Ever woken at six in the morning and ridden a criterium before breakfast? I hadn’t either until this morning.
The thing is: that’s having it easy. Some of my team mates in the Castelli 24-Hour criterium here in Italy have had shifts at one or four in the morning. At least I got to have a reasonably conventional night’s sleep.
Having now had my first taste of racing in this unique event, I have to agree with Cycling Weekly‘s deputy editor who returned from last year’s event raving about it. We need more of these.
As he explained in his initial impressions, it is indeed real racing – fast and furious. But what gran fondos and sportives are to road racing, this is the criterium equivalent. You make of it what you want; it’s open to all abilities.
If a group’s too fast: just join the next one. If you want out altogether, signal to your team mate in the pits. They probably can’t wait to get out there and give those fresh legs a working.
It’s always the riders just a lap or two out the transition zone who lift the pace on the climb. It’s because of this relay effect, the pace is continuously high.
Riders in our Castelli Media Team have generally been attacking the race in half hour stints. My first came at 7AM, followed by another one at 8:30. By the time I finished that second blast, the day was already getting hot. Those riders who were on the early morning shift are going to have it hard when they come out 12 hours later (following their disjointed night’s sleep) for another effort in the mid afternoon sun.
Thankfully I quickly found good groups to settle into on both my outings this morning. The pace was high -sometimes painful on the climb- but sustainable.
As a rule, chaos reigns here. In total there are over 1000 riders shared between just over 100 teams. There may only ever be one member of a team on the course, but riders differ in ability, laps are gained and lost and no-one is quite sure where the front is.
Understanding what’s going on and who is winning is left to a transponder and computer system. Apparently when I set out we were lying in 19th place. Where we were afterwards I have no idea. My only strategy for contributing to the team’s effort was trying to stay on the right side of every split of the group I was in.
The most important thing to look out for was not so much accelerations at the front, but riders dropping back through the group and inadvertently taking you with them. With a moment’s inattention, a gap of several lengths can open. Pause, hesitate, or look around to see if someone else is going to close it and the margin may have doubled.
With all the drama and talk of racing, it’s easy to ignore the splendour of our surroundings here. The circuit itself is based around the rustic town centre of Feltre which sit in a junction of three valleys in the Dolomites. Jagged peaks rear up in the background creating their own cloud formations. Taking a warm-down in the town’s tiny cobbled backstreets in the still of the early morning was tranquillity itself.
‘Tranquilo’ could not be used to describe last night’s activities, though. When the race set off at ten o’clock, the town felt near fever pitch. The PA was bumping the beats and the barbeques were smoking. At the Castelli tent, I stood in t-shirt and shorts drinking beer with other members of the party who’d travelled out with the company’s UK distributors, Saddleback.
As spectators at the roadside rung their cowbells under the warm glow of street lights, I turned my attention to the racing where a number of pros (past, present and currently suspended due to anomalies in their biological passport) tore things up at the front of what was then still a distinct bunch. That atmosphere is nothing compared to how tonight will unfold, I’m told. As riders finish their quota of racing, the party starts around lunchtime and crescendos through the afternoon.
Since I’ll be racing some of the last shifts, I’m going have to have to take it easy. Apparently as the event nears its 10PM conclusion, some of the teams send their big guns out. That doesn’t explain why I’ve been scheduled to ride then, but word is there’s going be some fellow called Basso racing.