Italy Divide Race Report

Italy Divide: Napoli– Lago di Garda, April 2019

Full ride on Strava

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.”

 

 

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.

 

Day Three: Vicious Italian sheepdogs and a drunken Jimi Hendrix tribute.

I woke up on the sofa in the abandoned house, shivering and cold. I hadn’t gone to sleep with my down jacket on, because I was still warm from riding. I wish I had. I had slept for just one hour after 36 hours cycling 583 km. I decided the best way to get warm was to get back on the bike.

The stretch of road ahead of me, through Tuscany, was a worry. Jay told me that this was where Josh Ibbett had been bitten by a dog last year. These local sheepdogs are vicious. They even look more like wolves than dogs. They hear you before you see them and they start barking.

Yes, you guessed it. In the dark of the night, I heard barking. It was off to my left and a little bit higher. As I raced on the sound got louder. Then I turned left. My bright light caught a hundred pairs of sheep’s eyes. Their enraged dog guardians were standing on small hills in the field. When they saw the light, the dogs went into an absolute frenzy. I stopped and picked up a rock. I retreated a little. They calmed down, slightly. I started walking forward, pushing the bike. They ran towards me. I got on the bike and started pedalling. Now, they were running alongside me, though on the other side of a barbed wire fence. I would be okay, wouldn’t I? I built up my speed. So did they and there were plenty of them, perhaps as many as 12.

All of a sudden, one of the wolves (that’s what it felt like!) leapt over the fence just in front of me. I still had my rock and pointlessly hurled it in an utter panic. I went into full sprint mode. Another dog jumped the fence and joined the first one and then a third. They were directly alongside me, snapping and snarling. It seemed to just go on and on but eventually, they started to drop back as I left their territory.

I was absolutely terrified. I have been chased plenty of times by dogs but this was easily the worst. I was thinking, what happens if one bites you? What if the other ones just join in? Then I’ll be on the ground with furious dogs all around me. I really had no way to protect myself and it had been a very nasty experience. I was on edge for the rest of that night. It would be another hour until dawn, and I kept hearing other dogs barking at me in the distance. Thankfully, I never passed close to them again. What a nightmare.

As dawn broke, the incredible beauty of the area became apparent. A wonderful sunrise with an extraordinary inversion cloud layer. I was now riding into Sienna, the route was really grippy, these were those white roads in the Strade Bianchi. Some were a bit nastier!

I got into town at about 08:00 and found a cafe to start to sort myself out. I had some digestive problems during the night and the results weren’t pretty. You can’t get the right food when you’re racing unsupported. It’s not unusual to feel quite unwell because you have to eat so much sugary processed crap. So, I found myself in a supermarket toilet having to clean myself and my kit with a handful of wet wipes. No clean and dry kit to change into, I made do! Very glamorous!

There was plenty of climbing ahead of me as we entered the Chianti region. Soon I hit Florence in the Saturday early evening tourist rush hour. Crazy stuff. What a city, riding past the Duomo. A great feeling. I stopped briefly and stocked up on food, buying a lot of handmade beautifully soft biscotti, perfect! Leaving Florence some dotwatchers turned up, which was brilliant. They took some photos as I whizzed by. Dotwatchers – if you’re reading this, please do send the photos to me!

There was a wonderful climb up into the Apennines, with some tough sections.

Into the dusk and sunset.

Then, the route became really difficult. Remember, I’m riding what is basically a cyclocross bike. This was a full out mountain bike descent. It was really dark and I had all my lights on. I was also going too fast, what can I say? I scared myself! When I say fast, I mean for the conditions. This is not as if I was dropping down off the Ventoux or Stelvio at 100kph on smooth tarmac. Due to the low speeds, my dynamo was not charging my battery pack for my external lights and the world around me was becoming deeper and indistinct. The climb I was about to tackle would take me up to 1,000 m. No way. I decided to find a hotel in the next town, have some sleep and charge everything up.

I thought this was muddy, little did I know what was to come!

I rolled into the town and went to the first hotel, full. The second, full, and it went on. Every hotel was full. Turned out there was a big motorbike race the day after at the nearby Mugello circuit. Plan B: I found a pizzeria. Plugged everything in. Ordered and ate 2 pizzas. Ordered and ate 2 desserts. Then Gino, drinking at the bar, got friendly. Hey! Come and stay at my place! OK – we end up at his place. I plug in everything; I stretch out on the sofa and he heads off back to the bar. I set my alarm for 3 hours, it all seemed perfect as I fell asleep.

An hour and a half later I wake up. It’s not because my alarm has gone off. It’s because Gino has come back from the bar and is now playing Jimi Hendrix on a guitar. I ask him: Please! No? Gino says just one more song. All my batteries are fully charged, I leave him to it and head out into the night.

 

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.

 

 

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.