Stage 9: Climbing to the chapel

10500284_725714607474125_1257629835464876470_nMountains to the left. Lake Como on the right. We race at 50k/h on the apparently picturesque road along the water. No time to have a look. Full concentration is needed for the hectic situation on this winding

It’s a sunlit day. That’s so often totally different in October, when our male colleagues ride the Giro di Lombardia on these same roads, towards the climb to the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo. The asphalt covered in autumn leaves. Sun shining low through the haze over the lake. Or it rains. The riders transform into grey creatures, only lit by the headlights of the cars.

Today it’s a splash of colour. Everything is blooming, our kits a whirl of hues. We all take the turn in a couple of kilometres, at the roundabout in Bellagio. From there it goes up. The men continue once they’ve reached the top. For us, the finishline is next to the chapel. That’s where the last stage of the women’s Giro ends. With the Madonna, the patron of cyclists, we find redemption of the pain and the fatigue after ten days of racing.

But first we have to hold on for a bit longer. Persevere. We want to make sure our climber starts the Ghisallo in the best possible position, so we ride in formation at the head of the bunch. We go full gas – and hope the climbers from other teams will have a hard time moving to the front, so they have to spend a lot of energy in the first part of the climb already. We speed up. A lot of yelling behind us. You can literally hear the panic. We launch our climber. The finish line for us domestiques is at the roundabout in Bellagio.

The roundabout where Johnny Hoogerland attacked in 2009. It was a week after the death of Frank Vandenbroucke, in a hotel in Senegal. Hoogerland was the first one to reach the chapel. He pulled his jersey open. Underneath he wore an undershirt with the text: Per te VDB. For you, VDB. Hoogerland used to be a big fan of Frank. This was his homage. A homage at the chapel, where an eternal flame burns for all deceased cyclists.

There’s the roundabout. The race explodes. I get passed by a lot of riders, and so do some of my teammates. Our job is done. We are allowed an easy pedal up now. Catch our breath. Take a look around. Beautiful views over Lake Como, just as we have heard in all the stories. Moreover, this seems to be an ordinary road. Ordinary asphalt. Ordinary gradient. But if you know what has happened here, you just see it differently.

In the last 1,5k we suddenly hear bells ringing. The bells of the chapel. They give me goosebumps. They ring for us too! Just like they do in the Tour of Lombardia. Just like in 2006, when Paolo Bettini transformed his grief and despair into extraordinary power. One month before, Bettini became world champion. His brother Sauro wanted to give a party for him, but he died suddenly in a car crash. Paolo wanted to throw his bike away, never race again. But he decided to ride the last classic of the season in honour of his brother. He won, solo, crying, his face towards the sky and his hands pointing to heaven. Under the flamme rouge, the ringing of the bells filling my ears, I think of those images. And I get a lump in my throat.

Emma Pooley wins the stage. Our climber finishes seventh. Marianne Vos gets the last pink jersey of 2014, she takes the cup home. In 1962 Jo de Roo was the first Dutch cyclist to win the Giro di Lombardia. Nowadays, his trophey stands next to his front door – it’s an umbrella stand. After all, cycling isn’t as sacred as it sometimes seems. In fifty years, someone should visit Vos I guess. To find out where she put this Giro trophey.

Click here for the Strava-file of this stage
Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, 14 July 2014

Stage 7: Squeaking brakes and smell of rubber

Giro Rosa 2014 stage - 7What if you let 150 women do a neutralized downhill of 13 kilometres?

Maybe I should explain the word ‘neutralisation’ first, cause not every each and one of you knows exactly what that is, I guess. In most of all cycling races, from the startline on, the bunch has to ride at low speed behind the car of the jury for a couple of kilometres. Mostly the pace is like 30k/h. Somewhere down the road there is a sign with a ’0′ on it and that’s where the jury car hits the gas. The race is open. Sometimes, like today in Italy, we have a short stop at the 0-sign. In this case that came in handy, because we could hand our jackets to our teamleaders or do a quick wee in the grass next to the road.

Back to the neutralization. Most of the times it’s a lot shorter than 13k. And most of the times it’s also not downhill. But in Italy everything is possible.

So we ride down at 35k/h, behind the car of the jury and a couple of motos, from the skiing resort Aprica to the valley of the river Adda. As soon as the road drops, our ears get filled with the noise of hundreds of squeaking brakes and our noses are full of the smell of burning rubber.

A lot of riders are nervous, because once we’re in the valley we go immediately uphill again, to conquer a climb of 8k. Starting in the front is a good idea, so in the compact descending group everyone is trying to get to the front too. That’s not so difficult if you just don’t brake, because the natural speed you get on this road is much higher than the speed the jury is allowing us – which leads to a lot of fidgeting and boxing. A was at the front on the start line already, so I am more or less out of the hectic.

But I hear, smell and notice it. HEY! Someone gets boxed in. BANG! Another puncture. If you brake continuously, the rims get hot which make tires explode. I try to release the brakes now and then, to avoid a puncture, but that’s not easy if you have to stay under 35k/h in a downhill.

Each and every piece of road behind the car of the jury is taken, everyone rides as close to each other as possible to not let any space and lose position. With extra squeezing in the inner corners, and some extra space to pass in the outer corners as a result – give the pedals a short push, squeeze in and brake as hard as you can to avoid crashing into the rider in front of you.

After only 6k my hands are cramping already. A kilometre later I notice I can’t straighten my fingers anymore. My legs start to shake because of the forced low speed and the muscles in my arms and neck object as well.

I don’t like starting a race with a non-neutralized downhill, but I also dislike this.

Normally I don’t appreciate stopping at the 0-sign, but today I’m happy we do so. Not because I have to take off a jacket or have to wee, but because I can finally ease my tense muscles and straighten my cramped fingers. And the race hasn’t even started yet.

Photo: Cor Vos

Stage 3: Lovely Abruzzo mountains

Kilometre by kilometre, we leave the dirty stinking city behind us. The suburbs of Naples are exactly as you’d expect: dilapidated houses, roads full of potholes, the smell of rotting rubbish, newspaper sheets blow across the streets between our wheels. Kilometre by kilometre, the landscape becomes greener. Fewer and fewer buildings. Less and less mess. Until we ride on gentle roads winding through the foothills of the Abruzzo mountains.

The mood in the peloton is less sweet. Today we have the first uphill finish, and before that the first a mile or ten climb. Most teams want to send a rider ahead before we get to the final to help their team leader when she comes across. That’s also our plan. Other teams who have no real GC-rider want to be in the escape too, hoping for the stage victory.

That means attack after attack. Together with two teammates I’ve been instructed to sit in if there’s an escape, so in turn we respond to all attempts. It’s a very tough job in a landscape that’s constantly going up and down. After what feels like an eternity, finally a group gets up the road, with a teammate of mine there. Time to catch my breath and look for my teammates, who swarm around our team leader.

I can’t take it easy for long, because the first ascent is coming. That means going to the front for our team leader, so she can waste as little energy as possible. I fear I will be dropped on the climb after all the work I’ve already done. But once the road starts to go up, I realise that it is not supersteep and I can pace myself up it. Do not think too much, I keep telling myself. Just follow.

My teammates drop one after the other. Now it’s even more important that I stay here, to make sure our team leader still has someone to help her. But I also start to slowly slide backwards. At the moment I’m about to drop, we come through a turn, and I see a sign: GPM 100m. We’re there! I speed up a little and sail under Queen of the Mountains arch. Saved!

Once in the valley, I search for our team leader and my other teammate who also survived the climb. We decide that I’ll quickly get some bottles at the car. It is well above thirty degrees, so drinking is essential. With a jersey full of bottles I ride back to my teammates. Then I put my head down, because the gap to the leading group is large and we don’t want the riders in that group to get so far away from us that they mix up the general classification.

I realise I’m almost out of energy now. Riders from other teams come to help. The road goes uphill again. The front of the bunch accelerates and I lose the wheel in front of me, metre by metre. “Go past me! Quickly!” I call to my two teammates. They go and then I drop. The director comes alongside, sticks his thumb up and gives me a coke. “Get up there, eh, but easily” he shouts before he hits the accelerator and dashes behind the group. I drink my coke, enjoy the view of the majestic Abruzzo and hope that I’ll have another chance tomorrow.

Photo: Velofocus
Click here for the Strava-file of this stage

Stage 1: Puking on the bike

imageA stage for the sprinters, that’s what it was going to be according to the road book, this first stage of the Giro Rosa. A stage with just a little up and down. But hard… No, not really.

O, Italians!

After seeing the loop we had to do eleven times, we knew better. A true rollercoaster, with a – true – short, but steep climb and a downhill which would even the most experienced rollercoasterdesigners frown, followed by very narrow winding roads through the town before hitting the climb again.

The first lap would be neutralized.

O, Italians!

With an insane pace we rode up the climb; almost everybody died already. My stomach turned around and not much later I puked for the first time. I felt all the power leaving my body.

In the first official lap I could just follow on the climb, but I had to pay for that with another bit of throwing up. The third time up I was definitely dropped. With not even 20k of racing done.

I could literally cry. Not just because of my stomach, which kept emptying itself, but especially because of this aweful start of the Giro.

I found a puke-buddy in my little group of dropped girls, she felt at least as horrible as I did. We kept vomiting on the road, over ourselves and our bikes.

What was happening, we were asking ourselves. The heat? Normally that doesn’t bother me at all. The food in the hotel? We were staying in the same hotel. A combination of things? We couldn’t figure it out, we just concluded we both looked grey in the face of misery and we promised each other to survive this stage and to feel better tomorrow.

Long story short: we got to the finish line. At a snail’s pace, feeling as weak as a wet towel. We tried to drink as much as possible to make sure we wouldn’t get dehydrated. I had to throw away my bottle a couple of times because there was puke all over it – hers or mine, I didn’t know.

After a night of good sleep and proper eating – which fortunately stayed inside of me – I feel much better. Today we really have a flat stage ahead of us. According to the Italians. It’s all fine by me – as long as I don’t have to puke anymore.

Giro Rosa, there we go!

270445_207459455966312_4849018_nYes! It’s not only time for the Tour the France, it’s also time for the biggest stage race for women, the Giro Rosa! The next ten days, we’ll race from Caserta near Naples to Madonna del Ghisallo near Milan. Of course you want to follow us. I get that. How can you do so? Well, like this:

On the website Velofocus you’ll find all ins and outs about the Giro Rosa, including a detailed schedule of the stages, even with google streetview-images of each stage finish.

Podiumcafé is thé website for information about riders and inside info about the race itself. Author Sarah Connolly keeps you updated with juicy details. You can also find her on twitter, as @_pigeons_. She tweets all kind of interesting stuff from the race. At this website she made a list of all possibilities to follow the Giro Rosa. Very handy!

Of course the Giro Rosa also has it’s own website and a twitterfeed. Do you have Rai Sport 2 on your tv? Then you’re really lucky, because you’ll be able to even see us race! After every Tour de France-stage Rai Sport 2 broadcasts at least an hour of our race.

Last but not least: I will try to write a little piece on this website every day. You can also follow me on twitter, on Facebook and on instagram. You’ll find news about our team results on Team Giant-Shimano.

And now… Italybound! We fligh to Naples tonight. Tomorrow night at 20:30 the race starts, with a 2k prologue in Caserta. Wish me luck!