Italy Divide: Napoli – Lago di Garda, April 2019
Day Four: Mountains and Mirages
I resumed the race at 0130 on Sunday morning from Piero a Sieve, nearly 60 hours since my departure from Naples Thursday afternoon. I’d covered 760 km, climbed 10000 m and burnt 25,000 calories. The finish line at Lake Garda was close, around 400 km, including a long, flat transition across the plains of northern Italy.
Whatever I might have said at the start about just wanting to finish, by this point, I just wanted to finish first and I was in the mix. I knew that two other riders were my main rivals.
Jay Petervary is an off-road legend from the States with an incredible palmares. Most interestingly for me, it was Jay who had won the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race, in Kyrgyzstan in 2018. I had been dreaming about this race ever since its founder and fellow ultra racer Nelson Trees told me about it on the finish line of the Transcontinental in 2017.
Sofiane Sehili was the other rival, well-known off-road specialist from France. I knew less about him, though had followed him in Trans Am Bike Race and Tour Divide. As the race unfolded over the next two days, I would soon know a lot more.
My immediate challenge was a very tough climb into the Apennines and soon after I began, I went past one of my rivals. Not actually sure whether it was Jay or Sofiane. Five minutes later, they came alongside me, obviously not wanting to be passed (more on that later). It was Sofiane and we rode together for a while, then the climb really started. The riding stopped and the pushing started. We were both stopping to pick up our bikes.
We rode near each other but not really together. The terrain was just so hard that we had to go to our own pace. Sometimes he was ahead, other times I was. As we got to the top, I had pulled out a bit of a lead on him.
I started off down a rough descent on my own. Eventually, the sun started to rise and I start thinking of food. In the first town I found a cafe with self-service croissants and doughnuts. I stacked a plate sky high and started drinking coffee. Sofiane joined me soon after but only had some croissant. As I was leaving, he did to, and we rode off together for a bit. He went ahead. He’d been telling me about problems with this Garmin. I then saw this problem in real life for him as he went the wrong way.
Bologna was the next town. My arrival was greeted by a deluge of rain. I stopped and put on my rain kit. It was raining so hard my Garmin wasn’t really working and I could not see where I was going, and it felt like I did six laps of Bologna.
I left town and started to ride North into the Po Valley. Though it was flat, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I cycled it previously in the Transcontinental and it was busy with lots of traffic. This was one of the reasons why I loved this race: off-road! It was absolutely beautiful, taking little tracks on top of dikes built to protect the towns from flooding. I enjoyed that so much, in spite of the constant rain. I was really pushing hard now, though not pedalling super hard because I was trying to save my energy for the final two climbs. I made good progress.
Late in the afternoon, my solitude was shattered as I arrived at the race checkpoint at Governolo. There were these people shouting and waving at me. My idea of getting a good feed was quickly shattered. Giacomo (the race organiser) told me that 30 km back I had missed a section of the road. He showed me where it had happened. Without hesitation, I turned around and rode back. Ouch! There had been a few last-minute changes and I have not properly copied them through on my Garmin. My fault.
I was back within 90 minutes and I had lost my race lead. I sat down to a huge plate of delicious pasta. I knew it was going to be a long ride into the night and perhaps I wouldn’t even stop again before the finish.
When I arrived back at the checkpoint I saw Jay, a bit confused as he’d been further behind. Over pasta it transpired he’d suffered a fault with his bike and had diverted from the route to fix it. His race was over, which was a shame as he’d have excelled in the mountain conditions to come.
That food was so good. I bought all of their biscotti. I cleaned and lubed my chain. There was 300 km to go, in my mind I was racing for the finish. As I left, dusk was setting in and I rode along the river. It was an absolutely astonishing sunset. The midges were terrible but I rode along in awe of the beauty of Italy. Someone told me this section to Verona was quick and easy. Wrong. It was dreadful, just terrible single track roads, in pitch dark, with no tarmac like I had been told. My mood soured.
Then I had a really weird experience. I was riding through this forest, with trees arching over the top of the track, in a canopy. It seemed like I was on a travellator and I was going nowhere, while the trees were going past me. This was really disturbing and seemed to go on for quite a long time. I was checking on my Garmin to see whether I was actually moving. I was getting really disorientated. Eventually, a massive tree had fallen across the track. It had been partially cleared but I had to swerve around it, going quite fast. The spell was broken and soon I was heading into Verona, the last proper stop before the mountains and the finish.
My good intentions to ride non-stop to the finish were thrown away as I spotted a nice hotel. A three hour sleep to set me up, perfect. €130? No way! There was sure to be somewhere on the way out of town for half the price. Of course, you guessed it; nothing. By now it was after midnight, I could see on my Garmin a small town just off the road. There’s sure to be something there, right? Wrong. There was nothing. It was 0130 on Monday morning and the place was absolutely dead.
Unsupported racing requires rest and food. Not much of the former but a lot of the latter. There I was, in the closing stages of the race, trying to catch up with the leader. I couldn’t possibly tackle the final climbs without food. I had none. At this point, the second really weird thing of this long day happens. I spot a vending machine. It’s not a mirage. Incredibly, it’s not full of crap food, its full of calorie rich yoghurt drinks. The pinnacle of good. I bought 12 and drank six immediately. The rest I packed in my bag. Each drink was 500ml and had 600 calories, a serious amount.
As I sat there on a bench, drinking the yoghurt, I had a visit from two visibly confused Carabinieri – the Italian police. After checking I was ok, they left me alone thinking about what I had ahead of me. Two climbs: the first off road with 1,500 m climbing passing to 1,800 m elevation, the second 1,200 m climbing. Then downhill to the finish. My last sleep had been 90 minutes on a sofa 24 hours earlier. In fact, I had under three hours sleep in the last 90 hours.
What would actually happen on the final day is an experience I will never forget.