This is perhaps a bit late in coming but it is the Giro d’Italia so I think this is worth sharing. Watching the Giro live has been a goal of mine for a long, long time. When the Giro route was announced last autumn I looked to see which stage or stages would pass closest to Slovenia. As luck would have it stage 13 would follow a route that very nearly passed into Slovenia. The finish of the stage was in a town called Cividale di Fruili. A very scenic town that is built high above a clear emerald green river. The added bonus is that this stage included four categorized climbs which would be a tough test for the riders. On paper it looked like it could make for a very exciting race. Four solid climbs, a long flat run in to the finish. Yeah, this could be a great stage. May 20th was marked in my calendar, I let the kid’s teachers know they would be gone and I went to the market to pull together a few things to pack for a day at the Giro.
A couple of weeks prior to the race my enthusiasm got the better of me. I drove to Cividale di Fruili, met a couple of Italian friends and rode part of the Giro course. I was excited to sample a bit of what the racers were going to experience. The climbs were massive. They were steep, the roads were narrow and the descents were a thrill. The preview also gave me the chance to scope out a place for all of us to watch the race go by.
The funny thing about watching a bike race live is that in general you are out on small, out of the way country roads waiting for a few hours to see the peloton for a few seconds as they race past. If you want to see the racers moving at a slightly slower speed you find a part of the race where they are climbing a tall steep mountain. At the top of the mountain, where they are likely to be the most fatigued, they are usually moving even slower. A scenic spot up high on one of the four big climbs was what I was looking for. I found a spot near the top of the first climb; a category 1 climb! Category one means that the climb is long and steep! The spot I chose wound through a high mountain village. The road made a couple of switchbacks as it approached the village and made a couple of switchbacks as it passed through the village. The switchbacks meant we could watch them for a relatively long time, at least as as far as bike races go.
Race day came. We left Ljubljana early and made the 90 min drive to Cividale and then up the road toward the top of the first climb of the day where we would try and find our perfect Giro picnic spot. According to the race schedule the racers were expected to approach the top of the first climb around 2:00pm. If we wanted to have time to enjoy our picnic and celebrate the Giro with the rest of the crowd we would have to be at our spot by noon. We also had to get to the start of the climb before the road was closed to cars. We drove part way up the climb and then walked the last 6km to our picnic spot.
The walk up gave all of us the chance to get a sense of just how steep the climb was. There were plenty of people making the walk and even more riding bikes up the road. I guessed the walk up would take somewhere between 45-60 minutes. Along the way we passed both walkers and cyclists taking the occasional break from the uphill effort and several cyclists decide that pushing their bikes was a bit more manageable.
We reached the top of the climb and found a small crowd of people who arrived before us and came with the same idea. The crowds at the Giro tend to be smaller than at the Tour de France by they are no less enthusiastic. Actually the smaller crowds means there is more interaction. It is more like a party and everyone is excited to celebrate, especially the Italians. Italians are so warm and always eager to share their enthusiasm, not to mention their wine. The crowds at the Tour tend to be so large that you spend a large part of your time just trying to maintain the small spot you staked out. Our little corner up on Monte Maggiore was all about the festivities. We set out our picnic and joined in the merry making.
The thing about watching a bike race like the Giro is that you come to celebrate the Giro and its history, enjoy the crowd and join the party. We had a couple of hours to wait before the race made it’s way up the mountain. It was time to join in the celebrations. Music, food wine and lots of broken English and Italian combined with plenty of arm waving and gesticulating made for great, entertaining conversation. This is what watching the bike race is all about. The party, the socializing and soaking in all the Italian atmosphere. The race doesn’t take a back seat but it was still a long ways off so there was no reason to concern ourselves with something that was not in our immediate presence; and living in the present is something that the Italians do very well. La Dolce Vita!
Eventually the enthusiasm and noise of the crowd was interrupted by the distant thud of helicopter blades cutting through the air at the bottom of the valley. We could not yet see the peloton but we knew they were down there somewhere and that the helicopter would be hovering just above them. The other really cool thing about our spot on the hill was that we could see all the way down to the bottom of the mountain to where the climb began. We could also see a few short sections below us where the road emerged from the trees, but it was the helicopters that gave us the best indication of where the racers were on the mountain.
The entire atmosphere on the mountain changed from one of pure celebration to one of a celebration at a beautiful sporting event with dedicated cycling fans eager to support their favorite riders and favorite teams. The lively conversation changed to nervous and energetic chatter. The anticipation was obvious everywhere we looked. This was an important stage and one of the first big mountain stages. This day could play in important part in the overall outcome of the race and this particular climb would be the first test of the day. These die-hard fans knew they could witness something special today. The anticipation grew as the helicopter drew closer. Every once in a while someone would shout that they saw a rider through the trees. We were trying to guess would be the first to appear.
A lone rider was the first to round the switchback at the bottom of the village. he had a small gap. 30 seconds later the main peloton appeared. At this point I think that most of the crowd forgot who they came to cheer for. All the racers received the same huge applause and cheers from the crowd. It was the race they had come to see and it was the race they were cheering for. Despite this being the first climb of the day there was a long interval between the first rider and the last rider to pass. The interval was a clear indication of just how difficult this day was going to be. But the support of the was no less for the last rider than it was for the first rider. These athletes were riding their hearts out and the fans loved it and did not hold back their cheers.
Once the last rider passed we made a hasty depart back to the car. We wanted to get back to Cividale before the race passed through the city. After the Montemaggiore climb there was a short fast descent and then the second climb of the day. After the second climb the course passed through Cividale n the way to the third and fourth climbs of the day. If we were lucky we could get back to Cividale to in time to catch another brief glimpse of the race.
Cividale was also the location of the finish of the stage. After the last two climbs the course returned to Cividale to finish in town so naturally this is where most people were gathered. The city was packed. Forget the small crowds, the whole city was a party. The cafés, gift shops, restaurants, bakeries, cheese shops and sweet shops were all out eager to show off their specialties.
The road along the route was packed with people. There were huge screens placed around the town showing the race live. Huge cheers would erupt when a the camera showed favorite riders. We wanted a good spot because the race would be at top speed through town. We chose a spot just before a hard left hand corner hoping the peloton would have to slow just a bit as they entered the turn.It was a good guess but the turn did not seem to slow them at all. I think you have to actually see the race live to understand just how fast the riders are moving and to see the skill it takes to navigate a hard left hand corner on cobbled roads all while moving at speeds above 45kph. We may have only seen them for a moment but the thrill is intense and memorable.
Now it was a waiting game. The race had two more climbs to summit before the flat 12km run in to the finish. There was a lot of racing left and the dynamic of a stage like this meant that lead changes would be inevitable. We watched the big screens to follow the race all the while cheering for the racers that had fallen off the pace. Judging by the gaps we were seeing the two first climbs must have been monsters. Riders were passing through in groups of three, four or five and well off the pace of the leaders. Many of the riders I am sure were wondering if they would finish within the time cut.
The whole city seemed to move as the crowd slowly made their way to the finish line on the other side of town. We had at least two more hours of waiting but we joined the crowd around one of the many big screens positioned around the finish area.
As expected the stage was decisive. Some of the favorites had a good day while others finished with looks of obvious disappointment. There were still several days left and anything could happen. If you followed this year’s Giro you will know that the days that followed were wild and the finish had an ending that no one could have predicted. For us it was a memorable day and I think that most of the fans would feel the same. I think we saw the racers for all of 10 minutes at the most but that does not diminish event. The build-up, the anticipation the festivities and the camaraderie are timeless. The racers may pass in a flash but the memories last much longer.