Alessandria, Italy ? The peloton, stretched thin into a long single line, stuck to the white line marking the edge of the road with the riders on the front pushing the cool yet fresh autumn air as they rode a hard tempo to control the race and bring back the breakaway. Leaves blew on to the course, acorns and chestnuts spotting the road, and the odor of fermenting grapes was pungent as we passed the vineyards known for producing the best wines in Italy.
The autumn pelotons strike a contrast to those at the early season classics. During the last races of the season, the autumn Classics, the fatigue of the long season is evident: teams have difficulty fielding full squads due to illness, injury and lack of motivation and it seems many riders just go through the motions, to do their jobs and to finish off the season. Oddly, teams seem to misgauge the calendar and their rosters year after year. With good form and motivation a rider and his team could perform tremendously in some of the most beautiful races of the year if they only timed their peak fitness a little better.
Since the Worlds Championships I have struggled. A crash early in the race was worse than I had initially thought and despite pushing, persisting and finishing the race I couldn’t get out of bed with ease the following days. An x-ray showed a broken rib for which there is nothing to do. The doctors said I could ride if I could handle the pain; a pain that is sharp each time I take a deep breath and aches with brusque movement. Not able to lift my youngest son or walk a flight of stairs comfortably, disappointed, I decided it wouldn’t be possible to race the last races of the year: five one-day races in Italy.
Yet, three races into the five I am here, in Italy, readying for the last two. The team needed to fill the roster, and wanted me there to help the team out the best I could. Our director convinced me I would be okay, that I could survive the pain and that I should come to Italy to at least take the start. We, the seven riders racing in Italy, are the skeleton crew, left racing into the late moments of the season. Despite the fact that most of our teammates are on vacation, resting at home or on beaches, we still have the morale and camaraderie that carried us to so many victories through the season. We are lacking a leader but we are still racing at the front, trying to get in the breakaways, to animate the races, with a hope that it will go right.
During the races ? Sabatini, Emilia, Beghelli, Piemonte, and Lombardia ? we race through some of the nicest regions in Italy. The sun burns through the morning haze, and never too high in the sky, shines a bronze glare over the green, moist country. The fallen leaves swirl in the streets as we race through the small villages where chestnuts roast, and the spectators are bundled in their fall scarves and sweaters. The autumn air feels optimistically romantic as people embrace the harvest, the end and the beginning.
The pain of the race absorbs, or overwhelms, most of the pain from my injuries and only do they intensify when we sprint or climb. On the off days, where we ride easily and rest up, I feel every bump in the road. To find momentary comfort, I slide around in the saddle, adjust my hand position, clench the bars, release the bars and try everything to alleviate the ache.
Cycling is haunted by the continued positive drug tests. Like a polluted lake with people slowly leaving its banks, professional cycling is losing popularity. But, in Italy, like at the filthy lake where a few aging fishermen continue to cast their lines, the roads remain crowded with fans who love cycling regardless of who is on the start line or what has happened as it is in their heritage. This generation knows that cycling develops its champions; that we are only a small paragraph in a epic history and that no matter which modern hero takes the start his story will only mark a moment in a rich event.
As we drive to the different start lines in the team bus we are slowed by groups of cyclotourists, all dressed equally well, wearing the nicest looking matching club gear, and sitting on their bikes perfectly, like professionals only older and heavier, posing a sharp contrast to the bike positions that marketing has pushed in North America. When these cyclotourists ride their bikes, the bikes are simply an extension of their bodies ? as they should be. In North America stems are shortened, bars are raised, seats are lowered and the balance is lost.
At the start line the cyclotourists surround the team cars, looking at our bikes like any aficionado analyzes what he loves. Like parks are crowded with twenty-something men tossing footballs on Thanksgiving weekend, the Italian countryside is colored with jerseys.
Italians grow up with cycling. A race to some is a frequent annoyance that causes traffic delays, while to others it is a day to plan a picnic, make predictions, place bets, and watch the action. Some return to their childhoods at the roadside while their children learn about a sport that is a significant piece of the mosaic that is their vibrant culture.
And, for this, despite my injuries, I am enjoying the racing, the atmosphere and the final moments with my teammates before we close our suitcases and head home for the off- season.