The laundry I retrieve from the railings outside is bone dry – the afternoon sun has done it’s work, even in the late evening it’s still extremely hot. My bike is all packed up and ready as I head to the restaurant to fuel up. After a couple of laps around the busy tables, it’s clear Tom and Jen haven’t dropped by yet, so I grab a table and get an order in for pizza, salad, and a coke. By the time I’m half way through the first slice the guys arrive. It’s been superb to have friends around for a few hours, and it’s hard to tear myself away back to the solitude of the road again. Sliding silently through the town streets to the foot of the mountain is quite an adjustment, disappearing slowly back into my own thoughts.
Semonzo, 1213km – 0:20am (race clock 05d // 02H // 20M)
I’ve watched Monte Grappa on several videos, but most focus on the higher reaches of the climb – the base is completely unfamiliar to me. It starts as a couple of ramps still largely in the confines of the town. Only once past the first few tornanti (hairpins) do you start to have a sense of leaving the town behind and climbing up onto a mountain. Every switchback is numbered, and at first they pass by pleasingly quickly. But I’m drenched in sweat, and labouring before even reaching the halfway point of the stack of 20 turns. Those last 10 are a slow, but not unpleasant slog. A couple of the steeper ones I do hop off and walk a few paces, but for the most part I’ve ridden the opening 10km when my lights pick out the welcome sight of a number 20 in the bend just up ahead. From here on up, the remaining 9km become progressively steeper, and I know my legs will not have the power for climbing much of that. Ahead though, is an initial flattish section which I can at least enjoy spinning easily over. The extra speed highlights how much cooler the night air is up here – it’s clear that it could even become chilly by the top.
The peace of the night is absolute as I dismount for the first of several walking sections. There’s not another soul around as I trudge alone, which means I nearly jump out my skin when a large shape looms towards me out of the darkness. It’s a horse, out loose roaming along the road. After checking me over, it ambles along disappearing back into the night. I pass by a large clearing which seems to be a jump site for the paragliding community I’ve left behind in the town below. I scan around the site and the nearby parking lot and surrounds for a tap to fill my bottles. I’m sure someone mentioned there were several on the way up, but I don’t manage to find one despite checking several buildings, an old church, and a few of the stone walls which occasionally line the road. It’s a bit of a worry given the copious quantity of body fluid that is pouring out of me as I sweat my way up the mountain.
The menagerie continues as the road winds up – this time the soothing sound of cowbells ringing out to me from a pasture somewhere on my left. Just a little further along an enormous cow (or maybe a bull) is sat by the road contentedly munching on a patch of grass, unphased by my presence. There are tunnels on the way up, at least one maybe two. I don’t really have a strong recollection of passing through them, just a vague memory of seeing the black opening at their mouths. The only vehicle I recall seeing throughout the entire night was somewhere as I exited one of these tunnels.
Eventually I come across a couple of junctions – the first to the right, which Garmin screen’s purple track confirms is the route I’ve plotted down. The second is a fork to the left, leading to one of the other routes off the far side of the peak. This junction marks the final, very steep ramp to the summit. A cluster of dark shadows ahead gradually take shape, on the one side marking the war monument, and in front the outline of Rifugio Bassano – the hotel/mountain refuge at the top. It’s taken me an age to get here, but I’ve reached the top. It’s been more of a journey than a ride, but it’s been a magical and tranquil experience.
Rifugio Bassano, 1234km – 4:36am (race clock 05d // 06H // 36M)
My hopes of water and maybe a coffee don’t last long. The door of the refuge is locked tight and, despite a few cars in the parking lot, a walk around the building reveals no signs of life. There’s a toilet block standing a few meters from one corner of the main building, but the notices inside are pretty clear that the water is not fit for drinking (aqua non potabile). I give up, and sit at one of the tables back where I parked my bike at the front of the building. I grabbed a cheese roll at the hotel, which serves fine as breakfast – and there’s some stale coke left to save me from draining the last of the water. Ordinarily, it might have seemed a rather meager repast – but the view that’s slowly emerging with the first rays of light lift everything into a whole other realm. As the still invisible sun creeps higher, the sky is now a thousand shades of colour from pitch black, through blue, and into deep orange. One lone celestial body still lights up the heavens (at a guess possibly Venus) and a myriad points of light beneath light up towns all the way to the horizon. I wonder if the furthest of them is Venice, which on a clear day I know is visible from here. It’s utterly impossible to capture the sheer magnificence of this dawn in words, and equally impossible to try and record it on film – even though I do try.
Given that the day ahead is likely to rise into the forties again it seems ridiculous to be worrying about cold. But my clothes are soaked through, and the slight breeze brings a definite chill with it which I know the speed of descent will amplify ten fold. I’m glad that my laundry from earlier was completely dry, and set about changing. Only as I am stood there on the patio, completely naked, does it strike me that someone might ride up the road – or look out of one of the hotel windows behind me. It would probably have been a good idea to open up my seat bag and dig out the dry gear before taking off every stitch I was currently wearing. I must confess, there were several times during my packing that I wondered about the benefit-to-space ratio of the lightweight fleece. But I’m now extremely glad that William talked me into it – I can feel that a base layer, jersey and jacket alone will not be enough to keep me warm (and I’m not even moving yet).
It’s still dim and grey as I descend the ramp away from the hotel, but by the time I reach my turn off the dawn light has fully arrived. Even though I’ve studied this part of the route thoroughly on Street View, I’m still surprised at how narrow it is. The surface is pretty good, but it is just barely one car wide. With good visibility and no traffic, it allows plenty of space to carry some speed as it traverses the hill side and sweeps around the gentler curves. But it’s only border is a thin, solid white line, beyond which a mixture of steep pasture and occasionally rocky drops fall away into the void below. I find myself braking involuntarily out of my fear of heights rather than a need to control speed to hold my line down the road. Realising that I’m adding to the strain on my already over-heating brakes, I have to force myself to let go so that I keep some stopping for the turns where I’m really going to need it. Watching pro cyclists it’s easy to believe that their climbing excellence is what sets them apart, but it’s not. The biggest skills gap is the crazy levels of speed they are able to carry on a descent and yet still retain just enough control to safely navigate the corners.
My concern on over-heating brakes finds a brief, if unwelcome respite as the downhill run stalls at the foot of an entirely unexpected, and unpleasantly steep uphill. In truth of course, it isn’t actually unexpected – I realise as I’m slogging up the incline that I had actually noticed it on the profile as I studied this part of the route. I just hadn’t looked closely enough to realise it was a significant climb. In my fatigued state, by the time I reach the top it feels like I’ve climbed back to the summit again. As the wheels begin to roll freely again though, I’m still comfortable that this was the better option. Firstly, it’s a quiet option through divine scenery. And secondly, I’ve used the geometry of the hillside to cover a massive distance that would otherwise probably have been a long, dull and hot slog across the flat-lands below,
I spot a fellow racer emerging from a field and stop to greet her (cap 44, Amelia Ashton-Jones). She’s impressed that I tackled the climb in the middle of the night. I’m impressed that a lone female felt confident enough to bivvy in some random, hillside field. I guess no one gets to TCR without a healthy spirit of adventure, and a tolerance for what many would consider unusual or unwise. Our brief conversation was a little badly timed in that we’re in the middle of a dip, and in a downhill gear – we both spin in a circle to shift into climbing gears, and travel a short way back up the hill behind us to get a run at the ramp ahead.
Out of necessity, I become a much braver descender as the road leaves the open mountainside and is swallowed by the woodland of the lower slopes. We must be close to the bottom, but that has done nothing to diminish the gradient. If anything, it’s actually got steeper by the time the final tornanti on this side of the hill start counting down. My brakes are still working well, but they’ve definitely lost some power. The problem though is that the morning is now late enough that traffic coming up from below is a real possibility. It seems like inverse logic, but I need to carry as much speed as I possibly can on the straights and into the corners so that if I do meet a vehicle, I have enough braking power left to take evasive action. Instinctively, I find myself starting to ride as I would on a motorcycle – picking my line into the apex well ahead, breaking late and hard, dropping my knee down into the corner and counter-steering as the bike flattens through the turn. The 30mm rubber, and lower pressure really step up to the task, making the bike feel stable and sure footed, but still responsive on the occasions where a corner unexpectedly double apexes, or reveals a hidden switch back. I may have crept up the climb, but by the time the road levels out and runs out into the village below I actually feel like a racer. It’s been an exhilarating descent, and I’m grinning like a fool as I head across the road to an open cafe with other TCR rigs parked outside.
PederoBba, 1262km – 7:09am (race clock 05d // 09H // 09M)
Without thinking I crash myself down at the table of the owners of the bikes (a girl and a guy who’s names and numbers I have now forgotten). I check myself, apologise, and get up to move but they indicate it’s fine and we chat a bit about our rides so far. Coffee soon arrives, robust, rich, and delicious. Needless to say, I can’t resist a second as I munch down a variety of biscuit like cakes, and I think maybe a croissant too. As we sit, other racers come and go. At some point I remember seeing Amelia again, but she heads off without stopping at the cafe. None of us linger especially long – a hot day is coming, and we’re all keen to keep moving before it does.
There’s a short section through houses – maybe even a couple of towns. But soon, a roundabout deposits me onto the busy SP34. In a couple of places, there’s no shoulder, and a steady procession of fast moving cars and trucks shave by uncomfortably close. Fortunately, these sections are few and not especially long. The SS13 which I pick up a bit later on is even busier, but has a narrow strip, barely a proper shoulder, but enough to keep a pleasant separation from the fast moving, heavy traffic. The best part though is the slight, but very noticeable tailwind. The route is dead flat, heading pretty much due East, and the wind is propelling me along at well above 30km/h with barely any effort. The speed is also enough to dull the worst of the rising heat too. All in all, it’s shaping up to be a great morning to ride.
Ouch! What the fuck was that?
Tucked down on the aero bars, spinning along at full pace, a sharp searing pain suddenly shoots through my left ear. I wobble dangerously as I try and get onto the hoods and slow down to figure out what has happened. As the speed comes under control I can feel something wriggling it’s way loose from my helmet strap. I’ve been struck by a bee and stung at not far short of 40km/h. Seriously, what are the chances? The pain is unreal, and it brings a new worry to mind. I’ve had mild, localised allergic reactions to bee stings in the past. It occurs to me that with heat and level of physical punishment my body is currently enduring, it’s not impossible for something more severe. I pull over to pause for a few minutes just in case. I’d rather be stationery if it does, than riding a meter or so away from a stream of traffic. I message quickly to Yoli – since I’m stopped anyway, it’s a good time for our morning chat. And I know she’ll be amused at this latest occurrence. As we’re swapping messages a concerned person comes out from the offices whose parking area I’ve pulled into. My ear is stinging like mad, but nothing more serious seems to be developing so I indicate that all is OK. Finally, before I set out again, Yoli asks exactly where I have been stung. Her level of amusement rises at my reply. Apparently, your ear lobe is a place acupuncturists target to help calm your adrenaline levels down. It seems nature has sent me my own painful form of treatment this morning. I’m worried about dehydration in the heat, so I make sure to double up on my fluids to compensate for the painkiller I take to ease the stinging.
San Fior, 1301km – 9:42am (race clock 05d // 11H // 42M)
The morning’s riding is flat, fast, hot, and largely devoid of memorable moments. I forget if my water bottles were empty, or unpleasantly warm, but a garage lures me in for a cooling drink, food and a toilet. Another TCR racer is there as I pull in, and we swap stories as we enjoy our snacks under the shade of their parasols. Mine is an odd, but delicious sort of roll. Inside it’s a mix of mayonnaise, chicken, and salad, but it’s the outside which is unusual. It’s a sort of dough – visually like slices of bread with the crusts cut off, but the texture and taste aren’t quite bread, but not quite a wrap either. It’s light, and fluffy, and wonderfully soft to eat with a mouth that’s gradually becoming sensitive to harsh flavours and hard edges.
The day continues with hour upon hour of flat, fast, and hot riding. Few details of the towns I pass through remain, the odd turn through traffic here, a building or river crossing there, but little specific. At some stage the idea develops of a nap across the afternoon heat followed by riding through the night. I wander around the back streets of one town in search of a likely looking hotel, but only manage to lead myself to an area around a station with a slightly dodgy feel. I push out onto the open road again. There’s a cluster of buildings that looks like a conference center on the other side of the road, but it’s on the approach to a major highway and no immediately easy way to get across there. A little further along though, a small and unimposing establishment with the very clear wording HOTEL outside, presents itself on the opposite side of the road. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but I head in to see if they have a room.
CODROIPO, 1351km – 12:23PM (race clock 05d // 14H // 23M)
Inside is something of an unexpected contrast – the bar area is modern, and smart, but in a sort of heavy rock meets metro chic style. For some reason, it reminds me of my buddy Riku – although perhaps that’s partly down to the bearded, tattooed guy who greets me. They’re not exactly doppelgangers, but I’m tempted to ask him if he also likes Jethro Tull. It’s a hard place to describe accurately – perhaps because it’s such a mix of experiences. If it was full of bikers (which feels distinctly possible) it might feel somewhat menacing – although I bet some raucously good times are had there also. As I find it though, deserted and with a disarmingly helpful staff member, it couldn’t feel more welcoming. The helpfulness doesn’t end at good manners either. I try to order pasta to take to my room – but they only serve it in the restaurant. When I order a sandwich instead, I get presented with a large, complementary plate of pasta pesto by way of accompaniment. Asking if there is somewhere to hang laundry immediately produces a drying rack that is loaded and whisked away to the hottest corner of the rear courtyard. Faced with so much hospitality, one of the parts I remember most is the beer. It’s a local beer with a rather old fashioned looking label – but the contents are a delightful, rich, hoppy brew. It’s potent enough to help me drift off quickly for a couple of hours sleep too. A good job really, because my main phone is now refusing to charge which is the sort of niggle that will generally be the death knell of any kind of decent rest.
On waking, the battery level is exactly where it was. I realise I have probably drowned it by having the USB port face up in my back pocket as I drench myself in water to stave off the heat. As I kit up I relocate the phone to one of the handlebar bags in the hope that the heat will dry it out sufficiently for the electronics to work again. Before I leave, I learn that one of the other chaps who served me is a keen cyclist and we snap a couple of pictures together. Sadly though, the one with his lovely road bike somehow did not get recorded by my phone (still a mystery how this happened, but a few others I remember taking are also irrevocably missing).
I’ve barely started out before my route takes a welcome turn off the busy SS13 and heads back into rural countryside and small villages again. Although I’m only following the map at a turn by turn level of detail, I know that this is the point where my route begins to weave it’s way towards Slovenia. It’s both exciting and a little nerve racking. Up to this stage, every country I’ve visited has been somewhat familiar, and I’ve had at least a basic grasp of the local language. But soon, I will be heading off into the unknown. In some strange, and largely unnoticed way, I think the impending escalation in the scale of my adventure begins to play tricks on my road weary mind. As much as I’m enjoying the late afternoon riding through a scenic tapestry of quaint old villages and across picturesque farmlands, my normal unshakeable confidence ebbs a way little by little as the distance to the border lessens.
I stop to take photos in what feels like a grand plaza of some old military establishment. A little further on I recognize the sharp, perfect geometry of the junctions ahead. I’m edging around two points of the star-shaped outskirts of Palmanova – it’s an unmistakable detailed burned into my brain from the many map-studying evenings. Huge agricultural sprinklers are watering orchards and farmlands alongside the road as I head along the last of the arms of the star and away from the town. I’m hungry and keen for dinner, but for the first time on the ride I make a poor choice of cafe. I waste a lot of time getting nothing more than a drink and ice cream – which does not really help my mind state. My decision making is clearly faltering by this stage, as I should have asked about proper food first and ridden on when I learned they didn’t have any. Instead I waste valuable time on nothing more than a handful of empty calories.
In the last kilometers before the border I start to stress about the state of my knee. I begin to convince myself that it’s infected and could need proper medical attention, and worry about whether heading into a country I know little about to ride through the night is a smart decision in such circumstances. Shortly after crossing the broad, but extremely dry expanse of the Isonzo river, I even stop to take a photograph of it’s grotty looking state so I can discuss it with Yoli. She manages to convince me I’m worrying needlessly (she’s right of course) but the root cause of the problem is not that I’m heading into an unknown country, it’s that my mind is heading into unfamiliar territory. Endurance cycling is mostly a mental battle, and for the first time on TCR it’s a battle that I am losing my grip on. Before riding on I do at least notice that I’ve pulled over at a war memorial, and roll on a few more meters so I can take a pee without disrespecting those who this place was built to remember.
Miren (Slovenia), 1410km – 9:02PM (race clock 05d // 23H // 02M)
One last dead straight rural lane at a T junction, and I realise that the turn off to the border is just a few meters left along the main road. As with all of the crossings so far, aside from the blue EU sign, and the change of language, there’s little to distinguish it from every other turn off into some small local town. If you look really closely, there’s a handful of roadside buildings and a parallel lane that mark the last remnants of an actual controlled crossing. I pull into a garage just beyond the border hoping to stoke up on supplies for the night – it’s still lit up, but the doors and windows are shuttered. It must have literally just closed. I have enough food and water for now, so I swing back and start out into my first ever venture into Slovenia – although there’s not much of it I can actually see as the daylight has now fully gone. The part of the landscape I do notice is the terrain. Most of the day has been near dead flat – something I intentionally planned, knowing my legs would be somewhat shot after the Alps. I’ve also chosen the flattest route I could find from here North East up to CP3, but flat is relative. Across Slovenia it alternates being rolling and properly hilly, only when I reach Hungary will it flatten out again. The ramps I encounter aren’t especially long, but in my mentally and physically weary state, the change of terrain is draining.
Volčja Draga, 1416km – 9:30PM (race clock 05d // 23H // 30M)
At some point, just as the rolling foothills started, I spot cars parked in a field and lights off beyond. Initially I ride past but as the scene settles into my brain, it strikes me that this is some kind of fair – and there might be food and drink. I turn back and bump along the gravel entry road. In front is an empty stage, to the right are a couple of food trucks, and left are lazy chairs around impromptu tree-trunk tables, with staff serving drinks. The entire scene is lit with torches, and in massive neon letters, the word LAKENESS casts a red glow out from a bar at the back. The food smells good, and I ask the guy in the truck if he speaks English.
“Of course” he replies, sounding both amused and maybe slightly offended. He comments something along the lines that Slovenia is an advanced and friendly country and everyone speaks English. I ask him what’s good, and he explains they have burgers and a local variation which he tries to describe to me but I don’t fully grasp. It seems to be some kind of lamb, in a bread like a large pita. I tell Eric (we chat long enough that we even exchange names) that’s what I’ll have, and as he sorts out the change he tells me about the local festival I’ve stumbled into. They’re winding down for the day, but have had bands on the stage earlier – it a sort of local summer music or folk festival, the name referring to the small dam we are beside which can just be made out by the rippling reflection of the lights on the water.
I plonk myself down in a vacant wooden seat. It’s comfortable but so low to the ground my knees immediately begin to complain and I can feel my thigh muscles tighten. There’s not a lot I can do really, it’ll be a battle to get back up to fetch my food, and I’ve no intention of embarrassing myself twice in what is likely to be a comically ungainly manouvre. Fortunately, there’s no such worry over drinks – a young waitress is soon beside me, and she returns quickly with my beer. I can’t actually believe now that I ordered alcohol with an overnight stretch head – clearly my subconscious was already doing it’s best to undermine my plans. At the time though, it slid down beautifully and I begin to settle into the chill vibe which radiates from the groups of festival goers around me. My antics at getting up do catch an amused glance from a couple of the tables, but no one actually laughs out loud as I roll myself over, slide down off the seat onto my knees and then lever myself up to standing with my arms. It is literally the only way I can get upright, and I’m amazed neither leg locks in cramp as I do so.
Eric hands me the paper plate of food with a smile and my bum has barely touched the floor again before it’s already gone. I must have seemed like some starving, decrepit vagrant to anyone watching. After visiting the obligatory festival porta-loos (luckily these are the clean, lightly used variety) I swing by the bar to grab a bottle of coke for the ride and head myself back out onto the open road. I decide to aim for a cafe in around an hour or two to stoke up on coffee for the night ahead. The road rises and falls now, but details are lost on me. In a largeish town somewhat later I pull into a busy looking cafe. But when I get inside, they’re closing – I fail to even beg a cup of coffee out of the girl inside. Stopping and locking up my bike has been a waste of time, and as I pedal on I feel a little deflated. It doesn’t help that at the far side of town a gradual, but steady gradient begins to climb up into some unseen hill or mountain ahead. I promised Yoli I’d snap a picture when I reached my previous longest distance and, as the Garmin screen reads 1,428km, this point is it. Coincidentally, Nico and several friends will be finishing LEL tomorrow (Chris has already finished), the ride where I set this personal best. I send it off to the guys with a message of encouragement.
Ajdovščina, 1439km – 11:45PM (race clock 06d // 01H // 45M)
It’s very hard to describe what happens next, or why. But stood on that hillside looking back down at the lights of the town I’ve just left something inside me just seems to break. All of a sudden I feel battered and exhausted and I’m not sure whether I can (or should) carry on. I just want to be home, with family, and done with the pain. It’s close to midnight, but I know Yoli will have her phone by the bed – she always does on my long rides. Selfishly, I call her. I’m looking for her to say it’s OK for me to quit, I’ve done fine – but of course Yoli knows better than that. She reminds me of one of Mike’s golden rules from the race handbook – “never quit at night“. Eventually, with amazing patience given that I’ve woken her up, she manages to talk me down from the ledge and convince me to go get some sleep and see how I feel in the morning. I swing around and roll back down the hill. On the way earlier I spotted a brightly lit little shopping center with a casino at the back – on closer inspection it turns out they’re also a hotel, with a room. The night manager helps me park my bike in the left luggage room, and sees me to the elevator with the bag of night supplies over my shoulder. The TCR musette which I debated the wisdom of carrying at the start has been worth it’s weight in gold for this process.
The room is smart and modern, dark wood everywhere and a comfy bed. I’m too knackered for laundry, but I do remember to get my lights and devices on charge. It’s a huge relief to see my main phone has dried out and is behaving itself now. At this stage I’m not even sure I’ll be riding on tomorrow, but I set an alarm for 5am anyway, before falling into the deepest sleep I’ve had for days.