TCR No.5 - Part 3
- high tatras
Grappa for Breakfast
I'm up at 5am enjoying a cold McChicken Sandwich for breakfast, making sure my tent is zipped up so no-one can see me in this shameful state. My plan is to hit the parcours climb as early as possible to avoid the heat, which is already starting to soar. I pack up my dusty tent, take my damp gear down from their improvised washing line and roll out of the camp site. The climb up Monte Grappa is long and steep and hot. It will be the toughest climb of the TCR and a point where many are forced to scratch. The locals are already out in force on the climb, and I enjoy the mental distraction of trying to keep up with them as they effortlessly dance their unladen carbon steeds up the slopes. Usually climbs are either long or steep. This one is both, with some questionable surfaces and laser beam heat thrown in for good measure. I'm loving it. As a climber I'm in my element as I winch myself past a string of struggling riders. Approaching the summit, the tree cover falls away leaving me fully exposed to the now brutal force of the sun. The up-side is that for the first time the views to the south open up and I can see the vast flat plain where I'd started the climb stretching out far below me. It's as dizzying to behold as it is thrilling to realise I've climbed that high in such a short space of time.
Finally, rounding a corner of bare rock and tufty grass I see the cafe that marks the end of the climb. I'm glowing with satisfaction as I hang my bike up on the cafe's specially provided railing and change out of my sweat-drenched jersey. Ice cream, cake and coffee is taken on board for breakfast while I gaze over at the Sacrario Militare Del Monte Grappa memorial, trying to imagine what it would have been like for the twelve and a half thousand soldiers killed in these mountains during World War 1. My head swimming with the sadness of what has been, and the nervous excitement of starting a new chapter of the race, I head back down the slope and begin a long, and absurdly picturesque descent through idyllic, deserted mountain scenery. After some particularly scary hairpin corners taken with less control than my chamois pad would have liked, and noticing a distinct burning smell, I decide to check my brake pads. Sure enough, my front pads are cooked and to the horror of some dot watchers glued to my high speed descending antics, I stop just off the road at the next corner to replace them.
Once safely back down off the mountain, I run through a quick status update: 1/ Brakes fixed but now rubbing - ignore until other things go wrong. 2/ It's really hot - ignore until it becomes debilitating. 3/ Phone screen hard to read in this sunlight - don't worry; it will be out of battery soon. 4/ Battery levels getting low - look for the next shop to buy a second power bank. 5/ I'm already feeling drowsy - look for next espresso potential. After a fateful stretch of light-industrial wasteland, within half an hour I've furnished myself with the necessary caffeine and electronics and I'm approaching something close to being in good shape. The rest of the day is a utilitarian grind across the plains of northern Italy, punctuated by regular ice cream stops and made slightly more interesting with the ominous approach of a huge storm front.
Just in time I remember to have a pizza in Italy and use it as an excuse to wait out the dramtic storm as it rumbles around the mouth of the valley I'm about to enter. Behind schedule, and with my pal Mostyn within reaching distance, I ride through the night for the third time in the race. I plunge into a network of gravel tracks which turn into luxuriously smooth cycle paths. I come across non-existant bridges and learning from my CP2 experience I re-route to avoid a huge climb, with the help of a fellow TCR rider I meet in the darkness. It's a relief to be on a traffic free bike path, but I'm missing out on what is probably a stunning valley by daylight. At some point during the early hours I pass Mostyn, tucked up in a bivi, which gives me the final burst of energy needed to make it through to day break.
Arriving in Klangenfurt the following morning, the night's activities have taken their toll on my bike and knowing I'm about to leave developed Western Europe, I seek out a shop for some much needed repairs. The staff at 'Mountainbiker Johan Reidl' are a godsend. They have been following the race closely and drop everything in the workshop to fast-track repairs to my bike. They even tell me where I can buy a new GPS unit, and almost 12 hours later I roll out of town with a fixed bike and a new Garmin eTrex. The new GPS unit is crucial as it means I don't have to keep stopping to charge my phone. I power into the night - Back in the game!
Leaving affluent Western Europe behind I feel I'm finally making up for lost time but such is the cruelty of the TCR that as soon as things are going well, the next set-back strikes - and it has antlers. Having entered Hungary and passed through the town of Szombathely, I'm settling in for a long night ride when out of nowhere a deer leaps out of the darkness and jumps straight into my front wheel. His antlers are tangled with my bars, bringing both deer and bike to an abrupt halt sending me sailing over the top of both. When I gather myself and find my head-torch, the deer has fled the scene. He probably isn't insured. My front wheel is a mess of snapped spokes and deer entrails litter the road. In a strange series of coincidences, one of my friends on the race Adrian shows up and we both try to work out what I should do. Then a car stops and its Hungarian driver not only arranges a taxi to take me and my bike back into town, but his uncle owns the town's bike shop! And for full dramatic effect, as this scene plays out a massive thunder storm is closing in on the horizon. I just make it to the hotel before it hits the town. I spend the next morning getting my front wheel fixed and ride out of town for the second time, my new slightly ovular wheel making it feel like I'm riding a horse. It will have to do.
In a slightly controversial change to the race format, each checkpoint on the TCR this year has a cut-off time for arrival after which you no longer qualify for the official finisher rankings. As I mentally crunch the numbers it dawns on me that I'm going to have to really motor if I want to cover the 325 miles to CP3 in time. It's do-able but I'm going the have to be disciplined. I formulate a plan and set hourly distance goals as I embark on a 24hr time trial. I ride as fast as I can out of Hungary and traverse half the length of Slovakia. I deploy the entire back catalogue of The Streets as well as some motivational mix tapes put together by my colleague and office DJ - DJ Juicy - to sing my way through drowsiness and into the early hours. I have to get to the checkpoint by 4pm and with the gradients now ramping up and the rain coming down I know it's going to be tight. After enjoying sunrise cycling down a deserted motorway, I arrive at 2pm then realise the checkpoint is at the top of the parcours. Damn! Why didn't I know that?! Despair sets in as I realise that after 26 hours of hard riding I still might not make it. Mercifully, the narrow gravelly climb up to Sliezky Dom is the shortest of the 4 parcours and just after 3pm I'm sitting in the CP3 hotel bar with a pint, coming to terms with what's just happened and watching the final riders arriving before the cut of, as a violent storm sets in and shrouds the hotel in a ball of icy rain.
CP2 (MONTE GRAPPA) - CP3 (high tatras)
643 miles (1,370 miles total) | 27,265 ft ascent (80,273 ft total) | 4d 14h 41m (8d 17h 02m total)