The Gran Fondo Campagnolo takes place each May in the Southern Dolomite region of Italy. The event starts and finishes in the small town of Feltre, and is mountainous, 208km route traversing 4 mountain passes including the Cima Campo, Passo Manghen, Passo di Rolle and the Passo Croce d'Aune.
i-Team's Jonnie Woodall makes an pilgrimage to this event with a group of members. In 2005, one of those members was John Clutterbuck, formerly of London, now cruising the Pampas in Argentina on his Scott CR1. John is from a mountain biking background and has MTB'd all over the world (check out his entry in our Guestbook on page 1!.) 2005 saw him try his hand on the road with some racing and The Gran Fondo Campag - here's his account.
"The sound of 10000 cleats engaging pedals and we started to move forwards, slowly at first and then gaining momentum like a runaway train!"
Looking back my preparation for this event (some say it the equal of the Etape du Tour in terms of difficulty) - my preparations had been 'last minute' to say the least.
I'd been feeling ok about my fitness for the event a month before, until I went out for a long hard ride in the South Downs with Guy Watson & Keith Jarrett – my legs were killing me towards the end! They told me not to panic but that as I was going really well, and that I should do some races to improve my recovery and endurance. They then convinced me that I should ride down from London, compete in the 50 mile Surrey League race near Milford, the following Sunday morning and then ride home – a 120 mile day! I wasn't at my best on the Sunday race (and the circuit happened to be the hardest in the Surrey League) - I was well glad when I finished about 30 seconds behind the bunch.
One week to go before the trip to Italy I became a little nervous at the prospect of enduring a high level of suffering; "Had I really trained enough?"
I had a pain in my right-knee and I concluded i must have strained a ligament joining the inside thy muscle to the knee. Guy had previously said that a flat 30 mile race at Goodwood would have been a good as part of taper the week before but I was worried about the knee and told him. He had a look at it and got me to do some tests and said I could to do the race with the aim of just achieving an aerobic work-out by sitting-in the bunch and just sticking-it-out for the duration on the flat circuit then a rest the following day. It worked a treat; I just cruised in the bunch and then had a go in the sprint.
I felt a little more quiet confidence that I was going to be ok for the Fondo.
As planned, we all arrived at and met at Treviso Airport, Venice, Italy on schedule on Thursday afternoon. All went smoothly as our host arrived from his hotel with his Landrover and loaded our bike-bags and hand luggage, while we assembled our bikes for the ride of two hours to the hotel in good time for dinner.
The road was wide and easily rideable in a bunch and I'm sure the drivers were far more respectful towards us as riders - as opposed to being treated as on level with hedge hogs back home! We started a gradual ascent on the approach to the Dolomites, barely noticeable, at first. It was late afternoon and the temperature was warm as the corn-fields broadened in front of us with the 'back-bone of Italy in the distance.
As the hazy sun light became a cooler, yellowy hue we caught a few large drops of rain. We were on the edge of what looked like a thunder storm coming at us from the North, where the jagged outline of the Mountains started looking like the frontier of Mordor!
2 days to go…
The aim for the following day was simple: to ride into Feltre to the Start / Finish and then to the final stage of the Gran Fondo, complete the climb, then descend back into Feltre – good recce in other words. I found the ride a little more intense than I expected but with the pasta from dinner the previous night was set in the glycogen stores kicking in, I was soon in a relatively relaxed state.
The unrelenting climbs were certainly a reality check though! (You know what I mean, "Oh God, there's another climb!"
At the top of the last climb, we found Jonnie had led us to the perfect spot for some pasta and ice cream, right next to a bronze relief sculpture in honor of the great inventor, Tulio Campagnolo himself. Jonnie interpreted that the cyclist has come-up with the idea of the first derailleur gears after climbing to this very spot.
A swift decent back into Feltre to sign-on for the event, free massage, a browse of the bike-kit stalls and on to another cafe for coffees and ice cream and watching the girls go by, rounded off the day nicely.
That evening, I decided it was necessary to put my vegetarian tendencies to
one side and adopt the philosophy of, "When in Rome..." for some large-scale carnivorous activity! I needed the protein and my God, it tasted really good!
The banter was up with our expectations at a high and wine and beer were a-plenty for those who dared. The weather was forecast to be good and the sun set red.
One to go…
After a long lay in, we took a stroll into town for lunch-time, where we all ate together at a good local restaurant that buzzed with many other groups of cyclists. Then a stroll back to the registration point and another mosey around the stalls where I received a highly therapeutic shiatsu (full-body holistic massage,) I floated back to the Villa Rosa!
I found the hotel a relatively quiet place to relax compared to previous days. I suspect people were probably be spending time to themselves on the eve of the big day. I took a deep breath and lay back listening to the crickets while I visualised what the Fondo would be like.
The Big Day
Our group started stirring about 5:30am. Many said they didn't rest very well
In the night and I could already feel the general stir of edginess as everyone got into their 'zone'. It became clear that we all just wanted to get on with what was probably going to be a 12 hour day in the saddle.
We descended into Feltre in twos and threes. The starting line up was quite something to behold. The commentator's typical Italian enthusiasm over the tinny loud-speakers was so over-the-top, even the local riders were finding it amusing and comedy effect was a diffusion of tensions all round.
I could hear our Ian Haliwell making the Brits laugh with his jesting shouts of encouragement at other members of our company. He was interrupted, (not easy to do,) with three minutes to go, as 'The Ride Of The Valkyries' came across the low budget Public Address making a sound that probably had Wagner whirring in his grave.
The sound of 10000 cleats engaging pedals and we started to move forwards, slowly at first and then gaining momentum like a runaway train!
Our small group stayed together in true i-Team style – we weren't't in a panic and we knew what was coming up – 'up' being the key word! We got a good tempo going as soon as the bottle-necks became fewer and the peleton strung out.
I found the first climbs hard, as is usual for me and I found it hard to ride at threshold but I knew from experience that it would take me an hour or to get going. Then as the climbs became steeper, I found my pace was similar to Steve Walker's but my cadence was a lot faster (maybe from all that racing Guy got me to do? – I could hear him saying – 'Ride within yourself for the first 2 hours…') But it was hard to resist the temptation to get stuck in – I felt like 'Rocky' when he has to fight with his best arm behind his back for the first few rounds.
On the Cima Campo climb I really got into a good rhythm, so much so that I managed to block out all pain and went off on one a bit. I was awakened from my trance by Big Steve - "Yer... you just keep bl**dy peddling!"
I looked at my watch – 2 hours up – time to get into the groove…
As I slowly upped the power, I started to get hot, even though the air was getting thinner with the altitude. Guy came in to my head again: 'DRINK!' I started to focus on hydration. I always sweat a lot and I have had experience with dealing with the heat on my extensive voyages in the warmer climes of the world and I knew that at the rate I was working I may start to get cramp.
I was alternating 1 bottle of water with 1 bottle of carbo drink every 20-30 mins. Then my personal tell-tale sign for when i need to take the electrolytes kicked in - I began to feel the subtlest of a headache. I then swapped to solid food and electrolyte drink - water and added a sachet of 'Dioralyte.')
By Noon the temperature was 42 degrees in the valleys and about 32 degrees half-way up most of the climbs – riders who had passed me early on started to drop like flies,
Steve and I rode together for the whole of Cima Campo climb and reached the cooler temperature at the summit and to the feed stop! I was buzzing with endorphins and wanted to consume every consumable in sight but I resisted and instead calculated how many calories I needed to get to the next feed. I stuffed 3 bananas into my pockets, plus cake, apple, more cake.
We put on our i-Team gillets for the decent and proceeded with caution as the grit was quite heavy in places but avoidable if you took it steady – unlike some who were soon mending punctures. Lower down, the tarmac soon became very smooth and we tooled-it!
The junctions through the villages were a joy to take as there was no worry of traffic and we usually had sight of convex mirror before committing to the racing line. The locals watched some open-mouthed as we rushed past their fore-court gates and the odd Italia mama waved and smiled.
I ate half of the food on the descent. Bananas were the key slow-burning of the ride for me. I kept it in mind that I was eating for the benefit of roughly 4-5 hours time and was aware of the liquid wash-out factor on digestion efficiency: Once you go onto solid food - don't drink too much water! This dilutes digestive enzymes resulting in food remaining a dead-weight in the stomach, doing little to get fuel to the muscles.
I think this good reason to keep hydration maintained BEFORE the ride, avoiding caffeine and alcohol the day before a big ride - Result:
A higher yield of energy from food over time + you can eat more!!
On a weaving road astride the next mountain we continued to descend with yet more speed, with the sight of a narrow flood-plain approaching, about 200m below and then more mountains. This view was literally breath-taking – I think my mouth dried-up more on that decent than any other from the drop-jaw views.
Too soon we were ascending again. River crossings became stream crossings – then I remembered where we were - this would be the biggest climb of the Fondo:
"Milka-cows" grazed openly upon the lush green where families of riders were picnicking.
I looked around for the milk-maid but she wasn't there.
Around the next right-bend I was greeted to a different type of vista, local club cyclists and their families were running along-side the riders and tipping bottles of icy mountain water over the baking riders. I could see kids running back down to the stream to re-fill and rush back to their Papa's amidst all of this was a rider flaked-out sun-bathing, obviously in bliss – it was me!
I closed my eyes and spent a moment with my legs in the stream and the pain to drain out into the water as I listened to a continuous ting-a-ling of the cow-bells. Totally entrancing.
Open eyes, breathe, "Nuff of this - onward and upward!"
Half way up the climb of the Mangahen I caught wind of something brewing inside me. I found myself wanting to up the pace – the training was kicking in. Steve saw it and I caught something like, "Carry-on John."
I turned up the gas and found myself over revving and having to put it into a bigger gear. Before I knew it, I was into a pace I was hardly able to control but I didn't blow up. This was my absolute maximum performance of the year so far – it hurt like hell but when I realised that I was going to keep it going to the top - awesome. It was touch and go though, the slightest increase of output would have been too much. I kept the pace going for an hour, like I was doing a 25 mile time trial on the tops.
At one point, I stood up on a hair-pin turn and BANG! No I didn't't blow - flaming knee-pain! For a few seconds I eased and thought about what damage I'd done but not for long – the adrenaline kicked in and I just went for it again.
"God, I wish I fitted a compact" I thought as I grinded past super-lean Italians on my 39x27, while they were seemingly gliding up with grace and efficiency. "Keep peddling John." I said to myself.
The knee problem subsided on the descent but I now knew the amount of pressure the knee could take. I was going to take this mountano matter what. "Bring it on!" 15 km to the summit sign, so what? I Over-take some Brits I last saw 3 hours ago... 8km to summit sign.
The summit of that climb I can truly say, was literally the pinnacle
of all my cycling experience to date. On down to the feed and got stuck-in to the scrum!
After a 10 min rest and some stretching it was time to get back on the bike:
Bananaman at the ready….check.
Right cleat engaged….check.
Left cleat……what's this? - not engaging the pedal
I scrape-out some dirt and my shoe just goes in. Ok, fine. (I think)
Descend... Cool Down... Danger.. Focus... Speed... Wind...
Here comes the tree-line, it's like a strobe light as I speed into a pine forest at 60 KPH.
I was on my own for some time after this decent, then I caught a bunch of Italians and started doing through-and-off – "Just like Guy's i-Team club-runs." I thought to myself.
Back to the pan-flat flood plains & cornfields, the heat felt intense with the increased humidity.
"How far's it to the next water fill?" someone says to me.
English rider, same pace, cool.
At the next feed I was pleased to see Ian, then Peter, and the other Peter, and Rob. Yes! – 'Back with the boys!'
We feed well and exchanged stories, how we found it etc. I think we all wanted a bit of extra time at this stop. Rob wisely went on ahead earlier than the rest of us though.
On the bike and more 'Kodak Moments' that I will be able to pull out of my mind when I am an old man and unable to do this cycling lark anymore:
Pacing along with Ian Haliwell and chatting with the jagged snowy tops Passe Rollo up above us will be a favorite, I'm sure.
Then there was through-and-off with the lads on the 37km decent off Rollo on the smoothest tarmac one could wish for.
Entering black holes in mountainsides - fully committed at speed. The road completely disappears from view as we stick to the middle of the road and prey that the curve has a constant radius – then back out into the sunlight before your eyes have adjusted.
Then my flaming cleat disintegrates and my foot flies off the pedal. I momentary loose balance and the, rear wheel locks as my hands slip forward off the top of the hoods (so that's why Guy always nags me to use the drops.)
Oops! – I pull it back though – all that mountain biking must have done me some good.
Ian: (Playfully catching me out: "John! Yer cleet's f*****!
Me:" I knooooow (laughing.)"
Croce d'Aune - the last push.
Thank goodness we did that recce a few days ago – I know what's coming and I know how high it is. Time to go for it with what I had left. I managed to keep Ian's cousin, Steve in sight for the first few bends but his pace was just too good for me.
I get out of the saddle – nothing there, my legs buckle – stay in the saddle and rev.
"I don't remember it being this long!"
Keep the power maintained.
Pass Rob - "Alright Rob?"
Keep going. Just this pass to go...
Keep peddling John.
Out the saddle for a hair pin – just manage to keep the momentum going.
Hot now - very hot!
Oh my God! 'don't remember this being quite so far…
Then an overwhelming sense of achievement as around the next bend, the sculpture of Tulio Campagnolo appears. I now had a much better understanding of why he'd come up with his gears!
Gillet on for the last descent. What a buzz. Overtaking cars as we approach town - there's rob! Past Rob - nod of acknowledgement.
Last hairpin and on to the flat stuff again. Cheering spectators give some motivation to up the speed and all pain is forgotten. Not much power left in legs though! On to the piazza cobbles, big MTB style skid over the finish line draws gasps from bemused Italian roadies!
There's Steve...Hand-Shake - Yesss!!! JOB DONE!
2005 Gran Fond Campagnolo Profile: