Ben Vivere 2009, Part III
"Some surprises, Eros sets a fast pace and the rebirth of a cyclist", continued
Morning view from our hotel – life is good
On Saturday after another memorable day of riding the hills of the Valpolicella we headed into Verona to register for the Gran Fondo Avesani.
The riders of Ben Vivere 2009 registering for the Gran Fondo
The professional bike racer in Eros came out at the registration. He gathered the “team” at a table and with a great deal of seriousness went about distributing our race numbers, gathering the food cards for the post race meal and describing how we would go about the day. He wanted to ride as a group and we would start at the back so as to avoid the confusion of 1000 riders in our group.
After going over the logistics it was on to the training table for essential hydration and carbohydrate loading:
Mega Spritz Aperol
It seemed like a good idea at the time…
We continued with our training until 1:30 a.m! We needed to be back in Verona by 8:00 am so that meant leaving our hotel at 7:30 a.m. I felt bad for our driver Ivan as he was actually competing in the event and we were dragging him around to all hours (he would later come in 24th out of the 1500 or so riders).
Time to get serious. The story of Maria – the rebirth of a cyclist
Maria – three months post chemo and radiation – and ready to start living again
On the day after my return from riding in Italy in 2008 my wife Maria and I were shocked to learn that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next nine months she would undergo three operations, chemotherapy and radiation treatments and the inevitable degradation of her strength and vitality.
All the time, Ben Vivere was a motivating goal for us: to return to Italy and celebrate her victory over her cancer. But as late as June she wasn’t riding her bicycle let alone walking around. The chemo and radiation treatments took care of that. Slowly, however she began riding: 20 minutes on the indoor trainer at first and then outside for a half and hour and so forth. She progressed and by August she rode up Mt. Diablo – a 3,800 foot climb here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Although Maria hadn’t gotten in any significant mileage I was confident that she would get by with most of the rides that Eros had set up for us. They looked, on paper to be in the 45 mile range with lots of stops. If it was too much she could always get in the van or take a day off. But the challenge of a Gran Fondo was something else. A 100 km timed event with no lunch breaks and of course pacelines and the steep 10 k climb to Fosse.
We assembled at the Piazza Bra and quickly realized that although we were riding in the shortest leg this was not the typical century ride one would find here in the United States. Everyone looked very fit. In fact, there were teams of riders.
Gran Fondo Avesani start
Despite being dragged around to all hours our driver Ivan – in the middle -would eventually finish 24th overall
At the back of the Gran Fondo start
Being with Eros at such an event is a kick because everyone immediately recognizes him owing to his imposing stature. There were many introductions and photos taken and he seemed proud of the “Americanos” he was leading.
We were all wearing our Amis D’Eros team kit and waited with anticipation for the start: A booming canon shot and the roll out over the cobbled Piazza Bra. We somehow convinced ourselves that the shorter 100 k ride would be the “slow” group and after the canon were heartened to see a slow start by the field.
The slow roll out lasted all of about two minutes. After negotiating the tight turns of the older sections of Verona we emerged onto more modern roads, looked up and saw that the 1000 or so riders in our classification were literally gone.
Completely out of sight.
In fact, we never saw them again for the rest of the day. They really were racing. We soon settled into our own pace with Eros pulling us along and began picking up those that had fallen off the faster gruppo ahead of us. What was 10 riders became 20 and so forth.
Maria being the “rookie” of the group wisely decided she would sit in on the end of the line and not get in anyone’s way as she re-acquainted herself with riding in a paceline and everything that goes with it.
The first hour and a half flew by pretty quickly and as we turned up into the headwind of the Adige River Valley Maria rode up alongside of me looking just fine. We had already knocked off 45 ks - almost halfway. But there was still a stiff 9% average climb with some sections topping out at 15% ahead of us and another 20 kms of mostly uphill riding before the last 20 ks back into Verona.
The climb to Fosse started and everyone strung out a bit. As if on cue, we were joined by a young rider named Lucca and another older gentleman – friends of Eros as our local guides who helped pace us. They stayed with us for every kilometer till the end.
As the climb began we were all surprised to see Maria began passing folks with ease – spinning her way up the 15% section. I told her to take it easy worrying that she was pushing too hard and that we still had long ride ahead of us. But I needn’t have worried.
No problems - Maria and Buzz on the Fosse climb - Monte Baldo is in the background – we would tackle Monte Baldo later in the week
Other celebrations: Toronto native Ken (as in there are no mountains there to train on) and Eros arriving to the top of the climb to Fosse
More fun in Fosse: Our team physician - Dr. “B” preparing his bottle with a local potion
As the Gran Fondo progressed something remarkable happened. Everyone in our group saw it and then felt it, – the day when Maria found her strength, the day in which she regained her self confidence after a year of self doubt brought on by an insidious disease and the day in which she reveled in the absolute joy of riding a bicycle in Italy.
After arriving in Fosse we discovered what can only describe as a playground for cyclists – miles of beautiful roads that pitch up and down along the ridge lines with 360 degree sweeping views. After playing there for an hour we plummeted back down towards Verona. A highlight was chasing three local guys and riding their line as they used every inch of road to negotiate a series of high speed hairpins on the descent back to Verona. Maria was no longer riding in the back but took her place right up front to enjoy the turns of the descent.
As we pacelined our way back through the outskirts of Verona we encountered one last climb of about 3 kms. When the road tilted upward Maria attacked the climb and rode away from all of us not because she was showing off but because she was feeling the power of the climb, her strength and the elation of the day. Shouts of “Go! Maria, Go!” rung out from the group as we watched her hit the hairpin curves and accelerate away to the top of the climb.
There was another wave of emotion as we entered the older part of the city and we realized the journey’s end was so close. For Maria and I it was as if the long months of pain, suffering and doubts washed away and then evaporated in the warmth of that Sunday afternoon. Those are the types of moments in your life you never forget.
As we approached the finish Eros regrouped us as we bounced over the cobbles to cross the finish line en masse with Eros’ arms raised in victory. It had been an epic ride. We stopped in the shadow of the Roman Arena and all celebrated Maria’s incredible day: first with hugs, kisses and tears and then into the late hours of the night with more fantastic food and wine.
Maria and group celebrating her triumphant day at the finish line
Now that, my amici, is Ben Vivere.
This is the last part of my first story. Next up in the coming weeks: A ride down cycling history lane – and through a few tunnels.
Information on Eros' tours can be found here.
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