One cyclists story of the adventure of a lifetime in Italy. Traveling with Vito Valentini, Michael Lyach, Tom Niccum, Chris Torella, Aleksandra Sydelko, and Jenny Zarzuela to Terracina, Italy to attend the Gran Fondo New York, Italia camp and three-day stage race. Side trip taken to Milan, to visit Cicli DeRosa.
Sincerest gratitude to Lidia and Uli Fluhme, Maciej Narzewski, Nicolangiolo Zoppo, and Mirko DP (Mr. Wolf), the towns of San Felice, Terracina, Fondi, Frosinone, and all of the wonderful @GFNY Italia Volunteers that made the race special.
As we wind the Italy part of our story down, I would like to send a shout out to my girls, Alicia, Christine, and Ginny, they make me believe that I can do anything, and somehow always seem to be “at home” with my hare brained schemes. And another shout out to Tim Garrigan and Rebecca Lyman, for not only keeping me gainfully employed, so that I can do things like this, but for building a work culture that encourages people to perform at their best, no matter what they are doing.
How could Massimo know? When he got up that morning and pulled on his kit, how could he know the role that he would play in my day? More importanly — if he knows now, does he give a crap? Probably not! Massimo was the last guy I saw on a bike before i decided to ride 15K in anger. Off the back, detached from the group, and looking to do anything to catch back on before the finish. But, we might be getting ahead of ourselves.
We learned in the first two stages, that you always get a native New Yorker to park your car for you, if you can. Now realizing that I was the only NYC native in the group (check me Jenny), it made natural good sense for me to drop the van in a convenient location near the finish line, and ride over to the start. We had some breakfast and headed over to the start line near the center of town, in Terracina. A little colder, a little wetter, than we had seen all week, today was the final stage, the mountain stage, the Gran Fondo stage. Michael and I walked over to the start line, as the group rode over.
When we arrived everyone was hanging out in a coffee shop, and before I could get an espresso down, I realized how far the van was from the start. More importantly, how much available parking there was near the start. Which was also near the finish line, but reasonably distanced from the finish festival.
OMFG, I actually just bored the crap out of myself writing up our parking logistics — but why? OH right, Michael and I were trying to return his rental bike. So we went to the festival area first, then to the start line, and then I rode back, got the van, moved it to the start line, and sucked down an espresso.
And, as I have grown very fond of saying — we are back in!
“Let’s stick to the plan, it’s a good plan. Everybody wants to go to the party, no one wants to stay and clean up!” — Ronin
As gathered at the start, Ken, Mirko, and Aleksandra set off to get to the front. The plan being that Mirko would escort through to a podium finish for the stage. Jenny, Tom, Chris T, and me started as a group and started working our way. We jumped on to a long train, and were able to work our way to the front to a few really quality pulls through Terracina and out to Sperlonga to do our second climb of the Panoramica this week. This was one of the three timed climbs for the day. We had a vigorous start, and Tom, Chris T., and I stayed together to Sperlonga. Jenny and some of our friends from Brazil formed a group behind us to work together throughout the day.
My apologies as I don’t have a ton of photos for this one. I spent most of the day concentrating on how to get across 7 rubber mats before someone came along to pick them up.
As we approached the Panoramica, not only was I reciting “measure it out” to myself, but I could hear Tom saying it aloud as well. It was a fabulous trip up the climb as I was able to hang with Chris and Tom the whole way up the timed section.
We would stay together for a while. The setting fog would not allow us to see as far as we could earlier in the week, but it was no less beautiful somehow. My sincere gratitude to the Captain (Il Capo), Mr. Wolf for capturing the beauty of Sperlonga, as he and Aleksandra made their way up.
Just Passing Through
From the Panormica, and over the top, I heard something bump. Chris T’s bottle was gone. He would be down to one. We turned and proceeded toward the foot of the climb that Uli had been standing and waiting for us to make the hairpin turn up earlier this week. Luckily, we were just passing through. There was good, solid, morning banter, a description of what was ahead from Navigator Tom, and we were moving at a great clip.
We rolled down a fairly large descent and into some traffic. This is where the bike handling skills come in kids. My lack thereof, left me dropped at an intersection where there was some heavy Sunday morning traffic. Tom and Chris were able to slip through and were on their way up a really short little drag. Not a climb, but just enough to slow me down. As I got over it, there was now a long descent into the town of Fondi. I had lost site of Tom and Chris, and had not seen a marker in a while. I was chock-full-o-doubt that I was in the right place as I cooked down the descent. This was a rare, wide road with a big shoulder, and just enough downward-tilt, that I could generate some power. I was afraid to turn my head, from the speed, but from the corner of my left eye, I noticed cyclists, down below the road. Shit — did I miss a turn? Did I miss a sign? Crap — nothing I can do about it now, just keep going. I went on for a while and saw that the path I was seeing eventually crossed the road. There were mountain bikers on the path, and I was almost to the bottom of the descent.
Things flattened out, and as they did I could see a white cloaked figure ahead. That’s gotta be Torella. They were about 2 KM ahead of me from what I could tell, so I put the pedal to the metal and tried to catch on, as I rolled through the lower part of Fondi. I was somehow able to TT back on — red light anyone — and rejoin the group. I was not only relieved to see my friends, I was simply relieved to be on the right course. “Did you not load the course this morning?”
Shamefully, I replied: “No. I forgot!”
Oh well — would need to stay in contact to make sure I didn’t go off course. Or at least pay attention to the signage.
Hmmm. Massimo. Wonder where he was about now? What was he thinking?
We hung a right turn, and were at the base of the second climb. There was a rest station there. I grabbed some fruit, and as we took a quick break, heard a voice. Mirko and Aleksandra appeared from nowhere. Apparently, they had been off-course, and were now also happy to be in the right place. We started the climb.
I was determined to not burn any matches on this next climb. This one was a beast. The toughest one on the course for my money. Salita le Crocette dalla sbarra — according to Strava.
At close to three miles long, and an average of 8%, you could guess that there would be a lot of double-digit grades on this one. It seemed to go on forever. Especially when it kicked up. And it kicked up, legitimately at least four or five times to double digits. But I was determined. I was focused on my breathing and keeping my heart rate inside of 150. Could I climb for that long without blowing up, on those types of grades. We would see. What I wouldn’t see, was the group. Until the top. They faded away up the climb and I navigated the switch backs carefully, until I finally heard voices at the top.
Tom answered promptly. “Two, maybe three minutes” (Three and a half to be exact — but I will take it). I was thrilled that they didn’t have to wait an eternity for me.
“Tom, I think I did great. I measured it out. I didn’t burn any matches, kept it all in the 140's”.
He smiled, and shook his head — “oh you burned one — you just kept it under control — you did great getting up, but trust me it took something out of you to do it.”
Well alrighty! I can live with that, because i am now up. This is the toughest climb on the course, and I am at the top? Excellent.
My ten year love affair with Shimano, now being over, I was teaching myself the hard way how the concepts of trim, and the chain catcher worked on a Campagnolo gruppo. Looking forward to staying with the group on a narrow and technical descent, I was shut down within five feet when I dropped my chain (complete operator error), trying to get back on the 53. It took me at least five minutes to get it back on. The group was gone, and I would be chasing again.
There is a part of me that is really comfortable and happy with the lone-wolf thing. My pace, my rhythm, my capability. Maybe it’s why I love the time trial so much. I was at peace, although slightly anxious at the prospects of finishing the course on my own.
The descent, as I mentioned, was fast, furious, and technical. A narrow road leading to a long straightaway, and then finally into a small town. In front of the local coffee shop I saw our groups bikes. The GFNY broom wagon was also nearby. How long had they been there? I parked my bike. They had just set up enough espressos for everyone on the bar of the shop. There was one for me, as if they were expecting me.
Bottoms up on the espressos, and we were off again. Mirko was setting a really nice pace for us. One of our Brazilian friends had jumped on our train, we were happy to have him. I don’t think we thought about it, but this would be the last “on the bike” coffee in Italy. Time was closing in on this unbelievable experience.
Within five or six kilometers, I couldn’t hold the group anymore. Maybe one too many chases. I was in front of Chris T and he could see what was happening. He was not going to miss the train, and pulled around to get back in contact with the group. I was back off the back, the race was mine to finish now. The last climb was in reach, and it was time to prepare mentally.
Quercia Del Monaco
The last climb, I knew from reading ahead, was less of a “climb” and more of a commitment. At 16KM long, and only a 3–4% grade the entire way, it was just a case of being mentally ready to spend an hour on it. From a difficulty index of 1–5 it was pretty much a 2 (with 1 being the easiest). From a “sheer enjoyment — holy crap — I am on my brand new De Rosa bike, climbing into the clouds through a beautiful Italian village” index, it was definitely a 5. (with 5 being the highest). I just paced. I just paced, kept my patience and enjoyed the sights. Through the village, up some more, around the turn, look over my should — holy shit, there is the town I just rode through, and it’s built onto the side of a cliff!
I was realizing now, that this mist I was in, was not rain. I was in a cloud. You can see from the far left photo, that the fog that was perceived was actually a cloud that was 1,200 feet above sea level. How often are you there like that? Well now you know. You’re welcome!
As I crossed the mat I saw that I was probably toward the tail end of the race. They were breaking the area down, and one of the truck loaders yelled out “buona tu!” as I crossed.
“Grazie!” I yelled, as I contemplated the next 8 or so miles of flat out descending before hitting the final stretch to the finish. I had just been passed by a gent who had a big smile, and seemed like he was probably a very nice guy.
Back in installment two, I talked about the town of Aprilia and how we passed through it and I got the full history of it from Michael. That made the next 8 miles notable. As I couldn’t see much of the road and the rails due to the fog, and my own crappy vision while wearing sunglasses, I locked on, visually, to the ass of the dude in front of me, who was wearing a kit that said “Aprilia” right across the ass.
Handy. If Aprilia went off the cliff, I was going with him, as he was the only guidance I had, as I seemingly screamed down.
Massimo e Me
At the bottom, there was roughly 12 miles, or 17 KM to the finish. As I started to donate every ounce of energy I had left to the flats, I had deluded myself to thinking that I could maybe catch back on before the end. The territory started to look familiar from both a riding and driving perspective. I had been through parts of it before.
As we made a right turn onto one of the main roads, the Gent from the top of the mountain came along side me and asked me how far it was to the finish. He asked in Italian, I answered with my hands flashing five fingers twice, to indicate ten. I ws saying ten miles. Then I realized, I needed to give him another flash of five to convert to kilometers. He nodded. I raced ahead.
Massimo became my shadow. It was now a race. “FUCKING WHEELSUCKER” I thought, as I tried numerous times to drop him. Up a small berg, he came along on the left side and started to say something. I nodded, and attacked again. I realized the low diesel engine sound I heard ringing in my ear was the hum of the broom wagon behind us. Now I was trying to distance myself from them, and drop my new friend.
Please understand, this is, I am guessing a very nice guy. Always a big smile, but somehow also, always on my wheel. So I continued to relax, attack, relax, attack, relax, attack. On every flat, I went to the 11 and started to hammer. Up a small grade he came along again — words are important folks, and I WISH, that I could have understood what he was saying — I thought he was saying “tutti quattri” which I took to mean “all four”. “Yeah, you’ll be on all fours when I am done with you buddy”. But that just couldn’t be what he was saying. In retrospect, the circling motion he made with his fingers with about 3 miles to go seemed to indicate he wanted to work together.
As I attacked again, I literally said out loud “You should have thought of that when you were on my wheel seven miles ago”. This was the final attack. I could smell Terracina. I was hammering as hard as I could, and as I rolled through into the city, I could see that finish line. The gang was there. How long had they waited. I looked over my shoulder.
Massimo. I couldn’t see him.
I hammered and crossed the mat. Massimo crossed 5 or 6 seconds later. After greeting the team, I went over and shook his hand. He nodded and smiled, as if to say “dude why did you make that so much harder than it needed to be”.
I had an answer “ego” but, I am guessing he wouldn’t have understood.
I salute you, Massimo Coppola. Sorry I was such a dick!
The gang had just gotten there. Maybe 4 or 5 minutes earlier. They couldn’t believe I was that close behind. But my time trial to try and drop Massimo must have made up some time.
We made our way to the festival, grabbed some food, and watched the podium presentations.
For our last night in Terracina, only Lanterna would do. We had a fabulous dinner, and set back to the house to start the arduous process of getting packed up, and managing the mounds of trash that hadn’t been picked up throughout our stay. The nonna’s of Villa Lina would be there in the morning. We had mere hours to sleep, pack, and get back to Rome.
Addio Alla Villa Lina
Our departure from Villa Lina was a sad one. Such an incredible time. A house that had really become our own for that week. The miracle of six people from various walks of life living harmoniously under one roof for ten days. United by cycling, and creating an incredible amount of joy as we went. Perspectives were gained. We learned about each other, really got to know one another outside the context of the weekly group ride, or our studio rides. We lived what Gavia Cycling, and GFNY are all about. It’s a place and a time that will always mean something to all of us.
OK I promised I was gonna skip this but I can’t. So, Alitalia goes on strike the day we are leaving. Lines are to a crawl. I had to take my bike through Italian customs so that I could avoid the VAT tax, and so there was paperwork and passport checking, and rechecking to be done. I then had my bike case wrapped in plastic, as if that would somehow magically provide a superior layer of protection to my fabulous new machine.
Everyone had paid whatever the going rate was to check their bags and their bikes. I knew I was in for a weight conversation but I didn’t think it would be what it was.
Finally at the front of the line, she said “one hundred seventy five euro for the bike”. Torella almost fainted. “Buddy, I paid eighty-five euro”. (I will take this opportunity to remind you that these are the same people who lost my bike case just 12 days earlier).
“OK” she says, “Seven hundred fifty euro for other bag. It is overweight — too big”.
WHAT?! WTF! REALLY! I argued best I could, and finally yelled out “Io speciale!!!” to the point that she reeled back in her seat. The carbinieri now closed in on me and said something to her. She smiled at them and said no, and pointed to a corner. Apparently they didn’t give a shit about my hissy fit. They were investigating an unattended bag, and she was telling them it was removed.
As she dialed the phone, all of the group thought I was getting arrested for sure. I could see Chris T mentally preparing the phone call to Alicia. She hung up the phone and said “we charge you nothing for either bag” and handed me my boarding pass. So I guess the answer was “Sì, sei speciale!”
With the strike our flight home was delayed, but finally took off. We were worried about cancellations and were felt lucky to be on our way, yet sad to be leaving such an unbelievable experience.
May was right around the corner. GFNY Championship NYC was almost upon us.
Within weeks, I was standing in Fort Lee with Vito and Uli, just a few days before the race. “Chris, have you kept your fitness from Italy?”
“Uli, we shall see on Sunday!” But more on that in another story, coming in a few weeks.
When I returned to work, folks asked me how the trip was. I told them life changing. I was challenged and asked by my boss — “really, please tell me how?”. I couldn’t put it into words. It’s tough to explain something like this, I just knew that somehow I would see things differently moving forward. It wasn’t just a vacation somehow. Not just a cycling holiday. It was a lesson in investing your passion. Not in any financial way, but in a more meaningful way. A passion that ten years ago, I didn’t know I had. Just past my fiftieth birthday, at the time six-months sober, and learning that I still have most of my growing up left to do.
Four months later, at the finish line of the Seattle to Portland ride, I met a guy who struck up a conversation because of my GFNY Ventoux jacket. We talked about the GFNY events we had both done, and he asked me, and we realized he had done GFNY Italia back in September of 2016. “Say, have you read about that guy, in the newsletter, that went to Terracina this year, after he bought his bike at the De Rosa factory?”.
“I am that guy”. Small world.
Thank you GFNY!