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Best Of PEZ: The 2012 Italian National Championship

Best Of PEZ: Every year someone gets to wear that special Tricolore jersey in the peloton, indicating that they are the National Champion of Italy. Even though it seems that it belongs to Giovanni Visconti – he’s been wearing it for a couple years and won in 2007 – many expect this one to be too hard for the Sicilian to repeat. This year, PEZ is roadside in Valsugana in the Trentino region.

Dark sky over Borgo Valsugana

My Reasoning
I’m not the Go To Guy on PEZ when it comes to covering races – I’d rather watch them from the comfort of my own home (RAI’s telecasts are simply too good). Chasing bike races is more about the climate and culture than the race, which is why we break them down into 2 parts; race report and roadside report. However, today we’ll have to do both. But this race is different because: in a circuit race, we’ll get to see them pass 15 times. The National Championship features the best of Italy, in a very relaxed environment that lets even jokers like us go wherever we want. This time it’s only 40 minutes from home. And lastly, my son has been going through some teenager growing pains and spending 11 hours together watching guys ride bikes seems like either a great bonding opportunity or a nightmare. So I use our connections to get us some Press passes, signing my boy up as Photographer.

This year’s race is in the Trentino region, about 40 minutes from my home of Bolzano.

The Course
The Italian National Championships usually favor a classic strong, attacking rider like Moreno Argentin (or Visconti). The courses often feature challenging profiles, ones that are hard to control and very selective. This year’s starts in Pergine Valsugana (near Trento) and takes riders around Lago Caldonazzo to the finishing circuit in Borgo Valsugana. It promises to be even harder than usual, totaling 255km with almost 4000m of elevation gain. Each 14km lap entails a steep 3km climb with 10% ramps, to be repeated 15 times! Many are picking a Fondista like Nibali or Scarponi as favorites.

After riding from Pergine to Borgo, the riders repeat this nasty loop, 15 times!

Start The Day
The boy and I get up early and hit the road to collect our press creds in Levico. We then backtrack to the start village of Pergine Valsugana, using the “Stampa” stickers on our car to get us through the police blockade and close to the team cars, parking next to VIPs and sponsors. The riders are pretty relaxed. Typical good natured Italian-ness, including lots of laughing and shouting with hands gestures. Most of these guys all came from the same 4 or so major feeder teams and go way back.

These handy stickers would be put to good use today.

The Favorites
I talk to a few riders. Trying to gain some journalistic insight. But here’s a fact: most professional riders (and athletes in general) are not great, honest talkers. They rely on clichйs and noncommittal statements. Journalists are much better at throwing out interesting comments. One of ‘em leans over me and says quietly with a wink, “Rebellin.”

Some are saying that a climber like Pozzovivo could win it this year, but I’m not…

Me? I’m picking Moreno Moser. Yep, that’s my tip. Why? First, Moser’s from here. Always cheer for a local kid, you won’t be alone. Also, he did great in the GP Melinda, second to Bentancour, which was also in Trentino and had a similar profile. Don’t forget that he was big part in all of Sagan’s wins in Switzerland. The guy is on form and riding like a seasoned pro, hard to believe that this is his first season.

Everyone wants this number.

A Quick Chat with Visconti
Standing around the rider sign-in area, the sky is pretty dark and low, rain for sure, but the PA announcer says, sun is on the way in a couple of hours. Jonas is chasing riders, snapping shots. He’s learns that Alessandra Di Stefano from RAI gets all of the good ones to interview, so he stands near her, poaching riders. Then it starts to come down pretty hard. I find myself next to The Number 1. So I shield Visconti with my umbrella. He thanks me. Then says, “this damn rain” shaking his head. He sounds dejected, unconvinced of his condition after dropping out of the Giro with a “panic attack” on the Pian Resinelli stage. I say, “hey man, you gotta’ respect the number, you’re the defending champ.” He agrees, but there is no way in hell he’s winning this one. We both know it.

Giovanni is done before the race has already begun.

In addition to Visconti, Tosatto from Saxo, Puccio from Sky, Benedetti from Netapp and Bazzana from Team Type 1 are all riding solo today. One of the disadvantages of riding for “foreign” teams, while Colnago CSF has 13 riders today. Each solo rider has to find some team to support them before the race. We learn this from an Aqua & Sapone mechanic while washing Nocentini’s AG2R bike.

An Acqua & Sapone (which means water and soap) mechanic washes Nocentini’s bike, I wanted to make a pun, but refrained, sure he’s heard that one before.

Mid Morning Snack
The riders head off into a heavy, fat drop rain. Time for a snack. Liquigas’ Daniel Oss is from Pergine and his folks own a bar/cafй/pizzeria, so we head over there to chat and refuel, but the place is closed. A handwritten sign on the door states “closed because of the race.” We find another bar, get some sandwiches and catch up on what the Gazzetta has to say. It poses an interesting situation: lots of riders with stained reputations have good chances on such a course. Namely Rebellin, Di Luca and Pellizotti. Doesn’t matter, Moser’s got it.

Today’s headline ‘Tricolore in Moser’s Home, Race of Survival’ and below about the ex-dopers being admitted into the race.

Swag Hunting
Races like this are great for getting musettes and water bottles because it’s a lot smaller than the Giro or Tour and the rain will keep fans away. The best place to hunt is right after the rest stop. So we head straight (more or less) to Castelnuovo. We end up driving around dodgy back roads, driveways and through road blocks to get there. Unfortunately, arriving after the riders and fellow scavengers. Raining really hard now. Oh, those poor, wretched souls on the bikes. New goal: head back to the finishing village, get some good lunch and watch the riders go by us, instead of us trying to chase them.

Instead of cutting through a maze of people’s private property, we feel it’s best to get on the race course and head back in a straight line, seeing as the pros have already passed. The press creds and some bravura/ignorance/quick acceleration gets the car by the cops and onto the circuit. Back in Borgo in no time. Another thing we learn, since these roads are all closed, there’s plenty of places to park. So we leave the car about 100m after the finish line, great spot. Each time the riders pass, our car is featured on the telecast for the rest of the day (it was the white Volkswagen).

Not much traffic on the race course.

The Need To Bond
My son, once so promisingly referred to as the junior CheapOh, has been going through a tough time. Suffice to say, he is 13. I imagine that most of us have all been 13, and for the males amongst us, it is a terribly hard age. While it is every parent’s hope that their children will suffer less or somehow benefit from their wisdom in avoiding the errors and terrors that form a part of every adolescent’s life, I have failed. My son is the typical, insecure middle schooler that can’t stop himself from saying mean things. He has a talent for finding and hitting nerves that you weren’t aware existed.

Our restaurant is right on the course.

Lunch gives us some time to chat about nothing and that’s not such a bad thing. He’s enjoying himself as PEZ photographer for a day. Standing next to famous riders is pretty cool – most of them are actually shorter than you think, except for the really tall ones like Ballan. Look, having a father into cycling does have certain advantages. Last month, there was a school quiz and his classmates were astounded that he knew the answer to: who set the hour record of 51.151km? And it just so happens that we’d meet up with that champion at the end of the day, too.

Spдtzle is a regional, gummy noodle like dish, served with speck (smoked ham).

Watching The Race Come To Us
The restaurant has covered patio seating that overlooks the course. And it’s full of people connected to the race. Relatives, sponsors, team directors and so on. The guy next to us has a race radio that squawks info periodically, mostly time gaps. Luca Scinto and Gianni Savio and Alfredo Martini all stop by to chat with these insiders. The riders pass by every 22 minutes. The breakaway formed on the 8th kilometer and has 13 riders. They have a 4 minute edge on the group. Liquigas is keeping them within reach. With every lap, the gap comes down. The 13 riders erodes to 5.

Team Liquigas is keeping the breakaway under control.

Then Scarponi and Oss attack and reach the breakaway. The problem with these two guys is that it destroys the dynamic of the group, there’s no reason to cooperate now. Scarponi has teammate Cimolai in the break and puts him to work. The gap keeps coming down with Liquigas chasing even harder now. Every time the group passes, we check to make sure that Visconti is respecting the number. And he is.

Hey, Giovanni’s still there, but always in the back.

The boy and I decide to watch some TV and head to the Press Room and their big screen. The rain has stopped but it’s still dark. At some point between lunch and the press room, Visconti has dropped out. After Cimolai blows up, Scarponi tries to get Oss and Di Marchi to work together, but they can’t keep up with him, the gap is down to a minute. There’s 50km to go and The Eagle’s got to do it alone. National Team Coach, Paolo Bettini passes him in a VIP car, unrolls the window and says something very interesting, I’m sure. Scarponi builds up a one minute, 47 second cushion over the group. Just enough to hope, but alas, there are still two more hard, hard laps. It’s one of those heroic failures. Though Coppi would have won it.

TV viewing in the Sala Stampa.

Nabali and Moser are the last Liquigas riders left. They reel in Scarponi, who has nothing left, with Pellizotti, Caruso and Di Luca in tow. One of these five guys will win it. The second to last lap, Pellizotti attacks on the climb to Telve, gets about 25 seconds on the others and then lets Nibali and Moser back in on the descent. Oh man, Franco’s got the legs today and everyone now knows it. Who’s the leader on Liquigas? It’s unclear, they both take turns working. Nibali attacks. Great idea, but it’s not decisive, he doesn’t have it.

Back Outside To Wrap It Up
The boy and I head out onto the course to catch the last bit of live action. The sun has come out. We push our way into the RAI barricaded section, lots of room in here and a nice big screen too. Last climb up the Telve, Pellizotti attacks and gets his 25 seconds again. Nibali is done. The three working together can’t catch the Androni Venezuela rider. It’s all his. And Di Luca takes Moser at the line to round out the podium.

Pellizotti is the strongest today, Savio is the first to congratulate him.

Pellizotti joined by Di Luca and Moser (two out of three with stained pasts, not exactly good PR).

All of the riders are rushed into the safety of the RAI studio section, into the photographic realm of the boy. He is getting bolder in approaching the talent. He even tracks down and shoots legends like Francesco Moser, Bettini and Silvio Martinelli. Finally, getting sprayed with the bubbly is his Red Badge of Courage in the trade. The real winner of the day is a 13 year old kid in the candy store of professional cycling. He even gets the podium girls.

The other big winner of the day, Jonas Fox.

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