Cycling, classics, Belgium, Tour of Flanders
The famed Koppenberg may pose a problem for our neo-pro on Sunday (Sirotti)

You see, we Italians are civilised. Today build our roads out of bitumen. Not cobblestones as we did 2000 years ago. And when we build roads up very steep hills, we choose not to build those roads via the steepest possible route up those hills. And we use bitumen. Not cobblestones.

And the one thing we don't do in Italy is find the most difficult roads in a 100-mile radius and send a couple of hundred professional cyclists along those aforementioned roads. (Unless your name is Michele Acquarone and you set the route for this year's Tirreno-Adriatico, but he already said he was sorry.)

But Belgians - they're another story altogether. The double fried Frites with mayonnaise alone should have been a dead giveaway, but they've hardly advanced from the stone age, literally.

Before arriving in Belgium for the Tour of Flanders, I was all excited about the prospect of riding my first cobbled spring classic. Then the team directors handed out notes on the course and I saw it.

The Koppenberg. Twenty-five per cent.
        
What sort of madmen devise a race that sends the riders up a hill that peaks at 25 per cent? Belgian ones, that's who. Sure, it might only be 600 metres long but 25 per cent is just not cycling. Especially on cobbles.

Call me naïve, call me a fool, call me an insular Italian but I had no idea there was a hill that steep in any race, let alone the one I was attempting in three days' time.

I hoped a reconnaissance ride with the team might help but it just made things worse. We didn't get out to the aforementioned Koppenberg but we tested out a couple of cobbled sections. The flats were fine, if a bit uncomfortable, but the hills were another story.

I ended up walking up the first one after I dropped my chain on an ill-considered gear change, much to the delight of my teammates. A couple of the other domestiques muttered consoling words but the team leader just sniffed in a particularly Gallic fashion and rode off.

If I'd known what was good for me, I'd have just turned around and headed back to the hotel, but no. I kept on going to the second hill and proceeded to do exactly the same thing when the gradient caught me by surprise again. Except this time, my front wheel got caught between two cobblestones just as the chain dropped off and I just keeled over.

And then Tom Boonen smoothly rode past and laughed.

It was almost as embarrassing as when Peter Sagan caught me trying to do a wheelie like Peter Sagan outside our team hotel earlier in the week, and then I fell off, and then he told all his teammates about it. Every time I've been anywhere near a Cannondale rider since, they've just giggled at me.

After copping another beating from Sagan on Tuesday, Mark Cavendish told reporters that the Slovak star is "making us all look like juniors". If only I needed Sagan's help! This isn't the way my neo-pro season was supposed to turn out.

Let's hope the cobbles are a bit kinder to me on Sunday, and a little less kind to Boonen, Sagan and Co.

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