Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Gran Fondo Milano San Remo 2012

Neil plays the long game to Sanremo

Neil Wass, perhaps the team's most ardent Italian afficionado, took on the route of La Classicissima on Sunday June 10. With a distance of 295km, it follows the exact route of the professional race which takes place in March every year.
yes - 295km
As the longest of all the spring classics, the pro race has a special feel to it. Up until the final few climbs, it's a game of endurance, planning, contingency, staying out of trouble. As the kilometres tumble, it morphs into something very different; the tension ratchets up and by the final 20km, only a handful of protagonisti remain to contend the finish. 

"I first did this event 7 years ago, he explains. "It's run by the cycling club of San Remo, so it's pretty low key compared to the more mountainous challenges on the continent."

So why choose a low key event? Says Neil: "Most events nowadays are very risk -averse so they release riders in stages - this one is one of the fastest Gran Fondos out there, and because there are only 800 riders, they're all released in one fell swoop. This makes the front of the field  much more like a classic Road Race. It's more realistic in that you can see that actual head of the race and feel the buzz."

"I had a score to settle this time too," he continues. "In 2005, I got into a strong group and didn't want to lose contact by stopping for feeds. I got as far as I could and then hit the wall around 200km. I've been desperate to see what I can do with proper feeding and drinking ever since."

Neil was lucky to have three family members handing up food and drink at four pre-arranged and recce'd point on the route. "It's a huge advantage when you're looking at something of this scale," he says. "The classic line is eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty and my support crew ensured I got what I needed."

After a hand up rehearsal late afternoon on the Saturday, the team went off for another carbo loading meal: "Four portions of Pasta or Risotto that day," he recalls. "But where better than Milan? Another bonus of this event!"

The night before the race brought thunderstorms and pouring rain: "We were all a bit nervous. Wet roads do add major risks of crashes." Breakfast at 6am on the day- more rain. " All I could think was how long I'd been training for this and what effort the others had made to support me so we just carried on."

By the start, the rain had stopped and there were just wet roads to deal with: "The first hour was a bit tricky, dealing with the spray in a large peloton, but the weather did improve fairly quickly and by the first feed at Ovada, I had seen about 5 crashes but things were getting a bit more settled."

Following a brief stop just after feed one to adjust his headset, Neil found himself at the back of the main group with the climb over the Turchino Pass in front of him: "That was the good bit though," he smiles. "After averaging nearly 25mph gruppo compatto, I was sure the group would spread out and I was ready to fight through it."

spot him if you can - he's at about 20 seconds

Making steady progress through the main bunch, he broke through to the front group by the steepest part of the climb; "I was feeling great at this point but I knew that straight after the tunnel at the top, I had push on the descent to Voltri without hesitation."

"The first bend on the descent brought a crash: "I saw this guy touch wheels with another rider, panic, brake, skid, then hit the deck and a car, all within about 3 seconds. Apparently he broke his pelvis and kneecap - not the best sight when you're trying to concentrate and get your lines right through the corners!"

Barring one close call with the Armco barrier, Wass reached the bottom having lost only a handful of places: "I'm not a great descender," he explains. "It doesn't come naturally. It doesn't help that nothing at home compares with these kind of roads, so I don't get much practice either."

One extreme to another - from working hard with arms & upper body on the descent, it was back to fighting for wheels and full gas on the via Aurelia - the coast road which runs all the way to the French border.

"Things were starting to warm up now," he continues. "We here hitting 25 degrees plus and I was down to one bottle of fluid after I slipped up at the first feed so I was trying to visualise where our lot would be at the next feed. The front group was getting a bit swamped through Arenzano because a lot of people had feeds at this point." Unfortunately, although many people were slowing and feeding, a number of riders right at the front were accelerating. "It's hard to see exactly what's going on and I was conscious that my feed wouldn't be far off - which of course you can't take at top speed." It would be another 10km or so before the bottles were replenished. "That was a pretty frustrating moment," says Neil. "I was still in a good group but when we came to Varazze, we could see the front group leaving the town as we were swooping down into it. it felt like we were so close, but it was actually around a kilometre, so nearly 2 minutes ahead."

A small group formed and chased hard through Savona, and Neil had another close encounter as a car crossed their path near the centre: "I had to brake hard but managed to control the skid. No time for arguments though - back on the accelerator!"

By Finale Ligure, it was clear that the front group was unreachable and although Neil had been pulling hard on the front of his group, he decided to ease up a little: "We still had over 2 hours left and the temperature was still rising - you have to try and not get carried away - which is always a challenge for me!"

A group of about 20 formed around Albenga and stuck together for the remainder of the race. The final feed on Capo Berta was well timed with 35km to go: "It was peaking at about 30 degrees by this point," says Neil. "The 2 bottles went in about 40 minutes!"
phew - the final successful hand up from Andrew Borge keeps Neil going on Capo Berta - note jealous racers to right
A fast descent into Imperia followed: "By now I was getting into the descents. Great fun, but you could also sense that people were bracing themselves for the Cipressa and Poggio." These two climbs are not particularly big, at 400metres of climbing in total, but after 270km of riding, for many, they are the last straw. "I'd done plenty of long rides to prepare though," says Neil. "And I was pretty confident that as long as I fed and drank well, I'd be OK."
pushing through the fatigue on the final climb - the legendary Poggio
And he was OK, finishing 16 minutes behind the winner. "It's all a bit of a blur to be honest," he says. "The fatigue kind of affects your memory and you can tell that your body can't wait for it to be over."

He came in just outside the top 100 but 24th in his age category and 25 minutes faster than his first attempt 7 years ago
M3 24 105 WASS NEIL M 08:22:25. 0035,23

post race rehydration - the support crew can finally relax
"It was an amazing day out - unforgettable. To be able to cover that kind of distance and average nearly 22mph is a fantastic day out on a bike. Thanks to Carina, Nicola & Andrew, I now know what I'm really capable of," he concludes. "No excuses this time!"

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