At the Back was a column in every VeloNews magazine for decades. It was a place where riders and staff writers would share personal stories. In this piece from September 2011, Lennard Zinn recounts his accidental participation in the Giro d’Italia.
A grinning Michael Barry of Team Sky rode past as I was pedaling up Monte Zoncolan and said, “Lennard, what the hell are you doing?” I didn’t have a good answer, because, without intending to, I was actually riding in the Giro d’Italia.
After a long section of steep ramps and switchbacks, the Zoncolan climb traverses a straight stretch on a ridge, and I had been standing along this section only a short while earlier watching Ivan Basso ride away from Cadel Evans. I had planned to watch the finish after riding up the entire climb, but course marshals had barred my further ascent at this point due to the proximity of the helicopter hovering over the lead riders. Meanwhile, my daughter was waiting for me on the other side of the mountain and had been sending me texts demanding to know my ETA.
After this straight section, the road passes through two low, narrow tunnels dripping with water that open out onto a grassy bowl culminating at the summit. I was eager to keep riding up, since I didn’t relish swimming upstream through those claustrophobic tunnels against a down-flowing torrent of spectators rushing back to their cars after the race, thereby further delaying my return and testing my daughter’s patience, a commodity she does not have in abundance.
I watched the protagonists struggle up the steep climb, followed by small groups and lone riders spread over 20 minutes. Finally, the large gruppetto appeared, led by “Pippo” Pozzatto. It looked like that was the end of the race, so I hopped back on my bike to try to get to the tunnels before the crowds started barreling through them toward me.
I was enjoying the ride among passionate Italian fans, when I realized the race was not over, because Sky’s Bradley Wiggins passed me. The rail-thin Brit had been in seventh place at the start of the day in Venice, 1:11 up on Basso (eventual winner of this 2010 Giro) and ahead of all of the other race favorites.
Normally I would have just jumped off of my bike and waited for the last rider, but I’m a tech geek, and Wiggins was flailing partially for technical reasons. His oval Osymetric chainrings bobbing giddily up and down with each rotation have a minimum inner ring of 38 teeth, which at its tallest points is probably taller than a 40-tooth, yet Wiggins was up against superb climbers riding 34-tooth chainrings. Furthermore, while SRAM riders had as large as 32-tooth cogs in the rear and Campy riders had 29 teeth, his Dura-Ace rear derailleur maxed out at 28 teeth. So I rode alongside, taking photos of this former pink jersey wearer and race favorite of a few hours prior to document his poor choice of a much larger gear than his competitors.
After I slipped the camera back in my pocket, rabid fans began pushing me (and Wiggins) up the hill. At first I resisted, but then I just let it happen, resolving to ride through the tunnels and then get off the course, walk up the hillside past the finish, and get back to my daughter waiting on the other side. This is when Michael Barry came along.
My plan worked fine riding through the narrow tunnels devoid of spectators. However, popping out into deafening noise on the other side, like a football player running onto the field in the Super Bowl, I realized what a poor decision I had made. Instead of barriers holding back thousands of screaming fans, there were police and military latched at the wrists holding them back! There was no way I was going to try to break through that phalanx; I imagined many consequences of doing so, and none seemed good. My heart was pounding, and not due to the steepness of the climb.
Normally, steel crowd-control fencing lines the final three kilometers in Grand Tours, but despite the finish being just above me, there was none. The crowd and police seemed oblivious that I wasn’t a racer (and I tucked in with some Giro stragglers to stay incognito), but that would change if I were to cross the finish line. I had to get off the course!
Finally, after seemingly interminable carabinieri-lined switchbacks, the fencing began, but the road was narrow and the fans were leaning in, waving their arms and Giro paraphernalia and banging on the sponsor plaques zip-tied to the steel fencing. I saw no way out until I spied a small kid along the left barrier. I pedaled straight for him and jumped over; having a 38-inch inseam helps when stepping over meter-high fencing. I flopped onto the grass, heaving a sigh of relief but was immediately mobbed by fans exhorting me in Italian to continue.
“You can’t stop now,” they pleaded with me. “You’ve come so far, and the finish is right there!”
I ignored their advice; I’d had enough excitement for one day.