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In June, five women rode six classic stages of the Giro Donne, two weeks ahead of the official 2012 race. Currently the only Grand Tour in women’s racing, this year Marianne Vos defended her 2011 title from Italy’s barren, dusty south up to the Dolomites. Britain’s Emma Pooley placed second and was queen of the mountains.
Over six days, Rapha’s women rode the other way: they embarked on a journey that took in classic cycling country around Lake Como, the celebrated Stelvio and the Swiss Alps, as well the tyre-popping 40C heat of Napoli. From glacial streams and picking apricots at the side of the road to grueling day-on-day efforts wilting in the heat, the Giro Donne route tested the Rapha riders’ commitment, courage and camaraderie.
“We got a sense of what it was like to be out all day on the bike, then transfer to get to the hotel. Eat, shower, stretch, sleep, get up and do it again. It was tough getting through each day, but there was no competitiveness. It was about a group of friends riding and enjoying the challenges they encountered.”
– rider, Eryn Nolan
Below is rider Collyn Ahart’s account of the Giro Donne journey.
We first started talking about riding part of the Giro Donne (the women's Giro d'Italia) more than a year ago. I grew up with cycling and remember saying to my father I wanted to ride the Tour de France, but I realised this ride might just be as close as I'd ever come. It wasn't the magnitude of distance or ascent, but more about the history. When you do a ride like this, you feel connected to not only the other riders, but the ghosts of riders who've conquered the same mountains decades, even centuries, prior. We weren't going to race it, so it was just a matter of finishing each day and keeping the group happy.
Everyone knows the story of the Tour or the Giro. But like women's cycling generally, the Giro Donne has always been a bit enigmatic. It's been relegated to something secondary. It's "a women's bike race", as if confirming the story we tell ourselves as female riders that we will never just be "riders". It's not a story of heroes and great narratives that have been rehearsed in the same way the Tour or the Giro have. Even Fabiana Luperini, arguably one of the greatest cyclists in history with five Giro Donne titles to her name (four consecutive wins from '95-‘98 and then again ten years later in 2008) goes practically unheard in the cycling press. This year, in 2012, she was on the podium of one of the stages. And yet, if I saw her in a cafe I wouldn't know who she was.
So we started making plans to find the story of the Giro Donne. Sometimes you have to let the story tell itself. And to do this, you have to go there and experience it. Flying into Milan, we began the ride around Lake Como, in a figure of 8, passing over the Passo del Ghisallo, stopping to see the Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cycling. I always had a vision of Lake Como as being a sort of 1950s throw-back of Chris Craft boats and Italian jazz. It was anything but. Red floppy tourists in beige, a big white wedding in the courtyard an American dream of Bellagio. We only began to feel a connection to the route as we rode away from the noise of the lake and tourist cafes. Into the dappled shade of the Ghisallo, the roads narrow and the gradients increase.
In the icy cool darkness of the Ghisallo chapel, small portraits of the great riders peered out at us. Bikes, dating back to the late 1800s hung from the rafters, signed placards and race numbers, fragments of history all frozen in time. To imagine these bikes climbed these mountains. No gears and wooden rims. Unbelievable.
A small face on the wall caught my attention. Soft, steely eyes and a Mona Lisa smile. This was a woman. In a sea of men. The name under her portrait: Bonato M. A name the internet couldn't tell me anything about. Did she ride alongside these men? Did she race them? There are stories of this happening. But practically told with a whisper.
We headed into the Alps on our second day. Setting off at dawn, the jangling cowbells followed our ascent. Passo Maloja, 44 km out of Italy into Switzerland, reaching the summit at Silvaplana, at 1800 metres. On the first sharp ascent my own gears packed in. No shifting. Nothing. Miles from the nearest bike shop, I would have to ride this like Bonato M. Singlespeed in a 14. Up and up, slowly. My legs pushed and pulled, my back seared. Less than a week before I'd crashed while mountain biking, fracturing several ribs and winding up in hospital with a concussion and 45 minutes of lost memory. High on a double dose of ibuprofen and paracetamol, I was fine to climb when I could sit. But the minute I stood out of the saddle, painful spasms shot down my arms, rippled across my shoulders and down my spine. It was a probably a mistake to ride. I should have stayed home, out of harm's way. But I had to keep going.
Eryn rode with me, pedal stroke for pedal stroke. If I had to do it, she wanted to do it with me. By the time we reached the first summit, the rest of the riders were relaxing in the sun, sipping icy drinks and ploughing through a bag of salty crisps.
By the end of the day we'd reached Livigno, a municipality on the Swiss Italian border, a haven of skiers, mountain-bikers and would-be gods of the Alps. IM Sport, a small shop in the village, kindly replaced my broken lever with a temporary replacement, which meant I could continue. But the day had broken more than my lever. We sat in a quiet stupor over dinner, the calm before the storm: tomorrow, we'd ride the Stelvio.
Up and up. The Passo dello Stelvio. The hardest stage of every race is called the Queen Stage. Like in chess, the queen is the ultimate target. She looms in the distance and taunts us with every false summit and each of the 48 hairpins. I've never ridden a road like the Stelvio. Just weeks before our ascent, Ryder Hesjedal punched his way to Giro victory on this same road. How many times had the Giro Donne followed this path? Erased like chalk in a world of road paint, this was a mountain whose history only glanced in our direction.
Alpine climbs are different from the punchy English roads or the excruciating summits of the Dolomites. They set a pace for you and insist you meet it with a consistent rhythm. You put your head down and spin. Every few miles we'd regroup. And as the temperature began to drop and the air began to thin, our little pack broke apart.
Something happened at the top of the Stelvio. Surrounded by motorcycles, cyclists speaking every language of the world, skiers in unseasonable luck, we stopped. You're at the top of the world, where the clouds and the road meet. From here, you go down. And down. And down. You find calm in these places, as full of people and excitement as they are, these places let you stare right through your own fears. These so-called 'destinations' are anything but. Here you realise the journey has only just begun. We'd conquered the Stelvio, and yet she'd still be there for centuries, millennia, to come. We were but a blip of a story.
Down and down. A three-hour climb turns into an hour's descent. Hurling ourselves around hairpins, narrow escapes through cobbled tunnels and the odd game of chicken with oncoming motorbikes. Our day was done. As we stepped off our bikes and packed into the transfer vehicles, a small pink figure tapped past us. Michele Scarponi mounted the Stelvio for the second time that day… just a blip of a training ride.
We'd head south from there, out to the Eastern coast of Italy. By the time we reached our beds, it was 35 degrees in the dark of night. The next three days would be a challenge not of strength, but of stamina against the heat. Rolling hills, scorched earth and no shade. We were graced with the small blessing of roadside fountains that poured frizzante on tap. We laughed to forget about the heat.
There was no glamour. There were no cheers for us as we went through villages. Few locals could recount their stories of the Giro Donne. We were on some kind of anonymous mission. In this white heat we fell into the dark. Tears and frustration on the side of the road cut stages short. Each day hotter than the last, tempers flared and patience ran thin. Perhaps there was no story to find. Perhaps the story was our own and there would be no perfect ending.
Our story ended with a double puncture. Swollen and soft from the 45 degree sun and boiling tarmac, our tyres couldn't withstand the Italian heat. We sat in the shade of a village church, contemplating if this was really the end…
As we did this we tested each other's bikes, spinning around in the sunlit square. And a small man approached us. An anonymous Italian pro from the 1970s, he indeed knew the Giro Donne. He knew Marianne Vos. He knew Emma Pooley. He knew Nicole Cooke. He spoke perfect English and wanted to know where we'd ridden… and where we'd go next.