Felice Gimondi ~ UCI Round 3
The Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi is effectively a rerun of the Tour of Lombardy before it moved to it's present incarnation.
Taking place in and around Bergamo it climbs the classic hills found in the race of the falling leaves. With seven mountainous climbs in it's 166 kilometres it really is an early season test of stamina with the last, particularly vicious climb, really stinging the legs.
Round Three? Must be Italy...
Signing on the day before the race, was an event in itself. Parking up alongside all the cicloamatori vehicles in the Stadio Comunale car park the skies were very black.
Then, the loudest thunderclap I've ever heard in my life went off at exactly the same time as the skies lit up like a paparazzi Christmas do.
Every single car alarm in the city went off and we decided to "stay in the car for a bit". Anyway, once you've signed on in the Lazaretto, you get the best goody-bag ever and your all important, race and bike number.
Sunday sees cool but calm weather and 4,200 hopefuls lining up for the first mass-start of the year. It was a little bit crowded at the start but everyone seemed in good spirits (see below).
Then we're off. Out around the Stadium, through the outskirts of the city and on to the ring road, where the police have stopped all the traffic while we ride across the motorway. Once you get over the shock of the amount of cars that are stopped you realise that the occupants are actually sitting on the bonnets and roofs of their vehicles enthusiastically cheering you on! What a start to the day.
A Small One To Start
First up is the Colle dei Pasta. 4% and 4k long, the lines thin out a little and I begin to think I'm going too hard as I make good progress and no-one passes me. Which for me on a hill is a first! Great descent a bit steeper than the climb, chance to make up more places; happy days.
Groups start to form and the speed picks up as the race to the next mountain begins in earnest. I can't understand why they climb so slow then scream along the flat bits. Must be an Italian thing; but when in Bergamo...
Then a touch of wheels and about ten go down in front and to the left of me. I decide not to brake, not to look and wait for a gap to appear which it does. Didn't look nice but unable to speak Italian, there's nothing I can add of value, so I carry on.
After 25k the Colle Gallo appears and hits your legs hard. Trying to remember the route card is pointless but you don't remember it saying it was this steep. The first kilometre has bits around 10%, but it feels steeper.
I remembered the climb being 7 kilometres long so try to settle into a rhythm that will see me to the top. Then it flattens (well becomes less steep) and stays at a steady 6% until the 763 metre summit.
As always I ignore the first feed station and plough on to get a decent shot at the descent.
There is no flat bit. The instant you finish descending the Colle Gallo you're ascending the 11 kilometres of the Selvino. Eleven kilometres, 19 bends and 653 metres of climbing.
It's not Alpe D'Huez, but the scenery is great and there's my first feed station at the top. So I press on, but not too hard as I've already driven the next mountain and know what to expect; self preservation, and for once common sense, prevails.
After the Selvino a 10 kilometre false flat takes you in to mineral water country and through the San Pelligrino bottling plant to the foot of the Forcella di Bura.
Twenty kilometres of up; or to us 20 St Aubin's hills joined together. After 50 minutes of exhaustive climbing I get to the top and start the descent. Elation takes over as I realise that's the "biggie" out of the way.
Then despondency kicks in, I've just remembered this is the little dip and there's another seven kilometres to the top, but there's a feed station so spirits rise again!
Eat Drink & Be Merry...
Knowing there are two climbs left I fill my bottles and pockets accordingly. Always carry more food than you need and never leave a feed empty handed. It's free and you will need it one day.
I have a fantastic descent in to Brembilla, there are loads of twists and turns but loads of clues as to how tight the bends are. Though my computer fails to read 50 mph. 49.8 is the best I can get.
A big group forms on the run in to Brembilla, a very big group.
Due to my cracking descent I find myself at the front. I'm in the first six of around 200 riders as we approach the signs for the town. There are loads of Police, marshals and spectators in the town. There are bands playing and a carnival atmosphere. I notice the signs that split the race in to two.
The blue 165k route turns right and the red 130k route goes left. I turn right in to a hairpin bend that takes me straight into the Forcella di Berbenno.
The road goes from flat, to up, quicker than you can think about it. My legs charge with acid and I decide to ride at my own rhythm and tag on to wheels as they come past.
I've been climbing for about 30 seconds and no one has come past, I glance around wondering how to pace myself, for when a rider passes me. Nothing, no one, clear tarmac!
There are six riders between me and the base of the climb. Everyone else has taken the 130k route. I brace myself for a lonely climb and concentrate on getting to the next corner, then the next and the next. This is going to take a while.
I carry on over the summit and miss out the feed as I know there's one at the base of the final climb. I never spend more than a minute at any feed station as I don't want to lose time or get cold. This is my first timed event and I want to make the gold standard; so crack on it is to St Omobono.
I take fig cake and drink at the feed and ride a kilometre to the base of the next climb and yet another mineral water, spa complex.
The first couple of kilometres are quite steady but then we hit a couple of kilometres at 9%. From there on to the 1024 metre summit its a steady 7-8%. The objective now is to survive and grind it out to the top. From which, it's 30k to the finish and it's all down hill.
Once more I end up descending on my own but I keep catching glimpses of two riders higher up the slopes who appear to be going as fast as I am.
I take more chances than I maybe should, as I want to get to the bottom of the 15k descent, eat then prepare myself for the run in.
If these two are as good on the flats as they appear to be on the descents I'll need to be ready.
Well I Didn't Expect That
As I reach the bottom of the descent, I sit up take my last swig of energy drink, gulp a gel and take another swig of what is now just water.
As I put my bottle back in it's cage they sweep past. Two very fast and very slim Italians on team bikes with team kit and what look like team issue legs. I jump on and start clicking up the gears.
When I settle down and manage to look up from the hub of the wheel in front of me I notice the locks of hair cascading from under the helmet.
This is a very fast lady and she's beginning to make my legs sting. Although I feel on the limit I reckon that I can control the pace more by doing a bit of through and off with my new found friends.
He talks to her and gives her a gel and I make a few gestures which everyone seems to understand. We'll be gentlemen and the lady can sit in.
Quickly we start to close on larger groups ahead of us. Soon we are a group of about 30 with four of us working. We approach a motorway, which we have to go underneath, then climb the slip road to the old road that runs alongside it.
Gallant to the Last
The girl starts to go backwards in a big way, her team mate waits for her. Everyone else passes and leaves her for dead. At the top of the rise is the 10k to go sign. I sit up, take a drink and wait for her to get back on. The universal language of the casual nod takes place and the three of us start to chase from 50 metres behind.
It takes about two kilometres to catch them and when we do we go straight to the head of affairs again. Something is said in Italian; I didn't hear a "grazie" at any point, and the Italian-Jersey train steams to the front.
We build up the pace with the odd rider or two helping. Then the help disappears. The group is now dwindling and as we reach the last kilometre there are only about eight of us left.
As we pass under the kite I go to the front and put in a massive turn, expecting to ride until I blow. My two new friends are line astern and the gap to the others opens up.
Slim Jim comes around me and our lady friend tucks on my wheel. We turn off the main road in to the finishing straight and we enter the last slightly downhill corner at over 30 mph. I go to the front and start the sprint for the line but my legs are empty. They both scream past and I keep with them as we pass under the banner. We look behind ~ no one.
A good job well done. Reserves of energy that come from nowhere have got us to the finish in spectacular fashion. Having been dead on my feet a half hour before I'm now celebrating our “win”. Nods and "grazies" all round and another medal each, and a red rose for the ladies.
Check the time, a gold standard ride! Despite my epic finish, I'm not required at the dope control so it's off to the pasta party and the post-event celebrations with the feeling of a job well done.
And don't believe what they say about Italians and organisation. This was a fantastically organised event, with the best food, marshalling and arrangements I've seen. You've seen nothing till you've watched 5,000 portions of bread, pasta and wine served to hungry, exhausted cyclists and their supporters.