By Philip Gale
After a good night’s rest and an early start I am in place waiting the start. I regret not sorting myself out a better position. This being my first Gran Fondo I have no prior results and not mentioning that I ride at an elite level in France I am behind 4,000 riders. I will need to pass, and as quickly as possible to help out my team leader Mirco Yaisli.
Riders fill the grids.
There is a buzz in the air; the speaker is building up the riders and spectators with his energy. Everyone ready to give their best. As the minutes to the start tick down the excitement builds. The outriders prepare to close the roads ready for the swarm of cyclist. 9.25 am and the Final Countdown by Europe plays over the loud speakers.
The Police get ready for the imminent start.
9.30 am and after a minutes silence for the recently deceased Laurent Fignion the start is given. I wait as the wall of riders in front of me slowly filters away. 10 minutes pass and I start to finally move. I will regret the time I have gifted the leaders. In my mind I see them already well ahead setting a fast pace.
The front of the start grid rolls out.
10.00 am, the start is now like a ghost town. All the riders have parted on their different circuits. Helpers and supports now wait for their return.
Tables wait the return of the riders hungry for pasta.
The first 15 kilometres are flat and I ride flat out, I have to catch up. All I see in front of me are different groups of riders. Jumping from one to another I soon realise how many riders are here. We hit the first climb and there is a bottle neck. It is 15% grade at the start and I have to weave my way through the riders who are almost brought to a standstill by the pitch. “Got to catch up, got to catch up” is going through my head.
We summit the first climb, the Passo Caldarola, with a feed station at the top. I do not have time to stop; I have already gifted the riders at the front enough free time! The descent is long and a group forms on it. We ride well together for a short while on the flat before we hit the Passo Sainta Barbara.
Having already ridden this climb I know what is ahead. I decide to attack before the foot and then set a hard pace at the bottom where the climb is steep. Soon I come up upon another group, this one with a car behind it, which means it has some good riders in it. This boosts my morale, though my legs are starting to pay for the earlier efforts.
We continue to climb and catch a glimpse at the front of the race, with the lights of the lead cars flashing. I know that I will not see them again until the finish. The summit marks the midpoint of the 160 kilometre circuit. Another feed station is next to the statue. I grab some water and start the technical descent.
I was amazed to see that all of the dangerous corners and dangerous parts of the descent were marked out with two people. It was clear that the organisers were thinking of the rider’s safety. I was grateful for their help in keeping us safe.
The rider’s safety was not forgotten.
We hit the bottom of the final climb as a group. As much as I tried I could not shake them. The early efforts taking their toll on me so I ride with my head to the finish. We ride well but not flat out. The entire group knows that we are not going for the win, so riders calculate their positions for the overall classifications (the race is part of a series for which each category has a leader’s jersey). The last few kilometres were flat, so we rolled in for a sprint finish, the crowds at the finish cheering us in.
Gianlucca Cavalli comes in for the win, 4 hours and 27 minutes, 35kph average.
Tired, thirsty and content I crossed the finish line, not knowing my position. The result was never going to be amazing giving the leader a free 10 minutes; I finish a respectable 78th overall, and 12th in my category (out of 1,300 riders classified on the Grand Fondo). Had I not lost those ten minutes I would have had a top 15 overall.
Post race reflections on what could have been.
I roll back to the car, get changed and think about the ride. Riders from all of the different routes are still streaming in, and the roads are still controlled by the local police. This was a very well organised event, and all the different abilities where thought of.
The local police keep us safe, and distracted!
Free cake post race, my director sportive in France would not like this.
The post event atmosphere was just as electric as before. All the riders were recounting their events, whether they were first or last. We were all equals on the bike, all making the legs and lungs burn. The only difference between us was the speed we rode. Riders indulged in the free food provided by the organisers.
The saviours of the hungry cyclist serving great pasta.
Riders enjoy some free post race pasta whilst telling stories of their rides.
I did not have too long to soak up this atmosphere, or even wrestle with the throng at the results boards. I had to get back to Brittany to race. The car was already packed and with sorrow at leaving I hit the road.
The scrum to check out the results.
With the sun setting over the mountains I headed towards the Mount Blanc tunnel, direction France. I was fulfilled, happy with doing a different kind of race. The winner was Gianlucca Cavalli an ex-pro. Gran Fondos are very serious stuff in Italy with the top riders having the level of world class pros (if not having been one), making the pace at the front very, very fast.
If you have never done a Gran Fondo before the Gran Fondo Colnago in Piacenza is a good one to start with. Not an impossible circuit, perfect weather, safe, and based in a beautiful town. The event caters for all levels, abilities and sex. I have never seen so many women taking part in a bike race. It is definitely something that all bike riders have to do at least once, especially in Italy! (for more information www.granfondocolnago.com )
One last coffee in Italy, surrounded by the Alps and I hit the tunnel, leaving Italy. I had mixed feelings. Happy with the trip, sad to be leaving, the main thought in my head was when I could get back to the promised land of cycling, and ride another Gran Fondo!