A little over a week ago I made the short drive from Ljubljana to the town of Cividale del Friui in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in northeastern Italy. Wine is one of the primary industries in the Friuli region so a glass of wine seemed appropriate while I sat down to write this post. The Giro d’Italia will be passing through this region in late May and the finish of stage 13 will be in the town of Cividale del Friuli. Ever since the Giro route was revealed last year we have been looking forward to watching this stage since it will be passing so close to our home. It will be a very rare opportunity to us to go and see the Giro live; something I have wanted to do for a long time.
The stage should be pretty exciting as it has several climbs including two category 1 climbs,meaning they are long and steep. The reason for the drive over was to go and ride part of the course and see if I could find a good spot where we could plant ourselves, set up a picnic and watch the stage go by. The stage makes a couple of different loops around the region as it heads up and over the local mountains. There are several great places to watch. One of the best, and the spot where I think will be a critical point in the race is the category 1 climb up to Cima Porzus. The top of the climb comes just over 30kms from the finish. The problem with the climb, from this spectator’s point of view, is that there will not be enough time to get down to Cividale del Fruili to watch the exciting finish. The alternative is to watch the race as it climbs up the first category 1 climb up to Montemaggiore. The climb is steep and weaves back and forth on a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. There are plenty of places where we can set up our picnic, watch the race approach, lose our minds as they pass and get back to Cividale del Fruili with plenty of time to watch the finish.
I packed my bike in the car and made the one hour drive to Italy. The town of Cividale del Friuli is a few short Km’s from the border with Slovenia. Almost immediately upon entering the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region you are surrounded by vast rolling vineyards. It is early in the season so the vines are still small with only the beginnings of new growth but it is not hard to see why this is such a massive and important wine growing region. In fact wines from the Friuli region are regarded along with those from Tuscany and Piedmont as producers of some of the worlds finest wines. Cividale del Friuli sits above a river that is a deep shade of jade. It is clear and rich with color. There is an old stone bridge that crosses the river in to the center of town. It is a truly a stunning sight.
I hopped on my bike trying to mentally trace the map of the Giro stage hoping that I would be able to remember the route I was supposed to follow. A few Km’s into the ride I saw a banner on the wall of a building welcoming the Giro to town. I stopped to snap a photo and just after I took the photo a group of cyclists went rolling by going the same direction as I was headed. Just like my first trip to Italy last January I rode up and asked if I could join them for a while. As with my last ride this group of Italian riders was happy to have me join. One of them, it turns out, works for Cannondale in Italy. He and I were riding the same bike. We rode for a while passing through several villages in the flat agricultural land. Everywhere I looked there were banners and “pink” decorations welcoming the Giro to their region. If you come and don’t know the route of the Giro all you have to do is follow the banners, ribbons and quirky pink decorations. There is also a lot of road work being done along the route. The racers will be welcomed with fresh asphalt and freshly painted white lines. There is still some road work to be done and some lines to be painted but I am sure that by the time the race pass through the riders will enjoy some immaculate roads.
The group stopped at a sports park to refill water bottles. Giorgio, the guy works for Cannondale, told me they were going to ride one of the climbs that the Giro would climb. Cool, that was what I came here to do. It would be great to have these folks guide me. As we approached the climb, Alberto, one of the other riders, said something like “supra la montagna, “piano”. Perfect, I thought, that is just what I was hoping for. I could see the road rise up ahead and it looked steep. I guess that makes sense considering the Giro has classified it as category 1. It turns out that on this day “piano” translates roughly to steady tempo until this foreigner cracks and then we pick up the pace one more notch. I was clawing at my handlebars, sweat dripping off my forehead and up ahead of me I could see Alberto comfortable chatting away. I think that 4-5kms means something different in Italy as well. As we passed through 5kms I could not see a summit anywhere near us. Finally, after climbing for 9Kms we reached the top.
We had only covered about 30kms on the day to this point and I was tapped. Holy smokes, that was a steep bugger of a climb. The view of the Italian Alps was remarkable. The skies were so clear I am sure I could see all the way across Italy. It was also a good opportunity for the requisite selfie.
At least we were at the top and where the fun part begins. I love flying downhill on my bike and I love going fast. A steep winding Italian road would be awesome! Off we went. OK, awesome is a bit of an overstatement. The road was steep, the road was windy and with the brakes off my bike quickly picked up speed. The problem was that the road was narrow with super tight switchbacks that came in very rapid succession. When I say narrow I mean narrow single lane wide. The corners were tight and blind. More than a few times there was a car coming up the road which required us to stay tight, pull in our elbows, stay out of the gutter on the right and avoid nailing the driver’s side view mirror all while banking hard into a turn at mach speed. That was easily the most stressful 9km descent I have ever done. Alberto and crew flew down the mountain seemingly with out fear or regard for the fact that a car could appear around the next blind switchback. I couldn’t keep pace with them going up but there was no way I was going to let them ride away from me on the descent. We dropped a couple of guys but I kept on the wheel of Alberto and another rider. The other rider, I never caught his name, was using carbon rims with special carbon specific brake pads. On more than a few occasions his rear wheel would momentarily lock up as we entered a super tight switchback. It was driving me nuts. I was sure that at any moment he was going to go sliding off the road. If that wasn’t bad enough the smell of burning carbon brake pads was awful. I had no idea bike brakes could smell as bad as burning car brakes. But then, I guess I have never been on a descent quite like this one. At the bottom I was relieved we were finished. I am not sure I would call that descent fun. Actually, yeah, it was fun.
Alberto and his group had, for the most part, completed their ride. Alberto rode up to me and said “now we drink caffe. Do you drink caffe?” Do I drink coffee. Hmmm, are Ferrari’s Italian? After one more small climb we rode up to Alberto’s favorite cafe. We walked in and Alberto said “Ciao” to the two gals working behind the counter. He looked at me, and as he motioned to the baristas said “Italy has the most beautiful women, no?” The two gals gave him a congenial smile but I think I saw them both roll their eyes. I could not argue, those two were beautiful but I was not sure how to respond. I was pretty sure that one of them was Alberto’s girlfriend. I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth so I said that all Italians were good looking. It is true, Italians are all good looking. Who knows, maybe it is something in the wine. I’m not sure but just in case I think I will pour myself one more glass.