Today’s Word is Snow
By Jen See || Photo by Kristof Ramon
Hello boys and girls, today’s word is snow. What is snow? It’s cold. It’s wet. And it’s stuck to all the mountains in Italy in exceedingly large quantities. Also, it seems to be falling from the sky at a very high rate. At least, on all the mountains the Giro planned to climb. Do we care about any other mountains? To be perfectly honest, not at all.
Yes, this year’s edition of the Giro set out to climb the Gavia and the Stelvio. But in the end, both mountains hid their faces behind heaping piles of snow and declined to appear at the cycling show. It’s tempting to go all mean girls. Like, whatever. That’s okay, we didn’t want to go up your stupid roads, anyway. Go ahead. Sit in your corner and sulk under your snow. We don’t care.
But you know we’re lying, don’t you. Because we love the Giro and its high mountains and its fickle weather. The Giro mountains tell all the best stories. There’s Fausto Coppi solo on the Stelvio, riding under towering snowdrifts, his hair all slick, tubular wrapped around his shoulders.
Coppi, man. Know what’s he saying? He’s saying, I was cool before any of you knew what cool was. Wool jerseys, I had them before you even heard of them. I was cool when steel bikes were cool the first time around. I went up the Stelvio the first time. I didn’t have to wait for the reunion tour. And I bet you think you’re all badass riding around on your single-speeds with your slicked-back hair and tight pants, right? Wrong. I was born this way. Suck it.
It feels like the Passo di Gavia has always been part of the Giro, but in fact, the climb is a latecomer to the party. It is way less cool than Fausto Coppi. The first appearance of the Gavia at the Giro came in 1960. Imerio Massignan crossed the summit of the Passo di Gavia first. But bike racing is cruel, and crossing the summit first is nice, but no guarantee of eventual success. Massignan flatted twice on the descent to Bormio, and Charly Gaul won the stage. The gap at the finish was 14 seconds. The knife, it twists in deep.
And of course you all remember the story about Breukink on the Gavia, right? It snowed that year, too, but they raced it anyway. After a long solo escape up the switchbacking climb as snow fell heavily, Johan van der Velde crossed the summit first. On the descent, the freezing temperatures got the better of him.
Erik Breukink won the stage after a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of a descent over snow and ice, while van der Velde finished more than 45 minutes behind him. Also, some guy named Andy Hampsten took over the race lead and the pink shirt when all the shouting stopped. But you knew all that, because you’re smart people.
There’s a reason that so few riders have won both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in a single season. The Dolomiti in the snow, the Pyrénées in the summer’s heat — these things are not at all the same. Also, luck’s invisible and capricious hand always plays a part. Coppi and Bartali both did it. Bernhard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, they did it, too. Maybe Jack did it to Marilyn, though that may well be a different kind of doing it.
Bradley Wiggins wanted to do it. But, weather. Italian roads are like the pasta, they twist and turn in all kinds of directions. Then it rains. You try to grab a wet noodle. It doesn’t work so easily, and it didn’t work for Wiggins. If you were about to say he was descending like a girl, stop. Don’t make me come over there. Instead watch this clinic in how to descend like a girl (start at 44:00). Because it’s rad. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWoK-6IeCB0
Also if we’re talking about descending, this one is something special, too.
The riders who thrive at the Giro can handle the weather, and know how to attack the technical roads rather than fear them. It is not a race for a conservative rider, really. It’s a race to ride with gusto, to dig into like a fabulous meal, to race like there is no tomorrow. Vincenzo Nibali gets that. And, he’s leading the bike race. This is not a coincidence, in case you were wondering.
Thanks to the snow, there is no Gavia and there is no Stelvio this time around. Somewhere, the old guys are mumbling. In my day, we raced, none of this weakass it’s too cold shit. We dug out the roads by hand. Then we stuffed newspapers up our jerseys and down our shorts. And then the derailleurs froze, so we only had one gear. And it was uphill both ways. But we kept racing, man. We were the last true mad heroes.
Old guys rule, and they get to complain about how weak the rest of us are. That’s just how it is.
Meanwhile, the snow isn’t just falling on one mountain. It’s pretty much falling on all the mountains. So it’s not like there isn’t going to be snow at the Giro this year. Maybe they’ll even do it Milano-Sanremo style. Jump in the van. Drive around the mountain. Get out and start racing again. If there’s a van ride, there’d better be full television coverage. Davide Cassani, the RAI commentator, can analyze the seating charts and the caravan order and which driver picks the best line through the corners.
Weather. It wouldn’t be the Giro—or bike racing—without it. It’s part of what makes it the mad, rad sport we love. You never know where the race will go next, who will win, or how. If we stick around long enough, maybe someday we’ll be cool like Coppi. And if not, we can sit in the corner and grumble about how it was all so much better in our day.