Here we go again, I thought in that long second when time slowed and the pavement came rushing up to meet me.
It had been some time since I last crashed. So long, in fact, that I was beginning to think something was wrong.
Good to know I’ve still got it.
My first thought after initial impact was, “I hope my bike is okay.” The next was to assess how many witnesses there were to my humiliation. Just a car right behind me with a young couple inside, as it turned out. I jumped up in a show of bravado, gave them a casual “I’m alright” wave and got my bike off the road so they could pass. Forget the banged up, bloody knee and the burning road rash down my forearm and thigh, anyone who has fallen off their bike knows the terrible sting of a wounded ego.
I had been on the bike for over 17 hours and covered 450 kilometres in a ride that had started in Catania at the foot of Mt. Etna, an active volcano towering over 3,000 metres above the east Sicilian port city. The first half of the 19-kilometre ascent was striking for the profusion of bright yellow and pink spring flowers bursting from the ashy black earth. The balmy 23 degrees celsius when I started up quickly plummeted to a nippy 6 degrees as I summitted what can only be described as a lunar, almost alien landscape.
The plan from there was simple: ride home. This meant a 600-kilometre cycle north, following Italy’s west coast towards Napoli and my next favourite volcano, Mt. Vesuvio. The target was to ride the length of South Italy in a 24-hour non-stop trial run for my upcoming attempt at the Race Across America.
My boyfriend, Vito, and another friend, Gennaro, had offered to act as crew for the ride. This meant I could practice with both the bikes I intended to use for the RAAM: Juvi Otto, a turquoise carbon frame S-works, as my primary bicycle, and La Bellezza, a sexy black-and-red Cannondale, as my “climber”. I started pedalling at 5.30pm, hoping to enjoy the silence and empty roads overnight. A cyclist himself, Vito joined me for the first 110-kilometre stretch to the ferry crossing in Messina. The roads leading from Catania to Taormina were congested with traffic which meant a lot of stopping and starting and weaving between cars, but as the sun went down we hit the beautiful section of rolling coastline from Taormina to Messina. Castles and old Roman villas buttressed on cliffs overhanging the sea took on a dream-like quality under the hazy pink light of the setting sun.
It was dark by the time we entered Messina, and finding the ferry for Villa San Giovanna that ran throughout the night was difficult. Gennaro had driven on ahead to get tickets, but we ended up arriving at the dock around the same time. He too had gotten lost and gone round in circles searching for the elusive ferry. South Italy is not exactly known for its organisation and structure and not for the first time I found myself comparing aspects of Sicily to some of the more chaotic African countries where I grew up. We caught the 10pm ferry and used the 20-minute crossing to cram down some delicious arancini (a Sicilian rice ball stuffed with mozzarella and ragù) and a small roasted chicken the boys had bought ahead of time.
Vito was feeling good and decided to keep pedalling a little longer, so we rolled off the ferry together and began our night-time trek up the coast. I love cycling at night. The peace, the patch of road illuminated by a single headlight, empty village streets with stone walls and medieval towers, amber under the dim street lights. Time feels temporarily suspended. It passes and does not pass. The dense humidity, fogged my glasses and although the air was fresh, I found myself sweating up the long winding climbs. Another 50 kilometres in, Vito joined Gennaro in the car and I continued on alone through the night, feeling neither hungry nor particularly tired. A friend of Vito’s with a pastry bar in Noto had prepared a special sauce to fuel my ride. The thick paste made of freshly blended almonds, olive oil, vanilla and a bit of honey, shaken with two thirds of water, made a tasty drink that was like an energy bomb. I consumed nothing else the entire night.
After cycling twelve hours, I had a short break. We stopped at a bar for coffee and the toilet, and I ate some cheese and leftover chicken. The sun was rising as I pedalled through Belvedere Marittimo, the first flat stretch of the entire ride. My legs were feeling a bit heavy, and spinning in a lighter gear over this flatter section gave the muscles a bit of a break and a chance to loosen up. I was grateful for the break, because I was soon climbing once again as I left the region of Calabria and hit my favourite part of the ride, the Basilicata coast. The sun was already high over the glittering sea and I found myself pedalling the serpentine road winding along the cliffs and through the picturesque town of Maratea, watched over by the famous 21-metre-high marble Cristo statue silhouetted against the sky above. Even if you are hungry, hot and tired, it is impossible to cycle this stretch of the coast without smiling.
Vito called as I was descending into Sapri. “Where are you?” He asked.
“We’re a bit further on near Policastro. We’ve got some food for you. Hurry up.”
I found them waiting in a bar with some mozzarella and cured beef slices. I was ready for food. I had been going 16 hours and 440 kilometres with nothing more than a handful of nuts and a chicken/cheese breakfast. The shot of protein was a perfect pick-me-up.
“I think I’ll get back on the bike again.” Vito said, still dressed to ride.
“Great. There’s a long, fairly tough climb just ahead, so I’m gonna change bikes to my Cannondale for the lower gears.”
This is where it started to go wrong.
It was almost noon and the sun was at its hottest as we started up the 15-kilometre climb that was by no means gradual. A mixture of sun cream and sweat ran down my face, stinging my eyes. I kept squirting myself with water, looking back enviously at Vito, who never seems to sweat. Ever. The man is not normal, I muttered grudgingly, stopping at a water fountain along the road to stick my head under the tap and refill my depleted water bottle.
I caught back up to Vito, who was still looking fresh as he neared the end of the climb. From there we had a delectable descent into Marina di Camerota to look forward to, full of switchbacks and views out to sea. On the way down, I could feel my brakes were not gripping. Vito is a cautious downhiller and I found myself riding the brakes the entire way behind him. This was not a good idea. I had not wanted to change my brake pads till after the ride, so that they would be new for the race, but I had not realised they were this worn-out. I figured my best bet was to pass Vito and ride down at my own speed: faster, using the brakes sporadically and only when necessary on the turns. I sped up a bit and passed him just before a turn, and that’s when it happened. The wheels and brakes slipped as I went around the switchback and there I was skidding across the tarmac. My left knee hit the pavement first and there was a pretty gash that was sure to become one more scar over many.
Vito was furious. That was his way of showing how much of a scare I had given him. “I’m fine babe. It’s just the usual,” I told him, as he tried to wash the blood and dust from my arm and knee, which had swelled into a giant lump. I have knee problems. They get inflamed. The cartilage behind the patella discs is damaged. I had to drop out of my last race when they collapsed on me after the first 1,000 kilometres. I have since built up a lot of protective muscle, done injections and had any kind of possible treatment that could help and so far they were doing well. But it would be stupid to risk any further damage just a month before my big race. When Vito suggested I stop, I took his advice.
Home was just 150 kilometres away. I had ridden close to 470. I would take the Cannondale into the mechanics to change all the parts to new and ship it off ahead of time to my crew chief, Billy Rice, in the US. The new seats I had been testing for comfort had worked brilliantly. I was in good shape physically and could have continued on to the end. My knees had held up wonderfully. My keto diet seemed to have worked well too, and kept me strong the whole way. The ride was exactly what I wanted it to be. A test for the big one. I felt deserving of the ice-cold beer the three of us ordered at a little beach bar in Marina di Camerota.
“Great ride boys!” I said as we clinked bottles of Nastro Azzuro in a celebratory toast.
“She is crazy, you know?” Gennaro said to Vito who just nodded his head despairingly.