by Bud Napolio – San Francisco, CA
What is a Gran Fondo? Is it a bicycle race? Well, sort of, but not in the way we typically think of races with categories of racers going off in waves with other racers in their categories (or maybe several categories combined). Is it like a century? Absolutely NOT, most centuries I’ve done have a span of time over which you can start and don’t keep track of your time and most people I’ve seen who do centuries are not rabid racers like the participants in a Gran Fondo are. In the end, in my opinion, a Gran Fondo is a race, a celebration of cycling and a marketing masterpiece (I saw more Pinarellos on this one ride than I’ve seen if you counted up every Pinarello I’ve ever seen and added them all together). It’s also a great focus for anyone who is serious about riding a racing bicycle and riding it fast. It’s a big deal in Italy where thousands of people train for and race in Gran Fondos. There are professional teams that compete in Gran Fondos, there are magazines fully devoted to Gran Fondos. There are Gran Fondos that take place in many parts of Italy .
The format of the Pinarello Gran Fondo is really pretty simple. 4,000 people start in two waves, the first wave is for the 209km (130 mile) “lungo – long” course, the second wave is for the 125 km (78 mile) “media – medium” course. Each rider has a timing chip on a velcro strap that he/she attaches somewhere on the lower part of either their bodies or their bicycles – most people seemed to attach them to one of their ankles. The timing chip records when you cross the start line, as you can imagine it takes that many people a few minutes to cross the start line – so it’s nice that your timing chip doesn’t begin to register until you actually cross the start line. It also records your time at various checkpoints along the course, and, of course, your finishing time. It’s all pretty high-tech. There are narrow strips of blue carpet that run across the course at each checkpoint, and at the finish – you can hear a little “beep” as you and your timing chip cross each checkpoint. Once you cross the start line, you ride along with an ever-changing and never-ending group of riders as fast as you’d like, or can, until you cross the finish line. Then you hang out in a giant tent eating good food, drinking beer, having a caffe’, maybe a gelato and watching all the people and their cool bicycles, kits and gear mill around with tired but happy, tanned and healthy faces.
Team Velo Veneto consisted of two maniacs from Manhattan – George and Bill, who were each doing the 130 mile long course (which also had 2 giant 10km (6 mile) climbs) and the only slightly less crazed but larger group of us doing the 78 mile medium course – Tom (from Terre Haute, Indiana) Jim and Jeff (from Portland, Oregon), Alex (from Hermisillo, Mexico), Simon (from Southern California), Il Capo Pat (Velo Veneto Directeur Sportive from Castelcucco and Santa Rosa, CA) and me (from San Francisco). We left the Hotel Monte Grappa at 5:30 AM for the roughly one hour drive to Treviso – the start time for the long course was 7:00 and for the medium course was 7:30.
After a brief warm-up and restroom hunt, we took our places toward the back off the mob at the start line – we were way behind the start line. The announcer was going on in Italian in a voice and manner similar to that of an announcer with the World Wide Wrestling Federation. I think he was announcing some of the dignitaries who were doing the Fondo and generally just trying to whip the crowd into a frenzy (the crowd seemed pretty calm though). I heard later that both 5 time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain and former classics superstar Michele Bartoli where participating in the race but I never saw either of them.
Finally, the long awaited countdown to the start occurred as the frenzied MC shouted “cinque, quattro, tre, due, uno, BANG”……..………………………..and then nothing happened – we didn’t move an inch, we looked up at the mass of helmets as far as we could see and there was no movement at all, we waited a minute and still nothing. Could we have mis-interpreted the countdown? Kind of hard to mis-interpret that! Finally, we noticed some movement – then in a few minutes, we were clipping in and beginning to slowly ride toward the start line. As we approached the start line we began to ride a bit faster, then shortly after the start line we were suddenly doing about 25-27 mph in a mob of hundreds of people. Just think about that for a second, you’re maybe 3257th wheel in a giant peloton moving through the fairly wide streets of Treviso, Italy with absolutely no automobile traffic – all intersections are closed off, no cars are parked on the streets, you have the entire street – curb-to-curb, you’re zipping along listening to the buzz of 8,000 skinny, high pressure tires on the road; ahead of, and completely surrounding you is an ocean of brightly colored jersey, helmets and bikes, all of your senses are on high alert, your blood is coursing through your body – YOU’RE FULLY ALIVE, YOUR ENTIRE BEING IS COMPLETELY IN THE MOMENT, YOU’RE IN ITALY RIDING YOUR BIKE AND RIDING IT FAST!!! It’s hard to capture that feeling without actually doing a Gran Fondo.
After a short while, the giant mob began to break up into sub-groups, each in itself quite large. Pat, Alex, Jim and I stayed together and sort of leap-frogged our way up from group to group – we were always moving forward, no group passed us, if a faster group came along, we’d just hop on the train until a faster group came by, this pattern repeated itself several times until finally there was a team that was smoking fast – we jumped in with that group and stayed with them until we hit the first climb (I don’t think our staying with that group had anything to do with the supremely fit, tanned women with perfect bottoms and legs wearing the short-shorts, in fact, I didn’t even notice them).
The first climb was tricky – Alex and I were climbing relatively faster than most and tried to move up on the climb – however, the road was narrow and completely full of riders. The left side of the road was the “passing lane”, we got into this lane and whenever we saw daylight we darted into the opening and moved up as best we could – it’s amazing that we somehow managed to reach the summit together given all the traffic we had to maneuver through. Of course, what goes up, must come down – we now had the prospect of descending a narrow twisty road that was about 80% blocked. The descent was surprisingly fast and safe – maybe two “yahoos” were taking unsafe chances but the rest of us descended quite quickly and comfortably.
The pattern above continued for the next few climbs. Items of note were: there was an “official” descending with us on his Vespa, the scooter just couldn’t cut the switchbacks the way the bicycles could, so on a few of the turns the underside of its floorboards skidded along the pavement letting sparks fly and creating that flinty smell of sparkling metal. Alex and I quickly got by the Vespa before it went down and stung us. As Alex and I sped along, an hour into the ride, we saw a Velo Veneto jersey up ahead – “that crafty Pat, he found a way to snake ahead” I thought, however, when we caught up with our teammate it turned out to be not the young and spry Pat, but 65 year-old Simon. Simon had started a bit ahead of us and was smoking along in a pack at 25-26 mph – how many 65 year olds do you know who can do that? Simon looked “molto italiano” in his Velo Veneto team kit on his custom Cavalera (Michele Cavalera is a master framebuilder who has his shop in the area). Alex and I hooked up with Simon and we stayed together until the next climb – as we approached the climb we could see that it zig-zagged up the side of a forested mountain – it was really cool to look up the mountain and see the road and its 8 or so switchbacks covered and colored by the never-ending line of cyclists. By this point in time, it was easier to move up in the group on the climbs. Just about every group we got into (after the climbs) had a handful of older guys looking smooth and relaxed – by older, I mean 60 +, truly inspirational.
There were a handful of ristori (rest stops) along the way, they consisted of a throng of volunteers who had cups and pitchers of water – the first one was a bit tricky to navigate because a lot of people stopped to grab a cup of water or fill up a water bottle. It wasn’t in my plan to stop at any of the ristori but by the second one (maybe halfway through the ride), I had already drained my two water bottles and was feeling a bit off. I told Alex that I needed to stop for water, we stopped and it took my a few minutes to fill my two water bottles – Alex and I lost each other at the rest stop so I was on my own for the rest of the ride.
I began to feel better and better such that when I hit the last climb I was completely on fire and in the zone – the final climb is 3 kilometers long followed by a very fast descent and then 20-25 kilometers of flat roads to the finish. Pat had taken us up the final hill and down the descent earlier in the week which was a great idea – I knew exactly how to pace the climb and what the descent was like. I literally passed over 200 riders on the final climb – I learned that I just needed to ride up the left side of the road shouting “Occhio” (sp?) which I believe literally means “eye” but in this context means “Please to give some space to the American who thinks he’s alone out in front on the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France.” People were really good about making space and even yelling out “vai, vai – go, go”. I crested the climb feeling great but remembering Pat telling us that on the descent last year he was doing 50 mph when he felt a hand push him along because he wasn’t descending fast enough. I really didn’t want that to happen so just before the descent I jumped into the 300 hundred meters of space between two groups of about 20 riders – I went by the first group figuring I could comfortably do the descent and then bridge up to the front group on the flats, or wait for the rear group to catch me. Well the plan worked for about half of the descent – somehow I caught the front group and flew by them at over 50 mph – wow, these few weeks in Italy have really helped my descending!!
So many cool things had already happened in the Gran Fondo and there were only 20 flat, seemingly uneventful kilometers ahead – but this is Italy and unexpected pleasures and experiences literally await around ever corner – the highlight of my ride was yet to come.
Shortly after finishing the descent I was briefly alone, she saw me from the second floor window of her expansive family villa, she leaned out amongst the brilliant flowers along the bottom of the window in her low-cut, tight blouse, she had a bottle of Sangiovese in her olive skinned left hand and waved, then she called to me “ciclisto, ciclisto bello – come here please, I need you” ……………er, well not really! It was more like this:
I was briefly alone and saw a couple of guys from the same team up ahead – something like “UC Castelfranco”. These guys were roleurs – big guys (6 feet, 170+ pounds) who looked like they could lay down some smack on the flats, I guess they were in their 30s. I bridged up to them and immediately the three of us took short 20-30 second pulls at 25 mph, we were flying along, working together when we passed another rider in a nice green and blue kit (think Sprite can), he latched onto the back but didn’t take any pulls – I couldn’t really see his face I just knew that he was there and suffering to stay on – as we approached a round-about he was just about pinched off the back, however, after the round-about, he was right back on our wheels – he took the slightly shorter left side route around the round-about (pretty crafty). I took a pull then pulled over to let one of the UC Castelfranco quarter horses through. No one came through so I flicked my elbow and moved over in a very obvious fashion – no one came through.
I looked back and the quarter horses were nowhere in sight but the Sprite can was on my wheel, I got a good hard look at him – the guy was ancient – his skin was brown and wrinkled, he didn’t have sunglasses on so I could see that the whites of his eyes were yellowed like an old newspaper, his face was strained, there was a large protruding vein running diagonally down the center of his forehead, the carotid arteries running down the sides of his dark, loose-skinned, wrinkled neck were pulsing – I was actually frightened for a moment – it was like I came up upon one of those unliving/undead pirates from the “Pirates of the Carribean” movies. He said something to me in Italian – I said, “mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano – I’m sorry I don’t speak Italian” (I used that term almost as much as “un cappuccino per favore”). He indicated to me by grabbing his leg and yelping that one of the quarter horses had cramped up. So it was just me and him. There was a group of about 40 riders about 300 to 400 meters ahead of us – we caught glimpses of them on the long straights or when the route took 90 degree turns – I motioned to him to sit on my wheel and I would try to pull him up to the group. I now had a focus, and, I thought, a noble purpose. He gave me the thumbs up and we began the pursuit.
I took it up to 25 mph and looked under my arm to see if he was there – I could see his front wheel about 4 inches from my rear wheel. I took it up to 26 and did another check, still there – we stayed at 26 for about 5 minutes and he was still there, looking smooth but not particularly comfortable – yet he still gave me a thumbs up – a few more minutes and I took it up to 27, the underarm check showed that he was about 2 inches from my wheel – we were really close to the big group of 40 now – I gently nudged it up to 28, yes 28 mph and here’s the Ancient Mariner in the same air bubble with me, his wheel was only an inch or so from mine.
He and I stayed safely in the big group until we rode through the narrow archway in the old wall around Treviso and across the finish line in front of the Pinarello store. We said our goodbyes and he left an indelible mark on me – I’d like to ride like that, right here in Italy when I’m 70 – it’s not just a hobby or a sport, it’s a lifestyle and a culture and I’m in it for the long haul!!!!
I finished in an official time of 3:33:55, my cyclometer put me at an average speed of 21.8 mph, I was 522nd overall and 65th in my age group (whatever age group that is). Interesting note – about 10 minutes after he finished the Gran Fondo, while sitting under the giant pasta feed tent, Simon received a text message that said something like, “Congratualtions Simon, you have finished the Gran Fondo in 3:41:31, you were in 726th place overall and 13th in your age group.” How’s that for high tech quick results – I guess the timing chip sends the signal to the Gran Fondo computer which records the time and placement data and had Simon’s contact information in it such that it could send him his results immediately – even before he stopped sweating!!