Photo: How many times in your life will your bike computer say 1,603km to go?
Some conversations are lost in the wind, others turn out to be prophetic. The one I’d just had was to haunt me all day on Wednesday.
It was Monday morning in Parabagio, Milan, the start/finish location of the 1001 Miglia Italia 16th – 22nd August 2021. Billed as the toughest audax in Europe, it’s 1,603km through seven Italian regions and 16,000m of climbing, almost all of it in the first 1,200km.
I’d parked next to a Dutch rider called Bret. We chatted about the impending challenge. He was riding with two friends, I was starting alone. We discussed the pros and cons of riding in a group vs solo. I recall him saying “Once you’ve committed to a group, it’s difficult to get away”.
Covid protocols demanded we start in small groups and released every five minutes. I happened to be the first to get my QR code scanned in my group and headed off alone at 16:16. What happened over the next five days was not in my plan, but that’s the point of an adventure, you have to be prepared for anything.
My plan was to ride through the first night and day reaching the first bag drop control at Castelnuovo Berardenga (591km), sleep and then ride 300km+ each day allowing for 4 hours sleep each night. I wanted to ride in the daylight as much as possible to take in the views. I had enough food on board to get me through the first night, so no need to spend time eating at the controls. I’m accustomed to the heat so riding in the afternoon wasn’t going to be a problem, as it was for so many others. I planned to finish sometime on Saturday morning, leaving at least 16 hours contingency.
Ten minutes into the ride I caught a group containing someone I knew. Not just any randonneur but Guiseppe (Pino) Leone, the National Captain of Audax Randonneur Italia (ARI). A veteran of multiple PBP, LEL, Due Isole, 999km, 1001Miglia and many more. Pino happens to live 15km from me. We’ve ridden together before, but never an audax. I asked if I could ride with him. Pino said I was “always welcome”. He was riding with three friends, Gennaro, Luigi and Rafaelle.
We made good speed, arriving at the first control Castellania (112km) in 4 hours 40 minutes, despite a supermarket stop and a crash by another rider in our larger group. As it was a water only control and the next one was only 53km away I thought a 10 minute pit stop and we’d be off. I knew that Castellania was the home of Fausto Coppi, but I hadn’t allowed for the time my fellow riders wanted to take paying homage to the great man. We stopped for nearly 40 minutes.
As we left, a voice from the darkness stopped me in my tracks. “Colin, stop, Colin, stop”. It was Bret. He told me I’d left the windows of my car open. He’d let the organisers know. Nothing I could do about it but call them in the morning. Maybe that 40 minutes delay was meant to be.
My nagging doubts about time slipping by began to grow at the next control Casella Ligure (165km). In the road book it was another water only control. To our surprise it had food, so guess what. We stopped to eat. About to set off someone suggested coffee. I headed to the bar speed things along and pay for the round. The coffee machine wouldn’t work. They kept assuring me it would be a few moments, but five coffees from a capsule machine took 20 minutes. I suppose that caffeine and time related stress were good to keep me awake during the night at least.
Stage 3 was our night ride. 92km with 1,194m of climbing to Deiva Marina. After three of our number grabbed some sleep we set off for a big day of climbing. I was only a few hours behind my original schedule but I was with company so all good.
We spent the day pointing upwards and downwards through the stunning scenery of the Cinque Terra.
A real pleasure to ride with these guys. Lots of nice chat and I learnt a few more words.
Not only did we have to contend with the climbing and the heat but I had a few other issues to manage. I called the organisers about my car. They had very kindly covered the windows in plastic. They suggested that I might be able to leave my key at a control as one of the on-course photographers might be able to retrieve it and return it to the start, but no promises. I thanked them and waited for the call to tell me where to hand over the key. The call never came so the thought that my car might be broken into remained in the back of my mind for the whole ride.
Then my Wahoo decided to flip to Indoor mode for no reason which turned off the gps, so I lost a whole section of kilometres and climbing before I realised what had happened. We all know how annoying that is, to ride the km and the climb but not get credited for it.
Even more stressful was when my dynamo driven re-charger stopped working. It’s so useful being able to re-charge on the go. Now I had to re-charge at every control. My problem was that I didn’t have an adapter, so I had to wait until another rider left a spare USB slot for me to use, wasting more time. I needed to buy an adapter but the mountain roads weren’t exactly littered with electrical shops, and it was feria, so they’d probably be shut anyway.
Here’s the profile of the two stages we completed on Tuesday:
The third lump in the first stage was really tough. It was only 500m high but steep. 15% in places. It was a hard grind to the summit. When I got there the road was littered with cyclists lying in the road, shoes off, exhausted. I joined them.
The problem with the above graphic is that it shows only two stages. My plan was to do three that day, collect my bag drop and sleep for several hours. During the afternoon/evening it was obvious we’d only manage two stages before midnight. In another twist the guys announced they had a hotel booked for the night and they’d booked me a room. This was so very kind of them, but I wanted to keep going to the bag drop. I felt I couldn’t really refuse. I began to replay in my head the conversation I’d had with Bret on Monday morning.
Just to make matters more challenging I started to feel sore down below. Both front and rear. I’ve never used chamois cream. I completed PBP without it, no problem, so why now? I’ve subsequently concluded that it was the sweat drying out leaving salt crystals behind that then ground into my skin leaving it raw. “Pouring salt into the wounds” as they say.
Before turning in for the night we agreed to meet for breakfast at 07:00 for a 07:30 sharp departure. I was now 11 hours behind my original plan. Not wanting to hold anyone up, I was outside the hotel, ready to roll at 07:25. We left at 07:48. We were in Italy.
All day Wednesday I was plagued by the dilemma of should I stay with the group or go on my own. I had trained and prepared so much to be able to complete the ride within the 132 hour limit, I didn’t want to risk not making it. I felt even more anxious after San Gimignano. It’s a stunningly beautiful town but very busy. We had some food then battled our way through the tourists pushing our bikes to get photos in the piazza. I’d been there a couple of years ago so didn’t need to see it again. The combination of traffic, eating and being tourists cost us more than an hour.
We completed the first stage of the day, Castelnuovo Berardenga (591km) at 2pm. Would I use up all my contingency time and finish beyond the limit or would we start riding more and stopping less to make up some time? At least my physical stress was reduced at this bag drop control. I washed and changed into my Islington Cycling Club jersey. Even better news was that I managed to buy a tin of Nivea cream in the shop across the road, so now my sores had some relief. I’d not experienced that feeling before. I knew it was the right thing to do but riding whilst feeling I’d shat myself took some getting used to.
The second stage of the day was physically comfortable but mentally I was in turmoil.
I hadn’t managed to find a USB adapter so I was still having to charge my bike computer and phone via someone else’s USB port. This gave me an idea.
We reached the second control of the day at 9pm. That was the problem. We had only ridden 172km that day. At this pace we would not make it under 132 hours.
My problem was not as bad as a fellow Brit whose Di2 gear changer had broken and was out of the event. All I could do for him was act as interpreter to help explain his options for getting a train back to Milan.
Over dinner I made my decision. I explained to Pino that I wanted to push on as I couldn’t risk my battery running out during a stage. As an experienced randonneur he understood and confirmed I was under no obligation to stay with them. As the others headed off for a sleep, I headed off into the night.
Liberated from the group I made good progress along Stage 8. I got into a rhythm for the first 700m climb, using the moonlight to help guide me. I think I may have over-reacted to my new found freedom as I started to feel pain in both my knees toward the top of the first summit. I’d never had knee pain before, I was pushing too hard. For the second half of the stage I slowed down a little. Just as well as I had to look out for the SECRET CONTROL. I was the last rider to get my brevet card stamped in the restaurant before it closed in the early hours. Only in Italy would the pre departure information include details of a SECRET CONTROL. I really don’t know what ACP will make of that.
The control at Bolsena didn’t have the sleeping symbol in the road book so I’d have to sleep nearby. I was so tired by now that I could sleep anywhere. The control did in fact have a huge gym for us to sleep in. A SECRET SLEEPING CONTROL. I grabbed an hour and a half and set off again at 08:00 on Thursday morning. I’d made up some time but my plan to ride very long days and sleep for the core hours of the night had gone out of the window. I would now have to ride through the days and nights to finish on Saturday night. My cut off time was 04:15 Sunday morning, so I wanted to avoid any riding on the Sunday to reduce the risk of not finishing in time.
My new plan was ride – control – eat – sleep – repeat until the finish.
Thursday was a good day. After two big climbs in the morning I rode past Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, the closest point of the audax to my home 130km away. I briefly joked with myself about turning right and heading for home. That thought lasted two seconds.
Later in the day just after the fourth summit I started the descent but realised I needed a gilet. It was quite steep so I hooked my handlebars around a post to stop the bike rolling down the hill, which meant it was facing in the opposite direction. Then a 1001Miglia course car stopped beside me. “Are you lost?” I could see the reason for the question but no, I was fine. I explained my problem with re-charging and to my astonishment and gratitude Giorgio produced a USB adapter for me to use for the rest of the ride. I kissed it in gratitude. “Grazie mille, molto gentile, grazie, grazie”. In my excitement I completely forgot to hand over my car keys. They would be back at the start before me. Oh well, one problem solved, but the nagging about the car would remain.
Matassino Reggello (984km) was the second and final bag drop. A very welcome shower followed by fresh kit, the 1001 Miglia official jersey, and an hours sleep.
The official jersey was very smart but I felt I was wearing a packet of crisps.
I headed off on my third stage of the day. This was more like it. If I could get to the next control in good time, that would be at least 298km and lots of climbing for the day. I’d also make up more of the lost time and put me in a position to finish on Saturday. One day I must return to the climb between Matassino Reggello and Scarperia. It looked like stunning views and the roads were great. If only it wasn’t dark. During the climb I was contemplating a short stop but then I saw a couple red lights ahead. As I slowly drew them in and past the two Danish riders it gave me a real boost, picking up the pace to the summit. Those riders unwittingly helped me get to the top. Tak skal du have.
During the descent I could feel the effects of sleep deprivation. Eyes drooping, slight wandering across the road. I slowed to a safe pace until I saw a classic audax hotel. A bus shelter for 40 minutes sleep.
What happened next was to shape the rest of my ride.
Passing a petrol station I was whistled at to stop. Two German riders were with an Italian who was lying on the forecourt. They spoke English, I spoke Italian so I became the link man. The Italian had got off his bike with stomach pain and then collapsed. I asked if he needed an ambulance, but he said no, just some food. We all dipped into our stocks to refuel him and after 20 minutes he got back on his bike. I kept asking him if he really wanted to carry on as collapsing was a serious issue. He said he was fine. I organised us into a team to escort him to the next control, which was only 20km of flat riding away. Thomas suggested we give him a code word in case he needed to stop. I told Pietro to shout “Help me” if he had a problem. I’ve no idea why I explained in Italian to use an English phrase. Fatigue does strange things to you.
I rode at the front with Thomas beside me and the other rider beside Pietro. With 7km to go I heard “Help me, help me”. My heart stopped for a moment. What’s the problem? I asked. “Bar, bar, bar” came the reply. He had seen a bar open and wanted a coffee. Only an Italian would rank a coffee higher than getting to the control. We decided to split up. Thomas and I rode to report the incident at the control, the other rider would stay with him. I duly reported in and they said “Typical Italian, we’ll wait half an hour before going out to look for him”. They then arrived safely at the control. Job done but valuable time used up.
At Scarperia (1,062km) Thomas and I discussed riding together. We agreed that we would try it and if it didn’t work then we’d split, no explanations or apologies needed. We both wanted to finish on Saturday evening. I explained my ride – control – eat – sleep – repeat plan. It was the only way we’d make the remaining 540km under the time limit.
We set off on Friday morning for the final big climb of the route. Thomas admitted he would have climbed quicker than our pace. I said I had another speed but it was slower, not faster. At the summit of Passo del Giogo we enjoyed a great breakfast at Ristorante Il Giogo. The signora in the café was a delight. So friendly and helpful.
We enjoyed the fast descent and flat section all the way to the motor racing circuit at Imola. Thomas turned out to be a faster descender than me. When I did manage to catch him I enquired “As I am slower in the climb and slower in the descent than you, would you like to reconsider riding with me?”. He didn’t hesitate to say no, he was quite happy to stay together. That was his little “Shall I stay or should I go?” moment.
At the Lugo control (1,153km) we met up with Thomas’ friend Patrizia who lived nearby. A welcome respite. We also bumped into Salvatore who I’d ridden the 300km Passo Giau audax some weeks before. He’s a stronger rider than me which meant he could get more sleep. He offered for him and his partner to team up with us for the next stage across the Po valley. We formed a chain gang and make good speed across the flat terrain. Thomas was in P3, me in P4. By the time Thomas had done his turn at the front and I pulled alongside for mine he said “We need to talk”. He simply couldn’t cope with the speed in the heat. I told him to go to the back, I’d do my turn at the front then I’d explain to Salvatore that we’d let them go, which we did.
I’ve been cycling through Italian summers for the last six years so I’m accustomed to the heat. Thomas lives in Hanover, northern Germany so this was a shock to the system. We slowed down. I really didn’t want Thomas to get heat stroke. The route was brutal. Although flat the roads weren’t great and we were completely exposed. No shade. In the climbs and descents Thomas was stronger, now the situation was reversed. With no water fountains we had to keep going to the next bar. Thomas was really struggling in the furnace like conditions.
Relief eventually came at a bar in Santa’Antonio. We stopped for ice cold Coke Zero (traditional Coke is way too sweet for me), ice creams and water. Poor Thomas was not well. I began to have that “Should I stay or should I go” debate in my head all over again. We still had 417km to go. No big climbs but two afternoons in the baking heat. Talking to Thomas I could see he very much wanted to carry on and finish, but could he? After about forty minutes Thomas felt a little better and was prepared to give it another go.
I really didn’t like that stage. Being flat was actually part of the problem. All riders were by now very tired so we needed some distraction to keep our minds active. Long straight roads with completely flat land either side were soporific and therefore dangerous. With no villages in sight we had to detour to get more water and yet more Coke Zero and ice cream. Keeping a steady pace we arrived at Massa Finalese (1,245km). Only a sadist would chose a control with the word ‘final’ in it with 357km still to go! At least we spotted Pietro tucking into a watermelon. Great to see he’d recovered and making good progress.
Another cycle of control – eat – sleep – ride to Pieve Coriano (1,313km) for our third stage of the day. This time upon the dykes alongside the river Po. They were flat, but of variable quality. One section in particular had pools of deep gravel. Bike control on top a dyke in the dark was not a test we were expecting. We wobbled a few times but managed to stay upright. The thought of coming off the dyke and into the river was too horrendous to contemplate.
From Pieve Coriano we had three stages and 287km to go. A night ride, a morning ride and an afternoon/evening ride was all that was left between us and the finish.
The night ride included a stop at dawn for a quick snooze, coffee and croissant. The signs of sleep deprivation and fatigue were etched on my face, though somehow I did manage a smile.
The night ride ended in Colorno (1,400km) at a café control. I asked an Italian chap in the bar why he had an England Rugby shirt on. He explained that the RFU sent coaches to various Italian clubs to help improve their game. He got his shirt from Nick Scott, who is now Director of Rugby at Colorno and at Pesaro (18km from where I live).
Fombio (1,479km) was next. I asked Thomas how he thought he’d be in the heat. He’d decided that the fear of the heat had almost caused the problem, rather than the heat itself. Now he’d been through a tough time he thought he’d be able to cope with it. I really hoped so. I wanted us to finish together on Saturday.
During the ride to Fombio I developed another problem. One of my neck muscles was giving me some pain. It was as a result of sleeping without a pillow for the previous nights. I started to struggle to keep my head up and to look at the road ahead. Coping strategies included rubbing my neck, standing on the pedals to ride, holding the handlebars with my fingertips to keep me as upright as possible and short spells tucked behind Thomas’ wheel so I could stare at his gears and not look up.
Fombio was a glorious control. An old castle, it was well equipped with beds in lots of little rooms. As we were only 120km from the finish we decided on a wash/shower but no sleep. I also managed a smile, of sorts, before heading off.
We left Fombio with an objective to finish before it got dark on Saturday night. This left us about 6 hours or so. We suspected we’d need some sleep along the way, even just a nap, but we both felt like horses returning to the stable. Our morale picked up with every kilometre especially when we had less than 100km to go. That was quite a moment. My morale started to fall after that as the pain in my neck got worse. I was really struggling to keep my head up.
After climbing out of Pavia to Zorbolo we heard another whistle from the side of the road. This time it was a proper SECRET CONTROL. After following instructions to get our brevet card stamped we decided on one final snooze before the final 60km. The café owner kindly let us re-arrange the garden furniture into the shade as it was still far too hot in the direct sunshine.
Refreshed we headed off for the victory lap. I must admit to feeling resentful that the last kilometres were not the pleasure of achievement I was hoping for but constant re-positioning to relieve the growing pain in my neck, despite having taken painkillers.
We crossed the WW2 boat bridge over the Ticino river for the second time. The last time was 5 days before on our way out. Our physical state was very different between the two crossings. The first was at 47km, the second at 1,554km.
Signs for Parabagio came into view as we finished the cycle lane section and back on the roads for the final few kilometres. It was still light. I even managed to miss the turn to the stadium as I was resting my neck. Thomas shouted to retrieve me. We passed my car. To my relief it hadn’t been broken into, the organisers had done a great job looking after it.
We rode the final few hundred metres side by side to the last scan of our QR codes. Crossing the finish line I was expecting a flood of emotion as I did when I finished PBP, but it didn’t come. I was just delighted and relieved. We’d both finished well within the limit of 132 hours. My official time was:
123 hours 33 minutes 13 seconds (8 hours 26 minutes 47 seconds to spare)
As Thomas started after me his time was:
123 hours 21 minutes 49 seconds (The German had won on penalties)
After checking our brevet cards and all the QR control times we were presented with our finishing certificates and medals. Our priority then was to enjoy that cold beer we’d been promising ourselves since we started riding together. Ice Cold in Parabagio.
We’d made it. We’d kept the pedals turning, but in no small part due to the support and encouragement of so many people along the way.
My lack of re-charging on the bike meant I couldn’t respond as much as I wanted to the many messages of support I received from friends and family, Pansèr club mates, ICC club mates and Raiders. I read all their messages which really helped, especially when I was riding solo.
In turn I was able to help others along the way. I am so happy to have repaid some the debt that I owe to others for helping me over the years to get to a position where I can ride 1,001 Miles in less than 132 hours. Who knew?
Thomas wrote this on Strava:
I responded with this:
“Should I stay or should I go?” I looked up the times for my original group to see if they made it in under 132 hours. Let’s just say I made the right decision. I also made the right decision to stick with Thomas.