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Sucking like a Pro

VecchioJo follows a Pro’s wheel round the Nove Colli

I’m doing the Nove Colli by mistake. I’m also doing 50kph at the start of a 200km long ride by mistake. This isn’t standard warm-up procedure for such a ride for me. I am more than a little anxious. And out of breath.

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To be precise I knew that I was coming to Italy to ride the Gran Fondo Nove Colli but I was under the impression that I was down to complete just the 130km option and not the 205km route that it’s been decided in between times that I should do. I was looking forward to a nice day out – ride a few hills, have a few coffees - and now I’ve had to fiddle with the gears inside my head to survive a bigger and hillier day in the saddle. Add to this the unfortunate facts that I’m just coming out of a cold, have got two lumpy days in the saddle in my legs already (which thankfully did a good job of riding most of that cold out of my chest) and I was being poured sambucas last night about 4 hours before I had to get up with the sun. Is that all the excuses out of the way? Good.

I’m still doing 50kph in a weaving frantic mass of cyclists though. Breathe. Don’t panic. Don’t shout at the person that’s just switched your wheel. Again.

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Gran Fondos, the European template for UK sportives, aren’t really the same as your standard ‘Epic’ 100km sportive around the bumpy bits of English countryside and sections of busy A road. For a start at the spicy end of a Gran Fondo they’re very much treated as proper races rather than races against people who didn’t know it was a race as some treat them in blighty, and many of them offer prize money with ex-pros turning up to grab the schwag, and although it’s a bit slower it doesn’t get much less feisty towards the back either. As we’re currently experiencing. To highlight the difference I even have my own ex-Pro to chaperone me round today; Fabio Sacchi used to be a rider for the Saeco, Fasso Bortolo and Milram teams amongst others, google him if you want to know more, he also handily won the Nove Colli in 2009 and I’m stuck on his wheel as we thread our way through the fast moving pack. Or trying to as he finds gaps in the throng that I would never dare squeeze through and so he’s constantly looking over his shoulder to see where I’ve got to. I’m 10 metres back trying not to go too far into the red, or crash, or be crashed into. Over the course of the day he’ll spend a lot of his time looking behind him, or casually on the phone. Alongside me is my friend Nick, he’s also being chaperoned by an ex-Pro, this time Fred Morini – a former Gerolsteiner rider. We glance at each other, raise a slightly alarmed eyebrow, blow out our cheeks and laugh at the berserkness of it all.


This is the 47th running of the Nove Colli, and as the very first Gran Fondo it’s the grand-daddy of all that followed, and as such it’s regarded as one of the must-do rides to do in Italy alongside the Fausto Coppi Granfondo and Maratona dles Dolomites. The Nove Colli has just two route options, the 130km one with four climbs to tackle and the full-fat 205km version with nine hills, hence the name, and has a big day’s 3840 metres of climbing to face up to.

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To stretch the legs before Sunday’s ride we’ve arrived a couple of days early and are based in the commune of Verucchio about 20km up into the hills from Rimini. I’ve been to this part of the world several times before thanks to’s favourite Hotel Belvedere in Riccione so I know it’s primo cycling country, and as it’s sat right where the flatlands of the coast hit the hills it’s too easy to drop down out of Verucchio straight onto quiet country roads without having to negotiate any of the seaside ribbon sprawl that come from staying on the coast.

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For these two days we’ll snoop around the area the Nove Colli goes through, take in a couple of the climbs and generally get our legs used to the hills. None of the climbs round here are spectacularly long, if we’re taking an alpine classic as a benchmark for long, nor are they however that short, the longest on the Nove Colli being nine kilometres, but what they may lack in length they more than make up for in regularity, something that we’ll call character and some gear-crunching sections of steep. And on top of that they are to a fault, all incredibly quiet, you’ll be unlucky if more than a couple of cars pass you on each ascent, the roads are busier with cyclists as the Nove Colli is coming up there appear to be a lot of other people getting a few familiarity kilometres in too.

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We descend the climb of the Barbotto on these recon rides, to get an idea of what one of the hardest hills we have to grind up on Sunday is like, stopping in for a quick coffee at the café at the top first. And it’s done espresso Pro quick, the standard Italian order-drink-quick chat-leave, none of this sit around with a pint of coffee and poach the wi-fi for half an hour that’s the norm over here. We take on the Montevecchio - local boy Marco Pantani’s favourite climb, wind up to the republic of San Marino to tackle the tourists and have more coffee, gulp down Sanpellegrinos in Monteleone where Lord Byron did his thing, get an ex-Pro silly drunk on half a glass of beer at Fossa Blues, an earn-it restaurant atop a short vicious climb, and take an unplanned detour to a bike shop to fix a snapped spoke, where a backhanded €20 beer money to the mechanic who refused payment was small change for saving my weekend.

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You could easily spend a week riding around here without with an event to finale proceedings, although that’s a good enough reason as any. The trip out to this neck of the hills and the Belvedere Bike Hotel has almost become a bit of tradition now, it’s that good.

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The finish of these recce rides is a steady climb back up into Verucchio, but by winching just a little bit more up from the square through the ever narrowing cobbled streets to the Malatesta Fortress on top of the town with a couple of beers you’re rewarded with a view of what feels like the whole of the Emilia-Romagna region from sea to mountain.

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With a morning to kill in the itinerary we nip along the canals into the centre of Cesentatico for yet another coffee and a visit to the Pantani Museum that is butted somewhat incongruously onto the train station. We’d seen the plaques to his name atop the Barbotto and Montevecchio and I’m a big Pantani fan of old; got the t-shirt, had a long series of Bianchii because of him, and the matching bandanas, shaved my head as a bet when he won the Tour de France, had a cry when I heard of his untimely passing and yet the whole museum experience still feels a little…..odd. There are his old bikes, of course, and his jerseys, his motorbike and reams of newspaper and magazine articles for the devotees to browse through. There is fan art, most of which is dubious at best, and some painting done by Marco himself which is part naive and part window into a troubled mind but the whole thing feels a little hollow, a little sad and dare I say it, desperately clinging onto a fractured past rather than any kind of homage or celebration. As well as the expected Pantani memorabilia you can buy inspirational wristbands in an awkwardly familiar yellow and a copy of Marco’s passport. Hmmmm. I leave with a bad taste in my mouth that needs a double macchiato to remove.

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For the Nove Colli we move the few kilometres down to the Adriatic to Cesenatico and the Hotel Valverde right on the coastal strip. Yes, that name made me feel a little awkward too. There are bike racks by the pool and we can take our machines upstairs to our rooms, the sign of a good hotel. And they lay out a 4am breakfast for any cyclists doing the event. Five stars on TripAdvisor then. It’s incredibly handy for the Nove Colli to stay in a hotel in Cesenatico, it’s easy to get to registration the day before and then just ride to the start in the morning, early early morning, and it’s even more convenient at the other end of the day when you can just wibble back along the seafront to the hotel and have a beer and a shower and a swim and an ice cream and a nap before supper rather than wait around in a coach for a transfer to wherever else your digs may be.

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Back to doing 50kpm. It’s flat for the first 25kms before the Nove Colli hits the first of the nine climbs so it doesn’t take long at that speed to get to the Polenta, a gentle climb made easier by the pace being mostly dictated by the crowd of cyclists trying to squeeze up it. It’s a cheeky little climb with a false summit a few kilometres from the top though. With the sun gently rising and warming to our left it’s a nice enough start to the day, and pleasant relief from the mild terror of the peloton dash to its base although Fabio and Fred are still tapping out an encouraging tempo. Easy enough. Tick one hill.

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If you like to go for a quiet bike ride then the Nove Colli isn’t really the place for you. From the gun it’s a bun fight and as soon as the hills come into play it doesn’t really thin out like you’d expect it to. With 12,000 riders on the road it’s busy and you have to be constantly on your guard and prepared to weave through the herd of vomiting unicorns of Euro lycra. On one of the earlier climbs a rider shoots from one side of the road to the other straight across my bows in the process of trying to slip an arm-warmer off. I’m not sure who was most scared though. The descents are pretty nervous too with people willing to take any line or risk to make up a place. In the space of a kilometre I see, or rather hear, that unmistakable sound of a brake on a carbon rim squealing ineffectively before the noise of flesh and chunky plastic on metal Armco, and then too soon later the same squeal followed by the rifle shot of an inner-tube exploding and the rustlecrash of landed foliage. I’m not necessarily singling out the Nove Colli for poor riding here, the level of riding in group events is equally shoddy at times these days but with well over 10,000 riders on the road there’s going to be a larger than usual instances of muttered oaths, cringing and cold sweats of fear moments.

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The second and third climbs of the Pieve di Rivoschio and Ciola are tackled without too much ceremony, it’s all a bit of a blur to be honest, but the views are stunning over the rolling countryside of Emilia-Romagna and the descents are an absolute joy. These are good roads and if our previous two days riding are anything to go by well worth coming back for when there isn’t a swarm of cyclists all wanting to do the same thing.

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The first real test comes with the climb of the Barbotto, at 5.5km it’s not the longest climb of the day but it has the largest height gain so far at an average gradient of just under 7% with the steepest bit being 18%. As we roll through the town of Mercato Saraceno at the bottom I realise that this is the climb James and I went some way up by mistake when we were meant to be doing the Pantanissima Gran Fondo a few years back. Some corners are awfully familiar. There is a laugh of recognition and a mite of Pavlov’s tiredness. With a café and the small monument to Pantani at the top it’s a popular climb for spectators and the last few hundred metres are lined with a crowd cheering riders on to a blaring background of Europop. The Basingstoke Bash 100 it is not.

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Shortly after the summit of the Barbotto the route splits between the 130km and 205km rides with the former offering a predominantly downhill 35km to the finish back in Cesenatico. At the turn off point there’s still the option for me to take the shorter and easier way home, and I easily could. Duck out now and be a little disappointed in myself or turn right, man up to the full distance and finish the day probably a little dead. Fabio looks at me, claps his hands and says “Come on then…..”. When your domestique chivvies you on you best follow. I say my fond farewells to Nick and Fred who are succumbing to the lure of gelato and the pool and turn right.

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Immediately the pedal traffic is a fraction of what it was, the shorter option is obviously the most popular one. Shit. We stop at another food station and stock up for the second half. I pick up a ham filled piadina and another filled with Nutella and stuff them both in my mouth at the same time. It’s not my proudest moment on a bike, but whilst I’m doing this Bruno takes time out to have a piss whilst still moving on his bike. Mildly desperate times. There are nine refreshment stations along the Nove Colli, and we stop at most of them with that Pro grab-and-go attitude. Little and often. Unlike your standard British sportive they have proper food rather than some out of date energy bars and chopped lumps of banana. Yes, you get bananas, but also oranges and other fruit, those slim ham or Nutella sarnies, little fruit and nut bars, tiny pizzas, croissants, energy drink and cups of Coke, and cake. And towards the end of the ride I enjoy the enormous benefits of thumb sized bits of Parmesan, easily stuffed up a short leg or side of the cheek to be gently sucked on and absorbed. With a bit of planning you could easily offset your entry fee with the cost of Parmesan you eat, and maybe travel expenses too.

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We crack on and I spend a lot of time looking at a back wheel, losing count of how many of the hills we’ve been up. Colli 5, 6 and 7 fuzz into one, Monte Tiffi, Perticara and Monte Pugliano. It’s not the length of the climbs on the Nove Colli that get you, or the gradient, but the relentless regularity of them. There’s precious little flat on the ride, and enough rises that don’t count as hills for it to feel like an annoying hammer continually tapping at the legs. Over time it starts to hurt. On the positive side there’s still enough cyclists around to be passing most of them, which is psychologically morale boosting and I don’t forget to look up at the view which is the main reason I’m here, any idiot can Froome their stem for 200km. There are random memories; a group of men shadowing a woman rider so she can get a good time, it’s common practice on a gran fondo for a female rider to be domestiqued by one of more blokes so she can scalp a result. The rider from Kingston Wheelers, wherever you are in the world you’ll always seem to meet a rider from the London club. He was actually quite cheery too, in a grumpy way. The old man on the switchback with a large plate of meat product that I pick at on the way past.


The penultimate climb of the Passo delle Siepi isn’t much to complain about, 4km at an easy average of just under 6%, an amuse jambe for the last leg, we rode this climb the other day and it helps to know what’s round the corner, there’s less mucking about and sprinting for the top today though. Before the final hill there’s about 10km of undulating valley road to negotiate, I mean survive. I find myself in a pack that has seemingly never ridden with other cyclists before, in spite of the last 150kms or so. It is raggedy to say the least and I make my way to the safety of the front, for the moment I can forgo the short-term energy-saving benefits of sitting in wheels for the long-term benefits of staying alive.

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Right on cue as we swing left up the Gorolo my left leg cramps, thank you body, thank you. Glug half a bottle of water and carry on. Fabio advises me in his broken English to save myself for the last kilometre as the climb really ramps up there. Not a problem, there’s saving going on already. It’s not a long climb at all, only 4km, a meagre 4km, but after a short flat downhill you look up and can see the challenge of that last kilometre. It looks like someone has thrown a strand of linguini at the hill and told the road engineers to follow it. The tarmac hideously twists and switchbacks up the hill, its route marked by a struggle of cyclists, shiny parts glinting and sweating in the sun. Grunt away. It’s really quite hard now, but I’ve been through worse, so I carry on. I stare at my socks rotating slowly round. Muttered oaths at myself this time.

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The top of the Gorolo comes as a blessed relief but it’s not quite the top as after a rolling section there’s a final pinch to crest before it’s all downhill to the finish 30kms away. Final effort of the day done everyone hightails it towards it to Cesenatico and it feels like being a sperm in a race to the egg with everyone desperate to get to the front as bunches of mini-pelotons fight into the nagging headwind along the flat plains to the seafront. I’m hanging on in there until my leg cramps again and I ricochet off the back. Bugger. Fighting into the headwind on your own is a ridiculous task, so I compose myself as best possible and batter on, head down, legs twinging and complaining. Fabio notices that I’ve disappeared from the peloton and drops back to find me. More wheel following. Thanks Fabio, sorry for being rubbish.

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The last few kilometres are delicious pain; there are short ramps over main roads that require all of the digging in and willing the whispering cramp not to return. Curve left off the last flyover, follow the signs for the 200km ride, left, right, left, muster a sprint for the finish and reach over to shake Fabio’s hand as we cross the line. Blimey, that was a bit of a struggle. Not being on top form and having to step up to the full distance notwithstanding it’s a tough day out. While none of the hills are long or can tell tales of epic race clashes like those on the Cycling Climb Tick List bathe themselves in and add a dash of romance to your efforts they all add incremental layers of tiredness to the legs. Add to this mix the cumulative weariness of constantly having to be on your guard cycling through unpredictable traffic and it’s an unexpectedly draining day in the saddle.

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Fabio and I tuck our medals into our back pockets, I don’t usually keep sportive medals, I might keep this one as a memento of a big day out though, I suspect Fabio doesn’t need his, and we find our way back the hotel where we have a beer and all the salty snacks. Friend Nick has already had a bit of a spell by the pool after his short course efforts and is having a nap in his room. I take the lift up to mine. It’s quiet and cool. Shower, recovery snooze, ice cream. It’s tempting to go for the full nine scoops for tidy symmetry, but I just have two. I’ve learnt my lesson.

Thanks to Andrea in Emilia Romagna, the Oste Del Castello, Hotel Valverde, Mario and Fred.


Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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stevio1967 | 7 years ago

Very nice write up and no mention of sheep either 


fukawitribe | 7 years ago

Cracking read, top stuff again Sir - and "[w]ith a bit of planning you could easily offset your entry fee with the cost of Parmesan you eat, and maybe travel expenses too"... genius  1

sm | 7 years ago
1 like

Enjoyed that, thank you. Well written.

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