It was July 9, (late entry, eep!) and day 1 of our cycling camp that had been in the making for a good six months or so. The tour was an organised event offered by our local triathlon club from Melbourne and was available to a small group of 8. First in, best dressed. Excited, though ignorant to what was ahead, we felt lucky to pay a sizeable fee to secure a spot, and to then climb up to 18% gradients among the Italian alps. It would be fun they said. Plus, the trade off for 8 days of cycling, is 8 days of snowboarding… 😉
We all know that the people we choose to surround ourselves with are often the difference between a good time and a great time. Our friends have an innate ability to bring out the best in us and to make those memories all the more sweeter. For our small entourage of keen cyclists, this theory was absolutely the case! Our group had a good mix of cycling abilities made up of males and females. We were all friends beforehand and had survived many sweat sessions together; however, from my side, I would say this experience brought us closer. When you’re grinding at 5km/hr. and less, are not saying a hell of a lot at all and have pretty much hit the wall, yet your friends edge further in front to call out words of encouragement and to take photos of you s.t.r.u.g.g.l.i.n.g (because the scenery is nothing short of breathtaking, – quite literally, and they know you’ll thank them later), AND they then treat you to a bratwurst (with all the extras) at the summit of the most difficult climb you’ve ever done in your life, that says something!
We all had our challenges and moments of adversity throughout the week, some more than others without doubt. There were stories of grown men shedding tears and ‘heading to dark places’ as they inched their way up the Umbrail Pass. For others’, their sheer determination to summit the mountain(s) after some had suggested otherwise. The mind really is an incredible thing.
After a double ascent of the Stelvio, I felt entirely broken. For those last few kilometres I had all the demon voices against me, urging me to walk with my bike to the top, though I’m not sure that would have been any easier? True to form, stubbornness and determination got me there, and what a relief it was. In our own time we each made it to where we needed to be, and the way the team banded together to lift others and to ensure that everyone made it home safely each day was really quite special.
After arriving at our lush accommodation in Varese for the first night; The Art Hotel, we assembled our bikes and set off on our first cycle together. A 52 kilometre loop around Varese, Brinzio, Travedona, Leveno and surrounds to get the legs spinning after long haul flights, as well, to check that our trusty steads were set up correctly and ready to carry us through the week ahead.
It was around 3pm that we made our debut entrance to Italian cycling and associated road rules (or lack thereof), just as traffic was beginning to get hectic in areas. For many of us, this was our first experience of cycling on the opposite side of the road and we hadn’t all previously rode together, so there were some quick learnings to be had. For example, who had better road manners that you would then trust to sit behind, what your ‘comfort’ threshold was for how close cars could drive past before you lost your sh!t, and where you were best placed on the train – (the human powered, single file, riding on each others’ wheel kind of engine)!
On this quick tour, (about 2 hours of cycling) the roads were a good mix of wide and narrow, undulating for the most part and it was hot. We stopped by the lake for a quick photo opp. and appreciation of its beauty, but otherwise the pace was relatively constant. Not too long ago, many had arrived from Melbourne’s sub 10 degrees’ winter and were then cycling in 30+ degrees. It need to be a quick transition to persist with the demands of the forthcoming weeks adventure!
A swim in Lake Monate’ (30-minute drive outside Varese) – to the other side and back – about a 1.2km round trip, was a great way to unwind from a busy day. Though relatively warm, the water was still and so fresh, (would make for the perfect open-water swim comp!) and was being enjoyed by the many locals and their families as the sun went down. With priorities in check – carb loading for the day ahead (#willrideforfood), we settled in with pizza and beers on the grass, together with good banter recapping the day’s activities. If day 1 was anything to go by, the week ahead was sure to be something incredible!