It’s a misty morning in Bagno di Romagna, a tiny mountain village tucked into the Apennine range. The place wakes slowly. A few coffee bars are stirring, serving morning espressos, but little else. I meet Alessandro and Andrea, Emilia-Romagna’s cycling ambassador, along with a strong British rider named Anna, for a pedal through the local mountains. (The Apennines stretch the whole length of the Italian “boot.”) Emilia-Romagna and its capital of Bologna will be the launch pad for the 2019 Giro d’Italia, and fans the world over will catch a glimpse of a region that competes with the best that Italy has to offer on a variety of levels, though its recognition may lag a bit behind some of its neighbors, particularly Tuscany, just to the south.
Bagno di Romagna has a sleepy air, particularly if you’re used to the frenetic pace of some of Italy’s big cities. It’s quiet and slow here. That a place so small came back after being destroyed by invading Ostrogoths in 540 AD signifies its importance. These days, the village, as it has for centuries, draws people in from the rest of Italy for its natural hot springs—a source of mineral-rich, warm waters that makes it a popular mountain destination for those from Bologna, about an hour away.
In just a few days we’ll be riding the Gran Fondo del Capitano, which by reputation may be the most challenging of Italy’s gran fondos. Emilia-Romagna is the region that invented the event, and hosts about a dozen every year. The world’s first fondo, Nove Colli, has taken place just a few kilometers from here every year since 1970.
Today, we take to the hills heading to the tiny hillside village of Verghereto. Andrea traces a line on the distant hills with his finger, showing me the route we’ll climb toward Monte Fumaiolo. I notice his finger never really dips down; it’s a constant movement above the horizon. We’re just a few kilometers from Tuscany here, and Andrea points to where the hills become the Tuscan Apennines.
Most of what you do in this part of Italy is climb, and so we push on, past some particularly lazy cows and into the lowhanging clouds toward a cluster of buildings that make up the village of Balze. The sun finally comes out as we turn left and head toward the wooded summit of Monte Fumaiolo. White paint appears on the road where the sky is obscured by a roof of beech trees that cover the top of the mountain. These markings are a remnant from the 2017 Giro stage. Pierre Rolland was reeled in just before the summit by Omar Fraile, but the fans with the paint brushes obviously favored Nibali, whose name is painted on the road every 50 meters or so.
In addition to a fantastic spot for a Giro KOM, and a great destination for a family picnic, Monte Fumaiolo is the source of one of the greatest empires in the history of western civilization. The Tiber River, which flows for 400 kilometers through Tuscany to Rome and on to the sea, begins here from an underground spring. It is the river that according to Roman myth saw the twin boys Romulus and Remus deposited at its banks, to be discovered by a she-wolf who would nurse them to health. Romulus would eventually go on to kill his brother and then found the city of Rome. And, of course, Rome would go on to rule most of the western world for a spell. Hard to imagine all of that came out of this bucolic forest in Emilia-Romagna.
A descent, finally, takes us to the lake of Acquapartita, where we stop for lunch at one of the region’s Terrabici hotels, specially outfitted for cycling tourism. There are nearly 40 of them in Emilia-Romagna. Typical of Italian hospitality, we gorge ourselves on a series of courses: cheese and charcuterie, a variety of bruschetta, fresh pasta with amazing local mushrooms, far too much local Sangiovese and even, insanely, dessert. Fortunately, it’s only another 10 or so kilometers back to Bagno di Romagna and most of it downhill.
The day before the fondo, Alessandro takes me and Anna to check out a few more hills on a ride toward the ancient town of Sarsina. It’s hot, so we refill our bottles in the main square before stepping into the Cathedral of Saint Vicinius, across the piazza from our bottle stop. Alessandro assures me that this is the best place in all of Italy to receive an exorcism. Duly noted….
The climb out of Sarsina isn’t awfully long, but it makes up for it in grades north of 15 percent. The temperature is at least 100 Fahrenheit and I push myself (it would be apparent, later, too far) to hold Alessandro’s and Anna’s wheels. And a stop for a gelato doesn’t have the palliative effects that I’m hoping for.
We climb the 13 kilometers up to the tiny hamlet of Spinello. Both of my water bottles are empty, I’m pedaling squares and I realize that I’m probably in trouble. A fortuitously placed natural spring allows me to soak my head, my jersey and my soul for a spell. I stop seeing stars and the idea of an exorcism seems unnecessary now, though it was up for consideration not that long ago. The urge to vomit all over the countryside subsides and we make it back into Bagno di Romagna in time to recover before an amazing meal courtesy of the accomplished chef, Paolo Teverini, in the hotel restaurant that bears his name.
The morning of the Gran Fondo del Capitano feels like a race and a rock concert all wrapped into one. An announcer is saying all sorts of fun-sounding things in Italian. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but you don’t have to speak the language to understand the excitement. The Italians invented the fondo and so it should come as no surprise that they take it very seriously. For those in Italy, the “big ride” is more than just a well-spent weekend; for young and aspiring professional cyclists the right result could mean a crack at the big time. There are professional cyclists mixed in with those chasing UCI Gran Fondo points, and some folks just out to prove it to themselves.
I’m inconceivably at the front on the start line, thanks to Andrea, and it’s likely only my penchant for fast starts honed in cyclocross that keep me from being stampeded by some serious hombres out to make a name for themselves. I pull off the road once the course turns sharply right and wait for Andrea, Anna and a few others to join me. We head in the direction of Sarsina, but make a sharp right and begin climbing to the town of Selvapiana. It’s steep immediately and thins out the group fairly quickly. As we near the top we pass a monument to a local hero, cycling icon, and the most tragic of all of cycling’s saints:Il Pirata. Marco Pantani grew up in Cesena, only a few kilometers from here on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. That these were his training hills is not surprising when you think of the relentless, almost dogged determination it takes to conquer them.
For Matteo Montaguti, a climber who spent eight years on the French squad AG2R La Mondiale and now rides for the Italian UCI Continental team Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, Emilia Romagna is a great incubator for cycling talent. The Apennines and the nearby Adriatic both play an important role. “These roads, we all connect them to the memory of Marco Pantani,” he says, “but I must say that he is among the few, and always will be, a true climber who never lived in these lands, but very close by. For the most part, it’s through these steep hills, characterized by the proximity of the Apennines to the sea, that complete athletes are formed. Those who know how to climb the mountains, and who earn their victories on the passes, make a fast start on the plains.”
We come to a fork in the road and must decide; do we do the medio fondo, 85 kilometers with plenty of climbing, or the big one, the full fondo? The full fondo is a doozy, at 140 kilometers and over 10,000 feet of climbing. The truth is the decision was made for me yesterday when I started seeing stars on a fairly short, brutally hot day. I take the road less traveled for the sake of my own sanity and safety.
The winner of del Capitano, finishing in four hours and just over one minute, is Fabio Cini. Upon a quick Google search, we discover he is some kind of fondo monster, having won La Leggendaria Charly Gaul and placed top 10 in the Maratona dles Dolomites, after riding seriously for a mere five years. Today, though, we’re all winners. There’s a giant pasta feed (fresh, of course) courtesy of Paolo Teverini, and I grab a beer with Andrea and Matteo Montaguti (who’s snacking on just almonds). It’s a beautiful day in the shade and we toast to Emilia-Romagna, land of Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma and the gran fondo—all of them Italian beauties.
FIND YOUR FONDO
In Emilia-Romagna the fondos are fast and frequent, and as the birthplace of the “big ride” there’s no greater place to get a true fondo experience. The Terrabici cycling hotels offer a calendar of the fondos, complete with booking packages designed around the events, along with bicycle rental options.terrabici.com/granfondo
If you feel you’re up for the Gran Fondo del Capitano, perhaps the gnarliest of all of Italy’s big rides, which means a whole lot of distance and some serious climbing, I say go for it. After all, you only live once.granfondodelcapitano.it/
This article originally appeared in issue 86.