By Christian Vande Velde, CSC Professional Cycling Team
I have to say the Giro is really cool. It’s my first time in this race … in fact, it’s the first time for a bunch of guys, everyone from 20-year-old kids, in their first year, up to Erik Zabel, who is making his first appearance at the Giro at the age of 34. He’s done something like 12 Tours de France, but never the Giro, until this year.
The ProTour is part of the reason. Every top team has to be here and riders are looking at the season a little bit differently. Instead of spending May training, they come here to help the team, spin the legs and get some nice weather to boot. I figure we’ll be riding into some real crappy weather later on, but for now, it’s beautiful in southern Italy, and we’ll enjoy ourselves while we can.
Things got off to a quick start on Saturday in Reggio Calabria. That’s where I rode my first race in Europe – the Giro d’ Calabria – back in 1996. It’s an interesting part of the world there, the “boot of Italy,” although some still refer to it as the “North of Africa.”
Calabria is the sort of wild, wild west you might encounter in parts of Mexico these days. Mafia-ridden, with high unemployment and tons of unfinished houses, is what you think of when you think about when touring through Calabria. But it is beautiful. It’s perched along the sea, with a great view of Sicily and really not that much tourism. Still, I’d be a little scared to bring my family to these parts, too.
We’ll be heading north at the rate of about 200km a day for the first week, so we’ll find ourselves in Tuscany in no time, where we’ll have nice hotels and great food.
The prologue offered up a very strange little TT: just over a kilometer. It was kind of an unknown for most, and it was pretty fun to watch very accomplished riders blow up like you’ve never seen them blow up before. Fact is, everyone blew up, it was just a question of how badly and where. One of the 12 Aussies – Bret Lancaster – took the first maglia rosa, at least until Paolo Bettini ripped it off his shoulders when he blew everyone’s doors off on Sunday on that last climb to the finish line.
He shot up that thing like he was a two-stroke motor, very much like we’ve seen him do many times before, but it’s even more amazing to see him do something like that in a grand tour, with a score of very accomplished riders behind him.
For us, it was a little disappointing. CSC lost in the big WWF battle to the finish line, and we found ourselves really far back before the climb on which Paolo launched himself into the jersey.
We redeemed ourselves on Monday by taking the reins, moving to the front with 10km to go and pushing the tempo hard. We let Ivan sit in the armchair over the course of that last loop, which was technical at times. For us, the move was more psychological than anything else. It sort of let us reassure ourselves that we do have a strong team at this Giro.
With about 5km to go, Fassa moved to the front, trying to pull Petacchi up there to set him up for the win. For me, that was it. My job was done and I drifted to the back. Our only objective here is to work together to help Ivan win the Giro. Fighting to get 15th instead of 150th doesn’t really matter.
The team is doing really well. We have a team that is riding itself into the Giro. It’s so ridiculously hard. Looking ahead, that last week is going to be brutal. There will be a lot of guys who don’t make it to Milan, some probably having to drop out with even one day to go. If anything, our team is a little “under-cooked” and we’re really ready for the whole three weeks.
That stage to Sestriere will be just brutal, though. After we make Sestriere that day, we turn around, go down, tackle one climb that covers 18km at 9 percent – with 4km of dirt – and then ride back to Sestriere. That dirt stretch kind of reminds me of Guanella Pass in Len Pettyjohn’s Boulder-Breckenridge race in Colorado. At least we won’t have to grab mountain bikes for the descent. Who knows, though? Last week, guys trying to reconnoiter the course couldn’t ride it because it was so muddy. If the weather’s bad, we may end up skipping that part.
We’re very lucky to have Giovanni Lombardi on board. He’s sort of like the father figure on the team. He’s taken on a lot of different roles, being captain, director … he’s obviously ridden the Giro quite a bit and knows what we’re all facing down the road. He’s really being a good friend and teammate to Ivan. He’s there by his side throughout the day.
It’s pretty cool to be around a guy who has that much experience and so much respect in the peloton, and he’s a nice guy to boot. I know some people keep expecting him to be fighting out the sprints at the end. He was one of Cipollini’s best lead-out men in the past, but he’s here as a team rider. Like everyone else, Giovanni is here for Ivan. He doesn’t really care about tussling it up in the sprint, fighting out for second place or third … he’s been there, done that, and has more than his share of T-shirts, as they say. He doesn’t need that.
A couple of other notes. I was just ahead of Alberto Lopez de Munain when he went down hard on Monday. I didn’t see it, but I heard it ,and I just kind of gulped. It’s always hard. The first thing I always do when I get on the bus is to open the cell phone and call Leah and tell her I’m okay. She’s at home by herself watching on TV. When she sees things like that, she’s especially worried. Anyway, I hope he’s okay. It’s lucky the hospital was less than a kilometer away, but that crash looked bad on TV and it sounded even worse. I’m glad that his injuries, although painful, aren’t life-threatening.
Keep checking. I’ll be writing every other day from here on out.