■ 7 days of supported group cycling: March 29-April 4
And so, you find yourself planning to go to the birthplace of granfondo, to race GFNY Italia as it makes its new home in the heart of Tuscany. Thoughts of the authentic Italian experience, the cycling, the food, the wine start to take root in your mind and create the types of images that you know you will later translate into priceless memories. With all that Tuscany has to offer you and the excitement of being able to race the legendary strade bianche (white roads), what more could you ask for?
With GFNY returning to Italy in 2019, the return of the GFNY Italia Camp returned as well. A five day cycling experience that toured areas surrounding the host cities of Montepulciano and Torrita di Siena, while taking riders through the stunning vistas overlooking vineyards and olive groves, up steep climbs to ancient palazzi atop beautiful mountainside cities, and through the famous white roads that would challenge riders from over 30 countries on race day. The camp itself, a supported set of 40-80 kilometer training rides were led by Uli Fluhme (GFNY co-founder), and Mirko Dello Pollo (GFNY Italia Ambassador) throughout the week leading up to the race. Attending the camp, riders from 12 different countries would get a glimpse of the challenges that awaited them on the race course, while also having an immersive course in the Italian cycling lifestyle. There would be coffee and pastries down the road each day, and plenty of challenges, but by the end of the camp – the course would be fully revealed, and camper race strategies would be in focus.
With exactly one week to go before the race, camp riders were welcomed by the GFNY team at the top of the beautiful host city of Montepulciano with dinner and wine tasting in the Fortezza Di Montepulciano. With its glass floors, Camp guests were treated to being able to see the preserved ancient sanctuaries of past residents of the city, while sampling Vino Nobile and dining on a fabulous lasagna. Those who had not met or ridden together before got to know each other over a splendid dinner, capped off with coffee and biscotti, and a toast from GFNY founders Lidia and Uli Fluhme. And the camp was officially opened.
No doubt, after the evening festivities, bikes were put together, and riders readied their gear before getting a first night’s sleep under the Tuscan moon and reporting to the meeting place by 9:45 AM. Exactly one week to race day, there was plenty of time for riders to shake off the jet lag, get blood pumping to the legs, and get the feel of the Italian roads.
The first day’s route went out from the base of Montepulciano toward the city of Pienza. Rolling through beautiful countryside, with everything one would expect to see, riders were treated to a beautiful weather day. With a quick stop for a coffee – what could be more authentically Italian during a ride – Mirko and Uli led the group through Pienza to a stunning view of the countryside from the city wall.
From Pienza, it was out onto the open roads, and the climbing began. Up and over some winding hills, and descending back down toward the lower roads of Pienza, the group made their way onto their first sectors of strade bianche, but with a surprise kick up a few steep grades, before descending back to the pavement, and taking a short kick back up to the main road back to Montepulciano. The first taste of cycling Tuscany in the books, the camp attendees were ready for the donkeys.
Special treats awaited the camp attendees. As VIP GFNY racers, the host town of Torrita di Siena’s Palio commenced at 4PM that same afternoon, and GFNY campers were the special guests of the Mayor. The Palio - a tradition born in the heart of Italy, and usually run with horses, the Palio in Torrita Di Siena, added a special flare of racing donkeys. The different districts of the city all assembled in a grand stand and along a temporary fence lines, watched as their hometown hero and donkey jockey was escorted into the track at the city wall by a host of townspeople dressed in ceremonial medieval garb – inspired by the Medici period. A priest, a knight, a bride and groom (prince and princess one would think), children, and the jockey. Running in heats of two donkeys per race, the townspeople whooped and cheered for their steeds and created an afternoon of sights and sounds that the campers will likely never forget. Atop the city of Torrita di Siena, most of the campers were unaware that they would be scaling the roads to that very spot during the camp, and as part of race day. This piazza would be the official start line of the race, as the two towns of Montepulciano and Torrita Di Siena were the brilliant co-hosts of the GFNY experience.
The second day had the group heading out to find the fabled strade bianche again – but this time – one of the key sectors of the course. With the first and third sectors running on the same road, but in reverse, there was climbing, descending, twists, turns, and horses awaiting the riders on this critical learning experience. But first there was the descent down from Montepulciano, toward Torrita di Siena. Always quick with some cycling advice, Ambassador Mirko provided the group with some advice about how to navigate the descent, ride as Italian drivers expect you to ride, and have a safe and enjoyable descent. The group were on their way and turning left at the bottom of the very steep descent (that would play in the race, both descending and climbing), up some small climbs, and over to Torrita di Siena. Riding now through the Piazza where the riders had delighted in the Palio some 18 hours before, and onto the climb that would be one of the first selections of the race on Sunday. This would lead to the strade bianche.
At the top of the climb, the group stopped for a coffee – of course – and a quick set of instructions from Mirko on how the group would approach the white roads. This was to be a teaching day. With coffee done and riding resumed, the group was taught to enter the strade bianche with a wide turn that would put them on a 90-degree angle with the gravel road. This would allow them to maintain a good grip on the road as they started to head down the first sector.
Stopping to provide further instruction – the day would be about gearing, cadence, and positioning. The quick hits:
The group practiced and practiced, allowing everyone to feel comfortable, and to know that they would be able to race the gravel on Sunday without fear. It was then a shortcut back to Montepulciano and off to the activities that riders reveled in with family and friends.
With a rest day for the group between the second and third day, many hit the “Terme” (spa) for massage and relaxation, some went to Firenze, but all made the most of the day in Tuscany. The third day took the group in an alternate direction with a shorter route. Down a series of amazing, twisting, descents, and back out onto some new strade bianche. From there, it was all about making the route back to Montepulciano via the penultimate climb of the race course. A beast of steep climb, topping out at a 17% grade, many in the group were nervous or excited to get a crack at this climb that looked so intimidating from a car, or even more intimidating while descending. Finally, after passing in reverse through Torrita Di Siena the climb was upon the group. Focusing on technique and keeping the cranks turning, the group made their way bravely up the climb with a stop for high-fives, hugs, and photos next to the 17% sign. It was then on to the ultimate climb of the race – back into town, and up to the piazza grande in Montepulciano. Winding through the narrow corridors of the interior of the city the group had to find that extra gear and extra power, up the extremely steep, but short route into the city. Coffee time at last.
Taking the route back out toward Pienza, the group were now ready for the next challenge. Having faced their fears of the strade bianche and the steepest climbs of the race, the group was ready for the next set of challenges. While there was plenty of climbing to be had on day four, the climbing efforts were long and beautiful. Distracted by the beauty of the places they were riding through, there were smiles across the group, stopping for photos and visiting the castle made famous by the film The English Patient. Coming back through the town of Pienza, the traditional coffee stop was in order, before braving the crosswinds back through the countryside en route to Montepulciano.
For the last day of the camp – a choice of rides. A shorter 25 kilometer ride up to the piazza, or a longer, 70 kilometer route taking in all three sectors of strade bianche, and some of the bigger climbs and descents of the course in a loop. For those on the longer ride, the second sector revealed exactly how challenging strade bianche could be, with steep pitches, and on that day, non-stop cross winds, all made worthwhile by the stunning views. The climbs through the beautiful surrounding towns, and twisting, turning, technical descents screamed Italian cycling, and as riders made their way through a challenging day on the bike, the theme word for the day, was simply, Spettacolo!
With the race now less than 48 hours away, campers made plans for Saturday. Some attending group rides, or doing sightseeing. Whatever it took to relax before the race. With a start in the front corral GFNY camp VIP’s were first out of the chute when the gun went off on Sunday, and absolutely prepared for the racing challenges that were in front of them.