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Green Leaves: second part

By 3 November 2022September 13th, 2023Gran Fondo

A short recap of the 2022 Gran Fondo Il Lombardia – part II

As we tackle the last inclines of the Muro di Sormano, it’s hard to tell whether we’re shrouded in fog or clouds, and it’s just as hard to make out any sound, our hearing taken over by the thumping of our heartbeat, that’s been way over its lactate threshold for a while now, because of the effort and because of the excitement; hard to tell which, just as well.

Strategically perched at the top of the Muro is the first aid station: some dismount to catch their breath and take a sip (which I did, as I wasn’t aiming for a certain race time or placement), some don’t and push on, diving right into the (in)famous descent towards Nesso. For the former, a warning call sounds off from some of the staff: “Careful, guys, it’s all leaves”. All leaves indeed.

And, the moment we’re back in the saddle, we fully understand the meaning of the cryptic warning. The deluge, our not-so-silent companion since the start of the race, has turned the tarmac brown, more, way more so than up the Muro, although this time, we haven’t got the time to take it in, to try and guess the whys and hows of it.

This time, we only have to get past, as cautiously as possible, estimating ideal braking pressure and lines, until we get to the comforting safety of the lakefront that’s waiting for us, somewhere ahead, past this brown leafish downhill inferno.

Honestly, downhills were never my strong suit (nor were any other inclines, really, but going down has always been particularly uncomfortable), and over the years I’ve refined my own strategy to deal with the endless struggle against gravity that are drops:

– Never let yourself go faster than 30 km/h, 35 tops, not even on straights, because, well, you never know;

– Tackle bends and turns as slow as you need in order not to have to resort to bending;

– Even if this could mean finishing last, never, never, never try and sit on someone else’s wheel, especially if they’re someone more expert and clearly more comfortable with downhills (ah, the envy), since without their very same experience and comfort, the endeavour, alluring as it might be, might turn out to be as deadly a trap as Ulysses’ sirens.

Anyway, each in their own way, we enter Nesso.

The weather is milder, here. It rains on, obviously, alternatively hard and harder, yet the temperature, warmer thanks to the lake’s proximity, makes it more comfortable, and the road to Bellagio, and its gentle rollercoaster, helps getting some warmth back before taking on the Ghisallo, which begins sneakily, subtly, without any warning signs.

Again, the riders naturally bunch up in small groups, each with its own speed and skill, although there are many riders floating between this group and that, like falling leaving going this way and that, falling in with a slower group or speeding up to join a faster one ahead.

Hard to tell how long this first stage, the hardest stage, of the Ghisallo lasts, hard to tell if we’re even on the right route or we’ve crossed over into Valtellina and are now taking on the Stelvio.

Large arrow signs from the organizers mark -7, -6, -5 kms to the top, thus giving us foolproof confirmation that we are indeed on the right track, and that we’re just being fatigued.

At the top or, more precisely, just past the top, there’s another aid station: those wondering whether to stop or not are soon won over by a small food -well, beverage– truck, dispensing coffee: black, scorching, invigorating. Topped up with rain, ever incessant, the dark drink delivers a short burst of much, much welcome warmth.

Renewed, we set off again, to tackle the last 40 kms, downhill towards Canzo, an easier drop this one, then across Brianza, easily dealing with the occasional (moderate) climb, basking in the realization that the worst is now past us.

Closing in, some riders sprint on, some carry on at their own steady pace, some slow down and take it easy, trying to conserve enough energy to take on the climb that leads into the heart of Cantù, which marks the end of our efforts, of this adventure, and which often seemed so, so far away.

And yet there is it, past the last incline (reminiscent of Via Santa Caterina, the ramp that leads up to the finish line at the Gran Fondo Strade Bianche, in Siena), whose gradient increases up to the very last metre, forcing us to muster, somehow, the last strands of energy, or at least sheer willpower, to carry ourselves over to the finish line without getting stuck halfway. We know, though, that we’ll make it, eyes on the prize and a silent scream, then the release.

In the main square of Cantù the rain joins the celebrations, pictures, hugs, handshakes, big pats on slumped shoulders, but nobody notices any more.

It’s like we made a new friend along the way and, if anything, having been completely drenched, cold and miserable since 7 a.m. makes us feel like comrades in arms, brothers.

We -almost- don’t envy the pros, who, the day before, were blessed by the lazy, late summer sun.

Nobody dares say it out loud but, I and everyone else (riders and spectators alike) are left with the sweetest thought: this year, we raced the true Il Lombardia.