Greg Conderacci’s 2010 Miglia Italia: You, Too, Can See Italy on 200 Miles a Day

Our own Greg Conderacci has written about his successful completion of the scenic 1001 Miglia Italia randonnee this summer. That’s 1001 miles, folks, miles. Take that, LEL!

Greg in the Italian mountains

Greg was among a small but successful American contingent. He finished in good shape in 5 day, 4 ore, 37 minuti. I try to imagine riding PBP, then another 400K. This is a big, big ride.

Greg, at the finish. Still standing!

Greg found the ride visually stunning during the day, but visually lacking at night — lacking in cues, that is. Still, he and the rest of the field, fueled by mounds of pasta and olive oil, found their way around the course for a successful completion. (For another perspective, have a look at American rider Veronica Tunucci’s story at the Randon Google Group list.)

Congratulations to all the finishers!

Italian Lessons: You, Too, Can See Italy on 200 Miles a Day…

by Greg Conderacci
Nov. 26, 2010

If Paris-Brest-Paris is too easy, too French and too crowded for you, there’s always the 1001 Miglia Italia – 1001 miles around Italy with the climbing equivalent of two times up and down Mt. Everest.

Do you want breath-taking scenery? It’s there at every turn. Quaint little mountain towns with castles centuries older than the United States. Storybook countryside laden with ripening grapes, olives and sunflowers. Dazzling vistas of villages nestled against a Mediterranean as blue as the sky.

Do you want Powerbars and Gatorade at the controls? Ha! How about mountains of fresh pasta, prosciutto and melon, crusty bread with extra virgin olive oil – and even beer and wine? Or, how about a bowl of cold rice with small chunks of mystery meat? You get both.

Do you want a US-style cue sheet, with well-marked roads with names and route signs providing a clear sense of where you are? Sorry: you’ll need to borrow some Italian tapes from the library and learn enough of the language to find your way in this beautiful maze.

The key insight for the 1001 Miglia Italia is that it is much more than a bigger brevet. For the Italians, it is the ultimate test: the longest Randonee in Europe. For an American, it is a 1,000-mile exercise in navigation under duress. You see, there are few route signs in Italy on back roads and almost no posted road names. The scenery is beautiful, but it’s hard to pick out landmarks – especially at night.

Although I was actually only lost once, I often felt that I was. The impact was like a dragging brake. It made me move more slowly and carefully. It drained energy that could have gone into turning the pedals.

The impact of confusion about direction became clear – right from the 9 pm start. About 300 riders roll out in waves of 30, about 10 minutes apart. A handful of other Americans and I are in the second wave.

The Italians in the pack tear down the road at more than 25 mph – as if the race is 25 miles and not 40 times that long. We let them go, but as soon as their taillights disappear into the night, we begin to worry: “Is this still the right road?” Instantly, we start to ride slower, groping our way through the night.

At the next roundabout, the wave of riders who started behind us catches up – and splits in half – each taking a different road. Now, we are really confused: dead stop. We are less than half an hour into the race and we are already trying to puzzle out the way.

Often, we ride through towns whose street pattern was created by oxcarts and trod by the Roman legions. In these villages, the streets can run in every direction, with no clear main road. This instant multiplication of choices abruptly slows progress, especially in mountain towns. The reason is clear: risk. One wrong turn and a fast 20-minute descent could easily lead to hours of extra climbing.

The best way to think about Italian mountains is that they feature both the steep pitches of the Eastern US hills and the length of the Western US mountains. In other words, after every bend in the road, there is more climbing. At one point, it took six hours to go just 45 miles.

What goes up, must come down and the Italian descents are, well, interesting. For the most part, the roads are narrow by American standards, corkscrewing down mountainsides hairpin after hairpin, with no shoulders and, often, no guardrails. If you go off the road alone, especially at night, and you are gone, gone, gone. A clear road on this side of the hairpin is no guarantee that the coast is clear beyond it. Sometimes, a bus is inching its way up pothole-infested grade – straight at you.

A grave temptation is to go without sleep. As I soon discover, what Italians call a “dormitorio” does not mean you’re sleeping in a dorm. I had counted on sleeping at the controls, but the accommodations were often Spartan – unheated, un-air-conditioned tents, sweltering gyms or locker-room floors. One control provided comfy bunk beds with clean sheets – but no showers.

At first, I try skipping real sleep and just dozing briefly. By the fourth day of the ride, I have gone almost 90 hours and ridden 800 miles – on about 10 hours of sleep. I am becoming very, very stupid. I am having difficulty remembering even the simplest things. I am cranky. Whenever I feel lost, I am tending to panic. I stop repeatedly to ask directions. I am having difficulty clipping my feet into my pedals.

I know I need to check into a hotel and sleep, but that’s not easy to find on the mostly rural route. I find some bed & breakfasts, but they are closed. Finally I beg my way into one and collapse for six hours, moving myself from the first third of riders to the last third, but I don’t care.

It’s a far cry from US 1200ks where the organizers sometimes reserve hotel rooms for the riders in advance. Indeed, the Italians only provide the bare minimum of bag drops – two – and that means carrying at least one change of clothes on your back, if, like me, you have a bias for changing your kit every day.

And you often can’t get away with just a change of clothes and a little rain gear. Although most Italian towns have public drinking fountains where you can reload your bottles, the towns can be far between – especially in the mountains when a few miles can take hours.

In the US, there’s always a 24-hour 7/11 around the corner, but there’s no such thing in Italy. Restaurants will stay open late, but there’s no place to find food from about 10 pm to 8 am. If you ride through the night, which I did three times, you’d better carry enough food and water.

Although I rode hundreds of miles with the Italians, I didn’t communicate much with them. They take this ride much more seriously than we ex-pats. For them, it is very much a race, with the finishing group riding the circuit in about 3 days – an amazing feat.

Of course, they are very heavily supported. I rode with one Italian whose mother was waiting along the road to wash his clothes and put him up for the night in the family RV. Many of the Italians were riding with just two water bottles – which would have them carrying about 10 pounds less gear than I was.

It’s a clear advantage to “understand” the country, much the way we “know” a lot of the routes in the US. For example, it’s a big deal to know which towns are likely to have a hotel, where the water fountains are, which hills can be descended fast and which should be done slowly (the Italians did them ALL fast), how challenging the next 100 miles will be, how busy the roads, the hours of the stores along the route, the actual conditions of the event-provided sleeping arrangements, etc. The organizers did a good job of describing the stages, but it’s one thing to read about it and another to do it.

Fortunately, the organizers were reasonably relaxed about details on what can be a bewildering countryside. I don’t know of anybody who short-cut the ride, but several riders took “long-cuts” because of being lost. The main goal was to get to the next control. In some cases, the organizers flexed the closing times a bit. There was only one secret control.

The first two American finishers were women: Suzie Regul, a Californian who works for a cycle touring company in Italy, and Iditabike Veteran Catherine Shenk. I rode many miles with both of them and there were incredibly strong. After the ladies came Dave Thompson, a Canadian who lives in the US and rode with us, Robert Brudvick, me, Rick Blacker, Mark Roberts, Hamid Akbarian and Veronica Tunucci.

I had ridden in Italy before, on a guided tour, and, after the 1001 Miglia, rode a few hundred more miles out of a beautiful Italian “bike hotel” on the Adriatic. It is my favorite place to ride. The scenery is dazzling, the food is even better, and the Italians are welcoming and warm. I know I’m going back, but probably not to ride the 1001 Miglia again. It’s just too darn difficult.

Yet for all of its unique challenges, the 1001 Miglia is an amazing experience, especially if, like me, you can trace your DNA to the very hills that you are climbing. We rode within a few miles of the town where my grandfather grew up – more than a century ago.

As the ride progressed, I could feel myself becoming a little more Italian – a little better climber, a little better descender, and a lot more relaxed. It was the ultimate Italian lesson.

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