Archive for December, 2014

GFNY Italia 2014

shields_multiple_PRINTIf it was the 2013 Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York (GFNY) that turned my hobby into a specialty, it was the inaugural GFNY Italia in 2014 that turned my specialty into an obsession. Traveling to the motherland of the “gran fondo” was an incredible experience that I will not soon forget. Of course there is the feeling of being where it all started that is hard to describe; but upon reflection, it was so much more. I’ve learned a lot about riding from my cycling experience outside the US. I’m glad that first international race was Italy.

Italy is not unfamiliar to me as this was my fourth time there in only a little over a decade. And when the GFNY Italia was announced, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to convince my wife, Tracy that we should go. Tracy doesn’t share my cycling obsession (although she does appreciate it and give me lots of leeway) but we do share her obsession for wine. As a wine educator and writer, she’s been to Italy many times, both with me and without – and wine is always on the itinerary. I planned on two rides for the trip – the GFNY Italia in Terracina (south of Rome) and Stelvio Pass up in the Alps. When I introduced this idea to her she was thrilled since there were several wine regions in between that we hadn’t been to yet. And when we finally worked out the itinerary, she wasn’t too disappointed to end up in Milan on her birthday for the final leg of our trip.

With the plans all set and lots of food and wine wedged in between two amazing cycling challenges, we were off. We arrived in Terracina the Friday before the GFNY Italia and immediately took to exploring the town. It’s a terrific beach town that is probably jam packed just a few weeks before we got there, but it was relatively quiet and manageable being the third week of September. In the afternoon I set out for a ride to acclimate myself to the Italian roads and to be sure the bike was ready for Sunday after its travels.

Tempio di Giove Anxur in the background

Tempio di Giove Anxur in the background

I started out on the GFNY Italia route for about 15km and then found myself riding on busier roads than I appreciated when riding alone, so I went off a few side roads before turning back. I was immediately struck by the Italian motorists who were way more aware of cyclista on the road than in America. Many passed quite close, but that’s only natural with the narrow roads. As I returned to Terracina, I realized that my ride had no hills, so I took a turn up into the mountains and followed signs for Tempio di Giove Anxur (Temple of Jupiter). After 3km I had quickly travelled about 250m in elevation and figured that the Sunday event would be easy. Little did I know…

When Sunday morning arrived, it was a short walk to the start of the event which began at a civilized 8:30 AM. Being used to waking at ungodly early hours to get to US events with early starts, this was quite the luxury. I quickly made it to my corral and found my friend from Brooklyn who had also come to Italy for the event. Then again, his family is in Naples, so not as unfamiliar for him. I was happy to get a few pointers from a “local” as he noted that Italians are famous for going super strong from the starting gun. We agreed to get into a group and simply hold on as long as we could.

"Fred" & Don Antonio

“Fred” & Don Antonio

When the race began, I was immediately blown away by the pace. Antonio and I barely grabbed on to a group and found ourselves doing over 40kph for quite a while. It was exhilarating, and I didn’t feel that I was working too hard, so I kept with it all the way to the first climb. During that first 10km leading to the climb, I was impressed by the road control. I also realized that, unlike a US race, the entire peloton was still relatively tight until that first climb, so controlling the road was a lot easier.

On the first climb, as the group spread apart, I realized I’d need to find my own rhythm. I wasn’t far back at all, but much of the peloton was climbing at a pace that I couldn’t maintain given the length of the two longer climbs to come. I kept with the pack pretty well over the first modest climb and second smaller one. And immediately after that began the first of the two long climbs – this one very similar to the longest climb we have in the metro New York area at about 8km. About 2km in I was watching too many riders pass me, but didn’t really think pushing harder this early was a good idea. An Italian rider pulled up to me and we chatted in broken English for a minute or two before he motioned for me to get on his wheel and pulled ahead. Drafting uphill doesn’t have that much of an impact, at least not at these speeds. But the mental motivation cannot be overlooked! Here was a local that knew nothing of me, but he was offering to help. That alone pushed my cadence and suddenly I was riding comfortably upwards.

Near the top of this climb my “leader” caught up to some friends he was looking for, said “caio,” and took off. After a moment of deflated ego, a group of three Italian riders pulled up next to me and quickly established that I was American. Since they spoke pretty much no English, the motioned to my bike, gave a thumbs up and yelled, “De Rosa? American? MOLTO BELLO!” They, too, rode away.

In the Peloton for the First Climb

In the Peloton for the First Climb

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View During the First Climb

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Another View – Terraced Vineyards

From this point I was no longer in a group, but I was also far from alone as I passed riders and others passed me along the way. I remember very few details from the top of the first long climb to the base of the second, much longer, climb. What I do remember were amazing towns, some friendly locals and lots of committed riders. I also remember picking up a group of about ten riders, mostly Italian, with two guys speaking English at the front. But at one point, on a modest descent, the leader reached for his bidon, misjudged something, and swerved uncontrollably across the group line twice before running off the side of the road. He miraculously stayed upright and once the Italians were certain he was back in control, our smaller group peeled of very quickly.

And then it was time for the longest climb of the race – at about double the distance of anything I’d done before. I kept telling myself that it was a long, but relatively mild climb, so I’d be fine. Well, when I found the aid station about half way up, I was a bit dejected about my progress, and how I felt about the rest of that climb. In the end, though, I just needed some fuel and the rest of the climb went by while I was appreciating the incredible views around each turn. The long descent from this summit was actually the hardest part of the ride for me. Having never done such a long descent, I found myself getting stiff on the bike and that’s never a good way to maintain control. (Note to self – more descent practice!)

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“Fred” on the Big Climb of the Day

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A View from the Big Climb

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Another View including an ATV Track below

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“Aid Station”

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One of Many Small Towns

The remaining 25km were a mental game, but that’s nothing new. I was mostly riding alone at this point and the relatively flat terrain was balanced with some renewed wind. Nothing crazy, but just enough to remind you that there was still work to be done. But as with much of the race, the beauty of Italy and friendliness of people I saw along the way were a tremendous mental boost.

In the end, I crossed the finish line a bit later than I had hoped, but still earlier than I told Tracy. (Hey, I wanted to be sure my performance was impressive – at least in her mind!) Then after finding my way to the pasta party, I was really pleased to find great food and plenty of beer – along with friendly stories and struggles that were shared.

I’ll admit that I was apprehensive after first committing to GFNY Italia. The idea of international travel with my bike and riding in a country where I speak little of the language and motorists are known to be, well, a little pazzo – it was overwhelming. I’m really glad that didn’t hold me back, because this experience has really pushed me to a new level. So, now, on to Stelvio Pass – but that’s a story for another day…