Saturday, July 8, 2017

Cooked in Italy

Eighty-one kilometers from the start of the 999 Miglia, I made a wrong turn in the town of Anagni as we climbed to the first control. Not a big deal - the streets of the old town were confusing and I realized the mistake in less than a minute and before going more than 100 meters off course. As I turned around, I felt lightheaded. That seemed weird.

2500 meters later, I reached the control. I got off my bike and nearly passed out. I pushed the bike over to a shady spot by the church, but kept stumbling and running the bike wheels over my feet. Now I was worried. Although the day was hot, it was not yet noon and we had been on the bikes for less than five hours since the ride start. We had covered about 84 of the 1600 kilometers of the ride; we had climbed about 1400 of 20000 meters of elevation gain expected; temperatures were in the mid-30s C - certainly warm for a Seattle guy, but not yet the brutal temperatures forecasted.

Just like that, my scenic six-day randonneur tour of southern Italy had morphed into a battle. Gone was any thought I may have had of “competing” in the “Concorso 999 Selfie” contest to take pictures at a list of scenic spots on the route. This would be a fight and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. Although I’ve had many a brevet experience turn into a “survival mode” ride, never had it happened with more than 1500 kilometers to go!

With the help of my extremely solicitous SIR ride buddies (Mark, Ricky, Bob, and Bill), who helped me find shade, soda, water, food, and coffee, I was back on the bike in about 30 minutes. Anagni would not be one of the highly efficient control stops that we had planned to get us through the long first day of the ride. A quick downhill and 40 km of flat riding helped the recovery, but perhaps the damage was done.

The next 130 hours of day and night riding up and down endless hills in a beautiful and hot country are a bit of a blur to me now a week later. In total there would be 85 hours on the bike at a pace of well under 20kph and a massive 50 hours of off the bike time, much of it spent cooling off with Cokes and and ice creams. (Probably only 15-16 hours was sleep - over five nights!). I would focus, as best I could, on getting enough water, electrolytes, food, and sleep and hope that the distance and time problems took care of themselves. There would be ugly attrition among our fellow riders including three of my Seattle friends, two who realized on the second day that they had better options than slow broiling under the Italian sun and one who succumbed to a nasty and fast-developing case of Shermer’s neck on the fifth day.

To get through, I resorted to every trick I knew and some that I made up on the spot. I rode at night. I rode slowly. I walked steep hills. I rode on the wrong side of the road to find scarce shade. I drank water; I poured it on myself. I looked for ice. I drank sodas. I dumped salt on food. I dissolved electrolytes in Cokes (after the first massive eruption, I learned to do this slowly and patiently). I whined incessantly. I gave myself pep talks. I sought sympathy on Facebook (“crowd sourcing good vibes,” I called it euphemistically at the time). I took pictures of fabulous scenery and uploaded them as if it were a normal ride, if only to fool myself. I laughed. I cried. I made silly bargains with myself (ride for 15 more minutes and then you can look at elevation on computer to see if you’ve made any progress). I begged Bob to go on ahead, probably because I knew that he wouldn’t and he’d tell me that I was fine and that we would make it. We changed our plan for sleep stops on the fly so we could have a short day (fourth day) which did (temporary) wonders for my outlook. I took Susan’s advice and tapped into my “vast reserves” of “bullheadedness” (her words). “Play all your cards,” Joe said. By the finish, I felt that I had done just that. Although I was bluffing most of the time, it sure felt good not to fold.

Even with all the cards I played, the truth is that I probably couldn’t have finished without the steady companionship and support from Bob Brudvik every pedal stroke of the way. He might say that he stuck with me because I’m a good navigator, but I know better. Support every night from Joe Platzner, who would help us get into our hotels and find food, proved invaluable as well. The many kindnesses from the event volunteers and fellow riders may not have cooled the air or flattened the hills, but they certainly lifted the spirits.

When I finished, Joe asked if it was the hardest brevet I’d ever done. To his surprise, I hesitated and equivocated. I’m well aware of my tendency to think that the ride I just finished is the hardest one that I’ve ever done, so I wanted time to think about it. Looking back on it now after a week of relaxing and walking and looking at art in the Netherlands with my daughter, I think I can say that Joe had it right. The hot temperatures (to 40C or more), the distance (1600km is a lot more than 1200km), the many kilometers of dreadful pavement, and the relentless climbing (18,000-21,000 meters, some of it steep) added up to a real challenge. I won’t pretend; I’m pretty damn proud of getting that one done. The beer sure tasted good.