Thursday, 6 August 2009

Day 8 - Careful Now!

Andalo to Riva del Garda.

So this is it. I've dreamed of this day for months. We're still in the competition. We haven't thrown in the towel, or broken a collarbone, or fallen out, or fallen off at 50mph on a gravel road, or broken a bike fatally, or come down with West Nile Hemorrhagic Fever... Better than all of these things, we're still in start block B and we've been climbing the table every day going from results in the high 80s to 54th yesterday. We're getting the measure of the thing. I almost don't want it to end, except that there's nothing I want more than to be speeding over the finish line and running into Lake Garda.

There are murmurs of a scary descent on today's stage, but it's just hearsay since we missed the evening briefing and went out for pizza and beer instead. I'm feeling uneasy in the start pen, partly a bit of a hangover and partly the fear that we may get complacent. One more routine climb with some pushing and we arrive at the Passo san Giovanni and then it's all downhill to Riva. It's an insanely difficult downhill where riders queue at the turn off from the gravel and peer over the brink. We ride straight on through. It's a steep, rutted hillside to begin with and we can pick our way through the walkers until it narrows to an endless series of steep, slimy switchbacks. We ride what we can but there are just too many people in the way to get a good run at it. Dave gets ahead and I keep him in sight for a while but get bogged down behind knots of walking riders. I'm in a group who ride where it's clear enough but we keep running into scrums of others who won't even attempt it. Frustrating, but I'm content to arrive intact at the bottom.

Dave is waiting at the timing strip along with the other Brits we've been riding with all week, Geoff and Steve the other Kinesis riders and Army and Navy, whose names I never did find out. The rest of the stage looks like road all the way, except for the steep gravel-covered concrete stuff which I hit too fast and unprepared having mentally switched off. There's more rocky singletrack late on and then we have a fast procession along cycle paths through orchards. There's no energy left in my tanks but I hold on grimly on Dave's back wheel. A marshall shouts "Zwei kilometre" and suddenly we're in Riva. Around a corner we see the Jeantex arch and we're at the finish line. The emotion of finishing overwhelms me for a moment and I have a wee blub like a lassie.

Suddenly it's all over. It has been an amazing few days and I'm all out of superlative adjectives. The vision of running into Lake Garda which has sustained me for months of training in the dark and wind and pishing rain actually comes to pass. We finish 51st on the day and 65th overall in Masters from 118 finishers. Solid mid-table mediocrity!

Lake Garda

(Thanks to everyone who dutifully followed this drivel and apologies for not updating things on the day. In mitigation, it appears that Italy doesn't have an internet, but now that I see how consistently beautiful Italian women are, I can understand why they might not need one...). I'll post final thoughts and some photos in a final roundup in the next few days and then I'll move on with my life.



Day 7 - wibble...

Kaltern to Andalo.

About 5 minutes into the climb I realise that, not only have I forgotten to pack some ibuprofen but we didn't have any for breakfast. There's only one thing for it - blind panic. Our main food groups for the past week have been painkillers, rehydration salts and pizza (and, laterally, beer). The prospect of a day without the anaesthetizing effects of those little pink tablets brings me out in a cold sweat which only exacerbates the dehydrating effects of the hot sweat pishing off my brow in the 30 degree heat of the early morning.

Ten minutes into the climb I've become acutely aware of the callus on my left buttock. It's a bit like the Princess and the Pea, if it were re-written with the Princess riding a bike with half a pistachio shell stuck inside her shorts. Rounded side down. Man, this is going to hurt. The main climb of the day is a now-routine 1400m slog up a gravel road leading to more stunning singletrack, scary, sketchy gravel with cooking brakes and over-cooking corners. Miles and miles of this kind of stuff:

All good things must end and we're soon back in the crippling heat of the valley, riding up through apple orchards and seeking out the spray from the irrigation hoses. Further on we don't notice the village of "Toss" but we do spot "Lover". Great place names for the UK. The last few kms to the second feed station are just back-breakingly hard work. We keep running into pockets of super-heated still air, grinding endlessly uphill under the fierce, relentless sun. I'm dizzy by the time we get to the feed station and I feel an almost overwhelming desire to lie down in the shade and sleep. I just want it to stop, but we still have another 5kms climbing before the finish line. Luckily we have the shade of the trees so it's almost bearable. My arse hurts, my legs hurt, my hands hurt, my head is throbbing and I have to admit defeat on one of the steep concrete sections and get off and push. It's not far, but it's one of those sections where the gradient is too steep for a gravel road and they have to anchor the whole lot in place with concrete. Very hard to climb and terrifying in descent.

The climb is over soon enough and it's a mercifully easy run in down some nice dusty trails into Andalo. I have some stern words with some arse who tries to push into the queue in front of me. He sees the mad look in my eye and backs off, muttering.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Day 6 - The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.

Sarnthein to Kaltern.

Scarcely believable, but today's riding is even better than yesterday's. Harder too, due to all the "wee" hills. 75kms, 3173m up and 3783m down. I fail to pay attention to the wee climb just before the finish line...

So off we go again. Start line banter, "Highway to Hell", unseemly argy-bargy to get going, up, up, up, up, down, up up up. Bit of singletrack which has a big queue of pushing riders which we bypass by riding stylishly through a river (well, Dave manages without a dicht) then a climb on gravel where I feel very one-paced. It doesn't last long though before we get to fast undulating gravel and then a brilliant wee climb. We see it coming and take the grassy shortcut onto it while others resort to pushing from the start. Apart from two very short pitched sections we ride it all and then we have a lovely open hoot along narrow, dusty walking trails with lots of fast corners and languid cows grazing either side. More climbing and more brilliant singletrack where we reel in lots of teams before a final steep haul to the day's high point.

From the high point we chase down a couple of German girls who Dave passes early but I can't get the measure of. They're too quick over the open, rutted meadow-land but I spot my chance on the inside of a sharp bend with lots of rocks and roots. The next section before the feed station is absolutely outstanding riding down rocky chutes and over dusty, rooty trails way high up with fantastic views over to the limestone peaks on every horizon. I have a wee tumble over the bars after some risky manoeuvres to pass a hesitant rider but the adrenaline has me straight back on the bike and raring for more. Hands hurt, toes hurt, but it's too much fun to hold back.

There's more to come after the feed station and then we're in another valley where the heat is staggering. It's another long, long climb with salty sweat pouring into our eyes. Each day we've managed to forget something fairly crucial - today it's the Nuun tablets which replace the sweated-out electolytes. As if this isn't bad enough, I'm so addled by the time I get to the last feed station that I omit to fill my Camelbak, or my bottle. There's still 30kms to go with lots of sharp climbs and some bone-shaking descents. I run out of water in short order. Dave has a little left, but he needs some of it himself. There's a section where we have to carry the bikes up a steep path over roots and mud. Dave hates these bits but I find they are a bit of a rest. From the top it's mostly downhill but I'm so dehydrated that my brain seems to be rattling in my skull. I'm thirsty for water, but the limestone hydrography is keeping it all to itself.

This is desperate. My head is throbbing from the effort and even the downhills are painful. The day finishes with a very fast plummet into Kaltern am See or Caldaro al Lago - I can see the lake through gaps in the trees and it's all downhill EXCEPT for the last bit. I've piled on the pressure at the head of a chaingang only to find that the last couple of kms are uphill into the town. I have nothing left. We get over the line in around 6 1/2 hours but I'm exhausted from the sustained effort without proper hydration. There are only two days to go but I'm struggling to do even the most basic of tasks. Washing my bike and fixing my loosening rear hub take a supreme effort of will and I struggle to make sparkling, witty conversation over dinner.

Tomorrow we'll probably forget the ibuprofen, or something equally perilous.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Day 5 - this just might be possible...

St. Christina to Sarnthein.

Sore legs this morning. Today's stage would look easy were it not for that yawning chasm in the middle. 82kms, 3300m ascent, much of it in one mofo of a climb over 30kms. The first climb is over fairly quickly and it leads us up to some stunning high Dolomite pastures with some beautiful singletrack riding. We get to the first feed station at Seiser Alm in short order then it's a fast road descent. I like these bits; I can almost relax. We pass lots of people and then there is no-one ahead. A sense of unease begins to set in - have we missed a turn off? The penalty would be an agonising extra climb back up a steep road so we slow down. Other riders catch up and before long we spot the reassuring orange arrows sending us off the apex of a bend onto fast singletrack where we see the "unfall" warning triangle - rider down with two medics in attendance. Not a nice sight but they are in good hands so we keep going.

The downhill gets very steep and it becomes progressively more painful on the hands. As usual, there are lots of riders walking down perfectly rideable terrain. We barge on past, gaining ground but probably losing friends - "Excuse me!", "Rider left", "Rider right", "RIDER!!", "Get out of the f***ing way!", phrases understood in most languages. The terrain is fantastic for mountain biking. Steep zig-zagging trails littered with rocks and roots which is a joy to ride. It goes on for so long that I have to swap braking fingers to alleviate the pain in my hands and my toes are sore from the pressure against my shoes. Eventually we are spat out onto more steep tarmac taking us down to the Brenner highway at Waidbruck. This is the major road between Italy and Austria but the race is so well organised and marshalled that we just sweep on through to the start of the climb while the traffic is held at bay by the Carabinieri.

The next climb almost defies description. It is relentlessly steep and the sun is cooking our brains inside our skulls. Locals hose us down as we pass which helps for a few seconds but can't disguise the pain and suffering. Sweat is pouring out of my helmet. There is a brief respite from the torture when my back tyre explodes. We're inching uphill when there's a loud bang like a gunshot. Sealant is fizzing out and there is no chance of any of it plugging the two inch gash in the sidewall. We lose 5 minutes in tearing off the tyre, emptying the remaining sealant, cleaning it up enough to stick a tyre boot inside it and the re-inflating it with a tube inside - how primitive! Then it's back to the grind. After what seems like hours, with the valley far below in another realm, we get to the feed station. There's still a long way to go before we get to the top. How do you train for these climbs in Scotland?

The remainder of the day is a bit of a blur. I remember a fast but short downhill on gravel before another climb then some magical singletrack late in the day, alongside a river, with some utterly brilliant trails. The hand pain can't detract from the sublime riding. There are some tough wee uphill bits before some more superb singletrack. We miss a turnoff down off a gravel track and waste a couple of minutes before we realise and turn back to pick up yet more technical stuff down to a meadow on the edge of town. The day finishes with a fast ride through narrow streets to the finish line in Sarthein. This is the town I was most concerned about beforehand for accommodation. We'd sent many emails but had not a single reply and had envisioned an Italian Royston Vasey, but not a bit of it; it's a beautiful Tyrolean village full of life. It has been an amazing day's riding. Utterly absorbing and intense through fairytale mountain scenery. I'm too happy to be tired.

We drink beer that evening.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Day 4 - The Turn of the Screw.

Brixen to St. Christina.

On paper, this one looked like trouble. 84 kms with nearly 3700m of climbing. There are 4 very distinct climbs with one or two blips along the way. The day starts with a fast peleton out of Brixen which grinds to a messy halt at a handlebar-width footbridge 5kms out of town. Lots of riders sweep up on the outside to jump the queue which leads to a lot of shouted insults. We now know how to say "bawbag" in 40 different languages.

It's nice to get a fast, easy warm-up but we're soon into the climbing for the day. It takes about half an hour of puffing and panting to establish the climb's rhythm; to reach the point where the breathing is nice and settled and the legs don't hurt. After this it's more a psychological battle to keep the pedals turning and to focus on keeping the body fuelled with food and drink. By now I've got this bit sussed - unwrapped Clif bars in the back pocket to nibble on and a couple of litres of water with Nuun hydration tablets keeps me going to the first feed station where supplies can be replenished as we gorge on water melon with the decadance of Caligula.

The second climb is a tough proposition and it's steep right out of the feed station. It's a very hot day so shade from the trees is a welcome relief. Dave is ticking off the kms on his bike computer and after what seems like hours of continually steep gravel switchbacks he reckons the climb is almost over. Sure enough, things start to level out a bit and we've emerged from the trees and it has the feel of an Alpine pass just around the next corner. But my mental fortitude has buckled under the strain of hopeless optimism and I've forgotten the golden rule - every summit is a false summit until proven otherwise. Round the corner lies a sight that knocks the wind from our sails. The trail rears up at an impossibly steep angle and zig-zags up to a pass seemingly up in the heavens. It's maybe only 2kms away but it will be a push for much of the way. Dave rides what he can because walking hurts too much. I walk most of it because riding hurts too much. We get back on the bikes just before the Schlutterhutte and ride to a stile which marks the high point. I'm dizzy from the effort and need Ibuprofen to soothe the pain in my buttocks and shoulders.

From here the scenery changes dramatically. We're no longer in steep-sided tree-lined canyons where we get the occasional glimpse of the scenic grandeur around us. Now we're up high on open grassy alps with impossibly dramatic Dolomite peaks crowding the horizon. It really is breathtaking. There is a short section where walking is compulsory (park rules) then it's onto a mental-fast descent on gravel tracks and tarmac all the way to Campill where the locals cheer the riders on and we get a cheery "Bit hotter than Scotland!" from an old lady.

More climbing, more descending and we get to a fast uphill bit to the feed station. Chain-gang time again. I'm struggling to stay on the pace until most of the riders break off to fill water bottles at a drinking trough. We keep going. The feed station isn't where it should be. We press on. I've no water left and I'm feeling pretty done in. No sign of the feed station. Have we missed it? Eventually it comes into view. There are a lot of busted-looking riders lolling in the shade of a wall and we join them. I'm finding it difficult to walk and the all-over body pain washes over me once I'm off the bike. Dioralyte and Ibuprofen are needed, but we don't resort to Heather Graham just yet...

There is one more big climb ahead of me and I'm having big doubts about my ability to manage it; to shake off the fatigue and keep going. Somehow it all falls into place. Better than that, I feel really strong on it. There's some fireroad, a bit of singletrack then miles of switchbacking tarmac up to the Passo Gardena. Dave and I get on the back of an Italian pair but we soon leave them behind. We overtake lots of others too, climbing fast and well in the middle ring. From the top we have a road descent for a few kms then it's off road for some steep, loose gravel and chuckies. The day finishes with a steep singletrack section where the only technique is to hang off the back and drag the brakes. Most people are walking it so we pass lots of teams. Dave punctures but it seals quickly enough for the final tarmac run in to St. Christina. It's been 7 1/2 hours in the saddle with some very tough climbs and some stunning descents. I'm pretty done in but manage to recover enough with the aid of water melon and pizza to do it all again tomorrow.