Haute Route Dolomites Stage 2 and 3

STAGE 2

Stage 2 was going to be a big ride. 2 major climbs, Falzarego and Valles, 16kms and 18kms long respectively. No neutralised gaps so today would a real race feeling all the way.

A short scamper around Cortina to keep the locals happy and we were off. The pace was firm from the start and didn’t let up. By the time we’d got 5kms up the road there was a familiar selection of about 16 riders. I was the oldest there by a fair margin and felt like I had to work hard to stay with it. I was praying there would be no attacks between here and the summit. There were 3 or 4 riders in that group capable of attacking and spoiling my day. There were no attacks. We topped out on Falzarego as a group. I moved up to just beyond the middle of the group for the descent. There were one or two riders who I knew were not great on the descents and I wanted them behind me. On a fast technical descent, passing riders can be tricky. Get behind a slower descender who loses the wheel of the rider in front of him and you could be gapped quickly and lose minutes.

The pace was super hot. Rashid, Jasper, Loic, Marco and a couple of others got a gap on the rest of us. I was in a group of about 5 who’d get to the bottom of this 20km descent about 30 seconds behind the lead group. We’d dropped another group of about 6 behind us. I was happy where I was, I can descend ok but the nerve and skill required to be in that front group is just beyond me. I like living too. To do that 20 minute descent 30 seconds quicker would mean risks I’m not prepared to take.

In the valley we chased, taking turns on the front. All of us eager to push and get back to the leaders. They were working too though and although they were in sight the gap didn’t come down.

We entered the stunning lakeside town of Alleghe. Head down, watching the wheel in front I missed the next right hander. I locked up and came desperately close to coming down and taking others with me. A shot of adrenaline and heightened concentration followed. We got a good tow from a fuel tanker that was going just the right speed to help us be sucked towards the lead group. Alas, it sped up on the flat and we lost our chance.

The climb of Valles started in Cencenighe, the leading group would have got there about a minute ahead of us. A long climb ahead of us, I felt tired. I was chasing wheels and a feeling of hanging on. The strongest man in our group was self proclaimed ‘Stelvio Man’, Daniele Schena. He’s a Bormio resident and a very powerful rider. He pulled our group all the way to the top. He went hard all the way but steady as a rock. No changes in his output, like a metronome. It was hard to hang on but manageable.

As we crested Vallees we only had a 10km descent left to the timing finish for the day. I did my usual push near the top to be one of the first over. I knew the descent and where I could let things go. Jasper came past me, a very proficient bike handler. He’d made that first group off the Falzarego earlier on before getting dropped on the climb and coming back to us.

He sailed past me. Then he sailed up a dirt track on the tangent of the next bend. He was fine, just totally misjudged the corner. He’d be back with us a couple of minutes later. We threaded our bikes through a series of river hugging bends before plunging down a long, wooded straight at over 90kph. 3 kms later and we crossed the line. The exact positions didn’t matter too much, we all got similar times. I ended up 13th and dropped to 10th in GC by virtue of Kenyan Evan having a great day and overtaking me in the ranking.

We then enjoyed a very long transition ride to Trento with the highlight for me being the feedstops! It’s not often I get to fully appreciate a feedstop but this was different. The race was over and we had all the time in the world to enjoy the amazing spread laid on by the locals. Italy just knows how to do food, even in bike races, they excel!

So, a nice way to finish the day. The race part had been hard. The uphills, the downhills and the flats had all be keenly raced. I can’t remember a single lull in the day. It was tough to find a chance to drink and eat on the go. Let’s hope that tomorrow is different.

STAGE 3

Plenty of uphill today. From the beautiful town of Trento at 200m above sea level we’d slog away all the way to Passo Tonale at 1872m before then taking on the mighty Passo Gavia at 2621m to finish.

There were a couple of lumps to negotiate en route, neither any steeper than about 5%. I figured that we might get a big group getting to the foot of Tonale. Riders who had normally missed the selection of the top 16 or so riders might have a chance today to hang on for a lot longer.

We rolled out of Trento for a 20km neutralised convoy. I was on the front row behind the commissaire’s car along with Tom Cooling. It’s by far the least stressful place to be. Behind us there would be jostling for position and even a crash I heard later. Right at the front is easy though and I was able to have a great chat with Tom and that 20km passed quickly and smoothly.

The flag went down and the race was on. Any hopes of a cruisy group ride towards the mountains were dashed straight away. Attacks came and failed but succeeded in sapping valuable energy from all of us in our efforts to control things.

The first climb came, about 5kms at 5%. Not enough you wouldn’t think, to smash a race to pieces, but it did. The pace up there was so fast. I was a hanger on. That climb shattered the hopes of all but about 18 of us that got to the top with the rest. Staying with that group required a horrible effort. An effort I was convinced I’d pay for later on the wild slopes of Gavia. I looked at my ride data later and that climb ended up being about 12 minutes at 360 watts for me. I’m 65kg so it was something like 5.5 watts/kg which I can assure you is an horrifically painful experience for someone who is 54 years old next week.

Anyway, it was done. I and a few others around me felt like we’d be smashed around the ring and not quite knocked out. When would the big hitters start punching us again? Please give us a few minutes of reprieve. We did get short time to recover but the punching began again. The next climb was a little shorter, the pace was just as intense. I think I’d got so used to the suffering that I convinced myself that I’d just live with it. We all got over that one together. The next 30kms was less intense. False flat all the way, just slightly climbing all the time. I would shelter whenever I could although much of the ride was a ‘through and off’ rotation where we’d all take a few moments on the front before rotating back around. That collective working meant making much faster progress as a group than if riders were idling at the back.

We hit the foot of the Tonale climb. 15% at an average of about 6%. In the early ramps the group of about 16 was together. The pace was too fast for me. I desperately needed a split so that I was not isolated. I needed other riders to struggle with me and therefore give me company to the top. The split came. Stelvio Man let a few strong men up the road. There was a gap and I was happy. Stelvio Man would lead us all the way to the top. It was tough. I got a great bottle change from Kevin that kept me in the group. Tom Cooling wasn’t so lucky and lost touch with us. Staying in that group to the top was painful but getting dropped just wasn’t an option. The last 3 kms were into a strong headwind and I’d have been stuffed on my own.

We topped out as a small group for a timing stop. Just Gavia left now. I felt so tired, I really doubted whether I’d have the legs for a decent assault on Gavia. It’s a tough climb of about 16kms and if my earlier efforts took their toll on my legs up there I’d lose a lot of time.

I rode as slowly as I could to the next timing point. I needed as much recovery as possible. Most of the guys I’d ridden Tonale with were ahead of me, they would go over the timing mat together, without me. Riding up there with them would certainly have pushed me, maybe I’d have done better. But I was spent, I needed food and drink and after getting that on board I started on the climb with Tom Cooling and a few other riders below me in the GC.

I rode a gentle first 500m, trying to ease the legs back into action. The signs were good. 2kms in and it’s steep and narrow. Through the forest in a series of hairpins. I felt strong, partly through riding with slightly slower riders than my usual peers. I pressed on and as I emerged above the treeline into the magnificent, wild landscape I was away from the others. I was enjoying being on my own. No wheels to follow, I dictated and decided everything. Maybe not the fastest way to get up but it made me feel good. I was able to punch myself the amount that I wanted! The whole climb went well. I stayed strong to the end and got up in a respectable 54 minutes. I’d still managed a 275 watt effort for that time and considering the altitude, 2620m, and my earlier turmoils in the day, that was a solid finish.

13th on the day and still 10th on GC. Another really hard day but one where the legs did everything I asked of them. Tomorrow they’ll need to again as we tackle Stelvio from both sides!

Our Alpine Cadence Cycling team is excelling! We lie 3rd in the team event after superb performances from all. Here are our team’s respective GC positions after Stage 3:

John Thomas 10

Riccardo Clerici 31

Paul Dirks 38

Tim Gray 52

Mike Thomson 100

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