Italy Divide 2019 – Part 2: Race Report, Days 1 to 4 – Naples to Po Valley

Catch up on the last post here: Italy Divide 2019 – Part 1: Finding the Right Tool for the Job.

The Start

The start of the race moved from Rome in 2018 to Naples in 2019. I think in 2020 it was planned to move a little further down the coast to Pompeii, but for 2019 it’s volcano Vesuvius would serve as a stunning looming backdrop on the horizon of the start in Naples. It was on the busy waterfront with thousands of tourists milling around and gathering, pushing the low 30’s. With the start late in the afternoon, it was a case of lingering and waiting in the heat, eating a few more pizza’s that weren’t really necessary and drinking copious amounts of water to stay hydrated.

Naples is a crazy busy town, with large volumes of traffic and some roads that aren’t in the best shape. In fact, I’m sure many roads are remnants of the original Roman roads unchanged in millenia, with large cobblestone streets making for a bumpy ride.

After a few words from Jacamo, the race director, we rode in a huge peloton through the streets of Naples. It was a great chance to catch a few words with other riders, many I met on the previous years race, as well as James Hayden on his first off road race.

Before the edge of town, we all stopped briefly for a final word, then we were off. I’d missed the ‘flag drop’ so to speak, and was way back when the race set off. I was a little annoyed at myself, but I knew that this was still very early in a long race.

It was a long time before we managed to actually get to dirt, as navigating out of Naples took a bit of time. Disappointingly, the peloton never really singled out, and was really difficult to get away without someone jumping on your wheel for the ride. I gave up after a little while and sat behind the bunch, resolved to get ahead if I saw a chance when they stopped. It was early evening, with the sun fading, before I managed to find some roads to myself. The heat was fading, and the bunch was thinned out. The route beyond Naples followed trails next to rivers, farm tracks, with the occasional goat track and hike a bike thrown in. It took a while to find something that would test the Curve Kevin, but it ended up being me that was tested – ludicrously steep and unrideable trails meant slow progress in the dark, questioning the decision to be there – all instantly forgotten as soon as the trail opens into a farm with a generous farmer filling riders bottles from a hose and finding rideable tracks.

Hot and dusty afternoon leaving Naples

02:30 am was about the time I started to hike up the steps up to the small town of Norma. By this time, many of the field had found somewhere to hunker down for the night, and the ultra distance riders had surfaced to the front of the race. I was buzzing, but immensely frustrated by the walk up this steep overgrown trail. I could see that the leader Nico had assumed a considerable lead, although it would turn out to be somewhat dishonest, but Jay P, James Hayden and Sofiane weren’t too far ahead I felt pretty good about myself.

Day 2 – Rome

Before Rome, and just before dawn I had the pleasure of the single track through the woods next to what was a stunningly beautiful volcano crater lake. Just as I was getting into the flow, it was over, and I was thrust on to a long straight cobbled road leading to Rome – the beautiful Via Appia.

Via Appia leading into Rome

This was a beautiful historical avenue lined with cypress trees and stone pines, leading all the way to the heart of Rome. It was just before the end of this that I bumped into James who was having some serious issues with his GPS. It was a lovely moment, rolling into the heart of Rome chatting with James. I had strong desires for a classic Italian cake breakfast, so after passing the Colosseum, I stopped to fuel up.

Colosseum, Rome

My original plan was to get here before dawn and avoid the rush hour, but at 9am I was glad to find a bakery open. This is where the Italy Divide started the previous year, and now felt on familiar territory, but this time it was daylight. I felt pretty good despite riding through the night, and fairly close to my original plan.

Hot & dusty, and a classic ice lolly

The morning wore on, as did the rolling hills leading to Tuscany. It was a good morning, and made solid progress, but around midday the rain started to come. I spent a good hour threading my bike through fallen trees in a valley just before the hilltop town of Caprianca, where I bumped into James again, who’d just finished off a pizza. He was dressed in full wet gear, and after the battle through the undergrowth and hike a bike up the steps into town, I still had a bit of a sweat on so was still in shorts and jersey and not too bothered by the drizzle. I was pretty hungry now, but classic rural Italy didn’t accept cards, and I’d spent all my cash. I lost a bit of time trying to find a cash machine, but still managed to catch up with James a bit down the road. Now the rain was coming down and I’d resigned to putting on my Attaquer race rain jacket – the best rain jacket I’ve ever owned. We rode through rain soaked gravel roads for a short while chatting again until I spotted a cash machine and a mini mart. I was really hungry by then, so let James get on his way and stopped to let the water drain from me and fuel up on pizza, donuts, coffee and coke.

The trails after I got going again were a little slower going now, lots of standing water and mud, but with the sun coming out it had warmed up a bit. I wasn’t able to get cold though, as there were plenty of short bergs to keep me pushing up and down.

The day(s) and weather had taken their toll on me, and by late afternoon I was searching for hotels. I found a holiday park next to Lago di Bolsena, picked up supplies in Montefiascone and settled into my chalet – showering, cleaning kit and drying ready for an early departure. I’d stopped at 7pm in 3rd place, and felt the pull of keeping moving as I watched several riders gain ground and pass while I was fueling up on cheerios and pastry watching my now clean kit dry. I didn’t sleep very much, but was very glad of the chance to clean up and rest.

Strava for day 1 & 2 – https://www.strava.com/activities/2320769111

Stats: 461 km, 5,311 m elevation, 25 hours moving, 3 hours 51 stopped.

Day 3 – Tuscany and Florence

I was back on the road again just after midnight, now in 7th place. The Tuscan roads, towns and countryside were stunning the year before, but I was limited to my dynamo beam and head torch this time. I made some great progress in the early morning, regaining some of the positions from the night before. I had come to the realisation now that the leaders were taking this race very seriously and hadn’t stopped either night as yet. I didn’t quite have the edge to push myself that far so early on in my ‘season’, but I did try to enjoy a bit of a chase and before long I’d passed 3 sleeping riders and into 4th place. I wasn’t going to see much of the rest of the front of the field as the race was on there, but was happy to be in the mix and have made some good ground.

Dawn was tough with a lot of climbing. In fact, this whole area of Tuscany is tough. Sharp climbs separated by sharp descents, it’s a grind, then free wheel, repeat. I was very glad of my gear ratios, but was weak after little sleep and riding 7 hours through the night. Around 7am, I found a cafe next to a fruit and veg shop in San Quirico d’Orcia, and I feasted. Many coke, donut, coffee and sweets were consumed. There my well have been an ice cream in there too.

After this town was a wonderful sweeping road heading deeper into the Tuscan countryside. It was as I got to the bottom of this descent did I notice that I’d left my head torch light, an Exposure Diablo, in the cafe. With my target for the day being Florence, I had a lot of work to do and no time to turn around. I was well equipped with lights, but it was an expensive breakfast.

This was a warm day, with endless rolling hills leading to Sienna. It’s a stunning part of the countryside, and was feeling good after a solid breakfast, and a food pouch loaded with apples and peaches and plenty of water. I stopped to top up water and grab a coffee a couple of times before arriving in Sienna just after midday. It’s a beautiful town perched high in the Tuscan countryside, which obviously means the Italy Divide route found the steepest roads up to it. Another quick bite to eat, ice cream and then fighting the midday tourist crowds to escape the town.

I remembered from the previous year the route after this was quite challenging, finding all the old disused Roman roads with harsh cobbles broken and not really the kindest for a bike without suspension. I was able to ride my way through a few sections that I know I really struggled the previous year, but bigger tyres and much more gears meant I had an easier life. Descending on gravel was much more confident too, and some of the more technical descents were a lot more fun as a result!

I was having a few mechanical issues. The grit and rain from the previous day had stripped my chain dry of oil, and I couldn’t find my bottle of lube in my frame bag. My rear tyre had burped and lost a bit of pressure, but all attempts to pump it up with my hand pump didn’t work.

Mechanicals in Greve in Chianti

I found a small bike shop in the same town I stopped in the year before – Greve in Chianti, and procured a bottle of lube. After some poking around with an old spoke, managed to degunk the valve core and topped up the tyre with a track pump. I was lucky to catch the shop open at the end of the day, and this ‘service’ made the next few days possible – and I couldn’t hear the drive train again!

As the evening was drawing in, I was setting my sights on Florence for the night. I knew the next section was tough and slow going, and really not what I wanted to be doing in the night with no sleep, and I was really keen to get some food, a comfy bed and a chance to clean.

Tuscany is gorgeous.

The 30km to Florence took a lot longer than I would have liked, but that is always the way when you are chasing a hotel room before they close. I managed to make it just after 10pm, and also found a restaurant that was willing to serve me takeaway pasta so I could feast in the hotel, and have some left over for breakfast in the morning.

By this point, I was still in 4th with a decent lead. James, Jay & Sofiane were pushing on through the night. I can’t see how they were able to do that having ridden non-stop from the start. This day was a big one – 22 hours since I started, nearly 20 hours riding time. I’d managed ‘only’ 275 km, but had amassed 6,124 m of climbing and I was toast. Tuscany certainly is not flat!

Strava day 3: https://www.strava.com/activities/2323705278

Stats: 274 km, 6,124 m, 19 hours 40 min moving, 2 hours 30 min stopped.

Florence

Day 4 – The muddy trails to the Po Valley

I was up with a coffee and pasta breakfast at 4am, and on the road by 4.20am. Only one rider, Levente Bagoly had passed me in the 6 hours I was stopped, and he was camped by the side of the road just outside of Florence. I’ve always like this time of the morning on an ultra race – you can get the feeling of getting a really good start on the day, and slowly watch everything start to wake up.

I knew from last year that this section was going to be slow. Lots of steep, technical climbing, with inevitable hike a bike. It took me 4 hours to pass the first 30 km, but I found breakfast #2 in a bar in San Piero a Sieve. There was a brief respite from hard riding of about 5 km, before the really fun stuff started. The skies had been moody all morning, and it was clear that there’d been quite a bit of rain overnight.

As the first of the big climbs started, so did the walking. It was really too steep to keep spinning and traction. The ground was muddy or loose gravel. Hard work, pushing a bike up a hill. You stare at the ground a lot when doing that, and this was where I spotted a nut, a shiny aluminum bit of metal that looked out of place – I imagined it may have been dropped by another rider ahead, so put it in my pocket expecting to find the rider and bike it belonged to a little further along. It would be a while before I caught up with them…

Mud was a clear theme for the rest of this section. A beautiful national park and trail, but it was a mess for riding bikes through. Really slow going, and difficult to feel good about progress. I had lots of supplies. It was cool, damp, but not raining very much – it’d had done plenty of that already.

After 55km, and 8 hours of grinding and slipping and sliding, I broke free from the undergrowth and found a bit of tarmac leading to the Passo della Futa. This is where the rain really came down. For a moment I contemplated pushing on, but then spotted a restaurant and beelined straight for it. It turned out to be quite a well to do place, and I think I was only allowed to stay and eat in the bar area as they took pity on the filthy, wet, probably smelly and tired looking cyclist begging for food. I ate well, and managed to sit out the worst of the rain. Stocking up on chocolate, coke and water, I headed back for the last section before descending into Bologna.

Legs taken a beating – and it was only lunch time

This next bit was hard. Mud, lots of mud, some more mud, and just impossible conditions. Every conceivable type of mud was experienced, and it did nothing but wear me and my bike down. I had to stop and replace my brake pads at one point, an inevitable consequence, discovering that I’d eaten some of the pad as well as the springs holding it in place.

I made it into Bologna, 120 km in 15 hours. I ate some more, making a beeline for mcdonalds. I hatched a plan here. The Po Valley lay ahead – 200km of farm tracks, levies, and flat pretty much all the way to Verona. This would be an opportunity to catch up with the front of the pack. I was also hearing rumours of the weather moving into the mountains after Verona which were likely to slow the front of the field down, at least I hoped.

Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, Bologna

It felt like an opportunity, so I stocked up on McDonalds, water, a bit of fruit, and settled in for a night chasing the front. It felt great to be finally moving faster than 10km per hour, not climbing any more, and being able to feel like I was getting somewhere. I left Bologna and was feeling good riding into the sunset.

Sunset in the Po Valley

A couple hours later, it was dark, cold, I was incredibly tired and my desire to push through the night had evaporated. I was never going to be able to catch the front, and I came to the realisation that I didn’t really want to that much. I pulled out my phone, found the only hotel around for miles a couple km’s away and checked in.

I felt like a bit of weight had lifted from my shoulders having taken the decision. I took the opportunity to clean up, eat much of the remains of my overnight food haul and get some sleep.

Strava day 4: https://www.strava.com/activities/2326727869/overview

Stats: 173 km, 3,000 m, 14 hours moving, 4 hours stopped

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