I should have know better.

By now on the last day and thinking it’s all done. Only one simple climb “Passo di Ganda” left and CCC Dolomites 2013 was done. My top tube sticker says 9km with an average of 6.5% topping out at 1100m .. pffft. In the Dolomites 6.5% is one of the easier climbs.

Our ride notes say “The Ganda climb, used in the 2011 Giro, is not exactly a walk in the park but by now you may or may not be sure if you want all this to end or not”.

Our bright yellow life lines point right into a tight lane within some village which promptly put us in front of a piece of road well over 15%, after taming that and before a set of mellower looking switch backs we pulled over to remove some layers.

We had a laugh – this was classic Phil – and then our little yellow signs pointed to the left into something that looked like someones merciless driveway. No driveway – just typical, dramatic Italian. A 25%+ rough finished layer of concrete with deep horizontal lines cut in for traction.

This little bit of fun was full gas. The only option.

Cent Cols Challenge is an immense undertaking. 10 days, 1963.3km going over 100 cols/passos and climbing 51,873m of vertical gain. All done in 88 hours and 12 minutes of time in the saddle.

“Forget where you have come from and don’t worry about where we are going; what you have come to find is ‘right now’. Not the next climb, not the next hour, nor the next day. The here and now. The Journey has begun.” – excerpt from CCC Dolomites Ride Book.

One of the strongest past CCC riders, a guy named Mike Simpson told organisers that CCC Pyrenees is 25% harder then the CCC Alps and that CCC Dolomites was 50% harder then the Pyrenees.

I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed but there was the underlying seed of doubt – was I prepared enough?

On the 16th of July I was diagnosed with Celiacs disease and up until that point training had been somewhat challenging since March. Some days I would be feeling great, others left me with major cases of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), continuous brain fog and a feeling like I was starting my life’s training journey from scratch.

My head kept questioning how I would cope without regular sports nutrition or the typical refined affair for energy needs of riding 8-10 hours a day for 10 days. I knew that I’m well ‘fat adapted’ and it would certainly help, but would it be enough? Questions that would surely be answered.

Luckily for me I not only had 9 days riding in the French Alps to get the legs in some shape for a lot of climbing but also time to test my fuelling with the help of Steph Lowe of The Natural Nutritionist.

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The other worrying part was going to Italy, the land of bread and pasta.

For the most part I didn’t need to worry. Italians are well versed in celiacs disease and all I needed to say was Io Sono Celiaco and I would be typically given a “sì” no problem and would be catered for.

Time flies in a blink of an eye. I’m finishing this post two weeks since we rolled back into San Pellegrino Terme and some 9 months after receiving an email from my friend and riding buddy Raoul De Jongh asking if I was keen to do CCC Dolomites.

It didn’t take much (any) arm twisting.

A quick look over the cols we would climb revealed that there was no Stelvio listed. Like two people in-tune we both came back with “there is no way we are going all the way to Italy and not riding the famed Passo Stelvio .. from at least two sides”.

So two days before CCC start in San Pellegrino Terme, I picked Raoul up from Bergamo airport and the following day, myself Raoul and another fellow CCC rider drove the 3 hours up to Bormio to tackle our first of many Italian beasts.

The day we turned up was a day that was closed to all traffic except for Cyclists, runners – yes there was a running event up the ‘easier’ side from Bormio which we would climb first, then descend and ascend the architectural side (the infamous one).

It was complete mayhem at the top with at least a thousands riders up there … we actually had to dismount and weave our way through a music festival like crowd to find the descent down the other side. Insane.

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Stelvio is high … the highest paved passo in the Eastern Alps at 2758m and second highest to the Col de l’Iseran at 2770m.

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Done and dusted we relax for the night in Bormio before driving back to SP and getting prepared for CCC start the following day.

The air, thick with nervous tension at the rider briefing, especially so for those CCC virgins. There a plenty returnees or multiple CCC finishers amongst the group. They know and respect the challenge but seem a little more relaxed at the same time.

People are naturally sizing each other up to see who will be the ‘stronger’ riders and wondering where they’ll eventually find their place within the group.

It’s an interesting trait this .. but we all do it.

11 days later we will have rubbed shoulders , made strong bonds, know each other a hell of a lot more and won’t give a rats arse who was stronger, fitter or faster. Everyone who does the route or truly gives there best to complete deserves respect.

Phil Deeker the man behind Cent Cols Challenge goes over all the logistics of the event. How the feed stops and gear bags work, the support staff and the off the bike challenges.

The excitement builds with a good healthy dose of shit scared thrown in.

To give you an idea on how each day worked, it looked a little like this: 5:45am alarm, if possible some rolling and resets, dressing and going down to breakfast for 6:30 with main luggage bag in tow.

Breakfasts for me posed one of my bigger challenges in what to eat. I could have lived off shakes and I had a mini blender but it just didn’t work out. So daily for me was parma ham, cheese, a little yogurt and fruit and when available I had the chefs toast gluten free bread in a pan as I can’t risk cross contamination being celiac.

Unfortunately eggs were few and far between.

The other regular for Raoul and I was our Fat Blacks .. doppio espresso with a serve or two of butter. Yes you read correctly. Normally we’d do the coconut creme in our espressos but finding that in Italy was impossible. So butter worked well and actually tastes very good.

Back to room, attend to the call of nature, grab riding gear and day bags and be back down on your bike, tyres pumped ready to depart at 7:30am sharp.

Ride between 8-10 hours with three feed stops and as we quickly came to expect and accept that the norm would be 10+ percent to the days vertical climbed and distance ridden.

Get in, get some recovery nutrition in, shower and wash the days riding gear while doing so. Ring it out and wrap it in towels to help the drying process before hanging it up. Try to get in some rep very methods like legs up the wall and some self massage. Re-pack bags for the next day, get some emails done and upload some pictures on instagram, wipe down bike, have dinner and next days briefing and hope you’d be in bed by 10:30pm to do it all over again.

This was nearly as much of a challenge as the ride itself. Especially as the accumulated fatigue set in. The inevitable sleep deprivation due to the lateness of dinners and briefings puts it on another level all together.

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Day 1

Today left no doubts that this was in fact a challenge. The climbing is one thing, descending on narrow, tight, shitty road surfaces with Italian drivers and motorbike riders adds to it in a sizeable way. The first descent of CCC saw a number of us overshoot a corner well onto the wrong side of the road and make us think hard.

Actually Phil had an acronym that has now fled my mind but it ended with F… F for focus and focus hard especially as the inevitable tiredness sinks its teeth in.

After the lunch stop I got ejected from the small front group. The pace was just a touch high after just 95k in and heading into our first of many formidable climbs. Maniva our first ‘proper” Italian climb was a beast, especially the first few kilometres … Because we had good weather we got to do the route as planned and continued up to awe-inspiring barren scenery and a section of strade bianchi (gravel) that was much more insane then Phil had led us to believe.

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The descent down Passo Crocedomini with it’s continuous switchbacks had me giggling like a school girl. It was that good and I knew my #switchbackdoping levels would be sky high very soon.

After regrouping with the front guys at the final feed stop we climbed the last little bump of the day before a beautiful peddling descent into our first hotel situated on a stunning lake.

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Day 2

Raoul and I have the same ideas about getting through each day in the best shape possible. That is start easy and soft pedal as much as humanly possible up the early climbs which will allow us to finish strong. It’s a simple formula but not easy.

Our backgrounds as smart triathletes have led us to this point and allow us a more sustained steady effort that when we should so want to visit the hurt locker for a little fun we can because lets not forget that we are indeed competitive beats.

Today was a big day. 9 and a half hours in the saddle, 225km and 5213m of vertical going over 8 cols. Today we set a nice tempo and chuckled about the name of the second last passo of the day ‘Passo Brocon’ that a number of riders would surely feel broken climbing this 24k passo after 150k of riding.

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Day 3

Straight into a passo from the get go. Funnily after a few days this starts to become ‘normal’ and today we get a feel for the dramatic rock skylines and endless hairpins (we do love our #switchbackdoping), something Raoul and I share a deep love for. After lunch we got into the real meat of the day with Passo Pura da Bivio which was supposed to be an average of 7.5% and was 10+ for the majority of it.

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Somewhere along the ‘flats’ leading to the passo an older local rider appeared from nowhere and after his couple of attempts at speaking Italian to us and me eventually say no comprehend, english he swapped over and asked were we were heading. Our new friend ‘tagged’ along, guided us through a cobbled tunnel and then said ok 45mins from here.

Raoul feeling like it was time to unleash a little proceeded to drop Rudi and myself and flew up the climb with said old Italian riding mountain bike shoes and cleats in tow, only to eventually disperse of him in the latter stages. Our new friend shared a coke and snack at the top – our final feed stop of the day before heading back home.

We had one of the best descents of the trip leading to one of the bluest lakes I have ever seen and then a magical experience of riding downhill through a series of dimly lit thrilling cobbled tunnels.

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This all led us to our final climb of the day. The Sella Chiampion a super rough, exceptionally narrow road to which Raoul thought wasn’t built for cars until the usual Fiat Panda past us as we were fighting with one of the climbs 20% or more sections. With nearly 180km in the legs it proved a nice warm up for what awaited on day 4.

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Another 200k, near 9 hours in the saddle and 5000m vert and we were at our hotel.

Day 4

Zoncolon_CCCPhoto: Kendal Noctor

I didn’t sleep much thinking about this day after briefing. Well not so much the day but the second climb of the morning which would be completed after only 35km. Monte Zoncolon is a climb that few others would rival. Yes it’s that immense. It’s a 10k climb that averages 12% .. we were told that there was an unrelenting section of 4km that averaged above 15%. That turned out to be 6km (of course it did) of steep corners followed by steep straights.

I’m playing games of counting 10 pedal strokes standing and then aiming for 10 seated… who am I kidding, I make maybe 5 seated before my quads are on fire and promptly stand … 22% geezus this is hard – a 30T cog would be nice right now. Well that’s why I’m here right? At least the games are making it easier to get through this.

Finally it eases into a false flat then I hit the tunnels and it’s up again and into switch backs … yes they’re steep but you can sense the top now. Raoul senses a perfect photo opportunity and pulls off to the side, I sneak a look over my shoulder and Rudi is still there – always there – then I see Kendal hauling full gas – I find a little more.

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Immense.

We then descend the other side, first it’s steep through the ski resort and then it opens up to wider roads with long bomb fast descents into more glorious switchbacks leading us to the first feed stop of the day at 54k where we find out our next two passos are closed. Just as we are heading off again our have-a-go leader rolls in with a smirk, a twinkle in the eye saying don’t worry, I have some other little Italian jewel up my sleeve. Of course you do.

Off we go into a couple of long 30km drags which turn out to be a favourite of Raouls. Give this boy 200k at 4-5% grade and very likely to be untouchable – just as we essentially reach the base of the first drag, I feel a subtle acceleration by Raoul. I think he’s a little pissed by those that sit on and never do any work. For me I made a stupid tired judgement call at the feed stop and consumed a chocolate milk that’s ingredient list looked like a chemical shit storm (don’t ask me why) and it left my stomach somewhat in pieces and now I was in the box.

Grin and bear it. How long can it last? Thankfully the early pressure dealt a blow and Raoul, Brian, another Aussie from WA with the most perfectly efficient high cadence I have ever witnessed and I powered on. We eased off a little and set a nice rhythm up to our passo feed stop where I was very light on the food and Raoul became my body guard against further self sabotage.

Four of us roll out of the lunch stop into a long descent before a little 12k passo before a shorter descent and our last feed stop and into the next 30k drag where once again the South African Express did his thing setting an Ironman esque tempo up to Col Sant Angelo. Because of the route change, riders were given an option to turn left at the top, do an out and back, climbing Tre Croci before a fast descent into the hotel or to veer right and continue into the unknown Tre Chime climb (option … there was no option).

After 60k of riding that tempo Raoul bid us farewell and dropped off. I pushed on up the first rise but Brian attacked and Rudi followed. For a minute I thought, I’ll just tempo my way to the top. I feel ok, the stomach is good again so I’ll enjoy this. Then for some reason I got angry. Rudi had sat on all day. Raoul had worked his but off and now they were riding off.

Well that fuelled something as for the next 4.6km I completely and utterly buried myself on that climb. It was steep, the scenery dramatic and I had two carrots up the road. Unfortunately Brian looked back and saw me coming and somehow with his 30T gear increased his cadence Froome like and road away. Rudi couldn’t match that so I had my target.

I willed every pedal stroke up that mountain, revelling in the ‘pain’ and with a couple of km to go I made the pass but for a moment had serious doubts if I could maintain the output due to the oxygen debt I had delivered myself. I looked up and the tourist bus that past me shortly before now looked like a micro machine heading towards the summit but was drawn in by the majesty of the dramatic mountains that I just felt fully alive. My chain disappeared.

Boys will be boys. Always.

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6000m vertical done, 200 something km and 9h 15 mins in the saddle. A truly satisfying day.

Day 5

A calm had kind of infiltrated the group and there seemed to be a collective lets chill and enjoy this one. An interesting concept when you’re going to say ride easy over 10 passos, 6 of which are over 2000m and you’ll climb close to another 5000m vertical. After yesterdays effort my legs felt surprising good on the first climb up the easier side of Passo di Giau even though that 1200m vert climb commenced just 1km after exiting the hotel.

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At the first feed stop at 50km, we fed, regrouped and then our small peleton enjoyed the famous and beautiful Sella-Pordoi-Campolongo route stopping for an espresso on Passo Sella. Perfect.

A long descent saw us enter a cycling-pedestrian only road through this spectacular gorge that was way steeper then the photos make it out. That 3k served as a little leg warmer for Passo Fedaia an in-famous climb which had a brutally long see forever straight 11% section.

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Stunning day on the bike to take us to our rest day. Showered, clothes washed and it was down stairs for an espresso, two or was it 3 double serves of Gelato to kick of the championships, followed by some chips and a glass of pino grigo.

Time to relax. The first 5 days done – many say that are the hardest mentally and I guess physically as you push a lot more, your legs start to understand that this is going to be a daily process. 43 hours in and Raoul’s and my way of pacing has paid dividends. We start easy, are able to rev a little or a lot should the feeling present itself and ride solid in that back 100km each day.

Our ride book said we would be simplifying our existence over these 11 days by reducing our focus to just a few basic needs and that it would liberate us in many ways.

Indeed it has and it’s very enjoyable and enviable.

Read part two here