Our morning started early as the sun, bulging red through the horizon, struck across the blue Adriatic. As we entered the historic square, being international celebrities of course, we were ushered to the center for photos and interviews in front of the massive bronze statue of Leopardi, the Italian poet for whom the town is famous; a brooding Balzacian figure whose image graced the backs of our jerseys along with our motto taken from his verse, “men fear death and desire old age”. After the introductions and compliments from our hosts, we were then led through the square, around the barricades corralling the other riders and to the front of the pack. I mean right up front. The old leopards assembled in a line across the start atop a cobbled street while the additional 650 plus riders pulsed and seethed behind us, a ravenous horde anxiously waiting to be let loose on its prey. It was intensely exhilarating and on the edge of being frightening. This was no chicken feed fondo. It is a big time national amateur race and we were to lead it out. There was some discussion about soft pedaling out of the old town and allowing the real contenders to fly on by, maybe some socializing with locals along the way or even working together as a team but no real consensus, or in my mind any idea about what to expect; whether we would try to maintain a good pace, so as not to embarrass ourselves as the 1st Americans to participate, or whether we were expected to just enjoy ourselves, not over do it and ride along as a group for a while.
As the cameras and pace vehicles pulled around in front of us and the race officials and local dignitaries took their places, the official starter stepped along side us with his red flag held high and after a few moments began the count down, “tre, dua, uno”, the scarlet banner dropped ——- and it was like I was stabbed in the ass with a hypo full of adrenaline; no soft pedaling for these cats, it was run for your life or get gobbled alive by the raging torrent of cycle zombies on your tail. And run I did like a manic cartoon character along with a couple other racers who managed to quickly squeeze through to the front. I was up on the pedals spinning as fast as I could muster and weaving through the narrow stone streets close on the wheel of the motorcycle. Leaning into the first sharp turn I am thinking to myself as I burst into a straightaway framed tightly between two and three story stone buildings, what an incredible rush to be leading out the pack even if was to be short-lived. Knowing if I slow now surely I will be trampled by the herd of bike riding bulls; but once I was infected by the craziness I just could not stop. I’m not giving this up, someone will have to take it from me, because I am on fire. Blasting full tilt out onto the road leading out of town I was quickly joined by a host of other riders, but I was still sticking with them. Within a half a mile it was a full-on beehive, 25, 50, 100, maybe 200 riders within a mile or so, all nested together just flying down the road in a pulsating mass at speeds up to 35 miles an hour for the next few miles. And let me tell you that was one of the scariest and most exciting experiences of our lives, riders wheel to wheel, shoulders bumping, screams and brakes squealing (twice I went into a full-on slide as the pack came to a near standstill). The smell of burning pads and sweat filled the air. Riders dodging in and out of the smallest openings, slipping past on all sides. And all you can do is hold your line, hoping no one bumps you, falls in front of you or slams into your rear, eyes ahead fixed on the riders immediately ahead, no thought of the slightest furtive glance behind; and I am thinking to myself, “Ellen was right, Ellen was right, this is a good way to get hurt, maybe even mangled or killed. I just have to survive.” So I continued to hold my line as we sped along, allowing riders to pass, working my way to the back of the peloton were things would be safer. By the time we headed out along the beach road I was at the rear of the main group working the gap, the other 500 riders still back as I struggled not to be dropped and to take advantage of the windscreen; not the most strategic position to be in, but it was just too scary in the middle of the hive as my dreams of a glorious finish dissipated and I settled into a test of endurance. And that’s what I did for the next 10 miles; it was the most exhausting 30 minutes of my life doing my utmost to stay attached to the peloton; losing ground then giving it all for 10 to 20 seconds to pull back into the fold, wondering how long I could keep it up. Rich joined early on with his camera over his head and, pulling away, I yelled to him to get a picture of my back. He would show up again in a final flourish around mile 15 to my rejoinder, “is that you Grandma? Go get’ em girl.” And off he went, having a great time.
A couple more miles and Rich and I crossed lines again for the last time as the course soon turned up its first long climb. The original lead peloton had separated in two, the first part over a 100 feet ahead and no chance for the second group to reattach and certainly no chance for me to rejoin the real contenders. So now I found myself at the rear of the second group of several dozen riders, everyone slowing as they moved up the hill. I am exhausted, my heart has probably never beat any faster, but I plod on and to my surprise begin to pass riders. It appears that after 9 days of riding through Italian hill towns my climbing legs are holding up. As long as I don’t pass out, I might make up some ground here. And fortunately it turned out to be quite a long pull up; long enough that by the time I reached the top and we passed through the center of a hilltop village I was at the front of the second group, the big boys still out of reach.
Well, the second part of the day was very different from the first; not quite the fire drill, but probably the better part. Fairly soon I fell in with a group of around 15 riders working the front of the second bunch. As I recall there were a number of hills dispersed on the route from this point on and over the next half hour or so our little group built a gap in front of the chase and by the time we surmounted the next significant climb we were alone chasing the peloton. Soon we reached the turn off for the short course, which I nearly missed, and our group reduced to 8 or 10. It was a strong group of younger fellows, mostly late 20’s and 30 something’s with a couple of 40’s thrown in. I was definitely the senior gentleman of the group. And they were hammering the flats and gentle inclines; I’m doing everything I can to hang, down in my drops drafting, spinning more, whatever it took; but I begin to realize that I could out climb them. At first I thought maybe they were just saving energy and letting me burn out, but I noticed after a few more miles it was taking a toll. There were only three others that could stay close as I pulled up the hills so I started accelerating over the tops to gain some ground on the descents and a little relief time as the group caught up w me, ducking behind the speediest descender briefly. As this patterned developed I found myself pulling more on the flats but the work was primarily being done by two other riders; the other two climbers seemed to be enjoying my company, making sure I did not miss the numerous turns manned by uncharacteristically non-demonstrative traffic directors who seemed not be familiar with their responsibilities. And the group began to shrink, but we were in a groove and working together. By mile 40 I knew I could finish and hopefully strong. By mile 45 we were down to a half dozen and at 50 only 3 of us remained at the front, the 3 climbers; and the rear of the short race splinter from the original peloton was still in sight. There was one last long climb back into Recanati, maybe 15 minutes to go, the leaders already back in the square. But my two amicis and I pushed on up the hill, picking off the stragglers one by one. Half way up I realized it was only me and no. 475; no. 161 had slid behind. As we entered the town center heading up the final incline, he looked over and gave me a smile and a word of praise. We reached out and touched hands, riding in side by side across the finish line. Throwing my hands into the air, I let out a full throated yelp and turned into the square and went in search of refreshments.
To my delight just as I returned a few minutes later to the finish, Charles cruised across the line to my hardy hooray. My companion in a day of hard fought battle, returning in honor. It appears that only Rich and I were crazed enough to take out headlong into the original melee in town. Charles and the rest of the crew were consumed by the horde thus requiring something more akin to hand to hand combat to extract themselves from the city center; and a precious few minutes were lost on their time cards. And 10 minutes later Rich appeared smiling widely, shortly after which we were hurried off into the center of the square for yet another interview. Rich did his best western movie star imitation as Charles and I stood by grinning.
There was a lot more to the day following the race. As is tradition at a fondo, our hosts had prepared a hearty lunch for all the participants. We lined up along a big white tent at one side of the square for our plates, a pork chop submerged in an insalata mista and an ample helping of meatless lasagna. Jack had arrived by this time, so he and I secured a large table under the grand loggia while Charles and Rich brought the bikes over. And there we stayed for the next 3 hours as riders filtered into the square; Bill Rafkin first and then a time gap of an hour or so before the rest began to show up. Rick and Todd had run the long route. Reb had 3 flats and with the assistance of Howie and Bill Shott finally limped in. It would be yet another hour before Jim, our final trooper rolled in.
53 miles in 2 hours 29 minutes and change; almost 21 miles an hour and approximately 3200 feet of climbing according to my cyclometer. 102 riders finished before me, the overall leader at 2:12+, but I was sixth in my bracket, the “super gentlemen” (55 and over), only 4+ minutes back of number 3 and 1 minute behind 5th. Number 1 and 2 were less than 30 seconds off the overall lead; obviously sandbagging ex-pros. If only I had the nerve to stay in the peloton a little longer and with two good shoulders maybe I could have moved up (turned out to be a broken collarbone). Needless to say it was thrilling to be on the board knowing I had done my best to represent our little group of gentleman cats well.