Blue skies, empty roads and fast racing welcomed us in this year’s GiroSardegna, a stage race on the Italian island of Sardinia.
As this was my first trip to Italy for several years I had decided to learn a few useful Italian words on Duolingo. However as I only got as far as ‘Food’ it was not much use for a bike race. However it did not take me long to learn the most useful Italian word of the day, ‘Occhio’. Meaning, ‘Be careful!’.
I heard occhio multiple times on the 12km neutralised section of the race and the 25km rolling section thereafter, every time we passed a pothole or a car stopped by the marshals in the opposite lane. Luckily, although there was a small crash just behind me, it wasn’t too sketchy.
With a bit of effort I managed to maintain a good position in sight of the riders at the front – although I didn’t know that the stage winning escape was already up the road – but a 15% climb soon broke things up. I managed to hang onto the lead group and gave Alex a thumbs up just before we hit another ramp where we stretched into a line as the guys at the front raised the pace. Blinded by sweat and the glaring sun I felt my legs start to burn and found myself slipping off the back of the line. Game over, although things looked up when we caught some riders on the next and longest climb of the day and formed a group of about 20 that stuck together to the finish.
The last hour was downhill or flat but every time we hit a rise I felt cramps flashing through my legs and decided to shamelessly sit in the bunch. I hoped that would give me something for the sprint at the end but I missed the 1km to go sign and chased the back of the group to the line to finish 61st. However only 5 seconds separates me from 42nd place.
The GrandGiro was 125km (including the neutralised section) with 1440m of ascent. I took 3 hrs 32 mins compared to 3.16 for the winner. Alex finished 28th in my race and Lillian 13th in the 105km MedioGiro. Lillian was actually overtaken by Alex’s group and had a nice tow along for the final 15km in return for a few swigs of water.
The MedioGiro started 5 minutes before the GranGiro. Lillian looking sharp as she headed out.
Everyone feeling happy with a successful Stage 1 (Alex B, Lillian, Alex D and me).
Stage 2 was the ITT (individual time trial), although for reasons explained below ‘Italian time trial’ would be more appropriate. For the GranGiro the TT was 25km and for the MedioGiro it was 18km. Both involved some climbing and were on roads that we had ridden on in Stage 1.
On the ride to the start (which was up the road we would be riding down) I noticed some groups of two or three riders and then a group of five! Clearly the ‘no-drafting’ rule was not being enforced and now that I thought about it had not been mentioned in any of the race communications. I rationalised that if I was overtaken by just one person I wouldn’t follow as that would be initiating the bad behaviour. On the other hand, if two or more passed I was going to jump on. However at the start as I explained this to a fellow Londoner, Chris, he pointed out that its still cheating which hardened my ethical resolve.
The start was somewhat chaotic. Although we had all been given start times it was a free for all with new arrivals just joining the back of the queue. Occasionally someone would be invited in at the front by the organisers eliciting a chorus of ‘Get to the back of the queue’ from a group of Brits.
The TT itself went okay considering it is not really my strength and I didn’t have a TT bike. After about 10km I was overtaken by two guys who had started behind me and were working together as a team. They waved to me to join them but I refused, mumbling something about it being an individual time trail, and over time they pulled away, occasionally glancing over their shoulders and wondering what was wrong with me in not wanting to join them.
In the end I finished a disappointing 147th in 40 minutes, the only consolidation being a feeling of having taken the moral high ground and the fact that had I been a minute and 10 seconds faster – which I am sure I could have done with a bit of help from my friends – I would have been in the top 100. I’m now 64th in the GC.
Lillian faced the same situation as I did although she also saw some women send their male ‘domestique’ off in the start slot in front of them. However, she hadn’t talked to Chris and when she was overtaken by a man and woman she accepted the invitation to join them. The woman was one place ahead of her in the GC but seemed very willing to work with Lillian and together they put some time into rivals. Lill finished as the 14th woman and maintained her 13th position in GC.
Alex D managed 30th, 4 minutes faster than me but still a staggering 4 minutes behind Barney, another London based rider and ex-Dynamo, who finished in third in 32 minutes.
Paolo and Chris at the start of the TT.
We were staying in a full-board hotel with buffet lunches and dinners. The queue outside the doors for dinner (until the hotel started opening them earlier) was worse than at a local Ikea on a Saturday morning. The food though was pretty good. No complaints there.
Stage 3 was billed on the race website as “…to ride in Groups!”. This was a worrisome thought as we were a bunch of over 200 with variable racing experience and bike handling skills. Crashes aside there was also the chance that the bunch might split leading to some significant time gaps in the GC competition.
Based on my previous two days’ performance I had decided my target was top 50 in the GC so my game plan was just not to get dropped by the main group.
The pace on the first 30-40km on the main coast road (which we were getting to know well having ridden on it twice already – in fact we were going to be riding on it on every stage) was, as expected, super-quick. Every time we went over a rise or had to slow to pass a parked car or lorry (lots more occhios) I’d have to accelerate hard to get back on. At about 30km I looked behind and noticed only 20-30 riders which meant we had dropped about half the field.
More gradual attrition occurred – with me also nearly becoming a victim at around 60km when we strung out along a long windy section where riders in front started losing wheels. 10km on there was a gentle climb up to 200m where I thought the bunch might split. I felt the familiar and unpleasant cramps start as I pushed on the pedals and realised I had only drunk less than a bottle in an hour and a half. I survived the hill but almost got dropped on the descent as I struggled to pedal hard with cramping leg muscles. Thankfully after emptying my bidons the cramps eased off. Paolo also gave me swig of his water before unfortunately, and unknown to me, getting a pinch flat on a hideously potholed section of road leading back towards the sea. By now the bunch was about 70 riders and I knew I just had to hang on to the finish.
With about 6km to go and back on the familiar coast road, four riders attacked and managed to get away. They fought for the win while the rest of us rolled in a minute or so down. I was 61st taking me up to 55th in GC which I was very satisfied with.
My legs are starting to feel weary. I spent half an hour today in Zone 6 which for non cycling geeks means pedalling really hard. We covered the 123km at 43kph… although none of that was due to me.
Lillian also went for it, sticking with the lead group for 65 minutes before the elastic snapped. She was then in a three, then a seven and eventually caught by a chasing group finishing the 105km of the Medio-Giro at an average speed of 36kph. She came 11th and whilst there was a bit of a reshuffle in GC she is still 13th.
For most days we wore cloth numbers but that night we prepared out colourful personalised numbers for the following day’s stage. These were to distinguish us from competitors who could join and just ride Stage 4 as a one day ‘Gran Fondo’ race.
The queen stage, 144km with 2100m of climbing on the slopes of Monte Albo. After a 20km run in (along our favourite coast road) both the Gran and Medio Giros tackled the same climb up into Alpine meadows.
The GranGiro descended after 600m of ascent to another 600m climb whereas the MedioGiro continued upwards making the initial climb 800m and the place where the selection would take place…
The climb was beautiful, on smooth tarmac with yellow and white flowers by the roadside. For the first time I was able to take some photos, first of Chris and then an older Italian who was riding at my pace. At the top, we picked up another guy but our three soon grew to a much bigger group on the fast, sinuous and enjoyable descent. On the way down we caught a lady in rainbow stripes and her friend. I’d noticed her the day before and Paolo later told me she was Tatiana Guderzo, 2009 World Road Race champ.
On the next climb they sat on the front setting a steady pace, so I pushed on trying to catch the group ahead. I realised it wasn’t going to happen and was caught by Tatiana, her friend and a couple of others, who were now going more quickly, and rode with them to the top. Just as we crested the brow I bridged across to the next group of 10 or so feeling pretty happy with myself as we pulled away from the riders behind and hoovered up a few riders in front. At one point we saw the group ahead but sadly our group was not motoring along and 50km later and about 40km from the finish we were caught by Tatiana’s group, plus about 10 others.
Our group, now 27, powered back onto the coast road where I managed to place a bit better than normal in the sprint to the line finishing in the middle of the group, probably the benefit of sprinting against other climbers!
It was a fun day and nice to riding in the hills. I also remained properly hydrated – no cramps – by carrying a 500ml Coke bottle in my pocket up the first climb. There was also two water stations where we were handed small bottles of water on the fly.
However the result was a bit disappointing. I was 72nd on the day and a couple of minutes behind a group containing several riders around me in the GC. I should have expended some more energy on the run in to the climb to be nearer the front as I started the climb in the back half of the field and it wasn’t long enough to give me time to catch up. But that’s the way it goes. I dropped one place to 56th in the GC and I now need to gain 3 minutes to make it into the top 50.
Lillian had a good race being picked up by a strong group in the final 45km where it made a big difference. She came 12th and is still 13th in GC.
On the now familiar road from the hotel to the start in Budoni.
Lillian and I would get to the start early and leave our bikes there before having a coffee. However, the MedioGiro riders (in the lane on the right) seemed much keener than the GranGiro ones (on the left). But that may have also been because the Medio started 5-20 minutes before the GranGiro.
Chris on the first climb with no sign of the faster riders up the road.
I worked with this Italian rider in the top half of the climb as we were going at the same pace.
In the group with Tatiana before attempting to catch the group in front.
Myself and a Dutch guy having given up the chase. Tatiana’s group chasing us down.
But it’s a privilege to be caught by a world champion.
The team time trial. A chance to rest up or a chance to to gain a few, possibly vital, seconds. The first 12 male and female teams across both the Gran and MedioGiros would gain bonus seconds off their GC times (60 seconds for first reducing to 5 seconds for 12th).
We put together a predominately London Dynamo team of Alex Bastin, Paolo Avagliano and Mark Noblet plus Chris Ware, knowing that we all had similar power and should ride well together. The pre-race pep talk consisted of reminding everyone that we should take it easy for the first 10-15 minutes and that this was what we Dynamos had been preparing for for years; the club’s signature event is Saturday morning chain-gangs in Richmond Park. If anyone could do this well we should be able to!
As expected when we arrived at our appointed start time we found a mass bundle for the start ramp; luckily Paolo was able to shepherd us efficiently to the front and we were soon lined up ready to drop down the start ramp.
We rode together well although perhaps with hindsight we should have taken longer turns on the front rather than doing through and off. Mark had said he did not feel so good – a result of riding solo for about 80km yesterday – so he dropped out half way into the 24km course. We upped the pace about 3km from the end which may have been a bit early as Alex had to miss turns and I started to suffer coming by Chris and Paolo who were riding really strongly. Chris jumped early for the line – a bit too hard as he had to wait for Paolo and Alex to catch with me clinging onto Alex’s wheel. Alex’s time, as the third fastest rider, was the one that counted. We came 30th out 57 makes teams in 35 mins, just over 6 minutes slower than the winners! A reasonable performance considering we did not have TT bikes and only 5 in the team (6 being the maximum for male teams). No bonus seconds and still 56th in GC.
Lillian and Mo, another Dynamo, had put together a team of 6 and agreed with the organisers the night before that was okay (4 being the maximum for women). But on the line the written rules were enforced; much to the outrage of the three Italians in the team! So Lillian rode with Mo and another Brit, Julia Duggan, as a three and finished 10th out of 17 teams and gaining 15 bonus seconds!
Fun to ride as a team though our legs are trashed now. I hope they work tomorrow…
We’re all trying to get into the narrow funnel ahead…
The team of me, Chris, Paolo, Mark and Alex.
At the top of the ramp. We’re all a little concerned that the road ahead was blocked with stationary traffic and there was no sign that the organisers were going to delay our start-time. However, a gap was created in the traffic at 10 seconds to go so, like much of the organisation of the event, everything worked out fine in the end.
The event car. As well as taking photos the car would supply welcome bottles of water towards the end of the longer stages which would be passed around the bunch.
Lillian with her team of Mo and Julia.
That afternoon we decided to do some sightseeing and rode to a nearby beach. Unfortunately this involved riding over a sizeable hill so it wasn’t the recovery ride we were after.
It also involved some cyclocross bike carrying action.
But it was a nice beach (Spiaggia Isuledda).
The Giro ended with a short and punchy 39km stage, culminating in a climb to Sant’Anna; this was actually up the descent that we took after the first col of Stage 4. After being too far back at the start of the uphill action on that stage I knew I would have to be a bit more aggressive in the 26km run in to the climb. Of course everyone else had come to the same conclusion; we were back on the coast road and looking at Strava afterwards we were going even quicker than on the manic Stage 3. Every time I glanced at my Garmin it showed over 50kph! After we turned inland some short climbs spat riders out of the back of the bunch but as we approached the start of the climbing proper I was glad to see that I was still with the lead group.
The initial 13% ramps soon split the field but I was feeling good and although the leaders were pulling away I was overtaking plenty of dropped riders.
As the climb started to level out, I passed Lillian, who had started 15 minutes before us in the MedioGiro group. I swerved to the left to get a photo of her but I think she would rather have had a push or the offer of a wheel to follow for a bit; something that most over the others did for her (thanks Barney, Alex D and Paolo!).
Although I managed to get out the phone for a picture I was struggling to hold the wheel of the strongest of the Njinga riders; there was a big group from London from this spinning studio who we liked the call the Ninjagos (after the Lego figures).
Things got even harder when we were both caught by Jamie Anderson – an Aussie guy living in Belgium – who is a powerhouse and dragged us most of the way to the line (the final 4km were flat/rolling). Although I was tempted to sit in, I figured that Jamie and the Ninjajo (by coincidence another James) may be rivals in the GC (they were 10-15 places above me) and given the work Jamie had done felt I owed him something, so I put final effort in approaching the line and Jamie was first over from our little group.
I finished 46th on the stage gaining enough time to get to 53rd in the GC and into the top 10 in my age group (45-49 years old), a nice way to end the Giro. Even better, it was followed by a stress free, flowing descent to the valley for coffee, ice cream and a gentle spin home. It was with some sadness that we rode along the coast road for the final time.
Lill also had a good day, coming 12th and keeping her 13th spot on the GC. She should definitely get a bonus award for consistency as she remained in that place for the whole event whilst others moved up and down around her. Looking at the results Lillian lost her chance of 12th or higher on the Stage 1 not staying with her rivals on the climb. And I lost about 5 GC positions in Stage 4, not making it into the group that finished a couple of minutes ahead of my one. But that’s what makes bike racing fun and interesting… and which probably means we’ll be back to try our luck again next year. (Full results here: GC Results.)
Final pre-race coffee in the Spinnaker, Budoni.
And a final Team London pose (Paolo, Alex, Barney, me and Len).
James the Njinga and I catching Lillian on the climb.
I hope Lillian thinks that this photo is worth me not giving her a push!
At the finish with Lillian photo-bombing.
Happy to be in such a nice place but sad that the race was over.
I was too tired to realise that Paolo was posing or I would have done one too.
We all rode down to the La Caletta, the place where the TTT started, for coffee…
… and ice cream.
Paolo arranged a delicious (and enormous) dinner at a nearby agritourismo restaurant which was a great way to end the week.