Day 4 -The fine line between heaven and hell – Sterzing-Vipiteno, ITA – Bovec, SLO

My alarm goes off somewhere between 0300 and 0400. My ears alert me to heavy rainfall, and my bleary eyes confirm it moments later. A quick check of the weather radar confirm it passes within an hour, so I allow myself an extra 30 minutes snooze.

When I do finally set off, the roads are drenched but the rain has stopped, and I’m pleased with my decision. I make good progress, fuelled by my back-up Calzone. The morning consists of a gradual climb then descent to Lienz. Its a thoroughly enjoyable ride. Its done almost entirely on bike paths as the main road which run parallel were banned pre-race. Some people complain about this post race but I honestly didn’t find them at all tedious; they made for a beautiful stress free ride that morning. Should I get a place in TCRNO7 then I think this mindset has to change if I want to improve upon my performance.

I meet a fellow Condor rider (sorry I’ve forgotten who) which is always nice. Condor riders are without fail top blokes, and their steeds are always majestic.  We part company and I continue my charge on the day. I feel excellent at this point and decide CP2 is a realistic goal. Knowing there’s a CP to greet you at the end of the day is a real motivator.

After Lienz I head south through the valley towards the next small pass, and its another HOT one. I stop at a small bar for food but its very limited fare and I settle for an ice cream and an espresso. I refill my bottles but they don’t last long and I’m soon out of water. I didn’t have too many flaps water wise during the race, but there was a small flap in this instance as I felt myself dehydrating.

Dehydration was solved at Oberdrauburg where I was fortunate enough to find one of the lovely fancy Austrian supermarkets, just  before the small pass into the next valley. I meet Ed (#167) here who confirms he intends to reach CP2 today. This is a good thing to hear, as it means I now also have no choice but to make it to this point. I might not be racing the big boys, but we’re all still racing and knowing a tangible location that someone is aiming for really spurs you on.

Strava informs me the next climb was called the Gailberg climb. It was my ideal climb, 4 miles, 5% average and lots of nice flowing switchbacks. With fluids on board and this gentle climb, the day was continuing to deliver highly in the pleasure stakes.

Invariably this all changed as I started riding east in the valley towards Hermagor and the Italian border. Like yesterday the headwind was ferocious and unrelenting. The road sloped slightly downhill but that meant nothing, it was nonstop pedalling for minimal return. I spotted Nick (#92) at the roadside just finishing his siesta and stopped for a chat. He doesn’t remember our first encounter, which means it can’t be true love.

I made the next town which I cannot name, and stopped for dinner. It wasn’t long now until I’d be climbing towards the parcours of CP2. The parcours needed completing before the CP (unless you wanted to backtrack. Erm NO) so I knew I still had plenty of riding to do. I ordered Currywurst mit pommes and went into the supermarket to stock up for the rest of the day.

At this point I’ll give credit to a bit of last minute kit which I ended up using non-stop for the entire race. My La Passione bib shorts arrived in a delightful blue musette. At the start line I decided this might actually be useful and hung it over my shoulder, where it remained for 14 days. I never once struggled for somewhere to store food and found it easy to access while riding. The downside was I often over-shopped and carried several kilos (no joke) of extra weight for large portions of the race. I’m going to sew my Control patches onto it and keep it forever.

Interlude over. I cross back into Italy and the climbing starts in earnest. I then cross into Slovenia on a very creepy bike path, which avoids a very violent looking tunnel which I believe was banned. The path gives me the chills, its very isolated and a bit depressing.

However, as it ventures further into Slovenia and I begin to rejoin the main road my mood changes entirely. The Julien Alps are stunning. The Austrian alps were impressive in a big strong well groomed Austrian kind of way. But the Julien Alps feel very raw and wild, this feels more like an adventure. To this point in the race, it’s undoubtedly the best scenery. Crossing that border is also the first time I sense a cultural change, it’s not as distinct as later in the race but I definitely get the impression that I’m leaving Western Europe ‘proper’ and I like it.

I reach the bottom of the parcours which travel up to Mangart Sedlo where I stop to chat with Douglas (#147) and admire the views.

I set off up the climb which is instantly severe and within 5 minutes Douglas rolls past me. I cannot do justice to how incredibly difficult the next 90 minutes were. I travelled 6 miles at 4.3 mph and have one of the slowest recorded times up that bastard mountain. It was an unrelenting monster. It was also devious. I did not go round one bend that did not induce a further sickening moment of realisation about how far I had left to go. Near the top the wind was howling and it was absolutely baltic. I saw riders ahead who looked like they were near the top, but fifteen minutes later they were still climbing. My mental arithmetic is shit at the best of times, but I calculated my remaining climbing time to be X to the power of fuck my life.

Enough of that. I did get to the top, eventually. Much like my earlier experiences of Slovenia, it was breathtaking. This is the highest road in Slovenia, I have no idea why they built but I’m glad they did. Standing on top of this mountain, I was struck by my own size and insignificance. This race which had up until now consumed my life entirely seemed suddenly quite small. I should clarify I wasn’t in any way dispirited or melancholy , I just had an overwhelming sense of awe. I think its random moments of  absolute clarity that make this race what it is.

I grabbed a quick selfie with Andreas (#85) before we began the descent towards the CP. It was getting dark and neither of us wanted to be up this mountain at night. I heard from riders who ventured up there after hours, that it wasn’t a particularly forgiving environment…. My legs were utterly empty at this point and the ten miles or so were agony but eventually we rolled into town and the prospect of a hot shower and comfy bed.

Me and Andreas (#85). I think we were both pretty happy to have conquered the beast

In the words of Dwight Schrute; FALSE! There was some kind of mad festival on in town. A town which I imagine is asleep the other 364 days of the year. There was zero room at the inn. Myself and Ben (#114) traipsed around the town but were met with apologies and a growing sense of despair. We decided to have dinner overlooking the main stage, where a strange man with a blonde Mohawk was making a terrible racket. I had another pizza because it appears I lose any sense of culinary adventure after a hard days riding. We both had beers and this was delicious obviously.

After dinner I admitted defeat, said my farewells and rolled out of town towards some fields I’d seen on the outskirts. It was pitch black so I made my way to the nearest treeline, forced myself to ignore the snuffling of whatever Slovenian creature was in forest and set up camp. I fell asleep looking at a very big and very beautiful starscape. I decided if I was eaten by the beast in the woods tonight, then I couldn’t really have too many complaints about my final day on this mortal coil.

Day 4 – 181.2 miles. 11,135 feet. 13.3 mph average speed.

127 bpm average HR   6646 calories

Total time: 16:11:47

Active Time: 13:40:02

“Cafe” Time: 2:31:45

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