“We’ll go to ride in sunny Tuscany, Ian says! It’ll be fun, Ian says!”
These were the words uttered by an expletive-spewing Irishman a few steps away from me in the starting pen of the 2017 edition of the Strade Bianche Gran Fondo. Ian was the idea man in their small group, obviously, and his friends were none too happy because, being Irish, they definitely didn’t need to have travelled all this way to ride in the rain.
At least they had mud to make it novel.
This 129 km gran fondo, a perfect replica of the professional women’s parcours from the day before, was mostly on tarmac, but what makes boneheads (I can only speak for myself here) travel all the way to Italy is to ride the now-famous sections of Tuscan ‘white roads’. As with many foolish plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
After waiting in the 6 degree rain for 45 minutes or so the race began, or at least part of it did – if you are dealt a large number in these mass-participation events (3501 in my case) you spend a bunch of time inching your way towards the timing mat while the front of the peloton is miles down the road (over 12 minutes of ‘inching’ for me…more on that later).
Even after we crossed that mat, we spent much of our time trying to avoid other riders and it wasn’t till we hit the wider roads outside Siena that those who wanted to get ahead could make a move. Like my very first Etape, back in 2011, I made some steady progress through the ranks of riders in the beginning, and the ‘sensations’ were pretty good, considering my no-training training plan.
Then we hit the first of 8 gravel sections and the world went dark. This section (diabolically close to our B&B) was flat and straight, but by the time we exited the white roads of Tuscany were inside my bootied cycling shoes, covering my useless sunglasses, and penetrating all non-clothed orifices.
A short section of paved road was then followed by our first gravel climb/descent, and the day just sort of unwound in this fashion. After a few hours of riding I felt surprisingly good still, and seemed to be riding up the climbs better than most around me.
About 4 hours into the race the sun made a few short appearances, only to be followed by showers that would wash away the ‘epic’ a little. It was around this time that I noticed my companions in the peloton were getting stronger. I was now riding mostly with guys and girls in the one-thousand category and I guess I had found ‘my people’.
I had been warned by Andrea, our B&B owner, that the last 20 km or so would be especially testing, and conveniently that’s when my legs started to revolt. I still got up all those 15% dirt climbs without getting off the bike, but how remains a mystery, given how slow I was going.
The legs were already on their way to the showers and pasta party, but the good news was that what was left of me was at the foot of the old city of Siena, and grinding it through the Fontebranda Gate. Below is a shot Shoko took earlier of the misery that last 10% section of stone slabs was dealing out all day, with the gate just out of view around the corner. The walkers are from the shorter Medio Fondo.
Not long after starting up this mercifully-short climb I heard my wife’s voice blaring down the roads, ordering me not to stop.
The dirt you see on my ass was actually inside my shorts, too. Someone will have to explain how that could happen.
I don’t think there was any part of this day that I could dare call ‘sweet’, but it being over was definitely better than when it was happening. Below is probably not a smile at all, but it looks nearly like one. My eyes are puffy and closed from collecting mud all day long.
My official time was 5 hours on the dot, with a ranking of 453 out of 1376 who rode the Gran Fondo. This time is from the gun to when I crossed the finish line. But here’s the kicker – that placing is based on that time (called the ‘absolute ranking’), which isn’t my ‘real time’, which was 4:47 (from when I crossed the timing mat at the start). From a quick check, riders who had the same ‘real time’ as me finished in the mid-300s.
Why does this happen? I’ve seen these two different times listed on results in the past, but I think that this is first time the organizers seem to be considering the event a ‘scratch race’ and not accounting for the many stranded minutes spent in the starting pen after the race has begun. I’m stumped as to how this could be considered fair. Any ideas?
Overall, the experience was a supremely positive one. The Italian riders (nearly everyone) were extremely chill and I can’t think of a more beautiful course and impressive finish than what I had the good luck of riding on Sunday. Already planning next year’s trip. By then the mud should be washed out of my kit.