As the peloton of 198 riders crowded around the start line in Amsterdam there was an air of nervousness and excitement.
Crowds of people leaned over the steel barriers craning to see the peloton, Bradley Wiggins’ maglia rosa, and the under-dressed fashion models who pranced around the start line waiting to send us off.
As we stood on the cobbled street, anticipating the drop of the starter’s flag, some riders fidgeted, others slung their heads low on their bars and stared down at their front wheel, while others chatted inanely to avert their focus for a moment before the race began. The ambiance was as electric as that at the start of Paris-Roubaix.
First stages of grand tours are inevitably chaotic as every racer holds on to a thread of hope. Legs are fresh and every rider has a dream and a goal. As the race wears on those dreams evolve as some find a level of performance they hadn’t imagined while others come short of their goals and abandon their dreams.
With each passing stage, the nervousness in the group dissipates as the race progresses and riders find their place in the hierarchy. The race will become too hard to pretend or hide as the speed and course create a natural selection.
To professional cyclists Northern Europe is windy, flat, wet, and dangerous. The riders who thrive in the conditions are considered the hard men of cycling, as they seem to fear little but massive mountains. The Giro d’Italia is known for the scenery, nice weather, pleasant breezes, steep mountains, and coastal roads.
Riders who raced the Giro a decade ago speak of calm starts, where the peloton cruised along at leisurely speed, nobody attacking and everybody chatting. As the television audience tuned in the show began, and they attacked the last hour of racing with vigour.
Somehow, the descriptions of the race seem to mirror the Italian culture where people enjoy relaxing but also explode with passionate gusto at the right moment. With the globalization of the peloton the Italian way of racing has vanished and, like in every other race we ride, the peloton strikes the course from the first kilometer and doesn’t seem to relent until the finish. Having the Giro begin in Amsterdam was like mixing opera with Ska.
At the start in the Netherlands we all knew the racing would be physically and technically intense. From start to finish, we raced over dikes, roads barely wide enough for an SUV, and through tiny villages, which became a maze marked by traffic islands, poles, and roundabouts. There were few moments where we could relax or even take our eyes off the road ahead to glance over at the masses of people who lines the courses from start to finish. The Dutch, like the Italians, love cycling. In the Netherlands, like in Italy, the Giro brought a party of pink to each small town.
Our race began with a bang as my teammate Bradley stormed out of the gates in Amsterdam to convincingly win the first stage. Hearing him talk about the effort after the race provoked goose bumps on my neck. He was either going to win or crash. His focus and lucidity under pressure ensured he wouldn’t fail. He left everything on the eight-kilometer course and virtually collapsed at the finish.
The team was committed to defending his jersey. In the wind, we rode together in the front, split the peloton and made every selection until the final 10 km when we came crashing down. On both road stages in Holland, half of the team arrived at the bus scraped, bruised and bleeding but still in good spirits. The music blasted through the bus’ speakers, the boys sang along, we laughed at our bad luck and our focus changed to the future. We had fought a valiant battle, know we have the legs to continue the fight in the coming days and weeks, and realize that good morale will keep us buoyant and firing.
After racing a relentless 220 kilometers the peloton boarded buses for an hour-long drive to the airport where we then stepped onto planes to travel to Italy. Finally, at 11 PM the plane landed in Cuneo. Drummers and trumpeters greeted us and ushered the weary, worn and bandaged peloton into a massive tent where a thousand VIP’s waited for autographs and photographs. Starving after having not eaten since the finish we ate like animals as the VIP’s snapped photos. At 1 AM we boarded a bus with two other teams for the hour-long trip over tiny farm roads to our hotel. At 2:30 AM we were finally tucked into bed. We would be on our TT bikes in 12 hours.