Photo: Six days in the Italian Alps.
“An extraordinary journey. The most stunning climbs of the Giro d’Italia in a single route”alpi4000.it
The alpi4000.it website warned it would be tough. 1,400km, more than 23,500m of climbing in under 150 hours for the BRM Brevet (valid for PBP 2023 pre-registration). The toughest ride I’d taken on so far. If I was to complete part 3 of 6 of the Italia del Grand Tour then I’d need to take it seriously. I needed a plan.
PROLOGUE – THE PLAN
My preparation included Sicilia No Stop five weeks before to get some endurance in the legs, a weeks rest, then three weeks of climbing training before tapering off the week before.
That was the plan. It didn’t happen.
A little souvenir from Sicily. Covid. My symptoms weren’t serious but I was so tired.
My training comprised of nine days in quarantine and only two days of climbing. I was really beginning to doubt if I could even make the start, let alone complete such a monster ride.
Here was my plan. At an average of 240km a day the distance wasn’t the problem. It was the climbing. Apart from the Tuesday, every day had between 3,000m and 5,000m of ascending.
I set myself a target for each of the six days I planned to ride. Starting on Saturday morning I hoped to finish by midnight on Thursday, leaving twelve hours of contingency during Friday 1st July. I wanted to finish all 14 stages in June.
DAY 1 – HARD TIMES
Imagine the nerves in the funnel for the start. Time to load the first stage whilst inching forward. “WTF?”. Where were the routes I’d loaded to my Wahoo two days before? Gone. Not on the head unit or the app. A mystery. Shepherded by the other riders I scanned the QR code that started my adventure. Pre-occupied with reloading the routes I forgot to start my ride. I didn’t record the first 3km, but we were underway.
The organisers thought it would be a good idea to start the audax with the Gavia Pass (2,652m). If it was hard for us then think about the ewe being driven along the road alongside her new lamb. Her umbilical chord still hanging from her uterus.
I bumped into my mate, Salvatore Pepe at the summit. We will ride LEL together, but for the Alpi4000 he’s too strong for me.
Next up, the Mortirolo (1,582m). An emotional return for me. The last time I descended the Mortirolo, in 2017, I fell and ended up with 10 stitches in my face. This time I wanted to avoid looking like this:
Shorter but steeper than the Gavia I ground my way up the Mortirolo to the end of Stage 1, reaching the summit one and a half hours before the control closed.
Getting down from the Mortirolo turned out to be a much safer ridge ride towards Aprica, then a fantastic descent on pristine roads (always a good idea to follow the route of the Giro d’Italia). With little traffic the white line marking the centre of the road slid from side to side underneath my wheels like a slithering snake.
Along the valley Adam from Audax Club Hackney kindly offered his wheel to help combat the headwind but I couldn’t keep up with him and told him to go on. We met again at the end of Stage 2 and crossed lake Como on the same ferry.
My plan for the day included one last climb. Ghisella (758m) started straight off the ferry. It was hard enough for me but then I spotted another rider from Audax Club Hackney. He had an unusual style as he stood on the pedals, his body swaying from side to side. As I got closer I was astonished at what I saw. Ivan was riding the Alpi4000 on a fixie!
At the summit, the Santuario Madonna del Ghisallo is dedicated to all cyclists. I chatted to Ivan the fixie rider. He could turn the wheel around for a choice of two gears. One for climbing and the other for descending/flat.Even so, this was a tough enough ride as it was but this was another level of madness.
All that remained was mostly downhill/flat to the end of Stage 3, the first day’s objective. On the way I spotted a pizzeria in Cantù. I couldn’t resist. They were so very helpful and really interested in the ride. “Durissimo” they said. Very hard.
I didn’t know it, but that’s when I made a new friend. A German rider walked in. We ordered a baby pizza each and started to chat. Christian was charming and we seemed to hit it off immediately. We agreed to ride together to the end of the Stage.
Soon after Cantù we encountered a number of provocatively dressed young ladies standing at the side of the road. At a junction one of them stood in the road just where we needed to turn. Waiting for traffic to clear I stood a condoms width from her, keeping my gaze straight ahead. No conversation. We must have stank with sweat. We were not what she was looking for, and vice versa.
DAY 2 – BONDING
Finishing Stage 3 before midnight kept me on plan. It was also the first bag drop. A bit early to change kit but we decided to shower and start Stage 4 to get ahead of the schedule. During the night we checked in to an audax hotel for 30 minutes sleep. We didn’t pick the best place. Disturbed by a bird, the town clock and a plane taking off from Malpensa.
At the end of Stage 4 we got some proper sleep for a few hours. The control reflecting my status as a Brit, registered as an Italian. Much the same as my helmet.
Shared experiences bring people together. Chatting at the control, climbing Oropa (1,220m) and not liking the gravel section on the descent brought us together.
A sign of a good friendship is honesty. When we first met I explained my plan and said I was happy to ride with anyone but I wanted to keep to my plan if I could. At the start of the climb to Ceresole Christian said he wanted to ride faster. I didn’t have ‘faster’ in my locker, especially not to keep up with someone twenty years younger. We happily agreed that Christian would push on. The ride up to the tunnel was hard enough but the cycle path around it was really steep in places. Several riders got off to walk. I was determined not to, even when my speed dropped to 6km an hour. I made a note of the location of the barriers across the path. The following day we would descend this path. Hitting the barriers would not be good.
Towards the end of the path I saw a rider in his PBP 2019 jersey at the side of the road. Quite a few riders were wearing the same one so it wasn’t until I got close and started to pass that I realised it was Christian. The tortoise had caught the hare. With candid honesty he said he’d overcooked it and had then been lazy. There’s nothing lazy about the climb to Ceresole.
We then rode together, finishing Stage 5 on Sunday evening at the refuge in Ceresole, still on plan. Over dinner we exchanged stories from our past. More bonding. We struck lucky at the control when a room became available. We slept back to back in a double bed for three glorious hours of sleep.
DAY 3 – CRUNCH TIME
At 04:15 we resumed climbing. I reckoned that if I could manage the three big climbs scheduled for today and finish around midnight then I should be able to finish within 150 hours.
First up, Colle del Nivolet (2,612m). A stunning climb.
Back down to the refuge for a second breakfast. We teamed up with a few others for the remaining descent. Six of us decided to go through the tunnel rather than the cycle path. What a thrill that was. No traffic. 50-60 kph for five minutes. Great fun.
After the descent, in Fiano, a dilemma. We’d lost Christian. I messaged and called. No response. Do I go back, wait or go on? I waited half an hour and decided to go on alone whilst the others searched for pizza.
A monster was lurking in the back of my mind. Colle delle Finestre (2,178m). Not just a huge climb but the last 7km was gravel. I’m not keen on gravel. I received some good advise on the Finestre from Giandonato Bava, one of the volunteers at the control. A good insight into what to expect. Over lunch Guiseppe suggested we ride together.
Over the 11km of tarmac hairpins I rode a bit ahead of him. When we hit the gravel, we swapped. He was stronger on the stones. I really struggled on the gravel. The sideways slipping was disturbing and the rear wheel slipping made me angry. It uses up so much more energy.
I’ve no idea how Chris Froome destroyed the peloton over the Finestre in the 2018 Giro d’Italia. I remember being in the Alps that day and watching it on TV. I now have a whole new appreciation of that extraordinary ride.
I posed at the summit.
But this is how I really felt immediately after I got up there.
Whilst preparing for the descent Guiseppe had a mechanical. His derailleur kept jamming on the chain and pulled towards the front ring. No way could he descend like that, very dangerous. He was lucky. A tourist at the summit agreed to drive him down to the next town to try and get the bike fixed. Guilherme arrived with news of Christian. He’d stopped to help Guilherme with a puncture and then started to feel unwell. He would continue slowly to see how he felt.
Guilherme, Susanne and I formed a new team for the descent. Tired from the Finestre none of us were looking forward to the final climb of the day, Sestriere (2,038m). Fuelled with pasta we started it in the dark. To our delight it was a smooth road and not too steep. We relatively zoomed up the climb. A huge boost to our morale. Guilherme peeled off to find a hotel, Susanne and I completed the big descent to reach the control at 01:30. It had been a very long day. 284km and just under 5,000m of climbing. We were wiped, but I was just about on schedule.
DAY 4 – CONFUSION
Fatigue does strange things to you. I fell victim to it at the control. Before starting off I asked permission to use a Thai riders USB port for a cheeky top up. After using the bathroom and preparing my bike I returned to my phone to find it on it’s own with no cable. Panic set in. Where was my cable? How could I re-charge my phone. I needed it to use the QR code at the controls and for emergencies. During the ride I’d chatted to Peera Suttianan from the group of Thai riders. I didn’t want to accuse anyone but could they please check their bags for my cable. They did, but no cable. I’d now have to find a shop en route and buy another.
Heading back to my bike I found my cable in my top tube bag. How did it get there? I had no idea. The mystery wouldn’t be solved for another four days, but the feeling of relief was overwhelming.
Having explained I wanted to complete three flat stages today Claudio suggested we ride together. We’d done so before so off we set.
At the beginning of the second stage confusion reigned again. Claudio disagreed with the route I was taking, pointing us in a different direction. We followed his route tentatively but stopped to discuss. He mentioned Stage 10, but we had just started Stage 9. He’d loaded the wrong route and was following his computers suggestion to the start of the next stage. Mystery solved. We returned to my route.
It started with the only section of the whole course that I walked. You can’t really tell from this photo but this 50m steep section with damp pebbles was impossible to ride. No grip whatsoever. This was a hiking section, not an audax.
Towards the end of the third stage we started to diverge. I was feeling really strong, Claudio suggested he wanted to find a hotel. I was determined to finish on plan so was happy to continue, Claudio decided to do the same but he slowed considerably. After 264km it started to rain for the last 9km. I pushed on in the drizzle to get dry and get some sleep at the control.
That night I received news from Christian. He’d got a fever after climbing the Finestre, had a night in a B&B, limped on to the end of stage 7 but had to call it a day. A real shame I wouldn’t see him again.
DAY 5 – “PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW“
My friend Mike had identified this day as a toughie. He was right. I paid the price for riding too hard the previous day. I found the first climb a real struggle. For the second climb Claudio and I had a 20 minute sleep on the way up. We experienced another boost to our morale when the summit came so much sooner than we were expecting. So quickly we passed over the summit, Londrino (657m), without stopping for photos.
What do you do when your riding partner wants to stop and you don’t? One of the reasons I enjoy audaxing is that we can ride with others or ride alone depending on how we feel. Claudio wanted to re-fuel before the climb, I wanted to press on. He rode back along the course to find food whilst I climbed alone. At the top I met two riders from nearby Senigallia for a chat about climbing the hills of Le Marche.
Next stop was the beautiful Lake Garda. Speeding through tunnel after tunnel to lake level was great fun. Then pay the price. Another climb. I can see from the natural beauty why we were climbing up from the lake but as we were to return to the it after the control, then maybe we could have had a rest and skipped the detour!
The tough Stage 11 done then one more before the big, and hopefully last, day.
As I approached the control one of the staff in a van drew alongside and said “Only 50 metres of climbing left then downhill to the control”. I appreciate he was trying to encourage me but lets just say there was a little more climbing to do before reaching the summit at Andalo (1,047m).
Arriving at the Spormaggiore control at 22:36 I could afford a few hours sleep before another early start. I received another boost as I was offered the luxury of an old massage bed to sleep on. Heaven.
Day 6 – THE BIG DAY
Thursday 30th June. The big day. I considered it the big one as it included the mighty Stelvio. It was both the Queen’s Stage and the last climb. If I could manage the remaining 4,000m of climbing today then I could indeed finish in June.
As my physical preparation was curtailed by Covid then I focussed on my mental preparation the week before. I prepared myself for some dark times. Steep climbs, cold, wet and tired. I was ready for it. This stood me in good stead as Alpi4000 wasn’t proving to be as bad as I’d mentally prepared for. The good weather playing a significant part in making it more pleasurable than it might have been.
The penultimate climb was a pleasure. Not too steep and smooth roads. My morale rose reaching the summit of Passo Palade (1,518m). Just one more climb left.
The ride from the Morano control to Prato allo Stelvio included more gravel sections. I’d had enough of gravel. Just as well I was alone. My language was appalling as I cursed the shifting stones beneath my wheels. I might have mentioned the organisers a few times. Just maybe.
Prato allo Stelvio was familiar to me. I’d climbed the Stelvio (2,760m) from here before so I knew what was coming. I checked into another audax hotel for an hours sleep before climbing her majesty.
Weeks before the start I reckoned that no matter how tired I was the psychological boost of knowing it was the very last effort would sustain me. Starting at 16:00 I started the long climb. 48 hairpin bends.
Welcome relief about a third of the way up. Soft drinks and beers in the water fountain with an honesty box. €3. I had €3.55 in change. A can of coke then all my coins in the box to save weight!
On the way up after riding over 1,400km.
This is the view of what I call “The Wall”. The majority of the hairpin bends snake their way up the right hand side to the summit.
Tornante 3….. Tornante 2….. Tornante 1….. I’d made it.
It took nearly 4 hours from Prato to reach the summit but I didn’t care.
I took a few moments to reflect on what I’d just achieved. During a call to Jan I nearly lost it but managed to keep it together, just.
A more celebratory photo before putting on every piece of clothing I had for the descent to the finish.
It was bitterly cold on the way down to Bormio. I still had to concentrate on the braking for the bends whilst feeling such a great sense of achievement. An emotional descent.
Official Finisher. 1,144km, 21,103m climbing. 134 hours 24 minutes.
It was all smiles at the finish, but back in the hotel it all caught up with me. This is what it feels like having burnt 30,000 calories over 6 days.
EPILOGUE – MYSTERY SOLVED
Refreshed after my first full nights sleep in six days I returned to the finish to welcome other finishers and collect my certificate. I looked and felt so much better. Mission accomplished. My plan had worked.
Peera was also there welcoming other Thai riders home. He told me that they had worked out what happened with my charging cable. When I charged my phone I didn’t use my mine, but the cable already there. When they packed up to ride they took their own cable and left my phone on its own. Fair enough. I have no memory of doing this. I must have. My fault. I apologised for being such an idiot, but as I said before, fatigue does strange things to you.
A big thank you to the organisers, Andrea in particular, and the volunteers. Audaxing relies on volunteers, without them we would not be able to be randonneurs. Thank you.
I think it’s testament to the power of the vaccine that I was able to complete such a difficult challenge three weeks after contracting Covid. My thanks to the scientists around the world who developed the vaccines and to all the healthcare workers for looking after people during the pandemic. I was lucky that I never needed any medical assistance, but so may people around the world did. Thank you.
Good story, amazing achievement but N still says you’re bonkers!!!
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Thank you. I can’t disagree with anything you have said.
A fantastic achievement and very pleased you met the Thai riders 🙂 If you ever come to Thailand make sure to let me know especially if you anywhere near Hua Hin /Bangkok
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Thank you Geoff. I will. The Thai riders were all charming. Many riders commented on how friendly they were. And how young they all looked!
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Fabulous achievement and/a/great write up Colin 👏 I was fully booked up to ride it but family problems meant I had to cancel the week before. So disappointed. However, your ride has given me hope to ride it in 4 years time – here’s hoping it happens again. 👌👍
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Thank you Ian. That is such a shame. I really hope you can make it next time, assuming there is a third edition. It’s a real challenge. Worth all the effort. Good luck to you.
Magnificent achievement Colin, bravo 🙌 I’m still trying to figure out how you manage to stay awake with so little sleep and how you manage to fuel those climbs? See you in a months time : )
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Thank you Mike. It really doesn’t make sense but I seem to have the ability to ride for hours on end with little sleep and eating relatively little compared to other riders. When we stopped for dinner before the Sestriere climb I gave half my pasta to another rider and still didn’t eat it all.
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Congrats on beautifully beated this ride.
Great story + great writing = unforgettable memory 🙂
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Thank you Peera. A pleasure to see you on the course from time to time. Thank you for getting to the bottom of the cable mystery! Congratulations to you too, a great ride. Complimenti.
Grande , per noi è stato un piacere assistervi 🙂
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Finally got around to reading this, Colin. What an incredible feat!! I was knackered just reading all about it and would be happy just making it up the stelvio without everything that came before.
As always, you are an inspiration.
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Thank you Andy, that’s very kind. My next big ride is London – Edinburgh – London in a weeks time. Fingers crossed.