Italy Divide 2019 – Part 3: Race Report, Days 5 to 6 – Verona to Finish in Torbole

Catch up on my last post Part 2 – Naples to the Po Valley

Day 5: Po Valley to Verona

I woke to the sound of rain pouring outside. I initially was going to get up early in the dark and ride, but this put the brakes on that – remembering that now I wasn’t planning to ‘race’ I didn’t need to punish myself. It was inevitable I was going to get wet, so I resigned myself to doing that in daylight when it might be warmer.

Laying there in the morning light, I checked up on social media and to see what was going on at the front of the race. This is where I saw that Jay P was having a nightmare with mechanicals and was headed back to where he broke down the day before with a bodge to replace a missing thru axle retaining bolt. I suddenly remembered the small nut I had put in my back pocket the day before and wondered, what are the chances?!

I slowly packed up and got ready to face the rain. My trusted Attaquer race rain jacket was going to prove itself again, but I needed a little extra warmth with the rain coming down so added a gilet. A quick cappuccino, some remains of my snacks from the day before (the hotel didn’t do breakfast), and headed out into the rain.

It wasn’t long before Jay caught up with me, as he had restarted a few KM before I rejoined the route. I don’t think he was in the mood for a chat initially, but after I’d established a bit more info about his mechanical, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the nut to ask if it belonged to him. The look on his face was classic. The odds of finding this bit of metal on the trail, me actually thinking to pick up that out of place shiny bit of metal, then finding the rider and bike it belongs to 150 km down the road is huge. I honestly don’t know how he managed to nurse the bike this far without it.

We rode together chatting for a while, neither of us really racing, but also not gaining anything from it. We bumped into a dot watched a little down the road who we stopped to say hello to, who took a snap of us and Jay’s reunited nut.

I actually prefer to be alone on anyway, so after a bit I pulled over to take a leak. We bumped into each other again 10 minutes down the road and shared a coffee and croissants in a cafe, and would cross paths for much of the day.

It was a pretty miserable, wet grotty day, but I was just happy to be getting closer to getting the ride done, and some great pizza and gelato I knew waited for me in Verona and at the finish in Torbole. I’d made steady progress, but was welcome for a stop at the hostel Ostello Dei Concari where I feasted on bread, ham and eggs. It was a marvellous feast from a wonderful host, and was another chance to chat to Jay who was able to make use of the tools to fit his missing bolt back in place and remove the bodge.

The rain had cleared, but news had come through the hostel of the weather in the mountains that the front two were about to face. The hostel are friends of the Italy Divide, and are on hand to help out all the weary Dividers. They gave news from the mountains of whiteout blizzard, sub freezing and impassible conditions, along with talk of pause in the race at the front. I was quite glad to not be charging into that sort of weather, and in the valley near Mantua, the weather was clearing up nicely.

It was fairly easy going for the rest of the day to Verona, and with conditions uncertain up in the mountains, it was an easy decision to find somewhere just outside of Verona to get some good food, an early night and make an early start on the final stretch. I wasn’t in a hurry, and managed to stop and feed some ducks – I’d never seen so many ducklings together.

Feeding ducks

With the knowledge of the snow in the mountains, I was keen to find a bike shop in Verona and add a few items of clothing. My kit was good enough for most scenarios should it need to be, but I really wanted to get a bit extra for the hands head and feet, and spent a pretty penny on some winter gear.

I was keen to avoid heading up into the mountains in the evening so I booked into a hotel just outside Verona. I also bumped into Jay again just outside of town, and it turned out we were booked into the same hotel for the evening. The place was luxurious, and more than willing to leave a breakfast spread out for us in the morning for an early departure. After a cleaning up, sitting down for a delicious meal and a couple of beers, it was time for an early night.

Day 5 Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/2328529674

Stats – nice and easy one with a late start and early finish: 175 km, 743 m, 8 hours 50 min riding, 3 hours 10 min stopped.

Day 6: Snow & Finish

I shared a fairly decent breakfast with Jay at about 3.30am. I also managed to take a fair amount of leftover food stuffed into my pockets. Jay left about 10-20 minutes before me, as I was slow to pack and get ready. I remember the trails leading through the farm fields and vineyards from last year vividly. It was a difficult to follow track on some levies, before this one part which went past a battery chicken shed. I lost half of my breakfast from the stench pumped out into my face by the extractor fan, even though I was holding my breath from the knowledge of the year before. I was very glad of the breakfast leftovers.

Before the real climbing of the day began, I caught up with Jay again. There’s only so much time I can comfortably spend riding with another rider, and I got the feeling he was getting a little tired of all my questions and inane chat. I have always tried to take advantage of spending time with experienced ultra riders – there’s a lot you can learn from them.

This day was ALL about climbing, and the knowledge there was going to be the bonus challenge of snow to get through at some point. I managed to get ahead of Jay and decided to push on and put a bit of distance between us. Like I said, it makes me uncomfortable and isn’t really in the spirit of the ultra racing to spend so much time with another rider. The camaraderie and chat is always welcome when I find it, but there’s an unspoken time limit to these things. On top of that, we were riding at a different pace and it simply made no sense. I get the feeling that Jay felt the same and let me go ahead.

After the sun came up, I found myself in some very familiar places. Luckily, I was on a bike better equipped to handle some of the steep, loose and bumpy terrain, but there was always going to be time for me to get off and hike a bike. The route had changed somewhat from the previous year, but it still included traversing a field along an invisible track. I’ve the same photo from both years, the bike abandoned on the side of a hill.

I’d yet to come across the snowline, and was really enjoying the views. The route passed through the Lessinio National park, similar to last year, but a lot less rocky trails this time. The track carried on going up and up, and before long the patches of white stuff in the snow started getting bigger and bigger. Initially, the sun was out and it was actually quite warm considering, but just as I got to the 1,500 m elevation mark, the wind picked up, and clouds rolled it. The sky threatened but never actually delivered. In fact, it had already done that, with the trail coated in a thick layer of crusting snow. It was incredibly difficult to ride, impossible at times.

The going was painfully slow, with walking interspersed with riding a couple metres and falling off. Thankfully the snow was soft. I do like snow, but this was a bit to crusty to ride, and with a few drifts was deep in places. The only thing to do was to keep constant forward progress. I wanted to stop, for it to end, but the only way to get out of this was to keep on walking. I was also low on food, and was so happy to find a cafe bar open in the middle of the top. It was snowed in at 1,500 m, and was really looking forward to a coffee. The grumpy, just opening up bar keep was not willing to oblige. I had to settle for pastry, coke and anything else edible from the counter. Annoyed, I swiftly consumed some food and got back to the job at hand, getting off this damn mountain.3

The relief of finding tarmac after some hectic descending in the snow was palpable. That was until a rather steep descent and discovering another set of brake pads had disintegrated. I knew the rest of this downhill was steep and twisty, so swiftly changed them and headed down to the valley for some food and drink for the final mountain & 50 km.

The weather in the valley was another world. Beating sun and high 20’s. It was glorious. The initial climb up to Monte Baldo was a decent challenge with a solid gradient coupled with the heat and some pretty tired legs. I was smashing down wine gums to help keep the legs moving. They were going slowly, but they were going, so that’s all that mattered.

All the way up, I was wondering what the new route over will be like, and how much will the snow have hit it. I knew it was a little lower, and would be fairly short time at altitude, but these things always play on your mind. It was now nearly 24 hours since James Hayden and Sofiane Sehili had called a truce on this part of the race due to the conditions, and had both claimed first place.

As it turned out, there was very little snow. It had either melted through the day, or just wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the other side of the valley, probably because of the lower altitude. The off road section the previous year was really tricky. I came through a narrow goat track along the side of a mountain in a thunderstorm in the dark. Today was very different. The sun still beating down in the late afternoon, big wide trails and then opening up onto one of the most fun tarmac descents I’ve had. My tyres were running low on pressure after a few burps on some of the gnarlier descents, and sending it into one corner I nearly over did it. The tyre lost a bit more pressure, my HR jumped a few beats, but I was pumped to be on the way down to the finish.

I completed the race in a little over 5 days, which was pretty much my goal. I was very happy to be done with the race, as my body had taken a bit of a beating. I smashed down a Pizza, beer, Aperol, then checked into my hotel and finished it off with a bottle of wine overlooking Lake Garda.

Day 6 Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/2331182907

Stats: 137 km, 3,600 m, 11 hours 50 min riding, 2 hours stopped.

Comparison 2018 vs. 2019

It’s almost seems crazy that I finished the 2018 race on what is essentially a road bike, the Curve Belgie Spirit. I pushed that bike to it’s limits, but it was not the right tool for the job. In 2019, the Curve Kevin showed that up massively, but I still think there was more that I should have done. The wider bars, bigger tyres, bigger gear range and hydro brakes allowed me to ride so more of the course, made the journey much more comfortable while still being able to travel fast on some of the flatter section – which is just the Po Valley tbh…

I mentioned at the start of the blog that I’ve since bought my very own Kevin, a steel version, and have chosen it’s configuration largely with the Italy Divide and a couple similar events in mind. I’m booked in for the 2021 Italy Divide, with my entry deferred from 2020. The modifications I’ll make are suttle, but key: 650b x 2.2 tyres over 700c x 43 for extra volume and comfort, but still able to keep a decent rolling speed. I’ll also be running Shimano GRX with an aftermarket Wolf Tooth 36t front chainring (on an Ultegra crankset), with a 11/42 on the back to give a few more gear inches on the steeper stuff, more to allow me to spin more.

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