Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cycling and the Giro

Cyclist Danilo di Luca, a few years ago>

One of my recent passions in life is professional cycling. I started watching the Tour de France a few years back and suddenly, I was obsessed. I could identify with being a cyclist - an individual using their whole body against the elements, and my word, the DRAMA of it! Now I'm no expert on cycling, but I read the cycling reports every morning and keep up with it the best I can. I'm a fan of certain cyclists, I follow their particular seasons and while I can't sit with the "big boys" who quote stats, I can hold my own.

All most of us know in the US is the Tour de France and Lance Armstrong. Let's face it, winning 7 Tour de France's will never be topped, the man is a cancer survivor and tireless advocate for the fight against cancer. He has his own plane and lots of money, he dates superstars. Cycling, however, is much, much more than him, he'd be the first to admit it. To be honest, I never really liked him then, my husband and I were rooting for his German adversary, Jan Ullrich. I even had a magenta T-Mobile team cycling jersey that I wore during the month of July. Heresy, I know.

Cycling is much, much more than getting on a special racing bike and riding as fast as you can to win - there is strategy, that's where things get fascinating. The Tour de France is the biggest cycling race of the year, there are different stages each day: some are mountainous, some are flat, some are individual time trials, some have a flashy ending in a city or town for the sprinters. And let's not forget the weather factors of rain, hot sun, snow, or having an accident, sometimes all in the same day. The Tour de France is won by accruing the best total time, you can win the Tour without ever winning a stage. The factors can be endless!!

Besides the Tour, there are many bike races through the year and many different types of cyclists. Some cyclists shine at one day races, the Spring classics, held in Belgium, Holland, Italy, and France starting in March. Others do well in the three day or week long races. And then others are specialists in the grand tours. In addition to the 3 week Tour de France in July each year, there is the Giro d'Italia in May and the Vuelta d'Espana in September. Right now the second week of the Giro is happening in Italy, and while we don't get tv coverage here in the US, I follow along on the cycling news websites. Most three week races have the usual set up of having huge, astounding mountain stages in the last week, but for some reason this Giro has had a lot of big mountain stages in the first week which makes for using a different strategy to win. Danilo di Luca (nicknamed "the Killer" by the Italian press, they give nicknames to all their cyclists) on the LPR team is in the leader's pink jersey, the maglia rosa. He won the Giro a few years ago and was expected to be competitive but not to win. He is wily, he's been accruing all the time and extra bonus time he can, attacking when others weren't expecting it, he's strong in the mountains. Since it is early days in a grand tour, many cyclists use the first week to warm up and keep within striking distance. Di Luca knows that he could lose his lead to other cyclists in the top 10 who are very strong in the individual time trial coming up, so what a coup it would be if he is able to hold on, wow.

This year's Giro has been particularly dangerous with some usual safety measures lacking. I guess it adds excitement for the Italians but it really puts the cyclists into serious danger. Let's face it, these guys are professional, they race in all kinds of conditions all year round, so if they are complaining about the conditions, I think that needs to be addressed. There was an horrific crash a few days ago when 34 year old Rabobank rider Pedro Horrillo crashed into a guardrail and fell down a 150 foot ravine, it took half an hour to for him to be found. He was put into a coma and suffered a lot of injuries, luckily no brain damage, but he'll be out of commission for a long time. He's lucky to be alive. The riders in this year's Giro were understandably shaken up, and protested the dangerous conditions by riding very slowly around a circuit in Milan on Sunday - a circuit that included sudden lanes of the road ending (forcing speeding cyclists into a sudden bottleneck), parked cars (which should have been removed), traffic "furniture" (circles in the middle of the road), and tram lines in the road going every which way. Riders rarely protest, but they stopped the race, Lance and Di Luca grabbed a microphone, apologized but said the conditions were dangerous, the head of the Giro was forced to have to equalize all the rider's times that day. Drama, my friends. Perhaps this wasn't handled in the best way - fans in Milan were pretty upset - but the riders had their say publicly. I was proud of them for doing it because in the professional cycling culture, cyclists are expected to shut up and accept things - sudden drug tests at all hours (yes, someone watches you pee into a cup whenever and wherever), bad weather, drunken fans wandering around mountain stage roads, harrassment (fans throwing things at you or pushing you, yes, it happens), motorcycles with photographers in your face, being victim to bad management decisions, the list goes on and on. Michael Barry, a Team Colombia cyclist in this year's Giro wrote a good article, check it out

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