Day 9 – The Unforgettable Valdobbiadene

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Summary:

Today, I again started 15km north of the departure town. This time north of Grado in the small town of Cervignano del Friuli because trains don’t go to Grado which was the official departure point. The ride was flat and fast, although I wasn’t feeling that great for the first half of the day. Then the hills started, and they started with a wall. The hardest 2km I have ever climbed followed, think the difficulty of the last 3km of Marie-Blanque crammed into two km. The rest of the route was an up and down struggle all the way to Valdobbiadene. I was completely exhausted upon finishing the stage and the hosts I had in Valdo were exactly what I needed, once I found them.

Day of Journey:
Stage 6, Day 9, May 11th, 2009.
Time Traveled:
5h 48m (165km)
Distance Traveled:
Train 30km, Bike – 172km
Travel Methods:
Train 30km – Bike – 172km
Total Distance Biked:
899km (6 stages, two rest days)

Twitter: “Woke up with a sore throat today, but it went away. Had a crazy day, started late ahead of the Peleton by only 2 hours.”
“Rode hard thinking I wouldn’t make Valdobbiadene, and climbed the steepest 2km of my life. Crowd was HUGE cheering me, It was awesome!”
“I got caught by the caravan 30 kms outside of Valdo, and could hear the sirens and helicopters, but I made it and waited 45m. 165km in 5h 48m”
“Lastly, stages have been a bit shorter than originally thought cause of circuits around the final city that I don’t ride. Tomorrow, mountains.”

So What Happened?

Sore. That’s how I woke up in Trieste. Not my muscles, but my throat. Not a good sign for me, as the last journey I had – a fixed-gear ride from Sweden to Spain – a sore throat turned into a disastrous chest infection and ended my 2500km ride in the Basque country, about 400km short of the planned destination of Madrid. This particular sore throat didn’t feel like it was going to be lightweight either, but only time would tell.

I left Trieste behind schedule by about 2 hours, and if I remembered correctly the stage was set-up for the sprinters and should be quite flat. I started to do the math. 170/30 = 5 2/3, It would take me about 5hours and 40minutes to do the stage. 2hr x 30kph = 60km, and I would have about a 70km lead on the pros. 42-30=12kph x 6hr = 72km, which they would likely close in just about that 6 hour amount of time. Ok, It was going to be a close finish unless I skipped a lunch break. Needless to say, I got going immediately.

Then, I got lost. As soon as I stepped off the train, the highway which was shown on my little map, just wasn’t there. This was not good. I rode around for about 15 minutes before I found another cyclist. I jumped in his draft and was quickly beside him explaining that 1. I was looking for the Giro route and 2. I needed to get there fast. We rode side-by-side for a while and once his route home went the other direction he told me the way…in Italian…really quickly. I, of course, nodded and thought I understood correctly. Two early, morning sprints later – chasing the Lampre lunch cars and I was on to something. I found a parking lot with the Astana team bus, so I couldn’t be far. After talking to an Astana mechanic, who insisted the road was closed, I knew where I had to go. I just didn’t know if I could go.

When I got to the highway, one hour before the departure of the pros and 20km out of Grado, I set off. Things were smooth sailing shortly after the morning debacle and my sore throat had even cleared up. Through Udine, Pordenone, and Sacile the day, and I, motored on. I had a quick lunch with a coke and was feeling pretty good. That feeling changed abruptly from calm to being unsettled when I entered Conegliano and I heard the faint but distinct thup, thup, thup, thup from behind me. Helicopters! They were on right on my ass with 50km to go! Adrenaline, panic, and recollecting the math I did earlier. I got out of the saddle, stomped on the pedals and nothing happened. I mean nothing. I quickly sank back into my saddle and my head and neck fell from between my shoulders, exhausted. I was totally cooked. Just standing up on the pedals winded me at that point, and as I turned to see “The Wall” – the Ca’ del Poggio climb, I felt defeated. I got off the bike and waltzed over to a road-side tent asking for some water. A women from the back of the crowd came forward and in English asked me what I needed. She was a beautiful, northern Italian with dark eyes, hanging her hand softly so that a small boy could delicately grip a slender finger. After, again, asking politely for water, she told me I could have anything I wanted. Two elderly women came forward, bowed there heads ever-so-slightly, faintly mumbled something in Italian and gave me a Gatorade, some cake and filled my water bottle with bottled water. Where the heck was I? Was this some kind of cycling heaven? Was this woman a messenger angel with a cherub hanging from her finger? The thousands lining the road – were they a pilgrimage of sorts? Some would say this was a religious experience, but I thought it was plain weird and that damn thup thup thup was getting closer and getting really annoying. It was ruining my religious experience – dammit all to hell! I quickly snapped out of it and learned that a one Euro donation, to an organization helping elderly with reduced mobility, got me my bounty. The angel women, turned dark when I asked about the climb and she said “You better get going, the next 2-3km is impossibly steep and you’re going to suffer, and they (the peloton) are right behind you!” Yeah thanks lady! Thanks! Angel lady with free cake and gatorade. I know that already. Can’t you see that I don’t want to go up that hill?

Let me paint this picture for you: Imagine a road. Now imagine so many people along this road that you can’t see the side of the road. You can’t see the separation between the people and the trees. Now imagine, that the people in the front are about 300meters away from you and you can’t see the people behind, because they are blocked by those in front. Makes sense right? Now, tilt the road in your mind until it is so steep that you can see every…single…person, with only their legs blocked by the head of the person in next to them. Now you see what I saw. This was “The Wall”. They didn’t talk about “The Wall” on the map! So, now, back in reality, what I saw was that every…single…cyclist sprinted up this hill only to grind to a halt before the road turned right into the unknown. With each foot that dropped from the pedals to the ground, the huge crowd groaned in disappointment. Although, quickly, they mumbled in agreement that it was expected. Then, suddenly, there were no more riders coming except me…I was ‘on-deck.’

Thup Thup Thup, damn helicopter, my heart was already in my throat. I could hear Ed from Mighty saying “You better buy an 12-26 or 28, cause you’re gonna blow your knees out with an 11-23, and then… ooomph. The speed I had going into the hill was gone. I felt like I just hit a pillow and the grind was on. A unanimously lifting tone of ooooOOOOOAAAAAA came from the sides of the road and I “powered” up. Weaving through the first to drop their feet as soon as their momentum died off, I knitted my way through about a dozen casualties. My breath grew fluid. The crowd started to taunt and waited for me to stop along the next group of the dead. My stem creaked and my forearms burned as I wrestled with the bars. Then slowly one by one, you could hear them yell. Vai! Vai! First it was two or three. Then it was half a dozen. The laughter and mocking stopped, as the focus became on the road. On me? Yikes. I passed another three broken cyclists whose heads dangled from their shoulders, like a ball from a string, as they stood over their bikes. My legs were an inferno, the soles of my feet burned. The sides of the road came alive! Vai, VAI, VAI. I turned the first corner and looked up, way up as the road climbed on. The sweat dripped down my cheeks. A young Italian teen, burst from the side of the crowd and ran beside yelling something I couldn’t decipher. I thought he was mocking me at first, and the frustration made me want to jump off my bike, throw it at him and say “You do it then.” 10 meters, 20 meters, 50 meters he ran with me and then he started yelling something I knew. “Vai, Vai, VAI!” The road ahead of me was bare. The sides were lined with two types of people, those yelling and watching and those pushing their bikes. The taste of salt overwhelmed my tongue, my eyes burned with sweat, and I stopped caring about the flem and snot hanging from my nose, across my gasping mouth and dripping from my chin. I left the young Italian standing, exhausted from running, and watching me climb on, yelling Vai, Vai. I turned another corner. I sank into my seat, gasped and pulled until my hamstrings felt as tight as the strings on a tennis racket almost ready to snap. The road which had flattened slightly kicked up again. Tears of sweat filled my brow and poured out the deepening cracks of my squinted eyes. I wanted to vomit, but I cranked on, now to the rhythm of Vai, Vai, Vai. I was mashing the pedals, all technique was gone, and the only thing I could make out was the the sound of thup, thup, thup. Then, another time, something new. French. Scurrying along beside me, with a sort of cross-over sideways shuffle, another young man, a French kid yelled at me, looking driectly at me. Allez, Allez, Allez! It killed me, it really did. Seulement Deux Cent cinquant mètres plus. Deux cent cinquante. Deux Cent mètres. Cent Cinquante! Cent Cinquante! This language I knew. 250, 200, 150…is it possible only 100 more meters to go? I looked up and there it was, the top. 50… I gave a last final push, 40… with hands so sweaty they were actaully slipping out of my gloves that were gripping the bar-tape, I pulled, 30, and then dropped back onto the seat, 20… and pulled, then they erupted in chorus, sending a wave up the hill from below….HoooooooRAAAAHHHHHH! I dropped my head, destroyed. I felt so dizzy, that I could collapse and the hard asphalt looked like a welcoming bed but I rolled on slowly, being pushed by three sets of hands. There was an arm over my shoulder and a voice in my ear. “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!. Duro, no?” Hard? Are you kidding me? It was unforgettable.

I pedaled on, with no time to wait. 40 more km’s and I could hear the crowd restlessly awaiting the pros just minutes behind me. I screamed through the final sections, now alive with motivation. I can make it. I CAN make it. Through Folina, the second killer climb outside of Combai, but now, I wasn’t looking back. They were so close behind me that people cheered, mistakenly, thinking I was a break-away rider. Through Bigolino, San Vito and into Valdobbiadene. I made it. I beat them. They began their final loop and I, now cold and crashing, searched for shade. The riders tore into the final circuit around Valdobbiadene as I crumbled below grape vines. Their speed was incredible, the climb, the sprint….Cheers! and the announcement again “Petacchi!” Hooray! the cheers were deafening, but so much quieter to me than the ones I had just heard an hour earlier.

I met with my host Fabio and his mother and he, entertained spectacularly, with great food, wine and an amazing welcome. I felt right at home. I was exhausted. We watched City of Gods while I sat content, nourished, warm, and comfortable. It was all of the satisfaction I needed right then. Tomorrow was another stage, but that day, that day for me, was my Giro D’Italia.

Picture of the Day:
Valdo

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