It's a bit strange: a strong, fresh northern wind, vast lowlands with puddles and ditches... You'd think you were driving in a Dutch polder. But the smell of Mediterranean herbs, the silhouettes of coarse plane trees and slender cypresses solitary in a wide field tell a different story.
It's early April and we're driving through Emilia-Romagna, a hilly region on the northeast side of Italy. The sun is shining, 18 degrees Celsius, so we can start cycling. GPS navigation is not necessary; Enrico Rossi, former pro and former winner of Dwars door Drenthe, determines the route and also does most of the work up front. Routinely, he leaves enough room for a small echelon. Of course he knows his own region like the back of his hand and soon we leave the busy traffic route and end up on a low-traffic one. In the distance, across the length of the horizon, rolling hills beckon.
Main goal of this three-day cycling adventure is the 25th Gran Fondo Via del Sale. To acclimatize, we first do two 80 kilometer rides with guide Enrico crossing the picturesque landscape. Along the salt lakes (sale!) in the lowlands where flamingos regularly forage, through the village of Inferno (really!) as a chilling intro on the slopes (not really) and then suddenly after a right turn a small 'Wall'. Switching to the small ring and pedalling along.
The goal of this first day is the village of Bertinoro. A steep cobbled street - like in the final of the Strade Bianche - ends in a central square. Absolute eye-catcher is the Palazzo Ordelaffi, the municipal palace from 1306. Feel free to marvel at that fine piece of medieval architecture, but then turn around, walk to the old city wall and be overwhelmed by a majestic view.
Lunch time. Enrico leads the way in a lightning-fast descent and then rides into the yard at Fattoria Paradiso, an authentic 1853 winery where you can also sleep. You can also eat there. What is called: lots of food. Of course, first tagliatelle Bolognaise, because that is the traditional pasta of the region. But then, that full plate turns out to be the introduction to four more dishes. And yes, it's a wine estate, so each course is accompanied by lavishly poured Vigna Molino (sangiovese) or Il Fine (chardonnay). The drive back to the coast will be one I'll remember forever.
The route of day two leads through the backlands of Cesenatico. Again winding hill roads and steep slopes. Quiet villages with here and there some chickens on the street. We stopped for coffee and apple pie in the town of Longiano. The early-medieval Castello Malatestiano - now an exhibition space for modern art - towers high above our terrace. A popular terrace, by the way. Dozens of cyclists stop and look for a place. No wonder, the coffee is truly delizioso and the smile of the sympathetic proprietress infectious.
Next stop is Cesenatico where there is a striking inner harbor. But first of course on a "pilgrimage" to the house of cycling legend Marco Pantani, who has both Tour and Giro on his record. The cause of his death in 2004 is still shrouded in mystery.
Next morning: Gran Fondo Via del Sale. Thin sun, strong wind, 4 degrees Celsius. (brr...) My host Andrea, who chartered Enrico as a guide, has also arranged for VIP treatment, so I don't have to wait an hour or so in the middle of the crowd for the start. I get to start from the front row. Nice and luxurious, though... At eight o'clock sharp the "Partenza!" sounds and the huge peloton - more than three thousand cyclists - shoot away.
'Shooting' is the right word. Many young Italian riders with ambitions try to distinguish themselves by finishing short in a gran fondo. So then you have to be at the front as soon as possible. It turns out that. Like unguided missiles, dozens of highly trained daredevils pass me by at breakneck speed. Here and there I hear 'piano, piano', but it doesn't help. It's 'corsa di follia.' (course of madness).
Once we ride out of town, the frenzy is thankfully over. A long string of colorful riders whooshes in diffuse morning light over a perfectly paved winding road. A beautiful sight. However, the speed remains constantly high, my clock always indicates above 40. Dilemma: the ride between the wheels is great, but I also want to have some time left for the climbs. I lower my pace. A wise choice: after 50 km on the first serious climb of the day, the Montecavallo, I ride up relaxed and enjoy the beautiful Emilia-Romagna scenery, even with snowy peaks in the distance. This is what you do it for.
After the descent of the Montecavallo you can choose Medio (105 km, 1335m+) or Lungo, (152 km, 2050m+) the long distance with the Ciola (547m) and the Montevecchio Cima Pantani as additional climbs. I choose the most popular, short route (it is still early in the season). In the valley after the Paderno/Collinello (300m) groups form again and it goes again in the direction of Cervia.
On the results list at the finish I see Enrico's name. He also rode the Medio, but he needed a good hour less.
Did I end up here by coincidence? No, I got to know colleague Andrea Manusia at the World Press Cycling Championship (WPCC), an annual cycling festival for journalists who measure each other in various races with the world title as the main prize. Every year Andrea, official advocate of his region, waxed lyrical about Emilia-Romagna as a cycling paradise. The beautiful weather, the challenging slopes and, above all, the delicious food.... Well, that ended up working this set of ideal cycling conditions. And then also: for taking the acid out of the legs, there are the seaside towns of Cervia, Rimini or Cesenatico with their wide sandy beaches. Um... Cesenatico...? Right yes, this is Pantani country.
Cycling is popular in Emilia-Romagna, with eight Gran Fondos being run within a few months. The oldest and best known (and perhaps the toughest) is Nove Colli in May from Cesenatico: about 12,000 participants. The youngest is Ride Riccione, according to insiders the most beautiful of all. For me on the program is the Gran Fondo Via del Sale (the Salt Road). Departure from Cervia, a good hour flat and then slopes as the Montecavallo (length 8.2 km, 460 m high, 6% average with peaks of 15%) or the Paderno/Collinello (4.5 km, 300 m high, 6% average, 15% maximum). Not daunting numbers, but make no mistake: you start at zero altitude.
The climbs in this part of Emilia-Romagna are doable for an average cyclist. Of course it's handy if you already have some kilometers and hills in your legs. A tour though some local hills is an advantage. With 34 as the small front blade and 32 as the back, I think I have enough surplus. But when the road suddenly climbs a few hundred meters with 16%, I am really happy with the smallest gear.
The feed stations along the way are well provided. Remarkable: the Italian preference for cookies. You know, waffles or sprits. At every station there are bins full of them. Another plus of this Gran Fondo: the traffic controllers in their orange vests and yellow flags. They do an excellent job. At every side road, on every traffic circle, other traffic is resolutely stopped. The gran fondo goes for everything. That's a nice way to ride a bike.
This article was created in collaboration with Fiets Magazine.