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Weekend number two in Europe and yet again the Italians manage to put on another stunning event. Stunning, breathtaking and spectacular on several levels.

If you’ve visited Feltre in the Dolomites in the past 10 days you’d be forgiven in thinking that the towns just one big cycling carnival. The weekend of the 8/9th June saw Castelli put on the fast and furious down town 24 hour race, the Castelli 24 (see blog here for full story and here) and then it was Sportful’s turn to put on the Gran Fondo Sportful on the 17th June. The GF Sportful is one of the most prestigious  Gran Fondos on the calendar in Europe (if not the world), I’ve been lucky to partake in a few of the big ones in europe over the years but nothing prepared me for this. Advertised as the Hardest Gran Fondo in Europe I was expected a tough course. 216 km and 5300m of climbing in and around some of the classic Dolomite mountain passes.

The day saw 3000 plus competitors line up in the centre of Feltre at 7:30am. Right from the gun the pace was high, my heart rate data shows that the first hour was run at over 37 kmph. Stupidly fast when you’ve got some solid passes to tackle. The pace wasn’t the only thing that was high either as the temperature was touching the 40’s (that’s degrees people). I found out that the Italians, Dutch and Germans take the riding of a GF very serious as I chatted away to Paul who is the importer for Sportful in the UK. We tried to strike a conversation when we were told very abruptly by a German, “we are here to ride , we talk later.” Reminiscent of the scene in cycling film American Flyers with Kevin Costner, when a Russian cycling champ shouts “enough of this Sunday run!” mid pack while racing. So shut up I did, but only due to the temperature and elevation gain.

The route takes in some major climbs, the first real basta….toughie is the Passo Duran, there seemed to be no hair pins but it just went straight up, gaining 1100m in something like 12 km. The next real hard challenge, after trying to stay upright on an swoopy and switched back descent, was the Passo di Valles. 19 km long and gaining somewhere in the region of 1300m, the temperature and gradient took it’s toll on everyone. Half way up the climb was a feed zone. For people’s info I’d advise not to drink coke and eat too much at this point, a lesson I had to learnt the hard way with the following 10 km of uphill saw a trail of the lining of my stomach every 2 km or so.

The views from the top of the valleys that then rolls in to the Passo di Rolle are just spectacular. Jagged shards of rock scraping the sky, with a lovely piece of tarmac unwinding in front of you. It would take your breath away if it hadn’t already been taken away on the climb. The descent from Rolle is one of the best I have had the privilege to plummet down with smooth asphalt winding down the mountain. No cars (or very few) and the most memorable back drop makes it a 30 km piece of road I wont forget in a long time. Once at the bottom I managed to get in a small group, a lucky move, as along the valley floor it was exceptionally windy. Hitting the last climb of the day the Croce d’Aune I bizarrely felt like I had fresh legs. The 11 km climb soon passed and with a huge crowd at the top drinking beer and cheering you over the top it was a fast descent in to Feltre where the last obstacle waited for you. The 400m of cobbled uphill would be something you’d avoid on a usual long ride, but with people screaming and cheering you on, and a feeling that I had to make it look good for the cameras I sprinted up it. At the top I fell in to a heap, the 8 hours, 216 km, 5300m of climbing and the scorching heat had taken its toll, all well worth it though. So much so that when asked if Id be back, it was a definite yes.

The people at Sportful I must thank, not just the guys in the office who sorted out the ride for me but everyone involved. The organization and atmosphere is second to none, it lived up to its claim. Toughest GF in Europe, they just need to add friendliest (if you don’t talk in the lead group) to that tag line.

You can follow Dave’s ramblings while he’s on his travels at twitter.com/batboyslim

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