Naples, Italy — At the stage start, the town’s square has been invaded by the race. The announcer belts out riders’ names, introducing them as they sign in on the podium set up in the center of the square. The amplified voices reverberate against the ancient buildings where people gaze at us, the show, from their balconies. Pop music plays over a sound system at a little lower volume than the announcers’ voice. Crowds of spectators, lining the periphery of the square, cheer as each rider is introduced. Pink is abundant. Daily, for three weeks the peloton has entered the same scene with a different audience. Despite the static environment, changes are evident in the characters.
As we ride our bikes to the podium we see the same faces. We smile a knowing smile, nod hello, and chitchat. Two weeks ago the peloton had more energy and ebullience. Now, the wear of the race is showing on everybody. Even the announcers look tired. Once animated, with diverse questions, the journalists now seem laconic and mundane. Riders move slowly to the start, lounge in the promotional ‘race village’ where tents are set up by the race’s sponsors, and never seem too eager to get to the start line to tear off to the next town. Bandages wrap up wounds, scabs peel, and sunburns bubble. Unable to sleep enough, or rest as much as the body requires, dark rings now line each rider’s eyes. Now, every bit of energy is saved for the race. Off our bikes we move slowly while on them we pedal with ferocity.
The majority of the stages have been ridden faster than predicted. We arrive well ahead of the fastest estimated schedule, as the peloton rarely sets into the slow rhythm every rider hopes for. We attack the course.
On our way to Mount Vesuvius the peloton raced apprehensively, without the desperation we have become accustomed to, as the course was technical enough to strike fear. We started off slowly, carefully approaching the course, aware and cautious of its dangers, before progressively increasing the speed as the roads straightened and opened up towards the final ascent to the summit of the volcano.
The tifosi at the roadside flooded the roads as we flew through the final fifty kilometers of the course; air horns screeched, fireworks cracked and whirled, fans chanted and yelled, balloons were released free to float in the sky and every citizen seemed to embrace our passing through their town. The peloton was frantic as we bounced over the roughly cobbled roads, parting the crowds of spectators, and reached the slopes of the volcano.
We have ridden through some of the most beautiful countryside in the world. From the ancient towns, to the historic monuments, to the majestic mountains we have raced past places many dream of seeing. But, we catch little as we are focused on the wheel in front, the road ahead, a climb in the distance, the finish line and the next day. Someday, I will return with my family to enjoy the countryside the race is now showcasing.
In the peloton riders now push bigger gears. Two weeks into a race we have gained power, lost fluidity and find comfort in pedaling at a slower cadence. Our heart rates no longer reach the same highs they did ten days ago as we are now worn.
Three weeks is long time to be doing anything with intensity. After two weeks we reached a threshold at which point everybody associated with the race began talking about home.
In each hotel, the staff seems to understand cycling, welcoming us with warmth. They feed us well, taking pride in what they serve, and accommodating our insatiable appetites. Upon checkout they wish us good luck. They have watched us daily. They understand the movements in the peloton; they know the results of each rider, the courses we have ridden and the difficulties we have yet to reach. It seems the Italians are absorbing every detail of the race.
Despite being homesick, we have found rhythm in the race. Our bodies adapt to the load, becoming accustomed to the stress. With the repetition we now know what to expect and can find comfort in the routine. We receive a daily schedule from our directors but little changes; the hours of the routine may shift slightly but the routine remains the same: breakfast, departure to start, meeting on the bus, start, a transfer in the bus after the finish, massage, dinner, and bed.
Within the team we are beyond workmates, or even teammates, as we have shared our lives for three weeks. We spend every waking moment together. At night, I hear the slow snore of my roommate. We joke and laugh. Without each other the race would seem much longer as we find comfort in the companionship.
Riders seem to have found their place in the peloton. With similar levels of fitness dropped riders find each other on the climbs as those at the front of the race pool together before attacking the finish line. Three weeks into the race there are now few surprises as riders resign, finding their place in their group with greater ease. The panic felt in the peloton during the first days has dissipated.
Rivals, who were merely competitors, or numbers in the bunch, during the first stages, are now familiar faces. We are in this together. With a nod and smile a bond has developed between rivals during our journey.
With only a few days left to race, many still have dreams of triumph. Six teams have won stages; sixteen teams strive for a victory. Eleven riders have won since the start in Venice; 159 still hope to win. We will all fight until the last meter.
Barry also authored Fitness Cycling with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.