I never knew it was possible to ‘miss the break’ at a sportive, but 15km deep into a loop around a lake in Italy it was becoming apparent that it’s entirely achievable, if that sportive is more accurately referred to as a Gran Fondo.
Cursing my prior bemusement at the stoney faced Italians ‘warming up’ before the start I frantically fumbled to unscrew my (over-complicated but highly recommended) Fabric multi tool ratchet set whilst 500 Italians pedalled up the road.
The bemusement had - perhaps quite understandably - stayed with me throughout the Priest's blessing, which was followed by a rendition of Queen's 'We Will Rock You' blasted out over the peloton.
I'm not sure what's more disconcerting - 'deliver us from evil' or the clapping of hundreds of (mostly men) in Lycra out-of-tune singing: "buddy you're a young man hard man, shouting in the street gonna take on the world some day, you got blood on yo' face, you big disgrace..."
Strong as the bemusement was it had dissipated quickly as we whooshed through ‘kilometre zero’ of the Gran Fondo Nel Parco - the bunch quite fractured following a 7km neutral zone that include a minor mountain - behind the comms car with its flag floating in the wind and ready to drop.
The event was a a 107km (or 128km if you include the neutral zone and descent back to the town) ‘race’ around Lago di Barrea in Southern Italy.
Sponsored by Sarto bikes, an Italian brand making glamorously painted and made-to-measure custom bikes not far from Venice, it attracted about 800 riders, each fitted with transponders and hoping to be the first to the top of the 10km climb to the finish line.
Sarto was launching its new Lampo Plus aero bike, which features cable integration that looks more like the inside of a fairly complicated computer than the entry point to a gear changing system.
After a summer of UK racing I’d naively assumed I could just eschew the competitive vibe and use the first 20km or so to dial my position on my borrowed Sarto – but it soon became apparent that stopping at all was taking me dangerously close to the flashing beacons aboard the following ambulance and accompanying broom wagon.
Once adjusted (an incremental total of four times... ) I had zero chance of catching any speedy drafting trains but plenty of time to get to know the locals over the miles and mountains ahead.
I eventually found a friend in a 23-year-old university student on a brightly coloured team bike with a horrendously noisy bottom bracket.
“I crashed recently, so I’m riding as fast as I can on the hills because I’ve lost my confidence on the descents,” she puffed as we moved from flat road and onto the next climb.
Having plummeted over the bars on the side of a mountain last summer, and spent much of the season re-learning my limits, it was a feeling I could appreciate.
>>> Best cycling holidays
Not everything in cycling is universal, though.
“I knew you weren’t Italian, because you point the holes... Italians don’t do that,” my new friend informed me.
We pedalled on together, peering over the edge of the mountain to take in the spectacle of the lake as we climbed further away from it.
When the inevitable descent came and I rode away (you'd have done the same, right?), I was left to amuse myself, playing 'cyclist bingo' with the other participants.
Searching out the ubiquitous characters you'll find among any group of bike riders, regardless of country, is a personal favourite form of people watching.
The one who allowed shoals of his 'own kind' to speed past, yet repeatedly accelerated when a female looked in danger of edging him provided an irritation laced giggle.
On a more positive note there was the rearward facing company of the steady state climber (‘Mario’ - of course), and the informative soul who had actually read the manual before the event.
With 50km to go I met up with another Sarto bikes guest, who had intended to ride the ‘Gourmet Tour’ – a very different ride featuring 50km and a total of five feed stations loaded with a collection of local delicacies.
Unfortunately for his taste buds and fortunately for his waist line, he’d taken a wrong turn and found himself with a one-way ticket around the lake.
We exchanged notes on the ride so far over roughly cut bananas at one of the ample paper towel covered tables, powered by locals offering encouraging cries (or heckles, couldn't really tell you) from the roadside.
The first climb-laden half had rushed past at a suspiciously easy 30kph, so predictably the return journey was when the flats turned into Dutch mountains in the shape of a block headwind. But there was always a figure ahead to fixate upon if the azure beauty of the lake became tiresome.
The final 9km ascent was a war of attrition – but it only meant the 1km downwards slope to the finish line more sweet. Even as the figure in orange who I’d nonchalantly pedalled past in the closing meters of the climb drew alongside me in pursuit of the line.
This left me with a dilemma: put pressure on the pedals and admit to racing to the finish about an hour after the first man rolled over the timing chip mat, or let myself get rolled on the line.
I'm only a tiny bit ashamed to admit I did the former. Before descending back down the mountain, practising how to say "ah, sadly, I missed the break" in my best Italian.
Tim Merlier outsprints Nizzolo, Viviani and Groenewegen to take stage two of the 2021 Giro d'Italia
Tim Merlier took a first Grand Tour stage win for both himself and Alpecin-Fenix on stage two of the Giro d'Italia
By Jonny Long •
Annemiek Van Vleuten wins Setmana Ciclista Valenciana 2021 as Movistar flex their muscles
Alice Barnes back to winning ways after taking stage three sprint victory
By Owen Rogers •
Remco Evenepoel: You can’t prepare fully without racing, but that’s the risk we took
Belgian star is among the favourites to win the 2021 Giro d’Italia, having not raced for nine months
By Alex Ballinger •
Israel Start-Up Nation launch new wine inspired kit for the Giro d'Italia 2021
The design of the kit is meant to blend the red wine of their Italian sponsor with the blue of Israel's national flag
By Tim Bonville-Ginn •
Runner confronts pensioners who were setting traps for cyclists in popular park
A runner has revealed how he confronted pensioners who were leaving traps for cyclists in a popular path.
By Alex Ballinger •
Leaked discussions between WADA and UCI reveals tension over Chris Froome salbutamol case
A leaked discussion between the UCI and WADA have revealed the tensions caused by the Chris Froome salbutamol case.
By Alex Ballinger •
Passionate cyclist died after being hit by a police car during her first 10km run
A passionate cyclist has died after she was hit by a police car during her first 10km run.
By Alex Ballinger •
Are stiffer frames always faster?
Is the 'mine goes to 11' approach to stiffness always best? Michelle Arthurs-Brennan investigates
By Michelle Arthurs-Brennan •
Why get skinny when you could get fast? Why a rebalancing of perspectives is needed in cycling
Cycling’s obsession with weight is doing untold damage, argues Joe Laverick as he calls for a rebalancing of perspectives on fuelling, physique and performance
By Cycling Weekly •
Is the tubeless system flawed for narrower tyres?
Do the higher pressures of road tyres really make a qualitive difference?
By Stefan Abram •