Abandon, Attack, Big Ringing It, Bonk, Broom Wagon, Domestique, Grupetto, Tubular, Velo, Wheel Sucker, Lead Out, Paceline, Popped. Blown, Had it, Knackered, Stuffed, Squirrel, Velo, Wheel Sucker!Bike racing terminology! I don’t understand a word of it!
Ciao Tutti! Hello from Italy. Sports Desk is back for a second season and we are broadcasting live from Civitella di Ranieri in Italy where yours truly is working on poems, essays, gaining weight and writing about all manner of Italian sports. Look at our office!
I haven’t been to Italy since I was sixteen years old and I haven’t really ridden a bike since I was twelve and had an unfortunate encounter with a car and a ditch. Does that stop me from loving bike racing? It does not. Do I understand the minutiae of bike racing? I do not.
But these 6 weeks are about learning. Everything. Learning how to live with 15 remarkable artists in a castle (easy). Learning how to step away from the administrative work of the day to day and believe one is worthy of the gift of a castle and a turret with sunlight and blood oranges and a snoring owl in the eaves and time to make your art (harder). Learning how to ask for directions, cheese, a kilo of gelato, the most perfect pork sandwich, guidance, more wine, less wine, envelopes, you name it. I’m a kid again. I’m a kid in a castle. Just like Maurizio’s son who’s playing outside as I type this.
If I ever wanted a chance to learn about bike racing I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than right now in Italy. I know lots of you are getting hungry for the World Cup (we’ll get there) but from May 8-30th Italy has its eyes on an army of cyclists who started in the Netherlands and are making their way to Verona. Giro D’Italia! The name alone feels good in your body. Most of us who don’t know squat about racing just know about the Tour de France. The Giro has been around since 1909 and, along with the Tour and the Vuelta a España, is part of the Triple Crown of cycling. As opposed to the Tour de France’s famous yellow leader’s jersey the Giro goes pink in honor of La Gazzetta dello Sports whose pages are pink. It’s a gorgeous thing, that jersey. When the helicopters fly overhead to film the Giro you just see all that green of the hillsides and all those bodies and then just this lone pink jersey making its way through the pack.
But what does it mean? Like a sonnet or a villanelle or the famous saganaki recipe your grandmother gave you it’s easy for the thing to just seem like a list of rules and phrases that don’t add up to much. It can feel like some other language you can sort of understand but don’t have access to.
Well. Yesterday the Giro D’Italia rode past the home of Robert Browning as they made their way towards Monte Grappa. This is one of the most grueling stages of the race, a slow ascent to the summit, which sits 5823 feet above sea level. When you get to the summit you come to a giant monument of white stone, part of which is a mausoleum that holds the bones of 23,000 Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops who fought and died there in 1917. The bones of the Italian troops are buried on the south side so they face Italy. Among the Austro-Hungarian dead there is a soldier named Peter Pan.
There was no Giro D’Italia that year. The race was stopped during both WWI and WWII. During WWII Fausto Coppi, a 5 time Giro winner and arguably the greatest cyclist in the history of the race, was taken prisoner and held in a POW camp in North Africa. Len Levesley, a British cyclist, recounted Coppi giving him a haircut in the camp:
I should think it took me all of a full second to realise who it was. He looked fine, he looked slim, and having been in the desert, he looked tanned. I'd only seen him in cycling magazines but I knew instantly who he was. So he cut away at my hair and I tried to have a conversation with him, but he didn't speak English and I don't speak Italian. But we managed one or two words and I got over to him that I did some club racing. And I gave him a bar of chocolate that I had with me and he was grateful for that and that was the end of it.*
I remember when I was in high school my French teacher telling us that we had no idea what it was like to live in a country where everywhere you looked there was still the physical reminder of war. I could argue that the wounds of the Civil War are still very much open but I know what he meant and he was right. During yesterday’s stage the cyclists passed shell craters and trenches and places where the bones of soldiers are still being unearthed. I can’t imagine it. It’s another language. It’s hard for me to even find the words.
I’ve been to Italy once before. In the summer of my sixteenth year. My friend Amy invited me to come with her to Italy and I was so excited and also pretty nervous. I’d never traveled without my grandparents before and though I was at a school full of worldly kids and tried to seem worldly myself, the fact was I was from a small town and didn’t really know much about anything outside of books and the world I’d made up in my head. And the minute we got to Italy I got robbed. Right there in the tunnel between the airport and the train station. My passport, my money, my Travelers checks. I was too in shock to even fall apart. But I knew it was bad and I just wanted to go home.
And then the most amazing things happened. The policeman sat me down and sang, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” We decided to take the train to Siena where we were supposed to end up and on that train we met Ali Ali who just happened to work at a restaurant on the Campo in Siena and told us to come to dinner. After dinner we were sitting on the steps of some building and a man came up and said, “Are you considering suicide?” Which I wasn’t but only because I probably figured I’d screw that up too. The man’s name was Adriano. He was a truffle farmer and ended up being our guide and angel through the rest of that time. Ali Ali had other friends who’d come to Italy from Palestine and each night they’d walk me home and make sure I got in the gate safely. I saw art like I’d never seen in my life. I ate food and laughed and felt all kinds of love. I went to Florence and got a new passport and watched Amy and learned how to be a little bit worldly. I relied on the kindness of strangers and gained confidence in myself. I learned a little Italian because the people were so kind and were always willing to help.
There’s this term in cycling. Peloton. It means, “platoon.” It’s the heart of competitive cycling because it’s the pack that dictates the speed of the race. When you see it from above it’s kind of like looking at birds flying south. Riders in the peloton change position to conserve energy. Teammates will help their leader out by trying to dictate the speed of the peloton, often sacrificing themselves so their he can get in better position. Teams will often block the rest of the peloton at the end of a race so their sprinter can get to the finish line first. One of the most beautiful things I ever read was how Lance Armstrong’s team rode close enough to him that he wouldn’t get wet when the rain started falling. When I went through a tough patch a few years back I kept a picture of him in my wallet. I’d wake up on those terrible mornings and say to myself, “Who’s your peloton today?” And I’d whisper my friends’ names and imagine them covering me. These next weeks we’ll learn about Italian sports together. And we’ll have help from some special guests who know a lot more than I do and have already been helping me more than I can say. Ciao from the left turret. I'm looking forward
* Fellowship of Cycling Old Timers. Vol 154.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi writes the Sports Desk column for The Best American Poetry blog. Her second book of poems is Apocalyptic Swing. She owes the good fortune of getting to write from an Italian castle to the remarkable Civitella di Ranieri Foundation (https://www.civitella.org/)