KM ridden ELEVATION RIDE TIME
Day 1: 155.91 2,731 m. 9h 13 min
Day 2: 140.52 2,604 m 8h 54 min
Day 3: 156.48 2,353 m 8h 46 min
Total : 452.91* 7,688 m 26h 53 min
*Throw in the 5 km ridden to the start and then the 8 km ridden from the hotel at the finish line to the train station in Ortebello followed by another 5 km from the train station at Donoratico back to the car you get a total ride distance of just over 470km.
That was a whole lot harder than we thought it would be. 150 km in that heat over that terrain was a challenge. I was thankful the organisers had decreed it not to be a race so there was zero guilt about booking a hotel each night and zero compulsion to cycle through the night as we had done in "Badlands" last year. If Badlands was a 10/10 in terms of psychological and physical challenge (and it was) then this would've been a solid 7.5 /10 if not close to a 8/10. What was challenging was not just the distance each day but the complexities of coping with the terrain, heat and refuelling. The hills. Whilst none were overly long (the longest climb probably ''only'' 13 km) they were brutally steep. Whereas in "Badlands" the hills were long you could at least get into a rhythm of climbing. Here the hills for the most part were 2-3 km long and then it was death defying descent down the other side on loose gravel before ascending up another impossibly steep incline. That consistent inconsistency wears you out. So does the heat. There were long sections of the ride where we were riding along exposed gravel tracks with no protection from the sun. On the first day in particular this had a severe and debilitating effect on our performance. Water became an issue too as the frequency of villages was not as great as we though it would be. Much of the ride being in regional forests or outside of towns. One positive of the experience of Spain was that we both popped a electrolyte replacement tablet into our bottles every-time we re-filled them. I have little to no doubt that this had an enormous benefit and something I shall be sure to repeat on future rides. All very well replacing lost fluids. You also have to replace salts and minerals. Without those your body will start to reject what you ask of it.
We didn't eat nearly enough. Breakfast was a struggle simply because Italy doesn't do breakfast as we know it in Australian and the UK. Their main meal of the day is lunch. Trying to get good fuel into the body first thing in the morning is difficult. Which is why on day 3 we were so eager to delay our start and take on board the breakfast on offer at the hotel in Pienza. A couple of coffees and brioches might last you if you're sat at an office desk. It goes nowhere close to being enough sustenance for a long ride through Tuscany. Next time around I'd reload with a panini in every town or purchase some sort of fruit as we passed through each village. Forcing yourself to eat when you don't feel the need to is an art best trained for.
We occasionally took time to look at Nick W-W fancy GARMIN watch in order to gauge where he was in terms of energy levels and ''life wellbeing'' . His indicator normally sits around 80/100. On many occasions during this ride that was an unreachable number. It did provide a laugh.
The route itself was an interesting choice. In part I think the organisers got lazy and simply threw us onto the Via Francigena walking track rather than take their time to scope out its suitability to cyclists. On occasion too it seemed as though they took us off on a tangent just to prove how tough the terrain could be and to make it an added challenge. We called it ''Being Kevin''. A take on the name of the organiser of the Nth-Sth Downs ride last year who threw all sorts of curve balls at us on the ride that didn't make a lot of sense other than to satiate his sadistic tendencies. Overall though it was a mix of gravel, walking track and tarmac road that succeeded in offering everyone a little something.
The organisers are onto a little gold mine in terms of revenue. Charging 85-120 EUR (dependant on when you signed up)
and with 3,000 participants makes for a pretty little earner. There was zero support or signage on the route and not even an official photographer (as fas I could ascertain). For your entry fee you got to download the GPX file that you used to navigate, a cycling cap and a bright green sweat band. One Italian contestant who I met at the train station on the way back to the start line on the last day told me that many of the riders on the ride probably baulked at paying the fee and more than likely downloaded the GPX file from a friend or simply followed the masses. Or had one friend download it and then cycled with him/her. I suspect that is why they may have changed the route this year. To avoid people simply repeating the same route as the previous year without paying to enter. I suspect too that they will probably alter the route a little next year to prevent the same. With the route directions now downloaded into our navigational devices there would be nothing to stop us repeating the ride at a more leisurely pace with friends who wanted to enjoy the route.
In terms of suitability our bikes were able to cope with everything thrown at us. Though I do think that someone on a lightweight mountain bike with front fork suspension would've enjoyed it and found it easier on many of the track sections than we did. Mountain bikes with their added weight and wider knobbly tyres get their speed killed on tarmac roads but given over 70% of the ride was on gravel I am not sure they were disadvantaged at all. This year they opened the event to e-bikes for the first time. Despite that I didn't see as many as I thought we would.
The scenery is stunning in Tuscany and it was something neither of us tired of amazing at. You simply cannot get enough of sunburnt fields and hay bales and villas and impossibly quaint villages and cities whose architecture is astonishing. It is a truly stunning part of Italy.
Next time around I would pace the ride out to a more comfortable 100km a day. That gives you time to fully enjoy a leisurely and fulfilling breakfast in the morning in a hotel, time for a few more stops to include coffees and mid afternoon beer leaving one plenty of time to arrive at the destination and luxuriate in a solid evening meal. 4-5 days as opposed to hammer oneself silly to do it in 2.5 days which we did.
People often ask why I do these rides that batter me physically and mentally. They also ask why not do the route out of competition or map my own route. There's plenty of reasons but one of the overriding ones is that in a crowd environment like this you get to meet some wonderful people and there is a real sense of '' we are all in this together''. The spirit of camaraderie is overwhelming and it certainly has its benefits if anything goes wrong. As an example, on the last day returning by train to the car, I met a lovely couple from Switzerland at the Ortebello train station, Peter and Doris, who were headed back to the start line as well. Long story cut short they invited me to their home town of Bern to participate in a 300km bike packing race. With them we also met Giovanni, a very likeable and engaging Italian from Venice who spent some time advocating smoking Toscana cigars. Giovanni had only finished that morning and not only broken a spoke but also taken a fall at the sector in the last 20 km where the picture of the cyclist falling over the front of his handlebars was placed. He had shed several layers of skin on his thigh and arms but was all cheery and positive having achieved both his goal of finishing and being in time for the Tuesday 12.01 train back to the start.
There was also Domenica. Had lived In Australia for 2 years working on a pineapple farm in Queensland and loved it so much he professed that the host family was like a second family to him. Loved Australia so much he had a tattoo to prove it.
Yes, it's the challenge and achievement that attracts, but more so the people and the atmosphere of a group ride.
Thanks to Nick W-W. His attention to detail as was the case last year in Badlands was nothing short of admirable. His tenacity and drive is pretty special too. As is his ability to smash himself silly getting up hills as quickly as humanely possible. To that extent I do not recall ever seen him be overtaken whilst climbing a hill. I cannot recall ever seen him being over taken going down a steep gravel track either. Long smooth tarmac roads a different matter. My greater weight was always an advantage. Something about mass and acceleration. Thanks to him for his company and the intellectual conversations around meal times. As well as providing a few laughs along the way.
Thanks to my body for holding it together despite me doing my best to test every sinew of it. The fall on the first day was miraculous in that given the terrain I fell upon nothing was broken. The right knee gave up late on both days 2 and 3 when it decided that no amount of Neurofen was going to prevent it from complaining. However the left knee stood up to be counted on both occasions. It will be interesting to see how that injury unfolds this next few weeks.
Finally thanks to my wife, Kathryn S-R. She has had to endure being a cyclist widow time and again over the previous few months as I did countless long training rides. She also offered to be on standby for logistics during the ride should we need to lean on her fluent Italian or knowledge of all things Italian. An absolute stalwart in my life and the perfect partner.