While the Tour de France is formulaic in its structure, the Giro is a mishmash of stages.
Four days into the race and there have been three different leaders, challenging finishes and varied terrain. The Tour doesn’t reach the mountains until the end of the first week whereas here, in Italy, we rode into the sharp white-faced Dolomites today. And from here on, the race will not relent.
During the coming weeks, as we wrap and wind our way down towards Rome, the peloton will fracture repeatedly due the wearing effects of the course. There is no clear favorite for overall winner and the battle for the general classification will only end when we reach Rome. As we climbed the first slopes today many riders already showed the strain of the race as their pedal stroke was labored. They will soon be home.
With a victory in the team time trial that placed our team seconds ahead of our rivals my teammates have been able to swap the maglia rosa — Mark Cavendish wore it the first two days and now, after the first day in the mountains, Thomas Lövkvist has taken it back from Alessandro Petacchi. Michael Rogers, my roommate, is in form and now sits in third in the overall classification. Tactically the team couldn’t be in a better position.
After spending the majority of the first two stages on the front, tugging the peloton along at a steady tempo to keep the breakaway within reach, I had an easier day today. I was able to sit in the draft of the group, chat with my teammates and friends, and spin my legs a bit. During the first two stages I spent an accumulated 300 kilometers on the front with two teammates. With the peloton behind, in a long single line, we saw the road ahead, the hundreds of thousands of spectators and an Italy decorated in pink for its national tour.
In each town we whiz through it seems every shop owner, customer and student is out at the roadside to cheer us on — many are even dressed in pink. They blow air horns, play instruments, blast music, sing songs and beat out chants. Grandmothers with aprons stand on their doorsteps, while farmers sit on tractors. The race becomes a reason to celebrate. There is a thunder of noise as the television helicopters chop the air meters above the peloton, the fans scream their cheers, cars and motorbikes rev and honk and over our earpieces we hear the chatter of our directors.
The peloton nervously races towards the challenges of the parcours: climbs, descents or windswept plains. Each rider is aware of what is ahead as our directeur sportif relays the information to us over the radio and then commands us to get to the front of the peloton so that we can react to any movement in the group and, above all, avoid crashes. As each team directeur sportif barks the same commands, there is suddenly a surge of 200 riders, all trying to be in the front of the peloton on a road that might fit 20 riders. There is a momentary panic. Inevitably crashes occur. Tires skid, carbon snaps, and people yell. Narrowly avoiding a crash, we look at the pile on the ground to ensure no teammate has fallen and then we sprint ahead to get back into the charging peloton.
After a few days in the mountains the race will sort itself out as riders lose time, and lose hope of challenging for a spot in the overall classification. Everybody will calm down and the manic panicky moments will dissipate.
Riding on the front of the peloton seems serene in comparison to the chaos behind. A trio of teammates sharing the workload in the wind, we point out holes in the road, can clearly see the course ahead and rarely feel the touch of another rider’s handlebars on our hips. Our stress is different than that experienced behind; we work much harder, pushing against the wind, stressing our legs and backs for hours on end, relentlessly pedaling but we can also find a rhythm lacking in the peloton that rides in our draft. Like birds pecking at each other over the last breadcrumb, the peloton pushes and shoves for the spot in the group most protected from the wind and closest to the front.
Tomorrow we will be back on the front again and tonight Sweden is rejoicing as they have one of their few professionals, Lövkvist, in pink. We can’t predict what tomorrow or the next weeks will bring, but with the morale of the team and the boost of the maglia rosa we will surely fight until the end.
Michael Barry, is a member of Team Columbia Professional Cycling, husband of Olympic medalist Dede Barry and author of VeloPress’s “Inside the Postal Bus”
Barry has also co-authored Fitness Cycling in conjunction with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.