|Saturday July 5 2008
If one word was to epitomize the goal of the Nations Cup CEIO - of Italy, France, Belgium, of any country that chooses to hold one - it is Team; and if there's one word to define Team at the Gubbio Italian CEIO, that was Belgium, all day, in all respects.
It wasn't just their riders, or their horses, or their final placings, but their concerted participation and effort as a team, that everyone had to have noticed. Wherever there was one Belgian rider and horse, there were a group of Belgians, whether it was for Karin Boulanger, who led on all but the first loop of the 160 km; or waiting at the finish line as the sun was setting for Audrey Olmanst to come in 8th in the 160 km; or holding their breath collectively in a group for Rachel Jaumotte's horse's final 160 km trot out; or consoling Ernesto Mariotti, whose horse vetted out lame after the first loop of the 120 km; or gathering before - and after - the awards presentations on Sunday. They were a Team, and this day they happened to be a very strong one at that.
Thirty-seven horses left the starting line near the stables at 5 AM, with just enough light to see the way without headlamps. It was a cool and damp 12*C at that hour, with little whisps of fog crawling over the mountains to the south of the Gubbio valley. The Endurance Village was slow to wake up - I was sure hovering around the restaurant waiting for the cappuchino machine to be turned on - you wouldn't know there were some horse races going on throughout the surrounding countryside, with 26 more horses starting on the 120 km ride, and 19 on the 93 km ride.
The morning sun was just creeping out from behind the hills to warm up the Endurance Village by the old Roman theatre when the first 160 km riders came in just after 7 AM off the 35-km loop 1. The horses had 272 m to climb in the southern hills - a good time of day to do so with the cool morning with fresh horses. Smiling Italian Chiara Marrama led the way on her mare Duina - who I just had the pleasure of riding last weekend - two minutes ahead of 2 Italians and 7 others in a tight group that included Karin Boulanger and Poespass, all averaging just under 16 km/h. The first two eliminations of the day were Italian Mara Marangoni and one of the Brazilians, Higor De Marchi.
The 22-km loop 2 was flat, and about 4 km/h faster among the leaders. Belgium's Karin Boulanger took the lead coming in over Chiara Marrama and French rider Caroline Danayer - and that was pretty much the last time anybody else in the race saw even the backside of Poespass, except in the vet gates. Three more riders were eliminated for lameness, all Italians.
Loop 3 was the toughest of the ride, not only the length at 35 km, but the climb. The altitude difference was 279 km, but there were two big hills to pull, instead of just one. Riders were advised that 11 km/h would be a good speed to take this loop. Boulanger and Poespass covered it at 15.5 km/h, adding 20 minutes to their lead, and looking strong and fresh at the vet gate. Italian team rider Carletto Bertoni had moved into second on El Jamila, with French team rider Guy Dumas moving up to third, and Belgian team rider Barbara Bienfait in fourth.
And now, at noon, the sun was harsh and it was hot if you were in the leeward side of the mountains where there was no breeze, though if you were under shade in the vet gate and you found a breeze, it was almost pleasantly balmy. And all the horses in the vet gates huddled under the shady tents. I'd jumped in the car for loop 3 with Dutch rider Yvonne Van Der Velde's crew and rode with them to the crew points. The roads for the crews were marked as well as the trails for the horses, with explicit instructions on the map, and red ribbons flagging the road for extra visual cues.
Loop 3 took the biggest toll on the field, with 9 horses dropping out at the vet gate, some of them on the compulsory re-examine - including Van der Velde, French rider Virginie Atger, Brazilian team rider Karina Dos Santos, and Argentinean rider Mercedes Tapia. It was unfortunately Tapia's second time to be eliminated from the Gubbio ride - but all that meant was she'd have to return next year for another try.
And from the first loop, Team Belgium led the way in the Italian CEIO, helped along by Boulanger riding in front. France held onto second, and Italy third. The Argentineans had been riding steadily and conservatively along as a group of three near the rear of the field until Tapia was eliminated.
Meanwhile, the 90 km ride came to an exciting conclusion, with Andrea Pesce just nosing out Alessandro Bruscoli and Marta Bravi in an enthusiastic racing finish that had the horses and riders barreling well past the finish line into the crewing area, fortunately missing spectators and other horses and crews. Unfortunately Bravi was eliminated at the finish - as were 4 other finishers. 7 of the 26 starters finished the 90 km ride.
Loops 4 and 5 for the 160 km were one and the same, a flat 27 km to the south and east of Gubbio. Boulanger gained another 5 minutes over Guy Dumas and Carletto Bertoni. They led Belgians Barbara Bienfait and Rachel Jaumotte in 4th and 5th on both loops. The Belgian horses all looked strong coming into the vet gate but Bienfait's horse was eliminated at gate 5 from lameness. Maybe it did or didn't have anything to do with the fact that Captivator fell on the first loop when he was spooked by a cameraman and jumped off the road and fell into a ditch. It was a disappointment, but both Barbara and her husband Robert jumped right on to helping crew for Jaumotte, and Audrey Olmanst, who came off of loop 5 in 6th place, some 50 minutes behind her teammates.
The ever-strong presence of French team rider Jack Begaud made his case here, moving up into 5th place on loop 5, having moved steadily up each stage, from 21st place on loop one. Likewise, French team rider Denis Pesce had moved up strongly each stage, from 28th place on loop 1, to 9th place on loop 5. Loop 5 saw the elimination of 5 more riders, including the last Brazilian.
Boulanger left on her last loop the same way she came in off her loops and went out on them - alone, and yelling enthusiastically. Her horse must have picked up on her enthusiasm - to not share it just was not possible. She said later, "I never rode 4 loops alone before! I talked and talked to my horse!" Boulanger easily had the race in her hand, if she rode carefully and returned with a sound horse, as she had a 25 minute lead going out on the final, short, 12-km loop.
The thunderstorms had skipped us today, and it never got quite as muggy as yesterday. The breeze and air currents were perfect for paragliding off the mountain tops behind Gubbio - and that's just what half a dozen daredevils did, many of them aiming for their usual grassy landing by the Roman Theatre, right by the in lane for all the vet gates and the finish line for the races. One paraglider fortunately timed it right and landed between horses coming in, but when he gathered up his sail and became a big fluffy orange bubble waddling across the grass, he had one stunned grazing horse staring frozen with a mouthful of grass falling out of his mouth, and he completely freaked out one of the two police horses he was walking towards (and he never stopped walking!). The policeman stayed on, the bubble waddled on across the street, the grazing horse went back to eating, and the other paragliders landed further away from the finish line.
A crowd steadily gathered in the Endurance Village during the afternoon, including the usual group of retired gentlemen who were always out on their park benches at 3 PM, playing a type of bowling game on the flat dirt in the shade. We'd taken over the space for their game with the Endurance Village, but they seemed to enjoy watching the horses as a diversion this weekend. Out on all the loops of the course, the local Gubbians participated in the ride, coming out to wave and watch the horses go by, and bring water and ice for the horses to drink or sponge down with. The tented cafe at the Endurance Village had a steady stream of visitors, one of which was me, drinking cappuchinos all day - much to the horror of Italians who drink cappuchinos only in the morning! (So I learned, but I didn't change my ways.)
The winner of the 120 km Roman Theatre race - Vito Grippo - arrived less than a minute in front of Erika Vagnetti - pretty much the same thing he'd been doing all day, averaging 16.4 km/h. The 120 km riders covered the same first 4 loops as the 160 km ride, with Italians sweeping the first 4 placings. South African Lanel Van Niewenhuizen finished 12th on a very fine horse, Kaligola. Seventeen of the 26 riders finished the 120.
I think we heard her coming to the finish before we saw her: a yelling, howling, grinning Karin Boulanger, bearing down the grassy lane alongside the ancient Roman Theatre, slapping her horse on the neck as he galloped toward the finish line toward the cheering whooping hollering Belgian team awaiting them. Karin took this loop the slowest of all - 14.9 km/h, but still finished 11 minutes ahead of Guy Dumas and Carletto Bertoni, who'd done their last loop fastest, at over 20 km/h.
The Belgians that weren't crewing for Audrey Olmanst - who'd just come in off her 5th loop - jumped in to work on Poespass. Someone draped a Belgian flag over his butt and over Karin's shoulders, as they took 5 minutes to approach the vet gate. The clapping started before Poespass made it to the end of the lane for his trot out - he looked sound... but the final examination wasn't over. We all had to wait oh, like hours for the half a minute to go by before a huge "YEAH!" erupted from the Belgian team - for the winners of the 160 km Italian CEIO Nations Cup - Karin Boulanger and Poespass! There were hugs all around for Karin and for her horse.
And while this cheering was going on, another one erupted at the finish line, with a sprint to the wire between Dumas and Bertoni for 2nd place, with Dumas just getting the nod. The two horses were hot and heaving from the dash, especially Dumas' horse. Bertoni took his El Jamila to the vet after 12 minutes, and when asked to trot out, groans fell out of disbelieving mouths of the observers. His horse was lame! He was asked for a second trot out for a vote, but it was clear after the first 10 yards this was unnecessary - Bertoni and El Jamila were eliminated! Heartbreaking, after 160 km, and such a finish - but what can you do?
Later, Bertoni proudly showed off a picture of his horse and Dumas' at the finish - so he'd gotten pulled, but he was very proud of his horse anyway. El Jamila had gone to the end of 160 km today, with heart for a race at the end, and at the end had a lame foot - that's endurance racing.
Dumas' Idryss Du Melay took 20 minutes to come down and enter the vet gate; he trotted out soundly to a rousing cheer from the watching onlookers, and vetted through, giving France second place in individual, and, so far, in team placings.
Coming in 26 minutes later, thinking she was in fourth was Belgian Rachel Jaumotte... only now she was up for third if she had a sound horse. It was a very hushed vetting lane as the Belgian team gathered together to wait out the tense minutes of Rukban Kikruhu MMN's vet exam. You could see and feel the concentration of the team: the hunched tense shoulders, concentrated gazes willing the horse to be sound, hands rubbing faces - can't watch - can't not watch, people squeezing shoulders, breaths being held and proud tears ready to burst from happiness or sadness from Rachel's eyes... the sound trot out and the harder held breaths for the rest of the exam; and then that nod from the vet, and the tears coming out, falling in the horse's mane.
French riders Jack Begaud and Denis Pesce finished next, with Italians Roberto Ronconi and Elena Bertoni following. With Audrey Olmanst finishing 8th, that gave Belgium the clinch on the CEIO Italian Teams trophy.
As the rest if the field finished - the two remaining Argentineans finishing 15th and 16th - yet another satisfying meal was served at the Endurance Village. Can one get enough good pasta in Italy? There was pasta, and ravioli, and the freshest, best bread ever, one that gave new meaning to the diet "bread and water." Journalist Pamela Burton didn't mess around with slices for our table, she grabbed a whole loaf for us and journalists Giorgio and Alessandra, and with a couple of carabinieri at our table, we all enthusiastically ripped into it. Barbecued spiced sausage followed, and after that some other barbecued meat, and after that, I was full to my eyeballs with the delicious bread and couldn't take any more. Not even a gelato, had it been on offer! (Well, I might have squeezed a little one in.)
And that was the 2008 Nationas Cup Italian CEIO in Gubbio: thrills and tears; crushing disappointments - or proud achievements, depending on how you looked at it; a successful equine sporting event once again well received by the local people in the shadow of a historic ancient city. Most of all it was the strong showing of a very strong Belgian team, a small country with a strong group of riders and horses, one to be reckoned with now and down the road, in the European and world endurance community, who have shown they know how to work together and get it done.