Even if I hadn’t ridden my bike 191 miles on roads that climbed 23,850 vertical feet in the past four days, my quads would have found the flight of steps up to the podium of the Giro d’Italia – the Tour of Italy – steep. Still in my cleated cycling shoes, which are ideal for riding but not the best for walking, I ascend the galvanized steel treads carefully, using both handrails.
For the quads of the professional cyclist who wins today’s Giro stage and gets to stand on the podium in front of thousands of cheering fans, I imagine these stairs will feel like scaling a mountain. By the time he climbs them, he will have covered 1,902 miles in 19 days – 137 miles on the last one. His route has included so much uphill that even the race’s organizers aren’t exactly sure how to quantify it. Today alone, he will have ridden up more than 15,000 feet - almost three miles of elevation.
Along with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain), the Giro d’Italia is one of professional cycling’s three Grand Tours. Unlike equivalents in other sports – the Super Bowl, Wimbledon, the World Series – watching the Giro in person is free, and amateur enthusiasts can test themselves against the same terrain as the pros.
At the Giro, you can even ride the same route the same day as the pros. (But starting well before or after them.) It’s like your softball team playing a game at Wrigley Field the morning before the Chicago Cubs hosted the Cleveland Indians in Game 3 of the 2016 World Series.
Bike riding in the Italian Alps and the Dolomites has been on my bucket list since I honeymooned in the area a decade ago. At the time, I was just starting to get seriously into cycling, but wasn’t yet so serious that I knew these mountains had some of the most challenging and beautiful riding in the world. My then-husband Brian and I hiked and rock-climbed - both also challenging and beautiful - but would have traded our entire wedding registry, my dream KitchenAid food processor included, for biking gear and biking weather. (We were there in late September, and several inches of snow fell.) Like curled ribbons, the roads wove up and down terraced mountainsides dotted with cows and improbably placed towns. Some roads had a 5,000-foot elevation difference from bottom to top. One had 33 turns.
Attending several stages of the Giro has also been on my bucket list – since I saw, while watching the 15th stage on television in 2011, three generations of a family standing in the rain on the roof of their RV, which was parked in a field of wildflowers. Their ages ranged from elementary school to ancient, and every one of them had a giant cowbell and knew how to use it. The Tour de France is the more famous race, but because of this family and their cowbells, I thought the Giro would be more approachable and intimate. (Watching the Tour de France on television, I got more of a Mardi Gras vibe.)
But by the time I’m finally in Italy riding the Dolomites’ most famous mountain climbs, cheering on the professionals and pulling myself up the steep steps to admire the view from the Giro’s podium stage, my serious cycling phase has come and gone. Still, I get goose bumps as I step onto the stage, which is what I’d been hoping for.
Last May, I went to the Giro in an attempt to get back my biking mojo – really, my mojo in general. Last winter and spring, though, after I had technically beaten a serious illness, I felt decidedly non-victorious. Whole parts of me – particularly my confidence, self-motivation and joyfulness – were, on good days, hard to find. On bad ones, they were totally MIA.
While the time I spent in a bike saddle had diminished, the memories of how amazing I felt while biking remained vivid. I remembered finishing a ride and finding that I had a solution to world peace - or at least to whatever problem had been bugging me all day. I remembered that biking made me feel exuberant and confident. I’d keep taking my anti-depressants and seeing my therapist but, I figured, why not see if biking could help bring me back too?
Since the logistics of organizing such a trip are decidedly mojo-crushing - past bike trips taught me that flying with my own road bike was stressful and expensive; also, determining routes and transferring luggage made these vacations feel like work - I signed on with a guided trip from Trek Travel, an arm of bike manufacturer Trek that friends had traveled with numerous times and raved about. The company offers an annual itinerary built around several of the race’s mountain stages. The seven-day trip includes guides, lodging, luggage transfers, most meals, support along every day’s route and, for those who don’t want to travel with their own bike, a highish-end road bike.
There were extras on Trek’s Giro trip this year: At the end of Stage 17, we were allowed to ride across the finish line, stand on the podium, watch the finish from a VIP area, meet some professional riders from the Trek/Segafredo team at a cocktail hour and tour the team bus.
While the 213 professional riders in the 100th Giro d’Italia would ride 2,242.6 miles in 21 stages in 24 days (racers get three rest days), the Trek Travel itinerary offers six rides totaling 306 miles (that include parts of stages 16, 17 and 18). You can ride as much of each route as you want. If you aren’t riding your bike, you can ride in the Trek support van or explore town.
We set out on our first ride within an hour of settling into our hotel in Bormio and meeting guides Marcel Peeperkorn and Ilona Kohlerova. It is the shortest ride of the trip and, I think, an easy one. Quickly scanning the day’s route sheet with a map, directions and stats including distance, average grade and vertical ascent and descent, I read that it is about 900 feet of climbing over 11 miles. Easy.
I read the sheet wrong: It is 900 meters (about 2,930 feet) of climbing to Passo Torri di Fraele, not 900 feet. When I round what I think is the last switchback only to have the true summit reveal itself 1,500 feet above me, the little confidence I woke up with that morning dies. But distracted by chatting with two of my fellow cyclists, I pedal on.
One in our group of 12 is an American professional rider who races domestically. As the rest of us - from the United States, Australia and Mexico - huff and puff up the climbs, he speeds past while breathing through his nose and dancing on his pedals.
A couple of us have histories as successful amateur racers. The rest are weekend warriors. The two other women are on the trip with their husbands. Over the week, I learn everyone’s favorite professional riders and teams, but little about what they do for work.
Descending Torri di Fraele, I hit speeds fast enough for wind to whip beneath my wraparound sunglasses and bring tears. The exhilaration of this descent makes me joyous in a way I haven’t been in years.
The next day is Passo di Mortirolo, which Lance Armstrong once said was the hardest climb he’d ever done and which has sections with a grade of 18 percent. Since I’m not on performance-enhancing drugs or engaging in blood doping while riding up it, my speed dips several times to just more than 4 mph, about the same speed as I can hike uphill. I spent my teenage years as a competitive racewalker, and remain a very fast walker to this day. I’ve never gone so slow in my life. I marvel that the bike stays upright.
At the top, I lie down in a field of grass and, for 10 minutes, sleep the sleep of the supremely self-satisfied. At home, on roads I’d ridden feeling strong and confident, having worked so hard to ride so slow would have saddened me. Here though, I feel satisfaction. This climb was the most difficult physical thing I had done since I had been declared well. Mortirolo was also the first time I cared more about having merely done something than about how fast I had done it.
Refreshed from my nap, I tear down the switchbacks on the backside, the wind abetting tears of happiness.
Day 3 brings the 9,045-foot-tall Passo dello Stelvio, the highest paved road in the Eastern Alps, which is closed to cars that day because of the race. We ride up about five hours before the Giro pros do. It isn’t just my Trek group on the road, but also thousands of other cyclists, most wearing the kit of their favorite team (similar to wearing the jersey of your favorite football or baseball player) and some wearing thongs or bikinis. Several cyclists haul full kegs of beer. Numerous sets of parents and grandparents pull kids in makeshift trailers.
These riders plan to park their bikes somewhere along the road - which, in May, still has seven-foot snowbanks on both sides at the top - and hang out until the pros ride past.
They join the fans that had driven up in their RVs and camped alongside the road the night before. Spaces not occupied by RVs are crowded with air dancers and other inflatables advertising local companies. I ride around several sets of fans using mini rollers to paint words of encouragement and the names of their favorite riders on the road. The people spray-painting the same things on snowbanks are easier to avoid. The collective euphoria is off the charts.
If the RV family I saw on television all those years ago is there, I don’t recognize them. Still, I send out a silent “thank you” to them for inspiring me to watch this race in person.
The next day, I pull myself up the steep steps onto the stage and get the goose bumps I had hoped for when I booked this trip. Our VIP access doesn’t end with the stage, though. I step up onto the top level of the podium - and officially reclaim my mojo.
Mishev is a writer based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @dinamishev.