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Tales from the peloton
Gran Fondo Campagnolo 2003
By Ben Atkins, Brighton Mitre CC
The Gran Fondo Campagnolo is the Italian version of L'Etape du Tour. Organised by the U.C. Feltrino and backed by Campagnolo the ride takes place in the southern Dolomite region of Italy and covers the four mountain passes of Cima Campo, Passo Manghen, Passo Rolle and the Croce d'Aune. Ben Atkins took on the Gran Fondo for the first time this year, and lived to tell the tale.
When I came over last year and 'only' rode the 112 km Medio Fondo, I was determined to come back again and test myself against the full 207km. As probably the worst climber in Brighton Mitre CC, a lot of people told me that I'd never make it, but if there's one thing I've always had plenty of, it's staying power. So long as I could avoid the broom wagon, and the time cut, I knew I would make it round.
The full 207 km Gran Fondo contains four big climbs; the Cima Campo (1410m), the Passo Manghen (2047m), the Passo Rolle (1970m) and the Croce d'Aune (1015m), a total in all of over 4200m of climbing. Nevertheless, I felt sure I would be able to complete the distance inside ten hours.
I remembered the Cima Campo from last year, but I did not remember it being quite so steep, especially in the middle section. I managed to climb it fairly quickly though, especially as it eases off towards the top.
Last year I'd stopped quite euphorically at the top, it was the highest point I'd ever cycled to, and more to the point, it's the highest point on the Medio Fondo, so I wasn't going any further up that day. This year though, it was just a taste of things to come, so I crested the top without stopping and started the fast descent towards the biggest climb of the day.
The descent towards the second climb is pretty fast, and most of it's been recently resurfaced. The hairpin bends really made me appreciate my Campagnolo Record brakes though; every so often, I had to slow down from 70 kph to around 25 kph to take a corner before accelerating out again. One bloke in front of me in the group obviously used his brakes too much and overheated his rims, his tyre exploded loudly as we took a corner; luckily, he was able to control his bike and stopped safely.
The first 15 km or so of the Manghen were straightforward, everybody had told me in advance that the last six were the hardest; in fact one Italian local had told me that in the last 6 km I would see hell! Forewarned is forearmed, so with this information in mind, I kept it easy on the lower part until I reached the next feed station about two thirds of the way up.
If the first rule of mountaineering is "don't look down", the first rule of cycling up must be "don't look up"! If you do on mountains like this, all you can see are the most ridiculously steep hairpins snaking up as far as the eye can see. I pass the sign saying "6 km - a fine salite" - 6 km to the top. Thanks, I really needed to know that! At the speed I am doing now, that is going to take nearly an hour!
Eventually I crested the top; I was now 2047m up. 2047 metres! That is about 2047m higher than Brighton! The woman I accosted at the top to take my photo could not quite see what a big deal this was to someone born and raised in river valleys and who now lives at sea level.
Most of the descent of the Manghen is pretty twisting and technical, and trees shelter a lot of it, so it was quite chilly and I was glad I had my Assos Clima Micro jacket. Eventually though the roads start to widen and flatten and my temperature became more comfortable as we began to form into groups to ride the relatively flat section before the climb to the Passo Rolle begins in earnest. I was starting to feel tired by now, but I still felt that with the biggest obstacle out of the way I could still reach my target of ten hours. Nevertheless I stopped at the side of the road to compose myself for five minutes and give my feet a rest before carrying on up.
The Passo Rolle climbs in two phases, the first 7 km are quite steep, then it levels off for 10 km, then the last 5 km are steep again. Well, by the time I got to the next feed station at the top of the first steep section I was in a real state. The 45 km since the top of the Manghen had been really hard and really hot, and I don't think I ate or drank enough in that time. I filled my bottles up and slumped at the side of the road to try to re-hydrate myself.
If you had offered me the broomwagon here I would have jumped at it, but instead I took some time to rest, drank over a litre of water and Enervit, ate some fruit and cakes and carried on upwards. This I now knew was the gentler bit of the climb so I tried to use the roads to get some more energy into my legs before the gradient rose again.
Rise again it did, and before long, my fellow 'racers' and I were grinding away towards the top of another massive climb. At 1970m, it is just the wrong side of 2000m to be too exciting, and the way I felt when I got up, excitement was the last thing on my mind. Like the last time I stopped, I found myself absolutely drained, but there was no thought of giving up now, there was 'only' the Croce d'Aune to come after a nice long descent. I took some time to rest again, then donned my jacket and set off down the hill.
It is at this point that you realise that after 150 km and three mountain passes, descending is almost as difficult as ascending. The concentration required on unfamiliar roads, the back and neck pain from keeping the same position, coupled with the agony of the hands from constantly staying in the drops, braking and being ready to brake adds up to a lot of discomfort. The descent from the Passo Rolle to the base of the Croce d'Aune is 40 km, and by the time I got there I felt like I'd done a couple of months inside some mediaeval dungeon on a charge of heresy. As I write this report a few days later the little finger of my left hand is still a bit numb from all the ulna nerve pressure and my shoulders and back are killing me. How on earth the pros can do this day after day is beyond me!
Descending the Passo Rolle I was reminded that the Giro came up here this year. The words 'GIBO', 'SIMONI', 'VAI PANTANI' etc. flash past upside down. I have to pinch myself for a moment; I am 'racing' on the same roads as my heroes! Then I have to remind myself to concentrate on the job in hand, I am doing 70 kph and it is starting to rain!
After discovering the horrors of the Croce d'Aune last year, I fully knew what to expect. Knowing what condition I was now in left me under no illusion as to what my performance on it would be. By this time though, all my pride had gone; if I got into any trouble at all, I'd happily walk up this baby! To my credit I only walked on two sections, this hill is unbelievable! I was asked twice by men driving the broomwagons if I wanted to stop. As if! I have done nearly 200 km, there is less than ten to go, I am not stopping now.
I managed to ride the last kilometre of the climb, past the sign where I stopped for a photo last year, through the small square at the top, doffed my cap to the memorial to Tullio Campagnolo, then over the other side to the quick descent to Feltre and the finish.
I got to the line at 7:30 pm, on the road for eleven and a half hours. Although if you take away all the rests I took, I was actually riding for nine and three quarters, less than ten hours! I wasn't the last to finish either, quite a few more finished behind me, but like last year this hadn't been about getting a time, it was about getting round probably the toughest mass participation race in Italy.
As Chris Boardman used to be so fond of saying; "That was the hardest thing I've ever done on a bike". After today, everything I ever do will seem easy.