May 14, 2006: Giro d’Italia Stage 8
Locals in Pescara informed us that unless we were able to arrive prior to 8am, driving our rental car up Passo Lanciano would be impossible. However, we did find out that if we drove to Pretoro at the base of the eastern ascent of Passo Lanciano (the Giro peloton was ascending the northern face of the mountain) there would be shuttle buses to transport tifosi to the summit. Once we made our way out of the maze that is Pescara, signs soon appeared for Passo Lanciano along the approximate 80km drive to the mountain nestled within the Abruzzo National Park. I gather it’s a fairly popular ski area in the winter, so signage to the mountain was plentiful. We had been in Italy for a week, and during this drive was the first time we started to see cyclists (most likely many en route to ascend Passo Lanciano for the purpose of spectating, just like us). We arrived in Pretoro and found no sign of the Giro, so we just started driving up the east face thinking that maybe we were fed bogus information and perhaps we would be able to drive our way to the summit since we weren’t on the actual race route. Plenty of cyclists were already laboring heavily up the climb: local teams all decked out in matching kits, some old guys on steel bikes from yesteryear devoid of STI or Ergo shifting, and quite a few recreational cyclists on mountain bikes or cheap road bikes, all steadfastly determined to make their way up the approximate 15 km climb.
Only a few kilometers up the slope the road was closed. After a few moments of indecision behind a few equally bewildered motorists, I did what any Italian driver would do: move out of the line, pass everybody, and see what was happening at the police roadblock. We discovered that, indeed, the road was closed to traffic, but a dirt road heading to who-knows-where to the right had a “P” logo which we assumed to be our cue to direct us to the shuttle bus parking. Thus started our off-road adventure in tiny Euro-cars. We just kept following the P signs on the dirt road which rapidly deteriorated into an entity no better than a washed out goat path. A very pricey looking Audi hot rod 2 cars in front of us was having second thoughts about the “road” conditions and proceeded to drive exceedingly slowly, much to the consternation of antsy tifosi in the caravan behind them. The Audi’s speed grew so slow that the car actually got stuck on a very steep section consisting of nothing more than loose rocks, spinning its wheels in futility. The guy in front of me hopped out, pushed the car, and got it moving. Then, I could see in the rear view mirror a crazed Smart car weaving through traffic behind us. He was truly 4-wheeling it, just careening over bushes, rocks, and saplings, and flew past me, roared around the Audi, and disappeared in a cloud of dust and a hail of kicked up rocks. The Audi got going and I floored our wee Fiat Panda to negotiate the rock scree. We soon found ourselves in a substantial mountain meadow and was directed to a place to park by Giro workers. We grabbed our backpack full of munchies and cold weather gear, then proceeded to the line of tour buses visible on the far side of the meadow waiting to drive us the remaining 10 km up to the summit. The last couple to board the bus were also Americans, the only other English speakers we were to encounter all day.
The bus driver expertly negotiated his full-size tour bus up the numerous hairpin switchbacks, all the while complaining loudly and gesticulating at the weaker cyclists who were forced to zig-zag along the road to negotiate the steep slope directly in front of our bumper. Amazingly, no flailing cyclists were flattened or jettisoned over the guardrail. We were dropped off near the summit and walked a few hundred meters further up the road to the finish area and Giro village. There were plenty of promotional booths, a booth to place bets on today’s stage, live acoustic music, and the Giro infrastructure all commandeering a tiny mountain village at the base of some downhill ski slopes. We arrived at the summit about 4 hours prior to the race finish. I didn’t really have any idea how crowded the mountain would be. Like L’Alpe d’Huez with maybe 600,000 people? Totally deserted? Somewhere in between? I predicted it wouldn’t be too crowded since I figured that most people eager to witness mountain finishes would wait until the Giro’s last week when the serious climbing would take place. Additionally, those climbs are much more centrally located to other nations north of Italy instead of the position we were at in Abruzzo, the southernmost stretch of the Giro. We found out later that evening that perhaps 100,000 people were on Passo Lanciano. At this point of the day it was crowded, but not crazy crowded, at the summit and we had no idea at all how many people were already postioned along the extent of the climb.
After wandering about the booths, checking out the jumbo-tron (tuned at this point to Formula 1 racing), and looking at the finish line being built, we started to walk down the north face looking for room along the road to set up camp. The road was rather narrow and steep (probably a steady 10% grade). After walking only 350 meters down from the finish line we stopped because at that juncture was the first wide open space free of spectators along the snow fencing. There was a huge crowd camped out with a view of the finish line and the final 100 meters, but the crowd was just now beginning to trickle down the slope to find viewing which guaranteed up close and personal glimpses of weary Giro participants.
So, we camped out exactly at the 350 meters to go sign and waited for the race to arrive. Loudspeakers wired in to the finish line announcer extended down the mountain approximately every 50 meters for the entire last kilometer of the climb providing us with an audio feed of the entire stage.
About 3 hours before the race arrived I proceeded to create my chalk masterpiece on the asphalt. It was quite a delicate art not getting run over by the countless Giro staff cars, police cars, and police motorcycles which continually trickled up the slope. Additionally, there was an endless stream of cyclists going both uphill and downhill and thousands of people heading downhill to claim roadside viewing spots of their own. The day before I ventured to the Italian version of Home Depot looking for graffiti implements. I was all set to purchase some quick drying spray paint, but noticed a bucket of chalk while waiting in line at the cashier and opted for the non-permanent option instead. While I believed I could get away with spray-painting the street in broad daylight, I didn’t want to push my luck and have to deal with The Man, so chalk it was. Since I was at the Giro deep in the heart of Italy, I didn’t want to upset the partisan crowd so I first drew a gigantic BASSO across the street. It was good practice with the chalk, and it was particularly funny listening to the crowd gathering to view my progress. This is what I heard:
“B… B… B… B… B-A… B-A… Bah… Bah… Bah… Bas… Bas… Bas… Bas… Basso!… Basso!… Basso!… Ivan Basso!… Bravo Ivan Basso!”
But how to draw Bobke Strut? The light bulb blinked into luminescence above my head: make it Scrabble-style off of BASSO. The B had a vertical BOBKE and the first S had a vertical STRUT extending down the slope. This is when the tifosi really got confused:
“Bob… Bob… Bob-ka?… Bob-ka?… Bob-ka St… Bob-ka Str… Bob-ka Stroot?… Bob-ka Stroot?”
Some Italians asked me what it meant and I tried and tried in my meager Italian to explain myself, “Bob Roll? 7-11? Americano Sette Undieci squadra? OLN? OLN tv? Americano ex-pro? Americano ex-pro nickname?” Nickname was the only word they glommed onto. I think they interpreted my ramblings as Bobke Strut being some kind of American nickname for Basso. They just had no clue who Bob Roll is. Oh well, the confusion of thousands of people certainly provided entertaining street theatre.
I started to get worried when the weather proceeded to turn crappy. What was once a sunny, 60 degree day was rapidly deteriorating as the race approached. It drizzled for a few minutes about 2 hours before the Giro arrived and I was afraid my art work would wash away. Fortunately, the weather held although it was getting gloomier, colder, and exceedingly dismal as the afternoon progressed. At the end of the day we would find the whole summit engulfed inside a cloud. Chalk also proves to be rather resilient. I gave it a quick second application, particularly the red borders, and it endured through the onslaught of countless cars, bikes, and pedestrian traffic.
With about 2 hours until the Giro’s arrival, the entire roadside behind the barriers had filled up on both sides of the road as far as I could see down the mountain. About 1 hour prior to the race arriving the promotional caravan rolled up the slope, probably about 50 vehicles all together. They drove until the first vehicle hit the finish line, parked, and shut off their engines. Then all the people inside the vehicles got out and started walking up and down the last 500 meters of the course passing out promo crap. We got some cheap plastic flags, packaged salami, bandages, literature from Polar, hats, and some honey. When the Saunier Duval-Prodir hotties strutted by in hot pants, knee high go-go boots, and Saunier Duval jerseys the older women next to us sneered and kept repeating “prostituta” as long as they were in view. It’s this type of crowd reaction which made me glad I didn’t try to sketch out a 40 foot tall penis in addition to my Basso/Bobke Strut graffiti. I think this would have gone over as well as if I drew it within Vatican City for the Pope’s perusal. I would not have made it off the mountain alive.
Once the promo caravan cleared out with about 45 minutes to go, the police arrived. They walked down from the summit and spaced themselves about 2 every 50 meters for the entire last kilometer. I draped a jacket over the snow fence and was soon asked to move it. At first I thought this was a safety issue, nothing loose that a rider could snag while he passed close to the fencing, but it turned out the guy was a Giro publicity rep. He was making sure all of the logos afixed to the snow fencing would be unobstructed for the cameras following the riders. I saw the same guy make several people remove their Di Luca banners which were also concealing sponsor logos.
My Italian was sufficient to hear what was going on down the mountain as the riders began their approximate 30 minute ascent (at least for the fast guys). The mountain top let out a collective groan when Di Luca (the local boy) got shelled. The peloton had disintgrated rather quickly on the lower slopes of the climb. By the time riders reached me with 350 meters to go, they came by in ones or twos, then groups of maybe 4-6. I could recognize a fair amount of the riders, but not all by any means. Unfortunately I left my start list in the car and I was going from memory and visuals only.
Amazingly, after about 10 minutes and maybe about 1/3 of the peloton through to the finish, people started piling into the road so they could walk uphill to the podium presentations. It was a real clusterfuck, especially since riders started coasting back down the climb after only about 8 minutes. Anybody who finished high up and who didn’t have to make a podium appearance or anti-doping test simply donned their winter clothing, scored some Coke, and made a beeline down off the mountain immediately. Nobody had helmets, everyone was decked out in jackets, knee warmers, and warm hats, and many were slurping down Coke while coasting down the steep slope no-handed. Then the pros started to get exceedingly pissed when doofusses got in their way. The riders did not want to touch their brakes. Surprisingly, at least to me, most seemed remarkably fresh and composed. Some Quick-Step riders started losing their shit and screamed at several teenagers on mountain bikes who almost took them out. Then a bunch of spectators, especially old men, started ripping into the kids, too. After about 20 minutes we hopped the fence and started walking uphill to the finish as well. Jan Ullrich, on his way down, came to a stop about 1 foot behind my wife, just patiently waiting for the crowd to part. He looked damn lean, just with a gigantic head. Two pretty large gruppettos rolled by us on the way up to the finish line. At least each had a motorcycle escort to urge the crowds to part. The cops totally lost the ability to keep the road clear, although they didn’t really seem to care after about the first 25 riders came through.
We were directed off the course at 150 meters to go where the team cars were directed into the field at the base of the downhill ski slopes. The later riders stayed at the top to ride down in the cars. I came across Sylvain Calzati standing in front of an AG2R car examining his totally fucked up bike. Both Ergo levers were destroyed and his jacket had some tears by his elbow. He looked fine, and I bet he had some type of mishap after he finished since he surely wasn’t climbing with his heavy jacket and tights. It rained hard for a couple of minutes, but then thankfully stopped. At this point, the temperature dipped into the low 40s and a cloud engulfed the entire mountain-top. Amazingly, Simoni and Di Luca were still sitting outside in the RAI studio fielding questions from the announcers. They were bundled up, but stayed outside for a good 1/2 hour after the podium ceremonies.
Then the off-the-mountain clusterfuck commenced. VIP vehicles, team vehicles, Giro vehicles, and police vehicles got off first. Then people who drove up early in the morning in their cars/scooters/motorcycles made the descent. Last off were the thousands of us poor schmoes who utilized the shuttle buses. We saw some poor AG2R rider, stuck at the top with his team car, trying to change out of his wet clothes under the raised rear hatchback door of the station wagon. The car was stuffed to the gills with wheels, duffle bags, and coolers and the rider (I don’t know who) was perched on the edge of the bumper peeling off his cycling shoes and looking particularly miserable. Then, all of a sudden, Ivan Basso appears with Bjarne Riis and a police escort. He has to walk about 300-400 meters through the scrum to his team car. I was dumbfounded that the team car didn’t make its way to the podium to pick him up. I saw some cops breaking up a fight. All we could see was a crying young woman sitting on the ground and 2 guys in their mid-20s each screaming at police officers. Didn’t quite figure out what that was all about.
Then it was time to figure out what was up with the buses. There was absolutely no organization at the summit and the handful of police still with us didn’t care at all about an orderly procession. It was a total free-for-all. What happened was buses started to appear at the summit turn-around already full. People were walking down the mountain and intercepting the buses prior to them reaching the summit. So that’s what we did, too. We probably walked about 500-600 meters down and finally found a bus with room. Then we rode up to the summit, turned around, and then drove down to the makeshift pasture parking lot where we successfully found our rental car (thankfully with no flat tires from the earlier 4-wheeling escapade).
Passo Lanciano photos:
A view of the Passo Lanciano finish line. Hydraulic lifts just elevated the finish line apparatus up into the air. I believe the structures with open windows are where journalists are housed. The riders will be approaching the finish line from the right. And who knew that Kid Rock (red t-shirt) was a Giro fan.
Looking a few feet to my left, this is the on-site RAI tv studio on the Passo Lanciano summit. In the background you can see the downhill ski slopes, the chairlift, and the “Welcome to Passo Lanciano” spelled out in the grass.
Looking just to the left of the RAI studio is the Giro podium. In years past, the Giro has continued upwards another 8 kilometers to a dead-end summit called the Block Haus. The road up this climb begins just to the right of the condo in the background. I think the logistics of negotiating a dead-end summit with very limited parking proved too unwieldy.
A bit further past the finish line are these rider facilities for massage (I presume) and anti-doping. And yes, I believe that patch of white is the last snowy evidence of ski season.
I’m standing in the road at 150 meters to go looking upwards to the finish line, trying hard not to get crushed by a frisky police horse to my left. On the road is spray-painted “Vai Killer”, words of encouragement for local favorite Danilo Di Luca. The only killing done that day by Di Luca was the collective crushing of his fans’ spirit when he got dropped about half way up the finishing climb.
A T-Mobile team car arrives at the summit well in advance of the peloton, perhaps to greet their team with post-race food and warm clothing.
This sign lets everyone know that the Giro publicity village is not far away.
It just wouldn’t be a professional bike race without a few models as eye candy, in this case perched atop special Giro-edition Piaggio scooters.
There it is, in all its glory: the Basso/Bobke Strut scrabble creation at 350 meters to go.
The Giro promotional caravan arrives at the Passo Lanciano summit.
My chalk masterpiece yet again, from my vantage point directly underneath the 350 meters to go sign. You can make out the “350″ spray painted on street indicating to the Giro crew where the sign needs to be situated.
A blurry Ivan Basso, only 350 meters from a commanding victory, undoubtedly pleased to see his name in print but surely wondering, “What the hell is Bobke Strut?”
Danilo Di Luca rolls through 1:32 after Basso in 8th place amidst a thunderous ovation. Danilo, repeat after me, you’re a man for the Classics not Grand Tours…2005 was a fluke.
Serguei Gonchar adorned in pink, but for only 350 more meters, with Victor Hugo Pena right behind the maglia rosa.
John Gadret (right) is about 350 meters from finishing 41st on the day, hot on the wheel of Colombian Leonardo Duque (Cofidis). Ivan Parra and Wim Van Huffel also rolled across the finish line credited with the same time for the day as Duque and Gadret. While Phonak’s Jose Enrique Gutierrez’s performance is likely the revelation of this year’s Giro, Gadret’s performance in the high mountains during the Giro’s final week also warrant a mention, particularly since this is his Grand Tour debut.