World Gravel Series: the race
“No no wait, we find you a bike!”
With lovely Italian hospitality, the organisers produced a small-ish cyclo-cross bike belonging to the brother of a friend (or was it the uncle?) of the guy at the Specialized tent. There went my excuse… Full credit to them though, they were absolutely great; they were just dealing with a ridiculously inept triathlete.
My saviour steed. Thanks to the team at the Specialized tent!
I don’t actually know how I convinced my reluctant brain to set my wheels onto the start ramp after the previous days’ exploits. I don’t even know WHY. Possibly pure stupidity, or the refusal to back down from a challenge.
The starter counted five seconds down on his fingers and I set off with my fellow gravel riders to enjoy the picturesque landscapes of Piedmont…
… And through a little water en route…
Photo © Mario Perguidi
That the borrowed frame was aluminium was an absolute godsend, as I proceeded to do my very best to break it for the next four and a half hours.
I can think of a number of cycling disciplines to describe the course, but “gravel biking” perhaps isn’t one of them. I would have gone more along the lines of XCO. Or enduro. Possibly slopestyle. I could have earned myself a few points for improvised freestyle tricks.
Here we go. Photo © Mario Perguidi
One minute I was upright, the next I was lying in an unceremonious heap on the grass… or face down in the mud… or against a tree…
The bike did well despite the idiot trying to pilot it, yet still I came off more times in the first 7km-long timed section than I have in my entire cycling career to date.
I flew, I bounced, I skidded. Popped back up, energetically and uselessly thumped my mud-encrusted feet against the pedals to clip back in, and got going again.
(Note to self and anyone else without a brain: do NOT got forest hiking in Look Keo road pedals and cleats. Duh, no really?!?)
Beginning of stage 1. Still relatively unscathed.
Photo © Mario Perguidi
The racer in me totally ignored the fact that I was crashing every 20 metres. I was in one piece wasn’t I? Adrenaline drowned out the nerves. I even survived the cliff – walking / sliding sideways through the mud surf-style, using the bike as a brake.
I finished that first section laughing, plastered in mud, grit between my teeth, scratches and scrapes oozing red as a new bunch of bruises got to work colouring my body.
Italian hospitality was this time spread across the pit stop tables in the form of fruit, water, salami and cheese. Mario the photographer snapped merrily away as riders discussed the various close calls and dodgy trajectories. I wasn’t the only one wearing forest-themed camouflage warpaint.
Pizza & chianti. Photo © Mario Perguidi
The ambulance guys kindly hosed me down with oxygenated water, ignored my screams as it hit open wounds, and sent me on my way. We had 20-odd kilometres before the second timed section. I pedalled off happily with Guilhem, his friend Marco and a bunch of other riders. The atmosphere was great, the road was smooth and when I dropped most of the group riding up a steep hill, I decided I was actually enjoying myself. Hey maybe I could do this gravel thing!
Oh the arrogance!
Oh the total naivety and ignorance…!
I had not recced the second section the day before as I had quickly put my bike out of action. No matter, confidence was building. Five, four, three, beep, beeeeep… I hit the track like I would hit your average sprint triathlon. Full gas, full focus ahead.
The predominantly flat, packed-earth course stretched along a field; slightly up, slightly down, slightly left… dodge that rock, swap sides to avoid grass, overtake the girl ahead like she’s standing still… hammer hammer hammer. Who needs brakes?
Forest appeared around me, very suddenly. The path tipped sharply downwards, very suddenly. Deep ruts slashed across the path, very inconveniently. The bike turned into a bucking bronco, very scarily.
The moment you realise things are about to go very wrong – and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
Too fast. Zero control. The bike bounced on a rock, the front wheel landed in a hole, I didn’t have a hope in hell.
Eat that Superman.
OK, maybe I have work to do on the landing part.
My head cracked against the hard ground. My body thumped after it. The bike landed two metres in the other direction. I rolled over and stood up. Something was wrong with my left leg. Air hissed disconsolately from the front wheel of the borrowed bike. Something wet was dripping down my leg. The tire was totally flat.
It’s strange how adrenaline can focus the brain in critical situations. One glance told me my left knee was ripped open; I had to fix the front wheel to finish the stage.
A volunteer (who for some obsure reason was standing at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the forest, in the middle of nowhere) ran up towards me.
“The tire’s flat, needs repaired,” I didn’t even give him time to talk; his English was as good as my Italian but between us we wrestled the bike off the course, the tire off the rim, and half a bar into the new tube. My hands were shaking too hard to do much more and fixing punctures obviously wasn’t his day job, but his presence was enough to help me hold it together and I was more than grateful for his help.
It would do. I clipped my cracked helmet back on.
The volunteer pointed at my knee. “And zis?” I waved at it and shrugged. “That’s un’otra cosa. I’ll deal with it despues”. Spanish, Italian, English… Who cared?
I got back on the poor bike and made a show of bravely pedalling off. Got round the next bend and stopped. OMFG.
Pain. Lots of pain. Photo © Mario Perguidi
I had no pressure to speak of in the front tire; the wheel was all over the place, and I still had 4 kilometres of sandy, rutted tracks and rocky roads to get through. I had what looked like a mashed up apple on my left knee and my leg wouldn’t bend properly. Every single other rider had passed while I was trying to change my flat in the forest. I was literally out on my own. The heat beat down, the road kept winding, and no finish line appeared.
I’m not going to lie, those 4 kilometres will go down as possibly my worst ever on a bike. My confidence was shot; I was terrified of the terrain, I was shaking so hard I could barely grip the handlebars. I couldn’t look at my knee although it was screaming at me. I was moving at approximately 10 km/h. There may have been were definitely tears. I may have talked to myself.
“Come on, just keep going. You’re going to be fine. Just keep pedalling. You’ll be ok.”
Would they wait for me? Would I be forgotten and left to fend for myself in the Italian wilderness? Would I fall off my bike and die of dehydration and embarrassment out here, miles from civilisation?
“You’re going to be alright. You’re going to be alright. Alright, it’s going to be alright.”
The ambulance guys were packing up their stuff as I eventually rolled over the timing mat in all my bloody glory. They looked at me in disbelief, “not you again?! Si, si, sono io. You better believe it. Stitches?
No va bene, you’ll be fine. Gauze, bandage, off you go.
Doesn’t look that bad does it? Photo © Mario Perguidi
My considerate – and worried – boyfriend had kindly waited at the end of the stage for me. “You OK? We need to get going if we want to make the next section on time.”
I wiped away the tears which had drawn pretty patterns in the dust covering my cheeks and nodded. Yep, let’s go. It’s real road until the next section, isn’t it?
It wasn’t. It was gorgeous, beautiful, picturesque Italian countryside, that I unfortunately had to ride right through the middle of.
To make matters worse, the mud had dried on my pedals and cleats, and helpfully fused everything together. Cycling friends, you know the red light joke? Yeah well…
Through Piedmont. Photo © Mario Perguidi
I stopped counting the bruises, the slashes and the scrapes.
I gave up washing the blood and dust off my legs and focused on ignoring the pain screaming from my left knee.
Every pedal stroke was agony.
I ate some pizza before section 3 because the guys in the ambulance didn’t have any ibuprofen (seriously?!?). I should have had the chianti instead. (Yes they had some of that.)
I made it through section 3 somehow. My bandage was a mess of sloppy red gauze slithering down my calf: another visit to the yellow van. The guy in charge sprayed betadine at the ragged hole and followed it up with a criss-cross of steri-strips. Well, maybe stitches would have been good, but iz too late now. New bandage.
OK. I can do this. 18km of undulating, thank-f*ck-tarmacked, road left to go. I sucked up the tears and talked to myself a bit more and rolled across the finish line with a bunch of fellow cyclo-crossers.
Was it actually over?
You know, that bend…? Yeah, I missed it.
Photo © Mario Perguidi
I ate more pizza and chatted to the organisers. I smiled for photos. I thanked my ambulance buddies and handed the dusty, somehow un-dented bike back to its owner, who hopefully doesn’t read enough English to realise how lucky he was to get it back in one piece.
But I’m being too negative. The race was amazing. The organisers were great, the event ran smoothly, the atmosphere and the location were superb. Don’t ask me how, but I enjoyed it. And for some reason, I don’t think it’s a race I am ever likely to forget…
Photo © Mario Perguidi
Reckon I should go practise before the next one?