FIRENZE, Italy - Sept. 28, 2013 - Fabian Cancellara met my question with a dismissive gaze. Our eyes locked.
"I'm not here to talk about Sunday. I'm only here to talk about the time trial and to celebrate my bronze medal," he said on Wednesday.
The question I had asked was whether his preparation for this celebrated road race circuit had altered his training for the time trial. We were both speaking in code.
Cancellara had arrived in Firenze visibly lighter than he had in Australia, Copenhagen, or Valkenberg, where he brought more weight and hence, more power, to the pedals. And he finished way behind Tony Martin and two seconds behind Bradley Wiggins.
The following day, unbeknownst to him, he would give me the real answer to the question without saying a word. For that would be the day I would get to ride Il Circuito, the final circuits for the 2013 Worlds.
I hold Cancellara in the highest regard for three reasons: 1) He races - and wins - with savage abandon; 2) in Australia I saw him patiently give interviews to every reporter in six different languages in the boxes, including one nervous Aussie college radio journalist I got into the very last reporter box in the line; and 3) when his asshole Swiss teammate came to the sign-in table in a raging tantrum over the protocol required for the 2010 road worlds, screaming at me as he stormed off the stage, Cancellara forced him back to the stage, apologized to me for the guy's behavior, and made him pose for the team photo.
The guy is awesome.
But he was cloaking his priorities for this world championships. He was here to win the road worlds, not the time trial. Because this circuit is perfect for Cancellara.
My first exposure to the circuit came by stumbling on to the route Wednesday morning. I had a few hours, had purchased a map, and simply saw a town that looked interesting and could be indexed by my knowledge of the region. In short, I only had to go the same place I had gone every day and keep going. I rode to Fiesole.
Simply following signs to this town I wound up on the course. Riding alone, the climb cracked me. I pounded up to a beautiful town adorned with bleachers, signage and fantastic sculpture. I realized I was on the course and pressed upward for an additional kilometer of climbing.
The following day would be my lone day off. I ate breakfast and kitted up with my People for Bikes kit, complete to the socks, and rolled towards the circuit. My credential got me on at 10 a.m. when all the teams were to ride on the closed course.
Mind you, the pre-ride on this course draws a live audience that matches the crowds seen in most American pro races. Entire schools are released to let the kids go course side to cheer on all the riders.....But oh how they waited for the Squadra Azzuri.
Just as I approached the course I came upon the entire French junior and under-23 team. I hopped on.
We rolled upwards towards Fiesole at a comfortable pace, with about a dozen amateurs tagging long like so many remoras on a shark. The boys were just rolling comfortably and I stuck. With such a draft this climb felt easier. The stretches that crushed me the day before were tolerable. As we hit the switchback a French junior turned his head to see me, by then breathing audibly...but at 52 years of age.....screw off kid....I'm still here!
I swiveled my head back to realize I all the amateurs were gone. Just me and the French kids rolled up to Fiesole.
Just as I cracked into Fiesole, expecting to continue upwards as I had the day before and contemplating dropping off, I saw the fencing. Fiesole was the top! I had survived and started the descent.
The climb, it turned out, nearly matched that of Old Littleton Road, aka the "Harvard Climb" outside of Boston. About 4 km with an average grade of 5 percent and a maximum grade of 9 percent. I simply got into the hurt box and stayed there for about 10 minutes.
I stopped at the top. Checked my text messages. Then did the descent ... like a clumsy boxer .... There is just one turn that requires a bit of brakes. And then I hit the Via Silviate, the shorter but harder climb that followed. This climb hits your legs like an eight-pound sledge. The average grade is 11 percent but the steepest pitch hits 16 percent. The effort is about three minutes.
I survived and then rolled down through the technical fast section to the finish, where I paused with some journalists. When asked by Italian television how I viewed the loop for the world road championships, I paused.
I had one word: "Dynamic."
And it went viral. Of the four road worlds I have called, this is the one route that will produce the truest of road champions. This course does not favor pure climbers, does not favor sprinters, and does not favor the strongest teams. This course is for the best all around individual rider.
I did the climb again, but with a large group that included the Austrian national team. I descended with the Belgian and Dutch teams. I charged through the city section, where I encountered Evelyn Stevens, who seemed chirpy about the course.
Then I rolled towards Fiesole for a final loop. I planned to climb alone but noticed a large swarm of red coming up from behind. The Swiss were on their laps. And right in the thick of it rode Cancellara. A flotilla of amateurs had tacked on the back. Of course I did the same.
We were going about 30 kph as the grade became steeper. The amateurs started to pop like circuit breakers. I filled a few gaps and came within a wheel of the man they call Spartacus. His uphill surge to win Flanders reportedly put out a sustained wattage of 750. This man could pop light bulbs. And yes, I was flickering.
He rode while speaking to a colleague, his hair flowing as if in a photo shoot. With Firenze below us in full splendor to the right, Fiesole above us to the left, we approached the the switchback where a crowd of nearly 500 had assembled just for a glimpse at such men as Fabu.
Swiveling his head to study the route and breathing through his nose, he lifted off the saddle, and pressed the pedals.
I came off like a flake of dandruff.
I almost went paperboy on the climb to recover and then saw Seamus Downey, who raced for the Killian's Red team in the 1980s. His son, Mark Downey, would be in the junior event. With my heart rate settled, I resumed in time to see Gavin Mannion, the young American son of an Irish immigrant Tommy Mannion living in the Boston area, climbing easy.
At the top I regrouped, and checked my text messages to ensure I could secure a ride by 2 p.m. from Barbara to attend a junior conference. She noted instead that she needed to leave by 12:15 for an Italian press conference. I looked at the time: 11:50 a.m. and I'm 8 km from the finish line and another 4 km from the hotel.
I'm also soaked in sweat, kinda hungry, and really thirsty.
I reply: "See you at 12:15"
I bomb the descent, no brakes, and end up catching the other American U23 riders. I hit the savage Via Salviati pretty hard and nearly vomit going over the crest. Then I press the urban turns and roll right through the finish line.
I got to the hotel and even managed to shower by 12:16. We made it to all the appointments.
But in riding it hard I learned a lot about this circuit.
Matej Mahor of Slovenia, the emerging superstar who, as a junior, won the silver medal in the 2012 time trial world championships and then took the road race in a bunch gallop, returned in 2013 to win the Under 23 road race at age 18. In his press conference he confirmed what I had suspected: the Fiesole climb was not hard enough. Mind you he was climbing it at 40 kph, but he noted, as I learned, that at speed there is considerable draft. Ironically, the faster the group goes the easier the climb becomes.
Mahor also confirmed the second climb to be significantly more difficult.
And after that climb, the technical elements made chasing difficult.
The issue is that riding without radios, riders were struggling to organize their team efforts. Directors cannot drive forward to provide info. There is only the one 800-meter finish straightaway to enable any rider-to-rider communication. The rest must be done while climbing to Fiesole.
There will not be a large eight-rider leadout a la Copenhagen or Zolder. The winner will be the best sprinter of the climbers. But this will not favor Chris Froome or Robert Gesink. The winner will have to get over the Via Salviati and then be able to go 70 kph into the city, attacking and counter attacking, and then manage a drag race sprint in the final 800 meters. The finish is for a true bike racer.
But Mahoric confirmed another of my suspicions. In the press conference he noted that he had shed six kilograms in preparation for this race. And he noted that loss of weight had reduced his power in the time trial.
I had noted that Cancellara appeared significantly thinner than previously seen in time trials.
The pro men will do 10 circuits on Sunday. There are clear favorites: Peter Sagan of Slovakia, Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway, Phillippe Gilbert of Belgium, Alejandro Valverde of Spain, Fillippo Pozzato of Italy, and Geraint Thomas of Great Britain.
And there are some outsiders to watch: Diego Ulissi of Italy, Bauke Mollema, John Degenkolb of Germany, Carlos Alberto Betancur of Colombia, and Matti Breschel of Denmark.
Of note is that France's best roleur, Sylvain Chavanel is not on the start list, leaving Thomas Voeckler to carry the tri color into Firenze.
But know this: the Swiss have brought nine pro men to Italy, their largest worlds team in memory. And Cancellara is THE man here.
FIRENZE, Sept. 27, 2013 - Obviously there are tremendous connections between this lovely country and cycling. Bottechia. Binda. Campagnolo. Coppi. But zero in on Tuscany and you find an even prouder concentration of cycling heritage that dates back to 1473 when Leonardo da Vinci sketched out the first known design for a bicycle. And they boast of hosting the first ever road race in 1870, a contest from Florence to Pistoia, on some of the same roads used for this year's world championships. Gino Bartali. Fiorenzo Magni. Franco Ballerini. Mario Cippollini. Paolo Bettini. All Tuscan cycling legends.
And there are amazing rural roads I've already discovered in my limited experience here. There is a weekend culture of cafe cycling, riding, sipping, riding more, sipping more. It's fantastic.
Back home, however, one would believe that Italy offers a mechanic on every corner offering to lube your chain in extra virgin olive oil, cars that clear away your path, and children cheering you on every climb.
Refreshingly, I can report that Italy has all sorts of cyclists, but in terms of cycling transit they are barely ahead of Cambridge, Mass., despite the presence 500 km of bike paths. I see riders rolling the wrong way down streets on dilapidated bikes with under inflated tires. I discovered this after my own puncture downtown resulted in not one but three vagrant cyclists riding with broken spokes and loose axles and even looser racks approaching me, desperate for help. Using only pantomime and pointing for communication, I provided a 10-minute infirmary for these folks whose bikes offered a single redeeming value: presta valves. And then they rolled off into the darkness, headed the wrong direction on one-way street with no lights.
But in the urban environment of Firenze (which sounds a lot sexier than Florence, the name of my recently deceased aunt) there is nominal bike culture. I would say New York, San Francisco and even Boston has as much true "bike culture".
And even when I do encounter a cyclist aboard curvaceous carbon-fiber road bikes I realize America has not cornered the market on dorks. Guys here are just as bad with their knees out, their headphones in, their bibs on over their jerseys, and their seat way too low.
One looking for true bike culture would be better served making the pilgrimage to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or even Portland for the true Valhallas of bike culture.
But in Firenze we find scooter culture has taken root. And it's crazy. They shoot the gaps at the lights, swerve from lane to lane, dive in and out of turns.
At every intersection they swarm at the front of the line, waiting for the red to go green. I don't mean one or two; try a dozen, revving, smoking, scooters at the intersection. And every green light is like a 12-wide start of a moto.
When my beloved Firefly finally arrived, I dove into the urban setting that night in search of one thing: scooters. The trick is to find a plump couple on one scooter, slowing their start. Once up to speed, I could get on their draft and roll up to 60 kph.
And despite the noise, the danger, and the smoke, I see the value of scooters in the landscape. When gas hits $7 a gallon in 2016, we will see scooters in America before we see bicycles on a large scale. The good thing here is that Scooters have shattered the car-only paradigm. They are the mosquitos of the road. Motorists have just learned to assimilate scooters into their mentality.
There is no yelling, no epithets, no horn honking in anger. No matter what the infraction, Italians all just swerve around and keep going. They don't take it or mean it personally, as American motorists so often do.
And with that, the scooters carve out a space - not so much on the roadway as much as the collective mentality - for bicycles.
Of course in all this craziness pedestrians are just screwed.
FIRENZE, ITALIA, Sept. 26 - European cities initially disappoint Americans. They simply don't do suburbs well. My experience with most European cities is that of oysters. Brussels, Girona, Maastricht, Paris, Madrid .... Grotesque outer shells concealing marvelous ingredients.
And Italians really don't do suburbs well. The Tuscan landscape, famous for its manicured trees and inviting architecture, had been scratched with graffiti, confusing signage, and curious waste management. My arrival at Hotel Meditteraneo, placed along the historic Arno River, had been marred by my bike's non-arrival.
Arriving early, my room would not be ready for several hours. I walked a bit, took Euros out of the ATM, drank cappuccino, and charged everything I had with a battery. My phone rang.
The voice of Rita Bellanca, all four feet, eleven inches of her, came through the line. Her power triples her size as she - without a single UCI logo on her clothing or a credential around her neck - essentially runs the show. And nobody dares to cross her.
Rehearsal for awards was about to start. The hotel staff had not given me a packet left with my credential and a note regarding the rehearsal. I leapt into a taxi and we took the most un-interesting ride to the finish venue.
Expecting cathedrals, fountains and statues, my short ride was a conveyor belt of dumpsters, scooters, trampled plants, grit, train tracks, grime and improvised fencing.
Expecting the grandeur of Rome, I arrived at a finish venue placed alongside a Soviet style athletic complex, which afforded the organization the necessary facilities for offices, parking, television production and grandstands.
Don't worry, the images on TV will be great.
There are about 100 people on site doing all sorts of things.It's like walking on to a Broadway set before dress rehearsal. Cranes and booms and cables and scissor lifts whirring about. Guys are on scaffolds, on ladders, in trailers, under stages, behind stages....There is a melange of Italian, English and French being spoken....And of course the cigarettes everywhere. Somehow I'm comfortable in all this. Sound guys, TV guys, timing guys, officials, cops, marshals, and sprinkled throughout all this are podium presenters. I cannot help notice this one Italian brunette with long hair and even longer legs stacked atop five-inch heels. Man after man shout to her from a distance. She responds to all with a pearlescent smile. Some get close and she adorns them with the classic double kiss. I can only apply one word to her looks: voluptuous. One man walked by gazing at her and stumbled over cable covers, nearly falling to the ground.
I had work to do. Accustomed to sorting these things out, I sift my way to the awards podium and realize I'm actually early. Traveling in some dirty shorts, a T-shirt, and a sport coat, I'm looking pretty bad. I hardly have a command presence. And with no sleep, I don't feel in command. These rehearsals are where I meet my counterpart in the native language. I've met some great announcers over the years. They are typically journalists who are passionate about the sport, knowledgable about the riders, connected with the promoters. Kaes in the Netherlands, Heinrich in Czech Republic, Mark in Belgium, Peter in Denmark, Rick in Australia, etc., etc., etc. All are good. Real good. Frankly, they all know more statistics and results than I.
Here I encounter Allesandro Barbella, who has worked the Giro and several other prior world championships. And yes, he's good.
We bumble through through the awards with a small contingent. Then we head inside, where I meet Angelo, who is managing the production for the entire thing. We arrive to discover the largest production contingent I've ever seen pre-worlds. Typically we have about five people: the sound guy, the two announcers, the UCI person, and then the local person.
I count 13 people at the table, 12 of which speak Italian. And then the long tall brunette comes to the table, walks all the way around the table, and introduces herself to me. "Barbara Pedrotti". And she presents a card.
I have no idea what she is doing at the table. Nor can I fathom what the others are doing. After some basics in English, about how the rotation works, who goes where, how we'll be working the "RRRRRRRadio Toscana," what the rotation will be, Angelo turns to me.
"Richard, you are the leader; you are the boss."
Feeling like a child on the first day of kindergarten, I meekly accept the task while listening to how it will work. And then - even filtered through Italian - I realize I DO know how this thing will work. I discuss the art of "catching" and "throwing" in announcing an event. I discuss the principle of "less being more", working with the music, using "ramps", and pacing the work. All stuff I've learned from Glenn Stillwell.
After I speak for 30 seconds in English, about three minutes of conversation breaks out in Italian. And then we do it again. Increasingly it becomes evident that one person has the greatest command of English: Barbara Pedrotti.
She will be helping as an announcer around the remote starts and as needed throughout the week. All the races start elsewhere and finish in Florence.
Then I learn the radio station has provided some DJs and personalities who will be on site, weaving into the program. I realize these guys really want a big show and they want me to run it. Like high school basketball, I'm running the three-man weave.
Barbara gives me a ride back to my hotel via the most arcane route possible. Only with a few days exploration of Firenze do I now realize how circuitous her route was.
I bid adieu and retire. I still have no bike. I still cannot see the attraction people have for Italia, for Toscana, and for Firenze.
I type because I can barely speak. My voice is like broken glass, shards of vowels and jagged consonants, only worsened by a wheezing, lingering cough and punctuated by eruptions of phlegm.
I can only pray that eight days in the Tuscan sun will rescue this situation. But I am bringing this shattered voice to the UCI World Road Championships, where I would announce for a week straight.
With more than 20 years experience announcing cycling events, I have developed a set of rules to protect a fragile voice. A voice for a professional speaker is like the arm of a professional pitcher; abused and then restored over and over and over. To protect the voice I have some rules I try to follow. Sadly I broke most of them in the days leading up to this important event.
RULE ONE: DO NOT SWAP SPIT
This chaos started in San Simeon, a lonely California beach town with a Twilight Zone fog that cloaks a hidden neon monster far worse than anything that lured Ulysses into danger. I write, of course, of the karaoke bar.
After working to produce another highly successful Best Buddies Challenge: Hearst Castle, I informed my two guest elite riders, Benny Swedberg and Tobin Ortenblad, that they would not be going up to the Hearst Castle for a dip in the Neptune pool as they hoped. Instead our two elite guest riders were asked to help load boxes from our registration tents. Deflated, they crinkled their pressed suits around the bags, tents, and boxes kindly.
"Grab that," I instructed, pointing to the massive team cup, a silver chalice presented to the highest fund raising team. "That will come in handy."
After a curious look, Tobin, got the cup. We loaded into my rental car and headed towards San Simeon, pulling into the San Simeon Inn, the only institution with a bar still open.
"Let's go," I said, trophy in hand. They were incredulous.
From outside we could see the patrons, most seated, arms folded, legs exhausted from work stretched out, faces flat in response to a dreadful attempt to sing a Roy Orbison song.
The patrons included about two dozen Latino men, most of our event staging crew, a handful of our charity riders who had pedaled 100 miles from Carmel to San Simeon. Despite the occasional attempts by an Elvis impersonator to de-fibrillate these flat-lined corpses, most were too exhausted to move... Or were they?
I strode into this neon blue haze triumphantly, hoisted the cup above my head as if I had just won Wimbledon, and planted it on the table. Swedberg and Ortenblad seemed stunned.
Then it started. Waves of my colleagues and friends and riders and clients entered by the car load. There was whiskey and beer involved, but I swear I kept steering towards ginger ale. I strode about the place giving folks photo ops with the trophy, and little by little this fostered an almost tribal cohesion. Inevitably, somebody filled the cup with beer. And with each song sung, rock 'n' roll, country, Mexican ballads, the cup went to the singer for congratulatory swigs...
After a day of announcing, I did my best "Get Off My Cloud," "Hey Ya," "Sweet Caroline," and even joined one of our ride teams we've nicknamed "The Mermaids" for a horrific rendition of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."
The entire place veered out of control like a reckless bus of a party. Tired legs were renewed and dancing broke out, spilling into the sound equipment, the video monitors, and cocktail tables. The woman running the Karaoke with Elvis, an exhausted woman pushing 80 (and pushing it kinda hard), sat in a scowl as we smeared into her space. Upon learning my colleague Jon Brideau had turned 29 that day, Elvis crooned birthday wishes followed by shots of tequila.... which I wisely avoided.
Surprisingly no ankles were sprained. No glass was broken. No marriages were ruined. No cars crashed. And yes, unlike the 1924 Montreal Canadiens, I remembered to bring home the trophy from the party, which had become a Petri dish of bacteria and viruses shared by all.
That I did not contract smallpox is surprising. But the next morning, September 8, I could feel a monstrous infection growing in my respiratory system. As of this writing on September 25 the last cells of that bacterial terrorist organization remain active in my body.
RULE TWO: SLEEP
Sleep is the ultimate elixir for bodies, for minds, for souls .... and for voices. Screw that, right?
After the karaoke chaos, I collapsed into my room well after midnight. I have a problem in that regardless of when I go to bed or where I am on the planet my eyes flip open at roughly 5 to 7 a.m. EST.
Like .... any where.
This curse is so profound that I rarely turn on alarms. True to form, I bounce awake in San Simeon and go to work with a) getting everybody packed up, and b) getting my sorry ass to Northern California to visit with the Simpson family, my home away from home in California, and grab a redeye.
Mind you this would be the first of a redeye triathlon. I would do a redeye home from California and karaoke, work a week, ride my ass off, and then catch a morning flight to Las Vegas, a redeye home, and then another redeye to Europe.
By the time I arrived in Italy my sleep cycle had been so scrambled I could find myself nodding off or waking up at the most unusual times and places.
RULE THREE: HYDRATE
A key to anything involving your physical being - be it cycling, dancing, modeling, announcing, surviving, etc. - is to hydrate. Makes sense, right? But it is so easy to end up de-hydrated. I firmly believe that a lot of people's hunger is actually their thirst.
That does not mean I actually practice what I preach...
As I swirl towards the World Championship experience, I find myself drinking anything BUT the stuff I should be drinking.
To really enhance the dehydration process, I travel to the desert town of Las Vegas with about 3 percent humidity.
So I broke that rule, eh?
RULE FOUR: AVOID LOUD PLACES.
Crowded bars, night clubs, sports bars, and any environment that requires one to drive their voice to simply get over the din are brutal for announcers. I have an idea, let's go to the Interbike show in Vegas!
With that, let's just add I announced at 'Cross Vegas, watching Katerina Nash and Sven Nys provide a clinic on cyclo-cross.
That was followed by the next night announcing the USA Crits Final at Mandalay Bay, a phenomenal crit under the lights. I went from that event directly to the airport for a 1 a.m. flight.
Both events are promoted with a fanfare and production value rarely seen in American races, most of which are conducted as slaughterhouses with rider entries funding the entire enterprise. These evening events only showcase about four events on the card and then focus on fans. And there were 10,000-plus on Wednesday and 4,000-plus on Thursday. The bigger the crowd the harder you push. I push hard.
I pushed hard - really hard - both nights. I worked the first night with John Lefler and Larry Longo, two of the best in the business whom I fly in for Providence. The following night, I worked with Chad Andrews, whose enthusiasm for cycling drips off every word he utters.
As an aside I must say that seeing Dave Towle, who did the live webcast commentary, was a treat. He has a most infectious sense of humor that always results in me laughing hard enough to pass legumes through my sinuses.
So we broke that rule.
RULE FIVE: AVOID STRESS.
Have I mentioned I was serving as a production consultant for the inaugural Connecticut Cycling Festival held in Hartford while I was in Italy? My first pair of announcers backed out the week prior, and I had to scramble to fill their spots with two others. Fortunately I learned of the availability of Ian Sullivan, a new announcer I had yet to hear, and the legendary Joe Jefferson. I had to manage several details, write several checks, and leave several notes before I left for Vegas.
And yes, I'm heading up a great staff putting on the Providence Cyclo-cross Festival, which is like putting on an outdoor wedding for 5,000 to be held Oct. 4-6, about four days after I return from Europe.
So I fly to Paris, unable to sleep on that leg of the journey. I make the most confusing transfer in the world's most confusing airport, Charles Degaulle, to a small plane headed for Pisa.
Boom. I pass out. Like totally zonked to the point where I never even see Pisa for the landing and the staff have to wake me up so they can clean the plane.
Fogged over from the sleep, I stumble down the stairway to the glare of the Tuscan sun which strikes me as lot like Southern California but in miniature, and hop on a shuttle. I enter this modest airport's baggage area which is before we get to immigration, only to discover the bathroom is out of order. I really had to pee.
Although "AIR FRANCE" never appears on any monitor belts begin to whir about with luggage. Shuttle after shuttle empty. Belt after belt churns. I begin to realize half the folks here are American tourists, and most of those are over age 70. And most of those are really cranky about the bathroom the signage the luggage and generally the lack of a Denny's anywhere nearby.
My bags don't arrive.
I really have to pee.
But my beloved Firefly with S and S couplings making its European debut is lost. We manage to find my one suitcase but the bike is lost.
And framed by all those elements, I land in a country where I don't know the language, the geography, the customs, and a single human being, and prepare to announce the most prestigious single-day bike race in the world. In effect, I'm walking into a temple that will hold 300,000 people - of which 100,000 have an encyclopedic knowledge of cycling - and I'm expected to preach the sermon.
Avoid stress you say?
Check that one off.
Completely shattered with little sleep, no voice, a bladder full of urine, sinuses loaded with phlegm, and a cell phone loaded with text message and e-mails, I exit the baggage area without my beloved bike. The electric doors slide open and there stands an unshaven young man in a T-shirt with a piece of notebook paper scrawled with one word "FRIES."
Werner is Portuguese. I'm American. We're in Italy. We pile into a Skoda van, drop the windows, and head for Firenze (Florence). The Tuscan wind blows joy into my body. I'm revived.
And we're off. Welcome the 2013 UCI Road World Championships. Hang on.