The search for the perfect stretch of water or the ideal sinew of road borders on obsessive if not obscene. Who, for example, is willing to travel the globe in search of the perfect football (soccer) patch or turf, the perfect basketball court, the world's finest baseball venue, or the nirvana of all tennis courts? Who, other than cyclists, will clear two weeks of their schedule and risk divorce from their spouse to travel to remote, often foreign, mountainous regions just to worship on their sport's most noble battlegrounds? Fly fishermen will literally scour the globe looking for the perfect trout stream: be that in the nether reaches of Chile, New Zealand, even the Kamchatka Penninsula, or as near as the headwaters of the Arkansas in the Colorado Rockies. Like fly fisherman, cyclists (both competitive and passionate enthusiasts) will trundle all around the planet in search of fabled stretches of straight and serpentine streets. These roads--draped and strewn over mountains, meadows, and marshes like spaghetti randomly tossed by God's own hand--are the cathedrals of cycling and they beckon the souls of cyclists with the same persuasive power as the Khalifa calling the faithful to Mecca.
In just the last 8 months I've had the wonderful good fortune to ride in Mallorca, the French Pyrenees, along the coast of the Adriatic in central Italy, and most recently the Dolomites of northeastern Italy. For each trip I've packed my Cervelo SLC SL into a well-trusted Thule bike case and trusted the travel gods to see it safely deposited at each destination. Anyone who has traveled with a bike knows this is no easy task. Aside from logistical problems of lugging a 30 Kg super-oversized piece of luggage, there are the inevitable quarrels at check-in regarding random upcharges and over-size baggage fees. More often than not, your bike will not arrive with your flight, but will show up a day or two later (NB: because you're paying to fly your bike, you can ask for a priority lable to be placed on your bike case: this will insure that it is sent with your flight and will virtually guarantee same-time arrival). The point of all this is that massive dedication is involved in traveling with a bike to a far-off locale. It requires a mental tenacity, physical strength, patience, and fair bit of good humor way beyond that of traveling with running shoes or tennis racquets.
But as the traveling cyclist knows, the pay-off is immense. For the competitive cyclist, the opportunity to train in the Alps, Pyrenees, or Dolomites will provide a clear advantage during racing season: leg strength, sub-lactate and lactate power, aerobic efficiency and sustained anaerobic power will dramatically increase from just a few hundred miles in these unrelenting mountains. For the sporting cyclist, who above all enjoys a spirited ride on the hallowed roads of cycling's greatest feats, the vistas, people, camaraderie, and proud claim "I've ridden there!" whilst watching a grand tour imbue a cycling adventure with a kind of intrinsic worth that goes way beyond the price tag. In both cases, the ability to immerse yourself in the local culture in an extremely intimate way is priceless. Riding a bike in a foreign country does not always come with the same stigma and cruelty one may experience in regions of the U.S., and in many countries, when you're a cyclist, you already speak the local patois: verbal barriers are broken down by a common love for the ride, the bike, and the heroes of the sport.
Most recently I had the very good fortune to join Gerard Vroomen and Tom Fowler from Cervelo on a 9 day cycling spree in Italy. Joining us was Francesco Sergio, who is in charge of European Cervelo sales. With a small cadre of other riders from the States and Europe we delighted in the company of the UCI's #1 ranked women's pro team, Cervelo LifeForce. Stationed in Gabicci Mare, just south of Rimini, the pervasively morbid reminder of Pantani, we enjoyed some seriously hardcore and aggressive training with the team. After 3 days and twice as many rides along the Adriatic's coastal ranges it was time for some Giro action, so we headed far north to our hotel at the base of the fabled Passo Pordoi. The Pordoi was one of the featured climbs during Stage 15 of the 2008 Giro d'Italia and so it also featured prominently in the Dolomites Stars Giro d'Italia Granfondo (actually, Stage 15) which we rode on Saturday, May 24th--one day prior to the pros.
If you have yet to do a granfondo (cyclosportif, in French) it is highly recommended. The tempo you set on such a ride is up to you and your legs: some attend these events to race for the prize money and honor of winning. Others, like our group this year, ride it for the challenge and the lifetime opportunity to experience Europe's great racing roads as would a pro peloton: with support and access only to cyclists. Along the way you'll experience a few crowds cheering words of encouragement to ease your suffering, tremendous views, and a dramatically greater appreciation for what a pro cyclist has to endure to earn a living at a wage exponentially less than that of almost any other professional athlete.
Preparation for riding in any mountainous terrain is imperative: riding a grandfondo likewise requires solid preparation and, above all, a solid hydration and nutrition strategy. Stage 15 was 160 km with over 15,000 feet of climbing, and three words which Brian Walton had emailed me the night before the event kept ringing in my head: Respect the distance. In so doing I kept my heartrate below my lactate threshold for 7 hours, drank 10 19 ounce bottles of liquid, ate 3 ham sandwiches, 3 oranges, 4 bananas, 2 packets of cookies, the equivalent of 4 Italian Twinkies, and in the last 30 minutes of sheer suffering up the Marmolada (a 7 km diabolical, gun-barrel-straight 13% climb that tortures the mind and degrades the body) two sugar intensive gel packs. At the finish I was greeted by a smiling Gerard, who had just finished the 96 km version, and who seemed all too happy to inform me that I needed to change into fresh, dry kit for the 25 km ride I now had back to our hotel!
Passionate cyclists, like devout fly fisherman, will tell tall tales full of embellishments and exaggerated bravado, but we all know this and almost relish in the fact that our achievements--while greater than what 99.9% of the population would even consider doing--are so substantially inferior to what that .01% of professionals can accomplish that it numbs our brains. But when you travel as a cyclist to roads you've eyed since you first saw LeMond contra Fignon you catch an ephemeral moment of personal greatness which elevates you to something better than you were or what you thought you could be. In those fleeting moments perhaps we find the true value of life: it's the memory of those moments, the replaying and retelling of them in embellished states, that makes us feel rather than just be alive.