I’m on the start line at the World Championships, trying to stay calm, play it cool, but goose bumps on my arms and a rabbit’s foot tucked in my jersey give me away. In a multicolored sea of national team jerseys – I’m wearing the stars and stripes – it’s pretty awesome, and unnerving. After 21 individual qualifying events on four continents, the best amateur riders from 60 countries are in Varese, Italy to compete in the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships. Today, 2,500 amateur racers and me, a journalist pretending to be a racer, are ready to start with rainbow-striped world champion jerseys on the line. For an amateur cyclist, there is a no more coveted jersey in the world.

Lake Maggiore in Varese, a city and commune in northern Italy, 35 miles from Milan.

2018 Details

The 130 kilometers (80.3 miles) race winds among shaded forests, old villages and stunning blue lakes while tackling 1,950 meters (6,397 feet) of climbing over 6 peaks – Alpe Tedesco, Brusimpiano, Montegrino Valtravaglia, Porto Valtravaglia, Brinzio and Casbeno. Packed like sardines between Italian terracotta-colored buildings on narrow streets, I throw my jacket to my wife and say a quick prayer to St. Francis de Sales (patron saint of journalists), and zip up the stars and stripes.

Author John Woodson in stars and stripes at the starting line of the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships with his game face ready.

Right on time as church bells chime thousands of cleats click into pedals. It’s a wonderful sound, followed by the not-so-wonderful pain in my legs as riders in the rampaging peloton swarm ahead, past and around each other. Within 10km, I’ve dodged, evaded and – with the help of my rabbit’s foot – escaped 4 crashes. All the halting, braking and stopping just to stay upright is costly, moving me backward rather than forward for the first climb – Alpe Tedesco. It’s the perfect way to end the start of a good day.

The starting line brings together 2,500 riders from around the world who have all qualified by placing in the top positions at one of the 21 qualifying events held in more than 4 continents. The 2019 World Championships will be held in Poznan, Poland. Is it your time to start training and qualify? Photo Credit: UCIGWS

Alpe Tedesco

At 5km in length Alpe Tedesco is the longest, steepest and narrowest climb on the course. Barely 3 riders wide, it twists up the mountainside via a half-dozen sharp switchbacks. Joining a long processional of riders huffing, puffing and struggling to turn pedals, I slowly claw my way through the field. I catch Paulo Sussan (ITA) wearing a classic blue Italian team jersey and a yellow number, indicating he too is racing in the 55-59 age category. Without words we push forward and upwards, looking to catch riders. After the summit we discover the technical descent is as challenging as the climb. No respite is given on the butt-clinchingly steep hairpin filled descent. With extra enthusiasm and ambient testosterone in the air, some riders overcook the corners, sitting dazed on the side of roads as we fly past.

The 2018 UCI Gran Fondo World Championships route in Varese, Italy.

This racing up and down mountains on narrow roads is to be repeated again, and again, and again today. Great bike handling skills are not optional. Get caught behind a slow rider going up, or down, and you chase wheels all day just to hang on. An hour of intense wheel chasing puts Paulo and me in a small band of old men with the same yellow-colored numbers, with many still up the road – or sitting by the side of the road. Nobody talks. Nobody soft-pedals. Nobody sits in. Everyone gives 110%. This is the World Championships. It’s why we train 15000 kilometers in pouring rain, intense heat and frigid cold. It’s why we get up at 5AM before work to climb the same road 10 times in a row until we’re ready to throw-up. It’s why we obsess over equipment, nutrition and always want to lay down rather than sit or stand.

Bumps in the Road

In Roggiano Valtravaglia, bikes rattle and bounce over pavé laid centuries ago. Just like in Paris Roubaix, I ride a tightrope narrow strip of stone on the shoulder to avoid a brutal beating. My hands appreciate the smooth ride, but I fall behind on the descent when a GBR rider fishtails off the road. Nobody blinks, waits or even looks back. Now 15 seconds back, I work with a big wall of a rider from Germany to close the gap. It’s do-or-die time. About 2km later we rejoin the group, exhausted. Thank you, St. Francis de Sales. More climbing, descending and on the-rivet riding puts us along the shores of Lake Varese. My legs are not in a happy place, though. Tired, spent and ready to cramp, the finish is still 10km away.

Riders pass through Roggiano in the Valtravaglia region, some enjoying the technical section more than others. With more than 6,300′ of climbing over 80 miles at race pace, the sweat-dripping stares are focused. Photo Credit: UCIGWS

Summit Fever

The final 3km climb into Varese pushes riders past their limit. I am not immune and my legs protest actively with cramps. Though a minute of easy pedaling gives new life and I set my sights on catching Paulo, once again. Like a guided missile locked on target I start to reel him in. With 500m to go the gap is 8 seconds. 300m and 4 seconds. At 200m I catch Paulo and we sprint to the line, where I pip him by 0.25 seconds. Although finishing far behind the 55-59 winner, Patrick Cocquytf of Belgium, Paulo and I are all smiles, happy to place 132nd and 133rd out of 269 riders in our category. Plus, I am the first journalist to cross the line, and at least in my book that’s worthy of a world championship rainbow pen. [Ed. Note In the works.]

Author John Woodson takes a minute to offer the ‘finishing smile’, representing the stars and stripes amongst the participants from 60 other countries, across age groups 18 to 65+. 

Riding in the Gran Fondo World Championships is an awesome once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or maybe twice, since I plan to defend my rainbow pen title in 2020 when the championships come to North American in Vancouver, Canada. Although, I might find my way to Poznan, Poland in 2019. I hear it’s a flat course…