Emilia-Romagna, Italy: Pantani’s favourite

Cyclist ventures to Emilia-Romagna, Italy, and discovers that the spirit of Marco Pantani …

Cyclist ventures to Emilia-Romagna, Italy, and discovers that the spirit of Marco Pantani still very much lives on…

Photography: Marcus Enno (BEARDY MCBEARD)

We’ve arrived in what locals would call the heartland of Italian cycling, the birthplace of the once great and tragically fallen climber Marco Pantani. It’s in the country’s north-east, along the coastal region of Emilia-Romagna and the nearby rolling countryside where the former Giro and Tour winner honed his craft, tested his form on the imposing Monte Carpegna and, later, tragically ended his life at just 34.

It’s been more than 11 years since cycling lost such an emphatic figure and yet, as we’ll soon discover, the passion and love for Il Pirata lives on.

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With a developed coastline as far as the eye can see, fresh sea-plucked cuisine, reliable summer weather and nearly 40 bike-specific hotels with various levels of tailored service, Emilia-Romagna offers something outside the norm.

Come here for a week or two and you’ll be left with more than enough activities – both on and off the bike – to keep you busy from sunrise till sundown. With four days of riding on our agenda and much more to be discovered another time, we’ve highlighted just one of the many routes on offer.

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Starting in Marco’s hometown of Cesenatico, today’s ride heads north and passes the museum dedicated to the diminutive climber’s life. Above the entry, a puppet-like figure of Marco sits aboard a celeste-coloured Bianchi, the legs of the cut-out in perpetual motion as almost to signify the long-standing legacy left behind.

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Inside, floor to ceiling is filled with old race bikes, equipment and countless trophies, along with a huge number of abstract paintings and self-portraits. We pick up a couple of pairs of fluorescent socks in yellow and pink with a pirate caricature on each side. Memorabilia. Check.

We continue north for 10km to Cervia and then head west towards the first climb of the day. The Bertinoro and adjoining Tessello at the 40km mark rise a mere 280m above sea level, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the preceding days – this is day 3 of our four-day trip – it’s that the punchy climbs around this area start to take their toll.

The views from the top of these short climbs, mostly around the 3-4km mark, are stunning, and often reveal great views of valleys below and opposing ridgelines with grand fortifications seated on top.

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We’ve been covering approximately 80- 100km each day, and while only accumulating 1,000 metres or so of climbing, what isn’t factored in on face value is that today’s route has around 50km of flat farmland roads.

Depending on where you’re staying, it’s around 15-20km to get yourself from the suburban coast and into the silence of the hills. The upside to this extra distance is having plenty of post-ride activities right at your doorstep.

After regrouping at the base of the Tessello it’s onto Marco’s favourite, the Montevecchio. The 4km ascent, with an average of 7%, doesn’t seem overly imposing on paper, but when the professionals are averaging just a tad over 20kmh from top to bottom during the Memorial Marco Pantani – a 1.1UCI level race held in early October – you know it’s got some bite.

It would seem the top-top on this climb, at least on the Strava rankings, is well out of reach.

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The lower slopes of Montevecchio, exposed to the midday sun, have left much of the freshly laid black tarmac in a sticky mess, making the numerous switchbacks just that little bit tougher.

Once through the opening twists we receive some respite as the road enters the trees. While Marco’s efforts up here were pre-Strava, we’re sure he’d be going at least as fast as today’s standards – except he’d be using it for repeats, not just a single climb like ours today.

Such was his affection for this climb that a framed photo has been affixed to a large boulder at the crest with suitably place KOM and Pantani lettering on the road. A fresh-water tap is conveniently placed here and offers a good chance to fill up before the descent and steady downward trajectory back to Cesenatico through the low-lying produce farms.

Shortly before reaching the sea, marking the end of our ride, we’re reminded of a moment just a day ago when Andrea Manusia from Emilia Romagna Tourism became visibly emotional during a visit to Marco’s museum.

The dramatic and turbulent life of the former professional clearly continues to fill local’s hearts long after his passing. It’s this love for cycling that seems to resonate throughout the cycling culture in this region, and it’s this kind of passion that will no doubt see us return here in the future.

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Ride Pantani’s favourite

Test your form up the Montevecchio by taking part in the Novo Colli (21 May, 2017), which begins in Marco’s hometown of Cesenatico or the Gran Fondo Selle Italia (TBA 2017) that starts and finishes a few kilometres north on the coastal front of Cervia. If you intend on staying in the area a while, you can compete in both – if you manage to get in quick enough to secure an entry. Both gran fondos offer a challenging 200-odd-kilometre course with some 4,000m of ascent along with shorter distances ranging from 40km through to 150km. For more details head to novecolli.it and granfondoselleitalia.org.

How we got there

Everything you need to know should you fancy a visit…

We flew from Sydney to Bologna via Singapore and Frankfurt with flights operated by Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa. After arriving in Bologna we were greeted by the Emilia Romagna Region Tourist Board who bused our group – Canadians and Australians go well together – to the coast approximately 120km away. Some hotels can arrange pick-up and drop-off at the airport or, alternatively, you can get a bus and train for approximately $35-$40. A car is not imperative once you reach the coast with riding straight from your lobby down the coast or to the hills inland.

We stayed at the “3 Bike rated” Hotel Dory and Suite in Riccione. Part of the Terra Bici group, this hotel has all the trimmings a travelling cyclist could need. Bike hire, maintenance, secure storage, a nutrition and hydration station and guided riding are all on offer for those who’d rather leave the bike at home. Grand Hotel Cesenatico is also part of the consortium with a lower 1 Bike rating for cycling-specific services. Both hotels, however, offer clean and comfy rooms with a great restaurant serving meals all day.

The world is your oyster in Emilia-Romagna. We dined in the hotel restaurants for breakfast, enjoyed locally farmed and produced lunches at Via Degli Ulivi, La Fiammetta, Grand Hotel da Vinci, Tipicita Italiane and Fossa Blues. Dinner was largely fish-based with meals enjoyed at Gente di Mare, Fantini Club, Mastin Vecchio and Maré.

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To Emilia Romagna Tourism for hosting us during our visit, Cervelo Australia for use of an S3, and Capo Cycling and Santini for ensuring we were kept cool and comfortable during long days combating the heat of the European summer.