Guendalina is the Sales Manager for 3T Cycling that organized the first Jeroboam Gravel Challenge this year, a cycling race on gravel which passes through the wonderful vineyards of Franciacorta, alongside the Iseo lake, to finally reach the beautiful mountains. The race offers 3 routes: the Jeroboam 300km, the Magnum 150km, and the Standard 75km. Her first time participating in such a race, Guendalina chose the intermediate route and told us with great irony about her exceptional journey with the Exploro, the high-performing gravel frame of 3T.
Let me start by saying that I am not a very able cycler. Of course, I know how to cycle and manage to get by, but descents, accelerations and anything slightly technical cause me problems.
I forgot to add hills. I am not really able to stomach those as well. So, it seems I fit the profile of the athlete who has no affinity whatsoever with the Gravel Challenge and who is passionate about races that are dedicated to specialized hybrid bikes and keep participants in the saddle for hours on a very, even though fascinating, technical course. So, I try not to dwell on it too much, sign up for the 150 km and get organized for this incredible challenge.
The alarm goes off at 4 and it’s a first indication of what I can expect for the rest of the day. It just seems right that I should suffer a bit from the start. Two ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast in the hotel and away we go to Erbusco. We pass the entrance of Number One, a famous disco of the region, where hundreds of kids eat greasy sausages after having danced the whole night. To think that, until some years ago, I was one of them. Now I am getting ready for 150 km with 4000 m of elevation gain and with 40% of the route on gravel, no laughing matter.
At the starting line, it is cold. I am covered from head to toe trying not to think about the 25 degrees forecasted for the afternoon and decide not to put on any sunscreen. The results of this decision can still be seen today. I stamp my roadbook, take a photo and then it’s time to leave. Just 100 meters past the starting line my front disk starts to creak. Considering I still have 150 km left this is not a good sign, but I pretend to be an ostrich and ignore the problem. It will pass, I hope.
Our group is formed by me, Carlo (the other sales manager at 3T), Christian (the representative for Germany), Drew and Jonas (of Bike Components), and Kim (a member of the XPDTN3 and who won a medal at the Paralympics). We are in 6 with 3 GPS –of the series “those of little faith”, our last famous words. Just to be sure, I have taken along enough energy bars and gels for a whole weekend and could feed a group of bears. If I were to get lost in the very dangerous mountains of Franciacorta, at least I would have a good chance of survival.
After 3 km, the noise coming from the front disc is like that of nails scratching on a blackboard. Since I have no mechanical knowledge, my only option is to turn back and have it fixed by the bike mechanic of 3T but that would mean losing my team and having to ride alone or not at all. I imploringly look at one of my team mates who manages to make an adjustment that betters the situation.
By 8 o’clock it starts to get hot. At the start of the first climb we lose one of our team mates. I proceed alone. After about forty minutes a man rides up next to me on a MTB. My question: “How far is it till the top?” gives me an answer that is quite discouraging: “With this speed you’ll be there in an hour.” An hour? An hour still? But this is torture!
After finally arriving at the top, we take a coffee break, a croissant, a bathroom break, fill up our water bottles and take a selfie. Just so that we can catch our breath. Then we start riding again. A tight curve and I find myself confronting a steep hill. The back wheel starts to lose its grip and with my feet still attacked to the pedals, I fall on my side. I end up like a tortoise on its shell trying to get up. One look up and I decide it is better to proceed by foot. It is useless to try to get on the bike again, it is just too steep.
At the end of the climb I remain breathless. The view is spectacular. For half an hour, we ride on mule tracks, surrounded by the blue of the sky and the always present blue of the Iseo lake. We are alone and in a pleasant silence. We come across a journalist who has fallen and broken his derailleur hanger. A pit stop for technical assistance, two energy bars, four jokes and away again, downhill towards the lake. The first part is fun, the second part puts me in difficulty. A continuous up and down with my bike like a yoyo and the inclines scare me. I am surprised that I am actually thinking: if I had broken my disc, I wouldn’t be here. But it is only a momentary thought.
At a certain point downhill I look at my watch and see that my heart is beating 180 times per minute and my speed is 3km/hour. Incredible, I am even slower downhill than uphill. When I reach a square, the others are waiting for me. Kom says: “You need to let the brakes go when it gets flatter so that the discs have a break.” I remain a bit perplexed: “Where did you see it getting flatter Kim?”. I remember only that at one point the ascent was so steep that I was afraid I would fall over.
The discs of my gravel bike are 100 degrees; I could boil water on them. But it is still not over, another descent, another mule track, another heart-pounding track. For the first time in my life I prefer to ride uphill.
We follow the bike path alongside the Iseo lake for about ten kilometers. The beauty of a bike such as the Exploro is that it both rides perfectly on tarmac as on unpaved roads. For some time, I just cycle and try not to lose the wheel of the person in front of me. There are wind gusts that make it difficult to stay upright now and then. After half an hour the idyllic ride finishes. We turn left and start to climb again. I only remember the wonderful feeling of being in the shadow of the trees and the supply of bread with ham at the top of the hill. An hour and half with the brain in “survivor” mode, trying not to think of anything but cycling with a constant rhythm and fast enough so not to fall over. I scarf down 4 sandwiches and find out that we still need to climb. By now the legs go forward by inertia. We walk, gravel, pedal, and luckily we laugh and joke. The first aches and signs of exhaustion manifest themselves, but there is no turning back home now.
The attack of the third and last climb is announced by two guys standing still with perplexed gazes. I look up at the steep street and start laughing. I thank the heavens that I have changed the chain ring of my bike from 42 to 38. Otherwise I would be in the same situation as Christian who, with his 44, needs to push his bike up the hill by hand. To be honest, I would like to do so as well but I conclude that it will certainly take me more time by foot than by bike. Better to cycle slowly but seated, also because pushing with the clip-in pedals I am already making an inhuman effort. At a certain point, I see people standing with a sign reading “refueling station”. I think “Yes! The climb is finished! Time to eat!”. Of course, I am wrong. They confirm that the “worst is still to come”. And I realize that before hitting rock bottom there is always the option to get off the bike.
We arrive at the start of the last climb while already climbing. The incline is such that I am not able to make the curve. My team mates see me struggle and try to reassure me by saying “it goes up but then it will flatten out”. I have found out that “but it will flatten out” when speaking about hills is like saying “it will clear up” during a rainy day.
I think that if I would have studied the route beforehand, I would have limited myself to 75km. But in the end, I know this is not true. I like these crazy undertakings that test you and force you to push beyond your limits. Riding your bike is also therapeutic. It’s just you, two wheels, and you are able to think about a lot of stuff (when you are not trying to survive).
Carlo is next to me, we are cycling so slowly that Christian who, because of cramps is pushing his bike uphill by hand, is almost faster than us. 300 meters of steep ascent in the woods force us to get off our bikes and proceed by foot, but it is the last effort before reaching the top. We are so tired that we almost forget to enjoy ourselves. We set off on the descent and this time what scares me most are the masses of people on their Sunday outing, walking with their dogs and kids, smiling the whole time. The fear makes me rigid like a piece of wood, my brain is sending out alert signals, my hands are almost numb for breaking so hard.
The last part of the course I remain alone and without a navigator. My sense of orientation is not the best but by now I have been through so much that surely this will not be the biggest of my problems. So, I set off, relaxed and without worries, with the idea that I it will take me an hour to reach Erbusco. At the first fountain, already full with uncertainties which way to go, I come across another competitor with a GPS that functions and I latch on to him.
The hour turns into something much longer. We get lost in the middle of the vineyards, take several wrong turns, take long stops to fill our mouths with pieces of pie, damn the cleats to hell on unpaved roads, because of tiredness the brain stopped functioning and we constantly fall over and end up in a bush with spines. Not much going on.
I am tired and fed up, fed up and tired. I want food that does not seem to have been predigested and a beer.
At 18:15 a miracle. Finally, I hear voices coming from a microphone and in a blink of an eye I find myself at the finish line. I cannot believe it. I have made it, 150km, with 4100 meters of elevation gain, descents on gravel and 13 hours on the saddle. Who would have said! I am lucky to have a stubborn head and a behind which is able to keep up.
I think “We’ll see each other next year” …and immediately add “maybe”.
In the meantime, I am going to take a course in mountain biking and drink my bottle of Barone Pizzini at the edge of the field.
Another fight won, another great memory to add to the list.
Guendalina Dal Pozzo D’Annone
A triathlete since 3 years and an Ironman finisher. Her passion for cycling has grown since she started working for 3T as Sales Manager.