This year James Harvey and eight of our most sporty supporters set off on a gruelling cycling challenge, that we ‘playfully’ named The Italian Job.
On paper it may sound slightly jovial, but in reality it was a 340 mile cycle over 4 days, with over 22,000ft of hills to get up, long winding (and often rain soaked) roads to navigate and 10 hour days in the saddle, covering as much as 100 miles in a single day!
Two of our cyclists, James Harvey and Cliona Kirwan, are breast surgeons who work closely with Prevent Breast Cancer. We asked James to shed some light on the experience as a whole, and how he found this challenge.
A leisurely start to the day with 30 flat miles from Milan, heading towards the Alps which are growing in front of us. Apart from cycling through a few clouds of flies and taking in our protein for the day this is a pleasant start through fields of maize. The day starts a bit chilly but quickly heats up to 30 degrees.
After a drinks break at 36 miles we climb for four miles and get to our first lake, which is unbelievably beautiful! The colours are unreal. Clio leaves me for dead at this stage while I stop for cherry ice cream to cool me down.
Clio is a machine. I’m so impressed by our pocket rocket. Our lunch stop is by a lake and Clio being Clio she gets in and has a swim.
We are all tired and after lunch the ride continues with long climb and a descent into Maggiore. We all decline the option for a shorter route and take the scenic route to the top of the hill to look down on Lake Maggiore. Stunning. I have to say the heat was having its effect, I’ve eaten five bags of salt and vinegar crisps today to keep up with my salt needs. Clio is flagging as we do the last ten miles to the hotel. Hot and sweaty, we collapse into the hotel and sit in the bar. I’m feeling pretty tipsy after one beer.
80 miles done, and one of our group is down already with a broken elbow and wrist.
A glorious start to the day cycling along Lake Maggiore in the cold morning air. Cycling past incredible houses and gardens overlooking the lake – the George Clooney’s of this world have chosen a good spot to live.
A stop for an espresso to wake us up in the old town of Arona then it’s onto busy roads to cross around to the other side of the lake.
After drinks stop I lose Clio, (yes she’s way ahead of me!!) as we go into a nine mile uphill section with a treacherous descent through switchbacks. I find Clio at a set of traffic lights, crying. She got stopped at a red light and got the most incredible pain building up in her feet. We spend five minutes with her lying with her feet in the air. In true style she says she’s fine and we plough on for lunch.
The afternoon is short today, with a visit into Switzerland. I give the customs men a little hoot on my pink horn as we enter Switzerland and then back into Italy. They were so not amused ha ha ha.
Arrive in Como, pizza and bed. We all know tomorrow bring 100miles, rain and the big climb, the Madonna. Everyone is talking about it……
DAY THREE – Summary: Tough, very long and even wetter!
Early start as we have 100miles to cover. Our day starts with a gentle climb out of Como, and a cruise along lakeside for twenty miles. A few long scary tunnels in the dark where you can hear the lorries coming at you from behind for half a mile, hoping and praying they’re not going to collect us on the way through.
Drinks stop in Bellagio. The view would’ve been amazing but we were only thinking of the climb this morning the Madonna del Ghisallo… and we are off! 8 long hard kilometres uphill, 14/15% in parts, switchback after switchback, absolutely zero chat …not………enough……….breath. Clio in true style arrives at the top singing rugby songs ha ha ha and filthy ones at that.
Thirty miles in and the rain starts. I pop a puncture and by the time we’ve fixed it I’m freezing cold. Descending the Madonna I’m certain my bike has a brake problem, it’s wobbling all over the shop. Then I realise I’m just shivering. Another 30 miles on busy roads going around Bergamo.
We hit the most beautiful valley for a 9km climb, stunningly beautiful and then a wall of rain hits us. We stop for drinks in the hope it’ll stop. No chance – double wiper rain. Some bail into the van for a lift – no chance for us. Another 4km uphill and then 4km downhill on a road that it more like a river – I’ve never been so slow on a bike. Absolutely soaked and cold again and shivering on the downhill.
10 miles to go on the flat. I’ve been nursing Clio on for forty miles – she’s tired. For the last ten miles I can hear her sobbing on the bike behind me – “just ignore me” she says, so we batter on. We are freezing and wet and stopping would prolong the agony. We need the warmth of the hotel.
Clio can’t pedal anymore, her feet are so painful, we have to stop . She’s crying but also you can see in her eyes she doesn’t want to give up. I keep quiet… Sometimes there’s a need for quiet. Then she’s off…. flying down the road, five miles fast, three to go, Clio’s legs are going, I lead her in.
We see signs to the town and count down the kilometres in the rain, they’re passing so slowly.
Finally… the hotel… woop whoop! Glass of fizz in our wet clothes, then upstairs for a very long hot shower.
DAY FOUR – We made it!!!
The rain from the previous day has disappeared. A clear and cool morning and an incredible start to a 90mile final day. The day starts with a 3 metre wide cycle path alongside Lake Onea. The cars go through a tunnel in the rock so we are alone cycling along in the quiet by the lake, enjoying the views. Today is relatively gentle.
The route for the day specifies very little climbing except for a “cheeky climb” out of a village.
As a bit of background, a car sets out ahead of us at the start of the day and puts arrows up on the road ahead of us. We arrive in the village at the bottom of the climb and some kind local has taken the arrows down. Those with fancy GPS on their bikes point the way and we go up the cheeky Hill. Omg – it’s over 20% and about three miles long. I have never breathed so hard in all my life, haha.
Halfway up the next climb we stop for lunch. We finish the climb after lunch then a long downhill, the bikes are feeling tired too, my friend Tom’s bike has a broken front brake which the crew can’t fix, we creep down the mountain.
We fly along on the flat ground and reach Lake Garda, picking up Clio and a few others on the way. It’s raining as we reach the huge expanse of Lake Garda. It’s a moody atmosphere… raining, grey skies. Final drinks stop and we’re off to a holding point before Verona so we can all cycle in together.
As we near Verona, roads get busier and slippery.
Five miles from Verona, one of the bikes gets a puncture. I fix it in the rain, two miles later, another puncture….same again. Are we never going to get there??!! This is dragging on.
We arrive at the meeting point; it’s getting dark – lights on. One of the girls has fallen off on the slippery roads and broken her collarbone – sad to hear. The rest of us all feel lucky to have dodged any serious injury. We grab a cheeky beer and then in convoy we set off for Verona, very carefully.
Finally we arrive in the main square in Verona, OMG, I had no idea. It’s incredible – a large central square with a Colosseum in the centre.
The emotions spill out, we celebrate, drink very cheap sparkly wine and get photos and videos.
A short cycle to the hotel and then we assemble for dinner. Hahahahaha we all look knackered and so not up for a dinner out. Dinner was fab though; Clio got an award for being “special”. She is that, a special one.
Well done all. Well done Clio. You’re an inspiration to all of us; I’m in awe of you.
If you’d like to make a donation to sponsor James, Cliona and the rest of our amazing Italian Job cyclists, click here.