The ultimate test ride across Italy Divide
But imagine carrying on for another thousand kilometres on a route that takes in sections of gravel and technical single-track trails? An unsupported bike adventure that sees you traverse the remotest regions of an entire country.
If the notion of such an extreme undertaking appeals, then you’re already halfway to understanding why Jeff Webb - CEO of Norwegian bike brand Fara Cycling - rolled up at the start line of this year’s Italy Divide.
As an ex-professional racer and experienced ultra-cyclist, Jeff was fully aware of the physical and mental reserves required to cover such extreme distances. Racing the Italy Divide the previous year and struggling with the lack of sleep that goes hand-in-hand with riding at the sharp end of these events, it was the appeal of once again journeying through the beautiful Italian countryside that proved sufficiently alluring.
“To be honest, I’d promised myself that I would never do another ultra-distance race again. But the Italy Divide offers up this wonderfully challenging mix of terrain—from fast tarmac to the white roads of Strade Bianchi and with a touch of technical trail riding thrown in. And the thought of traveling from Pompeii in the south to Lake Garda in the north was an exciting adventure in itself. Passing through the historic cities of Rome and Siena, Bologna and Verona, only adding to the appeal. So I gradually convinced myself that doing this would be a great idea.”
Decision made, Jeff next needed to focus on the bike that would carry him north along the spine of Italy. Favoring a fast and light set-up, the launch of Fara’s new gravel bike proved propitious. What better way to test out a new product than by taking it out for a spin?
“At Fara, cycling is about the freedom to roam—to see every road and path as an adventure waiting to happen. In the F/Gravel, we aimed to build a bike that perfectly reflected this philosophy.”
“With a low step-over height and wide tyre clearance,” Jeff continues, “the F/Gravel has been designed to offer a supple ride across all types of terrain. Add in the integrated bikepacking system that sees bags detaching from the frame in seconds and you have this perfect balance of comfort and capability. And then there’s the lightweight carbon frame—with a route that includes 20,000m of elevation, the fact that it weighs in at only 1050g was much appreciated.”
Optimized for both 700c and 650b wheel formats, the promised variety in surface and an anticipated aim of finishing in four to five days led Jeff to choose the bigger wheels but shod in the widest rubber possible. As the frame has tyre clearance for a massive 700 x 50mm, this proved the perfect compromise with the going varying between fast road and rocky trails.
“Different people have different approaches to racing the Italy Divide but basically it's all about sleeping and stopping as little as possible. Most competitors carry a sleeping bag, inflatable mattress and bivvy bag so they can sleep pretty much anywhere. Whereas I prefer to stay in hotels so I can shower, clean my kit and start fresh again in the morning.”
“As for luggage, if you need to stop because you're not carrying something, that isn't saving you any time. So this year I rode with more food and extra layers of clothing. Obviously you're expending a lot of energy so need to regularly refuel and it's still April so the temperature can vary considerably between day and night.”
With clothing complemented by lights for night-riding, power bank, cables and chargers—the internal Stash Hatch on Jeff’s F/Gravel proved a stealthy way of secreting tools and a spare tube and he was good to go.
Come race day and lining up in Pompeii amidst the typical Italian mix of chaos and confusion, Jeff reflected on the pre-ride briefing that at a mere 10 minutes perfectly matched its description. Relayed to non-Italian speakers by a softly spoken English translator, warnings of aggressive wild boars merged with references to a route that had previously been sent by email in ten different file formats.
“After an initial roll-out in the grupetto, the route immediately took us on a switchbacked path up the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. After starting on broken asphalt too steep to ride, the path gradually deteriorated to loose, marbelly volcanic dirt which was hard enough to push my bike up, let alone ride. But after summiting the crater at 1000m above sea level, we were treated to a beautiful tarmac descent with the Bay of Naples as a backdrop and, ahead, the coastal road north.”
Planning to ride through the night before clearing Rome early the next morning, the challenging nature of the route inevitably slowed Jeff’s progress. But though tired, he was able to pull from reserves honed over a lifetime of riding.
“Everything closes in at night—visually your only reference point is the narrow cone of light that extends beyond your front wheel. Other senses, though, are strangely heightened. The crunch of tyre on gravel or the scent of pine forest carried in the air. Your movement too is simplified—the metronomic rhythm of each pedal stroke equating to one more kilometer traveled and one less until the journey’s end. Time seemingly standing still outside this blur of forward motion as you pass darkened cafés with shutters down and tables stacked. One with three other riders asleep outside, obviously waiting for it to open. And after riding through the night, at 6:00am I too stopped for what might well have been the best cappuccino I’ve ever tasted.”
Pausing only for a brief photo opportunity outside the Colosseum, Jeff journeyed on across the Lazio region to the north of Rome. After a second day and 36 hours of non-stop cycling, it was time to rest and a Googled guest house proved a suitable stopping off point. Two large pizzas later and with his kit washed and wrung out, Jeff retired to bed for exactly three hours of much needed sleep.
“I was up and out at 4:00am—chasing the promise of dawn. Those first rays of morning sunlight helping slough off the heaviness in my legs as the route twisted and turned over dirt paths and loose gravel trails. My now dust-covered bike mirrored by its shadow as I rode across the beautiful Italian countryside. Ahead lay the white roads of Strade Bianchi and the rolling hills of Tuscany.”
Fuelled on coffee and pastries, the daytime temperatures were swelteringly hot and the barren terrain offered little refuge from the baking sun. With the heat sapping his energy levels, Jeff continued to ride northwards across the relentless topographical ripples of climb after climb.
“I was cooked and my feet on fire. Enviously glancing at every fountain I passed, I eventually gave in when faced with the cascading waters of a particularly elaborate example. Skidding to a stop, I stripped off my shoes and socks and sat with my feet dangling in the cool water. The effect was immediate and blissful—a reminder not to eschew all pleasure when stoically embracing the more uncomfortable aspects of ultra-distance racing.”
In contrast to the daytime heat, nights proved chilly and harboured imagined threats of animals watching from the cover of darkness that unsettled a sleep-deprived Jeff—irrational notions finally relieved by the rising sun and birdsong heralding a new day.
“In events such as these you inevitably have difficult moments when the going gets tough. But what I love about the Italy Divide is that it's a string of highlights. You're following two ancient pilgrim routes across this beautiful landscape—passing through hillside villages and the beating hearts of great cities like Naples and Florence.”
Day four saw Jeff making good progress and maintaining his position amongst the top half of the two hundred strong field. Noticing a little discomfort in his knee, when the road began to climb he discovered he could hardly pedal—the promise of a pan flat 200km stretch between Bologna to Verona encouraging Jeff to continue.
“On day five and unable to find a room, I was riding through the night but feeling pretty beat up. At four in the morning I finally managed to find a hotel with a vacancy and got a few hours sleep. By this point, my knee was proving so painful that my pace had slowed considerably—a case of pedal and coast. After breakfasting on Ibuprofen, I got going again and actually felt pretty good for the first half an hour. But then the pain returned and it just didn't make any sense to keep on punishing my body. I knew that ahead lay sections of hike-a-bike and over 3,500m of climbing so my only option was to scratch.”
Confident that he made the right decision, Jeff was buoyed by the F/Gravel proving itself more than capable over a challenging and technical route.
“Almost half the field rode mountain bikes but the thought of sitting upright with my arms 70cm apart for five days just didn't appeal at all. And apart from the steepest, gnarliest sections where suspension travel is obviously an advantage, the F/GR was really, really fast and super fun to ride—confidence inspiring on loose gravel and tracking true when the trail turned to mud.”
“I’m obviously disappointed,” Jeff concludes, “but that’s the nature of these events. And I’m already making plans to cross my homeland of Canada by bike. But for now? There's a restaurant where all the finishers gather so I'm going to hang out, have a few beers and share some stories.”
Writing credits: Chris Hargreaves/Cyclespeak.com Photography: Sebastian Mamaj