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.  

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