Giro diary: On the scene at stages 20 and 21

[editor's note, by chris] Tifosa's last diary... many thanks for doing this!

Our hotel in Milan charged 1.35 euro per minute for internet access, so I had to wait until I got home to post my last diary entry.

The time trial course went by our hotel in Verona, so I decided to ride out and back on the course in the morning.  It was raining, though, and the road was still open to cars and was quite busy.  So, after about 10k, it was on to plan B: ride back to the hotel, shower, grab an umbrella and walk to the finish area.

The setting for the time trial finish was spectacular: the piazza in front of the Arena di Verona, the best-preserved Roman ampitheater in the world.  The downside: it's a cobblestoned piazza, treacherous in the rain.

I ran into some friends from my group sitting under an awning at a cafe opposite the end of the finishing chute, where a few hearty souls with umbrellas were already staking out their positions.  We had lunch and awaited the first time trial finishers as the rain worsened.  The early riders finished in a torrential downpour.  To add insult to injury, the finish area was very confusing for the riders.  Most of the team cars were parked several hundred meters away on a side street that wasn't visible from the piazza, and early on, most teams didn't seem to have anyone at the finish to direct the riders to the cars.  Riders who had finished circled the piazza on their bikes, looking for their cars.  Only three teams, Milram, Aqua & Sapone, and CSC, had cars on the piazza itself, and only CSC had a bus there.

Eventually, the rain stopped, and team staffers started to appear to meet the riders.  We stood near the end of the chute, where souvenir-seeking kids greeted the riders with calls of "borraccia, borraccia" (bottle, bottle).  One determined little girl who looked about six years old ran next to a Rabobank rider as he passed us.  A minute later the kid reappeared, proudly carrying her Rabobank bottle.

We heard the announcement of Petacchi's finish, but he didn't appear immediately.  He was probably being interviewed at the finish line, or something.  After a while he appeared on foot, accompanied by a team staffer.  People crowded around him as he walked to the Milram cars, and although he looked exhausted, he stopped every few feet to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans.  I was very impressed by his generosity.  He seemed willing to stick around as long as it took for everyone who wanted a picture or an autograph to get one.  When he finally got to the car and was halfway inside, a group of four or five young guys ran up for pictures, and Petacchi got back out of the car so each of them could get a picture with him.  When he was finally seated in the car, a woman handed him a small autograph book to sign.  As he took it, some cards and slips of paper fell out onto the floor of the car.  Not showing even a hint of irritation, Petacchi picked up the papers, put them back in the book, looked around on both sides of his seat to make sure he hadn't missed anything, then signed the book and gave it back.  A very class act, that Petacchi.

We heard the announcement of Dave Zabriskie's finish and saw a flash of the gaudy U.S. champion's kit as he rode to the nearby CSC bus.  I went over to take some pictures.  Zabriskie looked shattered.  He sat on a cooler next to the bus, took off his helmet, and put his head in his hands.  When he finally looked up, his eyes were vacant and his face was slack with exhaustion.  He leaned back against the bus and sat with his arms and legs splayed out like a rag doll for several minutes before summoning up the energy to get up and walk onto the bus.  Although he had the best time at that point, I think he knew it wouldn't hold up.  A soigneur who came to towel off his face said something to him about how the dryer conditions for the later riders would make a difference, and Dave nodded.

We watched on the big screen that had been set up in the piazza as the big gc guys rode.  I was disappointed but not surprised to see Mazzolini knock Simoni off the podium.  When everyone had finished, I headed back to the CSC bus to await the arrival of "Baby Schleck," as he is invariably called in La Gazzetta dello Sport.  He rode up with a huge grin on his face and was practically tackled by Kurt Asle Arvesen, going in for a bear hug.  After briefly ducking inside the bus, Schleck came out to do a tv interview and take a cell phone call, looking ecstatic.  Arvesen looked equally thrilled by his teammate's accomplishment, and was hugging team staffers left and right.

After all the rain, it was a beautiful day for the finish in Milan yesterday.  The nice weather may have been partly responsible for the fact that the crowds along the barricades near the finish were much larger than in the past two years.  I think, though, that the large crowds also reflected the good feelings surrounding this year's Giro.  Despite the grim weather and the shadow cast by Basso's doping confession, it seemed like this Giro was a very special one for the Italians, as they rallied around the sport and the riders they love.

And there was a lot to smile about at this Giro.  Di Luca was a popular and charismatic winner, a local-boy-made-good whose reverence for the Giro perhaps sat better with the tifosi than Basso's focus on the Tour as his primary objective.  Also, the glory was spread around more this year, compared to last year's one-man-show.  The Italians embraced the fresh-faced Baby Schleck; stage wins by the beloved Simoni and his annointed successor Ricco on the two most spectacular mountain stages were a dream come true for the tifosi; all of Italy rejoiced at the sight of the rainbow-clad Bettini, as if he was on a victory tour of the country; and you could almost hear the entire country breathe a collective sigh of relief at Petacchi's triumphant return to form.

I couldn't get close enough for a good view of the sprint finish, so after watching five or six of the circuits from the 600 meter mark, I decided to head for the team buses, which were conveniently situated on the road from the finish line to our hotel.  As soon as the stage finished, most of the riders rode straight to the buses, and the road was also thick with pedestrians, some looking for autographs and pictures, and some just on their way out from the fishing circuit.  From past years, I knew that if you wait out this initial rush of people, the crowd thins down quite a bit by the time the riders who are in the podium ceremony and the post-race interview show return to their buses.

I hung out by the Saunier Duval bus, and after 20 or 30 minutes, the whole team rode up within a couple of minutes of each other.  A contingent from Ricco's fan club had been waiting for him under a club banner, all wearing yellow caps with Ricco's name on them.  He was one of the first riders to arrive, and the commotion that caused allowed Simoni and Piepoli to reach the taped-off area between the bus and the mechanics' truck relatively unaccosted.  They didn't try to avoid the fans, though.  When everyone had arrived, the entire team and staff posed for pictures in front of the bus, with Simoni holding their team trophy over his head.  Then Simoni, Piepoli, Ricco and Mayo circulated around the edges of the taped-off area, signing autographs for quite a while.  Simoni was all smiles, and the whole scene was pretty much a Gibo love-fest.  I have to take back what I said the other day about Bettini and Petacchi seeming like the most popular riders.  This year, anyway, it's definitely Simoni.

When the riders finally went into the bus to change, most people left, but I stuck around, since I was only two blocks from the hotel, and our dinner wasn't until 8:00.  The tape was taken down, and a few people were walking around the team cars and the bus, and watching the mechanics wash and stow the bikes.  After a while, Mayo came out in street clothes, put his bags in a team car (one of his bags was one of the Liquigas drawstring bags that were handed out as schwag), popped a can of Chino (a popular but nasty-tasting brand of soda), and stood around drinking it.  No one seemed to recognize him for several minutes.  Finally, someone said his name, and a few people came around for autographs and pictures.  One couple arranged their two little daughters in front of Mayo and took a half-dozen pictures, with Mayo patiently smiling all the while.  

Eventually Piepoli and Simoni also came back out.  Saunier Duval must give their riders a big wardrobe, because Mayo, Simoni and Piepoli were all wearing different outfits, but all of their clothes had Saunier Duval logos.  Gibo was looking fly in a black shirt, dark jeans that said "angel devil" in gothic letters on the sides of the legs, and very cool black and tan leather shoes.  After signing some autographs, he went to the truck and shook hands with the mechanics.  He saw a package of cookies on the floor of the truck and took one, then stood around chatting with people.  Two women arrived with two young children, and they all got on the bus with Simoni.  That seemed to have been what everyone was waiting for (Simoni's wife and kids, perhaps?), since the bus left soon after, with Mayo and Piepoli leaving in team cars at about the same time.

It was a beautiful Giro this year, rain and all.  I hope I can go back again next year.