Back at the start of October I spent a week cycling in Northern Italy with members of my cycling club. We were in Emilia-Romagna, a region on the Adriatic coast to the south of Venice. It’s an area that doesn’t automatically spring to the mind of many British cyclists when they sit down to plan a trip abroad, but legendary Tour de France winner Marco Pantani once said had everything he needed for Grand Tour training: combinations of flat terrain and challenging climbs.
In recent years the regional tourist authorities have been trying to promote it as a cycling destination and they’ll get a further chance to show it off when the 2018 Giro d’Italia swings through the region. (Stage 12 goes around the town of Cattolica, where we were based.)
If you’re a cyclist looking for a change from the usual Mallorca and France destinations, I’d give Emilia-Romagna a big ‘thumbs up’.
We stayed at the Europa Monetti hotel in Cattolica, right on the Adriatic coast, just south of Rimini and not far from San Marino. Cattolica is a popular destination with Italian holidaymakers but at the start of October it was pretty much closed down for the off-season. The sun loungers that usually line the sandy beach had been taken in, many of the hotels were already boarded up for winter, and there was very little happening in the centre of town.
The risk at that time of year is that you get the turning weather but we were lucky, with some clouds but plenty of sunshine. The heavens only opened on our final day, thankfully after we’d finished our ride.
The time of year meant we got a good deal on the hotel, and with so few other guests around we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Like many other hotels in the area, they’re making a big effort to cater for cycling holidays. After our ride, from 3–4pm they served a ‘pasta lunch’ for us, followed by delicious food in the evening. As well as a hot tub that was ideal for helping to sooth the muscles, they also had a dedicated bike room that we could store our bikes in. The room had pumps and tools, as well as a bike-wash facility.
And of course the hotel had plenty of wine that we enjoyed to the max. We managed to exhaust their stock of red wine one evening – thankfully they’d bought more by the following evening!
As I mentioned earlier, Cattolica is in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, an area made famous by the legendary Tour de France winner Marco Pantani. The region offers every sort of terrain: long flats along the coast to the north of Cattolica, towards Venice; stereotypical switchback climbs at a moderate percentage that nonetheless seem to go on and on and on; and some steeper stuff, too. One climb we didn’t do, although it was on the original itinerary, was Pantani’s Climb up to Cippo di Carpegna, whose ramps of up-to-and-over 20% are lined with tributes to Pantani.
For the first time when cycling abroad, I decided to hire a bike at the destination, delivered along with those for the rest of our group to the hotel soon after we arrived. I was a bit nervous about doing this: I had a bike fit when I was buying my bike, an alloy Trek Madone, so it fits me pretty well. I was worried that switching to an unfamiliar bike with a different set-up might trigger some reactions in my body as I continue to get over my long-standing body imbalance.
I shouldn’t have worried. Although the measurements were noticeably different, everything seemed pretty comfortable. The bars were much higher than I’m used to but that gave a more relaxed position on the bike. And although the angle of the saddle seemed a bit extreme, it felt comfortable so I thought I should leave it alone rather than twiddle and maybe introduce a complication.
It was the first time I’ve ever ridden a carbon bike. Wow! Just as I scoffed when told about the benefits of fitting new wheels to my Madone, only to be blown away when I did it, the difference between my alloy Trek and this carbon Bianchi Intenso Ultegra was amazing. The whole bike seemed much more responsive: put effort through the pedals and it seemed to translate instantly into effort through the tyres. A few times I even found myself climbing some smaller ramps on the big ring.
Of course, now I want to buy a carbon bike ...
Slightly embarrassingly, our hotel had arranged two local guides where were – how should I put this? – from a different planet. Fabio Sacchi came within inches of winning a Tour de France stage in 2003. He had a tendency at roundabouts to ride imperiously out into the traffic flow and bring it to a halt by sitting there with his arm aloft so that we could process through. His bike was so light that when he allowed me to lift it up I almost threw it over my shoulder.
Alongside him was recently retired pro Alessando Malaguti (pictured), who finished third in a stage of the Giro d’Italia in 2015, just two seconds off the win. The two of them worked with the hotel’s guide, Alberto, to shepherd us around all week and showed real tolerance of our almost-constant desire for cake and coffee.
One thing that did surprise me is that they wanted us to keep on each other’s wheel. In the UK I’m used to guidance that says in a group ride you should every three or four bikes leave a car-length gap so that overtaking cars can slot into it before resuming their overtake. But they wanted us to be in a mass, even if it meant Fabio acting as road marshal out on the side, beckon cars on from behind when it was safe for them to overtake and gesticulating in no uncertain terms if it wasn’t.
But on the whole it seemed to work. The car drivers were almost all very polite, and only once did a lorry driver get stuck behind us for any length of time. And as for the beautiful lady in her Fiat who stopped for us on a roundabout for us even without Fabio asking her to ... Well, judging by the stream of tuneful Italian that came from his lips and the accompanying gestures, I think it was love at first sight ...
Ride 1 – Sunday 1 October
A loop to the south of Cattolica, starting with a climb up to Tavullia. When we arrived at the town I noticed a big mural of legendary motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi, to my mind the greatest racer of all time, and belatedly realised the significance of the yellow 46 banners that were hanging from the lampposts: we were in Rossi’s home town. A short while later, we could look down from the road onto his mansion, complete with a private race track in its grounds!
More climbing took us up to a lovely Roman-origin church in Candelara and a castle with amazing views towards the Adriatic at Novilara, before we headed back down to the coast and north. The ride ended with a big climb on classic switchbacks up through the San Bartolo Natural Park, before a sweeping descent back to Cattolica.
Throughout the week I think we all treated the descents with quite a bit of trepidation, not just because we were unsure of the roads but because of the massive cracks in the road surface that had a tendency to appear at an inopportune moment.
Ride 2 – Monday 2 October
A mostly flat day with a big lump in the middle as we headed to San Marino. We started northwards along the flat coastline up to Riccione before turning inland towards the misty crags around San Marino. At one point, after what already seemed like lots of climbing, I looked up and saw Castello della Guaita looming out of the mist on a precipice high above us, little realising that it was our ultimate destination.
The main climb up to San Marino is captured by a Category 2 segment on Strava: 11.3 km at an average gradient of 5 percent. I grumbled quite a bit during it but also found the body and mind got into a steady routine, although that routine was punctuated by the hairpins where invariably the road ramped up. Thankfully there was little traffic and it was fine to seek the slightly softer gradients in the middle of the road.
The ride back down to Cattolica involved some sweeping descents that would have been even more fun without the constant fear of encountering a crack.
Ride 3 – Tuesday 3 October
A trip to Urbino, a historic walled city that’s a World Heritage Centre. I found this to be the toughest day of cycling during the week as the first half seemed to be constantly up hill. The final climb up to Urbino, in particular, through roads that reminded me of the Surrey Hills with overhanging green trees, seemed never ending, although Strava tells me it was 10 km at an average of just 3 percent.
Leaving Urbino also gave a small taste of the Paris–Roubaix as we headed down steep cobbled inclines to exit the town, steep and slippery enough to make me wonder, Hmmm, how should I best approach this? You certainly don’t get that on Box Hill, nor crowds of university students threatening to swarm into the road!
Ride 4 – Wednesday 4 October
An easy day – and one where I accidentally stopped my Garmin midway through. After rolling up to Rimini for a coffee (and to disappoint a classically proportioned Italian lady in tight-fitting jeans who didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for from a bunch of men as she shouted a cheerful Ciao! at us as she left the café), we then road back through Cattolica where we posed for photos.
Ah, yes, I didn’t mention that: To help advertise the annual Gran Fondo Squali, it had been arranged for a professional photographer to come out and photograph us, our guides and two members of a local racing team outside the hotel and at a local vineyard, where we went for wine tasting. I felt very self-conscious as I stood talking with the vineyard owner, trying some of his delicious wines, knowing that a professional photographer was taking snaps.
The vineyard was in the San Bartolo Natural Park that we’d cycled through on the first day. I felt a bit dehydrated for the ride back afterwards, as I’d run out of water and the wine had had its effect – especially when we encountered the short-but-steep climb up to Casteldimezzo.
Ride 5 – Friday 6 October
I took a day off on the Thursday – I wanted to explore Cattolica a bit and spend some time by the hotel pool – so I was comparatively fresh for this final ride. We headed in the general direction of San Marino but via a different route, this time towards Verucchio. There were some lovely rolling hills during this ride but the overall profile was very much like the trip to San Marino – flat with a big bump in the middle.
I didn’t know it at the time, but as we passed through Rimini we rode over a 2000-year-old Roman bridge, il Ponte di Tiberio, which crosses the Marecchia river. It’s named after the Emperor Tiberius because it was finished during his reign, although construction was started by his predecessor, Augustus. At the time I was more focused on navigating the pronounced cobbles than admiring the view; I wish I’d known in advance, as I’d have made more of an effort to take it in.
I really enjoyed the week. Obviously the company played a big part in that, but the cycling was also very enjoyable. The distances we covered weren’t huge – just shy of 400 km over the five rides I did – but considering a fair chunk of that was along flat coastal routes there was still 4500m of climbing. As Pantani said, Emilia-Romagna seems to have it all.