I arrived for the Giro D’Italia with a bicycle that I had bought off a Carribean gentleman in a lock up outside Streatham for £230 last year. Two days before my plane took off I spent £236 in repairs to make it road safe. Cavendish and his pals must have been finding it hard to swallow their pre ride pasta.
Our choice of stage number six was strategic. My team of amateur cyclists is defined by its eclecticism. Our lead rider weighs 19.5 stone, our time trialist has a freshly broken ankle, the team domestiques are myself and my flatmate, who are simply there to enjoy the scenery.
Hauling our bike bags through sweaty Italian streets, we assembled at the start line early in the morning just before the baking sun hit our exposed Irish skin. My flatmate had discovered to his horror the night before his front brake had broken. Wheeling his bike through an obscure Italian village, he found a man in a set of overalls who was the local car mechanic. Using hand signs and fragmented words of Italian, he explained the issue. With the patience and skill of surgeon, the mechanic fixed the brake in half an hour, smiled and insisted no payment was taken. A significant and heart warming gesture.
We were alone at the start, joined only by a few curious carabinieri who were getting ready for the professionals that would sprint through the same streets hours later. We were in a race against the clock, despite our 5 hour head start. If we were too slow, we would be taken off the road, Wiggo and Cavendish would not appreciate being in the slipstream of my beloved, if rickety Specialised bicycle.
Our lead rider, a man nicknamed Papa, signifies a life characterised by excess. Life is a short journey, and he is determined to enjoy it at its fullest. On the flat smooth tarmac of the opening stages, he set a steady pace of 30 km/h. We could enjoy the sun on our backs as we hugged the beautiful coastline of the mezzogiorno. It was almost a pleasure.
We cycled mostly alone, trying to mimic the peleton we had watched so many times on Eurosport. One man goes to the front and cycles into the wind, while the others enjoy the relative ease of sitting at the back of the train eating the in flight menu that consisted exclusively of gummi bears and cashew nuts. A six year old’s party feed in transit.
Despite being in theory a flat stage. We were faced with the psychological barriers of steady gradients of climbs that never seemed to end. We did our best to support each other, pacing one another up the hill, offering repetitive words of encouragement before enjoying the relative childish pleasure of flying downhill.
As the hours crept forward, we became fearful that we would get thrown off the road unceremoniously. Our matching team outfits gave us a look of counterfeit professionalism, our exhausted bodies and wagging tongues betrayed the truth. Several police asked me in Italian was I part of the Giro. I gave a quick “si grazie” and sped off before they had time to catch me.
Cycling through unknown and obscure Italian villages, they were decked out in pink to hail the incoming riders. Messages were sprayed on the tarmac in support of favourites, Cavendish and Wiggins featured heavily. Imbued by the adrenaline that came from the cheering as I entered the town, and embarrassingly flattered to think that the few photos that were taken by spectators made them believe I was a legitimate rider ahead of the chasing pack, I gave them a show, standing up on my pedals and sprinting through the villages with my tongue out like a deranged dog. I doubt I will grace their mantlepieces.
For the last six kilometres the hot Italian sun pounded off my pallid Irish skin. My legs had the consistency of tiramisu and my mouth was dry and sore. I kept pushing the pedals, hoping that sooner or later the agony would stop. A few Italian mamas cheered loudly and banged the advertising hoardings as I came down to the finishing straight, a kindly policeman directed me to the side. The others followed soon after, exhausted but elated.
I walked through the main piazza Margherita di Savoia in a daze in search of cigarettes and cold beer. After watching an exciting Cavendish victory, I was stopped several times and asked for pictures. I didn’t have the heart, or the Italian to tell them I had the legitimacy of a young man standing outside Old Trafford in a full Manchester United kit after a game. I haven’t received as much female attention since my primary school disco when I went dressed as spiderman. A young man came up, “friend, friend, your shirt, for remember, for remember.” I had to tell him in my Spanish in an Italian accent that I hoped would suffice that I had no other clothes. He walked away with a shrug.
We lay outside a bar exhausted. No energy to cycle the 5 km to our hotel, we asked in the bar did this small village have a taxi service. No they didn’t, but one of the regulars insisted on doing two journeys with the back seats of his people carrier pushed down to ferry us there accompanied by our greasy bicycles. He wouldn’t accept payment, only a millie grazie and a handshake.
Italy I think it’s love.