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24 hour party people: Castelli 24h review

In-depth
16 Jan 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 78 of Cyclist magazine

Words Stu Bowers Photography Patrik Lundin

‘If it rains, that bottom bend is going to be lethal,’ I remark to my teammate, Rich, as we roll around a few sighting laps of the street circuit.

We’ll have plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with the course over the next day or so, as we are limbering up for the start of the Castelli24h criterium race in Feltre, northern Italy.

Currently it’s dry and abnormally warm at this dusk hour, but my weather app suggests there’s a 67% chance of a downpour later tonight, which is the reason for my concern.

Rich, though, is quick to put my mind at ease. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ he says. ‘They stop the race if it rains, and everyone goes for a beer while they wait for it to dry up.

‘Then they send out a racing driver in a Lamborghini onto the circuit to blast around a few laps, just to help dry the track out faster.’

No one does flamboyance quite like the Italians. Now I’m actually hoping it does rain.

Feltre, on any normal day, is a quintessential Italian town, with a historic walled centre, Roman architecture and a hilltop location that affords delightful views of the Dolomites to the north. Today, though, the ambience is very different.

So far this event looks to be as much an excuse for a day-long party as it is a serious bike race.

There’s a real festival vibe. The town is completely closed off to traffic, and its many bars are spilling customers onto the streets as crowds pack themselves densely along the barriers lining the entire course.

Music from the DJ pumps around the circuit, culminating in a crescendo of Euro-techno as we enter the start-finish straight where above our heads the red digits on the gantry’s large digital display prominently read 24:00:00 in readiness for the start.

I wonder how I’ll be feeling by the time that clock has ticked round to single digits. 

There’s no I in team

Here’s how it works. Teams of 12 riders compete on a feature-packed, 1.5km street circuit that includes a nasty drag, a fast S-bend descent and even a cobbled sector.

Only one rider from the team is permitted in the race at any one time, and the team should ideally have a rider on the course at all times.

It’s up to you to decide tactically how best to use your team members and how long their respective stints are, as long as everyone is used at least once.

Riders make rolling changeovers, to keep the flow of the race and allow teams to maintain their position in a group.

This is achieved with a pit lane handover system in which the active rider signals to their replacement their intent to leave the circuit at the end of the following lap.

Then, as the rider peels off into one end of the pit lane the incoming rider is permitted a rolling start out of the far end, so they’re up to speed by the time the group reaches them. That’s the theory, at least.

Other than that the only real rule is race as hard as you can to accumulate as many laps as possible in the 24 hours.

I’m to take the first shift, and I’m not sure if that’s a privilege or a bum deal. On the plus side the atmosphere will be electric and at least it means I’m getting a turn done as early as possible.

On the other hand, these opening laps are the most likely to be filled with carnage. Either way, I burrow myself into the mass of 100 or so other riders under the gantry.

The music fades as the announcer introduces dignitaries and special guests including two-time World Champion Paolo Bettini, who says a few words of encouragement.

I’m not really listening, though – I’m too busy checking out the riders around me. They tap their feet, shake their legs and perform last-minute stretches.

Above me to the left overhangs a large, ornate stone balcony, and I half expect a Roman Emperor to appear to begin the games.

Certainly, what lies ahead for the next 1,440 minutes will be a battle of gladiatorial proportions. 

24 hours and counting

It’s 9pm. It’s still incredibly warm, but thankfully there’s no sign of that rain. The countdown begins, 10-9-8…, the adrenaline in my body spikes and the hairs on my arms and neck stand on end.

One final deep breath, 4-3-2-1, and in a wave of colour we surge forward to the cacophony of cleats striking pedals.

The first lap flashes past in a blur, a frenzied melee of riders fighting for position, trying to stay safe and keep the front of the race in sight.

Already the pack has been decimated, blown to smithereens by a frenetic pace set by the teams intent on going flat-out from the gun.

There may be 24 hours to go, but many of the riders are racing like it’s an ordinary one-hour crit.

Tactics soon come into play. As I come around to complete only my second lap, riders are now already peeling into the pit lane for an early change.

As more fresh legs join the race, the pace ramps up again and again.

Our team plan is to divide the stints fairly. We’ll split our 12 riders into four groups, with each sub-team of three rotating out on course for three hours. That divides into roughly 20-

minute stints for each rider, with three outings each per session. Each group will then do two of these three-hour sessions, effectively split by (assuming all goes to plan) a nine-hour rest period while the other groups take charge.

The spirit of the event is as much about the social side as it is the riding. The racing is full bore, but this format allows a generous amount of downtime in which to kick back, grab a beer and some food and soak up the atmosphere.

If you’re lucky you can even grab some sleep.

It’s been such a chaotic start I’ve completely forgotten to check my watch while I ride, and when I do I find I’ve overrun.

When I pass the pits again I raise my finger in the air to signal to our next man, Steve, who I’ve kept waiting in the pit lane for an additional five minutes, that this next lap will be my last for this shift.

As I pull off the circuit, I can just about squint through the haze of sweat pouring into my eyes and make out Steve successfully reconnecting with the race at the exit of the pit lane.

Finally I can take stock of what’s been a crazy but hugely enjoyable opening half hour.

Rehydrating and refuelling is the priority for me now, as I’ll need to be ready to be back out on course in around 40 minutes’ time. I check my watch: 23 hours 30 minutes and counting. 

Best laid plans…

Fast forward 22.5 hours and the plan has gone completely out the window. The BBC’s weather app was a way off with its forecast.

It hasn’t rained a drop and yesterday’s heatwave has returned today with even more ferocity.

Even without temperatures in the high 20s, the Castelli24h is a race of attrition, but the heat and length, not to mention sleep deprivation, have taken their toll.

We’re not alone. Riders are slumped seeking shade under awnings, exhausted and simply unable to face another turn.

We’ve got one man in the local A&E having a wrist X-rayed after a fall, and by the time the last hour rolls around it’s basically a case of whoever’s left standing.

That unfortunately means me pulling on well used (and really quite sweaty) kit to get out there one last time.

It’s hard to motivate myself for this final push, but at least there’s plenty of encouragement from the spectators. With the end in sight, the crowds have swelled again and their cheering and banging on the boards means the noise levels have skyrocketed once more. 

By now I know every inch of the circuit. I have no idea how many laps I’ve completed but it’s more than enough to have a mental map of every blemish in the tarmac.

Road furniture and painted lines are now burned on my brain to maximise every ounce of speed.

Pass the last lamppost on the right, aim for the gap between the two drain covers, then brake hard at the end of the yellow lines. Tip the bike in, inside pedal up, outside pedal fully weighted, let it drift all the way to the barriers on the exit, stand up and sprint flat-out to the first speed bump.

And so it goes on. Hypnotised by the repetition, laps pass almost unnoticed now. Some riders are crawling around the course, just willing the final minutes to pass.

Other teams have left something in the tank and are making up large numbers of laps on those flagging.

I’m exhausted, yet also elated. Who knew racing round in circles for 24 hours could be this much fun?

Steve is out on the circuit when the clock at last ticks over to zero, and as he pulls back into the pits for the final time our team has racked up a highly respectable 472 laps, totalling 873.2km. That’s a tidy 36.32kmh average.

Impressively, the winners have managed 521 laps with an average speed of over 40kmh. But hey, we can always try again next year.

Who knows? Maybe it will rain and they’ll need someone to drive the Lamborghini.

Details 

What: Castelli24h
Where: Feltre, Italy
How far: As far as you can manage
Next one: 7th-8th June 2019
Price: €400 per team (max 12 people)
More info: 24orefeltre.it 

The rider’s ride (part 1)

Condor Italia RC, £799 (frameset), approx £4,000 (as tested), condorcycles.com

Racing the Condor Italia RC in northern Italy couldn’t be more appropriate. Not only is the bike returning to its birthplace, with Condor’s factory just a short hop down the road in Vicenza, but it’s exactly the kind of event the bike was built for.

The RC stands for ‘race competition’ so makes no secret of the fact this bike was intended to be put through its paces with a number pinned on your jersey.

And it didn’t disappoint. The 7000 series alloy triple-butted frame might not be the lightest at a claimed 1,600g, but it stands resolutely firm in every situation, helping it to retain a snappy feel.

The wheels also helped a lot in this regard – Hunt’s Team 45 carbon wheels shod with Vittoria Corsa 25mm tubs were superbly suited to the demands of the event and really complemented the attributes of the frame.

 

The rider’s ride (part 2)

Trek Émonda ALR 6, £2,000, trekbikes.com

The Émonda ALR 6 is literally a carbon copy. Made from hydroformed aluminium, it aims to mimic the performance of Trek’s top-end race-ready carbon rigs of the same name.

With invisible weld technology you could easily be duped into thinking it was carbon, especially in this anodised black finish.

It’s Trek’s lightest aluminium frame and, paired with 50mm Bontrager Aeolus 5 Comp wheels and a Shimano Ultegra groupset, it proved to be the perfect companion for crit racing.

The frame’s stiffness was perceptible (and appreciated) up that 400m climb and during the innumerable accelerations and surges in pace.

It handled adeptly too, feeling planted through tricky high-speed corners and sticking resolutely to line choices while being nimble enough to make a last-minute switch to navigate its way through a group.

Do it yourself

Travel

There are plenty of flights from all major UK airports to Venice Marco Polo, which is the easiest option for travel, although Treviso and Veneto are alternative options for airports.

From Venice, it’s about 1hr 30min drive to Feltre. Cyclist flew with BA from London Heathrow for around £300 return.

Budget airlines may come in cheaper for the flights but be aware they usually charge more for bike transport.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Casagrande (hotelcasagrande.it) on the outskirts of Feltre, about a 1.5km ride from the course.

The hotel was extremely bike friendly, even having its own workshop with a workstand, basic tools and a track pump.

Its restaurant also served up some delicious meals although, let’s face it, most Italian food is pretty great.

Thanks

Big thanks go to everyone at Castelli, both on the Italian side and at UK distributor Saddleback, for allowing Cyclist to join a team and for their superb hospitality throughout the event.

A special mention goes to Camilla, without whom we may never have retrieved our lost bikes.