are sometimes smooth and silky, and other times tired and tight.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Maratona: Part III (The United Nations of Cycling)

The official history of the Maratona dles Dolomitis states that it began in 1987, as a 175 km ride over seven mountain passes done by 166 cyclists to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Società Ciclistica Alta Badia. One would assume that the majority, if not all of those cyclists were from the area of Alta Badia, or at the very least Italy. Things have certainly grown since then.

These days, there are over 8,500 cyclists who have traveled from all over the world to the Dolomites. In fact, this year there will be representatives from 35 countries, criss-crossing the globe, from Norway to New Zealand. It’s a virtual United Nations of Cycling. Perhaps to aid in the identification of the various nationalities while on the road, the Maratona prints your name on your number.

Obviously it’s not that difficult to spot the Italians, with their smoothly shorn, lovingly lubed, perfectly tanned legs, topped off by spotless kit, riding shiny and perfectly maintained Olmos, Pinarellos, Colnagos, Giants, and even Cannondales. If that’s not enough to go by, then names like Gianfranco, Giorgio, or Gianluca should do the trick. Otherwise, the easiest way to figure out who they are is the simple fact that they're the only ones talking and laughing.

While we all suffer in comparison to the Italians, the Germans probably suffer the most. You can usually spot them by the state of their kit, bought sometime around 1997, just after a certain German cyclist won the Tour de France. Otherwise, the grim look of determination, as they plod their way uphill on their Storck, Canyon, or Cube bikes with names like Dieter, Jurgen, and Rudolf on their backs, are clues that they support the Mannschaft.

The Dutch, bless their mysterious love of all things orange, aren’t much better. Granted, some of them will be on Koga-Miyatas or even a Batavus, and a few die-hards will be on Ger’s, but the rest will be on Colnagos and Treks. While most folk will think that the Dutch are Germans, the easiest way to tell the two apart is by the fact that the Dutch riders are at least 190cm tall. If that doesn’t help, then once again consult the names on their backs. Plenty will have a “van”, "van de", “van der”, or maybe even a “ten” between their first and last names. Don’t be confused, the rider ahead of you isn’t Joep De, it’s just Joep.

The Swiss, well, it’s difficult to tell who the Swiss are. That’s what they get for being neutral for so long. Also, you can’t really go by the names, because of the whole German, French, Italian thing. Fortunately for us, all Swiss riders are required to ride BMC bikes and wear the Assos Swiss national team kit. Make sure to say “hop schweiz” if you pass one of them.

The British are actually pretty easy to spot, thanks to their milky white calves. If that doesn’t help, then the slight look of being lost and confused by being amongst so many “foreigners” - who don’t even speak English - helps. If those tell take signs aren’t readily evident, then sometimes they make it easy for you by riding a Raleigh or a Dawes, and wearing a Union Jack, Wales, or Scotland jersey.

The Americans can easily be confused for the British if you judge them solely on their look of complete disorientation, except that the Americans look even more confused and far too serious, with a slight case of jetlag. A few obvious pointers are the Treks with the Project 1 paint jobs, the Stronglight Pulsion cranks, the Zero Gravity brakes, the Nokon cable housings, the Carpenter-Phinney Bike Camp jerseys, or the shorts that go down to their kneecaps.

I wonder if the 166 cyclists from 1987 realized what they were starting back in 1987? In the end it doesn’t really matter – when we ride the Maratona we’re all cyclists. There are no nationalities going up hill, just a procession of pain, done in silence, apart from the occasional shout of “occhio”.

Yes, the United Nations of Cycling, until you get to the top at least. Then it's downhill, where things are altogether different. That’s where it becomes very easy to spot the Dutch and the Germans: they’re the kamikazes who cut you off in the corner as they fly down the wet roads of the Pordoi.

You’ve been warned.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Race Report: Rubbed the wrong way

Hot and humid. Thunderstorms in the forecast. On my way to the race, I wondered how long it would take for the skies to open up. As I swung past an exposition hall, through a park, I saw three riders up the road. I knew them, but decided not to catch up. This wasn't because I don't like them, or because I wasn't in the mood to speak Dutch. It was because I've fallen into a few superstitious habits on race day.

For whatever reason, cycling is the one time where I'm superstitious. My little 'routine' is simple: stop, just after a foot bridge, and just before going under a railway bridge, and peeing on the side of the bike path. Don't ask me why, it's just what I do. If I rode with the other riders, it would have been awkward to explain. So I let them ride on.

After doing what I had to do, I made my way to the club house, picked up my number, had a coffee, and peed on the side of the course, by the 200 meter line, then rode to the start, and planted myself in the middle of the road, on the stripe - my other rituals.

The field didn't seem huge, but what it lacked in numbers, it made up for in quality. All of the usual suspects were there (van der Moser, the sprinter, flick) as well as a few surprise packages, including a guy who must be in his mid 50s, but in the 3 races I saw him at last year, he created 2 winning breaks. There's a general classification for this race, and at this point in the season, those of us who are in the top 5-7 are starting to get a little too strategic, which if truth be told, is killing some of the racing. Regardless, I attacked from the line, as usual. As is now the norm, I rode for a lap off the front, but was promptly reeled in. I wasn't thrilled with how things felt. Perhaps I've been riding too much, perhaps I haven't been resting properly, perhaps I'm getting a little bored with the bike, perhaps it was the hot and humid weather? Anyway, this wasn't the time to dwell over my heavy legs, so I rode on.

Around the thirty minute mark, I saw someone roll off the front, just before the start/stop line. I noticed that it was soloflyer, a guy who's been strong for the past month, but clearly has no sprint. I gave a friend a 'grab my wheel' flick, and jumped. It didn't take long to catch on, but I was alone. So it goes. The two of us worked well, but not well enough, after two laps off the front, we were caught.

After that, my legs felt better, I felt better, meanwhile, the race continued. There's not much more to be said about the remaining 30 minutes plus 6 laps, apart from the fact that it was fast and boring. Painfully boring. Nothing was sticking, and almost everyone who could make things stick, realized it. So we waited for the sprint.

On the last lap the friend who I gave a tick asked me how I felt, I gave him a nod. He rode up, and blocked the wind for me. A few riders surged to our left, one of them was Flick, so I promptly latched on to his wheel. Another small surge came past, but I held Flicks wheel, until I noticed the Sprinter come past, I let a gap open, so he could move in.

Things were getting nervous, and somehow I rub the Sprinters wheel, but manage to keep upright. With one kilometer to go, two riders tried to Malachi crunch me, one of them is a guy just in front of me in the classification. I call him Rasumussen, Boogerd, or van Poppel depending on which Tour de France, or Rabobank replica jersey he's wearing. Today he was Rasmussen, but not quite as thin. I can not tell a lie - I don't have much time for him, or to be fair, I don't have much time for the way he races: you never see him on the front, or trying to attack, on the few occasions he is on the front, he disrupts the chain. All he has is his elbows and his sprint. It works for him, like it did today.

So Rasmussen squeezes me off of the Sprinters wheel, and I'm on his. I'm not happy about it, partly because the last time I was on his wheel he almost crashed himself out in the sprint when something on his bike broke. Whatever. No use complaining, and there's still some time to move up, which is what I try and do. With 500 meters to the sprint, we go up a climb that's around 23%, but it's only 25-30 meters long. I wait.

After the hill is a shallow descent, and the road turns left, goes for a short stretch, then swings left again. If you want to win, you have to be well placed before the second left. Just before the first turn, there's a small opening, so I swing past Rasmussen, and jump back in to the line. When I did this, Rasmussen and I managed to brush our bars against each other. An interesting moment, for sure.

The second turn is fast approaching, and the line shifts to the left, leaving a small enough gap for Rasmussen to jump past me. We pass the place where I peed, right before the start. The game is on, or so I think. I notice the Sprinter shift, so I jump. I swing right, trying to catch the others off guard. I drop into my 12, and nail it. I'm about to pass Rasmussen, when he gets out of his saddle and flails about to the left and the right.

It was the jerk to the right that sealed it, because he veered off of his line, and managed to put his right foot against my front wheel. Ksyrium Elites can make an interesting THWACK when a Sidi shoe gets jammed against them at over 50 kp/h. My wheel shimmied, but I managed to keep myself upright, much to the relief of my fellow racers behind me.

That was it. Game over. I freewheeled in. No placing for me today.

Looks like another trip to the bike shop to get another front wheel fixed, but better a LBS than a dentist.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Maratona: Part I (Waiting to Go-Go)

It’s a magical experience descending 8 kilometers from your hotel, at the base of the Falzarego, to the start of the Maratona. When you leave it’s around 5:00 AM, and dawn is just breaking. You’re dressed in knee and arm warmers and a vest, to fight the 10-12° C temperature. The cold air of the descent doesn’t help, but the adrenaline keeps it in check.

As you wind your way down the road to La Villa, you start seeing more and more cyclists, leaving their tents and hotels, as you weave your way through villages like San Cassiano. By the time you're within sight of La Villa, you're already in the midst of a small peloton. It’s all downhill, apart from a short incline, taking you to the intersection where you’re shepherded left or right to your assigned starting place.

Considering that the organizers have to assemble 8,500 cyclists in and around a village with a population of 1,267, things work out surprisingly well. Once you get to your assigned start area, there’s nothing more to do than wait, relieve yourself, stay warm, and patiently shove your way towards the front of the line.

A crude video, made with my phone, of one of the 5 start areas.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Maratona: Part VII (Falzarego & Valparola)

I have a photograph, of myself, taken somewhere between Passo Falzarego, and Passo Valparola, the last major climbs of the Maratona dles Dolomites. By the time the photograph was taken I had been on my bike well over 120 kilometers. The searing pain of ascending the Passo Giau 10 kilometers earlier has subsided to a dull ache.

After the slog up the Falzarego, and a break to refill my water bottles, I was lulled into the comforting thought that the hard part was behind me, my battle with gravity over, and that it was all downhill from there on. What I did not realize was that there was one more climb ahead, the Valparola. The two kilometers up that last pass were the most painful of the day, and believe me, there was plenty of pain that day.

While I can only vaguely remember the photograph being taken, I do clearly remember that there was the artillery along the side of the road. The odd thing is that I don’t recall the top of the previous climbs in the Maratona nearly as well; I even missed the Coppi monument on the Pordoi. Maybe it’s the simple fact that the Falzarego and the Valparola were the last climbs of the day, maybe it’s because it was once the site of some of the bloodiest fighting to take place at altitude.

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If Paris-Roubaix earned it’s sobriquet of the "Hell of the North” because the course passed over thousand year old cobbled roads, through what had been the front lines in World War I, then perhaps the Passo Falzarego is the “Hell of the South”. While the Western Front was bogged down in trench warfare, the Dolomites was similarly bogged down, but instead of trenches in fields, the fighting was from caves and trenches cut into the mountains and along the Dolomite summits.

From May 1915 to October 1917 the Italian Alpini fought a stalemate against the Austro-Hungarian Army in the Mountains of Cortina d'Ampezzo. The Falzarego was the Italians second line, and the headquarters of the Alpini’s Artillery, remembered today by the Museum of the Cinque Torri. On the 5th July, 1915, almost 90 years to the day that my photograph was taken, Italian batteries on the Falzarego pounded the Austrians based at the Valparola’s late 19th century Fort Tre Sassi, rendering it useless.

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Forte Tre Sassi
photograph by Stefano Zardini

So, if you find yourself riding the Maratona, and feeling sorry for yourself because you have to push yourself up one last climb, amounting to no more than a measly 2 kilometers - take a look around where you’re riding. It helps to put things into perspective.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

The road ahead leads to Beer and Brätwurst and more Beer

If all goes according to plan, then four weeks from today I will be eating an undercooked brätwurst and drinking a watered down Warsteiner.

The beer and brätwurst will be free, because I will have a couple of coupons for them, which I will have carried in my back pocket over 140 kilometers, seven climbs, with a total evelevation of 4,190 meters, since 5:00 AM.

My legs will be stiff, and my mind will be mush, but I will be happy. Happy because I will have completed my third Maratona dles Dolomites.

To be continued.