Amateur racing, Italian style, in the picture-perfect Tuscan landscape
The USA Cycling Women’s National Racing Calendar has a longish break from the end of March to the beginning of May, with just two days of racing in between. Lucky for me, an amazing invitation came at just that time. My husband and I were invited by Marco (a friend of his at the bike shop where he works) to go to Tuscany and race in the Max Lelli Gran Fondo on April fifteenth. Marco’s a friend of Max Lelli, a former pro rider who’s now retired and running this huge amateur bike race (among other business ventures) and tending a budding political career.
The fact that neither my husband nor I had ever been to Italy clinched what was essentially the easiest decision I ever made—to escape from gloomy, forty degree Fahrenheit temperatures in late-winter New Jersey, and go to Tuscany in the springtime. We would ride our bikes, drink great wine, and eat the famously delicious food of Italy’s most romantic and raved-about region. No problem. Count us in. Pronto!
That’s how we found ourselves disembarking at Rome’s Fuimicino airport at eight a.m., a little faded from airplane air and lack of sleep, but otherwise brighter-eyed and bushier-tailed from excitement than I would have thought possible after a Transatlantic red-eye flight. As soon as we had joined the line for customs, we witnessed a scene so stereotypically Italian that I wondered half-seriously if it had been staged for the tourists’ entertainment. A customs agent with dark hair and a mustache was arguing with a passenger (presumably Italian). They shouted at each other, gesticulating in that quintessentially Italian way. It crossed my mind that if someone shouted with even a fraction of that degree of passion and volume at a U.S. customs agent, handcuffs and more scary hardware might soon appear. However, at the Roman airport, the argument went on for ten minutes, unabated, as the other agents stamped passports in a bored way and the foreign passengers waiting in line looked on with a mix of amusement and anxiety. Although I’d spent the plane ride studying Italian phrases, I couldn’t understand a word of what was going on, which made it seem even funnier.
A driver met us for the 150-kilometer journey from Rome to Saturnia, the tiny town in the heart of Maremma (the southern region of Tuscany) where we’d be staying. As we drove higher into the hills and neared the turnoff to the town of Manciano, the driver suddenly slowed to a stop. Ahead, a flock of sheep was being driven down the road by a grizzled shepherd and a few panting, happy dogs. As we waited for the sheep to pass, I grinned in delighted wonder at this new world we were entering. The land rolled gently on both sides of the road, the hedgerows giving way at times to lush, green fields full of wheat or grazing sheep, alternating with shady woodland. Everything was bursting with springtime buds and blooms. Birds called sweetly from the trees; I heard the distant buzz of farm machinery. A haze of sunshine dusted the whole landscape with gold in that clichéd (but really, truly gorgeous) Tuscan way.
No sooner had we been welcomed at our charming bed and breakfast than we received a message from our host, Marco. We were instructed to build our bicycles and get ready to leave on a ride by 1 p.m. We just had time to prepare the bikes, grab a bite to eat, and change into cycling gear before Marco arrived on his bike. Marco is Italian and in his forties—he is a serious Iron Man tri-athlete with business that takes him all over the world. We’re not even sure what he does, except that his nickname among all the Europeans we meet (and everyone seems to know him!) is “Nasdaq.” At any rate, Marco is a true A-type personality; he is incredibly energetic, devoted to hard work and hard play, and amazingly generous in a gruff and no-nonsense way. He is also a taskmaster, as we found out on that first ride. We thought—having recently disembarked from a ten-hour overnight flight (followed by an hour and a half in the car), during which we’d eaten only airline food much lower in calories than we ravenous cyclists are used to—that Marco would take us on a short hour spin just to “loosen the legs.”
A little over five hours later, as the last rays of the sun sank into the rich Tuscan soil and the horizon disappeared in a purple blush, we staggered back to our penzione. Maybe Marco was not kidding when he said he was going to ride a hundred miles every day. I hardly tasted dinner that night, literally falling asleep in my chair.
In the remaining days before the race, we trained every day on the roads of the course. Stopping for water at a sleepy café, Marco would point to the race poster stuck on the wall and quiz us on the race course. “After the departure, what is the next town? Yes, Pitigliano, correct. And the climb after that? What? Sorano? No, no, no! Come on, pay attention! That is the Pantani climb!” In two days, we did the entire “long” racecourse of 158 kilometers (about 100 miles). Other days we did the medium course of 60 miles. Day by day, we grew to know the area, anticipating the turns, the landmarks, and the cadence of the hills. I’ve never ridden such enjoyable descents. I am not a huge risk taker, but these gently sweeping downhills were pure fun: minutes on end of flying through green and golden springtime, leaning my body into curves and trying to avoid the brakes altogether.
All in all, I don’t think I’ve ever been so well-schooled in a race course before the event. When the big day came, we were picked up in a van together with the rest of Marco’s crew, and driven to the race start in the “big town” of Manciano. Until race day, I was a bit unclear on what a gran fondo actually entails. Basically it’s a huge mass-start cycling event, where some pros (those without professional contracts for the year) and up-and-coming junior riders compete to win, and a whole bunch of other riders race for honors in their age category. Still more riders are cicloturistas who participate strictly for fun. The best analogy I can make would be to a marathon like the one in NYC, where participants run the gamut from the fastest runners in the world, who hope to break 2:10, to people in Sponge Bob costumes hoping to finish. The ways in which the gran fondo differs are: 1) there are three different course options (short, medium, and long), 2) the water stops serve sparkling water, not Gatorade, and 3) Italians are far too stylish to be caught dead in anything adorned with Sponge Bob.
You can read about my experience riding the gran fondo in “Race Day! A Gran Time Out! Part Two”