After racing from the north to the south to the center of the boot, we finally reached Rome and completed the last fourteen kilometers of the Giro.
In the flamboyant, dramatic fashion that we have now become accustomed to after three weeks of racing in the circus, we whizzed by Rome’s historical sites, snaked through the cobbled city streets and, finally, turned our last pedal strokes in front of the coliseum.
The course provided drama for the television audience but also put many riders on edge due to its technical aspects.
With the end of the Giro in sight, the final kilometers were pleasant yet the effort was still slightly painful as my legs were heavy from the weight of the last three weeks. Bumpy and slick the course was technical and, when wet, treacherously dangerous.
Riders rode with ease through the corners fearing a crash would stop them from reaching the final finish line.
Surely, a few of the riders in the top ten overall wouldn’t have slept soundly prior to the time trial knowing that in 20 minutes of racing they could lose the position in the classification which they have fought to maintain for three weeks. Some may have stared at the ceiling through the night knowing they could improve their position with a strong ride while others, fearing the dangerous elements of the course lay awake worrying about tragedy. Amazingly, after over 3400 km and 86, or so, hours on our bikes the difference between Menchov and Diluca was a slim 20 seconds before the time trial. The race for the overall victory would come down to the last fifteen kilometers. And, a technical wet course could easily have changed the race for the maglia rosa as Menchov came crashing down under the flamme rouge. As promised, the race remained thrilling until the last meter.
From the opening team time trial in Venice the race has been everything but predictable. The stage finishes have been complex mazes of roads which had the peloton winding through town centers, over cobbled roads, up and down climbs, before, finally, dashing towards the finish. From the start to the end we twisted, turned, bounced, climbed and descended our way around Italy.
I finished the last road stage, from Naples to Anagni, as I began the
race: at the front of the peloton, pursuing a breakaway so that our team had the chance at the stage victory.
For roughly a thousand kilometers of the Giro I have been on the front of the peloton, setting a tempo, reeling in breakaways, and positioning our sprinters and leaders for the charge to the finish.
From the front of the group I see and experience a different race than the rest of the peloton. Setting the speed for the entire group I can see the road ahead, can gauge my line through the corners and accelerate out of them at my own speed. The riders behind follow in the draft created at the head of the group—and they fight for the best spot in that draft. On some level my race is easier as I deal less with the panic and bumping in the peloton. In pursuit, I can simply focus on the effort.
On the front, we gauge our speed and adjust the intensity based on the gap to the breakaway which is relayed to us by the lead motorbikes and over the radio by our director. A breakaway caught too soon causes chaos in the peloton as riders attack again with the hope of staying away and winning, or gaining precious television time for their sponsor.
Timed well, we can absorb the group in the final kilometers, keeping the race in our control until the finish line. A breakaway has little chance of success once there is an organized chase in the peloton.
The pursuit at the head of the peloton has one goal: to catch the break. Our race is essentially finished once the group is caught whereas the breakaway is constantly thinking about the finish line.
Rivals in a breakaway compete ruining their chances at success. Each individual will try to do less work than the rider who is doing the least; their goal is to have energy left over if the breakaway does miraculously have a chance at the victory. Tactics and conservation become their focus whereas as ours is stripped and simple: a steadily increasing speed that strings the peloton out, squelching attacks and catching the group.
There is a thrill in the pursuit. Our speed is high (on Saturday we averaged 45.5 kph for 209 km) and as we pass the cheering fans a massive smile shines on their faces. It is an emotion of awe — like that when a band plays its first notes on the stage of a stadium. The speed of the peloton is captivating. I don’t feel the rush on the bike but it is an emotion I felt it as a kid when I stood at the roadside and felt the race whoosh past.
Prior to the final time trial we had the morning to relax, enjoy a nice lunch and rest in the hotel. Daily, for nearly a month we have eaten simple and fresh food — we have eaten well. Growing up in Toronto, a city dense with Italian immigrants who have kept their native culture, I ate well as a child as their passion for food infused the city’s culture.
As we sat in the small Italian restaurant prior to the start of the time trial, eating one last bowl of pasta, I thought back to my childhood in the Toronto. The same passion the Italians have for food, they have for cycling. Without the Toronto Italian community I probably wouldn’t be racing today: they organized most of the races, had the strongest clubs, and were the foundation of the sport. That same passion drives the Giro–on one level it is grand and on another it if familial. As I rolled across the final finish line I felt honored to be a small part of their rich culture and history.
Michael Barry is a member of Team Columbia-Highroad, husband of Olympic medalist Dede Barry and author of VeloPress’s “Inside the Postal Bus”
Barry also authored Fitness Cycling with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.