– Translation Edit by Stephen Frothingham
I don’t know how many people know that Saltara, a village in the Marche region, hopes to host the 2008 World Championships. Or that the town will host the first great stage of this year’s Giro. I don’t know how many people know where Saltara is located. On a mountain? On a river? On the sea? I’ve been there just long enough time to love it and to leave a piece of my heart.
Monte Capria – way in the back there and covered with snow, will be the first big climbing test, followed by a race across this valley… and another couple of climbs.
My new friend from Saltara, Alighiero Omicioli, remembers attending the 2003 Worlds in Hamilton, Ontario, and wondering how his town of just 800 residents could dream of producing a similar event.
“I was looking at the modern skyscrapers, the large streets and the dimensions of that event and I asked myself what I was doing there. (Here, in Saltara,) I turn around and I can just see the green of the fields, hills and quiet. No skyscrapers, no department stores, no traffic. How can we, one day, host the Worlds?”- Alighiero Omicioli
Many bumps do not happy cyclists make. What surprises await the Giro’s first mountainous stage?
Mr. Omiciolo’s eyes look quiet and friendly, but speaking with him brings you in touch with a passion for cycling and the races. It’s a passion coming from an old family tradition: the Polisportiva Omicioli has been an important reference for cycling in the region since 1923. The name of this sport organization comes from Alighiero’s family. But the passion for cycling in Saltara extends beyond the family, he says.
“Here we are speaking about an entire town.”
Saltara is bathed in a special atmosphere shared by other towns in the Metauro Valley.
The town will meet the outside world on May 13th, the Giro’s 7th stage. The stage will depart from the flats near Cesena and cross the Apennines through San Marino, touching the ancient city of Urbino. Then it will climb the Monte Catria, the first climb of the Giro and leave the Apennines, passing through the Gola del Furlo, a small canyon that leads to the Metauro Valley.
Mr. Omicioli is the regional organizer of this stage. In 2003, he organized the Italian championships in his hometown (won by Bettini) and last year the town hosted a stage of Tirreno Adriatico (won by Knaven).
“A journalist friend of mine introduced me to Mr. Zomegnan (the new director of the Giro) during the Italian championships and we became friends,” he smiles. “Now I’m already thinking how to get the Giro again next year…”
Hopes for Sun and Porketta
There are still many things to do to prepare for the stage. The route is fixed, but not all of it.
“During the race, all must be perfect. That means a lot of work before. You cannot imagine the amount of problems you have to face to host a race like the Giro: you have to involve as much as possible the government and private organizations because an event like that costs a lot of money. You have to know that sometimes the organizers risk their own money on the event …”
Making the most of the beautiful local architecture, the Giro hq will be stationed in Vaill del bali for Stage 7.
I can imagine the headaches from trying to marry these different interests. And Mr. Omicioli is a normal person with his own work outside of cycling. Nevertheless, his biggest concerns for the stage are simple enough:
“What I hope for is just the sun during the race day. Just a sunny day. I can try to control all the other problems but not the sky. I planned to speak personally with the TV director to ask him for some special views, but I need a sunny day.”
“We are a very small town, but we would like to show to the entire world our corners. We would like to show our way of life, we would like to bring inside every cycling supporter’s house our country roads, our climbs. We would like to give the chance to everybody to taste our cheese, our special food, the so-called porketta, our white wine. Why? Because we are sure that if somebody will try just one of them for sure they will not resist and will come to visit us.”
Signor Omicioli shows the exact spot where ‘tappa 7’ will finish.
It is late afternoon in Saltara. On the hill, the ancient Villa del Balм, which will be the headquarters for the Giro stage, is silent and beautiful. The low sound from the old bell tower in the nearby village of Cartoceto reminds me that it is time to go. Mr. Omicioli stands before me. “This,” he says, pointing at a line he sees clearly, which becomes more visible to me, “is the place where we will fix the finish line of the stage.”
I imagine the crowd screaming, the loud voices from the speakers, the helicopter over the heads, the winner, the pink jersey …
Over the hill, the valley opens toward the Gola del Furlo, and over that, to the Catria, still white on the top.
The final 100 meters will look slightly different in May.
The ancient tree over me encloses the dark sky with its large arms. No leaves, it’s just the beginning of April; there is the smell of smoke. No modern skyline around us but just landscape; no big streets but just small roads between the trees and the grass; no department stores, no attractions; just quiet. What’s better for a cycling dream?
L’Ultimo 20 Kilometri
The Monte Catria can wait. This is what I thought waking up from my bed. The top may be free of snow, but my legs are not ready for a real climb. It’s better to ride the last 20 km of the stage and report about them. On the map there is just a little hill called Bargni. Let’s try…
The view from atop the climb to Bargni… just another ancient Italian village.
There is just the noise of a farm tractor coming over the hill. Just it and nothing more. In front of me, an ancient village surrounded by walls, like all the villages in this region. I stop at the top of the Bargni climb, where the air is warm in the late morning. The climb was difficult, really difficult. Very irregular in its slope. You have to face parts over 12% and then some meters of flat or a few meters of descent. It has been hard to get here, but now I’m full immersed in the peace of this landscape. My pace has been a “slow death” because I don’t have enough kilometers in my legs to really test the road. But I’m happy anytime I can look at the world from my bike.
Our man Ale tests the climb to Bargni… well it’s vice versa actually….
Someone Will Pay
The descent is fast. Then, after two or three kilometers inside the Metauro River valley, we arrive in Calcinelli; we take a right bend and face the last three kilometers of climb to Saltara.
The first two kilometers are very easy but the third one is terrible. Once I leave the town square, the slope is over 5% for 300 meters. This is where the finish line was for Bettini’s 2003 Italian championships. A bend to the right leads to the last 700 meters, which are over 12%. I’m tired and my legs suffer too much during this climb, because I’m still too heavy. While I ride, I think of the riders who will face this obstacle in the final meters of the longest stage of the Giro. Finally, I reach the finish line.
Saltara is well guarded by 3000 steep meters of road, and a lot more ancient walls.
My personal opinion? The last 20 km are quite difficult. The roads are irregular and the climb to Bargni is not easy and there is no time at the summit to organize a pursuit for the descent. And the final 700 meters are terrible. Someone will pay …
More Opinions from Mario
Coming back to my car, I decide to stop for a few in the main square (there’s just one …) of Saltara. There are three men sitting outside of a typical Italian bar. It’s usual in Italy to find people sitting outside and drinking a coffee or a glass of wine — it’s easy to identify a tourist because he will drink beer — talking about soccer, our national sport. I try to ask them if they know that in a month the Giro will come to visit them. I’m not confident in a satisfactory answer because sometimes the old people of these remote places are not so friendly at the beginning.
No pre-ride is complete without enlisting analysis from the locals.
But one of them says to me: “What’s on your jersey?” I tell them I’m from Pezcycling and I’m there to test ride the last kilometers of the 7th stage.
“Why are you not on the Catria?” Mario starts to talk to me. He explains that on the top of the Catria, there is still some snow but just a bit.
“Cunego has been there, did you know it? Caruso and Simoni too … last week. Now we are waiting for Di Luca, we are sure he will be here but now he is in Spain riding the Basques.”
In few minutes, I’m surrounded by people. They know all about cycling and they are really very skilled in the tactics for winning the Saltara stage.
“There will be an attack on the Catria,” someone starts. Yes, but not a solo attack because it’s too far from the finish, someone adds.
“In my opinion there will be a sprint of few riders, the best, maybe Bettini, but for him it is too difficult stage.” “Maybe Di Luca”
I’m very surprised there is so much enthusiasm. I take a few pictures with Mario and his friends and I promise them they will be on Pezcycling.com by the first week of May. I suppose they don’t know anything about computers or the Web. I am wrong.
“Which is the extension? Dot-com or something else?”
Someone introduces me to a Mr. Pellegrino.
“I’m the president of the Polisportiva Omicioli, we organize the stage,” he says.
Sr. Pellegrino demonstrates the ‘ball and armband’.
I’m confused because I supposed that Mr. Omicioli would be the president. But Mr. Omicioli is the director and Mr. Pellegrino the president. They work together. He starts to tell me the story of their organization, born during the 1920’s around a sport of that time called “the Ball and Armband.” He shows to me how to play it on the old walls of the ancient town.
There is also a mayor of the town. They introduce me to him too. It’s true: all the town is living in a magic atmosphere around this event. I have to leave.
“Don’t wait too long for the Catria,” they say. “And bring spare tires.”