After I rode the BikingMan Portugal event it's fair to say I got the Ultracycling bug, and as is my nature, I got the bug hard. So after a week's recovery realised I was craving another one and needed another 'hit' before the season ended. The problem was it was already October and what sort of nutter would organise an event this late in the year when daylight is low and weather is bad....?
Nonetheless I looked to see if I could find something epic to end the year on, and I was thrilled when I stumbled upon this event called the Two Volcano Sprint (2VS) which went from Mt. Vesuvius to Mt. Etna, and was a suitably challenging 1100km, with 24,000m of climbing. It would be quite the step up from Portugal (950km and 10,000m climbing!).
To explain what a 'sprint' is - basically some of these events (like the Transcontinental) are 4000km long and take more than two weeks. Whereas a Sprint is around 1000km and is meant to be done as a balls out effort...
below: a portrait in suffering - read on to find out how I reached this point... (photo by James Robertson)
a phrase attributed to Pliny the Elder, as he sailed off to witness first-hand the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, his curiosity and need for adventure greater than his instinct for self-preservation. He would not return...
I won't deny I was scared about this event. Bobby (my colleague here who is half Italian) looked at the route and told me the Apennine mountains were not to be messed with; the roads weren't great and there was not much civilisation there. If things went wrong you were on your own...
To make it worse; the weather was extremely variable - it was expected to vary from 12-20°C in the day (and would be much colder at night and in the mountains). This was the forecast; the reality was much colder than this and if I was to change one thing I did it would be to bring warmer kit - I did it in the exact same summer kit I wore in Portugal (where it had been a constant 20-25°C) ; with only the lightest arm and knee warmers, a Gilet and a rain jacket.
I remember the exact chat in our office in Gresham Street where I got the guys to vote; do I take Summer kit or Autumn kit? I think I over-ruled the sensible people. If it had been a circular route and we had a base hotel I would have taken more options and made a call the day before and left stuff behind; alas I could not do that and so committed early on to summer clothing.
In hindsight this was beyond stupid, cost me loads of time, and I almost scratched (quit) at the end of Day 2, as I simply could not get warm... I had an entire shop of clothing to choose from, and picked badly. Lesson learnt !
below: The impressive Andrew Philips who came second. Everyone was suffering! (photo by James Robertson)
The event was organised by Juliana Buhring, who is a genuine badass and has been first women's finisher in loads of the biggest ultracycling races, including circumnavigating the globe.
She also has an amazing life story:
Buhring was born in Athens, Greece on 2 June 1981. Her parents were members of the Children of God cult (now known as "The Family International"). Buhring was abandoned by her parents at the age of four years and fostered out to different guardians within the group.
She moved frequently throughout her childhood, living in nearly 30 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe. In 2004, after the death of her sister Davida, Buhring left the group. In 2006, she reunited with her two sisters, Kristina and Celeste Jones. Together they wrote a book exposing the inner workings of the group they were born into.
"Not Without My Sister" became a best seller in the UK, Ireland and Australia. Together with her sisters, Buhring founded Rise International, which later merged with Safe Passage Foundation, helping children born and raised in religious sects or isolated and extremist groups.
(bio courtesy of Wikipedia)
Genuinely an incredible person; and she has taken this life experience into her first race as Race Director. She circumnavigated the globe at 29; so you are expected to be able to fix a puncture in the Apennine mountains in the rain...
She also has an unusual way to motivate you - on the last section; when I was absolutely shattered, had no water or food and had at least 6 hours riding to go - including 3000m of climbing - she met me at the top of the penultimate big climb and told me to hurry up as she wanted her dinner!
But after the race I read her blog and saw that in a race in Oman she once rode 1000km in 48hrs without stopping; coming first woman and third overall. She has done everything you have done, and more. So you need to earn her respect, but when you do its a well earned feeling !
In her pre-race video Juliana did a video in glorious sunshine (screengrab above); this was the inaugural edition of the event and these were always the most fun. But when I got to Naples I felt I had been mis-sold (!!); it was pouring with rain and was forecast to be like this all week.
My riding mate Steve is in the sailing industry so has all the weather apps and is my go to chap for weather advice. His text back to me was not at all reassuring:
"Hope you have some warm waterproof gear for Thursday, it's going to be pretty heinous the whole day through midnight 0100 on Friday. Breeze from behind though. How quick do you reckon you will make it to Scalea where you turn inland to the mountains?
South of Scalea they are forecasting thunder storms from 18:00 onwards which will bring heavy rain and probably a fair amount of wind when you turn inland."
(Can I just make a shout out to Steve here as well; he was a total and utter legend with his relentless updates on my progress during the race and his words of encouragement. It's hard to say just how motivating it is to get a message from someone saying how well you are doing when you feel awful. Thank you Steve!).
BikingMan Portugal spoiled me; it's a very good first entry into this genre; with a circular route and an official (posh) race hotel. 2VS had neither of these; I asked Juliana how I could get my civilian clothes from the start to the finish and she said there was no support so you either carry it (which seemed a non-starter to carry some jeans and a jumper 1100 km with you) or you simply race in cycling kit with no back up and buy some regular clothes at the finish.
So I flew on the plane like a tramp with the worst clothes I had (thus I had quite the choice!!) and simply binned my non-riding clothes on race morning. And the plan was to buy some new clothes at the finish (and find a cardboard bike box to transport my bike back in). As you will read, it did not go quite to plan.
Wet wipes; chamois cream and Pro-Plus. What else do you need...
A slow day; and it would only get worse
We started at 5.30am on Thursday and the ascent of Vesuvius was uneventful; except it was done at north of 280 Watts and that was a power level I would not see again all week. At the top it started to pour down; and the pattern of the race started to emerge...
After 50km we did the second big climb of the day, Mt Faito; which was crazy; it was like a MTB climb with broken roads, rocks and branches all over the 'road'.
My Garmin was completely freaking out here and saying "off course" - there is no more scary phrase in ultracycling. I was properly panicking; I was sure this was the right course; but I had not seen anyone else in an hour. So every 10 mins I would stop to check my phone as well; I lost loads of time here...
We finally got to the Amalfi coast and the sun was shining and morale was good; this was as pretty as in the photos but I had to keep eyes on the road as some of the driving was proper sketchy.
We then had a long section of flat land where we were treated to the sight of loads of hookers by the side of the road sitting on their plastic chairs courting business. It was broad daylight and very surreal. And then after that we got glorious coastal views and epic monuments. I was realising southern Italy was a mass of contradictions. In her race brief Juliana had said the area was undeveloped; and to think of it as 60% Europe and 40% Africa.
below: The Amalfi coast is gorgeous in the sunshine - but there was more rain to come. (photo by James Robertson)
This was the fast section; and sunny - alas this was to be only one of two occasions in the 4 days that I thought my choice of summer kit was indeed wise...
We went through Paestum which has amazing Greek ruins; it's truly surreal to cycle past it. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be able to do this. I was 10hrs into the ride now, all the pre-race tension had gone and it was now just a case of cracking on with the riding, looking after your body and following the Garmin.
At this stage I met a chap called Rob and we rode together for quite a bit; he is an interesting bloke and used to hold the world record for quickest time taken to cycling from the very north of Europe to its southern tip.
What I find really fascinating about these events is that there's loads going on; cycling is the easy part. Navigating is key, as is planning around the weather. If it's forecast to hammer it down between 10-12am do you stop for a 2 hour kip here, and then push on? Or do you stick to the original plan? ... and you are making these decisions on the fly whilst your blood sugar is dangerously low.
Originally I thought I would be averaging 25kph (like I did in Portugal) but the fact that there was more climbing, wet descents and simply the stop-start nature of the course meant that I never felt fast. The first 100km took 6 hours! And looking at the route profile this was meant to be the fastest part of the course. Bugger.
By 10.30pm I had only done 325km; and decided on a Plan B and get a hotel here instead of pushing on into the mountains, where I had originally booked a hotel at 460 kms, no chance of that. I was 140km behind where I'd thought I'd be by the end of day 1; this was going to be much tougher than I thought.
Looking back on this decision after the fact, this is the key difference between me pre-event and post it. Before I was scared to ride through the night; now I know it can be done. In the future I will just crack on and do a big (and I mean very big) Day 1.
below: what I saw of Paestum looked magnificent, but no time for sightseeing!
photo above: Berthold Werner - Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)
My lowest ebb
I started at 4.15am (which at the time seemed like it was early and little sleep, but I'd get used to less and less as the days went on). We had online tracking ("dotwatching") and I saw Rob had left before me and was up the road so I wanted to catch him; it took me 2 hours to do so and it was up this beautiful climb. Except in my tired state I had gotten the tracking wrong and it wasn't Rob, but another chap called Robbie...
At first I was disaspointed it wasn't Rob, whose company I had so enjoyed. But it turns out Robbie was super cool and we spent 2 days riding near each other. This is not a pairs event; so we could not draft each other. Likewise if we were at a cafe we could not share water etc; and had to buy our own. It's very strict on the self reliance, but it was great to have someone else in view.
He had an incredibly story; he had had Garmin issues and his route mapping was not working. So he lost 5 hours at the start fixing it and was now playing catch up; he literally rode through the night with only 20 mins sleep. He was clearly needing company and for the first hour he talked non-stop - I could hardly get a word in edgeways. Ironically as the days progressed and I slept less and less I realised I was now doing the same as he was!!
He is an amazing athlete; with a sub 2hr 30 marathon PB but he really does ultra-running and is the coach of the GB team. He has done a 24hr running Race where he covered 260km in 24hrs; and the last 42km of that (i.e. the last marathon distance) was done in 3hrs 23. Yes; he did a 3hr 23 marathon after running 220km non stop before that... these people are not normal.
He has started cycling ultra events because he wanted to try and push himself even further. His only previous event was the Trans-Pyrennees less than a month before, but he had scratched as he was under-clothed and way too cold. Basically he made all the mistakes I was making now, but in even higher mountains. So he was on a mission to finish this one; and he would be a great morale booster for me.
We had a great time riding together. This was why I had entered the event; life experiences.
New technology has brought some incredible innovation to even the most remote areas. One of the latest innovations in cycling events is "dotwatching". It's surprisingly addictive, and involves tracking riders in real-time on an online map.
Each rider's GPS unit updates their position, showing how
they're doing on the course - and how their position changes versus
other riders. You can check on a friend at 7am, and then look again
at midday and they might be in a different country!
Riders love it; because they get wonderful support from those watching at home - "the dotwatchers". And friends and family love it because they can see how you are doing (and reassure themselves that you are safe).
above: This was up the climb; I am smiling now because its warm. I would soon be a lot less happy! (photo by Bruno Ferraro)
The day was slow going; some cheeky gravel sections and many moments when you looked at the track ahead of you and then down at your GPS and thought "Fuck off. No way". But yes; this was indeed the correct 'road'. Basically if there was a choice between taking a road with an 8% gradient or a gravel track at 16% Juliana would pick the latter. Every. Single. Time.
Eventually we completed a section that basically seemed to climb for 50km. Morale was high though; this was roughly the halfway point in distance (if not in elevation).
I was cycling through Southern Italy (an area I had never visited before) and despite my slower than ideal progress I was near the front of the race and I remember thinking how privileged I was to do this, and the sacrifices my wife was making looking after 3 young boys and working whilst I was off fannying around on a bike. So I tried to make sure I never felt sorry for myself when I was tired; I had signed up for this. I wanted to suffer - if I was now suffering I should be pleased that it was mission accomplished!
At the end of the relentless climbing section I came off of a mountain at 1700m and I was very hungry and so cold; it was 6.30pm and I was freezing and I simply could not get warm no matter what I did. I was shaking uncontrollably when descending and just felt incredibly alone. I had seen no one on the road for 3hrs now and it was pitch black. Your mind starts playing tricks on you; your Garmin says you are on the right track but what if you uploaded the route wrong? What if this was not the right way? Or what if it was the right track but you were now going back on yourself? Why does everything look the same in the dark?! It's not like a sportive where you get a welcoming sign to reassure you. You can go hours and hours doubting yourself; it's mentally exhausting.
It was probably not even that cold; around 4°C but I was under-dressed and in a severe calorie deficit and basically catabolic at this stage. This was my lowest point of the whole ride and I thought I was going to quit there and then, because tomorrow was forecast for rain and I couldn't bear to ride all day cold and wet. If I could have gotten a train straight back to my family I would have done so then and there. The only thing that prevented me from quitting was the fact that even if I quit I was in the middle of nowhere; I had to get to Sicily somehow - it may as well be on the race course.
below: This is Ulrich, the eventual winner. He did Mt Etna in a hailstorm, pedalling with one leg as an old knee injury flared up... Simply amazing. (photo: James Robertson)
I dived into a cafe and had a hot chocolate which made no difference. Any thoughts of this being a 'race' was over; I was now in survival mode. After 15 mins or so Robbie caught me up and saw my parked bike; I told him of my despair and he was amazingly upbeat. We found a pizza place and he told me to get some food and rest and then start again tomorrow. So that's what we did - his morale boosting chat got me through the night. We both found a B&B and decided to ride off at around midnight; which was 4hrs from now. Ideally I would have slept more and given my body more time to replenish energy reserves, but rain was forecast later in the morning and we really wanted to start climbing when it was dry.
Which is one of the really cool things about Ultra riding; its a mixture of riding, suffering, planning and strategy. What you ideally want to do needs to sometimes take a back seat to the realities of the road and the weather; and the best riders make the best decisions on the fly. There is a pretty high correlation between consistently smart choices and a high placing. Which is part of the reason I entered my second event in two months (to my wife's displeasure!). You cannot learn these things without experiencing them. If I want to do well in 2020 these experiences in 2019 would be key.
(this was the day that killed me; it should have been at least 100km more and 4-5hrs more riding)
My look for 3 out of 4 days; everything on and freezing! (photo by Bruno Ferraro)
As I left the B&B I was very nervous about my condition. The proprietor had said to lock the door and leave the key in the room, but instead I actually left my key under the doormat outside, so if I cycled for 5 minutes but then wanted to turn back and quit I would not be locked out...
My worst fears were confirmed when I immediately felt cold again at the start - and then it started raining for the first hour. This was not going to plan at all. Luckily that was the last rain we saw till the end of the day; and this section was one of the most spectacular of the whole trip; it was properly wild here and we even saw a massive wild boar running across the road.
I was soon becoming a weather expert as Robbie has loads of experience doing running mountain marathons and I was learning about cloud inversions; these are bad things if you descend into them as the warm air is trapped above the cloud and it's freezing beneath. We could see the route ahead of us and it was unrelenting with loads of small hills.
It was 5am at this stage and I was in a much better mood than at the start of the day, but yawning loads. I had not appreciated how much harder it is to do these events in November when the hours of daylight are so much less than in summer. At around 6.30am the sun started to appear; there is no better caffeine shot than that.
At 7am we stopped for a coffee (actually four) and I bought 6 bars of chocolate; my first food since midnight.
As the day progressed the weather stayed good; and I was making decent progress, we had gotten through the night and the sun was shining again, We passed this cool section of gravel roads surrounded by huge wind turbines which made this ominous whooshing sound as you passed close to them. We were cycling in a wooded area on a Saturday though and you could see loads of pissed up hunters here; I was very conscious that my all black bike and kit was less than ideal.
I was in race mode though; every time you stopped you would take opportunity to charge your GPS, battery or your phone. The race was about husbanding all your resources as efficiently as possible.
The weather continued to hold. I could not believe our luck and thought we might have missed the rain. Alas by 4pm the clouds were very black and we could see lightning in the distance. We stopped for some food and coffee and the locals were adamant that there was a storm coming and we should wait here - they looked quite concerned for us; but we had a race to compete in- this was no touring bimble; so off we went into the torrential rain.
It's amazing how your mind affects morale. If I was at home and had to ride 4 hrs in the rain it would be unpleasant but you knew it would be over and warm clothes and a hot shower awaited you. Here you had no idea when it would end and when you might get dry. It's a lot more mentally taxing than I realised.
The beauty of having live GPS tracking was that my friends at home were watching me and I was getting text updates:
"You are fourth"
"Amazing, keep going"
"Only 120km to the ferry!"
These were so helpful when morale was low. In better weather I would have wanted to make a push to the ferry; 120km was not that far, 5-6hrs at most and I wanted to ride 24hrs non-stop.
But by the time we got to Polistena it was 7pm and it was forecast to rain hard for the next 3 hours, and I was cold and soaked through. We had had a diversion because a road had been closed for a mudslide, and I just wanted to eat and get warm at this stage.
Robbie and I stumbled upon a hotel and the owner was incredibly rude and unhelpful, when all we wanted to do was get dry. We were getting argumentative with her, you could tell we were at our edge... Fortunately a wonderful Egyptian student heard us and took us to an amazing B&B. He had no need to do so; but spent 30 mins going out of his way and making sure we were sorted. He was an absolute lifesaver and typical of a lot of the kindness we experienced during the event.
Our new B&B was epic and we got a room, hot dinner (I had two portions), a sandwich for the next day and our wet clothes dried for €50. Result! After dinner, and being warm for first time in hours, morale was much higher.
The only issue was that we couldn't store our bikes into our rooms, only in their garage and thus the earliest we could get them was 5am; which felt a long time away. It's basically an eternity in ultra racing. In fact as soon as we accepted that timeline it had gone from a race to a long audacious ride. But that was all we could do, so we reluctantly accepted it.
However within 30 mins something weird happened; by the time Robbie and I had warmed up and got some food in us our blood sugars rose, our thinking became clearer and our competitive juices returned...
We both (independently) came up with a plan. His exact phrase to me was "I have an idea, not sure if you will like it" and I replied " I have one too". Turns out great minds think alike, and so we asked the proprietor a new question: instead of what was the earliest time we could get the bikes in the morning, instead what was the latest time we could collect them from the garage tonight before they closed for the evening.
He said 1am - and that was that; decision made. We would check in to this lovely hotel with its heating, pillows and cosy duvets and sleep just 3 hours, then wake up just after midnight for the big push to the finish...
Juliana told us the dogs in Italy were fine; they were lazy and it was too cold for them to chase you... in Greece and Albania, etc they might be nasty but here they were fine.
Technically she was right and no one was bitten... But fuck me they gave you a fright and you would alternate between crawling up a climb and then going way past Vo2 pace trying to outrun them whilst shouting "Basta" (go to bed)!
'A Sunday of suffering'
Robbie and I left Polistena around the same time at 12.30am and it was slightly surreal. It was Saturday night and all the locals were leaving pubs and going to nightclubs. My body clock was now all over the place; the locals hadn't gone to bed yet and we were already starting our day.
We knew the weather was going to be decent in the early hours and get worse on the mainland around 5am, so it was a race against time to get to the ferry before the rain.
The first 30km was easy (and cold) but then it was on to the climbing, and we had done nearly 2000m climbing in total darkness. It was weird; you actually looked forward to the climbs as they warmed you up. I did not realise at the time but this was deepest and darkest Calabria. We were cycling through the Aspromonte mountains and a week later a Guardian article came out talking about how the mafia bosses of the feared 'Ndrangheta would hide here in tunnels when on the run. My wife also later found out that the Aspromonte national park is home to wolves - she was not amused!
Around 5.30am and we did the last big climb on the mainland; it had been two hours of slow climbing at this stage and we were on the home stretch to the ferry. As we came off the mountain we could see Sicily in the distance; we could begin to dream now...
above: on our way to the ferry. Sicily (and glory) is in the distance.
We just made the ferry crossing in time and took the opportunity to stuff our faces on the voyage across; as Sicily was meant to be the hardest part of all; it was only 200km long but had 6000m of climbing in it. That's basically doing more than the Marmotte sportive, on a 17kg bike when you are completely shagged..... And having to navigate yourself, and with very limited food or water... And going through numerous gravel sections (and a few cheeky river crossings), and not being able to draft anyone all day.
Basically it was going to be a day of suffering...
After the ferry crossing (which only took 20 mins - I cursed how quick it was, two hours rest would have been bliss!) we were in Sicily and you could immediately feel how much warmer it was. A lovely warm breeze was coming off the sea and the sun was shining. It was 8am and I knew I had to get a move on but that ferry crossing had set my body back, everything felt hard work and it took an hour to pack my bike and start again.
One of the main objectives I had for doing this event so soon after Portugal was that I didn't think I pushed myself too hard in that race. Sure doing three 14+ hour days in a row is hard, but its not epic. And I wanted epic.
Robbie and I had made a vow to each other and ourselves as we departed at midnight that we were going all in; Polistena was the last time we would sleep before the finish. There was no Plan B, no more sleeping allowed. Death or glory. We would ride through the night, the following day and the night again and finish this bastard thing on Sunday in one continuous 24 hour block. That was 24hrs of riding; but only half of it was in daylight (and warmth) and so I was keen to maximise that was much as possible as the difference in morale and speed when riding in sunshine was shocking...
After the first small climb of 500m elevation I was feeling good, I stopped to adjust my bars which were off-set from a slight tumble earlier; then I started again and disaster struck and my gilet got stuck in my disc rotor. Basically I was being an idiot and doing stupid things in my sleep deprived state. I spent 10 minutes trying to extract it, finally did but the gilet was destroyed and that was my only bit of warm kit gone. Nightmare.
I never saw Robbie again. He would end up finishing 2 hours ahead of me to claim 4th place to my 5th; an amazing result in his first completed ultracycling race and after his GPS issues on Day 1. Basically he will be a threat in every event he does in 2020.
However on reflection that mishap was one of best things that happened to me; I would end up riding for 16hrs alone in Sicily and have quite the adventure... I learnt more about myself that Sunday than I could have imagined.
above: photo by Bruno Ferraro. Bruno is a very accomplished ultra rider as well. Showing the camaraderie so apparent in the community he was not riding this event but was helping as support and photographer. On the last day Robbie and I surprised everyone with our super early start, and poor Bruno had to get up equally early to take pictures of us as we descended into the ferry. Thank you Bruno!
Sicily was beautiful; it was lovely and hot - and I like climbing - so today was going to be a good day; If you had offered me double the climbing but a guarantee of sun I would have bitten your hand off...
However the problem with Sicily on a Sunday is literally nothing is open (thats no exageration); no shops or bars, nor any petrol stations and I was getting very low on water and had no food. The donuts on the ferry were many hours ago. This began to bite me, I started feeling very sluggish and my Garmin was not making sense; I could not remember what colour road I was meant to follow - was it yellow lines or purple ones? - and I kept getting lost in tiny villages that had 12 side roads, meaning it was hard to get the right one on the map. Progress was agonisingly slow. There was also a diversion we had to follow and the instructions made no sense to me; basically everything that required thinking was difficult.
I was getting really annoyed now - I just wanted to cycle 200km in a straight line. I did not mind cycling for 16hrs; but why did I have to think or make decisions? Why was everything so complicated? Why were the roads so small and why did all the villages look the same? Why was it so hard to read the Garmin as the sun reflected off its screen? Why was everything so DIFFICULT??
My wife is diabetic, and I have seen first hand what it's like when someone goes really low. Its quite frightening to watch, and I felt the warning signs myself; my fingers and lips were tingling and I felt lightheaded.
I would not see food or water for another 5 hours... all my glycogen had gone and I was purely going through fat reserves now. But in hindsight that's why I wanted to do this event; I wanted to put myself out of my comfort zone - and that was certainly the case here!
I remember going through this amazing valley and I was basically spinning squares and totally depleted; but I was conscious enough to realise that here and now was why I had signed up for this. I wanted to call my wife but she worries enough about me (so much so that every night I would send her exceptionally positive messages)
"loving it here, Italy is beautiful. weather is glorious"
"course is a piece of piss, I am smashing it"
"Am having SO MUCH FUN!!"
I realised if I called her in my current state she would likely send the Italian Army out to rescue me. So I called Ashley (who was my partner in Portugal and he had been giving me wonderful support through WhatsApp).
So I was on this 17km climb at 3% and on my phone to Ash:
"Bazza!! How are you mate? Looking good. Keep it going!"
"Fucked... Totally fucked...."
"You are doing great; Robbie is only 20km ahead of you, you will catch him on Etna"
"Mate; I am fucked"
"Almost there; you are on second to last climb. 1050km done and only 50km to go. Almost done now"
"Did I mention I am fucked?"
Not quite sure what I was expecting Ash to do; but it was great to hear his voice and to remind me that eventually it would be over
I was fine on straight roads; but every time I had a simple junction to navigate or a choice of small roads to take I would inevitably get it wrong; take a wrong turn and have to double back again - I was haemorrhaging time, but more annoyingly I was wasting daylight; I wanted to do as little riding as possible in the dark and the cold. Because people could watch me online I was also conscious this performance collapse was not a private affair! Every time I took a wrong turn and double backed on myself it would show up on the map; my incompetence was for all to see!
It's amazing how your mindset changes; after hours of moaning about not getting food or water I then accepted it and resigned myself to cycling to Etna in this state.
Miraculously in a tiny remote village up a hill there was a chocolate/pastry shop open, which was the first signs of civilisation in hours. I got the owners young daughter to fill up my water bottles and then drank 1.5 litres in a oner in front of their horrified faces. I then asked her to fill them up again. She actually said "Mamma mia!" to me - it was all very surreal. I then proceeded to spend €30 on chocolate and cannoli - quite an achievement given how cheap everything is. I ate 4 cannoli there and then and got them to pack 4 more to go. I had gone from zero calories to 2000 calories of pure sugar and I was buzzing.
The guy packed them in a lovely box and even wrapped it with a ribbon. Alas as soon as I was outside I simply folded the box in half and rammed it into my saddlebag. Ironically I then forgot all about my food stash; and managed to carry all four up Mt Etna without even touching them - and they are quite heavy!
The next 3 hours were uneventful; just plodding along and it's amazing how much better my mood was after some sugar. I had bought some fancy artisanal chocolate; but I was ramming it down my face like it was Smarties; forget texture and flavours I just wanted quick sugars.
I was moving, but slowly, just ticking off the kms at this stage. It had turned dark now and so had my mood; if I had not pissed about earlier and wasted two hours I would have had two more hours of sunlight and been two hours further up the road.
Just before the Etna climb it started to rain hard; this was my worst nightmare. I knew the climb and descent would be 3hrs in total and I wanted to make this as tolerable as I could. Riding with soaking bib shorts and gloves was sub-optimal, so pulled into a buzzing pizzeria which was full of locals having a lovely Sunday meal; it was roasting there with an open fire. I really wanted a hot pizza but was told it would be at least 30 minutes and even though I was riding so slowly I still was in 'race mode' So instead I wolfed down a sandwich (my first proper food since 8am) and realised you could see the steam coming off my clothes. Everyone was staring at me; I looked quite the pitiful sight.
After all too short a break I went outside again; I have never wanted to sit in a restaurant as much as I did then... I felt like a condemned man leaving the warmth and going back out into the darkness and rain alone.
above: Apparently this is what Etna looks like on a good day!
Finally I was about to start Mt Etna. This climb had loomed over us for 4 days now.
18km at 7%.
A climb that's featured in the Giro. It had rained non-stop for the last hour so I was already cold and wet - and I knew it'd be seriously cold up high as I could already see the mountain was covered in fog.
At this stage I remembered what my mate Steve had said about his epic trips and using plastic bags for warmth. I spotted a bin bag by the side of the road; even better the bag contained dirt and mud - and I first rubbed that all over my thighs and then put the bags under my cycling shorts. I knew how ridiculous this was; I am meant to run a business that has access to the finest brands in the world, and here I am in the mountains in summer shorts rubbing mud onto my thighs. I thought of the stores and all the clothes I should have packed. Do as I say, not as I do!
right: approaching Etna, my pal Steve's WhatsApp messages go from "competitive race advice", to "keep it up" buddy, to "WTF, are you ok?"!!!
The Etna climb itself was a blur; it would actually be a nice climb in decent weather, in the daylight and if you were not totally and utterly fucked.
In TrainingPeaks my zones are set up so that anything below 190watts is Active Recovery; i.e. it's not really cycling at all. I don't like riding at this pace; it seems a colossal waste of time, slow and boring and far too easy.
Here I tried to climb at 190w which was soon impossible, way too hard! Instead I just counted down the metres to the top. Any small goal - get to 15km to go, get to 1000m of elevation left, get to 10km to go, get to 500m elevation left and so on. Eventually my goals were far less impressive - get to the next hairpin, then the next one, pedal to that tree, then the next one.
But I was looking for any excuse to stop; my shoes felt loose: Stop and adjust them... My tyres felt soft; Stop and check them... Are my lights working? Stop... and so on and on...
Someone very smart once said not to do too many of these events as they will "literally take years off of your life". I thought he was joking, but as I climbed Etna near midnight in a wet summer jersey I was conscious this was not what sane people did.
As I got near the top of the climb the road got properly bad. Riding on bad roads at pace is one thing, as momentum takes you over the pot-holes; but when you are crawling it's much harder. I was going so slow that any bumps in the road almost made me come to a stop. I was having proper words with myself at this stage.
The winds picked up and there were huge gusts now and I was getting blown across the road. Fortunately the weather was so bad thats there were no cars coming the other way, Finally after what seemed an eternity I reached the summit; it was surreal; I had been preparing for this moment for 3 days now and it was such an anti-climax.
below: This is the winning pairs team; they are at the top of Etna. Look at their elation! Little do they know of the horrors of the descent that awaits them... (photo: James Robertson)
But I was now 99.9% there; with only a 20km descent to go. Get the party started, Bazza is almost home...
Alas there was one final kick in the balls....
At the top there was freezing fog and you could barely see 10m in front of you. It would have actually been funny, if it wasn't me who was in it. My hopes of a quick descent into a hot shower disappeared and instead I went down that descent so slowly, shivering every bit of the way. The roads were wet and felt like glass and I was desperate not to crash at this late stage.
Robbie had done this descent 2 hours before me; and thought it so sketchy that he suggested Juliana go up to see me; an amazing gesture. So I was very lucky that they drove behind me and I got the benefit of their headlights on full beam. I must have looked a truly pitiful sight inching down the mountain.
At this stage I was swearing a lot; not because I was angry but more because I knew I was tired and wanted to get the adrenaline pumping to keep me focused. So the language was as blue as my fingertips.
But eventually I made it to the bottom of the climb and the finish, and that was it - 1100km done! As I finished I was soaking wet; and undressed to expose the muddy bin bags I had stuffed down my legs to give some added warmth to my pitifully thin summer shorts - to the great amusement of Juliana and the team.
By the end of Day 4 I had been up for 24 hours, doing a modest 320km - but a more impressive 7700m of climbing.
At the finish I wanted a firework display, a cuddle, a warm blanket, a cup of hot chocolate and a massive medal that said "You total legend". Instead I was given an ice cold beer. WTF? But hey, for the last 4 days I had done a lot of things to my body it protested about, so why change now?
After 15 mins of blissful sitting down and trying (and failing) to make witty conversation I was told I'd better find my hotel as it was nearly 1am; so I gingerly got on my bike and shuffled away. Unknown to me, my amazing wife had been following my progress online all day, and knew I would finish late and so had spoken to my hotel to make sure they stayed up the extra 3hrs so I could get in. I can't thank her enough; my sole focus on the day was to finish and I hadn't even thought about the afterwards bit at all. If I had finished and had no where to sleep I would have been broken!!
Instead my hotel was glorious; it felt like a suite after being out on the road so long, and I could not believe the decadence. Not only was the room lovely but mentally I relaxed for the first time in days; the race was over.
I jumped in the shower but my mood immediately soured as I was annoyed the water was not hot, merely lukewarm. I had been dreaming of a hot shower all day and this was not it. It took me a good 5 minutes to realise that the water was indeed scolding hot; it was just that all my nerves were battered...
Even now, a full 2 weeks after finishing I can't fully feel 3 fingers in my left hand. So typing this ride report is a slow process.
I expected to sleep soundly; but actually got up at 3am and then at 5am again - it's amazing how the body gets used to a routine...
Apart from that I feel okay; my undercarriage is fine, my legs feel good and I am not sick. After the race I was convinced I had lost loads of weight; simple maths showed calories burned were 3x calories consumed. But when I got home I was 4 kgs heavier? WTF??
Then my wife asked why my feet looked like boats; they were absolutely massive. And I could barely take my wedding ring off... Clearly my body is in a bit of a state; water retention, hormone levels all over the shop....
I was surprised how good I felt after the event; but a fortnight later my riding is currently super slow; anything faster than endurance pace is hard work; it feels like I left 150 watts somewhere in Italy.
After feeling very pleased with my performance; one can't but help look at what the winners did. And they were a different league:
Ulrich, who won it, completed the course in less than 3 days; thats one full day less than me -that's just mad. Apparently one of his legs went, from an old injury flaring up, and he did much of the Mt Etna climb in a hailstorm either standing or pedalling with one leg!
On reflection my physical performance was nothing to boast about - Portugal had much higher speeds and power numbers. Here I rode slower and did fewer kms per day than I thought I would. What I was pleased with was how I learned to suffer more; in Portugal I was part of a pair and we stopped for almost 10 hours at night; with good weather and a bounty of feed stops.
Even a secluded part of the Portugal ride was more densely inhabited than the vast majority of the Italian route. And here it was solo, stopping for just 3-4hrs a night, with the last day as a 24hr block. So the lessons learnt were much more on the mental and planning side.
Because I was so much slower than expected, everything was pushed back. Before the start I thought I would be finished by Saturday afternoon; not midnight on Sunday. I actually remember being annoyed that there was no flights back on Sunday, but on on Monday morning.
Now, instead of a day and a half recovery I had 4 hours to pack my bike and get to the airport. The weather on Monday was truly horrible; cold, wet and windy. I got absolutely soaked trying to find the bike shop and I shuddered to think of the poor riders still out on the course who would face a whole day (or more) of this.
Becuase I was in a rush to pack the bike I did not have time to buy any travel clothes. So instead I rocked up to Catania airport in waterproof shorts, my Castelli rain jacket and my still-soaked cycling shoes. Everyone was staring at me, especially as you could hear me coming a mile away as my cleats clunked along the terminal floor. But I truly did not give a toss what people thought of me; by this point I valued the approval of my fellow riders and no one else!
below: At the airport - Cut off waterproof shorts: Check ✔ Wet cycling shoes: Check ✔ (notice the laces are undone, this is because my feet are massively swollen by this stage)
I thought my departure from Sicily was a fitting metaphor for my performance in the week; under dressed and underprepared; a basic shambles...
2019 has seen me wetting my beak in this mad world of Ultracycling; I love it, and genuinely can't wait for 2020 to begin and to get properly stuck in to a full calendar.
I am not really a social media guy; I don't use Facebook or WhatsApp much. But one of the delights of the event was the rider's WhatsApp group; both during the event and after. No matter how low you were, or cold you were, you could read the messages of the group and find stories that put your discomfort to shame. I would stop for a coffee and read the updates and laugh. So even though it was 1100km on your own, and you would often not see another soul for hours the group messages were a lovely bit of human contact to remind you there were other nutters doing this as well.
It sounds very sentimental but I genuinely feel like I arrived in Italy alone, and left having made some firm friends. I might not see them again in person for a couple of years, but when we do meet up we'll share the bond of surviving the inaugural Two Volcano Sprint.
Robbie and I have now become firm pals; and we plan to race an event in 2020 as a proper pair together. I will need to up my game!
I feel part of this small and crazy club of like-minded souls. And I like it...
Right: The morning after the night before; some immediate post race banter with Robbie
They say you should never try anything new before a big event; I seem to ignore that advice. I flew out on the Wednesday having only picked up the bike the day before. The things I do for Bespoke's readers...
I used a stock S-Works Roubaix with eTap AXS which was absolutely flawless. I could not be happier with the bike. After day one I saw a chap on a aero bike and he was visibly sore and stiff; he was stretching his back and shoulders and clearly looked beat up. I felt totally fine - and not battering your body is such a competitive advantage... "endurance" is the way to go.
I also tried out the new Specialized Turbo RapidAir tubeless tyres. They were perfect; not a hint of a cut, let alone a puncture in the entire 1100km (on some very poor road surfaces) and they rolled very well. Loads of people had punctures (sometimes multiple ones) - thats an extra level of stress I don't need. 28mm wide tyres are a revelation to me; with improvements in comfort, puncture resistance and wet weather grip. What's not to like?
I used my Garmin Edge 1030 GPS - this was a last minute change vs my usual Wahoo Elemnt - and whilst it performed fine I think I prefer the simplicity of the Wahoo user interface, especially when tired.
My Q35.5 summer kit was sub-optimal; but that was 100% my error in choosing the wrong gear for the conditions. If I had done it in something like the Castelli Gabba, or the Pas Normal 'Control' range I would have been so much more comfortable and could have ridden much more through the night. It's not how fast you ride, it's how little you stop.
My Castelli Idro Pro 2 rain jacket was a total lifesaver; and that's not an exaggeration. Light, breathable and properly waterproof. This was the best bit of kit I packed, and (spoiler alert!) we'll be stocking a select range of Castelli gear again soon!
Apidura's bikepacking frame bags again proved to be totally reliable and extremely useful.
Thanks to my mates for all their support via messages when I was at my lowest. Thanks to my wife for allowing me to do this craziness whilst she held down the fort at home. Thanks to all my fellow riders for the companionship on the course and for all the war stories after. Lastly huge thanks to Juliana and her team for all their efforts before, during and after the event, it has created memories I will never forget!
(header, footer and selected images where credited courtesy of the fantastic James Robertson - jamesrobertson.co.uk)
Barry and Ash have completed the BikingMan Portugal ultracycling event - 950km against the clock - and Barry brings us this suitably epic post-ride report.Read more
950km of riding, 10,000 metres of climbing, unassisted and against the clock. They call it ultracycling for a reason...Read more