Last Sunday i rode my second gran fondo from Fiesole to Fiesole, 105K. It was supposed to be something like this.
It turned out to be more like this.
And think that the day before the race I arrived in Florence and it was about 35°, a temperature substantially higher than what I had in Switzerland. On Sunday morning at the start of the race it is still sunny, but all the riders of the pack have checked the weather forecast and know it is going to rain. Except me.
I start the race on the back of the peloton and since there are more than 500 participants in the first few km I get stuck in the traffic. Things look good when I start the first climb from Le Cure to Fiesole, rolling up with my pace and passing many riders.
On the long descent to Vicchio I manage to stay with a relatively large bunch and then on the second ascent of the day, the steep climb to Cima San Cresci, I leave the bunch behind together with a friendly chap who has pretty much the same pace as I do. We even find some time to joke on the way up. When we arrive on top of the climb I stop to wait while he drinks and eats at in the feeding zone: this way we can go down together on what is supposed to be a very technical descent. I have always considered myself a pretty bad rider when it comes to going down, but this time I surprise myself. Me and the friendly chap go down like rockets and by the time we finish the descent we have a large group of riders in sight, only a few hundred meters ahead. We give it all in, strong and hard, and we manage to catch up. It turns out to be a really massive group of about 50 riders, with 40 km of flat terrain ahead before the next ascent. It all looks good, then and there: when you are going on a flat terrain, staying in a group means you save 90% of your energy. That moment I remember thinking ‘conditions are ideal, this couldn’t get any better‘. In fact it can’t; but it can get worse: it starts raining, and it is not rain really, it is a proper storm. A few minutes after we pass from this road, a tree collapses. The picture below was taken by a local newspaper.
What comes next is probably the most stressful hour of my 2016 thus far. With the roads inundated, riders start falling on the ground. The water does not only come on me from above: it also squashes in my face and in my eyes because the contact with the wheels of the riders ahead. I see extremely little and am I riding on a very slippery road surrounded by other cyclists at something like 45km/hour. In those long minutes I think of all the things that can go wrong: I might crash, I might slip, I might be taken down by another rider, I might loose my contact lenses, I might also ruin my mobile phone that is drowning in a pocket full of water. This is probably the most stressful thought of all. It is not the idea of loosing the phone that bugs me much, it’s more the GPS in it and the record of all the fast km that I have done until there. Anyways. I do not want to stop, and I continue.
So does the rain too. The storm stays with us until the end. But when we arrive to Sieci we know the most stressful part is over, because we have to climb up again. On a ascent the water is less annoying for a rider, because you go slower so there is less of a squash in your face and in your eyes. The ascent from Sieci to Olmo is long and steep and my large group explodes. Some riders loose pace, some others go up faster than I do. I stay pretty much in the middle; and then on the descent from Olmo to Firenze I gain terrain, coming down very fast again. This time it is mainly the fact that I know the roads extremely well and I am taking some risks, in spite of the wet surface. In the last ascent to Fiesole I feel I am completely wrecked because of the water coming into my bones. I arrive on top with a time of 3 hours and 12 minutes with an average speed of 29KM/hour and something like 150th.
Three days later I still haven’t fully recovered from the fatigue.
OK – I finished my previous post, which is completely unrelated to this, with a reference to the importance of asking the right questions. Now, in the last three days many people asked me whether the race I attended on Sunday was fun and whether I won. “No” I said “It was not fun, and I did not win“. But I was somehow struggling to find a better answer to that. It is true: I did not have fun. Yet, I was incredibly glad I attended the race. Only now I realize they were asking me the wrong questions. And today I found the words I was looking for in a reportage of the New York Times on the race that is the twin sister of the one I attended on Sunday. “For cyclists in Tuscany, winning isn’t the point”, is the title, and “Cycling was never fun,” the article makes clear “because it is literally painfully beautiful” or, as an even better Italian translation goes, “Il ciclismo non è mai stato divertimento, ma una bellezza ricca di sofferenza”.
Let me tell you how I got to this article. I first stumbled upon an essay in Italian on “the most southern classic of the north of Europe”, or “la classica del nord più a sud d’Europa” – for those who are not cycling fans: these are the classics of the north, or the monument races of Europe. This is how the article describes the race – my translation, sic: “Several kilometers in dirt and rough roads, reminiscent of the famous cobblestones of the French classic, and terrible uphills – with peaks up to 20% – which remind Belgians walls. A tough race, not comparable to the most demanding classics such as the Milan-Sanremo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but still able to make a selection, putting a strain on the strength of the riders, trying them also from a psychological point of view. In this sense, it should not be underestimated the punctures-factor in a race that is run on dirt roads for over 50 km“. It is a good article.
OK – starting from here the article takes us to the twin race, l’Eroica, which is organized in October on the same roads but a completely different concept. It is a non-competitive race, in which the only requirements are a vintage bike, vintage clothing and, it would appear, a healthy appetite. Because there are no time trials, stopping for a sandwich and a glass of Chianti is perfectly acceptable.
L’Eroica did not start off merely to pay homage to the glorious past, but also as a way to promote and protect the Tuscan heritage of white gravel roads, where riding is breathtakingly beautiful. I keep trying to explain my friends why cycling has such a strong appeal on me since I was a child. No, it’s not about the fun: it is about fatigue, nostalgia, and beauty. A painful beauty, indeed.
I resolved, I trained, I raced: and what a race it was. For the records, it took me less than 4 hours and 50 minutes riding at a 26.4 k/h average speed. I got lucky: no flat tyre, good preparation, horrible weather with occasional glimpses of sun. Truth is, I only marginally care about the timing. I once watched a two-minute video of this race– which I would have posted on the blog if it wasn’t for the outrageously bad soundtrack – and I liked the gist of it: as soon as you cross the finishing line you feel like you have won a battle with yourself. And God knows how much that’s true: five hours alone on the bike with the constant fear of breaking down a tyre while you are sprinting under cantankerous weather conditions, different terrains, and those changing noises, from that initial bzzzzzz of thousands of bikes flying by together, the crrrrrrrrrr of the first gravel section, the aaaanfaaaanffaaanf of the ascent, the ciockciockciockciock of the hailstorm, the dai!dai!daicazzo! of the entrance in Siena and the finish line. Daje!
I always do sports in January and February. Something involving skies, mostly: alpine skiing, ski touring, even – occasionally! -cross country skiing. This winter, instead, no skies: I have ridden my bike. For over 1200km. In the rain, cold, fog; and sometimes in the sun too. I have always been alone, except for three or four occasions when I rode with Giallu, Daniel, Jonas, Bjorn, Benedikt. There were several moments of hanger and and borderline burn-out; and some, rare, moments of enlightenment in Chianti, Mugello, or Val di Pesa. I saw all the kind of animals, waterfalls, trees, elderly, and children. I never fell, but I was hit by an ambulance. So I guess it is fair to say that I did not get bored. But these moments – each single one of them – were mine and unfortunately mine will remain, because I am not able to communicate them with words.
In the end, only the cold numbers remain. I spent over 50 hours training on my bike (all the stats from January 20 are here). I also invested more or less 10 hours of my time to get the medical certificate and all the vaccinations I needed; a few more hours to get the bike set, change the gears and the tyres, book the hotel in Siena, and make sure I got my spot in the race. And this is the reason why I have done it all. But the thought of the race itself would not have been enough. When I prepare for a competition like this I need some kind of extra motivation to keep myself going. So this month I bought cycling magazines, I read cycling books, I watched cycling videos. (Not that I did not do that before… just a little less than now). Yes, yes, yes: I became some sort of bicycle maniac. Anyways: the one below is probably the best video up to date on the Strade Bianche. It is the 2013 edition highlights.
Rarely have I been as monodimensional as I have over these last two months. Now I am headed to Siena and on Sunday I will take part to the Strade Bianche. It is a moment I have been waiting for quite some time. Please, please, please, let me get what I want.
Yesterday was a grey, chilly and cloudy day over Florence. In spite of these supremely sub-optimal conditions, Daniel, Jonas, Bjorn, Benedikt and I went to Arezzo by bike – about 90k in 3 hours and a half. It was frigid, painful, and amusing: we shall go again.
Ah – when we arrived in Arezzo we had lunch in this place, where we were the only customers. The owners were very nice to us, gave us excellent and elegantly prepared food. They did not pay me for advertising the place, but I will do it nonetheless.
(I could have thought of a more original title for this one).
In September I brought my road bike to Florence. (I wrote something about it already). Somehow unexpectedly, I then managed to use it very consistently until a month ago, when my muscles decided it was about time to stop working properly: after exploring the whereabouts of Florence and getting ready to travel further away, my riding adventure had to come to an abrupt halt. But I can’t complain: Tuscan fall has been kind to me, my bike and my occasional riding partner Giallu. These are some pictures I took while on the road.
For those of you who are wondering. Most of my acquantances have this bizarre idea that I do a doctorate, therefore I do not work. To the surprise of many, I still have regular working hours and this is the reason why I generally ride my bike early in the morning just before sunrise or late in the afternoon just before sunset. This is also the reason why, apart for some occasional fog and thunderstorms, I often got a stunning light to which, unfortunately, my mediocre does not fully pay justice.
Two years ago a bunch of desperate pilgrims climbed up the hill of Fiesole to watch the world cycling championship under pouring rain. The group was led by Giallu and myself; it included Anna and Jonas – Dani was also there, but he wisely decided to leave after half an hour because he was soaked down to the bones. It was a memorable ride, for good or for worse. I still remember a picture I took that day. Let me tell you something about the misery of it. The man looking aguishly at me is a friend of Giallu, the great cycling lover and excellent writer Il Poeta. The man behind Poeta, peacefully eating his sandwich and drinking grappa in a yellow submariner’s coat is Giallu himself. No matter how bad the thunderstorm was, he sat there, enjoyed, and eventually got drunk together with grumpy Jonas.
Many things have changed since that cold and rainy day of September 2013. The world cycling championship is now Richmond, Virginia. Jonas and Anna have left Florence. And the weather around here seems to have gotten much better. So today Giallu and I commemorated the glorious past (a more complete photo gallery from that unforgettable period of my life is here) by going for a ride up and around Fiesole.
It was the first Tuscan ride for my new flamboyant road bicycle. It was also the first time since I moved to Florence I managed to wake up on a Sunday morning at 7AM.