Switching roles: Italian National Championships

I’ve always made a point of avoiding going to bike races that I wasn’t competing in. There’s nothing worse than the constant influx of questions about why you’re not racing. The answers of which generally fall into two simple categories; my coach told me not to or, I didn’t get selected.

Yesterday however, was different. I had a very good reason why I wan’t racing and as such was more than happy to switch roles for the day and play spectator rather than athlete.

The race was the Italian national road race championships and given that I’m Australian I had a pretty solid reason for not starting; I was confident it would hold up in court, or under interrogation if it came that.

Staying in Italy with the Longo Borghini’s (again!) for my final Giro Rosa preparations I had promised Elisa that I would play ‘super soigneur’ come race day (minus of course the massage).

The pressure was on. Having worked with some of the best ‘swannies’ in the business I was confident my sandwich making skills and ‘race food’ selection would stand the test, but what about feeding!? Did I have the skills to pass Elisa a bottle at speed during the race? I could see the headlines already; Australian amateur crashes Italian peloton in feed zone.  

In the end Elisa’s Dad and brother, Paolo, relieved me of that duty so in reality I actually had very little to do other than to scream my heart out every time the peloton rode by. I did however, get rave reviews from Elisa and her parents on my panino.

The race

Switching from soigneur to spectator wasn’t a huge adjustment and something I was more than happy to do given the weather, which had the same impeccable timing as George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven. Virtually as soon the race started the sky opened and didn’t close until the race concluded, 30km earlier than planned.

The conditions.

The conditions.

About 40km into the race I found shelter with the Fassa Bortolo swannie under a bus stop. She was literally ringing water out of her shorts they were so wet.

Other than the weather there wasn’t much to report on. The race had remained largely together except for a few small escape groups that managed to gain twenty or so seconds advantage before being pulled back in on the short climb of the circuit.

With five laps remaining, the peloton still together and the rain still pelting down the bus shelter had attracted more and more spectators and all of a sudden it started to sound like an Indian call centre than a refuge for wet spectators. Mobile phones were ringing like church bells on Sundays in Girona.

Despite my limited Italian language skills I was able to piece together what was happening; they were shortening the race. With six of the 11 laps completed the organisers decided the riders were wet enough and cut three laps of the 113km race, a little more than 30km, leaving just over 20km to race.

That’s ridiculous! I hear you say.

I totally agree. I vented to Paolo saying they would never have done this if it was a men’s race and he agreed, saying; ‘If it was a men’s race they would have added an extra lap!’

The Longo Borghini support crew. L-R: Nando, Guidina, Elisa, Paolo.

The Longo Borghini support crew. L-R: Nando, Guidina, Elisa, Paolo.

While I realise organisers made the decision because of the riders welfare, from my point of view (that being the relatively dry point of view of a spectator) shortening the race by 30km totally changed how the race could have potentially played out.

Despite this mid-race change the riders clearly got the message because the next time they past us with a little more than 12km to go the race had shattered in to pieces.

Three riders had gained a gap on the short climb – Rossella Ratto, Elisa and Elena Cecchini – while two others – Susanna Zorzi and Valentina Scandolara – were chasing furiously only a few seconds behind. The peloton, which was seriously depleted by this stage was more than a minute behind.

I was surprised not to see double world champion Giorgia Bronzini at the front of the race after having looked so strong in the early stages. Elisa told me she broke a pedal when the race was being set fire on the climbs, effectively extinguishing her hopes of becoming Italian champion on a course that was the most suited to strengths in years.

The power walk back to the start finish area in the centre of Varese was one of the most nerve wracking of my life; I now know how my parents feel at bike races.

Positioning myself on a corner where I could see the 1km to go banner and the finishing straight I balanced my umbrella on my head and strained my ears and brain to listen to the Italian commentator talking like a horse race broadcaster as the riders attacked the final climb of the day which came with just under 4km to go.

Attack Longo Borghini!

That much was easy enough to understand. Elisa’s game plan, like most other girls in the race most likely, had to be adjusted ‘on the fly’ after the race was shortened and her opportunities to wear her competitors legs down on the climb were cut short. This was her final chance to try to go solo and claim the coveted Tricolor jersey.

While she gained a small gap it wasn’t enough and as the group crested the climb there was only 3km of the race to go, all of which was downhill.

Scandolara took charge on the first part of the descent but Cecchini, seemingly unfazed but the gradient and the drenched roads and they’re potentially dangerous mix, slipped to the front and somehow gained a 20 metre advantage over Scandolara, Ratto and Elisa.

Having raced with all these girls I know they are all insane descenders, for Cecchini to gap them on the downhill speaks volumes of her bike handling skills.

While 20 metres doesn’t sound like much sometimes that’s all you need. Off the front alone Ceccihini focused on staying there while the others behind her started to play games; ‘I’m not closing it‘, ‘me either‘, ‘I can’t, I’m cramping‘.

As Cecchini flew past where I was perched on the corner the gap was so close you could barely even tell there was one, but it was enough. She won ahead of Scandolara and Maria Confalonieri.

You can read the full results here…

I suppose the one thing you can say about the race is that, despite it being shortened, all the girls who were at the front would have still been there even if it was 30km longer.

The depth in Italian cycling is incredible and what is even more incredible is how young their talent pool actually is. Ratto is born in 1993, while Cecchini is born in 1992, and Elisa is born in 1991. Scandolara was the oldest on the podium yesterday at the ripe old age of 24.

The way Italian cycling fosters the development of young riders was something Elisa wrote a guest blog on earlier in the year.

It was an interesting experience playing soigneur/supporter but it’s not necessarily something I would want to repeat very often.

By day’s end I was exhausted, I would even go as far as to say that the athlete has the easier job.

Dear Mum and Dad, sorry for dragging you around to bike races for years and forcing you to play mechanic, soigneur, team manager, cheer squad and every other role. 


One Comment on “Switching roles: Italian National Championships

  1. So what’s it like Chez Longo Borghini? Do they have his and hers and his and hers trophy cabinets? Or do they just fight for the same space? Are they all just as competitive there as on the road? Were you asked to hide any of Paolo’s medals under your bed?

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