The Gran Fondo cycle race gets a revamp

The Gran Fondo of the Giro d’Italia now gives amateur cyclists the chance to compete over a 100km pro course of relentless switchbacks and merciless uphill crawls. James Henderson – and his spare tyre – take to the saddle

The Mortirolo section of the Gran Fondo’s timed 1,822m hill climb at an average grade of 10 per cent
The Mortirolo section of the Gran Fondo’s timed 1,822m hill climb at an average grade of 10 per cent | Image: ANSA

There’s nothing like the considered thoughts of a pro. Asked what he wished he had known in his first year as a professional cyclist, Sir Bradley Wiggins replied, “How important weight is.” Too true. Have you seen cyclists’ arms? There’s nary a gram of fat on any of them.

So anyone with a slightly loose relationship with adventure – perhaps too quick to say: “Sure, that sounds fun. I’ll give it a go” – might want to be wary of taking on an amateur race over a pro course, particularly if they are anything more than a stick man.

The Gran Fondo of the Giro d’Italia is being revamped after several years. Translating literally as “great distance”, and metaphorically as “great challenge”, it is their equivalent of the Tour de France’s L’Etape du Tour, a stage of the pro race open to amateurs. Edition Zero, held over the queen stage in the Dolomites, took place in May this year, 10 days before the pro racers raced it.

The stats, when I eventually found them, were alarming: 100km – fair enough – but with over 2,400m  of ascent. Crumbs. And that was just halfway. If you made the 4h 30min cut-off at Aprica, you got a crack at the legendary Mortirolo, one of the most brutal climbs in Italian cycling. The profile map was so full of peaks and troughs you could almost spike yourself on it.

Riders pass the second world war monument on the Passo del Tonale
Riders pass the second world war monument on the Passo del Tonale | Image: ANSA

Training? Well, there aren’t many mountains near where I live. Then it emerged, to general hilarity among my family, that “Dad has hit 100kg”. All that residual muscle from the rugby pitch, eh? No. More to the point – the spare tyre. Moving it all along on the flat at a fair clip is one thing. Hills, which are guaranteed in a queen stage, are something else entirely. The pure physics is scary.

Still, I arrive in Pinzolo in the Brenta Dolomites in northeastern Italy. If the heat is building elsewhere, here it is still cool. The town meanders in a narrow valley, hemmed by lumbering, pine-bristled hillsides, just beneath – well, a dozen switchbacks beneath – the ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio. Swallows are swarming against a luminous blue sky crosshatched with aeroplane vapour trails.

At Edition Zero, about 600 of us, almost all thin, collect at the start line next morning. Ahead lies a telescopic view of what is to come. Banners and roadside buildings lead the eye to pine forests and upland meadows in the middle distance, and then further out, just visible on high – alarmingly high – the bare-topped rock of a mountain ridge patched with snow. Some very un-Italian but elemental music whips up the crowd – Bruce Springsteen and Nirvana echoing off alpine buildings – and then the commentator goes bonkers over the countdown. We leave with a cheer, streaming along the main street.

I set a steady pace, just beneath an aerobic barrier. The town slides past, followed by meadows with deciduous trees and switchbacks; we pass occasional houses, a forest of pines. Unfortunately, a steady stream of cyclists slides past me too. Then more pines. And, and, and… This first climb stretches out for 13km.

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It’s difficult to give a true sense of the pain that accompanies a slow but unending uphill crawl – the shortness of breath, the cramping legs and back. The ascent, 865m at a persistent seven degrees, takes more than an hour. And given that a race like this starts difficult and only gets worse, I’ll pretty soon be in the land of hyperbole.

Instead, I’ll talk physics. Picture a cartoon stick man and bike in a technical drawing, with arrows representing forces: rolling resistance (small arrow), air resistance (tiny), pedal force (medium) and one (huge, black, ugly) arrow for the downward force of 100kg. Net forward speed: very small.

But I am not alone. In the way of these events I fall in with another rider. Between breaths, we chat as best we can: “Phew! This... is... hard,” I puff.

Later I learn that he is responsible for our discomfort. He is Paolo Bellino, managing director of RCS Sport, the company that puts on the Giro d’Italia and the Gran Fondo. As a former 400m hurdler – he represented Italy in the 1991 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships – he’s no slouch, but he hasn’t had a chance to get out and train on mountains either (and he’s 90kg).       

The 2015 winner of the General Classification Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia from Pinzolo to Aprica
The 2015 winner of the General Classification Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia from Pinzolo to Aprica | Image: ANSA

“Toughest thing... I’ve ever done... in my life,” he replies. He feels it important to take part in order to get a sense of what the riders put themselves through and understand what sort of a challenge they are looking for. Respect. Surely, though, hurdling is famously tough. That was different, he says. It was his job, so he was well trained and ready for it.

Eventually, eventually, we reach the summit. Rainproof on, I scoot off, down through the resort of Folgarida, switchbacking to the valley floor – 15km in a shade over 15 minutes. The town of Dimaro flashes by, giving into a huge valley whose floor has been carved flat by millennia of snaking snow melt. From the valley walls old farm buildings look out over modern homes and warehouses. Soon enough, the next ascent begins.

If the first climb was hard and long, this one, though marginally less steep, seems neverending – 25km. The road clings to the valley wall, contouring, alternately cut and banked, as it weaves in and out of ravines. Motorcyclists love it. Around us, bikes purr into the bends, switching down gears, and then open up, snarling at the road ahead. The sound of a group of bikes fills the air, their noise echoing around the valley. In the tunnels their reverberation thrums the sternum. After seemingly hours of effort I snatch a look forward round a bend and there is the road, in miniature, high in the distance. Groan.

My spirits rise as the land finally changes – to ragged grass on exposed grey earth that has only recently shrugged off its winter cover. Snow remains in patches. Ski lifts appear, oddly marooned in the summer weather, and the road finally flattens off. We enter the Passo del Tonale. After a quick stop at the food station, chugging orange juice and loading up with cake and bananas, I set off again, down a series of hairpins.

A welcome downhill moment for one cyclist
A welcome downhill moment for one cyclist | Image: ANSA

Even a fattie has his moment. The road settles into a steady five-degree descent for 24km. Working against a headwind, the thinnies struggle to keep up speed. Not me. Picture the cartoon man now: shades on and streamlined, that huge, black downward arrow bringing massive forward momentum. I whizz past everyone.

As far as the village of Edolo, that is, and for a blissful flat section through fields and orchards, for – oh – 500m. But then the merciless upward trail starts again. This climb is shorter, just 15km, at variable gradients, mostly reasonable, except once when it hits an unfeasible 15 per cent. At this point the diagram becomes comic, with a furious, contorted face and sweat in flying droplets. If the brain tends to forget pain once it is passed, it takes a brain in a certain state – fired by the challenge – to blot it out when it is at full intensity.  

An hour later, rounding a final bend, I emerge into a pass and then the town of Aprica. All the paraphernalia of the show is there: the banners, the hoardings, the music – and the finish line. Phew. Cartoon man waves his arms around like a happy marionette.

I miss the cut-off and consequently the pleasure of an additional 75km and nearly 1,850m of climbing that includes the Mortirolo, a yet more hideous climb than anything we have done so far: 12.8km at over 10 per cent, including one section at 18 per cent. With all those arrows, forward movement would clearly have been a physical impossibility.  

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In the end, the queen stage of the Giro was a bit ambitious for a Gran Fondo. But all Paolo Bellino’s painful experience has been put to good use for next year. Then it will take place a couple of days after the peloton rides the section, so in a long weekend you’ll be able to watch the Giro pass and then ride the stage. There won’t be any climbs of legend, but it will be set in the mountains, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in the far northeast of the country, so the stage will still be tough.

Just be wary though if you are big or you carry even a gram of fat. A bit of blubber may be an advantage in other activities, but in cycling all the advice gainsays it. And my lungs and every sinew in my legs confirmed it. Never, but never, should a fattie say yes to the Gran Fondo. Unless, of course, you like a ridiculous challenge.

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