It is always amazing to see what little things make the difference between a great ride and a total disaster. The night before I had been sleep deprived, exhausted, hungry and extremely cold, feeling like the worst incompetent idiot ever seen on two wheels. Half a day later I had a brilliant time, enjoying food and beer at the Todi control amidst my fellow randonneurs and feeling all but invincible. It is not much you need, only a few hours sleep, a caffe doppio, some pastry, several helpings of pasta, a shower, some fresh kit and better roads. And some warm, sunny weather, I should add. Not much at all…
The following is not supposed to be a proper ride report of the 1001 Miglia Italia brevet that took place form August 16-22, 2010. Other reports of that kind can be found and they also feature more comprehensive imagery. Using the few pictures I have at my disposal I want to comment on some of the things I still remember from the longest randonneur ride of Europe.
Restless before the start
By far the most difficult part of the 1001 Miglia (at least as it appears in retrospect) was waiting for the clock to move forward to nine on Monday evening. Whatever deal you were able to strike with the hotel, at some point you had to leave your room, pack your gear and move down to the Centro Cinofili, the start venue of the ride. There, you handed in your drop bags and then were left with nothing to do for hours. You talked other riders, wandered around the compound, got plagued by the midges, took some pictures, listened to the briefing… and grew ever more restless. The minutes would pass painfully slowly, even after the pre-ride dinner. My, was I glad when my bunch was finally allowed into the start zone. We got our cards stamped for the first time, moved forward again, got kit, computers and GPSes ready and then, at long last, we were off. The first few meters were absolutely fantastic. Led by an old Fiat 500 we got out on the street and were cheered on by a crowd of floodlit people. You aren’t used to this sort of treatment as an audaxer. I got goosebumps, really.
As far as the road traffic was concerned we had expected easy going. However, Italian drivers did prove a little odd. Near the Colorno control we did get harassed by some bloke in a car at around three in the morning for not using one of the dodgy cycle paths. Later on it turned out that, however wide and little used a road might be, Italian drivers always pass cyclists with only a few centimetres of side clearance. I wonder if Colin ever realised how close he got to getting knocked off his bike by a white delivery van in Carasco. Had he not been in his drops at that moment or had he turned his head to look over his shoulder, that side mirror would have got him.
The weather forecast for the 1001 Miglia week had been quite frightening, predicting lots of rain and thunderstorms. Actually it did not get quite that bad, the weather was mostly sunny. It did get a bit cold and brooding around Dicomano and then there were a few drops (literally) around Aulla. Apparently we could avoid the deluge that others experienced in Liguria, suffering only through the post-rain hot vapour.
Lets get wet!
I had heard about 1001 Miglia in 2008. The idea of riding 1600 kilometres through the August heat of Italy had at first seemed frightening, but after the disastrous weather of the 2009 riding season the thought of not being cold and wet for a week at least became more and more appealing. I had registered, paid, organised the paperwork and finally set out towards Nerviano. The start venue of 1001 Miglia is conveniently located only five hours from Munich by car. However, what we saw through the windshield as we crossed the San Bernardino pass was not promising. Low hanging clouds, cold wind and rain. All the week before the forecasts had not been good, predicting showers and thunderstorms for Italy in the week of our ride. I should not have been surprised, after all we drove south on the weekend the Swiss Alpenbrevet, an event guaranteed to attract the worst possible weather. Still, after looking forward to the Italian sun for more than a year it seemed almost grotesque that I should be heading directly into the rain. The outskirts of Milan greeted our arrival with pouring rain. The outskirts of Milan were also mostly closed for the August vacation. As was the restaurant of the Poli hotel where the bunch of the riders stayed, as well as all the other restaurants around. In fact there was only place advertising “aperto agosto” and the regular local patrons were probably not amused when their sole eatery was invaded by throngs of cyclists. The food was good though, we did not get too wet during our walk back and the Poli hotel in general was more than likable. And the weather would dramatically improve by Monday.
Forlorn in Colorno
Italy is different in many ways. There, it can get very lonely during the night, especially as the route of 1001 Miglia typically took us along the quieter sort of road. Gas stations sell gas only (we were lucky to find one with some vending machines by the side), there are no round the clock service stations (at least we did not come across any). Colorno (188km) control offered nothing more than a stamp, although we could find a fountain by the river bridge so we had at least water for our bottles.
Down and out in Chiusi della Verna
On every brevet there is a low point (or at least one) and upon arriving at Chiusi della Verna I was aware that I had just reached it. I was cold, miserable and extremely tired. It was obvious I had better not continue to Passignano sul Trasimeno (666km) that evening although it was only twenty to ten. Never before the 1001 Miglia I had been so aware of the link between food and performance. In retrospect the journey through Italy can be subdivided into pasta days of good riding and high spirits (Wednesday and Friday) and the cold rice days of somehow plodding along (Tuesday and Thursday). The first night was extremely frugal with only water in Fombio (104km) and not even water in Colorno. The break of dawn of the first morning saw the first of the horrible cold rice in Massa Finalese (271km) plus the first hint of the steady supply of stale bread we were going enjoy at nearly all controls. Unable to stomach the cold rice I picked up two ham rolls I wanted to eat while riding to Faenza. I couldn’t, they were really that bad. Faenza (391km) brought a brief respite in the form of some pasta (although in microscopic rations), but in Dicomano (486km) it was stale bread again. No wonder I was not at my very best when I got up to Chiusi della Verna (560km). Only to find more cold rice there (plus two thirds of a banana), no beer and no warm shower. Things were getting desperate. At least the beds were good. Breakfast was no different from dinner, but I thought I saw a familiar face. I had met Colin Bezant from Basingstoke CC at the start, met him again at the Massa Finales control after which we had teamed up until I had to leave him because I got the dozies before Dicomano. Now there was a guy standing on the other side of the table who looked remarkably like him. Obviously I was still in a bit of a daze. After staring at him for what seemed minutes I finally asked “Colin, is that you?”. Yes, it was him and from then on we would spend the rest of the ride together. Later that morning, crawling along the Tiber valley at ridiculously slow speed, Colin and me made a very important discovery. As lonely and forlorn as Italy may be in the cold of the night, come six o’clock all the bars in the country will open, providing caffe doppio and custardy sustenance to the weary and hungry audaxer. All of a sudden, things looked up again and we continued into a true pasta day.
Wednesday was a brill day. After the Trasimeno lake and the Todi (734km) lunch control we headed along the Tiber river along a really scenic gorge and a large reservoir. Then, after Basci Salo, we started the long straight continuous climb towards the Bolsena caldera. Halfway up, the village of Lubriano offered a cooling fountain as well as fantastic views over the Latium countryside and the Civita settlement atop a hill on the other side of the valley. The climb up continued until we reached the rim and were rewarded by a spectacular descent down through medieval Bolsena (788km) right to the waterfront control. More pasta, more beer, more vacation feeling. Ahhh, if audaxing could always be like this. On the other side of the lake we went out of the caldera again and raced downhill into Pitigliano (on our way we came across two dutch riders riding the other way and asking us if we knew the way to the Bolsena control. Strange things happen on a long ride). Another medieval town and extremely crowded, this came as a bit of a shock after the comparative solitude of the country roads. But it was indeed extremely beautiful and the ride of the day had put us into good mood. We leisurely rolled on, up the steep bit before Manciano against an astonishing amount of oncoming traffic for such a small concrete road and reached Pomonte (859km) control just before dusk. My, we were relaxed! On top of it, the control offered a shower and a three course menu in the local restaurant. A true pasta day.
Pomonte can hardly be called a hamlet, it is actually a small aggregation of some agricultural buildings plus one restaurant. This is where Colin and me headed straight after the shower. Food served on proper china, proper cutlery, tablecloth, a telephone call home and more relaxation. This was to a large degree due to the litre of red wine we shared over our dinner. Looking back, this had been my best audaxing day ever. And it wasn’t over yet. After we returned to the control we met Jörg Kurzke, Michael Richter and Riccardo Gravina there, who informed us that the local wine was free at the control. Colin left but I sat down for some more glasses and got really drunk for the first time during a brevet.
A Restroom with a View
Montalcino (936km) control was located in the middle of the historic old town. It offered very little in the way of food but as we reached it in the morning we could enjoy food and drink in the adjoining bar (sic!). On top of it, that bar’s restroom offered the best possible view over the medieval roofs of the town and the plain lying below. The trip to Montalcino had not been an easy one. After getting up at Pomonte and riding the climb up to Scansano with a bit of a hangover, the road subsequently got worse and worse, we crawled through the night and I thought we’d never get anywhere. The long expected secret control was followed by an extremely steep descent over a strip of concrete in the dark and the crossing of a (thankfully) almost dry ford. Then we went into standard Tuscany mode again. Up the road over some bare hill, down again the other side. All hilltops adorned by exactly the same type of house with the same type of tree lined gravel road leading to it. Lots of hay bales. Then you have one of those odd scenes that only happen during brevets. You ride up another hill in the half light of dawn, not quite certain whether you are awake or not, when you see another rider lying on the curb and consider this totally normal. All the while I felt my metabolism fighting off the effects of the red wine, whereas Colin told me his metabolism fought a stomach bug. Luckily we came into a village called Cinigiano and after some search found a bar offering pastries, lots of coffee (for me) and a restroom (for Colin).
The Strade Bianche
The most important aspect of our change of plans (sleeping in Chiusi della Verna instead of Passignano) was that it made sure we’d reach the optional bit of strade bianche during the bright daylight. This was another highlight of the 1001 Miglia and we did not want to miss it. Right after Montalcino we deviated from the main route and followed the Eroica signs onto our first bit of gravel. At first riding over the white dust was slow and tricky, the local custom of using caterpillars instead of tractors for field work producing a difficult washboard surface. But over time we got used to the white roads and got faster every minute. Again we met Jörg (on his fixed bike) and rode together until we hit the main road again, losing even more time due to all the photo stops. Unfortunately, the rest of the day is best forgotten. More cold rice at several controls, blazing heat around Siena, by far too many cars on the way into San Gimignano, lots of midges (and cold rice, lest you forget) at Montaione (1085km) and, after some sort of a time trial to make the night stop before dark, the final cold rice of the day in Montecatini Terme(1138km), with the prospect of sleeping on the bare floor of a basketball court.
The first bit of the Friday stage was a bit of a drag. Even though I was glad to leave the Montecatini control I could not get into gear at first. This got even worse as we entered the valley of the Serchio river, an inhospitable place with a big trunk road and lots of factories beside that. We were really glad when we came across the first open bar for a stop. Then, with the onset of daylight, the landscape became friendlier, the road started climbing and then, about when we stopped at our second bar for the day, the morning sun climbed above the eastern ridges to shine upon the Alpi Apuane.
My ever changing Moods
Moods can change quickly on a ride like the 1001 Miglia. The Friday stage from Montecatini Terme to Castellania was a showcase example. The shock of Colin’s broken shifter cable just after getting up, the sense of achievement when the makeshift repair into a three speed bike appeared to work well enough, the dreary sequence of factories in the dark along the Serchio river, the glory of the Alpi Apuane in the morning sun, the stunning race into Aulla (1258km), the incredible smugness after finding a bike shop that would change the cable for a mere 5 Euros, the first sight of the Mediterranean after 1300 kilometres near Cinque Terre, a bar full of relaxed audaxers in Levanto, the good life at the Deiva Marina (1332km) control, the incredibly hard climbing in the stuffy heat to Sestri Levante, the damp heat and the horrible traffic to Chiavari, picking up speed again after the beer and cola break, the shock of my flat tire, the adrenalin powered race after the successful repair, the realisation of having done the last big climb, the euphoric race down to the relaxed Casella Ligure (1424km) control (pasta), the mad dash along the motorway and the stunning quiet of Castellania (1479km) in the night.
One of the weirder facts about audaxing is that, even though you ride alone for most of the time, you always meet the same people at the controls. 1001 Miglia was no exception here. The bunch of Swedish CK Distans riders had been with me in the shower at the Montecatini Terme control, at the Aulla control, even at the Aulla bike shop where we had Colin’s shifter cable replaced. And again we met at the bar just by the esplanade in Levanto. Hey, we had finally made it to the seaside! This was celebrated by enjoying some ice cream, cola and beer (the ultimate energy drink as I later found out as I raced up the climb out of town). The entire patio was full of good-humoured riders having a good time. A pasta day again. Deiva Marina control behind the next climb was our next stop. The Swedes were already there. Riders and bike marshals sat out in the front yard together with food and drink and the staff did everything to make us comfy even though they never could keep up with the pasta demand.
The last Hurrah
The stage from Deiva Marina to Casella Ligure featured the very last big climb of the ride, before the route would gradually descend into the Po valley again. It was a long climb but our cola and beer stop after Chiavari had us refreshed and I shot up the valley clinging to Colin’s rear wheel. In the evening sun we entered the final section of the climb up a rocky mountain road when, just outside of Boasi, I heard a brief fizzling sound and my rear wheel went flat. Bugger! I had hoped we could make the Casella control before dark and now this! A bit of fallen rock had cut open the side of my tire so that I had to insert a patch into the tire as an emergency fix. When fitted with a fresh inner tube the tire would bulge, but the patch seemed to hold up to the pressure. I hastily stowed my kit again, put the luggage bag back on and off we went again. This forced stop had brought about a strange reversal of fortunes. Whereas Colin had led the way up to then with me barely being able to stick to his wheel, my apparent failure to see the rock in time and thus causing such an unnecessary delay filled me so much with embarrassment and adrenalin that I shot up the remainder of the climb, hoping to make up some of the time lost because of my ineptitude. Colin, on the other hand, had lost his verve during the forced break and now it was his turn to struggle to keep up. But soon we reached the tunnels on top of the climb, the rest was a fast downhill and we did reach Casella in the last light of day.
After leaving the brilliant Casella control we engaged in a mad dash along the Genova-Milano motorway through the Scrivia valley. Colin raced ahead, making strange noises all the time. In the meantime I learned that he was singing Deep Purple’s “Child in Time”, which after a quick Youtube check I think I can confirm. It was surely weird enough. We went up the last small climbs and called it a pasta day at Castellania control (which was located in the Fausto Coppi museum. I am afraid the atmosphere of the place was lost on us, alone in the dark. But we did meet the Swedes again).
The story of the last stage from Castellania to Nerviano is quickly told. After some fun in the dark with the GPS track we made fast progress across the Po valley, over the Po river, experienced a brief moment of terror when we slid down the wet metal ramp to the Ticino pontoon bridge in the morning fog, went into some more bars, raced past a group of riders who hadn’t stopped to sleep and seemed to sleep in their saddles instead, circled lots of roundabouts around Milan and reached the Centro Cinofili again at 9:37 on Saturday morning.
Well, I’m back!
Saturday morning, 10:44. After getting my final stamp at the Centro Cinofili and eating my post-brevet pasta (and drinking my post-brevet beer with Colin), I crawled back along the SS33 to the Poli hotel, where my ride finally came to an end. I had clearly missed the 100 hour mark and that bothered me somewhat. But I had had a very good time spent in good company. I had slept properly (well, almost) every night. I had had four showers on my way, which set a personal audax record. I enjoyed the strade bianche bit in the bright morning sun, I had seen the Alpi Apuane in the first rays of the morning sun and I had looked down on the Cinque Terre in daylight as well. I had enjoyed food and drink (almost too much). In fact I had really been on a bike holiday. It might have been a lot worse. After all, it was a randonnee, not a race.