Summer 2018. Let’s try a mainland European Audax, riding in great places whilst still meeting interesting people en route. As seems to be the way with these big events you have to be quick off the mark when entering; the Alpi4000 in Italy appeared way back in September and seemed to fit the thrifty travelling mode. I could tour down to Italy leave some kit behind at the start and enjoy more freedom whilst being looked after by the organisers. I love a door to door tour.
Me, Taz and the Tripster set off for the ferry at Portsmouth in the July Summer 18 heat wave, it was great I could not remember the last time a waterproof was needed. The Tailfin rack is ideal for this plan and full camp gear is coming along; Tent on top, one pannier for gear the other solely for food.
Camping through Northern France was a journey of three planned campsites getting 150 miles a day out of the way while the going was flat. Caen to camping de la Trye in Bresles. Then through the huge Foret Domaniale de Compiegne on quiet tracks and using the Veloroute du Canal lateral a la Marne onto Chalons-en-Champagne. The camping municipal just off the canal route is a quick easy check in away from a great communal tent area where I met some interesting fellow tourists and shared a beer.
The heat was staggering in a hot headwind, memories of Kansas while traversing some of Europe’s bloodiest WW1 battlefields. I went for an earlier start and a shorter 130 mile day still heading East to cross the big la Moselle canals at Toul. On the banks of the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, camping du Parroy was an idyllic quiet retreat, although the shade was limited it was a nice place to cool down and get an early cool start again.
The canal network had me through Strasbourg by early afternoon and into my first real trip through Germany. The cycle routes although intricate were a revelation; very well signposted and well away from busy roads, this was fun. Food by Aldi, fun in the baking sun and all on an easy budget. After the first very steep climbing near Schramberg I started to look for a stealth camp site off a wide quiet cycle lane. It was dusk yet there were plenty of people out enjoying the late heat, tons of professional looking skaters especially. A small sheltered field just off the road was perfect and cooled off quickly with some altitude.
The next day brought lake Constance into view, the trip through Constance and into Switzerland itself was more cool cycle friendly stuff. I followed the way-marked route round the Swiss side of the lake early afternoon, an intricate collection of back lanes and water side tracks and was blown away. Fantastic to see so many families out enjoying cycling and the water side stops. Many were in full touring mode, the parents being the tent mules and the kids following along, brilliant, a lap of the lake would be a great family holiday trip.
I had intended to skip getting any Swiss Francs which was easily doable, but being so hot a lakeside ice cream and drink stop had to be done, a train station came to the rescue for cash exchange. At the end of the lake a brief dip under the A1 motorway into Austria came in handy as it allowed for a cheap shopping trip into a budget supermarket, I loaded up for some big picnics.
The cycling tracks following the Rhine South from here were again sublime, I had visions of the Transcontinental riders heading down here in a few weeks time as I relaxed enjoying a picnic with great views of the Alps to come. Crossing from one side to the other dropped me back into Austria, then a session in Liechtenstein, although I didn’t have a clue at the time. Carrying on through the Rhine valley back into Switzerland it looked like storm clouds were gathering at dusk so a quick check of the Archies campsite App and I stopped at a large expensive site in Chur, that food stock came in handy. A cold beer and a reflection on a great cycling friendly day in a superb area.
An early start packing up in the dark with a Dad and Son from the Netherlands and the valley was soon left behind at Thusis climbing to over 2000 metres and the first of 5 over 2000 metre passes today. The Albula at 2315M called for a stop at the col and blowing the Swiss Francs on cool drinks. The following descent provided a bit of fun when a huge convoy of Porsche, and Porsche trikes passed by and I picked them off one by one on hairpin bends. One driver was not having it and almost trashed it into a wall until his ego went back in the box, oops.
What a day, Glacial views, the stunning engineering of the World heritage railway that passes over the mountains here, took me to the Passo del Bernina (2330m) I would be doing this route in reverse on the Alpi4000 in a few days as there really was no other way to traverse the Alps here.
The next pass and finally the Italian border summiting at Forcola Di Livigno. I always assumed that a visit here would involve mountainbikes, and it was good watching riders shoot down the long trails from here while hooning down the road to Livigno itself. In the valley the realisation that there was two more passes to go over, Passo Eira and Passo Foscagno, before reaching Bormio was tough, especially as the sky was now dark as sin. The target Bormio at the foot of the Stelvio pass, there is just no easy way of getting here by road, everywhere you turn is an iconic col.
For the first time this summer it seemed, the waterproof went on and how cruel that a 15 mile fast descent to Bormio was an exercise in shivering and preservation in a deluge. At least I had booked a hostel stay and what a fantastic welcome they gave the drowned shivering rat that set foot through their door. Ostello Alpino what a great cool place to stay, the bike had its own chip card secured room, and several Alpi4000 riders were staying here too. Although I had to vacate here the next night, the evening before the event, I had no hesitation in scrounging a room to collapse into in a weeks time. This had the added benefit of allowing me to leave as much kit as I wanted in the secure lockup while enjoying Italy in lightweight Audax mode.
Overall a nice 946 mile warm up ride before the event, and a good perspective on how hard the start will be. I had a day to chill out, eat huge buffet food, do some washing and strip off the touring weight from the bike. At one point that afternoon a very wet rider appeared at the hostel, amazingly it was Brendan who was third in the Transatlanticway Race in June where I helped out. Several riders were booked into the Hostel so it was a good chance to share ride stories, and a good relaxing day.
Signing on (nice pro style board) and the usual waste of time briefing which just repeated everything on the website, so I went into the bar and watched the tour with a few South Africans, who were to figure quite a bit in this trip. Stephen the ex pro who had ridden the milk race in the UK was here for fun on his mountainbike on slicks.
I found my Air BnB partner Adam who had kindly let me share his accommodation at the very foot of the Stelvio, and what a result we had a good breakfast left outside our door to help our very early start. The start was in waves and I set off an hour after the early birds with a big group from the far East. It was still damp and cool, perfect for the big climbing start.
Towards the climb summit this guy appeared doing the event, respect. The first checkpoint was just ahead at the windy cold summit on the Swiss border, a complete change weather wise from my trip through here 2 days ago.
An introduction to the fuel of the trip, Choc wafer bars, dark 75% Choc bars and fruit baked pastries. The drinks here included Hot lemon tea, this was great while sat here getting cold. It was going to be full wrap up time for the long fast descent ahead.
I had to engage with this dude, Antone was from Ukraine and this was his only riding gear; T-shirt and arm warmers is in this year. His bike is a 3 speed folder but not a Brompton, which he said was his dream bike. This is his bike at CP2 which was down the mountain after a 50 mile blast, so he was making good progress.
CP2 was a return to Italy finishing at Chiavenna followed a rip roaring descent where the temperature rose rapidly on the way down, no way you wanted to stop to lose speed, as all layers were unzipped or pulled down. On stopping it was a rush to get all this gear off, it was already approaching 35 degs C. I was in no rush and relaxed checking out riders arriving and again chatted with Antone learning more about him. On leaving I assumed that would be the last I saw of him.
A long stretch of the route then followed the banks of endless lakes. Here my front brake gave up, the very worn pads spring chewed up and it was game over. I’d forgotten that I’d left some resin pads in here, the past weeks descents had killed them; I had a worn set of Sintered as spares so I dived for shade while replacing them. Onward and lake Como to Lugano, back into Switzerland this is confusing, good job for Shengan agreements. These were not super quiet roads but wow the views of the lake were continuous with the glorious surrounding peaks. Sometimes the road disappeared into big tunnels, while we took nice quiet routes beside the lake on old roads through great rock tunnels. Back into Italy and relief I could now afford an ice cream stop with a few other riders.
Soon it was time to flank another lake, the view this time on the other shoulder to even up the staring muscles; Maggiore Lake. Here I got into a nice rhythm and started to catch a rider approaching the checkpoint ahead. Each rider had a nice named number board, and checking his I recognised the rider as Rimas, who had done the TCR race a few times. We rolled into the CP at Leveno together.
Signing in here we are given a ferry ticket to cross the lake, but I’m more interested in the hot pasta and rice on offer, it’s a glorious setting to sit and eat. I hook up with Rimas and introductions are made as we stuff our faces and pockets.
There is talk of accomodation here, and it appears to be a hotel! that’s extraordinary for an Audax. There are vague verbal instructions of just down the lake track, we have a name, but it can’t possibly be true. At 14 hrs and 150 miles this is a perfect stopping point for me, especially as the biting things start to get hungry. Punching the hotel name into google it’s 3 miles away I head off in the now darkness thinking that it’s going to be some floorspace in a big room and i have no gear with me at all.
This big posh looking hotel, really, surely not. Then a woman seeing my light takes me through the front reception and I park my bike in the huge empty dining room. Name taken I’m offered a room key and told I will be sharing when more come, it seems I’m one of the first lazy stoppers, I suggest she directs Rimas to share if he arrives. So that s how two freshly showered guys got to know each other lying on beds buck naked drinking ice cold Guinness from the room mini bar. It was blisteringly hot but we could not be happier as surely there can never be such a great included Audax stop for riders with no gear with them, Towels, soap and a comfy private bed. The first ferry tomorrow goes at 5am so it’s a good nights sleep too, I almost felt sorry for those who missed this 😉
Quite a few were up ready to get the first ferry and there were only about 20 bikes in the restaurant garage. The organisers had laid out the rides staple diet for breakfast with bottles of water, good enough for my start to the day. Still Dark about 10 of us make the first ferry including a meet up with the South African crew again. On board it’s a good chance to survey the excellent ride bible to see what today has in store, it’s big, climbing into France.
Unleashing a bunch of rested cyclists off the boat, yep could only mean one thing, a fast Peleton. The South Africans were driving hard and Rimas went with them and several others, I settled into my own pace as they quickly disappeared. Sometime later the checkpoint at Biella passed, where my drop bag awaited, the lack of promised food was a massive disappointment, the mid day shower was good.
A steady long day of intense heat heading South West through valleys was occasionally spent Yo-Yoing with the SA gang as they were always pushing the pedals hard, I did a few fast descents with them as the pace went up, to me they looked like they were heading for a group mutiny, they could not all survive it was relentless.
New friend Tom and I arrive comfortably at the checkpoint inside the majestic Venaria Palace North of Turin, diving for shade from the heat of the mid afternoon. By the look of the meager supplies on offer it was clear we were at the back of the pack, melted chocolate and a few fruit bars were our poor consolation prize compared to what they said was here earlier. After some time the rest of the SA crew turned up, the ladies were not happy and I went sightseeing to get away from the distress.
The magic ball in the courtyard, hang on that’s freaky it looks exactly like the one in the Trinity College in Dublin where the Transatlanticway race started, we didn’t know what that one was either. Turns out they are the work of Arnaldo Pomodoro ;Sphere within a Sphere and he has several of these around the world. That’s two in my collection then, don’t think I’ll make New York, Tehran or Tel Aviv for any more though.
From here it was into familiar territory, heading for Susa the reverse of a route taken on the TCR3 ride. I hooked onto a 3 man Italian train, it was flat and fast and we made great progress, then they pointed at a random house and all pulled up and disappeared, place for the night or a friend maybe. I planned to stop in Susa as the last chance for food before heading into the night. I gorged on supermarket delights with plenty of ice cold drinks and ice cream, and bizarrely even did a touch of translation for some French visitors. The route from here is up to the French border and it’s a biggy.
Stopping in the foothills of the climb on the deserted old road it was great to look back to the views of Susa, the hills of the Colle delle Finestre, Colle dell’Assietta glowing as the sun fell. Fantastic memories on crossing those iconic gravel roads during TCR3 and also great memories of doing Mont Cenis 30 years ago by Motorbike.
The Col de Mont Cenis oh boy, time was spent at this bridge with another rider, I pulled on legwarmers despite the mild evening to prevent the need to do it later in the dark, its pretty isolated out here. The other rider was packing his cycling shoes away and pulling on trainers, then he set off to walk. Riding off on my super low gears it was going to be a long climb, and I was to pass several walking, struggling riders in the next few hours.
The summit and the great views came in darkness but it was still a magical climb lit by moonlight and dynamo light. Pretty peaceful at this late hour and I was glad of my extra food and liquid stash, a couple of cans of Coke invaluable at the end of a long still hot day. On the very twisty descent the whole road was mine, but my disc brakes were a mess, what a bloody racket, cheap sintered pads squealing madly. After midnight I finally roll into the checkpoint at Lanslebourg now in France
There is some basic pasta here with the standard choc snacks but any form of foam mattress is long gone. it’s busy here but luckily I find some peace in a room which is the entrance to a shower. I think I slept in what was a dressing room for any performers at this venue. With my luxurious cardboard bed and I had no problem sleeping after the 176 mile day.
Starting with a shower and a good feed as some simple hot breakfast appeared I was out on the roads again at first light, and what a way to start a day. I had been here before, going the other way ahead was the mighty Iseran and once again it’s beauty blew me away.
I had now climbed this col both ways (the Alps highest passage open to vehicles), and there was still snow on these slopes. A nice steady 3 hours to the summit, returning four years after my last time. Quite a few photo stops were spent with a group of Americans doing the event on the climb, who I have forgotten the names of, doh!
The climbing started again on the way up to la Rosiere in the wheeltracks of the recent tour stage. Professional rider name painting and pink tarmac showed the area had put a lot into this, it did look stunning, Gee’s name was prominent it’s like they knew.
The perfect spot to shelter from the heat of the day, it was time for a nice stop in town for cold relief and caffeine. As I relaxed in a nice cafe I was amazed and pleased to see Antone roll by, shouting after him got him to stop and join me. One of the true heroes of these rides, he had barely slept and was still wearing exactly the same clothes. He’d had to replace a cut rear tyre and could only find a large size and now had his mudguard strapped to his luggage, he said the descents where worrying him.
The final part of the climb peaked at the Col Du Petit Saint Bernard with great views of Mont Blanc, and then it was back into Italy with a rip-snorting drop to the checkpoint at La Thuile. It was time for a long stop and a big feed, the next stage through the Aosta Valley appeared to be into a stiff headwind. The road and cycle track runs along the right side of Dora Baltea river and it proved really heavy going, not the rest it should have been after those two monster climbs.
As the light faded after failing to tuck onto a few fast local club riders to shelter from the wind the route turned onto the road leading to Oropa, Famous to cyclists because of GIRO D’ITALIA, it’s a very steep narrow back road climb from this direction. Again I winched myself up glad of the small gears, there were some super steep ramps in parts.
After about 1000 metres of sweaty climbing the narrow roads then rolled along what can only be described as a very long balcony; the high level views of the open plains of the Po valley and the lights of Turin and Milan was truly spectacular, it was akin to coming into land on a plane in a major city at night, a ride I will remember for a very long time.
I was chasing a few riders here and loving it, knowing from the road book that all today’s climbing was over, I did not expect a long stretch of off road. By the look of the collection of riders staring at and discussing the start neither did they. The Tripster smashed it and the sweat was still pouring off me at this late hour. Eventually we arrived at a stunning Sanctuary (see here) where there was a sign-in board for a secret checkpoint. There was no time to waste there was a long beautifully surfaced descent climbed by the Giro here (its in the 2019 Giro) Lights blaring kerb to kerb, no traffic this was brilliant and after some pretty mad touristy cobbled streets at speed in the Medieval quarter it was back to the checkpoint and bag drop in Biella visited on the way out. A long but very rewarding day of 160 miles, if you get the chance to visit the Oropa climb area do it.
The football stadium used was steaming hot in the night but I found several foam mats and a quiet area and slept well, there was no rush to get up. The drop bag was raided for spare shorts, what day was it, i didn’t have a clue but the deserted look of this checkpoint said I was right on the time limit. The bulk of the climbing was over now so there was the chance to grab back some time.
Here the food station was on the other side of the stadium in the open air, freshly showered it was nice relaxing outside while waiting to see if they could produce more than the standard choc offerings. They were giving away coffee as compensation but It didn’t look hopeful, the cold peach juice was to die for though. When a few separate plates of pasta, ham slices and some bread appeared, it was like a plague of locusts in action, and I was in there fast for a good feed to start the day.
Having ridden across the Po valley in the TCR focusing on speed it was a revelation to follow a route designed by local riders on quiet roads and cycle tracks. It was interesting to see the work going on in the Paddy fields, the irrigation systems in this intense heat and the tractors and trailers with huge steel spiked wheels for traction.
It wasn’t long before the heat drove me searching for cold drinks and ice cream and I stopped at a small bar sitting road side to see if any riders appeared. Guess who the only one was, yes Antone the reliable still looking exactly the same; he was stopped by some traffic lights just up the road, so I ran up to him to say hi and grab a picture. He was turning into my shadow man.
Carrying on it was schorcio, exaggerated by no wind and the low level, it was easy to sit at 16mph but stops were plentiful to dive under every fountain for a head and jersey soak. So far there was no need to buy any water on this trip which was great. Even Taz needed a swim, it was that hot.
I passed Antone, and also reunited with the Americans from the I’seran climb. they were having a puncture nightmare and when they finally smashed past me I tucked in for a fast half hour towards the next checkpoint. In Pavia after crossing a lovely old covered bridge the stop was at a bar connected to a closed stadium. there was simple pasta and the choc snacks but I decided to order a burger. Funnily what appeared was a lovely handmade burger pate, nothing else, no bread, salad, nada! I went to the bar and picked up a few small bits of bread and made a comedy burger. Rimas was here which surprised me I thought he would be long gone.
Today was the short punchy stage of the Tour, I was keen to see if Gee could put one over Froomy. It was boiling outside and I was in a bar, no contest, a nice relaxing afternoon break which ended up being a 4 hour stop, and I even got a shower when they said the stadium ones were open. it was interesting to see the full value riders coming in and leaving while I kicked back.
Setting off refreshed I rode 60 miles non stop and felt great in the cooling evening,, more than could be said for some of the riders I passed. Today’s target was Piadenano happy with a 150 mile relaxed day, although the route made hard work of getting through Cremona. Sending you on a cobbled tourist route round the busy piazzas was a trademark of the Alpi4K, they like to show off their country, and it did look splendid under lights. Chasing red cycle tail lights late into the night I spent about 5 minutes in pitch darkness with a Malaysian rider waiting at a level crossing. I offered him the bet of a chocolate bar on who could guess the direction the train eventually came from, I lost.
This again was a novel control, in the town square was an empty stage and tents where they sat you down and brought food, one of everything and some iced water. It didn’t look like there was a sleeping area, but I was calmed by a chap who said to come and find him when I was ready. The sign in board did not lie, i was loving the casual end of the ride so far.
The bed guy was on a moped, “you follow” he said as we shot off through the deserted streets. 5 mins later he dropped me at a glowing brand new sports building, they seemed very proud of it. A good shower and ample camp beds as nobody was here! the reason soon became all too clear as i got my head down, It was over 20 degrees so they had all the doors open, the brand new lighting was turned up to eleven, you could see this place from space; the Mosquitos had a field day.
The buggers were even biting through clothing which it was way to hot to wear, and the idiots on the door outside were on the beer and running at full volume. I packed up and left, these people had no idea and I told them exactly what I thought of their fucked up idea of a sleep dorm; they probably didn’t understand. Not big or clever they are volunteers, but it made me feel better.
Off into the night again at just after midnight, the next control was 50 miles away, I guess it was a cooler way to travel but it was still super sticky out there. The ride was interesting in the night, a long stretch on a big embankment, and an amazing river crossing on a wooden floating bridge in Torre d’Oglio. The wooden base creaked and swayed as the barges it was laid on swayed in the rivers current, it was a shame not to see this in daylight. The quiet cycle track runs by San Benedetto Po, one of the “most beautiful historic villages in Italy” apparently, it looked nice in the lights.
On arrival in Pieve di Coriano before dawn I didn’t pay much attention to anything but stumbling in the welcome dark quiet rooms to find a place to bed down. Oblivious to the ever present loud snoring in these places I slept well for 4 hours fully dressed in a camp bed.
This was a great stop, I’m glad the other place was so bad. Breakfast was a feast of pasta, fresh melon and cold juice and rolling in looking super fresh was Adam from my start AirBnB and the AudaxUK crew. They were running a ride fast and book a hotel for the night group ride, I was very surprised to see them considering their speed.
On the road and finally crossing to the North of the Po river heralded the thought that we were on the final approaches back to the mountains. Many waterside tracks delivered me to the next checkpoint four hours later billed as the bike grill checkpoint La Littorina del Mincio. This was a lovely waterside open air cafe and again the food was hot, plentiful and good. meeting up with many familiar riders again, yes, including Antone once more. This guy just keeps riding while I sleep, he is a proper Duracell bunny and we had some great conversations about his life back in the Ukraine.
I did not realise at the time just how close at this point we were to lake Garda, this waterway was flowing out of the South of the lake. The big draws of this ride for me were to ride the shores of Garda and climb the Stelvio pass, it had been amazing so far but these parts were still to come. When the route finally hit the shores with the great views of lake and mountains I just had to sit on the shore soaking up the views and the holiday makers enjoying the water. The riding round it has to be said did not live up to expectation. it’s just not cycle friendly on this Western shore, sharing the road with all the tourists. A quick flash storm didn’t help apart from its nice cooling effect.
There is evidence of the work going into the ambitious plans to create a cycle path lap of the lake, some of the tunnels are bypassed with chrome and glass paths which hover over the lake, don’t hold your breath but if you do this event in four years it could be so much better.
Excitement grows as a turning away from the lakeside into the mountains looms, the guidebook reports a stunning climb ahead. It starts with super narrow roads and tunnels and traffic lights on sections, this looks like it was blasted through the hillside long ago.
Pictures cannot do this stretch justice, you are skirting the rock walls, lowering your head for fear of scraping your helmet on the overhangs. it’s cool and dark and twists and turns with shafts of light breaking through at times. It turns back on its self and then you climb a bridge looping over the tunnels you just emerged from, just stunning.
Trying not to will this section to end quickly it is a tough climb. Gaining 1600 ft quickly a short diversion is signed in Pieve (which many missed) to the Brivido Terrace, it is well worth a stop. It’s an overhang with great high views of the lake. Here they had set up the CP sign-in board. I motioned to an Italian lady requesting a photo and mimicked me signing the board, she responded by posing to sign the board herself, I should have taken that funny picture instead of this one 😉
Taz once flashed by Garda on the Autostrada from Venice two decades ago, we promised to return then, who would have thought it would be by human power the whole way. There was still some climbing to finish off the day as the light was going, we continued uphill towards the checkpoint in Vesio
Another 156 miles today from the failed sleep stop, food had improved at every stop and tonight was no different. I just asked for one of everything and my superskill of eating a meal with each hand was tested to the full with all four of these plates at once, of course that’s another beer.
The view from here was pretty splendid too as the sun set on the mountains while I unpacked my bike, the sleep hall was a separate building and I found a big 6 inch thick gym mat to sleep on, fantastic.
I set a pre-dawn alarm to get a good start for the final day, and to be away before the traffic, and walked straight into the South Africans just arriving, It was great to see Tom and Stephen and the gang again. not so good to hear that they were one down, one of the ladies being hospitalized by an accident.
On the road at 5am swooping down to the lakeside as the Sunrise appeared over the mountains of Garda, was like a dream come true, I reflected that you would never see this or do this kind of ride unless you were into this crazy world of long distance riding.
The lakeside route to Riva del Garda is a main road and has several tunnels, this was just the perfect time to travel it, and every view was stunning, I do believe I smiled the whole way. The exit from the lake up the valley towards Arco and then the super cycle path towards Sarche, isolated from the roads in the woods and apple groves added to the great start.
The climb and ride through the Gorges of Sarche ended with a super fast ride down to a checkpoint in Spormaggiore. This took some finding, no other riders around and no surprise to hear that I was now a few hours over the time limit. Yet another big feed as I had no worries in resting for an hour, I could get the time back. One of the Zombie riders I had met several times appeared once more, an old Englishman living in Canada, I’m not sure I ever did his moral any good as we approached this ride from polar opposites, how do they do it on almost no sleep.
The cycle path of Venosta Valley is a wide well surfaced super highway full of tourists families, and it is great. I pass the American group just setting off from a food stop, they soon catch me and we form a fast train. We seem to hoover up a few more and a semi peleton forms. At one bridge the lead rider guesses wrong and I see the exit from the rear and emerge first. The red mist forms and I try and hold the gap created. It’s crazy but fun as I blast the waterside track as it turns to gravel, I want to get to the next CP first, this could be a big queue for food in the making, I succeed.
This is a nice restaurant in the countryside,the menu is distinctly Austrian, you get one staple pasta dish for free and a drink, This is a nice spot and only the Stelvio remains, time to celebrate with an extra beer and some Strudel and custard. The place gets busy and there is a jovial atmosphere especially on the realisation that the clock stops at the summit of the Stelvio. It’s mid afternoon and there is time to spare as I prepare to leave, then the heavens opened.
What is it with this lump of rock! the whole of Europe is parched dry, the grass is all straw coloured in the UK, there are dust storms, yet here there are rivers falling from the sky again. Several riders crawl under tables and settle down to grab some sleep, I decide it would be a bad choice to get drenched at this stage and lie on a bench to rest too.
It’s about 8 pm when I finally get going, initially the tracks and road don’t look too wet, was this a big mistake. Then it starts to blacken up at the foot of the Stelvio. It’s warm enough but it starts chucking it down again, and the dark mountain is lit up by lightning strikes. It’s a slow plod in sheet rain and I can imagine several riders maybe tried to find somewhere to stay at this stage, there were several inviting places in the villages. What a moment to get my first puncture! I dragged the bike under someones garage awning and quickly stuffed a bung in the tubeless tyre and got going again.
The roads were deserted except for the very occasional car and the blinking of red cycle lights up ahead on the many hairpins. If you had told me I would be introduced to climbing the mighty Stelvio approaching midnight with lightning flashing around me I would have said no way. This was perversely enjoyable, slowly winching my way up passing a few riders both walking and grinding slowly in the darkness.
Here the checkpoint, the official finish, appears to be a small room. Cramming in there with a few others my route guide is stamped and it’s two hours within the official time to qualify as an Audax. You can do the route slower as there is a slower Italian Audax rate class, Maybe it would have been smart to wait out the storm and climb Stelvio in the morning, I would have at least seen it then. Hot lemon tea and snacks are taken while putting on all my clothing ready for the long descent. there’s a couple of worried riders here and the organisers offer them a lift down in a van if they don’t fancy the dark descent.
It’s some descent in the dark, hard on the hands in the cold, and oh boy some violent bar shaking shivering. A third of the way down it warms up and the tunnels on the way down offer shelter and are well lit. Hitting them at speed a radar sensor picks you up and bright LED lights are on instantly, this is fun. It’s about a 40 min drop in the dark, and the lights of Bormio don’t come into sight until very late. Finally it’s a simple roll into the finishing control.
Every rider gets a freshly cooked hot meal whatever the hour, and it’s a good one. A shower and a dark gym to sleep in means it’s not a problem finishing this late. A very good event and well worth looking out for in 2022 when its re-run.
The Alpino hostel is happy to accept me back early in the morning so it’s a nice full recovery day and a chance to prepare for the trip home and catch up with a few of the other Alpi finishers. Unfortunately I never did see Antone again.
The next day is the first time I’ve seen Bormio in the sun, too good to miss, how about a recovery ride up the Passo Gavia, yea why not. reunited with my new friend Rimas we set off for a great day of climbing.
My Trip out of Bormio is to head up to the first checkpoint of the TransContinental Race, which is before the riders climb the Bielerhöhe pass in Austria. That night at 10pm in the hostel I watch their tracker dots leave the start in Belgium. My mission is to get to the Pass before the leaders, they have 850 Km to cover and boy they are fast. It wasn’t a surprise to find out that Rimas had the same plan so we set off to get there together. And the route: yep we had to go back up and over the Stelvio, so in the end I will climb the beast both ways, and so ride all three roads of its slopes by descending into Switzerland.
With the bike rack and luggage back on It’s a steady climb up from Bormio and Stephen comes along for the ride up the climb too. It’s a great day and I’m loving the views of what was my previous descent in the dark.
From this direction we turn off before the actual Stelvio Summit and they call this pass the Umbrail. The fun descent takes us into Switzerland and then into the Austrian Tirol before it levels out. Then its a steady climb up a valley on the flancs of two lakes on a cycle track, a portion of it on a grass and gravel diversion, its fun but still extremely hot and draining.
We could have hammered on but who needed another summit in the dark and as I had plenty of food on board, a cooker and a tent once more, we camped in the woods. Good move as it happened because some rain found me once again.
The next day we climbed the pass in the cool of early morning, spotting all the guest house signs that the races will be so happy to see tonight. Luckily this side is long and steady, 23 miles to get up to the reservoir at the plateau of the 2,032m Bielerhöhe Pass. Checking the tracker we have time to eat as we wait, and it’s a great location to hang out, a busy tourist attraction as the buses start to roll in. The TCR photographer Camille arrives and a brief chat confirms that the leader is pretty close, we had timed this perfectly.
Bjorn Lenhard is the first rider to the summit and the gentleman has the time to stop and say hi. It’s good to see him again after chasing him around Ireland while he won the TransAtlanticway Race. Deja vu, His race pursuer in Ireland was up next not far behind, fellow German Bernd Paul, he was not stopping for one second, a man on a mission.
We set off down the other side towards the TCR checkpoint , down the 34 numbered switchbacks of “the dream road of the Alps” Part way down we see James Hayden climbing up, we see him late and shout as we zoom past, braking frantically. Another super guy he stops and waits while we turn around and sort out the fact we are not in a climbing gear to get back to chat with him. He looks good, fresher than the other two and it’s no surprise he goes on to win the race to Greece comfortably. I had copied a training route of his through Germany as my trip home, he warned me to be prepared for the pain, uh oh.
I had expected to pitch up here and crash rough or in the tent outside, but with the chance to share a room to cut costs I took it, the buffet breakfast also sold it, I could carry my weight in food through Switzerland. It was great to watch the top riders roll in through the morning and the steady flow into the evening, some who I had raced against in other events.
The Tailfin carbon rack I was using had worked well on my trip apart from the lack of a top mounting platform. I had strapped a drybag on there but is was a bodge. While in Bormio they had launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new tail bag inspired by a racer on the TCR. It was just what I wanted and could be retro fitted to the original rack so I signed up for one. It was good to see one of the prototypes in action on the bike of Ben Davies, all his kit was carried in this waterproof bag. More info on him and what the riders faced in the race is well described HERE
During the evening the riders coming in either decide to stay and relax, chat and have some fun as they celebrate reaching here. Others have their race head on and are prepared to hit the summit and push on into the night. This guy did a mix of both, we had a laugh while he sank two cool steins of beer, he might not have got too far that night but I bet he slept well. Rider 144 Gerhard Kossytorz you are a legend.
I was really looking forward to meeting my sometime riding buddies from the TransAm Race in 2017, Anton and Amy. They had teamed up as a pair and after some problems arrived in the morning. The timing worked out well and we had time to chat over breakfast without me feeling like I was holding them up. It was fantastic seeing them again.
It’s fair to say we all made full use of the expansive buffet breakfast, the mixed nuts and fruit bowls got a good hammering and kept us all fed for the rest of the day as we went our separate ways.
Another rider doing the double of the TransAm and TCR this year was Heath Ryan from Australia, aka the Dark Knight.
Oh look it’s August 1st, still don’t know or care what day it is though 😉 It was time to get back on the road, I was returning down the valley towards the Swiss border, the route the racers were taking in reverse. Who I saw depended if they took the very good cycle routing rather than stuck to the faster main road, but I did see several riders. It was very hot again and the water fountains were a good place to catch them.
There are several small lakes in this valley and the cycle tracks skirt them, If I hadn’t just begun my ride it would have been a fabulous place to stop for a swim/bath and an even better quiet bivy spot.
Pretty soon I was back on familiar tracks bouncing between countries effortlessly into Switzerland and back into Austria to join many people cycling its shoreline of the big lake. Called lake Bodensee (bottom sea) for these shores, it was once again a great way to see a country enjoying travelling to the bars and beach by bike.
Waiting for a train lakeside; Look at that I’m the odd one out here, a country showing you can use the bicycle to enjoy getting around casually dressed. Barely a helmet in sight and no traffic, the UK sucks basically.
Doing the full length on the German side was to complete my full lap of the lake. I was glad I chose this side as it was black as hell on the other Swiss side I had done coming down here, the lightning strikes over the water were fabulous.
With the bright lights of Konstanz on the other side my luck ran out, A convenient bus shelter appeared, I had a beer (pub ride Wed always) and food on board so sat a while to see if it would abate, no such luck I could barely see the other side of the road. Crawling into the sleeping bag, that was it for today, a meager 87 miles.
The next day I had the early start of a bus shelter tramp and enjoyed the very quiet roads before heading North for an adventure into wild countryside. James Hayden was not wrong this was a tough route, beautiful but the heat and complete lack of wind was affecting me. A long long drag up to the black mountains National park was probably the hottest I have ever felt on a bike, at least Kansas had wind. Desperate for shelter, and for the first time water this wasn’t all fun today,
Sleeping at this height seemed the best bet so I dropped off the road for a short gravel descent, nobody would be walking out here this evening, I didn’t attempt to hide. Brewing up and cooking as the sun dropped over the mountains I waved to a couple of surprised mountainbikers who passed at speed, lights blazing. Despite the early start another touristy day only 100 miles.
A relaxed start, I’m on holiday after all and I have four full days riding left before my ferry, It’s a nice 1000 metre descent to a small place near Baden-Baden for a bakery breakfast and catch up on how the TCR racers are getting on. There’s a rest from the hills here as the route finally drops to the Rhine and as the planned ride goes over a bridge forbidden to cycling I take a diversion up this huge river. After two weeks I’m back in France again cutting across a flat triangle that the Germans probably lost at some point, then back to Germany and the hills.
The heat continues and so does the Aldi raids for plenty of cheap food. Over here they have coffee machines in store, a hit for a Euro. Ice cold Yogurt on 500g of nutty muesli fuels me for anything ahead, with the bags rammed for a wild camp picnic feast later. Six pm; While following a quiet cycle track away from roads I pass a fast running stream and then afterwards it cuts through a section of wild meadows. A perfect area for a wild camp, covering my tracks I find a big open space sheltered from all onlookers and set up camp. Happily leaving bike and kit I backtrack to the cool river for water and a swim, the clothes get a rinse too. The benefit of stopping early means enjoying the sun for drying and lazing around while having a brew. A comfortable 115 miles, time to relax, I’m sold on this touring lark and it’s all good news for my meager budget.
Going for an early start once more, hearing of the searing temperatures back in the UK I figure it will get hotter and the route carries on with a lumpy theme. Pretty soon I hit a 24 hour services, nice to get a good breakfast in early and plenty of water on board, This is a huge forested area and it was tough going again from here onward. My rear gear shifting had started to play up, checking the shifter it was clear the cable was down to just a few strands, I hoped it would last a while. Out of the blue around midday the road dropped 1000ft quickly with many hairpins to a river crossing at Senheim, a popular tourist camp, It looked nice next to the river. The road then climbs straight back up to the Plateau and the body cooking started again, just as the cable finally snapped. I always carry a cable but this was the first time I had had to deal with the Tripster internal cable routing, no worries my magic fingers had it done pretty quickly.
I started to notice the increase in fast and loud vehicle traffic, and a high proportion of them with UK plates, the signs for the Nurburgring appearing made everything clear, along with that and realising it was Saturday. I turned off before the track and now headed for the Belgium border, not getting far the midday hear was searing. A fast flowing cold fountain and a deserted play area next to a lake (very bizarre on the weekend) was just the right place to cool off with a midday snooze in the shade, so rock and roll.
Hitting the Border in the evening with even more climbing I was heading into the Ardennes and fancied a proper camp site tonight so fired up the top “Archies” campsite app and took a sort diversion to find Camping Anderegg. A busy weekend they were full, I found a nice lady and she cheerfully announced they would always find room for a cycle tourist, and surely I wanted something from the fridge, oh boy do I, Leffe Brun for Taz. Another steady 115 miles, but some big climbing, this is becoming my new norm.
Different country same shit, climbing, intense heat, trees, great cycle tracks and motor racing circuits I’d visited on motorcycles many years ago. Spa this time, I had absolutely no recollection of this area at all, but then that was a pretty nuts weekend 😉
The cobbles were a new diversion, and this route had great long stretches of them as it flattened out and became more open towards Brussels, here I took a diversion round the South of the city. The well signposted trails through the forest were some welcome shade again, I was missing the trees already
I found a camp spot by just diving down a green lane just before dusk, it was far enough from any habitation to feel totally secure and wow was it quiet, I’d forgotten just how much more peaceful this was compared to a busy camp site. looks like I’m not the first here from the old camp fire. Another 120 miles and several gallons of water today.
I traveled through some new areas staying North of the Flandrian hot spots, Geraardsbergen and Oudenaarde I had been to before and had a lovely breakfast and a morning sort out in a train station cafe. You can’t go far in this country before a good calm stretch next to a canal appears, a nice low level steady finish to the big tour. It was nearly over and my ferry in Dunkirk was early the next morning, over breakfast two decisions were easy; One: The train from Dover was only £18 home, I did not fancy any time on the UK’s roads after this great trip, and two, a beach visit was essential before I went.
The Municipal campsite in Dunkirk had the closed full signs up, once again no problem they had space especially just for overnight tourists, I somehow think the UK would’t do this; It was super cheap too. A perfect stop off to just dump the gear and go to the nearby supermarket to pig out and then to enjoy an evening on the beach, good to know how easy it is to drop off here from the ferry in future trips.
Spotting this I had to try a Paris Brest cake in Dunkirk, yes they are good, but this was no preparation for a PBP year in 2019. I will not be throwing my hat in the ring for this 1200Km ride. Lying in the sun thinking of riding into the night sleeping in halls full of snoring riders, nah, I’m loving this 200Km a day exploring thing, and boy that PBP route looks dull.
Before dawn it was a pretty hasty 15 mile dash to the ferry, and not hard to resist the extortionate food prices on board. When back in Dover I could head to the Weatherspoons pub on the way to the train station for a cheap feed. With an off peak ticket I had a morning to waste and slowly get back into the realities of being in the UK. I had been away for 25 days covering 2700 Miles and had stayed within my budget of £25 a day despite a couple of rooms thrown in; cool I can make this work!
Footnote: The minute I got home I weighed the bike and exactly what it was loaded with when I rolled in the door. The Kinesis Tripster and 28mm Hutchinson Sector tyres had been hauling 69 lbs (31 kg) around over this trip, and coped with some pretty rough terrain. I never felt compromised by the weight even in the Alps, and a few times carrying extra gear got me out of some scrapes; Not sure I can go back to a lighter race head again now.
Me and the Tripster have now done 22,000 miles in 18 months together, (even though it missed Spain earlier in 2018). As with the other trips including, the TransAm USA, I finished this one in great physical condition; no hand or arse problems, slow and steady mile munching in comfort. Love it bring on 2019.