Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tuscany 5

Tuscany 5

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Hopefully you watched, or at least read, about the most dramatic pro men's world championships in recent memory. I'll spare you the race details the journalists all covered.

Allow me to provide some behind-the-scenes scenes.

The Italians do not do everything well. They could use a lot of help with airports.

But one thing they do very well - from sculpture to architecture to bike races - is presentation.

The elite men's race started in Lucca, a fantastic fortress of a city about an 80 minute drive from Firenze. While the other start ceremonies were managed by the Italian announcers, either Barbara Pedrotti or Allesandro Brambilla, the UCI announcer traditionally tends to the elite men's race. I drove with Allesandro while he pointed out assorted cycling landmarks in Italian.

We arrive, get a coffee, and then hit the stage. This entire Medieval fortress town is quietly bracing for this event. Everybody is out in the morning rain, all looking as if they were waiting for a bus. We are a feeble intro ... like the guys who jiggle the cables on a stage before The Who comes on.

 Upon arrival I saw the sign-in stage arranged in the traditional fashion, with one grandiose exception. Carpenters had built a complete elevated runway with a ramp, covered in felt, and equipped with a pair of A-frame racks. The crowd fencing had been arranged to funnel the superstars right up the ramp for their sign-in ceremony and a team photo.

The thing looked spectacular.

But the first casualty of battle is the plan. We rambled on with assorted pieces of Italian cycling trivia. I held my own in English, going on about Alfredo Binda and Tulio Campagnolo and such.

Cyrile Gauthier and Thomas Voekler showed up first. They kindly waited. The French team joined and the photo came off well. Up came a lone rider from Algeria. Then the Mexican team.

The famous Mediterranean climate had provided us seven-consecutive days of perfect weather. The luck ran out on the biggest day.  

Rain started hard. Umbrellas came up. None of the spectators moved. But no other riders showed up either. Forty minutes to start and the board remained bereft of most signatures.

Alex Howes, an American I've watched compete since his days as a junior rolled up. Soon thereafter came Andrew Talansky. I got some words with both but they told me what I knew.

Rain adds enormous stress to a bike race. The mechanics, the soigneurs, the directors and especially the riders have so much more to do. There are rain coats, arm warmers, food, shoe covers, hats, lenses, gloves and vests all to find. Everybody knows there will be more punctures, more crashes, more selections, and more abandons.

Now add the enormous stress of racing 277 km in the world freakin' championships. And nobody wants to stand on their legs in the rain any longer than necessary.

As a result of these elements everybody is late to the sign-in ceremony.

After 30 minutes of stalling with jokes, trivia and card tricks (ok, there were no card tricks) we had about 20 of the 208 riders signed in.  And then they all poured up the ramp like freaking Visigoths.

And we had one pen.

Suddenly the greatest pros in the world were stacked up in a massive line. Heaps of bikes were all over the beautiful stage.

And then the rain really started to come down. Suddenly nobody would leave the cover of the stage. The line crammed forward to be under the canopy. Within two minutes the Mount Rushmore of the sport resembled the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera.

This platform became a bike dork's dream. I found myself pressed between Cancellara, Cavendish, and Froome. Contador, Valverde, Porte, Phinney and Roche all smeared into this subway car of fame. The whole thing was like an Al Hirshfeld cartoon in The New Yorker.

And into the chaos rolled the Italian team. These $10,000 bikes were heaped up as if in a campus police auction. Vincenzo Nibali skidded off the runway and wedged his foot in the slender gap to the stage.

Throughout this entire process Brambilla is going on and on and on about each rider's palmares.

"Well this is a shit show," I say out loud, catching a laugh from both Cavendish and Froome.  

Through it all Cancellara stood lias resolute as a statue; power resonated from his soul.

Barely able to reach down and extract my phone from my pocket, I see the time: 9:49 a.m.  Off to the side I notice a Colombian rider nearly get bumped off the stage due to the crowding; his teammate grabbed his jersey to rescue him from the fall.

"Screw it," I said aloud and routed  the microphone upwards along my body.


And they all left.

Nobody noticed, or mentioned, the soft spoken Portuguese rider, Rui Costa signing in.

Like the condemned soldiers at Agincourt they trudged into the sloppy weather to contest perhaps the most epic 277 km in recent cycling history. I'll leave that story to my colleagues.

No comments:

Post a Comment