No, all roads do not lead to Rome. Ours points to Milan. And it started at Lake Como.
Apparently, the local mayor has warned fans to stay away from the villa-owning Clooneys there, or risk getting fined. No such trouble with the Exporide team. Ailar's Shrek-green Viks got dozens of close-ups and approving nods from local citizens, and we were more than happy to oblige. But that was during last night's casual ride around the city. Today we're all business. Cyclobusiness.
Morning came with the buttery scent of freshly-baked croissants, the olfactory equivalent of our view on the town and lake below. Magnificent and sensual. Hardcore cyclists among us then brought out "Kaerahelbed kliidega". Apparently, it's the thing to do in chainring circles. No offense, but today, croissants ruled the morning.
One last group shot. Too many pictures. Let's get it on, for chrissake! Click. Clack. Shoes fixed in their clips. Our two-man TV3 crew captured our departure in two takes. (Mart, the on-camera talent, switches on like a start button on a 600hp hot rod. The dude knows how to get his enthusiasm on!) Gotta get the right shot, we get it. Must have been a rather glorious view: the Estonian tricolor waving above 11 riders' heads, 22 thighs bulging in their bibs. Think of a battle scene from Braveheart and you won't be far off. "Freedoom!"
Fast-forward a couple of hours. Como is but a memory now. We ride in a reasonably-tightly packed group of 5.5 pairs. Wheel to wheel. A sea of butts. The Alaskan sled-dog experience. Funny to a newbie, business-as-usual to the pros. "If you do this long enough, you won't need to see a rider's face to recognize him," Paul said in the morning. Now we know what he meant. Butts, like fingerprints, are unique.
The road is reasonably empty. It's Sunday, after all. But it's also the last day of Giro d'Italia. The nation of Pantani, Cippollini and Coppi is glued to its TVs. And we're heading right into their view.
We spot three media helicopters at a roundabout near Magenta. Still some ways off, but they're coming. There's about a hundred locals. They know what they're doing, because.. Giro. Some have brought nylon chairs, large umbrellas, and, yes, selfie sticks. A group of 30-something guys rolls out a club banner that partially blocks the view in the riders' direction. Bad move. The crowd disapproves. Seconds later, fists start flying. "Ehh," an older gentleman turns to us apologetically. "You're in Northern Italy." A few carabinieri later, Giro-spotting resumes.
Noise. More noise. Eardrums are bursting. A rapid stream of team cars swoosh by. And there he is! Tanel Kangert, the Estonian rider in team Astana, is near the head of the pack. We wave our flag, hoping not to block anyone's view. A quick sideways glance from Kangert, and we know - he's seen us. A second later, it's over.
We stop by our Exporide van to stock up on gel packs, electrolyte powder, bananas, and water. There's still a lot of asphalt to cover, so we slide through traffic and point our stems toward Tortona.
The Sun's parching us and our water reserves drop. We roll through main street in the latest small town with a belltower and a magnetically dusty spaghetti-Western feel. "Coffee!" someone yells. Coffee it is. And old men. You see, that's how you know you've found a cafe. Withered, wise faces. And card games that stop as curiosity takes over. The Queen of Clubs can wait. It's not every day that you see 11 Estonians wearing spandex here.
Coffee, chips, gelato. We load up on carbs and caffeine. The local gentlemen have warming up to us and offer their chairs to our three women riders. One man, with a rusty and trusty bicicletta from the 1950s, inspects one of our carbon bikes. No words are spoken. No words are needed.
The fuel stop is over.
We restore our riding formation and settle back into the routine. No blown tires, no falls. It's a good day to ride in Italy. Hours swoosh by as if in a zen-like trance. Time loses its grip on your brain when you've been pedaling for hours and hours on end. A purifying purgatory for new, inexperienced riders. Pure pleasure and freedom for those who've done this before.
We roll into Tortona as the Sun dims its lights. Euphoria takes over. Many beautiful things beckon at the hotel: dinner, showers, civilian clothes.