At the end of last week, five riders from the Garmin-Cervelo women's team arrived to the northwestern Italian town of Tirano. Located in the beautiful Valtelline valley, the town sits at an important point for any woman who has dreams of glory in the most prestigious women's stage race of the year, the Giro Donne.
The women's Giro d'Italia will run from the first to the tenth of July and will likely be decided over two mountainous days.
The 120-kilometer Stage 7 will start out quietly enough, but all thoughts of quiet will quickly be forgotten as riders hit the bottom slopes of the infamous Mortirolo. While the descent is without question difficult, the day could well be decided on the final run-in to the finish in Grosotto - at the base of the extremely technical descent from the Mortirolo.
The next day, measuring only 70-kilometers, is almost entirely uphill, culminating with the seventeen switchbacks to the two ancient stone towers of the Torri di Fraele, which served as Bormio's outermost defenses in the mountains starting in the 14th century.
With these two stages in mind, the Garmin-Cervelo team, led by World Time Trial, British Road, and British TT champion Emma Pooley, set about their preparations for what will hopefully be an overall win for Pooley come July.
In 2010, Pooley finished second to Giro Donne overall winner, Mara Abbott, in both of the two crucial mountain stages to Livigno and the Passo dello Stelvio. Her time losses there coupled with a horribly timed flat tire left her in fifth place overall after a week and a half of hard racing. This year, however, Pooley hopes to turn the tables and use these two days to launch her to the overall win.
On Friday, we followed Emma Pooley, Carla Ryan, Noemi Cantele, Jessie Daams, and Sharon Laws, as they took a look at the Mortirolo. The women will tackle the Mortirolo from the eastern side starting in Edolo. From there, it's 17.1-kilometers at an average of 6.8% to the top of the pass, 1160 meters higher.
The day began under bright and sunny skies, but soon after an extremely short warm-up and the start of the day's first climb to Aprica, the blue skies turned dark, and the rain began to fall. Pooley pushed the pace from the base of the climb, and quickly shed all company - tearing upward at a tremendous clip. Behind, her teammates pushed forward through the rain and to the waiting team car, nestled under a gas station roof in Aprica.
Team sponsor, Castelli, has produced some impressive wet weather gear in the last couple of years, and every bit of it was put to use as riders prepared for the descent to Edolo and the final climb of the day to the Mortirolo. NanoFlex arm, knee, and leg warmers were donned as well as waterproof Gabba Jackets and the full on Pocket Liner rain jacket.
The descent to Edolo was greeted by more rain, but the rain that had fallen so far in the day was put to shame as the riders turned left on to the stretch of pavement that would take them to the Passo del Foppa, more popularly known as the Mortirolo.
The pace was a bit more humane on the second and final climb of the day - with Cantele, Pooley, and Laws forming a leading trio. The rain, however, turned to full blast. The day became night and visibility was almost forgotten, as rivers of water descended the mountain against the riders's firm march upward.
Over the top, Pooley and Laws grabbed jackets, then turned around to go check out the top part of the climb a little more…in the driving rain, cold rain.
It was an impressive sight. We often read about the toughness of professional cyclists. We even see it in movies every now and again, but rarely do you get the chance to see the determination and dedication for your own eyes.
And rarely do you get the chance to see the result at the bottom of a difficult, freezing descent - as we drove to the bottom of the descent, we found Carla Ryan, shaking on the side of the road, soaked, frozen, and lost. 15-seconds later, and she was in the car, the heating was on full blast, and the day was done.
Another check mark in the long line of boxes that need checking ahead of the most prestigious stage race of the year.