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Che Ci Faccio Qui??

Dennis Prickett Fri, 21 Aug 1998 12:27:23 +0200
THWACK!!!!!!!!!!. AHHHHYAAAAAHH!!!!! What the........?????? It's 2 am and the guy sleeping on the other side of the bed has just whacked me on my back for some only beknowst to God reason. Fortunately I was sleeping on my stomach or more 'sensitive' areas might have been affected. Recovering from the shock, I realize that he has had some sort of nightmare and is still asleep. So I try and go back to sleep but now I'm a bit suspicious and have a bit of trouble thinking about sleeping. I manage after a bit and wake up at 5 am to prepare for the days ordeal.

I've come to Cesenatico, hometown of Marco Pantani, to ride the Nove Colli (nine hills) Grand Fondo, a 205 km long death ride in the hills on the eastern side of Italy near Rimini. The 'hills' here are more like the mountains that I was used to in northern Georgia and eastern North Carolina. But since I've been in Italy I've been in the Dolomites so I have a different perspective now.

So what is Nove Colli? Nine major climbs plus other not so horrible climbing together totaling 89 km and 3220 metres of climbing., Also 34 km of flat bits and the fun part - 77 km of discesa. There is an option of doing a short course of 130 km with only 4 nasty climbs, and 1335 metres of climbing. There is a basic web site at and an email address at

The Nine "Hills" of Nove Colli

Name Length (km) Alt. Start Alt. Top Gain Average Grade Max Grade
Polenta 8 60 305 245 3.06 13
Pieve di Rivoschio 8 90 469 379 4.74 9
Ciola 6 200 531 331 5.52 11
Barbotta 5.5 135 515 380 6.91 18
Monte Tiffi 3 230 405 175 5.83 16
Perticara 9 285 655 370 4.11 12
Pugliano 9 280 787 507 5.63 12
Passo del Grillo 4 200 434 234 5.85 7
Gorollo 4 75 318 243 6.07 17

This year, 1998, approximately 7000 people participated from 8 countries, A lot you might think, but I was told that 12,000 participated a few years ago and 3 years ago there were 9500. Apparently there has been an explosion in the number of Grand, media and plain old fondos in the past 5 years in Italy so there are more to choose from and after all why ride with 9000 other people when you can ride with only 1500 or so? However, I get the impression that Nove Colli has sort of a mythical status since its been around for so long so one must do it a least once to call yourself a true cyclist, Besides Marco Pantani learned how to climb here. Most of the mysticism is lost on me however, since I've only lived in Italy for a year so far. So I decide to do this being in reasonably decent form, or think I am since I am normally in decent form in May , and in light that I am more of a sprinter, flat crono type of rider and have never been really anything close to being a climber. In reality I am 10 kilos over my racing weight of a few years ago, have only about 3000 m since the beginning of the year in my legs and as I have for the past few years I think mentally how I was normally in May.

So how did I get here? I married an Italian in England where I had been working for 3 years and we decided to see if we could both find a biological research position together in Italy. We managed despite the system for such things in Italy (Another story altogether!) and we now live just south of Milano. Milano, home of Colnago, Cinelli, and lots of other high tech cycling companies and home of the Milan bike show in the September. However where we work and live south of Milan sucks for training. There is too much traffic, the landscape is as flat as the Mississippi delta I grew up in and although there are some really nice climbs south and north of the city you have to travel by car to get to them or in my case ride 40 km before you have anything more than an overpass to climb. I suppose I was spoiled by the choices offered for cycling around Athens, Georgia and York in the north of England. To sum up the above bit of whinging, this was not the place to prepare for a lot of climbing even if I had more time to ride.

Back to our story. I joined this cycling society in my local town and became, having 40 years, one of the younger members. But they're quite fast and some can easily make one suffer. But they have been amused to have me as a member and have been very helpfull. I missed out on events last year since I was still sorting out living in Milan and married for the second time in Italy just to make sure. I got to understand how things worked, more or less, at the beginning of the year and resolved to race a bit locally and do a few grandfondos.

My first grandfondo was meant to be in Cinque Terra, but I was recovering from the ravages of the flu that had also decimated the pro peleton in the spring. Instead my first one was the Giro del Monttarone, 135 km with 2,700 metres of climbing on the western side of Lago Maggiore. There were 1500 people who participated in this event and the first bit was spent moving up through the group and after a while people spread out and you found a group of people that pretty much rode at the same pace you were able to go. It went reasonably well although a 39 x 23 was not enough for the climbs especially the Monttarone, 20 km and quite steep in bits, especially towards the top. Based on this experience I obtained a 26 for the next week's Nove Colli.

Since this ride was a bit long, started at 6:30 am, and was not so close to Milano, the seven members of the club who were going decided to go the day before and also stay the night after the ride. I rode down to Cesenatico with one of the older members whom always came to the club meetings but no one seemed to pay much attention to him and seemed to actively ignore him. So apparently as a perverse initiation ritual, I was paired up with him. He smoked a bit which was a bit annoying and he promised to stop after Nove Colli but I had my doubts (and they were right).

We arrived in Cesenatico around lunchtime which gave us time to go to the beach for a bit and stayed in a hotel run by cyclists, a couple of whom had won the Italian championships for hotel owners. They were very nice and experienced with this event and had us all sorted out as to the right food and a place to work on the bikes. It was 6 km from the start but that was flat along the seashore.

So we settled down for the night during which the aforementioned happened and sortof unsettled matters for me. The next morning, although already awake, my companions, being away from home and family regressed about 30 years or so, and made silly wake up calls to our room in bad english . Arrr- just like the times of my youth and traveling to races in North Carolina I thought. Boys will be boys or something like that. We went down and had a breakfast of pasta at 5 am where I amused the others with my story of my problems of the previous night which amused them considerably as one might imagine. We set off for the start and eventually arrived with 7000 other people who were arriving in a constant stream from all directions.

The week before had not prepared me for this although I was told there would be about 7000 people. I have never seen so many cyclists in one area before and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. We ended up behind a large bunch of German or Austrian cyclists and waited for the start. I had seen pictures from the previous years but nothing prepared me for this. We were in the second grid, part B which meant that we would be about the 4000th, or maybe 5000th or so to start. The first grid consisted about 1000 people who were there by merit or VIP status, followed by the second grid, part A which consisted of maybe 1500 people, then our group, and then grid C which consisted of people intending from the start to do the short course. So 6:30 arrives and there seems to be a bit of movement half a kilometer away or so but its hard to be sure. After about 10 minutes or so we start to move slowly towards the start, actually passing it about 15 mins after the first group. Meaning of course they were already at least 10 km up the road. The first 25 km are flat coastal plain and we moved up through the people at about 45 km/hr passing at least 1000 people which neverended. I saw a couple of crashes along the way but they didn't appear serious. I'm cruising down the road with Ricky Martin's 'LaColpa dellaVita' and Jovanotti's 'Ombillico del Mondo' alternatively running through my head. The first is a perfect song for those adrenalin charged cyclists and the later is Italian rap-a curious creature but fun to listen to, I found out later that Jovanotti was also here. He ended up finishing an hour and a half in front of me and probably got to start in the first grill. Bastard. Whatever, I still like the song.

We finally arrive at the first major climb after 25 km (Polenta- also an interesting Italian food item that probably is an acquired taste, nice stuff- sticks to the ribs) Everything stops as the hill is full, full and can only accommodate so many cyclists at one time. I'm dumbfounded by this visual image and stop and wee, which results in a piece of my right cleat breaking. This is not good. I already don't feel terribly well possibly due to lack of sleep and there is 180 km left and all of the climbing left to do. Find my teammates and join the crowd and get over the first climb rather satisfactorily. My roommate, despite smoking, climbs really well and beats me to the top, which is annoying. But he weighs about 20 kilos less than me and is built like Bantling.

We regroup at the top as planned and make the descent which I do really well but its difficult with the road full of people. And photographers, very bored looking, taking a photo of everyone going by in an endless stream. I feel kind of sorry for them, having to sit at different points and take photo after photo after photo, but they're making money potentially and we're suffering. After the descent there is 20 km of a bumpy road but nothing serious. We arrive at the next climb of Pieve di Rivoschio which is a bit steeper than the first. Here the countryside opens up a bit and one can see up the climb and its full of people. I am not able to stop being amazed by this sight and begin to pedal up with the rest finally reaching the top without major problems. At this point I am climbing with the rest of the group and passing a few people on the way up as well. We regroup there again with the hordes of people at the food and drink stop which is a bit of a mess with all of these people trying to get something to eat and drink.

Down we go and then back up the third climb with no respite in between. This one is called Ciola and the climbs are beginning to be mindnumbing experiences at low speeds in a small gear with a bunch of other people. Now more people pass me than I pass. You can see this from the photos I received 6 weeks after the event I don't look happy climbing. The only nice photo was the only one they took while I was descending. One of my teammates tells me that he has not seen me look as badly as I do at this moment. He sums up my feelings reasonably well. Down again and time for the terrible Barbotto with an average slope of 7% maxing out at 18%. But I don't know any better at the time. It's just another climb to grunt up. we reach the top and I really feel bad, but eat and drink some things after fighting through the crowds. I find some bushes to fertilize and feel bit better afterwards but I've felt better and we're only at the halfway point. Behhh.

Down again and one of my teammates has a puncture and we stop at one of the friendly mechanic points and sort things out. I'm impressed at how well they're stocked with basic needs for the cyclist with mechanical problems and we continue onward. We reach the option point for the short course and apparently my roommate has taken this option. I think about it for a nanosecond and decide not to as I must do the whole thing of course. That's why I'm here. What's feeling horrible have to do with anything? At this point I've lost two of my teammates up the road and continue on with another one, Maurizio. We stop to get something to eat in Sogliano (I think) where they had the best organized refreshment area I've seen by far. Well organized and there were people picking up after certain people who seemed to be unable to find the numerous, nonoverflowing bins provided. And the food was good and it wasn't so much of a feeding frenzy as it was after the optional turnoff and the riders were beginning to thin out. This was followed by Ponte Uso where the locals appeared to be protesting about what seemed to be the amount of rubbish discarded in their town during this event. They had good reason in my opinion as the roads were cluttered with stuff dropped by the hordes passing through.

As Ponte Uso was a common point in the long loop, I got to finally see the front of the ride screaming down the hill into the town , escorted by the Carbinari with screaming klaxons and following cars. About 2 hours, 4 climbs, and 50 km ahead of me. Continue onward, there is glory and the satisfaction of completing this thing at the end!! One thing that impressed me was that the route is marked with permanent signs so you can follow the course anytime you want . They tell you where you are and what sort of suffering you are about to have on the climbs. And a bit less frantic than today so one can then appreciate the lovely countryside more in this area

Approaching the 5th and shortest climb, Monte Tiffi, I hear an annoying yankee accent referring to something about mountain bikes passing them I think. Perhaps they had passed them on a climb. They catch me on the ensuing climb and they are truly Americans working nearby at an airfield and apparently we are the only 3 Americans in this ride, and we happen to find each other by chance. Che culo. We reach the top, and I wait for my teammate who is beginning to look like me. Down again and then another climb, Perticara. Down and then Pugliano. Pass the Americans on the way up while they meet their wives or girlfriends or someone like that. There was a refreshment area in a town towards the top and I stop and wait for Maurizio. The view is really lovely here near the highest point in the ride (790 m) and you can see San Marino across the valley. Up to the top and only two 4 km climbs left to do bearing in mind that the last one has a 17% piece to strike fear into the legs. I cross the control point at the top with Maurizio and we stop for a moment and eat something. I decide to be antisocial and get this thing over and done with and just continue on by myself down and then back up the penultimate climb.

The riders have thinned out a lot by now and occasionally I am by myself and can occasionally see no one else. Pass through Ponte Uso again and my right leg is threatening to cramp full stop instead of the twinges I am having. The road undulates after Ponte Uso and this is actually a relief after a succession of grinding climbs followed by speedy descents. I can try and appreciate the countryside while I try and keep my leg from cramping.

Finally we arrive at Gorolo, the ultimate climb, and from the beginning I have to stop and sort out my leg. Finally decide its safe and go up, only to be harassed by a radio personality on the steepest bit towards the top who sticks a microphone in my face and asks how are things. I say sono americano and continue and he seems to be happy with that. Later I thought I should have added americano distruto but I wasn't going back. Get to the top, thinking that its all downhill and then the flat bit back into Cesenatico, But nooooooo. There are about 10 km of undulating bits at the top along a ridge. I'm destroyed. I want to go home, I want to sit by the sea. Many people pass by as I crawl along this ridge a bit demoralized and finally get to the screaming downhill and the last 10 km of flat bit. I move slowly towards the finish and a couple of groups pass me by until I get fed up and decide to grit my teeth and join a group of about 15 riders with equally grim faces. We arrive at the finish, nine hours and 45 minutes after the first started,, about 2260th place, get controlled by the electronic timing and then medaled by a legion of nice looking women who have been doing this for the past few hours and maintain their cuteness and nice smiles. And another photo opportunity. This one turned out rather well for me actually. We're both smiling, look happy and don't reflect what is probably going through our minds at the moment. As for the photos, they arrive 6 weeks later, are actually very nice, full size with nothing written across the photo. They want 7000 lire per each and will of course make larger prints for you, or put it on a shirt and then there is the video of course.

OK finished, got something to drink after the finish. Now to sort out how to get back to the hotel 5 km away. I remember basically what direction it was in and that it was in front of the beach but having a bit of diminished mental capacity I get lost and frustrated, but eventually manage to sort out where to go. I arrive at the hotel just in time to see Cippolini win another Giro stage. Boring bot impressive nonetheless. Then take a shower and feel somewhat human again. Maurizio arrives and finished 10 minutes after me which makes me feel a bit guilty for not waiting for him. Two did the short course and the other two finished about an hour ahead of me and another finished about an hour afterwards.

All in all a reasonably satisfactory experience, despite the suffering. I might do it again but only with a bit more preparation and a few kilos less. As I seemed to have passed t he initiation ritual, I was promised that I wouldn't have to go with the guy I shared the room with again. Maurizio has sworn it off. I don't know about the others. Personally I think there are too many people doing this thing and I fear to imagine what it was like with 12000 people.