Thursday 20 June 2019

Conor Dunne's Giro d'Italia diary: 'The only good thing I can say about today was that I descended like a stone'

Friday May 23: Stage 13: Pinerolo to Cerosole Reale (196km)

Team UAE Emirates rider Slovenia's Jan Polanc (L) wearing the overall leader's pink jersey rides during stage thirteen of the 102nd Giro d'Italia - Tour of Italy - cycle race, 196kms from Pinerolo to Ceresole Reale (Lago Serru) on May 24, 2019. (Photo by Luk BENIES / AFP)LUK BENIES/AFP/Getty Images
Team UAE Emirates rider Slovenia's Jan Polanc (L) wearing the overall leader's pink jersey rides during stage thirteen of the 102nd Giro d'Italia - Tour of Italy - cycle race, 196kms from Pinerolo to Ceresole Reale (Lago Serru) on May 24, 2019. (Photo by Luk BENIES / AFP)LUK BENIES/AFP/Getty Images

Conor Dunne

Today saw the first mountain top finish of this year's Giro d'Italia.

With three big mountains, some smaller ones and over 80km of climbing on the 196km route, today was definitely not made for me.

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Climbing is all about power to weight ratio, especially on the steeper mountains, which is why all of the good climbers are little whippets who don't weigh much more than a good dinner.

Me on the other hand, I'm six foot eight and probably weigh an extra three and a half stone or so than most of them - which means that while commentators use adjectives like 'dancing' or 'bouncing' to describe them on the slopes, with my carcass it's more like grinding, lumping, hauling, convincing and even cajoling on the highest peaks.

There were maybe 2km at the start of today's stage where I thought the peloton was going to let the break go and we could have a steady start, at least until the first categorised climb after 40km.

Unfortunately that wasn't to be.

After 17km we had a little four-kilometre-long climb that didn't even register as categorised on today's route profile. I was feeling good so, in an effort to get my teammate Krists into the breakaway, I went full-on into it but after doing my turn at the front I realised that the climb was way steeper than I expected and I had to go absolutely flat out just to get up it and keep in touch with a group of about 70 riders, who had been dropped from the front of the race by the top.

So, 25km into the stage and I'm already out the back.

The only good thing I can say about today was that I descended like a stone, so I got a bit of recovery in on the downhill that followed.

The race was so flat out though and split into so many groups that I could hear our climber Ruben Plaza and planned escapee today saying into the radio, “I'm not going for the breakaway today guys. This is a GC day”.

He was right. After that it was buckle-up tight for the rollercoaster ahead.

We hit the first category Coll del Lys at the bottom of the first descent, after 40km, and things went bananas again. There were a lot of climbers in our dropped group and, not trusting our ability to regain contact, most of them tried to jump back across to the peloton to help their team leaders.

I was doing 500 watts on the 15km long climb just trying not to panic and get over it. Trying not to go too hard and blow up, I managed to stick with world hour record holder Victor Campenaerts for three quarters of the ascent. When Campenaerts brought us back to a group containing points classification leader Arnaud Demare and then rode off, I never saw him again.

At this point we still had 145km to go and another two huge mountains to get over.

Once I got into the grupetto with the sprinters and other non-climbers though, I just tried to stay there for the rest of the race. There were around 30 of us in the group and knowing that we had to finish inside a percentage of the winner's time in order to stay in the race, we rode every climb at threshold and descended like mad men.

In the valleys we took turns at the front, injecting a bit of pace as the others took respite in the wheels from the wind. Usually that part of the race is the part that suits me but I was suffering every time I hit the front today.

Our sprinter Davide Cimolai was in my group so at least I had a bit of company and we took turns if we needed anything from the car behind. It was so fast though that there was no talking in the group. It was like being in a breakaway, only at the back of the race. French sprinter Demare had four teammates with him so they rode pretty hard to make sure their leader didn't get eliminated for being outside the time cut.

With 50km to go, we were only seven minutes behind the leaders so we hadn't actually lost too much time and took it a little bit easier for a few kilometres.

But it was all uphill from there to the summit finish and by the bottom of the final mountain we had lost another 18 minutes to the men at the head of the race.

The climb itself was horrific. Although there were walls of snow lining the road, I didn't really notice until afterwards. I was in a world of my own and on the verge of getting hunger flat. The eyeballs-out riding we had done earlier meant I hadn't had much time to eat so, with 15km to go, I crammed in three energy gels in a row, took a massive gulp of water and gave myself a bit of a talking to.

“Right! Get up this climb Conor and stop being a pussy!”

It was so steep at the bottom though that I was really worried that if it carried on like that I mightn't make it to the finish at all, never mind inside the time limit.

Even though it levelled out a bit, it kept kicking up again and when I got up near the top the altitude got to me and I started to feel dizzy. Worried that I was going to faint, I downed a can of coke from the car in the last kilometre and just hacked in to the finish.

I crossed the line in a 24 man group, almost 49 minutes after Russian Ilnur Zakarin had won the stage but inside the time limit.

Some of the earlier finishers had ridden back to the team buses afterwards but there was no way in hell I was riding anywhere after that, and neither was anyone in my group.

Instead, we all got changed in a tent at the top, hopped into a transporter and got a lift back to the buses, where we have a couple of hours transfer to our next hotel.

Today's finishing climb is probably best known for being where Michael Caine and his gang find their bus full of stolen gold dangling precariously off the edge at the end of the 1969 movie, The Italian Job.

I feel a bit like the little van in the middle of that film after today - the one they're testing out the explosives on.

I blew myself up completely and I'm half expecting my directeur sportif to have a cockney accent when he sees the state of me.

“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

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