So the big day had arrived, I was off to the Marathon World Marathon Championships on the Sella Ronda Hero course in the Dolomites. Being short on holiday we flew out early on Thursday, the 2.30am alarm was very unwelcome. It felt like I’d just gone to bed. Oh wait, I had! After flying to Venice then a 3.5 hour drive to Val Gardena we set off for a little leg loosener up the first climb. I’d heard it was steep so specially purchased a teeny tiny 28 front ring. Worryingly this was only just small enough! After doing the first climb and the first descent we called it day. We’d done a whopping 18km in total which took us over 2 hours. Oh dear!

[caption id="attachment_12964" align="aligncenter" width="450"]Ready to go explore. Ready to go explore.[/caption]

So race day dawned and it was another early rise with the start at 7.20. There was much deliberation over how much time it took breakfast to digest and so what time we needed to get up, 3 hours seemed to be the most popular answer. Not with me it wasn’t! Unfortunately, I’d had a rather rubbish night. I suffer from Chrons and it flared up during the week before and then I was up for much of the night. Not ideal timing. We lined up my gridding of number 95 putting me near the back. After a nervous wait as the big guns were announced to the eager, if bleary eyed crowd, the gun sounded and we were off!

The start was pretty unsubtle. Maybe a kilometre of road ascent before we hit the climb of the Dantercepies, topping out at 2,298m. The climb was loose and varied from very steep to barely rideable. Unfortunately I felt completely empty after my, ahem, tummy problems so it was a real struggle and I just hoped my legs would come round later. The top came and I launched into the first descent, a hardpacked, steep, gravelly singletrack affair which was great fun. Unfortunately I was only a few minutes into the descent when there was horrible pssssstttt sound from my rear tyre accompanied by a liberal spraying of sealant! Seal, please seal I begged, but alas no, and there was soon the sickening thud of carbon rim on rock. So I hopped off and popped in a tube then pumped it extra hard as that was my only spare tube used up. It takes a surprisingly time to pump a 29er tube to 35ish psi! Now in last place I set off trying to make up some ground. I hit the bottom of the singletrack then rounded a corner ready for a short sharp blast on some double track to the bottom. Unfortunately round the corner I was greeted with the sight of a pic-up truck – the driver clearly wanted to go somewhere and the marshall was arguing otherwise. In my attempt to stop in time and not imbed myself in the back of the truck I wiped out on the loose gravel. Ouch. Dusting myself I noticed the rear mech was pointing at a jointy angle towards the spokes. Bother.

I won’t lie at this point I was feeling like stopping. Months of hard training and I was feeling rubbish, in last place and with a mangled bike. I hate quitting though, there’s no worse feeling so I headed off again.

[caption id="attachment_12961" align="aligncenter" width="338"]Course recce, yep it’s steep but at least there’s plenty of time to admire the view! Course recce, yep it’s steep but at least there’s plenty of time to admire the view![/caption]

Next up we headed up from Covarra at 1,568m to the Campolongo pass at a mere 1,875m. This one was a bit easier though my bent mech meant I could no longer get in the biggest 42 sprocket on the cassette so a bit of grunt was required to keep moving forward!

Off the top there was some great fast rocky singletrack which plunged from the side of the road down into the forest and way down to Arrabba. Towards the bottom there was a horrible smell from my front brake which was not proving very effective. After the race it turned out both front pads had disintegrated off the backing plates, all I knew in the race was that I had very little in the way of stopping power! This was pretty rubbish, it was really difficult to stop so I had to control my speed really carefully. My mood notched up to around 9.5 on the angry scale!

I’d heard the third climb which was up next was the hardest. I think it was a blessing I hadn’t pre-ridden as I might have despaired if I knew what was coming. The climb was so steep it was unbelievable, for anyone familiar with the South Downs it was like the steepest bit of Butser Hill…but for a couple of kilometres! Even without the loss of my easiest gear it would have been tricky so a bit of hike a bike was required. To add to the challenge the sun had now warmed up and it felt like an oven in the forest! Finally we reached the top of the superbly named Sourasass at 2,351m. 40km down, only 47 to go!

The next section we stayed high in an amazing vast bowl at the top of the mountain as we headed up and down a series of shortish rises before a final short road section took us to the top of the Pordoi pass. The lack of oxygen up at 2,300m was not making things any easier! Off the top of the Pordoi was the best descent of the day down some rooty singletrack. I caught a couple of riders which cheered me up, at least I wasn’t last anymore. The final part of the descent went down a steep rooty chute, my lack of front brake meant I had to hop off and walk this bit, there was no way I could have stopped at the bottom!

So on to the final climb of the day, the passo Duron, just another 800m of up back to 2,280m! There was a really long false flat up the valley for a couple of kilometres which seemed to last forever, though at the least the scenery was stunning. I caught a couple more people along here and the top of the last climb was a very welcome sight. Sadly my hope that it would be all downhill was not to be and there were a couple of climbs just to finish of already ruined legs. I caught a few more riders along here, a Dane, one from San Marino and a Latvian. Up ahead was a French rider so I pushed on catching him on the last short but steep climb. I went past but he wouldn’t give up, that’s not fair! On the descent he caught back up as I was trying to control my speed with my inability to stop in a hurry. This bugged me, I let go and flew down after him. With about 1km to go there was a steep road descent before we turned sharp right onto the last short section of singletrack. Going far too fast I grabbed all the brake I could but couldn’t slow down enough and slammed into the wooden barrier on the corner, ouch. Resisting the temptation to hurl my bike or myself over the edge I got back on, rather sorely and rode the last section to the finish, crashing once more in the last hairpin for good measure. It was a steel barrier this time, just to mix things up.

I’ve never been so pleased to finish a race. I was bitterly disappointed as I’d been on really good form just days earlier. But these things happen, just a massive shame it all went wrong on my biggest race of the year. The next day I headed round a loop including all the passes I’d done the day before, the scenery was stunning which certainly helped me to start to get over the disappointment. The legs still felt rubbish though!

[caption id="attachment_12962" align="aligncenter" width="338"]The most picturesque road loop in the world? Probably! The most picturesque road loop in the world? Probably![/caption]

These trips aren’t all about the racing though. We had a great time exploring one of the most stunning areas I’ve ever been. During the race we stayed in an amazing chalet and our group was half UK, half French, which meant for great conversations especially after a glass or two of wine on Saturday night! Making new friends is what these trips are all about and more than helped soften the disappointment of the race.

[caption id="attachment_12963" align="aligncenter" width="450"]Recovery fuel… Recovery fuel…[/caption]

Big thanks to all our sponsors for their continued support, especially Steve James at Renvale who’s been amazing at getting me back on the road – next weekend is the MB race… a mere 140km with 8,000m of up! Really hope I recover in time!

Words - Tim Dunford