It wasn’t a classic ride, I’ll admit that.
I’m a fan of not thinking ideas through too much. Always have been. Life’s more of an adventure when you come up with a half-baked plan and give it a go. If it doesn’t quite come off, well, you’ve still had an experience and you have a story to tell. Okay, this might not be the best approach if you work in aerospace, medicine or something, but for the rest of us it kind of does the job.
You can plan stuff to the nth degree and pretty much know before you start that it’s all going to end up comfortable and smooth. Or you can just get a dumb-ass idea in your head and wing it.
That’s what we did.
We’re at the Hotel Belvedere in Riccione on the road.cc Italy Week and we spotted a little sign saying that Stage 10 of this year’s Giro d’Italia passes through the outskirts of the town. It’s a 120-mile (200km) mainly flat route from Civitanova Marche to Forli, a stage that’s definitely going to be one for the sprinters.
“Hey, why don’t we go and ride the route?” I said.
And neither of the two Daves had the sense to say, “No, don't be such a tit,” so the following morning we found ourselves getting up at 5am to catch a train to the start.
I don’t know about you but I’m a different person in the morning to the person I am in the evening. When the alarm clock goes off and I’m applying sunscreen before it’s even light, I find myself cursing the idiot I was the previous day. Why the hell are we doing this?
Judging by the look on his face, the security guard at the hotel’s front desk was thinking much the same thing, but in Italian. You can’t pull out though, can you? Not once you’ve told everyone what you’re up to. So off we rolled down to the stazione for the ridiculous o’clock express to Civitanova.
One train ride, three cappuccini and six pastries later and we’re hitting the ‘start’ buttons on our bike computers.
As I said, the Stage 10 route is pretty flat. There’s a little bump at Ancona, about 25 miles (40km) in, a few rippling hills for about 15 miles (24km) starting at around the halfway mark, and that’s about yer lot as far as climbing goes. Beyond that, you’re talking about bridges over the motorway.
When you’re organising a big race like the Giro you usually stick to big roads, especially for a sprint stage. With getting on for 200 riders plus all the team cars, the race caravan and whatnot, you really don’t go the lanes way. That would lead to carnage.
That’s why we soon found ourselves riding on A roads. Big A roads. Big A roads that big lorries use to get around the country, not ones that you’d generally choose as a cyclist. Well, not unless you had a particular interest in bypasses, service stations and/or out-of-town superstores.
Italy has so much to offer cyclists: beautiful countryside, mountains, architecture, culture... It’s pretty much the perfect cycling destination. But instead of that, the road.cc boys are breathing in the fumes coming out of the back of tipper trucks as they pass about a foot to the left!
Still, it’s a challenge, innit? And you have to love a challenge. Plus, it’s quick. We did the first 20 miles in 50mins and by the time we got to Ancona my Garmin was telling me that we were averaging 24mph. Goodness knows how fast the pros will do it. Fulltime athletes riding in a big pack will polish it off in no time. There were just three of us so we were more like a breakaway, at least we were inside our heads, but we were still rattling through the miles without much trouble.
One other thing that race organisers like to do is to send the race through the middle of towns. They want as many spectators as possible, of course. However, the pros have the luxury of closed rides. We didn’t. Selfishly, the people of Ancona – and everywhere else we passed through – wanted to get on with their lives, so we had to put up with congestion, traffic lights, people sauntering around with shopping, dogs on leads and stuff like that. Unreasonable behaviour, basically.
Pro riders also have the route marked up and a lead car to follow. We, on the other hand, had a hastily cobbled together map on Big Dave’s Garmin 1000. That’s fine most of the time but if there was a road closure or something, we were in trouble. According to Big Dave, there were quite a lot of road closures over the course of our ride, and I believe him. Definitely.
Anyway, we scrabbled our way through Ancona, eventually found the right road out of town, and started heading along the coast road.
45 miles in and we were all out of food and drink so we pulled over for our first stop of the day. That’s another advantage the pros have. They have everything handed up to them as they ride. In our little breakaway, we had to forage for ourselves. Still, it gave us a good excuse to take it easy for 10mins and refuel on turbo-charged doughnuts. You know jam doughnuts, right? These are similar, but with Nutella in the middle. Doughnuts with benefits. I’d like to shake the hand of the culinary genius who invented these. What a mind!
Right, so where were we? Oh yes, digging in and ticking off the flat miles. Well, with energy reserves restocked we were back to more of the same. There’s absolutely no way we could paint this as an enchanting ride. Yes, we were following the Adriatic coast but we saw more of Carrefour supermarkets and those big stores that sell cheap sports goods than we did of the sea.
We got a bit more town centre action in Fano – where we had to contend with more road closures, believe it or not – before hitting roads we already knew. Riccione is about two-thirds of the way into the Stage 10 route and over the past few days we’ve ridden a lot of the same sections the Giro will use.
After a spot of lunch in the coastal town of Pesaro, we started on the most interesting riding of the day. There’s a climb of about two miles straight out of Pesaro itself that’s not too steep but it takes in a few hairpins – it’s a fourth category climb in the Giro’s mountains classification – and then the terrain goes up and down erratically for the next few miles. The climbs aren’t long but the roads are narrow and winding so a group might well try to get away here on race day. If they do, they’ll never make it stick; not with 45 flat miles to the finish.
This area is full of lumps and bumps, blind switchbacks, castles, woody bits, and there’s not much traffic. You know, cool. Unfortunately, on our ride it didn’t last long enough. After a long descent from Panorama da Gabicce Monte we were back on the A roads with traffic. Lots of traffic. No, really, loads of traffic. And traffic lights, usually bloody red, breaking up the rhythm. Grrr!
Still, you have to keep these things in perspective. How bad can it be where the sun is shining and you’re out on a bike? It beats working for a living. We chainganged it past Rimini, Santarcangelo di Romagna and then crossed the Rubicon at about 100 miles. There’s no going back now. The town centres, the hills and the occasional headwind had pushed our speed down a bit but I did notice that we clocked the century at 4:39hrs and we were still ticking along well.
We saw a lot of Cesena. Too much, arguably. We had to go into the town because that’s the route the pros will ride, and the alternative was the autostrada, but they’ll almost certainly have more success than we did at getting out again. We had three attempts, possibly four, an invisible force seemingly dragging us back into the centre on each occasion like a big magnet that attracts carbon fibre.
We did find out that Cesena has an ippodromo, so if you like horse racing it could be the place for you. We might have seen the football stadium at one stage too, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, we got the hell out of there as soon as we could. Which wasn’t very soon.
Back out on the open road and we were seeing signs for Forli, the town where we'd complete our adventure. What a beautiful sight! Forli 18km. Then, three miles later: Forli 18km. Huh? We’ve got well over 100 miles in our legs and all of a sudden the finish line is shuffling backwards to keep us at arm’s length. Cruel.
We upped our speed a bit in order to outfox Forli – there was no way we were going to be outrun by a town – and we gradually started to catch up with it. The best that could be said of those last few miles is that they were flat so the mileage clicked over pretty quickly. There’s not much worse than looking down at your computer to see how much progress you’ve made and finding out that the ‘distance’ figure is stubbornly refusing to change.
Did we sprint it out at the finish? Nah. For one, we didn’t actually have a finish line, nor even an idea of where it would be. And for two, this was a team expedition. It's not in the spirit.
We stopped the clock in the town centre, found the station for our trip back to Riccione, and parked ourselves in the nearest café for a couple of beers while we waited for the train home.
In the end, rather than the 120 miles we were expecting, we actually clocked up 132 (a lot of them in Cesena). It took us just over 6hrs at 21.5mph despite all the traffic and the town centres, so it was a big day in the saddle.
What did we learn? Hmm! Well, riding a mostly flat Grand Tour stage route isn’t nearly as much fun as riding a mountain stage route. You could have guessed that, of course, but we’ve confirmed it for you! We’ve done this ride so you don’t have to. Aside from the hilly middle section, we clocked on, we put in the miles, and we clocked off. We ticked the box, job done. I won’t be rushing back to do anything similar in future, I must admit, but it was fun in a setting and completing a challenge kind of a way.
We also learnt just how hard it would be to make any breakaway work on a flat stage like that. Doing that route in a big group would be ridiculously easy if you just sat in. No wonder most breakaways get caught on flat stages. It’s amazing that they ever succeed.
The Civitanova Marche - Forli stage of the Giro d’Italia takes place on Tuesday 19 May.
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.