Last year I took part in the fifth edition of the Transcontinental Race for which Reilly Cycleworks built me a beautiful frame. Unfortunately I didn’t finish the race, making it across chunks of Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy before stopping short of Control Point 3 in the High Tatras mountain range in northern Slovakia after a few days of mild illness. After recuperating in Poprad for 36 hours we rode up to CP3 (at least putting that ghost to rest) on our way to Kraków airport in Poland to fly home. I saw ‘we’ as I was racing in a pair with my friend Jo. My disappointment of stopping mid-race was combined with feelings of guilt for letting down a friend and ruining their race too. Scratching out of the race in a pair affected me far more and for a lot longer than I initially realised, and for quite a while afterwards I fell out of love with riding a bike.
Despite physically feeling at my worst the day we rode to race Control Point 2 through the valleys from Merano to Bolzano to Trento and eventually onto Bassano del Grappa I did my best not to just look down at my stem the whole way. I looked around and it was clear this was a beautiful corner of the Dolomites. I made a silent vow to myself to return one day and have a proper look around. A couple of weeks ago I flew to Venice airport, re-assembled my Reilly in the arrivals hall, and rode off into the mountains. The bike was set up the same as for the Transcontinental except for different wheels, no dynamo hub this time as I had no intention of riding at night unless it was to and from a restaurant. This was credit card bike packing not racing.
I’d booked a B&B for each night of the trip and worked out routes between them. Each day particularly lengthy distance wise, roughly 85km on average, but they did include a lot of up and down, 15,000 metres of ascent over the week. That climbing was squeezed into the middle six days as it’s very flat between Venice and the mountains, which rise from the north Italian plain quite dramatically. No messing with gentle foothills or gradual rising into mountains: A large expanse of flat… then BAM! Mountains.
Some days I had different options between B&Bs, others there was only really one road. My route plotting was essentially based around riding the wiggliest roads I could find on the map. Always go the pretty way, never the shortest. The switchback count was high. Each morning I decided how the legs felt and picked an appropriate route from the list on the Garmin. I also had a paper map of the area which allowed me to adjust things on the fly if I felt the need or simply the desire. One day I realised that my plotted route was a bit daft (a boring cycle path preceding a steep climb on a main road) so on the map I found another way that turned out to be beautiful; long steady climbs, mountain meadows, lakes, and fun scream if you want to go faster descents.
The mountains in spring are great for cycling. Being the quiet bit between the ski season and high summer the roads were empty and the weather was neither too hot nor too cold. However spring plus mountains does mean the weather can be changeable. Most days there was rain at some point, usually late in the afternoon, but I generally managed to miss it by either finishing riding mid-afternoon or tactical use of coffee stops as the weather also tended to change quickly. Except the longest riding day of the trip where it rained heavily pretty much all day. That was a day for delving back into the Transcontinental resolve, gritting my teeth and just pedaling. It’s easier when you know there is a bed and a shower waiting for you at the end of the day rather than a bivvy bag under a flyover.
Days were fueled by pizza, pasta, gelato, and espressos. There was no rush so I stopped when I felt like it. Took in the views. I rode over Monte Grappa, the mountain parcours for CP2 from the Transcontinental Race, twice. Once from the south, once from the north, managing over the week to ride most of the roads up or down it. I rode a few parts of our Transcontinental route, a couple of bits backwards, and stopped at the petrol station a few kilometres outside Trento where I’d needed coffee and Fanta and a moment to recompose myself after a sweary minor meltdown on the way out of the city last year.
About half way through this trip it became apparent how much fitter I was this time last year and when I riding the Transcontinental. Looking at the map I had with me I also noticed how far I’d managed to ride the day I felt run down and full of snot. It was actually quite a long way. Despite the whirlwind of negative feelings at the time of dropping out of the race and in the weeks and months afterwards in retrospect riding over 2000km across Europe in under 9 days isn’t something to be sniffed at (even if I was sniffing a lot at the time). It was at this moment I also realised that my love of cycling had returned, big time. Bikes are bloody ace. As are mountains.
One day I may even have another bash at the Transcontinental.
Author: Gavin Peacock, follow his adventures in here