Part 13 - Victims of the Maximum Time Rule

Venice, the night of Monday, May 30th. Dino Buzzati writes...

After the first group, heads down, had made their furious final assault on the finish line, and the nearly unbearable roar of the crowds had diminished to single cries, becoming less and less hysterical, and the first rows of spectators had broken through the protective cord and like a flood had engulfed the still-gasping champions to embrace them, kiss them, touch them.

After the official timekeeper had pressed the button on his stopwatch, and the finish-line judges had somehow determined (and we will never understand how) the order in which the racers had finished in the midst of the sprint's crazed confusion, and the glass negative recording the finish sprint had been sent to be developed, to settle the inevitable disputes.

After the photographers had snapped their photos of the winner, holding the bouquet of flowers and fraternally embraced by gentlemen who were probably seeing him for the first time, but who hoped to gain a bit of reflected glory, knowing their friends back home would turn green with envy the next day when they saw their pictures in the newspapers, their faces stunned and triumphant, the winner at their sides.

After the journalists, wearing strange, brightly colored coveralls and little red baseball caps they wouldn't be caught dead wearing on the streets of their hometown for fear of being ridiculed, had reported in front of a microphone - or on the radio or from the nearest public telephone - the final moments of the stage and the finish results, their voices as excited as if they were announcing the explosion of the first atomic bomb.

After the top aces, having forcefully extricated themselves from the mire of thousands of all-too-enthusiastic hands grabbing them (even in all that uproar, there were those who held out postcards and pencils, begging for an autograph), had been lifted with great effort into their respective team cars to be taken to the hotel (wonderfully colorful, open-top cars, bearing sponsor's name down each side and strange racks on the back, loaded with colorful bicycles and glistening wheels which, during the race, spin in the breeze like graceful little windmills). And after the throngs, stampeding as if to an emergency exit during a bad fire, had poured into the adjacent streets to see them go by.

After the linotype operators in distant cities had set the news into leaden lines, and the lines had been formed into a page, and the page had been transferred onto a copper sheet, and the copper sheet had been fixed to the rotary press, and the press had been set in motion, and the first copies had appeared with their bold headlines and the winner's picture, and the newspaper boys' strident shouts had been heard in the main streets by the men shut up in offices where they were shaken by the tone of those shouts, and wondered if war had broken out.

After the showers in the hotels - whose lobbies were alive with an indescribable confusion of porters, bicycles, journalists, team managers, telegraph boys, suitcases, curious fans, American and Swiss tourists at the height of confusion and embarrassment - had started to work, pouring jets of water over the backs and necks of the champions, running down their limbs, dislodging the encrustation of dust, and finally running murky and gritty toward the drains; after the masseurs had started to put some tone back into the precious muscles of their charges, while from the street rose the exasperating chorus of the fans begging for a glimpse, however brief, of their idols.

After the press office at race headquarters had distributed mimeographed copies of the day's results and the revised general classification, and in a separate little room the international jury - four dignified big-wigs, two Italians, one Belgian and one Frenchman - had come to an overall agreement on what actions to take, such as: a 2000 lire fine for racer X (second violation) for an unauthorized feed from his team car, and 5000 lire to the team itself for the same reason; a 500 lire fine to the racers listed below for an unsolicited push (second violation) et cetera, et cetera; a 500 lire fine to racer Z who, while having declared he was abandoning the race, had not removed his number as required; and so on.

After the last of the race caravan had left the stadium, and the champions had started off toward their lodgings (either by car, or alone on their bicycles) and the excitement had dissipated entirely, and the immense crowd, so recently full of enthusiasm and energy, had become a weary flock (the happy young faces changed to limp masks, their eyes expressionless, their aching feet dragging) and streamed away amid the bestial racket of cars stuck in the traffic jam.
After the windows, from which a few minutes before had leaned beautiful, smiling young women, had been closed, and the inevitably sad post-holiday emptiness had invaded everyone's spirits - while the city was now, little by little, getting back to its normal activities, streetcars moving again, policemen returning to their barracks, and in the empty arena, once the scene of triumph, the wind scattered trash, old newspapers, crushed flowers.
When all this had taken place, three young men arrive on bicycles, dirty and sweating, faces twisted by exertion, trying to get through the rowdy, slow-moving river of people.

"Excuse me, please, excuse me, please!" they shout. "Make way! Make way!"

With desperate efforts they try to make their way without losing their balance. But the crowd is too dense. They have to put one foot on the ground, dismount, and push forcefully toward the entrance to the stadium. At first they are mistaken for those pitiful cyclists who, when races are being run, dress themselves like the real champions, in jerseys identical to theirs and, electrified by their presence, swarm into the stadium at full speed, pinning their hopes on a misunderstanding; and in fact some do make the mistake, a few girls shout, "Well done," while some myopic fans take them for Ronconi or Bevilacqua. It also happens that, from a distance, they are mistaken for Coppi or Bartali. But these three are not rushing away from the finish; on the contrary, that's where they are trying to go. And it is obvious they have covered a lot of ground - too much for them, in fact. They have cloth numbers pinned on their backs, and another number hanging from the crossbar of their bikes.

Finally the crowd understands, moves aside to let them pass, and watches. However, no one applauds, no one shouts their names, no one carries them in triumph. For they are the latecomers, those who lagged behind by dozens of kilometers for the entire second half of the stage so that, instead of walls of enthusiastic humanity lining the roadsides, they met disorderly streams of people on their way back home.

They are the last, the disinherited, the destitute, the afflicted, the pariahs, the anonymous; always at the dangerous edge of the maximum time limit (the riders are allowed an extra twenty minutes for every one hundred kilometers raced). Waiting for them at the stadium's entrance there is perhaps a minor timekeeper, impatient to go and freshen up, who will record their arrival. But maybe there is no longer anyone there, and they will have to beg the jury to be lenient, claiming plausible excuses such as a fall, the support vehicle's breakdown, an accident, anything whatsoever that might be qualified as unavoidable misfortune. And perhaps the powers-that-be will turn a blind eye.

In truth, two of the distraught trio did not seem to take it too much to heart. Arriving late is just their job. They are the lowest-ranked gregari, required by their contract to give their spare wheel to the team leader, to run from one farmstead to another, collecting drinking water for him, to tow him if he is in difficulty, to wait for him if he is behind, to pick up at the feed zone the cloth musette containing provisions and take it to him; a bit like hunting dogs which, running back and forth, end up covering more ground than their masters.

When they have accomplished these humble tasks, it matters little whether they arrive among the leaders. On the contrary, the team manager prefers that they not go overboard: let them spare themselves, save energy for the next day, swallow their aspirations, arrive an hour late, as long as they don't exceed the time limit. They arrive last because of others, precisely as are paid to do.

But not the third one. He had not given everything to follow his team leader today, taking him a bottle of water or orangeade. He did not hand over any wheels. Honestly, he sacrificed absolutely nothing for him. The third one had not stifled his ambitions - he really is defeated. He had a terrible bout of weakness and wasn't able to stay in the group's shelter. The pep pill he swallowed at the start of the last climb failed to help - his strength returned for about ten minutes, but afterward things only got worse. Collapsed, destroyed, a wreck. And while the other two still have the energy to curse at the people blocking their passage, he follows silently, looking about him with a dazed expression.

What has happened to him?

All around him they are impassive, unkind, alien faces from another world. His fiancee was waiting for him in the stadium - she had written him that she would be there. She, too, has probably left by now, or perhaps she is there, in the crowd, just a meter away from him and she sees him but does not recognize him. Or else she has seen him and is hiding because she is ashamed of him: a proud girl like her, engaged to the lowest of the lowly?

The sun is already setting amid dusty reddish halos, and the crowd continues to disperse. Increasingly congested, the streams of people pour against him as he painfully struggles along. The other two cyclists, still cursing, have managed to get through, and now he is alone. The people bump into him, tossing him from side to side; a car, its siren wailing, obliges him to give way.

Daylight fades, the street lamps come on.
"Where is the stadium?" he asks.

They respond with vague gestures, almost annoyed.

"Excuse me, excuse me," he begs, his voice almost inaudible.

But it is already nighttime. How many hours have passed since the first ones arrived? How many days. . . or is it months?

Night has come, and beyond the crowd, the lights of the cafes shine out. And yet another throng flows toward him, like a dark stream of cruel and hostile lava.

"Where is the stadium?" he asks.

"Which stadium?" they answer.

"The one for the Giro d'Italia."

"Ah, the Giro d'Italia. those were the days." and they shake their heads pityingly.

Not hours, not days or months: It's been years since the race finished.

And he is alone.

And he is cold.

And his fiancee is out for a walk with someone else; or perhaps she has already married?

"Where is the stadium?" he begs.

"Stadium?" they reply, "Giro d'Italia? What does that mean?"

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