Pescara, Italy — Each hundred meters of the two final kilometers of every stage is signed at the roadside. On a flat stage I take little notice of the signs as we speed through the kilometers in two minutes as the sprinters charge to the line at the head of the peloton. On a mountain stage, I feel every pedal stroke as my legs labor to turn over the cranks. The final few kilometers never seem to pass fast enough. Monday, we spent nearly eight hours on our bikes racing from Pergola to Monte Petrano. The last meters we rode were painfully long. They were the final meters in what was the hardest, most uncomfortable day I have spent on a bicycle.
Before bed each night, I look over the race map noting the details and altimetry for the following day’s race. The stage to Monte Petrano didn’t look incredibly hard in the race book: there were four categorized climbs, a few small bumps, and several kilometers of flat between the climbs. I thought it would be hard but nothing abnormally tough; the heat that had drained us over the weekend was likely going to be the toughest element of the race. I was wrong. The day was going to be a lot longer and harder than I had imagined.
After tossing and turning in bed for six hours my alarm sounded at 7:15 and it was time to get up. Michael Rogers, who was sleeping in the bed next to mine, moved slightly, mumbled and then lay motionless again. He turned again, toward me, and said, “Good morning. How’d you sleep?” I responded that it had been a short night. Uncomfortable in the hot room, he had slept two hours.
An hour later we had forced down a plate of pasta, bread and jam, yogurt and coffee and we were on the bus heading to the start. The bus was already warm at eight in the morning as a strong sun beat down on its roof. The seven of us sat in the stagnant hot air in our racing shorts, our bellies dripping with sweat, as we drove for an hour to the start. For fear of illness the air conditioning isn’t used. Some riders sipped on water to cool off while others drank espresso to wake up. We poked at our mobile phones, answering messages accumulated in the night, listened to music or tried to absorb the information in the race book one last time. Nobody said much. There wasn’t much to say.
On the start line, riders were clustered under the shade of a tree staying cool for a few final minutes before freewheeling out into the heat. Thousands of spectators wearing orange sun hats given to them by the race’s sponsor fanned themselves with promotional giveaway paper fans. The heat was oppressive and sapped some of the festive spark from the usually fervent Giro atmosphere. The peloton waited anxiously for the starter’s whistle. A climb in the first kilometers put the peloton in panic.
The uphill start became what we all feared: a race from the gun, which would splinter the peloton as riders attempted to form a breakaway. The length of the stage was evident as soon as we climbed the first meters of what was to be a day with 5300 meters of climbing. On the small poorly surfaced road my bike felt as if it was sticking to the pavement. The peloton, which started as a balloon, moved into a long thin line before splintering into several small groups. There were more groups at the foot of the descent as riders slid and skidded on the poorly surfaced road, unable to hold the wheel in front of them. Ten kilometers into the long day and the peloton was already shattered. In the heat everything seems to slowly come undone: roads crumble into a sticky mess as the tar melts, jerseys are unzipped, tires lose their grip, and riders explode.
When we reached a bit of flat on the other side of the climb, the peloton, or what was left of it, relaxed as the breakaway had formed and forged a gap. The peloton rested for a few kilometers as the break gained time before moving back into single file as Rabobank set a tempo on the front to keep the gap to the breakaway at a manageable distance. They did this for another six hours, relenting only when they had reached the foot of the last climb with ten kilometers to go. From that point, their leader, Denis Menchov was able to race away on his own.
The rest of the stage is a blur. We tore through small towns, bouncing on their cobbled streets, sprinted out of corners, and climbed, and climbed. The sinuous course took us over seemingly endless two-meter wide serpentine mountain roads that were steep and long. The tight peloton baked as we climbed the steep gradients. At times we seemed stuck and motionless. Every meter seemed eternal in the infernal environment. The sensation became irritating and claustrophobic. Television helicopters overhead chopped the air meters above the group. As the race’s dozens of motorcycles tried to pass the peloton they honked and spewed warm exhaust as their clutches burned a stink under the pressure of the climb. We dowsed our bodies with water for momentary relief.
While the climbs were physically exhausting the descents were mentally exhausting. Descending on roads that were never long and straight, but rough, graveled and winding we finished the stage with sore arms from the hours of braking. By the end of the day the pads were worn thin and my hands blistered. Like pigs nearing their end at the slaughterhouse, our brakes squealed under the pressure of the heat and load as we approached each switchback. On the descents carbon rims melted and tires exploded. The wear of the day was evident everywhere.
The morning news had warned people not to spend too much time outdoors as the heat would be intense. Predicting the thermometer would reach 45, they considered physical activity to be dangerous. On the roads my SRM read 47 degree Celsius and by the end of the day it also read that I had been on my bike for 7 hours and 40 minutes, and burned 6450 calories.
On the bus again after the race, we sat in our spots — which have now, after three weeks, actually become our spots — and continued sweating as we had in the morning. We each told our stories of the day. Everybody had a different perspective on the race. With my feet up to relieve some of the ache, I listened. Michael Rogers told me he had even thought of quitting cycling on the second to last ascent. “Had there been a small lake I would have abandoned the race for a swim.” He wasn’t joking. For all of us, the race had been our hardest day on the bike, or otherwise.
It will also be a day that I will forever remember. Perhaps, the whole escapade was worth it for the one short moment when I crossed the finish line, sipped a soda and knew I could slowly descend down the climb, into the setting sun with the cooler evening wind in my face.
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.