Rain, Oxygen and the Kings of Falling Leaves.

«‘Did Gaul ride so well in bad weather because he liked to suffer?’
‘Well… during bad weather, a lot of oxygen is released.’
‘But lightning and hail, for example, didn’t that perk him up?’
‘Of course! Because he was able to assimilate a huge amount of oxygen.’
‘Sure, of course. But wasn’t he a person who went looking for punishment?’
‘Yes… but oxygen really played a major role. Oxygen! You see, Gaul was able to assimilate more oxygen than most people so when the weather was bad…’
‘But didn’t you ever have the impression that rain and hail and that kind of thing gave him a sort of energy?’

‘Absolutely! Because then there was more oxygen in the air!’ »                                                                                                        - Tim Krabbe - The Rider

Sunday was one of those rides cafesupporters.

No I'm not talking about Purito's ride in the Tour of Lombardy, although it did my heart good to see him win again in Lecco.

Dan Martin was a favorite at his favorite classic,
even back in 2008.
I've always had a nostalgia for the Giro di Lombardia.  So much, I even rode the now defunct Gazzetta Challenge Gran Fondo over there with Dr. Brad, back in 2008 - a 140k ride the day after we watched Damiano Cunego solo up San Fermo di Battaglia on his way to victory in the Classic itself.

I'd paid homage to my ethnicity by carefully packing my Sean Kelly Tour jersey to wear in tribute to the Ireland's King of Lombardy... and to my nationality by jumping on a plane with very little humility, and even less preparation (something we Americans are so prone to do!)

'Dai Damiano'...  Cunego 300 meters from the
top of San Fermo on his way to victory.
The 2008 pro Lombardia was the kind of day you'd expect for the race of the falling leaves.  Overcast, wet, raining off and on.  Not warm, not cold, but humid. Pneumonia weather my ma would have called it.

I'd just call it one of those days you don't know how much to wear.  Too much and you're sweating, strip down, and you wake up sick the next day.

Thin yellow and golden leaves were falling and stuck to the wet roads around Como. The group that gathered on the winding final climb to San Fermo di Battaglia was no orange corner summer rave party crowd, no siree.  In October only real tifosi need apply:  Mostly riders. Vast majority, male.  Lots of green quilted hunting jackets and scarfs around necks something you never see over here.   They'd bide their time watching old grey haired cicloturistas.  Guys with hands as big as meat hooks, riding up the climb, their barrel torsos providing the anchoring stability to churn a giant gear.  Many were wearing horrendously haphazard ensembles of mis-matched club and defunct pro team kits - A lime green and orange vest, a red jersey, sky blue and yellow shorts.  Something that somehow only works stylistically if you happen to be Italian, and of a certain age.  It's a style code that's lost on me.  They all gathered, waited patiently, until like an opera approaching the finale, they unified in a crescrendo urlo as the TV motorbikes came up the climb... 'Dai Damiano'...DAI...DAI!!

Fat Eddy on the Ghisallo 2008.  The prayers
at the Chapel the day before didn't help...
The Gran Fondo the next morning was clearer, but still humido. Brad and I lined up early along the Como lakefront with thousands of skinny Italo-fondistas.  It was then that I suddenly became acutely aware I had a couple of problems: One, I was about 30 pounds too heavy in those pre-comeback days (over 190 lbs!)   Second, if that wasn't handicap enough, I was getting sick.  Glands tender, scratchy throat, you know the drill.  I shouldn't have laughed at those guys wearing scarves the day before.  But hey, show must go on, suck it up, I flew all the way over for this.

It was a beautiful ride, if way more than a little slow.  By the time I got to the Madonna di Ghisallo, I was on my knees.  Grovelling, weaving, insert any and all Catholic crucifixion - pilgrimage - suffering metaphors here.  The day before Il Ghisallo seemed 'easy', but in the event basically I barely held off one of the sag wagons, the driver of which I entertained by jokingly asking for a beer.  "Eh...ha ha...vuoi un altro birra irlandese?"  I had to laugh at myself too, but this really wasn't the image I'd had in mind.  Rolling into Como as they started pulling down the scaffolding.  Synopsis: Great ride, beautiful part of the world, great holiday, horrendous sporting performance.  Over incredible pasta and wine in magical Bellagio that evening, I silently vowed to get fit again.

So this year when I heard during September that my friends Richie Fries and Brian Ignatin were putting together a Gran Fondo here in Providence RI - the Gran Fondo New England - billed as New England’s Own ‘Tour of the Falling Leaves’ - I knew I'd have to sustain the training mileage a little bit longer this season.  Held as part of the Providence Cyclocross Festival weekend, this new Gran Fondo looped from Roger Williams Park out west through rolling New England countryside. 104 miles to Connecticut, Massachusetts and back to Providence.   There were Medio and Piccolo versions too.  Our own local falling leaves classic.  Perfect!  

The Lombardia connection is somewhat appropriate for my adopted home town of Providence.  We've got a very large Italian American population here, and the city's chock full of some of the the best Italian restaurants this side of the pond with names like Sienna, Pane e Vino and Cafe Itri.  And the weather in October is similar to Lombardia, the leaves just starting to turn color.  We may not have the vertigo-inspiring climbs, but west of the city you can find plenty of undulating country roads.  And there's some decent climbs too, if you know where to seek them out. A Gran Fondo here the same day as the real one 'over there' is a fitting, accessible ode to la Lombardia for the regional sportif riders.  One final throw down to end the season, before early darkness ushers in that enforced fall break.

So naturally I got on the horn and cajoled my Flandria mates Paul McCormack and Fran Riordan into making the trip for the 7am start.  I checked the forecast, and the meteo-experts all promised sunny weather in the mid 60's, a warranty I passed on to them.   "Rain?  No way..you'll be grand, no worries."  

So I had some explaining to do as we suited up in the dark at 6am and skies started to spit. The rain and taking stick from my Irish brothers was not my only issue, because that morning, and as if on bad karma cue, the glands were sore, the throat scratchy.   After a year without so much as a cold - here we go again.  Dr Brad says I have about '5 functioning white blood cells.'  In case you haven't figured it out by now, with the Cafe crew, nobody's immune from being given a ration of shite at any time.

We all lined up at 7am with about 200 other hardy souls and many from the Flandria and Bike Works teams:  Dr. Brad, Nick, Tom, Maarten, Jon, Danny, Jeff, Kelly.... the old Red Guard and our younger Auxillary in Black were out in force.

We were all joined by a special guest-ringer: New England's Cannondale Professional, Ted King.  After Richard gave us a few final instructions, we rolled out of the Park and were escorted through usually gridlocked Cranston by a police escort.

And then rain started pissing down. Bloody sheets of it. Continuously.

So here's the short version:  At mile one, Ted King went to the front of 200 riders.   And 104 miles later, 8 of us rolled into the park, with Ted King still riding at the front.  He basically rode tempo at the front for well over 90 of the 104 miles. Impressive doesn't do it justice.  You had to be there.

We survivors who were paying attention were treated to a brilliant demonstration of how a real professional rides tempo. He just flogged along at 24-25 mph on the flats - and faster on the downhills... and tapped up the hills at a steady but not killer tempo.  So smooth.  The rest of us? Well to be honest, we were all basically just doing all we could to hold his wheel.  The difference between a true Pro, and wannabe schmoes.  Ted wasn't trying to kill us, I think he was trying to keep it together.. but he wasn't exactly waiting around either!   That's because it poured almost continuously for 5 hours, and it was getting colder by the minute.  

Luckily, I was feeling fantastic - for the first 4 hours anyway.  One of those 'no-chain' kind of days.  Just flying.    I don't know why I go so well in cold and rain, I just do. Always have. Love it. I'm riding up the climbs talking, and listening to other guys panting. Somebody's got to explain why to me. I may have poor functioning white blood cells... but the oxygen on rainy days seems to give me more red ones!   (Who knows, maybe Charly Gaul's old soigneur in that quote from 'The Rider' was onto something...)

In the middle of feeling invincible, at mile 50 or so, I tried to put it in the small ring for a hill.  SNAP!  My 10 year old Campy Record inside downshift lever shared clean off, leaving me with a strategic decision: Big ring, or small ring. Nothing to do, hmmm..big ring it is I guess. Front derailleurs are way overrated anyway.  If Gino Bartali didn't need one to get up on the Izoard in '48, I sure as hell can do a few measly New England rollers in the big ring this once. #HTFU.  

This wasn't a timed event, but there was one Strava KOM.   Ted let the other guys go for it... for a few seconds anyway, then he just looked back, grinned, put it in a monster gear and slowly wound it up, pulled 'em back, and rode straight past them all.  I laughed, watching it, it was like a cat playing with a mouse.  Game, set and match.  After slaying all (it's good to be the King!) he waited up, and we regrouped and steamed steadily back toward Providence. My Flandria mate Tom Dickenson was still there too, and looking very strong, on quite the ride, one of many he's done this year.  

But by mile 80 or so the pace, and the giant gear tempo up and down incessant rollers slowly, inexorably, put me on my last legs.  Legs that finally blew on a long drag on Rt 102.  Kabloom!  I just kept hammering though, a planning on completing a rainy TT solo rest of way to Providence. The three short steep drags on Rt 14 by Scituate reservoir on the old Mass-RI District Road Race course I know so well were pure out of the saddle pain, stuck in that 53x21-23.   Not very pretty.  But after that though, it was mostly downhill, on the drops, in 53x15 trying to imitate Ted without the legs, passing backmarkers from the 100k Medio Fondo, and believe it or not, enjoying the Flahute weather.

So get this. About 8 miles from home, a guy catches me, reaches out and gives me a tap on the butt as he flies by.  It's Ted King!  And he's churning a monster gear, with the rest lined out behind him in fila indiana as they say on RAI.  "We missed a turn back there!"  Ha!  Turned out Ted and his magnificent seven missed some green road arrows and had gone the wrong way at some point!  Chalk up another one to Fast Eddy's luck of the Irish, and a little local road knowledge.  'I'll take this second chance lads, thank you very much!'   But believe me, to take it I had to go back into the real pain cave, putting it in the 53x13 and just hanging on to the plaid-clad Cannondale express train all the way back.  But I dug deep and managed to finish with Ted and co. 104 miles in 5 hours and change.  Pouring rain.  I call that a good ride.

So today, somewhat predictably, I'm down and out, sick as a dog, but still pretty happy.  I'm drinking tea, Flahute is here in my lap, I'm hacking up all kinds of stuff, and my wife is giving me knowing and mildly disapproving looks...but hey I don't care, season's over!!  Sunday was a ride that finally expunged a 5 year old Lombardia debacle.

Can't wait till next year's version.  It's scheduled for October 5.  If you're in the neighborhood, you should come join us for the weekend.  Watch some cyclocross, do the big ride, eat some great Italian food.   


  1. Great story! Wish I could have ridden it with you. I'll put the date on the calender for next year. Get better soon. You have some writing to do.

  2. Get well, Thanks for the story! Now about that Italian food!

  3. Nice story, thanks for sharing. We saw Lombardia live back in 2011 and regularly ride the climb to Ghisallo as part of our Legendary Climbs tour. Those gray-haired Italians in the mismatched kits were probably guys who retired from their jobs around 55 and live on pensions. Once you have all the stuff cycling's not too expensive when all you need to buy is tires and chainlube, but on a fixed-income these guys wear what they can get for free or cheap, whether it matches or not! Of course the newbies, the middle-aged guys with JOBS, have all the newest-latest kit and bikes to match...you'll never look as good as they do, though some of them are starting to sit on their bikes like so many Americans.....some ugly positions, but still a minority. As we like to say "pedala forte, mangia bene" - your Gran Fondo experience sounds like you hit it pretty close.


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