Cycling, Ride Reports

TCR9, part 3: leaving the Alps

Part 3 of 6 in the series TCR #9

The first two control points of the race came in (relatively) quick succession, being only around 600 km from one another. With most of the Alpine climbing coming before CP1, it’d only take a day and a bit to reach CP2 from there.

So I’d soon have the difficult mountainous start that I’d been worrying about so much behind me. This was a big motivator. There’d be more mountains to come, of course, but they shouldn’t be thaaat bad 🤞 Until I reached Greece, of course, but that was a problem for future me to deal with.

For now, things were gonna be nice and easy. Right?

Day 3: CP1 & the temperature rollercoaster 🎢

After leaving my erstwhile sleeping companion under the eaves of the church near Chiavenna, my route (well, everyone’s route) went up and over Passo del Maloja, toward St. Moritz.

For most of the climb, I had nothing but my headlight and a faint moon to see by. The tarmac was dry (at last) and it was quiet. The climb wasn’t too steep, but went on for a good 3 hours. I may be romanticising the experience with the benefit of two months’ hindsight, but I think the peaceful solitude of it was in its own way relaxing. I hadn’t seen anyone else on the road since Robert Müller passed me on Gotthard the day before – and I still had no idea where I was in the field – but somehow I was feeling more positive about my performance. Not sure why.

It’s funny – looking at the replay now I can see that despite feeling completely alone in the world on the way up that climb, there were several other riders just a few kilometres behind me. I just hadn’t seen them. But as I got to the top, I turned to look back down the switchbacks and there indeed was a spot of light creeping along the road further down. It happens quite often in ultra racing that you’re moving at mostly the same speed as those around you, and so while you may not see another soul for hours on end, you’re actually pretty close to one another on the road. This is especially true in the Alps, where there is for the most part only one sensible route to take.

Day was breaking as I crested the summit, and to my dismay the road became wet again. The rain itself had passed, but a wet road is almost as bad. The road spray had my feet soaking wet and freezing cold (once more) within a few minutes.

The temperature had been dropping steadily from a comfortable 17°C down in Chiavenna, and by the time I’d passed through St. Moritz and reached the summit of Bernina it was below 2°C. My feet and hands were numb. I’d avoided wearing my down jacket on the climb because – despite my frozen extremities – I knew I’d overheat. I’d get cold on the descent, but I knew there was another climb – Forcola di Livigno – coming up before reaching CP1 in Livigno itself, so I’d just have to grin and bear it.

I reached CP1 around 8am. I’d promised myself I’d sit down for a nice warming breakfast in the hotel hosting the control point, and this had been the carrot I’d been chasing for the last 6 hours or so since waking up.

But of course when I got there, I denied myself the pleasure. I said hi to the volunteers and followed them into the hotel to get my brevet stamped. I enjoyed the warmth of the place for a few minutes while filling my bags (and mouth) with pains-au-chocolat and strudel from the counter in the restaurant. Then I was back on my bike and up the start of the climb to Passo di Foscagno, the last climb before Stelvio. The lies we tell ourselves.

Control points play such a major motivational role in ultra races, and yet they’re gone so quickly. You need a goal to aim for when riding, and with the finish line being so distant, the control points are an ideal way of breaking the race into more manageable chunks. They become mental waypoints in the race that you can latch onto for a few days, not worrying about what comes afterwards. They’re an opportunity for some real human contact (with people who actually get what you’re doing and don’t think you’re totally insane) and maybe even a bit of hot food.

In the end, though, the urgency of the race prevents me from enjoying any of this. I felt bad for not staying just a little longer for a more meaningful conversation with the volunteers – we, the riders, are the whole reason they’re there, after all. My partner, Miranda, who volunteered at last year’s CP4, commented that life as a volunteer got a lot more fun once the mid-field riders started arriving, being much happier to hang around and actually talk. But not me. I had places to go, people to see.

My headset was still loose after yesterday’s failed attempts at tightening it. I was worried the constant wobbling would damage the headset, and in any case tackling the “gravel” parcours that I knew was coming later in the race was out of the question with it in this condition. So I had to do something about it.

I was desperate not to lose too much more time over this, so I wanted to find a bike shop that wasn’t miles off route. Livigno itself is a resort town and seemed like a likely place to find a bike shop. Except most of them were either closed on Wednesdays or not yet open. Not an option, so I’d have to look elsewhere.

An hour or so later I was approaching Bormio (at the foot of Passo Stelvio) and managed to track down an open bike shop directly on my route. The owners (a family, I think) had never heard of the TCR, but seemed to think it was a pretty cool idea. The main guy was pretty quick to understand the problem and immediately produced the necessary spacer, plus a new headset top cap that could be adjusted with the Allen keys on my multi tool rather than the weird T30 one I started the race with. Problem solved. Thanks Mapo Bike!

So far, I’d been studiously avoiding the race coverage and live map of riders. I try to keep myself ignorant for at least the first half of the race, ideally longer. The race is a time trial, after all, so what the other riders are doing shouldn’t affect your own strategy or pacing, assuming you’ve done your homework properly. But my sister had other ideas. On my way from CP1 over to Bormio, she sent a lovely message in WhatsApp saying how excited she was that I was no. 5 through CP1. Thanks Kate 🫠

So now I knew where I was in the field. I’d really thought I was back around 15th place or something (again, for no particular reason), so this was a big morale boost. But at the same time it altered my mentality. Until then I’d just accepted where I thought I was in the rankings and was doing the best I could. It gives a certain clarity to your decision-making to be in this state of mind, where you don’t know where other people are and are just doing your own thing. You know there are people behind you, and you don’t want them to catch you, and maybe there are people ahead too, and you’d quite like to catch them. But all of this is within the context of your own abilities and it doesn’t have to influence your pacing or strategy. You just do what you can.

Having an absolute measure of your performance (being 5th through CP1) taints that state of mind. Now each position lost or gained becomes much more significant (especially when you’re close to the front of the race) and if you’re not careful it can start to affect your decision-making. This is almost always a bad thing, because you let someone else’s abilities and strategy define your actions. The one exception to this is in the final throes of the race, where you sometimes do need to ride reactively – but that was still a long way away.

Still, I wanted to stay as ignorant as possible. I stayed true to my principles and didn’t look at the live map.

The final big Alpine climb – before an extended flat section leading to CP2 in Slovenia – was Stelvio. The climb took a couple of hours. Being honest, I don’t remember what I was thinking about, or how quickly the time went 🤷 What I do remember is that my legs got very stiff on the way down Umbraile on the other side.

This is the problem with doing a lot of passes in quick succession. You get into a rhythm where your legs can produce a certain amount of power for a couple of hours, and then immediately you have to stop turning them for the descent. 20 minutes later, at the bottom of the climb, they’re paralysed by the build up of lactic acid.

When I reached the valley floor in Vinschgau and started trying to pedal again, my legs weren’t having it. There’s a lovely flat cycle path leading nearly 100 km down the valley, where I’d been hoping to make time after all the climbing. But it was all I could do to turn my legs over and coast along the tarmac. It was a couple of hours until I was feeling better. In the meantime, the temperature rollercoaster continued as I pootled down Etschtal (the valley of the river Etsch/Adige), going back above 30°C.

I stopped in Bolzano in the middle of the afternoon to try and stock up on calories. Italy may be known for its culture of excellent food, but it’s a difficult place for ultra-cyclists to quickly fill up on calories. The cornerstone of the ultra-cyclist’s diet – the petrol station – doesn’t usually stock food here. I managed to find a small supermarket instead, but that’s not ideal either. I don’t have much use for canned food, packeted pasta, large blocks of cheese, fresh meat, and the like. The best I could find here was a selection of bits and pieces from the deli counter that looked like they might be (a) edible on the bike and (b) calorie-dense enough to be useful. I walked out of the shop with a weird selection of things, including apple-flavour biscuits, a couple of aubergine fritters from the deli counter (the last two), and some strudel and cannoli wrapped up in cling film.

I prefer to have most of my calories coming from savoury food, or at least food that isn’t 90% sugar. I’ve learned the hard way that I need something more than just sugary stodge to keep my appetite up. And if you lose your appetite on a race like this (which is as much an eating competition as anything else), then you’re in big trouble. This was going to be my last resupply until I found a shop the next morning, so I wasn’t very happy about how little “real” food I’d managed to find.

From here on the route followed the SS49 back into the mountains (thankfully not over the mountains) toward Lienz in Austria. The road itself was off-limits for the race, so the only option was the cycle path (nearly 100 km of it). This whole flat section, starting in Vinschgau after descending off Passo Stelvio, was what I’d been longing for after the hardships of the Alps. It was difficult to keep the pace up, and for the first time since Gotthard Pass more than 24 hours ago, I caught sight of other riders. Ben Chadourne went past me, followed shortly by Robert Müller (didn’t he already do that on Gotthard?), as I was trying to adjust my left cleat, which was pointing in a funny direction and giving me some ankle/knee discomfort.

Bed time on day 3 came somewhere around Bruneck in South Tyrol. A quiet town called Niederolang, to be precise. I found a delightful-looking bus shelter on the edge of town that seemed like the perfect place for a few hours’ shut-eye before schlepping my way to CP2. It was spacious, well sheltered, had a bench for sleeping on, and some attractive wood panelling too. I set about unpacking my things.

At that point it started to become clear that this town was not as quiet as I thought, and that this bus stop was everyone’s favourite place to be at 11pm on a Wednesday night. People were walking past in groups, cars were driving through the adjacent junction every minute or two, and more than once people were dropped off or picked up by car, right in front of the bus stop.

But I’d already unpacked most of my sleeping kit and was halfway to getting into my sleeping bag. I was committed and couldn’t waste time looking for somewhere else. I tried to ignore all the goings on while cleaning my teeth and nonchalantly stripping off my lycra. Despite my luxurious bus shelter, I didn’t feel very comfortable getting into my sleeping bag, and needless to say I did not sleep well.

Day 4: CP2

I started day 4 where I’d ended day 3.

The temperature rollercoaster made its final dip before the sun came up, before settling on “hot” for the rest of the race. The temperature dipped below 3°C as I was approaching Austria, forcing me again into my down jacket to keep warm.

I had two route options here. Either I could follow the mostly-flat SS49 via Lienz, or I could take the shorter-but-hillier route up into Lesachtal on the other side of the Lienz Dolomites. As far as I could tell during route planning, they would take roughly the same amount of time, so I’d plotted them both and deferred the decision until the moment I got there. My legs were feeling a bit better than the day before and my spirits were high. I was also freezing cold, and so I opted for the climb, if only to warm up a bit.

Lesachtal was really beautiful as the sun was coming up. But unfortunately it wasn’t just downhill after the climb as I’d expected. It went unendingly up and down and the tarmac was terrible. I was simultaneously in awe at the views and very grumpy at the terrain, wishing I’d taken the flat route via Lienz. I was convinced that this would’ve been faster, but really it’s impossible to know.

After daybreak, I reached the end of Lesachtal and found a shop that mercifully had a good selection of savoury food in a bike-friendly format (i.e., that can be eaten while cycling). I walked out with a heap of deliciously cheesy, freshly baked bread rolls, and got back on my bike. My legs were feeling good and I picked up speed. I passed Robert Müller once more on a stretch of gravel alongside a river, and fairly soon (i.e., after several hours) I was out of Austria, back into Italy, and at last Slovenia.

I arrived at CP2 around lunchtime. I took a bit more time here than I had at CP1, but most of that was spent in the toilet. I’d been sleeping outdoors every day, and intended to keep doing this for the rest of the race. That meant no showers, so it was difficult to keep up a reasonable standard of hygiene. I’d had crippling saddle sores toward the end of my race last year, which had reduced me almost to tears and forced me into a hotel on the last night (before I scratched) to tend to my wounds. When it hurts this much, it’s all you can do just to keep the pedals turning.

I’d been racing for a few days now and already had a little bit of soreness on the saddle. Nothing too bad, thankfully, but enough that I knew I needed to invest some time in hygiene. From here on I wanted to take the opportunity to freshen up once a day, where at all possible.

Having cleaned myself up as best I could, I took a couple more minutes to rinse my filthy, sticky gloves (there’s nothing I hate more than sticky gloves), and was appalled to see the water in the sink turn a thick, murky grey. Three days of grime 🤢

Back outside, I rearranged some of my kit and got going again (didn’t need any of my cold weather gear now that the temperature was again around 30°C). Nothing but a cursory chat with the volunteers, as usual. They told me that Robert Müller (who was starting to become a familiar presence) had just passed through, so I was keen not to spend too much time faffing around.

Parcours 2 came immediately after the control point. Not as long as the Alpine parcours, but steeper – and very sweaty in the midday heat. It was the first parcours with gravel, and except for a loose and sketchy descent, it was fairly civilised and quite suitable for a gravel bike. Quite unlike the parcours that were still to come.

The route led back down south and out of the mountains, taking me past some water fountains where I could refill my empty bottles. By this point it was gone 18:00 and I was worried I wouldn’t find an open shop to re-stock on food. It’s very important to have a good supply of food as you ride into the night. Getting back on the bike at 2am, you’ll have 4-6 hours of riding before you’re likely to find a shop that’s open, so you reaaally don’t want to go to sleep without enough food.

Thankfully there was a small supermarket still open when I reached the main road. It was closing in 30 minutes and the food selection was meagre. I was craving savoury food, having been running off nothing but sugar for the last few hours. Sadly they were all out of börek (my main motivation for visiting this corner of Europe), so I had to make do with a big packet of crisps, some salami and cheese, and the last of their bread rolls. No the best food for eating on the go, really, but it was delicious after eating nothing but sugar for the last 6 hours.

I carried on down the valley and almost overshot a right turn where my route headed southeast toward the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. This junction in Luče was where all my troubles began, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I screeched to a halt and turned right, starting straight away on another 700 m climb that reached 14% at its steepest. The parcours had been tough but doable – but this climb was one too many. By the time I’d reached the town of Kamnik the other side an hour or two later, I was flagging so badly that I had to stop and sit on a bench for a few minutes to rest my weary legs. I had a nice view from my bench across the square of all the people sitting at outdoor restaurant tables drinking their drinks and generally having a nice time. It was one of those moments when it was difficult not to be jealous of the normal people doing their normal things. I promised myself I’d be more normal when this was all over, and hauled myself back onto my bike.

The hills continued south of Ljubljana – smaller, but absurdly steep – and the going was painfully slow. Eventually I ended up on what seemed to be a major long-distance road heading directly south to the Croatian border, some 80 km away. Such roads are usually not the best places to find a decent sleep stop, but I got lucky. In fact, the place I found was pretty much perfect (for my standards, at least).

It had everything:

  • A long way from the noise of the main road 🚗
  • But still on the route 🛣️
  • Sheltered from the wind 💨
  • No one around 👤
  • Out of sight from prying eyes 👀

The surrounding car park was deserted and I could be confident of an uninterrupted night’s sleep. What more could a weary ultra-cyclist ask for? It certainly made up for last night’s disastrous choice of bus shelter.

I find that having peace of mind when going to sleep (i.e., that I won’t be woken up by, for example, the police) increases my sleep quality massively. That’s critical for maximising what little recovery you get during the race, so I’ll often shop around a bit to see what I can find before committing to one, checking out potential sleep spots before carrying on to find a better one. I’d already rejected a couple of otherwise comfortable-looking bus shelters that I’d found, because they were directly on the main road (and hence failed the “away from noisy traffic” and “out of sight” criteria).

Anyway, I went to sleep feeling very smug about my excellent sleeping spot. Unfortunately, I’d wake up to find I’d made a terrible routing mistake that would affect the rest of my race.

The best sleep spot
Photo from Google Street View

Next time

  • 😰 Realising my route to CP3 was totally different from everyone else’s… And not for the better
  • 📉 Recalibrating my goals and expectations for the race
  • 🚛 Near-death encounters with Croatian traffic
  • 🤤 Finally getting some decent börek



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