by Wimpie van der Merwe
The Mille Miglia (Thousand Miler) is not called the toughest randonée in Europe for nothing. It is held once every four years. This is a race or ride, depending how you approach the monster, where you climb 16,000m over 1,600 km in sweltering heat. Combine with that the fact that you have to navigate the whole distance mostly on your own for up to five days, whilst sleep-deprived. Add to that the factor that where you travel you are mostly not understood and neither do you understand the locals. Of the close to 600 entrants eventually 400 finished in the prescribed cut-off time of 140 hours.
As in any event like this the preparation demands a multi-year cycling background and a focussed preparation of at least 8 months. Through Audax South Africa several long distance events are organised throughout the year to prepare body and mind for an event like this. You start with the kindergarten distance of 200 km, progressing rapidly to 300, 400, 600 and eventually to the mature 1,000 km rides. By now you know whether you are crazy enough to attempt an event like the ‘Thousand Miler’.
Only one South African has ridden the Mille Miglia before, in 2011, namely Chris van Zyl. He convinced me to join him in the fourth edition. Our preparation included the Cape 1000 in April 2016. I am fully convinced that to be successful in events like these you should have only 1 brain cell. Any additional cells would want to know why you do this and the first will not be able to answer them. During the Cape 1,000 we consciously tried not to entertain the ‘second brain cell’, because we were tested to our limits. It was an exceptional hard and thorough test of what was about to come during the 2016 Mille Miglia. Anyone ought to be able to complete these endurance events physically, but the challenge arises in the mental sphere. You cannot prepare for that, except to have tremendous respect for the distance and what lies ahead. Chris and I have found that once you become cocky and too self-confident you will pay your dues later!
Our preparation in the southern hemisphere meant going directly into the peak of summer from out of our cold and wet winters, with a difference of more than 20 C. Acclimatising to the hot weather before the time was impossible. Eventually it was this factor that affected me negatively the most during the ride. The gradient of some of the passes exceed the steepest climbs we have available to prepare on. You know you are in trouble when you have to zig-zag up the climbs because you have run out of gears. Gradients of up to 19% were not uncommon.
Both Chris and I are Paris-Brest-Paris anciennes (Ou Manne). This experience was put to good use in preparing for the event. We have a similar minimalist approach to carry-ons, meaning anything you carry with you for being self-reliant has to be the absolute minimum. Whatever you carry with you has to be multi-functional. You have to be prepared to take risks to leave something behind that you might need. You cannot over-cater for all events and ‘what ifs’.
Through experience you get to know what causes a panic when something goes wrong, especially when you are sleep deprived, hungry, thirsty and not sure whether you are on the right route. In cases like these when something goes wrong it can cause total meltdown and you abandoning the ride. This hierarchy of needs determines what you pack and what you leave. On top of our list was our need for battery power for navigation and communication. In the 2015 PBP event I wasted about 10 hours wandering around the French countryside because I did not have navigational equipment. This time both Chris and I bought 4 x 20,000 mA battery banks that would fulfil the need to keep our electronics charged. We ordered them through a mail order and it arrived just a day or two before departure. We only found out during the ride that they were Chinese duds and we were stuck to charging cell phones and Garmins at control points, slowing us down unnecessarily. Having navigation was non-negotiable. You thus needed to calculate at what point you have enough juice in the battery before continuing to the next control. It was an expensive lesson learnt.
Until just before the Miglia I was not on FaceBook. Friends convinced me to share the experience with a wider audience than just a Whatsapp group. Therefore I needed data communication and power to my phone whilst riding. Having the task of reporting whilst riding kept my sanity and helped to create memory markers along the way. Our experience is that the subconscious becomes so traumatised that it wilfully suppresses the experiences and in the process the history of the ride. Taking photos and looking at it later calls up the memories that I otherwise would not have remembered. The whole trip is a vague recollection. You were so involved in the inner conversation to maintain sanity during this period that you hardly had time to make provision for a chronological recollection of your experiences. Videos made during the ride will thus still be in my FB profile.
You do not enter an event like this with the possibility that equipment can fail. Have the best for the purpose. Best does not mean lightest, but the most durable. It should not be something that is so high-tech that you cannot repair it in the ride yourself, e.g. something as simple as replacing a spoke. If you have wheels where you need to do open heart surgery to access the nipples you should rather leave them behind and go ‘old school’.
A lesson well learnt was the choice of the correct saddle for events like these. It is not the ride itself that takes its toll on your south pole, but the daily hours in the saddle before the event. Once you are bruised or chafed you don’t have the luxury of laying off for a while. You have to repair whilst training. I therefore made a decision to stick my testosterone up somewhere and get myself a ‘lazy-boy’ saddle. It does not do my macho image any good, but towards the halfway mark of the rides I watch those guys with their macho lightweight carbon and leather saddles moving about as if they have ants in their pants. The saddle that suits you is the best find you can make for rides exceeding 5 hours at a time.
To successfully finish an event like the Mille Miglia you need to be a MacGyver, an innovator, someone who can improvise with nothing to repair something. You have to think out of the box, because you are fully self-reliant. You cannot receive outside help, except within the control areas.
I planned my trip so that I can adjust my sleeping pattern to a late wake-up and late to bed by being in Milan a couple of days in advance. I spent the first day meandering through the countryside and visiting the northern lakes of Italy, Como and Varese. The ride provided the needed muscle stimulation and through sweating got rid of excess fluid.
You need to realise that when you expend the amount energy as we do and then stop exercising the excess water makes you bloated and causes stiff and shortened muscles. Rest days are active days. During the ride I burnt about 45,000 cal, but did not consume close to that through my diet. Much of it had to come from muscle and the bit of fat I had left.
Chris van Zyl arrived the next day and after settling in at his hotel we went shopping for provisions. Most of the times we provided for ourselves from the local supermarkets. It is cost effective and we had a greater variety of foodstuffs for feeding our worms! The appetite you develop is so huge that we seriously considered deworming. With confidence I can say that we eat only once a day and that is the whole day. Your legs do the pedalling and your jaws the non-stop munching.
We went for the registration to collect our race numbers and route maps. Unlike other rides I experienced the atmosphere more relaxed, perhaps because the setting was in a monastery.
The start was set for 16 August at last light. A couple of hours before the start there was a pasta party for all and the race briefing in the sports arena. If you did not understand Italian it was of no value.
Each group was separated with about 10 mins. Chris and I opted for the third group, giving us something to chase and not to be caught up with the fish & chips from the start. The eventual winner emerged from our group.
On our way to our first food control at Massa Finalese our group got lost due to an incorrect Garmin track provided by the organisers. Some of the local riders who knew the area immediately went for the route they knew. There was confusion in the group. The last thing you want to do is follow riders who are lost. Chris got joined up with the small group of riders who thought the Garmin track was correct, until they too ended up on a farm road. Sensing the split, the group kept the pace at close to 40 km/h. I realised that if Chris and I got split up here it would not be good for both our efforts since we carry equipment and provisions both of us needed from one another. After about an hour Chris caught us from behind. I believe if he was saved this effort he would have been a contender for the top 5.
The first control for provisions is normally the control that breaks the big group up in small pieces. From there on the riders proceed in pairs or singles. This is a phenomenon I still need to understand. If the riders stayed in larger groups, giving one another time to eat and go to the toilet and restart together they would eventually ride a faster time. Chris and I had some chow and refilled our bottles and were from the last to start in our group. We hooked up with Claus from Germany and we proceeded on to the next control at Lugo di Romagna as day was breaking.
As the ride is long and the end is far and knowing that there are ominously high and steep passes soon to come you are focused on a couple of things. You need to ride within your capacity. As fatigue sets in due to various factors, some which you can control and others you can’t, you need to slow down or take appropriate action before grinding to a halt. On the other side you are riding with two other riders, who you can draft, but perhaps they are riding too fast and if any of them blow up they will be the cause of your misfortune. Do you let go of them or do you stick to them hoping you don’t pay interest later?
With these ongoing conversations in your mind you have to see to it that you never stop drinking and eating, always stay within the set heart rate effort and make a conscious effort to take in the scenery. You have to remind fellow riders of the same because you need one another. This literally is a case of survival. If you help your fellow competitors last longer you will last longer.
At a control Claus informed us he needs a rest and we should continue on our own. We were at the heat of day and in the distance we could see the foothills of the dreaded Apennine mountains, separating Italy between from top to bottom. We have been on the go for a day by now with the sun setting. We were lying in positions 34 and 35 with the leaders a couple of hours before us.
The Mountains arrive
What a pity one has to travel by night, missing the beauty of the Italian countryside. I studied classical history as part of my Greek and Latin training. I now know why the Romans chose to stay where they stayed: because it is beautiful. The country’s architecture is awesome. The countryside has a smell of its own. It is an old and well established world. It appeals to me and to the senses in general. Gaining height on the mountain passes opens up vistas of the countryside. Unfortunately you had no idea where you were so that you could revisit those particular villages. Your subconscious was continuously drawing you to your Garmin, which was set to inform you when to turn left or right, so you could not really get absorbed into sightseeing.
Day and night wove into one. My body was dehydrated, but when I wanted to drink I could not keep anything down. I knew I was in trouble and could see that Chris was sensing this too. At Dicomano he did what he could to nurse me out of my bad spot by waiting longer at the control with me as what he needed to and I realised I was keeping him back. I then had a man to man talk with him and told him that if he wanted to win the race he would have to do something he has never done before. We were halfway and he could still catch the leaders, but then he cannot afford the luxury of any sleep for the rest of the way.
After Todi everything came apart. I dropped behind Chris, whilst he continued towards the control. Instead of him waiting next to the road it made sense that he at least charge his batteries. I sat down next to the road on the pass and started vomiting severely. I had nothing left in my stomach. Whenever I drank water I just brought it all up again. I perceived the symptoms of heat exhaustion and knew I had to change strategy. The sun was not my friend. I had to ride at night.
I limped in to Bolsena. I was in a poor state. The staff at the control wrote me the instructions in English of how to get on the train, what time, platform, town to get off, train swopping, which bus to take and everything needed to reach my destination in Milan. In their minds I was a Did Not Finish (DNF). I asked them just to allow me to put my head down for an hour or two until the sun sets. When the sun went under I got up to continue. It was great to communicate with a batch of followers on WAP, updating me on Chris’ status. He was about 200 km ahead of me. I left Bolsena in the last 125 of the field. I was now playing catch-up.
To survive this ordeal I had to play games with my mind and not my mind with me. I had to stay in control of the processes. I set myself a goal to take pictures whenever I wanted to and to experience the beauty of what I passed. My greatest concern was losing my way. My Garmin was charged but I was the only person on that road. Riders were kilometres apart from one another. I built this semi-spiritual relationship with my Garmin, praying that it will not fade on me and that it will lead me on favourable paths. I made deals with it, promising it that I will power it up at the next stop as long as it stays my reliable source of information. The route is planned on rural roads. There is hardly any traffic at night. If you get lost you won’t even realise it and I had to prevent myself from distrusting the Garmin. I had to keep a distance from my fatigued state of mind where I knew I am prone to make bad decisions and could experience hallucinations. You knew it would happen and you can’t do anything about it. I found that communicating with sane souls in SA and America on WAP throughout the ride brought me back to reality.
I realised how steep the passes were when I could not climb the ascent in my ninny gear anymore. I had to zig zag up a 19% incline. About an hour into the climb I realised that my Garmin was not moving and it was not moving for quite a while and in that time I passed many off roads to the left and right. I was so focused on my Garmin as navigation system that I hardly ever tried to look out for the painted arrows on the road. The reason my Garmin was not working was that I had lost GPS signal, because I was in such a remote mountainous area. This was the situation I dreaded. To know if I am on the correct route I shall have to trace my steps back and find arrows or until I find GPS. Had it been a flat road I would have considered turning back, but what if I was on the right road and I had to come all the way back that I have just covered?
Knowing from the previous year’s Paris-Brest-Paris where I lost my way several times, I lost it so badly on the last day that I found myself going back in the opposite direction, back to where I have come from! Eventually I linked up with a major arterial on the pass. I had to choose left or right at the T-junction. I decided for downhill. I had no clue whether I was on my way to my destination or riding away from it. Eventually I got my GPS back and found I was on track. None of the riders that I either caught or that passed me rode the road I did. Either I took the long or the short route. Till now I cannot find that part of the course! Nobody recalls riding a 19 percenter either.
My relationship with my Garmin took a bad turn when I realised that when the control staff charged my Garmin at Bolsena they did not give me back my USB cable. It was non-negotiable I had to charge my Garmin and I had to get an electronics shop soon so I can load my Garmin. I received instructions of how to find a shop in Siena. I drove around in this beautiful, most amazing city to find a computer shop. After doing more than 15 km of scouting and not becoming wiser I decided to look in the old city. I was prepared to buy a cable from an office PC whilst in use. This is where I found this bargain Chinese store. I just hoped I did not buy a dud as my Powerbanks. At Siena I rode the famous white Siena dirt road, a white powdery (possibly calcium or dolomite) on which many Italian professional races are held.
Even with my cable scouting and hiding from the sun I moved up into the first 100 again. Chris was about 120 km ahead. That would constitute 6-7 hours of riding.
Fighting the heat
The temperatures were around 40 C and in the valleys no breeze. This caused serious humidity. Wherever I could I bought something cold to drink, but I had no appetite. I was just praying for the day to pass so I could ride at night. I had a feeling everyone was doing it because I was passing no one and no one was passing me. I thought I was the lonely ranger, hadn’t it been for the continuous updates from my WAP group.
I arrived at the sleep control of Staffoli Cerbaie late afternoon of the third day, about 72 hours into the ride and having covered 1,120 km. I was in a broken state due to dehydration. I threw up and I had very concerned staff. The controls along the route were informed to look out for rider 366, because he might not arrive at the controls and they would have to go looking for him. I decided to take a nap until I felt better. At the control they put out some mattresses for riders to lie on, which was accessed by a flight of steel stairs.
I climbed the stairs to the sleeping area and when I woke up I was lying at the bottom of the stairs. I became unconscious and fell backwards down the stairs. Some of the riders were reviving me. I assured them I was ok. A couple of minutes later I passed out again, this time falling forwards flat on my face. Luckily there was no one to help or else they would have withdrawn me. At midnight I decided I had to get as much distance covered before the sun rises because the sun and I were going to have a serious meeting in the morning!
That night I rode the longest pass I have ever ridden, 45 km long. It crossed the river several times whilst zig-zagging the sides of the river valley. On my way down the other side of the mountain pass I nearly hit a reindeer at full speed. It was standing in the middle of the road. My lights were set on its weakest setting to save battery power so this deer did not see or hear me. I missed it with less than an arm’s length. This close encounter of the other kind was shortly made up for by the view of a citadel, lighted up on the other side of the valley.
At night everything seems so unreal. There are hardly any people. In your fatigued mind the imprinting is erasable. If it had not been for the photos and the videos posted onto FB these experiences would have been lost to my memory.
I was now in a part of Italy that I got to love. I can understand why Hannibal did not leave Italy or attack Rome, but stayed where we were riding. Tuscany was too darn beautiful!
Still weak from the previous night’s experiences I progressed steadily towards control 13, Gorfigliano. From a distance I could see the mountain tops, evidence of regularly being covered by snow in the winter. Here you got your food as part of your entry free, but you pay a Euro for your pip squeak Espresso! The worst climbing was still to come. They were not long passes, but in total ascent they were as much as the whole of the ride up to that point. You learnt to respect the course, because it can throw you a curve ball. That curve ball came in the form of trusting your track of the course more than other route indicators, supplied to you by the organisers, for your Garmin.
I arrived at the top of a plateau. At the bottom I saw the Mediterranean for the first time. In the bay was this exquisite Roman town, Deiva. I could imagine the Romans taking their winter holidays there away from the urbs. To reach my next control my Garmin track said I had to go down the pass of about 4 km, have my card stamped and return up the hill. I arrived at the designated address where the control should have been, but no one knew of anything and they assured me I was not the first to enquire about a ‘control of some sort’. After some Italians peered over my route instructions they pointed out that the address is at the top of the pass where I admired the view. I would have to return there.
At that point I was mad. I was prepared to phone the organisers to come and collect me and take me back up the pass. It was their mistake that I was sitting down here. I had to find a way to get myself motivated to crawl up that steep pass again. It was sweltering hot. Their route indicator, which was incorrect, brought me to this pub as control. I asked the bar tender to give me his largest beer. I gulped it down in one swig. I ordered another one. He looked at me and warned me of the consequences of too much drinking. I assured him that I was not anaesthetised enough to make it up the pass yet.
At the control I hid from the sun until late afternoon. Here I met a delightful British adventurer, Daniel Moores. He is sponsored to travel around the world and then share his adventures with his sponsors. He and I decided to ride to the finish together. The hours felt like minutes. We decided to get some shut-eye at the second last control and then press through to the finish in the morning, on our fifth day. The last control was at the memorial of the late Fausto Coppi, renowned Italian cyclist.
In my pre-race check list I warn myself that as you become tired you become forgetful, do stupid things you otherwise never would have done. I go through a ritual to feel if I packed everything I should when I leave a control, café or table. Irrespective of that, last year on PBP, at the last control, before Paris, I forgot my money, cards and cash and some valuables on the counter with the barrista as I paid him for my coffee. I turned around and walked away. The honest man had my valuables returned to me in Paris soon after I arrived.
After leaving Castelania I felt exceptionally comfortable. I ascribed it to the fact that the weather was cooler and I could drink about 2 litres of iced tea which hydrated me. At about 50 km away from the control it dawned on me why I was feeling so, I forgot my stringy-thingy rucksack somewhere. All my valuables like money, passport, food, spares, etc, everything essential for me finishing the ride successfully were in that bag. During the night I stopped several times too and took off the bag from my back, put it on the ground, did what I needed to and could not remember whether I actually put it back on. Knowing that I was taking many selfies I glanced through the gallery to see where was the last time I had a photo with my bag on my back. Luckily it was at the last control. By now Chris had finished. I phoned him and he organised that it be brought to the finish. I realise, even if you take all precautions and are prepared for mistakes like these, during a fatigued state, you will still make them. Be prepared for it and adapt around it.
Chris had his first nap and shower and was at the finish line to receive me as I came in under the first odd 80 riders. He managed to finish the distance in 90:38 hours and I came in at 110 hours.
Finishing the ride with a sane mind was a great relief! I would love to do more Italian rides to explore this beautiful country. Just to complete this event in the required cut-off time is an accomplishment. In comparison to Paris-Brest-Paris it is exponentially tougher and requires a climbing capacity as cyclist. However, PBP should be on the bucket list of all cyclists. It is a cycling pilgrimage. Mille Miglia should be done for the sheer challenge. It is extreme. It is tough. It reveals who you are. The ride is a source that will keep your grand children entertained with all the stories you can share with them!
A report like this will not be complete if the story of food and the need for it afterwards are not included. You need plenty of that afterwards. You become ravenous within 24 hours. It is as if you have a dark hole where matter just disappears into, as if you have this tape-worm the size of your arm. It seems never to stop eating. Chris and I were constantly buying food. Standing in line to pay at the supermarkets you become hungry and thirsty and start eating your provisions. By the time you should pay you have already eaten most of it. Then you have to return to the shelves to fill up your basket again! You offer the cashier empty wrapper papers with bar codes on when you reach the till. Provisions that ought to have lasted for a day and a half lasted for one meal.
For my return trip to SA I needed to make provision for the lack of enough food on the flight and me having manners not to ask for meals more than 4 times in a row. I bought nearly a kilo of M&M’s and polished most of it even before boarding.
To survive the wait before departure I made a restaurant safari at the airport. I too informed my friends in South Africa of my predicament, namely that I am worm infested and need a serious and urgent deworming. My friend, Jurie, on his way to fetch me at the airport, stopped at the butcher and bought me a kilo of biltong. I stay about a half an hour from the airport. The biltong was past tense by the time we reached home! That is the casualty of cycling, becoming a ravenous monster…