UCI Grand Fondo: I’m on the start line at the World Championships, trying to stay calm, play it cool, but goose bumps on my arms and rabbit’s foot tucked in my jersey probably give me away. In a multicolored sea of national team jerseys, I’m wearing the stars and stripes, it’s pretty awesome – and unnerving.
Worlds game face
After 21 qualifying events on 4 continents the best amateur cyclists from 60 countries are in Varese, Italy to compete in the Gran Fondo World Championships. Today, 2500 hardcore racers and me, a journalist pretending to be a racer, are ready to start with rainbow-striped world champion jerseys on the line.
For a cyclist, there is no more coveted jersey in the world.
The 130km race winds among shaded forests, old villages and stunning blue lakes while tackling 2000m of climbing over 6 climbs – Alpe Tedesco, Brusimpiano, Montegrino Valtravaglia, Porto Valtravaglia, Brinzio and Casbeno.
I am in the black helmet – 100 rows back
Packed like sardines between Italian terra cotta colored buildings on narrow streets I throw my jacket to my wife, say a quick prayer to St. Francis de Sales (patron saint of journalists) and zip up the stars and stripes.
Right on time as church bells chime thousands of cleats click into pedals. It’s a wonderful sound, followed by unwonderful pain in my legs as riders in the rampaging peloton swarm ahead, past and around each other.
Within 10km I’ve dodged, evaded and with the help of my rabbit’s foot escaped 4 crashes. All the dodging, braking and stopping just to stay upright is costly, moving me backward rather than forward for the first climb – Alpe Tedesco.
It’s the perfect way to end the start of a good day.
5km in length Alpe Tedesco is the longest, steepest and narrowest climb on the course. Barely 3 riders wide, it twists up the mountainside via a half-dozen sharp switchbacks. Joining a long processional of riders huffing, puffing and struggling to turn pedals I slowly claw my way through the field.
How many countries can you identify?
I catch Paulo Sussan (ITA) wearing a classic blue Italian team jersey and a yellow number, indicating he too is in my age group. Without words we push forward, upwards, looking to catch riders.
After the summit we discover the technical descent is as challenging as the climb. No respite is given on the butt-clinching steep hairpin filled descent. With extra enthusiasm and testosterone still in the air riders overcook corners, sitting dazed on the side of road as we fly past.
This racing up and down mountains on narrow roads is to be repeated again, and again and again today. Great bike handling skills are not optional. Get caught behind a slow rider going up, or down, and you chase wheels all day just to hang on.
An hour of intense wheel chasing puts Paulo and me in a small band of riders with the same yellow colored age group numbers, with many still up the road – or sitting by the side of the road.
Nobody talks. Nobody soft-pedals. Nobody sits in. Everyone gives 110%.
This is the World Championships.
It’s why we train 15000 kilometers in pouring rain, intense heat and frigid cold. It’s why we get up at 05:00 before work to climb the same road 10 times in a row until we’re ready to throw-up. It’s why we obsess over equipment, nutrition and always want to lay down rather than sit or stand.
Beautiful brutal pavé
In Roggiano Valtravaglia bikes rattle and bounce over pavé laid centuries ago. Just like in Paris Roubaix, I ride a tightrope narrow strip of stone on the shoulder to avoid a brutal beating. My hands appreciate the smooth ride, but I fall behind on the descent when a GBR rider fishtails off the road.
Nobody blinks, waits or even looks back. Now 15 seconds behind I work with a big wall of a rider from Germany to close the gap. Ja, it’s do-or-die time. 2km later we rejoin the group, exhausted.
Thank you, St. Francis de Sales.
More climbing, descending and on-the-rivet riding puts us along the shores of Lake Varese. My legs are not in a happy place though. Tired, spent and ready to cramp, the finish is still 10km away.
Tough, demanding and rainbow jersey worthy course
The final 3km climb into Varese pushes riders past their limit. I am not immune and my legs protest with cramps. Though a minute of easy pedaling gives new life and I set my sights on catching Paulo, once again.
Like a guided missile locked on target I start to reel him in. With 500m to go the gap is 8 seconds. 300m and 4 seconds. At 200m I catch Paulo and we sprint to the line, where I pip him by 0.25 seconds.
Finally time to smile
Although finishing far behind the winners, Paulo and I are all smiles, happy to place 132nd and 133rd out of 269 riders in our age group.
Plus, I am the first journalist to cross the line, and at least in my book that’s worthy of a world championship rainbow pen.
World champs look sharp in rainbow stripes
Riding in the Gran Fondo World Championships is an awesome once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or maybe twice, since I plan to defend my rainbow pen title in 2020 when the championships come to North American in Vancouver, Canada.
Although, I might find my way to Poznan, Poland in 2019. I hear it’s a flat course…
More info at: www.ucigranfondoworldseries.com
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