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The Italian Job (4)

by Uli | August 24, 2017 | Uncategorized

by Chris Geiser

One cyclists story of the adventure of a lifetime in Italy. Traveling with Vito Valentini, Michael Lyach, Tom Niccum, Chris Torella, Aleksandra Sydelko, and Jenny Zarzuela to Terracina, Italy to attend the GFNY Italia camp and three-day stage race. Side trip taken to Milan, to visit Cicli DeRosa.

Sincerest gratitude to Lidia and Uli Fluhme, Maciej Narzewski, Nicolangiolo Zoppo, and Mirko DP (Mr. Wolf), for a second to none camp experience.

A Small Crisis in Confidence

We had a fabulous dinner in Patrica. During dinner I had made the mistake at looking ahead to the next day’s route. The Strava segment known as Case Murate_cartelli (somehow known to us as Monte Romano), loomed large, and my crisis in confidence of my ability to get up this thing in a race crank became evident. After some reminders that I had climbed Ventoux twice, Whiteface, and other climbs, a gentle suggestion to turn down the volume of my inner voice came from Tom and Chris. It was doing it in the bigger gears that worried me, but I had some trouble getting past it.

We set out that morning taking some bare and sunny roads out of Terracina. While getting to know my new bike, and perhaps chit-chatting a little more than I should, I managed to swerve out into the middle of the road, and almost met a driver head on. I had succeeded in scaring the living daylights out of myself and Mirko. Thankfully — it was a non incident, but my heart raced, as I almost took the piss out of the entire trip by not paying attention.

Along the way to our first climb, Mirko told me the story of how he had been on a long distance ride in the area, and went over a root and hurt himself, and basically had to limp to the next town, where he could rest, get water, and continue on. Hmmm…maybe I am not tough enough to be cycling in Italy. The voices kept getting louder and louder.

Making our way out to the first of two climbs of the day. That looks like it may be me on the left, out too far into the road and yik-yakking away

Macalle Fino alla Fontanella was the first climb. It was a sharp right off of one of the roads, with some beautiful twists and turns, and just a few kickers thrown in to remind you to kick it up a notch here and there. Delightful. And a confidence builder. It was one of those 5K-ish steady climbs that reminds me of why I love cycling. Beautiful terrain, and a steady effort required. Then the fast descent into town.

During the descent, one of Mirko’s several punctures bought us a fast education in the benefits of tubeless. Not tubular, mind you, tubeless. As I became steadily more conscious of wheels and tires, I realized that everyone else’s quick release on their front wheels was on the opposite side of mine. OH GOD DID ANYONE NOTICE? Remember that confidence thing? How am I doing? I know, right!

Once Mirko was ready to roll again, we descended into the town, so that we could have a quick coffee prior to rolling to Monte Romano. We found a coffee shop, and took a nice break in the soon before pressing on. I was still somewhat despondent about this climb (I promise there is a point here — but we will get to it later), but able to enjoy the authentic Italy all around us.

A wry smile, prior to rolling on to the big climb of the day.

Monte Romano (Case Murate_cartelli)

As we rolled from the coffee shop, there was a quick reminder from Uli, that “lunch is over, they are all back on the road with their cars”. We navigated some more trafficked roads on our way to the mountain, and made a left into what looked like a suburban housing development at first glance. As we rolled up a slight grade, there was a sudden kick up to 7% that indicated that this was it. We were climbing now, and on some twists up, the grades seemed to keep kicking up. But I felt like I was able to keep a reasonable pace, and had Chris Torella in my sights. I felt that if I could hang on to the image of him climbing, in front of me, I would be able to keep myself upright and going. I knew it was a 6+KM effort in total, so I was trying to pace myself. The road started to switch back, and as I made one of the hairpin rights, I could see Chris standing up. I could tell by his posture that where he was was a kicker compared to where I was.

In that half-mile span, the grade went in/out 14%, 11%, 16%. I had the grade percentage switched off on my Garmin (to avoid psyching myself out — how am I doing? I know, right), so I had only my heart rate to go on. As I watched Chris disappear to the next turn, I realized that I was having a tough time turning over, and I almost fell. I got a foot down, and then decided to turn back to the turn, and start over. At the turn, I saw Mirko, coaching Jenny through the turn. They looked at me like I was crazy for turning back. I told them I was just trying to take another run at it.

Run at it I did, and as I got to the point where I had really lost sight of Chris, I looked down, and saw that my heart rate was through the roof — not managing my energy, or my breathing — not at all. I was able to press on for another kilometer before I was off the bike again. I walked for a hundred meters or so to get past one of the steeper grades, then back on. When would it end?

There were several respites during the climb, but the kickers always returned. At this point, I had no idea if it was my larger cranks, my lack of fitness, my lack of skill, my lack of power, or my incessant internal babbling voice telling me I couldn’t make this grade.

A little more than half way up, I saw Michael and Maciej, and they told me that I was a little more than half way up. Maciej then remarked that “yes, this one is really, really hard.”

Closer to the top, and off a bit again, I could hear the voices yelling to me. I could see them gathered at the top, but wasn’t sure how far it was. I was later told that there was one more especially vicious kicker between me and the top, at the left turn I could see coming up. Lidia and Uli were starting their descent. Both were very encouraging in letting me know that I got pretty close. I still couldn’t tell, and racked with disappointment with myself, I realized that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy put into play as soon as I looked at the course the night before. Best to turn now and descend.

The view from the top — courtesy of Chris T!

We all rallied at the base, and headed back to Terracina. Michael was able to get out on the flats and roll with us. So impressive to see him join the group, and immediately be able get his legs whipping around and maintain the pace. His hard work at Gavia, and his professional cycling muscle memory was kicking in as we pedaled back. Now I was hungry. We all were.

As we got back to Terracina, Lidia and Uli, had to get back to work. They made a right, and Maciej followed us to town. We found a small cafe, and had a very interesting lunch. I am fairly sure we overwhelmed them as they were recovering from the afternoon break. I was desperate to eat something that bled, but my luck, and the supplies seemed to run out by the time it was my turn to order. Tom had stake sandwich that he wasn’t going to finish. As he threw me one of the steaks, I am sure I looked like a junkyard dog, as I started to rip through it.

We arrived back at the house, and as usual — it was all about data! Tom and Chris had begun to go through the Strava fly through of the climb on Monte Romano. I heard them yell “OH NO” and as I ran back to the dining room to find out what the commotion was, they explained to me that I was 400 meters from the top when I turned around. I could have made it. I think.

Michael — ready for action. The team ready for a fabulous dinner, and a selfie lesson.

For dinner, we thought there was nothing that could beat our meal in Patrica. But we were keen to try. Driving into the town we saw a place nearby the cafe we had lunch after descending from the temple on Sunday. La Lanterna. It looked like a very nice place, and wasn’t crowded. We were immediately seated, and began to share a little bread, and ordered some beverages. I was keen to avoid pasta and have some protein. In ordering a local fish, I was delighted to see the owner prepare the fish at the table. It was a fantastic meal, in a fantastic local place. We would return there later in the week. And there was cinghiale on the menu. The next day, would be Sperlonga, and the Panoramica. We would be ready.


Our arrival at the hotel produced a similar stimulus on our part (sneak into the cafe and have one last coffee until 9:57), and a similar response in Uli (WTF is with these guys and their 10AM coffee). Once we were sorted on our daily cat and mouse ritual, Uli decided that an Italian lesson was in order.
“I want to teach you all a new word: SPETTACOLO!” We all repeated it. “SPETTACOLO”. Uli clarified his reasoning for the lingo lesson. “What we will see, and ride today, are amazing places, amazing views”. He was talking, of course, about the climb through and out of the town of Sperlonga.

We rolled out through the main town center of Terracina, and passed under the temple and on to one of the main roads of the GFNY Italia, stage 3 Gran Fondo. This was part of the course. We kept a nice pace, with Uli and Lidia leading, when, about 10KM in, Mirko had an idea.

“Guys, guys, as a prank, as a joke, we will ride up and form new line on the left, and pass Uli and Lidia”. Given my almost getting myself mowed down experience of the day before, I wasn’t hot on the idea. Nevertheless, I found Mirko’s sense of gamesmanship to be irresistible. The trouble with me though, is that I got so caught up in my Catholic guilt that I only heard half the plan. As we wandered out into traffic on the left side and made our move, I had to keep hammering to create room to get away from the trucks that were bearing down on us. This started a “thing”. For whatever reason, I just kept going. Pressure was on. You are out in front dummy, don’t let up. As we kept rolling, I realized, that I didn’t have the route loaded, and has the roundabouts started popping up in front of us, I started thinking it was a good idea to pull off.

We waited a few minutes. Not sure why the group was so far behind, but apparently there had been a quick stop of some sort. I was worried we were in the wrong place, and had made an irreparable wrong turn. At the height of chastising myself for being a smart ass — I saw the green jerseys appearing. As Uli flew by he yelled “why are you stopped, this train is not stopping!”.

And we were off, and working to catch back on to the train. We were heading for the Sperlonga climb. After our Italian lesson, I was very excited to see what Uli was talking about. As we rolled through the center of Sperlonga, we made a sharp right, and began to climb.

Along the way we had been hugging the Mediterranean coastline, so it was fairly certain that the views from the climb would be breathtaking. The Panoramica was my kind of climb. Steady grades, amazing views, I just kept pumping. Suddenly, I had company, Uli was riding along side. “You are doing great Chris, keep it going!”. As we road together for a bit, Uli regaled me with the stories of the hotels below, and the professional cycling teams that stayed there during training camps, the likes of Marco Pantani were regulars training on the Panoramica. With a twist.

“In the morning, their coaches would take them to the base of the climb. With the older bikes, and the shifters on the down tubes, the coaches would tape the gears down, so they had to stay in the big ring. Then they would remove the seatpost, and tell them to repeat five times”.

So — let’s review.

  1. Climbing 5k , 220 meters— big ring only
  2. No seat post — let’s work on standing while we climb
  3. Did I mention the views?
Thanks to Mirko DP (Mr. Wolf) for capturing these beautiful images of the Panormica — I was too caught up to even think about it.

As I neared the half-way point, Uli peeled away, and I saw Michael and Maciej, on the side of the road cheering me on. I kept pressing and felt very good about the climb itself. I could climb like this all day, and would be happy to. Panoramica was like a dual purpose climb. The training you get with a 5k climb, and the sheer enjoyment of being in this beautiful place on a bicycle.

Spettacolo — Absolutely right!

At the top the gang started to assemble. Photo time. We had met another cyclist who would be competing in the race and was out training. He posed with us. As we started to roll out, we decided to take a short break to take care of some urgent business. It was then a quick descent before the Strada Statale 213 climb. This one was more of a grind on the way to something special that was awaiting us at the top. We would see this climb again on Sunday, so I was marking in my mind, not to feel too happy at the top of the Panoramica as I would need to be mentally prepared to get on to the next one.

Our next surprise was not on the race course, and was the segment I had psyched myself out for during our morning coffee/hiding from Uli ritual. As we reached the top of Strada Statale 213, Uli, once again in Merlin-mode, appeared on what looked like a driveway that was 10–12 feet above us. He yelled to us, “make a u-turn at the intersection and be careful, watch your backs guys!”. As we executed the move, I saw him motioning me onto the road he was standing on.


Uli had yelled it out — LOW GEAR — I knew what was coming, a quick ramp up, and so I whipped my legs as fast as I could and made the sharp left. Uli was now riding along side me some how. “GO GO GO GO” but as the terrain kicked up over 20% I once again slipped my wheel and was off.

Friends — let’s face it now — I have a personal thing about grades over 15%. I will get over it some day (see what I did there), but on this day, I needed a 20 meter walk of shame to recognize my climbing foibles. However, the Strappo Le Vignole, as it’s called on Strava — actually had a 27.6% grade in it. OK it was probably for 8 feet, but that was 8 important feet. It was likely the 8 feet that kept me from staying upright. (keep telling yourself that).

Once I could get back on, I pressed as hard as I could and found the gang at the top. As I yelled out “That was FUCKING HARD” they were hysterical. I was being recorded on video. Panting “I was just off for a little bit, but I made” wheeeeeze “the” wheeeeze” whole thing.

With some undulating terrain ahead of us, we finally reached a breathtaking vista. I was just blown away by the beauty of this place, and so we stopped and took some photos. I could see where we would be descending, and it looked pretty hairy. (seeing a pattern here, I really do work pretty hard to scare the crap out of myself).

The Cinghiale arriving at the top — courtesy of Mirko DP! The team car, making it to the top with us.
The team at the top. Selfies of selfies (#meta — thanks Tom!) The tricky descent.

So there’s that tricky looking descent I was talking about. I only emphasize it because there is a funny story. Ask my kids — they will tell you — there is ALWAYS A STORY! Please note that my kids omit the word “funny”.

As I got to it, I thought about my carbon rims, my new bike, and the twists and turns of it. Most of the gang flew down. As Uli got half way down, he stood on the side of the road, and took photos and video of the descent. As I toward him, I was squeezing my brakes hard “Uli, I am not sure there is anything more boring than the sight of me descending a steep grade”.

He smiled, and said “you could go off the cliff, or into a tree — that would spice it up a little! I would film it, I would post it!” GREAT! Thanks Uli!

We started to rip through another seaside town called Gaeta, this was a beautiful place, and we were going to be stopping there for lunch. With the majority of the climbing done for the day, I was looking forward to eating, and a smartly paced ride back to Terracina. The lunch stop we had been thinking of was closed for the season. So we rode through the beautiful cobbled streets to the dock area, where the local Guarda di Finanza (akin to the U.S. Coast Guard, and Customs/Border Patrol), kind of rolled into one pirate and smuggler fighting force with some overly enthusiastic Shimano disciples holding high rank.

Michael was at the front of the line and secured me an octopus pizza — at least I think it was a pizza, it was a pie like object with veggies, octopus, and cheese, and was absolutely delicious. The shop was a tiny store front with a few benches outside, so I wandered across the street where several of us sat down on the curbs for a little mid-ride relaxation.

Gaeta by the seaside — an amazingly beautiful place.

During our lunch break, Uli described the tunnels that awaited us on our return to Terracina. He chuckled and said “Lidia hates those things — she can go ahead and lead”. But with the forewarning we were fairly ready to face whatever lay ahead of us. As we got ready to go, an officer in the Guarda emerged to talk to Uli who was taking pictures of the Gaeta seaside from inside the chained off area of the Guarda facility. We were thinking, Uli might be getting in deep with the po-po here but as it turns out, dude was a cyclist.

He started to examine everyone’s gear.

  1. Tom — pass — “Shimano DI2 — molto bene”
  2. Chris — pass — “SRAM — molto bene”
  3. Mirko — pass — “SRAM ETAP-molto bene”
  4. Me — FAIL — “Oh Campagnolo non buono! Shimano, SRAM buono — Campagnolo non buono” — Hey I was getting the feeling this guy didn’t like Campagnolo — it gets worse!

He started to talk to Uli, then pointed to me, and motioned to his belly. He said some words I recognized from my jacket fitting in Milano. “Molto tanto!”

Mirko leaned over to me — hysterical — and as he continued to laugh, he described the interaction. “well, he says, that Uli, looks very fit, and like a very good cyclist, but you, he says, are big in the middle, just like him”.

Funny stuff. “Well fuck him.”

Without describing them all, I can only tell you that the remainder of the trip, and subsequent interactions of my life, have been littered with the utterings of the phrase “Campy non buono” — don’t believe me? Check FaceBook — you could look it up!

The terrain was mostly flat, with some slight uphills, and drags, until we hit the big road with the tunnels. I knew what it would be like in there, having been through the I-90 bike tunnel in Seattle, so I removed my sunglasses. Tom, with his freshly purchased Frosinone photochromatics, was able to maintain his composure in the dark. As we entered the tunnel, it felt like we slowed, and almost ran into each other, mainly because of the transition from light to dark.

This was an intimidating section of the ride. Trucks and cars whizzing by at full speed. But the group kept together, and kept a steady pace until we were through. As I write this, a conversation is happening around me about a July 7, 2017 reboot of Spiderman. REALLY? Come on guys!

Anyway, back to Italy. As we emerged from the tunnels we started a good cracking pace. The group separated a little and so Jenny, Ken, and I formed a group at the back and paced back together. As we got back to Terracina we were ready to relax with a coffee and figure out dinner. But first, Jenny and I had a very Catholic review of all of our collective short comings throughout the day, with the promise to each other that we would get over it and press on.

Hey — remember back in installment one — you know like 2 months ago ( where I said — remember Maggiore, it’s important. Back in Terracina, Mirko introduced us to some friends of his that came down from Rome to see him! As we ordered coffee, I was struck by the image of one of the friends. “Where the hell do I know her from?” OH SHIT — I pulled Torella aside and said “remember the rental car negotiation story I told you?” He nodded that he did. “THAT’S HER DUDE!”

“NO WAY — you have to ask if that was her. How weird is that, that the person you rented the car from is here having coffee with us, you have to ask”. So I did. I walked up to her and said “Scusi — Maggiore?”

“Si!” she replied. She remembered immediately. Put this in your small world file, but there it is. “Michael — remember the gal you wished happy birthday to — there she is!”

This was an odd evening to say the least. Chris was tied up on conference calls, and the gals decided they wanted to go to Fondi to get a massage. I drove Aleksandra and Jenny to Fondi, and then made the trip back to Villa Lina, to hear Chris working through his conference call. It was almost time to go back. Tom and Michael had nipped off to Conad to buy groceries for an eat in. As I got back to Fondi, (driving through tunnels and being glad to be behind the wheel of a car this time), the girls were having dinner in a pizzeria near by. I joined them and we had a nice dinner before returning to Villa Lina to call it a night.

Meanwhile, with a home cooked dinner, Michael regaled Tom and Chris with stories from his days as a professional and coach, some of which I would be grateful to have retold to me on the ride to San Felice the next morning.

Last Day of Camp!

Thursday was the final day of the camp. We would do a light ride to San Felice for a coffee, and those who so desired, would go out to climb to the lighthouse while the remaining group would ride back to Terracina.

Before we rolled, I decided to let everyone know just how dumb I can be. “Hey Mirko, has Monte Romano ever made an appearance in the Giro?”.

He looked at me. Confused and disappointed. Everyone turned toward him as if E.F. Hutton were about to speak. “Guys, guys, these are not climbs. These are hills! Hills, not climbs. If these are climbs, then, I feel sorry for cycling”.

And there it was — we were still toe in the water on the big stuff!

Mirko teaches me the correct way to park an Italian bike.

A short and uneventful ride out to San Felice revealed few takers (essentially Tom, Chris, Aleksandra, myself, and Uli for the climb). During coffee we decided with three stages of racing coming up, and an uphill TT the next day, we would give it a miss!

Ken exploring the options

As we rode back to Terracina and a steady pace, I could feel the camp slipping away from us. Not wanting it to end, I tried to take in every piece of scenery I could, so that in the frantic race days ahead, I would not kick myself for forgetting to enjoy where we were, and what we were doing. This was a no pressure ride. A fantastic way to unwind prior to the race.

The sisters. Me and the hardest working man in show biz — Maciej!
The back-way back to Terracina from San Felice

As we reached Terracina we could see that there was an outdoor market in progress. There would be Porchetta and we needed to have it. (spoiler alert, I had an amazing sausage and pepper sandwich, but the Porchetta was beautiful and in good supply).

We took a team photo close to our seaside home of Villa Lina, and headed back to the market to have Porchetta. We would be attending a GFNY Italia kickoff dinner tonight in town, and so we needed the protein to tide us over.

Getting our collective shit together.
We took a bunch, but I like this one for some reason.
The quest for Porchetta

Later that night, we had a sunset dinner at the same place we had our Saturday night dinner with Uli and Lidia. We met some other riders from Brazil that we would see and ride with throughout the race. It was a fantastic evening for kicking off what would be three very exciting days of racing. We made a quick stop on the way home, at Conad for supplies, and then with a late start tomorrow, we could have a relaxing start to the day.

Tom and I realizing that they rush Easter in Italy too — it’s not just an American foible. Who cares — I love this photo!
Mirko and Chris T. Me and the Terracina sunset. Unforgettable.

I was a little nervous, truth be told, but this was what we came here to do. Let’s get this show on the road! Next up, in Installment 5 — Stages 1, 2, and 3 of GFNY Italia. Meeting the Italian women’s TT champ, and Italian women’s MTB champ. Wait — really? The wheels, literally coming off. A strategy for Stage 2. Gran Fondo time!


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