Granfondo Stelvio Santini 2023: even the rain looks more beautiful when the sun is shining
This is an account of a wet ride ridden by our story's hero, who searches for details and particulars to turn an inauspicious day into something to remember, resigned to the fact that nothing – not even the Granfondo Stelvio Santini – can change the course of events when faced with the inevitability of nature.
We're sat on unsteady wooden benches, like the ones you see at village festivals. There are several dozens of us cyclists and, like drowned rats, we're all sat around huge pipes that look like the tentacles of a huge octopus blowing hot air on desperate mortals looking for a sign of life. If it weren't for the smiling stars of the event, it would look like one of Dante's circles. Those who haven't found a place crouch next to the hot air vent in an attempt to dry their shoes, just as dampened as all our spirits.
And to think that yesterday afternoon, just before entering the Pentagono di Bormio centre to collect the bib, the skies seemed to be tentatively nurturing our trust in the weather conditions for the next 24 hours, creating a sort of yearning reassurance about how good the race day would be... Of course we weren't craving Caribbean heat, but we weren't craving tropical storms heat either. The next day, namely this morning, the mountains of Bormio and the entire Alta Valtellina loom large, in a place where your intentions are at the mercy of the clouds. At the start, with the cirrocumulus clouds about to dump water on the Tellina region we're in, the cyclists scarcely hide the sad fate that they know awaits them. "Do you have a rain jacket?" my neighbour on the grid asks an unknown colleague on a bike ahead, who turns around, smiles and replies: "no, but I have an umbrella". I hate humour at 6 in the morning.
Out of nowhere a handsome thirty-year-old boy appears holding the official jersey of the Granfondo Stelvio Santini 2023 in his hands, arms outstretched and leaning outwards to catch the gust of hot air like a bullfighter holding the muleta to challenge the enemy beast in the arena. And to think it's not even las cinco de la tarde. In the distance, a girl enters the shed which at 2,700m on the Stelvio looks like a palace. She makes her way through the crowd looking for a few square centimetres in front of a hot air vent, before her friends recognise her and scream like excited Cambridge students when she appears. They're English, which you can tell from two things: the precise accent with which they flaunt a universal language that's exclusively theirs, and the fact that very few of them have a rain coat with them. Quite a few have cycled on this torrentially rainy day with only the official Gran Fondo t-shirt; the more cautious ones have gone sleeveless.
The start of the Granfondo Stelvio Santini is a game of caution: the first kilometres are downhill and the number one rule for people like me is to keep a safe distance from your fellow riders. Being in a group isn't for everyone, much less being so when you've been awake for less than an hour. After 15 minutes of loose pedalling, the first drops hit our the glasses and soon get heavier and heavier. I see the guy with the cape at the start standing by the roadside busy getting dressed while Paola, who I'll do the entire route with, suggests a pit stop to do just the same, because "better to put your jacket on now when we're dry than later when we're already wet". A woman's wisdom. We resume pedalling, and I start feeling the drops on my face again. Soon even our feet will feel rivers of water entering, filling the empty spaces between our insoles.
I leave my shoes in pole position in front of the air vent so I can head towards the refreshments table barefoot. There I use gestures to relay a request to some tough guy who's volunteering to open the white bag containing my spare parts, as it's jammed by the knot I thought it would be a clever to do up really tightly this morning. Frozen fingers, loss of sensitivity and even physical weakness force me to ask big guy for help, who understands the situation, shows me his stubby, nodular fingers which resemble an elm branch and replies "here we need a woman…" and wham, there she is, a beautiful thirty-year-old who places the jug of hot tea on the table and takes care of the knot in my bag. From my frozen jaw (this always happens to me when I'm cold...) I utter something that was originally supposed to be a "thank you" and the volunteer looks at me, moved to pity, before smiling and shouting in a loud voice "someone wants hot tea!"
I would have liked hot tea at the top of that damn climb in Sondalo: a Mur de Huy put there by the organisation more out of spite than for competitive reasons. It's a straight for straight at 16% or maybe more, who knows, turning left at the top where the Cardoni bar lines up the first patrons for a Sunday aperitif on the terrace: it's not even 8am and I catch a glimpse of their goblets. Two soft curves, a couple of hairpin bends and I greet the Alpine inhabitants on the side of the road with a "hello, morning". I salute all the Alpine inhabitants, because the idea of a person getting up early on Sunday morning to supervise a route where I can get gloriously drenched from tip to toe, well, they completely earn my appreciation. "Hello, morning." I greet the Penne Nere and from the halfway point we return to Bormio.
When I cross Paola, who'd gone to get changed in the special protected red square for women in the meantime, I feel like I'm in a retreat scene from Russia. She walks around smiling at everyone which will have earned her the woollen blanket she's wrapped up in. Her toes are cold, toes turning blue. I take her shoes and place them in front of the hot air nozzle where in the meantime the matador has stripped back and changed the drape in front of the bull with an undershirt. I think about when it will be the shorts' turn to dry.
The ride to Bormio after 40 kilometres is slow and thoughtful, but also rich in surprise: the pavement under our wheels is dry, a sign that it hasn't rained in the countryside, and this could be a good omen. Could be, in the conditional. In the meantime, however, the first refreshments await us. I abandon the bike on a low wall and head towards a tray with sandwiches and bresaola which I wash down with some top-notch vintage Coca Cola. I fill my bottle with salts, because even though it's not hot, I can't stop sweating and the cramps have my nerves right on edge. "Eat", as Elena the nutritionist said yesterday, "eat and drink", and I follow the advice of those who've studied the subject: two tarts, apricots, a ham sandwich and then the cheese cut into small blocks, as well as strawberries and more half-bananas. And don't you want to have another bresaola?
In the air hose next to mine there are two guys from South Tyrol who address me in Italian: one has two pale thin breadsticks for legs, the other has two Altamura bread loaves for thighs. In the evening, Mario (deus ex machina of the organisation) tells me that the air heaters have also been placed on the Mortirolo descent, just to show the level of attention. Meanwhile, a twenty-year-old is added to our company as he makes room on the Festa dell'Unità bench for a relative or a family friend. The kid doesn't stop talking, all excited for his first Stelvio which he can't wait to post on Instagram as soon as he finds a charger (the cold has killed his battery), while the great-uncle (that's right, I reckon he's a distant relative) observes him with a resolutely fixed grin. While going to the table to fill up with hot tea to take to his blood relative, the great nephew doesn't stop talking, and my gaze meets the great-uncle's: "Youth, huh…" is all he can say to me.
The Stelvio is terribly long, about twenty kilometres of solitude if you do it alone with your thoughts, but it turns into 20,000 metres of chatter if you do it in a pair. An ascent that even turns into a confessional, like a clerical path where words are measured calmly, one by one, weighted based on available breath. Talk ranges from children growing up to thyroids under control, from work challenges to water getting into shoes. Shrouded in the clouds we saw so far away when we were young and beautiful in Bormio, Paola and I are now headed for the second and final refreshment point 7 kilometres from the finish line. We see it in the distance like a mirage, a post which smoke emerges from like a brazier that warms the volunteers but especially those wearing just the official jersey, some with a vest. In addition to hot tea there's also mulled wine, which some consider a valid alternative. “If you want to see a rainbow you have to learn to see the rain” wrote Paulo Coelho, and we trust and believe him, because it's what we need today.
The blonde girl sitting on the floor combs her hair, whipping it with her five fingers spread in front of the hot air outlet, as if it were a hotel hair dryer. Now the shed is a melting pot of various kinds of people: a Babel's tower of cyclists where you hear dozens of different languages, because in this edition of the Granfondo Stelvio Santini, foreigners have outnumbered Italians. In the meantime, news has arrived that the organisation has blocked access for competitors on the long Stelvio route, blocking them in Bormio. A decision that will prove to be wise and timely: the weather conditions are getting worse and worse. And while I think of those who reluctantly had to surrender to King Stelvio, I take my totally waterproof ski mountaineering outfit out of the bag and get on the bike, for the wettest and coldest descent of my young career as a sixty-year-old cyclist.
When I see the Bormio sign I tell myself that I have to remember to send a thank you email to whoever it was in the organisation who thought up the hot air vents.