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La Campionissimo sportive: Pantani's Revenge

Peter Stuart
2 Nov 2015

Cyclist takes on two of Italy's most savage climbs back-to-back at La Campionissimo - but will it prove one climb too many?

This isn’t discomfort, this isn’t fatigue – this is pain. My only conciliation is the repeated almost ritualistic inward chant of, ‘This will end, this has to end.’ The devastation being wreaked on my body and my psyche makes me believe that the timeline of my life will now be split into pre and post-Mortirolo.

I reach the statue of Italian cycling legend Marco Pantani that punctuates the climb and signifies that there’s around a kilometre and a half remaining. I ask some bystanders in a babbled shriek whether the gradient eases off – they shake their heads pitifully. I turn on the hairpin and, as the road reveals itself ahead of me, never before has a kilometre seemed like such a long way.

Seeing stars

The Granfondo Campionissimo is a new event, but is also very familiar. Now sponsored by clothing brand Assos, the sportive is officially in its first year but occupies the same slot in the calendar and the same route as it predecessor, the Granfondo Giordana, which itself took over the same slot and route from the Granfondo Marco Pantani.

The Pantani moniker may have been the most appropriate, as the event is very Italian and very much for climbers. It passes over the Gavia Pass, then the Mortirolo, two of the toughest climbs in Italy, and then tacks on the Passo di Sante Cristina, accumulating more than 4,500m of vertical ascent in the process, despite a relatively short length of 170km.

Pantani won’t be the only cycling legend I see today as, here in the starting pen, not 10 metres from me, stands five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain. Predictably, he’s surrounded by fans snapping selfies and a swarm of journalists. It’s 7am and the sun is sitting low in a clear sky in front of us, making for a pretty, albeit blinding, starting straight.

The announcers are in full flow but suddenly everything stops. Luca Paolini has just arrived in full Katusha kit aboard his Canyon Aeroad team bike, but he has no race number and a minor official is giving him a stern, though not entirely serious, reprimand. They let him off, and he squeezes past me and heads for the front of the starting pen. So begins the customary countdown to the off.

The first section is neutralised because it’s all downhill – which results in the dragging of brakes for 30 minutes while the Italian racers vie for position and others jostle their way towards Paolini and Indurain. The result is that I’m being squeezed and cut up on every corner, trying to stay out of trouble. At the bottom of the valley the neutralisation lifts just as the road tips skyward and out of sheer frustration at the crowds I sprint ahead. Soon I find myself in the front group, against my better judgement.

The first part of the route to the Gavia, the road from Edolo to Santa Appollina, is a serious climb in itself. It covers 27km at an average of 3% with spikes of over 10% and a few brief drops in elevation. I mix it with the front group for 10km or so, but eventually it dawns on me how suicidal my current tactic is, and ease I off the pace until I drift back into the second group.

Somewhere near Santa Appollina, where the Gavia begins, the sensation of the climb changes from enjoyably challenging to worryingly strenuous. Behind me I hear a rider catching up. It’s Luca Paolini. Never in my life have I seen a human glide so effortlessly uphill. He seems to be at an rpm of 60, yet his upper body shows no sign of movement while his quads metronomically propel him ahead. He’s noticeable if nothing else by his complete silence, his mouth is closed and he seems to be breathing only faintly through his nose as he floats skywards. I’m going flat out and yet I have no chance of keeping up with him, and before I know it he’s out of sight. I look around to see if anyone else shared my wonder at this apparition, but the Italians around me didn’t look up from their stems. Everyone else is absorbed in their own personal struggle.

The Gavia keeps on relentlessly, but I’m actually quite enjoying the climb. The gradients hover around 8%, with the last 3km giving way to steeper 12 or 13% ramps. I try to keep up a good pace because I know that the ensuing descent will be closed to traffic for the first few groups only, so it makes sense to arrive at the top with the front-runners.

It proves to be worth the effort – the descent is one of the finest I’ve ever ridden. With open vistas at the top and smoothly paved roads below, we race down confidently at speeds hovering in the high sixties, punctuated by a couple of brief blasts above the 80kmh mark.

I’m glad to have a group of local Italians around me because they know the roads well, although I’m also slightly nervous as they compete for position at over 70kmh. Coming out of Cepina we head into the stunning Valtellina valley. With mountains on each side and the road winding beside a fierce river, the pain of the climb has dissolved into pure riding pleasure.

Then we begin to see signs for the Mortirolo. Some riders fade back in the group, wary of the horrors that lie ahead. I cross the timing mat that will record our efforts on the climb, and pass a sign that tells me that the next 12km will be at an average of 11%. That doesn’t sound so bad.

Facing the Mortirolo

Lance Armstrong described the Mortirolo as the hardest climb he’d ever ridden. It’s sparing to begin with, with the first 2km averaging around 10%, peppered with a few 15% ramps that I dispatch with a couple of out-of-the-saddle efforts, convincing myself that it’s all under control. Then it really begins.

The 8km-to-go sign tells me the next kilometre will average 14%. It already sounds steep, and to make things worse the gradient is not distributed in a merciful way. A 20% sign warns of the ramp ahead and I’m soon forced out of the saddle, twisting my entire body from side to side to climb it, with my Garmin barely registering forward motion. It seems impossibly steep and I have to carefully position myself over the bike to balance the twin risks of my rear wheel skidding and my front wheel popping off the ground. I’ve ridden plenty of climbs of this gradient, and plenty of this length, but rarely at the same time. There seems to be no end. One steep section leads straight into another and I don’t get the chance to settle back into the saddle to ease my aching legs and back.

This treatment continues for kilometre after kilometre. One 20% sign follows another, although my Garmin later tells me the steepest incline was actually an eye-watering 33%. With my lungs burning and my spine aching from the contortions I’ve been forced into, I know that if I stop I have no hope of starting again. I pass broken men at the roadside with heads in hands. ‘This has to end,’ I keep telling myself.

I’m overtaken by a few riders in the middle of the ascent and looking over at them as they pass I see no look of triumph or competitiveness, but rather almost a hint of sorrow in their eyes, a moment of shared sympathy. I am travelling extremely slowly.

I reach the Pantani monument and make my shrill inquiry about the distance remaining. Despite the poor encouragement I find here the incline does ease off, but even on these shallower slopes I’m still struggling.

Frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog I crawl to the summit. Some bystanders laugh, others look concerned, and everyone is taking pictures.It has taken me an hour and 13 minutes to reach the top. Arriving at the summit is like being released from prison (I imagine) and I savour the freedom from torment, but I still have a long way to go and the day is getting very hot.

Looking back I see a group bearing down on me, so I jump eagerly onto the back of the pack. I’m hoping for a speedy and refreshing descent but the Mortirolo offers anything but. The road is dotted with severe cracks and surface irregularities, and with the trees casting sharp shadows it’s difficult to separate rough ground from smooth. After rattling over one such crack and almost losing control of the bike I turn with alarm to a rider beside me. He gives me a characteristically Italian shrug and says, ‘It’s a 50/50 chance down here.’ To add to the challenge, the fast down sections are interspersed with short ascents, and each time we arrive at another hill there’s a collective groan from the group.

Eventually the undulations give way to a genuine descent, and I’m a little concerned about not knowing the perfect line. A svelte rider with an aura of wisdom passes me and I jump on his wheel, only for him to immediately pull on the brakes and unclip in an effort to not hit the armco at the side of the road, which is all that stands between us and a 200m drop on the other side. We make it through, but minutes later I hear a loud pop behind as a rider in a group catching us has his tyre explode beneath him due to the heat. It’s enough to make me slow down and take the descent with added caution.

My neck and arms are aching from the strain of absorbing the bumps, and the heat has made the air feel like hot syrup. We’re nearing Aprica where the Medio route comes to an end, but I have signed up for the Lungo route, which adds on another 20km of riding, including a 6km climb with 20% stints.

Rolling into Aprica I see the finish line for the Medio route, and the sign pointing the way towards the Lungo route. My resolution is clear. I don’t even have to discuss the options with myself. Despite the group of officials waving me towards the Lungo route, I roll over the line with a gratifying ‘blip’ and lay myself down right there on the pavement. I’m done.

As the pain gradually subsides, I begin to feel a combination of contentment that I conquered the Mortirolo, and a hint of eagerness to climb back onto my bike and finish the Lungo course. Attempting to stand up, however, my legs fail me, and I slump back onto the concrete. Behind me, the winner of the Lungo course is already on stage receiving a bottle of champagne.

There are many sportives longer than La Campionissimo, and others that pack in more vertical ascent, but of all the rides I’ve done in my life this is quite possibly the hardest. As tough as it is, though, to have ridden on the same roads as Indurain and Paolini, to have climbed inclines that have reduced pro cyclists to tears and to have ridden into such stunning settings as the Valtellina valley or the upper slopes of the Gavia fills me with a warm glow. It’s an event that demands respect, but pays full dividends to those who approach it with reverence.

Do it yourself

What - La Campionissimo

Where - Aprica, Italy

How far - 85km, 155km or 175km

Next - 26th June 2016

Price - €60

More info - granfondolacampionissimo.com

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