Savouring Lombardia: Ale’s Look Back

Like any good Italian red, the flavours of Lombardia linger long after the glass is sipped. It’s not just a super day of bike racing, its role as the finale of the Classics demands a savoured experience. As the sun sets on another season of bike racing, our indubitable romantic Alessandro takes us through his weekend…

When you leave your home to chase a bike race you know that it’s not just for the cycling itself; but just once you live it you can realize what a big mistake it is every time you don’t do it.

Varese is called the “garden town” because of its attitude to be always clean and well organized. We are not far from the Swiss border, so we are not talking about hundred percent Italian town. It’s my first time chasing a race with my wife Natalia. She doesn’t like cycling but I promise her that this will change her ideas.

Things are going well when she wins two consecutively games of “fast bingo”. In Italy we call it “gratta e vinci” (scratch and win). The classic and fast way for the government to make a lot of money.

The Italian Classic’s headquarters, especially the ones organized by RCS, are usually located in beautiful ancient places. They make no exception at Lombardia, which is located in Varese inside an ancient Villa.

Old statues guard the garden while the old tower rings three bells. It’s time to pick up our accreditations. I decided to locate our base in Brunate, a very nice place above Como. Linked by a funicular or by a terrible road, it’s the right place to visit with your sweety. No noise, no phone line, no web access. Simply a place out of the world at 7 minutes from the most trafficked town of the world (obviously considering the number of the people living there).

From there the view of the lake is breathtaking and if this is not enough to convince you, consider the cheap and hospitable restaurant located on the top of the mountain serving a typical “polenta” that really has to be tasted. Just corn flour cooked with water: the easiest Italian dish coming from a farmer tradition.

While I’m already concentrating on the evening plan, which include meeting with Ed his ‘driver’ Marlene, my car is preparing for me the first bad experience. A bad noise and the steering hardly moving. It’s easy to understand that it’s not a five minute problem. It’s Friday afternoon and everybody is looking forward to the weekend. I’ve to move fast for a solution and while my car is transported to the shop I try to find a car rental not far from me. It’s already dark when we finally get the car. Natalia is beside me, and her eyes talk for her. Her good luck now looks scratched away.

Nothing is better than a dinner with friends. I met Ed and Marlene at the end of the last Milano Sanremo. Leave us the first and the last Classics: a toast on it with a ‘vino rosso da casa’ and the atmosphere raises up. He’s driven all-over the race route and tomorrow he will be on the Ghisallo while Natalia and I will try to catch the race in more places.

It’s late when we leave with ou predictions: Frank Schleck or Cunego, Bettini will be out. The power of the red wine!

The sun has not yet risen when we wake up on Saturday morning. The roads are free and we arrive in Varese quite early. An espresso and a walk around the Team motor homes. The air is chilly and the riders don’t hear a reason to leave them. The departure village is located inside an old villa’s garden (4a) and the officials are already very busy with the last request of accreditations (4b).

Bettini is the only rider Natalia knows therefore the choice is forced. You for Bettini, me for anybody else. I meet Ermeti who is a young Italian rider, recently well placed at many races and I discover that he comes from the track. Rebellin looks quite relaxed and Evans smiles with his fresh Pro Tour jersey. Bettini is the most wanted and Natalia has a hard duty to catch him. It’s time to go. If we want to get ahead of the race we have to leave before rider sign-on is complete.

Preceding this race itself is a big emotion, especially for the first kilometres, before Argegno where the route leaves the lake to climb the Intelvi valley. You’re pushed behind by the cops to accelerate and you do the same to the car in front of you; it’s a long chain of flashes flickering, fast accelerations, abrupt brake and bad words in roads that sometimes are just two meters wide between churches, walls and people.

Everything is abundantly repaid when the view opens to the lake, especially in the windy days, as it was today, when the water assumes a dark blue colour and small waves ripple. We stop just before Argegno but we miss the pics because the race was so near to us that we had no time to prepare for them. I start to think that this edition will be my biggest failure of my short reporting experience.

The bunch is still “compatto” but the speed is very fast. In one hour they covered more than 45 kilometres! Once in Menaggio is the first moment to relax. A call to Ed to update him, but another surprise is waiting for me: my phone is out. I can listen regularly but nobody can hear me. Ed needs my update to prepare the race report therefore the idea is to send him messages while driving. Too hard? I’ve Natalia helping me.

The problem is that she speaks and understands English but she doesn’t know how to write it and English is not exactly an easy language to write. Will Ed understand the messages?

In Menaggio the race is late and we have to miss the passage in order to not miss the ferry to cross the lake. Another time I feel like under the rain. It’s not the right day! The Ghisallo is coming to take us, so while I roll onboard I think that crossing the lake with a ferry named after the famous climb can help me against the adversities.

On the other side of the lake, in Bellano, the phone still doesn’t work but this time we don’t miss the race. Seven are in front with eight minutes, but the bunch doesn’t look so worried about this.

The main Teams are represented in front except for the CSC that have to work for close the gap. Is it more difficult to take a good pic or cross the cars that follow the race?

Message to Ed while we drive to the next key point, my favourite one. A road dug into the rocks which gives a breathtaking view of the lake and on the race. A strong wind is blowing from the north, it’s cold but I don’t feel it; every time I’m here I think that another year has gone. It’s like during the Sanremo day when I feel that something starts…today I feel that something is finishing.

Natalia sits in the car and I take this moment just for me. “My land, my fragile road, it’s you to flow away or it’s me?” I remember now these beautiful words dedicated to the bike by the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli and I know that I’m one year older than last time I’ve been here. It’s not tears that are sprouting while I run back to the car; it’s the wind in front of me mixed with something difficult to explain. Natalia understands and allows me the silence. I start to think that she’s now looking at this day in the same way I do.

Another message to Ed and the last kilometres of the day. The car radio is on and I can follow the race from there. I decide to catch the race on the San Fermo, the last climb of the day. It’s close to the press room and I will get the chance for a fast transmission of the pics.

Riccт and Cunego are furious and they attack just in front of me. It’s a great moment of cycling. Everything now is forgotten. The car, the phone, the uneasiness. Bettini was the first last year, this time he’s one of the last but he wants to finish the race in any case. The “tifosi” appreciate this decision and support him with claps and screams.

My last run of the day and I’m still in time to see the riders under the “flame rouge”. Riccт leads but Cunego follows his wheel. They are planning the sprint in front of me. Riccт is almost done and Cunego should win easily.

We will know the final result in the press room from a cold communication left by an official very busy in distributing them. In the press room, everyone is in a busy rush t get the words and photos filed to their editors around the world. It’s the last day of the cycling season and seems like the last day of school.

It will be very difficult forget these hours and find a reason to return every day life.

Has this a real explanation? Has been it a dream or something that really happened? I already knew that leaving my home to chase a bike race was not just for the cycling itself. It could not be any other way.