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14-06-2023 | Rick Groeneweg

GF Alé La Merckx: a gladiatorial battle from the arena in Verona

Should you ever want to ride a gran fondo in Italy, the Alé la Merckx Gran Fondo may be the best introduction to a perfectly organized event in a beautiful and easily accessible environment. You can choose between two distances: this year the gran fondo is 138 kilometers long with 3230 meters of elevation, the medio fondo covers 85.2 km and has 1640 meters of elevation. There were a total of 1580 participants.

European Championship

The 16th edition of this gran fondo, like last year, served as the UEC European Championship Gran Fondo, which, like the UCI World Championship, is run by age group. Unlike the UCI GF World Series, here it is not possible to tell from the start number which category someone is in. This, combined with the mass start, made it a bit confusing, so it was best to be at the front as much as possible if you had plans to win.

Big names at the start

The event is known as one of the most popular and spectacular in Northeast Italy. This year there were several new features, starting with the "expo village" which, for the first time in the event's history, could be found in Verona's central square, Piazza Bra, right across from the famous arena.

At the start there were many cycling celebrities present, including several representatives of the World Tour teams of which the clothing brand Alé (the main sponsor of the event) is a partner. The winner of the purple jersey in the Giro d'Italia 2023 Jonathan Milan (Bahrain Victorious) wore a custom-made cyan-colored Alé outfit for the occasion. But reigning Italian champion Filippo Zana (team Jayco Alula) was also there, so were New Zealander Laurence Pithie (Groupama FDJ), Sonny Colbrelli, Adriano Malori and many others. Winner of the 2021 and 2022 editions Fabio Cini was missing this year, world champion Stefan Kirchmair was there.

Heavier course

The long distance had a slightly different route this year. The riders were diverted from Erbezzo to Bosco Chiesanuova, towards the Passo del Branchetto; in other words, a longer distance with more meters of elevation (almost 10 kilometers longer than last year). Here the participants faced a series of climbs, descents and false flat. After the Passo del Branchetto, the Cima Coppi of the gran fondo, the circuit continued towards Velo Veronese, Roverè Veronese and Cerro Veronese. Near Grezzana, the course reconnected with the original route. The finish for both distances, as in previous editions, was at the end of the 2-kilometer Torricelle climb, with a maximum gradient of 11 percent.

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After an exciting race (without any significant incidents fortunately), the men's gran fondo was won by Andrea Bais, followed almost 2 minutes later by Austrian Stefan Kirchmair (AT, Team Sildom Garda). Third place went to Francesco Romano (IT, ASD Team Nuova Avir).

The women's gran fondo was won by last year's winner, Italian Maria Elena Palmisano from Lecce, riding for ASD Garda Scott Matergia. A lover of climbs, she climbed in her typical style at a high cadence towards the finish on the Torricelle, where she crossed the line as the winner after 4 hours, 16 minutes and 54 seconds with an average speed of 31 kilometers per hour. She was followed by her compatriots Giulia Portaluri at a whopping 15 minutes and Luisa Isonni (ASD Boario) at almost 17 minutes.

The medio fondo, on the other hand, was decided in a fierce sprint at the finish line, won by just a few hundredths of a second ahead by Tomaz Cefuta (IT, ASD Flamme Rouge team) in a time of 2 hours, 7 minutes and 3 seconds, good for an average of 38.5 kilometers per hour. Number two was Diego Venturi (IT, Alé Cipollini team, jersey number 49); Simone Logica (IT, ASD Avesani) was third. I myself decided to ride the medio fondo instead of the gran fondo due to equipment failure along the way. It resulted in a creditable second place in my category M40-44 and twelfth place overall. Again, there was a hard uphill sprint against peers and there were only a few hundredths of a second between places 2, 3 and 4.

In the women's medio fondo, the victory was for Giulia Medri (Bikeconcept Team ASD) after 2 hours, 20 minutes and 21 seconds. She was followed at 10 seconds by Alessia Bortoli (ASD Capitani Minuterie Metalliche), and at almost 2 minutes by Micol Pizzamiglio (Highroad Team ASD).

Top day in stunning surroundings

I really enjoyed this gran fondo. The organization really did their best to make it a celebration for everyone. The start location and the expo village right in the center in Verona's Piazza Bra are downright impressive. Just before the starting gun at the Arena, you imagined yourself a true gladiator ready for battle. Main sponsor Alé also delivers quality with, among other things, a beautiful clothing set for the riders. The quality of this is better than what I have seen at many other gran fondos, although it's not as good as our own Castelli apparel ;)

Photo: With editor Yda (right).

Only downside is the missing link with the European championship race; as mentioned, there was no age group identification option during the race and no live timing. Too bad for the home front. In terms of safety, this car-free gran fondo is also very well put together. There is a huge parade of motorcycle escorts who properly close intersections, and in addition there are numerous signalmen all along the route. The finale was the "riso party" in the Palazzo Gran Guardia, a place where you can also receive heads of state, but which was now set up for cyclists, truly unique! The risotto, for which the region is famous, was excellent, as were several other local specialties. All in all a super weekend in Verona, I would so go again next year!

All the results can be found here.

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