Italy: Maratona dles Dolomites
Italy: Cycling the Maratona dles Dolomites
You don't have to be a hardcore biker to race in the Maratona dles dolomites.
You just have to ride like an italian—or at least look good trying.
Text by Dan Koeppel Photographs by Lars Schneider
A crowd of spectators is lining Passo Campolongo, 6,152 feet high in the Dolomites of northern Italy, and screaming "Die! Die! Die!" at me. It's a bit disconcerting, especially while I'm pedaling up steep switchbacks where it takes every ounce of strength and focus simply to move forward. In fact, the word is "dai," and what they're really urging me to do is: "Go! Go! Go!"
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This frenzied adrenaline-charged mob is cheering the Maratona dles Dolomites, one of the great annual rites of Italian cycling and one of the biggest, most passionate, and most chaotic bike races on Earth. About 200 elite riders actually compete in the event to win, and they had quickly burst forward when the starting gun sounded. Now, stretching back behind them for miles are an estimated 8,700 others of all abilities—from teenagers to grandparents—just out to pedal to the finish. With a crowd like this there's potential for a lot of contact, bike to bike, rider to rider, and one crash can quickly domino into a spill that claims dozens. My girlfriend, Kalee Thompson, and I struggle to maintain our lines, exhausted from the hard climb, our pedal strokes sloppy. At times we lose each other in the pack, scanning ahead and behind for a glimpse of the other's red-and-white team jersey.
It's not easy for an American to appreciate what cycling means to this nation. NASCAR culture comes close to casting a similar spell over its fans, but few disciples of auto racing would dare to drive a speedway track themselves. In Italy, spectating is only the beginning. You participate—in the colors of your favorite team, of your local club, or your employer. Male or female, you ride—even if you're a grandparent. Should you choose just to watch, you're required to provide encouragement to the pack.
"Dai! Dai! Dai!" A family leaves their pizza and Aranciata sodas on the table at a tiny café to crowd against the barricade and shout at me as if my life depends on it.
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Yanks plying Italian pavement for the first time might find such enthusiasm shocking and a little confusing. In this country if a car honks at you, it's not because the driver wants you out of the way; he's just saying hello. He might even be waiting around the next bend with a bottle of San Pellegrino. If you want good luck, there's a cycling church, complete with a cycling saint to bless your bike. If you want your hand-built dream machine to last, you must stand on a copy of the Gazzetta dello Sport, a daily newspaper dedicated to cycling and soccer, while you're being measured for it. You dress outrageously: Pink Lycra shorts on a guy are fine, as long as the shoes match. So when Kalee and I checked in our disassembled bikes at John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York City, and reassembled them a week ago in the mountain village of Corvara, it was not just to train for and ride in the celebrated Maratona—we wanted to experience the Italian reverence for cycling by becoming part of it. And now, here we are, six miles (ten kilometers) behind us, 28 miles (45 kilometers) more to go.
There's no bigger bike party in a country that loves and lives for such events than the Maratona. Held every July since 1987, the race is split into three courses—hard, harder, and hardest—that loop through either four, six, or seven passes in the 10,340-foot (3,152-meter) Gruppo Sella (Sella Massif). Hikers and Nordic skiers also make their own Sella Ronda, but true possession of the circuit belongs to bikers. These mountains have been home to scores of hard-won stage finishes in the Giro d'Italia, the Italian equivalent—the natives say superior—to the Tour de France. Thousands of fans line these roads each May to watch their cycling heroes pedal the grades at impossible speeds, sometimes through scalding sunlight, other times through snowstorms.
When Kalee and I stepped off the bus in Corvara and craned our necks up at the peaks of the Gruppo Sella, the first impression was, to say the least, disquieting. We could hear the clinking of tools as the other members of our group busily assembled their bikes. But we just gaped at the weathered crags jutting outrageously skyward—sculpted islands surrounded by seas of green pasture. I tried to remain confident; I'd been here once before. But Kalee hadn't. She'd never even owned a real road bike until six months ago, and she was concerned that this was going to be too much too soon. But we had seven days to learn how to climb and how to descend, to adjust to the altitude, and to accustom our legs to the four towering passes that circle these mountains.
Bikes back in one piece, our group of 12 Americans gathered in the lounge of the Hotel La Perla, holding welcome glasses of wine in our grease-stained hands. Our guides, Connie Carpenter and her husband, Davis Phinney, are the closest America has to two-wheeled royalty. Connie won the road race gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, and Davis was the first American to win a road stage in the Tour de France—and to date he has more career victories than Lance Armstrong. For the past 20 years, through their company Carpenter/Phinney Bike Camp, the couple has dedicated themselves to one thing: teaching Americans, in the space of a week, how to ride hills like these.
Our group was a disparate one: Two hardcore couples who had been training in Colorado for months; a computer technician from Atlanta who had been riding his local hills and looked as startled by the terrain as Kalee and I; one rider aiming to celebrate his full recovery from open-heart surgery with a Maratona finish; and Taylor Phinney, Connie and Davis's 16-year-old son, who was no doubt genetically destined for cycling glory (but who confessed to being more interested in soccer).
I was on my second Maratona. The first time, three years ago, I'd chosen the middle distance: 66 miles (106 kilometers) and 10,140 feet (3,091meters) of elevation gain. I went out too hard. On the final climb I was so exhausted that I lost two hours. This time I'd be sticking to the merely "hard" route with Kalee, who was the least experienced rider in our group. Connie announced that to ride the Maratona—and not make it an exercise in torture—we would have to learn to ride in graceful confidence, like the Italians do. We'd have to learn, she said, "to live Italian and live Italian cycling."
I've known Connie and Davis for years—I'd once rented a house next door to them when they were living a little north of Venice—so it didn't surprise me when Connie pulled me aside after the meeting. We stood on the hotel's red-brick patio and made small talk. I told her I felt strong enough to do the middle race again, without a meltdown, but that I was going to stick with Kalee, who, I confided, was already a little intimidated.
"How experienced is she?" Connie asked.
She had only done two long-distance rides: a hundred-miler (161 kilometers) to the tip of Long Island, New York (formidable mileage on flat terrain), and a 60-mile (97-kilometer) loop around a New Hampshire lake (hillier, but nothing close to these mountains).
"She's a terrific athlete," I said, "and game. She's going to do fine."
Connie smiled, but I could tell she was worried. Her job is to get every single rider to the start and finish lines.
Two hours into the race we crest Passo Pordoi, the second major high point in the circuit. By now the pack has stretched out, and we finally have some room to maneuver. We even stop for coffee and strudel. Such behavior, unthinkable in any other bike race, is perfectly acceptable in this one.
The third summit, Passo Sella, is preceded by a gradual ascent through thick woods. It is the part that looks and feels most like a ride back home, somewhere in the shady woodlands of Northern California or New England. This, Connie had told us, is a place to rest, because the next two climbs will be the toughest.
The entire pack slows down to a semileisurely pace. I can tell we're near the tail end. The French derisively call riders in our position "red lanterns," and being at the rear is considered an embarrassment. In the Maratona the situation creates self-deprecating dramas. We listen as one rider dials his cell phone and yells, "Mama! Mama! I'm on the Sella! It's hard!"
At the final feed zone, we stop to refill our bottles and grab a few sliced oranges, the last of a dwindling supply. When I turn to look back down the pass, I see a truck slowly climbing. Two men trail behind it, loading in the traffic barriers that had been placed there for the race. Farther behind, I can see a pair of police cars, lights flashing, followed by a line of vehicles.
The roads are reopening.
"We have to go," I tell Kalee, "or we're going to get run over."
The Maratona is a part of a category of races unique to Italy, called granfondos. In the U.S. the biggest amateur rides tend to be laid-back affairs: charity jaunts, where the fund-raising goal dictates that the terrain be mild enough for everyone, or just-for-fun affairs—long-distance excursions that are often more about the ice cream you'll eat afterward. In the more than 100 Italian granfondos held every summer, bikes rule. Roads are closed to cars. Drivers caught out by the ten-hour wait can either sit in frustration or pull over, make a roadside picnic, and watch the two-wheeled parade.
The race in the Dolomites is one of the biggest and hardest of all granfondos, attracting everything from slow-moving cicloturisti (recreational riders) and fit ciclosportivi (enthusiasts) to the disturbingly fast amateurs known as cicloamatori (or lovers of cycling). And all of them know how to ride. Italian kids are taught cycling in school; this is a nation of tifosi (bike fanatics) who know they're not just on Earth to cheer their favorite racers, but to get on, pedal, and be, above all, bello in sella—"beautiful in the saddle."
The morning after our arrival, promptly following a breakfast of strong coffee and eggs scrambled with prosciutto, we had our first chance to practice that art. The Maratona's three circuits start with the same initial 34 miles (55 kilometers), making a clockwise circle around the massif. In the short race, the final climb ascends to Passo Gardena and then drops high-speed to the finish line in Corvara. Our first day was a six-mile (ten-kilometer) warm-up. "Steep," Connie had called it, "but not too steep."
It was steeper than anything Kalee had ever ridden. After we'd gone three miles (five kilometers), the summer sun vanished. The temperature dropped. It started to rain. Then it started to hail. In seconds, we were drenched.
I yelled to Kalee, "Do you want to turn around?"
She put her head down and kept pedaling, and it was clear from the quick glance she shot me that she found the question a bit patronizing. She was right: If we had abandoned ship then, we might never have made it to race day.
It isn't just spectacular terrain or huge crowds that make the Maratona the ultimate granfondo. This route covers hallowed ground. On the second training day, we rode up the Campolongo, the hill outside our hotel and the race's first pass, and then continued up 33 switchbacks to Passo Pordoi, whose windy summit tops out at 7,346 feet (2,239 meters). I felt strong, and the climb hurt in a good way: My tight legs were unwinding. Kalee pedaled steadily, but I could tell that she was a bit shell-shocked. Her report, halfway up, was understated. "This is a lot more than I've ever done," she said.
The top of Passo Pordoi offers the usual café and souvenir stand (an accordion-playing mechanical chipmunk is a popular choice), but the key attraction is a bronze relief that overlooks the pass. The sculpted panel depicts the famous Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi in action, his face etched with deep concentration as he climbs.
It is difficult for an outsider to understand how important Coppi, who raced before and after World War II, is to Italy. He won the 1940 Giro d'Italia. When Italy entered the war, racing was suspended, and Coppi, who was conscripted into the army, was captured by Allied forces and held as a prisoner of war. He returned to a devastated and humbled Italy and in 1949 won both the Giro and the Tour de France (this double is bike racing's most impressive and rarest feat; Armstrong never attempted it during his career). For a racer of Coppi's caliber to pedal along substandard roads and through war-torn villages was unthinkable, so everywhere Coppi raced, Italy rebuilt. There's a Coppi museum in the Piedmont town of Castellania, where the racer was born. The mayor of the village is Coppi's cousin, Piero Coppi. "Fausto brought our country back from the dead," he told me.
Heroism turned to martyrdom in 1960. Coppi contracted malaria during a visit to Africa, and three weeks later, at age 40, the legendary champion was dead. More than 10,000 people attended his funeral; the entire nation was in shock. "America had Kennedy," Piero said. "We had Fausto."
The highest part of the tallest climb in an Italian bike race is known as the Cima Coppi. Although not technically the highest, Passo Pordoi has been granted this title dozens of times—and it would again during Sunday's Maratona. Climbing it in training was a smart move. Knowing what to expect, Connie and Davis hoped, would ease our minds on race day. At the top we did what every cyclist must: We paid tribute to Coppi, spending an appropriate amount of time standing reverently before the bronze plaque. And while we couldn't appreciate it the way the Italians do, to ignore it would have been more than bad form; it would have been bad luck.
On the hardest day of our training week we split into two groups. Connie led the more advanced squad on a 60-miler (97 kilometers) that looped through the Plan de Corones ski area; its last half-mile angles upward at a nearly nauseating 12 to 14 percent grade (the stiffest climbs in the Rockies rarely exceed 10 percent). The second group, which Kalee joined, covered a hilly 40 miles (64 kilometers), instead of our 60.
One of the hallmarks of an Italian climb is information. There's always a sign at the base of a hill indicating how many switchbacks you'll encounter. Each turn is numbered. On my last visit, this became a primary motivator: I loved that it was getting harder (the gradient increasing) at the same time it was getting easier (closer to the top). Kalee had a different reaction. "I just want to ride," she said. "I don't want to think about how many more turns we have left."
The eight of us in my group started together. It is almost impossible to ride in a pack on a tough climb. Instead, the best ascenders—usually the lightest in the bunch—will start sprinting, while the bulkier members of the group (that's me) fall back. I succumbed after a few hot-and-sweaty minutes; on the final grade I struggled even to keep my bike upright, telling myself over and over again to keep pedaling, not to put my foot down. I made it to the Plan de Corones completely out of breath, my calves and quads burning. Some cyclists from a local club were gathered together, eating small cakes, getting ready to descend. They seemed to pity me as they pointed downhill, indicating that the rest of my group had already dropped toward the valley.
The road leveled into forest, then farmland, as I pedaled toward Brunico, the region's commercial hub, where the group was scheduled to stop for lunch. I couldn't find anyone. I waited at an intersection for a few minutes, then pulled out the route map we had been given that morning. The plan had seemed pretty straightforward: We would complete a loop by riding a small path parallel to the main road and the river, meet up with the other group, and pedal up the valley together.
I continued alone on the main road, alongside the river. Then I found a turnoff that ran alongside both. But over the next 20 miles (32 kilometers), the strip of blacktop turned horse-and-buggy narrow. It started to climb, and a sign indicated that I was heading back toward the Plan de Corones. I was definitely lost.
I had polished off my energy bars and drained my water bottles ten miles (16 kilometers) earlier. I needed somewhere to refill: an open spigot or even a stream. Finally I saw a woman kneeling in front of a small farmhouse, picking berries with one hand as she held a parasol in the other. I gestured toward my empty bottle, and she led me to an old-fashioned hand pump. I showed her my map, trying to pantomime my destination. The woman shook her head—emphatically. She had no clue what I meant. I had visions of hiking through a meadow on muddy cow paths with my bike over my shoulder.
I pressed on and soon found an even narrower road with no guardrails and sheer drops along every curve. Worst of all, it was one way—and not in my direction. But once again, I was reminded that this is Italy. Bikes and cars interact differently here. From the looks they gave me, the drivers coming up the hill certainly considered me to be something of a knucklehead. But I was a cyclist, and as I approached, each car stopped, making as much room as possible while I squeezed by.
Connie and both groups were waiting when I reached the bottom. Kalee said she'd been worrying about me. As we headed toward Corvara, I kept falling behind. An unplanned snack and drink stop didn't help at all: I was beyond the point where food could be of immediate assistance (the exact term for this, I later learned, is a crisi di fame, a "hunger crisis").
By the time we got to the hotel, Connie was convinced that Kalee was ready to race. She wasn't so sure about me.
But now both of us are here, racing the course, descending the Maratona's final stretch. There's no chance of cars and trucks overtaking us anymore. We take the turns the way Connie has taught us, stabilizing the bike by shifting weight back in the saddle and pressing the inside knee to the top tube, slowing, leaning, then bursting through the hairpins, speeding up until the next curve. Kalee descends beautifully, angling through the turns, gaining speed at each one. It's a major transformation.
As we cross the line, a digital readout flashes our standing: somewhere around 7,250th. We've finished in just under six hours. The winner of the race, we soon learn, is Italian Emanuele Negrini, who edged out Raimondas Rumsas, a former pro who'd been thrown out of mainstream racing in 2003 for doping (the Lithuanian's infamy increased when he allowed his wife, who'd been caught at the French border with a suitcase full of steroids, to languish in jail for 73 days while he denied any involvement). Since granfondos are not internationally sanctioned, black sheep riders are permitted to enter, and Rumsas and the other elite racers have finished the long course—almost three times the distance of our circuit—in three-fourths the time.
We walk our bikes toward the Corvara skating rink, where everyone is redeeming their race numbers for all the pasta, sausage, cake, and beer they can handle. We fill our own plates to heaping and step out into the afternoon sun to lie on the grass with hundreds of other sweaty, hungry, and elated finishers. Our group has done pretty well: The Colorado squad finished quickly; Jason, the rider from Atlanta, came in just behind us; the cardiac-rehab rider didn't compete after all but is determined to come back; and the biggest news of all was that Taylor Phinney came in seventh in the junior division—an amazing result for a new rider competing against experienced Italians.
We achieved what we, and Connie and Davis, intended. We started and finished one of the greatest rites of the grandest sport in a great country. But lounging here on the grass with a paper plate of pasta and the Gruppo Sella—no longer so intimidating—looming overhead, I find myself wondering if we've accomplished what we really set out to do. Have we, in Connie's words, "lived Italian—and lived Italian cycling?"
And I realize that the defining moment came not today as we rode side-by-side across the finish line, but earlier this week, on that first training ride, when the afternoon hailstorm caught us out. Soaked and shivering, we had crested Passo Gardena and gone to the tavern to rendezvous with the rest of our group. As we entered, a hush fell over the place, and all the locals stared in our direction. We didn't see our companions anywhere. Had they already ridden off and left us behind again? Then one of the waitresses motioned us toward a back room. Inside we found not just our American squad, but half a dozen Italian riders who had also braved the hail and cold that day to train for the big race. And as we stepped into that warm room—the last two riders to come in from the cold—everybody looked up from their glasses of schnapps and applauded.
We may have finished the race in almost last place, too—not generally the best place to be—but we have just biked the Maratona dles Dolomites. And with the mountains conquered and behind us, simply crossing the finish line counts as a win.
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