Day 14 – In Which we Roar into Florence !

It is always amazing how much a group improves after riding for several hours every day. Even the saddles that might have been unfamiliar on the first couple of days, don’t seem so bad any more. When this ride was starting there were a couple of riders who had never before tackled this type of adventure and it is not surprising that they had some initial anxiety about how they would cope. For Gonny, this was the first time she had done any serious riding since her spinal surgery and no one would blame her for feeling a little nervous about how well it would stand up under pressure.

Now that five days of extended riding have been completed all riders are performing well, even in the sometimes unpleasantly hot conditions. Last night was spent in the beautiful country town of Brisighella. It was a treat to savour the cool mountain air blowing in our open bedroom windows. It was also a treat to be able to catch up on the backlog of washing and drying.

This morning we had to get up early to make sure we were able to catch the train from the Brisighella Station. The train was due to depart at 8.30 am and, if we missed that on, the next one would not come for another 4 hours. Although the ride from the hotel to the station was quite short, it did involve a quite steep climb. It was a good way to prepare the legs for the extended brutal climbs that were to come later that day.

Fortunately our team is well prepared and all were ready to leave even earlier than I had instructed. We made it to the station with plenty of time to spare and were soon seated in a very comfortable carriage speeding our way through the mountains. This was the most spectacular and beautiful countryside we had seen thus far and the train passed through numerous tunnels along the way.

About an hour later we were deposited at our appointed starting point for the final day’s ride to Florence. It was still relatively early but the coolness of the early morning was wearing off and the blazing sun was again making its presence felt. By this time we were so sure of our navigation skills that we hardly had to refer to the instructions. About 4 km of uphill riding later we realised that we had completely missed the turnoff and had to backtrack almost back to the start. Take Two.

We eventually found the right road and were soon into a routine of steady pedaling up the rolling inclines. The notes warned of a brutal section of 14% gradient and I can’t say that I was relishing the thought. No matter which way you say it, 14% is STEEP, really steep. Especially for those of us who are not friends of gravity, like me. On the other hand I was feeling quite well and some part of me was actually looking forward to the challenge. After all, if the entire ride was too easy, people would think they had been robbed.

When I turned a bend and saw the road rising vertically straight into the stratosphere, I knew that we had reached the steep  bit. I clicked down a few gears and attacked it with gusto. The front of the bike lifted and the speed dropped, but it was still climbing. So far so good I thought. At least I had survived the first 10 metres. The next 10 metres were a little tougher. The speed dropped a little more, my heart rate rose a lot more. Lungs started heaving. How do those Tour de France riders do this ? Probably has something to do with the fact that they only weigh about 50 kg.

I started to tack back and forth across the road in a attempt to cleverly reduce the gradient. Two can play at this game I thought. That clever tactic bought me about another 7 metres of progress. Time to dig deep. Click down to the lowest gear. Bugger, I was already in it. No more gears left. Not much more strength left. The only thing I had left was the pride in wearing the coveted yellow jersey. I tried to imagine those scenes as the Tour heroes approach the summit of the Alpe d”Huez with hundreds of adoring fans running along cheering encouragement. I could almost hear their shouts, but I think it was the blood vessels in my ears about to burst.

Come on Dennis, you can do this !  Unfortunately I discovered that I couldn’t. I had made it about 400 metres up the climb, but had to come to the decision that it was better to get off than to risk having a simultaneous heart attack, stroke, pulmonary embolism and heebie jeebies. When it was all said and done I was able to rationalise my decision with the knowledge that it was clearly faster to walk than ride. I took a few deep breaths, grabbed the handlebars in one hand and the seat in the other and starting pushing. A hundred metres or so in front of me I noticed that Lionel (Irving, Walter, Claude ?) had also dismounted. I suspect that we were all going through our private purgatories.

Although it was tough, a little while later we had all made it to the top and were already making light of the challenge. The next few kilometres climbed further, but at a much more realistic gradient. We were even relieved to find a convenient coffee stop a couple of km before the top of the final climb. In some strange way I suspect that we were a little sad that the challenge was about to finish.

After a coffee and an icecream we had little difficulty reaching the final summit. All we had was about 15 km of mostly downhill to take us home to our final destination of Florence. This was a time to enjoy ourselves. Sweeping around the bends on a beautiful smooth surface, Cycling heaven. Soon we got our first views of the famous city and the even more famous “Duomo”. Each bend took us closer until we entered the outskirts of the city and into the final maelstrom of traffic.

About 20 minutes later we had finally reached the Hotel Grifone which marked the end of the ride. We locked the bikes for the final time, hugged and congratulated each other. Our first Italy ride had ended without a single accident. We had all got to know each other better and had accumulated a new storehouse of memories to recount in the years ahead. In a few days 5 of us will be regrouping in France to begin our 2015 France rides.

After dropping the bikes, I transferred to the Hotel Bigallo, which will be my home for the next 3 nights. I knew that it was close to the famous Duomo, but I did not appreciate just how close it was. The hotel is literally only a few metres from the towering church. I also discovered that it was the first hotel that I have had in Italy that charged for its Internet. In spite of the 10 Euro charge I never could get the Internet to work there. I think there is definite irony in that.