Lorenzo Fortunabro fulfilled his dream to visit a Grand Tour. Three days at the Giro made him feel the magic of a bike race but also confronted him with important questions.
An emotional report from inside the fan-peloton.
As I am standing on a hill in Italy last Thursday afternoon, one question pops up: 'Who am I here?'
Am I the journalist that I am in real life? Am I a fan who should shout as loud as he can to support the riders of this Giro d’Italia? Am I a redundancy, someone who wishes to be part of the pro cycling world that he does not really belong to?
It takes me three days to find out. Three days at the Giro d’Italia which let me understand the magic of a big bike race. Three days with a fascinating climax that leaves me and the cycling fans around the globe flabbergasted.
Before the journey – what I expected
After watching the Tour de France on Mont Ventoux and Champs Elysées in the year 2000, it always was my dream to return to a Grand Tour. Now I did it. I looked forward to these days for months. I tried to settle my expectations. I chose stages 18, 19 and 20 of the Giro because they were quite easy to reach for me and the best chance to see every rider climbing up the mountains. As the Giro progressed I was feeling between enthusiastic and awful. The rain, Covid. I did not really know how many riders would even reach stage 18. 130? 100? 50? Remco abandoned. Tao crashed. Vlasov out. So many more in difficulties. Every DNS or DNF was a little stab in the heart.
But then it got brighter. As the third week started the riders began to feel better. What a relief. On Wednesday I packed my car. I crossed Austria and the big passes of the Italian alps to reach the Val di Zoldo. The five hour drive came to an end when I entered the small village of Palafavera – destination of stage 18. In Palafavera, it all struck me. The whole village was decorated in pink. Pink banners, pink balloons, pink flowers. It felt awesome. After a long trip with no visual signs of the Giro coming across the region, here it was. I am at the Giro. Finally.
Palafavera lies on a tiny plateau and the road turns right afterwards, leading into eight winding roads down to the small village of Mareson. I continued my way down the hill that was going to see the final kilometres of racing on the next day. There were all the fans with their caravans, securing the best spots for Thursday’s stage. Caravans from Italy, Austria, Germany – and many from Slovenia. I loved to see it.
My hotel was another 5k trip to Coi, another tiny village up a very steep hill. It was adorable. The love of the Italians for this race shows in little decorative details. My hotel was located right at the riders route for the next day. I checked in and immediately took out my bike for a short ride.
It started to rain.
Welcome to the Giro 2023.
Day 1: Val di Zoldo – the ups and downs of a GT visitor
Waking up the next morning was a revelation. The sun was fighting its way through a couple of clouds. The bad weather was gone. It was a starting point for three days with perfect conditions.
At 10 am I took my bike and rode the steep downhill to Mareson. The road was already closed. What a feeling as a bike rider to not fear cars coming your way. Two kilometres before the finish, buses were unloading spectators who then had to walk up the hill. It was very crowded. I loved it. All these people coming to a bike race, cheerful, you could see their excitement in their eyes. I made my way up the hill, right to the finish. I saw the many many helpers who make such a race possible. I went down to Mareson again and up the mountain a second time – looking for difficulties the riders could face here. Honestly, there were none. The climb to Palafavera is 2.7k at 6.4%. It starts as a false flat and rises up to 8% but the steeper sections are also very rhythmical.
I chose a spot with 800 metres to go. It gave me the possibility to overlook a couple of roads the riders would come up. It was 11.30. Five to six hours before the riders would appear. Hours passed with the mountain filling with people. The Slovenians took control of this corner. Gremo Rogla! The atmosphere was nice, but not really boisterous. As the race leaders slowly approached, a thrilling calm encased the hill. I could feel the intensity of people waiting for something big to happen.
Suddenly, I felt confronted with an important question: Do I pull out my smartphone to capture this exciting moment or do I want to experience It all just through my own eyes, saving the pictures in my memories only? I was not really able to answer the question. I left the smartphone in my jeans pocket.
Zana and Pinot showed up. I had chosen a place on the left side of the road as had done the most of the other fans. From there you could see the roads down the hill the best way. But also you could not see the riders really well going up the road directly in front of you because of so many people standing at the barriers. I got overwhelmed. Where do I look? Down the hill to see the riders from far distances for a longer time? Or in front of me where I could see the riders for four or five seconds, hearing the sound of their bikes, feeling their breath?
I wanted it all. I wanted it so much. I did not want to miss anything. I dreamed of it for so long. I chose not to film. Zana and Pinot came past our spot. I cheered. They were gone in a blink of an eye. The GC guys came up the hill. Roglic led Thomas with Almeida a couple of meters behind them. It all went too quick. Here they are. And they are gone. I did not feel like I had the best place to see what I wanted to see.
The first 20 or 30 riders had passed. I made a decision. I changed roads. I jumped over the barrier and took a spot on the other side. It was brilliant. I could see the whole street. Approximately 150 meters. Finally I had my rendezvous with the riders. I could see their faces. Their joy. Their agony.
Then something unexpected happened. I was naïve, I guess. Many of the fans started to climb on their bikes and descend. They left! I did not get it. They waited for hours. And then they left after about 30 riders. With like 100 more left to see and to cheer for. And it was not just a handful of fans. Hundreds, thousands. Why? To reach your camper van 10 minutes earlier to get to the next stage?
Let’s stay on the hill. There are still so many riders I want to see. Denz. Ackermann. Healy. Consonni. Milan. Charlie Quarterman.
Marco Frigo and Edoardo Zambanini are coming down the hill from the finish. They stop. Frigo celebrates with about 20 people from his fanclub. What a beautiful moment. Zambanini agrees to take some selfies. Pro cyclists are affable. Splendid.
But on the same hand it puts up the question I started this article with. Who am I? What do I want? I feel a bit lost. Many fans have left, the atmosphere is not like a big crowd applauding for the latecomers. Applauding and shouting here nearly feels weird. I start to film. I want to keep a record of those riders who are not promoted by TV cameras. As there is still a bit of chaos, I climb over the barrier again and just stand at the side of the road. Sometimes I shout the name of a rider I recognize early enough. Nico Denz gives me a smile for that. I feel good. But why? I am not somebody who glorifies people a lot. My self-esteem does not depend on a pro cyclist giving me a smile. I assume he won’t even remember that I was there.
I know these are complicated thoughts. It seems like overthinking a situation that I should just relish. But I am not there yet, despite telling myself just to enjoy the moment. I choose just to do it the way I want to. I film when I want to film. I applaud. I don't wonder anymore about all the fans leaving before the end of the stage.
At the end of all impressions the best one is yet to come. Many of us got to know Charlie Quarterman a bit better throughout this Giro. In his first Grand Tour for the small team of Corratec he was in the break twice but also suffered a lot – with the pace of the big guys but also with illness. Stage 18, 19 and 20 were his final boss. There was no information available throughout the stage if Charlie was going to make the time limit. I waited. And waited. The last bigger group of riders passed including Cavendish. Dainese and Consonni came along. Nicolas dalla Valle in a Corratec jersey. Gaviria suffered with Torres at his side.
And then there came the broom wagon. And just in front of it, the rear wheel nearly touching the bumper of the car: Charlie Quarterman. I filmed myself shouting ‘Come on, Charlie – come on’. Later he wrote on Twitter: ‘Every shout made a difference at that moment.’
I liked this. Not because I want to hype up my own – quite insignificant – role in this Giro circus. But because I then knew that although the riders do not know us personally, we as the fans contribute our part to them achieving an inhuman performance throughout these three weeks.
The race was over. I took my bike and started the short downhill together with the crazy driving team cars and some riders such as Niklas Märkl from DSM whose rear wheel I held onto for at least 150 meters behind a camper.
I passed Mareson being overtaken by the Soudal team bus who left far earlier than any other team bus because they just had two riders and van Wilder and Serry finished quite early. While the bus headed for the team hotel, I took a turn left to climb up to Coi. There were people coming down the hill who watched the stage on top of the climb in Coi. They smiled. I smiled. And I nearly died on a hill many of the pro cyclists easily took a couple of minutes ago.
Day 2: Tre Cime di Lavaredo
With my mind full of impressions I took the 1 ½ hour drive to Schluderbach near the foot of the Tre Cime climb. I checked into my hotel and then drove the ten minutes to Misurina, the little village the riders would pass before turning right into the final climb on Friday. The road up the climb was already blocked and the road sides were overwhelmingly filled with camper vans and cars. With people who for sure did not just come here from Val di Zoldo but must have gotten here earlier. I started to feel a part of something big. The Giro d’Italia was going to be decided soon. And there were thousands of people coming together to watch and celebrate this event.
The next morning the weather was an absolute beauty. I drove to Misurina by car (thanks to my press accreditation) and decided to climb up the mountain by foot. It was magnificent. There were so many people going up this mountain. By bike. By foot. The first 1.5 to 2k of the climb were hilariously steep. On top of this section, a little lake with a beautiful view awaited us. A little plateau where there were just a few caravans and people taking their place for a big party later.
Then the scenery changed into a gorgeous hiking trail next to the road. That was the most holiday feeling of the whole trip. The road then turned downhill for a couple of hundred meters, wonderful landscape. Still so many people. I loved it. Finally the street ramped uphill and got steeper and steeper. Being there early and with no urgency, I just enjoyed the moment. I cheered on the hobby riders struggling to climb up the mountain. I photographed a guy carrying a sign from the German town Ramsau up the mountain. He said it was a dumb idea. But in fact it wasn’t at all. It is the home region of Bora rider Anton ‘Doni’ Palzer and was his sign to stop on the descent where his friends and girlfriend stood.
At about 1.3k to go, a beer stand showed up next to the road. I had come across a couple of good spots to watch the finale of the stage, but this one was the best. I bought a beer and walked to the next 180 degree bend which was followed by a very, very steep section. I took a seat there. It was the best decision I could have made.
The five hours of waiting flew by. Watching all the people making their way up, it felt like a big cycling carnival. A father came up the mountain with a rope tied to his bike and his little kid behind him getting pulled up by this rope. What a scene. The whole crowd freaked out. There would be so many stories to tell I witnessed.
Let’s skip some hours. From where we stood we could see down the mountain quite a bit. But we could just see the caravan of police cars with their flashing blue lights coming up the mountain when the riders approached in their slipstream.
They are coming. Where there has been shouts and chants everywhere now comes the calm again. Everybody looks down the mountain. You can see the fans further down begin to cheer. You can hear them. And then comes Santiago Buitrago and hell breaks loose.
The best kind of hell you could imagine. The rider appears and as you have always seen on TV, the people start to form a small alley for him to pass. Almost cocooning the rider. It’s a magical moment. I run to the road. Part of this cocoon. We cheer him on. I would have loved Derek Gee to come first and win but I love it that cycling fans do not differentiate in that moment – it is just a pure atmosphere. Buitrago takes the steep section. It is so impressive how these humans fly up these mountains.
Gee comes second. I film him. I want to have this moment on camera. I change sides of the road. Cort comes next with Hepburn behind him. Another video clip. It is thrilling. I love it all.
But there is still one thing that disturbs me. I’m deeply part of it all but I want to see the whole picture. I want to see the whole story. I step back a bit and place myself on a brown beam (which normally works as a crash barrier). This is perfect. Everybody else is on the road and now I can soak in the atmosphere and see the riders for about 30 seconds perfectly. I get goosebumps just writing it down now.
Then the perfect moment happens. I put away my smartphone to see it. The GC group is coming. Right where we are, Roglic attacks. It is the perfect spot for an attack because it’s first a little bit flat in the bend and then unbelievably steep. He attacks. Thomas on his wheel. Almeida has a little gap. It is so loud around me. The Slovenians are freaking out. Everybody is freaking out. I am part of history, overlooking it from my spot on the beam. I know what these riders have done so far, having walked up every metre of this climb so far. I know the gradients they surmounted. This is what is difficult to see in front of the TV.
It is a carnival. It is like in a football stadium in the final minutes. The density of this moment. I am so glad I fulfilled this dream to come here.
The favourites have all passed us. You could see their faces. How those who could not hold the wheel are grimacing with pain. Kämna. Oh, Lenny. Come on!
The funny thing is: You are so close to this race. You are in the middle of history written. But you have no idea how the race goes on after the point where you stand. In the ocean of smartphones the mobile reception has collapsed. I only found out that Almeida got in contact again with Roglic and Thomas – just to lose 20 seconds on the final hundred metres – when I watched the stage replay shortly before midnight.
Back to the race. I am getting closer to knowing who I am in this world. I am a fan impressed by the performances but not really idolizing the riders. I am not the journalist because if I were I could easily contact the riders after the finish line, meet them, talk to them, make an unemotional newspaper report. I am also not redundant here.
I am a storyteller. I capture moments nobody else captures from a point of view nobody else takes in this moment.
I am especially capable of bringing those pictures home that no TV station shows. The moments you never see on TV. Michel Hessmann of Jumbo Visma is coming up the mountain with a small group. He finished his duty for Primoz Roglic on this stage long ago. He just easily nears the finish. And he starts to party with the crowd. He throws his arms in the air, encouraging the people to cheer louder and louder. I love this moment. It is a cyclist partying with other cyclists. In one of the biggest races existing.
Of course Hessmann is not the only one. Alex Baudin who was in the day’s breakaway starts the La Ola with the fans. The riders enjoy being here. It is their reward for three very hard weeks. For a very hard stage. They know the finish is close. Pascal Ackermann is smiling his way up the section. This guy just rode a couple of mountain passes in the Italian Dolomites and he is smiling. Wicked.
I’ve posted a couple of videos about this day on Twitter. Jonathan Milan coming along with three teammates. Charlie Quarterman who had recovered from his illness and finished quite stress-free. Mark Cavendish in pain just two days before taking the extraordinary win in Rome. I tried to show with these clips that a Grand Tour (and even other bike races) is more than just the stage winner and the GC contenders. It is so much more. More stories. More pain. More gain.
The only thing I wondered about again: Many people left mid-race. With riders coming down from the finish and hundreds of fans descending by foot or bike, sheer chaos broke out. The riders coming up had to make their way through a – from my point of view – disrespectful crowd. When I go to a sports event, I stay until the last one has finished. Or the referee blows the final whistle. It is a form of respect to the sport and its athletes. But this should just be a short postscript on a tremendous day.
When Alberto Dainese passed us as the 125th and last rider, I felt so lucky. Lucky that I have been part of this and able to show other people what happened there.
I did not know that it should be even better the next day.
Day 3: Monte Lussari – rewriting history
I took the 2 ½ hour drive to Tarvisio right after the stage. It was great. Because of the mountain time trial starting and ending around the Monte Lussari, the whole Giro retinue was on the same path. Being in the middle of team cars and all that is quite a funny feeling. And each village you cross, there are children on the pavement cheering and waving. It was a cool ride.
The next morning I left early to take the gondola up the Monte Lussari. I arrived up top around 8.30 knowing what I wanted to do.
I secured a spot in the last chicane about 35 meters from the finish line. I was standing right at the barrier. Perfect view. I tested how to get the best videos of the riders when the first group of athletes came along. I tried again to capture the joy and emotions of the early riders who partied with the crowd – Cavendish high fiving the people next to the track. I filmed Gaviria nearly not making it to the line, going up the last 40 metres in wiggly lines. I made a clip of Michael Matthews sprinting up the final steep section just to collapse right behind the finish line, falling into the road barrier.
It was interesting to see how riders got more and more serious as the quality of riders got better and better. Of course none of those competing for a good stage result or a GC top 10 cheered before the finish line (and not even afterwards due to total exhaustion).
The place slowly filled up with hundreds of Slovenians who had just crossed the nearby border. It felt like being in the middle of the ski-flying world championships that took place a couple of months ago. There was a big screen where you could watch the race unfolding, commented by an Italian and an English reporter. Every time the name Roglič came up, the crowd freaked out. And a big shout out to an Italian guy in a pink Giro jersey who used a megaphone to start chants and Mexican waves.
Of course, attending a bike race is also a lot of waiting. Hours of standing there with nothing really happening. Especially for those who came early to conquer the best spots. But I can tell you: It was worth every minute of waiting. The weather was excellent, the view stunning. And by being there the whole time, you could really feel the mounting suspense. I saw the place at 8.30 in the morning still very empty and I saw the place at 5.30 pm when Roglič and Thomas were fighting it out. As a storyteller, you absorb all these impressions.
I also posted a few clips of this day on Twitter. Thomas Gloag of Jumbo Visma and Fabian Lienhard of FDJ cheering on the fans. Laurence Huys of Intermarché who’s chain dropped just 50 metres to the line which saw him running the last uphill meters of this Giro. I wanted to show pictures you could not see on the TV. Pictures perhaps nobody else will ever share.
But what was most important to me. I wanted to show the big battle between Roglič and Thomas right from the inside. Not the helicopter shots. Not the immobile TV cameras. Two shots – one when Roglič finishes and one when Thomas finishes. I wanted to show the fans right before their arrival and right afterwards. Sheer emotions. In the moment of history (re)written.
I personally was so hyped being there. A special moment in my favourite sport. I could see it live. How privileged that is. With the (very good) commentators up the mountain I got a really good picture about what was happening in the time trial. We knew they were coming in an instant.
Then they came. It was so fascinating. Roglič flew down the last descent, accelerating in the chicane and detonating on the last metres to the finish. 44.23. What a time. Crushing Almeida who just came in a couple of minutes ago. The pure elation of the crowd. What a moment.
And the funny thing: After a few seconds of jubilation everybody focused again. Nothing was sure at this moment. Did Roglič take enough time from Thomas to win this Giro? Was his performance good enough or did the very sympathetic Brit – who looked pretty cooked on his way up – just hold his lead?
I started my clip about 30 seconds before G would have needed to arrive on the horizon to be able to finish just in time. But he did not come. And the crowd slowly understood. Seconds passed. In the clip you can see people tentatively starting to cheer for Roglič’s win. It got louder and louder until everybody realized: Roglič has done it.
It must have been an awkward feeling for Thomas. Like when you lose an away game. He rode into the last 200 metres. Everybody freaked out. But most of the people did so not because he won – but because of his loss. When he crossed the line – just 14 seconds short of Roglič after more than 3000 kilometres of bike racing – you could feel the pure joy of the people around you. What on earth had just happened?
Some minutes ago – when Roglič’s chain had dropped – everybody silenced in disbelief. Worried that he could have lost a second Grand Tour in a final mountain time trial – this time not due to failure but to bad luck.
It was this moment that even strengthened the jubilation in the end. The fear of failure first lost turned to hope and then to joy. Feeling this in the middle of this crowd of cycling fans. That was so great. Congratulations to everybody who has been up there.
Feelings on my way back
I drove home the same evening. A four-hour drive packed with emotions. With fatigue. With happiness. I had high expectations for this trip and feared the reality would fall short. It took me some time to adjust to this event, to the atmosphere, to my role and how to enjoy it the most.
In the end I was successful. Many strangers wrote to me on Twitter to thank me for the little coverage I have done from the race by my twitter posts, photos and videos. It was an honour to pay back a little bit to the great online community that makes our sport even better for me every day.
And to close this (quite long) read: Go to races! You will not regret it. I am sure.
Lorenzo Fortunabro (37) is a cycling fan from Germany. In real life he is a journalist but here he writes from the perspective of a non-professional.