Suffer in style
“For dramatic scenery, smooth roads, and incredible food and drink, the Dolomites are hard to beat. The Sud Tirol region combines a splendid culture with immaculate towns and glorious mountain passes. You will revisit the same roads and climbs as heroes like Coppi, Gimondi, and Pantani, with the shouts of the tifosi in your ears.”- Simon Mottram, CEO Rapha.
We’ve been invited to the Randonnée Al Contrario Dolomites, six days of cycling from Varenna to Mogliano Veneto, covering roughly 700 kilometres, with 16,000 metres of climbing, over a selection of famous cols from the Giro di Italia. It will be a week of cycling, eating, sleeping, and not much else.
The heavens opened up as we landed in Milan. This was not weather for cycling. But the forecast for the coming week was good, and David was there in the arrivals hall to meet us. Even without his Rapha shirt, we knew he was our man. David is exactly the type Rapha seems to go for—slim, athletic, and boyish, with a British public-school manner. Incidentally, he is American, but time spent in Italy has given him a certain European savoir-faire.
There is no question though; his greeting is British —friendly and wonderfully polite. He is a perfect envoy for Rapha, introducing us immediately to their famous manner of treating their clients, a manner which comes into full bloom when we arrive at the car that will take us to our hotel. The Jaguar, once the property of Team Sky, with the sweat of Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins still in the upholstery, is characteristic of the Rapha way. For us, rather restrained Dutchmen used to driving simple cars and carrying our own suitcases, all this luxury is something we will have to get used to. For luxury is what these trips are all about.
Which brings me to the question which has been burning in my mind since we received the invitation to come on this trip. What sort of person lays down so much cash for a six-day holiday, cycling from one luxury hotel to the next, with incredible food and drink, daily massages, a personal mechanic, and a Jaguar for a follow car? Hardcore Rapha aficionados? Asian business magnates? American CEOs?
The hour-and-a-half-long drive to the hotel gives us the chance to learn more about the Rapha Travel concept, and get to know David a bit better. David —who is not a bad cyclist himself, having been a pro mountain biker —has lived in Italy for years. Besides cycling, he studied history, a combination that makes him perfect for his role as a guide. Rapha Travel is about more than cycling. Above all, it is about living like a pro. Every day, you are provided with a sparkling, perfectly-tuned bike, laundry service, great food and drink, soigneurs to cater to your every need, and a soft bed to fall into at night; all so that you, as a guest, have but one thing to worry about: pedalling. Because, no matter how luxurious the accommodations are, you still have to pedal the 700 kilometres, with 16,000 metres of climbing, yourself. Thankfully, there is still room in the Suffer in Style ethos to see some of the country and become acquainted with the local culture, as well. Everything has been thought through. From the routes, the hotels, and the food, to guides like David.
Besides my ‘professional’ interest in the trip, I am also here for my own reasons. Riding so many kilometres, with so much climbing, will be new for me. My experience of climbing is limited to a few trips to Limburg and the hills of the Ardennes, plus a short vacation in Auvergne. In the weeks prior to the trip, I did several 100-plus-kilometre rides, and made sure to climb over the Briennoord Bridge more often than usual. In the coming week, I’ll find out if it was enough.
The group is waiting for us in the lobby. This week, there are eight guests in total, including my brother and myself, just less than half of the maximum capacity. My fear of spending the week hanging on for dear life behind a group of super-fit executives seems, at first glance, to have been baseless. Merick, a Canadian in his early 40s, is the first to introduce himself. He is a stocky guy, missing the lower part of his left leg —I have some hope. But I’ve been riding long enough to know that appearances can be deceiving. Apparently living with a prosthesis hasn’t stopped Merick, a personal trainer by profession, from racing several triathlons already this year. His spouse, Cynthia, is a partner at Ernst and Young and is in her early 50s. Hugh, 63 and a professor at Stanford, and Clark, a 51-year-old Scot who has been living in California for years and works as a finance director, have been cycling together for ages in a local club. The 36-year-old Paul, teacher from Washington, and Jacques-Henri, a 42-year-old film producer from Brussels, are the last to trickle in. They all seem tobe experienced cyclists, well prepared for the start of our adventure.
With the group complete, it is time for a word of welcome and an espresso. We are in Italy, with Rapha, after all. The Chef de Mission, Anton, a true public-school Brit, gives the opening speech. Mattia, a mechanic, and Cristiano, a soigneur who used to race as a pro for Flaminia-Bossini, complete the crew. Both of them are Italians. During the week, we will have two guides with us on the ride at all times. The rest of the staff will take care of the follow car, lunch, and conveying our luggage.
After we have eaten, the rain clears up and it’s time to head out. First up, is the climb to the top of the Madonna del Ghisallo, with a visit to the famous chapel. Besides Jacques, who brought his own steed, we are all on rental bikes. No problem. A row of brand new Pinarello Dogmas is waiting for us in a garage beside the hotel. After a bit of fine-tuning —the bikes are already set up for us based on measurements we sent in beforehand —we are ready. First, we must cross Lake Como on a ferry. Decked out in cycling clothes, followed by a Jaguar and a Range Rover with thousands of euros worth of Italian carbon on the roof, we stroll across the quay. Honestly, I felt a bit awkward at the bottom of the climb, mounting my shiny Pinarello like a wannabe Bradley Wiggins while a group of curious cyclists watched on. Mattia’s pro-style push to get me going completed the charade. A corner or five later, our peloton was in pieces, the balance of power sorted out. I don’t want to boast, but I am pretty proud of myself; I wasn’t the best but I wasn’t the worst. Once we reached the top —my longest climb ever —I knew the week would be, more than anything, a battle with myself. The bottle was uncorked.
The crew was busy early the next morning. Before the front door of the hotel, the Pinarellos were hung in order on a bike rack, with bottles filled, and a table was laid out with an assortment of gels, bars, bananas, and sandwiches. The Garmins were pre-programmed, and plasticized maps of the route with an elevation profile were made ready. The tip of the day came from David. “If you lose the group, or are uncertain at a junction, always turn uphill. Nothing is worse for your morale than realizing you have to turn back up a climb, after descending for kilometres.” I remembered those wise words several times when my Garmin wasn’t able to find a signal and I was tempted to cruise downhill.
The first day is, in one word, spectacular. The 120-km route over the Passo Culmine San Pietro and the Passo di Zambla is difficult but beautiful. The sun shines and we lack nothing. The follow car is always right there, ready to come up beside us when we need it. Lunch is grandiose. David and Anton make sure that everyone is able to ride his or her own tempo to the finish. When we arrive at the hotel, halfway up the mountain, a ‘recovery-table,’ filled with beer, Prosecco, water, cola, nuts, candy, and snacks, is set out for us. Cristiano sorts out the schedule for the evening’s massages while Mattia looks after the bikes. Dinner will be ready in an hour and a half. Suffer in Style really is the perfect slogan.
For me, the moment of truth will come the next day. Waking up, with 130 kilometres and the snow-covered Passo di Gavia on the menu, I will know where I stand. Surprisingly, I feel good. Amazing food, a massage, and a great sleep, have worked their magic. I never thought that a half hour’s rub of the legs could make such a difference. At breakfast, I realize I am not the only one thinking today will be crucial. Having made a big effort yesterday, Clark, in particular, is looking concerned. But there isn’t much time for thinking. From the hotel, we have the remaining kilometres of the Passo delo Presolana on our plates. After a couple of hours of riding, the Gavia looms in the distance, today’s main course. From far away, it looks formidable. Long and steep, there won’t be any place to recover. The 40 kilometres of gradual climbing beforehand doesn’t help. For the last two kilometres of the climb I am hanging on to David’s wheel by the skin of my teeth. I respond to his well-meaning encouragement with grunts and nods. “After you’ve made it to the top here, the rest of the trip will be a walk in the park,” he assures me. I’m not sure. Zigzagging across the road, on the verge of puking, I reach the last turn. I roll up to the terrace with the applause of my brother and Jacques, who arrived at the top half an hour earlier, ringing in my ears. A massive grin is spread across my face. I have the feeling that David might have been right.
The atmosphere is awesome at dinner that evening. Conquering the Gavia was good for our morale. Thanks to the effort —or to the wine — everyone lingers downstairs for awhile. Suffering together, and drinking together, makes us friends. Set a group of complete strangers with completely different backgrounds together for a day of cycling and you can be sure they will have plenty to talk about. Late in the night, Anton’s briefing brings the world back in to focus. The Stelvio is on tap for the next day. A quarter of an hour later, everyone’s asleep.
The rest of the week seems like a dream. Luxury hotels, chic meals, interesting conversations, and breathtaking cols, all flow into one. It is a delightful routine: riding, eating, sleeping, eating again. The Gavia seems like a turning point. It is no longer a question of surviving; now, it’s a race. Jacques, Jeroen, and Mattia are embroiled in a bitter contest. Merick is Cynthia’s super domestique, always tempted to let the brakes go on the descents. “We are men, we do stupid stuff,” he says. Meanwhile, as the forever young Hugh and Clark battle over bragging rights, I find a worthy opponent in Paul. His nonchalant accelerations tempt me to push my tempo again and again on the climbs. On the flat lands, we ride together like a well-oiled team. Hugh warns us of any obstacles on the road, while the strongest riders keep a steady pace on the front. As soon as the road turns up, it’s every man for himself and the group explodes.
I had imagined that such a difficult confrontation with myself would be insightful, would give me answers to existential questions. Nothing could be further from the truth though. Rarely was my awareness so narrow as it was during those days on the bike. My world was restricted to the here and now, ride and recover. There simply wasn’t time for much else, nor did there have to be. The only questions that occupied me were: shift now, or later? Gel or bar? Cold beer or Prosecco? Now that is luxury.