On Sunday, I went to Verona to see the professional world cycling championships. One of my favorite things in Italy is how popular cycling is.
In the states, the sport is doing well because of Lance Armstrong, but there is nowhere near the same level of interest there is in Italy. You could put together an entire bicycle with bits and pieces manufactured in just the Veneto region of Italy – from the world famous Campagnolo “gruppo”s, to the bicycle seats from the bicycle seats from the Bassano region, and frame builders too numerous to count.
So the arrival, for the second time in five years, of the world cycling championships in Verona was a big deal amongst the local tifosi.
After waking up at an ungodly hour of the morning, I joined my friend Enrico, along with his girlfriend and brother.
We watched the start of the race from the first turn, where we got to see Paolo Bettini, Italy’s gold medal olympian and one of the favorites for the day’s race, roll over to greet his wife and children before the race began. As during the races, Bettini was accompanied by his “gregario” or “domestique”, Luca Paolini, whose own family was with that of Bettini’s for the day.
From the start/finish line, as the race wore on, we slowly worked our way up the hill that the racers had to climb 18 times during the race’s 265 kilometers (just about 165 miles).
One of the great things about bike races is the fans. All the way up the hill were thousands of people from all over the world, all there to cheer on their home team, despite many of the racers not having much of a shot at winning. Groups from Ireland, Norway, the US, Canada… all over, and all lined up together stretching along the road, within easy reach of the racers as they flew up the hill each lap. Despite cheering for their own team, almost all the fans are good natured, and never spared applause for deserving riders, whether the Frenchman who was the first of the race to attack (a ‘suicidal’ tactic, given the length of the race), or the lone Japanese racer who did his best to stay with the group as long as possible, to the dropped Norwegian and Canadian racers who, despite having been dropped midway through the race, and very nearly lapped at the end, gutted it out to finish, almost a half an hour behind the winners.
In fact, people were in a festive mood, and cheering for pretty much anyone going up the road, including the police motorcycle riders who preceded the group each time up the road. Indeed, the motorcycle cops were really getting into the act, and with the appropriate cheering on the last few laps, wheelied their motorbikes (big BMW rigs!) up the straight-of-way where we were watching the race! Quite a contrast to the stereotypically grim-faced motorcycle officers back home in the states. One of them even stopped for a drink of…water, or maybe it was a quick glass of wine… from a spectator a little ways up the road.
Unfortunately it was not Italy’s day as far as the racing was concerned. Bettini had some problems with his bicycle, and when stopping to get it fixed by the mechanics, hit his knee on the follow car, which didn’t cause him any lasting damage, but was enough to put him out of the running for the day.
It was, as has happened often in recent years, the very strong Spanish squadra that put the screws on with a couple laps left to go, preventing any lone riders from escaping from the group. So, despite the steep hill that the riders faced again and again in over 6 hours of racing, a relatively large group arrived at the sprint, where Oscar Freire won ahead of Erik Zabel and Luca Paolini. While the bronze was meager consolation for many of the local tifosi, I think it was nice a nice result for Paolini, who usually dedicates himself to the service of his friend and teammate, Bettini.