Travel Story Two-wheel odyssey on pizza, pasta and gelato

Photo of Claire Tyrrell

Rising to the tough challenge of a world championship bike race in northern Italy.

Italy’s immense mountain ranges and breathtaking scenery make the southern European country a hotspot for cyclists, and the home of pizza and gelato has long been top on my list of riding destinations.

When I discovered the nation was hosting the 2018 Gran Fondo World Championships, I made it my mission to get to the race.

The northern Italian town of Varese was home to this year’s Gran Fondo Worlds, an annual race open to amateur cyclists who qualify at any of the 21 qualifying races around the globe.

My journey to the September 2 event began in mid-2017, when I set my sights on Australian qualifier Amy’s Gran Fondo.

Known widely as Amy’s, the race was named after Australian professional cyclist Amy Gillett, who was killed by a motorist while training in 2005, and is staged in Lorne, Victoria.

I trained harder than I ever have and raced out of my skin to secure a spot in the top quarter of my age group, 19-34, to earn my place at the world championships.

As a Perth cycling enthusiast who juggles training with full-time work, I never dreamt I would get the chance to represent my country.

The passion myself and others have for the sport was realised by the Union Cycliste Internationale, which started the event a decade ago to showcase amateur cycling to the world.

With almost 12 months between Amy’s and Worlds, it was a huge build-up for my biggest cycling race to date.

I arrived in Varese on September 28, after 17 hours on two flights and almost 24 hours travelling time.

The six-hour time difference coupled with a cramped, mostly overnight, plane journey rendered me exhausted, but I had a race to compete in and nothing was getting in the way of my preparation.

Once I settled into my hotel and assembled my bike, I flushed out my legs with an easy spin around Lago di Varese.

Immediately I was struck by the jaw-dropping scenery of the blue water offset by picturesque mountains — a view familiar throughout northern Italy.

The lake was about 1km from my hotel at Capolago — about 5km from Varese itself — and has a 28km shared path around it, popular among locals and tourists.

The following morning I sprung out of bed for a ride into Varese to meet my training group. The best thing about this event in my mind was I shared the campaign with so many of my closest friends.

My Perth training group, Strive, had 15 riders including myself race Worlds, and my local cycling club in South Perth had several riders in the event.

The ride into town seemed quite simple when I booked my hotel, 5.8km with very few turns.

I had failed to take into account the elevation. It was a mostly uphill cycle, so instead of the 15 minutes that distance would normally take me it was about a 30-minute journey.

Not to worry — we were in Italy, where notions of time and distance were quite often far from precise. I arrived in plenty of time to meet my group, who were sitting near Varese’s city hall drinking espressos and excitedly previewing the day’s route.

The plan was to ride the majority of the 130km course including the major climbs, so we could start to formulate our moves on race day.

We rode north out of town up a slight incline to the first proper climb 12km into the course.

As I settled into a rhythm and into riding on the right-hand side of the road I gazed across at lush paddocks and seemingly endless lakes and mountains.

The broad grin across my travel-weary face widened when the unmistakable scent of chocolate drifted in our direction — the Lindt factory was in full swing across the road.

Enough distractions, focus on the task, I told myself.

A few kilometres in we veered right, the road steepened and we were into the climb. Our group separated as each rider settled into their own effort.

I knew this part would be decisive — the first and longest climb in the race at 4.5km at an average 7.3 per cent gradient. While it is difficult to ride, the canopy of trees and dense foliage on the roadside made the section a lot more pleasant than expected.

Our coach rode alongside me for a moment on the Vespa he hired in Varese and I almost felt like a professional.

We got to the top of the hill and regrouped, discussing how we would approach the impending descent — a technical and fast ride to flatter terrain.

I took each corner cautiously and enjoyed the ride to Lake Maggiore below, grateful I had the chance to practise that stretch of the course.

We rode for a few more hours and completed at least two more climbs, remarking on the sheer beauty of the landscape around us.

We rode through countless villages with narrow streets, cobblestones and undulating roads.

After 3.5 hours in the saddle covering 90km, I felt more prepared.

An individual time trial took place the next day; part of the World Championships, the 22.5km hilly course drew in 617 riders from dozens of countries.

I had opted not to enter the time trial as I wanted to focus on the longer event, which attracted a record 2558 riders from 60 nationalities this year.

My good friend and strong rider Amanda Nabi had made the shorter course her focus and we were out in force to support her.

As far as amateur cyclists go, Amanda is in a league of her own, dominating the local race scene and often outperforming strong male riders.

She had narrowly missed a podium with a fourth place at last year’s World Championships in Albi, France, and was determined to better her result.

We cheered on other Australian riders and our training mates in the time trial, but knowing how hard Amanda worked I couldn’t help but cheer extra hard for her.

The atmosphere was tense as she waited for the results at the finish and much to her surprise and delight she earnt second place in her field.

But wait, there was more. Another training comrade Deborah Kempe had also secured second place in her division in the time trial.

Deb, a former duathlon world champion, had chipped away at her training and made sure everything fell into place on race day for her silver medal.

A celebration was in order — about 12 of us went to dinner at a local restaurunt renowned for its gnocchi. I devoured a vegetable gnocchi dish and left the prosecco for Amanda and Deb as I listened to them recount their day.

I had ridden part of the course again that day, so on Thursday a rest was in order.

The weather aligned with my plans and the skies opened up all day on Friday, when I did very little but read and prepare.

Rain continued into Saturday, but it was a day out from the main event and I had a plan to stick to. I rode for an hour with a friend up and down the same hill, stretching my legs.

That afternoon I shared lunch with about 20 of my friends at the accommodation of the majority of the Perth riders in Varese.

We loaded up on carbohydrates, talked about life on two wheels and looked at the weather forecast — the signs were good for a day of sunshine and it did not disappoint.

I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the place my sport had taken me. 

That sensation intensified the following morning on the start line, where I was surrounded by riders from around the world proudly wearing their country’s colours.

To my right was a Canadian, on my left a Slovakian, ahead a French woman and next to her a Norwegian. I had a pinch- myself moment ahead of the countdown to the start — the moment I had been anticipating for so long had finally arrived.

“Uno, duo, tre” and we were racing. Our pack of more than 100 riders of women aged 19-39 started relatively sedately, with some twitchy riders as nerves ran high.

I positioned myself near the front in an effort to avoid danger as much as I could.

My instincts paid off in the first 10km as I heard the unmistakable sound of carbon colliding with tarmac behind.

I resisted the urge to turn around and continued pedalling — there was nothing I could do.

Later I discovered my close friend and training partner Kat came down in the crash, severely bruising her elbow and grazing her knee and arm. Being the fighter she was, Kat continued on the course, completing the 103km course reserved for older age groups.

Her fate was shared by many throughout the race and the wailing of ambulance sirens sliced through the air on far too many occasions.

For spectators, it was an anxious wait.

Race organisers had spoken about the technical nature of the course with its sharp corners and twisty descents and with so many riders from more than 50 countries, the risk of mishaps was high.

My race went as well as it could have. I gave it everything to get to the top of the long climb  and used the descents to gain an advantage.

I conjured every motivational phrase from every cycling book I had ever read, during the 130km, 41/2-hour grind.

Most of all I continued to tell myself “you are racing for your country”, which spurred me on.

The race was not all brutal slog as there were moments I was carried along by a peloton and able to catch my breath.

During one of these occasions I turned to my right and was struck by the sheer enormity of Lake Maggiore.

There were few such opportunities to soak in the sights and I buckled down to the finish, doing my best to hold wheels and not always succeeding.

In the last 5km to Varese, alongside a UK rider, I felt a rush of emotion as I climbed a hill to the finish. 

I crossed the line and slumped over my handlebars, overcome with relief and fatigue.

Just like that, my 15-month journey was over; I had placed 30th in my age group of 70 riders and 114th woman out of 350.

It was time to put my feet up and plan my next adventure.

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