I didn’t think I could do something. I was wrong.

I’m a keen cyclist. Nothing fancy, no racing history, or inclination. Just a road bike I think is pretty cool, a trainer in the garage, and a desire to be a better rider than I was the month before.

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If we had to point to one reason we organize the Giro della Donna, our yearly celebration of road and gravel riding, it would be the stories. Pre-ride stories, post-ride stories, stories of climbing and cold and racing and definitely not racing. We heard a lot of great stories after this year’s ride, and this one, from a first-timer who wasn’t sure he could even finish, was one of the best.

I’m a keen cyclist. Nothing fancy, no racing history, or inclination. Just a road bike I think is pretty cool, a trainer in the garage, and a desire to be a better rider than I was the month before. I nerd out on the tech, have become a keen follower of the sport, enjoy most of the culture and media, and participate in social rides when I can. I’m also a rabid consumer of cycling content, whether it’s YouTube videos, podcasts, news or the occasional biography. Listening to the CyclingTips Podcast is what first put Giro della Donna on my radar.

The decision to actually take part happened quite quickly one evening. I had a monkey to get off my back, and this looked like the challenge that could make or break my future cycling endeavours. I wasn’t even sure I could ride long distances anymore. Owen McGrath’s recent story about a heart arrhythmia hit a bit too close to home. A recent endurance ride saw me in the back of an ambulance with a runaway heartbeat, and, like Owen, I had a string of medical professionals poke, prod, scan and test, only to tell me there was nothing wrong. There are some other issues, too, major and minor, and suffice it to say I’ve had a fairly shitty run in the past couple of years.

The thing about anxiety is it doesn’t decrease when you think logically about it. At work, at home, basically any time I wasn’t concentrating on something else, the idea that the activity I’d rediscovered and fallen in love with just a few years earlier might be off the table was a major downer. It’s funny how being told that you’re clinically normal following an episode like that isn’t reassuring in the slightest. Would it happen again the next time I went for a long ride or pushed myself hard? For my mental wellbeing, and perhaps for my overall health, I needed to attempt something more difficult than I’d ever done before. I had to know if I could do it, and if I couldn’t, I guess I’d just call that my limit and manage my expectations.

And here was the Giro, offered up at just the right time. Was it the challenge I needed? Truthfully, the numbers looked daunting. The Giro della Donna is 125 kilometres and climbs 2,750 metres (9,022 feet). The most climbing I’d done in a day was 1000m, and even then, it was spread out over 130kms of pan-flat country New South Wales. More than double the climbing in about the same distance? I had my doubts. I had other excuses lined up, too: I probably wouldn’t be able to get accommodation anyway, and even if I could, it’d be prohibitively expensive. My subconscious was already looking for ways out.

Maybe that was why I sent a message to the CyclingTips Facebook page, asking for longest time someone had taken to complete the ride. I added that I’d expect it to take me six hours to complete the course. I think I was looking for a response along the lines of, “Don’t bother coming if you won’t finish in four.” In other words, I wanted an easy way to scrap the ride from this year’s list of things I’d like to do, on the basis that it would be impossible.

The characteristic ding of a Facebook message came almost immediately. CyclingTips’ event dude, Andy, was immediately encouraging. He said six hours would get me through the course in plenty of time and reminded me that there would be plenty of people to ride with. I figured he meant there would be plenty of other slow riders on the course to keep me company.

Okay, so if the organisers were going to be all super positive and welcoming, I’d have to find an out with accommodation. Surely there would be none left.

Hotels were all booked, which left the Airbnb options. A caravan next to a dam 20mins out of town, or a four-bedroom house a kilometre from the event village. A big expense if I’m in it by myself, but maybe there were other people in the same boat as me. And I could probably fill the other rooms if I tried. And if I joined VeloClub I get discounted entry. And I could probably make this my Christmas present to myself…

In a five-minute blur of online form submissions and calendar entries, I’d joined VeloClub, entered the event, bought a ticket to eat pasta with Alberto Contador, booked the house, and locked in some annual leave from work.

That escalated.

And so, on a Saturday morning a few weeks later, a little before 4:00am, I set off on the nine-hour drive to Warburton, VIC to have a crack at the Giro della Donna. The drive down the Hume Hwy is monotonous at the best of times, but eventually, the plains became hills and then mountains as I approached my destination. In a happy error of trip planning, my GPS took me into Warburton via the Acheron Way – the 28km half sealed, half gravel stretch that formed a feature of the next day’s adventure. The pitch report I’d read in the VeloClub WhatsApp group had put the gravel section at hard-packed and in prime condition, but by the time I drove through, the rain had produced large ruts and corrugations, and there were trees down in several spots. Despite the rain and mud, I was compelled to stop at one point and snap a couple of photos. I couldn’t believe we’d be riding through here tomorrow. It was almost enough to distract me from just how long the gradient had been heading up.

I had managed to fill the surplus rooms in the house with some other guys doing the ride, which made it a cheaper and more social exercise than it could otherwise have been. Having checked in, I headed down to the golf course to collect my rider pack and get the lay of the land.

The event village was a mud pit, thanks to the combination of the rain and the gravel ride participants who were arriving when I got there. Hundreds of cold, muddy people all with huge grins. Despite their efforts in cold, wet conditions, I didn’t see a single person without a smile on their face. Do gravel riders have more fun than roadies? Certainly looked like it. With now wet socks on my feet and shiny new CT kit in hand, I headed back at the house for a bit to prepare my bike and gear for the next morning. Living on the coast just south of Sydney, the most serious bit of cold-weather kit I own is arm warmers and long-finger gloves. Asking my more experienced housemates if this would be sufficient was met with a mixture of laughter and worried stares. I squeezed a jacket and beanie into the supplied envelope that would be waiting for me at the finish line atop Mt Donna Buang just in case. I would come to not regret this decision.

Later that evening, Olympic medallist Scott McGrory OAM and CyclingTips’ Caley Fretz hosted a Q&A with Alberto Contador, who as it turns out is a genuinely funny guy and really insightful. He still looks like a breath of wind would blow him away, but he was sinking beers like a champion for most of the night. Retirement clearly agrees with him. His friend Pako, who came along, is a champ, and I was lucky enough to hear a couple of stories off the mic about their childhood together. Alberto signed a Trek cap for me, posed for a photo, and I spent the rest of the night eating and chatting with the terrific random group at our table.

Up early the next day for the ride start. 125kms from Warburton, anti-clockwise out to Marysville, Narbethong, the Acheron Way, and then to the top of Mt Donna Buang and the finish line, before descending back into Warburton. Were they in my hometown, each of the major climbs on this ride looked challenging enough for me to avoid. But there’s something about riding in a place you’ve never been to – a mix of excitement and nervous anticipation – that makes it seem easier. Just one stop to make before the start, dropping my warm gear off to the friendly staff in the muddy event village.

Wet socks again. Great. How could gravel riders possibly have more fun?

The vibe in the start area was really friendly, as was the mechanic who leant me hex wrench to tighten my first race number holder. I chatted to a bunch of guys about the route, asking for advice from the ones that had completed it before, and admiring the seemingly endless array of big-dollar bikes and wheels that surrounded us. The fast group set off first, and then a few minutes later we were away. I wondered if I’d finish. If I’d turn left at the bottom of the final climb instead of heading up to the finish line. If I’d spot Alberto in the wild.

Here goes nothing.

By the time I’d finished climbing Reefton Spur I’d already clicked off about 1000m climbing. New PB. Nice. I’d fallen in with a bunch of other slow dudes and we cruised up together, chatting to take our minds off the relentless ascent. There are a couple of bits towards the top where you get some respite, but by that point, a 3% grade felt like a downhill. I snapped a couple more photos on the way up and kept pushing on. Someone had mentioned lolly snakes at the rest stop, but by the time I’d made it there, only two snakes remained in the bottom of the box. I didn’t even know they made clear snakes or that beige was also a flavour. I left for the main rest stop in Marysville where I was assured there would be more.

It turns out that the descent into Marysville is rad and you can go quite fast as you recover from the climb. I topped out at 76kph, which was plenty considering parts were damp and I didn’t know the road. I’m certain some people went much faster, but the respite was welcome and gave me a chance to assess my condition. So far, so good. No silly spikes in heart rate and managing a reasonable pace.

At Marysville, I spotted the promised giant box of lolly snakes. I smashed two fistfuls into my mouth and had a bit of a stretch. My troublesome neck had started acting up and I was in some pain. It’s not great at the best of times but the sustained climbing position was taking its toll. I took a couple of Ibuprofen and hoped for the best, knowing full well they wouldn’t do much, and that this was about to become a mental task as well as a physical one.

Cut to the Acheron Way, the 28km stretch of road that I’d driven in on the day before. Most of it is up, between 1% and 3% from memory, and it doesn’t really let up. The organisers had positioned a speaker in the bush at one point that was loudly playing Phil Liggett’s Paris Roubaix commentary. The pain in my neck was joined by pain in my lower back (really not used to going up for so long), and the mental game became more difficult. I started chatting to a couple who were cruising at about my pace, which served as a decent enough distraction. They gave me a couple of paracetamol tablets. Thanks, folks.

The descent at the end of Acheron Way brought me out not quite halfway up Mt Donna Buang after about 97kms of riding. While I’m certain that the majority of entrants turned right and rode the final seven-ish kms/600m to the top, the majority of people coming through at the same time as me turned left and rode back to the event village. Zero shame in that, and at least they’d get to see the award presentation scheduled for 1:30pm. Having already climbed almost double my previous best and with my neck feeling like someone was stabbing one point in particular, I said, “fuck it,” out loud I think, turned right, stuck it in the 30, and went up.

The climb to the summit of Mt Donna Buang hurt. It hurt a lot. And took a long time, too. I reckon I was going about 8kph for a lot of it and watching the watts drop lower and lower, wondering if I’d get to the point where I’d have to unclip or fall off from going too slow. There were others on the climb with me, but by this stage, and in this group, nobody was talking. Aside from the heavy breathing, the only sounds were the hum of carbon wheels and the squeal of brakes appearing out of the fog as rugged-up riders descended toward us.

I made it to a large carpark most of the way up and had another stretch. I was in genuine agony by now and my legs felt heavier than they’d ever been. I’d earlier sent a message to my wife to assure her that I was still going and hadn’t had another episode. Her encouraging reply added to my resolve. I snapped a cool pic through the mist that might have actually been clouds, and then jumped back on and rode to the top. The loud music playing at the finish area came out of nowhere (visibility was about 40m) and gave me a boost to ride the final hundred or so metres.

Crossing the finish line, I didn’t believe I’d done it at first. I actually asked a guy next to me (and meant it) if it was really the finish. I was standing next to two massive signs saying “finish line” but I still asked. He told me it was and that we just had to roll down the hill and into Warburton again, but that, yes, I had finished the ride. I asked him to take a photo of me and he obliged. One of the slowest, but also one of the happiest finishers that day. I rolled around the corner to get my warm stuff on, have a ridiculously joyful headshot taken, and then descended Mt Donna Buang, a bit emotional. Mostly just stoked with myself, but in that exhausted, “I actually did a thing” kind of way.

The descent was something else. I’ve never (ever!) been so cold. It’s sort of difficult to not go fast on the way down and I was glad for my disc brakes, but the cold was like needles going straight through me. I looked down to shake out my legs and try to get some blood flowing, only to realise they were way ahead of me, shaking all by themselves. It warmed as I descended, and about halfway down I turned right to head toward the event village, the way that some riders had gone more than an hour earlier. It was almost 3 pm, nearly seven hours after the ride began. The award presentation for the winners in the timed sections had already finished and most of the participants had undoubtedly headed for home. On the final flat section, I found myself pedalling again. The joy of having finished came with a bonus – a couple of hundred watts going through the pedals – where earlier I had a pair of two-tonne legs that couldn’t provide more than about 130. I crossed under the giant inflatable arch, propped my bike against the side of the main marquee, grabbed some hot food from the last vendor still trading, and just about climbed inside one of the gas heaters the organisers had set up.

Still in a mild state of happy shock but now thankfully defrosting, I rode back to the house for an epic shower before driving to the pub for a parma and a couple of beers, despite my Garmin telling me I’d earned 20. I knew I’d pay for my effort the next day, particularly my neck, but hours after finishing the ride and my heart rate hadn’t shot up. It still hasn’t. Maybe I don’t have to stop riding bikes.

Before Sunday I didn’t think I could do this. There were plenty of reasons why that might have been the case. Seems I don’t know what I’m talking about. See you next year.

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