Gran Fondo – Geotermia e delle Balze

Paul Blackmore writes…

Tales of a Time Trialist – Gran Fondo Season Begins

As I’ve got older (and wiser!) my dislike of the cold has grown and therefore all those early season hillies do not seem so much fun as they used to. After viewing photos of those brave lost souls competing in the Sussex CA 2-up and the SCCU hilly on my return only confirmed my good fortune in being able to head for sunnier skies. This year I’ve decided to mix things up a little, and look to get fit by zipping over to Italy for few Gran Fondo’s. Friday morning I was on the plane to join my brother Steve ‘Jim’ Blackmore and ex-pro ex-EGCC now retired full time pro Alan Williams for a 90km bash around the Tuscan countryside.

In keeping with my lack of training miles I decided to approach the first of these GF’s in a relaxed, just get round attitude – despite my brothers insistence I should be treating it as a race. Looking round the car park started me worrying, as everyone was in their shorts applying warm-up cream to shavened legs. Just to reconfirm my slightly poor preparation I had to wear knee warmers despite the heat to partly cover my embarrassingly hairy legs. The bling of carbon everywhere dazzled my eyes. Maybe this was a race. The only thing I couldn’t understand was if this was a race why wasn’t there anyone warming up on rollers?

Pomarance, our start town, is typically Tuscan. The medieval town sits on top of a hill at 367m, is very picturesque with an impressive Duomo and terracotta buildings. The day had started early. Having been forced out of bed at 6.30am, taking a good 10 minutes before realising the horror of entering an early season TT was just a dream, I watched as my two team mates downed a kilo of pasta (I managed 3 bits of toast), then braved the bright sunlight for a 40 minute drive to the start.

With a start time of 10am we were ready to line up at 9am. Luckily a relative of a friend distracted Jim, and I had time for one final pee-pee and then we went to the start. Much to Jim & Alan’s annoyance our start numbers were 821-3, which basically meant there were 800 riders in front of us and 600 behind! They were keen to push to the front to ensure they get into a front groupetto once the race starts. But sadly their efforts to achieve this were thwarted by some excellent organisation. We were first redirected down a different street for all numbers over 200, then another redirection for riders with numbers above 800. Perhaps if we’d put down our 10 times it would have got us nearer the front, but one way or another by the time we started there were at least 800 riders in front of us.

So at 10am we kicked off, 91kms with 1480 metres of climbing. I was a little apprehensive as to whether my 1000kms of training since 01 Jan would be sufficient. Take it easy I thought. Jim & Alan were soon out of sight as we started about 8kms of descent, weaving past the slightly less accomplished descenders. The first big obstacle would soon be upon us, the 543-metre ascent to Volterra. I’d made my way down steadily following a couple of speedsters and was pleasantly surprised to catch a glimpse of Jim & Alan ahead of me. We entered the village of Saline di Volterra and immediately turned right to start the 12km climb. Although there was still a sea of riders ahead as far as I could see, Jim & Alan were only just up the road. The line of riders soon thinned out and I was able to make it up to Jim & Alan, who had so ruthlessly left me for dead at the start. Feeling good & eager to test their legs I waited for a suitable wheel to pass and follow and started the process of making up err 800 places! I’d done about 5kms before realising that Jim & Alan were not behind me. I was still feeling quite good so continued to progress up the climb passing riders left & right, mainly following this guy who can be best described by the politically incorrect David Duffield as a ‘cheeky chappy’. As I neared the top, which never seemed to arrive, we finally entered the town, hitting the cobbles and crowd lined streets & then pass the first feed station. This was highly amusing as the kind volunteers were handing out cups of water. As riders grabbed the plastic cup and gripped it the water immediately leapt into the air & you were left with very little water. This made the scary cobbles wet!

There was no doubt that both Jim & Alan had put in the miles. Jim had already done several short but high-speed road races and Alan had clocked up 4,500kms of training miles since he got ‘serious’. On the climb Jim was having a bad patch and although on his limit he got dropped by Alan just before entering the town. Physiologically you think you’ve made the top but then there’s 1km of up hill cobbles still to go. Alan on the other hand had no excuses, other than age! A crash diet in order to lose enough weight to eat all that pasta in the morning probably didn’t help.

With closed roads through the centre of historic Volterra and down the other side riders could use the whole road. Bringing back memories of many a surrey league, the descent was littered with potholes, empty and full packets of food and flying water bottles, as many riders grappled with their down tubes desperate to refuel. One good bit of advice Jim gave me was to get in a big group on the descent as the next 15kms are mainly flat and then refuel. The novelty of having a back pocket when racing was proving useful with the sunglasses in and out, although my lack of practice in this technique cost me a Gel as it flew into the air out as I fumbled around for my energy bar.

My group was upwards of 100 riders and we were rattling along at 45kph, catching another 50+ group (numbers not age) then another group. By the time we reached the town of Lajatico for a short climb we were well over 200 riders. Unexpected gaps opened up on this ascent and going over the top I found myself with 2 other guys some 50 metres off the back of a large group, maybe 100 riders. Remembering the drive to the start and the 15kms of rolling leg sapping countryside before the penultimate climb I was desperate to rejoin. We weren’t making much impression and with only 1 other guy pulling I was beginning to panic but luckily the group eased a little and we rejoined. Now would have been a good time for that Gel as the distance – 60kms by now – was starting to have a strange effect on the legs. But I wanted to save my only one left for the last climb.

After Volterra, Alan had found himself in a good size group, probably running 3 minutes behind mine. Jim, despite a typically kamikaze descent couldn’t catch Alan’s group just in front after Volterra and had to wait for others to catch him. Lots of wind breaking effort and gesticulation couldn’t motivate the rest of his group and eventually Jim sat up resigned to an ‘off the back’ workout.

One crash and several emergency stops later as the big bunch contracted to get pass waiting cars, we turned off the main road and started the climb to Montecatini Val di Cecina. This was 403m up and about 6kms long with a few steep bits but nothing severe. I was at the back and soon found the legs had gone. I noticed looking back down the hill another large group approaching, which turned out to contain Alan. Finally over the top and I picked up a bottle and downed my Gel. This seemed to have a positive effect and I felt a bit better. Just as well.

On the drive to the start Jim showed me the final climb up to the finish back at Pomarance. I was slightly shocked to discover the climb started with a particularly evil section quite unlike your standard Tuscan mountain climb. My group was about 15 riders and everyone seemed to know what was coming as the pace had slowed somewhat. I knew this as I found my way to the front for the first time. We tapped along saving energy for the ‘murr’. The start of the final ascent was a 300m stretch of 20%. Jim had climbed it in 39×25 last year but did admit he was going through an ‘out of box’ experience at the time. I had a 39×23 and this proved enough as no one went crazy and remarkably we stayed compact as the gradient eased again. In fact it wasn’t as difficult as it looked from the car. It did have the effect of releasing the last drops of energy I had though. Then it was just a long slog to the finish. We still had another 7kms of climbing back up to Pomarance. Nothing steep just steady but I was dead and grovelling. My lack of fitness was really kicking in now and it was with relief I crossed the line rather than with a sprint.

At the finish the organisation provided a refreshment stand with bananas, cake and various forms of liquid – all included in the entry fee. Alan, was going well on the last climb and gained a minute on me up to the finish, finishing before I’d even got my breath back. We waited a little longer for Jim, and although he was now feeling good had paid the price for his struggles up Volterra. Turns out he’d not done much during the week as he had a bit of a cold. I guess the key to doing well is to be at the front from the start and get towed along. If you end up in a small group chasing you lose minutes. Actually, I think they call it road racing.

Final stats:

Paul Blackmore 2:49:41 @188th and 43rd in category – 24 minutes down on the winner! Ouch.
Alan Williams 2:50:48 @208th and 24th in category
Steve Blackmore 2:56:23 @256th and 56th in category

594 completed the Gran Fondo.

Until the next one……….PB