A cracked road, plants creeping into the asphalt, leaving only a small corridor to pass. I stopped for a moment to drink and soak in the view. A jungle, wild green to the sides of the road and a coastline afar, not visible, a hint of sea buzzing through the hot air. I could almost taste it, but maybe I just imagined this because I knew I was close to the ferry, which would take us riders towards the mainland. The ferry! It marked the end of my short encounter with Sicily, which had been quite impressive. After an exhausting but comparably flat stretch of the route along the coastline, including my very first typical Two Volcano Sprint route Highlights – pushing through a dried riverbed over huge stones and getting lost there in a dead end of bushes – I climbed up hand over hand into the heat of dried hinterlands.
The route certainly didn't take the direct way, and while knowing Messina could just be a stone's throw away, all of us had to climb up beautiful but redundant hills. The street signs, repeatedly stating the direct distance to Messina, were another nice twist to make it harder – as they always pointed towards comfortable, descending roads – of course in the exact opposite direction of our seemingly never ending ascent on crackled surface. Soon I was mostly through with the climbing section, but just before a feeling of relieve could settle in, a short look on my phone crushed all hopes for a chilled descend. I had noted the times for the ferry and if I didn't want to wait, loosing precious time whilst other riders could catch up, I would have to hurry. I had unplugged my headphones on the climb, as the street was narrowly winding around the hills, and the word „pothole“ can only function as a fair understatement for the road condition. It was impossible to see oncoming cars due to the jungle and the bending narrow path would be not a good place to meet an unexpected driver. I was alert with all senses.
Despite knowing I would have to speed up to catch the ferry, I took every corner carefully, braking around bigger potholes until I finally reached the outskirts of Messina. Hammering down the streets, balancing around tourist-tanks, following the line of the local moped drivers (they are the ones to learn from how to survive in Italian traffic), I felt a thrilled rush of excitement. Back in my hometown Berlin I don't enjoy riding in traffic at all, as the German approach towards sharing the road with cyclists is often very aggressive. Not so in the South of Italy, I adapted pretty soon to the impulsive rhythm that has not much to do with traffic laws. It's more of dance and despite some would call it reckless driving, I was never scared anyone would hit me with their car. If there was space, someone would take it, nonetheless it was a silent agreement that this rule counted for everyone – including cyclists, moped drivers and pedestrians. I saw it as a giving and taking, very much like a Cha Cha Cha. More than once was I fascinated by the courage of old Italian ladies or gentlemen, crossing a full traffic road with ease, while everyone waited patiently (honking doesn't count, it is more some kind of encouragement) for them to go their way. Whereas it was easy to spot the tourists, as they were more often not accustomed to this codex and after I overcame my first irritation with the Italian interpretation of traffic laws, I was slightly amused by the look on their terrified faces. As a cyclist you don't have much choice but to adapt to the local traffic very quickly – it's a natural side effect of surviving.
When I finally arrived at the harbor, a bunch of other riders were already nervously looking for the way - I wasn't the only one who seemed to be in a hurry. When we finally got on, our ferry had quite some delay, so all the stress had been pretty useless. I went for the bathroom to put on warmer clothes, as the upcoming night would bring cold temperatures and I didn't want to waste time later on. My saddle sore wasn't as bad as expected, so I tried to be optimistic, disinfected the nasty bits and continued to ignore it as much as possible. Still, it was far from ideal and I knew it would be a tough night. As with most things during cycling, whether in a race or not, the best idea is a stoical approach: focus on things which are in your control and simply ignore everything else. My task now was therefore to concentrate on getting food for the night. Of course I met other riders in front of the food vending machines, staring at sandwiches, debating if we should or shouldn't go for them. They didn't look very promising with their bloated plastic packages and an overall grayish appeal. So despite my experience with opportunities during bikepacking (rule number one: never ditch a good option to refuel, especially if you don't know when the next chance will occur, don't ditch any option, even if it's shady.) I decided to wait for the supermarket.
It's a thin line and a balanced decision between A: getting food poisoning or B: maybe not finding the right food in the supermarket. So it's a bit like in Kierkegaard's famous quote: "I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both."
When the ferry arrived at Italy's mainland, all of our GPS devices didn't have any signal, so we started slowly orientating, but soon the group was spread all over the route again.
Stopping at a supermarket I realized it had in fact been a major mistake to not take the goddamn sandwich from the snack vending machine on the ferry – as there was nothing for me and my upset stomach in the small grocery shop. The problem with food during races is, it needs to be eatable on the bike while also being easily digestible. This can mean totally different things for every person – for example I stay away from dairy products, which makes the range of available foods considerably smaller – especially in Italy. During former races and trips I had been downright eager to try all kinds of unconventional foods, including eating cold microwave foods and mixing my very own instant-espresso-ricepuddings. But all that isn't an option when you already have stomach issues and the pressure of time is ticking like a bomb.
I went out of the store with some gummibears and the deep knowing that this had been a complete waste of time. An old acquaintance made a request to give unwanted advice.
“ So this is how you do it – again. Wasting time for unnecessary food stops, while there will probably be dozens of pizzerias and bars to refuel way better than with sweets – of which you still have enough blocking your food pouch. How much food do you want to carry up these hills? You are not in the desert, this is Italy!”
For once my inner race director was right. Still, I had spotted this hoarding behaviour in other ultra endurance riders too, bonking scenarios sometimes leave a trauma in some of us, it seems. It has always stunned me how one can get into the worst kind of food and water scarcity in the middle of central Europe, in places where you wouldn't expect to face the danger of dehydration or extreme bonking. But it had happened to me and others, it happens to the best in the most ridiculous places. My top 3 to not go with severe loads of food stashes: South of France (not the coastline, but the area where all you see for miles are signs saying “lavendre+miel”- seriously, I nearly passed out there), Uckermark, Germany (there is basically nothing and no one lives there) and Switzerland (there are enough refueling options, but one meal there costs a small fortune).
Night came suddenly and I had forgotten to get my reflective vest out of my saddle bag during the ferry ride. Now stopping and fishing for it in my bag while riders from the next ferry group already passed me, was more than annoying, but reflective vests were mandatory so I tried to keep calm, despite my mood.
A beautiful village marked the beginning of the next savage monster climb, where a bulb of cyclists already besieged a small Pizzeria. My racedirector just nodded. “See? Told ya.”
I stocked up on Arancini and was baffled to see a few riders ordering pizza, sitting down for beer. When I left they wished me a good ride, “take care in the dark” whereas I was even in a worse mood, stuffing my bags with snacks for the night, feeling a deep wish to join them and just sit, relax and take it all a bit easier. But my racedirector had no mercy, telling me I had to stick to my schedule of at least doing 250km and 5000 meters of elevation the first day.
The following climb was endless, dark and as unforgiving as expected. It got a bit nicer due to repeatedly meeting Peter and Andrea on the way up, so some parts were chatted away. Around kilometer 220 I passed a hotel where parts of the Two Volcano Sprint crew had settled down for the night. Talking to one of the girls from the crew lifted my mood and I was really tempted to stay and just call it a day, especially as my saddle sore had gotten worse from the climbing. I knew there was a hotel, slightly off the route in a tiny village named Delianuova at kilometer 250-ish, but I called them earlier and they would only wait until 11pm for me to check in. With still 30 pretty demanding kilometers to go I had not much time to reflect on pros or cons. My faint suspicion was that this was once more a “regret either decision” situation, so I gave into the urging voice inside my tired head and continued.
I had just reached the next bend of the climb when it started to rain. Obviously I hadn't expected to regret my choice this soon. But there was no turning back. Riding back to the hotel seemed like even more of a regretful thing to do at this point.
Oh boy. What did I know.
Looking back this was the major mistake of my whole race and I think it would've been a completely different experience if I had just turned back to that hotel, slept a few hours, ditched the storm that came up, gave my saddle sore some rest and started fresh the next morning. If you ever need to know anything about saddle sore it's this: don't ever, I repeat, don't ever ride never ending climbs in soaking wet bibs. I knew that before, but I didn't expect the weather to turn this horrific.
In the end it's always easy to see the mistakes in the aftermath, while in the very moment one is often just too damn caught up in the whole thing.
As I crept up the gradient, rain soon started to feel more like hail, and before I knew what was happening the sensation of icy needles began to pinch my face. It was time to make use of the cycling cap, armored with the lucky number 24 over my eyes I made my way up through an ice cold hailstorm. The climb seemed endless and a few hours later I knew I wouldn't make it to the hotel in Delianuova until 11pm. My butt was now hurting like hell and I couldn't stand the pain any more, mostly riding out of the saddle, which I had trained in anticipation of climbing 6000m of elevation with saddle sore per day, but still, it was exhausting, so I was stopping often just for a few moments, only to let the torture begin again. Just ride until the next road sign, only until the next corner, just make it up the next hundred meters, were the mantras and my head was empty enough to not think further. As the night moved on, the temperatures dropped down to 3 degrees Celsius and even less. When I finally arrived at the top of the climb, I didn't feel relieved but scared to ride down, knowing the windchill would make the descend a freezing nightmare. Additionally to the cold rain it was foggy at the top. Chestnuts and branches on the road paired with the typical potholes slowed me down, and at some point I had to stop and put on my down jacket. I had avoided this until then, because I didn't want to loose more time to reach the hotel and getting off the bike seemed even more dangerous due to the temperatures. With soaked feet, freezing, I was hardly able to move my fingers and it took me ages to get my jacket out of the bag. Unlike my usual habit, I had stopped in the middle of nowhere, with no light, so I held my front light between my teeth to see something while the cold rain poured down on me. Usually I only stop in villages with a bit of light, but this was beyond planning or thinking. At this point the body dictates whats next and everything you learned or planned beforehand vanishes. There's just one set up for your brain: Do what needs to be done. It's probably some kind of survival mode, even if my situation was not dramatically life threatening. Still, hypothermia is not something to be underestimated, even in a comparably safe setting.
I had noticed, despite feeling cold, I stopped shivering while I felt very tired and my vision had shrunk down to some sort of tunnel view. I felt numb and for some reason a very tiny, last active brain cell in my tired head knew, I had to get to the hotel as fast as possible – but without my down jacket I would probably not get there at all. After I kitted up in everything I had with me, I just had to descend to Delianuova, now in panic mode, feeling like I would die of hypothermia. It may sound ridiculous but this panic mode may have saved me several times before. There are certainly more relaxed minded riders out there, but for me it had always worked okayish to hit the panic button every once in a while, so why change it. That's actually one interesting observation I made during bikepacking races – every emotion has it's moment and most feelings have their purpose. It's all about the right timing.
Talking about timing, I got lost in the narrow streets of Delianuova, as my bikecomputer tends to loose signal often in exactly those situations where I need it the most. Right after I started to cry I found the Hotel, where a dimmed light shone behind the reception. The night porter had waited one hour longer and I was too tired to say anything but grazie mille repeatedly while I was dripping onto the floor. My room was simple and I was just happy to be out of the cold and started to charge my stuff even before getting out of the wet clothes. I had learned my lesson during the Three Peaks Bike Race a few months ago, when I fell asleep right after taking a hot bath without charging my phone and powerbanks. Needless to say I overslept and woke up with empty powerbanks and a time deficit that completely destroyed any effort beforehand.
Since then I changed priorities: A few more minutes in wet clothes probably won't kill me, whereas a night without recharging my electronic devices is most likely to break my neck race-wise.
After I plugged in all the devices, I began to peel of the wet and freezing cold layers, now shaking in the cold room, as there was no heater. I stumbled towards the shower, letting it rinse for minutes, desperate for some hot water. But it was freezing cold, even after 10 minutes there was not even the slightest change in temperature. I resigned, just briefly wiping my body with cold water and a towel, hoping for it to be a night time issue and expecting the shower to get warm in the morning.
With stiff limbs I fell in to the bed, which had just thin bed sheets, like it's common in Mediterranean areas. Luckily I found a woolen blanket in the wardrobe, but I was still shivering. Now it was time to make use of my sleepingbag, and additionally, as I was so unbelievably cold, I even unpacked one of the rescue blankets I carried with me. With one bed sheet, a woolen blanket, a down sleepingbag AND a rescue blanket I could finally get warm enough to fall asleep.
I set my alarm for 4am, only three hours of sleep, and somehow I knew this was not going to work on top of this nightmare, having started the race already sleep deprived. I woke up from the sound of cycling shoes in the hallway and the clicking rhythm of a freehub. Of course, I wasn't the only one of the riders who sought shelter here. I was too tired to even look at the clock and fell asleep again, feeling guilty and somehow full of shame for staying in bed while that unknown rider was starting the day. My alarm went off ten minutes later, but it was pointless. After excessively snoozing for about two hours I started to have thoughts of quitting.
The waking up is always the worst part. I felt like quitting every morning, in every race so far. It's like ripping apart, finding the will to continue after freezing all night, being nothing but a painful mess, and don't ask what hurts the most, it's a bruised torment through and through, every fiber, every single body cell screams in agony and dare those who are crazy enough to rebel against this.
I never understood why people have the urge to quit at night, I love the nights, they are quiet and peaceful and most of the time I enjoy them a lot. But the mornings, damn.
That's the time where hell is open and all the demons dance.
I didn't feel much like dancing when I finally crept out of bed, already shivering again and longing for some hot water from the shower. But still, nothing but cold, cold water. I was angry, disappointed, in pain, I didn't care for my saddle sore or the race anymore, all I wanted was to leave this place and write the meanest google review ever. I didn't write a review, but I cursed a lot when I left the hotel and slowly made my way through the peaceful streets of Delianuova. In a small shop I tried to get some breakfast, but it was too early, there was just a woman who cleaned the floor. She told me she wasn't allowed to sell me bread or cheese since she wasn't the owner of the shop. It was ironic, it was all there, ham, panini, cheese. However, it was still wrapped and not available for me. I knew the woman would get into trouble if she would sell me some of the desired cheese, so if I'd wanted some food I'd just have to wait -which was quite obviously nothing you'd seriously consider during a race. I often got into situations while bikepacking where strangers gifted me food, but I also had the exact opposite situations. Being stranded in villages with people who are caught up in their every day life, in their convenience, unaware of what it means to be hungry, what it means to be cold, what it means to fear to die from dehydration. Who can blame them, there were times when I didn't know what that meant. I thought of a situation in another race, where I ran out of food in the night until it got really bad in the morning. I came through villages with nice houses, all very neat and tidy, and I met a man in front of his house. I said “Buenos dias, do you know where I can get some food and water? I cycled all night and I'm really exhausted, there seems no where to buy something. “
He shook his head slowly, “no, there's nothing around here.”
I felt completely alienated and the distance between my reality and his couldn't have been further apart. He didn't even think about offering me some water and I didn't dare to ask in that moment. Who was I to ask him for something and why should he care? I had put myself in this lousy situation and this wasn't the Tour de France, I was just a random cyclist who got lost. Being a stranger has so many facets and while it certainly isn't the rule, not being welcome is also a part of traveling. Even though it doesn't always feel good, I think it's valuable for life to know what this means.
I returned to my bike and after cycling for a few meters out of town, I realized my saddle sore would not let me continue. It was so painful I could hardly sit, so I got even more angry.
There are three types of saddle sore, the first stage, some small abrasion which will just leave a burning sensation. The second stage which is already a bit deeper but still is mostly a problem of the outer skin layers. And then there is stage three, the one where an abscess builds up deep under the skin, a stage which isn't going to heal over night and often requires surgery. The three stages aren't necessarily building up on each other, at this point I had nearly no stage 1-2, just a very swollen version of stage 3. The problem with stage 3 is, it isn't only very painful, but it also involves the risk of more serious conditions - in the worst case it can lead to a sepsis. Usually it takes a while to reach this state but on the road it isn't always so easy to examine and assess the status of your own butt. The misery had started during the Three Peaks Bike Race a few weeks earlier, where excruciating heat and rain had done their part during the 2700km race to make cycling more painful than I had ever experienced. Unfortunately it didn't have enough time to heal properly between the two events but I still went to the start of the Two Volcano Sprint with the ignorance of optimism. Reasons for saddle sore are not always, as often suspected, bad hygiene, which of course can be a contributing factor, but more often develop from mechanical friction, resulting from either a bad bike fit or a nasty bib. Bacteria, which is always a part of the skin, even in the most hygienic setting and usually isn't a problem on healthy skin, can then enter deeper into the body and cause inflammation. In my case it was due to a slightly changed fit a few months ago (not a decision of free choice but a result of unavailable bike parts) and a nasty bib, but I found out the part with the bib way too late. If you ever buy cycling shorts, make sure there is no seam under the chamois exactly where your seat bones are, like in the Castelli Premio black. I know, how could I not realize this. Well, it turns out that being able to endure pain isn't always a trait and sometimes a bib may be close to perfect – apart from a single seam that slowly works itself into your flesh. At that point I suspected the change of my crank length plus apocalyptic weather as the main factor in giving me the saddle sore of my life, which was only half the story. I found out way later that even very expensive bibs can be evil and in combination with ultra distances, a lot of climbing, heat, rain and a changed position on the bike, this can be the perfect recipe for a nightmare.
Not enough, the sun came out and I started to sweat in my down jacket, which I had put on after leaving the hotel, shivering from the cold night. I couldn't fit it in my saddle pack, everything seemed to go against me, and in a burst of anger I screamed and decided to throw away my inflatable pillow and a mini deodorant as soon as I found a bin. Now the jacket fitted. I wheezed like someone who had just fought a bull, and after sitting on my saddle I stopped again, screaming once more. I was nearly crying but I was too angry. In that second I remembered what a friend had told me, how he used to put foot blister patches on his saddle sore. I always thought this was a bit insane, because under that plaster bacteria could grow like in a greenhouse. But I had nothing to loose, so I pulled out the hand sanitizer, poured a good shot on my hand, reached into my bib and smacked it on my ass, right there on the street, I didn't even unclip my right foot.
Then I got out my medical tape, which I initially brought to tape my fingers on rough tarmac, and taped the abscess in a crisscross pattern. No friction, no problem. Additionally I took two Ibuprofen and ate one crumbled mini-cake I still had in my foodpouch, which wasn't the breakfast I had hoped for, but I had to get something in my stomach with the painkillers. When I started to ride again I was surprised to soon feel a bit less like crying, my butt got numb after a while and for the first time since the start of the race I could pedal without excruciating pain. Was it necessary to scream? Yes. Was it necessary to get angry? Hell yes. Because with that anger I found enough drive to make the decisions that were needed. When you have nothing to lose anymore, that's when the real part begins - it's all about timing. If I hadn't been angry, I would have carried that stupid pillow around with me forever and even more ridiculously, the deodorant. I wouldn't have dared to tape my ass and the saddle sore would have continued to get even worse. I had every reason to be angry after such a night and it helped me to figure out a way to ride back to the route and continue the race. Lisa 1, demons 0.
I felt better and better, cycling into a beautiful morning, with a warming sun glimmering through olive trees. After a while I arrived in a little village with a bar that was already open, where a bunch of friendly looking men drank coffee. I ordered two filled croissants - it was pure heaven, even though I'm not a fan of sweet breakfast, but at this point it was all I could ask for. The gentleman to my right even spoke English and cheered me up with a few encouraging words. He told me the weather would be much better from now on, and when I was checking the fridge for something to drink, the guy behind the bar made a gesture to hand him my bidons. I didn't even have to ask for water, and while I was still blissfully chewing my croissant, the friendly stranger next to me at the bar invited me for another Espresso.
I smiled when I left the bar. The irony of this morning had turned into a gift:
Knowing, this was anything but granted.