5/28/2009

Part 12 - A Day That Takes Your Breath Away, From Rome to the Adriatic

Pesaro, the night of Saturday, May 28th. Dino Buzzati writes.

It is a bitter thing to travel across this part of Italy, from Roma to Pesaro, without enough time to take a break, without being able to stop.

For this is Italy at its most "Italian", where a hundred thousand great events are remembered, not only by those who studied history in school, but also by those who have never been to school at all, those who have little knowledge of all that has happened over the centuries. This extraordinarily humanized land speaks to the illiterate as well, and anyone but a savage would want to stop, to relax at least in the shade of a tree, to listen to the music of the little birds, to gaze at the clouds sailing happily above castles whose ancient battlements are now open to the flight of swallows.

Nothing in the world is more contradictory to speed than this solemn landscape, whose rhythms are measured in centuries. These cities and towns weren't in a hurry today, either - so ancient, they seem as much a part of the landscape as a forest or cliff.

But we could not stop.

Many predicted that this, the Giro's longest stage at two hundred ninety-eight kilometers, would be nothing more than a lethargic stroll ending, as usual, in a brief skirmish during the final kilometers. It was felt that the one hundred seventy-six legs leaving at seven o'clock from the Ponte Milvio would grind along the never-ending road with all the speed of
an elderly organ grinder, but quite the contrary, there was no respite.

From beginning to end it was a frenzied flight that kept the reporters' ears perked-up without a moment's rest, launching cars and motorcycle messengers into the wild breakaways, and resulting in an exceptionally fast average speed. Old Belloni, team manager for Ronconi and companions on the Viscontea team, who in his day took part in some hellish gallops, said he could not recall such a frantic pace during such a long stage. The average speed was in fact more than thirty-seven kilometers per hour - if such a thing happened during the Tour de France, who knows what a great fuss they would make over it! Thus we didn't have a minute to contemplate the views, to listen to quotations from our learned colleague (who's a genius in history), or to greet with appropriate consideration the new towns and regions running toward us. And at the source of the Clitumnus river, not one of us responded to the inviting gestures of the half-dozen charming nymphs who appeared at the edge of a thicket, smiling.



The powder which set off this morning's explosive pace, which continued like the flame of a fuse all the way from Roma to the Adriatic, was the first intermediate sprint at Terni. These intermediate sprints are an innovation for the Giro, adopted despite a certain amount of controversy. Sprint lines are designated in the middle of each stage, awarding to the winner a time bonus of one minute (half-a-minute for second, fifteen seconds for third) which is exactly the same bonus as for a stage finish. This new idea has proven successful, and the patron of the giro, Emilio De Martino, is extremely satisfied. It launched a series of escapes by Vicini and Bevilacqua, briefly; then by Ronconi and Pasquini; then by Monari and Ricci. Small groups or two or three racers detached themselves from the main pack, attempting each time to breakaway. Several were able to maintain the pace and managed to catch the others already in front, or else, they dangled halfway across until they were again absorbed by the main group. Thus a tense atmosphere, starting from Roma's suburbs, and even more tense when, with the lead group having grown to twenty racers, the giants who remained behind found themselves eight minutes back at one point; and it looked as though a hard blow was in store for the two super champions.

The first to pass beneath the intermediate sprint banner of at Terni was Vicini, his red head bent in the agony of his final effort, followed by Pasquini and Ronconi. There were three of them alone in front, but about twenty more followed, determined to catch them. Coppi and Bartali had hesitated, and this break, originally so limited in scope, took on a new life and attempted what no one had expected: to maintain a gap for another two hundred kilometers, all the way to the finish at the velodrome in Pesaro! This resulted in a very fast pace - it amazed even Cleto Radice, the "prince of timekeepers".

And all along the route, the people who rushed to welcome the Giro were magnificent. However, you couldn't compare them with the astonishing crowds in Sicily and Calabria, so anxious, so happy, while at the same time respectful, so that they seemed to have been painted on either side of the road, they were so perfectly aligned. Today, by comparison, it looked as though people had less regard for the giants of the road . . . a relatively poor opinion, at least, although the children were not stingy with the praise they chalked on the asphalt, or in crayon on the walls, or in ink on small placards lifted on long broom handles and almost thrust into the riders' faces, to make certain they could read them. For example: "Long live Bartali, the conqueror" or "Bartali, make them all cry on the Izoard!"

Did the multicolored mob of cyclists know they were riding through one of the most beautiful regions in the world? Would it have made any difference if they had instead been surrounded by the smoggy suburbs of an industrial basin? In a certain sense, it was a crime to make use of such enchanting scenery for such unrewarding and bestial hard labor. Unaware as they gobbled up the kilometers, without looking around them, the breakaways only had eyes for the pails of water set out by spectators in front of their houses to refresh them a little.

We in the car saw something - hasty, fragmented images of this fundamental Italy of such great and malleable beauty - the Italy, that is, of majestic ruins laden with history, the Italy of oak and cypress trees, of Italy of immense patrician villas perched on slopes like so many weary empresses, the Italy of embossed walls covered with coats of arms, the Italy of the rickety old rural buses hurtling dizzily into the valley depths, the Italy of ancient churches, of rail crossing keepers' tiny cottages, of young pregnant women, of stonecutters working at the roadside under the midday sun, of Madonna statues set into the corners of houses, their little votive lamps always lit, the Italy of haystacks and majestic long-horned oxen, of bearded young monks passing by on bicycles, of cliffs too picturesque to believe nature alone produced them, of bridges thousands of years old and still capable of carrying huge trucks on their spans, the Italy of hostelries and accordions, of grandiose palaces converted into barns and stables, of gentle hills covered to their summits with cypress trees.

We saw a few fragments of it, almost by default. They, the cyclists, saw nothing. They pedaled along, chewing furiously at their calorie-laden food because it's immediately necessary to replace the energy used in order to keep the wheels turning.

The three fugitives became seven; a little past Foligno, the seven became almost twenty. Then, the twenty thinned again to just fifteen because not all of them were able to maintain the effort. The duel was reduced to its simplest terms: in the lead, a group including Leoni, Ronconi, Fazio, and Pasotti, who promised a lot and threatened a violent upheaval in the overall classification; a little behind, the main group.

And the Aces? They know what they are doing. The aces are astute, and their team managers are even more astute and insightful. . . the aces, the two great ones, are very fortunate where strength is concerned, and like all self-made men they are also a bit miserly. Why spend more than is necessary? When the right moment comes, in the Dolomites, for example, or the Alps, up there, where cunning and trickery are of no value, then they will empty their pockets, and they will pay down to their last cent. This, say the well-informed, is their strategy more-or-less.

For the time being, they limit themselves to the indispensable: to reduce the gap between themselves and the first of the breakaways, as they did today, for example, keeping them within safe limits (less than two minutes), to keep an eye on one another, to avoid any risky, surprising turn of events. So what does it matter then if the pink jersey switched from one cyclist to another, and if this evening Cottur (who stashed the jersey at night under his mattress to ward off bad luck) had to pass it on to Fazio? What does it matter if at every stage finish this or that name appears in the newspaper headlines? Let that most brilliant and handsome Leoni have a good time breaking away as he did today and showing off as he did today one of his irresistible sprints, winning the stage. The right moment - they seem to be saying - will come. And meanwhile, they conserve their strength.

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