March 4, 2006
Cazzo de la Madonna! I'm not ashamed to admit that was what I said to myself, albeit in Spanish, as I watched my teammate Igor Pugaci from Moldova skirt up the road and win the G.F. Città di Ceriale today. With 25km to go in the 155km race, Igor and I dropped the remnants of a 12-man breakaway on the final climb of the difficult course and rode a two-man time trial to the line, putting almost two minutes into the chasers.
Hoping to avoid what eventually transpired, with just over 1km to the line and not a pursuer in sight, I called up our team car and asked Simone Biasci, our team captain who had abandoned the race after a crash, who should win - Igor or I? Yes, it was only a granfondo, but it was a damn hard one and I had sweated blood to climb with the leaders over the four big passes (which included a 15km climb at the start) and watched as first my teammate Juan Torres and then the sole remaining Italian in the break crash heavily on the last technical descent on which I, too, almost fell, and I wanted to win. Simone knew how close I'd been to victory in Cuba, and he was keyed in to the fact that I had three second place finishes in China, and for once the little guy (me) caught a break as it was announced that I should cross the line first, with my arms raised "high overhead towards the heavens" (literal quote from Biasci).
In the short time I've known him Igor has been a good friend and is always willing to lend a hand. He rode himself into the ground for me in the last kilometer of the last stage of the Tour of Cuba, ensuring (with the help of Gianluca Cavalli) that I was perfectly positioned to win the sprint. Maybe with the memory of my loss in Havana still fresh in his mind, he figured that I would most likely find a way to lose to him too even when he was trying to let me win, so he would be proactive and just take the victory outright. Whatever it was, after 154.6km, when he jumped away from me after the last turn and coasted across the line, I couldn't help but think "bastardo," after muttering the Spanish version of the phrase referenced above.
I don't think that Igor's a bastard by any means, and when our teammates - especially Simone - were calling him "Judas" in the team car on the drive home, you could tell that he felt genuinely sorry, or at least embarrassed. Let's chalk it up to trying to communicate across four languages, as Igor is Moldovan, so he speaks Russian as his native tongue, though he also speaks Italian after several years with Saeco, whereas I'm a native English speaker whose second language is Spanish. Lost in translation is what must have happened to Simone's instructions.
Regardless of another bitter, humiliating personal defeat for me, Team Whistle kicked serious butt today and I would hasten to guess that we could even have finished 1-2-3 if Juan had not crashed and gone over the guardrail and into a ravine (in true European classic style) on the final descent to Vellego. The race started with 6km through the streets of Ceriale and out of town before the huge peloton of elite, ex-professional and ex-dilitante riders hit the first climb, which was 15km in length. Four riders from the Scott team, none of whose names I yet know, drove the pace uphill and by the summit, the winning break was formed and we were 12 riders. Over the next 80km we held the chase group at around 1:30, though per our director Lucca's instructions (functioning race radios are great!), we stayed tranquillo and let Scott do most of the work.
On a course that featured no flat terrain until the final 20km, conservation would be proven the most effective strategy, for when we hit the third climb of the day, my two teammates and I had no difficulty staying ahead. The break shattered on the Passo del Ginestro, and while the crashes on the descent that eliminated the two Italian riders from contention (both would finish, however) were unfortunate, they were academic. Thankfully Juan wasn't hurt and he finished the race, winning the U23 classification and thereby giving us three riders on the podium.
This was not the hardest GF of the season. In fact, it is supposedly one of the easier ones, but the terrain was spectacular and I felt like I was racing in Milan-San Remo or some other classic that zigzags across the Italian countryside. If I survive the season here I will definitely leave having been transformed into a climber, because the events are all about going uphill fast. Out of curiosity, in the expo area I picked up flyers for some upcoming races, including the GF Michele Bartoli and the GC Massimiliano Lelli...Christ! Bartoli's race features 10 climbs, while Lelli's six. Next week's GF Geotermia e Balze in Pomarance also has six climbs. It was small consolation when Simone told me the entire squad would be at my disposition to help me win in Pomarance, as I'm not climbing that well yet, and today's more moderate race still kicked my ass. Not one stage of the Tour of Cuba was as hard as today's amateur race.
Next week's race actually kicks off a nine-race series, the VIII Giro del Granducato di Toscana. Our team is helping to organize the penultimate event to be held June 11 in Montecatini Terme where our team is based. Simone, who is 37 years-old, says it will be his last competition as a rider before he retires, so we're all keen to do well there. Some of the other towns that will host the events are Lucca, San Giustino and Manciano, if you can find them on a map.
If geography isn't your thing, at least let me add to your cycling vocabulary with a few cycling terms that will come in handy if you're ever training in Italy and need to replace a component or two on your bike:
Telaio - frame
Serie sterzo - headset
Guarnitura - crankset
Attacco manubrio - stem
Piego manubrio - handlebar
Cambio - rear derailleur
Deragliatore - front derailleur
Freni - brakes
Comandi - shift levers
Sella - saddle
Reggisella - seatpost
Pacco pignoni - cassette
And should you happen upon a stage of the Giro and need to carry the conversation with the local of your choice, try:
Dove finisce la gara? - Where does the race finish?
Dove passa? - Where does it pass through?
Chi vince? - Who's winning?
La tappa di oggi è di quanti chilometri? - How many kilometers is today's stage?
Il mio ciclista preferito è (insert name) - My favorite cyclist is...
Landing in Italy is certainly an unexpected twist in my cycling career. How fortuitous that with no prospects of getting paid a salary to race the same-old, same-old in the USA, I find myself part of the best-supported granfondo team in Italy, on par with Raimondas Rumsas's Park Pre squad...if you wanted to be derisive, you could say that we're professional hobbyists, as GF racing doesn't carry UCI points, but that would be a gross misstatement. Sure, granfonodo's are mass-start races open to all comers, but there is an elite competition within the race amongst several hundred riders who have or still do compete at the international level. At the end of the day there are podium presentations, media coverage, autographs and all the trappings of pro bike racing. Maybe it's like some level of minor league baseball, but without the hope for us older guys (Juan, at 19 years-old, is an exception) of getting back up into "the show" (aside from races like the Tour of Cuba and other UCI continental circuit events).
I'll take what I can get, however, especially because I'm finally where I hoped to be 10 years ago. Back in the early-1990s I wanted so desperately to race in Europe (I had no idea how hard it was nor how ill-suited I was to the longer, hilly events that characterize all amateur and professional racing here in Italy) that I used to comb through back issues of Winning Magazine trying to figure out how a kid from Pennsylvania could ride up the Poggio and into San Remo. If I'd been as naturally gifted as Bobby Julich or Scott McKinley, it would have happened of its own accord, but absent those genetic gifts, I had to find a way on my own. Even if little time remains for me as a cycling gypsy, I intend to squeeze every last bit of satisfaction from whatever opportunities are yet to appear before me.
Email Joe at email@example.com