This blog was supposed to be a preview of the Sella Ronda Hero: the 2015 UCI World MTB Marathon Champs. On a perfect day, in perfect weather, I failed to ride around the course. So, here’s the story of what went wrong, and what’s right about that. When people find out that Mike and I are from Australia, over here in Europe, a lot of the reserve that comes with linguistic and cultural barriers falls away and is replaced with the enthusiasm that we all reserve for the exotic, the novel, the far-flung. What they imagine I have no idea: Surfing on endless beaches? Expanses of red desert? Kangaroos? I live in a city full of skyscrapers and shopping malls. But the truth is that we’ve not really met anyone here in Europe who’s been to Australia, and there’s a very simple reason: It’s a very long way away. ‘You don’t go there without a good reason.’ Says Mike, whenever receptionists and waiters tell us they’d love to go, but that it’s too far, and too expensive. So it follows that we must have had a good reason to come here, too. And we did: work, holiday, experience. Then there’s ambition, to race, to satisfy our pretty modest racing ambitions. For me that’s competing at UCI MTB Marathon World Champs in 2015. So, way back when we were first planning to come to Europe this year, Mike suggested we make a significant detour for a day or two so that I could ride the Sella Ronda Hero MTB route – the course for 2015 Worlds. Great idea. A bit of an expense, sure; a bit of extra time out of our itinerary, yes; some extra driving, never mind. A big ride, but we’d have a week since finishing the Sudety MTB Challenge stage race beforehand – plenty of time to recover. It’d be worth it to know in advance what to expect from the course of what, if I qualify, would be the biggest race of my life. So after we finished the Sudety MTB Challenge stage race in Poland we drove back across Europe, then criss-crossed from valley to valley – The Stubai, The Oetztal, The Inn. We drove via Bolzano to the Val Gardena, where the Sella Ronda Hero starts, checked in to our accommodation. I was tired and decided to rest up in anticipation of our big ride tomorrow – the ‘Hero’ MTB route is 62km, but includes 3600m of climbing – probably more than I’d done over such a short distance before. Mike went on a 3-hour road ride around the Sella Group; I took a gondola up to the highest peak above Val Gardena – the Ciampioni – and looked out at the dramatic rocky monuments that make up the Sella. The Sella Group is basically a roundish rock formation about 10 or 12 kilometres across and popular with climbers, photographers, and hikers. The Dolomites are a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s easy to see why. The Sella Ronda (literally, the ‘round the Sella’) includes four mountain passes, each as high as 2300m and numerous valleys down to about 1400m. It’s a popular route in winter with skiers who use the valleys’ extensive lift network and ski down to different valleys, then back up and over to the next one. Mountain bikers do the same in summer, and you can buy a special ticket to use all the different lifts. Not us though, we were doing the climbs on our bikes as well. So I rested up – I eschewed Mike’s favourite-special road ride (also around the Sella), I ate an immense meal of a truckload of pasta followed by a trailerload of tiramisu for dinner. We prepped our gear, uploaded the gpx file to Mike’s Magellan 505, got an early night, carbed up at breakfast and topped that with plenty of Nutella. It was a beautiful, sunny day – perfect riding weather. This was it – today I’d see what it might be like to ride a world championship course. It’d be great preparation for Grand Raid, which I’ll be racing in a few weeks (125km, 5000+m), and valuable inside knowledge for my return in a year’s time.
The route starts up a hill called the Dantercepies. It’s a big hill, steep hill; a loose gravel climb under ski lifts. Nothing unusual in the European mountains, except this one is particularly steep, and over 7 kilometres it must have averaged more than 20% gradient, ramping up at times to 30%. It was all I could do to keep the pedals ticking over, with a cadence of about 4rpm, and I felt, well, terrible. My knees hurt, my tendons ached, my head spun. It took us an hour to get to the top, and while descents from 2300m are usually when bike riding gets fun, my ride just got worse from there.
Mike had done the Sella Ronda Hero before, but that was a year ago, and the gpx file was telling us to go somewhere else. With countless hiking routes disappearing over the side of the mountain, fire roads, ski runs, and the sealed road, we ended up taking a wrong turn down the old route, now closed to bikes, and annoying several hikers and a paddock full of alpine cows before tramping back up a muddy field, across a fast-flowing creek, and onto some sweet singletrack, which may or may not have been the proper route. After that we still had trouble, stopping every turn to make sure the new route was not different from the route in Mike’s memory.
Then, race courses are very often on roads and around bits of infrastructure that don’t make sense in everyday life, a grassy shortcut here, a walking path there… we annoyed some more hikers with prams and very emphatic sticks and finally negotiated the busy town of Corvara before starting on another climb, then I broke down and got a bit teary. Two hours in, and we’d travelled just 15km. This was going to be an eight-hour ride, and my pounding head, the Italian traffic, the cold chills under a beating sun. Dizziness that may have been altitude and may have been fatigue. I couldn’t do it. I wanted to, I’m sure. But then I also just wanted to lie down on the side of the road and go to sleep. Mike was pretty understanding. Maybe he wore himself out the evening before doing the route on the road (60km, 4 passes, 2000m)! We decided to ride back the way we’d come but on the road, up the Passo di Gardena and down the ski run into our valley, to our car.
And then as soon as we got going again, out of the busy tourist town and on smooth switchbacks at a 6% gradient – which, after our trip up earlier felt positively like freewheeling – surrounded by the grandeur of the Sella on a sunny day, everything was fine again. I wound up a good tempo, marvelled at the view, took some photos, found a smile. And then, the inevitable thought – was it just that I thought I couldn’t do it? What if all it had been was high-altitude self-doubt? Expensive and time-consuming self-sabotage? Back at our car, there was a nice babywipe shower, a four-hour drive, and a car picnic waiting for us. I fell asleep with my feet on the dashboard, waking up when they turned numb. And I thought about what I’d write about the 2015 World Championships route, and had nothing to say, because all I’d seen was the first climb, which was so diabolical, so infernally difficult that it pretty much turned me off not just the race but mountain biking altogether. Then there are three more just like it in the race. But there’s always something to take away from every ride. So what did I learn? Something I get taught the hard way: that is, repeatedly, through the same failures of determination over truth: That no matter what you do, no matter how you follow the guidelines and the rules, no matter how hard you try, your body is always going to do what’s best for it, and it’s patient, but it will have the last word. One of the great TV shows I remember watching this year, in some rare downtime, was Jane Campion’s New Zealand series Top of the Lake. Part arthouse tv drama, part small-town mystery, part feminist observation, the program’s subplot features the inimitable Holly Hunter as a blunt, chain-smoking guru called GJ, who, in a shipping container near a lake in the remote NZ mountains preaches to a group of misfit women: needy, mad, and troubled. The line that plays over in my mind whenever I’m tired or unwell, whenever that lesson is being taught goes like this: “Follow the body, it’ll know what to do. It has tremendous intelligence.” The thing I love most about mountain biking is how cerebral it is. Contrary to what my academic family thought about sport when I was growing up, there’s nothing more mentally taxing. I love that no matter what the ride, no matter how easy or hard, I always find something I can improve on, and learn something new about myself. So what did I learn from this ride? Well, I learned that I’m learning. Years ago I would have pushed on, would have completed the ride, because I still believed in mind over matter. Now I believe in respecting the intelligence of the body and working with it, even if it infuriates me. Now I turn back, and try to find a sense of achievement in knowing that I’ve done the right thing, rather than in reaching an esoteric, predetermined goal.
After a few more days at altitude, now in Livigno, this sea-level rider has come good, and Mike and I took four hours to do the most amazing long ride around Livigno yesterday, then another one today – up epic passes, around vertiginous, off-camber scree singletrack, over streams and bridges, into country that we’re too lucky to see and to ride. I’ve done an epic route that I found very challenging last year – but this time in the rain – with a smile – because my body’s ready. I’m betting next year it’ll be up for the Hero route too, when it counts.