The first rule of a ‘Gravel’ event is surely there needs to be gravel? Am I missing something? I was asking myself this pretty frequently as I rode the 300km mountainous Italian route.
From the event’s website: “The dirt road becomes more narrow and difficult, some parts may be no cycle,” They recommended tyres of 45mm+ and a mountain bike sounded like the best option it seemed. This was going to be one tough challenge, they expected few finishes and the tag line: “WE’RE NOT SAYING YOU HAVE TO BE CERTIFIABLY INSANE, BUT IT WOULD HELP.” which only added to the sense of fear. Would I complete a full on 300km with over 5000m of climbing?
I stuck with my trusted Kinesis Tripster ATR V2 because this bike can handle anything. The experience of some other riders only cemented how well this bike performs on all surfaces. With the Vee Tire Co UK Rail tyres in 40mm I was confident I was well covered. I decided to stick with my 1×11 Sram Force and the 10-42 with a 40 up front on the solid Praxxis Alba chainset. Despite the climbing this would be sufficient I hoped.
In 2017 a long weekend to Milan and riding up into the mountains was already on my mind. When I saw this event it fitted the bill and gave us an easy option to ride bikes here. We signed up, spent £50 on return flights and just £15 each on car hire. At Bergamo airport we got a free upgrade from Mini to estate car size – this was a massive win:
At sign on was the first indication that this was not a slickly run event, Paul Errington the maestro behind Dirty Revier and all the best UK gravel races was here and the contrast between his events and this couldn’t be sharper. Had I got the revised route map he asked? Unbelievably a revised route GPX had been sent out the night before the event! I had no laptop to revise my GPS unit so I had no choice but ride the old route. Apparently the new route quoted 12,000m of climbing in the stats, this was going to be mental.
Only it obviously didn’t have 12,000m – the file was wrong. There was no signposting because it followed an ITT style, but again this wasn’t clear, one section online said it would be loosely signposted for Marion’s 150km but it wasn’t. We were happily self sufficient. Marion too had a Garmin for the 150km route she would undertake.
We camped by Lake Iseo and enjoyed good food and a sunset over the lake on Friday, it almost felt like a proper holiday relaxing on the evening before.
On Saturday I slept in, before we had a drive touring Lado d’Iseo in the morning. Much Gelato and pasta was consumed in preparation!
We attended the 3pm briefing which said very little, the pass of 2000m was very dangerous and cold so don’t attempt it after midnight; the time we were scheduled to arrive there so we should stop in the refuge for a few hours (something we all ignored :)). There would be three well stocked food stops too along the route too, we were told…..
We finally set off, each of us had a booklet which needed to collect 4 stamps and after stamp one and just 500 metres a huge storm crashed in. We sheltered in a doorway soon after the start line. I had a chat with a friendly Italian kid about his school and Scotland until the hail and rain passed by!
The first section criss-crossed the suburban area before the lake appeared, a strange route of road and cycle paths which I had anticipated to be the “peaceful gravel roads of the wine growing region”. I stuck with quite a large group keeping a steady pace mostly to save me from reading the map and to help get this bit out of the way quickly. Then we started the first enjoyable climb up to well over 1000 metres; all on tarmac. I changed my mindset regarding the gravel challenge – this was going to be a road ride so just enjoy it and luckily I had tyres and bike that can still handle it.
On this first climb I rode with 3 Danish riders. One a friendly blogger and two ultra endurance riders that he was doing a feature on, both had huge bulging sprinters calve muscles – I was intimidated that I was out of my depth with these guys, however they climbed slowly probably saving energy. On one hairpin the blogger on a test 3T Exploro bike ground to a halt, his very fancy looking THM Clavicula carbon crank and exploded. I ran to collect parts scattered on the road and we set about restoring it with them. This was one of two 3T test bikes I saw that had problems with these cranks and eventually it cost him the ride. For a crank that costs €1150 I think I’ll probably pass on one….
I was now alone having left the Danish guys behind and caught up with two friendly UK riders from Bike Radar. They were stopping soon so they could ride the biggest pass in daylight and enjoy the views, I was a bit jealous! Finally I was descending from the first pass after the long tarmac climb, it was a fun descent negotiating huge football size cobbles on a steep mountain forest track, I enjoyed it, but this still isn’t gravel this was MTB’ing….
The route was then on road until the 90km check point. Stunning riding with sunset views over the lake.
We finally headed away from the lake on peaceful bike paths (tarmac ones!) to the start of the big climb up to over 2000m. Since the first feed stop I was riding with a friendly local Italian guy called Andrei who was a big help navigating and then with the motivation of getting up the climb. He was running 28mm road tyres because he knew the route!
We slowly slogged uphill in the dark occasionally turning off our lights to look at the stars, before turning them on again quickly to avoid a crash! Finally we were up to the refuge at the summit and it was gone midnight as we rolled in to sit by a warm fire and ordered hot pasta. While there was no free food as promised here, we could at least order and pay for some hearty food and get our 3rd stamp of the ride. There was a great spirit here with everyone sharing and drying out socks still wet from the storm that hit right at the very start!
It was tempting to sleep here and descend in daylight but about 5 of us all set off into the freezing darkness onto a rare genuinely gravel section. Meandering along the high mountain ridge under the stars was pretty special. The snow melt from the sun was now feezing and the road was icy in places keeping us on our toes.
On the descent the route took in a narrow paved old mountain road that was so much fun to ride, cut out of cliffs it was twisty with tunnels and a vertical drop into the darkness always present to the right! I enjoyed it a lot but kept hard left! I had lost Andrei the friendly Italian guy who I had been riding with and I overtook some more riders on the long descent as I went into full MTB drifting mode on the hairpin corners – a lot of fun was had!
Finally I hit another lake in the valley one over and yet again one more climb (6700m doesn’t add up without a lot of uphill!), this one passed a remote night club at 4am, I was riding along getting shouted at by Italians in cars leaving after a night out, i think they were friendly supporters!
Then a glow of the sun appeared and daybreak was close. I had ridden all night but soon the third and final food stop would appear.
Only it didn’t there was nothing to be seen. No stamp, no food, it was 5am and I had only a bit more food left to eat, but others had nothing left and were fairly p’d off to say the least when they joined the search!
I re-read my instructions:
Dining / checkpoint Points:
Bossico about 90km
Cross domain at about 160km (ciclofficina available)
Lodrino about 230km
In the dining options will be available cold rice, fruit, cakes, sandwiches and water.
The first stop had some rolls, coffee and bananas which was fine but nothing else on the entire route this was disappointing when they had told us otherwise.
I was now not far from finishing after one final steep uphill and rough descent that about destroyed me. I got a bit lost in the maze of roads and tracks leading back to the start. Unfortunately the GPS route had to have the way points reduced on my Garmin E-trex so the route didn’t always follow the roads exactly and I struggled. I made it back and rolled into nothing, was I unexpectedly early? I sat on the grass and the chap who finished 2nd just before me sat down for a chat, I loved the fact he was also smoking a cigarette having just ridden so far – only in Italy! In the end my GPS track stated it was 308km and 6700m of climbing. Then the commentator appeared and announced I was third back. I tried to say the others had all stopped in a cafe because there was no food so it wasn’t a race!!
I enjoyed myself lying in the sun all day napping and eating gelato and drinking free beer, while Marion rode the 150km route. Like my 300km her event had its frustrations but she had a great day out with actually much more gravel than the 300km route and during daylight the views were great too. She teamed up with a new friend and they slowly enjoyed their ride around the lake. He got 3 punctures and she had her Garmin battery go flat so they just took their time and enjoyed where they were riding. Meanwhile I was getting worried at the finish, waiting nervously for her as I had only received a text saying her GPS battery had died and she might get lost! I couldn’t drive the hire car either to go and look for her!
Finally just as I was panicking a bit more they rolled over the line together. By all accounts they were far from the last finishers. The climbing was much higher than advertised (3500m) and the route was more challenging so unlike the 300km which was actually much quicker and easier it seemed the 150km took them all longer than planned!
Personally I won’t enter the Jeroboam in 2018 and I would hesitant to recommend the event for next year to any one looking for a gravel challenge! Yes we got our monies worth with some nice goodies, like a bottle of sparkling wine, a cool bike cap which I love and we did discover an amazing location to ride bikes – only 3 hours door to door from Edinburgh. However if I came back again I would bring a bivvy bag, sleep under the stars and do it myself (and maybe on road tyres)!
While chatting to others at the finish we were really surprised by the 95% gravel and strange mix of mountain bike terrain and then tarmac – it was like it averaged out to gravel! It was a shame to miss the views riding so much in the dark but then again the experience of riding all night and watching the sun rise is not one I’ll forget.
Here is my video diary from the event: