IN THE PINK: A DAY CYCLING TO THE GIRO 2017
I like guiding cyclists; best of all when I have sunny skies, a group of extremely capable support guides, and a quaint Italian town, closed to motor traffic, as our final destination. It was a day that I had planned for six months, a day that we all looked forward to. Christopher Balogh took his group into the hills to see the eleventh stage of the Giro d’Italia 2017.
On this occasion, my group of twenty cyclists had been riding for a week already, they had done a Gran Fondo, learned some Italian, and knew who was in the pink jersey at the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia. By the luck of the draw, we were now to experience the 11th stage of the Giro, after riding 100km to Balze, a small town on the flank of Mount Fumaiolo, up which the pro peloton would soon charge. It is not every year that a May cycling group is near enough to a Giro stage to pull this off.
Our waves left Hotel Dory ( just a block from the Adriatic ), at specific times based on the average speed of each group. We were followed by a couple vans loaded with a barbeque, wine, and all the food required to feed a few dozen hungry cyclists. Our hosts even managed to throw in a large boom box so that we could party in true Italian style on the mountain.
After a coffee stop just outside Verucchio to regroup, we rolled into the valleys of Forli-Cesena province where towns or pause as the Italians would say, are few and far between. Nothing like new views to pique a cyclist’s curiosity and put some fresh spark in the legs.
When the final ascent was upon us, the route became clear to all, 10km of switchbacks amidst exposed rock. A sign for a ski lift, the wide valley below, and a rogue wind that visited from some higher place, did not go unnoticed. The climb was not the Stelvio, but it was not a given either. We all had to earn our way to Balze.
Rolling into the paese, we were as close to the Giro as it gets. Surrounded by pink decorations of every kind, Carabinieri and other officials in full regalia, families crowding onto balconies above, we glided through the joyous confusion to our own private barbeque just outside of town. Orchestrated as only the Dory staff can manage, we easily found our bags and changed out of kits, settling into the party where a full suckling pig, pasta , piadina and dessert where laid out.
Rubber-legged, more from the wine than the climb, we made our way back uphill into Balze. The scheduled arrival of the pro-peloton was nearing. The weather gods were smiling on the Giro with a perfect blue sky and blazing sunshine. Everyone is out, young and old, creating a a buzz unique to the Giro. The mantra for the 100th Giro D’Italia is “un amore infinito”, an infinite love, for the grandiose event that unites Italy. Balze did not fall short, the decorations crescendoed at a dramatic switchback below a church in front of which hung a giant photo of Michele Scarponi, the beloved Astana rider tragically lost less than a month ago in a road accident.
Our group dispersed into the crowded main street. A giant screen was set up next to a bar that had become the central gathering spot. The beer was flowing … the terrace full … all chairs facing the big screen … a couple bar dogs managing to sleep through it all. With the race commentary a bit louder than the DJ, it was hard to speak but a strong wifi signal led me to a few live posts and a video call to share the scene with a special someone. With my cold draft beer, under the hot sun tempered by the breeze from the mountains, I experienced a perfect post-ride moment. Perhaps I had died and gone to heaven?
Just when things are going well is when they can often get even better. I waved and smiled spontaneously to a young couple dressed in pink hanging out of their window above the pivotal switchback. They waved for me to come to the door, inviting me to come up to take a look from above.
Bounding up the stairs to reach them, they showed me their place as well as their neighbour’s balcony. Passing through the apartments was an unexpected intimate moment of calm; a look into their lives. The Giro opens doors and unites us.
My new perch was the best possible spot to take photographs from and an even better spot for tanning. My new hosts set the tone, joking with friends and police down below, showing off grandchildren, making calls, waving and laughing. It was definitely the place to be and be seen.
The anxious crowd cheered for the first few vehicles to pass through the switchback even though they were distant indicators of the incoming race. When the first press motorcycle pulled over in the switchback deploying its camera wielding passenger, I took my mark. I practiced on the three man break, before the peloton and the team cars squeezed through shortly after. Somehow, accidentally I believe, I managed to capture a few shots of race leader Tom Dumoulin.
The apartment party continued … thanking my hosts once again, I headed down to the bar for the final 29 km of the race. My group was well mixed-in, enjoying beers , apero sptitz and ice coffee creams, while lounging in the sun under the perfectly placed giant screen.
We were all experts by now, predicting the winner and laughing with the locals. It was team Dimension Data’s Spanish rider Omar Fraile who prevailed on the day. The old guard around me seemed pleased as he had worked long and hard in the break all day.
We made our way back towards the barbeque and our buses, shaking hands with friendly locals along the way. I watched a man rolling up a long pink ribbon, the Giro had moved on, but Balze would stay with us.