1001 Miglia Italia 2021 — or how I ended up in an Italian hospital
You can find an updated version of this post on https://ultra-cycling.de/blog/2021-11-17-1001-miglia/
So here I was — laying on a hospital bed in some emergency room in an Italian hospital close to the city of Imola. It all happened very quickly: 15 minutes after I felt a little pain in the lower regions of my belly, I was off my bike, crumbling on the floor and calling 112 and asking for an ambulance, since I could not stand the severe pain anymore. You might be tempted to say: “What would you expect after riding your bike for 1100km” — more or less non-stop —but read on to get the whole story.
1001 Miglia is the longest of the 4 best known Brevets in Europe (1001 Miglia, Paris-Brest-Paris, London-Edinburgh-London and Berlin-Hamburg-Köln-Berlin). With this in mind, I tried to be prepared as good as possible before eventually hitting the road to Milan on August 15th. Although I didn’t manage to ride a single 600km brevet for preparation, I almost made 10.000km before heading off to Italy and did quite a few 400 and 300km preparation rides.
Being distracted with quite a few other things I didn’t manage to properly pack my stuff for the race. This ended up in quite a mess of things I put into a large duffle bag, which I put into my car together with quite a few boxes of tools and other bike related stuff. I wasn’t even sure about the setup regarding my bags that I eventually wanted to carry on my bike. The decision for the final setup was basically made last minute and turned out to be not very thought-through, since I lost the first bag during the approach to the start.
Reminder to myself: a well-prepared packing list at hand can safe you quite a lot of huddle in the hours before start and also during the race.
During the 2021 cycling season I also experimented with different tires. Starting with the “traditional” 25mm race tires, mounting some 30mm gravel tires for a some longer distances and eventually deciding to go with 28mm tubeless (GP 5000) the day before we parted for Milan. The decision turned out to be quite good. I saw lots of people repairing punctures along the road and the tubeless setup turned out to work without a single issue. I rode them at ~5 bars that allowed for some suspension on the very bumpy Italian roads. Oh, and when I say bumpy, I really mean bumpy!
There was a short irritation around the usage of aero bars. The rules said that they may not be longer then the most front part of your breaks — the same rule that you find in the Paris-Brest rules, but a friend of mine asked the officials and they were fine with longer bars, if you used them to mount your bags, which I did. I moved them a few cm to the back, but actually no one really cared during the bike check. After I realised some discomfort with my seating position during the first few hundred kilometers, I eventually moved the bars further to the front, to be back in the same setup I rode for the rest of the season.
Getting to Milan
It was a great mental support that a good friend from the Audax Suisse people was sitting in the car right next to me when we left Zurich one day before the start of this Italian adventure. I had the pleasure to ride with Robert a few times before and I knew he would be a great companion. We shared a Hotel room ~10km from the start and after spending more or less an afternoon discussing several packaging alternatives for our bikes we finally started off to the sports ground in Parabiago where the race was starting on late Monday afternoon. As always we first had to check-in, get our papers and eat plenty of food.
It was also a great opportunity to talk to some of the other riders — who were planned to join from all over the world. Due to the pandemic still causing travel restrictions, only half the people that were originally registered for the race showed up and it felt like quite a small group (at least compared to the 7000+ riders in Paris two years earlier). Nevertheless the organisation was flawless and all the volunteers did a fantastic job to make it a pleasant experience for the riders.
Into the first night
Robert and I managed to start together around 16:30 — luckily the temperatures already dropped a bit and so we started with about 30º.
For the first 40km we were part of a group with some ambitious Austrian riders and had an average of about 32km/h when we decided that this speed is not very reasonable, given that we would most likely push our pedals for 5 days in a row. So after this glorious (?) start we settled at a lower speed and headed for the first check point in Castellania, Piedmont — after a flat start through the Po Valley. In the meantime, the sun went down and it was completely dark when we started into the second section (of 16 to come).
While the first section was basically flat, the second section gave a small glimpse of what was waiting for us in the hillier sections of the route. With a long a steady climb, we made it to the second check point in Casella.
Knowing that there will be no food served until the 3rd check point, Robert was wise enough to guide me to some Italian restaurant next to the road where we had a late-night snack; together with plenty of other 1001 Miglia riders.
With only a few more meters to climb, we reached the highest point on our way to the Ligurian coast and started into the 3rd section with a 50km downhill to Chiavari where we reached the sea after roughly 200 km at 2 o’clock at night. After riding along the coastline — which was quite pleasant in the middle of the night, since there were only very few cars on the otherwise crowded streets — we reached the first demanding climb that brought us up to Monte Salto continuing with a steep descent Deiva Marina, our 3rd check point.
Ligurian Coast and Cinqu Terre
Section 4 — that contained most vertical meters climbing — started with cycling up the very same part of the road that we descended before. Seeing all the cyclists that still approached after us was quite motivating since we knew that we were not the last ones in the race. What followed was one of the highlights for me, namely cycling down to Levanto during sunrise with the sea seeing the first sunlight of the day.
I couldn’t help but stop many times to take one photo after the other. The region of Cinque Terre might well have been one of the touristic highlights we passed on our loop.
But regarding the 4th section, this first climb was only one of many ahead of us before we reached the next check point.
Before that, we had to replace a gear cable on Robert’s bike and were forced to climb a few steep roads in the middle of the day meaning: during the hottest time of the day. Reaching check point 4 in Gorfigliano at around 2pm on the second day was probably the hardest challenge of the whole brevet — at least for me.
Getting some sleep and catching up with Mischa
Feeling the zero hours of sleep during the first night, I wanted to take a nap real badly, but there was no shades and it was simply too hot so we decided to continue and take a nap a little later. With a long descent down to Fornaci di Barga the temperatures became more bearable and we finally took a first longer nap on some park bench in the middle of the city.
That was when Mischa joined our group — he was staying in a Hotel room for a few hours and we decided to ride through the night together. Within our group of three we went through the valley of the river Serchio before we were confronted with the next climb starting in Bagni di Lucca. Somewhere close to the top of this climb the sun went down and we started off into the second night. What followed was a perfect downhill on small streets with almost no cars in perfect warm temperatures.
Looking out for something to eat we had another food-stop at an Italian restaurant in Castellare where lots of local cars on the car park made us think that this might be a good place to eat. We were not disappointed: the food was delicious and we felt well-prepared to continue our night ride into Tuscany.
We reached the next check point in Pontedera at around 2 o’clock at night with roughly 480km in the saddle.
Riding through Tuscany at nighttime first of all meant for us that it became quite cold. On the one hand this was good since falling asleep on the bike is less likely if it’s cold (at least that is what I experienced) on the other hand the temperature differences between climbing uphill, going downhill and taking a rest became quite unpleasant so that at around 4 am in the morning we decided to take a nap on a playground in a small village called Badesse, roughly 30km before the 6th check point in Castelnuovo Berardenga.
Mischa organised a bag drop there so I was happy to get rid of all the stuff I thought I didn’t need anymore. Best thing to drop was the sleeping bag pouch that I mounted on my aereo bars and that became a mess all the way from the start. The check point also offered a “open air shower” — a luxury that we very well knew how to use after 600km in the race.
After a 2 hrs rest at the check point we started into the region where the “L’Eroica” takes place — Mischa couldn’t stop talking about his memories of the past 4 times he participated in this retro-style race. Given the gorgeous landscape that we rode through, I could easily understand why he keeps coming back year after year.
It’s getting hotter
Towards noon of the 3rd day, the temperatures reached the maximum of our tour (at least that’s how it felt for me). I also had the impression that the hills in Tuscany were among the steepest we had to climb with up to 15%. We now went each on our own pace and did not try to stick together as a group.
Although it didn’t feel too hard for my legs, I clearly felt stressed by the overall conditions and was really happy to reach the 7th check point in San Quircio D’Orcia. After some refreshing beverages and a short nap on some beer bench, we were back on the bike and enjoyed a cooler breeze on another descent in Tuscany.
A perfect Italian night
What followed was my personal highlight of the tour. It started with a smooth ascent up to the city of Radicofani. At the end of the climb, a fountain with fresh water was waiting for us and we had a perfect descent down to the Paglia river.
The temperatures dropped significantly and towards the end of the evening we rode into a perfect sunset along the secret control before the city of Pitigliano — a place I never heard of but probably the most beautiful town along the route.
It took us quite a while watching the medieval buildings and passing all the tourists in the city center. We only realised the size of the city once we passed by and I was wondering why I never heard of this place that seemed to be occupied by Italian people only.
With a constant stop-and-go during the last hours we now tried to catch up with Robert again, who was quite a bit ahead. In the mean time it got quite dark again and we were off into the 3rd night reaching the most southern point of our tour: Lago die Bolsena. The food on 8th check point was a big disappointment that immediately had a negative effect on Robert’s mood. After only a short stop he was back on his bike riding into the city of Bolsena, searching for some proper place to eat. And that’s what we did — filling our stomach for some more kilometers.
With a properly filled stomach we managed another steep climb starting right from city center, chilled down a speedy descent — did I mention that Robert has especially enforced wheels to be able to fully enjoy each and every descent at high speed? What followed was another long climb up to Monte Peglia, which I couldn’t manage to do in one go, since I almost fell asleep on my bike several times and decided to take a 3 hours nap around the middle of the climb.
Although it might sound strange, sleeping used to be a big issue for me on such tours. Even though being super-tired it’s often hard for me to fall asleep and I need to find a good moment where my heart rate is at a reasonable level. I am also very sensitive to noise and it usually takes a sleepless night without them to remember that I have to put in ear plugs. But this night was just perfect. I put my rain jacket and reflective west on the grass, crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep within minutes. I woke up a few minutes before the alarm that I set on my smartphone, switched off airplane mode and got a message from Mischa and Robert that they slept somewhere close to the top of the climb and would be waiting for me in the next open coffee along the descent.
The downhill section that followed offered some spectacular views into the nearby landscape and the sunrise was again a class of its own.
One can clearly say that when it comes to finding good places to eat you can rely on Mischa and Robert. The bar on which they stopped offered a perfect selection of Italian breakfast and with our bellies properly filled we continued our travel to Lago di Trasimeno.
After riding in our group of three most of the time so far, we split up after the breakfast and mainly rode on our own. For the first time I started listening to some music, enjoyed the landscape and got into this meditative flow of cycling that starts after so many hours of pedalling. I felt perfectly fine and if someone would have told me that I’d be laying in some Italian hospital less than 24 hrs later I would have laughed at them.
Lago di Trasimeno
What followed was a more or less flat section towards Lago di Trasimeno. With only some small hills I cycled one kilometer after the other and was happy to get some distance done. I met quite a few other cyclists, some even talked to me and eventually I met Alan from the UK — it was his 3rd attempt to finish 1001 Miglia as he told me later on. Not having pushed too hard during the first few hours of the day I felt well enough to follow his mad speed and we quickly made it to the next check point where I met Robert again.
After the check point there was a shorter flat section before another longer ascent awaited us after the city of Porta Etrusca. When starting such a race with fresh legs, one often thinks that sprinting up such climbs is a great idea. With almost 900km into the race you become calm, accept that using the 2nd or even 1st gear is a completely fine option and don’t bother if it seems to take forever to climb a few hundred meters vertical. That is what I describe as the perfect flow of riding a brevet: you accept the slowliness of things and are happy with simply riding your bike.
To avoid riding during the maximum heat of the day I stopped in a bar at the end of the following descent and had some lemon soda with Italian pastry. The road book showed one more steep ascent before reaching a flatter section towards the next check point in Matassino Reggello.
That’s where I met Robert and Mischa again and we planned to take a shower and eventually another nap.
My attempt to sleep came to a sudden end when the church bells in the nearby church began to ring for the evening prayers.
So I left the check point at around 6:00 pm and started to climb what the road book showed as the 2nd last climb. Somewhere along the climb I also passed the 1000 km mark with ~13.000m vertical. I could not keep pace with a group from Austria that passed me along the way but I still felt quite fresh and was optimistic and motivated for the last mountains before reaching Po valley. But sometimes reality is just different from what you are expecting.
The last climb
The ascent up to Vallombrosa was nothing but magic. With the sun going down halfway up the climb all the lights of the close by cities started to glow in the dark and far in the distant one could see the city of Florence.
The downhill to Dicomano was long and joyful, since the road was in perfect condition. Somewhere along the route I happened to meet Robert again and we enjoyed a yummy Doener together that helped us ride the last 30km or so to the 11th check point in Scarperia.
I was first planning to finally take a longer sleep but with all mattresses occupied and me suddenly feeling less sleepy again I wanted to repeat my approach from the previous night and ride into the last climb until I am too tired and then sleep along the route. Just when I wanted to start, I met a man who seemed not to be participating in the race and a woman on a bike that obviously was part of the race. The man explained to me that it’s his daughter and he wanted to know whether I could accompany her along the night ride since he worried about her riding alone in the 4th night of this event.
Eventually I found out that Laura — that was the name of the other cyclist — was a very experienced long distance rider who successfully finished quite a few well known races. Her father accompanied her with a VW micro bus that offered some luxury that was not known to me. Due to her lack of luggage and impressively strong legs, she pushed up the last climb with a speed that was barely doable for me. I was surprised about some reserves that I didn’t think I would still have at that point of time. The last 600m of climbing seemed to fly by and what followed was a last 50km long descent to what was intended to be the last flat section of the race.
We met a cyclist that managed to brake the crank of his bike — looking at his sprocket, which had 24 teeth max, it seemed like he had some super-powered legs… and he seemed to have pushed his bike for quite a while when we met him along the route. Laura’s father packed the bike in his car and brought him to the next bike shop. I am sure he finished the race by going back to where he was picked up and then cycled the easy rest of the route.
Getting really tired around the time when the sun started to rise — this is always the most crucial time for me in terms of tiredness — I already planned a longer stay in the upcoming check point where I wanted to finally take some rest and sleep, when I suddenly realised a pain in the lower region of my belly. I explained to Laura that I want to relax my belly a bit and that’s why I was riding my bike in a rather upright position. Actually it didn’t help and the pain got worse and worse. 15 minutes later we arrived at a railroad crossing with the barriers closed and I barely managed to get off my bike and was more or less falling into the ditch. Laura explained that her father was a doctor and she would ride the remaining 5km to the next check point and ask him to come back to me and eventually pick me up. But the pain got even worse and I decided to call the ambulance. Some 10 minutes later, I was laying on a bar in the trunk of an ambulance that brought me to the hospital.
A little stone kicked me off the bike
Doing some amateur medical research on the internet it was immediately clear to me that I must have an appendicitis. With the expectation of a unavoidable surgery in an Italian hospital I was laying around falling asleep again and again due to a massive amount of pain killers being injected directly into my veins and the fact that I only slept for ~7 hrs during the past 4 nights.
A doctor that must have been super experienced on the ultrasound device finally figured out that it’s no appendicitis but a kidney stone that caused the pain.
3 days later, my Mum (who gave me a voucher for picking me up in Italy after a cycling trip I planned the year before but never turned into reality) and my aunt came to pick me up and I had the most painful ride back home. After spending another night in the hospital at home, the little stone finally decided to leave my body and I felt surprisingly relaxed (after sleeping more or less for 4 days in hospitals non-stop).
I guess one cannot clearly figure out what was the actual root cause for the kidney stone but it certainly started to grow long time before the race. Critically reflecting on my training period before the event I guess that going on long distance rides with only very little water and thinking that being able to ride 200km with only 1l of drinks turned out to be a stupid thing to optimise for.
Of course I was disappointed not to have finished the race — even more, given that I never prepared so well for such a challenge and my legs still felt strong even after 1100km and more than 14.000m of climbing. But continuing with the pain was clearly not an option, so scratching the race was without alternative.
I hope I will get another chance to start at 1001 Miglia at the next edition, because it certainly was the most beautiful race I ever joined. The organisation was nothing but perfect, the landscape was astonishing along the whole route and the Italian food alone would be a reason to return in 2024 or 2025, whenever the next edition will take place.
A big thank you to all the volunteers that made this possible and all the doctors and nurses that took care of me in the hospital in Lugo!