My European roadtrip in GB colours.
This post is part of a three blog series following on from my Journey to “The Worlds”… check it out if you haven’t already…
So I’d qualified for The Gran Fondo World Championships in Varese, Italy and I was stoked! I’d never raced in another country and only really ridden on the “wrong side of the road” a few times before.
Being Gluten Intolerant and visiting the home of all things deliciously Gluten-full was also a concern. My recently retired Dad said he’d like to come with me and that driving the van down would be a good roadtrip, it also allowed me to take a few bikes and not have to worry about luggage limits or costs incurred by flying. The van stocked with Gluten Free bread, pasta, noodle pots, porridge, Cereal and beer, we started our route; Porthleven to Dover, Sleep, then Ferry to Dunkirk, Eat, Dunkirk through Belgium, Luxembourg, down to Strasbourg, Sleep, and then the final push down through Switzerland and into Italy 1,090 Miles…with no radio, and a lot of rain…
After a very long but very beautiful journey, we finally arrived at our AirBnB in Mezzomerico, a nice quiet village about 30 minutes away from Varese, not super ideal as it would be an early start, but at the same time it was good to be away from the masses of cyclist’s crowding Varese. On went the Kettle and out came the Cornish Brew teabags accompanied by the map, time to start plotting routes.
Having not ridden for two days I was getting twitchy, a quick spin beckoned. With map in pocket I set off for a quick ride to get my bearings, 30 miles of Italian lanes finishing off with a blast along the lakeside was fantastic, despite the poor road surface my legs felt okay, I love cycling in different places and this was no exception. A constant grin spread wide across my face. Back at the ranch, feet up and feeling a little more upbeat I scoured the map for more testing terrain, something to wake my legs up. Bingo. The Mottarone. A 1,492 Metre climb spread over 14.5 miles. Perfect.
Now, they say hindsight is a wonderful thing; at the time I thought that a max effort up the biggest mountain the region had to offer would be mega beneficial, If I could smash up that then come race day the climbs I’d be facing would seem a bit easier, sort of like a mock exam. Thinking about it now I don’t really know what I was thinking, but sounds pretty silly now though right?
I was apprehensive about my gearing and with good reason, a 53/39 – 11-25 was hardly a typical climbing ratio and whilst that range worked for me on the steepest hills Cornwall had to offer and even the Mallorcan slopes, the prolonged steepness and the very poor road surfaces of the Italian mountains had me worried. The Mottarone was to be a long climb and the gradient never really seemed to ease, rising sharply from the picturesque lakeside of Verbania up through the clutches of houses at Agogno and Armeno before winding up through the hillside forestry sites and deserted shepherds’ huts. My only companion for the duration being my own heavy breathing, thumping heart beat and a few passing goats. The road continued to twist and turn up the mountain like a ribbon before opening up near the summit at the empty Ski station, no hero’s welcome would await me today as they close during the off-season, man a cup of tea would have gone down pretty well at that point. Cold, wet and feeling the lactic burn having been out of the saddle for the majority of the climb, I tentatively started the descent down the backside of the mountain, it had stopped raining but the roads were still very wet so using the whole width of the road to negotiate the sharp hairpins was a luxury I really appreciated. I didn’t see a single person on the climb or the descent let alone another cyclist, it felt like I had my own personal mountain to play on. Having descended for close to 40 minutes my hands were starting to really feel the cold, I wanted to get down to the warmer air and get working again to make the blood pump. I skimmed through the mountain villages of Gignese and Massino Visconti, dashed across the badly patched tarmac and passed the gigantic Monumento Agli Ombrellai near the lakeside again, thankfully the lower slopes required a fair bit pedalling so I’d started to warm up and could finally start peeling off layers again. All that remained was the straightforward charge back Home through the busy streets, passing through the sweet smelling vineyards of Suno before finishing back At Mezzomerico. All in all, an awesome ride, 50 Miles and 1,600 meters in the bag, fresh from the effort I felt good having woken up my legs but now a foam rollering, a beer, a belly full of Pasta and a good nights sleep was definitely on the cards.
Unfortunately another restless night would follow with heavy rain, thunder and lightening doing it’s best to prevent me from my much needed rest.
One day to go…
Last nights’ weather had stuck around as we drove through the persistent rain to the Athletes Village in Varese, a quick race licence check allowed me to sign on and collect my information pack containing my race number and the course map. As I walked around the village I saw more riders, most of them with their glistening calves on display and wearing some indication of nationality, be it a TeamGB t-shirt or in the case of an Australian; full tracksuit, cap and bag. It felt more and more real now.
With the route map in hand and the course downloaded to my Gamin we started a recce of the roads I’d be racing; covering 70 of the 82 miles and the majority of the 2,060 metres of climbing. Throughout the drive I frantically jotted down notes and mile markers on my map and tried making mental notes of where I’d like to be sitting at particular stages of the race. Unfortunately the drive did nothing to ease my gearing concerns and if anything they exaggerated them further, individually the climbs didn’t seem too epic but altogether they’d be ferocious, especially at race pace. I started to think I probably hadn’t given the mountains enough respect and knew I’d be begging for a semi compact and 28t.
Our Recce successfully completed we returned to the Athletes’ Village for the safety briefing and anti-doping presentation before heading back to our AirBnB for final preparations. Thankfully by this time the rain had finally subsided and the roads had started to dry out in the italian sunshine, time to spin yesterday’s efforts out of my legs ready for tomorrow’s beating. I’d tried before to get my Dad to climb the Mottarone with me but he wasn’t having any of it, the thought of going uphill didnt interest him, let alone for an hour, however a gentle and very flat spin through the Vineyards would be right up his street. An enjoyable 20 miles of relaxed pedaling around a simple loop, cutting through the nearby villages, tree-lined avenues and town squares, was very therapeutic and momentarily distracted me from tomorrows race. We finished off by skirting through the many vineyards at nearby Suno, we couldn’t get enough of the sweet and sticky smell of the grapevines lining the roads. I don’t get to ride with my Dad too often nowadays as he always feels he’d be slowing me down and holding me back -even though this isn’t the case at all- so I really value the rides we do together however big or small they may be and a relaxing ride in a different country was certainly a special occasion and I really appreciated the opportunity to share the experince with him. Definitely a highlight of the trip so far.
Now that I had spun my legs out and given them a good foam-rollering I could concentrate on my kit for the morning; everything laid out on the sofa with all the food and nutrition sitting in bundles for its allocated pocket on my jersey. I spent ages pinning my number on, it had to be just right; too high and it’d be in the way of the pocket, too baggy and it’d flap in the wind. I polished the frame and checked spoke tension, tyre pressure and every single bolt to assure me of no nasty surprises. With my mind racing and no more at ease that when I started, I ate my Chicken and pasta and drank my beer before another early-ish night, hoping the weather would hold so I could rest up properly undisturbed. Due to the expected heat at that time of year my 19-34 group would be starting at 7:30 am in order to finish before it got too hot and to ensure all other age groups would finish in good time before the podium ceremonies. The early start paired with our lodgings being 40 minutes away would mean a painfull 5:30 alarm call, ouch.
Here we go, Its happening, Race day is here. In my previous posts I’ve mentioned how I don’t really handle pre-race stress too well, this was no different and the stakes were much higher than just a local Crit, there was a potential “world title” up for grabs. I got dressed and forced down my pre-prepped breakfast; Porridge, toast and fruit with yogurt all washed down with a strong coffee. I was a total bag of nerves, overthinking everything and talking non-stop all the way to the Athletes Village. There was a slightly more tense atmosphere than in the days previous, despite being early and still dusky every rider was immaculately turned out in their National kit; the familiar Belgian blue, the stars and stripes of the USA, the vibrant Dutch orange and the regal green and gold of Australia but to name a few. A last check of tyre pressures, skewers, brakes, race food and number and it was into the start pen. I stood there by myself, too nervous to chat to fellow GB riders, every eventuality running through my head. It was refreshing to see a Commisaire walking around with an iPad hooked up to an infa-red camera checking BB’s and frames for anything suspicious, despite this being an amateur event I bet they caught some riders.
The countdown followed by the flag drop came, off we went and very quickly; 350 riders hurtling down the long start/finish straight all trying to get in front of one another, there were expletives hurled in loads of different languages, it was crazy! The first couple of corners would soon be coming up and while the leaders would be flying through taking the racing line, the concertina effect applied for the rest of us as the speed reduced dramatically and the familiar smell of carbon rims under braking filled my nose.
Once my heart rate had levelled out after the initial effort, the first 8 miles go super quick with the bunch sweeping along at race pace, the only real obstacle being a long and poorly lit tunnel which would claim a few riders. Passing through unscathed I reach the base of the first climb; the Alpe Tedesco, From yesterdays recce I know it has 11 switchbacks and whilst starting harshly, eases nearer the top. At this point I’ve managed to push to a good position near the front of the pack, good enough to see the pure climbers float up and move temporarily out of sight. I consider climbing a relatively strong attribute so drop down the block and push on around each hairpin, passing rider after rider. I’m still within reach of the leaders so I try to remain cool as we crest the top with a noticably reduced bunch. While my climbing is strong, descending is definitly not… It feels as though all the ground I’ve just made up on the Alpe is almost instanly wiped out with riders pouring down the backside of the mountain at seriously crazy speeds, I keep my hands on the brakes and stay smooth, the road surface isn’t amazing either and after seeing the carnage of the earlier tunnel I’m conscious of hitting potholes or being over-zealous, especially at this early stage of the race.
As the race charges on through village after village the miles start rolling over quickly, I’m starting to relax a little and even strike up some friendly chat with fellow riders, we ease momentarily to force down a bar and take a drink however, I’d cut a banana in half for easier eating but in getting the bar out, managed to lose both bananas, something i’d come to later regret. With more rolling terrain following our group increases and decreases with the gradient and by 45 miles I’m starting to pay the price for my bigger gearing, sure I’m getting over the climbs with the first group still, but i’m grinding out all the way instead of the easy spinning my competitors seem to be doing. Damn I wish I’d had that 28t.
I start slipping to the back of the bunch whenever the road rises, desperately making up ground everytime it flattens. I’m helpless to it, time and time again I claw my way back on until suddenly, it happens, the elastic snaps. I lose contact with the wheels in front one last time, they carry on, blinkered and unaware. I find that very quickly i’m in no-mans land and theres nothing I can do to stop it, I ride flat out solo for close to 7 miles, always hoping that i’ll see them around the next corner. There’s a lump growing in my throat that won’t go away, I’m looking across the stunning Lake Lugano thinking; “Is this it?” and “do I just climb off?”, man this is a long way to go just to get dropped. As these thoughts swim around my head and i’m fighting the demons, a wave of riders creep up on me. Salvation at last and finally a wheel to sit behind, I perk up a it and tell myself that this must be the next age group but I notice they all have the same colour race numbers as me, turns out I hadn’t been totally dropped at all, I’d been in the group that had done the dropping!
We race on, surging through more typically narrow Italian streets with my already sore legs taking a full scale beating at the hands of the cobbled sectors that sprung up and assaulted all my senses, forcing me to lose whatever fluidity and rhythm I had left.
Now 60 miles in and with only 20 left to race, I find myself in trouble again on the horribly sharp slopes of penultimate climb of the day, one I’d earmarked on my recce as trouble. I lost contact with the wheels in front once again and slipped back to form a group with 9 or 10 others. The gearing was really slamming me now, I’d drop to the 39-25 at the slightest incline and try to spin up but even that was a solid effort. This was to be the hardest climb of the day, the surface was seriously bad with lots of debris from the recent rain washed over the road; puncturing would be soul destroying right about now. Ironically I’d lost my banana when I pulled out some other food and now I could feel the cramp starting to bite where the elastic grippers on my bibshorts were, I kept trying to put it to the back of my mind, but each waive of cramp was a sharp reminder that there were still miles left to conquer. We eventually got caught by the leaders of the next age group -supposedly the most competitive age group- and tried to sit-in, by this point we were feeling the pain and these guys were firing along and certainly not taking any prisoners.
The last true climb came in the form of a long draggy type forcing our survivors grupetto down to 6; Myself, a Belgian, Dutchman, a Kazakh, a Pole and an Israeli. Together we rode through and off for 10 miles, keeping the pace high and by this point not afraid to show our frustrations when someone tried to do a short turn on the front, despite the language barrier it was obvious we all just wanted to get it finished. Full blown cramp was now a constant threat with any drastic change in pace or gradient resulting in a hamstring-grabbing yelp from not only me, but my Kazakh and Belgian counterparts.
As we approached the city we were greeted by event signage telling us Varese was just 5km away, at last the end was clearly in sight and we were going to make it. As we zipped through the outskirts the pace started lifting and turns got shorter, much to the dislike of my hamstrings. I’d like to say that at this point I had a moment of reflection, taking in the beauty of the region I’d just raced through and relishing the whole experience, but that really didn’t happen, the only thing I was thinking about was the beer waiting for me at the finish. In a cruel twist, the final hurdle was a 2km climb into the city, I hadn’t really factored it in, and my god did it hurt.
At the foot of the climb the Belgian went out of the saddle, shortly followed by the Kazakh and the Israeli. Jeez, this was really gonna hurt… I clicked it up one and started to spin with everything I had, any bigger gear and I feared cramp would get the better of me. The gradient proved a stretch too far for the other two and I started reeling them in, slowly at first then drawing level and finally spinning passed them near the top. As the road flattened, the enormity of the event was clear with vast crowds lining the street and roaring encouragement with the huge finish line banner standing proudly over the road. One more push and it would be over, I dug as deep as I could and gave the most feeble attempt at a sprint ever, just falling short of the resurgent Belgian we crossed the line.
A massive wave of relief washed over me as I weaved through the crowds, fist bumps and embraces with the Kazakh and Belgian ensued, I couldn’t have got through that last bit without them and even with the language barriers; “Man that was tough”, “Did you see the average speed!” “Fuck, my legs were cooked”, was pretty easy to grasp.
Making my way through the bunches of riders I gratefully accepted the bottles of water thrust in my face anything but isotonic! I Couldn’t have been happier to see my Dad and with my post-race bag full of sandwiches, water and the all important beer! I leant my bike against a shop window and slumped in the doorway, completely empty.
Jeez, that was tough.
I wheeled my bike through to a water fountain in the picturesque centre that had become overrun with bikes, riders and their entourages. Reassuringly it was clear that most riders felt like I did and just wanted to sit down and not be on a bike. My dad offered encouragement and was bursting with pride, happily snapping away with his camera, I was totally spent but on a high after realising the finish time on 3hrs 52mins, whilst my overall position wasn’t likely to be very good I could at least take some comfort knowing I’d pushed on at a respectable pace.
We hung around in the Athletes Village for the Podium ceremony, but by this point in the day it was getting hot and after the effort of the morning, standing up wasn’t making my legs happy at all. I watched the different age groups collect their rainbow jerseys and bouquets, but I didnt much care for seeing the winners, now the dust had started to settle I was critical of my performance.
The organisers had laid on pasta, sandwiches, fizzy drinks and sponge pudding in the village for all competitors, in very broken english/italian I managed to get a Gluten Free substitute, Breseola, Cheese and Rocket. I was so hungry for a very brief minute I considered just eating the same as everyone else, now that would have been unpleasant for everyone! The volunteers were very helpful and just to get anything to eat was great, To be honest I’d have eaten the tray I was so hungry.
We left soon after the last jersey had been presented, heading back to Mezzomerico. Getting a shower and a clean change of clothes made me feel much more human again, now the race was out of the way I could relax my eating and drinking and return to regular food without worrying too much about weight gain. We drank a few beers and ate shop-bought Gluten-Free pizza, which seemed criminal to do in the home of the pizza! My dear Dad was full of praise for me, asking loads of questions about everything between phone calls to relatives most of the evening to tell them of my accomplishment, I must admit I felt pretty glum and a bit of a fraud sat there in my GB t-shirt listening to him bigging me up, this was supposed to be the highlight of my season, a solid placing in an international event would have been such a boost, but I felt I’d failed. Looking on Strava at the analysis my average speed was pretty good, 21mph for 3hours and 52 minutes and my average heart rate wasn’t through the roof, but finishing over 200th out of 350 wasn’t great. I can only criticise my choice of gearing so much but, being honest I think I was just outridden on the day by a much better crop of riders who probably trained specifically for it, unlike myself just doing as many time trials and Crits as I could squeeze in. The overriding feeling I had was guilt for my Dad, having refused to let me do anything unneccessary and driven me such a long way, accross a continent and pandering to my every need for the last few days was seriously deflating. I felt I’d done myself a disservice and could do much better, I deliberately didn’t post updates or pictures on social media because I didn’t want anyone asking how it went. Maybe this was just post-race blues and I would feel better once the dust had settled a little more.
Now the Racing part of the trip was done I could relax a little more and start to enjoy the experience without the burden of the race weighing heavy. All that remained now was the long return journey to TR13…
The Third and final part of my European Adventure is coming soon..
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Now, Just Go Ride!