Conquering the 1,300km Italy Divide
With over two decades of cycling under his tyres, including competitive road and TT racing, Luke Humphreys has embarked on some of the biggest and most challenging off-road cycling sportives throughout Europe. With the ambition to one day undertake the infamous Tour Divide spanning from Alberta, Canada, to New Mexico, Luke set his sights closer to home with the Italy Divide for 2021. In his own words, Luke recounts his 6-day off-road excursion over 1,000km of Italy's finest gravel roads and mountain bike trails.
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[Words and photos by Luke Humphreys]
What is Italy Divide?
It's a race that's not a race. This tag is given to a lot of long ultra-events, and after talking to the organiser, it's not hard to see why red tape and insurance would make the event impossible to run if they wanted to call it a race.
Italy Divide, for me, it's an ultra-distance event that comes with a DOT. DOT watching is where you can follow competitors in an event, where there is live GPS tracking. The route is pre-determined, which you must follow on your navigation device from a GPX file that is provided ten days before the start. This is done to stop people pre-riding the route. The route amounted to 1,300km (810-miles) of mixed terrain cycling with 22,000m (70,000ft) of altitude gained. Some walking or hike-a-bike sections to tackle along the way.
From Pompei travelling up through Italy to Torbole at the tip of Lake Garda, riders are tracked with SPOT satellite trackers that must be kept on at all times. Ultra-events like the ID are not for the underprepared; do not think for a moment you can just turn up and have a go. If you're looking to take on something like this, then it's good to try other events like the Tuscany Trail first.
Once the clock starts, it keeps running until you finish. Anything you need must be purchased or found on the route, and you are not allowed outside assistance from anyone you know. Some riders carry bivvy equipment to sleep in, and others prefer to find more comfortable accommodation on route.
Preparation and Bike
I have a custom steel frame built by Duncan at Crossley Metal. We worked on a geometry with a slacker head tube and steeper seat tube, making it a hardtail mountain bike or flat bar monster cross gravel bike. The frame has extra mounts and plenty of space for bike packing bags.
In the run-up to this event, I couldn't train or practise cycling more than 800 miles as it would leave me empty and unable to ride well during the event. My two main training rides were a 200mile double lap of the local century and a 350mile lap of Devon and Cornwall, which had mixed terrain and two nights bivvying while carrying as much extra kit as I could. The theory is to train heavy and race light.
Travelling out to Italy
My journey to Italy involved multiple cancelled flights, last-minute COVID testing stress and extra journey time as airports changed. And then Italy changed from no quarantine to a 5-day quarantine just ten days before I was due to travel. It was pure relief when I have arrived in Pompei. I was ready to begin the longest, toughest race I have ever attempted, more than double the distance of my previous events.
I took a 10-mile ride to check the bike was set up ok after the flight and stretch my legs. I had a few quiet weeks since my last big training effort, and I felt stale. I don't like the feeling you get before undertaking such a big ride.
This time I had my own DOT to watch on the famous track leader's website; I don't know whether anyone was watching outside my loved ones. Having been an avid DOT watcher myself, I had finally taken the plunge into the world of ultra-racing.
Starting the Italy Divide
Here I am waiting to start with an hour to go. I look at the other riders and try and assess how fast they might be based on their physical appearance. I calm down and have been able to eat a good breakfast which is good news. Normally, I cannot stomach anything due to nerves.
The other riders are using a variety of bikes, gravel and mountain bikes. Tyre widths seem to be the main topic of conversation among the riders, as well as sleeping kit. Are you or are you not carrying any bivvy kit? If so, then how much are you carrying?
The bikes range from 38mm shod gravel bikes to 2.25" full-suspension cross-country race bikes. My 2.1" Schwalbe Thunder Burt tyres are wider than the average.
After a spirited briefing from Giacomo, the not-a-race is underway. We are led out by Giacomo, and I ride next to him, chatting about all sorts of things to do with the ride. We approach Mount Vesuvius by road, then off-road, we wind up super steep fire roads towards the top. I knew there was going to be some walking here, so I took it easy on the climb. A lot of riders were happy to press on and came past me here. Once I got higher up, the track turned to volcanic sand, and we were forced to walk. This section of walking was very steep in places, and I really struggled with a loaded bike. My shoes were stiff-soled gravel shoes; they gave little support to this struggle. After what felt like an age, I had managed to hike the 2-3km section. As a result of the stones and sand getting in my shoes I had a nasty collection of blisters on my feet.
I pressed on down the road descent searching for a pharmacy to buy some supplies such as plasters. Unfortunately, it was mid-day, and the pharmacies would not reopen for a few hours. However, my eagerness to find something to alleviate this pain had me searching in smaller cafes and bars for plasters. Unlike in the UK, where even the smallest cafe has a first aid box, Italy does not seem to have the same approach. I was struggling, and I could feel the pain all the time. I was a little downhearted to have been derailed so early on, and I was desperate for a solution.
Eventually, the shops started to reopen. I had to take a ticket and wait outside for my turn. Once inside, I purchased Compeed blister plasters, some regular plasters and some self-sticking bandages. Then sat on the pavement outside, where I cleaned my feet with some wipes and began plastering and taping my blisters. I cleaned the last of the sand and dust out of my shoes, socks and refitted them.
Back on the bike, and I was conscious of losing time to the front pack. However, I could not afford to chase them too hard, especially this early in the event. The following 5-6 hours were a mixture of smaller back roads, some off-road tracks, and many roads. I made a dinner stop at a roadside restaurant. With pizza, gnocchi and a Fanta consumed, I left into the darkness. Bike lights were on and a bit cooler; I enjoyed winding my way along the beach roads. By the time I had left this area, it was getting late. I saw another rider bedding down in a park on the bench for his sleep. I was awake and enjoying making progress forward.
After some technical singletrack riding, I began climbing a massive ascent off the coast. The slopes were tough, the surface loose rock and the track narrowed. After 30% of the climb was done, the rocks got bigger and the track steeper. Eventually, I accepted that fighting the bike was pointless and began the slow, laborious walk to the summit. This walk, like many to come, was a blow. This climb had me moving nowhere fast, and the clock was running by all the time; 1.89miles took just over an hour.
I shouted to myself a few times, especially as the pain in my feet was making the hike a lot less comfortable than it could have been. Over the summit, the track re-joined a road. The descent was fast for 4-5 mins with hairpins to negotiate. Then the track on my map disappeared through the undergrowth. At first, I couldn't see the tiny track. I zoomed in closer on the Garmin E-Trex, and there it was a small single track. As my bike is well set up for this, I flew down the technical descent with a smile on my face. Quickly distancing another rider, I passed someone who was on 38mm gravel tyres. There were a few rocky steps to get down. I only dismounted once for one of these that was a little too risky to attempt on such a long event with so much still ahead of me.
After this wood, I shot out on a beach road and was on the tarmac again. Following the coast, as the sun rose was rewarding. I was getting quite tired, and around 6.30am, I stopped and took a nap on the floor. My silk bag and foam matt set up just enough to allow me a 40min rest.
Kit packed away and back on the bike, I headed off on the road, taking a 90-degree turn inland. The turn had me riding through a town, and I stopped for breakfast and to top up my water bottles before hitting the road again. After an hour or so of riding, a man passed me slowly on his road bike. He said good morning, and we got chatting as cyclists often do. I told him what I was doing, we shared a love of cycling, we chatted about the TDF and our favourite riders. He spoke little English, and I had less Italian; however, we conversed easily.
A mountain bike club congregated a little further up the road, and as I neared them, they pulled away. After a minute or two, some of them passed me. One of them pulled alongside and asked what I was riding. I explained the 1,300km to them, and they were smiling and sharing this info with each other. The road by now was rising, and I had begun the climb, the peak of which loomed with a village clinging to the edge of the mountain. Guys on road bikes came past in a steady flow. Some of the MTB club still straggled behind me. One rider flew past near the top at an incredible rate; he was either a local pro or on his way to the Strava KOM.
The sun was high by now, and the heat was punishing 37-degrees without a cloud in sight. Pushing on across a ridge, it was up and down for the next few miles. At the top, I stopped by a fountain and refilled my bottles.
With my sights firmly set on the next milestone, Rome at around 245miles, progress forward seemed hard and slow. It was another hot day, and I was struggling to keep my heart rate down. The lack of rest was catching up with me. Eventually, I started to descend towards Rome via Appia or Appian way, so steeped in history, this was the grandest of entrances to the magnificent city of Rome. I have read plenty of books on Roman history, and I could imagine the legions marching in or out of the city on this engineering marvel. I can also picture the people who must have built this colossal road toiling in the heat much harder and probably more life-threatening than my efforts.
On entertaining Rome in the afternoon, it was still very hot. My pace had dropped to a crawl, and I was getting very tired. I looked on my phone at the route ahead and booked a room to get some sleep. I arrived at the hotel around 19:45 with 434km (270 miles) under my tyres. Too tired to find food, I washed myself and my kit and fell asleep.
With the alarm set for 02:00, I woke, got ready and pedalled away into the dawn. I was sharing the route with wild boars, including a mum and four hoglets.
My day started well I was riding strong in the dark, and the cooler temperatures meant I could push at a better rate. My lack of food the night before was taking a toll on me. At 05:30, I stopped outside a cafe and had to wait for it to open, so I took the chance to take a nap outside on a bench. When it opened, I ate breakfast and pushed ahead. After this, I was sure to carry more food with me. The heat of the day came in early, and I was starting to struggle. My progress was slow, and after a hard climb, I arrived in a small town at 342-miles. I found a room around 13:00 and washed my kit, showered and went to sleep.
I awoke earlier than I had hoped, around 16:30. I devoured all the breakfast the owner had left me and left around 17:30. It was cooler now, and I felt ok.
Riding through the night was great. I was comfortable and pushing on well. Taking regular breaks to eat and rest a little. I was treated to many encounters with boar, badgers, hares and even a mole. I was very excited by my first sighting of a live porcupine in the wild as well. I had transitioned to a nocturnal rhythm to combat the heat, and this strategy paid off.
As the dawn broke in Tuscany, I was treated to the most fantastic sunrise up and down on the white gravel roads. I stopped and soaked it all in. Often Ultra distance riders and racers are thought of as crazies by themselves and others. I thought of how could anyone go a lifetime and never experience this moment; perhaps they are the crazy ones. I was far out of my comfortable life and rewarded with such a peaceful scene unfolding before me.
I made it to Siena after 603km (475-miles) in good time, rolling into the city around mid-day. It was super-hot, and the city was crowded with tourists. I restocked on pharmacy supplies for my feet and searched for a hotel. Frustration set in as this was proving a real challenge. I left the city and climbed on the hill out of town. I found a great hotel that was super helpful. They dealt with my exhausted state so well. I got to sleep, and on waking, they had food ready. Having eaten well, I was off up the road at 18:00. It was still really hot, and the first 2 hours were tougher than I had hoped for. I knuckled down for a big push and rode all night.
The morning came, I took a 40min nap on a bench in the shade at the side of the road. I pushed on through the day. This would be the hardest section of the whole course. Tough hikes up the steepest of rocky sections and descents that hurt hands, feet and back as they were also rocky and very rough in places. I exited one challenging singletrack section onto a road and stopped under a tree where I slept for 15mins on the verge. Back on the bike and the heat was brutalising me. I found a restaurant and took a long break for lunch. After I had eaten, I napped head on my arms on the table. I brought some cake for my pockets, filled my water bottles and left.
After the stop came a huge tough climb, some of which I walked. There were a few super-tough sections that I had to hike up. I crashed into a clay bog and went over the bars. After retrieving the bike that was stood upright in the clay, I had to try and remove as much of the clay-like mud as possible and get going. The next landmark was Bologna, and it seemed to take hours to get there. Eventually, I hit the tarmac and started to descend towards the city. I was tired and hungry on the move for over 24-hours with just two short naps. In Bologna, I found a restaurant to get some pizza. There were dozens to choose from, but all I could manage to request was a margarita while I booked a room on my phone. I made it to the room around 20:00. It was a real struggle to wash myself and my kit. I was fighting the need to fall asleep.
I had slept heavily until my alarm at 04:00. Out of bed, I felt extremely stiff and wondered how I was going to turn the pedals. It took me ages to get into my kit and prep my water bottles. Leaving the room and dragging myself reluctantly back to the course to begin the day. All I had left for breakfast was a small cake that had a napkin stuck to it. The first ten minutes were uncomfortable accepting the feel of the saddle against my damaged skin, my feet accepting the feel of my bike shoes again.
Then as the sun rose. I made a rule never pass somewhere hoping for a better place up the road as that is how you end up running on empty. I was rewarded this day with the best breakfast. I took a coffee, two thick pizza slices and cream and strawberry-filled pastry. Two bottles of fruit juice to wash that down. Then I was on my way with a full belly. The flat roads allowed me to drop into the aero bars coming up occasionally for a stretch or a sharper corner. I held 28-30kph (16-18mph) on the flat roads, and I felt quite strong. It was so nice to see the mile counter gaining at a steady rate. I calculated it was approx 193km (120 miles) to Verona.
The first 30 miles slipped by, and I made a quick stop for some more fluids and gelato. At 50 miles, I saw an all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant. I stuffed myself as full as I could. The cooler weather from the cloud cover had restored my appetite, and food was power. This was the first time I had felt myself on the bike in days. I pressed on towards Verona; I eased back a little on my pace as I got closer. I had a plan in my mind; I wanted to stock up on food to carry and take a good meal before the last two mountain climbs. Like all larger cities we passed through, Verona was a bustle of people (tourists mainly) and, as such, not an appealing place for the weary bike packer to stop. I often prefer to stop at the exit of a bigger city like this.
I bumped into Jiri, a rider from the Czech Republic. I had bumped into Jiri a few times over the last few days. He was surprised to see me and told me the flatlands had drained him a bit. I was more confident, full of energy, and I had my plan. He went on into the climb while I looked for supplies. I found a supermarket and stocked up. 4 x cheese and ham sandwiches, 5 bananas, 6 snickers bars, a litre or kefir, and a litre of peach juice. I was ready for the push to the finish some 130-145km (80-90 miles) away. It was around 17:30, and I was confident I could pull it off by early morning.
I began to climb the first mountain, and after 15mins it started to rain hard. The wind whipped up, and I took shelter under a tree. It was raining heavily; The tree was bending with the force of the wind; just ahead was a stone wall where I moved on in the hope of a better shelter; there was nothing. The storm grew stronger, then it started to hail. I don't want to say golf ball size hail; it was more like a ten pence piece. Backing further into the hedge behind me, I jumped when a metal road sign flew around the courtyard and into the stone wall opposite with an almighty crash. I opened my seat pack and pulled out my jacket and waterproof shorts. Well, these previously reliable waterproofs lasted about 3mins before I was wet to the skin. The storm looked set to stay, and I was not getting any shelter from the bushes. In my mind, there was only one thing to do: push forward (I later learned some riders turned back to Verona at this point). Some sections were unrideable as the rain had made the rock as slick as ice. I persevered with a grimace that turned into a smile. I was smiling and thinking this is better than the heat. I was moving, I was warm, and I felt strong at last.
After an hour or so making steady progress, I passed through some farm buildings, and there was Jiri. He was hiding from the storm in an open-fronted garage. I pulled in and talked to him; my mood was high, Jiri was at a low point. The storm, and especially the hailstones, had scared him.
He was using a navigation app that allowed him an incredible amount of data. He told me that the next village with accommodation and food was 700m in elevation from where we were and around 5km away. He was caught by my infectious energy. I said to heck with the storm, we could do this. We moved out and made steady progress. The hail came and went; it stung a little if it caught your face. Eventually, we reached the town. The restaurant we stopped at was welcoming and insisted we bring our bikes almost inside. They ushered us through to a nice table where we ate ragu with pasta and a chicken escalope with french fries and fried onions. The waiter spoke very little English and the local hotel even less. We managed to get the waiter to call the hotel and reserve us a room to share. We checked the weather, and the storm was due to ease off at 03:00. I made the decision to stop and continue to the finish in the morning. By this point, I wasn't going to get higher up the leader board and getting rescued off the mountain in the storm would not be the best end to this journey.
We set a 04:00 alarm and were in the hotel lobby at 04.45. We did not expect to get breakfast and were delighted when a member of staff at the hotel showed us to the breakfast room, where there were two other riders. We ate quickly and left before the others, pushing our way up the mountain. We fully expected the other riders to catch up at some point. We later found out one had knee trouble and the other had bad luck with a puncture. At the top of the mountain, the view was incredible, and the rescue lodge was open. It was there we bumped into Jiri's compatriot, Karel. Karel had pushed on in the storm and slept in the mountain rescue lodge at the top. It was dark inside his lodge, and he was furious with himself for oversleeping. After we finished our food, we rolled on together.
Karel was fretting about his place in the race and was checking the tracker all the time. I think he saw me as a threat to his position, and he was constantly pushing ahead. I felt strong, and I rode past him hard and put a gap into him on the climb. He fought hard to close me down as I eased up, and I could see he was going quite deep. Eventually, I said to him he could take the place at the finish. I would rather enjoy the last climbs and come home safe. He visibly relaxed at this; we rode in each other's company up the next mountain from here.
These events are unsupported, and drafting is not acceptable, so we rode slightly apart, coming together occasionally to share water and food. The penultimate descent was exhilarating. My bike made light work while the others struggled to keep pace, and I was taking the occasional air time.
We left the off-road behind and plummeted more than 1,200m down on the tarmac to the foot on the second climb. We stopped and made some running repairs to our bikes pumped up tyres where we had lost pressure. I had picked up a small puncture that had sealed in the front. My tyre had been a bit soft on the tarmac descent, making the wheel squirm in the corners, which was not fun.
We had chocolate pastries, and I stuffed down a sandwich and a few more salt tablets. Bottles filled, we began the last climb. It was relentless, and we were passed by a road rider or two, and we toiled on with our tired bodies and laden bikes. Several false summits tormented us, and we cursed each one of them. We ran dry for the first time on the whole ride; I was out of water completely. I did not panic; I knew we would soon descend; I could make it all the way if nothing came up. And sure enough, we eventually started to plummet down the other side of the mountain.
With several steep inclines to tackle on the way down, the need for water was a growing concern. Luck struck we found a trough with a mountain feed. The water poured from a font above, and it was refreshingly cold. Three tired, hot riders plunged our heads into the cool water; it felt incredible. We filled bottles and drank deeply. This pause was hard on my tired legs, and I struggled as we moved on up each rise in the road. The route twisted and turned, taking in bike path routes to keep us away from the busy main road. Finally, we rounded the corner to a famous view of Lake Garda where we stopped for one last picture.
Coming into Torbole, the traffic was crazy and my years commuting through London paid off as I pulled clear and cut through the cars. I waited for the others as I did not want to distance either of them at this stage. We rolled over the finish line to a warm welcome from Giacomo and some of the other riders who had already finished. It was a relief to have made it to the finish, and we toasted the effort with a few beers and some more Pizza. Finishing a ride this long is filled with mixed emotions. I can't really describe how it feels; there is a numbness that washes over you.
Now I am back home in self-isolation, I am reflecting on the Italy divide.
A week on, I still have numbness in a few fingers and sore feet. I am healing well in the saddle region. I am still tired and have had a nap most days since arriving home. I am eating a lot more than usual, so far, this appetite has not reduced.
I will be back at ID, if not next year, then in the future. The event is incredible. The enthusiasm of the organiser who runs this out of passion for Ultra riding off-road comes through. The other riders were friendly and supportive. I would take a week at the finish with my family next time, the surrounding area is beautiful, and it would be lovely to share some of this with them.
|Total Mileage:||816.7-miles (1314.3 km)|
|Total Time:||6-days 3-hours 35-mins|
|Moving Time:||3-days 9-hours 22-mins|
|Rest Time:||2-days 18-hours 13-mins|
|Custom Crossley Frame||RockShox Sid fork||XT 2x12 groupset||Ergon grips|
|Pro flat handlebars||Ritchey Stem||Pacenti carbon wheels son dynamo front hub xtr rear||Schwalbe Thunder Burt 2.1 w/ Effeto rim invaders|
|Selle Italia Flite E gel flow saddle||Cane creek silk suspension seatpost||Pro Missile tribar Extensions||Speedplay Syzr pedals|
|Extra foam and tape covering bar-ends||Apidura toptube bag||1x Apidura expedition frame pack||Revelate designs seat pack|
|3x Elite stainless bottle cages||3x Camelback podium water bottles||Garmin Etrex||Spot Gen 4 Tracker|
|Garmin 200||Super nova E3 headlight||ETC rear battery LED||Cateye rear LED|
|Exposure Joystick helmet light|
|Small tub Sudocream||Blackburn multi-tool||Pelotan roller suncream|
|Coppertone sun stick||Lip balm||Eye drops|
|1x 30ml bottle juice lubes Viking juice chain oil||1x 60ml bottle Joe’s race sealant||3x various charging cables|
|EU Charger||1x large battery cell||1x small battery cell|
|1x bottle chewable salt stick||1x spare valve core||1x valve core tool|
|1x packet pocket tissues||2x packets disposable wipes||1x small roll of insulation tape|
|1x mountain morph pump Topeak|