What is it like to do a GRAN FONDO in Italia?

To race a Gran Fondo in Italy is something every serious cycling fan just has to experience. To me, the name suggests that it is a fun ride – sort of a race, but not really. In reality it is truly unique! The beauty (and the danger) of an Italian Gran Fondo is that riders of vastly different abilities all start together with the elite riders at the front. You can ride purely for the challenge of making it to the end, or actually race it as hard as you can. To seriously race in one (which is what I did in Pisa and at the ‘Paolo Bettini’ Gran Fondo in Pomarance) is hard. Really hard! And by the way, the inclusive nature of an Italian Gran Fondo means that all participants and event organisers are accessible. I met Paolo Bettini in Pomarance (really nice guy) and have rubbed shoulders with Cippolini, Cunego, Cassegrande, Bartoli, Cassani and many more in my time.IMG_0786 2

I’ve ridden around the bay. No comment. I’ve done a few crits at St Kilda (Yes A grade, but never a winner) I’ve even done the Melbourne to Warny (2005, 300kms in around 8 hours) but you can’t compare them to a Gran Fondo. So what sort of riders can you expect to see making up the pointy end of the starting grid? Some good riders. Very good riders. Some of the best riders the world has ever seen! In Pomarance, I was up against Raimondus Rumsas who rides for the Cicli Francesco bike shop in Lucca. He has lost little of his ability since his third place finish at the 2002 Tour de France where a couple of hacks (Joseba Beloki and Lance Armstrong) were above him on the podium. One of the other favourites was Stefano Cecchini, the son of Dr Luigi Cecchini and if you don’t know who Luigi is, then I suggest you read Tyler Hamilton’s book or just google him. You won’t know the name Simone Orsucci unless you have been to Toscana or have looked on Strava at some of the segments around the area. I hate to think how many KOM’s this guy has and if you think they’re little streets that nobody rides up, have a look and see who has the Motirolla KOM in the Dolomites.

The fact is these guys could handle themselves in the pro peleton and could even out-climb a lot of current pros. I have a feeling I know how they do it but I don’t know the details. Let’s just say that the water in Lucca has magical powers… We all train hard and some of us just have more ability than others but seriously, these guys are not normal.

IMG_8658One of the keys to doing well in a Gran Fondo is to start as close to the front as you can. I made the mistake in Pisa of casually starting about midfield and rolling through the first few kms. I was actually so blocked that I physically could not get through the traffic of bikes and when I finally got some room to move I was so far back it was all over. I had to rocket up the Monte Serra from Calci (about 7kms at 8.5%), then fly down in the wet risking death (descending is, according to some locals, not my strength)! After this treat I had to roll in a pack doing 50kph for about 40kms then do more climbing. Then it started hailing and the last 10kms I had to lead out a bunch of about twelve riders into a head wind, as nobody in the group was interested in pushing the pace any longer. It was beyond tough! Starting nearer to the front, you can hang in a much faster group that will get you a higher place finish if you can stay with them up (and down) the climbs!

Anyway I got myself in a much better (but still not perfect) starting position for the Paolo Bettini GF. The start was crazy – about four kms of descending. That sounds fantastic but is actually nothing short of terrifying. Weaving your way around some of the slower riders (wondering what they are doing so close to the front), being berated (in Italian which at least makes it quite interesting) for not touching triple digit speeds and chewing great mouthfuls of burnt rubber and brake dust makes for an absolutely thrilling and intense experience. The yelling, the smell of burning rubber and the loud screeching sounds as brake pads slam onto the rims of wheels make it impossible to do anything but grip hard and pedal for all I’m worth. It simply isn’t worth risking a sneaky peek at my Garmin. My best finish has been 112th overall at Pomarance (top 10%) which I was quite happy with. I left nothing in the tank.IMG_9457

At San Gimingnano, I couldn’t weave through the skinny roads filled with traffic at the beginning so I got a very slow start. Further to this, two riders crashed heavily directly to my left (not my fault!) only three kms into the race doing nothing to calm my early race nerves. The sound of metal scraping is not a nice thing to experience but you can’t look back to see if they’re all ok – you don’t want to bring anybody else down. Lucky an ambulance was right there!

After about 30kms I looked at the Garmin to see how far we had gone because I was starting to feel it. 30kms!! We’ve only done 30kms!! Did the Garmin turn off? Was it on pause? This race is 115kms! 115-30=85. It’s 85kms to go! Oh no! We’ve only climbed 500m elevation. There’s over 1,800m elevation in this race! This is going to be frickin’ HARD!

Finally we started going down and the kms started rocketing up. Great! Late in the race I found myself in a pretty good group of about 50 riders rolling along at about 40kph – a good place to sit. When we got the 100km mark and had climbed about 1,500m and I was not struggling to stay with this bunch on the climbs. I thought to myself (perhaps with a degree of arrogance) that I was the strongest rider in this bunch and I hadn’t worked at the front at all. I decided I was going to ride away from this bunch on the last few climbs, or at least try.

So as we hit one of the last three climbs (1.5kms at 10%) I surged ahead and pushed hard up the climb. Pretended I was Phillipe Gilbert and it started to hurt. After that feeling that you have a gap I looked around and they were gone! Awesome. I caught up to another rider who was ahead of my bunch. I went straight past him and just continued to catch riders who had been spat out of bunches that I missed at the start. It felt great rolled over the line feeling almost euphoric. In my own little world, it felt like I had won, even though in reality I was a long way down the leaderboard.

I haven’t mentioned how visually stunning this Gran Fondo was. We were only 12kms out of Siena at one stage and the rolling Tuscan hills don’t get much better than in this region. This had to one of the best rides I’ve ever done in terms of the beauty, the challenge, my effort, the danger, the breakaway. It truly had it all. Just next time I must remember to bring some lose change for the toilets in some Italian Villages. You have to pay to poop! Lucky somebody had a spare 50c. Thanks for that!

Dearest Malta

IMG_4437Dearest Malta and children

You are such a gorgeous and unique island and we absolutely adore spending quality family time visiting you. In most parts you are geographically stunning and have some of the best oceans I have ever laid eyes on.  Not to mention the bluest lagoons, interesting caves to explore and historical landmarks to make any geologist go nuts! What is extra special about you is that you are the birth home of my parents and hold some wonderful childhood memories, containing family that I absolutely adore and cherish. However putting all these things aside for just a moment you also manage to drive me nuts! You are behind in sooo many ways, and seem to be slow in pretty much most of everything I see and contain some people who do some unusually strange things!

IMG_0350For instance, like the time we were all driving along happily on a busy road when all of a sudden we had to stop abruptly as the driver in front of us decided it was a good time to clean his spectacles! It seems the logical idea to pull over to the side of the road never entered his mind. So here we all were, traffic backed up….. Waiting until Mr McGoo was done with cleaning his spectacles!!! Wow! What also keeps me wondering is the daily rubbish collection. The concept of recycling has not reached you yet! Bags of rubbish are simply tossed onto the side of the road and collected every morning. To throw the bags out about an hour before collection would be the responsible thing to do, but not in Malta! Noooo some locals like to place their bags of rubbish out during the night attracting every stray cat, rat, dog and whatever else is roaming the island for a midnight feast! The mess left is marinated by your intense heat during summer reaching 30 degrees by 7am like clock work, providing us with a nice stench to wake up to!

I met a lovely nun from England who had decided Gozo was the place she wanted to retire to. Lovely lady but a little strange, she told me last year the tourists were complaining about fish biting their feet! Thought this to be unusual, her theory is – after beauticians are finished using fish from their ‘feet biting pedicure treatment’; they throw them back into the sea! MmmmmmmIMG_0313

Another unusual thing I find extraordinary Malta is your holiday season. Local people pack their suitcases, load up the car, deadlock their homes, farewell their neighbours and hit the road to their holiday home….. 5 minutes away, literally around the corner! Ha ha ha!

Although having said all this, your captivating beauty out weighs most things. Being beside the ocean, I suppose nothing beats it really and swimming daily is always the perfect antidote to a stressful day. Furthermore what a fabulous job you have done with my children, in building their confidence within the bluest Mediterranean waters. Amellie can now jump into the deep ocean without assistance and can paddle her way to safety. We couldn’t even get our little prince William on sand let alone into the water before arriving and now he is swimming with floaties, in the deep, unassisted and even jumping off the rocks. Hudson, well at his young age there is no fear in his mind, so thanks to you Malta he basically spots water and just jumps in and hopes dad is around (or me) to catch him. It scares the living daylights out of us but you have provided the best introduction to water in building his confidence, we just have to be so very careful. One of my goals on this journey was to have all my children feeling positive around water – tick! Even after Amellie and I were both stung by the horrible Mauve stinger Jellyfish, OUCH!! Excruciating pain!!! My poor little poppet! We had just stepped into the water and I was stung first and before I could warn the rest of you – Amellie you were stung and screamed your little heart out!!! I immediately went to pick you up but you literally flew right over me and onto the nearest rocks, I have never seen you jump so high! It was lovely how so many people came to our aid. I had to control my tears and pretend it was all ok but inside of me I wanted to jump up and down and swear!!!! We were in pain for the rest of the day and the burning throbbing feeling kept re appearing until the next day. I took you back into the water for a few minutes after, to encourage you to keep swimming and not to be scared. It was scary but you were so brave and I was very proud of you. Soon after I mentioned a double scoop ice cream as a special treat and that put a smile back on your gorgeous face! I don’t think you will ever forget it, nor will I really!IMG_0580

Let me also mention the amount of lovely home cooked meals my family provides when we do visit you! Pre kids I never worried about the amount of pasta I would consume on a daily basis, nor the sugar, nor the salt or anything really but after having you little creatures, my metabolism has slowwwwwwwwed down a tad more after each of you – yes my dear children genetics play an important role and I don’t think any of you will have to worry about it until later in life. Lucky! Although you all still need to keep fit, eat well and generally stay healthy regardless of your genes – I don’t think your father will have it any other way, so you probably won’t have much choice in the matter until you are all old enough to leave the nest and hopefully by then it should be cemented in your minds. Where was I going with this…. That’s right the food. Malta you had placed an extra 5 kilos on my body at least and I needed to work on losing it as I just didn’t feel good about myself so I set a goal before my husband returned from Australia. On a mission I went – running around most of Gozo each morning before the heat had time to knock me out!

IMG_0089Children, what was surprising for me to see when we were at the international arrival gates anxiously waiting for your father to walk through those doors – was a fat looking daddy – exhausted of course but fatttttt!!!! Never seen your father looking so big before, all that work of running my butt off and here he walks out looking rather happy and an extra few rolls to wrap my arms around! Ha ha it was pretty funny and thanks to my mother in law Heather for looking after her son while we were thousands of kilometres apart.

Gees it was nice to have your dad back home with us all  – we all really missed him, you children did mention him daily (is daddy on the plane yet?) but I didn’t realise the extent until I watched you all run to his open arms and scream from the top of your lungs DAAAAAAAAADDA!!! You all didn’t want to let him go and fought for his attention for days after! Absolute bliss for me!

I know that to some people being apart from your partner for such a duration may seem crazy but to us it’s not– it can be difficult at times sure, but it actually gave us some time out to reflect and appreciate each other, when we so naturally tend to take each other for granted, especially with children.

For the church bells and the milk delivery horns, for the crazy driving, for spending time each day with my mum and dad, my relatives, the fireworks, fiestas, food, sun and Mediterranean sea, we thank you Malta for a beautiful European welcome! IMG_0466



IMG_8164I would love to get involved with a Cycling Team in Italy and race the Gran Fondo season, and go to dinners with ex pros and the Italian National Team Coach! That would be awesome…. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined this becoming a reality, especially because I can’t even speak Italian.  Well as it stands I have been asked to join a local team thanks to my dear friend Dario who did the introductions and seriously seems to know everyone in Lucca! Manuel Vellutini who is passionate about cycling wanted to start up a team called ‘La Bagarre’ which is an Italian term that refers to when the peleton reaches the last 500m or so of the race and starts to get incredibly fast and chaotic! Manuel runs a highly successful computer software company based in Lucca called Tagetik but seems far more interested in cycling! He is good friends with Davide Cassani who just happens to be the new coach of the Italian mens National road team. He was a professional cyclist and rode the Giro and The Tour during his career. He also still runs marathons for fun and goes under 2:45! Not bad for a 53 year old. He is also friends with Stefano Cecchini who is probably the best rider in Lucca that’s not actually a pro. I have had the pleasure of riding with Stefano and I can confirm this. He just has that look of a pro, only wearing Castelli or Assos gear (all black and never ill fitting), riding an all black Pinerello Dogma with Lightweight wheels and an aero Giro helmet. He also just happens to be the son of Luigi Cecchini who was ‘the’ Doc in town for any pro cyclist looking to raise his performance level! He used to test the condition of his clients by timing them up a certain hill I’m a little obsessed with. The Monte Serra! Fortunately Stefano is not on Strava as he would probably have most of the KOM’s in Lucca. Unfortunately Simone Orsucci is on Strava and owns most of the KOM’s which would have been Stefano’s. Orsucci is Lucca’s answer to Andrew Stalder in Melbourne. A nice guy but a KOM Bully, leaving only scraps for guys like me.1472998_10201905251785178_1419779736_n

More guys got word of ‘La Bagarre’ and soon the team was born. Davide Cassani has a few friends at Castelli and soon a cool new team kit was made up. The kit is black of course (looks pro) with a friendly white band around the left leg and also around the right arm. It looks awesome! The team organised my racing licence and before I new it I was lining up for the Pisa Gran Fondo! Wow, was that an experience! Pete