The best thing about sportives is that you don’t need to spend hours poring over a map in the hope of finding a good route, someone’s done all that hard work and plotted a loop that you hope takes in all the best bits, meaning you don’t have to stop and check you’re going the right way at every junction, you just follow the arrows and tick off the happy miles, you’d have to be pretty stupid to get lost on a sportive.
We’re doing a sportive, we go the wrong way. Up a big hill.
We’re in Italy for the Pantanissima Gran Fondo, a 110 or 160km option sportive in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Although to call it a sportive is to do it a massive massive injustice, it’s a Gran Fondo, the European template for the UK’s sportive scene. The mass-ride event over the channel is a bit different in that it’s viewed very much like an actual race at the front end, being competitive to the point of ex-pros having a go with proper prizes and real money on offer, whilst at the back it’s more familiar UK sportive territory as less lithe riders just try to get round.
The Pantanissima is run in honour of Marco Pantani, the hero, villain, victim, depending on your viewpoint, who lived in Cesenatico where the Gran Fondo starts and finishes. Pantani was born in Cesena a few kilometres away and died in tragic circumstances in Rimini just down the road, and in-between times trained on the roads that we’ll be riding on so the area has Pantani very much in it’s blood. The pithy amongst you may wish to insert some quip about having something in your blood here.
Our trip to ride the Pantanissima is a quick in/out with only a day ether side to fit in pedaling, coffee, pasta, Passion and ice-creams and the Belvedere Hotel in Riccione is our base for these precious few days as it’s perfectly placed a few kilometres down the road. It’s also handy for the 125km Gran Fondo Riccione and the Nove Colli, the Gran Fondo classic with a long route of 205 kilometers, 3220 metres of climbing and nine hills, should you wish.
The Belvedere is also useful because as part of the 13 strong bike hotel chain in the area it’s shamelessly accommodating towards cyclists. Half a dozen guided rides depart each morning from the pedestrian 20-40km Leisure Tour to the full gas 140+km Racing Tour for the keen and there’s a well-stocked buffet waiting for everyone at the end to smash that carbohydrate window in with. That’s just the sustaining snack in between the all you can eat breakfast and three course evening meal, and if the free sandwich rolls and bananas you can take with you on the ride haven’t been enough. You’re not going to go hungry here, despite all the cycling there’s the strong possibility you’ll go home in calorie profit.
To shake the previous day’s early start and too much cattle truck travel out the legs and to loosen them up for tomorrow’s Pantanissima we go on a 100km ride, a loop with a stop in postcard Italy Urbino. The route is what a guide would call undulating, which in real terms means very little flat and a whole lot of up, but the sun is out and the temperature is well into double figures, it may only be a few degrees warmer than back home but it makes all the difference and it’s the first no arms and no legs ride of the year. Hooray for warm. Well, warm for someone from the UK, the Italians are still wrapped up in full longs and jerseys, with Buffs, because it’s less than 20 degrees.
Our leader for this ride is Felice, the ex-pro who still does about 30,000 kms a year, so you could say he’s handy, and he leads the fast group over lumpy Emilia-Romagna. From the off the pace is on the speedy side of steady with not much let up or casual chatting on the climbs, as is the way of cycling holidays everyone is keen to stamp their name on the pecking order as soon as the road first goes up, which today is the 10km climb from Falda to Tavoleto where we briefly pause for water. Cof, hack, wheeze.
My ride for the trip is a De Rosa King RS with full Campag Record 11 speed, one of the Belvedere’s many hire bikes. As rentals go the room full of De Rosas just off reception are a step or two above the usual clunky fare and gives the opportunity for a less traditional holiday romance. I don’t feel guilty about not riding my own bike, and I certainly don’t miss the bike-bag lug from plane to bus to train to bus to hotel. And then back again going home.
The descent out of Tavoleto gets tight and twisty and I amusingly fall victim of Euro Brake Syndrome, where years of feathering a front brake on the right are undone by having the brakes wired back to front and I’m obstinately drifted to the wrong side of the road on a tight right-hand hairpin. It’s a syndrome that affects both me and my Pantanissima ride lieutenant James, some time later we’re both spat into a farmyard that’s handily placed for safety on the exit of a tightening corner. Having the brakes set up wrong isn’t a hindrance most of the time, it’s just when you need either control finesse or panic stopping that it becomes problematic with an all too easily skidded rear tyre, damn my strong right hand, annoyingly it leads to some quite feeble descending.
We make it to Urbino without dying and weave through the crowds, permiso, permiso, to get to coffee and buns before heading for home and ticking off the century. At ride’s end and in preparation for tomorrow we’re offered a massage. That’ll be nice. The Belvedere has a Wellness Centre with a Jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish bath and other relaxing essentials, so if you fancy a bit of pampering post ride then it’s the place to head to. The masseuse manages to find all the knots and lumps in my calves and that bit in my thigh that’s strung tight, and he finishes it all off with a leg stretch that has me trying not to chew my lip off. I’m not sure if I’m ready for tomorrow or totally ruined. Anyway, all of the supper with extra helpings then straight to bed, there’s a 05.30 wake up call for the Pantanissima.
A hurried breakfast while the bikes are loaded in the van and we’re taxied up the coast to the start of the Gran Fondo in Cesenatico where riders are already straining at the red and white tape strung across the line with still an hour to go. We use the time amusing ourselves with the fashion quirks of Euro cycling kit.
I was a Pantani fan, and I still hold him dear. The diminutive climber re-ignited my love for road cycling, frail yet impulsive he was my kind of rider. I totally bought into The Pirate thing; I had the bandanas, I bought a Bianchi, I cried when he attacked on the Galibier, I shaved my head when he won the Tour de France. Valentine’s Day isn’t a romantic time in this house, it’s the sad anniversary of his death and when bikes must be ridden up hills. Out the saddle, in the drops.
As it’s the tenth anniversary of that desperate event I had kind of expected something special at the Pantanissima but it all just feels a little, um, tatty. There are a few professionally printed banners that look very smart, but everything else is just a little bit shabby really; the old bike with Pantani things tied to it, the wheel-shaped icon thing, there’s no mistaking the love some have for the man, it just looks a little sad. Riders have done their best to join in though, there are more Mercatone Uno jerseys than you can shake a 90’s stick at, bandanas are back in style and there are tops, shorts and socks decorated with The Pirate logo. I probably should have brought one of my bandanas.
The 8 a.m. start is the usual herd of buffalos sportive peloton, 40 kph through the town and along the flat towards the first climb, egos are full to the fore so someone’s always happy to thrust to the front, with 160 unknown kilometres to go it makes sense to nervously sit in wheels with fingers hovering brakes anticipating a crash. Don’t grab the left.
The route is essentially a lollipop shape, actually more like a chewed rat and its tail if you squint, we head out south west from Cesenatico along the windy coastal flatlands, go up and down the Montevecchio and down the valley to Mercato Saraceno where the route splits. The 110km Percorso Corto goes up to Ciola before rejoining the Long Route at Borello to do the Montevecchio in reverse and back home via the flatlands. The 160km long route goes up a bigger hill to Carnaio before dropping down to the base of the steep side of the Montevecchio and then to home the same way.
The raggedy group we’re in disintegrates when we hit the bottom of the first gradient of the day and everyone settles into their climbing pace. The Montevecchio is a steady climb, at just over 15km long and only steep in short segments it isn’t a killer and actually a pretty little thing, up through the trees, flanked by bushy banks of yellow flowers and views across the flat towards Rimini and the sea. Tediously for a climb it has descents in it. A feature of the hills round here seems to be that there’s no constant gradient, everything is very flowy, the climbs have descents in and the descents have climbs in which gets more and more annoying and weary on the legs as the day goes on. No wonder the little man was a good climber.
Thanks to the general chaos with race organizers trying to erect an inflatable arch over the road and the scrabble for some sustenance at the feed station we totally miss the Pantani monument that’s right on the left of the road at the top of the Montevecchio, that and the fact that it’s a totally unassuming rock in a gravel lay-by with an A3 photo of Marco stuck on it. Well done us. The descent off the hill is a different and steeper story to the climb, losing roughly the same height in a mere 6 kilometres. Brake wary we mince over pink “Pantani”s painted in the road, all reading the wrong way. I comment that it’s lucky that we don’t have to do this as a climb, then as we pass a timing mat being set up on the road towards the bottom, combined with the orientation of the Pantani road decoration it dawns on me that we will. James is wise and had figured this out a while back. That’ll be something to look forward to then.
We turn sharp left at the bottom and head due south along the main road that gently drops through the valley for 10 clicks or so to the short and long route split. Again this is the perfect opportunity to shamelessly suck a wheel and let the eager do the work, especially the ones whose friends have to shout at to stop being an idiot and let somone else do a turn on the front, I’m assuming that’s what they said in Italian as he swung off pretty sharpish.
At Mercato Saraceno the Pantanissima divides, with the short course dog-legging off to the right and the 160km route carrying straight on. We stop at the junction and discuss the options, the short route is looking incredibly tempting, even at this early stage we’re both feeling a little jaded, yesterday’s swift 100kms might have something to do with this, and as we’ve only done about 50 kilometres it’s a significant worry. James is happy to admit that he really doesn’t have the legs but I argue that as we’ve come all this way it makes sense to do the Percorso Lungo. I’m bluffing quite outrageously, my legs are pretty shattered as well, I’m really not feeling it either and the short option is incredibly tempting, but the disappointment at the end of the day at not doing the proper version would be too much. There’s a bit of pride mixed in there as well. I mean a lot.
So we ignore the right hand turn of shame and follow the stream of cyclists through the cobbled centre of town and turn left up the hill. There’s no messing with this one, the profile on the route map was long and stiff so we grit our teeth and grind into the tarmac. We’re slowly passing cyclists so that helps, but it looks like it’s going to be a tough, painful struggle on unwilling legs.
After ten minutes or so a rider pulls alongside me and says something in foreign. After explaining that I’m English he tells me in a way I understand that this is not the Pantanissima route and we’re cycling up the wrong hill. Oh. We’d assumed that as we were surrounded by cyclists they’d all be doing the same thing as us, turns out that in Italy large groups of people just go out on rides that aren’t organized and paid for. How weird is that? So after thanking the man profusely we switch back down the hill half laughing half swearing and turn onto what we hope is the long route.
This road is wide, gently uphill and very very empty. We started the ride pretty much at the back and our little indiscretion now has us properly last so the road is deserted, we pedal on with the silent fear that we might still be on the wrong road, although slightly re-assured by the odd arrow our recent experience makes us think they could be for some other event. It’s not a hard road that snakes up the valley, certainly a whole lot easier than the last one we’d winched up, and so it is we pedal on as a lonely pair, taking turns on the front. We’re not even halfway yet, there’s one big hill and one small steep hill to go and the psychological damage of doing a few pointless uphill kilometres is playing on legs and heads. There is no talking, there is just pedaling. There is nothing else to do but just get on with it.
The next few kilometres are a tunnel of gentle worry until up ahead we see a rider with a number pinned to their back. It’s the best thing we see all day. We say hello as we pass and then not much further on we overtake another Pantanissima cyclist. We’re not lost and we’re not last on the road. Double hooray. The appearance of a trestle-table feed-station staffed by two patient ladies smoking their fags cements the deal and we push on with stoic purpose as the road twists and turns, never too steeply down, never too steeply up. It weaves alongside and under a motorway and this is obviously the old road, which makes for swift miles, handy considering our current situation, but it’s not lost that if we’d been in a group we’d be cracking the tarmac along here.
We drop into San Pietro In Bagno and the route turns sharply right at an easily missed arrow and points abruptly upwards, there’s just a few kilometres left to make it over the summit and we’ve run out of easy hill. The road twists up through meadows making the parcours feel different and more alpine, and definitely that easy gear for a while. It’s only 5kms or thereabouts so not an endless torture, but apart from a man looking after a timing mat a few hundred metres from the top there’s nothing to celebrate the summit, which is a bit disappointing for the crest of a big climb and the halfway point. We briefly freewheel down the hill to Gamberini where thankfully at a junction there is a feed station with some leftovers, we fill our pockets and cram our mouths and carry on, back up a hill.
There’s not much looking up enjoying the countryside vistas going on now, just looking down at the computer, watching the kilometres slowly tick along. Luckily for now after the steady climb to Spinello the general attitude is down and it’s all easy fast and free distance reward, and as we have the roads to ourselves it’s a pleasant experience, sportives are best done when there’s no-one else around.
This descent is a really lovely road, just the right gradient with just the right swoop to all the bends and any other less tired less slightly worried time there would be wheeeeeeeeeee noises. Negotiating the tight hairpins of Poggio we thread through Linaro and finally drop to the foot of the valley at Borello, scoot across a couple of roundabouts and turn left into the steep side of Montevecchio. The painted pink Pantani graffiti reads the right way now and we steadily pick them off with that just-this-to-do-and-we’re-almost-home feeling. Again we miss the Pantani monument at the summit, preoccupied by grabbing some final food and getting home. I’m not the reverential type but I would have liked to stop and tip the peak of my hat, just as a mark of respect for the inspiration, and for the sad end, because before all the retrospective hand-wringing he was a little hero.
As we hit the bottom of the Montevecchio we’re joined by Mr Bibs, he’s called Mr Bibs because he’s cycling with the straps of his bib-shorts flapping in the breeze by his thighs, it’s quite a look and it’s confused us for quite a while why anyone would ride like that as we’ve been yo-yoing with Mr Bibs for the last 80km at least. We must be getting on his nerves. He’s a big lad on a big orange KTM road bike looking like a decent wind-block so we manipulate him into doing his turn on the front instead of just sitting in. With that silent communication that sometimes exists among cyclists he understands immediately and does a massive turn, and the three-man paceline to help us survive the headwind the last 15km home is created.
We roll over the last roundabout and over the last bridge, turn left along the seafront and we’re done, our moving time has been 5.59, that minute under 6 hours is very very important and might explain the sudden turn of speed at the end. Not such a shabby time then, even without the, um, detour. Our overall time, with errors and photo stops must have been considerably longer though as they’re taking down the banners at the finish and prize giving for the quick boys is almost over. A testament to your typical Gran Fondo being a bit quicker than your average sportive then, that’s not even Fast Bronze status. And no medals FFS.
It may not have been the most brutal 100 miles we’ve ever done but with the relentless up and down of most of the course and 2,200 metres of climbing it’s one of those cheekily hard rides, and considering how we were feeling at not even half way it’s a surprise we feel mostly okay. We wheel back to the Belvedere bus where we’re all treated to a large glass of Prosecco or two for our endeavours and taken the 20 minutes back to the hotel to eat and collapse.
The Belvedere are good at looking after cyclists like this, they know the little things that makes the difference. Being pampered a little at the end of a big ride, being able to dump your smelly cycling kit in the basket in the bike room in the evening and having it washed and ready for the next day’s ride, having full and fast working internet so you can instantly check your Strava times, or instagram or tweet or facebook the day’s pedal, all of that food. Each little bit makes for a pleasant experience. They must be doing something right, we ride with cyclists from the UK, Norway, Canada, the USA and the Antipodes, many of them are return clients, their draw is strong, they just “get” cyclists.
Our last day is a recovery day for the legs so we look at the range of rides on offer and drag our heavy limbs on the Explorer Ride led by Danilo, a local who knows the area really well, so a hopefully gentle 80km is on the cards to spin the legs. There’s also a wine tasting along the way, which aids our decision. The day is misty and a little chilly on the Adriatic coast but warms up as we head inland to the hills despite being overcast with the menace of rain. Ordinarily this would be a tediously slow ride but for legs with some kilometres in them from the last two days it’s the exactly perfect pace. Once the climb out of the town is done we roll along picturesque hill ridges with views full of countryside to both sides and meander up and down the hills in a most artistic fashion.
Everyone tootles around happily to the coffee stop in Montegrimano and then on to the Fiammetta wine estate for more refreshment, the owner of which just happens to be on the bike ride. We settle down for some bread, cheese, prosciutto and red and white wine tasting before the quick way home and a sprint to grab a moped’s wheel. It’s all too easy to get lost in Italy.
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 road.cc 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.