Rocacorba was damn hard, and I was hoping for some relief on the Colle delle Finestre. In retrospect, that's about the dumbest thing I have ever hoped for.
I was looking for an easier everesting on an 18km climb, that averaged 9.5% and had an 8km section of gravel. What sort of goddam idiot thinks that would somehow be easier? It was not easier. At all. Not even a little bit.
I'd booked a gorgeous bed and breakfast that was right at the very start of the climb. That was my winningest move. My base camp was my room, so I had somewhere quiet, safe and warm for my things, I had a toilet and I had wifi. So rad. I made sure to have a good night's sleep the night before, and had a full english breakfast that morning. Starting at 9:20am in the morning sunshine, I felt great. Mind clear, legs fresh, I was ready.
The climb starts right from town, and meanders through the outskirts of Susa. The earliest kilometre or two are the hardest, where the gradient tips into the low teens. It's only for a very short period, and the rest of the way it's pretty much 9.5% on the money. No pitchy climbing today, this hill was made for spinners. As soon as you are away from the outlying village, it's immediately into thick forest, and tight switchbacks. Alpe d'Huez and it's famed 21 bends can piss off. Finestre has well more than twice that. There is a stretch so tightly wound, that when you get a peek through the trees, you can see 2 lines of road above you, and 3 or 4 below.
Colle delle Finestre in Italian means 'The Pass of the Windows', and I could totally see why. Climbing in the forest you are completely boxed in. Your view is of the road, with the green of leaves blinding you everywhere else, as if you were riding your bike in a green room. Every now and then though, you get a sneaky little glimpse of the outside, sometimes at the town below you, sometimes at the mountains surrounding you. These little windows are perfect. They keep your mind engaged whilst slaving away at the general difficulty of the climb.
Around 7km in and the trees drop away to a magic vista across to the mountains on the other side of the valley. It floored me. It was a breathtaking view, and I couldn't help but make a quick video. This place is so goddam gorgeous.
At 10km I came upon a white building, with a park bench and a sign next to it. Strada del Colle delle Finestre. The gravel road. I had made it to the part I had been really waiting for. I had 32c tyres, a titanium bike, a huge gear ratio and disc brakes. Come at me gravel, I'm ready. This wasn't some groomed white road like at home, this was a centuries old trail with tonnes of character. Parts were smooth, parts had big rocks, parts were rutted and parts were ground out to dust. It was the most topsest stretch of road I've ridden. The views were not awful either, with the forest peeling back to an alpine pasture, complete with cows with bells on their necks, rocky cliffs towering up each side of the pass, and that picturesque road snaking up to the saddle at the very top. I could live 100 more years and still remember that climb. It is etched deeply in my heart and mind.
At the top I met up with Phil. He is another Hells 500 rider, and had ridden up the other side to come and meet me. Champion! He was to be my sole sherpa for the day, and man did I appreciate it. Descending is a very, very tricky part of this climb. Not because of the gravel, but because the road has been in existence for centuries, and is barely a car wide. Yet of course, it is a 2 way road... Blind corners need to be taken with extreme caution, which I was reminded of when rounding a tight bend at the same time as a car coming the other way. I hit the car, but more of a glancing blow off of the rear, than a full-on collision. I lost some skin off of my knuckles, but that was it. The driver and I both apologised profusely to each other, all's well that ends well. LUCKY. Not ending well when colliding with a car is a very shitty outcome.
Back in my room, I was buzzing from the climb. Up and down once, 4.5 more to go, and I felt alive. It was incredible. I ate a gutfull, and we left. Phil had been enjoying wine and cheese a lot on his trip, and I dropped him on the way up. Climb number 2 was as good as the first, and I got to the top feeling fantastic. Phil caught up, and we went our separate ways. Thank you for coming to help me mate, it helped immensely.
Climb 3 was a little slower, bit I still felt great. Could it be this easy all the way? Nah. But could it?... I was wildly optimistic. At the top I was over half way. Could not believe how great I felt. I wasn't tired, I was climbing well, and I only had to make the summit 2 more times. Bring it. I've got this. At the bottom, I received a call...
"Dave, this is reality, sorry I'm running late, be there in 10."
And sure enough, reality turned up early into my 4th climb. He brought a friend, my old mate Pain. They both then set about being the dick heads that they are. It's like being friends with this cool guy who turns out to be a drug dealer, who then gets you into drugs... You sit back, remembering how life was so good, and wonder how it all went so pear shaped?....
I got really sleepy really quickly. Sleepiness is proving to be my biggest hurdle on this trip. Pain you can work through, it's no big deal. Sleep deprivation haunts your soul. It's inside of your core, and it is extremely hard to move. Yes your eyelids droop, but that's manageable. Riding at night, all you have is the beam if your light, which keeps shifting constantly as your motor skills wane and you start weaving on the road, so you can't focus. So your vision not only blurs, it starts darting around wildly. Your eyes can't see anything, so they try to see everything, and fail horribly. Yes if you shake your head it will stop. But it will stop for 5 seconds at most. That's a lot of head shaking to try to keep going.
That's just step 1.
Step 2 is a mind battle.
Me: "I can get through this, just gotta stay awake."
Mind: "No you fucken can't, go to sleep arsehole."
Me: "Just gotta stay awake, yes I can."
Mind: "GET OFF OF YOUR GODDAM BIKE!"
Me: "No, keep riding"...
And so it goes on. A constant argument with myself about continuing versus stopping and going to sleep. The mind games suck, because how do you defeat yourself? If you think of a solution, you can also think of a counter to that solution. It is a vicious cycle.
Step 3 is you fall asleep riding. Your mind gets sick of arguing with you, shits the lights off and leaves the room. So your bars twist in your hands, you lurch to one side, and are about to hit the pavement. These actions are enough to trigger your eyes back open, you get a shot of adrenaline, and you can keep riding. For about 2 minutes. Then it's back to step 1.
So how do you win? It's an everesting, so a power nap is out of the question. So fucking what then? It is a desperate time. Caffeine is number 1. Coke, Coffee, Red Bull, No Doz. Get caffeine into you. Your teeth will feel awful, you will burp a lot, and goddam will you feel really nauseous the more you take. But all of these things are a positive, as to experience them means that you are awake. But that isn't the be all and end all. It is 100% possible to have a Red Bull and a No Doz tablet, and still fall asleep. I have experienced this, it sucks. It's like shooting someone and the bullet bounces off. That's the only weapon you have and it still doesn't work. So what then? Climb off your bike and do something. Anything. Jump up and down, have a stretch, walk around, grab a branch and whack yourself with it. Don't just vague off into the distance, that is not helpful (even though I did that A LOT...) Try anything you can, and keep riding.
The only other thing you need is acceptance. Accept what is happening to you. Accept that it will likely keep happening for a while. Accept that you can't do much to alter it. Accept that it will pass. Everything ends. All you need is time. Have patience, and stay calm, as these feelings will move on eventually. Any time there is a storm, and the skies are filled with black clouds, you only need to get on a plane to see that above those clouds is bright sunshine, clear blue sky, and those clouds look light and fluffy from the other side. So in times when all is failing, the world is closing in, and there is no conceivable way out, my biggest weapon is to accept what is happening, and wait for the storm to pass. Everything ends. Easier said than done. Far easier, but it's not impossible, just very, very difficult.
That was how laps 4 and 5 went. Lap 5 I would have been outpaced by a glacier. You could have measured my progress with a calendar. My cadence made a grandfather clock seem like a techno beat. But I made it to the top of lap 5, and as a reward, I got to see one of the most beautiful sunrises ever witnessed by a man. The demons had given up, I had won, the suffering had ended, and I was still here.
It had gotten quite cold through the night, down to 7 degrees, which was rough compared to the peak of 33 during the day. I was carrying enough clothing though, and wearing my custom kit, including a full jacket with my colours and logo on it made me feel pretty rad. At the bottom I was on exactly 8100m. 748 to go, so off I went. Pedalling away quickly, I was overtaken by a guy early on, who was riding a mountain bike in sneakers... So maybe not so quickly then. I counted down every 100m of gain. 700 to go, 600 to go, 500... I was hauling them in.
God it's a good feeling to know that you are about to make it. A little frustrating as you just want to be done with it, but exciting as you are so close. I popped out to the spot with the wonderful view that I had first seen on lap 1, and it happened. 8848 metres of gain. 3 done, 2 more left. On each everesting in the series, I think only of what's immediately in front, and not that which is still remaining. Thinking of the challenges still down the road is too overwhelming, but it was pleasing to know that I was over half way now.
And that was that. I had ridden the most beautiful climb in the world, I had everested the most beautiful climb in the world. I celebrated with another full english breakfast, a breakfast beer, and went to sleep. I was now preparing for the next ride.