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Cycling, the effort in the soul

by Marco Pastonesi, images by Stephan Vanfleteren /PANOS/LUZ

It's the race of the hills: 18 sprints, which start to look like 18 faces, like 18 kicks in the teeth, scattered over 262.9 kilometers – till death – of the race, then another 11.6 of transfer from the unofficial departure from Antwerp town hall square to the official Kruibeeksesteenweg square in Burcht, the finish line in Oudenaarde, a total of 274.5 km long, historical, religious and mineral scenery. The first climb (Oude Kwaremont: 2200 meters with an average gradient of 4% and maximum of 11.6) after 116 kilometers from the starting point, the last one (Paterberg: 360 meters with an average gradient of 12.9% and maximum of 20.3) to little more than 13 kilometers from the arrival. The shortest rise, but lethal, is the Koppenberg (600 meters with an average gradient of 11.6% and a maximum of 22 meters, almost at the edge of the tipping), the longest, and most devastating, is the murderous duo: Kruisberg and Hotond (2500 meters with an average gradient of 5% and a maximum of 9). The most beloved, because even the hills, in their cruelty, can be loved, is the Kapelmuur, which everyone simplifies (it is the only thing that on those sacred and yet diabolical stones can be simplified): Muur (750 metres with an average gradient of 9% and a maximum of 20 metres), a sort of ordeal for pilgrims and walkers on foot, imagine what it’s like for those those who go up by force of pedals and cranks with wheels that slip on leaves and mosses, which fit between the stones and cracks in the 25 kilometers of medieval cobblestones. Creeping in between the legs and arms of the screaming fans waiting for the previous night and lying down until shortly after dawn.

The Tour of Flanders

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It is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders: its number 102 edition will be held on Sunday 2nd April and will be, as always, the most popular race, populated, inhabited, a world championship (heavy weights) without the title as a prize, because the real reward is to be able to enter the paradise of cycling history. Whoever wins here, gives meaning to his life and becomes an elected, an angel or perhaps a devil with a lion’s courage. If Paris-Roubaix is the race most feared by racers ("When you cross the forest of Arenberg, it seems to be finished inside a washing machine during the spinning operation", explains Pippo Pozzato, who ran 11 of "northern hells", the best place being a second place in 2009, with three retreats), the Tour of Flanders is the most venerated ("Already from the presentation in the square in the morning, with hundreds of thousands of people, at any weather, ready to cheer up even the least known of the assistants", continues Pozzato, who participated in 14 Ronde, best placed another second place in 2012, with only one retreat).
And certain memories are not erased, indeed, if ever they are magnified. As for Dino Zandegù, who won the tour in 1967: "There were fewer hills than now, but for me they were more than enough. And then, there was Eddy Merckx, an unbeatable man. I took advantage of a moment of inattention, or distraction, I dare not say weakness because he was the strongest of all of us and always will be. Noel Foré, a Belgian, and I, gained twenty seconds, and running in apnea we kept them until arrival. I won in the sprint because Foré, exhausted, came off on his own.”

Cyclists of today

In 2017 the Tour of Flanders was won by former world champion Philippe Gilbert. To ride the 260 kilometres of the route, the Belgian took six hours, 23 minutes and 45 seconds, averaging 40,651per hour. A speed that, for those who do not know cycling and runners, may seem crazy, if not even suspicious. Yet 51 years ago Zandegu flew 245 kilometers at an average of 39,100 kilometers (on a day of storm). And if it is true that Fiorenzo Magni - three consecutive victories, from 1948 to 1950, which earned him the title of "Lion of Flanders" - for the last triumph, completed the 273 kilometres at more than 33 km/h in eight hours and a quarter (21 arrivals of the 220 parties), it is also true that the difference between cycling of that time and today (bikes and their components, clothing and assistance, roads and their surfaces, but also training and nutrition at a scientific level) is comparable to the distance separating a typewriter from a personal computer. Immense, incalculable.
The riders are like Formula 1 drivers. If at the days of Gianni Brera the bicycles were considered machines, now, at the time of internet and tweeting, to be machines (thinking machines, so intelligent machines, machines with a heart, therefore sensitive machines) are the racers. Athletic machines 360 days a year, including running-in, testing and Grand Prix, between electronic studies, aeronautical synergies and wind tunnels. It is said that Marco Pantani - net of doping - was said to be an artist who lived with sensations. Today, however, this can no longer be the case. Vincenzo Nibali, specialist in stage races (he conquered the Tour of Italy in 2013 and 2016, the Tour de France in 2014 and the Vuelta in Spain in 2010, waiting to know if he will also be awarded the 2017 one for Christopher Froome's suspended position positive to salbutamol, a bronchodilator indicated for those suffering from asthma, but with anabolic and masking abilities), leads a monastic life:

Personalized workouts, calibrated nutrition, daily massages, rest always meant as recovery, from 30 to 35 thousand kilometres per year with almost 100 days of racing, including some classic ones. I started running as a child and I didn't stop. I was 15 years old when I emigrated to Tuscany to run, and certain nights, before falling asleep, I cried for nostalgia. This is my fourteenth year as a professional: I earn good money, on my way I met and I chose myself technicians, companions and extraordinary managers, but no one has ever given me anything.

In the season of triumph at the Tour de France, Froome has been riding since December 11,2013 (he first official day of the retreat in Calpe, Spain; but he had already pedaled before less... officially) to 31 October 2014 (when he went on holiday for a couple of weeks) for 996 hours and 32584 kilometers. Translating and simplifying, it is as if he had pedaled consecutively for 41 days and a half (the days of competition were 73, the kilometres in race 11794, but this depends on the calendar and the goals). Translating and realizing, it is as if the body of Nibali on his saddle had consumed 440 plates of pasta of 100 grams (350 kilocalories) or 1400 chicken breasts weighing 100 grams (100 kilocalories). It is said that Fausto Coppi had 40 beats per minute, Gino Bartali even 34. Nibali, during maximum training periods, drops to 33.
Froome himself, despite the case of doping, is an ambassador of total cycling. Total for time and commitment. The British began 2018 with a series of impressive workouts for those who have scheduled - anti-doping allowing - both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France with the aim of crowning the double win (the last to succeed in the venture was Marco Pantani in 1998). On Strava, the app in which the training data are recorded, shows how Froome on New Year's Day has pedaled for 157 kilometres, which in the first week has been riding about 32 hours for more than a thousand kilometres, which has made outings of more than 200 kilometres at over 40 kilometres per hour, which in addition to the racing bike has also used the more rigid and less driverable one, for the chronometer and the heavier and acrobatic one, which - in particular - on 7 January covered 224 kilometres with 2 thousand metres of difference in altitude starting at 5 a.m., all at an average of almost 38 km/h and alone.

Cycling is a sport that produces sweat

Cycling - Enzo Ferrari, the "Drake" of the Rising Horse said - "is a sport that produces sweat", and sweat brings together professionals and amateurs. In Italy, if the cycling seems to be in trouble (less sponsors, therefore less teams, therefore less runners, therefore less races, therefore less sponsors, in a vicious circle), the cycling of bankers and architects, employees and freelance professionals, but also of tourists and students, is on a formidable ascent. And often those who hop on a bike do not descend anymore.
The Maratona dles Dolomites – from La Villa to Corvara - the first Sunday in July, with the Sellaronda and possibly the Falzarego and Giau passes closed to traffic - exceeded the 10 thousand participants, in response to requests for four times the number of participants breastplates. The Eroica - the original one, from Gaiole in Chianti, with over 200 kilometres of asphalt and above all white roads, a permanent route, but also closed to traffic - exceeded the closed number limit (5 thousand) and a year ago it was flooded to more than 7 thousand participants with vintage bikes and clothing (bikes 1987, with gearbox on the oblique tube, cages to the pedals and external threads, knitwear and woolen shorts). The movement is also fuelled and multiplied in cities, with rental public bike systems. Until arriving at men and women who, before or after work, train on bikes almost like professionals: the 10 thousand kilometers per year, which were before a goal, a finish line, a point of arrival, now almost seem to mark the starting line, or the line of demarcation between who does and who is, between who does it seriously and who does it for fun. And it is also the luck of all those Italian companies (in equipment, training, clothing, nutrition), that support, guide, regulate, protect and guard this world with pedals. Sui social is a continuous updating of itineraries and performance, on the roads is a continuous growth of practitioners in search of eternal youth or extreme results, on the pedals there is also a new lifestyle and a new consciousness of well-being.
Cycling - and this is what Alfredo Otiani, the writer, said - "it is the maximum poetic possibility allowed for the human body". It is, even with scientific and technical specialization, and it will be. Because it is, and will always be, adventure, therefore mystery, improvisation and unpredictability. If the strongest team tends to impose strategies based on averages so high that they don't even allow escaping attempts, there will always be someone with the urgent desire to try, try shooting, try escaping, try dreaming. Like Alberto Contador. For the farewell to cycling, "il Pistolero" chose the hardest stage of his last race, the Vuelta in 2017. A short stage, 117 kilometres, but terrible, in apnea: the one that ended at the top of Angliru, a gothic cathedral in Asturias, the Mortirolo or the Spanish Zoncolan, like putting all the walls of Flanders but ruthlessly one after the other. An infamous day, an attack from afar, a sphinct yet poetic ride, a participating and affectionate audience, musical and colourful, without nationality because of all nationalities, finally the stoic resistance to the cruel hunt of those who chased him on the hairpin bends, even those of glory. “There was no more time to say goodbye”, he whispered Contador to the microphones, transfigured by sacrifice: "In this life you have to savour every day, every moment, every pedalling". And that's exactly what, in different ways, and in different worlds, often even unconsciously, all the peasants, even those who have never attacked the number on their backs.

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