You never sleep deeply during the Transcontinental, because you can never escape the presence of that race clock. Your brain won’t let you drop your guard too low. It’s absurd but I wake before my alarm again. In the seconds it takes to re-enter the physical world my body feels like a rocket being prepared for launch.
Achilles throbbing? Check.
Knees swollen? Check.
Arse broken? Check.
Mouth shredded? Check
Guilt? … Guilt? … Do we have guilt?
[I look at the time]
All systems are ‘GO’ for consciousness!
Lift-off is at 10:30am. I satisfied myself yesterday with big mileage but by spending nearly 20 hours in the saddle all I was really doing was stealing an advance from today’s riding. It took 30 minutes to get myself together, dry my rinsed shorts and delicately dab Sudocrem on my pulsing saddle sores and open wounds.
Breakfast was finished by the time I’d left the room so I nipped across the piazza to a café instead. They were embracing the slow food movement but had a different interpretation of it. A fruit smoothie was a welcome hit of sugar and cold liquid nutrients. It was already approaching midday and the temperatures were ferocious. I checked my route files for the stretch to CP3, knowing that the reason I’d stopped in Bolzano was because there were some big climbs ahead. There was no way of avoiding it; I’d be scaling them during the hottest part of the day. I was only half annoyed that my sandwich was taking ages to be delivered, because I wasn’t looking forward to putting cheek to saddle.
“My English teacher told me that cursing is a sign of a poor vocabulary but I find a good swear quite cathartic.”
I remember my English teacher telling me that cursing is a sign of a poor vocabulary but I find a good swear quite cathartic. I honestly don’t know how I’d have coped with the first few kilometres of gooch torture each day without turning the air blue. Grunting, growling and ‘motherfucker’ing help to take the edge off before the ibuprofen kicks in.
Despite the tiredness I’d chosen the hotel well last night. It was right on the edge of Bolzano so I was able to make a quick and easy escape from the town. After a couple of turns I’m on a great cycle path that tracks the river and the motorway. I’m usually suspicious that cycle paths are going to be slow but this was nice and fast with only a few circuitous sections. As the terrain begins to climb there’s even a tunnel that cuts through the bottom of a large hill – presumably an old road tunnel – and this also offers some welcome shelter from the blazing midday sun. 10km into the ride, however, and it’s time to turn away from the river and point it towards the sky.
Race Director, Mike, decreed that some road tunnels would be prohibited for the purposes of the race. They may be legal in the eyes of the law but local knowledge reports that they’re relatively dangerous and so by prohibiting them it keeps 200+ tired riders safe and maintains a level playing field. During my rushed route-planning session I plotted a route between two such tunnels, along a minor road called the Alte Tierser Strasse. What I didn’t realise until later that day, looking at other riders tracks, was that the major roads with the shallower gradients had easy detours around the short prohibited tunnel sections. I was about to pay for my hasty route-planning.
The sign warned of 20% gradients, but I figured that was going to be an exaggeration. I hadn’t seen gradients like that when I plotted the route, after all. Bugger me though, this thing was bloody steep. Suddenly it felt like the 20% sign was lying, to break it to me gently. 20% deserves more swearing at the best of times but today I was trying to pedal 17kg of bike up this thing in 32° heat. I bypassed ‘bastard’ and ‘twat’ and went straight for the big guns (sorry Miss Taylor). It didn’t help. My cadence was dropping and any semblance of smoothness was lost. This is what they mean by ‘pedalling squares’.
“I could feel every strand of every tendon in my knees and achilles straining against the effort.”
“Fuck right off! 24%, are you kidding me? How the hell is this road getting steeper!? What kind of sadist thought this was a good idea?” My poor achilles are screaming for mercy and the baking heat is doing nothing for my mood. Cadence drops down into the 50s, which is deep into the danger zone for knee trouble and exactly what I’ve been trying to avoid. The smart move was to get off and walk. An idiot, on the other hand, would be naively thinking how all the other hardcore riders, that he’s pretending to be one of, would be sucking it up, stiffening the upper lip and grinding on up this cliff. I could feel every strand of every tendon in my knees and achilles straining against the effort. In my head (hopefully) I hear the constant ping of guitar strings snapping. I snuck a few minutes shelter in the skinniest of midday shadows cast by an old house in the village of Breien and then continued at 50rpm, making permanent enemies of my achilles.
“You know it’s steep when you think of the 15% sections as a chance to recover.”
You know it’s steep when you think of the 15% sections as a chance to recover. When I plotted this route from the comfort of my desk I had at least spotted a scary gradient a little higher up, near the summit of the climb. I don’t remember what it was but it was steep enough for me to plan a shallower bail-out option in case of emergency. Of course, if I’d known there’d be long sections of anything close to 20-24% I’d have avoided the area altogether. Even the bail-out option started with 600m at an average 18%! I emerge onto a narrow plateau at a T-junction with a tiny row of old houses. The map shows a trail that shortcuts a few kilometres with a steep 200m hike. The trail doesn’t actually exist but I waste a few minutes doing loops to double- and triple-check that. There’s no way to avoid more climbing so I go back and pick up my route for one last kick in the balls. The final ramp up to the main road is a ridiculous 36% gradient. “I get it! I get it! I’ll plan my route better next time.”
I was finally in the sanctuary of a 6% climb. It felt like a descent. It afforded me a chance to gather myself together and assess the damage. My knees and ankles were very angry and my core was frying in the midday Italian sun. A cafe at Tiers was like an oasis in the desert. I ordered a pizza and while that was cooking I smashed two ice creams, two pints of ice cold Coke and, mostly for the anecdote, a swig of olive oil. I popped the shoes off and gave the achilles a long stretch. This was getting serious. As I ate the pizza I flicked through Twitter and saw another batch of scratch notices, many of which cited achilles problems. For the first time I confronted the idea that I may not finish this race. There was no way I’d quit but if my body forced me out there’s no amount of stubbornness nor pride that can overcome that.
“There was no way I’d quit but if my body forced me out there’s no amount of stubbornness nor pride that can overcome that.”
The pizza didn’t know what hit it. For dessert I had 9km of the Nigerpass at 9%. As if this wasn’t hot enough work I found myself in roadworks next to freshly laid, lava-hot tarmac. It was like being too close to a campfire and the right side of my body felt scalded by the heat. “Just get through it!” I told myself. A bus was moving slowly enough through the roadworks that I got caught behind it. The heat from its engine crashed over me like a wave. My heart sank as he stopped at a chokepoint. He couldn’t squeeze past the road-laying machinery so I dropped back while they figured it out, which only took a minute or so. I could feel my brain boiling and the woolliness of heat-stroke creeping in, so the plateau at the top of the climb couldn’t have come any sooner. I was over the worst of it and the next descent would take me into vaguely familiar territory.
The descent into Vigo di Fassa is a twisty one and a bike is probably the quickest tool for the job. The whole Alta Badia area is popular with drivers, bikers and cyclists. For good reason too. It’s one of the prettiest places in Europe and the roads look like they’ve been built with an epsiode of Top Gear in mind. The drivers are pressing on. The bikers overtake and press on faster, able to take quicker lines through the sweeping bends. I follow behind, dabbing the brakes until I’m in amongst a big group of 20 motorbikes. I can make out some riders laughing as I move through the pack but some take offence and gesture as if I’m doing something reckless or forbidden. It’s wounded pride, I’m sure.
There’s another fast-looking dedicated cycle route so I ditch the main road that runs up the valley and take to the cycle path as far as Canazei. This is a big tourist town and next to a row of restaurants I spot a phone shop where I can buy replacement cables. My devices have been struggling to charge for the past couple of days. I thought it was the dynamo, the convertor or the battery pack but it seems cables (of all types) are the weak link. I buy a mid-priced replacement and then think about fuel. Like a tractor beam the cafe next door sucks me in with the promise of a frappé. I’m little more than 30km from checkpoint 3 but there’s the Passo Fedaia in the way and 700m of climbing to tackle. This calls for more frappés.
I spot a bike shop on my path so I dive in, looking like I’m in a hurry and do a little pogo stick mime. Luckily the shop guy knows exactly what I’m asking for and cheerily produces a compressor. Sadly the compressor does nothing, despite some chin-scratching, some fiddling and finally some percussive maintenance. I thank him anyway and crack on to the next store. The next chap is even more enthusiastic and insists on pumping the tyres up himself while I scan the shelves for gels and bars. He’s super pleased with himself but the tyres are now softer than when I arrived so as I insist on taking over I try to find the balance between expediency and trying not to cause offence, grateful for his kind intentions if not the results.
“I could’ve dealt with this anywhere but there’s something deeply satisfying about peeing off a cliff.”
The landscape grows prettier and prettier as I push further east. I have to be disciplined to avoid stopping too often for photos. I’m riding up a steep valley, cradled by snowcapped peaks. The climb is long but never more than 7-8% in pitch, which feels like a comfortable place after the vertical nonsense of the afternoon. Still, my achilles are not in a happy place and I can’t shake the fear that there will soon be a scratch tweet with my number on it. The checkpoint is a dangerous place because it’ll be easy to get comfortable and I’ll find sympathetic ears. I pause to take another photo by a bridge with an incredibly long drop down the mountainside. Nature calls and if I’m honest I probably could’ve dealt with it anywhere but there’s something deeply satisfying about peeing off a cliff. The drop was so long that I was back on the bike before it hit the ground.
At the top of the climb I linger for a moment at the glacial lake and enjoy the view. I know it’s downhill from here and I’ve made it to CP3. Descending the Fedaia was one of my favourite moments of the race. 13km at -8%, with the first half at well over -10%. I wasn’t just overtaking cars I was a low-flying fighter pilot. I was Maverick requesting a fly-by. I was fully in the moment and couldn’t help but let out the occasional whoop as the corners flowed smoothly into each other. This was one of those magic moments when the bike and the terrain feel so natural that it becomes effortless and automatic.
Then I rounded a corner and found a long steep stretch of road, with enough visibility to really unleash the fury. Into a tuck, it wasn’t long before I saw 80kph…85…90…91…92…93kph! All the senses are firing at 100%. The mental concentration is intense. I ignore the periphery and focus far into the distance, scanning the rapidly changing scene for every shred of information and processing it as quickly and thoroughly as I can. I watch the trees that line the vanishing point of the corner ahead and I can see them appearing faster, telling me that the corner is opening up and it’s OK to maintain my speed. My arms are loose as I let the bike take it’s course, trying to tune into the road surface and the grip. Ahead the road bends left and the high mountains that surround me offer clues that this is unlikely to be a gentle kink. A village sign. My rush is over and it’s time to rein things in.
The sinking sun does it’s thing on the beautiful Dolomites as I approach Alleghe. The checkpoint is a hotel on the water’s edge but I miss the obvious turning and circle the village before descending an cobbled street to CP3. There are some TCR crew sat by the lake enjoying drinks and some bikes propped up by the steps to the hotel. My J Laverack joins them and I heave and hobble my way up the stairs without the use of my ankles. At the back of the lobby I find crew members to stamp my brevet card. I’ve arrived at CP3 in 5 days, 21 hours and 21 minutes and despite all the dramas I’m in 40th place. The sense of relief is almost overwhelming. CP2-CP3 was the stretch I was most concerned about and I’d made it, but at what cost?
From the way I made those steps look like the Eiger it was obvious to Juliana Buhring that I was in some trouble. The highly-accomplished rider had been forced to scratch from the front of last year’s race and was volunteering at CP3, where I suspect she knew she’d find suffering riders. She offered the no-nonsense advice and encouragement that can only come from somebody who has been there and lived through it. She also offered diclofenac, which I gladly accepted. I’d last used it on a ski-touring trip not long after some knee surgery. It’s a strong anti-inflammatory drug and Juliana also mentioned that it’s available over the counter in Italy, so I should stock up before leaving the country.
I was seduced by the comfort of friendly faces at the checkpoint and the weariness of my body. I booked myself a room, despite having covered only 90km (albeit with 2,500m of climbing) and ordered a big dinner. Race photographer Camille McMillan was laughing at the K-tape that decorated my knees. I’m sure it looked silly but I’m also sure it was helping too. I posed for a photo by the water as more riders arrived.
Dinner became a social affair, sharing war stories and hopes for the rest of the race. Craig Boddice (pronounced ‘boddicci’ while he was in Italy), Karl Speed and Paul Buckley all rolled in. Frank Proud arrived, got his stamp and left again, full of intent and looking very determined. We looked at the tracker, marvelling at Kristoff’s domination and James Hayden’s incredible recovery. Attention also turned to the weather and confirmed what I’d already discovered: heavy rain was coming around midnight and would continue through the day. A few of the guys planned to head back out after dinner and do the mandatory climb up the Passo di Giau in the dry before returning to the hotel for some sleep. My route was different and once I’d climbed the Giau I intended to keep going on a longer route that spared me of any more climbing, gradually descending for 200km out of the mountains and to the Slovenian border.
“Eat, rest and live to fight another day.”
I desperately wanted to join them. Just one more climb and I could soft-pedal my way to Slovenia and easily stick another 200km in the bank. But I knew that my body couldn’t cope with another climb today and I was in serious danger of scratching already. As I moved my ankles I could feel and almost hear the achilles tendon creaking, like two pieces of frayed old rope. I knew they were swollen but looking at them now I couldn’t remember what shape a healthy ankle looked like. In the end my situation was clear enough that it was easy to decide and no amount of guilt or pride was foolish enough to overrule it. If I tried that climb tonight I knew there was a high chance my race would be over. “OK, so it’s going to be grim conditions in the morning, but if I can survive the next 24 hours I’ll be back in the game on flatter terrain where I can make up ground. Eat, rest and live to fight another day.”
The waitress delivered dessert. “One pannacotta?” she asked. I raised my hand. “Another pannacotta?” she continued. I raised it again.
I knew I’d made the right decision but it crushed me to watch the guys head out at 10pm to tackle the Giau.
Time: 8h 12m