In a crowded boat full of tourists, nine of us, dressed in our bright yellow team kits sat together as a calm wind blew our hair. The sun was low in the sky and the Adriatic a murky turquoise. School kids touring Venice with their class pushed, laughed and sang songs to beats tapped out on the boat rails while we spoke about the race course, our effort in training, the fluidity needed to win the team time trial, and the coming three weeks of racing.
Tourists relaxed in the Venetian sunshine while we concerned ourselves with what was to come. The Giro had come to Venice, we were here to ride, and the boat was shuttling us between our hotel and the course.
The school kids, who recognized the team’s colors, timidly walked towards our cluster of seats, pulled out their notebooks and pens and asked for autographs. As we patiently signed the graphed notebooks with school-kids’ chewed up pens my mind flashed back to my childhood in a flutter of memories. The children’s nervous excitement as Mark Cavendish wrote his name on the piece of paper was a thrill for me to watch: twenty years ago I had been one of those kids, quietly waiting for Francesco Moser, Giuseppe Saronni or Laurent Fignon’s to sign my notepad. Their scribbles were what inspired my rides around the block and through the parks.
“It’s amazing how cycling seems to become the most popular thing in Italy and France prior to the Giro and Tour,” Michael Rogers, my teammate and roommate for the Giro said as we rode down a street splattered in pink. Drivers sped by yelling encouragement. “Our sport doesn’t have weight in Italy until the Giro comes around.”
The pages of the Italy’s sport’s daily, the Gazetta dello Sport, the main sponsor of the race, are pink, which is why pink was chosen for the leader’s jersey. The Gazetta devotes few columns to cycling during most of the season yet for the Giro a good chunk of the paper covers the minutiae of the race while the front page is splashed with race photos. In Italy, a cyclist isn’t a champion until he has done something in Giro.
In the few days prior to the race, we rode our time trial bikes in team formation to find the fluidity we will need for the opening 20-kilometer team time trial. Three days prior to the race start, there was electricity in the air as we rode the course—a helicopter thwacked overhead, its camera following the team as we snaked around the course in a tight paceline. Drivers honked and pedestrians walking to the shops stopped to watch. The show was coming to town.
The first kilometers we rode together in formation were choppy as we tried to find the rhythm of the team. With a day of practice the team began to flow as we sped along, the nine disc wheels whirling a roar, at 60 km/h. The speed can only be found if the team is in synch; the strongest individual can’t force a team to speed but can only fracture it.
Our team is strong and prepared for the race. We can perform in every environment throughout the entire three week race. With time trial specialists, climbers, the fastest sprinter in cycling and domestiques to work relentlessly on the front of the peloton the team is complete.
The days prior to the race are long. We are ready and eager to start. Cyclists become impatient at presentations, media events, and during travel. Focused, the only places we are comfortable is on our bikes, in bed or at dinner.
On the hotel bed, with my legs up, I page through the race book. Each rider is given a book that breaks down the race, stage-by-stage, kilometer-by-kilometer, and climb-by-climb. Beside the maps and charts are photos of the towns we will race through, images of the peloton racing through the countryside and portraits of the race’s champions. Nightly, for the next three weeks, I will open the book before bed to study the stage and its difficulties. Looking at the stage I will become slightly nervous because of the unknown but will find comfort in the metered descriptions of the stages. Broken down the race seems humane; as a whole it seems absurd.
Mark’s smile as he signed the children’s notebooks told a story. He too was one of the bubbly schoolkids just a few years ago. There was pride in his smile as he thought about how far he had come and there was also nostalgia as he thought back to where he had been. We had all once been timid little kids who asked for our heroes’ autographs. It was the passion we discovered then that has brought us here today to race in the 100th Giro d’Italia.