Stage 3 was modest-enough looking on a course profile, no massive pyramid shapes immediately catching your eye.
However, upon a closer look you could see this was for a lack of climbing but rather the absence of the down slope of said pyramids. The stage began with a long climb as is typical when you start in these little villages nestled in hollows between mountains. Among the lessons we learned in the first two days was to get to the starting grid early so that we could be at the front of our corral. We had unfortunately missed making the A2 start corral by a few places so we were among the faster riders in the B corral, and getting stuck at the back of it was maddening. This meant being done warming up a good 45-50 minutes before race start to snag a good position. We went out for about 20 minutes with some tempo to be ready to climb straightaway. The climbing began at a solid pace with several mixed teams around us. As the grade sorted things out, we got into a group of two other mixed teams. After yesterday’s successful teamwork at the end, we were feeling pretty motivated and getting much better at riding in sync. Good teamwork is like anything in life: best accomplished by being completely honest, being there for each other, and accepting help when you need it. Any bravado would quickly be called out by the unrelenting mountains. Jeff was great at pushing us to stay with those teams to the top of the 14 mile climb, I was suffering like I had not yet suffered this race, and really wanted throw in the towel, or throw something at Jeff, but I trusted his confidence that we could sustain the effort, and made use of his jersey pocket on a number of occasions. Finally, we passed one team on a single track, while the other team gapped us out of sight on their way to passing several other teams too.
After this long climb, there was no descent; rather, the course hit us with short punchy climb after short punchy climb. By punchy climbs I mean a succession of 1/4 to 1/3 mile segments at 20%, 24%, 26%, and 16%, if you’re into numbers. Many were walking, but we managed to grind up them with only one dab each. As blow after blow hit our legs, Jeff began to curse and yell and I talked him off the cliff a few times. Jeff quickly repaid this by talking me along the cliff.
The race description read:
"From the Alp it’s shortly a very steep climb towards Passo del Gallo, …and soon merges into a shallow, rapidly moving zigzag path in the airy coniferous forest. Overlooking the turquoise illuminating Lago di Livigno resting in its bed. That’s a stretch, which deserves more than the highest score on a scale. Here landscape and driving pleasure defy any categorization. Only at the end you have to overcome a ditch on a, by the spring thaw repeatedly battered, path where the bike - depending on the condition of the road - may needs to be carried.” (Side note: this is why I don’t let my students use Google Translate)
What the description omitted was the lack of any sort of barrier between oneself and a several hundred foot plunge down a rocky ravine to the “turquoise illuminating Lago” as you pedaled on a foot and a half wide dirt bench cut trail.
“Don’t look at anything but my wheel” Jeff ordered. So truth be told I missed out on the “landscape and driving pleasure” but retained my bones in 206 pieces so all in all that was a success.
As we approached the finish, we were greeted by another succession of stupidly steep pitches which beat any pride we felt from our massive joint effort out of us. We simply lay on the pavement in silence and drank funny Italian yellow tonics.
Race exhaustion having caught up to me, this is the only photo I took.
By Stage 4, fatigue had indeed rolled in and fogged up all our senses except a sort of animal competitiveness. We had our routine down—divvying up the tasks like locating a pump, getting stage profile stickers, handing in day bags, staking out a corral position—we had submitted to the fact that every day would be made up of inconceivably long and steep climbs, and where we stacked up had been more or less sorted out after a 10th, 9th, and 10th place finish. To be honest, I had hopes of being much more competitive among the mixed teams, and I always aim to win. But that’s racing: the only given is that you do your work ahead of time, then you accept where you are on race day, suck up any disappointment and race just as wholeheartedly no matter what. Day 4 I had bad legs, and I really struggled on the descents.
Jeff kept yelling at me and asking what was wrong, to which I could only bark back “I’m doing what I can, I’m just not comfortable!” but all the while feeling terrible that I was letting us down. During the stage, as we climbed the Stelvio on the road, I discovered that my lockout switch was broken.
As you might imagine, not being able to stand without losing power into a squishy bike was not ideal.
Jeff later discovered that his wheel was broken, but despite our unlucky day, we still finished 10th again.
The evening was spent traipsing back and forth between tech tents and ATM machines, spending copious amounts of money to restore our machines. Turns out I had felt so uncomfortable descending because my suspension had no rebound, so I was hurtling down loose rocky trails with essentially a rigid frame. Realizing this made me chuckle, that in fact my partner in fact just knew me well and could tell something was amiss; even more than I could as I just assumed it was my lack of skill :)
Stage 5 was dubbed the queen stage, with well over 10,000 feet of climbing in about 90k, including a jaunt up the famed Passo Gavia, though the opposite side of the traditional Giro climb.
With a repaired suspension I felt like a completely different rider descending and this was the beginning of much better energy for us. My legs worked again, and Jeff continued to feel good. We worked together well up the Gavia, moving steadily forward and past groups along the way. The descent took us off road from the top, via a hike-a-bike downhill which apparently had to be accomplished at 18% grades so the race could squeeze in a yet more horrific climb than the Gavia. This was a gravel monstrosity erected straight out of hell with 17 switchbacks climbing to over 9,000 feet, the high altitude only adding to one’s delirium from the effort. Just when you thought you couldn’t possibly pedal any more, you inched around a turn to see a line of riders creeping in a zig zag far, far above. At one point, I took a sip of my camelbak, and just from missing a breath or two began to hyperventilate. Around that time, another woman from a mixed team came bopping along, passing us like we were standing still, at which point anguish combined with lack of oxygen induced a fit of crying and despair and I began to sob and blather about what an inadequate partner I was: “Crystal, you’re doing fine. That woman is ridiculous and is dropping her own partner, c’mon. You’re not letting us down.” So then I began to laugh. And think about dinner. And then formulate comments about the snow fields on the mountain in front of us, but not actually say anything out loud. Strange things happen at altitude.
We caught another mixed team, then they passed us again, but on the finishing flats we got into a solid rhythm and about a mile from the finish, I caught sight of them once again. Without a word, we both knew we were going for it, so at five and a half hours into the stage, we began to to hammer with everything we had. We passed them at a full sprint, spun out, down hill, with 150 meters to go. Winning might not happen very often, and there’s nothing quite like winning, but when that is out of the question in any given race, you have to reevaluate and figure out other things to get out of the race. In this case, racing as a team and pushing each other to suffer to our very limits, beyond what we thought we could do, that became our mission. If we can do that for it’s own sake, then when the right day comes along and things come together, we know we have the toughness to capitalize on the good fortune to win.
Stage 6 offered little respite after the queen stage. Actually I remember very little of it, except that it started with a horrific climb and some very unfruitful suffering as several teams passed us. After 2500 feet of climbing, the 12% grade turned upward to grades of 17% or more for the last mile, on wet loose soil, and suddenly something clicked. I was able to ride the entire last portion of the incline, while everyone else was walking dejectedly. We passed three teams by riding where they could not, and for the first time in the race I felt like a real bike racer! We soldiered on with some renewed spirits to take 8th, our best finish among the stages, amid a burst of rain showers in the last 20 minutes.
Our hotel that evening was at an airport hotel, which by some oversight had a vigorous air conditioning unit. Europeans normally have judgy bans on air conditioning, bed sheets, bathroom ventilation, and trustworthy Internet availability. The first two taboos are contradictory and create very uncomfortable sleeping conditions. This is compounded by a yet further censorship on coffee volume, which came into play at breakfast the next morning. Rather than the typical hotel coffee machine which--with complete immunity--you could coerce into making you whatever you wanted, the morning of the last stage there was a human barista that you had to order from. I ordered an Americano, which doomed me to wait while he served everyone else in the restaurant first. Now baristas worldwide have a way of making you feel inadequate in their presence. Rather than lording their tattoos, fixies, piercings, and expensive unutilized degrees over you, European baristas hate you for tampering with the single tablespoon of caffeine they are inclined to make for you. The only thing worse than watering down their espresso to make “American coffee,” is ordering a second serving, which is seen as a proletarian incapacity to appreciate and be satisfied by their craft.
Stage 7 was nothing to sneeze at, a deceptively unfriendly 33 miles. Besides the route starting with a 5,000 foot climb, a stiff rain accompanied us for the entire duration. The rain made the descent all but unrideable except by some crazy fools who ended up head first into bushes or huddled on the side of the trail repairing flats or derailleurs. As we finally made the last turns on the narrow, cobbled streets of Arco to the final finish line, our sense of accomplishment was washed away immediately by the cold downpours.
Shivering and exhausted, we stumbled around trying to clean our bikes, find the hotel shuttle and retrieve our bike case to be able to pack up. Once we had decimated the bathroom trying to remove mud from ourselves and our clothing and accessories, we went back into town for a sunny dinner and shopping...and gelato.
322 miles, 60,500 feet of climbing, 32 hours. Not a single flat thanks to our Vittoria Mezcal tires. No injuries. We couldn't have pulled off this accomplishment without the support of our team Riverside Racing, and our coaches Steve and Scott.