The Croix de Fer

Guest Article: Velo Love

by farzani / Jul 20 2012 / 76 posts

Even Wiggo said it’s just a bike race. Bike racing may be just that but Cycling is life. And Love is life and it’s amazing when they all get tangled up together. We first heard from @Farzani months ago; a Belgian in training. She said she had an on-going story to tell and asked if we were interested. It’s an honor we can share these stories that show cycling in the bigger, brighter light of life.

VLVV, Gianni

How it all began.

I stopped racing in 2006 due to elbow and wrist breaks requiring surgery and six months off the bike. At 46 years old I just couldn’t justify returning to road racing with all it’s time, money and pain commitments. My job requires I am able bodied and I don’t get paid if I don’t work. It didn’t make sense. However I like having reasons to train, so I always found some sort of goal to get fit for.

Prior to road racing, which I started at age 43, I had participated in a Marmotte Granfondo, did the Raid of the Pyrenees (self supported) in 96 hours as well rode through the Swiss Alps, French Alps and Dolomites. In 2009 I decided to participate in the Marco Pantani Grandfondo, 175 km and 4500 m, three epic climbs-the Gavia, the Mortirollo and the Santa Christina.

I was scared of the Mortirollo. Could I do it? It’s legendary length of steepness was daunting. Thus, in preparation I did every “meatgrinder” I could find. Once a week between clients I’d climb up the steep hills from the financial district in San Francisco to Pacific Heights (Filmore to Broadway/Steiner etc). On weekends I climbed everywhere in Northern California including some uphill TT’s near Lake Tahoe (Geiger grade and Kingsberry) as well as many epic bay area trips with ex-teammates and riding pals. I knew I could do it. And although I didn’t expect to be competitive I certainly would not be the last.

Consequently it was there in Aprica, Italy where my life was changed. I had gone up to the mountains five days before so I could recon the passes. I always like to know what to expect before race day. I rode alone and the towns were quiet. I got lots of strange looks from the locals as very few “solo” women come to these mountain towns climbing the mountains by bike. Two days before the race the town started to fill with cyclists. The sponsors began to set up booths and the town of Aprica became alive! I happily took advantage of the shopping opportunities and found myself rummaging through a barrel of vintage bike clothing. I picked up an old pair of wool bike shorts with leather chamois  and marveled. They were well worn and I wondered about their history. I then picked up a Molteni jersey and just at that point a man rode up on his bike and said to me “do you know who wore that?” I automatically quipped “of course! Eddy Merckx” and it was that moment when I won his heart. He then proudly announced he was from Belgium and I naturally quizzed him about all the classics, etc. The conversation flowed effortlessly and it wasn’t until his friend nudged him about going back to their hotel to shower and eat did we part. We had exchanged first names but that was all. I enjoyed our interaction but frankly did not think much about it. I tend to talk to whomever engages a conversation especially if it involves my passions.

Race day- We were corralled at the start line and the women (all 50 or so of us) were staged after the elite racers and before the masses of others. I looked around and saw an array of ladies mostly younger but I did spot an older one who donned rainbow stripes on her jersey. Ahhhhhh, I thought, I won’t see her for long. The gun went off, confetti strewn and the mob started. It was a complete bottleneck for the first 20 km. I was so pleased that I knew the road and did not fear the sweeping descent elbow to elbow. I knew as we approached the valley and began ascending towards the start of the Gavia it would open up. Riding towards Ponte Legno, the Belgians passed me and he slowed to say hello. I was in my own world thus smiled and said “have fun!”

The race was all it was cut out to be, but I made it. I never succumbed to the steepness of the Mortirollo. Then on the Christina, I encountered a bulging tire (turned out to be a factory defect from Schwalbe and I had no spare) so I carefully continued and prayed during the last long descent that I would not flat or rupture the lumpy tire.

As I crossed the finish I heard someone call my name. Who knows me here, I wondered? It was the smiling Belgian man. Oh what a coincidence, I thought and we rapidly exchanged stories about our rides etc. He had finished a good two hours before me, showered, eaten and dragged his friend to the finish to wait for me. Little did I know, after we had met he went to the race registration to find out my last name, race number and any other information they would give him. All he knew was Nancy from San Francisco. This information was divulged much later. I was clueless and elated with endorphins.

That evening the three of us met for the post-race pasta and then afterwards for drinks. The conversation flowed easily and I knew I had met a very special man. Nonetheless I had no idea he would shortly become the love of my life and husband.

Our courtship was very respectful and built on getting to know each other via twice daily Skype calls, emails and two trips to San Francisco and two trips to Belgium. We knew we were meant to be together. Because he had three small children from his first marriage he was adamant about staying in Belgium. I respected that so I made the decision to sell it all, pack it up, leave my work and friends to start a new life as a part time Mom, wife and Belgian apprentice. My work was clearly cut out for me. Thus I embarked on a journey with a new culture, new languages, new customs, new family and new life with my Belgian bike racer, proud papa and hard working man.

We kept busy. He worked full time as well as was building the house that we and the three kids would live in. Weekends he would race elite without contract. He was incredibly strong and focused on everything he put his mind to. Nothing was done without thought and nothing was done half-assed. If he had time to train on the bike he often cycled with the local Limburg pros. He not only could keep up with them but was known to drive the pace. He was known and respected by all who encountered him.

Together we shared our love of the bike, racing, as well as quest to have a simple family life. In two short years we biked in the Sierras, Ardennen, French, Swiss and Italian Alps. In addition he built our house (80 percent by himself), we got married, as well as took care of all of life’s other responsibilities.  We were a good team together.

We talked about racing the Marmotte in 2012. I was not in the condition I had been when we met. Moving, adjusting to a new life as well as embracing having three children half-time gave me new priorities. I was happy in a different way. Nonetheless I agreed and even boasted I would regain my old fitness for the race. All the while knowing how painful and focused I would have to be, I was a bit unsure.

August 13, 2011 my world changed. It was a rainy summer day. A day I will never forget. I had ridden a local tourtocht with some friends (160km and it rained for the last 50 or so) He was going to test his legs in a race as he was on the roster to race the two day tour of Antwerp with his team the next day. He had a bad feeling and decided not to. Eventually he headed out on his bike for a short training on the wet roads. He never came home. I got that phone call, the one you only see in movies. That one that tells you to go to the hospital but no details. Immediately I knew, but I wanted to think positively. Unfortunately my gut instinct was right. I was met at the hospital by his good friend (the one who was with him at the MP Granfondo) and we were ushered to a conference room and greeted by two police officers. I knew what they were going to say. He was struck by an out of control car, hit head on and died immediately. No time to react, no time to brake. It must have been a quick flash and then the light turned off for good.  Thus, I was a newlywed to widow in less than a year, in new country with different rules regulations and customs. Besides all the responsibilities of dealing with the practicalities of a death in a foreign land, there is the eventual grieving.

His friends helped me with the funeral arrangements and organized a beautiful memorial bike ride from the funeral home to the crematorium. We had polices escorts and rode two by two following the hearse. The pros rode in the front with me and his team mates and then scores of locals followed. The last 3 km the children joined me on their bikes. It was beautiful.

It was then I decided I would fulfill my Marmotte commitment. We had talked about it and I was going to honor it. I would write myself a training plan, change my diet (lose a few extra kilos) and regain my fitness. I aimed to be in the top ten in my age group. I would go to France a week  before the race to train in the mountains (Belgium is relatively flat) and spread some of his ashes on the Cols that we had ridden together in 2010 and the ones we would race in the Marmotte. I needed to honor him in the way he deserved. The goal was set.

Belgium winters are not conducive for cycling unless you are a tough cyclocrosser. That I am not. However I trained on my rollers, did my strength training and ate clean. Whenever I could, got out on the bike. Out of necessity, I learned the art of layering, woolen hats, double gloves with black pepper sprinkled on my hands. It was a journey I needed to take in order to reach my goal. When the weather finally got warmer, the rain did not give in. Every weekend I participated in as many of the “Classics” I could. I did the Walse Pijl (Fleche Wallone), Philippe Gilbert, Maxime Montfort, Liege Bastonge Liege (all 240 km in rain, thunder, lightning and hail), Tilff Bastonge Tilff, La Choufe and many other non-famous tours to prepare. I had planned to race the Trois Ballon in the French Vognes in June as a warmup event, but unfortunately was sidelined by bronchitis. I knew I needed to rest as not to dig a deeper hole before the Marmotte. The following weekend I did a weekend recon trip there just to test the legs on longer and higher climbs. I was pleased with my feeling. I was as ready as I could be for the Marmotte.

June 30th I left for Bourg D’osains to begin part 1 of my dual-fold journey. Ashes and photos would be left on the Col d’ornon, Col de Croix de Fer, Telegraph and the Galibier. I carried his ashes in my cycling pocket and laminated photos tucked under my jersey. It is something I never expected I would ever do in my life and especially with my new found soul mate. But such is life. It was the least I could do for him.

July 7, 2012 part 2 was about to be fulfilled. At 7:30 am I was cued up and ready to go. Me, the friend (who was with me when we met and when he died) and his father had all taped a photo of him on our top tubes. My goal was to equal if not exceed my time from my first Marmotte eight years before. I wanted to be top 10. In 2004 I was 10th in my age group.

Eight hours and thirty-one minutes later I crossed the finish line. I was 30 minutes faster than 2004 and now fifth in my age group.  As I crossed the finish line on Alp D’Huez, I kissed the photo on my top tube. I knew he was with me and was proud.

My love for the bike and my short stint of true love will always stay safe in my heart. I hope one day the children can see where their Papa left his heart and where mine will always be.

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