Oh what a night

Photo: Ready to go. One of my cycling buddies said I looked like a character from a horror movie. Thank you S.

That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike. Having taken up cycling three years ago I have said that a few times, but each time it’s true. This time it was completing the Randonnée della Fortuna. A 300k audax, starting at 22:00 in the Adriatic town of Fano, with 5,430 metres of climbing. That’s brutal.

It was a weekend of firsts. My first Audax after joining Audax UK, my first night ride, my first use of a hub dynamo, my first official step towards qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris in 2019.

I was really excited during the day but I did manage a couple hours kip in the evening to prepare for a sleepless night. I arrived at the start to be welcomed by many of my Italian club friends who turned out to surprise me and see me off. I must admit to have been touched by their support. As we left the Piazza in Fano they cheered me on. An Italian asked if I was famous. Not really, just the only foreigner in the entire field. Worth remembering the only foreigner bit – it comes up later in this story.

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We headed off en masse. The local police stopped the traffic so we could ride out of Fano not having to worry about cars and traffic lights. I felt like a proper cyclist. We remained as a single group until the first climb which spread the field into many groups. I watched a group of experienced randonneurs head off into the darkness.

After the first climb a rider introduced himself as Fausto, as in the famous Coppi. He asked permission to follow me. He admitted that he had no navigation for the ride. He had a Garmin but had only bought it a week before and didn’t know how to use it. I was a beginner but now I had responsibility for another rider.

We got to the first control in Urbino. It’s a university town as was very lively with students. They wanted to know what we were doing. “Why?” was the universal response. A good question.

At the control I spotted an old boy with his old school navigation. No navigational computer for him. Just a home made board with bulldog clips to keep the Roadbook on. Fantastic.

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We formed a much bigger group for the next section which started with a long descent. I learnt how to descend in the dark. A long single line, evenly spaced. I noticed that other riders left a gap equivalent to the main range of their light, using the light from the rider in front to provide the maximum amount of continuous illumination. No one changed positions. Getting down safely was the priority.

Once down we rode along the valley floor. Four of us were faster than the rest so we split from them. Fausto was in the other group so now others would have to help him get round.

The four of us started the climb to Carpegna. Bearing in mind we started at sea level and we’d already climbed two hills and valleys we had to get up to 815m just to start Il Cippo. At the control in Carpegna, 97.5km, we were stamped in at 03:27. Five and a half hours had elapsed. The combination of the climbing and the time spent at the first control meant we were just over an hour ahead of the control closure.

The Cippo was Marco Pantani’s training hill. There are tributes to him all the way up. It’s 6km long, rising 600m. It’s a relentless 10% with a short 20% kicker at the start. I have climbed the Cippo three times before but never at night and not so cold. It was 5° ambient less wind chill. In the photo at the summit it looks like Pantani’s ghost behind me.

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As I was the only one in our group to have climbed the Cippo I lead the descent. Pine needles all over the road made it very slippery, so all lights on and on the brakes. The next control was the same one as before the climb so that the organisers could check that every one who started the Cippo got back down safely. We clocked in at 05:08, only 22 minutes before the control closed. I’m not sure the riders behind got there in time, so hard was the climbing in the first third of the audax. We’d taken over seven hours to do 112.5 km.

At least we had a fast descent coming up. Once again I led to benefit from my local knowledge. The descent wasn’t that welcome as we all got so cold. We turned off for a very welcome climb to warm up. During this section the sun came up. That was a glorious feeling. I clocked my first yawn at 07:00. I had wondered what it would be like to miss a nights sleep. I discovered that the level of concentration needed to cycle at night meant that I never once felt mentally tired. Self preservation is a strong motivator.

During the next two climbs we caught up with another group, making us a ‘gruppetto’ of 10. We headed towards Urbania, well known in this area for it’s Festa della Befana in January.

Urbania turned out to be a turning point. Literally. As we approached a junction I heard “sinistra, sinistra” meaning “left, left”.  I shouted “No, no, destra, destra, seguiamo le frecce” which means “No, no, right, right, let’s follow the arrows”. The organisers had painted directional arrows at all the main junctions. “no, sinistra” was the mass response. Ironically, as the only non Italian I was also the only local. I had also ridden this particular part of the course the previous week so I knew where I was. I followed them for a short while until they realised their mistake and turned round. I did too and so was now ahead of them. I held my hand up to indicate the direction and headed back to the junction to get us back on course. Arriving at the junction I stopped to check on progress. They were nowhere to be seen! They had turned off somewhere compounding their original mistake. I waited for them to return but they didn’t. I decided not to spend a load of time trying to track them down and continued along the route to where it looped back to where we approached Urbania. I waited again but no sign of them. Maybe they had got ahead of me whilst I waited the first time. I headed off to the next control alone.*

This meant I could ride at my own pace. I made good progress, stopping for a coffee before taking on the penultimate climb of the day. Another 350m around Monte Nerone. At the control I explained what had happened. They all laughed when they realised that none of them listened to me because I was a foreigner. They hadn’t checked in so they were behind me. The amount of climbing meant that whilst I was now 188km into the ride I was still only 52 minutes ahead of the control closure.

At least I could now claim my reward. A 54km descent in the sunshine to the bottom of the next climb. That was such a great feeling. On the way down I caught up with Claudio and Fabio. Fabio was wearing his Randonneur d’italia kit, a lot more experienced than me. We stopped at the Furlo gorge to remove various layers and I exposed my legs and arms for the first time. It was 24°. I told Claudio and Fabio not to wait for me as I had to re-charge my Garmin from the power pack.

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The final climb of the day was another 226m towards the last control point in Orciano. Half way up the climb I saw Claudio and Fabio at the side of the road repairing a puncture. I asked if they need help but they waved me on.

At the final control point Claudio and Fabio shot past. I shouted “Controllo, controllo”. They didn’t know where it was so had to come back to it. I’d had coffee in the control cafe a few times so my local knowledge came in handy again. At least they listened to the foreigner.

We clocked in at 13:00, 2 hours 16 minutes ahead of the closure. That made me realise just how much climbing there had been in the first two thirds of the audax. I decided a small reward was in order:

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Claudio and Fabio suggested we ride the final 30km together. That was an honour for me to head home with a randonneur d’italia.

I felt even more honoured when Daniele, Gio, Marco, and Nadia from my club cycled out to accompany me home for the last 10km. More of my club mates were waiting for me at the finish. They treated me to the traditional recovery drink. Beer. What wonderful people the Pansèrs are. It was an emotional finish to the ride.

I finished with a time of 16 hours 28 minutes with nearly three hours to spare. What a night and day. At 5,430m climbing that’s more than half way up Mount Everest. It was a huge challenge but very satisfying.

I learnt a lot, especially about riding at night. I will need those skills for Paris-Brest-Paris.

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Year to date

4,591km / 43 rides / 106.7km average per ride

43,265m elevation gain (4.9 Everests)

 

*Update on the Urbania split:

I have just checked Strava Flyby. They turned off right before they got to me, rode through Urbania then headed back along the road we had just come down for 6km before they realised their mistake and turned round. An object lesson in herd mentality, sometimes the lone voice is right.

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