It was with the usual mix of exhaustion, anxiety and trepidation that I joined Kudos Cycing for a weekend trip to Ticino, the Italian speaking Swiss canton, centred on completing the Granfondo San Gottardo, a mere 110kms of cycling, which just happens to take in three 2000m+ Alpine passes. Had I done enough training? Of course not. Why did I add these unnecessary challenges to an already too busy life? What would the other cyclists be like? Should I, could I, just cancel?
Immediately upon meeting Anthony from Kudos Cycling my fears dissipated, here was someone clearly committed to ensuring everyone enjoyed and got what they wanted from their cycling, and if I wanted to pootle along and enjoy the views, rather than focus on my power output, that was going to be just fine.
After settling into a cute B&B with an incredibly welcoming owner, and carb loading on seriously cheesy pizza and Frizzante, it was time to settle in for a night of pre-sportive poor sleep pointlessly anxiously anticipating the next morning. After closely following the forecast all week and seeing only dreaded black clouds and raindrops it was a relief when the day dawned cloudy but dry. After attempting to eat some breakfast (too early in the morning for me) we drove 5 minutes down the valley to the airfield where the Granfondo would begin, predictably windswept and freezing. At which point I had my first pleasant surprise, a very welcome queue for the ladies loo and my first chance to chat with the pleasing number of other female riders that day.
All the female riders in the sportive were given starting numbers in the first 200 which gave us the opportunity to start at the front. Whilst I might have had feminist misgivings about the unequal treatment it was undeniably a great experience to start an event surrounded by other female riders. And then we were off…at a very Sunday ride pace of just 21kms, people really were saving themselves for the only timed sections, up the cols. Despite such a reasonable pace, we soon began to climb and for the first 12kms I was continually passed by others and wondered again why I was here and if I could complete if I was struggling up the first col. But I’ve cycled enough to do it my way, and, as we hit the spectacularly snaking last 6 km cobbled section of the San Gottardo pass I began to overtake others. The feed station at the top was overrun and I had to use my elbows to fill a bottle and grab a banana before climbing back on my bike to meet one of the very few signs on the whole route, the split point between the shorter distances and the 110km. It is always tempting to take the easy option, and I cursed myself as I froze descending for the next few kms, switching hands under armpits to maintain feeling. Then the incredible rush of warming temperatures as we descended into the valley and legs moved again, an enforced stop for a passing train and the next pass began.
The Furka was a beautiful ride, feeling happier with one col in the bag, this was a clear rail along the mountain and you just had to keep holding on, enjoying the views, to top out in the clouds again. This time with the field more spaced, I enjoyed the full spread of the feed station with some very welcome warming buillion, the best mocha chocolate ever and a topped and tailed banana personally prepared for me. Another freezing descent, another stop for a train and then the Nufenen. This time I’d learnt from the locals and stopped before the chrono, removed my rain jacket, ate my banana and readied an energy gel for the second half of the climb. I’d been told this was the hard one. A fellow cyclist near the top of the Furka told me ‘it starts hard, don’t be frustrated, it finishes hard, don’t give up’. As I contemplated his advice I wondered precisely when it was going to get hard. With the absence of km markers and gradients I turned my pedals and felt pleased that my legs still felt strong. As another cyclist grumbled about the 11% displaying on his Garmin I pondered the psychology of not knowing the gradient and decided ignorance was definitely bliss for me, reflecting on the sinking sensation I usually feel passing a 12% km sign and how here I was just enjoying the view rather than fearing the upcoming kilometre. Steep gradients bring out the best in cyclists and this was a climb full of ciaos, encouragements and brief chats as we passed each other. I struck a common pace with a Danish man half way up and 2 kms passed quickly in pleasant chat, until I didn’t think I could continue to maintain both my pace and quality of conversation, made my excuses and opened the emergency gel. It seemed to do the trick as I soon caught him again, then found myself pulling away, feeling stronger than ever, focussing on completing full pedal strokes and dropping my heels. With the chrono in sight for the first time ever I felt the urge for a 50 metre ‘sprint’ to the line and felt sick as I crossed it. A final feed station with a mood of elation as we all knew we simply had to descend all the way back to Airolo, where bursting with exuberance we enjoyed a final friendly sprint down the runway to the finish line.
Why do I add these unnecessary challenges to an already too busy life? Precisely because in the moment they force me to slow down, to stop looking ahead, to the next pass, or even the next kilometre, and to take perverse enjoyment in feeling my body work as it takes me another metre up another col, to lose my ego as yet another cyclist more talented and disciplined than me passes me by, to look up and gulp at the climb still to come, then to look down and marvel at the height already gained.
Getting out of bed early on a Sunday, gathering on a start line, feeling intimidated by everyone around me who appears more prepared, finishing the ride I set out to accomplish, always making new friends along the ways, gives me the knowledge that I can handle whatever else life throws at me on any given day.
See you at the start line in 2019!
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