An unremarkable human, 1250km of unsupported adventure, a misplaced helmet, a grin and a sore bum.
After a much longer than wanted and possibly permanent hiatus in riding and racing it was time for me to train properly and see if I could still do something like one of the cloudy memories sat in the annuls of my middle-aged brain from that pre pandemic era thingy.
Italy Divide is billed as a 1250km unsupported adventure from Pompei to Lake garda. The route takes in single track, double track, gravel road, Strada Bianchi and hike a bike. It rides through some remote areas, mountain tops and city centres, it truly is a varied route taking in some of Italy’s greatest scenery and big hitters like Rome, Florence, Sienna etc.
Italy divide has always been on my radar. Bikepacking, Italian food, hot weather and not too far away. that ticks all the boxes for me.
So, it was cap in hand to Jon at E3 again with a hair brain scheme to get fit a year ago. Looking back, I’m not really sure what I was expecting to be honest. I was getting back on the bike with a little regularity and hills hurt. I mean lung burning, angry vein popping out of the head kind of stuff. It would be true to say I was pretty sceptical about completing something like this again with 20% less lung function than I had before. Jon believed in me though, and that mattered.
There are loads of these proverbs and mantras and stuff. “The doorstep mile is the hardest” “every journey starts with the smallest step,” blah blah blah. The shite thing is that they are actually true.
You might have guessed that I got there as I’m writing this. Well played and a point to you.
Time was a little pushed beforehand, so I took the decision to fly to the start and landed in Naples, then hopped a couple of metros to Pompei where the start of this year’s event was set. I pulled in late at night to the hotel/campsite thing and went on a forage for a pizza and a soft drink like some sort of dazed stoner. After a fix of Parma ham, and some cheese it was bedtime.
Waking up in Italy is a beautifully slow process, people don’t move too fast, they just seem to gently waft towards an espresso in a choreographed dance much like a bumble bee round a flower head. I tried my best to fit in and wipe the NHS workers “I NEED COFFEE” look from my face.
A slow day of building my bike, a test ride and a visit to the Pompei ruins to see the masturbating man excavation. (Yes, that is as odd as it sounds, google it, just not on your work WIFI). Then off to the pizza party and pre ride briefing which was proper Italian organisation at its finest. I had a great time, met lots of likeminded and rather cool people. I was excited to start the route with everyone else but had no more of clue about anything after the briefing than I did at the start. The smile was getting more sure set in my face though so I can’t say I really cared.
The morning of the race I was really calm. Didn’t feel any pressure. This was just a do it and finish it event for me, which is a good job as my helmet and gloves went missing at the start. Someone must have honestly picked them up thinking that they were theirs and put them down somewhere else. Me being the idiot that I am I thought I must have left it in my bike bag that was now buried in the bottom of a transit van and impossible to get to. So, it was set off with no helmet or don’t set off at all. Normally I wouldn’t ride without a helmet but no good story stars with a salad, does it?
The route set off up Vesuvius volcano which was a rather steep 1000m climb straight out of the gate and had a really cool bit in the basin in the middle with lots of trees that looked like something out of a mad max film. Just when things got dusty and a bit hot the decent into Naples appeared. It was a road decent but fast, fun, the view was amazing. With my blood up and eyes watering from the descent I found myself back at sea level on the streets of Naples amidst God knows how many people ready for the party of parties. I don’t follow football myself, but Naples was set to win some championship thing after a 35-year losing streak. We were assured that last time they won they rioted for nearly a month and to get clear of Naples as soon as we could. I can’t lie that the atmosphere was electric. It felt really good to be traveling through somewhere like that by bike, unsupported and on a journey that was bigger than me.
Bikepacking for me, gives me something, a level of detachment from daily life that makes me feel like I’m a looking from the outside of the situations that I ride through. Moments sat on kerbs congratulating yourself for fashioning a spoon out of a crisp packet so that you can enjoy a tin of tuna are divine moments, something real that exists in the hub ub of people passing you by, going about their daily business and having no idea of the simplicity you’re lost in, finding joy in the simple, being present and mindful. I guess that’s why I love travelling by bike. Its special.
We took to the coast for a while after this, probably about 220km. You may have noticed I’m in km and meters and I’m English. This is for a reason. I came up with a rule when I was at Trans Germany and struggling with navigation and GPS errors that I will always now navigate in the same language as the native road signs so that when tired brain kicks in then stuff makes a little more sense. You probably already knew that, but I learned the hard way.
The route had its first kick upwards along the coast. About 50km of cobbles to tenderise you before the onslaught of a 2 hour hike a bike up steep loose stuff where I received a compliment I think when someone said to me, “you hike a bike really fast”. I don’t know if that implies, I’m good at it or I’m a crap rider that pushes his bike a lot?
Pre hiatus I always thought that a strength was to ride through the nights, push hard and if you were in that zombie state then that was probably the right place to be. This was different. My hand was forced. With no helmet that also meant no helmet light and descending off this lump was now above my acceptable level of risk on some techy stuff, so I bedded down in an old tunnel at the side of the trail and slept until just before first light. I never struggle to sleep outside and was out like a light for 6 hours or so.
Waking up refreshed I hit the trail and ate 3 Nutella bars on the bounce for breakfast. Probably one of the best parts of Bikepacking for me is the unusual list of breakfast materials you can forage from your bags. For me you can’t beat a 2-day old Tikka slice that’s been slow cooked by your body heat in a pocket. mmmmm.. today Nutella will have to do though, before I can hit a café along the route, of which there are plenty.
Finishing off the decent back down to the coast from the hike a bike there were beautiful sunrise views out over the sea. Light mist unveiling small cliff top villages like a better-quality version of the stars in their eye’s doors from the 90s.
About 300km into the route was a real highlight and the climb up to the hilltop town of Norma beckoned. It really is something off a postcard. (insert pic). It was here on the climb that I met Andreas who I would bump into and chat for most of the rest of the route. A rather strong and young German lad on his second trip to Italy divide.
The run into Rome was not at all what I was expecting. There is a gentle climb for a few hours before hitting a metric shit tonne of cobbles. They aren’t you’re average sized cobbles though. they are like roman paving slabs with gaps big enough to engulf a nuclear submarine. In fact, they caught one poor rider out who ended up being taken to hospital for a CT after a crash on them. The cobbles are however interspersed with some really beautiful singletrack and loam descents that look much like the surrey hills. just about 15 degrees warmer.
So, here’s a thing. And it might make me sound like a bit of a dick but bear with me as it might make sense to you.
Often, I have attacked in my mind when things get tough, a hard climb, a hard day on a multi-day route or pain from a developing niggle. But for years I have kind of known that there is a different form of strength. People much greater than me have spoken about it. Check out Lee Craigies TED talk for a good narrative. A good friend and someone I really respect is retraining as a Sports Psychologist and said to me once. “Be proud to be you, you’re Alex, there is only one of you, whether you’re sideways, upside down. Low or high. Just be you, find strength in it.”
This genuine thing has sat in my brain, and I try my best to be mindful but have lacked the detachment over the last few years to explore what this means while I’m riding.
I found that refocusing my mind when things hurt was quite enlightening. Instead of attacking and pushing through I turned my mind to being present, aware of my body and thoughts. This was wonderful and helped so much.
The attacking stance has the side effect of closing stuff down, you’re mind, your vision and chiefly the experience you have invested so much in, training time, money, time away from family and friends. I’ve done lots of events like this and whilst I realise there is a place for it, I have mostly felt like I’ve missed out on something afterwards.
Be present when you go outside, do a little mindful breathing and ground yourself, (try it today if you haven’t already and look up) one of the first things you will notice is you will hear the birds and natural things. It’s like it cuts through the white noise bringing a real clarity and awareness. It’s almost like it’s a thing. Who knew.
After Rome was Tuscany. Ooh my lord Tuscany. This is what I think of when I dream of Italy.
Its steep, lots of climbing but it’s worth every meter because the more you climb the more food you can justify eating. Not that I need much of an excuse. Every turn was filled with views of beautiful hilltop villages and Poplars reaching up towards the wispy clouds delicately floating through rich blue skies like ocean coral gently swaying in the current.
The route took a bit of a turn for the sub optimal though around Bologna. Every route I have ever done has had a day or so of a reminder from mother nature that she is the boss. Don’t fight the route and the weather. If she wants to humble you for a day or so. Just take it. She is the boss.
The route got diverted a couple of time and sadly a few locals died due to heavy rains and landslides.
I made a bit of a mistake when descending off a mountain after Plato where I didn’t think it would get too cold and by the time I came to terms with my mistake everything was wet, I was cold and shivering. At one point I burst out laughing at myself huddled over in the porch of a derelict bakery cupping a soggy croissant like a drug addict. It’s one of those moments you can only laugh at your own stupidity.
I really hate the phrase but it’s another one that’s true. “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” It’s the first part I try to remember.
It took a day for the weather to clear and to get through the reroutes before hitting the last portion of the route.
The flat lands are really the only way to link up the last portion of the route. It’s like a canal path along flood defences and its pan flat. It was music time. 300km of tunes to keep me motivated.
I don’t want to detract from your own adventure if you are reading this and tinking of doing the route so all I will say is the refuge at Monte Tomba is a stop. Trust me. Lots of smiles to be had.
The route rolled gently under my tyres for the next day or so but the journey I was on was far bigger and brought back to reality by the subtle vibrations and occasional sound of gravel pinging on carbon that echoed through the moments I was in. Only to drift away into the past as I rolled into the next moment.
One of the memories that will always stay with me after this is the last climb up Corno dela Paura. 2 ish thousand meters in the blazing sunshine after a failed restock in the last town where the shop was shut.
I bumped into a strong Italian rider in the square at the bottom, I could see the finish line in his eyes and the struggle he was going through. He is a lovely and kind bloke and a great rider, but he carried with him a bit of ego that was going to make this last part a race in his mind.
This is going to be HARD!! It’s going to get HOT. this will be tough for you!! He baulked at me from the water fountain where we filled our bottles.
Without thinking I replied. A reply that was honest but in retrospect made me sound like a bit of a dick.
I’ve been looking forward to this climb since even before the route, and I really had been. Its proper steep proper mountain stuff and I was in a great place in my head.
Off he shot constantly checking back to see where I was. I wasn’t hard to miss. I had a massive smile on my face and bad teeth, so I probably looked like a mako shark!!
The climb was just as brilliant as I had imagined. Switch back steep corners. Overhanging cliffs and dizzying views back to the valley floor. I replayed the interaction in my head and came to terms with the mindset I was in. I’ve never ridden like this. Utterly accepting of the route and embracing the experience. I wasn’t embarrassed by this. I was worth it.
We met again at the Ski centre just before the plateau at the top, I probably could have caught and gone past him but in my head, I was winning at the experience. Again, he baulked at how hard it was as he gulped at a can of full fat coke (other brands are available).
I thought to myself how wrong he was. But the funny thing about truth is that it is often personal. His truth was his and mine was mine. Mine was that this was the last hardship before the end of the journey. A journey that was special and rather that burry my head in my Garmin and chew on my bar tape it was time to look up, be present and drink in the moments at the end of a 5-day journey, absorb it all and create a special place in my head for a memory I will keep for when I’m sat in my own piss and shit in an old folk’s home. No phone screen to aid my memory. Just that special place in my head that nobody else can touch.
Thankyou Jon for getting me there, I’ve learned loads. There is more than one way to do these things.
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