The Italian Job: Riding the Giro d'Italia
Lycra-clad and on our team bikes we looked somewhat out of place amongst the throngs of tourists as we rolled into the Piazza del Duomo in Milan. A wave of emotion washed over me but given the exertions of the past three and a half weeks in which we had covered over 3500km, including an eye-watering 49,000 metres of climbing, it wasn’t the emotion I was expecting. Although if I am being completely honest I don’t know what I was expecting. All I know was that I didn’t expect to feel so empty.
Maybe it was due to the fact that in the back of my mind I knew that there are two more Grand Tours to come this summer, the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, with both looming large on the horizon, or maybe it was the fact that I had invested far greater efforts into previous stages of this gruelling race. Either way it left me feeling rather strange about the whole situation. No sooner had we crossed the magical finish line and my thoughts turned longingly to getting back to my family in London. That’s not to underestimate the journey we had been on which started back in Sardinia and took in the very best of Italy, it was a journey that I will never forget. In many respects, looking back, that was most likely the cause of my emotions, the fact that the journey is often of far greater significance than the final destination.
Iconic climbs such as Mount Etna, Blochouse, the Stelvio and Monte Grappa all dwarfed over Milan, both literally and emotionally, as did lesser known climbs that won my heart for their sheer beauty in a country full of splendour. For the pros, riding a day behind us, Milan meant so much more because it was here that one of the closest fought Giros in history was decided, fitting on such an occasion and beyond the organisers wildest dreams to have a race go down to the very last day.
Now back in London it seems surreal to be sat here writing about having recently finished cycling a Grand Tour, and not any grand tour either, but the centenary edition of the Giro d’Italia. As if cycling around a country one day ahead of the professional race isn’t hard enough, to do so on the one hundredth anniversary of the event is bordering on madness, at least that is what my friends and family would lead me to believe. Especially given that on such an occasion the race organisers decided to turn an already challenging event into one of immense difficulty, packing the route with as many kilometres and mountains as they could possibly find without turning it into a race purely for climbers.
I have achieved enough goals over the past years to know that the reality of a situation can often pale against the expectation, as was the case arriving into Milan, and yet despite my previous experience I was not quite prepared for those hollow feelings, of a longing to go back in time and be ‘on the journey’ once more. But then I have never taken on a challenge of this magnitude before, an achievement that still hasn’t really begun to sink in, so perhaps it isn’t so strange to have mixed emotions at this stage. Given that we are only a third of the way through this monumental undertaking I am sure there will be a transition back to excitement the closer we get to the Tour de France but for now, it is more a reflective mood.
So, what of Italy? It was Ernest Hemingway who once said “it is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” Having spent the best part of three and a half weeks doing exactly that, I am inclined to agree with him. One could argue that you could see just as much driving the same roads in a car, which is true, but on a bicycle you not only see the country, you feel it and become immersed in it. From the ancient port town of Alghero where this relentless journey began, through to the the daunting Dolomites and so many more places in between, I feel as if I have fostered a connection with a country that will never be broken.
There were days that took me back to my childhood, riding my bike with a gay abandon as we passed effortlessly through vast swathes of apple orchards, vineyards and olive plantations all the while bathed in a gloriously warm sunshine. There were days that left me in awe of mother nature, none more so than climbing the Stelvio (for the first time) as the route snaked its way ever higher into mountains heavy with snow, along a single road framed by towering snow walls on either side, an experience like no other I’ve had on a bike. And then there were the dark days, the days that drove me to the very brink of defeat, days that left me questioning my ability to finish the race, days that forced me to conquer demons and push to depths I didn’t know possible.
As Greg LeMond rightly said, "if you achieve something without a struggle it’s not going to be satisfying." For all of the moments of joy and happiness I experienced in Italy, it will be the struggles, the battles of body and mind and the suffering that give this achievement its meaning. As for the emotion attached to the achievement, given time I am sure it will be amore infinite.
Whilst this is my personal account of the Giro it simply wouldn't have been possible without an amazing team and support crew. Fellow riders James Maltin, Geoff Thomas, Doug McKinnon and Hayden Groves all played equal parts in ensuring we completed this task as a team. Off the bike this event would not have been possible but for the tireless work of our incredible support crew, so thank you Morts, Sarah, PJ, Bob, Jim, Dale and Digi Dave for keeping the show on the road.
As always all donations to the incredible cause we are riding for are always greatly welcome: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/MarcusLeach3GrandTours