During the first day of cycling the Dolomites, a fellow rider named Jerry asked, "How does a guy from the midwest prepare for something like this?" The answer goes something like this.
Eight months ago my buddy Richard Banfield asked what my cycling goals for the year were. I told him I was turning forty and had a couple of regional road events I was building up to. Unimpressed he replied, "Ok, but do you want to join me on a trip to the Dolomites in September?" Hell yes.
The trip, hosted by a stellar cycling adventure company called Duvine, would be six consecutive days of hard riding. There'd be a chef, gorgeous hotels, guides, and we'd ride from the center of northern Italy eastward and upward through the Dolomites into Slovenia. It would be the opposite of my cycling terrain in Chicago. It would lay waste to my puny legs. There'd be prosciutto at every meal.
Training began with a few mutual words of encouragement between Richard and I, such as "we're f*$#ed" and "you're f*$#ed" and "I'm f*$#ed." I dug into a regimen aimed at growing my thighs into twitchy, 24-inch lightning bolt cannons. I worked in several 3-4 week blocks consisting mostly of sustained tempo and threshold efforts of up to one hour because, after all, how high could these hills of Italy be? I B-raced a couple gravel grinders and A-raced a summer road event called Horribly Hilly Hundred. I spent five weeks in southern Germany pushing through some pretty gnarly solo rides.
I rested well, I ate well, and did my best interpretation of yoga for five months. My elastic-cuffed buffet pants started feeling constrictive in the calf area. My fitness graphs looked like the mountains I'd be climbing in September though it should be noted that my cannons never fired a single lightening bolt.
Italy. It goes up.
Fast forward to mid-September. We met in Tirano, Italy on a Sunday morning kitted up and ready to be shuttled to our bikes at the head of our first ride. There were ten guests in addition to Chris Case, the managing editor of VeloNews magazine, NYC chef Seamus Mullen, and the charismatic, french-slinging founder of Duvine, Andy Levine. The tour crew consisted of four guides, two of whom would ride with the group, the other two who would shuttle our belongings in vans from point A to B. We started riding and by riding I mean going upwards.
I'll take a moment to describe the terrain we ride on in Chicago and I'll do so with brevity: flat. Ride fifty miles in any direction and you'll only see a thousand or so feet of cumulative topography.
The northern regions of Italy are dramatically different. Rides begin in lush valleys and summit well above the tree line. Descents wind through pastural highlands and conclude in foggy, primeval forests. A climb up Stelvio, where we slipped on ice and lobbed a snowball or two, dropped us into the Adige river valley just an hour later to ride through miles of apple orchards and hot sun. Every ride required handfuls of brakes to pause mid-descent and soak it all up. The panorama feature on an iPhone's camera? Italy's Dolomites are why it's there.
A day in the life of a 'stache doper.
One afternoon's ride concluded a little earlier than usual and it just so happened there was a sunny yard to sit and drink beer in after getting cleaned up at the hotel. That got us talking. Our ride ended early because we'd decided not to climb Monte Zoncolan, one of Italy's most notorious climbs, at the conclusion of an already big day because 1) our legs were shredded and 2) we had no mustaches. Upon inspection of the matter it was agreed that regardless of weariness Zoncolan (pronounced "bazonk-a-donk") would be ascended the following morning and it'd best be done with mustaches.
Now. If you wanna see famous professional cyclists whinnying their way up Monte Zoncolan, an Italian hero named Marco Pantani almost made it look manageable. The ten kilometer beast offers no refuge save for a few meters of arguably flat road in the switchbacks where, comically, memorial placards of cycling legends are placed as if to say "Il Pirate never caught his breath here, ninny."
I recall enjoying the mustache before Zoncolan and at the top of Zoncolan but not during Zoncolan - that time was spent applying enough weight to my front wheel to keep from flipping over backwards, and battling the bike's impulse to direct me into the forest for some sweet, sweet sleep.
Mothers everywhere will hate this statement.
I'll never give birth but I've seen it happen three times which qualifies me to say something that may likely result in a mother smacking the back of my head. During the miraculous experience of birth, where there is screaming and blood everywhere and a lot of pain, there are also several onlookers present, usually holding cups filled with crushed ice, to cheer on the poor woman as she endures her miracle.
If you've only witnessed a woman giving birth on a movie screen you should know that the screams, such as "Get the f*&k outta my face oh my god blagghhhhhh..." also happen in real life. The thing is there's only so much support nurses and spouses can contribute to the messy adventure.
My point here of course is that there was nobody else on the planet to propel me up those mountains. While there was no blood spilled, there was wailing and much gnashing of teeth. Now to the slapping part: I regrettably posit that climbing Zoncolan is somewhat similar to giving birth.
This is a good moment to pause and publicly apologize to Goretti, one of our faithful guides, for disagreeing with her on the side of Zoncolan when she was merely suggesting that 'up' was still up and, indeed, not the opposite of up which was my mind's suggested direction of travel at the moment of the encounter.
Your passport, please.
Cycling up Italy's mountains reminded me that the biggest battle in cycling often isn't in the legs, rather somewhere above the shoulders. As the week's climbs cruelly stretched out and upward in their final km's, so did the idea that I could simply stop pedaling and head for the nearest van. What's the point right? The point is it's raw, singular, beautiful, and absolutely amazing and quitting isn't an option.
The opportunity to ride Italy's most famous climbs is a passport of sorts to other expanses of the world best experienced by bike. It'd be a damn shame to say this was a once in a lifetime experience. I'll see you again, Zoncolan.
If you're interested in the routes, stats, and perhaps even feeling good about yourself cuz you could do this all faster, head over to my Strava profile and dig into the week's rides, from September 18 - September 24, 2016.
Finally, a very special thank you to friend and mountain goat, Richard Banfield, for inviting me on this trip.