What's Cool In Road Cycling

Chasing Lombardia: The Day With PEZ

I’ve covered a lot of major sporting events in the United States… everything from the World Series to national championship games in college football, and many contests in between. But for my money, there’s nothing like a big-time road race in Europe. Last Saturday, I had the good fortune to report for PEZ from the Giro di Lombardia. It was a helluva adventure, here’s how the day tapped out…

Pez Sez: In true PEZ-spirit, Bob made the full-pull flying from San Francisco to Milan (via London) last Thursday to spend Friday and Saturday covering the Giro di Lombardia for us. Then Sunday he was back on the plane home. Awesome bro. He hooked up with our Italian correspondent Alessandro Federico, and together the boys logged 2 days of ProTour adventures the likes of which any of us should be happy to experience ourselves one day. And thanks to the wonders of digital cameras and word processors, we can at least tag along for the ride – here’s how Bob’s day went down chasing the race. And stay tuned this week for more tales from Lombardia…

• 8:00am – Alessandro and I depart the Palace Hotel in Como and head for the start of the Giro in the Swiss town of Mendrisio.

• 8:30 – We arrive in Mendrisio, and when Alessandro asks one of the course marshalls to point us toward press parking, he just laughs. Why? It’s early… VERY early. The race won’t start for another two hours, and we’re the very first press people to show up! [Hey – somebody’s gotta be keen…]

Mendrisio sits along Lake Lugano not far from the Italian border. And although it’s actually in Switzerland, certain clues confirm the Italian influence.

• 9:00am – We gather around the stage for the sign-in. No sign of any pro cyclists yet, but the locals are doing their best to give us the whole-nine-yards Swiss experience. There are bands competing for attention, the hot espresso and cappuccino are flowing, and yes, there are other “distractions” too!

Some people at the Giro di Lombardia march to the beat of a different drummer… others bring their own band!

• 9:45am – The pro riders start to arrive and sign-in. There is a real buzz going through the crowd now. There’s always tension before the start of any big race, but the attitude here is a bit different. Since this is the last race of the season, most of the guys are pretty relaxed.

Like everyone lining up for this final race of 2006, last year’s winner Frank Schleck was pretty relaxed.

There are smatterings of applause for all of the pros, but the biggest hand is saved for World Champion Paulo Bettini. Even though we’re in Switzerland, we’re just a stones-throw from Italy…and these people are all pulling for Paulo. Hmmm…maybe they know what’s in store for this race?

Here’s how close we got to Paulo Bettini before the start of the Gyro.

• 10:25 – We corner Chris Horner. The veteran American tells us that he’s happy to have the season finally ending, and he gives us his thoughts on what it will take for cycling to recover from this year’s doping scandals. We’ll share the full-on interview with Chris in a few days here on Pez.

Chris Horner gets a last-minute boost from his fans, the he almost missed the start in Mendrisio…

• 10:35 – The trains run on time in Switzerland, but not the bike races. The Giro di Lombardia starts about ten minutes late, and for me and Alessandro, the chase is on. He has a great idea…let’s take the short-cut across Switzerland, and head ’em off at the pass in Menaggio, Italy. We make it to Menaggio waaaaay ahead of the racers, and have time check out our next move. Alessandro’s idea… we (and our car) can either catch the 12:55pm ferry to Bellano, or if the peleton is late, take the 1:30pm boat to Bellagio. Either way, it looks like a good plan. But wait…

See the sign pasted to the top of the car’s windshield? It will get us any where on the route of the Giro. Even though it couldn’t get us across Lake Como to Bellagio, nothing could wipe the ‘kid on Christmas morning’ grin off my face.

Bettini rolls though Mennagio in the early stages.

• 1:00pm – The race finally makes it’s way into Menaggio, but they’re more than 20 minutes behind schedule. Still, Alessandro and I get some great shots of the action.

PEZ covers all the angles – that’s Alessandro positioned behind this Guerciotti rider in Mennaggio.

• 1:15pm – OK, so we missed the 12:55pm ferry, but we still have a shot at the 1:30pm departure…WRONG! Everybody else had the same idea. By the time we get to the ferry dock, there’s a line of cars backed-up along the road…there’s no way they’ll have room for us. Ale shifts his local-knowledge into 53×11 and we take-off on the back road to Como.

Bellagio – just across the lake from Menaggio, is our next stop. So close, and yet…

• 1:45pm – We make it to Como in great time. The race has wound it’s way up to the northern part of Lombardia, and they’ll be heading back south soon. We have to make another decision…wait it out at the finish, or risk it all and head out to a couple of great photo-op spots on the course. It’s a no-brainer… off we go, hoping to get in position before they Italian police close the road for the race.

Maybe it was the official media stocker on our car, but these guys didn’t bat an eye as we blasted our way up the back side of the Ghisallo to catch the race.

• 2:30pm – I tell Alessandro that I really want to see who comes over first at the top of the Ghisallo. I ask him to drop me off at the church of the Madonna del Ghisallo, and I’ll find a way to get back to Como. He thinks I’m crazy (yeah, him and everyone else), but I convince him that this is the worth the risk. He tells me that he’s going to try to get to a couple of other good photo spots between here and Como…and as I open the door to scramble out of the car, Alessandro says, “If you get in trouble, call my mobile…I’ll come and get you!” Nah, not to worry…I’ll find a way back!

PEZ-fans Elaine and Andy Spatz atop the Ghisallo. They saved my bacon (or rather, my proscuitto) and gave me a ride back to Bellagio. MANY thanks!

• 2:45pm – As I’m walking through the throng of people atop the Ghisallo, wearing my Pez cycling vest, I hear someone say, “Hey, are you the PEZ guy?” Well, yes, sorta…I tell him that I’m A Pez guy, but I’m not THE Pez guy. He introduces himself as Andy Spatz from Evanston, Illinois. I immediately ask, “Uh, Andy…did you drive up here? And if you did, can I have a ride back? I don’t care if it’s Bellagio or Como…I just need to get outta here after the race.”

I’m thrilled to hear Andy say, “Yeah, of course you can have a ride…no problem. We’re going back to Bellagio…we have plenty of room in the car.” Andy…you are my new best friend!

As Bettini led the race to the top of the Ghisallo, chaos erupted on the summit. Then the crowds parted and bam! – money shot!

• 3:05pm – The cyclists are late, again. In broken Italian, I ask one of the local cops when they’ll be here. “15 minutes,” he tells me. So, I get myself a good spot at the top of the Ghisallo, and wait…and wait…and wait. 15 minutes turns into 30, 30 turns into 45…but then we see the helicopters overhead, and the race is coming right at us! There’s a mad scramble to get the “money shot”…the one photo of the leader, and the chasers, as they pass under the banner in front of the church. About a minute before the riders arrive, a whole bunch of motorcycles show up, and they drop-off the photographers who riding along the course. These photogs sit, stand and slither between me and the banner, just as we see Bettini leading the pack up the Ghisallo. Get these dweebs out of my way! thankfully, I capture a pretty good shot of Bettini in full attack mode at the top. Whew!

You can watch the various emotions written on the faces of the riders as they top-out on this climb, and begin the descent in this last race of the year. Some are visibly relieved to have made it this far…others are in major pain, and they know they still have 45km to go to get to Como.

Does BT stand for Bouygues Telecom or Big Trouble? The faces don’t belie the pain of the Ghisallo climb.

• 4:00pm – Andy has a great idea…instead of fighting the crowds and getting stuck in the conga-line of cars going down to Bellagio, let’s chill-out for a few minutes in the bar (yes, there’s a bar just a few yards from the church at the Ghisallo). This will give me a chance to check-out the brand-new, just-opened-today Museo del Ciclismo. VERY cool place! They have bikes and race jerseys from Merckx, Coppi, Bartoli and many, many others. This is a really well-done shrine to cycling…and in a perfect location, just across the lawn from the church of the Madonna del Ghisallo.

The Museum of Cycling sits atop one of the most beautiful scenes in all of cycling… just a few yards from the church of Madonna del Ghisallo.

Inside the new Museo del Ciclismo, the fans get their first look at all the memorabilia from the greats of the sport.

• 5:00pm – We watch the final kilometers of the Giro di Lombardia from the comforts of the Ghisallo bar. Every time they show Bettini, the Italian fans go NUTS! But, like me, they’re all a bit er, um…distracted.

• 5:15pm – Bettini crosses the finish line in tears, the fans in the Ghisallo bar go crazy, and my day at the Giro has ended. Andy and Elaine and I make our way back to the car, cruise down the empty road to Bellagio, and call it a day. Andy and Elaine are off for a good dinner…I’m headed to the closest Internet cafe, so I can send race photos back to Pez and he can show ’em all to you, direct from Lombardia.

Sometime around 9PM I found myself on the ferry from Bellagio back down to Como. I was tired, and hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but none of that mattered…

It’s only after I see the race story posted on Pez that see that Alessandro has sent back some amazing shots from a couple of great vantage points on the course…nice work, Ale! I hope to see you again at the Giro d’Italia in May.

The next adventure awaits!

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