Even with a room that had a kettle and tea, it was more of a battle to get woken up and going than usual. At some point in the night a huge thunderstorm had broken across the mountains. I don’t recall whether it woke me, but it was still rolling around when the alarm went off. Although it took me some time to realise what the rushing sound was – at first I thought it was the waters of the nearby river. But on walking over to the window I could clearly see the cause – a heavy curtain of rain was lashing down into the street. The idea of riding out into it did not fill me with joy but having covered so little ground yesterday I knew I’d need too as soon as the thunder had passed. No way I was going to climb back up into the mountains with lightning forking down.
0km – Ponte di Legno – 05:44, 2 August 2022 (1,763KM total)
As it happened, the rain and thunder stopped almost simultaneously. Just a few spots of rain were still falling as I pulled the emergency exit door of the hotel closed behind me. I knew roughly where I was heading, but at the roundabout where I rejoined the road in front of the hotel I stopped to double check, and don my gloves for the cold.
Somehow, despite checking everything multiple times, I was a glove short. I wasn’t hopeful of finding it in the few meters of road from the hotel, but I turned back to check anyway. Amazingly, it was worth the time and effort. Ahead, under dim street lights, I could see a dark shadow of what looked like a drowned rat lying in the puddles on the road. It was sodden, but it completed the pair.
Soon after the roundabout I swung left onto the ring road around the town – next to the turn was the giant ‘Ponti di Legno’ town sign, and nearby many other unmistakeable indicators of this being a winter ski base. Up ahead, exactly where I’d marked it was the Esso garage – but no shop. Except were my eyes deceiving me – was there someone putting the lights on and chairs out at what looked like a cafe just beyond? My luck couldn’t possibly be this good – surely it was way too early for somewhere to be open.
1km – bar trampolines, Ponte di Legno – 05:50, 2 August 2022 (1,764KM total)
I’m not sure what time they had opened, but I was the first customer inside. The lady behind the counter looked at me a bit like I was mentally deficient in some way when I asked if what (in hindsight was clearly pizza) was pizza. Honestly though, she wasn’t wrong either – I felt more than a little mentally deficient. With the deliberate kindness that one might use to help a simpleton, she put several large slices on to heat up for me – and also put two slices of what she slowly and carefully explained was something called “g-r-a-n-d-m-a c-a-k-e” on a plate for me.
The first cup of coffee and one of the slices of cake was already gone by the time the pizza arrived, so I immediately ordered a second cup before she left my table. The cafe was filling up now – the clientelle lending a clue perhaps to why it was open so early. As far as I could tell, everyone else inside was a tradesmen or workman of some kind judging by their overalls (in many cases with logos matching their vans outside). Clearly the cafe served the early shift just starting their day.
I honestly cannot put into words (at least not any that will decently explain) what happened next. I’d started to eat the first slice of pizza and started to review the cue cards and map out a rough plan of the day ahead: a slog up Passo Tonale, which may need some hike-a-bike given if the legs were not yet recovered from yesterday., followed by a long downhil and much easier riding beyond. When from nowhere (or somewhere very deep inside) a resounding voice said “you’re not going there, you’re done“. It was not any kind of concious thought, or reasoned assessment of what lay ahead and my condition. It was just one, solid, emphatic statement which I felt, and heard, or maybe both. If I had taken a moment to think rationally about my condition I might have come to the same conclusion (the heat from the pizza slices against my sore mouth was like eating coals, and my right hand had lost significant amount of feeling which was a worry controlling the brakes on descents). I might also have concluded that whilst the 1,763km and 19,000m of climbing so far was no small achievement, it was significantly less than half of what lay ahead (2,500km and 29,000m more). But none of these thought processes occured in that moment. I did think through all of them, several times in detail, soon after. But in that moment, the only other thing which happened was a slow stream of tears beginning to run down my face. I turned to the window so they weren’t on show to the whole cafe. A largely pointless task though, since there were nearly as many people stood outside now. I messaged Yoli in the hope she’d be up
Robw: OK - went and eaten and had coffee but mind and body are saying they're done. Gimme shout when you're up before I make final decision but I think this is me Robw: (not scratched yet or said anything to anyone, wanna speak with you first. So will wait until you're up) Pixie: I'm up
We spoke on the phone – possibly more than once. As my rational processes kicked in, the tears dried and I could see why and where this voice had come from. Something Yoli suggested was ride on a day or two more. This would very often be the right advice on a long distance ride when battling a slump. And as I sat there in the cafe, I knew that I could probably push on a little further – 1 day, 2 days, maybe even 3 or 4. But what I also knew was that my hand was not going to improve – eventually it was going to give out totally. In fact, as I write this a month later, it is still only about 50% recovered – I can ride again, but I would think twice about a mountain descent with it even now. My mouth might have got better or worse – I’ve really no way to judge that. It was beginning to hamper me getting fuel in, but on it’s own, despite being excrutiatingly painful, it would not have been enough to make me pull out. I’m unsure whether my strength and pace would have been an issue. I had definite concerns on my overall physical state. I’d got thru the Alps and was still fractionally ahead of the pace for sub 20 day finish (220.35km.day vs a required 220km). After Passon Tonale the next major climb was just before Ljubljana, which would provide a chance to get this average pace up again. But the legs were definitely heavy and somewhat dead – I had real concerns about how they’d cope with the almost continuously mountainous terrain beyond. In fact it was hard to imagine them coping with 1.5x the climbing I’d already done – 2 Everests in 8 days had been a battle, but 3 more until the end. I think somewhere between that, and the state of my hand was the trigger for that voice to call time.
Some of these thoughts have developed since and some went through my head at the time. But the two realisations I had sitting in the cafe (in the process of downing 3rd and 4th coffees) were that I could not (should not?) ignore that first voice, and that riding on would just mean scratching somewhere else along the road. Due to one of more of the things described, I was not going to reach the end. I message Yoli to let her know.
Robw: Lemme see what I come up with Robw: Haven't called race HQ yet so radio silence Robw: Just feeling inside one more time - not rushing this Robw: Reading race reports for the latter stages it seems crazy hard the last sections - which makes this feel right Pixie: Okay perfect 💜💜💜 Pixie: You need to be sure Robw: Yep. It's not about "can i" it's more about "can I without big risks" Robw: The 2nd part is doubtful Robw: If it were a flat easy 2500km it'd be different Pixie: Yeah. And the risks aren't worth it Robw: I think it's decision made. Thanks for all the support angel. Know how tough it is from your side Pixie: That's all good babe. Always here for you Robw: I'm glad I had another try - definitely answered the open Qs Pixie: And thanks for making us and your safety a priority Robw: Always
And with that I took the irreversible decision, gathered up my gear, and stepped outside to call race HQ. I don’t recall the exact conversation – definitely an ‘are you sure‘, but also a ‘well it’s not at night, so we can’t tell you not to scratch at night‘, and something along the lines of ‘sorry you weren’t able to finish but thanks for being a part of TCR‘. And with those short words, what will probably be my last official participation in TCR was done. All that remained was to post a final image (the feature pic above) and thanks to all the friends that had followed and cheered me on via social media.
Sadly my last #TCRNo8 photo. After many cups of coffee and cake the body was still saying "no" this morning. Amazing adventure and very glad I came back for another try - answered the questions I had left from 2017. Thanks everyone for the fabulous support - your comments have been a big boost. #TCRNo8cap66 signing off and pedalling towards Milan via as many restaurants as I can find.
There was still the small matter of getting home – plus, as usual for my blogs, a epilogue and post ride thoughts. For a change, I’ve decided to combine these too in the rest of this entry. Before that though, I have to share a couple of entries from our club WhatsApp just after sharing the above
Kai tEDcc: Eh? What!? What the fucks happenned so early into this? Andy tEDCC: Read that back to yourself @Kai tEDcc. Robw: When you're done you're done - 1,760km and 19,000m of climbing. No regrets
Now you have to know Kai to truly get one, and also why it didn’t bother me – he’s a former Pro cyclist, and I’d have expected nothing less from him than some level of lashing. I also love that Andy stepped in as referee (not needed, but appreciated). The one from Dennis really made me smile too:
Dennis tEDcc: Awesome @Robw!! So casual about riding to Milan: it’s another few hundred miles in the mountains. Definitely type 2 fun.
Actually more like 100 miles, and mostly downhill. But it did bring home how extreme distances like TCR can make that seem an easy route home. I could fill several more blog pages with the amazing messages of support from so many folk who followed the journey. A massive thanks goes out to all of them – the power of your words had a huge and positive effect on me.
The journey home – Ponte di Legno – 2 August 2022 (1,764KM total)
The Po Valley has featured on TCR routes in the past, but it’s not one I have ever ridden. Despite my fatigue, I was quite looking forward to it. Especially as there was no real time pressure – I’d be there this evening, even with a slowish meander. Before I left the cafe I’d already got my flight booked. Ryanair back to Bristol for the day after tomorrow – which gave me a full day to find a bike box, grab some non cycling clothes, and overdose on sleep, food, and drink. The opening sections were pretty much all downhill – although the terrain varied from village side roads, decent tarmac cycle path, and in a few, thankfully short stretches, utter (but rideable) crud.
The first hour or so was fairly cool, the riding mostly being in shady woodlands deep in the valley alongside the river. Even there though, the occasional stretches through patches of sunlight were becoming noticeably hotter and unpleasantly humid too. Although running downhill there were a few places where the path left the ravine and had to rise back up over some lumpy hillsides, with not insignificant gradients. If you look at the elevation profile of the GPS track, you wonder where 950m could have come from – I’m willing to bet that most of it was these crinkly bits, added to one small set of ramps getting over to Bergamo itself at the end. Lugging myself over these bits emphasized the ‘inner fatigue’ aspect of my general physical state. These ramps would not have trouble me in the least on any normal day, but as I was, they were a slow grind. Another 29,000m? The word ‘doubtful‘ was definitely in my mind.
Hotel GraffitiPark, Capo di Ponte – 2 August 2022 (1,808KM total)
As the morning heat rose, and the route began to along progressively less shaded roads, I decided to pull in for lunch. The hotel I ended up in had a huge, packed dining room and a handful of free tables outside. Sure enough, the superb food showed why it was so popular – an amazing, light pasta salad as a starter, and superb pork rashers for main. Whilst I waited for all of this to arrive I began scouting for a hotel. It didn’t take a lot of thought to realise that somewhere close to the airport would minimize hassles getting there in a taxi with the bike box. Plus airport hotels usually have big lifts to get a bike into my room, and 24-hour receptions and late evening restaurants to remove any need to chase there this evening. At the first call I struck gold, and after an email with a booking form and a quick card payment I was sorted and could enjoy my lunch at a leisurely pace.
Riding out into the furnace afterwards was no easy feat. I admit that at one stage, I looked at whether any of the railway stations I went past connected through to Milan. But it all looked way more complicated than just pedalling onward. Something else rattling around my brain in the rising heat was those ‘unanswered questions‘ – what were they, and had this attempt really laid them to rest? The one lingering disappointed after my attempt in 2017 was that I had not used my brain enough – I had not ridden smart. I had definitely managed my time poorly – taking erratic, sometimes unnecessary stops during the day, and odd patterns of when I slept. Yet despite all those stops, there were long stretches where I didn’t fuel properly either. When I entered for TCR No.8 in January 2022 I knew I would not have a higher FTP, or have any greater long distance pace than in 2017. But I also knew that I could ride much smarter, and maybe that would make a difference. In fact, by the start, both my power and pace were a fair bit lower than I’d have liked. I could blame being 5 years older, but it’s really the lack of harder riding training and riding in the last 3 years that are the greater factor than age alone. And, spinning through the dappled shade alongside the Po river, I could definitely say to myself I had ridden smart this time. It may not have made the difference, but if I look at my riding I took the planned regular 3 hours short breaks throughout the whole ride. I didn’t waste time with more or longer stops than I needed, and for the most part I managed to fuel reasonably well (I was possibly a little under fueled after the Alps, but not to a point that was irrecoverable). And my sleep patterns had been rock solid. I had spent a little more time over them due to seemingly fewer hotels and earlier hotel reception closing, but my riding was not compromised by being deprived. Overall, even with those longer hotel stops, I had managed to stick closely to my ride plan and still be on my target average pace. But this alone wasn’t enough. My hands still could not take the punishment, and physically I would need to be a lot stronger to finish. I’m someone who believes that anything can be overcome, but to fix these would require a much greater investment and singular focus than at 57 I can realistically put in – not without stealing a selfishly large amount of time from both my family and my work. I’d love it if the answers to my questions had been different and I’d finished TCR. But I can live with the answers I found.
BURGERZILLA – PISOGNE – 2 August 2022 (1,846KM total)
As the afternoon wore on and the heat spiralled upward, I began to look for (and succesfully find) an ice cream shop. Sat there, enjoying my Pistachio Gelato cone and a coke under the blissfully cool aircon another amusing thought occured to me. I have actually completed a full TCR distance (2,300km in 2017, and 1,760km in 2022). It’s just a shame that 5 year breaks aren’t allowed in the middle. It did make me smile although, sat there like a grinning idiot, I wonder now if for the second time today a lady assistance had assumed I was some kind of not quite compus mentis bicycling vagabond.
The section after this stop – following the entire length of Lago d’Iseo – has to be some of most scenic I’ve ever ridden. There were parts that were on busy-ish roads, but mostly it was cycle paths. Along one, especially lovely stretch, it was an entire road (presumably teh old lakeside road before the highway was built) was dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists. Away from traffic, right beside the lake shore, passing through occasional tunnels, blasted and cut (probably by hand) through the rock. One of the stretches of wall seemed to have been adopted as an impromptu diving board – kids gathered around jumping into the clear blue waters below. The whole section was sublime beyond description. All of which made me thirsty for a beer (actually the beer stop may have come before this now I think of it, oh well)
BAR SPORT – PILZONE – 2 August 2022 (1,865KM total)
Somehow, with all that lakefront, I managed to end up in a street side bar for a beer. It didn’t really matter though. The barman was friendly, the surroundings were pretty, the beer was cold, and I was sat in the shade. Plus it was only another 50km to go, and the heat would be dying down soon. Surely?
The last stretches along the lake seemed popular with other cyclists. I lost count of the lean, powerful roadies who passed, and occasionally greeted me. Or maybe it was just the time of day – a sneaky post work ride as the temperature eased. At the foot of the lake, the route I had hastily plotted rose up steep narrow streets into the wonderfully picturesque old town of Paratico. From here it dropped along the river Oglio which ran out of the lake. Around a scruffy section of road through rail yards, the route just ended in a stretch of red and white tape across what would barely have been a walking path anyway. I’m not sure what RWGPS was thinking at this point, but I let the Wahoo auto re-route me around.
There was still quite a lot of riding beyond this point, but it was mostly through somewhat non-descript suburbs of Milan, although occasionally it managed to find rural gravel tracks despite being on the fringe in towards a major city. I remember a river valley that I could see from far distant that I would need to climb out of (and did), and somewhere many left and right turns and mini industrial zones later, the stunning old castle of Bergamo itself (at least that’s what I assume it was).
airport hotel bergamo – 2 August 2022 (1,908KM total)
The road to the airport hotel could have been unpleasant in traffic, but by the time I got there it was deserted. Just one long dull haul to the final hotel of this adventure, and food, beer and a bed. Which sure enough, it provided wonderfully. Actually too wonderfully on the food front. The melon and parma ham starter was more like a main, meaning the chicken and vegetables main did not receive full justic. The ground floor meant no lift to negotiation, but I was extremely careful to avoid my grubby bike messing up the unspoilt decor.
end of the TCR road
Trust me when I say that was not an easy heading to type. TCR has been a huge part of my cycling life for many years. But, for reasons which I know to be sound, this has to be the last chapter of the TCR adventure. And there’s not a lot more to say really. Except, for those who like details, there were two remaining amusing rituals that accompany the end of an unsupported ride like TCR.
The first of those is packing your bike – which needs a bike box. The trouble is, you can’t ride back with a box because they are huge. But if you pack your bike at the shop, you have nothing to ride back on. In fact, it didn’t look promising even to find a box initially. In the end, I decided to just ride to one of the shops who had answered but did not speak English. The lady inside was just cleaning the (very smart) store, and I wasn’t doing much to raise the tone. But with massive patience, she worked through the “Google Translate on our phones” process the lady in Czechia had showed me, and we got as far as really large and solid Bianci bike box she had spare. Somehow, along the way, we got to talking about family. At which point she mentioned her husband was away which is why there was no van to give me a lift. He was taking a tour to Stelvio. Something clicked I think when she heard I had just been there also and ridden down to here afterwards. With amazing generosity she said they would drop the box at my hotel when her husband got back with the van later that evening. Really, I cannot thank the lady and her husband from Cicli Rossi Simone enough for such a kind act to help out a fellow cyclist.
The other bizzare post TCR act is buying random clothes from random stores. Just enough to get home in usually. In my case, shortly after leaving the bike shop I spied a mall and dove inside. Ben is now enjoying the small backpack I picked up (actually a decently useful affair). And the 1 pair of shorts and 2 T shirts are not bad either. The sliders though soon wore blisters on the top of my feet trudging through miles of airport. The spots may have toughened up enough now to wear them again. The tighty-wighty budgy smuggling briefs though will probably only get worn for a laugh on date nights after large amounts of alcohol.
So there it is. My final TCR done, and what an amazing adventure it was. Thanks for reading.
Full Kit List
For those who enjoy lists (and if you don’t what’s wrong with you!) – here’s a link to my full kit list for TCR No.8. There is very little I would change about it after the fact. It wasn’t minimal, but it worked well for me.. And here’s what it all looked like.