Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you.
3 down, 2 to go. The trip from Susa in Italy to Airolo in Switzerland was exhausting. 5 trains and a late and outrageously expensive taxi got me to where I needed to go. When I eventually got to my room I sat and cried.
This trip was exciting but also draining, both physically and emotionally. Especially being on my own all the time, and it all came out at once.
I was really trying hard not to think of the upcoming ride, mostly because I was afraid. I didn't want to say it out loud, but a big part of me was unconvinced I could succeed. Fuji I got through okay, but Rocacorba and Finestre had taken substantial tolls. My legs still felt fine, but I had gone to deep and dark places within my own mind to succeed from those rides.
I've learned a lot about myself from going to those places before, but stacking them together like that was something entirely different. People say that I am crazy or insane when I do these challenges, but pushing that deep, I started to realise what it feels like to be crazy. Your rational mind goes, your pleasure senses go, even a sense of anything external goes, and you are trapped in a tiny, dark bubble where your own negativity attacks every part you have left. You are left fighting with only yourself. Maybe this is what it feels like to be psychologically tortured?
All of this was running through my head. Compound that with the fact that this climb was more than half cobbled. Yes, stones. I was going to be attempting to everest a centuries old road paved with rocks. I love watching Flanders and Roubaix every year, those races are as brutal as they are beautiful. That brutality versus beauty was why I was attracted to this climb in the first place. In the 24 hours prior to the ride though, the beauty part had faded, and the reality of the difficulty of this task set in.
I had a good think about what I could do to better my situation, and decided on a slightly different strategy. I would have a good night's sleep the night before, eat a big breakfast, then sleep for the rest of the day. Then I could have a big dinner, several coffees, and start my ride at dusk. That would hopefully mean I would be fresh and well rested during the night, and be able to take on the tough back-end kilometres during the day, when your mind is still alert.
The place I was staying was about 4km from the base of the climb, all downhill, which conversely meant I had a decent climb after the everesting just to get back to my room! It also meant I had to take all of my gear and stash it somewhere too. I still had heaps of food left from Finestre, so at least I didn't need to go shopping. With everything packed, I set off for town to have dinner. I had a massive calzone and 2 double espressos, and a mild panic - I'd left my ibuprofen in my room! There was a long debate about whether to ride back and get it, with the roughness of the road I was sure I'd need it. Then I calmed and thought 'fuck it, cross that bridge when I come to it', it was time to ride.
I found a small thicket at the base of the climb, and stashed my things. This was it. It was still light, so I could see without lights. Find a gear, find a rhythm and spin away. I was getting fairly adept at this now.
The road meanders away on tarmac for the first few kilometres, amongst houses and pasture. Then after 2km, there it is, the first cobbled sector. I hadn't realised it would start so early! It was certainly rough, but not outrageously so, it was no 5 star Paris Roubaix sector. There were no particularly smooth lines, nor were there any rough lines, just even cobbles across the road.
Shortly afterwards the pavè gave way to tarmac, another surprise. Turns out there are 6 cobbled sectors in the first half of the climb. Some only 100m long, some several hundred. All about the same quality of surface. The road wound it's way back and forth up the pass, changing directions and surface all the time. About half way it flattens for 150m or so, enough to relax for a moment, before ramping up through a narrow gap between the peaks. That second half is all cobbled, and is a series of switchbacks upon switchbacks. It is glorious. It is majestic. It is the boldest section of road I've ridden. Even the outsides of the bends are built up with stone walls. The road has a strong and ancient feel to it, and riding up there, with the cauldron of rocky cliffs towering over you on both sides was both intimidating and awe-inspiring.
There are 24 bends in that 6 kilometre section of magnificence. On that first lap it was dark, and I had climbed up into a fog. Unless either a witch or a knight popped out to challenge me, it could not have felt more medieval.
At the top I found there was a tiny village, which was mainly a museum, hotel, restaurant and a few buildings. The restaurant was open, so I enjoyed another coffee, whilst obtaining the wifi password. Good. Now I had comms, and also felt like I got some value out of the $8 I paid for a coffee.... GODDAM Switzerland is a super-crazy-omfg expensive place.
I was worried about the descent though. The rough and tumble of cobbles would mean my hands would likely be suffering later on. For now it wasn't too bad, the vibration was manageable, and so I happily rolled down. Quick resupply at the base camp and off I went for lap 2.
I did 5 laps in the darkness, and felt awesome. I had been so scared of having to confront the demons again, but my new strategy of sleeping the day away and starting at night had paid off, and a few coffees and cans of the black doctor were all that I needed to keep feeling tops. Really tops. So hard to believe how easily I cruised through that night. I'd run a mental systems check from time to time, and was still shocked that nothing hurt. At all. I was winning at life on that hill, and it felt so good.
Sunrise never fails to disappoint, especially in the mountains. Freaking spectacular. By now I was 6 laps down, and the restaurant had opened again. Beauty. Coffee and a ham sandwich please. $20?!?! Not beauty. Glad I used their wifi for 24 hours... Sunrise also meant that I could descend a lot more quickly, which was a huge bonus as the faster you go, the smoother the ride over the cobbles.
Next lap there were other riders out, it was tops to have some company. Even topserer was that I was able to pick them off one at a time. Dropping other riders when deep into a ride is the everester's cocaine. There is nothing that makes you feel stronger. One guy I had in my sights right around the time I got half way, and was taking on the full cobbled road. He was a couple of hundred metres up the road, and I noticed him glance over his shoulder. That was it, game on pal. Everesting is very much a game of patience, and I had it in spades, so no need to bolt out and sprint past, it was time to go fishing. Slowly but surely I reeled him in. Every bend he would look back to see where I was. Rookie mistake. Never let them see you look back, always play it cool like you are putting in no effort at all. I kept inching closer and closer, always just a little back, spinning away. Bend by bend I hunted him down. He started getting ragged, I could see the effort he kept putting in, trying his hardest not to be beaten, but I had him. Finally I was close enough, so I increased my pace just a little more, and made sure to look relaxed, and breathing calmly as I went past. I smiled and said 'ciao' on the way through. You could see his shoulders drop, and his pace weakened, he knew he was beaten. I rode the rest of the lap still at pace, making sure to keep my lead....
Games like this kept me occupied. Hell lap 7 was my fastest lap of the day because of this little chase. It's something to take your mind off of the task, a chance to forget about the enormity of the undertaking, and have a little fun. I hit the descent hard too, so hard that I lost my saddle bag. Frustratingly, it took me a few kilometres to realise before I had to ride back to get it. Luckily enough I found it safe and sound. But the slight extra elevation that I gained by riding a little way got me thinking. 10 laps would be around 9050m. I had around 300m to climb back to my B&B when I was done, and I had just added around 120m by retrieving my saddle bag. Really I only needed to add in a bit over 500 metres, and I could turn this everesting into a High Rouleurs Society ride, and go for the 10,000 metres of gain. I didn't want to say it out loud, lest I somehow jinxed myself, but I just felt so great, and how often do you get that deep into a ride, and still feel great enough to keep going? Not bloody often is the answer.
The next lap saw me riding through a large gran fondo, which was just as much fun. Little battles all the way, some won, some lost. Plus it gave me some people to chat with. At the top, 8 down, 2 to go, and I still felt great. HRS was definitely on.
Those last 2 laps were a little slower, as I had few people to keep me occupied by chasing. But I still felt great. Certainly a little tired, but only a little. Still don't know how I felt this great, I can only accept that something aligned that day, and it worked perfectly.
At the top of lap 10 I stopped and smiled. I had done it, everesting complete. It felt so damn good to be there. I dropped down the mountain 5km, and rode back up the cobbles. If I needed some extra gain, may as well enjoy the truly romantic section of the climb again. After that was done, I descended all the way down, with 9450m on my Garmin. I figured the last climb to my room was about 300m, so I climbed back up St Gotthard another 250m, before turning around and heading to base camp to grab my things, and then head into town for dinner.
It was a little surreal to sit back at the same restaurant as I had 24 hours earlier, at the same table, and order dinner again. One big-arse calzone, a bowl of hot chips and a half litre stein of beer made for a superb victory spread. I had the last bit to go, but I knew it was in the bag. This was one of those great days, where everything just works out. Even forgetting my ibuprofen hadn't been an issue.
With a gutful of dinner, and my pack on my back, I slowly plodded up the steep little hill to my room. I stared at my Garmin, ticking off the milestones every 50m. Then the last 100 I counted down in 10's. I got to my B&B, but was 21 metres short! Bastard. 21 goddam metres. Such a tiny amount, so I dropped my pack at the door, turned around and rode back to the last hairpin. I counted out every single metre. I said it out loud. The Swiss cows had probably never seen anything so stupid, but I made it. Hell I even got a bonus 14 metres. Climbing up the 2 flights of stairs with my Curve wasn't even hard. It wasn't until I got inside the front door that I finally let go. The second I was in, my mind just stopped working. I stood like an idiot for a good few minutes before trudging to my room. I had done it. I had done it easily, and I was stoked. Having been so nervous beforehand, I had come through even better than I would have hoped. I have one ride left on this trip now, and I really felt like I was ready. But the thoughts of that could wait, no was time for sleep.