Riding Strade Bianche with Garda Bike Hotel by Jonathan Cooper
British cyclist Jonathan Cooper recalls his Italian Love Affair on the White Roads of Tuscany
Jonathan, Strade Bianche is one of Italy’s Cycling icons, what drew you to ride it?
I’ve been to Garda Bike Hotel numerous times over the last 5 or 6 years. I’ve watched Strade Bianche Pro race on TV over the past 4 years. Garda Bike Hotel started their package in 2018 and my friend and I decided to go, as we hadn’t been to that part of Italy and we wanted to try a different type of Gran Fondo.
There are two available distances in the Gran Fondo, the long route the Women’s Elite 140 km course, and the shorter 87 km course. Both feature around 20-30 km of the famous white Gravel roads. Which route did you ride?
My friend and I, Martin decided we wanted to do the long course. We flew out to Peschiera del Garda on the Wednesday before the race. Garda Bike Hotel drove us down to Tuscany on the Thursday morning and we had a brief ride that afternoon.
We were really lucky to ride the shorter 87 km course on the Friday. It was great fun and not too many people around except for a few of the Pro teams that were also warming up before the race. The was invaluable as it gave us time to experience the gravel roads and build up confidence before the Gran Fondo, knowing we weren’t going to be thrown in at the deep end.
Photo: Garda Bike Hotel’s team of van and guides allowed clients to sample the white roads ahead of the Fondo.
Did you bring your own bike?
No we used one of Garda Bike Hotel’s brand new Pinarello Grevil bikes. I was a bit sceptical at first as the gearing was a bit strange, and they were also brand new.
Aside from that they are a really nice bike. Rode one again in September. Most Italian were on normal bikes, some with deep section wheels, 23mm tyres, looked very uncomfortable!
You could ride it on a normal road bike with better level skills, but to make it enjoyable we rode on the gravel specific bike.
A friend of mine did it in 2017 on a normal road bike, it rained and his rim brakes locked up because of the mud!
Photo: Jonathan enjoys warming up on his brand new Pinarello Grevil!
Did you watch the Pro Race, what are your favourite memories?
It was amazing, on the Thursday night we had dinner with whole the Bora racing team.
It was Interesting to speak to the mechanics and how difficult their job is. Some of mechanics were ex professional riders. It was a really relaxed atmosphere, due to the nutritional needs of the riders they ate prior on the bus, and we all ate in the hotel.
Saturday was the pro race. A couple of guests took the Van and went to a local Vineyard. Most guests wanted to watch the pro race. Nicola got the balance right over dinner the night before, about what we wanted to do that day.
We had VIP passes so went and visited the team buses, and again chatted to the Bora team including Daneil Oss, Rafal Majka. Then the riders warmed up and started the race. We had a tour of the race bus. This was way over and above your standard trip!
Photo: Everyone spent an intimate Thursday night with the whole Bora-hansgrohe Pro racing team!
We had Lunch in square at the finish in Siena and we had our VIP lanyards for the VIP finish area. Martin and I decided to watch the women’s race on the final climb, so walked 1 km downn from the finish line down the final climb of the Santa Caterina and waited couple of hours.
The atmosphere was electric, with thousands of Italian tifosi (fans) right up against the barriers on the narrow street, with touching distance of the riders. We could see their faces. Julian Alaphilippe came past and we could see from his face that he was going to win from the small group of four riders. It was really noisy, they were going quick, but because it was on a climb you could pick people out. We were able to stand there, watch them pass and look up the hill and see the finale unfold!
Photo: Calla Barras poses next to one of the iconic Strade Bianche climb markers of the Monte Sante Marie, fastets time set by Fabian Cancellara
So how did you get on in the Gran Fondo?
On Sunday, Martin and I rode the full 140km long course. We started in the VIP peloton right at the front, with around 300 cyclists only, ahead of a couple of thousand people.
Having ridden around five Gran Fondo’s in Italy, I knew from the Gun it was going to be quick. The standard of riding is so much better and the start was all out racing. I guided my friend Martin, who stayed on my wheel, on the right hand side, we averaged around 18 mph. However the more experience Italians averaged over 25 mph.
In the first 20 km was a process of natural selection, and by this time the peloton had thinned out. . If anything was going to go wrong it the first 20km. Having previewed the course, we knew what to expect and how the bike was going to handle when we hit the first Gravel section. We were a bit nervous on first gravel section being in a big peloton and how we were going to handle it.
We took our time and built up our speed. There were water bottles, and gillets all over the road, it was chaos, but exciting at the same time. The dust didn’t seem to rise very high, I chose find my own line through the gravel, avoiding the ruts and not following wheels, which seemed to work.
First gravel section was the easiest, the subsequent were a bit more difficult. The third section had downhill on gravel, so I was trying to pick a line and keep to it. I was doing more thinking such was my lack of gravel experience and trying to pick a good line.
A guy did go down in front of me, but we had time to avoid him. The guy was lying in a road with paramedics and motorbikes around him. The support was so well organized, but we were trying to stay safe and out of trouble and let the more experience Italian fast men pass us by.
We were really luck, it was a lovely dry spring day, around 15C. Being British, Martin and I were in bibs and short sleeves jerseys!
Photo: Jonathan and friend Martin rode together the whole course together
Because we’d ridden the final climbs before, we conserved a bit of energy for the last 20 km, the final climb up Santa Caterina into Sienna is really steep 200m on cobbles, narrow with gradients of 16%!
The Pinarello Grevil bike was a bit heavier, but the gearing range was huge, so I didn’t notice the weight. On my road bike at home I might not have made it to to the gearing, my cadence would drop very low.
By the top of the Santa Caterina my legs were really aching!
A lot of the course on good tarmac, with short steep climbs, undulating, like you get in Kent, there’s no respite. I stayed with Martin the whole day and waited for him at the top of climbs, until the final section into Sienna were we just went for it!
Photo: The famous climb of the via Santa Caterina coming into Sienna
After we finished, Garda Bike Hotel’s guide Andrea handed us our jackets, each a can of coke and directed us back to the race village which was awesome. We drank our coke and made our way to the village area, because of the crowds this took 10 minutes or so.
The race village had a big pasta party going on and there was massive queue to get served. Lucky for us, GBH had their own pasta party! They took our bikes off us and loaded them into the van which had all our stuff in so we could change. We sat around drinking and eating in our spacious and relaxed VIP area. Later we rode back to the hotel with our guides.
Photo: Enjoying the beautiful centre of Sienna.
We went out that evening, our group was small and intimate, just 11 guests. Garda Bike Hotel had 2 spacious vans and we went out into the countryside to a working Italian farm for an authentic roast, lots of steak and hog too. It was such a great evening had by us all and a fitting end to an amazing and unforgettable day.
Photo: Wine ageing in 100 hundred year old French oak barrels in the Italian winery.
The hotel we stayed in was beautiful, right in the centre of Sienna, the 5 star Hotel Palazzo Ravizza.
We went back to Peschiera del Garda on the Monday.
For you what were the highlights of your trip, the food, the sites, the culture and the people?
The final evening’s dinner and riding and watching the Pro race.
Photo: Enjoying authentic Italian cuisine at one of the very carefully selected farms in the Italian countryside.
Italy’s is one of the most passionate cycling countries in the world, cycling is engrained in the culture. Almost everyone in Italy rides or knows someone who rides a bike? What did you take away from your experience?
With the exception of the Maratona dles Dolomites that I’ve ridden, all the local villages were all watching the race and Gran Fondo! Lots of kids and families waving flags. The Strade Bianche is well appreciated by the locals who are so keen to support it. Seeing Julian Alaphillipe come past was amazing. There was an even louder roar when Italian professional Vincenzo Nibali came by, he was in around 50th place, the locals and Italian tifosi had massive banners for him!
Garda Bike Hotel are re-noun for their all-inclusive Italian cycling experiences, what drew you to them in the first place and how did you find out about them?
My wife and a friend and I first went there 2014, we wanted to go to Italy, near Lake Garda. We looked online and found Garda Bike Hotel. We emailed them and they were very friendly and their website was great, so we decided to stay.
Having been to Italy before Garda Bike Hotel is just amazing, it feels so relaxed. The service is just amazing compared to other places in Italy, and we now know all the staff personally. It’s like going home! I feel so much at home when I’m there, it’s just so relaxed. You’re looked after, nothing is too much trouble!
The other attraction is there is so much to see and do on your bike that new experiences just keep on coming, another reason why we keep coming back.
Some of the highlights are the climb of Monte Baldo which the biggest and 2,200m. There’s Tremosine on the west side of Lake Garda, you go across on the ferry which is also challenging. We also climbed a climb just north of Verona, the Bosco Chiesonouva 20km long at 1600m above sea level. There’s really no one around on these climbs which is just sublime.
Photo: British cyclist Jonathan Cooper recalls his Italian Love Affair on the White Roads of Tuscany
For Gran Fondo Guide, Garda Bike Hotel’s friendly and extremely professional staff was above five star service, which blew us away, would you agree?
Definitely, they have done an awful lot for my wife and I!
Would you agree that Garda Bike Hotel is without doubt the best choice if you don’t speak the language and come from abroad and want an authentic experience?
I think for me initially, in hindsight, having done other trips by myself, Garda Bike Hotel’s packages are not the cheapest however they are really good value for money. You don’t worry about anything your bike, food, directions, which café to stop at, do I need to lock my bike?
Until you’ve done experienced it, you don’t realize how amazing it really is. The guides make the experience incredible, I’ve been to the best cafés and restaurants in towns, the best sightseeing, and of course the best routes. Without that, it just wouldn’t be just so dam amazing!
Garda Bike Hotel are renowned for repeat visit from clients, how many times have you stayed there and are you planning your next visit?
It can be a difficult sell to, especially for some UK cyclists because of the price compared to say going to Mallorca for a week, however you get you pay for and the experiences my wife have had, the personal service, far outweighs any thought about cost. It’s like comparing a Mini to a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, it’s just another level!
Overall how would you rate Garda Bike Hotel out of 10?
10 out of 10, as I stated, my wife and my friends have returned for many years and it like going home.
I know a lot of the staff very well, always made to feel welcome and always so, so sad to go home again.
By Jonathan Cooper, London, UK
Limited Edition VIP: Experience Italy’s Strade Bianche with Garda Bike Hotel
Dine with Bora-Hansgrohe the team of Peter Sagan. Watch the Pro race with exclusive access. Ride Tuscany’s “white gravel roads” at the front of the Strade Bianche Gran Fondo on a new Pinarello Grevil bike
Official Strade Bianche Tour Operator, Garda Bike Hotel are excited to offer just 20 cyclists, the cycling trip of a lifetime.
This world class experience includes preferential start at the front of the Strade Bianche Gran Fondo, which sees over 5,000 cyclists tackle the same “White Roads” the professional’s race every spring.
In true “Dolce Vita” style, you’ll ride at the front of the Gran Fondo on a brand NEW 2019 Pinarello GREVIL bike.
You’ll dine with BORA-Hansgrohe the team of three times World Champion Peter Sagan at an exclusive intimate dinner.
Limited VIP Places
To provide this exclusive, intimate and authentic VIP Italian cycling tour, numbers are strictly limited to just 20 cyclists.
Register early to secure a place as it will sell out in advance.
To find out more, please visit: gardabikehotel.com/en/strade-bianche-granfondo-cycling-experience