Photo: Somewhere in Piemonte. The view from the top of the last climb of the day.
“Nothing serious” said the doctor to me one week before my 400k PBP qualifier. We were at the Guardia Medica not for me, but for my wife Jan. She had spent a week in bed with a fever, headache, fatigue and sensitive skin. We were dispatched to the hospital for an x-ray which revealed she had a lung infection. As I was coughing and spluttering the doctor checked me over.
“Nothing serious” but I was really tired for the week before the audax. How tired? Here’s a clue. Twice a day, I had to sterilise all the nebuliser equipment that Jan had been prescribed to use. One afternoon, I put the pan on to boil and set the alarm for eight minutes and sat down. I woke up two hours later to a strange smell from the kitchen.
I wondered if I should even attempt the ride, especially as I had to drive 400km just to get to the start. I’ve entered two of every qualifying ride so if not this one I had another the following weekend (more of that later).
I loaded the car and headed for Milan ready for the 19:00 start.
The good news was that the first 125km were flat. The bad news was that I just couldn’t keep up with a succession of groups that overtook me. My legs felt fine, I just couln’t get enough oxygen through my lungs to fuel them. Being alone I could slow a little and take a photo. This one aptly represents the separation of my lungs from my legs.
Leaving a town called Bereguardo at 35km a small group formed behind me as we crossed a fabulous bridge made up of metal boats and wooden planks. Many of the planks were missing or damaged so quite a bit of bunny hopping to get across.
We were now a grupetto of six. One of the joys of audaxing is that you never know who you might end up riding with. This group had three of us rotating at the front and three who, let’s just say, needed some encouragement. After one spell at the front I signalled with my elbow and pulled out to the left. The two other load sharers pulled past me, then no one. Where had they gone? I looked over my left shoulder and there they were, all three of them in a line behind me. ‘That’s not how it works’ I thought, and pulled out even further and dabbed the brakes. They got the hint as I sat on the back watching them catch up with the other two. From then on in we shared the load and pushed on to the first climb. At least I could keep up with and contribute to this group.
The other two original load sharers were experienced riders who signalled turns, pot holes and the like. One rider however had a different technique. No signal, no shout, just a swerve around the hole. I knicknamed him ‘split-second swerver’.
As we hit the first climb the group split. We all rode up to the first control in Carpeneto at our own pace. My brevet card was stamped at 00:40. We were 134km in and the small piazza was littered with riders putting on tights and jackets for the colder hours before dawn.
I left the control alone to continue climbing then the long descent to the mediterranean coast. On a flatter section I was slowly overtaken by another group. I’d been alone for some time so I decided to see if I could hang on to them. I dropped off the back a few times but managed to catch up each time. I am ashamed to say I didn’t introduce myself (bad form Colin) but I was so tired that I just wanted to keep up if I could.
When we reached the coast at Varazze the group headed for a bar. This was my chance to introduce myself and make up for my breach of cycling etiquette. I headed straight to the barista and explained that I would pay for everyone’s coffee. The ice was broken.
Aurora asked my why I bought the coffee. I explained that I was new to the group and was happy to do so. Before realising I wasn’t Italian she talked about a TV advert that I’d never seen. As far as I could make out the ad has a line about when you have washed something it is no longer new. Her sentiment was that now I have washed (bought the coffee) I am now no longer new to the group. A wonderful welcome.
As we started the second 200k back to Milan we saw a number of runners from time to time heading towards us. I thought, blimey these mediterraneans like exercising at stupid o’clock in the morning. Maybe they thought the same about us. There were just too many to be a random set of keen runners. I later discovered they were competing in the Milan-San Remo Ultra Marathon. 285km in 48 hours. And some people think Audaxers are mad.
Climbing back inland I joined up with Roberto at the back of the group. Me feeling under the weather, him with a dodgy knee. We chatted in English and Italian, shouting encouragement at the Ultra Marathon runners.
Approaching the second, and last control in Gavi I became detached from the group. My Wahoo telling me the route went the wrong way down a one way street. I used the mapping to cycle around it and rejoined the course. Then I saw the sign for leaving Gavi. Damn, I had missed the control. Heading back I was relieved to find the rest of the group refuelling, shedding clothes ready for the final leg back to Milan. Another coffee, this time Paolo paid, Grazie Paolo, and we were in our way.
One more beast of a climb before the 80km flat section. Riding with Roberto again he was our guide. He’d ridden the course twice previously so let us know how many metres climbing were left etc. It was quite steep in places, I joked that he didn’t tell us that the climb was the son of Cippo.
Once on the flat the pace settled at about 28-32km/h. I was back where I started. Struggling to keep up. After a stop I made a point of getting towards the front so I could do one stint to say thank you then drop back to a speed I could manage. In second spot I waited and waited for my turn. The rider in front of me chose to do a heroic 10km on the front, only ending when we came to a roundabout and the group split temporarily. I was done. I couldn’t get back to the front again. Sorry guys, I did try.
With 28km to go, for the second Audax in a row, I heard the crunch of bike and rider on the tarmac. I looked ahead to see a bike still tumbling and the rider down in the middle of the road. I have no idea how it happened. Roberto stopped to halt the traffic behind, I went ahead to stop the oncoming traffic. A guy in a van stopped and came to help with a medical kit. How kind. Between him and the other riders they patched her up so she could continue. Looking at the torn shorts, plaster on her chin and strapped wrist she was in some pain but was determined to carry on. Brava.
Roberto and I were struggling again. After a stop for water with 19km to go it was just the two of us. Roberto’s knee was giving him jip. I ended up on the front for the rest of the ride. I wasn’t feeling great but happy to repay the help and company I had received from the group.
I reckoned we had a chance of finishing by 16:00, twenty one hours in total. As we could see the finish line it was 15:56. It wasn’t important, but it appealed to my OCD to get round in 21 hours. In the queue for the finishing stamp the seconds ticked by. I saw the injured rider trying to get her brevet card out of her bag. I left the queue and offered to get her card stamped for her. Bollocks to the 21 hours, she needed some help. I handed her card in first. Then mine. The time on my brevet card: 21 hours 00 minutes.
Roberto and Colin. Two riders very happy to have finished.
As for next weekend’s 400k back up ride, I’ve received this message from the organiser:
“Valuta qualche altra manifestazione ! 3B Meteo prevede sul Passo della Calla 48 cm di neve con una temperatura di -2 gradi (percepita -5). Forse tu sei più abituato al maltempo ma così mi sembra un po’ troppo. Comunque sto valutando il da farsi e vi terrò aggiornati.”
In essence it’s warning me that next weekend’s forecast for one of the passes (1,200m) is -2° with 45cm of snow. The event might not go ahead.*
How glad am I that I decided to do the Randonnée Carlo Galletti and in the process invent a new form of biathlon. Drive 400Km, ride 400km, drive 400km.
A big thank you to Luciano and his team for organising a great event and all the riders who helped me along the way. Grazie.
*Update: 1st May 2019. This weekend’s 400k event has been cancelled. The organiser thought it was too dangerous to climb 1,200m in the cold and snow. Reluctantly, I agree.
2019 YEAR TO DATE
Distance: 3,857 km
Average distance per ride: 128 km
Elevation gain: 32,622m (3.68 Everests)