Alberto from Castelli clothing invited us over to race round the town of Feltre in the feet of the Dolamites in the 24hr road race they put on every year.
The first few hours of traveling to the race were stressful when Ruben and I got the flight times wrong and missed the flight out on the Thursday and were not able to get a flight till the next day. Spending a night in Gatwick airport was a great punishment, as well as the embarrassment of having to tell the rest of the team.
Trek kindly lent us two super spec spangly carbon madones for Ruben and our team 4cross rider Dan. We spent a day boxing them up and shoving in all the team jerseys, shoes, socks, helmets ready for the baggage mishandlers to load them into the plane.
We had been watching the weather in Feltre all week and reports looked like we were going to get 3degree cold mountain rain, so we packed down jackets and enough merino to recreate a flock of sheep, but when we arrived we were greeted by sun and that kind of heat you don't get in West Wales. No shorts or flipflops were in the bags.
After a huge pasta lunch in Bassano we drove the bikes and kit upto Feltre to meet Alberto at the Castelli offices. We sat in a room getting the race briefing with jerseys worn and signed by cyclings great names next to Carlos Sastre's 2008 tour bike and a cabinet full of trophies. The feeling of the race was moving from us going to have a laugh, to us going to have to work it with some skilled riders. Alberto gave us all rain race jackets to see us through the event.
We were taken down to the event and unloaded all the kit into Castelli's team tent, and we unpacked, built and tweaked the bikes. Race numbers were zip tied on, and rear lights were fitted as they were mandatory for the night laps. We shoved all the bike bags and boxes in the vans and we were set.
Before the race every team was to be called up onto the stage infront of the gathered crowd to show off their team kit. So at 9.30pm after 107 teams had been introduced 7 non Italian speaking howies riders climbed onto the stage to be introduced and cheered by a great crowd who continued to shout for us to the end of the event. Their support for the only team from Wales was amazing.
The view from the startline is where the main action went on. The crowd sat in the stalls on the left. The course was the left hand lane that passed under the inflatable arches, the pits where you waited for changeover were in the centre behind the orange barrier pad and under the white awning on the right was the lane you took once you had finished your laps. The burgundy colored mats I am stood on clocked your digital chip on your bike as you passed over them logging your lap time. Behind the Garmin sign at the top of the picture was a clock counting down to the start of the race and eventually to the end of the 24 hours.
And then things happened fast. Helmets were on, glasses got clear lenses fitted, shoe tension was tightened, loosened, tightened, gloves on, electrolytes mixed and the last supper eaten. Three test laps ridden, and then like a dream (and that dream like out of body feeling was to happen allot over the next 24hrs) I am on the start line with 107 other riders all ready to race. Anna from Castelli spotted me in the pack and again, with the care were were treated with all through the event, weaved through the riders, introduced me in broken english to a few "greatly fast riders" and explained the start format. 3 laps behind the safety car, and then the race would begin as it left the course.
The man on the mike was filling the time as it counted down to start time, and the last 5 minutes were spent pulling a rider from the center of the pack and introducing him to the crowd as having just ridden the Giro D'Italia
And as my pulse becomes the dominant sound in my ears I am scared. I have raced bikes for 24 years. Mainly mountain bikes. I have never ridden off a start line on a road bike in a pack behind a car and I have never raced round a city centre at full tilt.
Then the clock drops to 24 hours, the crowd are shouting stuff, the man on the mike goes more crazy than he has already been, there is the cracking of cleats into pedals and the pace car fires off up the road. I am outside left 3 riders back for the first 50 feet. Then I have riders ahead slowing, riders trying to squeeze between my bars and the barriers, but I can't move over because of the riders trying to come through on the right. Brakes are applied, released, gaps appear then closed then we hit the hill and there is no room for one more bike to be funneled up between the barriers that line the course. Once we are at the top of the hill the road drops, the pace really picks up and we string out to the first 90 degree left hand corner. Please don't let me be the one to fall and bring you all down. We rattle the drain covers as we chicane over a small rise into a drop to the next 90 degree left hander. No brakes round, head up against the railings inside the corner, use the full width of the road to sling shot out and then out the saddle hard on the pedals upto full speed to chase down the accelerating bunch who string out into a roaring train heading to the finish. Then it happens again. I am aware that I am riding in a race, in Italy at full speed chasing down pro riders. Suddenly we start to bank left out of the darkness into a spotlight shining right at us and the rumble of the bikes in the pack turns to a roar as we hit the cobbles that corner hard left into the finish line.
And then lap 2 of the warm up begins. Same again, but I am getting the hang of it and when the car finally leave the course the pace of the front riders explodes and we break up into small groups of riders working to break the friction of the air to keep the pace high.
Then with bursting lungs and lactate filled legs I wave to Drew, break right into the exit lane and want to go again.
Drew was our fastest rider, our youngest rider and did the most laps over the race. I would go out on my laps and work as hard as I could to position myself just infront of the super fast pack (by being caught by them) then Drew would roar from the pits straight into their windsheild and off to ride 1.8km in two and a half minutes. Within 3 hours we had worked out the rider schedule as me, Drew, his uncle Paul, Ruben, Dan our team 4cross rider, Harold and finally Peter who handed back to me. Once we had don our stint of 6 laps it was back to the Castelli tent, out of helmet and shoes, warm jacket, eat, drink, rest, watch some racing, back into race kit, down to the pits and back out.
Dan, who has never ridden a road bike before or been clad in tight lycra came fresh from an accident trying to jump a road on his 4cross bike, to riding the beautiful sleek Madone like a mountain bike complete with flat pedals. He ragged it up the hill like he was just out of a drop start gate and descended through the corners like a demon and came back into the tent with a huge grin on his face. If they had put a small jump in the course he would have been over it. Harold had a tough start. He was posting terrible lap times, until we found that the front brake on his bike was stuck on which was why he was having to pedal hard down the hills to keep the bike moving. Once adjusted he went out and nailed some sub three minute laps.
This was our changing room and bedroom for the whole 24 hours. Male and female riders came and went throughout the race and there was always someone in a state of undress. Broken English conversations discussed form and pace. Even blown out cheeks and eyes raised to the sky worked. Wet clothes were hung in the roof to dry and clean kit was kept in bags on the floor that also doubled as pillows.
As dawn broke Ruben (centre rider) was out with legs fresh from the Edinburgh marathon mixing it with the fast boys, coming round leading his pack and attacking on the hills. The rest of us were looking to the surrounding mountains that had been clear all night and were now making cloud.
Then came the rain. I was out on a 6 lap stint. It came very light at first. Nothing too much to worry about, except the large metal drain covers. Then it came in ernest. The road wetted. When sprinting you could feel the back wheel slipping with reduced traction. Then on my 6th lap as we approached the second 90 degree left hand bend it was clear by the change in the riders line into the bend that there was a problem. Which I found as I dropped the bike into the corner. The front wheel slipped out on the white lines of the zebra crossing that bridged the corner, I caught it but the bike stood upright in the middle of the corner taking me wide across the path of another rider who just missed me by swerving up my inside line and I hit the padded bariers that kept me upright and threw me back out into the race. Back came the fear. As I changed over to Drew I tried to warn him, but he was off at full tilt into 4 very slippy laps before the race was suspended due to the dangers of no traction. It spent the next 6 hours raining hard.
As soon as the racing stopped so did our ability to stay awake. The other teams returned to their hotels. We slept under canvas. Then the air above the mountains cleared. The sun came, they took 6 cars onto the course to drive round it to dry it and they announced that racing would commence in 30 minutes. I was up again to start behind the pace card and I had the fear. There was water on the course still and all I focused on was corner 2, 90 degrees, no brakes, wet white slippy lines and other riders. Three laps behind the pace car was much more sedate this time and as we rolled the heat of the day and the tyres cleared a line, the pace car dropped, full traction returned and then it was on at full pace to the 10pm finish time.
Up to this point we had been the smallest team on the course. Most teams had 8-12 riders. We had 7. As the afternoon set in we were joined by Rolando, a local club rider that came and raced with us to make the minimum required number of 8 riders. He was going out every 3rd rider and pushing 3 laps which eased the work load. Paul in the picture above was also stoically going out and adding to our laps. And when we checked our position instead of being in 2nd from last as we had planned, we were in the mid 80's. Suddenly the team is focused on the finish, the time seems like we will make it and we all want to reign in a few of the teams above us. So we reduced the amount of laps each rider was doing in blocks from 6 to 3.
Then came the last 30 minutes. I went out, nailed three laps and handed over to Paul. He put in two laps and with no other rider ready I put in another three laps and handed over to Drew who caught the fast pack and rode it out to the end. He crossed the line 50 seconds before the 24hr bell went, and got in an extra lap to take Team howies to 332 laps in 24hrs 1 minute and 10 seconds and pegging us at 77th out of 109 teams.
Although he was nearly felled by a massive 6 rider pile up on the sprint finish.
Because we were staying an hour away from Feltre in Bassano, it was 10pm, the hotel closed at 12pm and we needed to eat we had to run. They awarded us a prize for the team that traveled the furthest to get the event, the mayor shook hands, gave us champagne and we headed off the the van to cheers to pack down the bikes.
At 1.30am we were sat in Bassano, eating bruschetta , drinking beer and wine and chatting through our highlights. Then as the alcohol sunk in so the fatigue grew and we headed to bed, without even showering. And despite wearing, living, sleeping and racing in them for 24 hours, the merino sprint jerseys did not smell.
This snipet of video will show you the fast pack coming through, riders waving in the pits to acknowledge they are on, 3 riders joining the race, then Ruben in blue accelerating out the pits followed by a small bunch following through.
We have already signed up for next year.
Thanks to Alberto, Anna, Castelli and Feltre for the hospitality, the kit, the food and the invite. Thanks to Rolando for working all night and then coming to race for us. Thanks to smartwool for the socks. We only used one pair each. Thanks to Trek for lending lovely bikes at short notice to unprofessional athletes. Thanks to Wiggle for a deal on stuff.
Roll on 2012