What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
The Italian professional-amateur circuit is like no other around the world.
I say professional-amateur because they are paid riders, they train and race full-time, but always remain on the Italian circuit of regional and national events.
The Italian scene is unique because the riders that win these races, start winning category one professional races (1.1, 1.HC, world tour) almost immediately upon their transition into the highest rank.
Enrico Battaglin, Alessandro De Marchi, Fabio Aru. These are riders who have developed within the elite Italian national calendar and now tear up the world circuit with a satiating aggression.
Battaglin signed professional two years before he went professional, but his wages and prize money with Zalf-Desiree were so high that he remained undercover, developing further and then passing into the Giro D’Italia with a few lessons for his older associates.
Enter the Australian Under 23 Team. Based in Varese, Italy, they too live and breathe pasta and bad espresso all year round, racing the national circuit and getting tended to by Australian Institute of Sport physiotherapists.
Every now and then a rider will come out of their ranks and win races too. Simon Clarke, Wes Sulzberger, Michael Matthews, Jack Bobridge, there are a few others, now there is a new one, and undeniably a special one.
Robert Power, the young worker on the team, has just wrapped up two huge victories in two days, something that hasn’t ever happened for the Australian U23 team on Italian soil. A ferocious and impatient climber, he is racing with the passion of someone who just loves to push themselves and go fast, nothing more.
This weekend brings the biggest race of the year, and the biggest challenge Power has faced thus far in his small but impressive career; an event named GP Capodarco, the quintessential Italian bike race.
15 laps of a circuit that goes uphill for 4km, fluctuating between 6-15 per cent gradient, followed by descent at about 4 per cent gradient for 6km, and 3km flat back to the hill.
35-40 degrees Celsius are standard, 40 teams, 200 riders, and less organisation than a schoolyard playground.
The Kazakstan, Russian, Croatian, Japanese National Teams will all be there, as well as ten thousand screaming locals and an ocean in the foreground begging the riders to give up such a dilly-dally and come in for a dip. (As a side note, GP Capodarco is raced in Marche, the beautifully relaxed oceanic region on Italy’s Eastern-waistline; here you will find the locals spend the majority of their lives in bikinis or speedos, and have a dark leathery texture. There are many ice-cream parlours here.)
Most races in Italy are held on circuits, letting crowds spectate frequently, as well as being much easier to organise than a rolling road closure.
Cycling does have a strangely proud complex with racing from point to point, but often circuit marching makes much more sense. 1-5km climbs are common as well, and the majority of hilly races will only see ten or twenty finishers from the apparent 150 that started.
The races start with all the riders eating a pre-race meal of pasta, prosciutto (the goal is to be racing near Parma or San Daniele), mozzarella, parmigiana, and a jam tart to wash it down. The whole event is nostalgic, serene and pure, illustrating how very satisfying simple, quality food can be.
The whole dynamic is perfectly Italian; traditional, passionate, and culinary, and it seems such an environment has proved an excellent breeding ground for up and coming Australian riders. So what’s the message here? Well, go get some gelato and hard cheese, then go training.