The Kindness of Strangers

Photo: The Giro di Muscoli is an international tour, so I rode to another country during my training. The Republic of San Marino.

Here’s the exchange between me and Ron when I told him about my training plans. Ron is Gerben’s brother whose planning on joining me on the Giro di Muscoli (GdM) from the Hook of Holland to Fano (Stages 2 – 15). I understood Ron’s concern but I really wanted to find out if I could ride for 16 days before taking on the GdM. If Ron completes the challenge it will be more of an achievement than me as he works full time. I’m retired, I have no excuses.

Planning to ride 80% of each day’s Giro di Muscoli (GdM) distance was one thing. Doing it would be another. Having only every ridden 6 days in a row before, 16 was quite a jump.

The GdM starts on a Saturday, so that’s when I started. I’m not sure a sports nutritionist would recommend my fuelling regime for my first ride. It was a club ride. As we are a very sociable club, I just had to go with the flow. Coffee and pastry before the ride, another coffee and pastry stop followed by a spritz and nibbles at the end. To cap it off, club members Gio Mare and Patti produced a plate of antipasti from their fish shop next door.

If I carried on like this then it was going to be a long 16 days. Once the Sunday’s club ride was out of the way then I’d be riding solo for most of the remaining 14 days, so at least I could control my stopping and eating.

The first week went well. No major incidents, no great stories to tell. Out the door before 07:00 to get back before the leg sapping heat of the afternoon. By Thursday afternoon I’d completed rides to Orsoleto (160km), the Conero (190km), San Marino (174km) and Foci (106km). 81% of the distance and 88% of the climbing.

The big news of that week was a post on Strava by my cycling friend Sonia. I was taken aback and humbled by her words. I have to admit I find it hard to read them without a lump in my throat. As a result, more donations came in, including from Douglas and Jas, people I’ve never met. The kindness of strangers. Thank you.

The Friday to Monday of the second weekend will be four days in the Alps, from Bregenz to Milan, taking on the Stelvio and the Gavia passes on the way. Fortunately we have our own mini Alps about 50km away, so achieving the training distance wasn’t going to be a problem.

Friday’s climb to the summit of Monte Nerone was when all the fun started. I’d climbed it before on the second best road to the summit (a bit ropey), descending on the best road (perfectly fine). I thought I’d try the third road up. That was a mistake. It’s the smallest of the ‘roads’. Think wide track with some remaining tarmac but many gravel sections. It’s the first time I have ever got off my bike and walked. Not because of the incline, not because of my legs, but because in some sections the incline and stones provided no grip whatsoever. I could neither go forward, or stay upright. Time to walk. At least those sections were only 20-30 metres or so and I only had to do that three times.

As I neared the top I could hear a couple of helicopters buzzing above and around me. I wondered if they wanted to find out what kind of nutter was climbing the mountain on this route. It turned out they were Italian Army helicopters practising medevac drills. Just short of the summit they were landing gently, opening the doors, waiting for two minutes, closing the doors, then taking off again. I was only 50m from them. I’d love to show you a photo or a video but the Military Police were also there to make sure no one took pictures. I say no one, I mean me, as I was the only other person there.

Pushing on to the summit I recorded my presence at our local version of Mont Ventoux. 1,500m above sea level, it’s a decent climb from the coast.

I didn’t realise how prophetic this photo of the view would be. A few minutes later my right knee wouldn’t look like this.

I descended a few metres to the round car park just below the summit. I later learnt that the reason the car park is round is that it’s a helipad. I was taking some more photos when a gust of wind hit me and blew me off the bike. I’d only unclipped my left foot so fell to my right on my knee, elbow and shoulder. Oh the embarrassment. I lay under the bike trying to assess the damage before attempting to get up. A motorcyclist came over, pulled the bike off me and asked if I was ok? “Have to you had a heart attack?” he enquired. A slightly odd question, but as only the week before I’d had an ECG stress test for my cycling licence then I assured him I was fine, just my pride was hurt. He offered water and the contents of his medical kit. Another example of the kindness of strangers. One of the side effects of Covid is that I carry sanitising gel with me now so I used that on my knee. Despite being on the helipad I had no need to signal the helicopters for a medevac.

Later in the descent, the motorcyclist passed me and waved. I waved back confirming I was fine. A brief exchange between strangers that lifted my spirits. Thank you.

The next day was Monte Catria. The climb starts in earnest at a water fountain. Cold, clear mountain water. It’s obviously good quality as the motorist from Pesaro (some 60km away) explained that he collects the water every week as his wife says it’s the best for cooking with. He also warned me that the road was dangerous for punctures as a section had no tarmac. Fortunately I’d climbed the same route the year before so I knew what I was letting myself in for. I also knew that the first section was steep. It’s only about 300m long but topping out at 20% it’s a hard start to the climb. It eases after that but the legs are really feeling it after the initial ramp.

The tarmac runs out with 8km to the summit to go. It’s so frustrating when you apply power and the rear wheel slips. I tried higher gears but I wasn’t strong enough to maintain enough speed, so back down to the 28 and occasional use of the 32 to keep going. At the next junction a group of Italian cyclists asked me route advice, followed by the same request from a group of motorcyclists at the summit. I was very happy to repay some of the kindness I’d been shown. Both groups found it amusing they were getting advice from a foreigner with local knowledge.

Monte Catria – a lot easier to get up by cable than riding

The good news was the descent was all tarmac. I’d survived all the stones on the way up only to get, you guessed it, a puncture only 300m into the descent on the black stuff. It proved to be the only puncture during the 16 days. Back home safely I’d completed my Stelvio Pass local equivalent. By now I’d ridden 1,135km (85%) / 9,964m climbing (86%) of the Giro’s equivalent to the same point.

My Gavia Pass training took the form of Monte Petrano. The tarmac is good all the way up so I was not alone. As I neared the summit I saw a rider in my club uniform rushing towards me. It was Mauro on his way home.

Many cyclists make the climb to the memorial to Michele Scarponi and all cycling victims of the road. Always a sobering moment.

My final day of Alpine training was on the Monday. After seeing me on Petrano, Mauro asked if I wanted some company. I was glad of the offer. We had a great ride up to Urbino and back down to the coast before a beer and nibbles at the club bar to mark the end of 10 days riding. Thank you Mauro.

Tuesday was Rest Day. I rode 35km first thing. One of my cycling mates, Steve, asked the legitimate question “What’s your understanding of the word rest Colin?” I explained that the GdM’s Ambassador Henk Lubberding (TdF Stage winner and yellow jersey wearer) advised us to ride 30-40km easy riding on the rest day, as the pros do. Just to keep the muscles moving and to make sure the mind does’t think it’s all over. 

The next three days were replicating the relatively flat route of Milan – Parma – Bologna – Cattolica through the Po valley. By the end of the week I’d clocked up 1,744km (85% of the GdM) and climbed 14,684m (89%). I was in good shape and had some km and climbing in hand for the final weekend.

The final Saturday of the GdM will see us climbing Il Cippo, the famous training hill of Marco Pantani. As it was a Saturday, and we had ICC rider Jyde staying with us then we both joined the Pansèrs for a club ride instead of taking on the big climb. Even then it proved to be quite eventful.

Jyde was keen to join us even though he’d only arrived the night before after he and Emilia had driven for two days from London. He’d climbed the Alce Nero last September during the Twinning weekend, so he knew what he was letting himself in for. Or so he thought.

It’s a 7km climb rising 400m, so a gentle but constant rise. There were two differences this time, one would prove telling. The bike that I’d arranged to borrow for Jyde only had a 24 ring on the back and it was hot. Very hot. 4km in Jyde had to stop for a rest. After re-starting he stopped again, not feeling too well, and had dismounted. By this time, Giovanni had joined us at the rear of the group. I could see Jyde struggling so grabbed his bike. At that point his eyes rolled and he fainted. He fell backwards and hit his head on the rocks. The good news is that his helmet saved him and came round soon after and asked “What am I doing on the ground?”. We explained as we gave him water.

Then a car passed, stopped, reversed back to us and asked if we needed help. It turned out to be a guy called Andrea from the nearby agriturismo Girolomoni. He offered to take Jyde and his bike there to take care of him and we could ride up to meet him. I helped the sweat drenched Jyde into Andrea’s car whilst Giovanni put the bike in.

When we got to the B&B Jyde was sitting under the shade with water and apple juice. He was feeling much better. We called the rest of the group to explain what had happened and they decided to ride back down from the summit to see that Jyde was ok – and have a small beer whilst we were at it. No opportunity missed.

Jyde felt so much better that he even suggested we complete the climb. As his host I suggested it would be better if we rode back down the hill really slowly and back to Fano where my car awaited. We took the more sensible option and headed straight back to the bar where we started. That gave us time for a biretta, some snacks and chat. No opportunity missed.

I was struck again by the kindness of strangers. Andrea stopped to help a foreigner in trouble at the roadside. A Good Samaritan.

As Jyde discovered, the heat can be ferocious at this time the year. I was riding in 30° plus every day, sometimes in the 40s. I drank several swimming pools of water during the 16 days. The good news is that I know where many of the fountains are, or failing that there are many bars to get a top up. To give you an idea, when I returned from one ride I forgot to turn my bike computer off. After only 10 minutes in the direct sun my Wahoo was telling me just how hot it was. The temperature in the bottom right hand corner is in Celsius, not Fahrenheit.

Sunday morning. The last of my 16 day adventure. It was a special day, but for another reason.

The day started with me in our kitchen having a pre ride coffee when I heard a voice. I thought I recognised it, but surely not. I listened again and could hear “Good morning Jyde, good morning Colin, we are here”. It was Marco, Nadia, Rodolfo and Sabrina. They had ridden up to surprise us and accompany us to the start. What a lovely thing to do. Thank you.

Before I joined my Italian club, two members had died of cancer. Michele and Stefano. In 2015 the Centinarolese organised a race for young riders in their memory. I was a marshal for that event and have been every year since. For obvious reasons there was no memorial race this year. Instead we rode around the race circuit followed by a visit to the two cemeteries where Michele and Stefano rest. It says something that more than 5 years after their passing the whole club turned out to honour them. I never met either of them but I know just how much they mean to the Pansèrs. Jyde wore his ICC jersey to represent their Twinned club. It was a humbling end to my training adventure. Humbling and an honour.

Over the 16 days I rode, mostly solo, 1,856km (84% of the GdM), climbed 15,718m (84%) and burnt 52,567 calories, which meant I was back to my pre pandemic weight. The GdM diet is not recommended for every one.

For the record, here’s the full set of rides:

I set out to discover if I could ride every day for 16 days. We’ve worked for three years to organise the Giro di Muscoli. I don’t want to fail because I wasn’t prepared. I’m confident I am now ready for the GdM. Whether the GdM is ready for us is another question. We do hope we can complete the Giro in September.

One of the main features of this training was the kindness of strangers. Sonia’s friends making donations, the motorcyclist helping me after my fall and Andrea helping Jyde after he collapsed. It’s a reminder that with all the bad stuff going on the world there are many kind human beings willing to help. Thank you.

If you have been inspired by either my cycling efforts or the acts of kindness then please consider a donation to the Giro di Muscoli to help fight Motor Neurone Disease. Thank you.

UK donations (please include Gift Aid if you qualify)

Giro di Muscoli, Colin’s JustGiving

Euro donations

girodimuscoli.com, Colin’s page

Thank you

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