Saturday, April 28, 2012

Preparing To Race and Getting Into the Festival Spirit For My Last Few Days in Garda!

The time has nearly come for me to leave Torbole... I love everything about this place. It's stunning beauty, the lovely people, great food, amazing gelato, the variety of different outdoor activities on offer, and, of course, the wicked, sweet trails to mountain bike on. I truly feel like I have found a second home here, and I daresay it's only a matter of time until I find myself here again. I'm pretty keen to jump into an Italian course when I get home and learn to speak it fluently. I love the language, too... For now, though, it's all about making sure I ride everything I wanted to ride before I leave. I've covered a pretty hefty portion of the immediate terrain around Riva and Torbole, and ridden most of the trails I wanted to tick off. One thing I hadn't done yet was descend the steep, rocky terrain into Limone, and with a race on Sunday, and Friday and Saturday likely to be designated rest days (and also days flor bumming around the bike festival), Thursday was looking like my last opportunity to do this ride.

The tricky thing about Limone is that the terrain into the town from the mountains is so steep that it is one-way traffic only for bikes. The only other road out of Limone is a dangerous stretch of road through an endless tunnel, and whilst riding through there isn't forbidden, it is fairly common knowledge that venturing into the tunnel on this road on a bike, you are unlikely to come out the other side in one piece. You can descend into Limone, but you can't ride out. The only option is to catch the ferry back to Riva or Torbole, so you have to be pretty sure that if you are going to drop in to Limone, you are going to arrive before the last ferry leaves. With this in mind, I set off reasonably early for my little adventure. I was climbing up to Passo Guil before descending into Limone, so if I got there and felt there wasn't enough time to get the ferry, I could take another route and come back down through Pregasina. I climbed up Ponale (possibly the last time I will do this before I leave). It was a stunning day. Seeing as I had plenty of photos up Ponale, I was able to give it some stick and ascended the trail in really good time. Despite feeling pretty tired in the morning and thinking my legs weren't really up for the trip, I was surprised by how solid my climbing was. My cadence was good and I was pushing a good gear, but I found that short, hard efforts drained my anaerobic energy system pretty quickly and made my legs burn with lactic acid.

My cadence and strong legs changed dramatically once I turned off the main trail onto track 421 for the last 800m of climbing. I had been looking at this section of the track on the map the night before and had noticed the contour lines were pretty damn close... in fact, I had wondered when I was planning the ride if it was actually all ridable... It was, but not without a great deal of grovelling and I dug pretty deep. It wasn't all bad... As I rode along, waterfalls appeared that cascaded down towards the trail, then disappeared underneath the track. It was unlike any of the other scenery I had seen whilst riding around the mountains here. I grovelled my way up, sometimes in my easiest gear out of the saddle, sometimes zig-zagging across the track to reduce the gradient ever so slightly. It was relentless... The gradient didn't seem to ease up the whole way up. I reckon it was the hardest climb I had done here in Garda so far. By the time I reached Passo Guil, I had climbed 800m in 3.5km, an average gradient of over 20%! No bloody wonder it felt like hard work! At about 900m, I rode through a small town... It amazed me that people lived up here... and the track I had been riding up appeared to be the only way into the town... Imagine commuting on that every single day!!!

Towards the end of the climb, as I was approaching Malga Vil, the trail made it's way through a canyon of sorts, with huge rock walls towering above me on both sides, and a waterfall running along the side of the trail. The combination of the waterfall and the space enclosed by the canyon made the rushing water sound so loud that it drowned out the sound of my breathing and the crunch of my tyres on the trail. It was truly incredible. Then in stark contrast, the last part of the climb up to Passo Guil was through a grassy clearing. I made it to Passo Guil in plenty of time for the ferry, so it was time to drop in on trail 117.

Now, the climb up had been steep, but the descent had an extra 500m of altitude differential over less distance. 1200m of descent over about 3km. I was under no false impressions that this descent was going to be steep and tricky. The trail was steep... Really steep... And it was loose and there was a lot of pretty tight cornering. It was steep enough that you committed to riding a piece of trail and then that was it... No piking... The good thing was it was pretty much just the steepness and looseness that made it tricky. I didn't have to negotiate anything too technically demanding, like rock drops, or anything like that. Still, it required my utmost undivided attention and a great deal of respect for when I how I used my brakes. There were drop-offs to the side of the trail that meant crashing was really not an option. It scared the crap out of me, and gave me incredible arm pump, but I enjoyed it immensely. I did manage to pull up to take this photo of a trail I saw on the other side of the valley, zig-zagging down the hillside. It was bizarre how it stood out from the landscape. I could only assume that it was a walking trail, but was later told people had ridden it... I can only imagine how steep and exposed it must be! Scary stuff!

As I exited trail 117 onto trail 101, the trail widened and the terrain was a little more predictable, but the gradient didn't mellow out at all. It was still super steep (and super fun), but the one thing that wasn't predictable was the pedestrian traffic on the trail... There were a lot of walkers out on this fine day, and as I rounded corners, the best I was able to give them was a bit of warning before I barrelled past them... There was little chance of me being able to pull up to a complete stop if someone happened to step in front of me... I think for the most part, people found it pretty entertaining to see a crazy person riding their bike down this incredibly steep, rocky trail... I got more smiles than frowns, which was good. Walkers have just as much right to be there as me...

The views riding into Limone were first class, and Limone township was so lovely, although a little bit overidden with tourists at the time... They looked at me in my lycra with my bike, and my shoes that went "clip clop" like they had never seen a person with a bike before!!! WTF? I bought my biglietta (ticket) for the ferry and one for my bike, too, (which cost nearly as much as my own ticket!) then I found a nice spot on le spaggia (the beach) to chill out until my ferry arrived.

It was very pleasant to just sit in the sun and relax. The views were stunning, I was hanging with my buddy, the Ninja, and I was completely blown away by how clear the water was! It was so clear it was hard to tell on the mooring posts where the waterline was... Stunning!

The ferry I caught didn't go to Torbole, just Riva, so I decided to just go to Riva and ride back to Torbole. The Ninja and I hung out on the deck of the ferry, watching the mountains pass us by and watching wind surfers skim past on the afternoon breeze. From the water you could see the "death" road tunnels and then the Ponale track cut into the hillside high above it. We could also see the old lemon groves (which I had originally thought were castle ruins). Apparently the area, aptly named Limone (meaning "lemon") is purported to have some special quality or mineral in the air/water that makes lemons grow particularly well, and way back in the day, they built these structures which allowed the lemon trees to be protected by the wind. I love that this place has such a rich history.

When I was putting my bike away in the hotel "man cave", I bumped into one of the girls from the Cube Action Team... They are a downhill-based team staying at the hotel for the bike festival, and Thursday, they had an epic day of shuttle runs planned, all with the sole aim of descending a total of 10,000m in one day. She told me how they are riding "all day" (it was lunchtime and they were back at the hotel for pizza). I found it kinda bizarre that, for starters, I have spent my entire life as a mountain biker measuring how much climbing I have done (as opposed to descending) and that we had very very different definitions of what "riding all day" was. I told her that I am in Italy for 24 Hour Solo World Championships... I'm not sure if it was because she didn't understand me, or because she thought I was a bit crazy, but she looked at me like she didn't quite get it, then grabbed her bike and bid me farewell. Bikes are awesome... There is so much you can do on them (and so much I can probably learn from someone who descends 10,000m in one day!) I spent the remainder of the afternoon lounging around reading in the chill room downstairs at the hotel, lapping up the last remaining rays of sun from the day. At the moment, I am reading Bear Grylls "Mud, Sweat and Tears". I must say that after doing Cape Epic, the thought of 24 Hour Solo World Champs has been truly terrifying (albeit pretty exciting at the same time). I really like reading inspirational books just before a big race, and this one has been fantastic... It's amazing just how much some of the things he writes about ring true for a task as huge as a 24 hour race. I'm finding it to be really enjoyable reading. Then, after watching the sunset over the mountains from my favourite restaurant, I turned in for a quiet evening. Those guys at the restaurant must wonder why they see me every bloody night and I don't eat anywhere else... For starters, it's right opposite my hotel, and we all know how much I love walking with my short legs... Secondly (and I'm sure any other travelling rider will back me up here), once you find somewhere that serves food you like that doesn't upset your stomach, there is no need to look much further. Getting the right food is so important in preparation for a race.

So now that I had decided to extend my stay in Garda (for the third time) for another weekend for the bike festival, it meant I would be racing the Ronda Extrema MTB Marathon race on Sunday, a 103.5km beast with 3569m of climbing (just a typical day at the Cape Epic, really). With this in mind, it meant I needed to freshen the legs up a bit in preparation, and with the sun shining on Lake Garda again this morning, it was so, so difficult to convince myself not to go out for another epic ride. Instead, I busted out a lap of Monte Brione just to keep my technical eye in, then went for an active recovery down the Sarca valley with some short sprints thrown in to wake the legs up a bit. It was a nice ride, but I was chomping at the bit for something longer... Sunday would bring that for me. Then it was off to massage (and it was a bloody good one, too!) and lunch before bussing into Riva for registration.

There's a real buzz in Riva at the moment, and it is infectious. As I found my way to registration, the expo was being set up... Hundreds of cycling-related companies ready to show off all their new-season stuff. There were bikes everywhere and team cars everywhere. Lots and lots of very fit-looking riders had made their way into Riva for the festival, and I was lining up next to them to race on Sunday... The start list (before late entries) was 44 pages long and included the likes of Sally Bigham, Karl Platt and Andreas Kluger, who had competed in the Cape Epic a month ago, too... The race was huge. In some respects, it took a bit of pressure off... It was purely a "training" race to have a final smash-out before worlds, and with big names like that, I wasn't placing pressure on myself to be up the front. The sheer size of the race, though, made it a little terrifying (oh, and let's not forget that 103km with 3569m of climbing, either). I picked up my race number and pack. For those of you who know some of my little idiosyncracies, you'll know I have this little thing about repeated 1s, so I was quite stoked when I got handed the number 1511... Wicked!

One of the slightly annoying things about the festival is that it is put together by a German event organiser, so nearly all the literature is in German, and being so close to Germany, a large proportion of the influx of around 20,000 people into Riva are German, too... So it's kinda awkward when I start bumbling around with my broken Italian to then realise Italian is also their second language and I should have just spoken to them in English in the first place... I'm sure I will find my way to the start line somehow! It has been quite a bizarre experience to have stayed in Torbole and Riva over the last two weeks during their low season, having all the restaurants, trails and hotel to myself, to seeing it spring to life for the start of the mountain biking season, with traffic jams down the main street, hotels booked out, and restaurants and busses full. I feel quite lucky to be able to experience it both ways. On my way back to the bus, I detoured via the pump/jump track opposite Garda on Bike. I have seen this piece of art being built from the ground up over the last couple of weeks (apparently after the festival, they just bulldoze it and it turns back into a carpark... NOOOOO!)... By today,there were scaffolding towers built for jump run-ins, start gates for the night sprint, signs up everywhere, and people putting the last touches on the jumps. A real transformation.

This is where, tomorrow night, I will race in the Night Sprint... A knock-out, pump track race. To be honest, I don't expect to make it far past my first round, and my track record with start gates is a little sketchy, but it will be good fun, and no doubt have a great atmosphere, so why not??? (and if I make a fool of myself and fall out of the start gates again, I will likely not see any of these people again...). I was also really stoked to come across the Adidas Eyewear van... My fav glasses and a great supporter of my riding for the last 3 or so years... Rock on!

It was then back to the hotel to sort out the crap from the gold in my race pack, not an easy task when it is all in German. Basically, the aim was to keep anything free, anything that got me something for free, anything I needed for my race, and anything that would put crazy ideas in my head for future adventures, and biff the rest... I think I did ok. I also have to make special note of the fact that this is the first time EVER that I have recieved a race t-shirt that fits me (hell yes!). It is also the first time ever that I have recieved bandaids in my race pack... Not sure if I should be concerned about this? Good news also awaited me back at the hotel... They had a cancellation which meant I could stay here at Hotel Santoni right up until I left on Monday. It's been a good day!

So I'm really looking forward to this weekend. Tomorrow morning, I will head out really early for a short active recovery, then will spend my day cruising the expo and watching demonstrations before smashing out a lap or two of the Night Sprint, then hitting up the riders pasta feast dinner. The race on Sunday will be a blast, and especially so because it ventures further than the map I have and will take me onto new trails and new terrain in Garda... It's going to be a sweet way to spend my last few days here before moving onto Munich for a couple of days and then Athens, Greece, for a 7 day MTB tour. This has truly being a once in a lifetime experience... How bloody lucky am I?! This morning, I came back from my ride feeling like I had got something right, like an epiphany that was going to help me for my 24 Hour World Champs Race. I felt it was the right time to write down what I wanted from the race and how I was going to get that. It was like my own little pact with myself that I'll share with you once I finish the race, whether I achieve what I intended to or not, but the moment I wrote it down, I felt empowered by it, and committed to it... I'm on the home run to world champs right now, and I'm enjoying it, and I think it bodes very well for me! Bring it on!

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