3 July 2008

Giro Stories #1

With the Giro being so busy, I took the easy option of just posting photos. Energy levels were low, internet connections were few and far between, and I am sure I could think of many more excuses why I didn’t write much. But I have some time, so hopefully I can write a few stories down for you, that’s until I get bored or sidetracked with something else (which is not hard for my ADD infused brain).

There was one day I was kind of looking forward to and in the same thought, dreading as usual. The mountain Timetrail, stage 16 San Vigilio di Marebbe - Plan de Corones (Individual Time Trial). A couple of days before I had heard the rumours of what the climb was looking like, a pretty steep road section, then it goes into some hard packed gravel, and then opps, there is snow covering the rest of it, so the description stops there. None of the team were looking forward to it, and in the press and all the relevant websites there was cries of protest over the stage. Are they crazy organising such a stage, who was it set for, the spectators or the riders? Things were getting out of control in the few days leading up to it. I had had my own mountain TT a couple of days beforehand with one of the transfers in the truck. The GPS in the truck was having a bit of fun with me I thought, but it looked the fastest way on the map as well, and it looked the easiest way. The difference with this GPS is that it doesn’t know I am driving a truck, I think it thought I was in one of the Audi Quattro team cars. I was alone as I left the highway for the pass over the mountains, everyone I had talked to, mentioned this mountain range, so they must have know it, I thought. What they failed to tell me was there was another way, but it was too late now. I was already halfway up the climb, and things were getting very tight. There was hardly enough room for the truck on some of the corners, let alone some of the cars coming at me in the other direction.

The top of the mountain, with the road heading down, wish I was on a bike though.

I was just starting to get to that point of no return, when the roads seemed to flatten out and get a bit wider, by now I was about the halfway up the mountain point (or so I thought). Things changed pretty quickly, and real soon the roads got even smaller, the small alpine towns started coming at me with quite regular intervals. I was just thinking about places to start looking to turn around and go back, when I realised that the top of the mountain was very near, I continued up. Stopping near the top, or what I thought was the top, I had stop and take some shots of the road I just came up. A couple of friendly, non English speaking Swiss cyclists, stopped to get their photo taken with the truck. With a small amount of universal language, I figured they were getting photos taken just to prove to their local friends, that in fact there was a truck that they saw on the road, and not a mirage. They did know of the town I was heading for, ‘just over the ridge and down the valley 30km’ they said. I continued onwards and upwards, and up it went into a mountain top plateau, I tried taking my hands of the steering wheel to get a shot of the scene, but the road was so narrow, I was scared I might fall off it. This was not the sort of place to get a truck stuck, as I had not seen another car for an hour or so. But then a bus came over the horizon, and what a squeeze to pass, I stopped about 1km before the bus arrived, as it did not look like many passing opportunities in the distance, lucky I did, we just passed with a bit of jiggling rigs with only mm’s to spare.

Now I had reached the top, a ski field or two were visible, and about a 100 motorcyclists as well, sitting in the few caf├ęs around the summit. I started the descent, and what a challenge, the road I could see all the way into the valley. Winding down and around the side of the mountain like a huge long tape worm. I would be taking it very easy, as in the first few corners, I had to do a 5 point turn just to get the ass of the truck around them safely. There was not much room for error, as the edge of the road just fell down some distance on to the road below. Ohh and the motorbikes seemed to multiply at the top, as they passed me one after another, it seemed like there was hundreds of them. All I could think about was the fact that I wish I were on a bike, descending down into the valley, corner after corner. The fact that I knew there was about 20 in the back of the truck, didn’t make me feel any better. And then there was the odd bus I meet, again a real mission to get past them, but I had the right of way, a bigger rig, and I’m sure I looked a bit crazed at the wheel by now. But I made it down, and getting back to a bit of civilization, I started to relax a bit. Now to find the hotel, but that’s another story. Upon finding the hotel, the advance arrival crew told me of their easy drive on the highway, and easy ride up another valley of 30km to get to the hotel. I cut off about 40km off the route, but sure I took off a few years of my life, with the stress.

Bradley passing Andre on a slightly steep little bit.

But the real race was about to start in a day or so. The mountain TT was a bit different, as the riders were using their road bikes for this one, with a few modifications to them. Most of the changes were in the drive train, with everyone using compact cranks, with a 34t front chain ring and a 27t cassette on the rear. For this we had a new set of SRM cranks to play with, the first time they have tried the compact system. Everything worked fine for the change over, and most of the riders were requesting the lightest wheels we had in the truck, but even that would not help some of them. We even broke out the scales for the first time all year, as we knew there would be weight control on the start line. Legal UCI weight for any race as you know is 6.8kg, with our bikes with standard low rim Shimano or the Zipp 202 wheels, things are generally on the money, even with the SRM system on. So we made sure they were all legal, and they were all perfect, with in 20 gm of the limit. With the Lightweight wheels, the bikes felt super illegal, but at 7kg’s it feels pretty light compared to 7.5 for example which is about normal race weight, with normal wheels. But we checked them all just in case.

Finally dawn was upon us, and then we could see what all the fuss was about. We arrived at the course, last team there by the looks of things, so the bus and cars were about a km or so from the start, shit for the mechanics, and for the riders as well, but at least they could ride to the start. So we set up base for the day, and got our selves organised for a long day. I drew the short straw for following the first rider up the hill, and it kind of sounded like a bit of fun. The race organisation had provided motorbike escorts for each rider up the hill, as the course was far too steep and skinny at the half way point for the team cars. I ran to the start line to start two of our guys off, Andre Greipel was off first, and a minute behind Bradley Wiggins. My job was to follow Wiggins, but also I could look after Andre if he had any issues. I found my Moto for the ride, and made sure my guys were ready, their bikes both passed the weigh in, just. I jumped on the Moto, wheels in hand for the trip up the mountain. There was a lot of talk of how difficult it was at the top section, but already from the get go things were looking pretty good. Half of the race was on sealed road, this was the easy bit, nice and smooth, with a great views of the valley below. I had my wheels in one hand, and my camera in the other, taking photos was pretty easy, and I had two of the boys in shot as Bradley was gaining on Andre. None of the team had seen the course, so it was new to everyone, we still were climbing at a rapid rate, the trees started getting smaller, and the crowd started getting a bit thicker and louder.

700m to go for Andre, the nice view in the background.

When we reached the halfway point, the road ran out of tarmac and onto a sort of rolled white gravel. Luckily we had changed every bike over to the compact cranks, as by now both the boys were in the 34 on the front and 27 on the back. But it kept getting steeper, and just when I thought Andre was going to get a good time, he blew and Bradley passed him like he was sitting still. The road looked about a 18% gradient, at this stage. We rounded a few more corners, and I saw what I thought was the top, but the air was starting to thin, and I was seeing things I think with lack of oxygen. We hit a bit of a plateau at this stage, the trees by now were short and stunted with the altitude. Now the road started getting a bit messy, the rolled gravel, which could be mistaken for a sealed road in some parts of the world, just stopped. Now I was getting a bit worried about punctures, the stones were getting bigger, the holes in the road were growing in size and regularity as well. The riders were picking what line they could through the rubbish, it didn’t seemed to slow them too much, as they were almost standing still anyway. I was calculating the whole time how far to go, current speed and time to ‘best time’ and then we saw the ‘2km to go’ sign. I was looking at a winning time I thought, that’s until we turned the corner. And what a sight, thousands of fans spread out as far as I could see, flowing up the ridgeline, what I thought was the top. By now the gradient felt like about 20%, and the moto I was riding was having a bit of difficulty staying upright at such low speeds. He would wait a bit for the rider to get away a little, then, ride as slow as he could until we caught him again. By now Bradley was still looking pretty good on time, he was in the smallest gear, and struggling to push it, even out of the saddle struggling, the spectator noise was deafening. Time was slipping away as he struggled up the steep section, then I spotted the ‘1km to go’ sign. The top was part of a ski resort, pretty famous in these parts I was told, and snow was still all around us, bringing a chill to the air. In hindsight, my shorts and T-shirt, that suited the sun drenched valley start, was starting to look fairly stupid by now. I was freezing, as the wind was blowing chilled air directly at me. But the crowds, yells and screams were keeping me warm, and the thought of a mechanical or flat now, was also taking my mind off things.

Morris Possoni with 500m to go till the top. What a crowd.

We rounded the last corner, and then there it was, the last km, right before our eyes. I almost fell off the back of the motorbike as I strained my neck looking up at the finish. There are many ‘walls’ in cycling races, but this was an actual wall, just leaning off centre a bit. With 1km to go, I was thinking normal time 1.5-2 mins, but this one was going to take a while. The gradient now was about 28% (looked about 45%), and Bradley was almost stopped ahead, crawling as fast as he could, in front of us. The crowd now was about ten deep, all yelling as loud as they could in their best Italian, with the road only about 2m wide here, I could feel the warmth of their screams, perfect. The moto slowed, tried to stop, but the track was so steep, he could not get a foot down in time. I had my camera in one hand (trying to get the shot of the day of course), my wheels in the other, and then we started falling. I was planing my escape off the bike for most of the last 5km, as my driver was starting to look a bit dodgy in some of the steeper bits. I knew I had to be ready at a moments notice, but not now, please. I was thinking of the hot exhaust, burning a hole in my un-clothed leg as the bike started falling, and trying to not let my camera smash on the rocks as well. Just as the bike hit the ground, my leg was out, but with my ass still on the seat, I just smashed my upper body on to the stony road below. I still had the wheels in my hand, I heard no glass lens breaking, but my elbow and hip took a hammering as I Ianded. I jumped up, leaving my stupid ass driver, to sort out the bike (there was hundreds of fans to help him up). I ran behind Bradley for a few hundred meters, that’s until I was completely fucked. Running up mountains at altitude, was never my thing, lucky, cause just then my bike was back (but not before getting a cool shot of Andre coming past), I jumped on, and we rode slowly through the finish, which was still climbing up at a horrible rate. Nothing special with both their times, but they would have beaten the time cut for the day, easily. The view was awesome from the top, I had a walk around the finish line a bit, trying to stop my body from smarting as much as it was. We had a good laugh with the other moto’s, but inside I was not too impressed, but someone had to crash today, and I am sure I won’t be the only one.

Morris with 150m to go, and he's still climbing.

Now for the mission to get down, either wait an hour or so for the last riders in my group to come up, freezing, or take the gondolas down. Gondolas sounded fun, but they failed to explain the amount of changes and hiking involved. Now, we were up pretty high, so I didn’t fully have a good think about my actions, but I had three more riders to follow up the mountain, I didn’t want to be too late. I started heading down on the first gondola. There was such an amazing view from the top, as we headed down slowly, I realised just how far up the boys had rode up, in the short 12km, no wonder they were looking a bit shattered at the top. About a third of the way down we changed gondolas, but this was not an easy change, especially as we had no skis on. A small hike of about 2km, directly up the side of the mountain to the second change, this was real steep climb, about 37% gradient for sure. By the time we made it to the second gondola, I was shattered, lucky I could rest for a few minutes, as my body was now starting to hurt a bit, now that it was starting to thaw out a bit. One more change of gondola, this one was only about 100m from the other, and then the 2km walk back to the bus, I was home. I checked the time for my next escort up the hill again, 5 minutes, shit. Time to put some clothes on, some stuff to keep my hand from bleeding, and I was off for the next trip. Now only two more to come, but this time I would be ready for another crash, the cold weather, and the walk down. Man I slept well that night, the injuries were not too bad, and then back to the real race the next day. Media reports, and most of the riders interviewed were giving the race organisers shit over the stage, but they just gave it back. Harden up, was the translation I got from the newspapers. Our boys were pretty quiet that night at dinner, and I could understand why.

And if you missed them, some more pics of the stage here.

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