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
road.

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

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