THE HILLS ARE ALIVE

If you’re go­ing to tackle !",###m of climb­ing in !###km of rid­ing, in $" hours, you’d bet­ter be pre­pared for any­thing. And even then, you’ll need luck on your side, as Mar­cus Leach dis­cov­ers dur­ing his at­tempt to tackle Aus­tria’s ul­ti­mate ride

Cycling Plus - - CONTENTS -

Mar­cus Leach en­ters a world of pain in Aus­tria as he at­tempts to ride the 1,000km Glock­n­er­man.

The sign in the dis­tance reads 15%. I rub my tired and heavy eyes hop­ing that I have made a mis­take. I look again: 15%. My heart sinks, my legs – al­ready weak and drained from the pre­vi­ous 350km – shud­der and the lit­tle voice in my head grows louder.

‘Stop now be­fore it gets re­ally hard. It’s three in the morn­ing; you should be sleep­ing, not rid­ing your bike, let alone rid­ing up this moun­tain. No­body will judge you. You can blame the rain. You don’t need to climb this moun­tain.’

But I do need to climb this moun­tain, and a few more af­ter it, if I am to fin­ish a race that has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing one of the hard­est on the ul­tra-cy­cling cal­en­dar. So, with a sense of re­luc­tance I do the only thing I can, I ig­nore the voice and keep turn­ing the ped­als, al­beit more slowly, inch­ing ever closer to the start of a climb I have feared from the mo­ment the race started some 15 hours ago.

The Glock­n­er­man is the old­est ex­treme cy­cling race in Europe and has, over the years, earned its fear­some rep­u­ta­tion. At 1000km long and with an eye-wa­ter­ing 16,000m of climb­ing, it’s not a chal­lenge to be taken lightly. When you fac­tor in a 56-hour cut-off time and two as­cents of the Gross­glock­ner, Aus­tria’s high­est paved road at 2575m, you be­gin to un­der­stand the mag­ni­tude of the chal­lenge it presents to those who de­cide to take it on.

Are in you the right place?

These fig­ures had weighed on my mind as my wife, my son and I drove our mo­torhome through Europe in the week lead­ing up to the start in Graz, the cap­i­tal city of the south­ern Aus­trian prov­ince of Styria. My ini­tial con­cerns es­ca­lated into se­ri­ous doubts when I walked into the pre-race brief­ing to see a group of riders built for climb­ing – all skin, sinewy mus­cle and bone. I felt like an out­sider; not only was I the only British rider, but at a shade over 90kg I looked like I should have been head­ing to the track for a sprint race, rather than tak­ing on Aus­tria’s most feared moun­tains.

Ever since com­plet­ing all three of cy­cling’s grand tours in 2017, by rid­ing the routes a day ahead of the pro­fes­sion­als, I had been search­ing for a new chal­lenge. I briefly flirted with the idea of time-tri­alling, but I knew that deep down I was look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing that would force me to redefine the

bound­aries of what I be­lieved I was ca­pa­ble of on a bike. Hence, I opted for the world of ul­tra-cy­cling.

While this wasn’t my first ul­tra­cy­cling race (I’d al­ready rid­den the Oman and Cor­sica legs of the 2018 Bik­ingMan se­ries) it was my first sup­ported race. My rides in Oman and Cor­sica were es­sen­tially solo en­deav­ours – I car­ried ev­ery­thing I needed in bike-pack­ing bags and found food and wa­ter as I went. The Glock­n­er­man was more akin to rid­ing a grand tour, with sup­port ve­hi­cles and crew on hand to en­sure you stayed on the bike and mov­ing pretty much non-stop, which, given that the clock runs con­tin­u­ously from the mo­ment you start to the time you fin­ish, is es­sen­tial.

The need to mi­cro-man­age

Riders, cheered by a large crowd of spec­ta­tors, set off from a start ramp at 30-sec­ond in­ter­vals. As my name was called I took a mo­ment to savour the at­mos­phere, know­ing that for the best part of two days I’d pretty much be alone – the long pe­ri­ods of soli­tude bro­ken only by brief ex­changes with my sup­port crew.

The mind­set for rid­ing ul­tra-races is al­to­gether dif­fer­ent from sportives or club rides. It’s im­pos­si­ble to com­pre­hend the big­ger pic­ture of the Glock­n­er­man – that in two days’ time you’ll still be cy­cling; that you might, at best, have slept for a few hours; and that dur­ing those days, as­sum­ing all goes to plan, you’ll have spent no more than about four hours off the bike. In­stead it be­comes a case of mi­cro-man­ag­ing the ride with a se­ries of mini-goals. These tar­gets get smaller as the race goes on, as what is per­fectly man­age­able at the start, with fresh legs and a full tank of op­ti­mism, even­tu­ally be­comes un­think­able many hours down the road as the fa­tigue mounts and your men­tal re­solve starts to wane.

I start the race with one sim­ple fo­cus: get through the first four hours, ideally hav­ing cov­ered 100km. Af­ter that I can re-eval­u­ate. And so, against the back­drop of rolling hills adorned with metic­u­lously tended vine­yards and bathed in glo­ri­ous sun­shine, the jour­ney to­wards the Gross­glock­ner be­gins.

Four hours come and go, and not even the first se­ri­ous al­ti­tude gain – a long me­an­der­ing climb that rises over 1000m – can dampen my spir­its. With a steady sup­ply of food and wa­ter from my sup­port crew there’s no need to stop, and so I tar­get an­other four hours in the sad­dle.

The learn­ing curve in ul­tra-cy­cling is a steep one and it didn’t take me long to re­alise that cir­cum­stances can change in an in­stant, of­ten with­out warn­ing. On this oc­ca­sion, how­ever, the sight of dark, men­ac­ing clouds rolling to­wards me was a strong in­di­ca­tion that things were about to turn grim. Within half an hour the sunny af­ter­noon had turned into the foulest of days. Thun­der rum­bled across the val­ley floor, light­en­ing flashed in the dis­tance

“I START THE RACE WITH ONE SIM­PLE FO­CUS: GET THROUGH THE FIRST FOUR HOURS”

and the rain fell at such an in­ten­sity that it forced cars to pull over and stop. I fol­lowed their lead, seek­ing shel­ter in a dis­used petrol sta­tion, glad to be in the dry, but frus­trated to have had my progress in­ter­rupted.

Even­tu­ally the rain eased enough to al­low traf­fic to re­sume, but it showed no sign of abat­ing, leav­ing me with lit­tle choice but to don full waterproofs and press on. The next six hours were as bleak as any I’ve spent on a bike. Day gave way to night as the rain con­tin­ued to fall, grad­u­ally wash­ing away my hith­erto pos­i­tive at­ti­tude. My eyes grew heav­ier; I lost count of the num­ber of times I had to force my­self to stay awake, of­ten shout­ing out loud or slap­ping my­self in the face. And then I saw the sign, the one that read 15%. It was then that the first real seeds of doubt be­gan to ger­mi­nate.

Voices you can’t ig­nore

On the de­scent from Kreuzberg a slither of light crept onto the hori­zon and grew, sig­nalling the start of a new day. With it came a re­newed sense of be­lief. I had sur­vived the first night; now I had all day to get as far as pos­si­ble be­fore the dark­ness re­turned. Eas­ier said than done, though, be­cause I was now in the heart of the moun­tains and draw­ing closer to the dou­ble as­cent of the Gross­glock­ner. I had done my best to put this small de­tail to the back of my mind, but I couldn’t avoid it any longer – this was where my race would be won or lost.

The climb ac­tu­ally be­gins be­fore Heili­gen­blut, but it’s in this lit­tle alpine vil­lage that the road pitches up into dou­ble fig­ures and doesn’t re­lent for six soul-de­stroy­ing kilo­me­tres. Even then it’s only for a few hun­dred me­tres be­fore it ramps up once more, and twists and turns its way to the sum­mit. It was here that my men­tal demons reap­peared to ul­ti­mately bring an end my ride. Af­ter two hours of bat­tling with them I was left with no choice but to sim­ply ac­cept what they had been telling me: I was not good enough.

I had been fight­ing the time limit since the race be­gan. I knew the min­i­mum av­er­age speed I needed to main­tain to fin­ish in­side the cut-off and I knew that once I hit the big climbs I was go­ing to suf­fer. It’s not that I’m averse to suf­fer­ing on a bike, quite the op­po­site in fact. But back-to-back climbs, each one gain­ing over 1500m, with all the rid­ing I’d al­ready done, was sim­ply be­yond me. There’s only so far any­one can push them­selves be­fore both body and mind shut down. I could ac­cept that, but I hadn’t come this far to not even cross the Gross­glock­ner once.

It took ev­ery last ounce of ef­fort to drag my­self to the top of the climb, with ev­ery turn of the ped­als ex­act­ing yet more pain on my tired and bat­tered body. I might not have been able to ride the re­main­ing 450km, but I wouldn’t be de­nied the sat­is­fac­tion of reach­ing the Gross­glock­ner’s sum­mit at least once.

Know­ing that the ride was com­ing to an end, a sense of calm washed over me. My mind fell quiet and I be­came acutely aware of the sheer beauty of my sur­round­ings. It felt as if ev­ery­thing was in slow mo­tion as, with one fi­nal push, my wheels fi­nally reached the sum­mit. But it was there, af­ter 24 hours of non-stop cy­cling, af­ter hav­ing cov­ered 550km and as­cended over 8,800m, that my quest came to an end.

I sat slumped in the cor­ner of the mo­torhome, aware of the world around me but lost in my own thoughts, try­ing to some­how come to terms with the sit­u­a­tion. My mind was full of ques­tions. Had I eaten enough? Had I got the right gear­ing? Did I start too fast? Should I have brought more wet weather gear? Was I too heavy? On and on the ques­tions went. The lit­tle voice that had con­vinced me that it was the right thing to stop con­tin­ued to tor­ment me, search­ing for an­swers. But none were forth­com­ing.

At no stage had I taken it for granted that I would fin­ish, but I never once pic­tured it end­ing like this. Ex­pe­ri­ence from past short­com­ings has taught me that as painful as the les­sons they teach you are, the most valu­able ones al­ways come from the fail­ures. The moun­tains will al­ways be there, and so long as we are pre­pared to learn from our ex­pe­ri­ences they can al­ways be con­quered.

“IT TOOK EV­ERY OUNCE OF EF­FORT TO DRAG MY­SELF TO THE TOP OF THE CLIMB”

Mar­cus tries to grasp the full scale of the chal­lenge that lies ahead

Hit­ting the highs be­low the lows take their toll

Above: com­ing to terms with the ride com­ing to an end

Left: A mo­ment’s respite from the un­re­lent­ing chal­lenge

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