Tales from the peloton, October 27, 2007
Nestled in the prealpi of the Italian Dolomites, to the east of Monte Grappa, in the northern part of the Treviso province of the Veneto lies the almost unpronounceable town of Valdobbiadene. It was here that Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins found himself on the last weekend of September for the fourth edition of the Gran Fondo del Prosecco – sponsored, at least in part by local producers of sparkling wines.
The word Prosecco is protected by European law, and only wines produced in this small area can name themselves as such. As a consequence, every available metre of land is put to use, with vines perched in the most improbable places to wring that last bottle out of the landscape.
Due to the combination of a badly delayed flight and meeting a friend for coffee on the way, I managed to arrive in Valdobbiadene too late to collect my number and paco gara (race pack). I really must get myself more organised next year! No matter though, the start wasn't until 9:30 the next morning, and it would be possible to pick everything up between six and eight. It did put paid to any plans I might have had for a lie in though!
"With the seeds of doubt, not only sown, but growing into healthy plants and producing their own fruit in my head, there was no way I was going to tackle the big one on my own." - The decision is made to ride the media fondo, versus the grand fondo.
Never mind, a nice sober early night would be just the thing, and I'd be nice and fresh first thing in the morning. Trouble was, as I arrived at the Ca' dei Zago agriturismo on the outskirts of the town, this is the epicentre of production for my favourite wine, and as an agriturismo is, by definition, a working farm, there's only one thing they're likely to produce.
I did manage a pretty early night in the end, but not before I'd managed to consume most of the jug of Prosecco that was put on my table with my dinner. Isn't there something about wine not giving you a hangover if you drink it in the place it was made? I hope so!
Amazingly, I managed to wake up nice and early on Sunday morning, and feeling only slightly groggy after last night's excesses (by my standards) – maybe there is something in that theory. Anyway, with breakfast inside me, I made my way into town in search of my race number.
Paco gara contents are always pretty good; you generally get your entry fee back in the form of various samples from the many sponsors events always attract. In this case, as well as a bag of Pasta Zara (who co-sponsors the local Safi team, who's rider Marta Bastianelli was victorious in Stuttgart) and various items of food, we were also given what was probably a very good salami (I'll give it to a non-vegetarian friend and get back to you), and of course a bottle of Prosecco! Also, as often happens, we all got a lovely little earthenware bowl – presumably for use in imbibing the golden liquid – inscribed with the name of the event.
My number – 569 – put me in one of the grids quite near the front. Not with the VIPs, but far enough up to be able to get a good start. Somewhere in front of me though was, amongst others, Liquigas rider Franco Pellizotti and a few other professionals, taking a day off from training to ride with the likes of us. It's not often that you see many elite pros in these events, by the way. Technically Gran Fondi are races and out of bounds to riders of their level in fact, if they do decide to race in these kind of events they risk losing their licenses. They can of course ride if invited by the organisers, but they don't appear in the classification.
Freshly numbered up, I managed to persuade the race marshals to let me into the town to take a few pictures. While there, I decided to start the day in the only civilised way possible, by partaking in a little cappuccino in Caffè Roma, on the side of Piazza Guglielmo Marconi. I only really cappuccini in Italy these days – once you've tasted the real stuff you realise that the large cups of the liquid they sell in coffee shops back home just isn't the same at all!
As we stood in anticipation of the start the loudspeaker system began to pump out the stirring strains of Luciano Pavarotti's rendition of Nessum Dorma. I don't know if this was a deliberate tribute to the great man who died earlier this year, or just something to get us inspired for our approaching challenge, but the combination of this, the coloured smoke and glitter shower that was released certainly proved to get the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end.
Justly inspired we were finally released by the starter's pistol, we crossed the start line – and timing mat – traversed the side of Piazza Marconi and immediately started climbing out of town. These first few kilometres were to set the pattern for the course; a series of not-to-severe climbs and sweeping, nothing in isolation to really cause any problems, but coming one after the other to break up the rhythm nicely. Suddenly, on one such descent after about ten kilometres, the road surface disintegrated into pitted, rutted, and otherwise broken up tarmac that felt more like a northern classic than a spin through the Italian countryside. Bottles were sent flying everywhere, adding to those dropped by the front-runners, and the race became an exercise in concentration to avoid them.
After finding myself isolated after one of the longer climbs on the course, I was chasing to catch a big bunch along a long straight road, into a slight headwind, but found myself swamped by a big group, which carried me up to them. It was in this group of something like a hundred riders hat we arrived at the foot of a very steep little climb. The climb itself wasn't too bad on its own; in fact it was quite easily ridable. The sheer volume of riders arriving all at once though – reminding me of the foot of the Molenberg, in Flanders – brought the pace to a standstill.
Riders all over the road were being forced to put their feet down and walk, not because they weren't capable of riding up, but because the entire road was blocked by dozens of other riders, either walking – or riding so slowly that walking would have felt faster. I managed to keep riding, with the occasional track-stand, for quite a while until I finally had to give it up and put my feet down with everyone else. Thankfully it wasn't too far to the top by then and our carbon soles were spared too much abuse.
After cresting the top, the whole bunch was presenting, for the umpteenth time, with what makes this area so fantastic for cycling. Stunning views are in evidence in all directions. The rolling landscape of the prealpi, gave way to the Dolomiti mountains in the distance – some visible with snow on, even this early in the year. The countryside is dotted with small villages, all built around the business of squeezing as many vines as possible onto the terraced sides of seemingly impossibly steep hillsides.
One such village is Rolle – no relation to the Passo in the nearby Dolomiti – but one I recognise from the Gran Fondo Pinarello that I rode a few years ago. We are in the province of Treviso after all, and that's where that race starts and finishes. Instead of heading towards Treviso though, we climb a few sweeping hairpins out of the village on one side, before descending into the other and on in the direction of Conegliano.
Meanwhile, a mixture of tiredness, the length of my season (I've been riding these events since the Ronde van Vlaanderen in April you know!) and the fuzzy sensation of last night's minor overindulgence of Ca' dei Zago's homemade Prosecco was conspiring in my head to convince me that today taking the shorter – and easier – option of the Medio Fondo course would be the smart thing to do. As the moment of decision arrived, the choice was kind of made for me. As the longer Gran Fondo course turned left, everybody I was with turned right. With the seeds of doubt, not only sown, but growing into healthy plants and producing their own fruit in my head, there was no way I was going to tackle the big one on my own.
Finally riding with people of similar ability – and racing – rather than dragging my carcass around a massive challenge. I found myself in a good group and nestled near the front, enjoying the slipstream over the fast, well-surfaced roads, which tilted ever-so-slightly uphill back to Valdobbiadene and the finish. Sheltered, as I was, I managed to pass the final twenty or so kilometres without too much exertion and as the markers counted us down I started thinking about my finish.
Normally – had I been riding the longer course – I would be happy just to be reaching the finish, racing the last thing on my mind. But here, I was, in a group that I could race against, feeling pretty strong after sitting in the wheels for the last half hour. There was nothing else I could do under the circumstances; with a small group in sight up ahead, I attacked the front of the bunch I was in, just inside the last kilometre, in an attempt to catch them.
Amazed with my own competitiveness at this stage of a "race," I caught most of them, but one rider remained elusive, giving me a race right to the line. I mustered something approximating a sprint on the uphill finish, but didn't quite manage to overhaul him. Even so, after finding that kind of speed at the finish I got to wondering if maybe I should give up my foolhardy attempts at the mammoth challenge afforded by the longer Gran Fondo courses and try my hand at actually racing the shorter ones... I doubt I will though!
Once finished, and feeling very pleased with myself, I returned to my hire car to grab my things and head off to the showers. Here, the other good reason for opting for the shorter course showed itself: for the first time since I (wisely) abandoned the 2004 Gran Fondo Campagnolo (in pouring rain and snow), I got to the showers before the hot water ran out!
Once freshened up, I returned to the centre of town, and Piazza Marconi, to find that pretty much the whole of Valdobbiadene was in festa. All the sponsors of the event, and a few more local businesses besides, had turned out in droves. Stalls selling all sorts of good things to eat or drink were in abundance, and free samples of everything from coffee to polenta were being handed out all over the place. I didn't actually need to go to the official post-race pasta party; I managed to eat so much.
Of course, there was plenty of Prosecco flowing for everyone, and not for the first time that weekend I wished that this were not such a flying visit. I had to drive back to Verona for my flight home!