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.
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.
One 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.
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!