the race route at the start of the final dirt section, then wait for the race to come past. Once they were past, ride the rest of the route back to Montalcino, get something to eat and then drive "home" to Viterbo.
Plan B was (in case of rain) drive the car around after getting pranzo in Montalcino, home of the famous Brunello. But once into Montalcino, seeing the race' entry to the historic center I quickly realized if I parked the car and lingered too long I was likely to be trapped by closed roads as the race approached.
So a Plan B 2.0 formed in my feeble brain--get the heck out of Montalcino after buying some Giro schwag, grab something to eat on the way to intersect the course, then settle into the comforts of the car (since it was still raining "gatti e cani" ie cats and dogs) to wait for the race.
A great plan except there was nothing much going on between Montalcino and the middle-of-almost-nowhere spot the final dirt section began! After so many years of following the Giro and Tour, the last thing one wants to happen is to not be able to get access to the route because the race is too close and the roads have been closed. In France of course they close the roads super-early, sometimes days (not hours) before and in Italy one never knows for sure when some over-eager cop is going to tell you NO! when you try to drive on the course, no matter how many advertising stickers your car has or how determined you are. It's rare for this to happen in laid-back Italy but who wants to take the chance?
Onto the dirt. Flat for a few kms but quickly the road starts to rise and twist while the rain continues to come down steadily. After a few switchbacks it gets REALLY steep and I begin to look for a place to park the car -- not easy on this narrow road where the organizers have placed a lot of "no parking" signs in many of the better spots.
Finally I find a place on the outside of a turn on a steep spot, park the car and get out some rain gear.
Now I'm starting to reget passing all those trucks with porchetta (fire-roasted pork) sandwiches--a speciality of the area around Viterbo. It would have been TOO easy to stop and get one along with a can of beer but I still had thoughts of pappardelle cinghiale and a glass of Brunello as I drove past them all.
Now what? It was not even 1 o'clock with the race not due until almost 5 pm. There was nothing much on the way up here and I was certainly not going to move the car now. I grabbed the umbrella and set out on foot -- there was plenty of time to kill and I could use the exercise since I was certainly NOT going to get out into a steady rainstorm and ride, especially on these muddy roads!
I trudged along, hungrily eyeing the smart folks who'd planned to eat along the route -- the ones with portable tables, awnings to keep the rain off, even those eating a panino wrapped in foil in their cars. Could I look hungry enough to get invited to join ANY of them? It wasn't looking that way.
The road was STEEP and muddy--the guys in rubber gardening boots were the real smart ones but I didn't have those either. After a few kms I came upon a swanky hotel/resort but with no signs for a ristorante I decided to trudge on. Meanwhile a couple of guys I'd passed earlier were coming by on antique bikes, complete with the gear to match. They probably take part in l'Eroica in the fall here, the annual old-bike rally they have to celebrate the old days when ALL the road were dirt. One turned back to look at me and I swear it was Roberto Conti, the old gregario of Marco Pantani! I called his name and sure enough, it was him, riding a Bianchi that looked to be from the Gimondi era.
As I rounded another bend I started thinking I might end up walking all the way to the nearest/next town to find something to eat--but what else did I have to do? There was plenty of time to kill....then I saw it -- a camper and some awnings set up with a sign-- l'Eroica Ristoro.
Perhaps this was a food stop for the guys on the old bikes? Maybe I could scam a bite of something with a lame excuse about being a stupid American who was too excited about seeing the famous race here to remember to bring food?
As I walked up, a pretty young woman asked me "would you like a bowl of ribollita?" This is the famous "re-boiled" vegetable soup famous in Tuscany. The "perche no?" came out of my mouth in an instant! My next question was "who do I pay, and how much?" but she was more interested in handing me a bowl of this hearty zuppa, which I readily accepted, along with the drizzle of olive oil they added AND the glass of Chianti as well as the bruschetta.
I was truly in HEAVEN! I explained that here I was at the Giro, a beautiful young woman had just handed me a wonderful bowl of soup and a glass of wine -- it was like I was in heaven and I hadn't even needed to die! They thought this rather amusing and offered me another bowl....needless to say I accepted and then tried to pay.
They refused to take even an offering to offset the costs, they explained it was their way to give back and promote their cycling event. With a hearty, GRAZIE MILLE! I headed back down the hill to await the race which by now was not too far away. The rest you've seen on TV or read about on-line, but seeing it in-person is something I'll never forget!

1 comment:

  1. Love your writing and your account of this stage. I could almost taste the zuppa and feel the warmth of the lovely Italian ladies at the rest stop. I was lucky enough to see several stages of the 1992 Giro, and even tho I have visited Italy and Sicily every few years since then, I am long overdue for another visit to the Giro.
    Lafayette, La. USA