Day 5 Davos to Pratto Allo Stelvio (95km)
I seem to remember we set our alarms for 6am rather than the customary 5am following the trauma of the previous night but the fact remained that this would, again, still only give us a few hours’ sleep. I woke up feeling no worse than I had on previous mornings which seemed a result considering I’d been hallucinating the night before at a point where there was still 5 hours riding into the mountainous darkness ahead. We commenced the morning routine and started loading up on breakfast in a bid to average down our outrageously extortionate room rate. The elephant in the breakfast room was the weather. It was sh#tting it down with rain and looked feral outside. It was the tail end of Hurricane Bertha I’ve since heard. Ideal. Despite spending three bowls of cereal and a few bits of toast worth of time feverishly hatching plans of how I could make the next 15 hours of our lives fractionally less miserable, the truth that there was only two feasible options available to us. Crack on or give up.
Before long we were glumly standing in the cold mountain rain preparing to depart. I remember a German coupe from the hotel coming over to ask where we were going.
“To the Stelvio” I told them.
“Over the Flüela Pass?” the lady asked in an excitedly quizzical yet disparaging tone.
“Yes” I despondently blurted
“it’s really cold up there… really cold… like 2 or 3 degrees colder than here….” she said whist assessing my obviously inadequate attire.
“Righto. Thanks. Have a good day.” I said as they shuffled back into the beautiful, luxurious hotel of sanctuary.
We were climbing straight out of the town. I felt ok as it goes and in the context of the array of other sources of misery we’d become accustomed to ignoring, the rain didn’t really stand out. Through the climb I was constantly rationalising strategies to deal with what I knew was about to happen. I knew that Stoney and Ron were also cognisant of what was coming because we’d shared an awful experience descending the Col du Glandon in the rain in 2009 which was, until the day I am here describing, our benchmark of debilitatingly freezing, near hypothermic cycling experiences. Going up was never going to be a major problem, coming down was always going to be a major problem. A few km from the top, I asked K-Ron how he was doing. He said he felt pretty tired but that was being balanced by his first (daytime) Alpine ascent. ‘Drink it in’, I thought, ‘because it’s about to turn to sh#t’.
We went briskly over the top in a bid to generate some heat but the first couple of km’s were still bad. This side of the mountain was exposed to a harsh wind which was now piledriving freezing cold water into our faces. It got worse from there. The cold just seemed to be accumulating in my bones. It was properly cold and for some reason unbeknown to me, my bibshorts did not appear to be keeping me warm. The further we went, the more desperate the situation got. By what may or may not have been somewhere near half way down, my violent shivering was causing my hands to judder the handlebars so severely that it was causing an uncontrollable death wobble. I knew I had to stop. Ron pulled alongside me and I felt mildly reassured by the fact the was clearly in the same boat. We both stopped.
As soon as we put our bikes down we both instinctively started pumping our fists in front of our chests.
“What are we going to do?….. What are we going to do?” I asked Ron with a decent dollop of desperation in my tone. I remember feeling pretty confident at that point that Ron would know what to do.
“I don’t know…. I don’t know.” He replied. I’m not sure why violent shivering encourages you to repeat yourself but it definitely does.
“How far is it?” I asked. Ron shuffled back over to his bike and crouched right down right over his garming to try and make sense of the map through the water droplets. His quivering hand slowly reaching out towards the screen.
“20k” he said. ‘That doesn’t sound good’ I remember thinking. It also didn’t sound right from my memory of the route.
“7k… its 7k” he said after further inspection.
Upon completing his task and answering my question, Ron looked up from the garming with a hopeful look and I realised that just as I was looking to Ron for direction, he was looking straight back.
“We could walk down” I said, “We could put our shoes on and walk the 7k… We’re not going to die walking down.” We pondered that thought for a few seconds, still furiously pumping our fists infront of our chests.
“We need to get warm……. Squat thrusts….” I suggested
As I was on all fours in the middle of one of my squat thrusts, it did occur to me that this is not what I’d envisaged the transcontinental race to be like. We did maybe 25 squat thrusts which was the balancing point where I felt I’d got all the warmth I was going to get out of squat thrusting and my overworked legs started protesting about the new burden. We quickly jumped back on and started down again. It was still absolutely freezing and we were very concerned about our safety. After not too long we caught our first glimpse of a town. That was incredibly good for morale. It still took ages to get there but we got there. Everybody was in a bad way. K-Ron had ridden down without any gloves on. Fair play, sounds rank. Gloves should clearly be prioritised over knee warmers, everybody knows that.
We bolted into the first over-priced swiss Hotel/Restaurant we laid eyes on and the owners took pity on us. We walked straight into the restaurant kitchen and huddled around the open clay pizza oven. My jaw was still chattering maybe 20 minutes after we got to this oven. It must have been 40 minutes after I got there where I finally felt warm enough to step away from the pizza oven of life and pursue alternative methods of thawing out such as showering. We’d rented a room there for the night which was a pretty easy decision as nobody had any appetite to go through that again. Not long after that, we were all showered, warm and lying down in our beds in the shared room. That was an incredible feeling. We agreed we couldn’t ride through the mountains in this weather and we’d take the remainder of the day to recover, catch up on sleep and food and continue on the following day. That decision buoyed morale for a while but it was a short lived pipedream unfortunately. While we were indulging in a banquet lunch which was to set us up for the afternoon of recovery, the weather eased. I felt the sense of foreboding return. I was facing the window in the restaurant and when I saw the first TCR rider come down that we had earlier in the morning and turn up the road towards the Stelvio. I think we all realised what was happening without any words being exchanged. We’d all checked every weather report the internet has to offer and they all said the weather was only going to deteriorate.
‘If we’re going back out there, I’m getting tooled up’, I thought. We went to the corner shop and I stockpiled newspapers, rubber gloves, bin bags, 60m of tin foil and 60m of cling film and set about making our cold weather gear. The pièce de résistance for me was undoubtedly my binbag tunic. This was a thick plastic binbag in which I’d made holes for my head on arms. For a period of a few days, this became my most valuable worldly possession, although I did also make a fairly impressive pair of tin foil/cling film leg bracers. Before long we were off again climbing back up higher into the mountains. Relentless. For our decent into Prato Allo Stelvio we got all our gear on and we were fine. It was very effective. Particularly the bin bag tunics. After a bit of soul searching and pizza we decided to knock it on the head for the day there. I didn’t want to start climbing the Stelvio in the dark after my experiences earlier in the day.
Day 6: Prato Allo Stelvio to Ferrara (410km)
We’d agreed we’d try to catch up the km’s we lost in the storm on this day. I, personally, agreed on a best endeavours basis. To be honest, I couldn’t see how we’d manage to ride what I erroneously thought at the time would be ~380km to Ferrara, with the first 25 of those km’s being one of the most revered climbs in the world, when we’d only managed 95km in total the previous day. Nonetheless I was willing to give it a crack on the premise that sense would prevail when necessary as it had the previous day. The alarm went off at 4am and we were tired. Properly tired. Probably not the sensation you’re looking for when taking on a 410km day. We were up and off and again cycling up a mountain in the dark. I felt relatively ok and its much (much) better cycling in the dark when you know that dawn is on its way and you’re not just pushing on into the darkness of the night. It took us 3 hours to ride to the top of the mountain. Not an ideal average speed for the first 25km of a 410km day but not bad considering. We passed a rider or two sleeping in bivvy bags at the side of the road on the mountain and patted ourselves on the back for making the right call the night before. The 48 hairpin bends passed slowly but morale was high as we counted down each epic hairpin. We saw quite a few riders on their way down as we neared the top which was reassuring. We got to the top, had a hot chocolate and got our brevet cards stamped and started to rug up. It felt like we’d been through an awful lot to get that second stamp but we were nowhere near half way done with the race. You can only wonder whether the empty space where your next stamp should go will ever get filled. We had some fun getting our bin bag tunics and my tin foil leg bracers on in the warmth of the cafe. The descent was long and slow but we were warm enough.
It’s strange how you can be encasing yourself in tinfoil for warmth on top of a literally freezing cold mountain and then generously slapping on suncream a hundred km’s later, but it was roasting down in the valley road as it got towards lunchtime. We cracked on and kept a good pace for a long, long time. There were a few mishaps, we got stuck in a danger tunnel and then lost in an apple orchard but after a while we stumbled upon the cycling path of dreams which must have gone for something like 100km exactly where we needed it to go. It was flat, fast and traffic free. We were doing very well. By the time the light of the day was fading we’d done 280km including the Stelvio and we had reached Verona. We grabbed some pizza and begun the night shift. Ron reckoned it was 70km to Ferrara which sounded achievable. I figured it must be more like 90km from the information I knew. We started off enthusiastically and soon ran into Ben and Gaby, a couple I knew from before the race who were also on the TCR. We’d already seen them at the Swiss hotel/restaurant after Flüela-gate and also coming down the stelvio as we neared the top (a lot) earlier in the day. They’d also done well for the day and I think they were as glad to see us as we were to see them. A bit of interaction with someone different and sharing of a few war stories is great for morale. We were all riding the same way so we pushed on whilst having a chat. After a while, people were getting really, really tired. We’d started tired at 4am and as it got towards midnight everything was hard. A particularly savage thunderstorm didn’t help. Later Gaby said she enjoyed riding in the storm. I have no idea how this could possibly be the case. I did not. The 70km from Verona which I thought was 90k turned out to be 125km. The last few km’s were overwhelmingly grim. I remember seeing a sign for Ferrara that said 12km. It was inconceivable to me at that stage how I’d be able to ride another 12km. A few km’s from where our hotel was we stopped to plug the postcode into the garmings. Given the capacity for the garmings to get things wrong and given our condition at that stage, we plugged it into a phone also. Stoney and Ron were looking at the maps to work out where to go (thanks chaps). The situation was fairly desperate. It was about 3am and we’d cycled over 400km since starting the day at the bottom of the Stelvio. I really didn’t want to cycle anymore. After maybe 5 mins of comparing the garming map to the phone and a bit of discussion, Ron declared that the maps on the two devices just weren’t the same. I didn’t feel well positioned to assist at this stage. After another couple of minutes Ron had a Eureka moment and turned the phone upside down. The phone map was north up and the garming one forwards up. We got to the hotel at 3.30. I’d felt for a lot of km’s that the chance of us getting checked in in the middle of the night seemed remote. I had buried that thought along with a plethora of other unhelpful ones. After some determined and mildly aggressive badgering, somehow Stoney woke the guy up and got him to let us in. I was so tired that it didn’t really occur to me that we hadn’t really eaten on the 125km since dinner. We commenced the ritual, got showered, washed our kit, got into bed and set the alarm for 90 minutes time to start again…
Day 7: Ferrara to Ancona (248km)
We had a ferry to catch. We had to be there by 6pm, it was 250km away, we’d had 90 minutes sleep after a 410km day and nothing to eat when we got in. We got ready and the disgruntled man from the previous night we’d awoken to let us in took pity on us and gave us a lemon curd croissant thing. Grazie. And we were off. I felt horrific. I mean, I felt bad every day but this was really bad. I couldn’t get going. I was acutely aware of time and distance constantly and how neither were passing at a sustainable rate. I was a mess. Morale bouncing along the bottom and seemingly no avenues to bring it back up. I couldn’t even look at the route, I could barely lift my head to see where we were going, I just looked down at the road. I just pedalled and tried not to get left behind. I couldn’t really talk, nothing seemed important enough to justify expending the energy talking. It was really tough for morale when we were struggling with our route. We turned round a couple of times going back on ourselves when we were trying to navigate around a motorway we ended up on. I just followed and didn’t ask any questions because I knew I couldn’t contribute to the solution. My condition was awful and not improving. Somehow, Ron seemed relatively spritely and was navigating and calling the shots. It wouldn’t be the last time. Chapau Ron. After about 80km the pain I’d had in my left foot for who knows how long crossed the boundary into excruciating. It was very intense and very acute and it came in waves. I’d get 5-10 seconds of intense pain a couple of times a minute. I had some pain killers and half an hour later it was still bad. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t last the day, wondering how I’d explain that I wasn’t able to continue and what I’d do when the boys cycled off and I was on my own in the middle of nowhere. We’d come a long way though, I still wanted to fight on until I physically could not for one pedal stroke longer. It seemed inevitable that that point was approaching. I was operating on a moment to moment basis. My foot was bad, saddle sores were bad, I was incomprehensively tired and Istanbul was near enough 2,000km away. I was struggling around following the others, completely choked up with my eyes welling up but I kept going.
Our on the fly route which avoided the motorway took us to a coast road where we had to stop so the fellas could take a look at the route. I took my shoes off and lay on the pavement. Stoney bought me what was, by some distance, the worst ham sandwich I’ve ever consumed. Quite how you can mess up a ham sandwich when you have all the right ingredients, I’m not exactly sure. Morale was rock bottom. We were at a beautiful beach resort with loads of sun tanned youngsters cruising round enjoying the summer and we were in an awful state. We didn’t want to be there, we wanted to be on some gloriously filthy highway gunning it south to the ferry port. The boys were studying the route, I was trying to piece myself back together. After 10 mins or so Ron said it wasn’t possible to get to the ferry. Avoiding the motorway meant taking the coast road and that would add 100km onto the distance. We would never make it in time. The following day was a national holiday. No ferries. We were all distraught. I was welling up head in hands. Ron requested that nobody ask him a question for 5 minutes and sat down head in hands. That was clearly the sign of resignation. 2 minutes later and K-Ron was asking him questions about the motorway. I wondered how that would go down given Ron’s seemingly reasonable request only a couple of minutes earlier. Over the course of 5 or so minutes, K-Ron took the reins, called someone back home, established that the motorway turned back into a regular road only 10km further south than where we were. Declared we were back in the game and lead us off down the road. Hero. Morale sky rocketed as did our average speed. We got back on the highway and absolutely smashed it down to the ferry port with consummate ease floating on a buoyant cloud of relief. We arrived at the ferry on time and over the course of the next hour or so a good 10 or so TCR riders rocked up. Nearly all of them looked brutalised. Morale was high though. We were certain to be not getting onto our bikes for another 12 hours which was a luxury I vaguely remembered from my previous life. We had our cabin booked and life was good. The faff of getting our tickets, boarding, getting food and showering ate into our sleep time. When you’re truly tired, even simple tasks can become incredibly taxing. I remember a discussion trying to establish if there was a clock change required for arriving in Croatia and working out when this meant we needed to set our alarm. I think we just guessed in the end and went to sleep.
Day 8: Ancona to Kotor Bay (300km)
We had had five hours sleep. FIVE. Pow. Relatively, I felt like I’d spent a weekend at a luxurious spa retreat, perhaps somewhere in Kent. I felt better than I had in days. That was good. While we were waiting to disembark, Ron took the opportunity to interrogate Mikko Makipaa (TCR Legend) about the most effective strategies to mitigate dog attacks in eastern Europe. We’d heard a lot about packs of wild dogs attacking cyclists and Ron was particularly concerned about it. My concern list was way too congested to worry about dogs at this stage, although I do admit that Ron worked me up about it enough for me to put a handful of stones in my jersey pocket to use as defence missiles when the attacks started. I carried those stones the best part of 2,000km and through what must have been a dozen dog attacks and never launched any of them. They were more good luck charms by the end. How was I ever supposed to throw a rock at a dog when I’m sprinting full tilt to get away from it on a bike? If anyone ever asks me about the most effective strategies to mitigate dog attacks, stone missiles won’t be one of them.
We rolled off the boat, stocked up on pain killers, mainly for K-Ron’s ankles, and got going. The Adriatic was the back bone of the race for me. While I knew we still had more than half the distance of the race remaining and 60% of the climbing, a daunting thought really considering our condition, I now believed rather than hoped that we were going to reach Istanbul. Whether that would be within the time cut of or not was another question entirely but that didn’t really matter so much anyway as long as we got there. 100km prior to getting on the ferry I was choking back the water works, head in hands and then 100km after getting on the ferry we were cruising down one of the most beautiful coastlines in Europe, chatting away, basking in the sunshine.
It sounds bad, but, it’s always good for morale to not be suffering the most (provided whoever is is still ‘OK). When you’re on a bad day and suffering the most, holding everybody up, struggling with the pace and always chasing to catch up, its brutal on morale. If someone else is in that position you naturally take heart in the fact that it could be worse, that could be you. We all had our days or sections where we were that guy (many in my case, few in the case of the Ron-bot). On this day it was K-Ron. He was struggling and I felt ‘OK’ (n.b. this word has a different meaning in the context of this race). After a brief excursion into Bosnia & Herzegovina, we rose up into the hills above Dubrovnik looking down on the beautiful city and out to the ocean. Whilst that was an amazing experience, it’s hard to rationalise why you’re riding on past all the holidaymakers frolicking in the ocean or sipping beer at a beach bar as you root around, with filthy hands, for Mento’s hidden amongst an inch of biscuit dust inside the dysfunctional bento box that you hate.
We stopped at a power station (term mistakenly substituted for petrol station in a tired haze and stuck because the idea of powering up there on snickers bars and Fanta seemed comforting) for our evening meal. It’s incredible how those cellophane packets keep the sandwiches so fresh and full of nutrients and flavour. Once I’d forced down a couple of these, the obligatory few snickers and magnums and refilled my bento box with my trademark mix of mento’s and biscuits mixed together with the pre-existing bento-filth residue, I was nearing ready for off. At this point, fellow competitor Yorkshire Rob rocked up to the power station. Despite having spent time with him on numerous occasions since, I’m not sure whether he picked up this moniker because he actually hails from Yorkshire or just because he wore a Yorkshire Grande Depart jersey. Either way, it was great to see him and it seemed as if he was pleased to see a few friendly faces too. He sped on a head while we dithered around at the power station and, just as we were about to set off into what would inevitably soon turn into a desperately tired night shift, K-Ron let us know that he just needed to ring Santander to adjust some direct debits. Shortly after Ron had explained that there may be a more appropriate time to do this, we were heading towards Montenegro.
It was proper night and proper cold when we got to the border of Montenegro. Despite conversations that we might do shorter days now we had more freedom to do so this side of the Adriatic, we decided to push on to Kotor bay which was where Mt Lovcen, home of the third checkpoint, climbed out of. We decended from the border control towards the bay. As we got to the start of the bay, I erroneously thought, ‘our bed is in Kotor Bay, we are in Kotor bay, we must be nearly there’. This was not so. Around the usual time, riding through the darkness, delirium began to set in. This time we had the fortune to be surrounded by Montenegrin party goers enjoying a nice summer evening. It was fairly surreal. It’s not like riding home from the pub after a pint soho on a Thursday night. We finally got there. Luckily sourced some very tasty but disconcertingly well priced food and headed to bed. Arriving back at our hotel (very late. I don’t know what time. Time doesn’t have the same relevance it does in normal life. You ride as long as you can, you eat when you can’t ride anymore and you sleep when you can neither ride nor eat.) We saw Yorkshire Rob enquiring about a room at the hotel we were staying at. They were full as were the neighbouring places. He decided to just start riding up Lovcen. Crazy. When we finally got up to the checkpoint the next day we saw his name marked down as arriving in the wee small hours of the morning. Nails.
to be continued….