Although I was off to a rough start suffering missing luggage courtesy United Airlines, it ‘only’ cost me a day of my allotted 12 day stint – although the stress may have taken a larger toll. So with time on my hands as I waited for my gear in Milano, I played tourist for a few hours in one of the world’s great cities.
No trip to Italy’s industrial capital – and I’m told one of the richest in the world (if you count the number of millionaires) – is complete without a stroll to the Duomo. Although I haven’t been inside the 20,000 seat church for a few years, the exterior cleanup is progressing nicely. The structure has been partially covered in scaffolding for years, as crews power-wash their way around the massive structure, and our own Matt Conn commented to me that after years of trying, he still hasn’t seen the thing without scaffolding of some kind. This year it’s covering the tallest spire, so we can only hope the job is nearly done.
Right next door is the fantastic Galleria Vittoria Emanuelle II – the world’s first glass enclosed shopping ‘mall’. I’ve been here many times now, and its soaring domed glass ceiling/ roof never fails to impress – hell, I don’t even mind paying 10 euros for a cappuccino at one of the gloriously overpriced cafes that line its concourse.
The floor is made of gorgeous Italian tiles, depicting all sorts of scenes – perhaps the most famous is the bull that sits at its center. Tradition says if you stand your heel on the bull’s shnerps and spin around, then you’ll return to Milan one day, or have good luck. Or something like that. The amazing part is just how worn down the space between the bull’s legs actually is – the hole is a good 2-3 inches deep, and 3-4 inches across.
Spin in the Bull’s balls and you’ll return to Milano.
In spite of the congested daytime traffic, or maybe because of it – the city is easily navigated by bike, and some smart thinking politicos have installed these rental bikes throughout the center. I’ve ridden here before, and the flat streets make for easy riding, and a great way to reduce the walking you’d otherwise do. Only problem I can see would be finding enough storage for all the shopping your wife asked you to do.
Some 30 hours after I landed, my luggage was reclaimed and safely stowed in the rented Lancia’s boot as I drove as fast as my ‘6 hours of sleep in 48 hours mind & body’ would safely allow – enroute to join Thomson Bike Tours KOM Trip in Auronzo di Cadore, not far south of the Austria border in north eastern Italy.
The endlessly spectacular Dolomites split the land here into waves of deep valleys and towering peaks that stretch across the entirety of the country’s north from France to Slovenia. The Dolomites are particularly rugged and breathtaking, and the cooler alpine air was a welcome change to the oppressive humidity of the plains that host the Po River valley to the south.
I peeled into the hotel in good time for a much needed bath, rejuvenating negroni, and dinner with Peter Thomson and his staff – whom I’d just met for the first time. Although his group of 25 guests had just met the day before m I could tell by the loud conversation in the dining room that people were getting along like old friends – and I looked forward to my next three days with them.
My late arrival kaiboshed any photo opps as the sun set over the local peaks, but I snapped a few from my room window before I checked out (seems to be a them amongst the PEZ Crew…). While still part of Italy, the Austrian and Tyrolean influence is everywhere, but most visible in the local architecture. This sure doesn’t look like anything in my neighborhood back home.
Another valley, another epic view… The day’s big plan started with a drive over the Passo Tre Croce to Cortina, where I met up with my Italian bud Mino who’d be my driver, while I planned to ride over the races Cima Coppi of the Passo Giau, then later on tackle the really f’ing hard Passo Fedaia to meet up with the Thomson Tours group’s race viewing tent (complete with tv, snacks, and cold ones).
Things were progressing nicely with an hour’ish climb over the Giau, and were looking even better as I descended into the sunlit valley that led to the Fedaia.
The Passo Giau summit and this year’s Cima Coppi highest point in the race.
Then I lost it in a switchback, and went down in a full body slam even Hulk Hogan would appreciate. Too fast into the turn, confidence too high, touched the brakes, boom. Both wheels gone.
(I didn’t mention this in my earlier report because I didn’t want Mrs. Pez worrying from afar, especially when there was nothing she could do to help me…)
Luckily there was no traffic, and the bike was pretty much unscathed, save for a knick in the handlebar tape. I, on the other hand: problems at the knee, hip, elbow, and knuckle on my right pinky.
Luckily at the time – this looked much better than it really was. I’m still healing two weeks later.
I haven’t had a real crash in years, so I’d forgotten how hard that pavement can be and how much skin you can lose with even the shortest of body-skids. After a few minutes collecting my wits (ie: fighting the urge to cry like my 5 year old daughter), I saddled up and road out the descent. The pain actually subsided pretty fast, and I’m sure the movement was good for me.
It wasn’t until we’d reached the valley floor and pulled off to inspect the damage that I saw how deep the elbow gash was, and how big the road rash on my hip really was. I cleaned myself up as best I could, only to discover how painful that post-crash shower really can be. Ouch!
The rest of my trip would now include twice daily gauze changes, and searching for new less painful sleeping positions.
We’d pulled over just outside a pizzeria, and this was all the nudging I needed to bail on the second part of the day’s ride.
But the day was far from over as the race was due to pass the fearsome Fedaia in a couple of hours, on this Queen stage of the race. It was the 3rd successive day in the mountains, and the tough corsa, cold weather, and Contador’s increasing dominance had really kicked the bunch in the gut. This was a day of survival for most – get ‘er done, get fed, and get to bed.
I’d remembered how tough the climb of the Fedaia was from my ride here in 2006, and as we drove the lower slopes, it looked even steeper to me. The guida says it’s only 13km long, but it seems further, and the bottom slopes of 8% average seem steeper.
There is a cool part where race goes through a very deep and narrow canyon just after Sottogudda – so narrow only the riders and motos are allowed through. The really steep stuff starts at the end of the canyon, and as you climb out of it, there’s a 4000ish meter section of road that is almost straight – and that rears up in your face at 12-14%. It’s ugly… like one ride in your life is enough ugly. The worst part is that there’s still 3-4km of switchbacks to go before you summit this bee-yotch.
We parked near the end of this straight section and I hiked up to the third switchback, hoping for some decent photo opps. Then the rains came, precisely as lone leader Garzelli rounded the first switchback. And the wind blew. And it got cold.
The race was blown to bits already, and the biggest group I saw was the 10-12 strong gc pack, several minutes behind Garzelli and several lone-sufferers.
But these conditions really stripped away the glamour we often paint onto the pro cycling lifestyle. Only about half the riders had found rain jackets, the rest were in cold soaked lycra, turning gears so slow it was easy to jog along beside them.
The longer this went on, and the slower the pace of the passing souls – eyes sunken, given up for lost – looking towards the summit and wondering how much longer before they’d begin the final hour and another climb still to go.
I’d noted Stefano Pirazzi at the front in the breaks in earlier stages as the race went through his home region – then I kept seeing him as he toughed out the hardest final week in years. He’d shown a lot of spirit in the early days, and I hoped his spirit wasn’t broken now.
Seeing the suffering on the riders’ faces really told the story – yet a hard one to put into words – about how miserable the job can be. I was freezing in my jeans and Gore-Tex jacket – and even though I could see it in their faces, I could not imagine how bad some of these guys must have felt.
As the race proceeded, I walked back down the slopes to the top of the long straight section where the worst carnage was still taking place. I’ve never seen so many riders accepting pushes and so many fans lining up to give ‘em… “screw the rules, just get me over this climb”.
It was another part of pro bike racing that I’d not seen to this degree before, and another part that revealed just how much there is to this sport – physically, mentally, and even spiritually.
By now I was only 2-1/2 days into my shift, it seemed longer, and the race still had some hard days ahead. We were staying in the same hotel as the Garmin-Cervelo team, and it was plain to see how tired the boys were as they returned from the stage and shuffled in for dinner.
So as rough as my own start seemed, it was plain to see some guys who were worse off then me…
I’ll be back with my final wrap of the last stages in a few days – thanks for reading –