Ben Atkins' Gran Fondo Follies: Gran Fondo Pinarello

Scarcely able to believe his luck, worldly British cyclo-tourist Ben Atkins found himself in Italy...

Tales from the peloton, August 6, 2004

Scarcely able to believe his luck, worldly British cyclo-tourist Ben Atkins found himself in Italy for his first Gran Fondo Pinarello... on a new Pinarello! Here's the story of his latest adventure as Ben's mind and body strike a balance between pleasure and pain.

Even before I'd started the Giant Tour this May, scarcely able to believe my luck, I jokingly suggested to myself that maybe Pinarello would like me to ride their Granfondo on a Dogma, or maybe Specialized would like me to ride the Paris - Roubaix Cyclo on their new Roubaix frame. So when Tim Maloney (Cyclingnews' European Editor) told me that Cyclingnews had an invite to the first Pinarello Media Day, including a chance to ride the Gran Fondo Pinarello, on a new Pinarello, I thought to myself, "Oh well, one out of two ain't bad."

Actually, no I didn't. As I remember I couldn't actually say anything for a few hours after getting Tim's email, eventually my reply - once I'd regained a modicum of composure - was something along the lines of: "Don't ask stupid questions Tim!", "Where do I sign?" and "How many of my unborn children to I have to give away to get on this thing?"

Anticipation of this ride even dominated many of my thoughts during the Giant Tour, especially when Pinarello also announced that the weekend would include a dinner in the presence of Miguel Indurain!

Especially for me!

I arrived at the Pinarello factory on the Saturday morning to be greeted by what is becoming one of my favourite sights: a brand new bike, with my name on it! They'd built up a 2005 Dogma especially for me, with Campag Record, Mavic Ksyrium Wheels and a Pinarello Carbon Compact crankset! This was the bike I was to ride in Sunday's Granfondo, so we were all going out for a quick test ride with Fausto Pinarello to check sizes, etc.

The test ride quickly took us out of the city and onto the roads frequented by the local pros and club riders. I did the usual things you do when you're riding a bike for the first time, like climb in a massive gear to see if the magnesium frame or carbon crankset would bend, and deliberately riding over all the rough bits of road surface, and all the drains I could find to see just how comfortable the Onda forks and seat stays really were. I can honestly say that I was very impressed on both counts, if I was in the market for buying a new bike - which unfortunately I'm not - this would be right up at the top of the list. The only small gripe I had was with the saddle, which was probably more to do with the fact that it was different from my usual one rather than any actual faults on its own part.

My own performance on the test ride? Well, I like to think that I acquitted myself pretty well amongst the assorted international group of journalists and distributors over the rolling climbs. I also sprinted back on pretty sharply after a sudden puncture. Why can't I have a Pinarello support car with spare wheels following me when I go out riding back home?

A date with Big Mig

The next item on the day's agenda was lunch, where Miguel Indurain appeared in the middle of the first course. There's a sort of genuine regal-ness about the man that I've only heard others speak about, and when I shook his hand I didn't know whether to bow, curtsey or tug my forelock. He's also a lot bigger than I expected him to be, his massive hands betraying his Navarran farmer's heritage.

We then spent the rest of the afternoon being presented with the new Pinarello range - but you don't want to hear about boring stuff like that - then watching Ivan Basso outsprinted by Lance Armstrong to the Plateau de Beille. You could almost sense the frustration in the room that Basso wasn't riding a Pinarello anymore!

The evening consisted of a big dinner party in our hotel. The day before had been Indurain's 40th birthday, so Liz and I had the rather strange experience of singing "Happy Birthday" to one of the legends of cycle sport while trying not to drink too much of the local Prosecco wine because I had to be up at 5:30 the next morning. We all retired a bit later than we should have done, considering tomorrow's challenge and set our alarms for an early breakfast.

On paper the course for the Gran Fondo Pinarello isn't the toughest one out there, but put that piece of paper in the oven for a few hours and it becomes a whole different proposition. This race is always really hot - it's famous for it - and as we wait for the start at 7:30 am, the mercury is already well into the upper 20s centigrade, the hazy early morning sunshine promising that it's going to get hotter. There are two courses on offer, a Granfondo of 203km, and a Mediofondo of 130km, still no small challenge. Also, this year Andrea Pinarello had created a "Granfondo Gourmet", a 45km course around the Treviso area, stopping frequently to taste the local delicacies. As I waited nervously for the race to start, I half wished that I'd opted for this one!

The Granfondo has been going since 1997, and has been getting more and more popular every year. This year they had a record 3600 advance entries, something that Andrea can be justly proud of. It starts in the centre of Treviso, directly outside the bike shop that Giovanni Pinarello established all those years ago when he quit racing; the famous black jersey that he "won" in 1951 hangs above the counter inside.

Off like a rocket

As Treviso is in the middle of the Veneto plain, the first 25-30 km are almost completely flat, so as the start came, I found myself flying along at 40 kph in a 1200-strong peloton. Luckily the roads were nice and wide, pretty much straight and very well surfaced, so crashes were few and far between. One guy to my left suddenly started to skid in a fountain of Gatorade as somehow one of his bidons got stuck in his back wheel. Amazingly he managed to control his bike at really high speed with his wheel completely locked. It's a testament to everyone's experience and his own bike handling skills that neither he, nor anybody else came down. A few kilometres further on though, a guy was not so lucky. Around half a dozen riders came down in the middle of the bunch, and one of them had not got up. The others stood around him to make sure that we all got round okay, and an ambulance wasn't far behind us; I hope he was okay.

The pure speed of the first few kilometres began to expose the slight limitation of using a compact crankset. My top gear was a 50x12 and I was spinning out; at this time I was really missing those three teeth, but I wasn't too bothered by it as I was looking forward to the benefits of the 34 tooth inner ring. I was soon to need it...

Once the flatlands of the Veneto plains were behind us the hills started, and started with a vengeance. What this particular area lacks in high mountains it makes up for in short sharp stuff, no more than a few kilometres at a time, but pretty damn steep. I was soon enjoying the 34 tooth inner ring, and often resorting to the 25 sprocket as the gradients climbed into double figures, well over 10% in many places.

La Crosetta (translation: ouch)

After around 60km, the only really long climb of the course began. La Crosetta is 1120m high, and the climb begins at around 200m, so there's plenty of gradient to go around in the next 14km. By now the mercury had risen in spades, well into the mid-30s (it would peak at around 37 and stay up there for quite a while), and the exposed Southern-facing lower slopes started really getting tough.

The climb seemed to be pretty consistent in its steepness, there seemed to be no let-up in the effort as the group I'd found myself in ground its way up. Nearly every tree we passed had a sensible soul sheltering under it, those trees that didn't proved useful for those of us trying not to stop. They provided a second or two of shade as we'd ride beneath them, before we were pitched back into the glare of the blazing sun for another few hundred metres.

Halfway up the climb, we entered a forested area; finally we could suffer in relatively cool temperatures. The road was still steep - even more so in places - and the surface was terrible, making riding really tough, tougher even than it was on the sunny exposed parts, but somehow it all seemed more comfortable now that I wasn't being constantly sunburnt.

The small problem that the Gran Fondo Pinarello organisers encounter is that unlike many other races of this type, the roads are not in the middle of nowhere, and so they have trouble closing them for very long. I'm well used to being behind the rolling road closure on Granfondos, but not usually this early on. The forests towards the top of la Crocetta seem to be a really popular family picnic spot, and as it was approaching Sunday lunchtime, the road began to fill with almost stationary traffic winding its way up the hillside. Luckily one of these slow moving cars was an official Pinarello race vehicle and three of us managed to scrounge a bottle of water to share, all of our drinks having been exhausted by now - much of mine over my head and feet in the searing conditions of earlier on.

Out of the woods

Finally the woods ended and the road widened, and I was at last able to crest the top of what was to be the hardest part of the day (or so I thought!), running over the timing strip which would give me a split time for the climb which quite frankly I don't particularly want to see! The descent began at quite a gentle pace, which I was pretty glad about really. It had taken me quite a while to get this high and I was in no hurry to get back down to the bottom of the next climb. For perhaps 15km the road rolled, being steep in neither direction and I found myself alone for a while just enjoying the scenery and the positive sensations I was getting from the bike.

All too soon the descent proper was upon me. For the most part it consisted of nice long straights with nice wide hairpins which is just about my favourite terrain to ride on (in a downwards direction anyway!). As the altitude dropped, I was presented with the absolutely fantastic sight of the Lago di Santa Croce; it's at times like these where you have to remind yourself that you're doing a pretty healthy speed, downhill on a bike, because otherwise you'd just lose yourself staring at the breathtaking views and fly straight off the road. Pretty soon though, the view was brought back down to earth by the stunning sight of the A27 Autostrada, running from Belluno down towards Venice.

It wasn't just the sight of the Autostrada that was spoiling things by now, I had been with a group near the top of the descent, but we'd got fragmented as we all came down at our own speeds (advisable - never try to follow someone else on a descent!) and I found myself riding alone with 100km to go - I know because a nice helpful sign reminded me of that fact! This area - and the lake specifically - are really popular for sailing and windsurfing, and it was pretty obvious to me why this is so. The wind whistling up the valley from the south was blowing right in my face as I ground my way up the first of the drags that were to be the feature of the second half of the course. I decided that I'd just grit my teeth and stick with it, I'd be bound to get some company before long, and I was right. I don't know how long they'd been there, but after about 10km, I looked over my shoulder and found that I was towing a group of around 25 other riders. I breathed a sigh of relief and eased up, slotting myself in a few wheels back and resolved myself to have a bit of a rest.

The trouble with this plan was that not everybody in this group I'd attracted was all that keen on the idea of doing any work. Every now and then someone would go to the front, put in a long turn, and then drift back again as the pace dropped again. More often than not, sick of the inactivity of others, people would put in attacks, drop the group for a few kilometres, then drift back into the fold again. It was with this kind of stilted progress that we made our way through the beautiful countryside around Vittoria Veneto and approached the hills and vineyards of the Prosecco growing area.

It was at this point that I got chatting to a fellow Englishman, named Adam (everybody who enters in advance has their name printed on their race number), who'd never done anything like this before. He was totally blown away by the whole experience; we have nothing to compare to it in the UK and he couldn't believe how well organised and supported the whole thing was, how beautiful the course was, and how plentiful the drink and food stations. I suspect that this will not be his last Granfondo...

Under the eight hour mark? No problem! I think...

As the kilometres rolled by in relative comfort (apart from the still searing heat), it became clear that I was doing pretty well by my own fairly low "fat bloke who's bitten off more than he can chew" standards. I'd decided that eight hours was a pretty good standard for me to aim at, and it was beginning to seem that barring disaster I would get inside this time pretty comfortably. This was where the short sharp hills started coming thick and fast.

While I was still pretty strong on the flat, my usually dismal climbing powers had waned below their usual low level. Suddenly, I was grovelling up everything and having to chase back on at every descent. The heat (have I mentioned the heat?) was really starting to get to me now and I was beginning to worry that my eight hour confidence had been misguided when I came across the most beautiful woman in the world.

I can't remember what she looked like, I don't remember noticing at the time, but she was at a drink stop with around 50km to go, and she had a hose! She filled both my bottles, but more important than that, she stood there and soaked me from head to (very hot) foot in ice-cold water! Suddenly I was revived and could look forward to the remainder of the course with some fresh confidence. I should probably write and thank her, but I never got her name, and anyway she'll probably have plenty of admirers from that afternoon who, like me, never even saw her face.

The next few kilometres and hills didn't exactly fly by, but were certainly more comfortable than those before my dousing, until about 30 or so from the end, that is. Suddenly we ominously rolled over a timing sensor, telling us that we were starting a timed climb - this was serious. The last climb of the day had been talked about before; many of the Italians had seemed to be taking things a bit easier for a while to prepare themselves for it. It was only a couple of kilometres long but it averaged around 9 or 10 percent and had parts as steep as 15! The next 10 or 15 minutes were one of those times that you put down to experience, assure yourself that it was probably good training, and try and put behind you. It was a low cadence grind all the way up, barely rising above 10 kph; I'd been a bit unsure about the merits of the compact crankset earlier on, but boy was I glad of it now! The hill was also one of those really annoying ones that, just when you think you're at the top, you get round a corner and see it ramp up again!

Finally, I reached the top and rolled up to the last drink stop to top up my liquids for the final 30km. A smooth but slightly windy descent saw me back together with a few of the guys I'd been with earlier, I found myself a wheel to suck and set about the task of finishing the course without putting in too much effort.

Hitching a ride

Somehow the guy on the front managed to persuade one of the official motos to give us all a draft back to Treviso, so we all strung out in a long line behind him and flew along at speeds we could never expect to do on our own. I'm not sure how legal this was in the context of the Granfondo, but we weren't complaining at this stage. Before long, we were approaching the Porto San Tomaso and the moto swung off, we turned into the square and took the finish. I'd made it, at just over 7:50 I'd got well under my target and was very pleased with myself.

The only thing left for me to do was to go and get my pasta and enjoy a well-earned drink in the shade! It was a good day for Pinarello, a record number rode their Granfondo, and Aitor Gonzalez won the Tour stage. I'd been meaning to ride the Gran Fondo Pinarello for a few years now; something tells me I'll be back again soon.

Not fair though - they took the bike back!

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