Italy Divide: Napoli – Lago di Garda, April 2019
Day Two: One road actually leads to Rome
The day began at night, for I hadn’t stopped. I’d caught up with Jay Petervary, legendary off-road racer and Silk Road Mountain Race 2018 winner. We rode together for a short while, swapping stories and comparing gears. I was still running a bit too low pressure in my front tyre, since the puncture. Suddenly the road veered right over a level crossing. As Jay turned gracefully at speed, my front tyre squidged under the low pressure. I nearly took out Jay and myself. I was very embarrassed and apologised profusely. Jay stopped shortly after this and let me head off alone. I don’t blame him!
There are many great things about ultra distance cycle racing. For example, sleeping in bus shelters or watching sunrise and sunset, day after day. One of my favourites is riding incredible new roads. In 2017, during training, I did the legendary Stelvio pass in the Alps from all three sides in a day. The same year, during the Transcontinental, I rode the Transfãgãrãsan Highway in Romania. Now, very early on a Friday morning, I found myself bouncing down the 2,300 year old Via Appia into Rome. In 73 BC the Roman general Crassus crucified 6,000 slaves along this road having crushed Spartacus and his rebellion, a gruesome thought. The cobbles were worse than Flanders; my bars were shaking and so was I.
Before the rock road section started
My Garmins started to play up. I have a main one and a backup. The map didn’t show on one of them and the route didn’t show on the other. As I was trying and sort these out, I was joined by ultra racer Matt Falconer, who stopped to say hi. Having managed to get a route to show on one well enough to continue, the map reappeared 500m later so I could navigate through Rome. Matt then challenged me to a beer and pizza if I could ride up the steep bank slope alongside the Circo Massimo, the ancient hippodrome in the middle of the Rome. Of course, I had a go. A near success, but I fell over sideways, bet lost. Matt stopped for a coffee and a feed so I carried on alone, leaving Rome on an easy going and pleasant bike path.
I was heading into Lazio and then for Tuscany, starting on the white gravel roads called ‘Strada Bianche’. Here is a confession: I thought that the whole of Italy Divide would be more or less a mixture of idyllic white gravel roads and bike paths. Wrong, how naive! More on that later.
Sometimes, putting something right ends up creating a different problem. While passing through Viterbo, I diverted a few kilometres from the route to stop at Decathlon and buy some leg warmers, which I had forgotten to pack. As I was pulling into the parking lot, I rode though a big puddle and right into a hidden low kerb. Face over handlebars and smack into a bollard. Thankfully I suffered only a bruised ego and a broken time trial shifter. Clearly, I was suffering from having ridden all night mixed up with some simple stupidity! My first crash in a long time, but not the last for this race.
Then the rain began. Cycling up from Naples, the temperature had been a lovely 30C. Now it was 12C. I put my rain jacket on. After a few hours of constant rain. I pulled into a café for some respite and a big feed. As I went to leave, Matt turned up. I was wearing nearly all of my clothes. He was still in just a jersey and shorts. We are all so different! We again rode together for a short while until Matt stopped for food. Riding together, side by side for a short while is accepted as a matter of respect. It ends up being slower than riding alone.
The afternoon featured several kilometres through a forest, with many fallen trees across the track. This meant having to ‘post’ the bike though the available gap, quite a slow and frustrating process.
Day turned to night and I was on the lookout for a hotel to stop for three hours sleep. Barren stretches of gravel road was interspersed with seemingly empty towns, not a hotel in sight. The route had been chosen to avoid built up areas. After a few hours searching, turning down each vague possibility in hope of something better, at 04:00 I settled on an abandoned house.
Here’s the silver lining: to my very pleasant surprise, when I entered the house there was a sofa, and nothing else. A gift. A quiet day of good progress. The drama of Day 3 was to come.