Our first morning in Cavi, an ancient, pretty and tiny hamlet a couple kms west of Sestri Levante on Italy’s Ligurian Coast, we ventured to one of their two cafйs for breakfast, since we’d arrived late the night before and our grocery run was still to come.
The 1956 edition – known then as the “Coppa Esercenti-Albergatori” takes the line at the start.
The sleepy atmosphere of the first cafe inspired us to ramble the 30-odd meters up the street to the tiny piazza (piazzetta if you want to get technical) and a still quiet, but slightly more enthusiastic ambiance of Bar Dasso – they had an F1 race showing on the tv, which was good enough for me.
We ordered up the usual round of cappuccini, some freshly baked brioches, and a succo d’ananas (pineapple juice) for our daughter (Princess Juice if you want to get technical), and I found the day’s Gazzetta dello Sport. The day was off to a good start.
The town of Cavi di Lavagna, on the Ligurian Coast with Sestri Levante in the background.
We’d been directed to this cafй by Vincenzo – the owner of our house for the next two weeks – and as anyone who’s known a ‘local’ in Italy will confirm – it’s all about who you know. So when I went to pay for breakfast, I was told by the bar owner Lorenzo – “И giа pagato”. It’s already paid.
It took me a minute to comprehend, as I couldn’t figure out who had picked up our tab, but in Italy when someone extends this kind of courtesy, even if you don’t know who it is, you smile and offer a gracious “grazie mille!”
On my way out I noticed a stack of magazine-size brochures advertising “1st Trofeo Cavi Borgo” – a local bike race slated for Sunday May 16th, which was about a week away. This looked like the perfect opportunity to enter my annual competition (I try to find one event per year to prime my motivation for training, and attempt to recall my lost days of youth when 12+ hours a week on the bike were the norm – you remember those days too, right?)
The 1956 edition was won convincingly by Mario Maragliano of the squadra GS Piombo Santo of Genoa.
The 12 page brochure was filled with historic photos from local races gone by – the original Trofeo dates back to about 1954, when Coppi, Bartali, Magni and Kobelt ruled the roads, and the “Societа Sportiva Cavese” was founded by a group of local sportsmen to “generally disseminate the sport and the physical and moral improvement of the youth” – according to the brochure.
The members of host club GS Cavese are a proud, and seasoned crew.
It was also well represented with ads from local businesses, clearly indicating a lot more support from the community than I see back home. My interest in contesting the upcoming competition was piqued, but the only piece of info – and perhaps the most crucial – was no where to be found: how to enter.
Nowhere in sight was any name, number, email address, website, or other means of contacting the promoters, or any info on how to enter the race …only in Italy.
Our host and man on the inside, Vincenzo – takes another espresso at Bar Dasso with his baby Giorgia along for the ride.
No worries though, since Vincenzo had proven such a resource, I was sure he’d help me get to the bottom of this mystery.
“Leave it with me for a couple of days” he told me in Italian.
Sure enough two days later he returned with some info. He’d asked around, talked to his buddies at the bar, and had surmised that:
1. Yes, I was welcome to enter the race.
2. Since I was not licensed to race with an Italian club, I would not be eligible for any prizes, should I win anything. (Normally I wouldn’t be allowed to enter without the blessing of a local club.)
3. Entry would take place race day about 9:00AM, in the piazza in front of the bar, and would cost 10 euros, and include a pasta launch afterwards.
The corsa: Stage 1 is the cyclosportif leg in red, while stage 2 is a fairly painful hillclimb.
The Trofeo was a two stage affair. Stage 1 was a non-competitive cyclosportif ride from Cavi to Lavagna, about 20km round trip. Stage 2 was the ‘race’ – a hillclimb of 6kms to the town of Sorlana in the hills above the cost. Although the riders were categorized by age groups of 5-year brackets, we’d start the actual race in two waves split around the 32 yr age mark. Young guys vs old guys I figured.
Vincenzo was keen to make sure I got registered okay, so agreed to meet me at sign on at 9:00 AM race day.
A lot of riders were already there when I rolled down – about a 3 minute ride downhill from our house… and sign-on was in full swing. Things actually looked pretty organized – if the row of flag-bearing motos, and half dozen carabinieri were any indication. Actually, this was the first race I’d ever entered with a police escort, and I quickly surmized the race roads would be closed to local traffic.
But the best part was they even had a broomwagon – someone had mounted the “Fine Gara Ciclista” sign atop their car.
Vincenzo introduced me to the organizer, who was pleased to have a “Giro d’Italia accredited” journo at his race, but was amazed that a Canadian had somehow found his way to this particular part of the world. In fact I was the only ‘straniero’ in the event.
While talking to him about the race, I learned he’d taken over the event from the previous organizers (who were on hand anyway) and this was his first year at it. When I mentioned that I couldn’t find any contact info in the race brochure, he rubbed his chin and agreed this would be very useful for next year.
Regardless of the secret entry procedure, there were still over 60 riders signing on for the race. And although the crew looked fit and accomplished on the bikes, there seemed to be a lack of the real had core racers – the 20-30’s guys who were likely off racing a more serious event somewhere else.
That was fine with me, as the atmosphere was definitely relaxed, and since I was just getting going after a 3 week lay-off from the bike, I was in no hurry to destroy myself over a pasta lunch and some bragging rights.
Most notable however, was the general age of the riders… at 47 years, I was definitely in the middle of this pack – there were at least as many riders older than me, as there were younger. And these guys weren’t a bunch of black shorted, pink jerseyed wannabe geezers – they were fully kitted out in their local club gear – the most visible being the host club of the G.S. Cavese – a proud bunch of guys aged in the 60’s, doubtless with hundreds of thousands of kms in their collective kegs, and looking rightfully chuffed in their regal blue and yellow.
Sunday morning, and all’s quiet through the town, save for the spinning of bike wheels.
Stage 1 rolled out behind the a couple of local polizia motos and an official looking lead car, and we climbed out of Cavi on the twisting roads that follow the contours of this these rugged hills along the coast, and made our way at strictly leisurely pace to Lavagna. There was the expected amount of chatter as old friends got reacquainted, or just shared a few laughs in the warm morning sunshine.
The road was completely closed, a good thing considering it was barely wide enough for one car in many places, and the low-keyness of the event was underlined by the sparse number of onlookers, most of whom simply stopped what ever they were doing in their yards to watch our colorful procession whiz by.
The relaxed atmosphere however was not to be mistaken for any lack of pro touches and there were several moto-mounted photogs zooming through the bunch snapping pics as we carried on our way.
About a half hour later we rolled back to the piazza in Cavi, and reorganized for the official competition of the day – the hillclimb.
After a bit of waiting around, we were called to the line in our two groups – the youngs and the olds. I was happy to be amongst the older guys – at least I’d have a better chance of not embarrassing myself too badly.
Easily the best part is waving to your daughter as you ride by.
But one thing I’ve learned after years of riding in Italy, is never assume an Italian rider’s strength has anything to do with his age. As I reported after my trip to Milan-San Remo this year, getting older just seems to make you stronger in Italy.
The gun was fired for our start and I was lined up mid pack, figuring I’d ease my way onto the climb. I’d missed out on doing any course recon, but was told the bottom 3 km were steep – and the top half not so much.
The climb started immediately once we’d rolled out of town, less than 200m from the start, and already I could see a group of twenty or so forming off the front. I’d assigned Mrs. Pez as my official photog, and of course dressed my daughter in her PEZ jersey with explicit instructions to yell as loudly as possible when I went by.
The lead group starts to form as the grade rears up.
That ominous looking group at the front would have to wait as I scanned the roadside for my fans. I was secretly hoping they’d find some steep section where there cheers would be really helpful, but alas, I spotted them stationed just ahead where the road pitched from 5% up to 7%.
I sat up and could see my daughter on the other side of the road looking around for me in the swelling sea of riders – so many colors, all a blur… I yelled her name and waved my arm. She could hear me but couldn’t pick me out of the crowd. The guys around me might have thought I was nuts, but this being Italy – where family ranks above all else – I imagine they were envious that I actually had supporters, since fans in general seemed to be in short supply at the event.
With Job #1 out of the way, it was back to the race and rejoining that lead group. I could still see the back end of it, maybe 20 meters across the gap, and decided I’d best get in there before the steep stuff started.
I hunched over and drove the pedals – not full gas, but enough to close the gap – at least under normal conditions.
I launched my move and rolled away from the guys around me. 10 meters, 20 meters, 30 meters flashed by but that the gap was not closing as I’d expected. I’d seen the guys I’d lined up with, and they were no spring chickens, so I was vexed by this increasingly voracious velocity.
The road curved right and after a short straight, went right again and the grade went up – waaaaaay up. Geez they weren’t kidding about the bottom part getting steep -. It was 20% if it was 15…
That scene from Ben Hur leapt into my consciousness: “RAMMING SPEED!!” I could see that lead group sailing away and I needed all hands on deck.
The problem with these ‘once in a while’ amateur races is that (if you’re like me) the body just ain’t used to running in the red zone. Hey – I can plunk away all day at my endurance pace, but since I race only an event or two a year, I just never train my top end – which is exactly where I was operating as the short & curly set of switchbacks reared up before me.
And (if you’re like me) when you need to access that untrained top-end, well, there’s just not much to access.
It was maybe a minute since I’d passed Mrs. Pez, and I was deep in the doo-doo. Let’s scan the stats:
• Breathing: very hard
• Vision: getting blurry
• Heart rate: off the charts
None of these things really concerned me, since they reminded me of when I first set eyes on Mrs. Pez, but that’s another story.
What started to get me somewhat concerned however, was…
You know when you’re making that huge effort, and your eyeballs sink back into your skull, so far that they bounce off the back of your cranium? Well mine didn’t so much slap off the back of my skull, let’s just say they felt more like one of those Dave Letterman gags where he drops the watermelon off the roof.
Yeah – that was getting me a bit concerned. Luckily, before I lost complete control of my faculties, I had the foresight to dial ‘er back a notch. Or ten.
It wasn’t so much that my “all hands on deck” rally was being ignored, as much as my “all hands” layed strewn about the deck as if none other than Cap’n Jack Sparrow had raided the ship, and I was Cap’n Crunch.
Here’s Signor Fiore – getting ready to ride today’s race. He also rode the 1956 race – that’s him third from the left in the back row. Respect.
I focused on two things – getting my breath back and turning the legs over at least enough to maintain forward motion. It was pretty much survival mode, but I took solace knowing that everyone else was suffering on the same course as me.
The lead group was gone, and around me what remained was shelled all over the place – and we’d just started.
I looked around for someone to ride with – share the misery if you will – and hooked up with two guys – one a lot older then me – I’d reckon in his 60’s, but thin and fit for sure, and a younger guy – I’d say in his 30’s, but a pretty big build for a cyclist – maybe 6 ft and 175lbs – reminded more of a football/ hockey player than a rider – except this guy was keeping pace with me.
So the three of us join up and start taking turns as we clear the steepest parts. The road twisted and turned around a valley as we climbed at a more gentle pace now – with small breaks in which I thought I might recover a bit.
It seemed clear that the old guy was the strongest – he’d take the long pulls and I was happy to sit in his draft. Meanwhile, Football was not doing much at the front. We rounded a turn and the grade kicked up again. Old guy went to the front and just kept going, it was a no looking back – see you at the finish – thanks for the pull – kind of going. I watched as he rode away, unable to respond.
I’d been attacked and dropped by a guy about 15 years my senior. My first reaction of utter humiliation was short lived though, as I realized where I was, and that Italy is full of guys who just ride, and ride and ride. This guy may have been a former champion for all I knew.
Respect. That’s what I really felt. And envy – I’d love to drop some young whipper-snaps when I’m 60.
Back to reality and I still had Football on my wheel and he’s not helping the cause. Getting beaten by this guy would be a different story – a man’s gotta have some self respect – right?
I start eyeing him up, looking for weakness. He’s pedaling pretty strong, obviously has big muscles and must ride a lot. Problem is the course has started to flatten – advantage Football.
There I am – 18:00 flat for 6km, 30th overall, and 5th in my age group. Pretty much standard for me.
Ahead I see the course makes a tight left hander around the elbow of a valley, then starts to climb again. I know we’re close to the last km, so I figure I’d better throw everything I have into an attack on the steep to punt Football through the posts.
I lead into the turn, then give it full gas for as long as my legs will go… it’s a laugh – but maybe 30meters, maybe it was 50 – I’ve no idea really. But I know he’s gone because I don’t hear his breathing anymore. I chance a glance over my shoulder and see I’ve got a decent gap – so I pour on the coals and coax every last bit of steam from my boilers as I pass under the 500m to go flag. Yes – they actually had a 500m to go flag.
They even made a film for the record books – I even made the final cut at the 23 second mark!
I solo in for what I think is a pretty good showing – somewhere near the top 20, but there’s a lot riders already here. I’m pretty wasted and it takes awhile to catch my breath. I watch the rest of the bunch roll in and continue to be amazed at the age of the riders – I wonder where the young guys are – !
Later, at the awards ceremony – which was temporarily delayed due to Spinal Tap level feedback from the improperly set up p.a. system – I marveled at the guys who won all the trophies and donated gifts from the sponsors (huge blocks of parmesan cheese, cured legs of ham, bottles of wine and olive oil – they sure know how to do prizes!) – they were all older then me.
This church is about 1500m from the finish line.
My legs still hurt and I couldn’t stop coughing, but here was the best thing about this day – the reminder that cycling is a sport we can do for pretty much as long we want. Sure you gotta look after yourself – but the idea of knowing that if I play my cards right, I could be back here and maybe winning this sucker in 20 years… that put an extra smile on what was already a pretty cool day.