Nearly 2,000 riders were preregistered for Max Lelli’s Gran Fondo. They were organized at the start into sections determined by registration numbers. Each section was gated, and entry was controlled by a bouncer checking everyone’s race numbers. By virtue of Marco’s close association with Max, we got to stage in the first section. We also had “Max Lelli” team uniforms. After standing around for more than half an hour, listening to announcements and introductions (and watching guys jump the barriers, crushing into the first section to get a head start on the rest of the 1,700 suckers), the race got underway.
There weren’t many women at the gran fondo, but I was warned to watch Number 158, a woman named Barbara who apparently wins a gran fondo almost every weekend in Italy. In the chaos of the race start, which wound through the town and then down a long and curvy hill in a whoosh of sound and fury, I felt so focused that I was almost detached. The scent of nervous perspiration and burning rubber assailed my nostrils; my senses were heightened by adrenaline. This race start was unlike anything I’d done before: hundreds of lycra-clad maniacs bombing down the hill in single-minded pursuit, apparently, of the pace car. Although I’d been staged in the first section of 100 riders, after the first few curves when the view opened up, I saw a river of cyclists in front of me, shoulder to shoulder across the narrow road for probably a quarter of a mile—at least 300 of them. Somehow, I’d lost 200 positions in the first mile of the race.
I had also completely forgotten to look for Number 158—not that I could have, since my attention was entirely occupied in pedaling furiously into each curve, then braking violently (along with the rest of the peloton) to scrub speed before frantically pedaling again to prevent the streaming mass of riders behind from passing us. Towards the bottom of the hill, there was a small crash. The pack parted to avoid the downed riders, and we began tearing up a short hill. The grade helped sort things out a bit, and soon I was passing people left and right. My eyes were peeled for 158; I was pretty sure she was the only woman still in front of me, and soon, I saw her up ahead. But next was a flat section with a ferocious crosswind, and everyone was strung out in a long line. The line broke somewhere in front of me, and by the time I saw the gap, I couldn’t cross it alone. Suddenly 158 was ahead and gaining.
In the group blown together by the wind, I noticed one of Max Lelli’s uniforms, then another. Using all of my minimal Italian, I rode up beside one of them and pointed at his chest and then at mine, gesturing up the road. “Squadra Max Lelli? Io qui, Barbara là—.” (“Teammie? I’m here, Barbara’s up there … I’ve got a problem.”) He motioned to the other Max Lelli guy, who started hauling away at the front. We passed through another town and started another fast descent. He shot through the curves and I stayed glued to his wheel. When I finally had a second to look back, I saw a long line of maybe fifteen guys behind us.
We kept up the pace along a flattish section until we saw a small group in the distance. My helpful teammate redoubled his efforts at the front—I pulled through from time to time, but it was mostly a one-man effort to catch them. Imagine my relief when I saw the group we had just subsumed contained Barbara, Number 158. From then on, I didn’t let her out of my sight. But soon my luck took a turn for the worse, as we arrived at the turnoff for the medium course and my helpful teammate went that way along with a large contingent from the group. From then on, it was just me against Barbara and the rest of the Italian guys on the long course.
Marco had warned me that, as in love and war, all’s fair in gran fondos—so I wasn’t entirely surprised to see that the men in our group were not neutral on the subject of the women’s race. There was only one guy in the group (of perhaps twenty) with the same uniform as 158, but most of the rest of the guys were emphatically on her side regardless of team. Patriotism, I guess. There was one Max Lelli guy in the group, but he stayed out of it and I hardly saw him the rest of the day. There was another guy with a prosthetic lower leg; his other leg and a half propelled him so well that it took me about sixty miles to realize his right leg was carbon from the knee down. I started to watch him because he was one of the few who—if not on my side—was at least not working for 158.
If I was in front of Barbara, her henchmen would attack from behind with her on their wheels, and I’d have to jump across the road to bridge to them. If I was behind Barbara, one of the guys in between would discreetly slow down until a space had opened between Barbara and me. When I realized it, I would have to jump around again, using precious energy to surmount the gap.
After a few of these tricks in a row, I got frustrated and did something a bit childish and silly. As soon as I’d bridged the gap, I turned around and made a rude gesture to the guy who’d purposely opened it. No, it wasn’t anything shockingly obscene: just my thumb on my nose and my four fingers waggling, as if to say, “Nyah, nyah … you tried to gap me but I got back on!” Well, I’m not sure if that gesture means the same thing in Italy, but suddenly I was surrounded by three or four angry men who were shouting and gesticulating wildly. From what I gathered of their shouting, they thought I should be embarrassed by my display of bad manners (which, frankly, I was beginning to regret).
At this point, a scene from the classic cycling movie, Breaking Away, popped into my mind. The hero, a small town American boy who’s obsessed with cycling (and with Italians, since they’re the best cyclists in the world), is thrilled when a real, live Italian pro team comes to town for the local race. He’s in a breakaway with the Italians, but they are incensed that this little pipsqueak is crashing their party. Eventually one of the Italian riders tosses his pump in our hero’s spokes, and the happy-go-lucky American gets thrown unceremoniously into a ditch. So here I was in a group of hopping mad Italian dudes, having apparently mortally insulted one or more of them. Surreptitiously, I started checking to see if any of them had a frame pump on his bike. Luckily, everyone seemed to have left those dangerous devices at home.
After about four hours, we came to the final ten kilometer climb to the finish. The first few K passed by, and then the pace started getting really tough for me. I dropped to the back of the group and struggled to hang on. Just when I was recovering and trying to move back up toward the front, I realized that Barbara had broken away and was being paced up the climb by one of her helpers. The others started yelling, “Vai, vai, Barbara!” “Go, go now! She [that was me] is finished!” As steadily as I could, I tried to bridge the distance, but her head start was formidable, and she was climbing very well. Of course, none of the men in my group would help me. They sat just behind me, not allowing me any draft at all. When I finally cracked, they realized I wasn’t a threat to their darling anymore and quickly jumped out from behind me, resuming their own race to the top. At that point, I continued as well as I could and limped into the finish, having been beaten by a minute and a half over one hundred miles.
It was enough to make me cry, but instead I had to laugh, picturing myself fearfully checking for frame pumps wielded as weapons. The Italians ganged up for their win, but things could have been a lot worse. After all, I was in Tuscany, and we still had a few days left to enjoy …
Saturnia is famous throughout Italy for its natural hot springs, and most days my husband and I finished our ride by joining the old folks who parked their caravans on the road to traipse over to a stream, banked by rushes and running with warm, therapeutic (and sulfur-scented) water. The hotel had a pool with the same water, but we preferred to relax in the stream, letting the current massage our tired legs.
Marco was the most wonderful host, and each night he and his lovely wife, Flavia, shared an amazing dinner with us and their other friends. We explored the best restaurants in a few different towns and tried all the local specialties, which were invariably delicious and exciting. Even breakfast at the penzione was memorable. Each night I went to bed stuffed from dinner and certain I wouldn’t be hungry in the morning; and each morning I awoke anticipating a new kind of cake, or finding a new way to eat more luscious ricotta. I never got tired of the prosciutto served at every meal.
Besides one short day trip to the seaside at Santo Stefano, we hardly saw any sights at all; and yet I feel like I got to know that little corner of Maremma intimately. Here’s a confession, actually: one of my favorite things about cycling vacations is that there’s no pressure to be a dedicated tourist. We had been invited there to ride our bikes, not to walk purposefully around Rome with highlighted guidebooks in hand. Had the opportunity presented itself, I would have been thrilled to see something of Rome—but we were busy riding our bikes every day, and I was happy to do that, marveling at the gorgeous views opening before us at every turn in the road.
From the mountainside town of Pitigliano, seemingly carved from the cliff that sheltered it, to the ancient buildings of Sovana, to the carefully tended olive groves and grapevines, every part of the landscape described peace, beauty, and a steady, healthy rhythm of activity and rest. For both my husband and me, this cycling vacation was a weeklong slice of paradise. I can’t wait to go back … even if I’m there as a bike racer, not a real tourist.