This is not a cliché.

July 2014

18 July 2014

Maratona dles Dolomites

The Dolomites open up like the Red Sea, and we, the population on bikes,
we race, determined, toward the Promised Land. The tale of one who got there.
"The silence is almost ghostly. Or magical. Thousands of cyclists on the road and you hear nothing. Just the swish of the wheels."
La Villa in Val Badia. At the starting grid at six in the morning. The clouds slipped off during the night. The morning sizzles in a glorious light. The cold stings like a thistle twisting around my ankles. Tens of thousands of cyclists. Never were so many seen gathered together. There are all different types. And they speak all the languages of the world, almost. Babylon by cycle. They all seem strong, able, prepared. They have amazing bikes, perfectly maintained. Some are starting up their apps for their hearts, watts, pressure and who knows what else. There is something obsessive and maniacal in the air that escapes me. I feel a little alone in the midst of this multitude of pectorals, legs, calves, pedal cranks, handlebars, water bottles, sunglasses, ponchos, helmets, gloves, sleeves. Almost intimidated. Or out of place. Now, however, I just need to focus on pedalling. And that's it. I don't need to worry about who might pass in front of me whizzing by at double speed. Instead, it would be a good idea to thank the thousands of volunteers who have made it all possible. To be thankful for the perfect organisation. To thank Pachamama, who gave birth to one of her most unique treasures in this spot: the Dolomites. 
A shiver runs through the peloton. We're off. It is if thousands of fish were released from a net. There is no real shout of liberation, and yet I feel it. It immobilises me. There is so much tension, in spite of my age, the wisdom I have acquired, the experience accumulated over a life of highs, lows and punches in the stomach. The shift of air creates a vortex, and I find myself inside it without even realising it. A whirlwind of collective energy draws me in and I finally start to pedal. The road is covered with human beings on bicycles. The Dolomites open up like the Red Sea and we, the population on bikes, race, determined, towards the Promised Land. Pordoi is like Sinai: two prophetic syllables. I look with reverence at the mountains around me. I know them so well. I have travelled them far and wide. As a child, as a young man, with my companion and even with my children. Years of life unfurling like dazibao on walls. I look at the road and think of the roads to come. I have ridden along them far and wide, during years of absolute devotion to the bicycle god. Time. Time passing. Time that you can sometimes squeeze in your hands. That you can snatch with your teeth. Trample over in anger. OK, so, this year's marathon is dedicated to time. I didn't think that the marathon had a philosophic soul. The Ladini are up ahead. They know what's what. They gave a runner number to St Augustine, 'friend' of Santaromita. They also gave one to Pessoa, 'uncle' of Rui Costa. Here, everyone is running against time and they are keeping at it like madmen, while I am getting lost in everything, seeing time emerge from a snowcapped gully to steal a glance from still-sleeping spires, hiding behind the summits as if wanting to poke fun at me, at us, at everything. And we are already at Corvara. Campolongo is more like a bridge than a pass, which takes you from here to there. Arabba, Barabbas, how many crucifixes there are in Alto Adige. Pordoi. What a great name. The road rolls itself up and the tension finally melts away, the cold disappears and there is only one thought on my mind: can I do it? Can we do it? Where are we going? The fields seem like carpets at the foot of the peaks. We should bow down before such beauty. Not deface it or turn it into a stupid entertainment park. If the Ladini close the roads of the passes, they'll have a stroke of luck. I know they'll have it. I can see Bartali, picking up some fresh snow and putting it on the face of a young Coppi, dead tired. The year is 1940. It is the Giro d'Italia. The last one before the war. The young cyclist was stealing the throne from the old king. He was wearing the pink shirt of victory, won unexpectedly on Abetone, and now he was losing it at Pordoi.  The king, instead of squashing him like a bug, spurred him on and goaded him with words and snow. The young man wanted to give up, the old man kept pushing him. The young man faced up to the challenge and ended up winning the race, becoming the youngest winner of the Giro of all time. Then came the war. And before that another war. Bits of time overlap every turn of the pedal. Sella, Gardena and, again, Campolongo. A loop of savage beauty. Mines, holes and trenches. Dysentery. Shooting each other down face to face. Thousands of young people who never saw the mountains lying up here. The cold. The refreshment stops. The cyclists who struggle along. The explosions. The Col di Lana is just over there. That was the name of the middle school of a girl I used to fancy. I am beginning to feel the strain. More than strain, it's the tension returning. It eats at my mind rather than my calves. In a little bit, I'll come to Cernadoi, what should I do? Retreat to the tranquillity of the middle course, or throw myself into the stormy sea of the long route? Come on, Frank, even if you come in last, what does it matter? Leave it to the young to compete. Or the ones who are sick with eternal youth. To the crazies who use dope even through they aren't pros. To the ones who believe in tables and diets. To the ones who take out their frustrations on their bicycles. And now I am at Giau. OK, old chap, I am on my way to see you. I am arranging my prayers in the back pockets of my shirt and will pull them out one by one as needed. All of a sudden, I feel completely free. I feel light and unencumbered. Colle Santa Lucia. In the distance, legendary peaks reflect the light. The green of the pines moves me. Primary activities: eat, drink, do not think. Something practically impossible for me to do. And so, think to no purpose, think free, think without brakes. And who would be hitting the brakes right now? The climb is hard, relentless. The superfluous is burned away, stripping you of everything. It never ends. We are a procession of sweat-soaked souls. We are immersed in fatigue. The silence is almost ghostly. Or magical. Thousands of cyclists on the road and you hear nothing. Just the swish of the wheels. The click clack of the gears. The silence is like music. Prose. A psalm to suspended time. Expanded time. We are all suspended between these blessed mountains. And the fatigue slowly transforms you. Without transfiguring you. Oh god, it is like you can't feel anything any more, bones, legs, back, arms, hands, head, feet. You keep going, light, not caring about the threatening clouds. You feel impervious to the pouring rain that takes you by surprise down from the Valparola and the Muro del Gatto, set up by the organisers above La Villa, a steep stretch lasting more than a kilometre with spots that exceed 19%, but that's of little importance to you now. Finally, Corvara, the finish line. Suddenly, you feel close to something that is not clearly defined, something transcendent. Joy, bliss, a kind of fullness of spirit that wraps around you and everything slides. The marathon is like an enchantment. By now, it is a ritual involving hundreds of people. It is an event. It is not wasted time, if anything, hard-won. It is an experience that can take you higher. And that leaves you not so much with a memory as with a wonderful, good feeling. A "right" feeling. Marc AugĂ© believed that cycling could unleash a new humanism. Nothing could be more true. Giulan ('thank you', in Ladino), marathon. Giulan for this experience, arduous and ecstatic in equal measure.

Francesco Ricci

Photo credit: Freddy Planinschek