COSTE, 1024km – 3:19AM (race clock 04d // 05H // 19M)
The last two pizza slices disappeared so fast they could hardly be described as breakfast, but they filled a hole at least. 3am seems to becoming my regular starting hour – I’m sat on the chairs outside in the quiet of the morning. There’s just the briefest stretch of road, before I’m back on the cycle path alongside the noisy, rushing torrent of the river again. Deprived of views beyond the limits of my front light, it’s hard to recall specific details. Long dark stretches of path, often through trees, occasionally popping out alongside a few buildings or a road. It’s enjoyable – fast and flowing, with superbly smooth tarmac, but in my mind the night before and the early morning have all merged into one, except for the few stretches where something memorable happened. The first of these events is memorable for all the wrong reasons.
1039km – 4:03AM (race clock 04d // 06H // 03M)
I approach a cluster of roadwork signs marking a section where the tarmac path gives way to gravel, presumably still being upgraded or repaired. It’s hard packed, and the wavy line is sufficiently curved to need me to drop my speed – so I continue flying along at full speed (somewhere in the region 35km/h). It would have been an entirely safe proposition too, had it not been for a couple of unfortunate details. I’m alongside a road traveling against the traffic, and it strikes me that the oncoming truck whose lights are blinding me is probably being equally blinded by the brightness of my beam, which is set to H due to the speed I’m carrying. My hand reaches for the button to dim the light, at which point the detail which seals my fate kicks in. In order to get from H to L I have to flip through BLINK and then OFF. Ordinarily, this would be a seamless and near instant move, but with the light mounted low down, on a bumpy section, my hand finger slips as the light reaches OFF. I’m flying blind – there is no chance I’ll find the button again. Panic starts to set in, I quickly realise that I’m almost certainly going to crash, and the only thing I can do is to wash off as much speed as possible before I hit something. Braking as hard as I dare, I hurtle along the path. I’m holding a straight course, which is a little pointless since the path curves, but I’ve no idea which way to curve or how much, so straight seems less risky then heading off the edge to my left. Waiting for the inevitable, and hoping I slow a bit first, the seconds count down
One Mississipi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi … BANG!
I smash into the concrete barrier to my right. Not head on, more of a slithering collision that sees me slide along briefly before crashing down onto the gravel. After the panic and fear comes silence. I lie there, sharp pains shooting through my leg and arm, worried that my first movement will reveal a race ending injury. But as I gingerly pull myself up, everything feels intact – or at least not broken. Pulling the headlamp from my frame bag reveals a spectacularly ugly picture on my knee – flesh torn up into lumps, studded with gravel, and blood oozing down my shin. There’s a packet of wet-wipes stashed next to where the headlight had been, and I do my best to clean it up using them. It’s a pretty pathetic attempt though, and eventually I give up and decide to try and do better in daylight. My focus turns to the bike, but amazingly it seems unscathed. The second time I’ve dumped a bike badly and I seem to have come out lucky again. The rear dérailleur has picked up a couple of scars, but it’s shifting perfectly. Bags and handlebar gear need a bit of straightening, but overall there’s remarkably little in the way of obvious damage. After a final check over, It’s time to roll on again – only this time with two of my three front lights lit, just in case lightening decides to strike twice.
I’m soon on tar again, and as the shock subsides I gradually pick up to full pace again. The path crosses the river at some point, and navigates a short and rather ominous looking tunnel beside a free-way. It’s the sort of place one expects to encounter threatening youths, or wandering drunken tramps, but I forget now if I saw either. On a lightly wooded section, with a narrow grass verge either side, the next of those memorable events occurs – well, memorable at least for me anyhow, sadly less so for the bunny bounding along the path in front. As I approach he hops onto the grass and sits looking at me. Believing the danger has passed, I release my pressure on the brakes. But just as I draw level, the rabbit panics and leaps directly in front of me. For a moment I consider evasive action but, unfortunately for the darting rodent, I’ve no desire to hit the deck for the second time in less than half an hour, and instead grip the bars and aim straight ahead. Several weeks back, one of our club riders had a nasty crash avoiding a squirrel. We debated for some time whether riding over said animal would have also unseated our unlucky fellow rider. As unlikely as it seems, that question was answered on an Italian cycle path at a little before 5am. The bunny reached my front wheel and as it did so lifted it’s head to look directly at me with the saddest expression I’ve ever seen. I’ll swear I didn’t imagine this, but I’m sure I heard it let out an audible sigh as if to say “oh fuck!“. And then the combined near 100kg weight of bike and rider did their worst. There was a sickening squish as my front wheel went over, followed by a loud pop as my back wheel followed. The bike hardly shimmied as it traveled over. I hadn’t even been riding two hours, and I’d smashed myself up and killed some poor hapless rabbit. I guess at least the day couldn’t get much worse.
I’d been expecting a number of landmarks on my route, including the sizeable town of Bolzano, but they passed by largely unnoticed. Somewhere after the dubious looking tunnel I negotiated a metal grid flyover around some busy highway, which I can now see on my track was the nearby town of Cardano. A looping junction near a bridge carries me around a tributary of the river, and soon after the first light of day reveals I’m riding along a broad valley. It feels like I’m much further along my route than expected, and as I cross back over the river a sign to the cycle path on the other bank confirms this. Trento is just 35km away – I couldn’t believe my progress. The path I’m now on is close to perfection – a dead straight strip of perfectly smooth tar which the wheels just seem to glide over, effortlessly maintaining my pace.
The sky is an unbroken expanse of blue, barely a cloud in sight. Trento is still too far off to see the actual town, but it’s presence is marked by a light brown haze ahead where the sides of the valley converge and curve right. It’s a reminder that when the sun is fully up It’s going to be a punishingly hot day. But for now its a stunning morning to be out on the bike. After the efforts of yesterday the easy riding provides time to look up and enjoy the scenery. Joggers are out running, an elderly couple are taking a stroll in the still cool air. And another sight starts to regularly greet me – or in fact not actually greet me – the Immaculate Italian Cyclist. Gleaming steed, kit styled to perfection, all the way down to correct length socks, none of which are sagging around ankles. But it’s the pristine circular pedaling cadence I most remember. Not a hint or stress, or effort, just a smooth whir of feet. As each of them passes I nod or wave hello. On one solitary occasion I get a flicker of fingers from the hoods in acknowledgement, but most ride by aloofly. The problem of course is I look nothing like a proper cyclist. My bike looks like some I’ll conceived touring nightmare, and its rider looks like a tramp. I just don’t deserve the recognition from such an elite circle. I laugh a little at the thought and proceed to annoy each new style king with even greater enthusiasm.
Nave SAN ROCCO, 1101km – 6:48AM (race clock 04d // 08H // 48M)
Once again, I’m riding along with Isobel Jobling – we’ve tracked each other steadily across the Alps. I remember two specific threads of our conversation from this meeting: how both of us are surprised at falling behind our expected pace; and breakfast. A solution to the latter of these presents itself soon after – a small newsagent cum corner shop at a crossroads between the path and a road bridge back over the river. The elderly lady serving inside speaks no English, but it doesn’t matter a jot. A coffee machine sits behind her, and a small glass container on the counter covers a range of pastries and cakes. With a lot of pointing, smiles, and the odd “grazzi” or two, I’m heading back outside with properly strong delicious coffee, a kind of croissant-looking pastry, and something else which looks like a doughnut. I can’t help but laugh at myself when I see that Isobel has found yoghurt – no part of me even considered looking beyond the pile of delicious looking carbs I was presented with. We stand outside the shop, enjoying our selections and morning sun – although I’m sure we must also have talked about the incessant heat as well. As we’re chatting, Rishi Fox pulls up and we exchange hellos. She seems to be after something more substantial though, and heads over to scout out the other bank of the river.
My supplies are soon devoured, and I bid farewell (for this meeting at least) and continue along the path. I quickly reach my crossing back over the river, and as I head over into Zambana the riding instantly changes. I’m back on suburban streets, which all too soon eject me into a stream of heavy traffic as I merge onto what is clearly one of the main arterial routes into Trento itself. Surrounded by tarmac, and glass fronted buildings, the heat of the morning immediately becomes noticeable. It’s an unwelcome and unpleasant contrast to the morning’s fast, peaceful and car free riding. It’s not a long stretch, but I found myself trying to pick a safe line across at least a couple of busy roundabouts, and where I do exit onto quieter streets I have to navigate myself across two (or was it even three) lanes of fast moving traffic. It was an unavoidable section, but I’m glad it’s over as I wind onto a narrow street and start heading upwards into what feels like an older section of town. At several points the gradient is fierce – way beyond what I’m capable of pedalling up. I’ve walked far more sections than I’d hoped by the time I pull myself up and out of the twisting streets of the town and can see open hillsides and vineyards ahead. It’s hard to see exactly where the road actually goes – there’s an imposing rock buttress up ahead, and I’m beginning to fear the road may have to climb up and over it. But, after a couple of short ramps up into the vineyards, it’s clear that the road, now barely wider than a single lane, traverses a cutting in the cliff at the foot of the rock face. Heaving a huge sigh of relief, I sit on a convenient wall just before the passage to make a quick call home.
TAVERNARO, 1117km – 8:36AM (race clock 04d // 10H // 36M)
Yoli has left me a song (Avicii – Wake Me Up) which I listen too first – it puts a slight tear in my eye as I realise how much I’m missing family and home. We connect as a video call so I can show Yoli the stunning scenery. The road passage feels perched on the edge of a steep cliff down into the deep valley beneath where I’m sitting. This high, narrow passage will carry me across to the Valsugana valley that leads to the checkpoint (although my route takes intentionally detours around one more smaller hill).
“Who was that?” asks Yoli, as the figure of another racer passes me and heads through the cutting. It’s Rishi Fox again – she’s been way more active online than I have, and Yoli has been following her posts on Facebook. It’s a struggle to tear myself away from the call, but the clock is ticking away – as tough as it is in the rising heat, I need to keep moving.
The cutting is flat and fast, and quickly opens out to reveal the expanse of the next valley. The road pitches downhill, and the cooling breeze as my speed picks up is a welcome relief. At the bottom, there’s a roundabout where I expect most riders will have gone straight on, and headed for the pretty cycle path around Lago di Caldonazzo. Instead, I swing left and begin to climb again. It’s a shorter option which cuts the corner off by crossing through the hills again, but that’s not my main reason for taking it. I’m actually revisiting my first ever trip abroad, on a school trip at the age of 12. We went to a ski resort which I’d never managed to spot on a map since, but as I planned out my route the name of Levico Terme jumped out at me, and I simply had to include a visit. I doubt I’ll recognise anything after more than 40 years, but it’s something I feel a need to do regardless.
I spin slowly up the climb – it’s not steep or difficult, and woodland shades the route keeping off the worst of the heat. I’m left a little speechless at a crest most of the way up the climb. There, across the road, is a eerily familiar looking hotel standing all on it’s own. I stop to take a photo. I’ll probably never know for sure, and this place isn’t in a town as I’d expected. It’s two star though, which seems about right for a school trip. Either way, simply remembering the trip and imagining it here lays a few old ghosts to rest. The road rises slightly, and then runs above a sizeable lake down to the right (Lago di Levico). I do clearly recall sitting on the coach along several lakes, perhaps this was one. The actual town of Levico Terme a little beyond triggers no memories for me though – it’s now a sizeable town, presumably growing with the rising popularity and affordability of skiing itself. I feel no need to stop again, and instead push on keen to get back down into the valley.
It’s surprising how being back on another shady, riverside path takes the sting out of the heat. Alongside water and under the trees it’s cool, and the riding is pleasant and fast again. I seem to recall seeing the distinctive VIA logo on signs again, and it comes back to me that we’ve now rejoined that old Roman way which earlier had split off to take a different fork through the Alps. This is now a recognised and well served bike touring route – with little cycle cafes (Bicicleta) at regular intervals. Needing the loo, I pull off at one to see what they offer – a coffee and a snack feels overdue, and the water in my bottles is becoming unpleasantly tepid.
Bicigrill Novaledo, 1141km – 10:17AM (race clock 04d // 12H // 17M)
Intriguingly, they don’t have iced coffee but they do have cold filtered in one of the fridges. I’ve read about this method of brewing but never had it, so am keen to give it a try. I forget exactly what other supplies I also grabbed – but do distinctly remember some kind of delicious cake, and of course iced water.
I take a first sip of the cold brewed coffee – the glass cup is maybe the size of a triple espresso.. The flavour is absolutely stunning – dark, rich and full of flavour, perfect as it is without needing milk or sugar. I sit there contentedly munching cake and washing it down with an occasional draught of coffee. A Dutch mountain biker is sat on a table nearby, and we strike up a conversation. He’s on his way back to his accommodation after a morning ride, and seems to knows the route I’ve taken across via Levico Terme. It’s a very pleasant few minutes enjoying the company and excellent fare.
Sometime after starting out again I arrive at a confusing junction with the main road. The signs seem to indicate taking the road rather than the path. Soon after though, this feels like a mistake. The signs are still clearly pointing to Bassano del Grappa, and perhaps it would be shorter, but out in the open the searing heat is unbearable. At the next roundabout I swing back over the river, although I can’t immediately see a way back onto the path which crossed underneath the bridge I’m on. I continue on for a while, and eventually turn off at a farm gate – it’s a rough track, and doesn’t seem to head in quite the right direction. But eventually, I zigzag and bump my way back onto the path. Literally as I emerge, Isobel whizzes by and disappears into the arch of trees that line the way ahead.
The day continues to get ever hotter – or perhaps it just becomes more noticeable as the riverside sections become fewer, and I find myself winding through a succession of small towns. Luckily, the route remains largely flat so it’s possible to make a decent pace whilst still keeping the intensity level low. It’s a strategy which seems to be paying off – the heat is uncomfortable, but I seem to be dealing with it way better than I’d expect. The worst part by far is the water in my bottles steadily turning into luke warm dishwater. Checking the clock, I decide there’s time for one last quick stop for cold water and maybe an ice cream. I pull over at a likely looking cafe.
San Nazario, 1194km – 1:19pm (race clock 04d // 15H // 19M)
It’s nearly deserted inside, apart from a young girl of maybe 15 who’s serving. Ice cream and cold water are easy requests, although the Italian for ‘ice’ takes a while to haul back from a distant corner of my memory (avere della ghiaccio?). Having succeeded with this I get a little bolder and try for an iced coffee – but I get a blank look in return. Determined though, I repeat my earlier exercise from Germany – ordering a separate espresso, ice, milk, and sugar. A smile of recognition spreads over her face as she watches me assemble the constituent parts in a large glass. I don’t even have to remember what ‘straw‘ is – she’s one step ahead and already handing me one. I sit under the shade of a parasol outside enjoying my acquisitions. I forget whether it was Isobel or Rishi who rode by, but remember them saying something like “good idea” at the sight of the ice cream. Friends from back home Tom and Jen have said they’ll try and meet me at the checkpoint, and I message them with my location and ETA. They have the tracker page anyway, so the former is a little redundant. The latter also proves rather inaccurate too!
Bassano is tantalisingly close now – but I make a slip up which costs me maybe an hour of detour. We’ve been forbidden from riding the SS47, and the left turn across the river looks like it will join this banned road. What I fail to notice is it’s the last little section – and pushing on I realise there is no other crossing before the town itself. At the start of the town traffic, it strikes me that maybe the old bridge is the one I’ve watched in the Col Collective Monte Grappa video. It is, but sadly it’s ancient beauty is partly obscured by scaffold and repairs. I stop for a picture anyhow. Across the other side though, I’m a little disoriented. I pick a likely looking cobbled street directly ahead and make my way up and away from the river. Part way up I swing left, but the route seems to be descending again – I know I need to stay high to avoid needing to climb back up again to reach Semonzo where the checkpoint is located. By now Tom and Jen must be wondering what the hell I’m doing wandering all over the town.
I reach a large curved plaza, and really can’t quite figure my best route. I take a punt on the right hand end of the curve as it seems to stay above the dips to the front and left. I detour up a street I think is signed Monte Grappa, but it must have been a confusingly angled sign. As I rejoin the main road again, I finally start to see clear signs I’m on the right course. And, moments later, I hear tooting and calling from a nearby car – Tom and Jen have managed to find me just as I close in on the control. They snap some photos and remark how good I’m looking but are obviously concerned and can’t grasp why I’m so relaxed. I explain that I have a couple of hours in hand, and all becomes clear. They’ve been stressing that I still need to climb Monte Grappa before I can get my card stamped. For a strong climber like Tom, that might have been possible, but I’d have no chance, even without the heavy bike and temperatures now above forty degrees. A couple of minutes later I roll into the control with them – relieved to have made it inside time, although I’m now more than a day behind my hoped-for schedule.
SEMONZO, 1211km – 2:46pm (race clock 04d // 16H // 46M)
The guys at the control give me the all important stamp, and also a very welcome new, clean TCR water bottle. My old one is instantly jettisoned. I decline the offer of a shower though. I’m pretty sure that attempting to climb the monster ahead in this heat will be a mistake, so I mention maybe heading into town for a beer and food, I’ll grab a bed for a couple of hours and tackle the climb after nightfall. As we’re discussing this, the contingent of friends from back home doubles – Laurence happens to have been paragliding in the same area, and he and his wife Chrissy plus several buddies join us.
I find out later from Yoli, that she thinks my stopping for a sleep and food at this point is a costly waste of valuable time. But she says nothing. Honestly, it’s hard for me to judge whether it was a mistake or not. Around this point in the race a large number of riders abandon due to the heat. I’ll never know for sure, but on my already fatigued body, the exertion required for the climb could well have seen me joining those who scratched here or soon after. Anyhow, whether right or wrong I need food, and a beer with friends is way too good an opportunity to pass up, so we head for a hotel in the middle of town. It’s a wonderful if short catchup, and I grab a room for a nap as the guys head out again for another flight (we’ve talked Jen into taking a Tandem flight with one of their crew who is an instructor). With my laundry drying rapidly on a railing downstairs, I set my alarm for 10pm – with the plan to grab a pizza in the restaurant before tackling the monster climb.