To date, my most poetic and epic single-day-achievement on a bicycle.
Day of Journey:
Stage 13, Day 17, May 19th, 2009.
335km (11h 47m)
358km (Train and Bicycle – 14h 20m)
Train (8km, 15km), Bicycle (335km)
Total Distance Biked:
2113km (13 stages, three rest days)
None, no computer access.
So What Happened?
7:20am: I’m awake, showered, stretched and eaten. 7:25am: I’m packed. 7:28am: I make the single most important decision of the whole ride – I lower my saddle a whole 2 centimeters. When falling asleep last night and thinking of my knee pain I reflected on my preferred saddle height, which, is very high. I feel that I can generate more power if my legs open to a very obtuse angle of about 15 degrees. I have read that 15 is the ideal angle for generating power, and you see many riders set up this way in time trails, whereas some say it should never be more than 25 degrees in any situation.
By 8:20 I was off the train. I took the train out of Milano because I didn’t want to fight with morning traffic and have to find my way to the highway. It’s much easier to just commute to the first suburban town and it only takes about 15 minutes. I have on numerous occasions tried riding out of these massive European metropolitan cities and it is a nightmare – with Paris being the most difficult.
The first 70km went by without much trouble, as it was flat, hot straight lengths of highway. The lowered seat position was working perfectly, putting much less stress on my hamstring and calves, but this new position seemed to be sacrificing about 1.5-2kmph in speed.
Soon, I entered Tortona, and re-joined the Giro D’Italia route. This was my 10th encounter with the routes of the Giro – the 206km 11th stage from Torino to Arenzano. The Giro and Milan-San Remo shared the same 90 km length of highway through Tortona, Novi Liguere, Ovada and over the Passo del Turchino to the coast.
It wasn’t until i left Ovada that the day started to become eventful. Having already ridden 117km, and passing noon, the time when the sun in this part of Italy sears the skin to a nice caramel brown like that you desire on the bar-b-que, I was lost. There had been a rockslide, unknown to me, but known to everyone else that required a detour be built for the Giro D’Italia. I couldn’t find that detour to save my life, riding back and forth along the same stretch of hilly highway growing more and more frustrated. The end result of this was me finding the Strade di Serse and Fausto Coppi, which I thought was amazing but not some sign from the cycling gods. I was tempted to take the Strade, thinking it may just go straight to San Remo, but it seemed to go on a completely different tangent and I remembered “Stick to the Plan.” I had Turchino and Le Maniè to Conquer.
The spirit of Fausto may have come to assist me on that day however, because upon turning around and riding back from this fabled road I could see a small freshly paved section of asphalt winding through the trees. As it turned out this roller coaster of a thin strip of road was where I needed to go. I was back on my way, and I knew this because the wind, which was fierce this day, was blowing in it’s preferred direction again – in my face. I approached the Passo del Turchino feeling good, and had been riding conservatively up until this point, so not to strain my calf. However, after hours on the bike I made the decision to really see how this lowered saddle position would work when I saw a thin, spandex-clad, Time riding, semi-pro looking guy starting the ascent up Turchino just ahead. I let loose and it felt great. I needed a jolt of confidence at this point and this poor guy was going to give it to me. He wasn’t going slowly by any stretch of the imagination, but I passed him as if he was. I had no complaints, my chest cough was gone, my knee felt perfect suddenly, I had just rested in Milano and I was strong. As I passed, seated and spinning in my lowest gear 39×23, he didn’t like it and jumped on. I didn’t even look back. I didn’t need to. I knew that he couldn’t hold this pace, because I couldn’t, but I was going to try. I figured, if I could blow myself up before the top of Turchino without feeling pain in my leg, then I believed I could ride to Barcelona. So I went for it. The first time the whole journey I really dug deep, dropping through the gears 21, 19, 17, 16. The Passo del Turchino is not difficult, it’s a long 24km climb from Ovada at a slight grade. However, from Masone it kicks up to about 6% for 3km to the tunnel at 532m and the last 1km is about 8% to 600m through the thin tunnel and out the other side. This is where I was destroying Turchino, the other rider and myself. Climbing in the saddle and out holding the speedometer above 25kmph in anyway I could I made it through the tunnel and snaked over to the side of the road where I collapsed in the grass. I felt great. Just a few seconds later the rider on the Time bike came through looking devastated but right behind me. “Damn”, I thought for sure he was way back. “Oh well” I got what I needed out of that climb, Confidence. I stopped thinking about trains from Genova, flights from Nice. I was going to ride until I fell off my bike.
The ride down the coast was incredible. I felt like I could ride 500km’s along the coast. In fact, I started thinking that I could ride non-stop to Barcelona. Seriously. I would just ride until I had to sleep, drop on the beach, sleep and wake-up and start riding again. The temperature was great, about 22-25 degrees, with little wind and beautiful scenery. It was a nice change from long straight highways in 36 degree heat. Suddenly I felt foolish for almost bailing on this part of the tour.
I entered Noli, feeling good. I was a little tired but i still had legs. It was just approaching 200km’s and the decisive Le Maniè climb was up next. This is the climb Cavendish was talking about when he said “but the second sweetest was seeing Tom Boonen go backwards past me on the climbs.” after his 2009 Milan-San Remo win. Le Maniè is about as picturesque as you can get – steep windy climb, with the Mediterranean Sea and a castle as backdrops. This climb is steeper and more difficult than the Turchino pass but both are short and don’t cause too much trouble when you’re not racing to the finish line. The decent from Le Maniè is a tricky one with many switchbacks on a very steep road going through the homes lining the coast.
The approach into San Remo had me overjoyed. I felt like I had just won the event. I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to ride a portion of the route of the centenary Giro D’Italia and the 100th Milan-San Remo in the same trip. I sat down in San Remo, on the main strip, thinking of how many times this city has seen Coppi, Bartali, Merckx, Zabel and now Cavendish win. It’s the longest classics race and one of the oldest. It truly was a great day. My final time for the Milan-San Remo without breaks was just over 10 hours, not bad for a solo journey. I searched around the city a little for internet and a place to stay and found neither. With the sun starting it’s descent and no good places to sleep I thought…why not go a little farther?
About an hour and a half later of stop and go riding I was just outside of Monaco and it was starting to get dark. Again, I had no lights and had to take of my sunglasses to ride, so I wanted to stop. I grabbed a bite, and then I grabbed a train for about 8km into Monaco. The traffic in this area was pretty dangerous and I had such a great day I wanted it to end well. After riding around Monaco for a bit I needed sleep, so I focused on that.
Let me quickly tell you about Monaco. It’s clean, very clean and there are cameras everywhere. It’s also very expensive, so I wasn’t getting a hostel/hotel. Instead, I found the garbage/recycling room in a fancy condo-unit that was open, smelled cleaner than my bathroom (which I keep clean) and was lockable from the inside. Within five minutes of staking out the place I found a charitable box of Gucci and Prada clothes left outside someone’s gate. Two Prada terry-cloth robes and a pile of clean cardboard make for a good bed. I was warm, secure and homeless in Monaco. It was my final Coup de jour. Hopefully, I wouldn’t be waking up to questions from the cops.
Picture(s) of the Day:
Sometimes you find something amazing when you’ve lost your way.
Just over the Passo Turchino. Down there in the light is Genova, the coast, and the highway to San Remo.
Looking back to Genova.
Climbing up the historic Le Maniè, looking back to Noli. The famous castle is on the horizon on the left and the road up still had the names of Boonen, Basso, Armstrong, Coppi, Pantani stained into the concrete.