Monday, October 19, 2015

Haute Route Dolomites 2015...the rest

If there is one thing I can pass on from my humbling experiences in life, thus far, I will tell you this, the next time someone tells you "the absence of expectations is the absence of disappointment, do not listen. Have expectations. Keep them great. It'll be a very bumpy ride. You'll even get bruised, sometimes very badly. Sometimes, you'll come to an abrupt halt or even fall off your ride. But you'll grow. And if you do not grow, you do not live.” 
― Pandora Poikilos

Splitting my recollection of the Haute Route between Day 4 and Day 5 was very intentional.  My mindset up, and through, Day 4 was very naive.  I really had no idea how my body would be affected by 7 days of solid, challenging riding, and even more importantly, how my mind would react.  And, whether intentional or not, I had expectations of myself, of the ride, and how it would play out.

Not surprisingly, the variances in weather and physically exhausting days left me feeling tired and on the cusp of being ill. I felt physically damaged.  What was happening mentally, however, was quite the opposite.  The adversity of the weather, the difficulty of the riding, was so absolutely humbling, harder than anything I had ever done before.  If I allowed the difficulty to get to me, quitting was in reach.  Stepping back and appreciating the ride, however, enabled me to grasp what was at hand.

It is so easy to map out a plan for for the ideal situation, but when the race starts and doesn't go in the way of your expectations, you are left with nothing more than grit and resilience to get you through.  There is a choice.  It is at this point where you can allow all of the long hours of training and preparation to come into play, enabling the ability to endure despite resistance, reaching the point where your mind simply tells the body what it needs to do.

Appreciate...Stage 5 - Bormeo to Merano

I woke up on the morning of Stage 5 feeling awful.  Uninterested in food, exhausted and coughing.  If this had been an average, everyday training ride, I would not have hesitated in heading back to bed.  Here, the choice was stark:  the ride was leaving at 7am, like it or not.  If I wanted to finish, it was go time.

Layered up with every warm piece of gear I had packed, we rolled out onto the cold cobblestones of Bormeo.  At a mere 4 degrees in the village, Stage 5 was the beginning of a theme that would persist for the next three mornings:  climb cold.  No warm up was afforded to us today, with the intermediate climb to the base of the Gavia beginning immediately as we departed Bormeo.  The mood in the peloton was introspective, lots of steamy breath and no words, and no one rode very fast at all for the first 10k of neutral climbing before we reached the beginning of the "official" climb.

Although we climbed from what is apparently the "easier" side of the mountain, I cannot imagine ever describing this climb as easy.  As I had already learned, the 6.7% promised "average" failed to mention several double digit kickers where I am absolutely sure my bike was actually sliding backhill, and in particular featuring one section that I am grateful to have kept the crank moving, period.  Whether it was the cumulative fatigue of the preceding days, the fact that I continued to feel under the weather, or the cold itself, this climb was downright hard.

Despite the cold, however, it was a stunning bluebird day.  It would have been very easy to get caught up in my pity parade and absolutely miss the wonder surrounding me, but instead I just soaked it in.  Every section higher up the mountain yielded a scenic delight, beginning with emerald forest, yielding to carpets of green in the sub-alpine and finally a vast tundra of rock and snow in the alpine.  Topping out at just over 2,600m, the summit was an icy and unforgettable wonderland.  Ski touring at its most amazing...on a bike.

Words don't describe the beauty of the Gavia as well as these pictures do.  Heaven on earth on a bike.

Meandering through emerald green bliss at the base

Starting to get a bit punchy mid-climb...but the views never stop
Rewarded with the crazy descent
After cresting the summit and taking a short break at the top to layer up, we pitched ourselves over the top into a decent that was simply trancendental.  That there are places like this in this world, so much larger than life, so captivating, so unworldly...I have no words.  The icy rock once again yielded to emerald green expanse as far as the eye could see.  Despite the cold, the terrible frigid cold, it was an absolute wonder to descend the Gavia.

The rest of the ride really didn't matter, for the high of the Gavia would last me the rest of the day. The next climb, Passo del Tonale, was rather unforgettable, although the descent down it was an incredible amount of fun featuring perfect, sweeping turns on fantastic pavement that I enjoyed immensely. #nobrakesrequired

In the usual Haute Route fashion, we had a long section of relatively flat interlude leading up to the last climb, most of it on a twisty bike path.  Although many of the riders complained about this section, the weather was great and it was a fun section to ride with a group.  Not a "road race" at all, but a nice change of pace to my mind.

The organizers, however, completely undersold the final climb up the Passo Castrina and seemed to have some challenges in both correctly measuring the distance of the day's ride as well as appropriately locating aid stations.  Dubbed as one of the "easiest" climbs of the week in all of the race literature, it was anything but.  The heat had crept up through the morning, and it was approaching nothing short of downright hot.  I peeled all of my layers - leg warmers, arm sleeves, vests - and jammed it all into my very tiny jersey pockets.

The warmth of the sun was invigorating, and I realized that I had a lot of energy to spare.  Recalling the final climb on the first day, I shoved down gel like it was going out of style and went for it.  Unfortunately, there was nothing "easy" about this climb, and the mileage markers were about 8k off...meaning that I dropped everything I had with way too long left.  Undeterred, I pressed on and had one of my best finishes of the week, promptly followed by an incredible, and equally uplifting neutral descent into Merano.

South Tirol is stunning and the smooth winding descent through the village was the perfect reward to another difficult day.  Castles, sweeping green valleys, cascading waterfalls, long sweeping roads.  Simply magical.

The stunning valley leading into Merano (photo credit: not my photo!)
Although my physical state had not really improved, the ride left me in an incredibly positive mental state, fit to overcome the odds.  Where there had been dubious moments during the previous four days, at this point there was no question that I would matter what obstacles presented themselves.  I was too close, having fun once again, having realized that all my expectations were so naive.  At the same time, I realized that this ride wasn't about the finish at all - it was about the ride to get there, with all its bumps, and challenges, and horrible horrible demands.  

Endure...Day 6 - Merano to Cortina

Waking to rain pounding on the balcony of my hotel was an abrupt return to reality.  Summoning every bit of positive energy from the day before to head out in the rain, the start of Stage 6 evoked memories of the cold, damp time trial.  To say I lacked enthusiasm as I rolled to the start was an understatement.

The first climb of the day, Passo Sella, was listed at 8.5km, 7.5% grade.  In reality, the climb started only 20km from the start, from the village of Bolzano - we would ascend for 60km, nearly 2,000m from the get go.  At first, it was gradual, playful climbing, followed by steep, aggressive inclines before we even reached the listed "base" of the climb.  Scattered showers and plummeting temperatures added to the mix, with visibility at nearing the top of the pass no more than a few meters.  This was more than an honest effort, it was simply a beast - unrelenting, unrewarding.  In fact, if you could design a cycling purgatory, it may well look like this.

At the top of the Sella, the winds were whipping my face with ice fog.  I have experienced similar days only on a ski hill in the middle of Canadian winter, and never in my wildest imagination on a road bike.  The image of me at the top of this climb speaks volumes - devoid of pleasure, my face tells the misery.  Hands frozen, barely functioning as I tried to maintain control over my bike.  Teeth chattering.  Toes like soggy icicles.  Nerves stinging from the cold.    

My entire body felt in crisis.  I was too cold to fathom either stopping or continuing, as both seemed to be equally awful choices.  Badly in need of fuel from the feed station at the top because I had grossly underestimated the time required to reach the summit, I hurriedly grabbed several of the much maligned eucalyptus-horror gels.  I was quickly ushered back onto my bike and down the hill by several volunteers that were obviously tasked with hurrying us along.  There was no need to explain this to me, as I knew that the longer I stopped, the harder it would be to go on.  Much from being a reprieve, the steep and short descent to the next pass was vicious.  Words cannot describe how cold I was, shaking uncontrollably, my mind focused on one task alone - staying upright.  My entire body was rigid, fleeing the situation as fast as I could possible manage, not knowing if it would actually get better, but trying so hard to convince myself that it would get sure as hell could not have gotten any worse.

As I descended and immediately started upwards again to the Passo Pordoi, my miserable mind recycled these dichotomous thoughts:  "this is stupid" and "I am not quitting".  Powered by those two thoughts alone, disconnecting from my physical discomfort, my legs simply became an engine.  I can only imagine that this place, with its towering limestone cliffs and steep valleys, may have been stunning on brighter day.  On this day, however, shrouded in ice and fog, the Dolomites were nothing short of menacing.

The timers marked my finish at what I thought was the intermediate timing mat with their usual pronouncement of "Chrono.  Stop", but then tentatively added (in broken English), "Today".  This confused me, as the route had us descending to the base of the Passo di Falzareggo before finishing our descent into the charming Italian ski town of Cortina.  Simon met me at the finish and affirmed their statement - the race had been called due to weather concerns, with the Italian police threatening to pull the race permits if any remaining sections were timed.

I am not sure if I was relieved or disappointed at this point, as the next section of the course (albeit shrouded in fog) was one of the most scenic.  What the impromptu finish did have going for it, however, was a delightfully warm ski lodge that welcomed the legions of cold, tired, wet cyclists.  Three delicious hot chocolates and many giggles later, everyone's spirits had improved.  

Apres ski on the mountaintop...I mean, ride. 
The organizers confirmed that the stage was called at the top of the Pordoi, and the riders had the choice of either being transported to Cortina (several buses were dispatched) or continuing along the route.  Given my shaky health, the cold weather and my soaked clothing, it was simply the smarter decision for me to take the ride.  Disappointed, yes, but also the smarter thing to do.

Arriving in the ski village of Cortina, the air remained cold and it continued to feel more après-ski than après-ride.  The temperature hovered near zero for evening and into the morning, but thankfully our rustic lodging was warm, comfortable and welcoming.  My suite even had a jetted tub (oh the bliss!) and the northern italian cuisine was warming comfort food at its finest...these simplicities, creature comforts even more appreciable given the conditions endured to get there.  

The soaring mountainous panorama of Cortina
Exalt...Day 7 - Cortina to Venice

As slow and drawn out as the journey felt at times, tens of thousands of pedal turns later, I awoke to realize that a "mere" 174 more kilometres separated Cortina us from the final destination in Venice.  Incredible to believe, seemingly impossible in so many moments, and yet that final day seemed to appear in the flashest of flashes.

It was almost as though Stage 7 greeted us, the reward for the resilience of the past days being a glorious, crisp, bluebird day.  It is truly incredible how quickly the mind forgets the pain and exalts the task at hand, drawn by possibility of overcoming impossibility.  A limestone wall could have well stood in my path at that point (well, in fact it did) and I would have embraced the challenge.

The organizers once again pulled no punches and got straight down to business.  We ascended straight into a first class climb, the Passo Giau, nearly 20k of climbing and our final ascent to altitude (2,236m) for the week.  Whether it was the tired legs, the climb felt steep and never ending, but was as visually rewarding as it was difficult.  Compared to the day before, when we were shrouded in ice fog and the mind was left to wander in grey misery, the stunning, sunlit peaks provided endless fodder for the imagination to run wild here.  We began the base of the climb in the early morning shadows, poetically drawn by the sun streaming from the top of the summit, cresting the top just as the rays of the sun reached across the crisp dusting of snow.  It was simply perfect, so perfect.  

Bluebird morning over the snowy pass
Invigorated by the sun for one last monster Dolomite climb
The reward of the snowy descent
The chilly descent was the final chance to let loose under timing - cold as all hell, but visually stunning and so rewarding after a long week of hard, wet descents.  The steep descent yielded to a more moderate, but still screaming descent, leading us out of the Dolomites and into the Veneto region.  Like a roller-coaster ride, you simply could not help but smile at the enjoyment of it all, essentially a carefree effort for the next sixty kilometres, provided you found a good group to work with.

On paper, it was easy to dismiss the final climb up Passo San Boldo as a mere speed bump, but once again we were subject to the trickery of the "averaging" methodology...meaning that the "up" sections were actually well in excess of the posted 3.2% average.  I can honestly say that I left it all out here, on this final climb on the final day, even though my speed was probably pretty laughable.  Before I even realized it, one blissful final call of "Chrono.  Stop." and the timed section was done, the last ascent complete.  All of the negative thoughts and the mental trickery was beaten, having more appreciation for the power of belief in myself than I have possibly ever had before.

The very awesome descent of Passo San Boldo
We had to traverse another 70k of road before reaching the final destination in Venice, the final section consisting of a flat, social procession.  The finish line was almost anti-climactic, minds turned from the challenge of the road ahead to recounting the tales of the days past.  Those days already felt mythical and unreal, with reality slowly creeping back in.  A medal and a finisher's shirt a mere souvenir, the memories being the true momento of the journey.

The sense of personal achievement, the individuality of an event like this, is what makes it like no other.  It is less a race than it is avoidance of attrition, and truly humbling. In seven stages covering 900k, resilience trumped pain.  Presence of mind trumped disbelief.  Belief in possibility trumped fear of the unknown.  I feel a huge sense of personal achievement, regardless of the relative weight of my effort compared to any other endurance feat.  It is the realization that this matters to no one but me - so many stories and anecdotes of these days will go untold, remaining only in my memory.  At the same time, the experience makes me smile, a very personal smile, and my heart swells with the belief that I persevered.  There were times that I simply hated it to the core - the cold, the pain - and yet, even days after, I longed for the days spent on my bike.

And, in retrospect, as the post-traumatic stress and saddle sores heal, I miss being there.  There is allure in the simplicity of it all, just getting on your bike and moving forward.  Hearing my breath, challenging my own being, believing in the possible and having the incredible opportunity to admire the stunning world around me.  No amount of training could have prepared me for the adventure, and no words truly capture the experience.

We did it!
The journey is not without gratitude as well Roger and Geoff for convincing me that this amount of fun (read: suffering) was in fact possible, albeit not a very relaxing way to spend a vacation. Martina for gleefully agreeing to come along, for commiserating in the most positive of ways, and for making those low moments so much brighter knowing I had to chase you up a mountain. Matt and Simon at Magic Places for being well-humored, and so expertly navigating the logistics, providing moral support and generally putting up with my shit.  Cycling in Europe will never be the same without you. Coach Jasper for constantly believing in the somewhat crazy plans I get myself into.  

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Haute Route Dolomites 2015...the first days

On Sunday, August 31 at sunrise, I rolled out of Geneva in a peloton of just over 400 riders, commencing what would be a true roller coaster ride. Seven days and some 900km later, I rolled into Venice, completing an adventure that traversed the Swiss Alps and Dolomites, What transpired in between was a test of resilience, grit and fortitude that I could hardly have imagined when we rolled out of Stage 1.

This post is long (the first of two), and full of details and photos that are probably most interesting to only me, intended to preserve my memory of an extremely challenging and introspective week on two wheels.  The "fun" aspect of the race is starting to bubble to the surface, here and there, perhaps as the immediate pain subsides, and despite the fact that the immediately gratifying moments seemed at times to be in short supply during this week.  As with all events of epic proportions (and I do not use the term epic really does belong here), I expect that the not-immediately-apparent fun will seep out more in the days, months and years following.  Remember when...?

Hot hot heat...Stage 1 - Geneva to Crans-Montana 

From the get-go, the organizers made it clear this was no cruiser ride.  Stage 1 was 176km, the first 20k of which was neutral, followed by three peaks of climbing, a 60k neutral section through the beautiful green slopes of the Valais, and a final climb into Crans-Montana.  On paper, this "seems" reasonable enough.  Add heat, incredible scenery, relatively rested legs...shake it up a little with some over-enthusiastic ignorance...add a little more heat, and you have a hellishly hard day on a bike.  I did, however, learn a lot about the modus operandi of the Haute Route that would serve me well in the following days.

The first three climbs were in quick succession, and after stopping for a brief "nature break", I fell back into a small peloton 10-12 riders who were happy to work together as a group ( is amazing how many riders do not realize that working together is actually better!)  Although these initial climbs were comparative foothills to the behemoths we would face later in the week, I naively underestimated them.  The first two were "third class" climbs and the third a "second class".  This would be the first big lesson of the week:  6% may not be steep in isolation, but it deserves respect when you compound it climb after climb.  I was pretty shelled by the time I hit the top of the first timing mat of the day...and the best (worst?) was yet to come.  

In my mind, I was 3/4 done the ride...and yet I had over 80k to go.  For *most* people, 60k is a decently long ride, not an interlude between two races. The 60k of neutral between the timed climbs is what I learned to be pure Haute Route evil.  The race itself was perhaps half of your day, but you still had to cover a substantial time and distance in the saddle to get from point A to point B.  So while my race time shows 3-something hours...ride time was actually 7-something hours.

The further unanticipated factor on day 1 was the heat.  Hot, brutal, desert heat.  As we rode through the vineyards in the Rhone Valley, the landscape made it pretty obvious that the heat should have come as no surprise.  By noon, it easily in the thirties, and we found ourselves dipping our heads into the water fountains in the little villages as we passed through the Valais. Anything to cool down.

When we reached the based of the final climb, the temperature was hitting 40 degrees.  At the final aid station, I was not entirely appreciative of the gruff reminders from Geoff and Rich to eat and drink like crazy ("eat like it is your job!!!"), but nevertheless dutifully listened and stocked up my bike with more water and gel than I had reasonably expected to consume.  I had completely underestimated my nutritional needs and had already consumed my pre-packed 6 hours worth of "treats", thus forced to dig into the nasty race-supplied gels.  I would only make this mistake and eucalyptus-flavored gel is simply AWFUL, akin to slurping on rancid toothpaste.  Who thought that was a good flavour?

I would love to say how scenic and lovely the climb into Crans-Montana was, but I really don't remember much except that it really hurt.  Twenty-one fully exposed kilometres, close to 1,000m of elevation gain.  Along with newfound respect for over-anticipating nutritional needs, came an understanding not to trust the elevation charts provided to us.  "Average" 4.6% grade does truly mean average, so when partway through the climb the road starts descending, comes the horrible realization that the average must now be equalized upwards.  What number makes -5% average to 4.6%?  Something bad, very, very bad indeed.  The "equalizing" 10-12% grade at the top was brutal, sheer brutal on some very shell-shocked legs.  Diesel-engine-survival mode, which unknowingly would become my default for the rest of the week, kicked in...turn the pedals, forward forward, don't think about the pain, turn the pedals.  
The look on my face as I finish the day tells the tale:  what the hell just happened?  And I have 6 more days?
I realize that none of this sounds like an endorsement for the ride so far, but to be honest, my system was just shocked after Stage 1.  It was one of the hardest, hottest days I have ever endured.  I was more wrecked than I have been after some Ironman races.  To say I was "enthused" about what lay ahead would be lying...I was terrified of what was to come.  We weren't even really in the Alps yet!

Finding my breath...Stage 2 - Crans-Montana to Andermatt 

The organizers split the start of Stage 2 into three waves, separated by finish position for the day before.  With my finish at 132, I was to start in the final wave.  Unfortunately, this would prove to be my undoing as I was quickly dropped after the 60k neutral start by a group of over-eager hyenas racing up the intermediate climb to the base of the Furkapass.  We had been pre-warned not to overcook ourselves on this section of intermediate climbs and false flats leading into two first class climbs for the day, so I sat back and puttered along by myself.

In contrast to the day before, I was pretty cognizant that I was now riding at the back of the race, and even had the company of the Lanterne Rouge during the first timed section!  There is little more motivating than being at the back of the pack, and I found my groove as I started spinning up the base of the climb.  Bear in mind that we had tootled a "mere" 80k along the valley before reaching the first "real" climb of the day (wearing the legs down), and while I knew that the summit of the Furkapass would be a challenge, the first real look at the indomitable climb took my breath away.

If you could fashion a mountain climb, it would look like this.  Stunningly cinematic - sheer rock, switchback after switchback, exposed rock staring down, threatening to swallow me whole.

What struck me most about Furkapass was not the stunning visual beauty, however, but the deafening peacefulness.  I could hear my breath with every push of the pedals, occasionally a car passing or another rider, but then just my breath.  Vacant sounds of cowbells resounding through the valley, like distant crowds cheering a race I was never in.  Breathing harder as the switchbacks grew shorter, steeper, more frenzied.  More breath, sharp gasps, as I looked above me and saw tiers of riders atop many tiers of them...up up up.

Sixteen unrelenting kilometres of breath.  The 5k to go sign passed, and it grew steeper, unrelenting.  1k to go.  The wind started, the fog, the cold.  Breathless cold.  

At the top of the climb (and the finish of the first timed section), I grabbed every bit of spare clothing I had for the descent.  I ate the best stolen breakfast croissant of my life.  The wind was howling, and my frozen fingers could barely control my bike as I navigated the hairpin turns down.  The steep grades and tight corners that made for such challenging climbing also proved brutal in the reverse.  The road on the descent was barely wide enough for two cars, let alone a row of cyclists navigating the steep pitch.  The Swiss also apparently feel it is unnecessary to have guard rails or any sort of crash protection, so needless to say, the descent was terrifying.  The term "white-knuckled" got downright personal with me.

Being seriously serious about the harrowing descent of the Furkapass. 
I managed to thaw a little upon reaching the ski village of Andermatt, with the organizer's having devilishly planned a route that teased us with an out and back climb up the Oberalpass.  Oh how tempting it was to simply stay, especially when realizing that the 144k posted route did not include the descent back to a warm shower.  Bonus kilometres?  At least they were downhill!  Surprisingly, I managed to find my legs on this second climb of the day, finally warm for the first time all day, passing quite a few riders from my place at the back and even had a little left for a finishing sprint.

The little engine that could.
Unfortunately, the day did not end with the descent into Andermatt as we had a long coach bus ride to St. Moritz to tag onto the next section of the route.  In order to get the route from Geneva to Venice in one week while traversing the storied climbs in the Alps and Dolomites, this was a necessary evil, and unfortunately made for an irritating end to a very long day.  What was waiting for us in St. Moritz, however, was almost worth the bus ride...a lovely family run hotel with the most wonderful, strange, amazing German / Swiss / Italian bistro.  Impossibly inexplicable culinary genius to tired riders?  Yes!  Heaven only to me?  Probably!

Soggy doggy...Stage 3 - St. Moritz time trial

Stage 3 was as furiously miserably rainy as Stage 1 was hot.  The weather pattern had shifted, and mother nature had a very different day in store for us for our time trial up the Bernina Pass.  In a word:  heinous.

This stage began our foray into not only the Dolomites, but into winter.  At 2,330m, the top of the pass was forecast to be 5 degrees, with relentless driving rain ensuring that my entire body was soaked through by the time I reached the summit.  No sooner than I had exited the first roundabout heading out of St. Moritz, than a garbage truck passed me with a large wave of water that engulfed every inch of me.  My clear jacket clung to me, and I would have probably laughed had I not been too busy swearing to myself at the time.

The rain is still funny at this point.  
One would have thought that the smart thing, when utterly drenched and teeth chattering with cold, would not be to ride one's bike up a mountain pass.  And yet, sensibility tossed aside, my brain had already fixed my legs into doing just that.  Shut up and keep moving.
Could be a smile, could be a grimace.  I will never tell.
As I crossed the timing mat and started winding up the mountain, the game changed.  The audacity of the task at hand became really clear to me.  The Haute Route is big, it is bold, it is hard.  It is supposed to be!  And, if it were not already hard enough to get up each day and climb relentlessly, the weather was making the task even more brutal.  I wanted to cry, I wanted to quit...and what I did was fight back.    

At some point during the time trial, I just made a choice. That choice was to stay matter what, no matter how audacious this was, just stay in.   It was no longer a race, but survival, and whatever it took to survive the ride, I was in for.  While this certainly sounds melodramatic in retrospect, I can assure you that in 7 degrees and driving rain, after two long days and 14 hours in the saddle, with four more long days staring you down, it is not.  As soon as quitting becomes an option, as soon as you allow that to happen, it becomes easy to do so.  I was not making that an option.  I was in.

When I reached the top, I was soaked through and cold.  Following Matt's instructions, I changed into warm clothes and put my bike into the van instead of doing the (optional) descent.  For me to make it through the next four days meant making smart choices, like choosing not to descend into driving rain and dangerous conditions.  Climbing into cold is so very different than descending into it, and as we drove down the hill and picked up another half-dozen hypothermic riders, it became pretty apparent that unless the weather changed that there would be safety concerns about upcoming aspects of the ride.  When the organizers made the decision that evening to abort the Stelvio climb the next day due to weather concerns, I fully understood that it was a necessity.  Disappointing? Yes.  However, ultimately this was the right decision as we approached several days of unexpected winter.

Still smiling!  The summit of the Bernina Pass
Ironically, the sun came out in the afternoon and treated us to a simply lovely afternoon to enjoy St. Moritz and warm up for what would be a cold few days to follow.

The fleeting St. Moritz sunshine
Resilience...Stage 4 - St. Moritz to Bormeo

Despite my efforts to stay as warm and rested as possible, I woke on Day 4 to a head cold and sore throat.  The furious weather and hard efforts of the previous three days had caught up to me, and I was firmly on the suffer bus.  Feeling lethargic, stuffed up and more than a little miserable, I was thankful for small miracles that the horrific rain had departed.  Moody, cold sky faced us, but at least it was dry.

Safety concerns in mind, the organizers required all of us to wear the very awesome, race-provided yellow vests and equip our bikes with lights.  Memories of Norseman flooded back as I pinned on my ill-fitted vest to prevent it from flapping in the wind.

With the brutal Stelvio (disappointingly) out of the picture, Stage 4 was now essentially an extended time trial that did not play well to my strengths.  Four second class climbs and corresponding descents, nothing too brutal, but a lot of punchy climbing and fast descending, favouring strong power riders.  Not the ideal for a little diesel like me, even on the best of days, and particularly not the ideal for an under-the-weather diesel.

It would be simply perfect if life were chock full of nothing but "hell, yes", but it is learning how to shake yourself out of "hell no" that drives character more.  Stage 4 was about resilience, about continuing in the wake of a whole lot of "hell no", about springing back even as I knew I was losing time to the front of the field, about riding my own ride and listening to what my body was capable on the day.

What riding a little slower gets you is an ability to process your surroundings.  Admittedly, there are many races that I have done where the surroundings passed without notice because I was so focused on maintaining a hard effort.  On Stage 4, my slower speed afforded me the ability to truly soak in the incredible surroundings.  Again, a game changer.  Not only was I in, but I was soaking it in, and if you have traversed the Dolomites on your bike without stopping to soak it in, you are truly missing out.


Careening down roads designed like ski hills, the descents were short but exhilarating, hypnotically addictive, inducing complete amnesia concerning the last climb, and so absolutely worth facing what was coming next.  It is no wonder the Italians are so fond of their race cars and race bikes - these roads simply beg to be traversed.  Fast.  The Dolomites stretched invitingly ahead of us, jagged grey teeth towering over a carpet of emerald green.

I was not fast, but I rode smart and within what my body felt it could afford on the day.  I preserved what strength and health I had for the next day, and I finished descending Passo Foscano with a smile on my face.  The 20-something kilometre descent into the charming village of Bormeo was nothing short of dazzling - this is truly road bike heaven if there were one.

In light of the aborted climb of the Stelvio, Matt and Simon graciously offered to take us to the summit to check out what we had missed.  The highest paved pass in Italy (and second highest in Europe), the Stelvio features 48 hairpin turns, masochistically numbered at each corner, as though taunting you of the sheer brutality of this climb.  Although we played car tourist on this can be assured that I will return to conquer this one.    

Afraid of heights?  Hope not!

Happy to be warm and not climbing.
Our home for the evening, another lovely family run inn, was so warm and charming that I hated to leave.  Continuing to feel under the weather, I gave up on conventional race prep and attempted to charm my cold with a couple of glasses of Nebbiolo.  With cold weather forecasted for the next day's ascent of the Gavia, it certainly couldn't hurt.  Besides, I slept like a baby.  :)