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Dispatch from Italy: Part IV

The Granfondo

The seriousness of Italian Granfondo culture made itself apparent to me at the hotel breakfast table on Sunday morning about 90 minutes before the ride was to begin. It was 7:00am, and next to the juice, cereal and fruit was a big pot of warm penne, along with a tureen of thin marinara and some freshly ground parmesan. While a meal of early morning pasta is something you read about in the ‘inside scoop’ articles about the pros in VeloNews and Cycle Sport, the idea that a mortal would consider such a meal struck me as insane. I’m a porky Cat. 3. Pasta at dawn would be the dietary equivalent of oiling up my legs or donning lycra shoe covers -- the exhausting self-consciousness I’d feel about the activity would outweigh any ostensible benefit. At least this is what I thought as I downed my cereal, some fruit, and a croissant. Then, in an instantaneous moment of caffeine-fueled pique, I went ahead and did it -- I ladled out a healthy bowl of pasta. I dared anyone in the room to look at me askance! Yes, yes I weigh almost 180. But for God’s sake, I’m in Italy and I have 100 miles ahead of me. Let me eat in peace!

I got about halfway through the bowl and was feeling good that my last minute carbo-loading wasn’t the hot topic of conversation at any of the other tables. Nevertheless, as newcomers arrived, I started to catalogue the meals they made themselves. It was muesli and yogurt, time and time again. I saw the occasional croissant and plate of fruit, but never pasta. It got so repetitious, in fact, that I glanced at the folks who’d already been there when I arrived. Early risers, I thought, might be a different breed. But nary a stray morsel of pasta sat on the plates I could see, and as I speared at my final few pieces, I made eye contact with the person sitting directly behind my right shoulder. We faced different ways as we ate, but we both turned at the same moment. The face was unmistakable, anyone who spent meaningful hours on a trainer in the late 90’s and early 00’s watching bike race videos would recognize him in an instant. It was Fabio Baldato, fresh off the ’05 Giro d’Italia where he spent 3 weeks leading out his Fassa Bortolo teammate Alessando Petacchi to field sprint glory. For the better part of a decade he’d been a serious threat for victory in the biggest one-day races in the world. He’d almost won the Tour of Flanders on two occasions I could remember off the top of my head, and his Tour de France and Vuelta a España stage victory list ain’t short. When it comes to racing bikes, he’s a leg-breaking terror, though you couldn’t tell as he silently sat there in his spotless Fassa Bortolo leisure wear looking tan and emaciated, nibbling on some cantaloupe with a small cup of juice. Pasta? Hell no. But at least by then I’d had my last bite -- I’d have no explaining to do. He vaguely nodded at me, then I got up to find the relief of solitude back in my room.

When I was visiting the Pinarello factory earlier in the week, I thought I heard someone mention that a contingent from Fassa Bortolo would be riding the Granfondo. In the factory, 5 well-worn Dogma FP team bikes dressed with full Record and Bora wheels were lined up next to an office. Small decals affixed to the bikes made it clear who their owners were -- Petacchi, Baldato, and Tossato were three of the names I saw. This rumor was proven to be true as I wheeled my bike out of the hotel to make the short ride to the start. Four absurdly slim Fassa Bortolo riders were fully kitted out, and on a sidewalk next to the parking lot they were making last minute adjustments to their bikes. Alongside them was a white Volvo wagon decaled to the nines with Fassa sponsor logos, topped off with a bike rack welded to the roof that could hold 20 bikes easy. A portly mechanic in a Fassa cabana shirt assisted with the adjustments. Baldato, of course, was there. I didn’t see Petacchi, but I recognized Matteo Tossato -- a former wearer of the maglia rosa. I remember he earned it thanks to a suicidal descent amidst a heavy thunderstorm at the end of an early stage in 2002 or 2003. He wore it, I believe, ’til the mountains got exceptionally steep. He was the toast of Italy that year, and the toast of Competitive Cyclist, too.

Next to the Fassa contingent were two other riders in anonymous jerseys. Both were as tiny as the pros, and the laughter that filled their chatter was proof of their comfort around each other. It took me about 3 seconds to recognize one of them. Omigod. It was Michele Bartoli. He retired at the end of 2004 after a season or two on CSC. His glory days ranged from 1996-2003, when he raced for powerhouse Italian squads such as MG-Technogym, Asics, and Mapei. He was a savage, winning humungous races like Het Volk, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Amstel Gold Race, and Tour of Lombardy in untouchable solo attacks. His fitness must’ve certainly still been with him, because he was impossibly thin and his legs were dark and sinewy not unlike what I saw on the Fassa boys. It was almost a decade ago when I spent two years of my life on a mission to see how good of a bike racer I could be. The years were 1997 and 1998, right when Bartoli was reaching the peak of his powers. I was young enough to take real inspiration from my heroes, and Bartoli topped the list. In what might’ve been the most incredible episode of dominance I’d ever seen in a race video, I remember a Liege-Bastogne-Liege when Bartoli found himself in a 3-man breakaway with Laurent Jalabert and Alex Zulle -- the two stars of Team ONCE. Like good teammates should, Jalabert and Zulle attacked Bartoli time and time again on the steep hills that lead to the finale in Liege. After each attack Bartoli dragged himself and either Zulle or Jalabert back up to the front. In time Bartoli grew aggravated with their behavior, so after the umpteenth attack he countered at full throttle. Despite all the work he’d already done, he popped Zulle first. Not long thereafter he did the same to Jalabert, and soloed at warp speed into Liege for victory. It was glorious, and I played visions of that race in my head a million times back then when I needed motivation to train in the rain or get through a particularly nasty interval workout. Seeing him the flesh brought back nice memories I’d long ago forgotten. And even better was the fact that as I slowly pedaled to Treviso’s Piazza Matteotti for the start, the Fassa riders and Bartoli rode right past me (apparently real pros warm up at 23mph) I leapt on Bartoli’s wheel. His style on the bike hadn’t changed -- saddle high, bars really low -- and I stayed about two bike lengths behind him since under no circumstances would I risk a crash, or at least crashing into him.

From what I could sense, one of the Fassa riders was a local. Cyclists looking lost were everywhere, but our small group made some choice turns on seemingly obscure streets and we magically made our way to the center of town. From the vantage point of the piazza you could see how the organizers staged the riders in every direction. As a participant, where you lined up was a function of which ride you were doing. But everywhere you looked were towering inflatable arcs that spanned the street, advertising Pinarello and Opera Bike. Riders overstuffed the roads as far as the eye could see. It was here that I went my own way. Bartoli and the Fassa crew coasted over to batch of other pros -- I saw a decent contingent of Ceramica Panaria riders, as well as some Naturino-Sapore de Mare pros. Music from some of America’s most regrettable bands -- Yes, Queen, Asia -- blared at a truly offensive volume, interrupted only by a handful of quick interviews with the pros I’d seen.

The cross-section of riders waiting at the start was amazing. Everywhere there were serious-faced amateur teams in perfectly coordinated uniforms and bikes. I saw countless hardcore Pinarello aficionados whose every last component and piece of apparel was branded with the big ‘P’. Aging tifosi were in good attendance, many of whom were astride 20-year old Columbus SL frames upgraded to pointy Indurain-era Ergopower levers and matching Benotto tape -- a living highlight reel of cutting edge technology circa 1981 and 1991. And the rest (there were thousands) were just like me -- riders you could categorize either as a has-been or a wanna-be. Our fitness might only be moderate, but the average price of one of our bikes was blistering, and our love of the sport ran deep, deep, deep.

The gun fired for the Granfondo at 8:30. It took almost a full minute before we had room to move forward. We were lined up 25 abreast for as far as you could see both ahead and behind. When we finally started going, it was at an awkward pace. We were too slow and too densely packed to clip in, but things moved just a bit too fast for walking. After one full block of half-pedaling and half-track standing, the road finally loosened up. We twisted through the city streets for a few minutes, then hit a rotunda that spun us into the main road out of town. The instant the technical stuff quit, our pace became infernal. For a good half-hour it felt like the first criterium of the season -- my legs and lungs were in a full blossom of astonishing pain. The speed narrowed us to 3 or 4 abreast. A lifetime of club racing and hard training rides had honed my instincts well -- no matter how fast we went, I jumped on the wheel of anyone who passed by going faster. We were on the exact roads we took out of town yesterday, so I didn’t feel deprived by ignoring the view.

What started as one monstrous, coherent pack soon splintered to pieces. Gaps opened once and again, and I leapfrogged into countless pacelines bridging to the group ahead. This played itself out a half-dozen times, and with one final, savage effort we reached the tail end of a huge cluster of riders. It’d been a furious half hour of freeform team time trailing, and as we entered Nervesa della Battaglia -- the town where Fausto has bought everyone’s drinks the day before -- I felt certain we’d clawed ourselves to the lead group. I kept standing on my pedals trying to catch a glimpse of the Fassa riders swapping pulls up front, but the roads were so twisty and our group was so massive that I could never see that far.

Based on yesterday’s ride, I knew were just a minute or two away from the base of the day’s first climb, the San Croce del Montello. My plan was to take it as easy as possible on the hill, then get back to the task of pushing myself further up the group when it flattened back out. I scanned the rolling terrain in the foreground to get a sense of its steepness. I knew the climb awaiting us wasn’t longer than a km or two, but at 500 feet of elevation gain it could potentially dish out some pain. Amongst the orchard trees way up above us I saw the most amazing sight -- cyclists, lots of them. They seemed like a mile away. Based on their speed it looked like they’d already topped the climb, and that they were intent on chasing something far ahead. Was Fassa just up the road from me a corner or two? Hell no. They were more like 4km ahead and gaining. There was no way in the world I’d reach them. It was a dose of reality so real that I didn’t even bother with anger or denial -- I was in a state of pure acceptance. We hit the climb and I stuck to my plan of cooling off my pace. With more than 80 miles left to ride, there was no need to spend everything now.

The San Croce del Montello was the shortest climb we’d do all day, but in certain respects it was the most memorable. It gave me my first up-above view of the gorgeous architecture of your average northern Italian village. The vista was remarkable, especially when you panned over to the flowering vineyards that spiraled down the hillsides. And it gave me the chance to evaluate two things I’d never before experienced: The climbing quality of an F4:13, and the merits of a compact crankset.

I tend to climb seated, a habit that locks a bike frame in a fixed vertical plane more so than out-of-the-saddle climbing. It’s a useful way to assess a frame’s resistance to torsional flex, which is a key benchmark of its behavior under power. By the top of the climb the F4:13 confirmed for me one of my long-held feelings about bikes: Stiff frames feel stiff. When you ride a bike with a rigid drivetrain there’s a definitive conversion of pedaling power into speed. Conversely, I’ve rarely felt the flex in a flexy frame. Rather, what I could detect there was a lack of stiffness. The F4:13 proved to be gloriously stiff. On the steeper pitches my cadence naturally dropped. I’d respond with increased pedaling torque in an attempt to maintain my momentum -- and it’s here that the F4:13 sang. It steadily responded to my uptick in intensity without feeling the least bit twisty or loose. If I applied a subtle increase in power, I felt a subtle increase in speed. No bit of wattage went wasted.

Riding with a compact crankset was something new for me as well. The hills in my hometown of Little Rock are steep mile-long affairs, and we aren’t within 100 miles of a mountain-length climb. I’ve long been a believer that you can get up any climb in a 39×23, no matter the grade, provided it’s not much longer than a couple of km. Being skinny or having a light bike makes little difference. The trick is to rely on raw power to bully over them. It’s the exact reason Richard Virenque never won (or even bothered with) the Tour of Flanders. He’s not a brute, he’s a ballerina, and compact cranksets are tailor made for ballerina territory -- climbs that take longer than 10 or 15 minutes at a clip. Most of us can’t power over a climb this long. Rather, the idea is to carefully mete out your energy so that the last stretch isn’t a 40rpm catastrophe where you’re weaving back and forth just to stay upright. A compact gives you hope for maintaining your pace -- even if it’s a conversational pace -- for as long as the climb lasts, no matter how long it lasts.

As relatively short as the San Croce del Montello was, the compact wasn’t really necessary. The novelty, though, was that I could stay in the big chainring for a good bit longer up the climb than I’d expected. I was at a semi-tolerable comfort level in a 50×21 and a 50×23. The effort of the previous half hour took a bit of a toll on my legs, and for that reason I was ready to shift into my 34t ring. But when I finally did so, it was for different reason: My bike didn’t have a compact front derailleur on it. The noise it made when I cross-chained was horrible. In fact, as I summited the climb in a 34×19 I thought little about my gearing and instead made a mental note for the future that whenever a customer asked if a compact-specific front derailleur is necessary for a compact crank, my answer would be a definitive yes. Shifting quality isn’t the main issue -- rather, it’s to prevent such awful noise pollution.

Despite the length of the climb and the distance we’d traveled from the start, the road was still thick with riders as far as I could see in either direction. The pace of the group I’d fallen in with was perfect. It was a hard cruising speed where progress felt quick, but I could still get a good look at the scenery. I gained an immediate fondness for the capitelli built at seemingly ever other intersection we crossed. They reminded me of Joseph Cornell’s legendary boxes. Each was a simple, foot-high wooden case with a glass window. But unlike Cornell’s fetishized depictions of Lauren Bacall or Victorian-era ballerinas kept behind velvet ropes at art museums throughout the world, the capitelli were nearly as common as mailboxes on the roadside. Each had a Virgin Mary or Christ figure set in front of a diorama of pastoral scenery. They were always positioned to face traffic -- a possible target for prayer, I suppose, in the icon-rich Catholic tradition. They were simple and beautiful, and I was on the lookout for them all day.

I had no computer on my bike, and I’d neglected to clip out a copy of the course profile to carry along. I was flying blind, and I had a hazy recollection that our next climb was the Cima Coppi -- the high point of the Granfondo. As we pushed northward, the mountains we’d seen from the outset became dwarfed by a second and then third ridge of ever-taller, ever-clearer peaks behind. Facing up to the ripped muscularity of the Dolomites had all the mystery of the depths of outer space for a flatlander like me. I see-sawed between eagerness and terror, and the concentration I kept in trying to get them balanced was lost at the sound of the one thing I wasn’t expecting -- an American accent. ‘Haaaaaay!’ I heard from behind my left hip, ‘Competitive Cyclist!’ He read it off my jersey, and I nodded silently in the hope that maybe he thought I didn’t understand. Up ’til then things had been mellifluous. Purring freehub bodies, the crisp snapping of shifted gears, and fragments of Italian conversation had been the perfect soundtrack.

‘You work there? Competitive Cyclist?’ He wore a jersey that said something about a heart hospital in New Mexico. He looked barely out of college. He rode an aluminum Cannondale with Ultegra-9. ‘Arkansas, right?’ He spoke with a feminine, nasal whine. ‘Betcha don’t get real hills like this back in Arkansas, do you?

The mention of my beloved home state in that voice made me bristle. I’ve had this conversation a thousand times before at work. Someone calls, and upon learning our location they emit a bewildered giggle. The list of follow-up questions is always the same -- ‘You’re not in California?’ and ‘Do people ride in Arkansas?’ and ‘What in the world are you doing there?’ To my ears it sounds like they’re picking a fight. I braced myself for more of it from him, and when instead he went into his life story and the three weeks he’d spent up ’til then in Italy, he took the conversation in the only direction that was worse -- he was trying to become my ridin’ buddy.

I rhythmically nodded my head as he spoke. Was it in response to his tales of Italian adventure? Or was it instead a wordless summoning of the next capitelli-encased Christ up the road -- a plea for quiet sure to be fulfilled if He’d just inspire the head of our group to pick things up to 32mph, forcing us all into a single file struggle for survival&.

‘This reeeeeeeally reminds me of the Tour de Tucson -- all these people.’ he said.

It’s the oldest law of bike racing: Pick out the most annoying guy in your pack, and you’ll find yourself on his wheel 95% of the race. He’s not following you -- you’re following him. I remember doing a tough 1,2,3 race in Tulsa once, and some guy showed up wearing a Jimi Hendrix ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ T-shirt and a 1st-generation Camelbak. He nearly clipped my front wheel on the first climb of the day, and for two hours I fantasized about strangling him in the parking lot after the race. He stunk and his rear wheel was as true as a Pringle. Our field had at least two Master’s National Champions and some seriously tough 1’s and 2’s. We were 60 at the start, but there were maybe 15 of us remaining near the end. Jimi was one of the survivors, and somehow I kept getting stuck and re-stuck to his wheel. His Camelbak had a leak, and he let a 4 bike length gap open up every time we went through a corner. With less than 10 miles to go he ended up on the front at the bottom of a steep climb and he set a good pace. The instant his cadence slowed, though, I launched my only real attack of the day. I was single-minded -- I gave no thought to race-end tactics. Getting to this race was an interminable 11-hour round trip on I-40, but I cast away all care for my finish. All I wanted to do was rid our group of Jimi, and I poured out every last bit of power to do so. It was 2 minutes of fury, and then I gave the pack my version of Lance’s ‘The Look’, except my look was after my attack, not before, and my only goal was to make sure that no one left wore a Camelbak. It was mission accomplished, though it came at the expense of a real result -- a hellacious cramp in one of my quads and $30 for 9th place.

I knew I had to take action against Mr. New Mexico. Otherwise the possibility of the daylong tandem experience -- his mouth as captain, my ears as stoker -- was just a bit too real. My instinct to attack-when-aggravated had history, yes. But, unfortunately, I traded in the better part of my fitness long ago. The road soon tipped upwards again, and I recognized it as my golden opportunity. In a spontaneous example of how clever tactics can sometimes overcome raw strength, as our pack surged up the rise I replied by soft pedaling. We weren’t racing, after all. Who was dropping who? I felt the undeniable pleasure of dictating the pace as I fell further and further back. And I heard no English for the rest of the day. Victory was mine.

My newly relaxed pace was rewarded with the most awesome view I saw the whole day. We shortly passed through the village of Crocetta del Montello and rode across the Piave River. It’s here, on the Piave, where the mountains erupt -- Monte Grappa and Croce d’Aune are just two of legendary peaks at your fingertips. The river was lined in both directions by smaller villages that squeezed themselves between its banks and the steep hillsides covered in Prosecco grape vineyards. The architecture everywhere was exquisite, and it exuded a permanency that made the villages seem more natural there than if it’d been nature alone. It was an image of Italy at its most picturesque. The grandiose domes of sprawling cathedrals were the only thing missing that you might expect to see there. I wondered if they might’ve been lost in one of the wars -- beyond the epic violence of the Austrian incursion here in 1918, the Allies all but carpet bombed Monte Grappa and the vicinity in World War II -- or whether it was because we were in the thick of rural Italy, and that the more modest steeples of the local churches that dotted the river banks were evocative enough of paradise, since Heaven couldn’t possibly be much more lovely than the view from the Piave.

Once we crossed the bridge we exited the wide road we’d been on since Nervesa della Battaglia. We soon came across a Pinarello-badged sign that told us we had 100km remaining, and then after one more turn we say another sign that affirmed the work ahead of us: ‘Casere Budui, 13km, 1218m. Avg. 8%, Max 14%.’

The climb would take me the better part of an hour, if not longer, so my pace as we started was the picture of moderation. I found myself in the surreal situation of feeling fairly comfortable in the 15 and 17 tooth cogs. Seemingly fit riders flew past me in reverse, most of them standing and torquing their bodies in a struggle to stay on top of a gear. Compact cranks, I soon realized, are a psychological delight. I admit that I belong to the Jan Ullrich school of cadence, where low rpm’s are the iron-clad rule. But even if I chose to spin hummingbird-like in a 34×19 instead of maintaining a familiar slog in a 34×15, I still would’ve had plenty of room to shift down. Most of the folks I passed were topped out in their 39×23’s and 25’s. It’s not that the opening km’s of the Casere Budui were steep, but rather I think there’s an emotional toll to pay for being in your lowest gear so soon, and still having an hour of climbing to go.

After 2 or 3km, we came to our first ristoro -- a rest area loaded to the gills with oranges, bananas, pears, and prosciutto-stuffed paninis. It was quite the culture clash with America. There was nary a Gu, a Clif Shot, or a Power Bar to be found. Every bit of food was fresh, and stuffing your jersey pockets with paninis was a custom I instantly embraced. I was less enthusiastic about taking advantage of the copious quantities of frizzante, the billion-bubbles-per-teaspoon sparkling water that had all the smoothness of whiskey going down my parched throat. Rather, I gained a quick affection for sal’ -- a lightly salty lemon-lime concoction they poured from hoses connected to gigantic tanks that took up the whole bed of a pick-up truck. It was less sweet than Gatorade, and unlike some of the better-known energy drinks it’s palatable even when it’s warm. In another testament to the seriousness of Granfondo culture, I lost count of the people who elbowed their way to the front of the line to get quicker access to the sal’ hose. Seemingly unencumbered by their Look cleats, they ran back to their bikes, treating it like a transition zone in a triathlon -- an opportunity to gain time on their competition.

The ristoro was in Combai, a small village built on a false flat in the mountain, and its residents lined the road 2 and 3 deep to watch us come by. Many clapped and shouted what I could only assume were words of encouragement, and the line of them stretched ’til a fork in the road where the Mediofondo and Granfondo routes split. The Mediofondo folks got to take a short descent back down to the valley, while the Granfondo dished out another 1000m in altitude gain.

The road conditions deteriorated the further we went up the climb. Unlike the silken, sun-drenched blacktop you get in the Alps, the Casere Budui has no ski resort or anything else of note at its peak. It’s a slow, desolate road to nothing, with the only connection to humanity coming in the form of an occasional small cottage at the roadside. The decent pavement up to Combai morphed to chip-and-seal, which then more or less became pav&#233 as we approached the top. An overgrowth of trees and the thick summer haze assured we’d have no view to enjoy as we dragged ourselves over the last few km. Amazingly, though, except for one 14% section we’d been warned about, I never found myself in my lowest gear, a 34×25. Rather, I spent most of the second half of the climb in my 23. Not unlike Cofidis pro David Millar’s initial denials about the vials of EPO police found in his duffel bag -- I knew I didn’t need it, I most certainly never used it, but its very presence gave me the mental strength to solider on during hard times -- knowing I had that 25 was awesome just in case I needed the boost.

I must admit that something akin to a boost would’ve been nice over the last 2km, an interminable set of twists and switchbacks stacked one on top of the other. From what I saw as I rode, and from what I heard from others that night, the suffering there was commonplace. One story was particularly amusing: The quartet from Fassa Bortolo stopped at the next ristoro, on the peak of Casere Budui. They were graciously waiting for their host, the notably skinny and presumably fit Fausto Pinarello. They drank a Pepsi and waited. Then they ate some panini and waited. They waited and then waited some more. I’m not sure what etiquette book they consulted, but it’s a good one -- after long enough they decided ‘Fuck it’ and left him for dead. They tore their way down the technical 15km descent, never to see him again.

The road conditions didn’t improve on the way down. Debris and potholes were everywhere, and there were just enough wicked turns in quick sequence with no warning whatsoever to get me heavy-handed on the brake levers. Worst of all, it was my first extended stay in the drops of my bars. Setting aside how unnatural the ‘anatomic’ contours felt in my hands, a thousand times worse was their combination of reach and depth. Frankly, either one of them alone -- reach or depth -- would’ve been a deal killer. But the combination set my neck alight with pain like I’d never before felt. It took flattening my spine perfectly parallel to the road to successfully get my hands down into the drops. The subsequent angle of my head to spine was acute beyond belief and the pressure on the back of my neck was unreal. I had only two choices: (1) Decrease the angle of my head and spine. In other words, look down at the ground, not at any upcoming turns. (2) Ride in the hoods and give up not only aerodynamics, but lose braking power as well. I chose the latter, of course, and riders stacked up behind me waiting to pass like I was a Fiat Panda blocking the fast lane.

The descent delivered us once more to the Piave. For the next 30km we enacted a Giro d’Italia race video -- we traced