Lying on the hotel room bed with my legs stretched vertically against the wall, I stare at the ceiling. A spring breeze blows through the window cutting the stale odor of the hotel room. Beyond the window in the parking lot below, I can hear the intermittent buzz and splash the mechanics’ power washers. The air compressor that is used to fill our tires hisses and revs at intervals. Voices chatter in Italian, English and German. Their workday continues into the evening as they repair and prepare.
As gravity flushes the pain from my worn legs, I close my eyes and revisit the last kilometers of the race. A rider on my right bumps off my shoulder as he avoids a crash on his right. I look back. My teammates who follow in my draft are okay. Their grimaces are red from the effort. Sweat pours from their faces even though the spring air is cool. I don’t feel as worn as they look but I know I look the same — I have already seen the photographers’ shots of me. The directeur’s voice crackles over the radio as he tells us exactly how many kilometers and corners are left.
Snapshots of the finish are clear in my memory. The race is broken down into crucial moments, which are the only vivid mental snaps. Forming a film-like memory is impossible. A storm of color, the race rips through the countryside. We race through towns too quick to form clear impressions. Their names are targets for us. They are one point of reference in a race of hundreds. We are always pursuing something: the break, the wheel in front, the finish line, the top of the climb, the next town, the group in front. The peloton never truly relaxes long enough to absorb the environment. Yet, somehow, all those pieces come together to form a wonderful journey for us and for the spectators we whizz past.
In a trance within the bubble of the race, almost everything external is missed in those final frantic moments. I am focused solely on the goal and more precisely my exact position in that race and the requirements of my job. In those moments pain is overwhelmed by emotion and endorphin. My breathing increases and lactic acid seers my muscles. But, the intensity of the moment pushes me beyond what I could achieve in training. The race carries the rider.
As I lie in bed, the surges I pushed out hours earlier can still be felt in my aching legs. My mind is at ease but my body is still racing to recover from the effort. The muscles twitch.
Our bodies are becoming thin. We don’t recognize how we have morphed in the past few weeks but our families will. We have thinned from cyclists to grand tour riders.
In the third week of the Giro, the strain of the race is apparent in the peloton. We have rarely relented since the start in Amsterdam. Daily, from the drop of the flag the peloton is moving at over 50 kmh until the breakaway finally forms — often after over an hour of constant attacks and pursuits.
This Giro has been abnormal on every level. The unusual course has created unease in the peloton. That nervousness contributes to the intensity of the racing. When teams panic under pressure they can lose much more than those who ride with clarity and patience. That panic causes crashes, splits in the peloton, and incites mental and physical fatigue, which leads to breakdown.
Some riders who attacked with vigor in the first week now sit tight in the draft. Those who are ill ride at the back of the group and don’t even attempt to move up. They yo-yo in and out of the peloton as we climb and descend until the string finally breaks and they press on alone to the finish. Their days are long and their position is the one we all fear.
The Giro d’Italia is not only wearing on the peloton but also on the team staff. As we reach the last week everybody seems to be counting the days. Three weeks is a long time to be doing anything, even vacationing on a beach. The stages have been long and intense. Before and after each day’s race we sit on the bus driving to and from hotels. The driver has covered over 3000 kilometers since the start. For us, it isn’t too bad as we can sit back and relax. But for the staff hours of work are added to their already long days.
While we flew to Italy from the Netherlands, they drove. While we sleep, they’re preparing our mussettes and bottles for the following day. While we lie in bed, they’re cleaning the bus and working on the bikes. While we race, they’re in the feed zone or preparing the hotel rooms.
But we all persist because there is a common passion for cycling that envelopes the Giro’s circus. Spectators spend hours decorating their homes in pink for the race to pass by in minutes. They anticipate and celebrate the race’s arrival like a birthday or Christmas. The race has left a trail of pink through Italy and like any celebration it has incited fervent emotion in the people. Seeing that emotion makes all of the suffering worthwhile.
Lying on my hotel bed I envision the next stage. I can see the animated crowd cheering and children dressed in pink pounding the barriers. I can hear the MC at the finish announcing the winner’s name. Like all of them, I also feel inspired.