Italy’s toughest Gran Fondo!
Ups and downs - Tackling La Maratona dles Dolomites, a test of bike skill and mental fortitude over Italy’s toughest Gran Fondo.
The basics -
- Name – Maratona dles Dolomites
- Location – Italy, Dolomites
- Inaugural event – 1987
- Event date – 1 July 2018
- Distance - 138km
- Elevation – 4230m
- Number of participants – limited to 9,000
- Number of applicants – ± 35,000
- Number of nations in 2018 – 40
The rush of descending Passo Campolongo has left me. My face has been fixed with the same grimacing expression for the past 30 minutes, and my speed has slowed so much I am certain my GPS is faulty. Convinced there are 19 switchbacks on this climb, we've just passed number 16 yet there are still 6km’s of climbing remaining.
Was it 19? Or did I miscalculate, or is there one very long straight ahead?
Echoing through my head, are the final words Willie (my current cycling partner) muttered at the bottom of Passo Giau, “here starts the worst hour of our lives”. I recall responding that was a rather pessimistic approach and thinking it was the second last major climb for the day, so we should take it all in.
Given the Dolomites mountain range has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its beauty and uniqueness, I was adamant to absorb the surroundings and take in the natural wonders around me.
Yet here I sit, 30 minutes into Passo Giau and I am beginning to share the sentiment muttered by my friend. With my head fixed in a downward position, my eyes transfixed on the route map attached to my handle bars, as I desperately search for a break in the climb. A pool of acidic sweat runs down my forehead and into my eyes. I quickly grab for a bottle, relieving my burning eyes with a refreshing lemon flavoured electrolyte drink. I have a small panic as Willie moves off ahead of me, forcing me to push out some hard-pedal strokes to make my way back up to him…. When will this nightmare end?
Having spent the previous months building up a solid endurance base on the bike, I believed I was well prepared for the suffering that lay ahead. The distance was no issue and having just installed a 12/34 cassette, I naively believed that the 4230m of ascending would be okay.
This highly exclusive race has in region of 35,000 applications and a start list of only 9,000 participants. Compared to other major races, this number seems low, but the logic quickly became apparent as we started off, up Passo Campolongo for the first time. This short, sharp climb with a mass start created a major bottle neck. As a result, I lost contact with everyone I started with and was soon alone on the first climb of the day.
For me, this was okay as I had very little expectation of what lay ahead. Wanting to set my own pace in an effort not to blow up, I steadily made my way up the first ascent while figuring out how to adjust my arm warmers and unzip my gilet as I quickly began to overheat. Working my way gingerly down the initial descent, with my gilet flapping in the wind behind me, I started to shiver, soon discovering my first challenge for the day would be temperature regulation.
The first two climbs – Passo Campolongo and Pordoi – covered 29km's and 991m of climbing with what felt like almost no descending. Having spent virtually no time in the mountains prior to this race, my descending was slow and nervous to start with. The constant fear of flying off my bike on each switchback and the sound of bikes rushing past, meant that my heart rate was constantly raised, and I never felt recovered or prepared for the next climb.
Image – Maratona dles Dolomites route profile.
Reaching the base of Passo Sella, I was confronted by an endless line of cyclists, slowing snaking their way up the various switchbacks. It appeared to be never ending and my mind was instantly taken back to the Lemmings video game. With no spectators in sight and cyclists starting to feel the efforts of the day, there was a deathly silence as I gradually made my way up Sella. Approaching the summit, musical clangs of bells rang out into the air, and as I made my way onto a flatter section of the road, I could see 3 youngsters, standing on top of a massive boulder, ringing huge cowbells that they had hanging from their waists. They were so excited and were having such fun cheering us all on, I temporarily forgot how tired my legs were as I shouted back to them and waved as I rolled on past.
Wiser now, I zipped up my jersey and gilet, and pulled up my arm warmers, as I prepared once again for a freezing descent. Having gained confidence on the descents, I pushed harder down this one knowing the next climb up Gardena was a shorter one.
Reaching the base of the descent, I pulled off at the aid station to get in some much-needed nutrition and fortunately found a few team mates, whom I had lost on the first climb of the day. Setting off together, we made our way up Gardena and then Campolongo for the second time. Racing together down the descents created a welcome distraction and I began to relax and enjoy the speed. The next 20km’s of the route was relatively flat, giving us plenty of time to joke around and prepare for the almighty and fearful Passo Giau.
30 minutes in and Willie and I can hardly mutter a few words to each other, let alone joke. The last 6km’s of the climb are a blur, as were the first 10 minutes at the aid station at the top of Giau. Following a few cups of cold coke and a handful of orange slices, our personalities slowly returned.
Together, we set of in silence down the back of Giau and then up and over Passo Valparola as we made our way towards the finish line. 2km's from the end, we met up with the Wall. MÜR DL GIAT is a 360m climb with an average gradient of 13.1%, peaking at 19%. This section of the course was rammed with spectators motivating broken but determined cyclists up the final push before the end. There is no way to described this climb and it is best left for you all to experience for yourselves.
Final thoughts -
Maratona dles Dolomites was a challenge which left me feeling beaten and defeated. It tested my physical endurance capabilities and pushed the boundaries of my mental stamina. There was no constant in this race, I was either over heating and pushing my mind and body to its' limits on the ascents or freezing and in a mixed state of fear and exhilaration on the descents. At the time there was no happy medium.
Retrospectively, as like most endurance events I have done over the years, looking back on this race I loved every second of the challenge. At the time it felt like the hardest race I had ever competed in. Tougher than the Ultra marathons, more mentally challenging than an Ironman and certainly more physically taxing than any cycling event I had done before. But like all these other events, the retrospective and the reason we all keep coming back is the joy of conquering these challenges, and the memories we share with friends and loved ones along the way.
The pain is forgotten, the stiff muscles loosen and once again I am filled with a passion and desire to train harder and prepare better for the next challenge.
For more on this race – head over to http://www.maratona.it/en/
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