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I shake my head, for a moment not quite sure where I am. It’s hot. I can feel my skin drenched in a film of oily sweat. My legs are turning. The tarmac is whooshing by like the night sky below my feet, thuck-thuckering as it adheres to my tyres.
I let my gaze linger on the streaming tarmac, mesmerized.
Then I realise what is happening. I have checked out. One minute I was rounding the corner and heading up the long incline to the hairpin. Now I am suddenly on the sweeping curve on the other side. And I am way out in the middle of the road. I instinctively glance over my shoulder, panicking.
But the road behind is clear. I let go of my breath.
I’ve been lucky. The crazy Italian drivers have stopped for lunch, leaving the hillside road to the mad dogs and Englishmen on bikes. I force myself over to the white line, where the tarmac starts to give way to the dirt. Three metres to my right, across the crash barrier, the cliff falls away a thousand feet.
The road ahead is soft focused, shimmering, the scorching tarmac dancing like a mirage in front of me, pliable and vague. But at the edge of my vision I can see every detail – the rubble and scrub at the foot of the rock face, the battered crash barrier by my side, the sheer drop to the green valley way below.
Back down the hill I had watched with fascination as a lizard scuttled across the road in front of me – like I was watching a slow-motion nature film - now it is a crumpled Coke can that catches my attention. And a shriveled condom by the road side. What’s it doing there? How…
I shake my head. The heat is doing weird things to my mind. Fucking with me, trying to catch me out.
My gloves are soaked and I can feel my fingers sticking to the handlebar tape. I catch sight of my fingers for a moment and am transfixed, watching them, and then I feel myself wobble and realise I am drifting back out into the road again. I curse, and vow to keep my mind on the road.
But it is hard.
In the cold you can speed up, try and work up some warmth in your body, ignoring your frozen knuckles and cheeks. In the wind there are moments when it gives or you dip out of its blast. Even on the steepest mountain there are moments when you can zig-zag.
But in the heat, searing relentless high noon heat like this, there is nowhere to hide. It’s everywhere. Engulfing me like a furnace.
I realise I am blinking so much that the road ahead is appearing as a series of stills. Each shot a different angled snapshot of simmering tarmac. I want to drag off my sunglasses and grind my knuckles into my eyes but I know it will only make it worse; the sweat is streaming down my face, mixing with the sunscreen and stabbing at my eyes. There is nothing I can do.
I squint ahead and see the road hugging the mountain side, and disappearing into the throbbing parched air. My mouth is dry, even though I have been drinking constantly. I want to dowse myself, but I need that water. Somewhere between here and the summit I am going to need every drop.
The only thing to do is keep going.
Every rational thought tells me to stop, to get off. Stop and find some shade. Get out of the heat.
But I know this moment, even though my mind is dull. It comes in many guises – heat, cold, rain, exhaustion.
And I am not going to let it get me.
This is where you are tested.
I drop my head, swollen knuckles bulging as I grip, and I turn the pedals. Sweat runs down my nose.
I start to push down, trying to get a rhythm, my muscles aching. The air is glutinous and sweet and it catches in my throat.
And I turn the pedals, and I go. Metre by metre, engulfed in the heat, telling myself that the only thing that matters is going on.
I don’t know how long it goes on. All I am focused on is getting to the top.
Corner after corner, slope after slope.
Until… the strangest thing happens.
As I come out of a steep grinding hairpin, the summit is in sight andover the crest I can see dozens of wild horses cascading across the fields towards me.
I come out of the saddle, trying to keep up my speed.
But then the horses are all round me, flooding across the road. I realise later that they are like a welcome party, a prequel to what is about to come. I work my way through them; grey, brown, dappled white.
Up the last hill.
And as I hit the crest, I instinctively ready myself for the open view.
But instead of coming out at the top of a mountain, it’s like I have been transported to another world..
I am in a valley– the Piano Grande – a valley a mile in the air.
I cruise to a halt, hearing myself exclaim above the bass beat of my heart.
Out ahead is a valley floor covered with strips of colour, a carpet of millions of tiny flowers. On the horizon, down the long flat road ahead, the mountains are snow capped.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead, letting my breath subside, taking it all in. For a moment I think I must be hallucinating.
It’s a strange feeling – the thin air and temperature tells me I am high, but the view looks like it should be at sea level. The sky is bright blue and there are flowers by the road.
For a moment, one long beautiful moment all I have is what’s in front of me. My mind is empty. My body cleansed by the heat.
I smile, feeling the sweat cool in the small of my back.
The usual clutter of thoughts are gone, the questions, the doubt.
All there is, is this. It’s beautiful, shocking, stunning.
And I realise if there is a heaven then this is what it must feel like to arrive. No thoughts, no worries, nothing else. Just a billion small flowers in a green valley and a sense of nothing, of completeness, of things done.
That is why I keep going.
The Piano Grande
This valley ‘a mile in the air’ is in the beautiful Sibillinian mountains, part of the Apennine range that forms the spine of Italy. Although it is one of Italy’s most breathtaking natural wonders, few British cyclists will have heard of the Piano Grande, still less ridden in the area.
The Sibillinian range takes in parts of Umbria, the Marché and Abruzzo. It’s great cycling country; challenging climbs on generally good tarmac, beautiful vistas, charming towns and villages, sympathetic motorists.
The nearest airports are Ancona (Ryanair), Bologna (BA, et al) and Perugia (via Milan).
We rode up to the Piano Grande from the lovely town of Norcia, a good base for exploring the area. The climb is a good 15km at an even gradient of 5% to 8%. It’s comfortable on a cool day, but a real challenge in the 40° summer heat.
Neil Gibb is a consultant and author. His published works include ‘Blood Red Sky’ and ‘Bleached White’ (both by Piatkus).
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