Return to Paris Part 4, of 4

Photo: Signing on the day before

It had been preying on my mind for some time. I was worried about the first stage. It was 96km long but included nearly 2,000m of climbing. The road book described it as “difficult” including Il Passo Tascusì at 1,239m. Starting at 06:00 we had until 12:30 to make the first control. I had prepared for it by riding training routes the same length and climbing in the mountains and hills near home. Even so I was pre-occupied with making the first cut off. The climbs were long but the gradients not too steep.

I needn’t have worried. I finished the stage with an hour and a half to spare. As I keep saying, long distance cycling is in the head, not in the legs.

This was the first stage of the 6+6 Ajò (27th – 30th April 2023). Two 600km loops of Sardinia, starting and finishing in Dorgali on the eastern coast. Each loop could be used to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris. As I’d already done the 200km, 300km and 400km rides then I only needed one of the 600km loops to qualify, but I needed both to complete another ride of the Italian Grand Tour. Normally rides over 1,000km use a formula to increase the time permitted but as they were PBP qualifiers then the standard 40 hours per loop applied.

6+6 Ajò Sud

If long distance riding is about mental strength then it’s also about the people and places you meet along the way. At the start I chatted with the reigning Italian National Champion Donato Agostini. I rode with his group for a short while but couldn’t keep up so most of the first stage I rode alone.

During that time I came alongside a German lady I had met on Alpi4000 last year. To my embarrassment I couldn’t remember her name. I dropped back and took 10km to rack my brains to recall her name. I caught her up and said “It’s Susanne isn’t it?” What I didn’t admit to was that after 9km I still couldn’t recall her name so I had to read my own blog on the move to find it.

I also had a rare chance to chat to Sven. I met him last year on Sicilia No Stop. A strong Belgium rider I usually see him passing me. We tend to finish these long events in about the same time but as he’s so much faster than me he gets substantially more sleep than I do. He decided to ride alongside me for a while as we climbed. A good investment in his time. He learnt from me that he could use the two 600km loops of this event as his 400km and 600km PBP qualifiers. No need for him to do a 400km as he’d thought. I’ve never forgotten the advice from an experienced salesman when I qualified as a junior salesman for IBM many years ago. “Always read and understand the sales plan”. I’ve followed that advice all my life. Always understand the rules of the game.

At 189km I joined Donato’s group as we left the second control. We parted at 212km not because I couldn’t keep up but we went our different ways. In an exact repeat of my experience on my very first 300km audax back in 2018 we approached a junction. I called it “destra” (right), they called it “sinistra” (left). Once again I was the only foreigner in the group. I rode alone, overtaking a German rider, which gave me confidence I was on the right path. It took 15km before they caught me. “We made a mistake” admitted Donato. Keen to make up some time they rode too fast for me to keep up so I continued to battle the wind alone.

Images from day 1

The overnight stop at 338km was a disaster. Arriving at 22:45 I thought I could grab three or four hours sleep. The dormitory was so noisy I just couldn’t get off. So many riders used those crinkly survival sheets as blankets it sounded like a cacophony of radio interference. I gave up trying to sleep, had a shower, grabbed some breakfast and headed out at 03:00.

Day 2 started with a few ups and downs to keep us warm then levelled out as a reward for getting that far. I rode most of the day alone, meeting up with other riders/groups for short spells. This was my first time in Sardinia. The stunning scenery kept me company.

Images from day 2

The day culminated in a long climb up to Passo Ghenna Silana (1,014m). Half way up I stopped for an ice cream in Baunei and bumped into a good friend, Salvatore Pepe. In 2022 Salvatore and I rode Sicilia No Stop and London Edinburgh London together. He’s recovering from a big fall at the end of last year. For probably the only time I was climbing faster than him.

Just before the summit:

The descent down to Dorgali to finish the day was spectacular. 24km of fast good roads with not much traffic.

Finishing in 35 hours 35 minutes, well under the limit of 40 hours, meant plenty of time to eat, get back to the B&B for a shower, update Strava and sleep with the satisfaction of knowing that I’d qualified for PBP.

At the finish of the 6+6 Ajò Sud

6+6 Ajò Nord

The first stage at 127km was the longest of the four days. I climbed in my customary way. Alone. This meant I had some time to stop for photos. Unknown to me at the time, these were to be amongst the last photos I took until the finish the following day.

“That’s not enough” pronounced my Finnish friend Olli on looking in the feed bag at the first control. He ordered a panini at the bar. As Olli will be staying with us the night before we go to watch Stage 8 of this year’s Giro d’Italia in Fossombrone then we’d better feed him well.

After this control everything changed. I headed off alone but immediately joined the back of a small group along the narrow lane back to the main course. The group contained Rosanna Idini, the four times Italian Women’s National Audax Champion as well as Franco, Graziano and Paolo.

On the first climb I discovered they were all stronger climbers than me but I decided to try and keep up. It was a revelation. Using a higher cadence I managed to stay with them. It remained that way for the rest of the day. Sometimes I would drop back a little but I never lost sight of them. I was climbing much faster than I usually do on an audax. Perhaps I’d convinced myself I wasn’t a very good climber. I tried to take my turn on the front but Paolo liked to lead as much as possible. I was learning to be a better climber thanks to the group.

My last few photos of the ride at the end of the third day, taken on the move so I wouldn’t lose touch with the group.

Almost all riders were slower on the second loop than the first. We arrived at the overnight stop at 02:00 leaving a lot less time for sleep compared to two nights prior. The rest of the group had booked a hotel, I slept in the gym. My stomach was playing up, I just couldn’t eat. I asked if they had any milk to help settle it but no. After a couple of hours sleep and a change of kit I was given only half a cup of coffee. I asked for another but they were rationing it as they were running out of coffee. The same thing happened last year on Alpi4000 when they ran out completely. How can Italians run out of coffee, especially for those later riders who really need it?

We’d agreed to meet at the gate of the control at 05:00 for the final day. At 04:55 I was there ready to go. No Italians to be seen. At 05:10 still no one. I set off alone. As I left I saw a small group of riders rejoining the course 100m in front of me. I joined them to discover it was them. They had completely forgotten our rendezvous agreement. I decided to call the ‘scandal’ GateGate.

I explained my need for a cappuccino so we stopped at the first bar. So had everybody else. We waited 20 minutes in the queue to get served but the milky drink and croissant did the trick. I felt so much better.

We didn’t stop between controls. I kept up with them with my new found climbing confidence, even through the last 60km or so were in the rain.

The final climb to the finish in Dorgali loomed, some 17km away. The good news was that it was in two 3km inclines with flat sections in between. We climbed together triumphantly.

Scanning the last QR code at the finish stopped the clock at 36 hours 12 minutes, well within the 40 hour limit.

L-R Colin, Graziano, Rosanna, Franco, and of course, Paolo in front

PBP qualification and another step towards the Italian Grand Tour:

I am very grateful to Rosanna, Franco, Graziano and Paolo for their company and for improving my climbing.

A big thank you to all the volunteers at Bike Rando ASD and ARI for putting on the event.

As for Sardinia, it’s very beautiful and the people are so friendly. I was greeted by both owners and customers in every bar I went into. None more friendly than Adriano and Anna who ran the Residenza di Campagna Dolmen Motorra. After finishing on the Sunday evening they invited me to join them and their three children for pizza in their family kitchen. We chatted so much I felt really guilty when I realised it was 11pm before I headed off to bed.

I can recommend Sardinia and the Sardi for a visit. We’re planning a return visit with the dogs for a holiday on this wonderful island.


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