Some people seem to think I'm never at home. Sometimes I think they might be right. That's a little bit what it felt like whilst packing to fly off to Italy for a week in the mountains culminating in an epic 204km long Gran Fondo - the Sportful. It was first suggested to me sometime last autumn by our friend Paul who had ridden the Fred Whitton and Marmotte with me last year. I remember at the time being very hesitant about signing up but by the time we were actually flying out it was one of my key target races for the year.
It ended up that Paul didn't join us; he was afflicted with a crash-inflicted broken collar bone a week after I had bashed up my shoulder. There seemed to be an element of irony in it all. In 2013 Chris had suffered the agony of having to watch Paul and I ride the Marmotte. Was Chris going to end up being the only one of us fit enough to ride the Sportful in 2014?
As you'll know from previous blog posts it didn't work out this way, so a week before the race, bikes went in boxes, car and plane, touching down at a very hot Milan airport. 5hours of scenic driving later we arrived in the beautiful village of Mezzano at the foot of Passo Rolle.
The first few days were all about big miles and hitting the hills before tapering from Thursday in preparation for the race on Sunday. This was made particularly challenging as a mini heat wave settled over Italy and we were riding in temperatures of 40+ degrees. I was pleasantly surprised by how my body coped with this; in the past I haven't trained or raced well in extreme heat (although that was in my orienteering days). Lots of passo's ticked off with my favourite day probably being Passo Fedaia (better known as Marmolada) and Passo Pordoi. The day of 8min climbing intervals up Passo Brocon was also very enjoyable. By the end of Wednesday I felt that nothing in the Dolomites could defeat me and confidence was high for Sunday.
A few chilled out days later, race day morning dawned and for once the alarm clock woke us before the resident cockerel. 4:30! You have to love your sport to do that, trust me! But with the start at 7 and a half hour drive to get into Feltre it was essential. I was very groggy for the drive but once in Feltre I soon became alert and ready to go. We headed for the start boxes at about 6:30. There was a lane dedicated to women so I said an early goodbye to Chris, paid a visit to the cafe for the loo and claimed my place.
If I had understood the Italian commentator, I think he would have been building the atmosphere right up to the start of the race, and then we were off. The first 10km or so were flat and very very fast. I made a conscious decision to cruise rather than try to kill myself ducking and diving my way through the peloton. I saw a few girls go past me but wasn't worried at this stage. Soon enough the gradient kicked up for the first climb of Cima Campo. Having ridden this already earlier in the week I knew it was a nice steady climb with no steep ramps. I set a good pace at the top end of my aerobic range and started passing a lot of riders, male and female. Faster guys were coming past me, but it got a bit of a wake up call when a girl came past on a guys wheel. I let them go for a bit, but then thought that they weren't getting away from me and that if she was allowed a tow, then I was too! I picked up the pace and got back on their wheels all the way to the top. By this time it was definitely wet, so I threw on my new Sportful Hotpack jacket and set off on the first descent. I quickly overtook the girl who I had climbed with (she was very cautious in the wet) and wasn't losing too many places even to the men. I powered past the split of medio-fondo and gran fondo courses and the first feed and on towards the foot of the Passo Manghen - the biggest climb of the day. This is one of the lesser known dolomiti climbs but has some Giro history of being an epic. Over 20km long with nearly 1,500m ascent; gradual at the bottom but the last 7km with an average gradient of over 10%. I loved it! Once again I managed to get into a group, although it split up after the feed and for the steep bit. It was getting colder and colder as we climbed, and there was a decent amount of snow still lying at the top. I made a bit of a mistake stopping twice in short succession, firstly for jacketing up then for the feed, immediately before another technical and wet descent. I was so so cold that my whole jaw was shaking with chattering teeth, but amazingly my hands didn't go Raynauds so I still had control of my brakes. Close to the bottom I was picked up by a group of about 6 guys and I took a few risks to stay with them for a tow along the valley. The group had swelled to 20 or so as we got to Predazzo and the foot of Passo Rolle.
A couple of the faster climbers then sat on the front of the group and stretched the pace a bit. I was more or less comfortable so went with the pace. The group of 20 was whittled down to 5 by the feed, where I carried on when others stopped. One guy came with me and I elbowed him through to do some work. We shared the load until about 4k from the summit where the fast climbers came back past. I couldn't go with the pace this time so summited on my own. A quick stop at the feed for liquid and I set off on a finally dry descent, zoom zoom all the way down. I picked up the same group of guys again for the final valley run before the last climb, Croce d'aune, made famous by Mr Campagnolo in the 1920's. I had to de-jacket again but this time couldn't hook back onto the group again afterwards. I must learn to do it while riding! Although much shorter than all the other climbs, it was hard work after 180km and some steep ramps meant it really did hurt. I still had some company, including one of Stephi's Maltesers who I had a quick chat to. Topping out after just over 8 hours riding time gave me a huge buzz and with just a fast descent to go I now knew I was on for an amazing time. What I was especially pleased about was that I still had power left in my legs for pushing on when I got to the flatter part of the run for home, and even a big of a sprint finish up the cobbles to the square in the centre of Feltre's old town. My clock said 8hrs26 but I knew that excluded feed stops. What a ride! So many of the guys I had seen en route called me over to speak to me to say how strong I had been and what a good race I had ridden. Good glowing feeling inside :-)
I didn't know for sure that I had made podium, or what the arrangements were, so I went back to put my bike away, get my recovery drink and have a shower. It was while I was dressing after my shower that I heard the British national anthem playing over the tannoy then the women's scratch results read out. Doh! I had missed my moment of fame and pride, having won the 30-39 age group! I rushed back up to the finish to claim my prize but didn't get them to redo the ceremony. However, one of the other girls did persuade them, so I did get to stand on the podium in my GB Cycles kit in the end.