Italy Divide 2021
A 1300 km bike packing adventure through Italy, taking in Tuscan gravel roads and historic mountain villages.
Luke Humphreys - August 25th 2021
Ihave been Cycling competitively on and off for for 27 years Racing road and TT through my local club in my youth, then riding sportive events all across Europe, road, mountain bike, gravel and pretty much anything you can pedal is good with me. I have led two 1000 mile trips for groups of 30 riders in Vietnam. I have worked in the bicycle industry for 25 years. In the last 5 years I have begun to push further and further looking for longer distance events.
I decided to enter the Italy Divide in 2021 after twice completing the Tuscany trail a 300mile plus bike packing event that I would thoroughly recommend. I looked at other endurance events like the Atlas Mountain race, I felt with Covid disruptions Italy Divide stood a good chance of running this year. My biggest ambition is to tackle the 2700mile Tour Divide that goes off-road from Alberta Canada to New Mexico. I am inspired by my friend Mike Hall who was sadly killed in Australia during the Indian Pacific Wheel race in 2017. Mike still holds the Tour Divide record 13days and 22hours 51minutes.
What is Italy Divide
Italy Divide for me it’s an ultra-distance event that comes with a DOT. DOT watching is something I have been doing for the last decade.
It’s a race that’s not a race. The route is pre-determined, you must follow it on your navigation device from the GPX file. The file is provided ten days before the start to stop people pre riding the route. 1300km/810m of mixed terrain cycling with 22’000m/70,000ft of altitude gained. Some walking or hike a bike sections to tackle on route.
From Pompei traveling up through Italy to Torbole at the tip of Lake Garda. Riders are tracked with SPOT satellite trackers; These must be kept on at all times. Ultra-Events like the ID are not for the under prepared, I would recommend it to others however do not think for a moment you can turn up and have a go. If you’re looking to take on something like this then it’s a good idea to try events like the Tuscany Trail first.
This is not a race? This tag is given to a lot 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.
Once the clock starts it keeps running until you finish. Anything you need must be purchased or found on 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
My bike set up. I have a custom steel frame built by Duncan at Crossley Metal. It has a geometry we worked on together with a slacker head tube and steeper seat tube. It is a hard tail Mountain bike or flat bar monster cross gravel bike. The frame has extra mounts and plenty of space for bike packing bags.
In the build up to this event, I can’t train or practise cycling 800 plus miles it would leave me empty and unable to ride well during the event. My two main preparation rides where a 200mile double lap of the local charity century, and a 350mile lap of Devon and Cornwall mixed terrain with two nights bivvying carrying as much extra kit as I could the theory being train heavy and race light.
Multiple cancels flights last minute COVID testing stress and extra journey time as airports changed. Add to that Italy changed from no quarantine to 5 days quarantine ten days before I was due to travel. Pure relief when I have arrived in Pompei, I was ready to begin the longest toughest race I have ever attempted. At 808m/1300km with 70,000ft/22,000m of elevation gain, packed with as much off-road riding the organisers can offer this will be hard. More than double the distance of my previous events.
My impression of Pompei during the days before the start is one of contrasts between the modern and the historical, the rich and the poor. The city has grandeur in abundance, on the flip side abandoned warehouses and piles of rubbish are just around the next turn.
I took a 10mile ride to check the bike was set up ok after the flight and stretch my legs. I don’t like the feeling you get before undertaking such a big ride I have had a few quiet weeks since my last big training effort and I feel stale.
This time I will have my very own dot to watch on the famous track leader’s website, whether anyone is watching outside my loved ones I don’t know. Having been an avid dot watcher myself I have finally taken the plunge into the world of ultra-racing.
Here I am waiting to start an hour to go just doing some last-minute charging. I look at the other riders and try and assess how fast they might be based on their physical appearance.
I calm and have been able to eat a good breakfast which is good news normally I cannot stomach anything due to the nerves.
The other riders are using a variety of bikes Gravel and Mountain bikes. Tyre widths seems to be the main topic of conversation among the riders as well as sleeping kit, are you are 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 under way. 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 as we wind up super steep fire roads towards the top. I knew there was going to be some walking here and I took it easy on the climb. Letting others go feeling I would catch back up it is a long ride and I wanted to save my matches. 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 are 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.
There was a small tourist information hut with vending machines where I got some water for my bottle, I pressed on down the road descent in search of a pharmacy to buy some supplies. I stopped a few times for drinks and was looking for some plasters. Unfortunately, it was mid-day and the pharmacies would not reopen for a few hours. I hobbled slowly with the pain in my feet so tried to minimise stops 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 this is Italy, they do not seem to have the same approach. I was struggling on the bike with my feet, I could feel the pain all the time. I was a little down hearted to have been derailed so early on and I was desperate for a solution.
Eventually the shops started to reopen I must have passed 12-15 pharmacies before I found one open. 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.
Sat on the pavement outside I cleaned my feet with some wipes. I put one Compeed on each of the four larger blisters, one each side of the heel on each foot. I used some of the smaller plasters over the raw skin around my heel. I then wrapped them with the bandage to stop them moving or peeling off. I cleaned the last of the sand and dust out of my shoes, socks and refitted them.
Back on the bike I was feeling ok my toes hurt in a few places, the heels were not too bad, I could start to push on. I was conscious I had lost time to the front pack however I could not afford to chase them too hard especially this early in the event.
The next 5-6 hours were a mixture of smaller back roads some off road tracks and a lot of roads. I made a dinner stop at a roadside restaurant. Pizza, gnocchi and a Fanta consumed I left into the darkness. Lights on and a bit cooler I enjoyed winding my way along the beach roads. There were parties everywhere a real beach club vibe going on, a techno music back drop playing as I sped forward. I felt like a stranger in this world a dusty interloper among the revellers, as I darted past into the night. 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 single-track riding I began climbing a massive ascent off the coast. The slopes were tough the surface loose rock and the track narrow. I was doing well riding these at first and with every switch back turn the slope became a bit steeper. After 30% of the climb was done the rocks got bigger and the track steeper, I started to lose traction and have to stop and restart. Eventually I accepted that fighting the bike like this was pointless and began the slow laborious walk to the summit. This walk like many to come was a blow. As a rider/want to be racer, progress feels rewarding watching the miles go up is a great feeling. 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 could not 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 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 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 road taking a 90degree turn inland. The turn had me riding through a town and I stopped for breakfast. Stuffing down pastries and fruit juice. I topped up my water bottles and was off on 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 little further up the road a mountain bike club congregated and as I neared them, they pulled away. I went straight past at my constant steady pace. After a minute or two some of them past me. One of them pulled alongside and asked what I was riding. I explained the 1300km 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 this climb loomed above me a village clinging to the edge high above on the mountain. Most of the ascent was road and I shared it with many other cyclist’s, 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 punishing 37degrees and no cloud in sight. At the top I stopped by a fountain and refilled my bottles. Pushing on across a ridge it was up and down for the next few miles.
My sights firmly set on the next milestone which would be 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. The 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 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, I was suffering 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 so I could get some sleep. I arrived at the hotel around 7-45pm and had 270m/434km under my tyres, too tired to find food I washed me and my kit and fell asleep.
With the alarm set for 2am I woke got ready and pedalled away into the dawn. I was sharing the road and tracks with wild boar including a mum and four hoglets. The boars scarper quickly as I approach not so fast you don’t get a good look at them.
My day started well I was riding strong in the dark and the cooler temperatures meant I was able to push at a better rate. My lack of food the night before was taking a toll on me and at 5.30am I stopped outside a cafe and had to wait for it to open. 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, I was starting to struggle. My progress was slow and after a hard climb I arrived in a small town at 342miles I found a room around 1pm and washed my kit showered and went to sleep.
I awoke earlier than I had hoped around 4.30pm. I devoured all the breakfast the owner had left me and left around 5-30-6pm. It was cooler now and I felt ok. Pushing on and buying food wherever I could.
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, a mole, I was very excited by my first sighting of a live porcupine in the wild. The night went well I had transitioned to a nocturnal rhythm to combat the heat, this strategy was paying off now.
As the dawn broke in Tuscany, I was treated to the most amazing 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 though it this moment how could anyone go a lifetime and never experience this moment perhaps they are the crazy ones. To be so far out of my comfortable life and being rewarded with such a peaceful scene unfolding before me.
I made it to Siena 475m/603km in good time rolling into the city around mid-day. It was super-hot, 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, 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 6pm. It was still really hot and the first 2 hours where tougher than I had hoped for. I knuckled down for a big push and ride 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 hard singletrack section onto a road and stopped under a tree where I slept for 15mins on the verge. It was spiky and rough, my lights went out as soon as I lay down. Back on the bike the heat was brutalising me. I found a restaurant and took a longer 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. The climb took me high up onto a ridge. There were a few super tough sections there I had to hop off and 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. It seemed to take hours to get to Bologna and the hiking sections are mentally wearing. Eventually I hit the tarmac and started to descend towards the city. I was tired and hungry on the move for over 24hours with just two short naps. Eventually I dropped into Bologna exhausted. 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 8pm. It was a real struggle to wash myself and my kit I was fighting he need to fall asleep.
I had slept heavy until my alarm at 4am. Out of bed I felt extremely stiff and was wondering how I was going to turn the pedals at all. 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 napkin stuck to it. The first ten minutes where 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 in the sky it was distinctly less bright than the previous days, were there clouds up there or was it just too early? I struggled to process which it was, I was on the lookout for somewhere to stop and eat breakfast. 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 a 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 was holding 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 120miles/193km to Verona.
The first 30 miles slipped by and I made a quick stop for some more fluids and gelato. At 50miles I saw an all you can eat Japanese restaurant. I stuffed myself 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, as I got closer, I eased back a little on my pace. 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. Verona like all larger cities we passed through 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 on 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 flat lands 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 80-90m/130-145km away. It was around 5.30 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 I moved on in 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 and 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 and that was push forward (I later learned some riders turned back to Verona at this point). I climbed on up the mountain 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 was passing through some farm buildings and there was Jiri. He was hiding from the storm in and 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 hail stones 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 some tracks had washed out and it was like climbing up a river at times. The hail came and went it stung a little if it caught your face. Undeterred we pressed on the climb came out of the woodland and across wider open tracks, the grass at the side was often easier to ride than the gravel that had become more challenging as the rain drove it into deeper piles. 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 and the food was just right a massive ragu with pasta and a chicken escalope with french fries and fried onions. Washed down with a Fanta and water. The waiter spoke very little English and the local hotel 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 3am. 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.
At the hotel we were shown to the garage were we found 4 other bikes. Riders in the same boat as us.
We had set a 4am alarm and were in the hotel lobby at 4.45 we did not expect to get breakfast and where delighted when a member of staff at the hotel showed us to the breakfast room two other riders there with us. 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 bad luck with a puncture. At the top of the mountain the view was incredible, and the rescue lodge was open we grabbed a sandwich and more coffee. It was there and 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. We were relaxed and chatted to him. 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, from here we rode in each other’s company up the next mountain.
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 of it while the others struggled to keep pace, I was taking the occasional air time.
We left the off-road behind and plummeted 1200 plus meters 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 we were passed by a road rider or two and we toiled on with our tired bodies and laden bikes. There were several false summits that tormented us, we cursed each one of them. All of us 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 the trough, 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 we stopped for one last picture. Coming into Torbole the traffic was crazy and my years commuting through London paid off I pulled clear as I cut through the cars. I waited for the others as I did not want to distance either of them at this stage. We rolled up to 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. Here are a few things I will take away from the experience.
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 normal so far this appetite has not reduced.
ID is a long way, this step up in distance however well or fast I can ride it is still 800 plus miles of hard riding.
If you are going to take sleeping kit, take a good set up that makes sleep easy. I would personally not take it for this type of race next time I would rely on a hotel or two and the odd power nap.
Water is available everywhere but do refill every chance you get.
When you hit the inevitable lows channel something that gets you moving, for me it was the support back home all the people watching my spot tracker progress. I will always remember when Mike Hall said “it is just bike riding we are not curing cancer”. I often repeat that in my head when I am feeling sorry for myself.
A mountain bike with the right tyres is faster and more comfortable than a gravel bike for long distances. This is my experience having done these longer events on both styles of bike. I do have a custom frame that helps keep me fast and comfortable.
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 816.69miles/314.33kilometers
Total Time 6days 03hours 35minutes
Moving time 3days 09hours 22minutes
Resting eating sleeping time 2days 18hours 13minutes
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