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Reporter’s Notebook: The American table

Reporter’s Notebook: The American table

Words and photos by Caley Fretz

Caleb Fairly sits down with the sigh of a man much older, pulling his glasses off and dropping them on a small square table in Torino’s villagio partenza (start village). An espresso — pulled by a man in black not 30 seconds prior — is sent flying by the tip of an Oakley arm. The Giant-Alpecin rider can only stare as the brown liquid slips across the pink tablecloth.

“Man, I’m in rough shape,” he says.

Fairly is just 190 flat kilometers from the final finish line of the 2015 Giro d’Italia. Right now, that doesn’t seem quite close enough.

Nathan Brown arrives next, throwing his hands in the air, hook’em horns in full effect. It’s his first, last, only victory salute of a Giro spent working for Cannondale-Garmin teammate Ryder Hesjedal, a salute made no less important by the lack of a nearby finish line. He pulls up a chair across from Fairly, sighing the same old sigh as he lets gravity pull him down.

“We did it,” he says through an ear-to-ear smile.

Chad Haga (Giant-Alpecin) is the last to arrive, a plastic cup of espresso and a couple cookies held in one gloved hand as the other grabs a third chair. He doesn’t say a word, but grins as he stares out toward the sign-in stage, where Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador is being introduced to a screaming crowd.

Fairly, Brown, and Haga are three of the four Americans left in this race. All completed their first Giro on Sunday, but not their first grand tour — each already has a Vuelta a España under his belt. Only Brent Bookwalter (BMC), a Giro veteran at this point in his career, and Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin), out with a knee injury sustained on stage 2, are missing from the ‘table Americani.’

Like all but a half-dozen riders, the three men sitting around a table on Sunday were never going to win the Giro. A stage win, too, was mostly the stuff of dreams. They arrived in Italy nearly a month ago to work, perhaps jump in a breakaway or two, put their jersey on TV for half a day and pull in anonymity the rest of the time.

But riding far from the front, in the groupetto or in groups just ahead, does not make the Giro easy.

Even riders who have never done a Giro before seem aware that this year’s was something special. Old hands of the peloton, men like Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo), said the first week was one of the most difficult of any grand tour, ever. And that was only the start.

“It’s been unlike any race I’ve ever done,” says Fairly, a hint of disbelief in his voice. “It’s been so fast every day. It’s like people don’t get tired or something.”

Haga agrees: “To do something like this in May … any other race I do the rest of the year is going to be like, ‘Eh, I’ve done the Giro. This doesn’t hurt. I’ve experienced pain, and that’s not what this is.’”

The three young men, sitting around a tippy plastic table covered in pink, sipping their final start-village espresso, talk their way through the Giro’s highs and lows, it’s funny stories and difficult moments and what they’ll do next week when they leave the Giro behind.

“My worst day. I’ll tell you,” says Brown, finger in the air as a professor might call a class to attention. “Stage 19 death march. Damn. I think that might have been the worst I’ve ever been in a box.”

That would be the ‘hurt box’ he’s referring to, second only to the pine box he may have wished for a few times that day. Stage 19 was 230 kilometers long, a long slog down one valley and then up the next, finishing in Cervinia, climbing over 15,000 feet. It took seven hours and 14 minutes for Brown, Haga, and Fairly to haul themselves to the finish line.

“Me and Caleb were in that same group, if he wasn’t in that group I’m not sure I would have finished,” Brown says. He laughs, shakes his head. “He gave me a couple Cokes. It was bad.”

It was Fairly’s worst day too, though he seems less scarred by the experience. “Astana rode really fast the first three hours, then they just kept going,” he says, shaking his head slightly.

“Mine was earlier,” says Haga. “The one where we were on the race track at the end.”

Stage 11, from Forli to Imola, coursed through hilly Romagna, its sawtooth profile a far cry from the massive peaks and extended climbing of the final week. The day held only two categorized climbs but every minute was was up, down, left and right on thin roads with steep gradients. There was no rhythm to the stage, or to the climbs.

“I got dropped like six times in one day,” Haga said. “I was chasing all day just to get onto the groupetto. I’ve never suffered like that.”

Pain is spun into the fabric of cycling, a prerequisite, not something any rider can or should avoid. But did these three enjoy the Giro? Like so much in endurance sport, these hard days are best viewed from afar, through a thick lens of time.

“You look back and you like them,” Brown says. “I give myself a month or two and I’ll enjoy it. But right now, no. I don’t enjoy it right now.”

“I enjoy the challenge, but there’s a lot of suffering in the moment,” says Haga. “Somehow, I’ve already forgotten a lot of it.”

“I haven’t. Stage 19 is still fresh in my mind,” Brown says. All three laugh — that they able to, already, is proof enough that the day’s discomfort is fading.

There’s a Giro after-party to attend Sunday. It will be fun but in a mid-season sort of way. Hesjedal showed up in a pink suit after he won in 2012, maybe Contador will do the same. Monday they’ll board a plane to Spain, back to their homes away from home. There’s a barbecue planned, with cheeseburgers and brats and other things to bring them back to earth, snap them out of the Giro.

They’ll ride a bit, too, as both Haga and Fairly are slated to start the Dauphiné in just a week. But just a bit. “We kit up, we meet at the coffee shop, we talk about riding for about an hour, then we just ride home,” Brown says. “That will be four or five days, then maybe the fourth of fifth we’ll actually go ride for an hour.”

“Call me for that,” Haga says. “I like the sound of that.”

Caleb Fairly, Chad Haga, and Nathan Brown (left-right).