I raced my first Granfondo, in and around Lucca, on Sunday, May 17th. Well, it was the shorter version, called the Mediofondo, at 105km. The Granfondo was 130km.
Granfondos are races around Italy that anyone can participate in. You sign up and pay a bit of money to get a number and a Real Time chip to tie around your ankle that tracks your time. Sort of like marathons, or any public races. But some of us just hop into the race for the training. It's nice because they block off the streets and provide you with water and refueling stations equipped with orange slices, half bananas, gatorade-like drink, and miniature apricot pies, etc. Since this would be my seventh time ever riding my road bike so I was scared to death. Phil, his Ukrainian teammate, Starchyk, and I rode from the villa to the city of Lucca at 7:00am.
When we arrived, there were about 2,000 people preparing for the start. Unlike running races, bike starts can be very dangerous. You are locked into your pedals at a virtual standstill, and other people are riding into you and stopping in front of you. As to not tip over and get trampled on, Phil cautiously led me to a curb about 50 meters in front of the start line. That way, I started when they did, and the group would be diffused by the time the lead guys were zipping past my front wheel. It worked out well. Phil was kind enough to ride nice and easy next to me for the first couple of minutes to make sure I was okay, but I could tell he was itching to ride up in front with the big boys, so I sent him along - assuring him I'd be fine back there if I let everyone around me make the hasty decisions to pass or not pass.
I must admit, from the moment we began, I felt out of my league. My legs weren't warmed up at all, but I swear, almost all 2,000 people passed me at superhuman speeds. Didn't they know there were mountains and over 100km (80 miles or so) of racing left?!?! Seriously. Big, small, old, young, fit, very unfit, everyone passed me... except for Carla. She is one of Phil's friends who knew I'd be racing for the first time. She is the girlfriend of Cristiano, the owner of the bike shop "Fast and Furious" here in Lucca. I struggled to keep her pace against the wind (and demotivation after having been smoked by everyone else). After about 30 km, we arrived at the first climb.
Instantly, I realized that my legs can climb easier than they ride long, straight flats. Hmm. "Perhaps I am a climber", I thought to myself. You see, in the sport of cycling, there are different categories. Some are sprinters, some climbers, and some are attack specialists, and some are descenders, etc. There are probably many other names that I don't know yet. At first, I didn't understand this since everyone races the same distance, does the same climbs, the same flats, etc. Like in track, I would never have raced against the 2 milers. They were distance. I was a 400 and 800 meter runner. They were different events altogether. But in cycling, the strategy is so vastly different than running. I had no idea at first, and the revelations continue to reveal themselves each time I hop into my pedals.
But back to the race... I start climbing and felt a burst of energy from having passed some people. It was a gradual climb but everyone was moving at slow, slothy pace. I didn't understand it. Why were the going so fast in the beginning and now they were hardly moving? "I guess I'll have to make up the time I gained by climbing faster than them on each climb" I thought. Hesitating at first, since Carla had waited for me, I huffed and puffed ahead. I thought we could reconvene when she catches me on the flats since apparently, I am pretty weak at them. I passed at least a hundred people going up that hill. Maybe two or three hundred, actually. I heard old Italian men shout "Dai ragazza! Ale!" (Go girl!). After about 15-20 minutes of climbing, we got to the top and began the first descent. Right when I switched into my big ring, my chain came off of the rings. I sat there for a couple of minutes as many of the people I had sweated to pass up soared by me. Sigh. All of that for nothing!
After descending, there was a long, straight flat along a highway. I tried to catch the back of a couple groups that came past me, but to no avail. I was left alone, riding against the mighty Tuscan wind that kept the tears in my eyes from swelling. Feeling defeated and wishing I could turn around, I continued on for the sole fact that if I stopped or tried to go back, I'd have to climb that same mountain, and that wasn't appealing at all.
An older man at the end of one of the groups hung back next to me and started speaking to me in Italian. I told him I didn't really understand, but that this was my first Granfondo so whatever advice he was trying to give me, I really needed. He motioned that I needed to change to an easier gear, and that I should get right behind him, and hang onto his backwheel. AKA: I needed to learn how to draft, especially with the gusting headwind. He was so kind to help me, that naturally I did my best to stay with him. But his body odor was so pungent, and although riding behind him made taking the wind a bit easier, it made it hard for me to breathe deeply (or at all). After about 8km of riding with him, and gaining a bit of energy back in my legs, I couldn't handle not being able to breathe well so I told him I was going to slow down. After all, I wasn't trying to win this race at this point. I would have been shocked to cross the finish line as they were breaking it down at the rate I was going.
After I ditched the kind, stinky fellow I took the next couple of climbs by myself. It felt about 90 degrees outside. The rare shade cast on the winding road was ineffective against the heat. As was the water in my two bottles that became so boiling hot that it was almost better to swallow my own spit for hydration. At one of the rest stops, they had run out of individual bottles of water, so they were pouring water out of big bottles in our mouths. I needed to refill my water after the dreadful third climb, before trekking the last 35 km to the finish line, but I figured I'd just wait. And as for eating during the ride, I thought that would make my stomach hurt as it would if I started gnoshing on food mid-run or something. Boy was I ever wrong about that.
With about 20 km left, one of the arrows was flipped in the wrong direction. It led me into highway tunnel through the base of a mountain that had no shoulder. It was dark and dangerous in there, with cars zipping past us left and right. I turned back without being hit, but it was a point of frustration that I could barely bounce back from since I had been ready to finish this race when it started! On the home stretch, I was suffering. For someone who doesn't get headaches, mine was pounding against my helmet. I loosened it, but it still managed to thump. I had been fully out of my boiling water for some time now.
My thoughts at the time: "Phil is insane for wanting to do this for a living", "Grandfondo? Try Grand NOT fond o cycling", "This is probably what hell feels like", "I hate cycling. I hate cycling. I hate cycling."
When a 40-something Italian man, also cycling alone, slowly passed by me with about 10 km left, he said something like "Che forte, ragazza. Molto bene." (You're strong, girl. Very good.) My delayed reaction to his comment came as a shock to me: I burst into tears. I couldn't believe he would say I was strong as he passed by me. That's when I knew there was something wrong. Why would I cry when someone offers me support during a training race?!
When I finished, Phil greeted me and asked how it was. I lied, saying it was fine. I didn't want to spew out my hatred for the race, the sport, and his passion - even though I felt like I could vomit, pass out, and cry at the same time.
Turns out I had heat stroke. I wanted to sleep, and drinking water hit the bottom of my stomach and wanted to bounce back out. Phil and Carla force fed me oranges and orzo. I laid down on this super comfortable gravel in the shade of the Fast and Furious bike shop tent. People walked by and stared, but I didn't care. I had rocks imprinted all over my whole body and when I opened my eyes, I saw ants crawling all over me and the rocks that cradled my head.
I vowed to never do another Granfondo again. It was probably the worst 5 hours of my life.
Little did I know that one week later, I would try it again.