It’s hard to fathom what lays ahead, in the pure darkness preceding dawn. The mountains are pitch black, their jagged outline just decipherable against the slowly brightening sky. Later in the day the landscape will be awash with colour, verdant strokes of green draping the valley below and swathes of endless blue stretched out above, but for now it’s only shadows. The hulking mass of the mountains loom large and the atmosphere is a mixture of giddy eagerness and trepidation. Helicopters hover above, silhouetted against a not-yet-bright, early morning sky and more than 9,000 riders busy themselves with last-minute checks, coffee and enthusiastic chatter. The announcers heap more excitement on an already keen crowd, and nestled in the expectant throng it doesn’t seem so cold.
Snugly tucked into the peloton, the first kilometres are a magical blur, rising slowly with the mountains and the sun to the first of the day’s enormous crests. You know you’re climbing, but the gradients are still gentle, welcoming, or to borrow a phrase from the Italian, almost sweet.
The race has grown from a small event held by a few enterprising locals to an international carnival of cycling. It’s been 29 years since the first Maratona, and in that time it’s taken on a significance unrelated to cycling as well. The route winds its way through some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery and the event serves to celebrate and focus attention on these all-too-rare, often fragile places.
The emphasis is very much on getting as many people as possible to connect with nature – not a hard thing to do in a landscape that’s so inspiring it’s by UNESCO – and to contemplate our relationship with it. It’s the only event of its kind to be certified carbon neutral and the official jerseys even have an extra pocket on the side for your litter – just one of the many little things they do that other events should imitate.
In every aspect the organisation is more akin to what you’d expect at a professional race, which is just as well, because people have come from far and wide. Anything less than perfect, and it would chaotic. Instead, the whole day runs like clockwork and every need is catered for. You still need to be able to haul yourself and the bike up the mountains, of course, but everything else is looked after.
You know it won’t be easy, but you also know that you’ll be quick to forget the more grizzly details. It’s that rose-tinted sense of achievement, the way memory tends to round out the shaper edges of experience, that makes this sport great. Pain and pleasure are normally a rigid dichotomy, but on the bike they come in harmony. You can’t have one without the other in cycling. To feel the wild rush, descending at great speed from the top of the world to the valley below, you first have to climb up there.
The terrain is varied, ranging from lush green pastures to barren, snow-covered rock. Canopies of trees and shady woodlands give way to snaking switchbacks, exposed to the sun and the wind, and challenging climbs test body and mind but also guarantee the rich reward of a lengthy, high-paced descent.
These roads are paved with cycling history and on race-day, lined with fans. Which makes for great riding. There’s a savage beauty to the peaks and a gentle grandeur to the farms and modest hamlets that lay below. It’s a land of stark contrast, but one also marked by an peculiar harmony that you can’t fail to be struck by during the Maratona’s more quiet moments. Everything here – the roads, the mountains, the small towns, the locals, even these thousands of cyclists – is in its right place.