Monday, May 31, 2004

Biella, Italy

Friends: We just completed a weekend in Milano that would have been a dream two days for any of the Italian tifosi--the most devoted of cycling fans. Saturday we watched the final mountain stage of the Giro through the Dolomites on a pair of over-sized TVs under a tent with a hoard of the faithful in the city's main plaza, and then Sunday we were among the thousands that lined the finishing two-and-a-half mile loop of the course in the heart of Milan. The peloton rode the loop ten times after starting some 80 miles away.

Pink was everywhere, as that is the color of the leader's jersey, and is as synonymous with The Giro as yellow is with The Tour de France. The tent in the main plaza was even pink. Under the tent were various displays documenting the race since its first edition in 1909, five years after the Tour de France was established. Pantani's bike was there complete with his custom Il Pirata saddle, along with many other bikes and photos and front pages of newspapers from over the years. There were scrapbooks of yellow newspaper articles from the race's very beginning to the present. There was a collection of tributes written by school children proclaiming their love for the race and the racers, some quite touching. And there were souvenirs, including replica pink jerseys, for sale.

The place was mobbed. We stood for nearly an hour-and-a-half, crammed shoulder to shoulder with dozens of the devoted, watching raptly and reverently the racers go over one climb and then another. Surprising there was little audible response to the action. Everyone seemed too consumed by the extreme efforts of the racers to react. This was a crowd of cyclists, each and everyone of whom knew how deeply those racers were digging to pedal a bike up such inclines. They knew it took an ultimate, all-out effort. They all had been there and understood what a cathartic experience it was.

The only audible reaction from our mob was a wave of muttered condemnation when our counterparts along the steep mountain roads would get a little too enthusiastic and push or pat the back of a rider as he passed. There was no reaction, however, to the lunatics who would run at fell speed alongside the racers trying to exhort them on. Nor were there cheers or any reaction at the stage's conclusion. But just about everyone immediately dispersed. Only I and a couple of others lingered for the post race-analysis. I couldn't understand much, but I still wanted to see whatever replays there might be and the close-ups of the racers as they were interviewed and fulfilled their podium chores.

It was all most exalting, especially being in the presence of Milan's spectacular cathedral, one of the largest in the world, with dozens of jutting spires that must have been an influence on Gaudi's famed church in Barcelona. For blocks around the plaza there was no motorized traffic. It was a monumental pedestrian mall. It seemed as if a good portion of Milan's 1.3 million inhabitants were milling about these streets. It is a most spectacular city center.

As we biked into Milan Saturday morning, it seemed to be just another big city, but as we neared the center and started seeing one stately, block-long, five or six story building after another, it began taking on a most appealing flavor. The cathedral and plaza and the many traffic free arteries that spoked out from it proved conclusively that this is not just another big city. It has a distinctive character of its own.

Saturday evening we scouted out the course the race would follow just a few blocks from the city center and were surprised to see no evidence that a race would be taking place there the next day. But Sunday morning when we returned, crews were everywhere setting up barriers and stands and sponsorship tents. The racers didn't arrive into the city until after four p.m. for their final hour long promenade, and not too many of the tifosi arrived until an hour before the
racers did. By noon there weren't even 50 people staking out a spot against the fence at the finish line, unlike at Cannes where people were outside the Palais ten hours or more before the stars were to arrive.

I was a little worried about the lack of tifosi, but they came flocking by race time and were thick around the race course. If people didn't have pink to wear they could buy a pink t-shirt and hat for five euros as Jesse did. Jesse and I stood at a point on the course where we could see the racers twice within 30 seconds allowing us to see them a total of 20 times zipping past us at better than 25 miles per hour. There's not much one can distinguish as the racers fly past, so I switched my gaze from time-to-time to the tifosi and their gleeful expressions. We were nowhere near the finish line so we did not know who won the stage, but the victor of the overall race had been decided the day before, a 22-year old, Cunego, who is the latest great Italian hope, one of the youngest winners ever. A headline in the day's paper said "Tifosi is delirious," referring to Cunego's bright future. Pantani is the only Italian to have won the Tour de France in the past several decades. There has rarely even been an Italian threat. They're all hoping Cunego can be the next Armstrong.

We were back at the campground, six miles from Milan's center, by 6:30. We quickly took down our tents and packed up and were on our way out of town. One night was enough in a
sanctioned campground. A nearby disco played music until three a.m. Our sleep was also interrupted by a French couple arguing over who was responsible for losing the keys to their car. When we checked into the campground early Saturday afternoon we were harangued by an American ex-pat who claimed the US government had implanted a chip in his head years ago and had been trying to control him ever since. He said the IRS had stolen a million dollars from him and that he was never returning to the land of George Bush and we were insane to do so ourselves. He's been paying fourteen euros a night for months to live in a tent in this campground. We were relieved to get fifteen miles down the road and camp in a wooded area free of such mind-numbing distractions.

Tonight could be our last night in Italy and I won't be sorry to be leaving despite the elevated
regard, if not worship, of the bicycle here. There has been all too much traffic and its roads all too narrow, but by far the biggest headache has been its utterly stupefying road signs. There are far from enough and those that there are are often severely lacking in clarity or consistency, a marked contrast to those of France. There were stretches when we had to haul out Jesse's highly-detailed 150-page atlas of Italy's roads five or six times an hour. I just want to lose myself in the biking, and when its constantly interrupted by trying to figure out where I am or how to get to where I want to go, its not so much fun. We're lucky its been mostly sunny our eight days here, as we've constantly had to rely on the sun to determine which way to go. And the signs giving distance are rare and also woefully inconsistent. In one 40-minute stretch we saw six or seven signs all saying 23 kilometers to Como.

Billboards to stores will say they are five or ten minutes away, rather than the number of kilometers. The supermarket grub has also been frustrating. The supermarkets are as vast as those of France or the US, but there is a minimum of prepared food, just tons of ingredients. The Italians are as fond of eating as the French, but they are equally fond and proud of cooking. Anyone caught buying prepared food would be in danger of being excommunicated by the
Pope, or at least their mother-in-law. Only once have I found a can of spaghetti and it was thick in dust. My tent dinner has been chick peas with olives just about every night. The only other canned prepared food to be found is lentils. Only once have I seen baked beans and they were 1.6 euros. And the deli fare has been equally paltry. Its rare to even find potato salad and it is prohibitively expensive. So I am thrilled to be going back to France and its great variety of canned delicacies. The most direct route into France is through a seven-mile tunnel past Mount Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe, though we haven't had it confirmed that bicyclists are allowed. The snow-covered Alps are in sight.

Later, George


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