When Ann and I started to look for something exciting to do during her April vacation we stumbled upon Race Across Italy (RAI). We thought it was a little early in the season to be racing 500 miles, considering we normally don’t ride much during the winter. However, I always wanted to go to Italy and from a map on the RAI website I calculated that the elevation gain over 500 miles was only 13,000 feet, not a lot of climbing over that distance. I thought we would be okay and would just use the event as an exciting training ride. (In addition, Race Across Italy is a Race Across America (RAAM) qualifying event. We thought it would be nice to get Ann qualified should we ever decide to try RAAM on a tandem. All we needed to do was finish in under 42 hours to get her qualified.) Once we were signed up, flights, hotel and rental van booked, I discovered that the elevation gain for the race was going to be a lot higher, not tandem friendly at all. It turned out to be somewhere between 27,000 and 30,000 feet. There was a reason why we were the first tandem to attempt this event in it’s four year history. To add insult to injury, about a week before our departure, Ann started running a low grade fever and having abdominal pains. After a couple of visits to her doctor and one to the emergency room (the day before our departure), their best guess was that Ann had an infection and put her on antibiotics. Never the less, Ann thought it was too late to change our plans and off to Italy we went.
Flying with a tandem bicycle can be a challenging event all on it’s own. Despite our early communication with Air France, at the Montreal International Airport we were told that the combined weight of our tandem and it’s carrying case was too heavy to fly. The compromise that we arrived at was to fly the wheels separately. I was concerned that, traveling as regular luggage, the odds of the wheels getting damaged were high, but we had two spares so I thought we would be okay. At our hotel in Silvi Marina, Italy I attempted to assemble the tandem and discovered that the disc for the disc break on the rear wheel had gotten significantly bent and was not usable. Fortunately, the spare wheel fit without too much adjusting and we were back on track.
That afternoon, the day before the race, our support crew showed up in Silvi. Alex and Lea Chelstowski, newly weds and former employees at Rockywold-Deephaven Camps, were living in Slovenia, just a seven hour car drive from Silvi. Having zero experience crewing for an ultra marathon cycling event, they thought crewing would be a fun way to spend the weekend. We had dinner with Lea, Alex, the other 50 competitors and their crews. The event attracted many world class riders and crews. For example, Marko Baloh, from Slovenia, has held the world record for both 12 and 24 hour cycling events. Just this spring in a 24 hour race he rode 533 miles. Several of these racers were using this event as their last fine tuning event before competing in Race Across America in June.
Race day arrives and we wake up to rain and a forecast of unseasonable cold temperatures and precipitation for the entire weekend. The event starts at sea level on the east coast of Italy and climbs numerous snow capped mountains before heading back down to sea level on the west coast. On the return trip to the east coast, the climbing and decending gets even tougher. Any one of the dozen or so major climbs of this event would normally give us a great sense of accomplishment if that was all we were doing for the day. Add in rain and cold and you have a reciepe for some drama.
Only 24 of the 52 competitors were able to finish the race. I would guess that most of the DNF’s were due to hypothermia. Lea and Alex even gave their extra clothing to a French cyclist that was shivering and disoriented at the last check point in Scanno. Without Lea and Alex’s assistance we would not have finished. They helped us navigate a very difficult course, would get us whatever we needed whenever we needed it and most importantly they figured out how to quickly dry our cycling cloths with the vans defroster. Without ocassional dry clothing we would not have survived the repeated long cold and wet descents. During the last 60 miles it rained nearly the whole time as temperatures were in the mid-30’s and we screamed down a 30+ mile descent toward the finish.
Over the 41 hours and 50 minutes that it took us to officially complete this event, it felt like we had a lifetime of epic experiences. We finished in 20th place overall and the first tandem to ever compete and complete Race Across Italy!