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La Pina sportive

Sam Challis
21 Dec 2015

La Pina celebrates the life of legendary bikebuilder Giovanni Pinarello. Cyclist discovers the route to be a fitting tribute.

It’s 19 years since Pinarello held its first cycling marathon in Treviso in northern Italy, and in that time the event has become more than a granfondo. La Pina has grown into a festival of cycling, taking up a full weekend in July and involving 3,500 participants. But despite its size it remains at heart a family affair. Fausto Pinarello, current boss of the company and son of founder Giovanni, leads out Saturday’s warm-up ride and shows visitors around the factory. Later his sister, Carla, hands out awards and gives speeches. 

The 2015 edition of the event is particularly poignant for the family, as it is the first since the death of Giovanni, who opened his first bike shop in 1953 and initiated La Pina Granfondo in 1996 to celebrate his birthday and extol the core values of amateur cycling: participation, respect and sharing. This year’s event is dedicated to him, and many participants are wearing versions of the maglia nera – the black jersey famously worn by Giovanni when he was the last man to finish the Giro d’Italia in 1951.

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

La Pina peloton

As I line up at the start in the centre of Treviso, I quickly realise that I could be in line to ‘win’ the maglia nera myself. By some quirk of administration, I have found myself in a starting group containing the racing teams aiming to contest the win. I’m hemmed in between groups of lithe-looking Italians in matching kit, with focused expressions on their faces and route information taped on their top tubes. The air smells of sunscreen and anticipation, which is doing nothing to calm my nerves.

With the help of Team Sky’s Dario Cataldo and Bernie Eisel, Fausto Pinarello gets the event underway at 7.45am. The pace is thankfully sedate as we navigate Treviso’s streets, past frescoed houses and porticos, but once outside the city walls and over the bridge spanning the Sile river, the racing teams organise themselves into efficient units, and before I know it the speed has risen to nearly 50kmh. 

Curiously the serious teams have been released after most recreational participants, which doesn’t seem the safest way to conduct a sportive but nonetheless helps me as I allow the peloton to suck me along some of the pan-
flat first 20km out of Treviso. We catch some of the non-competitive groups, and I note that they are riding at a pace much more like I might be able to maintain for the next 140km, so with considerable relief I peel out of the racing bunch and slow to a less quad-searing speed.

La Pina climb

The Piave river glistens in the morning sun as we cross it towards the Colle di Guarda, a 4.1km climb at an average of 3.7% that serves as the hors d’oeuvres to the day’s ascending. We’re approaching forested foothills, but the horizon is dominated by the jagged peaks of the Dolomites – a potent reminder of the suffering to come.

Parting of the ways

We continue northwards and as we enter the Comune di Susegana the landscape changes from suburban to rural, with olive trees marking the start of the climb. The change in gradient prompts a number of whirs and buzzes from the electronic gearing of my new riding partners, and their excitable chatter that has been constant since I joined the group ceases as heart rates start to rise. 

Despite the extra effort, I’m at last starting to relax into the event. With the dedicated racers disappearing on the horizon and the bustle of urban Treviso behind us, the atmosphere has changed into one of a grand day out.

I roll along the ridgeline atop the Colle di Guarda, which affords stunning views of the region’s famous Prosecco vineyards. The climb has condensed a vast quantity of riders into a fairly tight space, so I take it easy on the winding descent that follows, which turns out to be a sensible approach – I pass a man lying prone at the side of the road with considerable road rash, surrounded by a group of concerned riding partners. His La Pina is over, which serves as a lesson to me to ride with caution. 

La Pina vines

We arrive in Barbisano, a charming town that’s waking up as we buzz through. The locals holler ‘Buona fortuna!’ between sips of espresso outside the cafes we pass. I’ll need all the luck I can get. My hasty perusal of the route profile over my toast this morning showed that Barbisano is a last flat refuge before the serious lumps on the route profile. 

The landscape continues to get more rugged, with dwellings now a rare sight among the crumpled vineyards, copses and fields. I stick with my group as we gain altitude steadily for 10km, and then round a hill to be presented by a series of switchbacks, laden with slow-moving riders. It’s the final section of the Zuel di Qua, a 7.3km climb that would be easily manageable if not for these 10% hairpins. 

At this stage I’m still fresh enough to spin up them without much discomfort, although the sight of the first feed station is welcome as I finish the climb. A flash of inspiration sees me create a surprisingly tasty salami and banana sandwich and, suitably refueled, I crack straight on to the steep and narrow descent into Cison di Valmarino, where the course divides into the medium and long routes. 

It’s here that I part ways with the group I’ve been riding with until now. They all turn left onto the medium route, and I am left to face the long route alone. 

La Pina descent

For an age – or so it seems to me – I trace a path along the base of a string of mountains to my left, and I begin to hope that I might be able to avoid them altogether. Eventually, however, the road turns and I am forced to tackle the ascent of the Passo san Boldo. It grinds straight between two peaks for a few kilometres before arriving at the main 6km section that averages 7.5%. 

Lazy switchbacks straddle the Gravon river and it’s easy to get into a rhythm, which I’m thankful for, as it is now late morning and the temperature is blistering. I start to reel in riders ahead, wondering why they have slowed, but the reason becomes clear soon enough. Ahead of me, the road ramps up towards the sky, via five hairpin tunnels. Riders pop in and out of these tunnels like some sort of horizontal game of whack-a-mole, which provides just enough novelty to take the edge off the 11% finish to the climb.

I fall upon the second feed station, increasingly grateful for my sweet-and-savoury invention as I pile energy into my flagging thighs. All the stops have been sensibly placed at the summit of climbs, allowing food to soak in on the descent. After eating my fill, my spirits lift as I’m able to tick off some easy kilometres on the wide, sweeping descent towards Pranolz. The pine trees of the Boldo ascent have given way to open fields and Alpine-style chalets. Looking up the road, mountains frame the strip of tarmac, busy with riders as it cuts through the long grass. It’s an exhilarating view. 

The hardest yards

La Pina winding road

The route begins to undulate as I pass through the towns of Trichiana, Zottier and Carve. Locals are out in force to cheer on riders, but the boost they provide is tempered by a growing sense of nervousness as I get nearer to the Praderadego. The 6.7% average of this 9km climb sounds innocuous enough, but glosses over the prolonged sections at 17% and the loose road surface. 

I follow the winding single-lane road through the trees with trepidation, until I round a corner to see a scene of carnage up ahead. Riders sit by the side of the road stretching out their cramped legs, defeated by the first of the Praderadego’s brutal ramps. Others are pushing their bikes, unable to find a gear low enough to stay rolling. I hear another call of ‘Buona fortuna!’ and take this as my cue to drop into my easiest gear and set about winching myself up the climb. 

Before long, all pretense of technique is abandoned as I explore any biomechanical advantage to keep myself going. I almost dismount around halfway, disheartened at the incessant beeping of my Garmin’s autopause trying to decide whether or not I am still moving, but a kind local runs over, brandishing a punctured water bottle. I gasp ‘grazie mille’ as the cool spray soaks my head and back, refreshing me sufficiently to complete the climb.

The summit holds the third feed station on a picturesque village green so I make the most of the break by stretching, eating and drinking. Replenished and buoyed by my successful ascent of the Praderadego, I attack its long descent as the route swings back towards Treviso once more. The road down has wonderful sweeping turns that hug a sheer rock face, with unrestricted views back towards the Piave river, sparkling in the far distance. 

La Pina mountains

All too soon I am pedalling again as I go over Combai, a shallow climb of 5.4km, but thankfully it passes quickly and I go back to shedding altitude as quickly as I can. The descent wends its way along the side of a valley, past yet more vineyards into Guia, and I arrive in the town alongside three other riders. We’ve slipped the clutches of the Dolomites now so the horizon flattens for the first time in hours, encouraging one rider to increase the pace. The next 10km zips by in a flash of through-and-offing and deposits us at the final climb, Presa XIV of Montello. 

Short but with ramps of 10%, this is where the distance I’ve covered really makes itself known and I’m dropped by the others. I puff past orchards and farmhouses for almost half an hour before I see the last feed station. There’s no more climbing to do and only 20km left to ride, so alongside the usual fare the organisers are offering wine and beer. Tempting though it is to slug a cold one, I decide it’s best to forgo any alcohol as my bike handling is sketchy enough even when I’m sober, and so set about the 5km descent that brings me to within 15km of the finish. 

The environment becomes steadily more urban as I approach Treviso, and by now I’m having to manage my effort to prevent cramp from seizing up my legs. A La Pina-branded motorcycle passes me, its pilot gesturing excitedly behind me, and I look back to see a group of 15 riders closing in, so I dig deep and latch on to the back as they speed past. 

La Pina corner

The moto chaperones us for the last 5km at 40kmh, forcing cars to make way as we speed into Treviso. Eventually it peels off as we rattle over some cobbles and pass through the Porta San Tommaso, Treviso’s impressive northern gate. With the finishing banner in sight the group splinters in a break for the line. The hectic bunch sprint seems a fitting finish to top off the seat-of-the-pants dash back into Treviso.

I finish safely mid-pack and around the middle of the field overall, realising with relief that I’ve avoided the maglia nera, despite my concern. Then I remember Giovanni Pinarello. His last place in the Giro brought him fame and the money to start his own bike shop, which grew into one of the world’s most prestigious bike marques. Perhaps I should have gone a bit slower after all.

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