As with any major bike event, the arrival of the riders is forewarned by the noise of helicopter blades cutting through the air, and the shrill sounds of Police sirens with their frenetic tones. Their message is clear: this road will soon become the territory of bike racers.
Far below, the first riders come into view, their pace unrelenting as they climb the mighty Passo Gavia. Many times this climb has been the site where the world’s top riders have done battle. Today it is just the starter for the Gran Fondo Internationale Giordana (formally the Marco Pantani), which has the more than substantial main course of the Mortirolo and dessert of the Passo Santa Cristina.
Sat in that very same lead group I glanced up at the brilliant white glacier above us, with its cool air refreshing our hot limbs, and thought how far removed this was from my last six seasons spent racing as a full time elite amateur in Brittany, France. Though not technically racing at a Gran Fondo, I was still riding at a high level against top competitors. Now our arena of battle was the mountains, not the cross winds, rolling hills, heavy roads and in-the-gutter racing of Brittany. (Think the first few stages of the 2011 Tour de France).
Six years is a long time and they had taken their toll on me. As each season passed and a higher level of racing was attained, I would return to the UK for the off season drained from the mental, more so than physical, demands. During each winter my passion for cycling was somewhat reduced due to the sheer hard work and frequent second-guessing which resulted from racing full time. I still loved cycling, just that the repetition of racing in terrain that was not my forte had dulled my excitement for riding. Many times a good friend and training partner in the UK would suggest I race Gran Fondos, “They suit your riding style and Italy…….. You’d love it!” was his pitch.
2011 came, and I finally decided to do just that. A Gran Fondo team was found through a Swiss friend: Piton ASD, sponsored by Piton Cycles based in Brescia just south west of Lake Garda. From day one, even facing the challenge of another new language, the team made me more than welcome. I felt like a member of their family and that passion that I felt when I first started to race 19 years ago was re-ignited.
No longer were races a blur, where I was sometimes just going through the motions. Piton and their family-like atmosphere, plus this new and inspirational terrain, had re-focused me. Even though climbing a mountain pass is tough, when you feel that crisp mountain air on your face, heart pounding, surrounded by peaks and able to see the world below, the pain is worth the effort.
Don’t get me wrong, Gran Fondos are not the same level as a UCI 2.2 stage race or the 35 elite races (out of the 70 in total) that I did in my final year in France. But along with the challenge of forging a new life as a Freelance Journalist, I still have to train and ride very hard to get a top 20 in one. Like any race there are still those moments when the pain tunnel is entered. Your life’s focus suddenly becomes the 23mm of rubber in front of you as your peripherals fade to black with the effort. I have just found it easier to suffer in the majesty of the mountains, over the cross winds and short power climbs of Brittany.
I have no regrets about my time in France. Brittany is my second home where I have many great friends and feel their warm welcome when I am there. The racing was tough and living in a foreign country a challenge. Often I would sacrifice my own result to help out team mates, and I am now fluent in French and fully used to their culture. The time was right to move on, find a new life after cycling, yet still have the challenges and thrill of competition.
As our lead group arrived at the summit of the Passo Gavia, I zipped up my vest and hit the descent to face the mighty Mortirolo with a smile. The Australian team mate who I lived with in my final two seasons in France used to say, “A change is as good as a holiday.” A saying which is a cliché I know, but even with my legs and lungs burning, facing the rest of the challenges that the Giordana held for us, I certainly felt that Bella Italia and her Gran Fondos were very much a holiday for me.
My love affair with the bike started in ernest when I started to race mountain bikes at the age of 12. 9 years later I left the fat tyres behind to concentrate on roads cycling, spending time racing in the UK and Arizona until 2005 when I moved to main land Europe to follow my passion. After spending the last six seasons racing as a full time Elite Amateur in Brittany France, riding in the gutter at 55 kilometres an hour with my teeth on the bars was loosing its appeal. Feeling it was time for a change, but still loving cycling January 2011 saw me sign for an Italian Gran Fondo team and take on the new challenge of mass participation events in the mountains. I am also starting to combine my passion for writing with cycling and starting to write as a journalist, looking for a future after cycling. Now I roam Europe with my bike, pen, and camera in search of the perfect road, as well as great stories to share. Follow me on twitter @1_in_the_gutter.
*Images by Janet Pearch