Dorney to the Dolomites: part 2

Sunday 4th July

Breakfast eaten, tyres pumped up, chain lubricated; I donned my cycling gear, clipped in and rolled down the road with a couple of mates. This has become quite a common Sunday morning over recent years. But what laid ahead was just a tad more than my usual Herts, Kent, Surrey or Sussex routes!

Maratona dles Dolomites. 138km, 7 mountain passes, 8798 riders from 42 countries. This was my first ever overseas sportive and – despite my plan to ride carefully and enjoy the day – I was very keyed up as the starters gun went off.

The sheer number of riders fighting for space on the road, elbow to elbow, handle bar to handle bar, made for hairy riding early on. The first climb – Passo Campolongo – did little to break things up and, whilst climbing well, I lost Al and Jonny quite quickly as it was just impossible to follow. The first descent was even worse. I’m normally quite a confident descender – the Pyrenees last summer did much to improve my ability – but lines were hijacked from all sides through each hairpin by crazy risk-takers going full bore. It almost felt comedic, as if we were in an episode of Whacky Races. I was in no mood to jeopardise months of training and backed off, accepting I would lose (quite literally) hundreds of places on every downhill. I was also surprised by how aggressive fellow riders were, even on the climbs: Passo Pordoi saw me forced to stop as one guy squeezed my space so much he actually cut my hand in the process. I did wonder whether those from countries with a stronger cycling heritage actually look down on British riders – maybe me being paranoid! I re-doubled my efforts and started picking people off; my confidence grew.

The next three climbs – Sella, Gardena and Campolongo (again) – went by very smoothly. I’m not a natural when the road ramps up: Al thinks it’s psychological, I think it’s power to weight ratio and anaerobic threshold; it’s probably a combination. But this was definitely the best I’ve ever climbed and I even passed a greying Roberto Baggio at one point (if someone can verify that it was the Divine Ponytail himself I’d be grateful! – his jersey categorically had his name, but he doesn’t appear on the Datasport results listings).

As my confidence sky-rocketed, I turned into what I thought was the big one, the Passo Giau; IĀ stepped on the pedals and started riding past everyone around me. You can imagine my surprise as the road sloped back downwards just 2.3 short kms later. Closer inspection of the handy profile (above) on the reverse of the bike number uncovered it’s true identity: Belvedere di Colle Santa Lucia. By the time I’d read the name my surprise had morphed into concern, which then developed into acute anguish as I discovered my remaining gel had burst in my pocket. It’s a tough climb. There’s no hiding echoed in my mind as the real Giau quickly revealed itself.

Considering it’s only 9.9k I found this climb a great deal harder than anything Hautes Pyrenees threw at me – maybe it was the cumulative affect of the previous five, but 9.3% average brought me nearly to a standstill. I vividly remember the screaming back pain after the first 3k, but little else bar the very very brief respite provided by the flat bridges crossing the river. I sometimes suffer lower back pain – in the Chilterns last year in particular – and it must be to do with how I put power through the pedals on steep hills. I’ve done plenty of core, I can hold an aero position for hours with no issues, but when climbing steep roads of 10% ish upwards….. Alternating from seated to standing made it worse and I even had to stop to stretched it out twice. I finally made it to the top and wearily jostled my way through the water station before descending to the final climb of the day.

Passo Falzarego was a breeze in comparison, starting gently I cracked along at 17-18mph, then slowed down to 10mph as it gradually ramped up. Not long to go before the descent to the finish I told myself. At 2117m I crested the summit to immense relief. I coasted past the final feed station, just a fast downhill and a short time trial back to Corvara left.

30 seconds later my tardy study of the route map bit again. Falzarego turns into Valparola thanks to a sharp left turn at a roundabout and a steep 1.2k takes you further up to 2200m. I was very close to breaking point and it took a real deep emotional dig to turn the pedals as the summit hovered just out of grasp. At the top I stopped again, slumped over the handle bars, relieved to be on level ground; I needed to compose myself.

But by now my lack of calories was a real issue and the searing heat compounded the problem. I now think that I’ve never suffered a proper bonk, at least not when cycling; what I experienced for the next 30 minutes was like nothing before. Dizziness, hunger, zero strength, seriously wavering concentration (just slightly dangerous at 40+ mph on a tricky technical descent!), a tired over-heating body and a nearly broken spirit. I pride myself on my ability to maintain physical intensity when the going gets tough – it’s what endurance sport is all about. But believe me, this hurt. At one false flat – a section of road I would normal gobble up at 20mph – I struggled to maintain 10mph, and even stopped again to check whether my brake blocks were rubbing! (the mind plays strange tricks on an athlete in distress).The words get a grip burst into my head and suddenly I found strength to get myself going again.

8.07.48 clicked up as I free-wheeled under the finish banner. An unimpressive time, but still an achievement I’m happy with. An easy training ride? Yeah right. Al and Jonny put in top notch performances – read more here.

The Maratona is the toughest ride I’ve done, bar none, and it forces you to respect it. In actuality the lessons it taught me were invaluable and the strength – both physical and mental – will pay huge dividends. This is a brilliant event that lived up to my every expectation of an overseas sportive. I’ll be back!!

aka Team Hammertime

Al, Jonny and me. At the last minute, Al finally saw sense and opted for shoes.

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