…of the Civitanova Marche-Forlì Stage: Giro 2015
The first nine days of this Giro have been hell, an on-going war. Long days, some of them seemingly never-ending. The day off was, for many of us, like a huge breath of oxygen when you’re on the verge of drowning.
Today’s stage is easy, but it’s still 200k, most of which will be pretty much like a second day off. Nobody is going to want to attack right off the bat because the rest of the group would just let them go right from the start. Plus, who wants to ride all those miles into the wind? It would be nothing but wasted effort, pure and simple madness. And then tomorrow the stage is Forlì-Imola, short and tough as hell, a high-risk day for anybody who’s already close to the limit. No doubt it’s much better to stay there in the middle and keep those legs pumping. Truth be told, there are a few nut cases out there. For days now, Malaguti of the Nippo Fantini team and I have been planning to run this stage on the escape. We had already tried it during the Montecatini stage with three other guys, but this time we’re on our home turf, Malaguti being more pureblooded Forlì folk than me. As with everybody who knows him well, for me he’s called “Gnula”, a nickname he got stuck with from his first sports director when he was just a kid and which he has never gotten rid of. We train together all the time and we’ve known each other all our lives. We’re great friends and we trust each other. Since we know that the group will give up right from the start, we are starting in the front row. On the day off I discovered another lunatic, Busato from the South East team. “Büz” rode with me for three years as an amateur in the Coppi Gazzera starting in 2008, the last season we were together. We’ve always gotten along great. I always sacrificed a lot for him and he has me to thank if he won a few races. What’s too bad is that here he is 28 years old and only now is he taking part in his first major tour. It took them a long time, far too long, to recognize his true value. Yesterday on the phone I told him that Gnula and I were going to attack right from the start and we were sure a couple of others would come along for the ride. He told me he wasn’t really sure because he was tired and maybe it might be better to give it a go some other day. I shot back, “Do whatever you want. But you’ll regret it.” This morning he came up to me at the start line and said: “I’m in.”
After a short trip by car it’s up to the official start line and we’re off. I attack first. The first try doesn’t work, so I try it again and the group lets me roll. I take a look around and the two that were supposed to be there are right with me. We’ve also got Gatto from Androni and Boem from Bardani with us. Everything according to plan; I knew that the two Italian professional teams would be putting a guy out front. The first miles go by pretty quickly and the pace drops down to a slower rate. It’s going to be a long day. Energy management will be essential.
I also see Gatto as an ally. I’ve known him for about ten years, ever since we went with the Under 23 national team to take part in the European championships in Valkenburg. Last year we were teammates with Cannondale and we built a solid relationship. Oscar and I get a kick out of the idea that a guy of his qualities is involved in this suicidal escape. He’s the only one among us who has won a stage in the Giro as well as ten or so races in his career. He jokes that maybe the last time he took part in a long-distance escape he was about 15 years old and riding on the junior team. A lot of people are of the opinion that he is a highly talented rider who could have done more, but that perhaps at times he settled for too little. The only guy in the escape group who I don’t know beyond a “Hey, how ya doing?” is Boem. He’s a pretty good athlete, often on the attack. He won a stage in the Tour of Denmark last year, but there’s no doubt he’s looking for a way out of the cycling Purgatory he’s in right now. He’s the only one I see in the escape group as an actual threatening enemy.
The peloton lets us run out a lead of up to 3’40”. The string isn’t all that long, no point in putting the hammer down right now because they’d just do the same behind us. We need to keep it steady and use the right amount of fuel, let them keep an eye on us and then let it all out in the final 50k and try to knock them off that way. We have about a one per cent chance of going all the way. Maybe a little more if the other guys believe like I do.
When we are at about 130k from the finish, the group has the lead cut down to two minutes. We look at each other, partly disappointed and partly pissed off. “Christ, whadda they wanna do, wrap it up now? Not gonna happen!” No doubt they are starting to realize that they pushed too hard and they’ll start to ease up, leaving the three of us again. And that’s just what happens. Anyways it is hard to believe we’ll go all the way, they’re playing cat and mouse behind us. If we can just get on live TV for a while that would be something…
We race through Pesaro and the hilly stretch of the stage is under way. It’ll last about 30k, until just after the town of Cattolica. We’re keeping a steady but firm pace. On a downhill run Gnula gets a little excited, takes a curve wrong, and risks causing all of us to crash. Boem gets all worked up about this and starts hollering wildly that there’s no point in taking those kind of risks, that they’ll catch us whenever they feel like it, that he’s going to stop pushing and crap like that. I get him settled down by telling him to take it easy and that I’ll tell Malaguti not to pull anymore shenanigans like that. I finish by saying, “Let’s all keep pushing and everything’s gonna be fine. Trust me on this one.” Case closed.
We roll into the town of Misano. No more uphills or downhills for today. 70k of flatland to the finish line. On the radio my sports director, Guidi, tells us to stay the course until after Rimini. After that we’ll have favourable winds, and he wants us then to cut loose with everything, like in a team time trial, and go hell bent for leather from there on out.
So that’s what we do. Once we get past Rimini, at exactly 50k from the end, things take a serious turn. The lead is going back and forth between two and two and a half minutes. Not much, but it’ll have to do, because from here on they’ll keep relentlessly whittling away at the lead.
The miles are flying by now. Our speed is always up over 50km/h and as soon as they start to slow down I’m always ready to give them a bump up. Of the five of us, I reckon I’m in the best shape. So I take it upon myself to push a little harder for the good of the escape group, which curiously enough is made up only of riders from the regions of Veneto and Romagna. Kind of weird…Veneto and Romagna out in front with the rest of the world trailing in our wake.
A whirlwind of thoughts begins to go through my mind.
When I was a kid, I used to watch the Giro on TV. I dreamed of being in it and winning a stage. And now that’s exactly what’s happening. The dream is coming true. Funny how life is.
I imagine all my friends and acquaintances watching on TV at this very instant. I can see them gathered together or alone suffering the tension of the moment. Rivers of words must be flowing on social networks, in chats and in phone calls to make sure everybody knows I’m in the breakaway and there’s a chance that’s where I’ll be at the finish, that today I’m going for broke. I can only imagine what my dad is going through, as emotional as he gets sometimes, even when I was just a kid and he used to get so excited and carried away when I won a race. I just hope that today he doesn’t have a heart attack or something. I can just see him and the other members of my fan club waiting breathlessly three kilometres from the finish. My granddad Renzo also comes to mind. If he were here today he’d be having himself a great time. For just a second I feel a flash of melancholy.
However things turn out, stories will be told of this day for years to come. People will talk about whom they were with, where they were, and what was going on while they watched me live on TV. A rush of adrenaline goes through me.
I think of all the times in my life when I felt like I wasn’t good enough.
Of all the times I hated myself for giving into to my own weaknesses, when I just settled for doing what was absolutely necessary, or I just outright rejected the idea of winning a race.
The idea crosses my mind that I may never get another chance like this again.
Another rush, even stronger….
We’re really moving now. Every push is almost like a sprint, and lining up behind when changing places is anything but easy. We are pushing ourselves to the limit of killing ourselves. I shout to the other guys that yeah, we can do it. I don’t know why but in the excitement of the moment I holler at Gnula, “Whatever happens, today we’re the winners!”
Actually, now that we’re down to the last twenty kilometres or so, and we’re still holding onto a lead of a minute and a half, I want to make it all the way. I want to win it all. Never before have I longed for glory like today, glory that will remain carved into my mind and soul forever.
I am tired but I feel alive, alive as all hell. Alive enough to realize that I am well past the proverbial half-done with this job. Although I don’t know if job is exactly the right word. Madness is probably more appropriate.
I wish this moment could be frozen in time, that I could save these minutes of uncertainty and pathos and relive them any time I might feel like it.
My legs are hurting really bad now; my effort is at the limit. “Hang in there, you old mutt!” I need my brain to come up with the adrenaline I need to feel less pain. If you know how to channel strong emotions the right way, they turn into a painkiller of pure energy. It works a lot of the time. I learned at my own expense in all these years. It takes a lot of guts, the kind a guy like me is supposed to have, a guy who wants to pull something off that until just recently seemed out of the question. I want to stand out from the rest, to experience a day I’ll never forget, to achieve something that goes so much further than just climbing up onto the top step of the podium. I haven’t been there since I was an amateur, all those years ago. And I have to say that I can barely remember what it felt like.
Today I want to be something I’ve never been before.
14 kilometres from the end, Gatto has a flat. He would have been useful to me but for him the story ends here. Had I attacked first, everybody would have expected him to close it out, being the faster.
And so now fate begins to play its role. The fact is, fate was always there, even if we thought we could get around it. Fate has probably come up with some kind of mean little trick to play. It got rid of the only guy who has already won a stage in the Giro, the only one who has enjoyed a considerable degree of success in his career. The script was written; it all has to play out now by four dogfaces with no class or glory, forgotten by the gods of cycling, those four desperately looking for that one success that will change their lives.
Damned fate. It already knows the ending, but it still wants to sit back and enjoy the show.
Gnula passes just a few miles from his home. Last year he told me he had a kind of movie in his mind of being in the lead of this stage: “A breakaway from way far out, a group that misjudges things, and me crossing the line with my arms raised…” I know for a fact that he would like to dedicate a victory to his mother, who passed away two years ago. This would be the most wonderful way to honour her memory. Büz, after being unjustly bounced around from one bush-league team to another, finally has a chance to get his revenge on everybody who never believed in him. As for me, after years of working for others without leaving any room for myself, it’s a shot at victory just a stone’s throw from home. It’s a crack at priceless satisfaction that would repay all the unpaid efforts without glory of these past years.
From the outside looking in, for those who know a little bit about what we’ve been through, there are all the ingredients for a thrilling, dramatic, heart-stopping finale.
I’ve got three opponents to beat, and two of them are my friends. Maybe if I attack first, that’ll do it. Maybe I can do it. But maybe the stakes are too high to let friendship come into it. Maybe this, maybe that, maybe this other thing…
Back of us the group is going to be like a pack of hungry, ferocious wolves. I can almost hear what they’re thinking. Stuff like “We weren’t supposed to have to work this hard today just on account of those five a**holes!” I can also feel the anger of those who have been pushing all day long on behalf of their sprinters. They must be pissed off as hell, since they spent the day thinking, “Aw, we can catch ‘em any damn time we want to.”
Looks like they didn’t count on our survival instinct, which is pushing us to give it all we’ve got, to go above and beyond. We’re hanging on to our dream by the skin of our teeth. This breakaway is not going to die just a few steps short of the finish line. It absolutely must not die.
Four kilometres from the end, and the radio lets us know that we are still leading by fifty seconds, followed by “Today’s your chance.” I let Gnula know about the lead and he looks at me with a mix of tension and incredulity. Three kilometres out, we pass in front of my fan club, but I can only recognize my dad. By instinct I nod at him. I am clear-headed and I know what has to be done: attack first. Boem is nervous because the pace has slowed down and and everybody’s running short. At less than 1,800 meters, while he’s letting himself get passed because he turned around to yell at Büz, Gnula leaves me a few metres and I attack all out. As I hit the Forlì town square a deafening roar arises from the crowd. The adrenaline is running in rivers now, electrical discharges, lactic acid…instants that will be with me for the rest of my days. I push with everything left in my body. I know I’ve left a space behind me and I decide not to turn around and look back. I’m at the last curve, but I take it a little too slow: I’m no longer fully focused because of the inhuman effort I’m putting forth. 400 meters to go: “C’mon, Alan, you got it!”
All of a sudden I look down and I see Boem’s wheel right behind mine. Two seconds and he’s past me. I turn around and see the other two closing in ready to fly past me. That’s when I stop pedalling, I stop fighting. Right now finishing fourth or finishing last is pretty much the same thing. I just feel like crying.
And so Boem, the “enemy”, winds up winning. I cross the finish line in tears. My chance of a lifetime just went up in smoke, gone forever. Victory was oh so close. Amazing, exactly two hundred meters. I was in front and I lost it all by just a few meters. This is the cruelty of sports.
To get back to the bus, I take a street that runs parallel to the final stretch, where I meet any number of faces that I recognize. I feel like a gladiator walking out of the arena. I hear the various “way to go Alan”,“atta boy Alan”, “you deserved to win.” I’m disappointed, but I’m happy I gave some true, genuine excitement to everybody who’s been with me since forever.
A little while later I find out what happened behind me, something I never would have imagined: Gnula moved twice, cancelling my attack and winding up third. Outrageous! He went completely out of his mind. The adrenaline went to his head and clouded his mind. He thought he could win on an empty tank and he went for the impossible. That’s the only way I can explain it. I kick myself for not having said beforehand, “Let’s not come after each other” or “Let’s not pull any bulls**t.” It surely would have made him use his head. Why the hell didn’t I say anything? Why did I just take everything for granted? Why, why, why? I should have known from the look on his face that he wasn’t himself. I should have reminded myself that some times he gets caught up in the excitement of the moment, and I didn’t. I was too worried thinking about going all the way, lost in my daydreams. How stupid of me.
I’m sure that that double move of his was made in good faith. If that were not the case, it means that I haven’t figured out a damn thing about life and I deserve to get screwed all the time. After all these years of sharing our ideas on bikes, women and life in general, trying to buck each other up when the going got tough…there’s no way he could have done something like that on purpose. I refuse to believe it. It just couldn’t be.
Gnula is not completely uninvolved, either. I guess our dreams got in a fight with each other today.
It’s all down to fate and its cruel little tricks. It was in the cards all along. And I thought I could fool fate with this nutty idea I put down on paper. Who the hell did I think I was? God? In the end fate screwed me. Or rather, us. Just like it was supposed to all along.
That’s the way it goes. There’s no point in trying to make sense out of something that never made sense from the start. We did something completely insane and insanity was the only thing that could have come of it.
Though the anger will remain for a long time to come, this unforgettable adventure will leave me stronger. Today I reached one more milestone in understanding my life. I can win. I can win a stage in a major tour, and I don’t give a damn how things went down today. Nobody’s going to give me anything for free in this world, but that doesn’t matter: I’ll go and get it myself.
All I have to do is believe it, believe it deep down, and carry with me a touch of madness.
Words: Alan Marangoni @ALANMARANGONI