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MONTE ZONCOLAN, Italy (VN) — I hit the base of Monte Zoncolan 90 minutes or so before the peloton was supposed to arrive. I was out of water and running on the fumes of donuts and a cappuccino desperately consumed in a dark café one climb earlier. No time to stop and eat. No time to stop and fill a lone bottle.
This will be fun. I have to go hard up the Zoncolan to make it to the finish in time to catch the end of the race, report, you know, do my job. Because riding my bike is not my job, it is a lucky, ever-beckoning byproduct threating to take me out of the race if I screw it up. Don’t screw up, you idiot. Just ride your bike, stupid.
How hard can this thing be? The road rises sharp, and fans have fashioned a big red arch over it, painted like the gates of hell, the inferno.
I think such stupid things when I’m in a hurry. I rationalize slivers of minutes and small-seeming decisions that lead to this exact moment of having to chew all I’ve bitten off, immediately, and without water.
In this case, it was just a little squiggly line on the map, too thin for a name. Compatriot Andrew Hood, our European correspondent, pointed to it. “You could ride into those hills and then to the base of the Zoncolan. Skip the valley road, if you wanted.”
Skip the valley road. I hate flat, busy roads. Gotta skip it. Plus that little climb doesn’t look so bad. Not on the map. Hood dropped me off and continued on to the press room via the backside of the mountain, through Arta Terme. My plan was to ride a bit — gotta stave off the late-night pizzas and wine and 15 cappuccinos per day, somehow — and take in the whole experience of the mighty, how-hard-can-it-be Zoncolan.
Maps are so full of shit.
I climbed 4,000 feet before I even got to the Zoncolan, and hurriedly. Because I took a wrong turn somewhere near the town of Sezza, in the Carnic Alps, and ended up adding another steep, 20-minute climb on a beautiful, one-lane road through a dense and verdant forest I barely remember because I was in the terrified, you-are-going-to-screw-everything up mode. If I didn’t make it to the mountain in time I would spend the afternoon at the bottom or on the slopes of the ascent, perhaps consumed by the natives. Not to mention I’d miss everything important.
I suffer from a condition of athletic arrogance. It can’t be that hard, it can’t be that far, of course we can ride or hike or ski that. Because seldom are things as hard as we imagine them to be, and once the hard stuff is over it grows larger in our heads. We’re always the better for it. When are we not the better for it?
For an hour, I felt the worse for the Zoncolan. I churned and churned. My Garmin — stupid, unlying Garmin — hardly ever read below 14 percent grade. During a lengthy stretch of 20 percent, I had to change the screen.
The climb itself is a seminal experience for a cyclist. The crowd was thick and pleasant and loud. One man saved my fragile life and handed me half an orange. Another said, “we all need a little push” and ran behind me, pushing me up a long ramp. Halfway up, I already knew it was the hardest climb ever, aside from Pike’s Peak, in Colorado, which is in another troposphere. I saw a photographer friend, Iri Greco of BrakeThrough Media, on the single flat section of the mountain. She started taking pictures and declared she’d never seen me so wrecked. Racing the Giro caravan up the Zoncolan will do that to a mere mortal.
I caught site of a jumbo-screen TV set up 2 kilometers from the top. I saw Mick Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo) and the others in a break, about 15k from the end of the stage, meaning I had about 10 more minutes until they hit the mountain in earnest. Good. Good. I’ll make it. In spite of myself.
A hand goes up. Fans boo. I boo.
Fifty police officers are closing the road, 800 meters from the line. Thousands of fans, so many fans, swarming the road. I want to be one of them, smiling and drinking beer. Instead, I feel that pinprick of panic that ripples from the heart outward, into the shoulders and arms and knees and ankles. The coldness of looming failure.
“STAMPA! STAMPA!” I yell. “PRESS! PRESS! I AM PRESS!” I produce my press pass, and keep getting louder. This seems to be the only thing that’s respected in the press/police interface at the Giro. I make it through the first check, and slither through the Zoncolan’s old stone tunnels. Then more police, seemingly more special police in more ornate uniforms.
Sensing my angst, a female officer points up the ridge, to the side of the mountain above us. I shoulder the bike and start running, then using my cleated shoes and free hand to crawl up the ridge. Standing there on top, the serpentine road beneath me and the teeming crows alongside it, I realized I was where I was supposed to be all along. To know the Giro is to be consumed by it. Handed an orange, and pushed on the back, up its most feared climb. I could see everything now as I heard the helicopter make its way closer. The thing I was missing out on was this, the entire time.
I scrambled down the hill and ditched my bike and found two small beers and downed them quickly. I watched the finish through the fence with everyone else and jumped on my bike and descended with parts of the peloton to the team buses and cars, 10 minutes away.
I changed quick and was back in the sun, asking riders about the race, about the next day, about this fearsome Giro d’Italia. It was as if nothing had ever happened at all.
But walking up the hillside to the press room, my legs remembered everything.