One man's (ok, wussy's) Mortirolo: a long memoir of failure.

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Anonymous's picture

Anyone who has been on one of my rides knows full well, I regret to say, I am not being the least bit modest, humble, or self-effacing—not by so much as a gear inch or topographic meter—when I state I am completely incapable of riding a bicycle uphill. The slightest incline is daunting for me: coming out of a pothole is a challenging uphill; bounding up over a curb is a challenging uphill; and I’m tempted to blood dope to get up driveways. This is not simply a function of my being overweight and overage—both of which I am. What it is is simply my complete inability.

VeloNews, looking ahead to Stage 20 of the just completed Giro, described it in part thusly: “(T)he peloton faces the infamous Mortirolo…. Averaging 10.2 percent for 12.8km, the very narrow Mortirolo has an 18-percent pitch in its midsection, where a new memorial remembers the late Marco Pantani.”

Let me tell you about my experience on the Mortirolo with Marco. Yeah, Marco and me. In 2002 I was fifty-five pounds heavier and 31 years older than Marco Pantani. Actually, I had been 31 years older than him ever since his birth in 1970. Why do I refer to him? Because he holds the record for the climb up the Mortirolo. The Mortirolo—that’s “mort” as in death—is said by Euro-pros to be the toughest climb in any of the three Grand Tours and they used a triple on it. (Surely today the pros use compact cranksets which produce the same gear range as a triple.)

Having heard they used a triple on it, I put one on for my ride from Zurich to Nice just for this climb. But, of course, the pros had puny cogsets behind their triples. Not me. A 27 fit me just fine.

(Did you ever hear two men comparing the size of their cogs at the top of a climb? Only in this, small is better. Damn! Just when I found something I was big at….)

Pantani’s record for the climb: 41 mins., 9 sec. OK, if he did that, then I could do it in 2 hours. Well, let’s say two-ten. ...And I would have were it not for that sonofabitch driver in the silver Mercedes.

I don’t want to hear you say, yeah, but Panatani did it in the middle of a longer, mountain stage. (My Mortirolo came at the start of a day from Grosotto to Bellagio, on Lake Como, down the hill from the Madonna del Ghisallo.) Besides, I’m sure Pantani ate and slept well before he raced up that mountain. I didn’t. The night before I rode the Mortirolo, I re-rode in my mind the Stelvio, which I had ridden up that afternoon—it goes without saying, none too well. If you don’t know the Stelvio, it is the second highest paved Alp pass and is distinctive for having 47 hairpin turns.

The Mortirolo is narrow. Very narrow. Stretch, really streeeeetch your arms out wide as you can. Double it. That’s about the width of the road.

I digress to tell about my relationship with my third, inner chainring. It illuminates my inner self. You’ve possibly experienced a similar relationship, only in your case it was with a living loved one: it begins with resistance to it; then capitulation to it; then you embrace it; you grow to feel dependent upon it; then comes fear of separation from it; you let it go on too long even as you feel you should let go of it; you let go of it; and, finally, you miss it.

In retrospect, I doubt the road demanded or my legs required immediate recourse to the third ring; but all I had read about the climb had me in such fear that I couldn’t climb it that I immediately fell into my wussy wring. No, check that: I was rather proud that I resisted dropping into it right away. In fact, I thought I rather heroically forbore the pitch of the road for, oh, say a minute, maybe two. Then I equally heroically overcame my pride and fell, really fell, into it. The fact the pitch at that point was probably no more than 7 or 8% tells you how psyched—in a bad way—I was. But, hey, since pros used a triple on it, who was I to resist it? So what if they waited until the incline reached 12 or 13%?

Anonymous's picture
Walter Lindsay (not verified)
great story

Now that was a great story and a wonderful photograph, thanks for sharing it. By the way I always knew you could climb!!!

Anonymous's picture
Karol (not verified)

You are fit, Richard! I remember a ride with you last year after the A19 Sig, and I really didn't like hills then. But thought, okay, this guy shouldn't drop me. But you are a strong climber and super fit and really an inspiration to anyone who never wants to get old or out of shape. Rock on, Richard.


P.S. I have taught memoir and nonfiction for five years and this story is a page turner.

Anonymous's picture
Cat (not verified)
sshhhh! it's a secret . . .

we've been trying to keep Richard's fitness a secret from him for years because he writes funnier stuff when he thinks he's fat and slow. please don't blow the cover.

Anonymous's picture
Karol (not verified)
A million little apologies! (nm)
Anonymous's picture
Richard Rosenthal (not verified)
The Truth Squad is coming after you, to wash your mouths w/ soap

My dear bike buds:

Listen, I'm not out here working you guys for deserved compliments (other than wheelbuilding, none are), and certainly NOT for any that are undeserved (and, except for wheelbildling, all are).

Don't--I repeat--do NOT speak well of my climbing lest you undo my respect for your credibility. Example: Yesterday, I saw the cutest little thing in front of me on the road as I rode up Eisenhower: the number 3 on my bike computer!

Not a one of you--not one!--has ever finished behind me on an uphill. In fact, no one ever has. So, pullleasssse, no more of this laying on of hands.

A note about my training regimen which, with great discipline, I have admirably adhered to throughout last winter clear on through yesterday: a pint a day of Edy's chocolate mousse ice cream topped off with no mid-week riding. Nothing beats it.

Note to Karol: In spite of my having dropped out of law school, the fact of the matter is I'm still in need of 3 or 4 credits to get my B.A. Maybe we can negotiate a little something...?

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