Can you really claim to have ridden Nove Colli, Italian for nine hills, when you’ve only climbed four of the nine? Why do you even enter a Gran Fondo? And where does Eddy Merckx fit into this story?

Sunday, 4.30am. The hotel room doors have been slamming incessantly for the past half hour. I roll over once more. There are another five minutes until the alarm goes. Why am I even doing this? It’s a flipping Sunday, seriously.

I look out the hotel window and see that there is already a pre-dawn gathering of riders. They set off towards the seafront, where the Gran Fondo Nove Colli starts. With 12,000 entrants, this isn’t just one of the world’s biggest gran fondos, it’s also considered the patron of all gran fondos, dating back to 1970 when it was staged by the local bike club ASD Fausto Coppi. Those nine hills along the route are the old training ground of none other than Marco Pantani. And ASD Fausto Coppi? That was his former club.

While the Nove Colli locks in a lot of international riders (we’re talking 50 different nationalities), it’s a predominantly Italian affair. Screened live on TV with closed roads, a huge expo and a ton of loudly welcomed VIPs, including Joaquim “El Purito” Rodríguez, who just for reference also only rode four hills. This particular gran fondo is a highlight of the season for many cyclists.

Is this the Tour de France or something?

I’m met with disbelief at the first 30 km, which are pure carnage with reckless overtaking and countless crashes. The ambulance sirens provide the backing track to the first hour. It seems clear that for many of these riders, ambition outweighs skill and ability. ‘It’s like they think they’re going to win the Tour de France,’ muttered a harassed-looking Italian to me, before throwing a more cursive ‘Cazzo’ at a rider who appeared to be causing yet another crash.

Piano: new friends and the dolce vita

But drop down a gear because this gran fondo is worth more than just speed. What use is the fastest time if you’re not having a good time? Come the evening, you can regale friends and family with tales of amazing riding and scenery rather than tending to your future scars.

I had plans for after the event that involved a hush-hush launch by Cervélo in Bergamo (still top secret!), which meant I’d ‘only’ signed up for the 130 km route, which takes in four of the nine climbs. The alpha-male within me grappled with the decision to ‘wimp out’ and take the shorter fondo course. Could I actually claim to have ridden the Nove Colli after this cop-out, I wondered. Even with a valid excuse for my early getaway, no one is immune to wanting to retain their road riding credibility!

On the shorter loop I found a rhythm and stuck with it; a social pace that let me hold conversations and make new friends – even when the gradient on the climbs punched up to 18%.

When I pulled off the road for an espresso, there was disbelief: ‘It’s a race, hello?!” My response: ‘It’s Sunday, right and this is my time, so what?’ Why should I put myself through the wringer for pieces of plastic and metal cobbled together to form some sort of a trophy, that I’m nowhere near likely to win? Ex-Spanish pro rider Purito was the only one to comprehend. He was also riding the short 4 Colli route, and making the most of the feed stops. First-rate salami, oven-fresh bread and refreshingly chilled drinks – could you really ask for more? Well, maybe they should have upped their game with the coffee.

With 130 km and 4 infamous hills–it’s best to forget how long you’re riding, and think about how you’re riding. Look beyond your time, average pace and watts, and give having a great time your undivided attention. They include but are not limited to: enjoying the scenery, making new friends, tasting local delicacies, riding safely and within your limits, pushing at the right moments, and just generally have a damn good time.

“Now time for a hot dog and a smoke” – Our follow German friend and ex-pro Jörg Ludewig from Alpecin had wanted to ride to the win, but crossed the finish line in dire need of a stress-relieving beer. He’d reckoned on reaching the start line an hour before the start (Sunday, 5.07 am to be precise), but had vastly underestimated the hunger of the Italian riders to get a good position. It left us wondering: why do we put ourselves through this on a Sunday morning?

Now don’t get me wrong: the Nove Colli is a superbly organized event that takes you through stunning Italian scenery. It’s also a bit of an introduction to another side of la dolce vita; those dated, tired-looking, Las Vegas-style hotels called Caesar’s Palace and Flamingos in the starting town of Cesenatico won’t necessary chime with your understanding of Italy but there’s a certain charm to this seaside resort.

And where does Eddy Merckx come into it?

SAs one of the sponsors of the Nove Colli, Selle Italia invited us to their 120-year anniversary celebrations at their HQ in Bassano del Grappa.

Once there, they presented their new idMatch Bikelabs, and we were led on a fascinating guided tour of the company’s premises by Giuseppe Bigolin, the company’s former CEO for 50 years, and his successor Riccardo Bigolin, who shared some intriguing glimpses into the brand’s future.

The anniversary celebrations got going in the evening, welcoming a host of VIPs including the world’s most acclaimed and celebrated cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx. At 1.85 metres tall, this is a man who knows how to enter a room and own it.

Giuseppe Bigolin, Eddy Merckx, Riccardo Bigolin (f.l.t.r.)

Composed and ever so self-assured, Merckx doesn’t act like someone with something to prove. Perhaps it’s an age thing when you grasp that having a good time is better than having a fast time – and perhaps it’s an attitude that certain Nove Colli riders would benefit from inheriting. Chapeau, Eddy!

Eddy Merckx and Robin Schmitt from GRAN FONDO

Special Thanks to Massimo Perozzo, Nazareno Ferraro, Nelly Marsura and the entire Selle Italia Team for making this trip happen! Happy anniversary Selle Italia!

Words & Photos: Robin Schmitt