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“Caro Vincenzo”, a letter to Nibali

Johan Faber Tekst Johan Faber Gepubliceerd 29 April 2016

It’s maybe a little strange to say to someone I’ve never met or even spoken to, but I’ve always liked you. I won’t pretend that I know you. My impression is based purely on how you race your bike, interviews you’ve given, and your unforgettable performances. What do I make of you? In the first place, you’re a rider with a big heart. You’re a guy who’s not afraid to suffer. That’s what professional cycling comes down to after all — organized suffering. It’s clear that even some very good riders — I won’t name names — recoil from the pain. They’re scared really. They could be great, if only they dared. You have the courage to be great, Vincenzo. That’s why I support you. Moreover, you seem to me to be a calm, friendly, and modest guy, at least when you’re away from the races. In that regard, you’re like all of the other great grand tour riders really. Contador, Froome — you are all calm, friendly, and modest. On that front, things used to be different, but never mind.

You won’t win the Giro there, and you probably won’t lose it there either, but don’t underestimate the Van Randwijckweg, Vincenzo.

As I am writing, I have one eye on the Amstel Gold Race. You aren’t racing, which is a bummer, but isn’t really, because it means that your first kilometres of racing on Dutch soil will be during the first stages of the Giro — for this season at least. It just so happens that the Giro will begin in the Netherlands this year, as you probably know, which brings me to the reason I am writing to you, Vincenzo. I happen to live in the Netherlands, in Gelderland to be exact, the province where the prologue and first two stages will be raced. Better yet, my house is right at the foot of the cruelest, most beautiful and treacherous climb that you’ll encounter during your trip through the Netherlands. You won’t win the Giro there, and you probably won’t lose it there either, but don’t underestimate the Van Randwijckweg, Vincenzo. This morning, I finished my Sunday-morning ride with its descent and saw a procession of vacant faces crawling up it in their easiest possible gears. When they awoke this morning, they thought they might as well be Nibali or Contador. Now, all they feel is the pain of their humiliation.

The kingdom of Nijmegen, which is what they call the hilly landscape here in this region, is bursting with cyclists today. In the Netherlands, we ride bikes, Vincenzo. Solo, but in great groups too, and most of all in mini-pelotons, they’re a sight to see. Twenty tough veterans on full carbon bikes, descending the Oude Kleefsebaan one wheel after another in quasi-professional team kit — that’s no less beautiful to see than the Giro peloton racing by. You’ll notice that bikes are a bona fide mode of transportation here in the Netherlands as well, unlike Italy, where I risked my life when I tried to ride my Koga along the Lago Maggiore while I was there on vacation. If you look at the number of kilometres ridden per person per country, I think the Netherlands is the undisputed number one.

Tom Dumoulin — you’ll know him, Vincenzo. He’s better than you in the time trials but nowhere near as good in the mountains.

But that only makes the fact that Dutch riders haven’t managed to achieve anything in the grand tours during the past 25 years even stranger. We do have one rider who has success in his sights now though. Tom Dumoulin — you’ll know him, Vincenzo. His looks have always made me think of Eddy Merckx. He’s better than you in the time trials but nowhere near as good in the mountains. They say he can win a grand tour in the future though. Dumoulin will ride the Giro this year, and Contador has identified him as one of the major favourites. But I honestly don’t think he poses much of a threat to you. I think I know what Dumoulin wants. He wants to win the prologue in Apeldoorn. He wants to wear the pink jersey in the Netherlands and be hailed like a king.

I realize that a guy from Sicily probably knows about as much about Apeldoorn as a guy from Apeldoorn knows about Sicily, which is not a hell of a lot. Have you already had a peek at the route book? Apeldoorn is a mid-sized city, which sits in the middle of a large nature reserve called the Veluwe. It’s a bit of a drab place, but that’s about to change, because the city will be painted pink in a couple of weeks. The prologue will run straight through the city centre, with a section along a canal that is as straight as a candlestick. There’s not much more to say about it. Of course, I know a rider like you won’t take to the start with any predetermined tactic in mind anyways. It’s just ten kilometres as hard as you can and then see where you stand. It probably won’t break your heart if Dumoulin is a tad faster than you at the finish either. Just hide in the wheels for the first few days. You’ve got enough to worry about already.

Dutch roads are a nightmare for the peloton.

You’ll notice when you’re in Apeldoorn that the Dutch tend to fill their roads with as many traffic obstacles as possible. Dutch roads are a nightmare for the peloton. A jungle of bike paths, bus lanes, speed bumps, round-a-bouts, concrete curbs, spots where the road suddenly shrinks to one lane, and an endless array of poles of all sizes — it’s never never quite clear what the point of it all is, but if you hit something, the consequences can be catastrophic. I just want to say, Vincenzo, forget about pink for a bit. In the Netherlands, all you have to worry about is staying on your bike and not losing any time. As for the next two stages, let’s not make fools of ourselves. It cost millions to bring the Giro to the Netherlands, and we got two bunch sprints for our money— one in Nijmegen and one in Arnhem. You know that as well as I do of course. You won’t risk going on the attack. You’ll stay hidden in the peloton, surrounded by a platoon of your teammates, and watch out for crashes, which will happen. With all those obstacles — don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Posbank in the Veluwe national park

The Netherlands is flat, Vincenzo. That might be what you learned at school. Tulips, windmills, rivers, canals, fields filled with grazing cattle — I’m afraid that’s the image the rest of the world has of my country. I do need to adjust that picture somewhat though. 150,000 years ago, a gigantic glacier from Scandinavia slid over our country and eventually came to a stop right where you would join Haarlem, Utrecht, and Nijmegen with a line today. The earth was shoved into a few rows of hills. Of course, they are nothing compared to the Dolomites, but I can assure you that we do have a couple of nice climbs here in Gelderland.

During the second stage, you’ll go over a hill called the Posbank, but I’ll leave that one for now, because you probably won’t even notice most of it. That’s how it goes for me at least, when I climb it. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but as soon I start to think, ‘Hey, this actually a pretty hard climb,’ I’m over the top.

No, caro Vincenzo, I want you to turn your attention most of all to the first stage, which runs from Arnhem to Nijmegen on Saturday the seventh of May, and to the Van Randwijckweg in particular, where you’ll practically ride through my backyard. You turn onto the climb in the centre of Beek. The public, I am warning you, will be several rows thick at that first corner. There happens to be a prize on offer in Beek too. Whatever else happens that day, the first rider to make it to the top of the hill will pull on the first climber’s jersey of the Giro later that afternoon. There are always a couple of adventurers in the peloton who are willing to go on the attack for such a reward, as you well know.

Military cemetery, Grebbeberg

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first stage runs, as I’ve said, from Arnhem to Nijmegen, and the first climb is the Grebbeberg. Calling it a berg is to flatter it really. It’s a false flat. But there is some interesting history to the place, because the Dutch military’s most important defensive line was situated there during the German invasion in 1940. We all know how that turned out. Keep an eye out for the military cemetery. After that, you’ll make your way through typical Dutch countryside. There’ll be nothing but fields, dykes, and rivers for a while. But, I am telling you now, dykes mean that you have to watch out for echelons. We Dutch cycling fans have for some reason come to the conclusion that our boys are better echelon riders than the rest of the peloton and that the Italians and other riders from southern-Europe get blown straight off the wheels as soon as the weather turns a bit stormy. But that seems absurd to me. In any case, make sure you’re always behind a teammate, preferably one who is bigger than you.

. . . if you do want to go and try something crazy, do it here . . . Your competitors won’t know what hit them.

The finale begins in the village of Groesbeek. Here, caro Vincenzo, is where you’ll notice the land begin to undulate. This is the kingdom of Nijmegen, my terrain. I know every climb and bike path here, so I can tell you that the steepest climb on the suitably named Zevenheuvel road comes right as you exit Groesbeek. It all seems so nice and friendly, but it gets damn hard, so if you do want to go and try something crazy, do it here, on the false flat that leads into the climb, straight after the gradual turn to the left. Your competitors won’t know what hit them.

After you pass the Canadian military cemetery, the road rises and falls a few more times, like a rollercoaster, and then you’re in Berg en Dal, where you immediately sail down the Oude Kleefsebaan in the direction of Wyler, which is just over the border in Germany. Then, you turn off to the left and back into the Netherlands, and, a couple of kilometres later, you’re back in Beek.

Oh Vincenzo, don’t let the crowd’s cheers distract you too much, because there’s a sudden turn to the left, and then you hit the bottom of the climb at full speed, and it finally begins.

Here’s a bit of technical information about the Randwijckweg. According to Strava, the climb is exactly one kilometre long and has an average gradient of six percent. That doesn’t sound like much, but there’s a sting in its tail. After a long straight, you reach an easy s-bend, where a tram used to go, and then the last two hundred metres kick up at over ten percent. That’s where the tourists crack and champions ride away. I’ve climbed the Van Randwijckweg dozens of times. My tactic is to raise my tempo steadily, shift down a gear in the s-bend, and then give it full gas up the last steep stretch, so I arrive breathless in Berg en Dal. My best time, I’ll say it, is three minutes and 35 seconds, but I have no illusions as to how I’ll compare after the peloton has thundered over the climb in the Giro.

Waalbrug, Nijmegen

Unfortunately, Berg en Dal isn’t the finish. The finish is in Nijmegen, where you’ll ride two local laps over the two Waalbruggen — don’t underestimate them either — before sprinting down the Oranjesingel.

I’ll be standing there, caro Vincenzo. On the Van Randwijckweg, our Stelvio, I’ll be your greatest supporter. And when, in a flash, I see you pass by in the sky blue of Astana, I’ll yell your name in triumph. “Vincenzo!”

Il tuo amico,

Johan

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