Katie C reports from her last few weeks out of the UK...
Embarking on some volunteer work in Italy for 5 weeks was the initial idea - to learn new skills, gain insights into a different culture, and get some guaranteed sun.* Obviously a bike had to come too. Working for four Italian hosts in central/northern Italy & lots of road riding was the plan. Travelling with a bike box and 5 weeks luggage on public transport was a challenge in itself (not sure why many Italians thought it was a bed)? And when said luggage weighs almost as much as you... But the challenge was certainly worth it with some glorious road riding (on which I thoroughly enjoyed even the most intense training drills from AQR coach Kate - amazing what some green trees can do)! And the pinnacle of it all, the Stelvio pass near Bormio in the Dolomites.
One of our hosts in a far-flung village on the Adriatic coast mentioned the Stelvio over dinner one night (6-cheese pizza and gorgonzola-flavoured gelato). Having only ever done road climbs in the French Pyrenees/Alps, I'd never heard of the Stelvio. But the look on my host's face as to it's sheer challenge was enough for me to know that I wanted to ride it.
So once work was over, I hauled my increasingly heavy bike box (now with dirty gardening clothes in) to the Dolomites. When I ran out of gears just getting to the hotel, I began to wonder if I was a bit out of my depth in this roadie heaven on my cross bike and muddy spd shoes. After all, the last alpine climb I did was 7 years ago. Being a small build, I rely on a high cadence rather than purely high power. My double ring was mostly okay for the undulating hills and ridge riding I'd been doing in Italy while following Kate's programme. However, on a mountain pass with an average gradient of over 7% for 24 km, my double ring did not seem to be so okay. The warm-up rides I did the next few days did nothing to calm my mind, with lungs heaving and legs hurting under such hard gears. And I had to admit to myself that I may not get to the top on this bike. Oh well, I'd just have to come back!
Off I set on a sunny Bormio morning. It was amazing how many riders (and motorbikes) were testing themselves on this breath-takingly beautiful mountain. There were sky-high waterfalls tumbling down to our left, and the magnificant hairpins rising up to our right. I got into a steady rhythm and focused on not blowing the gasket too early. I'd heard the first bit is the easy gradient. But with the rpm sitting at 60-70 (for the easy bit!), it wasn't ideal for these spinning legs. Well, I thought, I'm just going to see how long these little legs last! But once I hit the tunnels and had one-third of the 1600m altitude gain behind me, I felt better (I think my legs take a good hour to warm up these days). And I just kept going. Breathing was *quite* deep at times. But the tight hairpins were great markers, not only for the views (simply stunning) but because they were the only flat bit on the 24km route, so you got a few easy spins before the next kick upwards.
And boy did the last few kilometres really kick upwards. Cadence was slow-i-n-g d-o-w-n. Started to see stars at one point, so I had a Torq gel, shook my legs, practised breathing into my diaphragm (rather than my chest) to get more air in (thanks coach Kate), and off I went. Just keep turning the pedals, I told myself. And then there I was. I had made it :)
Somehow, me and my grindingly slow cadence held a strange bond for just over 2 hours to climb almost a mile into the sky. Exhilarated. I can't explain how I did it, as I'll never forget how my legs felt on the warm-up days. But sometimes your body will co-operate in the strangest of ways. It is the mind we have to learn to quieten down! All good training, and I'm looking forward to racing the National Champs and SXC back in the UK. And Luchon in the Pyrenees with AQR in late July. I love summer!
* 4 weeks of rain. Will never moan about UK weather again :)