Italy Divide: Naples – Lake Garda, April 2019
Day Five: Mud, rain, snow – the race to the finish.
Today is Monday. I’ve been chasing the race leader Sofiane Sehili since my routing mistake on Saturday afternoon. He was absolutely relentless but I have closed the gap. It’s two in the morning, I’m full of calorie rich yoghurt and very short of sleep. There’s no coffee available, so I take a couple of caffeine pills. I have to keep going because it was both cold and I was wet. Cycling was keeping me warm.
The first big climb into the Dolomites began almost straightaway. I started falling asleep, just for a microsecond, then my head would shake itself and wake me up. My mind started playing tricks on me and I even lost 10 minutes completely. I know this feeling and knew it wouldn’t last. Racing off road I could push myself further then ever before.
It didn’t and I had a horrible wakeup experience. The route followed one of these embankments that have been built to protect against flooding. At night, off road, it is pretty hard to see where to go sometimes and I found myself going along the bottom, not the top. My wheels were more than rim deep in mud. It was really difficult to actually keep going but I knew if I stopped, I would be stuck, so I ploughed on. Of course, it couldn’t last. It didn’t. Soon my bike had become completely clogged in the mud. I found a stick and scraped away enough to get going and started looking for some water to clean the bike better.
Bizarrely, the track led me to a desolate and closed petrol station. Then I saw a cyclist already there. Of course, it is Sofiane, slumped half asleep, sitting on a step and he looks absolutely shattered. As I arrive, he wakes up.
He tells me ‘O man, I am so tired.’ I tell him ‘I need water!’ I find a hose; no water comes out. I find a tin bath, a watering can and a brush and start scrubbing away. It works, sort of. I jump back on my bike and head off into the night. Sofiane jumps on too and catches up with me quickly. This man does not want to be left behind! We rode together until I spotted a new water source. It’s like a horse trough with a hosepipe and I indulge in more frantic bike washing in the ice cold water.
We carry on riding together and as we continue to climb, Sofiane disappears. Finally, dawn comes and the cycling has become quite nice.
I’m not really sure if Sofiane is ahead or behind me. My mind tells me he is ahead, I push on hard, but I do not catch him, maybe he is behind. I get to 1,000m and the rain begins. I put on my rain gear, I’ve seen the forecast and I am expecting that it will rain all day. I have been pushing my bike up a horrible single-track and then start heading across a field. There are no markings, and I’m just following my Garmin, zoomed in to the maximum to make sure I’m on the track. I’m now at 1,200m, it’s six in the morning and my heart sinks as the rain turns to snow.
I can see from the high peaks around me that from here on, it’s snow. The clouds descend and envelope me, visibility drops down to 10m. I’ve only got cycling gear on and I know that I must climb to 2000 m, where it will be snowing seriously. I make a big decision. I must stop and find somewhere warm to shelter. My safety is more important than finishing first.
I google local hotels. There are two, quite nearby. I call them both, three times each. No answer. I leave the race route and head for the closest one. It’s absolutely dead, there are no cars in the car park. I call again: no answer. Then I tried one final call. Hooray! There is an answer. Although he doesn’t understand English, he gets out of bed and in 10 minutes arrives at the hotel. His name is Francesco and once he gets past his confusion and understands the situation, he is brilliant. Soon, I have a room and an enormous breakfast, an incredible feast. I take a shower, no rush, I sleep for three hours. For me, at this point, the race was gone. I was going to wait out the storm and then complete the course, safety first.
I woke up to my alarm and opened the curtains. Clear blue sky! Wow! I can pass over the mountain. Soon I’m on my way with three big bags of biscotti for fuel. It’s just 90 km to the finish and I will not be stopping. I knew that Sofiane hadn’t really stopped but had made terrible progress and was only 15 km ahead of me. However, given the terrain that we’re racing on, that’s maybe two and a half hours. I’m going to try catch him.
I get back on the race route and it’s actually quite warm, the sun is out and I get climbing on the usual difficult single tracks. After not too long I find myself in a nearly deserted ski resort and the snow is knee deep. I get off the bike and start pushing.
This went on for a long time, at least five and maybe even ten km. As I struggled along, I can see where Sofiane had ridden. I could even see where he had fallen off. The same happened to me. I must’ve fallen off 15 times. Most of the time, I just jumped up and got back on the bike. One time I fell off to the left and started tumbling down the slope, stopping after maybe 10 m. Another time I went into an unseen hole and it was head first over the handlebars at quite a reasonable speed. I landed on my back; this was not very friendly, but I just got back on with it.
I was riding very strongly and eventually I found myself riding downhill on tarmac. By now I was just 30 minutes behind him. This was an incredible amount to make up over such a short distance, he must have been very tired. I stopped and pumped up my tyres for the tarmac, as I had been riding on a low pressure.
Giacomo the organiser had come out in his car and he told me ‘Take it easy, this descent is like the Stelvio’. Perfect, a mountain I know really well. I tore off and it was amazing. Switchback after switchback, all the way down to this town. I was really excited because I knew that I couldn’t be far behind. Also, the final climb was all on tarmac. I also thought (hoped?) that the long descent to Lake Garda was also tarmac (it wasn’t).
I started that climb at an ferocious pace. It was 18 km to the top and I thought that I could catch Sofiane. As I went around each hairpin, I was looking ahead, expecting to see him. But each corner went by with no sight. Finally after 16 km, there he was. I buried myself to get behind him and slowed for a moment’s breather. Then I come up alongside him and I said, ‘Respect, Sofiane’. He just nodded at me. Then, I just attacked him, with absolutely everything. He finds the pace and comes back to me. I’m nailed, having ridden up that climb so hard. I attack again. He comes back to me a second time. I attack again. This time the road is really steep and I get a 10 m gap. I can see the top; the road is covered in snow. We are back on single-track and then back on gravel because the tarmac doesn’t go this high.
I think to myself; this is it; this is really the end of the race. If I can’t win by a good margin after 1,200 km then I don’t deserve to win. I stopped and so did he. I said, ‘How do you feel about riding in together?’ He says ‘Yeah’ and that was it. The race was over. I knew what he’d been through and I had endless respect and admiration.
Credit: Sofiane Sehili
We headed off together, walking through the snow. There was a warning sign at the top of the gravel single-track ridge trail: ‘Take absolute care’. No wonder, it seemed like there was a 1000 m drop on each side. We arrived at Torbole, on the North end of Lago di Garda in the dark, together. A fitting end to an incredible race with an immense bike rider.
Writing this, it’s a week since I finished and life is slowly returning to normal. I have been sleeping a lot! The scabs on my sit-bones are beginning to heal. My legs are working again. The nerves in my left hand are settling down and the use of it is returning. Today I will take the bike out for the first time, for how long I do not know. Maybe an hour, maybe 3. Maybe 10 minutes. But I will ride.
Being able to finish at all is testament to the equipment I ride, my bike and clothing. Dom Thomas at Fairlight has designed one hell of a bike. The Secan took all I threw at it including many crashes and it just kept going whether clogged with mud or snow.
I was racing in Cafe du Cycliste kit for the first time, it stood up to some terrible conditions. All day rain, snow, heat, we had it all. I was comfortable at all times.
You can see the full ride on Strava