Editors Note: Here is an inside look at what it’s like to race, loose and still have an awesome day at the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships by Gran Fondo Daily News journalist John Woodson, who pretended to be an amateur bike racer for one day in 2018 at the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships in Varese, Italy. Enjoy!
I’m on the start line at the World Championships, trying to stay calm, play it cool, but goose bumps on my arms and rabbit’s foot tucked in my jersey probably give me away. In a multicolored sea of national team jerseys, I’m wearing the stars and stripes, it’s pretty awesome – and unnerving.
After 21 qualifying events on 4 continents the best amateur cyclists from 60 countries are in Varese, Italy to compete in the Gran Fondo World Championships. Today, 2500 hardcore racers and me, a journalist pretending to be a racer, are ready to start with rainbow-striped world champion jerseys on the line.
For a cyclist, there is no more coveted jersey in the world.
The 130km race winds among shaded forests, old villages and stunning blue lakes while tackling 2000m of climbing over 6 cols – Alpe Tedesco, Brusimpiano, Montegrino Valtravaglia, Porto Valtravaglia, Brinzio and Casbeno.
Packed like sardines between Italian terra cotta colored buildings on narrow streets I throw my jacket to my wife, say a quick prayer to St. Francis de Sales (patron saint of journalists) and zip up the stars and stripes.
Right on time as church bells chime thousands of cleats click into pedals. It’s a wonderful sound, followed by unwonderful pain in my legs as riders in the rampaging peloton swarm ahead, past and around each other.
Within 10km I’ve dodged, evaded and with the help of my rabbit’s foot escaped 4 crashes. Unfortunately, there are 5 crashes, with the last forcing me off the road, into shrubbery and to a dead stop. Rather than start the first climb, Alpe Tedesco, towards the front of the field, I’m at the back, the very back of a long strung out line of riders.
It’s the perfect way to end the start of a good day.
5km in length Alpe Tedesco is the longest, steepest and narrowest climb on the course. Barely three riders wide, it twists up the mountainside via a half-dozen sharp switchbacks. Joining a long processional of riders huffing, puffing and struggling to turn pedals I slowly claw my way through the field.
I catch Italian ride Paulo Sussan wearing an azure blue Italian national team jersey and a yellow number, indicating he is in my age group. Without words we push forward, upwards, looking to catch riders.
After the summit we discover the technical descent is as challenging as the climb. No respite is given on the butt-clinching steep hairpin filled descent. With extra enthusiasm and testosterone still in the air riders overcook corners, sitting dazed on the side of road as we fly past.
This racing up and down mountains on narrow roads is repeated again, and again and again today. Great bike handling skills are not optional. Get caught behind a slow rider going up, or down, and you chase wheels all day just to stay in a group.
An hour of intense wheel chasing puts Paulo and me in a small pack of riders, with many still up the road – or sitting by the side of the road.
Nobody talks. Nobody soft-pedals. Nobody sits in. Everyone gives 110%.
This is the World Championships.
It’s why we train 15000 kilometers in pouring rain, intense heat and frigid cold. It’s why we get up at 05:00 before work to climb the same road 10 times in a row until we’re ready to throw-up. It’s why we obsess over equipment, nutrition and always want to lay down rather than sit or stand.
In Roggiano Valtravaglia bikes rattle and bounce over cobble pavé laid centuries ago. Just like in Paris Roubaix, I ride a tightrope narrow strip of stone on the shoulder to avoid a brutal beating. My hands appreciate the smooth ride, but I fall behind on the descent when a British rider fishtails off the road.
Nobody blinks, waits or even looks back. Now 15 seconds behind I work with a big wall of a rider from Germany to close the gap. Ja, it’s do-or-die time. 2km later we rejoin the group, exhausted.
Thank you, St. Francis de Sales.
More climbing, descending and on-the-rivet riding puts us along the Lake Varese shoreline. My legs are not in a happy place though. Tired, spent and ready to cramp, the finish line is still 10km away.
The final 3km climb into Varese pushes riders past their limit. I am not immune and my legs protest by locking up with cramps. A minute of soft pedaling gives them new life and I set my sights on catching Paulo, once again.
Like a guided missile locked on target I start to reel him in. With 500m to go the gap is 8 seconds. 300m and 4 seconds. At 200m I catch Paulo and we sprint to the line, where I pip him by a wheel.
Although finishing far behind the winner, Belgian Patrick Cocquy, Paulo and I are all smiles, happy to place 132nd and 133rd out of 269 riders in our old-men-who-probably-shouldn’t-be-doing-this age group.
Plus, I am the first journalist to cross the line! Isn’t that worthy of a world championship rainbow pen?
Anyway, riding in the UCI Gran Fondo World Championship is an awesome once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or maybe twice, since I plan to defend my rainbow pen title in 2020 when the championships come to North American in Vancouver, Canada.