FIRENZE, Italy - Sept. 28, 2013 - Fabian Cancellara met my question with a dismissive gaze. Our eyes locked.
"I'm not here to talk about Sunday. I'm only here to talk about the time trial and to celebrate my bronze medal," he said on Wednesday.
The question I had asked was whether his preparation for this celebrated road race circuit had altered his training for the time trial. We were both speaking in code.
Cancellara had arrived in Firenze visibly lighter than he had in Australia, Copenhagen, or Valkenberg, where he brought more weight and hence, more power, to the pedals. And he finished way behind Tony Martin and two seconds behind Bradley Wiggins.
The following day, unbeknownst to him, he would give me the real answer to the question without saying a word. For that would be the day I would get to ride Il Circuito, the final circuits for the 2013 Worlds.
I hold Cancellara in the highest regard for three reasons: 1) He races - and wins - with savage abandon; 2) in Australia I saw him patiently give interviews to every reporter in six different languages in the boxes, including one nervous Aussie college radio journalist I got into the very last reporter box in the line; and 3) when his asshole Swiss teammate came to the sign-in table in a raging tantrum over the protocol required for the 2010 road worlds, screaming at me as he stormed off the stage, Cancellara forced him back to the stage, apologized to me for the guy's behavior, and made him pose for the team photo.
The guy is awesome.
But he was cloaking his priorities for this world championships. He was here to win the road worlds, not the time trial. Because this circuit is perfect for Cancellara.
My first exposure to the circuit came by stumbling on to the route Wednesday morning. I had a few hours, had purchased a map, and simply saw a town that looked interesting and could be indexed by my knowledge of the region. In short, I only had to go the same place I had gone every day and keep going. I rode to Fiesole.
Simply following signs to this town I wound up on the course. Riding alone, the climb cracked me. I pounded up to a beautiful town adorned with bleachers, signage and fantastic sculpture. I realized I was on the course and pressed upward for an additional kilometer of climbing.
The following day would be my lone day off. I ate breakfast and kitted up with my People for Bikes kit, complete to the socks, and rolled towards the circuit. My credential got me on at 10 a.m. when all the teams were to ride on the closed course.
Mind you, the pre-ride on this course draws a live audience that matches the crowds seen in most American pro races. Entire schools are released to let the kids go course side to cheer on all the riders.....But oh how they waited for the Squadra Azzuri.
Just as I approached the course I came upon the entire French junior and under-23 team. I hopped on.
We rolled upwards towards Fiesole at a comfortable pace, with about a dozen amateurs tagging long like so many remoras on a shark. The boys were just rolling comfortably and I stuck. With such a draft this climb felt easier. The stretches that crushed me the day before were tolerable. As we hit the switchback a French junior turned his head to see me, by then breathing audibly...but at 52 years of age.....screw off kid....I'm still here!
I swiveled my head back to realize I all the amateurs were gone. Just me and the French kids rolled up to Fiesole.
Just as I cracked into Fiesole, expecting to continue upwards as I had the day before and contemplating dropping off, I saw the fencing. Fiesole was the top! I had survived and started the descent.
The climb, it turned out, nearly matched that of Old Littleton Road, aka the "Harvard Climb" outside of Boston. About 4 km with an average grade of 5 percent and a maximum grade of 9 percent. I simply got into the hurt box and stayed there for about 10 minutes.
I stopped at the top. Checked my text messages. Then did the descent ... like a clumsy boxer .... There is just one turn that requires a bit of brakes. And then I hit the Via Silviate, the shorter but harder climb that followed. This climb hits your legs like an eight-pound sledge. The average grade is 11 percent but the steepest pitch hits 16 percent. The effort is about three minutes.
I survived and then rolled down through the technical fast section to the finish, where I paused with some journalists. When asked by Italian television how I viewed the loop for the world road championships, I paused.
I had one word: "Dynamic."
And it went viral. Of the four road worlds I have called, this is the one route that will produce the truest of road champions. This course does not favor pure climbers, does not favor sprinters, and does not favor the strongest teams. This course is for the best all around individual rider.
I did the climb again, but with a large group that included the Austrian national team. I descended with the Belgian and Dutch teams. I charged through the city section, where I encountered Evelyn Stevens, who seemed chirpy about the course.
Then I rolled towards Fiesole for a final loop. I planned to climb alone but noticed a large swarm of red coming up from behind. The Swiss were on their laps. And right in the thick of it rode Cancellara. A flotilla of amateurs had tacked on the back. Of course I did the same.
We were going about 30 kph as the grade became steeper. The amateurs started to pop like circuit breakers. I filled a few gaps and came within a wheel of the man they call Spartacus. His uphill surge to win Flanders reportedly put out a sustained wattage of 750. This man could pop light bulbs. And yes, I was flickering.
He rode while speaking to a colleague, his hair flowing as if in a photo shoot. With Firenze below us in full splendor to the right, Fiesole above us to the left, we approached the the switchback where a crowd of nearly 500 had assembled just for a glimpse at such men as Fabu.
Swiveling his head to study the route and breathing through his nose, he lifted off the saddle, and pressed the pedals.
I came off like a flake of dandruff.
I almost went paperboy on the climb to recover and then saw Seamus Downey, who raced for the Killian's Red team in the 1980s. His son, Mark Downey, would be in the junior event. With my heart rate settled, I resumed in time to see Gavin Mannion, the young American son of an Irish immigrant Tommy Mannion living in the Boston area, climbing easy.
At the top I regrouped, and checked my text messages to ensure I could secure a ride by 2 p.m. from Barbara to attend a junior conference. She noted instead that she needed to leave by 12:15 for an Italian press conference. I looked at the time: 11:50 a.m. and I'm 8 km from the finish line and another 4 km from the hotel.
I'm also soaked in sweat, kinda hungry, and really thirsty.
I reply: "See you at 12:15"
I bomb the descent, no brakes, and end up catching the other American U23 riders. I hit the savage Via Salviati pretty hard and nearly vomit going over the crest. Then I press the urban turns and roll right through the finish line.
I got to the hotel and even managed to shower by 12:16. We made it to all the appointments.
But in riding it hard I learned a lot about this circuit.
Matej Mahor of Slovenia, the emerging superstar who, as a junior, won the silver medal in the 2012 time trial world championships and then took the road race in a bunch gallop, returned in 2013 to win the Under 23 road race at age 18. In his press conference he confirmed what I had suspected: the Fiesole climb was not hard enough. Mind you he was climbing it at 40 kph, but he noted, as I learned, that at speed there is considerable draft. Ironically, the faster the group goes the easier the climb becomes.
Mahor also confirmed the second climb to be significantly more difficult.
And after that climb, the technical elements made chasing difficult.
The issue is that riding without radios, riders were struggling to organize their team efforts. Directors cannot drive forward to provide info. There is only the one 800-meter finish straightaway to enable any rider-to-rider communication. The rest must be done while climbing to Fiesole.
There will not be a large eight-rider leadout a la Copenhagen or Zolder. The winner will be the best sprinter of the climbers. But this will not favor Chris Froome or Robert Gesink. The winner will have to get over the Via Salviati and then be able to go 70 kph into the city, attacking and counter attacking, and then manage a drag race sprint in the final 800 meters. The finish is for a true bike racer.
But Mahoric confirmed another of my suspicions. In the press conference he noted that he had shed six kilograms in preparation for this race. And he noted that loss of weight had reduced his power in the time trial.
I had noted that Cancellara appeared significantly thinner than previously seen in time trials.
The pro men will do 10 circuits on Sunday. There are clear favorites: Peter Sagan of Slovakia, Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway, Phillippe Gilbert of Belgium, Alejandro Valverde of Spain, Fillippo Pozzato of Italy, and Geraint Thomas of Great Britain.
And there are some outsiders to watch: Diego Ulissi of Italy, Bauke Mollema, John Degenkolb of Germany, Carlos Alberto Betancur of Colombia, and Matti Breschel of Denmark.
Of note is that France's best roleur, Sylvain Chavanel is not on the start list, leaving Thomas Voeckler to carry the tri color into Firenze.
But know this: the Swiss have brought nine pro men to Italy, their largest worlds team in memory. And Cancellara is THE man here.