Morning came a bit early after the rounds of grappa the night before. But the sun was shining and the birds singing, so we were RIDING! We fueled up at breakfast, then put the wheels on the bikes and headed out into the throngs of folks with the same idea.
Here you can see the entrance to hell, as they describe it. The climb gets serious here, but it's truly the world's steepest ride-through party. Before this we'd been passed by a couple of rival tour groups, each towed along by someone with a jaw set on GRIT and with bottles of electrolyte drinks and pockets overflowing with mylar-wrapped energy bars. Funny thing that...we'd see them later...some of them a few times as we all struggled our way to the top. We were there to enjoy seeing the race rather than pretending we were in it. The steep climb quickly made mortals of us all. We saw our Sardegna friends on the way up, who seemed none-the-worse for wear after last night's festivities.
This thing is TOUGH! Murderously steep. Larry began to doubt he could even make it, as keeping the gear turning and going straight up the ramps was tough to do for more than 500 meters at a time! But Heather reminded me that we had all day to get up there and that's why we came. Why stop at a lower section when we had yet to see what was beyond? By the time we got to the tunnels, I'd settled in, swallowing any remaining pride and doing some gentle traverses to allow me to keep my lowest gear turning..but still stopping at least every 1000 meters to untangle my tongue from the front wheel! A couple of times I stopped near a wooden railing, using it to help me get started again the steep slopes.
There were thousands of people on this climb, on foot, pushing their bikes or some even riding them, though it seemed all of us were stopping now and then to let our heart rates come back to something close to normal. In some cases one had to time a traverse to do a sort of dance with the cyclist just ahead, but overall the spirit was of communal effort rather than cutthroat competition. I thought the Mortirolo was tough last year, but this was truly another level of challenge! But, by the time we got to the tunnels we began to think we'd make it, the worst was over.
THIS was our reward! Truly an "Oh, my gawd!" experience. Think about this - EVERY one of these folks got up here either on foot, on a bike or by driving up the backside, climbing onto a chairlift and then walking to find a good viewing spot. Only a few VIP's were helicoptered up here to see the race. What other sport can offer this? Sure, Americans throw a football around on Superbowl Sunday morning, or bat a ball around in October...but nobody can take the family minivan around the Indy oval before the 500, or do a lap around Monaco before the F1 takes the green flag. EVERY person up here in this natural stadium setting has some idea of just how difficult it is just to reach this point, let along RACE up here after a few hundred kilometers and after almost three weeks of racing.
You will NEVER see pro cyclists going so slowly as on this climb. This memory will stay with me forever, despite having seen the big pros of the past 3 decades on plenty of climbs over the years. The pros were even awed by the setting, you could see them lift their heads and scan the thousands of fans covering the steep slopes. Once the GC contenders had passed, the other guys put their hands out for high-fives from the crowd or did wheelies...there seemed a desire to pay back the fans for their efforts to simply be there to see them ride this mythical climb.
Check out the security in the above photo - the Civil Protection squad hand-in-hand with the soldiers of the Alpini. Sure, some knucklehead pushed his hero into the back of Mick Rogers lower down on the slopes, where security was not so tight, but he was a FAN, not some moron trying to mug for the cameras or promote some commercial interest. Being able to ride the course and be this close to the racers is what sets pro cycling apart from other sports. TV and video images are wonderful, but there is simply NOTHING like being there!
THAT is what true sport is all about.
W Il Giro!