If you’ve ever ridden a sportive, you’ve probably got the Italians to thank. In addition to creating other cycling staples such as the espresso and the first mass-produced rear derailleur, the nation also introduced the concept of a ‘gran fondo’ to the world in 1970.
Literally translated as ‘big ride’, a gran fondo is traditionally a minimum of 120km (75 miles) in length, and has spawned into a worldwide phenomenon. In its natural home, the season runs from February to October, and there are more than 200 to choose from across the country.
Ten of these fall under the banner of the Alé Challenge – a group of gran fondos sponsored by the Italian kit manufacturer that begin in February with the Laigueglia and concludes at the Gran Fondo Scott in September. The biggest of the bunch is Alé La Merckx - a rolling 125 km gran fondo named in honour of the cycling legend, setting off from the city of Verona in northern Italy, and including a 9.5km timed climb rising 592m - only one of a number of climbs which accounted for more than 2,500m of accumulated ascent in total.
Having never taken on a gran fondo before, the only sensible thing to do seemed to throw myself in at the deep end and head to one of the biggest on the gran fondo calendar. Here are six things I learnt at last weekend’s Gran Fondo Alé La Merckx.
1. The starts are mental
While Italian gran fondos helped spawn the UK sportive scene, in reality they are very different event. In fact, the beginning of a gran fondo is treated like an out-and-out race, with the drop of the start flag acting like a red rag to a bull and riders accelerating at full gas, fighting for position like the Tour de France peloton approaching a bunch sprint.
Ale La Merckx
Despite starting a few rows from the front, by kilometre five I felt like I’d been overtaken by half the field – and not through a lack of effort on my part, I was spinning away in top gear. After attempting to keep up with the pack, and failing to get on numerous wheels, I decided to keep out of trouble and save myself for what was to come.
2. The climbs are unlike anything in the UK...
While UK climbs are generally short but steep, the seemingly never-ending ascents of the mountains in Italy are a true test of endurance and unlike anything I've experienced back here. Although most UK climbs will feature a lactic acid-inducing ramp or two, they will be over before the real pain kicks in. Not so in Italy.
The Alé La Merckx course featured three notable climbs (as well as a cheeky uphill finish that was a nasty surprise two kilometres from the end), and all had one thing in common - their length. While the gradients remained between a bearable 5-8% throughout, the final climb alone featured 1,000m of elevation stretched across 20km of switchbacks, deceptive false peaks and a variable riding surface - the final kilometre essentially a gravel track. Unlike in the UK, there was no way I could rely on raw power to get me to the summits - it was about keeping a consistent tempo and grinding my way to the top of each.
3. ...and so are the descents
After overtaking quite a few of the riders on the first climb who had moments earlier whizzed past me, once over the top it was time to give the legs a break and let gravity do the hard work on some technical, twisting downhill sections.
The locals obviously didn’t get the memo, attacking the descent like the maglia rosa depended on it - switching lines, braking late, hitting the apex and racing aggressively out of the corners, despite being surrounded by other riders. The smell of brake pads filled the air, and I was quite looking forward to the sedate pace of the next climb.
Things were different on the final downhill section of the ride - essentially a 40km, 1,500m descent into Verona. The gruelling climb from Bellori to Pidocchio had spread out the peloton, leaving me with stretches of road where I could take on the descent without having to worry about what others were up to. After overcoming a sketchy two-kilometre stretch of gravel at the start of the descent, the remaining hour flew past in a flash, making the previous 80 minutes of climbing completely worth it.
4. Expect to be rubbing shoulders with some cycling gods
Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Tour de France and just about every other race. Mario Cipollini, 12-time Tour de France stage winner and 42-time (yeah, forty-two!) Giro d’Italia stage winner. Fernando Escartin, top ten overall in the Giro, Tour and Vuelta no less than 13 times. All legends of the sport and lining up alongside the 2,000 competitors to start this year’s Ale La Merckx. Despite not actually seeing The Cannibal in person, you can bet I’ll be retelling the story of how I rode with The Greatest of All Time to everyone and anyone I can for years to come.
Ale La Merckx
And it wasn’t just the pros of cycling past that started the gran fondo in Verona. The UCI Women’s WorldTour team Alé Cipollini, including Commonwealth Games road race gold medalist Chloe Hosking, and Groupama-FDJ’s Steve Morabito also took on the course, brushing shoulders with regular riders on the beautiful roads of northern Italy.
5. Forget the pasta party, it’s all about the rice party
No gran fondo experience can be complete without attending the pasta party on finishing the course. Almost as much of an institution in Italy as the ride itself, you can expect good food, a beer or two and the obligatory coffee as a reward for finishing the challenge.
"Almost as much of an institution in Italy as the ride itself, you can expect good food, a beer or two and the obligatory coffee as a reward for finishing the challenge"
However, with the region of Veneto famous for its rice (countless fields were passed on the route), the main component of the meal was in fact risotto (rather than pasta), but it was all some welcome stodge after burning through the calories during the ride.
6. Remember to enjoy it
After a pretty stressful start to proceedings, the obligatory painful legs when climbing, and few hairy moments on the descents, there were points where I started to feel a bit disillusioned about the gran fondo experience. However, all it took to break through the cloud was to take in my surroundings and remember what I was doing.
The scenery was unlike anything I’ve ridden in before. Babbling brooks and vineyard-lined valleys made way for alpine forest as the road started to climb upwards. A few kilometers from the highest summit, the trees cleared and were replaced by spectacular panoramic views north to the Dolomites. Cloud cover on the peaks blended the mountain range into the sky above, while the clanging of cow bells pierced the otherwise silent landscape.
These pinch-yourself moments helped remind me that I wasn’t there to race Ale La Merckx. Sure, I’d try and give a good account of myself, but ultimately I was there to ride my bike around some of the most stunning roads Italy has to offer.