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Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi-Bianchi

The Felice Gimondi-Bianchi sportive is a glorious feast of Italian cycling culture matched only by the copious food on offer.

Mark Bailey
26 Feb 2016

The most alluring feature of any cycling weekend in Italy, apart from beautiful mountains and the opportunity to pedal in the wheeltracks of greats such as Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi and Gino Bartali, is the amazing food you get to demolish afterwards. So it’s apt that the first climb of the 2015 Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi-Bianchi, a scenic 162km odyssey that weaves like a soft string of spaghetti around the lush hills north of Bergamo in Lombardy, is called the Colle dei Pasta. 

I’m pedalling with gusto in the early-morning sunshine, enjoying that unmistakable feeling of dewy freshness that accompanies a pair of just-shaven man-legs and pristine Lycra. The fragrance of sun lotion oozing from the peloton blends with the scent of fresh coffee wafting over from the balconies of wooden apartments. But all I can think about is food. I’m only 11km into the day’s ride but the mere sight of the word ‘pasta’ means I’m already daydreaming about the steaming bowl of fettuccine laden with juicy dollops of ragu, porcini mushrooms and fresh basil that I plan to enjoy tonight. 

The food fantasy becomes even more vivid when, 20km later, I see the banquet awaiting me at the first feed station on top of the Colle del Gallo. Here plump old ladies and moustachioed men in mustard-yellow jumpers are serving up a feast of dark chocolate, fresh strawberries, biscotti, cheese, salami, fruit cakes and fresh juice. Most of the local Italian riders seem happy to fuel up and get moving, but I could quite happily stay here and graze all day.

I stand alone by a stone wall, happily watching the other riders pass by, with melted chocolate smeared across my lips and mitted fingers like a naughty schoolboy. It’s with a heavy heart, a heavier stomach and a cheek full of strawberries that I eventually clip in and prepare for the remaining 130km of hills and valleys that stand between me and my dinner. 

At the start I find myself in a maelstrom of chaos

Gran designs

The Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi-Bianchi draws its name from local bike marque Bianchi, whose facility is situated in Treviglio, just outside Bergamo, and the great Italian cyclist Felice Gimondi, who won the Tour de France in 1965, the Giro d’Italia in 1967, 1969 and 1976, and the Vuelta a Espana in 1968. The great man, now 72 and still a Bianchi aficionado, was happily mingling with amateur riders the day before the race, smiling patiently through selfie after selfie. (Read our profile of Gimondi.)

The race itself is a fun, frantic blast through the foothills of the Bergamasque Alps, which are naturally rich in vibrant colours. Bergamo enjoys an unusual climate that makes its summer wetter than its winter, sparking an explosion of lavish green forests and dense, coloured foliage that give the terrain a tropical flavour. 

The three race routes – of 89km, 128km, and 162km – glide past houses the colour of fruit sorbets, towering church bell-towers and pebble-choked rivers. The event has attracted a total of 70,000 riders since its inception in 1996 and it will celebrate its 20th anniversary edition this summer. Between 2,000 and 5,000 riders compete each year, and with Bergamo’s Il Caravaggio airport just a two-hour flight from London, and only a few minutes from the centre of Bergamo, where the event begins, it’s
a straightforward weekend jaunt for Brits. 

Gran Fondos are often described as the Italian version of UK sportives but that’s not quite right. They have more of a race character, with riders taking timings and placings painfully seriously. When I’m herded into the holding pen for the start at 7am on the Sunday morning, I’m surrounded by a technicolour troop of cyclists with sinewy, tanned limbs, stylish eyewear, neatly trimmed beards (for the uomini) and painted fingernails colour-matched with their lycra (for the donne). Whatever the Italian riders achieve today, they’re going to do it in style.

Perhaps the hazy dawn sunshine and the sound of church bells has lulled me into thinking this will be just like any other Sunday morning spin. But as soon as we start I find myself in a maelstrom of chaos. Great shoals of cyclists arrow past me to my left and right. Screams and shouts fill the air. A rider dressed in the rich blue of the Italian football team starts arguing with a group of female cyclists who collectively gesticulate back at him with fists and fingers. I’m glad I don’t speak Italian. Teams in matching kits slice through the peloton with menacing intent. As we glide east through the closed roads of the city, I realise Italians cycle like they drive, and conclude that I will happily complete the full 162km course solo rather than go anywhere near another rider’s wheel.

Morning highs

After blasting through the flat, suburban commune of Gorle, where we pass manicured hedges, pristine gardens and Il Tricolore flags flapping in the breeze, we cross the sparkling Fiume Serio. The muscular jostling for position is unrelenting for the first 8km until we hit the Colle dei Pasta. Like all mounds of pasta, this climb is pleasant but hard to digest first thing in the morning. It has a gentle gradient of 4.2% over 3.4km, with an altitude gain of 143m, but the effects of gravity are enough to calm moods and slow speeds. By now we’re surrounded by vineyards, pruned pines and poplar trees and we can see dusty hill-top settlements and plump mountains covered in dense foliage ahead. 

At Trescore Balneario – a tidy little town known since ancient Roman times for its thermal baths – the route starts to meander north. Arriving into the town of Luzzana, grander peaks appear on the horizon, wreathed in thin wisps of cloud and decorated with white patches of rock that gleam in the sunshine.

Shortly afterwards we arrive at the foot of the Colle del Gallo, a 7.5km climb that rises 445m at an average gradient of 6%. Some hairpins ramp to 12%, and for the first time today the muscle fibres in my legs begin to scream and shout like hot-headed Italian cyclists. 

As we rise through the hill town of Gaverina Terme, bemused old Italian couples peer down at us from their balconies, while squealing children chase after the bikes as we pass. The high hedges and steep stone walls add to the feeling of suffocation brought on by the first major effort of the day, and I’m pleased to grind further up past the houses of Piano where I enjoy sweeping views of the forests below. 

At the summit of the Colle del Gallo is the vanilla-coloured ‘Sanctuary of Our Lady of Cyclists’, a shrine where every year on 3rd August locals enjoy a candlelit vigil with bikes, which culminates in all the riders receiving a blessing from the spirit of the Madonna of Colle Gallo and, in keeping with the culinary passion of the region, a hearty bowl of soup. 

After rounding the summit, 32km into the ride, I enjoy the first pacy descent of the day, dropping 400m in 13km. It serves up some long straights where it’s impossible to resist dipping low and watching the speeds soar, but the odd sharp bend stops me getting carried away.

We cross a stone bridge at the town of Nembro and head north for the long, steady climb up the 946m Selvino. This chaotic riot of hairpins involves an overall rise of 426m over 7.5km with gradients that nudge up to 9%. It may not be the biggest challenge of the day, but it’s certainly the longest. The race roadbook had warned me it comes ‘without a single metre of false-flat terrain’. When the hairpins kick in, I feel like I’m climbing up the layers of a giant wedding cake. On the upper reaches I toil away under the shade of sheer rock faces and peer tentatively at the sharp drops into the gorge below.

Panoramic views open up on the start of the descent, revealing a softer, greener terrain to the north. The red and yellow capsules of ski lifts dangle like celebratory bunting in the summer sky. Miniature villages of white houses with terracotta roofs are visible in the valley.

When the hairpins kick in, I feel like I’m climbing up the layers of a giant wedding cake.

About 15km of electrifying descent lies ahead before we dash towards the town of Ambria. The final stretches provide some of the most spectacular drama of the day,
as we hurtle past the roaring Torrente Ambria underneath overhanging rock faces and dive through tunnels held up by rusty steel girders.

Into the wild

Leaving Ambria, we ride parallel to the river until we reach San Pellegrino Terme, home of the world-famous mineral water. It’s a stylish valley town with sun-dappled boulevards, art nouveau hotels and public baths, alive with the constant gurgle of the pristine mountain river. The scenery seems to have a calming effect on the riders, and I now ride in small groups with other stragglers. Few words are spoken, but sharing the load in the valley is blissful relief. 

The town of San Giovanni Bianco marks the start of the 806m-high Costa d’Olda climb. This 10.3km ascent of 414m averages just 4% but there are a few heart-pumping sections at 10% to keep me guessing until the summit. 

As soon as we conquer the Costa d’Olda, we get slapped by the Forcella di Bura, which rises for 8km with gradients that hit 7%. There’s a panoramic balcony road on the way up and it provides the chance to soak up the surroundings. Thundering waterfalls plummet to the left of the road. Trees cling to the vertiginous peaks on the right. White cliffs erupt out of the forest on all sides. If I hadn’t wasted so much time scoffing chocolate, I’d be tempted to take a dip in the fresh water of the Torrente Enna nearby. 

The top of the Forcella di Bura marks the 100km point. With the ferocious midday sun on my back, that final 60km suddenly seems like a momentous challenge, so I adopt some mind-bending tricks to get me through. I know there are only two climbs remaining and that the final 30km is downhill or flat, so I wilfully fool myself into believing there is only 30km to go. After that, gravity and grit should guide me home. 

The following descent is hazardous, with an assortment of narrow and blind corners and uneven road surfaces. When I spiral round a bend in the road, I’m met by a chilling scene: an ambulance, a pop-up screen hiding an injured cyclist and, in front of them, a priest dressed in black robes with his hands in the air. The priest has emerged from a local church to help and is gesturing for cyclists to slow down, but it’s an unsettling moment. I hear later that the rider was badly injured but alive. 

Shaken but eager to continue, I carry on to the penultimate climb, the Forcella di Berbenno, a 6km ascent with 254m of climbing and a maximum gradient of 12%. By now every bump in the road is starting to gnaw away at my muscles and lactic acid is spreading through my calves, glutes and hamstrings like a forest fire. 

Following another restorative descent, we start the final climb of the day to the 1,036m Costa Valle Imagna – the highest point of the course. The climb rises 600m over 9km, but with jolts of 12% it is hard to get into any kind of rhythm. There are huge cracks and fissures in the road and we pass shrines to drivers and cyclists who have lost their lives in accidents. 

I’m met by a chilling scene: an ambulance, a pop-up screen hiding an injured cyclist and, in front of them, a priest dressed in black robes with his hands in the air.

I curse and froth my way to the top, but Costa Valle Imagna is a fitting place to end the day’s climbing. A pretty settlement of lemon and peach-coloured houses, bustling bakeries, stone walls and dusty plazas, it offers sweeping views of the Bergamasque Alps as soon as I crest the summit. Sadly, there is still 30km to go.

All downhill from here

In the late-afternoon sunshine the descent into Bergamo proves to be an enjoyable final chapter to the day’s ride. After a tranquil spin downhill, I team up with a group of veteran Italians to tackle the headwinds of the flat sections leading back into Bergamo. We chat for almost 5km, all too happy and dehydrated to care about the simple fact we can’t understand each other. 

On the final turn, two of our group dash ahead for a sprint finish, while the other two roll over the line with me. One gives me a hearty slap on the back, the other a gentle pat on the helmet. 

I hobble into the Lazzaretto to find a small army of Italian grandmothers ladling giant portions of penne into plastic bowls for the famished riders. After 162km of sun-baked climbs and heart-stopping descents, the real Colle dei Pasta is finally in sight. 

The details

What: Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi-Bianchi

Where: Bergamo, Italy

Distance: 89km, 128km, 162km

Next one: 15th May 2016

Price: €32 (£24)

More info: felicegimondi.it

How we did it

Travel

Ryanair offers return flights from London Stansted to Milan Bergamo from around £65. Bike transport costs an additional £60 each way. From the airport – which
is also known as Il Caravaggio or Orio al Serio – it’s a short 6km, 12-minute taxi transfer to the city centre.

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at the Hotel Cappello d’Oro – a Best Western Premier hotel in Bergamo city centre. Rooms for next May are currently available from €80 (£59) per night, and breakfast is an extra €3 (£2) a day. The hotel was happy for us to store bikes in the room and it’s a short five-minute ride to the start of the race. 

Entry

Registration for the Gran Fondo costs €32 (£24), which includes a timing chip, jersey numbers, a certificate, a medal, a water bottle and pasta party vouchers. UK visitors will also need to pay €15 (£11) for a membership day-pass, which includes multi-risk insurance, and present a valid medical certificate proving you are fit enough to take part. 

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