It’s hard to believe it’s only been five days since we set off on Cycle Stage two; our last rest day feels like a lifetime ago. It’s been a week that’s seen everything: the very best and very worst of Striving.
So Far, So Normal
The Magliana in Toscano to Viterbo leg gave little away about what lay in store for the week ahead. At 126km, and without toooooo much climbing apart from one bitching hill at the end, it almost seemed like a rest day- if cycling 126km on a rest day is your thing. Spending increasing time on Italian roads, I learned that the Italians are a proud bunch and drive Fiats, Fiats and Fiats. You can take your pick between a 1980s Panda, Seicento, Chiquecento; there’s even the occasional Punto or new 500 thrown in, but they literally all drive Fiats.
Mother Nature Has Other Ideas…
The Core Team Whatsapp group is always lively (most common daily question: “What’s the wifi code?”), but it’s rarely lively before 6:15am. Friday was a little different. I was woken before my alarm at 5:30 to the deafening sound of thunder and frequent lightening. At 6:06am, the first core teamer piped up: “Are we actually leaving at 7:15 if it’s thundering and lightning like it’s been the past couple of hours?”
Justin was saying what everyone else was thinking and the floodgates quickly opened: “It’s pretty heavy” / “It’s not safe to descend” / “too dangerous… crazy lightning” / “forecast is all day, and getting worse”.
We soon met at breakfast to hear the announcement we both hoped and feared in equal measure: Noah announced it was simply too dangerous to cycle, and so he was building an ark* to move us along to the next point in our destination. Although relieved that we weren’t being sent out in dangerous conditions (landslides, foot-deep water on the road etc aren’t exactly safe or rideable), I was equally heartbroken that yet again we wouldn’t be able to complete the full challenge by human power. Cat’s video below really tells the story…
*comandeering a couple of coaches
By 11am we were on a coach to rainy Frascati, outside Rome. Yes, I avoided the 10% climb and descent I wasn’t really in the mood for… but arriving in Frascati on a coach was not the way any of us wanted to get there.
After a very welcome surprise rest day, Saturday brought a more conventional day of Striving and rather more unconventional birthday celebration. After a sociable alarm at 5:45am and a rather more sociable rendition of “Happy Birthday” from all Strivers and crew on the start line the day started with a pedal up “the Box Hill of Rome”. This was only slightly misleading, as the hill was in fact more than double the size of Box Hill.
With fresh legs post bonus rest day, some birthday energy and the opportunity to stretch my legs at the start of the day, I took the opportunity to test myself and was genuinely delighted that my birthday present was my first “Queen of the Mountain” on an actual hill. Before I take too much credit for that, disclaimer: it seems there aren’t many Italian women cycling on Strava — but finishing only a few seconds behind Steve and Bruno — Strive’s Kings of the Mountain — was enough to prove to myself that a year of training has been worthwhile and left me in good shape going into the mountainous Stage 3.
What goes up must come down and sadly this was particularly true for a number of my fellow strivers who joined me in the road rash club after coming a-cropper on the slippy descent. Across the day, there were a total of 7 crashes in the group, including a ball-busting rendezvous for Felix with an erratic Italian driver.
After a birthday ice cream afternoon pit stop, we tackled the most spectacular climb and best hour of cycling I’ve had in my life, rising up high into the coastline coming towards Gaeta. This was not a moment to stretch the legs and race up, but take it easy and enjoy the view. 160km days don’t get much more enjoyable than that.
Here’s the thing. Striving’s not meant to be easy. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Yet again, the most uplifting and depressing days of the challenge thus far came side by side. It’s safe to say that when Noah first said to me “Cycle through Italy in September”, although I knew it would be difficult, my mental picture was more akin to gelato in picturesque villages -not cycling through biblical rainfall. But on Sunday morning, we woke yet again to torrential rain and thunderstorms. Great.
Thanks to losing Day 2, having failed again in our efforts to make it all the way from point A to point B without an engine, this time I would have been delighted to get another “no-go” from the event team. Alas, the start was delayed by a mere half an hour, and we were dispatched out onto the roads in waterproofs ready for a wet day.
However much you have come to enjoy* cycling, 165km of cycling in predominantly torrential rain is an ordeal. The previous day, I’d hit a pothole as we went through a giant puddle (the remnants of Saturday’s storm), raising my nerves about being out on the road when I couldn’t always see the road surface. This was unquestionably a day to be riding closely behind Cat, an experienced ride captain who pointed out so many potholes as we cycled the first 10km out of Gaeta I could have been forgiven for thinking she was doing the Macarena rather than heading into a long day.
Rather than being given a definitive stopping point for lunch in the morning brief, we had been told lunch would be at “either 76km or 86km”. As torrential rain hit, I have never been more disappointed to see a lunch stop at 76km in my life. Stopping before halfway and before rather than after a big hill was a motivational disaster: and for the second time of the month, a few tears were shed before I could pull myself together and get back on the road. This was my view at the time:
The first step (pedal stroke) is always the toughest and once Cat and I had restarted, we tried to break the remaining 90km down into 5km segments. Just another 5km. Just another 5km. Just another 5km. Having already punctuated much of the week’s pedalling with more meaningful conversation, this time the climbing entertainment was multiple rounds of “Snog/Marry/Avoid”, which worked remarkably well as a distraction!
With 30km, mostly downhill to go, we could have been forgiven for thinking the end was in sight but this time the Almighty God of Punctures had other ideas. Soaked to the bone and having narrowly warded off four separate dog chases, for the first time in my life I experienced hysterical fits of giggles as the only viable alternative to crying. Having yet again failed to get the world’s tightest tyre off my wheel, I admitted defeat and took the cop-out option of calling Halfords to fix it. The incredible support team came to our rescue, and 20 minutes and one set of shivering blue lips later, we were back on the road for a wonderfully uneventful spin to the finish line.
After a day on the road like that, a mattress, roof and warm water are really all that’s required. This was rather fortunate, because our destination was Fawlty Towers, Benevento. The day will be indelibly marked in my memory for all time.
Procession to Salerno
Day 5 brought a Tour-de-France like finale: a group procession over a shorter stage, arriving in Salerno on the Amalfi Coast as a complete group. I’ve never been more grateful for a “short” (still 78km and plenty of hills) ride to round out the stage. The clouds finally cleared and we made our way to Salerno… no wonder we look so happy on the finish line!
Back in the Saddle for the Big One….
One of the strangest phenomena of Striving is losing all sense of days of the week. Stage Day ones feel like Mondays; Day fives feel like Fridays so of course today’s rest day feels like a Sunday. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the one-day weekend, especially not before one of the biggest weeks of our lives. This stage is TOUGH. This coming Thursday** I’ll be taking on the toughest day in the saddle of my life: another 180km like day one, but replacing the flat-as-a-pancake elevation profile with an almost-half-the-height-of-Everest-in-a-day heart rate monitor route profile. Can’t wait!!
**Saturday to you. Day 4 / Thursday to me
More coming soon… and as you can probably tell from the week’s events- I’m not doing this for fun- it’s to raise money for the unbelievable Big Change trust. If you’re feeling inspired or sympathetic and would like to donate, please visit my sponsorship page at http://tiny.cc/strive!
PS. I’ve been craving a Byron burger and courgette fries all week. Chances of a detour to a burger joint are increasing by the day