Several good reasons colluded and presented Fabrizio Viani with no other option – grab two willing teammates and head to Italy. The Giro was starting on the family homes doorstep and a two-wheeled road trip to follow the action could then begin.
The journey started a few months ago, with endless planning for ideal routes, plane tickets, the build up to the Giro d’Italia right on the doorstep of my parents’ house in Genoa.
I was born there, and as five stages were to start from my home region, Liguria, it was too good to miss. It also happened to be my 10th anniversary of taking up cycling and Mother’s day… the planets had aligned in unprecedented fashion, basically the solar system was one big line of rocks. Convincing Ian and Mike (friends and colleagues) was an easy task and so we booked this adventure.
Banter is an unavoidable ritual for a group of cyclists, as necessary as chamoix cream and shaved legs. And banter we had aplenty, starting with the packing of the bike bags. This was done in different ways, from the OCD (Ian) to the mystified (Mike). Luckily I have a bike in Genoa already so I was mainly there to cause trouble.
3 hours of sleep, three trains, a plane, a taxi ride and a snooze later, we then reversed the process and unpacked the bikes (I simply inflated my tyres and watched). We then went for a walk in town to soak up the atmosphere that is unique to the setting of a stage of the Giro. The big surprise came in the shape of a marble fountain spouting pink water. Stage 2 would finish just before this main square and would be a memorable sight from the television screens and for the few lucky ones like us who would be there in person.
Cocktail bar and local delicacies were part of the evening menu and preparation for the rides ahead.
Next day, Saturday, it was going to be the start of the Giro with a team time trial in Sanremo. We decided to skip that stage as it was too far for us and we opted instead for a long ride celebrating the greatest legend of the Giro, Fausto Coppi, “il Campionissimo”. Setting off is always the most exciting part, fresh legs, bikes clean and serviced, expectations high, but the first climb came too quickly. It so happened to be the hardest of the day as well.
Madonna della Guardia was the mountain top finish won by notorious Piepoli on stage 10 of the 2007 Giro, the very same edition that was won by the even more notorious Di Luca. The climb is about 8km long and rises to 800 metres. It is relentless and it gets steeper and steeper, with no respite and no shading from the sun. At the top, we went a little further than the pros did in 2007 and carried on to the basilica via a 16% to 25% cobbled incline. The views were breathtaking and every effort was almost forgotten. Lush green valleys, contrasted with shades of blue from the sea and the sky. The whole of Genoa is visible, sprawling along the coast, the airport just a strip of land perched on the waters of the Ligurian Sea.
The dynamics for all the climbs were rehearsed and established. Ian, the climber, would go off and ride to the top as if wearing wings, Mike, the relentless rouleur, would chase him soon after, while I, more of a sprinter, would form a one-man gruppetto keeping myself within living limits: Contador, Cancellara and Cavendish.
Next was a technical but fast descent to the bottom of the next climb, the Passo della Bocchetta, made famous by Coppi and used every year in the Giro dell’Appennino, a race organised by a local cycling club, often attended by World Tour riders. Similar to the previous climb in length and gradient, the Bocchetta was at least shaded. Our legs were also warmed up so somehow it felt more accessible. At the apex is a monument to Fausto Coppi and a plaque with the roll of names of past winners of the Giro dell’Appennino. That was impressive indeed: Coppi, Gimondi, Baronchelli, Moser, Bugno, Argentin, Chiappucci, Berzin, Tonkov, Simoni, Cunego, Nocentini, Nibali, Kiserlovski, Felline, Colbrelli…to name a few.
Poses were immortalised while leaning on dear old Fausto. The following kilometres were mostly downhill and on the flat lands around Novi Ligure. The heat and the ride called for a cold beer. We found a great little place with a veranda, which served cold meats, cheese, freshly baked bread and impossibly refreshing lager! On we went towards Coppi’s birthplace, Castellania, which, as Mike so eloquently put it: “…had to be on top of a f****** climb!”. If that was his daily commute, one can see how his legs became so strong. Finally, the house beckoned. Greeting us by the door was a rather long snake that luckily was more afraid of us than we of it (that’s what I’m going with). Another greeting came in the shape of signor Egidio Coppi, a distant relative of the Campionissimo, who was more than pleased to see cyclists visiting the place and took us for a little tour of the museum. A lovely man of disappearing ethos.
We bid our goodbyes and went around the house to see Coppi’s resting place (another 23% ramp took us there, luckily only about 100m long). Then we made our way back to Genoa through the rolling roads topping on the Passo dei Giovi (very short climb from this side) at just 450m and with the sun quickly disappearing behind the mountains. The way home from there was fast, dark and it was an eye opener for Ian and Mike to how big Genoa is.
180km since the morning but still smiling.
Sunday. Stage 2 of the Giro with a finish in central Genoa after 2 laps around the city.
While the peloton was making its way from Albenga to Genoa, Mike, Ian and I met up with a couple of local riders I had contacted through Strava. The planned route was to be shorter than the previous day _ with a third of the climbing, but nevertheless just as hard given the pace set by Umberto and Alessandro. Straight up was a nasty climb rising from the football stadium in Marassi (where both Genoa and Sampdoria have their home ground). Again, never less than 8% with some steeper sections, the ride felt harder given the lack of warm up. The road sinuously took us up around the back of Genoa and down again to the sea on the other side of town via a breakneck descent. After that “traffic detour”, we took the road used by the monument that is Milan-Sanremo up to the town of Arenzano.
The road here was flat and wide. The pace set by our Italian mates was insane, well over 40km/h most of the way. But at Arenzano things slowed down again. A short loop through an easier climb took us to Cogoleto where we then turned inland and upward to pick up the route the Giro would undertake later that afternoon. This was a nasty little surprise with steep ramps of over 10% in places but luckily didn’t last long. The atmosphere was becoming electric, with pink balloons dotted along the road, banners, flags, names being drawn on the tarmac, groups of scooters shouting encouragement and creating exhilarating pandemonium while beeping along the way. We crossed the GPM (Gran Premio della Montagna – Mountain GP) banner and down into another searing descent, then a short ride on a cycle path along the coast, which took us back to Arenzano. The decision was unanimous… beer… plenty of it. The heat was intense and the cold drink was like nectar of the gods. Banter was resumed and Umberto happily joined in the few bouts of banter and dirty jokes.
The way back was even faster than in the first leg, but this time there would be no climbs, just a trip back to my parents’ house. We crossed the roads of the Giro, already set for the peloton to fly past, and had a glimpse of the finishing straight where later Viviani would pip Hofland to the line.
Showered and changed into civilian clothes we made our way to where we settled to watch the Giro just past the finish, in the main square with the pink fountain and opposite the podium. It turned out to be a great spot as we were able to see the riders three times at full speed while mingling with the press and VIPs. We spotted the ever suave Gianni Savio of Androni.
Dazzled by the sunshine and the podium girls, and with the crowd’s shouts subsided, we made our way through the team buses, spotting one or two riders. At the Orica-GreenEdge bus we spotted the diminutive Chaves who was taking photos with a group of Colombian fans. Amazing to think of the power these athletes can produce even when they don’t look a day older than 15.
Being Mother’s day, I had booked a restaurant by the sea, in the tiny but picturesque port of Nervi. After a short train journey, we went for a stroll and a cocktail by the charming ‘passeggiata’ (walkway) along the seafront, with sheer rock cliffs and blue waters. We then met with my family and had a mouthwatering meal of fish, seafood, while quaffing white wine. All rounded up nicely by an artisan gelato.
Watch out for part 2 on Monday…