*WORDS:* Simon Clark | *PHOTOS:* Ross Muir
Che Bello! Sol’e, Sol’e, Sol’e, for six days of riding the Rapha Randonnee Apennini 2011 from Lucca to Ascoli-Piceno. Our group could not have asked for better weather from the moment they landed in Pisa to the final descent of the final day. In Ascoli’s historic piazza the Prosecco was flowing as the Randonneurs celebrated a magnificent spiritual experience amongst the natural beauty of central Italy.
By the end of the first night, after tasting some exquisite wine and salumi antipasti in the historic centre of Lucca, our guests shared stories of cycling legends past and present. The Randonneur spirit was soon established and grew even stronger over the course of the week as the group overcame the challenges of the demanding route.
Day 1 set the tone for the week with a great route passing through Collodi, the home of Pinocchio, and featured probably the toughest climb of the whole Randonnée, the infamous San Pellegrino in Alpi, an Hors Category finish of more than 18%. This proved an early test of legs for the riders and an equally stiff challenge for the clutches of our support vehicles. The group was rewarded with spectacularly clear views and a high altitude lunch stop with typical prosciutto crudo pannini, mozzarella, pomodori and the largest strawberries bought from the local market. The day finished with a couple of smaller ‘bumps’ and a scenic descent to the spa hotel and wellness centre at Poretta Terme. Refuelling that night came in the form of a great tartufi pasta: so simple but so delicious.
Day 2 to Stia featured two main climbs past stunning lake features and across dams sunk into the natural valleys of the Appennini. After successfully scaling the Passo della Futa, our lunch stop amongst the cipressi, near Galliano just north of Florence, was only made better by the succulent porchetta served. The fast descent down the Croce del Mori region had everyone on their guard before arriving at the hotel to a magnum of Nipozzano Chianti Riserva 2006 to ease the pain of aching legs.
On Tuesday’s third stage, we were joined by a special guest to help pull us up Monte Carpegna. Local ex-pat dilettante, Simon Holt, took a couple of days off from training with his racing team near Arrezzo to join our assault on the climb synonymous with the legendary Marco Pantani. Everyone took a minute to pay their respects to the memorial situated at the foot of the demanding climb. Unfortunately the climbing wasn’t done after reaching our hotel in Urbino; certain individuals (no names) were ‘dropped’ on the cobbled 20% walk to the restaurant on the stunning Romanesque and Gothic central piazza in Urbino.
On day 4 to Gubbio, the morning offered a rare chance to enjoy some flat riding followed by coffee in the market town of Cagli, under a beating sun. Cappucini and espressi doppie set us up nicely for the two big lumps of the day. Monte Petrano afforded wonderful views back to the yesterday’s climb of Monte Carpegna. The heat on Monte Nerone required everyone to stay well hydrated to avoid wilting in the full force of the Umbrian sun.
The final section of the day saw us tackle the strade bianche around Monte Cerrone. With the heat of the day starting to diminish, the sun gently caressed our legs on the approach to the spacious former monastery of Ai Cappucini in Gubbio. That evening we enjoyed an excellent feast and animated discussion about our good and not so good bike handling skills on such tough, yet exciting terrain – and only one puncture too! Even though fatigue had started to show, our morale was boosted by the presentation to our guests of the Rapha Randonnée Appennini Tricolore shirts. Bellissimi!
Discussion over breakfast the next day revolved around tactics for approaching the 1400m high Monte Catria. The steep, tight and twisty descent, 20% in places, paved the way to a fully laiden lunch stop and sugar replenishment in the form of a crostata marmellata and enough energy to complete the day’s ride. The final section turned into a turned into a 50km/hr white knuckle ride, flat out through and off before quickly reaching our Roman villa at Borgo Lanciano, where some weary legs were instantly transformed by massage and a laze around the pool in the sun.
After catching the finale of the day’s Giro stage, we tucked into yet another great four course dinner, complemented by some Lacrima di Moro d’Alba chosen by a certain guest with a refined nose, a necessary anaesthetic which hit the spot nicely.
Wow, what a day to Ascoli-Piceno, no-one wanted it to finish! So they dragged it out with a few beer stops… why not? Fully deserved guys. A series of climbs helped us across the Siblinini mountains, a vast area supporting agriculture and immense mountain views making us feel small and insignificant. The presence of wild boars on the side of the road explained the great salsiccia cinghiale we noshed on for antipasti that night.
On the last day we were all dressed in our Rapha Randonnée Tricolore jerseys, like the professional Randonnée team we had become. Singing along the Forca di Presta on smooth and sweeping roads with clear skies… we took one last beer stop! In green, white and red, we were lucid (yet safe) on the descent. Our choreographed arrival across the piazza like Italian arrows swerving through the locals, and our final destination of the week was accompanied by a sacco di prosecco to celebrate a wonderful Rapha Appennini Randonnee in all respects.
After 823km of beautiful roads and 15,800m climbing, eight randonneurs had bonded, motivated each other, been touched by the emotional achievement and satisfied by the physical challenge of crossing the Appennini in six days. They shared the ups and downs (literally) and helped each other through some great days riding in Italy, to be remembered forever.