Getting pumped in lycra in Varese, Italy

Both men and women compete in the Grand Fondo race in Varese, Italy.
Both men and women compete in the Grand Fondo race in Varese, Italy.

I put my hand up to support a friend competing in the 2018 Gran Fondo Cycling World Championships in Varese, Italy. Hardly a chore, given we’d be spending a week or two in the north of Italy around beautiful Lake Garda and Lake Como.

The international cycling tournament ran from 29 August to 2 September and attracted 2,558 amateur and master cyclists of all ages from 19 to over 70. There were 2,187 men and 371 women who competed from 60 countries and it was conducted under the banner of UCI, Union Cycliste International.

Cycling is hitting top of the charts as a participation sport for men and women globally – and we’re not being left behind down under. Australia had 241 cyclists competing at this event, the third highest number after Great Britain who had 572 and Italy with 394. Quite a feat when you consider the distance cyclists had to travel with their gear and the resultant costs. 

The road race included, one course of 103 kilometres and one of 130 kilometres. Both were extremely challenging with multiple steep ascents, perilous descents and switch backs, mostly on narrow pot-holed mountain roads where competitors would be riding hard and fast, pushing to the hilt to pass.  

Nervous cyclists line up ready to start the race.

Nervous cyclists line up ready to start the race.

Australian cyclist and competitor, Kate Chapman, said: “Many complained the course was dangerous but if you are competing in a UCI international tournament you need to be technically skilled to race in a bunch and take on dangerous courses as well as having the fitness to finish the race in good time.”  

To get to the starting line, cyclists had to qualify in rigorous and closely monitored national UCI competitions throughout the year. Participants need to be at peak fitness and have the time to travel and present for the four days of the Gran Fondo in the European summer. The financial commitment is significant; airfares, accommodation, food, registration, racing license and insurance. Bikes need to be race ready, suitable for the conditions and well-maintained.

It’s hard to know how so many with either young families, businesses or other employment commitments can swing it to compete. Cyclists are a focused and driven lot so somehow, they make it. This year the number of male competitors aged 50 to 54 dominated the competition with 406 entering. In the same category there were 67 women spread more evenly throughout the age groups tapering off in the 65 to 69 age group and none in the over 70s.

At Varese, it’s wall-to-wall Lycra and everyone’s pumped.

For Australian competitor, Ian Ross, it’s all about the push; “It’s the physical challenge of riding the route - I love the sensations of cycling, the rush of going fast, the satisfaction of pushing my body to achieve something difficult,” he said.

“It’s also about pride, being able and good enough to represent Australia. Besides I love travel and seeing new places.”

Walk lakeside in Salo Lake Garda is postcard-pretty.

Walk lakeside in Salo Lake Garda is postcard-pretty.

There’s great camaraderie here. National jerseys are worn with pride. Mobiles buzz with messages from fellow cyclists who couldn’t make it, and from partners saying “keep safe”.

It’s great to be part of it all. Being a cyclist’s support person is small beer, it’s driving to drop-offs and pick-ups, navigating and fetching coffee as needed. Cooking skills are useful as the cyclist’s diet is critical, high carbohydrate food before a race and high protein after. Real food is important but so are vitamin and mineral supplements - Magnesium is the most talked about, to fend off severe and sustained leg cramps that can take a rider out of a race at any time.  

Varese is prepared; they hosted the Gran Fondo back in 2008 after all. The race village has been set up with marquees, stalls with bike equipment and jerseys, race gels and massage tables for rub downs and lines and lines of porta-loos.

On the morning of the big race, streets are closed, barricades are up and spectators line the streets. The nervous chatter about course conditions has settled – “it is what it is” –  and across the phalanx of riders there’s steely determination.

Everything is run according to UCI standards with random sample drug tests and bikes measured and weighed. National jerseys are mandatory and contestants’ numbers must be displayed as directed. You can be disqualified for dropping refuse, water bottles or food wrappers while cycling – we must respect the environment.

Competitors commence their ride in waves from 7.30am through to 8.33am, while return times for the last waves are estimated to be 12.30pm. So what does a support person do in that time? Drop into mass at Sancto Victori Martyri Patrono, grab a coffee and pastry, and maybe get a quick manicure and pedicure? Timing would be everything – I couldn’t be late back to the village to see my friend ride in.

Restaurants are found down the cobbled streets of Varese Centro Storico.

Restaurants are found down the cobbled streets of Varese Centro Storico.

Surrounded by the chatter of Thai manicurists, I heard my friend’s mobile ping! in my bag with a message from Strava, a cycling app that tracks and reports on cycling progress – the message read “11.46am… Congratulations on completing your course, your times will be recorded”.

He’d come in 44 minutes early! And why wouldn’t he; he’d been training hard and was in great condition. My toes are still drying, so I make a quick departure and run to the village. I get there as he’s riding in – he’s done it and in 44 minutes less than the time expected. He’s come 37th in his wave of 91 competitors, it’s his first international event and I’m in awe.

Riders are coming in full of stories and joy. Some Irish folk start talking about the crashes they saw and the number of ambulance pick-ups. Riders from England come in and talk about how hard it was. They sit down for drinks and coffee like they’ve been on a Sunday picnic.

They’ve just finished this extraordinary ride and they’re glowing… my guy’s glowing!

There’s one guy who’s not so casual – legs flat on the ground, back propped up against a pillar. He’s done it but he’s spent. He’s happy just to be there, muscles twitching on the cold ground, glazed eyes, slight smile that says he, too, completed the 103 kilometres with four steep ascents, dangerous terrain and perilous descents.

More ride across the finish line, smiling, satisfied. It’s over.

I look around and wonder who’ll be taking up the challenge next year in Poland, or maybe Canada, in 2020. Either way, I’ll put my hand up again.  

A quiet moment at Bellagio on Lake Como. Not pictured (but surely around somewhere?): George Clooney.

A quiet moment at Bellagio on Lake Como. Not pictured (but surely around somewhere?): George Clooney.


Bronwyn Ridgway is a journalist and mother of two. Her writing in the areas of tourism, education, health and industrial relations has been published extensively in newspapers and magazines in Australia and the Asia Pacific.

Currently based in Sydney, she lived in the Hunter for 10 years where she was active in the community both in the women’s movement and promotion of Heritage Month, heritage houses and significant regional events.