The morning brought hope. “You know, the legs don’t feel anywhere near as bad as they did last night”, I thought. Then I swung them off the bed and stood up on the frayed, creaky old ropes that passed for my achilles tendons. There was swearing.
Breakfast hadn’t opened in the checkpoint hotel but I was able to snatch a couple of pastries. While scoffing those Thomas and Charlotte (#204s) appeared and shared their method of taping achilles. This extraordinary couple were chirpy at both ends of the day, despite the rollercoaster experience that is the TCR. Some people say that it’s easier to ride as a pair, but I think it’s hugely personal and I really doubt I’d make a good pairs rider. I’d be murdered in my bivvy long before Day 7. While they set off I went to work on strapping up my ankles. The relief was instant and significant. This K-tape voodoo was going to fix all my problems and the race was back on, albeit from 70th place.
“This K-Tape voodoo was going to fix all my problems and the race was back on.”
My enthusiasm waned a little once I started pedalling though. Either my arse knew not to complain this morning or it simply couldn’t be heard over the banshee screams of my ankles. “Was this it?” Hopefully not. I just have one climb to clear and then I can give the legs a really easy day on the gradual descent out of the mountains to recover.
The first few Ks were flat and gave me a chance to get accustomed to the pain before the climb began. It always hurts more at the beginning. Hopefully soon the ibuprofen and diclofenac will kick in. There’s no gentle introduction to the Giau though. It jumps straight in at 10% and stays there for 10km. The taping is definitely helping but I can still tell I’m in proper trouble. There’s quite a serious amount of pain already and I probably have three hours of vertical toil ahead of me.
I can see Thomas and Charlotte in the distance, spinning comfortably on enviably low gearing. I had thought my 34-32 was low enough but right now I’d kill for a triple. I was in pieces but my gearing meant I was moving a bit quicker and caught them up, biting my tongue for a while and trying to put a brave face on it until I was out of sight and out of earshot. They seemed so chirpy and casual that I couldn’t bring myself to let them see me struggling. Their happy demeanour cheapened my wallowing and whinging.
“Their happy demeanour cheapened my wallowing and whinging.”
A common question before the race was ‘why?’. I’ll cover this in more detail another time but the short version is I wanted to do something challenging enough that my true character would be exposed for me to see. I knew at some point I’d end up in my own personal ‘dark place’ and was full of nervous curiosity about how I’d respond and what it would say about me. I found my dark place half way up the Passo di Giau. Any last delusions of racing had now evaporated. Even finishing the race was too much to contend with at the moment. My focus extended only as far as the summit of this climb, 1,000m above me, and even that was slipping away from me. This was my test.
Within 30 seconds I’d experience both the depths of despair and highs bordering on nirvana. It would begin with a stab of pain in my ankle and the graphic sensation of tearing tendons would push me beyond my threshold. I let out a guttural scream. Swearing would follow. Nothing fancy. When it really counts there’s nothing better than a defiant ‘FUCK YOU!’. It wasn’t aimed at anything specific. It was for the Universe, to let it know that it couldn’t beat me. Over the next few seconds my strength would double and I knew I would make it. I push on, finding pain at the next pedal stroke. A loud growl is enough to get me through that stroke. Then it got weird: I burst into tears. This was an absurdly dramatic emotional outpouring but it would last only a few seconds before I could muster the defiance for another growl and another ‘FUCK YOU!’ as the whole process repeated itself in an endless loop.
“How am I going to face cancer sufferers and say ‘yeah, sorry, I quit because my glorified bike ride hurt too much’?”
I was riding for Cancer Research UK and this gave me strength. Mostly through shame. How could I possibly complain about what I was going through when I’m trying to help people fighting cancer!? OK, it hurt a lot but, crucially, I could stop this at any point I decided to. Yeah, OK, it was a long one but it’s still a glorified bike ride. How am I going to face cancer sufferers and say “yeah, sorry, I quit because it hurt too much”? Friends and supporters knew I was in trouble and were quick and relentless in their messages, that I’d already achieved more than I needed to and it was OK if I had to scratch. “Legendary status has already been achieved.” But there was simply no way I could actively choose to quit. If I stopped now I wouldn’t raise anywhere near as much money as I hoped. That helped me to endure for a little longer. If I could physically turn the pedals then I would continue. If I couldn’t then I’d continue on foot until even that wasn’t possible.
The rain started getting heavy. The frequency of the intolerable moments of tearing pain was increasing and I’d exhausted my mental reserves. I stopped to search my soul for some hidden supply of strength. Music! Music would definitely help, so I plugged in and went straight for the ‘Summit’ playlist I keep for the climax of any alpine adventures.
“In the seconds where I felt strong, I became invincible. Then searing pain and instantly I’m again aware of how fragile I am.”
I find music to be an incredible emotional amplifier. In the seconds where I felt strong, I became invincible. “There was absolutely no way this mountain was going to beat me! I’m doing this for Adam, for Camilla, for Sofia! I’m doing something incredible and I can rightly be proud of this. I will never quit.” Then searing pain and instantly I’m again aware of how fragile I am. “I don’t think I can keep this up for two hundred metres let alone two more hours. Fuck, I’m going to fail! This huge thing I’ve been talking about for a year is going to end with me failing.” Tears. Not just crying but an hysterical outpouring. Seconds later and I’m ashamed of my weakness and, with growls, grunts, swearing and shouting, I find my resolve and the cycle repeats once more.
The rain gets heavier still and the ground is deep with water, my rear wheel slipping whenever I push too hard on the steep slopes. At this point I actually welcome the storm. My race is over and race positions no longer have any relevance. All that remains is the personal challenge, so why not throw everything at me now? I’m so invested that I want it to be as tough as it can possibly be. Leave no stone unturned and let’s really find out what we’re made of!
“At this point I actually welcome the storm. My race is over and all that remains is the personal challenge, so why not throw everything at me now?”
Clouds now shroud the mountain and visibility drops to as little as 10 metres. At this speed it doesn’t matter and it may well be better not to see what’s coming. I’m soaked to my core, with every piece of clothing completely saturated. Every pedal stroke is a knife-edged battle between progress and self-preservation, trying to spare my protesting ankles. My GPS tells me I’m about 2km from the summit which is about 12 minutes. The next track pipes its way into my ears and it’s a powerful one. There was no way I would fail this challenge now and somehow I’m able to actually relish the suffering, safe in the knowledge that I’m going to win this battle.
The storm intensifies. The wind is ferocious and it’s driving thick rain at me sideways. At this altitude the temperature has dropped close to freezing and the windchill on wet skin is fierce. I don’t care. I’m in charge of the Universe now. Through the storm a minibus appears alongside me with the driver honking his horn and gesturing wildly. He’s pleading with me to get in and take shelter, sent by the Universe in one last gasp attempt to defeat me. “No chance!” The poor driver gets rudely shooed away and I sink back into my trance for the final few minutes.
Near the summit PEdAL ED photographers are waiting under a small marquee, for a photograph of each rider as they pass. There’s panic as I suddenly appear out of the murky gloom, making over-dramatic noises, I’m sure. At this point I’m a complete wreck but the guys aren’t immediately aware of the physical struggle nor the emotional war that’s been raging in my head and how much this summit represented. It might’ve been rushed and in terrible low light but their photo perfectly captures the moment. Even I can’t tell which phase of that emotional cycle is etched on my face. Their chirpy enthusiasm changes to concern as I pull to a stop and I do a poor job of faking composure. I’m ushered into the restaurant above for shelter.
I grab almost all the kit from my bike bags and dive inside, somewhat shell shocked. It’s taken every ounce of focus to get here and I hadn’t given any thought to what came next. Fuel first. While that was being prepared I dashed back into the storm to shoot a quick selfie for the GCN Show intro, because I wasn’t thinking clearly. I needed to get out of these sopping clothes so I hobbled downstairs to the bathroom. I clambered back up to the restaurant area, barefoot, wearing nothing but my goretex shorts and my race cap, eventually adding my down gilet as my brain thawed out and a sense of decency returned.
Three tall hot chocolates loaded with cream was a good start. As I worked my way through them a few more riders began to appear, each completely soaked. Even goretex layers were totally saturated. One rider was savvy enough to have worn Marigolds on the climb, while others stared at their shrivelled hands in disbelief. Most stayed for an hour or so, trying to recover before the descent.
This is probably as far as I go in the race. My ankles felt completely ruined now. They were hugely swollen and crunched and creaked with every small movement. I’d survived the alps, just, but I was still only half way to Turkey. The nearest decent town was Cortina d’Ampezzo and although it was 17km away it was all downhill. I’ll stop there and invest the rest of the day into recovery before making any final decisions in the morning. I searched on booking.com and found a hotel with a spa that offered massage and made a booking. I borrowed three plastic bags from the restaurant: one to put my wet clothes into, including my cycling shorts and jersey; and one each to go over my socks. I was going commando under my goretex rain shorts, but I figured I’d be out of the saddle on the descent anyway, so my arse was unlikely to complain too much. In the old days riders in the Grand Tours used to grab newspapers at the top of cold climbs and stuff them under their jerseys for the descents. I copied the technique and stuffed them into my leg warmers like windproof shin guards. Wet base layer, down gilet, arm warmers and my goretex jacket. I’d stashed a shower cap in my bag as a general purpose emergency item (they’re light, compact and waterproof) and this made a decent rain cover for my helmet. La bella figura!
Three hours was, it seems, long enough for my body to go into full recovery mode. Everything had shut down and now the extreme cold was really punishing me. I knew that I’d gain temperature as I dropped altitude so I just had to get through the first few kilometres. Without pedalling I wasn’t generating any body heat to counter the windchill so it was brutally cold once my legs, shoes and gloves were wet, which didn’t take long in the rain and standing water.
A 15km descent at -7% would normally be the highlight of my week but I could barely manage 30kph, a speed I’d ride at on the flat. It’s situations like this where hydraulic disc brakes are in a class of their own. My weak, frozen hands could scrub speed with only the lightest tickle of the levers. What was simply unpleasant would’ve been utterly terrifying with traditional rim brakes.
I’d arrived to Cortina at 14:00, too soon to check into the hotel, so I headed for a chemist first to get more drugs. “Closed until 15:00!? Oh you’ve got to be kidding me”. OK then, food first. A grouchy waiter is less than keen to have me in his restaurant but I find a quiet table at the back and disrobe as discreetly as I can manage and as thoroughly as decency laws will allow, wringing the water out onto the stone floor beneath my bench before putting the sodden kit back on. An enormous steak and a big bowl of gnocchi are devoured and I head back out into the rain. The chemist asks few questions about the large amount of drugs I request. I ask if he has K-tape because the pre-cut strips brought with me for my knees are all used up. Green? I couldn’t resist the ‘Batman response’.
The hotel had a spa and I intended to spend as much time as possible trying to recover in the sauna and jacuzzi. The big department store didn’t have swim shorts and after trying a few stores on the high street I was directed to a lingerie store with a single rack of mens swim shorts. As I’m holding two pairs of shorts, trying to choose which to buy, the absurdity of my situation finally dawns on me. I’m in the world’s most extreme bike race and here I am, dressed in a random and incomplete collection of soaking wet clothing, still with a shower cap on my helmet, standing in a lingerie shop trying to decide whether I prefer green or purple. This race hasn’t really gone to plan, has it?
“During the world’s most extreme bike race I’m standing in a lingerie shop trying to decide between green and purple swim shorts. This hasn’t really gone to plan.”
Checking in at the hotel I’m asked to park my bike 200m away in an underground booth. I traipse back in my cleats before realising I’ve left my passport in the bag. Each trip back out into the rain is such an ordeal now. Finally in my room at 16:00 I strip out of the wet clothes, give everything a rinse and hang it up to dry while I jump into my new (purple) swim shorts and head for the spa. It’s a very basic affair with just a jacuzzi in what feels like a caretaker’s cupboard, but it’s heavenly as I ease my broken body into it. All attention had been on my achilles but I now realised just how tight my quads and IT band were so I tried to stretch them and massage them in the hot water.
It turned out the massage was provided at a sister hotel five minutes walk up the road, so I had to climb back into the wet clothes and cleated shoes to make the treacherously slippery journey up the hill in the rain, one more time. As the therapist worked on my ankles I could feel them popping like bubble wrap. I’ve no idea if that’s good or bad but it didn’t really matter. I had nothing to lose at the moment so I was hoping it might give me some kind of recovery.
Back to the hotel and dinner was buffet style all-you-can-eat. The fools! It was a great spread too, so I made almost a dozen trips to the counter during dinner. I needed all the nutrients I could find if I was to maximise my chances of recovery.
I went back to my room at 21:00, stretched again and then climbed into bed, setting my alarm for 12 hours time. I was so desperate to wake up the next morning having made some miraculous recovery but in my heart I knew I was really on borrowed time and a scratch seemed imminent. Fortunately I was tired enough that I didn’t have long to dwell on that before my eyes became too heavy to hold.
Time: 3h 3m
Photography by PEdAL ED. Photographer Giovanni Maria Pizzato spent a week on the Giau capturing riders as they passed through the mid-point of the race. You can see his Faces from the Transcontinental photoset here.