Last year I took part in the fifth edition of the Transcontinental Race but unfortunately didn’t finish the race, making it across parts of Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy before stopping short of Control Point 3 in the High Tatras mountain range in northern Slovakia. After recuperating in Poprad for 36 hours we rode up to CP3 (at least putting that ghost to rest) on our way to Kraków airport in Poland to fly home. I saw ‘we’ as I was racing in a pair with my friend Jo. My disappointment of stopping mid-race was combined with feelings of guilt for letting down a friend and ruining their race. Scratching out of the race in a pair affected me more than I initially realised and dragged on for a while. For quite a while afterwards I fell out of love with riding a bike. Most of my riding was functional – commuting – and done on my own. My fitness fell off a cliff. For a long time I didn’t want to ride with others, didn’t want to feel that others were waiting for me.
Despite feeling awful the day we rode through the valleys from Merano to Bolzano to Trento and eventually onto Bassano del Grappa I did my best not to just look down at my stem the whole way. I looked around and it was clear this was a beautiful corner of the Dolomites. I made a silent vow to myself to return one day and have a proper look around. A few weeks ago I flew to Venice airport, re-assembled my Reilly Transcon bike in the arrivals hall, and rode off into the mountains. Same set up as for the Transcontinental except for different wheels, no dynamo hub this time as I had no intention of riding at night unless it was to and from a restaurant. This was credit card bike packing not a race.
I’d booked a B&B for each night of the trip and worked out routes between them. Each day wasn’t a particularly long distance, about 85km on average, but did include a lot of up and down, 15,000 metres of ascent over the eight days. That climbing was squeezed into the middle six days, it’s very flat between Venice and the mountains, which rise from the north Italian plain quite dramatically. No messing with gentle foothills or gradual rising into mountains: A large expanse of flat… then BAM! Mountains.
Some days I had different options between B&Bs, others there was only really one road. My route plotting was essentially based around riding the wiggliest roads I could find on the map. Always go the pretty way, never the shortest. Each morning I decided how the legs felt and picked a route from the list on the Garmin. I also had a paper map of the Dolomites which allowed me to adjust things on the fly if I felt the need or simply the desire. One day I realised that my plotted route was a bit daft – boring cycle path, then a steep climb up a main road -but scanning the paper map I found other squiggles through valleys and plateaus, which had the added bonus of being about 20km shorter. It turned out to be beautiful alternative, long steady climbs and fun scream if you want to go faster descents, a picnic lunch next to a lake at a thousand metres.
The mountains in spring are great for cycling. Being the quiet bit between the ski season and high summer the roads were empty and the weather was neither too hot nor too cold. However spring plus mountains does mean the weather can be changeable. Most days there was rain at some point, usually late in the afternoon, but I generally managed to miss it by either finishing riding mid-afternoon or tactical use of coffee stops as the weather also tended to change quickly. Except the longest riding day of the trip where it rained heavily pretty much all day. That was a day for delving back into the Transcontinental resolve, gritting my teeth and just pedaling. It’s easier when you know there is a bed and a shower waiting for you at the end of the day rather than a bivvy bag under a flyover.
Days were fueled by pizza, pasta, gelato, and espressos. There was no rush so I stopped when I felt like it. Took in the views. I rode over Monte Grappa, the mountain control point in the Transcontinental Race, twice. Once from the south, once from the north, managing to ride most of the roads up or down it. I rode a few parts of our Transcontinental route, a couple of bits backwards, and stopped at the petrol station a few kilometres outside Trento where I’d needed coffee and Fanta and a moment to recompose myself after a minor sweary meltdown on the way out of the city last year.
About half way through this trip it became apparent how much fitter I was this time last year and when I took part in the Transcontinental. Looking at the map I had with me I also noticed how far I’d managed to ride the day I felt run down and full of snot. It was actually quite a long way. Despite the whirlwind of negative feelings at the time of dropping out of the race and in the weeks and months afterwards in retrospect riding 2200km across Europe in under 9 days isn’t something to be sniffed at (even if I was sniffing a lot at the time). It was at this moment I also realised that my love of cycling had returned, big time. Bikes are bloody ace. So are mountains.
One day I may even have another bash at the Transcontinental.