The Gran Fondo Marco Pantani is an Italian cycling sportive event, taking a loop from the ski resort of Aprica in the Lombardy region, going over the famous Passo di Gavia, Passo del Mortirolo and for the strong legged, Passo de Santa Christina.
One of the enjoyable things I find about Italian sportives is the way the whole of the host town embraces the event. Aprica was buzzing with cyclists everywhere, trade stands setting up on the main drag and an overall infectious positive atmosphere. Apart from a bit of an in-transit derailleur issue that needed to be sorted, the first couple of days were the usual arriving formalities and checking the bike out on a 10 mile leg loosener. Aprica is at 1200m above sea level with only one road passing through it, which went downhill at each end. After descending for about 9km, we decided we had better turn around because we would have to ascend 9km to get back to the hotel. Gradient was only about 4% so no damage was being done for the next day. The weather was beautiful. Clear blue skies and moderate to high temperatures. The kind of weather that makes you want to ride a bike. After lunch, we signed on, collected our numbers and rather fetching mandatory cyclamen jerseys (worn under threat of DQ if you didn’t) and got back to the hotel for a relaxing rest of the day pottering and hydrating.
Breakfast on the day of the event was an early 0530. Start line was just outside the hotel so no messing about, out the door 0645 for a 0700 start. 3,000 cyclamen clad cyclists lined the main drag of Aprica to the sound of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blaring over the tannoy. The start gun went, locals cheered and ticker tape was jettisoned into the air providing a full-on sense of occasion. You don’t get that on the Fred Whitton.
The first 10km was downhill on mountain roads that were being repaired in sections. As a result, this part was neutralised and a lead car paced us down. Well, that was the plan and probably was the case near the front but the espresso fuelled Italian adrenaline junkies still went flying past me at ridiculous speeds. It therefore comes as no surprise that we had to stop every now-and-then to allow the bottleneck sections to filter through. The road then opened up as we entered the town of Edolo. The sun was just starting to poke its head over the top of the mountains that faced us. It was quite an exciting feel looking ahead at the giants that awaited us.
Edolo to the base of the Gavia is a steady climb of about 4%. The legs are fresh and the scenery stunning. This section just flew by. The Gavia itself is a cracking ride. The weather was perfect. Big dramatic mountain pass scenes. You could take photos all the way up and make postcards of each one. But it does go on... and on... up to 2,600m. Now officially, it’s an ascent of 1,400m over 17km. But there is 600m climbing over 20km from Edolo to the base of the Gavia, resulting in the best part of 2,000m ascent over 37km. A lot of time to be going up hill. But you could look around and take your mind off it quite easily. There are a couple of stretches on the Gavia that hit the teens in gradient but nothing to trouble a club cyclist who knows how to pace themselves. I rode up most of it with Aussie Dave from our party, pointing out the mountain goats and snow features. The higher we got, the more snow there was. But not to 1988 Giro proportions! The skies were a perfect blue. Picturesque and enjoyable is the best description. The only worrying bit was the tunnel about 4km from the summit. It would have been totally dark if the organisers hadn’t put generators and lights in there. The visual effects were very freaky. Shadows of cyclists that would grow and stretch to different shapes and angles every time you passed a lamp. The road wasn’t in the best condition in here so it was steady pedalling for the few hundred metres we were inside. I’m lucky that my eyes are good enough not to need specs so I could take my shades off. Those that needed their shades on because of corrective lenses really struggled to see where they were and which way was up, down or whatever. All part of the excitement.
The top of the Gavia was a welcome sight and a chance to grab some food, water and photos of the signage. An Italian asked me take a photo of him stood next to the sign. I was quite knackered, trying to feed with one hand and my camera hand was shaking like wagon riding alcoholic. An embarrassing couple of attempts finally got a good shot for him. Good job I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
The descent from the Gavia was awesome. 50+km through the Stelvio National Park. Semi closed roads and marshals at the hot spots meant you could hit the apexes without much fear. I’d hooked up with the Sports Tours rep (Phil) at the top and he was a very experienced cyclist who clearly knew his lines. Between us we flew down. That was until we saw Barry, my travelling companion, at the side of the road with his brand new Easton front wheel in his hand. Barry’s a strong cyclist and was miles ahead of me so seeing him was a bit of a shock. He’d been going down at 38mph when his front tyre did a Beloki. Thankfully he managed to stay upright and get to the side of the road. After letting his rim cool down, Phil got him to the point of self-sufficiency and we headed off again. After some more deft descending, we could see a group of about 15 riders ahead of us. There was a slight wind blowing so we worked hard to get to the group. It was a fair bit of effort to get there and when we did, everyone was just sat behind the big British guy at the front. Phil started to boss the group about trying to get 2 abreast and a bit of organisation going but it was falling on deaf ears. Or perhaps it was his North West English accent. We were flying on the downhills and slow on the flats. Very annoying. Not able to get any rhythm at all. Not to worry, I just sucked wheel when I could and worked to keep up if I had to. All in all this got us to the base of the Mortirolo pretty swiftly.
The ascent of the Mortirolo was timed for separate bragging rights. Refuelling at the foot you looked up the road and it appeared more like a wall. A guy set off before me and missed his cleat on the pedal and promptly fell over. One chance to get going or you’re rolling downhill to try again. I’d have to say I wasn’t too concerned by the steep start because I thought it was going to level out later. I was wrong. 1,300m ascent over 12km, 33 hairpins. Double percentage gradient pretty much the whole way. Rising at times to over 18%. There is just no relief. Most of the climb is enshrouded by trees so you don’t really have as much scenery to take your mind off it. I had to stop at about hairpin 26. It was a hot day and I was struggling. I threw water over my head, took a drink and a gel and cracked on to the water station half way up where I took another welcome stop. Everyone was suffering. Many were walking. Many more than I have seen on any other climb. Nobody spoke apart from the occasional grunt or expletive. I sat down on a bench at the water station to catch some shade and rest. One guy to my right staggered away from the road, fell to his knees and started vomiting. The guy to my left didn’t bother moving and just started puking between his legs. Nice. I thought it best to leave them to it, took a drink of the very welcome flat cola and ground on. That sort of set the tone for the rest of the ascent. I stopped again a couple of times, once at the Pantani Monument. There’s a metal sculpture of questionable quality of him on his bike fixed to the face of the cliff, flowers, cycling caps and other tributes that have been left by passing cyclists, and a nice plaque. The guy is clearly still a hero and a legend to the Italians. Couldn’t hang around too long though, more hairpins to get through. So I soldiered on through the tree-lined ascent, finally coming to a clearing which indicates the last kilometre. Phew. Stopped again for a few minutes, filling up with fresh cold water at the standpipe. Lovely. Final push and I made it to the top. Very relieved. Pantani’s 43m record was safe though. 2h 23m it took me. I felt every minute and every metre rise. I was now looking forward to the descent towards the finish at Aprica. But no. There’s a cheeky 150-200m climbing in rolling plateau to deal with before you start descending. That just was not fair. Finally started to go downhill and enjoyed the thought of getting back for a nice cold, gold drink.
Now, when you approach Aprica, you have the option of going straight on to the finish, or swinging right and taking another 20km loop with another 900m of climbing. I was finished and went straight on to the finish line to complete the 151km Medio Fondo, with 3,700m climbing in my legs. Another 900m wasn’t an option. Lets get the excuses out of the way. In preparation for the ride, I’d been following Chris Carmichael’s Time Crunched Training Plan. It was going well, feeling stronger as the weeks went on. That was until I contracted tonsillitis and didn’t have the time to get back to the strength I was before. That being said, I still don’t know whether I’d have managed another 900m climbing after the Mortirolo. I’d have been a bit quicker but I wouldn’t have wanted to carry on. Out of the Sports Tours party, only one guy did the Gran Fondo. Everyone else opted for the Medio on the day, despite all the talk of positive thinking and bravado over dinner the night before. My mate Barry is a veteran of many sportives, twice finishing the GF Campagnolo amongst others. He reckons the Mortirolo is the hardest climb he has ever done. He’s in good company. In 2004, Lance said the same thing when he went there for pre TdeF training.
So a cracking event. The Sports Tours crowd were a good friendly bunch. Glorious scenery. Two legendary climbs. One of which I have no desire to do again. Not even on fresh legs. Good to get it on the CV though. Just be warned if you do attempt to tackle it.