Following the leaders at the Giro d’Italia
The invitation to ride in one of Vittoria’s neutral support cars at the Giro is in the category of invitations you don’t refuse, no matter how complicated. And complicated it is, at least from a logistics standpoint, to arrange transport to and from the start and end points of mountain stages. (More about this in another post). For the moment, suffice to say I found a solution and was on time for the rendezvous with Veronica, Vittoria’s beautiful and ruthlessly efficient manager on the Giro. It was 10 am in the morning on Sunday May 19th, 2013 and the sun was shining for almost the first time on the Giro, now entering its third week.
After heavy snow in the mountains during the previous week, the day’s stage was nearly abandoned before it started. From the start in Cesana Torinese, a small town at an altitude of 1354 m near Sestrière in the western Italian Alps, it was to descend steadily to Susa at 503 m before a 26 km climb to the col du Mont Cenis (2094 m). After crossing into France, the peloton was then to make a short climb to Aussois before descending to St Michel de Maurienne (718 m) at the foot of the col du Télégraphe, and thence up through Valloire to the summit of the Galibier.
The summit finish was always a risky bet for the organisers, since the Galibier generally doesn’t open before June 1st. Given the almost continuous bad weather since the start in Naples on May 4th, the improvement didn’t come a moment too soon. The snow ploughs were hard to work on the Mont Cenis and the Galibier throughout the night, and the French authorities finally gave approval in mid-morning to maintain the original route as far as the memorial to Marco Pantani, 4 km below the summit of the Galibier.
I was assigned to car No. 2 of three identical white neutral support cars, resplendent with Vittoria’s trademark red and black logo, striped with the red and black tread of a Corsa EVO CX tyre from nose to tail across the roof and festooned with spare bikes and wheels.
Veronica introduced me to Riccardo, the driver, and Dario, the mechanic. Conversation was to be limited, partly due to the language barrier (my Italian is close to non-existent), and partly because both Riccardo and Dario are serious men of few words. Fortunately Dario speaks enough French for us to understand each other.
Strict rules govern the conduct of team cars during professional races, including the order of the cars and when they are allowed to overtake each other or follow their riders in a breakaway ahead of the main peloton. The neutral support cars (the same role is fulfilled by Mavic in France) therefore have an essential role: to support any rider, irrespective of which team he rides for, at any time when his team car is unable to reach him quickly.
The stage finally got underway at 12:50. Preceding the peloton we drove briskly through the crowds lining the town streets and out on to the open road. Riccardo then put his foot down like a rally driver and we covered 4 or 5 kilometres at speeds well above the legal limit before he suddenly braked, pulled into a layby and invited us to relieve ourselves. I was to understand later that this was the last chance before the finish on the Galibier, over 140 kilometres and four and a half hours away.
Back in the car we dawdled on. The few villages we went through seemed depopulated, the meagre spectators a far cry from the thick crowds we see on the television. Sometimes Riccardo stopped for periods. Sometimes he accelerated fast along totally empty roads, for no obvious reason. The lack of life was bizarre, as if some terrible natural disaster had struck and made everybody disappear.
The radio cackled infrequently. I strained to understand the Italian, mostly in vain.
I wasn’t to see a single cyclist during the first two and a half hours.
After almost 33 kilometres of gentle descent we passed through Susa, where Riccardo delighted in accelerating and sounding the horn loudly to put on a show for the crowds. They were much thicker here, in what is the largest town for many miles around. Entire families had come to see the Giro go by, and I waved at them like a minor celebrity, basking in the applause, happily ignoring the fact that none of it was directed at me personally.
The long climb to the Mont Cenis now began. We went past houses with their typically ornate Italian architecture, clinging to the steep slope on either side of the hairpin bends. At this comparatively low altitude and on a south-facing slope the road was well shaded by plane trees. Higher up we passed little groups of cyclists, their bicycles proudly displayed close to the road in proof of communion with their professional brethren.
One of the few times Riccardo spoke was when we stopped high up towards the col du Mont Cenis. The peloton was just visible far below and I started to get out of the car to take a photograph. ‘Non non non!’ he cried, before Dario explained to me that guests were forbidden to get out of the car once the race was started. We continued our lonely drive up the deserted road, two or three kilometres in front of the peloton. The radio cackled again and Dario finally told me what was happening: the riders had decided not to race for the time being, tired from two weeks of rain and worried about conditions higher up.
There was a momentary flash of interest with the changing of the guard at the frontier, the grey-blue uniforms of the Italian Polizia Stradale motorcyclists giving way to the royal blue of the French gendarmes. By this time we were well into the snow zone: the surrounding countryside entirely covered in white. The early sun at Cesana Torinese had disappeared and we were now in a grey and white world. The scenery was spectacular, making up for the total lack of race interest as we approached the last set of steep hairpins up to the fort which guards the access to the pass. We stopped several times to see the peloton far below, still bunched together as they neared the end of the long climb.
We passed the fort, with its attendant café and souvenir shop, and began along the road alongside the summit lake. Someone had spray-painted ‘PANTANI’ in big red letters on the wall of snow to the left of the road. The great climber is not forgotten.
ATTACK! Stefano Pirazzi and Robinson Chalapud have attacked!
Action at last as the holder of the mountain jersey decided to defend his position. This was excellent news from our point of view, because as soon as a break developed we would be assigned to slip in behind and cover it.
We continued crawling forward above the frozen lake, waiting for the break to come up to us.
Finally, almost two and a half hours after the start of the stage, I saw my first cyclist in close up!
First one appeared, then another, and we were after them. A small group of seven quickly formed, and then the Dutchman Pieter Weening attacked off the front. He took all the risks on the fast, potentially icy descent and soon built up a small lead. We followed closely behind, just after the television motorbike, me clinging on as we took the bends at 60 to 70 km/hr, accelerating to over 90 km/hr on the straights, racing down the mountain at what seemed like insane speeds. Weening danced in my vision through the windscreen before us, looking light and vulnerable as if a gust of wind would blow him away. If you think that professional cyclists climb mountains fast, you should see the speed at which they descend.
The snow and ice gave way to water and grit on the road as the trees became greener and the view opened up over the lower slopes of Lanslebourg. Finally the road surface dried, we entered the village and the breakaway group reformed. It consisted of the early attackers Pirazzi and Chalapud, joined by four more Italians Bongiorno, Rabottini, Rubiano and Visconti and finally of course Weening who now took a rest at the back of the group.
The sun came out again and it was quite warm on the short but steep climb to Aussois. This was an extraordinary contrast to the polar conditions on the col du Mont Cenis. Here spring was definitely in the air. The fields were full of lush green grass and the tulips were out in gardens and window boxes. Some of the spectators were in shirt-sleeves.
Weening dropped back to us and handed his windproof jacket through the window to Riccardo, who passed it behind to Dario on the back seat. He looked thin, with a two-day beard matching his short-cropped hair. A patch of white flesh showed incongruously between the top of his arm-warmers and the sleeves of his jersey. He took a water bottle and pulled forward again to re-join the group.
Dario translated the radio chatter for me: the gap between the leaders and the main group was hovering between five and six minutes. Nibali in the pink leader’s jersey and Cavendish in the red points jersey were both safely in the peloton.
Not much happened between Aussois and the start of the Télégraphe in St Michel de Maurienne. There were about 24 kilometres of fairly gentle descent, so this was a good opportunity for the peloton to catch up. We followed closely behind the lead group, who worked hard to maintain their slowly-eroding advantage.
By the time we reached the sharp left turn and the bridge over the river that marks the start of the climb to the col du Télégraphe, the lead had been cut to only two minutes. It seemed unlikely that any of the escapees would stay ahead to take the stage win.
We were on familiar terrain now. I have climbed the Télégraphe several times on a bike, most notably during the 2011 Etape du Tour from Modane to Alpe d’Huez. I was amazed how almost every tree and every rock now seemed familiar, as if the details of the climb were forever engraved in my brain. It is a fairly steep climb, only 11.9 kilometres long but averaging 7.2% with several steeper sections and a maximum grade of 11%. This must hurt when you already have 115 kilometres and the col du Mont Cenis in your legs.
The race now became confused, at least for me in the car behind the lead group. Pirazzi, Rabottini, Visconti and Weening continued to force the pace but a lot of chatter on the radio suggested some serious action in the chasing group. I found out later that Robert Gesink had made several attacks. Vincenzo Nibali and his Astana team-mates were controlling the pace, with Cadel Evans on his shoulder.
A little over halfway up, Giovanni Visconti broke away from the lead group and forged ahead on his own. We followed him, just behind the TV motorbike, watching him closely, ready to give him immediate support.
At the col du Télégraphe, Visconti had created a gap of two minutes. He launched himself headlong down the short descent to Valloire. With 19 kilometres left, there was a real chance of the stage victory, if only he could stay ahead!
Again we drove like madmen to keep up with the speeding cyclist, hurtling round the bends with screeching tyres. Clinging on with one hand, I held my iPhone in the other to take a short video of Visconti, leaning hard through the corners, pedalling furiously to maintain his advantage.
We flashed through Valloire, bumping over the short cobbled stretch where I had lost a couple of gels during the Etape as my bike shook violently on the stones. The road was lined with fans waving Italian flags.
The weather was closing in again. Heavy grey clouds closed off the view up to the Galibier. Was it snowing up there? It didn’t take long to find out. The first snowflakes hit us as we drove through Les Verneys and started up the long straight drag towards Plan Lachat.
Visconti forged on alone into the thickening snow, redoubling his efforts. He glanced at the chalk-board held up by one of the motorcyclists. He still had an advance of 55 seconds on Rabottini, followed by Weening. He could do it! Head down, he pedalled like a man possessed. Behind him, in the car, I held my breath.
Higher up, small knots of spectators huddled together, wearing thick winter jackets, stamping their feet. I wondered what it must be like for the riders, mostly in bare arms and legs. None of the leaders had the time to stop and pull on a set of arm-warmers. Perhaps generating 400W of power on the climb was enough to keep them warm for the time being.
The final few kilometres seemed interminable with suspense as Visconti held off the pursuers through Plan Lachat, around the right-hand bend at the head of the valley and up the steep rise and last remaining bends to the finish at the Pantani memorial. More spray-paint on the sharp-cut snow banks. The snow came in flurries, sometimes almost completely obscuring visibility, and sometimes letting up to afford us the view back across the valley to the chasers.
At last the finish line came in sight, around a final bend, at the end of a straight section lined with barriers. The barriers were hung with red and blue Italian advertising. They seemed to be holding back the high snow banks. There was a small crowd of the most devoted fans huddled closely together. We heard thin, distant cheers as Visconti crossed the line. The officials waved us swiftly through.
The next hour was an anti-climax. We had to drive another kilometre or so up the road to where we could park nose to tail with the team cars and wait for the race to finish. I got out, took some photos and ate a sandwich. The snow came and went in flurries. The road was running with water. Time passed slowly.
We were too far away for me to see the finish, so I only found out the results much later. Rabottini and Weening were swallowed up by the peloton before the finish. Betancur, Niemiec and Majka detached themselves to finish 42 seconds behind Visconti, closely followed by Duarte at 47” and the race leaders Nibali, Evans, Uran, Santambrogio and Scarponi at 54”. Nibali retained the pink jersey, followed by Cadel Evans at 1’26” and Sky’s Rigoberto Uran at 2’46”. Mark Cavendish finished safely in the grupetto, retaining his red points jersey.
As for us, we were eventually permitted to drive back down to Valloire where I recovered my own bike from the Vittoria bus and set off back down the Télégraphe. But that is another story…