Inside the grupetto

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The Giro Rosa is but a distant memory at this point, which I have to admit is a wonderful thing. Yes, we cyclists are a masochistic breed, but I’m also starting to think that we have memories like goldfish. How else do you explain the suffering and torture we willfully and optimistically subject ourselves to race-after race, year-after-year?

The Giro Rosa is the only remaining Grand Tour for the women. So we love it. And then unless we’re Anna van der Breggen or Megan Guarnier or Mara Abbott, we start to hate it. By race end, I was on struggle street.

The Giro Rosa was a race of ups and downs (pun intended). We got a stage win early. We fostered general classification hopes, which we eventually traded for stage ambitions. I had a near miss for a stage win/podium that I’m still losing sleep over a month later. And that’s the thing about stage races. You go through every emotion and sensation over the course of the weekend or week or 10 days. And by the end you’re tired both physically and mentally, and the only thing that makes it hurt less is if you win.

When you’re not winning, and you’re riding merely to survive, you enter what we call “grupetto life.” And here’s what that’s like:

A group of stragglers begins to take shape as the road rises. The front of the race disappears up and over the climb, and eventually, thankfully, a senior Italian calls the grupetto. At this point, there’s an audible sigh of relief. Generally an uncouth Aussie will voice the collective “thank f*ck for that” sentiment. This is our verbal pronouncement that we are no longer riding to catch the group ahead or the group ahead of that. We’re packing it in and saving energy for another day – from here on out, we’re riding to make the time cut.

At the Giro, this is what a day in the grupetto looked like:

It’s the second to last climbing day, and I am having a real cracker of a day. I made the mistake of not requesting stem notes on this particular stage. Perhaps I decided ignorance was bliss. Perhaps I just didn’t want to know.

The pace was hot from the gun and after about 11km, we started to ascend through a town. When we had been climbing for about three kilometres, I turned to my roommate Carlee [Tayler] – the hill-climber in our household – and asked: “How much longer do we climb this climb?” She looked at me strangely and hesitated slightly before responding: “Ummmm, we haven’t started climbing yet. And when we do, it’s about seven kilometres.”

Yeah. Ouch. When the rising roads gave way to sharp and steep, I knew we had hit the climb I had thought we had hit earlier, and that’s when the mind games began. I started to will myself along: “Hang in for as long as possible until grupetto is called but prepare to suffer until then.”

To my utter relief, grupetto was called shortly after my mental preparation had begun. I could have kissed Marta [Tagliaferro] from Cippolini on the spot.

Once grupetto is called, all is good in the world again. Together we try to make the best of a shit situation.We’re sucking. We are 30 minutes behind the leaders who float effortlessly up these hills, but it’s all good because now we’re surrounded by friends who are cracking jokes, taking the piss, complaining, distracting and lending a helping hand.

And that’s the best part. In grupetto, everyone has your back. Because at this point in the race, the team cars are gone. Your swanny is no longer waiting on the climb because she had to get to the next feed. You’re on your own. Except you’re not. Because you have the grupetto.

And if you have Italian mates in the Giro Rosa grupetto, even better. Need a bidon? A coke? Aqua con gas? Cola? Mojito? Gelato? They have you covered. I copped a lot of agua con gas to the face one day. It burned my eyes but it was delicious so I didn’t care.

Grupetto mates – this column is a belated thank you to all of you for making the suffering bearable.

But as wonderful of grupetto life is, I plan to return to the Giro Rosa as a climber next year – and pigs will fly.

Loren Rowney is a professional rider for Velocio-SRAM. With the team since its inception (as Specialized-lululemon), the South-African born Australian lives in Girona, Spain during the European cycling season. The tattoo on her wrist in the picture above says “I Believe” in Greek and is Loren’s personal motto.

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