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Taking on the Cippo

Why the Ride Riccione gran fondo, complete with Marco Pantani's favourite climb, should be on your to-do list

Marco Pantani trained on the Cippo di Carpegna in northern Italy a lot. It's not the tallest climb in the world and it's not the longest, but it's steep and unfriendly, and on a baking hot day in June a fair few Ride Riccione gran fondo cyclists got off and walked, or sat on the side of the road for a rest.

"Carpegna mi basta," Pantani famously replied when asked why he didn't prepare for Grand Tours in the high mountains. "Carpegna is enough for me." 

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You've got to have a plan. We did. We intended taking on Ride Riccione as a group – Belvedere Hotel bike mechanic Nick, readers Simon and Chris, and me – and that's the way it started, but then things got messy...

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Why? About 2,000 riders headed out of the centre of Riccione towards San Marino at a frenetic pace. We set off well towards the back of the field (something to do with a mix up with race numbers; don't ask!), a river of cyclists covering the full width of the road ahead of us as far as the eye could see. 

After a helter-skelter half hour, at the start of the Montegiardino climb, there were still no gaps around us and we were pretty much riding as a group. By the top of the climb, not so much. Somewhere on the slopes we got split up and finding your mates among a couple of thousand other riders, well, you can pretty much forget it. Never mind, you're not going to be short of people to ride with in a field of this size.

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Now in its 21st year (formerly as Granfondo Riccione), Ride Riccione comes in three different flavours: the 35km (22 miles) Gourmet ride, the 105km (65 miles) Middle ride and the 140km (87 miles) full bodied version. In for a penny... we signed up for the long one with about 2,500m of climbing, according to most people's bike computers, or 3,100m of climbing according to the official literature. I somehow turned my computer off halfway round – I never did work out how – so I'm not in a position to adjudicate on that one.

The Montegiardino climb in San Marino – it's okay, you don't have to take your passport or anything – is the main feature of the early section of the ride. I'd love to tell you more about it but we were so hemmed in that it was pretty much impossible to concentrate on anything other than the wheels around you. Anyway, the headline for this year's edition of Ride Riccione was the addition of the Cippo di Carpegna before the halfway mark.

The Cippo was one of Marco Pantani's favourite climbs. He would head out from his home in the coastal town of Cesenatico (where there's now a Pantani museum) and ride it repeatedly – four times in one sitting, so the local riders say. 

"It is on Carpegna that I have prepared so many of my victories," said Il Pirata. "Carpegna mi basta." 

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There's no chance that you'll forget the quote because it's stencilled on the road all the way up. This climb has become synonymous with the 1998 Giro d'Italia and Tour de France winner – he's the last rider to have won them both in the same year – to the extent that it's often known as the Cippo di Pantani. 

The Cippo tops out at 1,415m and it's only 6.1km long. That's nothing compared with the Stelvio Pass, say, which is well over 20km long and goes up to 2,757m. The Cippo is steep, though, with an average gradient of 11.5%. The maximum gradient given on the signs is 20% although people reported readings of up to 25% on their bike computers over short sections. That's steep by any standards.

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It's a fabulous climb. The abridged version is that it's really steep at the start, it eases off a little for the twists and turns through the forest in the middle and then, just when you think you've got the measure of it, there's a sucker punch: it kicks up again as you come blinking out of the trees towards the top. If the sun's shining, and it was for us with the late morning temperature hovering in the low 30s, you're going to be cooked by the time you crest the summit.

The thing is that the really harsh section at the bottom steals away your Tigger bounce and it's difficult to get it back over the following 22 turns. The fact that the gradient isn't consistent also makes it hard to find a rhythm, particularly when you add hundreds of other riders into the equation. All of this makes the Cippo a surprisingly testing climb, especially if you're pushing a big gear.

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Oh yeah, about that... One thing any right-thinking rider would do is to check the gradient in advance and make sure they had suitable gears, right? [Looks down at shoes]. I had a 53/39-tooth chainset and an 11-28-tooth cassette... or I thought I did. It turns out that the wheel I'd put on before heading out to Italy was fitted with an 11-25-tooth block and I never really looked at it to check. You know what it's like when you're rushing to get your bike boxed! I got up the Cippo pretty well considering, but my quads hated me for it. If you're after the full Pantani experience, do something similar. If you're not, don't.

One other thing about the Cippo is that the road isn't wide by any means. Truth be told, it's more of a winding lane. It's asphalt all the way but not particularly well kept asphalt. In fact, it's decidedly ropey at times. That's fine when you're tottering uphill but down the other side it's – what's the word? – sketchy. You can't totally let loose for fear of hitting a gravelly corner or a section where the surface has crumbled. Embrace it, this all adds to the character!

Like the climb, the descent is steep in parts with a few hairpins to negotiate, the narrowness of the road giving you little margin for error. When the Giro d'Italia last came to these parts, race organisers fixed nets to some of the corners to catch any riders who didn't make it round! Honestly. Given the choice, you'd rather end up netted than rocked or treed, wouldn't you? The Ride Riccione organisers don't do the same thing so take it steady if you want to get down in one piece.

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All that face-throbbing work on the climb earns you about 7km of proper descending with views towards the Appennino Tosca-Romagnolo mountains, followed by 30km where the road is either flat of heading slightly downhill. Bliss! This section is a blast. It feels like you have a constant tailwind so it's your chance to repair the damage that Cippo has done to your average speed. 

I pulled alongside a local rider and we chatted. Well, we had some sort of English/Italiano hybrid lingo going on. Being in Italy, it involved a lot of hand waving, and that's not easiest thing in the world to do when you're taking a corner at speed.

"We need persone," he said, pointing around at nothing in particular.

We spotted a couple of likely persones up ahead, put the hammer down and enlisted our first recruits... Then two more, and so on, and so on. Within a few minutes we were up to 25, sharing the work at the front and ticking off the kilometres effortlessly. This section of the ride might not offer the same drama as the action-packed first half but it's your chance to calm down a bit, eat some food, get some drink down and talk with the riders around you.

Unlike something like the huge Maratona dles Dolomites which attracts an international field, Ride Riccione is a more typically Italian event. At least, everyone I spoke to – admittedly quite a small snapshot, I guess – was from Italy or San Marino, nearly all of them representing a local club or team. 

Through and off, through and off... In a big group like ours you're mostly 'off' so there's plenty of time to get yourself together and enjoy the ride.

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Just as you start to think that you could get used to all of this flat stuff you hit the Montecalvo in Foglia climb and the chat stops abruptly. It's a pleasant climb – tree lined and very green – but compared to the Cippo... pah! You're looking at 200m of elevation gain and a gradient that isn't going to give you bad dreams. You can select your gear and take this one at whatever intensity you like rather than having it dictated to you by the slope. Still, it did thin out our little peloton; 95km in and there were obviously some tired legs.

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Get down the other side of Montecalvo and you're almost immediately on the climb up to the town of Mondaino. This one's a little higher – getting on for 300m – but not too severe. The real enemy at this stage was the sun beating down hard. The route takes you on to narrow cobbled streets at the top of the climb, houses and shops butting right up to the sides of the road. Heat bounces at you from all angles and there's zero breeze. Scorching! You find yourself scurrying gekko-style from one patch of shade to the next.

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Time for a quick refill of the water bottles in the PIazza Maggiore, complete with flag wielding locals. It was nice of them to turn out and all, and I'm sure there's a really interesting backstory but, you know, needs must. I don't like to belittle a whole swathe of local history but I just grabbed a segment of orange and hit the rolling roads back to Riccione. 

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Ride Riccione was a fantastic experience. The scenery in this area of Italy is stunning at any time but after a super-wet May the whole place was really, really green when the sun came out for us in June. In fact, we had wall-to-wall sunshine for the entire week while it was soggy back in the UK, and that always makes it even better.

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You get great climbs, fast descents, beautiful valleys, castles – lots of castles – and as much crostata as you can eat when you cross the finish line. Do the long route that takes in the Cippo and you'll deserve an extra slice.

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What readers said...

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"My favourite bit was the Cippo climb. It was really hard at the start, but after that I started spinning, got into a good rhythm and was counting off the 22 turns to the top. I rode best on the last climb of the day. I felt good up there. I kept thinking people would come past me but they never did."

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"I felt strongest on the ride into the bottom of the Cippo. The scenery was great there with some really strange rock formations. You could tell that the bottom of Cippo was steep because I actually wheelied! I enjoyed the middle section of the climb too, once you could sit down in the saddle again."

Here's the video that Dave and Liam made when they did the Riccione Gran Fondo in 2018. It didn't include the Cippo then.

For more info go to the Ride Riccione website

We stayed at the Belvedere Hotel in Riccione for Italy Week

Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.

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