Italy Divide: Napoli– Lago di Garda, April 2019
It was a cold December Sunday afternoon. I was recently back from a three hour training session, stretched out on the sofa, browsing www.bikepacking.com. Suddenly, there it was, a dream of a new adventure to banish the gloom of the boring winter day. I’d heard of Italy Divide. I knew that Transcontinental racer and 2nd place finisher in 2018, Matt Falconer had ridden it last year, and loved it. I was looking at the 2019 edition, laid out in front of me:
- 1200km, 15,000m elevation, 85% off road.
- Starting in Napoli, heading north through the Appenines, the mountainous backbone of Italy, to finish at Lago di Garda having climbed the edge of the Dolomites.
Italy is one of my favourite places to ride. Every March, I love watching the World Tour one-day race ‘Strade Bianchi’ along those incredible white roads of Tuscany. I had even toured some of the route in August 2018. Late April was a perfect early-season event date. It was time for new adventures and challenges. Without hesitation, I entered.
I had no idea what I had let myself in for. For the first time ever, I would have to pick my bike up, put it on my back, and walk up steep goat tracks.
Day One: Where did I put those leg warmers?
Have you ever been to Napoli? If you haven’t, go! Incredible food and kind people. Local resident and friend Juliana Bühring described the hectic driving to me as organised chaos. I was reminded of Tirana, Albania. Located 230km south of Rome, the bay is one of the most beautiful in the world. As you look out, there’s the Sorrento peninsular, the islands (Ischia and Capri) and the still active volcano, Vesuvius. That’s where 180 of us started our adventure at 14:00 on a warm Thursday afternoon in late April. From the beautiful promenade of the Golfo di Napoli.
We rolled safely out of the city, with all credit due to the organiser Giacomo Bianchi. For what must have been a stressful time, he did a great job. At the start I was delighted to meet Mike Sheldrake and to get a selfie with him. He’s a hero and bikepacking legend.
The pace soon picked up and I started to push on as I found myself already a few groups back from the front. Getting a little carried away and using lots of energy, I bridged forwards to join up with the front riders. Sadly, along the way I encountered riders drafting. Breaking the first rule in unsupported racing and the spirit of ‘unsupported adventure’.
As the pace took its toll, the event entered the first off-road sections and the groups finally split. Aware of having pushed a strong pace for the first few hours. I stopped early on the coast to stock up on food and water. I knew it was going to be a long night and I did not intend on stopping.
As dusk was setting in, tearing down a rocky descent, I was getting a bit carried away, just having a blast. And I punctured! I was riding on tubeless tyres, so just kept pedalling, and the sealant successfully sealed the hole. Having failed to learn any sort of lesson, 200m later, still rushing down the same descent. I had my second puncture, this one sealed but only after losing lots of pressure. Turn a negative into a positive: an opportunity to stop, pump the tyre back up and put on my jacket and leg warmers as I was getting cold. Rummaging through the saddlebag, finding the jacket was easy. However, no sign of the leg warmers. I checked the frame pack, the saddle bag again; nothing. There I was, two time Transcontinental Race winner and super experienced racer and I had forgotten to pack leg warmers! A schoolboy error which will set a theme for this story for the next four days of flat-out racing.
As dusk turned to dark the first real tough sections occurred, after steep 30% ramps I was forced off my bike and not to just push it, but to pick all 18kg of it up and onto my back. I was thankful for those gym sessions over winter as I hefted it up and powered my way up a rocky climb.
Looking back on this first afternoon, I realise what a novice I was. It was exactly what I wanted, a new challenge and adventure.
I was set for a baptism of fire, for which I’ve found an apt definition: “A first experience of something, usually something difficult or unpleasant.”