A few years ago I had the pleasure of Ray Craig's company as a result of a breakdown of one of the dilapidated ferries running from Dieppe. He had no lights, and it was very late when we finally hit the UK, so I gave him and his Moulton a lift to Tadley. A fascinating conversation about the early days of AUK developed, and he told me some of the story of the original Brindisi Seven (For, yes, he was a member of that magnificent bunch). The details I cannot remember, but there were stirring tales of riding alone through the night, trying to catch the others (Cries of 'They're behind you'). 2250km in just over 8 days.
Then, after a decent interval, one of the original seven, Simon Jones, revamped the route, turning it into a 2,500km plus ride. Paradoxically, this made it easier, as it was now possible to ride it at the minimum 200km per day laid down for events of that distance.
Having been part of an abortive attempt to do the event with a group, I decided to have a go solo.
Simon wanted a month and ten quid to produce a brevet card and route sheet. I sent the money, an entry form, and a passport photo of my evil twin brother. I bought a Michelin road atlas of France, and found they did not do Italy, so the AA had to do for there, and tried to forget about what I had just done.
Eventually the route sheet arrived, so I plotted the course on the maps. Bry rang to say that two of the control towns seemed not to exist. This problem was due to their being very small towns and Simon's handwriting ('He's obviously had medical training.' said Bry). He gave me the brevet card, or booklet there were an awful lot of pages.
The evening before departure I decided I had better do a bit of packing. A spare set of clothing seemed a good idea. Arm and leg warmers should take care of the chilly parts of the ride. Shorts and a tee-shirt did for evening wear, with a pair of thin sandals so I could walk like Homo Sapiens. Toiletries, sun and bum cream, tools, folder and tubes, and a great wodge of maps took up most of the rest of the space. A scratching of the head and I added capes (1 wind, 1 water), a cap or two, and a pair of woolly gloves. The heaviest piece of equipment was the camera. That lot filled a large saddle bag and a barbag. I went to bed.
The journey to the station did not start well when someone pulled out in front of me. I swore at him. A transfer across London to the Dover train took me round Marble Arch. That evening I slept in Calais.
Breakfast was at the civilised hour of eight, and afterwards I headed off along the coast. An overcast sky shadowed large, empty beaches. At Boulogne the proprietor of the bar got his other customer to sign and date the card. On the way past Abbeville a spoke broke, so I stopped to replace it, cursing the local bike shop man who claimed these were as good as DTs. I got lost a couple of times and arrived at Beauvais around eightish, thinking, 'That's enough, got to ride myself in gently'.
I had several beers that evening, at the Brasserie, and their measure of scotch was extremely generous. So it took me a while to find my hotel again.
Towards Paris. Riding through the Val D'Oise, my nose and eyes started streaming. I thought I was going down with something nasty. By the outskirts of Paris it had stopped completely. A miscalculation of the route took me down the wrong side of a three laner heading through concrete tunnels towards the city. After a stop for consultation of the map I found myself heading along the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, round the Arc de Triomphe and on to the Champs D'Elys‚e. The cobbles, and my hesitations as I peered at the map, and the traffic, made progress a little slow, but the motorists were much more tolerant than their British counterparts. The suburbs to the South seemed to go on forever.
Eventually I was on the route, following the meanderings of the Seine. The road got smaller, and potholes appeared more frequently. A sign, 'Rue Priv‚e' appeared. The road surface disappeared. I persevered, weaving round the craters and rocks (the car behind was very patient), and eventually re-emerged on to the main road. Couldn't have been concentrating. A little further along I made another detour. A look at the map confirmed that the stonking great hill on my left was the way to my intended route. The hard ride to Joigny was more than compensated for by the superb shower. It was powerful enough to strip paint.
I took it easy in the morning sore legs. Another spoke broke. I was worried that this might turn into an epidemic (but that was, in fact the last one). Drizzle turned to rain. The rain got heavier. I gave up at Verdan-de Doubs and sat eating dinner and looking out across a rain-swept, cobbled square. The room had a heater which made drying the washing easier (The routine was to wash the day's clothes and dump them in the bidet. Have a shower, then hang the clothes in the shower and find some food. If the clothing did not dry then it was strapped on the saddlebag the next day to blow in the wind unless it was raining, of course.).
Left early and breakfasted at Louhans, 30km on. The front wheel slipped on a wet curbstone as I was stopping for something or other. Blood and a hole in my raincape, but at least the shorts were all right (skin heals, lycra doesn't). Then the climbing started. The rain came on again, and then, near the top, it sluiced down. I took shelter in the bar at the summit, and had a leisurely coffee, and then a beer. The sky lightened a little and I continued. By the time I got to Chambery it had stopped. Didn't really take too much notice of the pain in my right thigh. The restaurant was right opposite the hotel, so even after an still more generous glass of single malt to finish the meal, I was able to find my way back. I only discovered how to switch the bathroom heater on in the morning.
A hard road to Lanslebourg, at the foot of the Alps. My thigh (the one I fell on) gets worse until I cannot ride out of the saddle. I have to stop a couple of times, and walk part of the way up Mont Cenis. At the top it is foggy and cold. The bar and hotel is closed. So is the one further on. But the small bar, hotel and souvenir shop by the lake is open and I become their first guest of the season. Good people and delightful food a transition between French and Italian.
The following morning is crystal clear and reveals white peaks all around, and a sparkling, blue-green lake. It is 5°C. The descent, and the first view of Italy, the Valle di Susa stretching below into the distance, was indescribable a sublime experience. 22°C in the valley. The girl at the bar in the garden centre asks if I am doing a circuit around Turin. With my phrase-book Italian I mistake her words for 'Giro d'Italia', and an interesting conversation at complete cross-purposes ensues.
The leg gets worse and I strap it up as tightly as I dare. 200km seems enough for the day. I am worried whether I will be able to continue. But a succession of shuttered, silent towns show no sign of accommodation and I continue into the evening. The road gets narrower, and the tarmac peters out, and I am crossing a wheatfield as dusk falls. I head for some lights and find a crossroads with ambiguous signs. A car stops and I ask directions. He calls me 'Sinister', so I go left. Eventually, at around ten, I reach Tortona and find a hotel and restaurant where they apologise for the luke-warm shower. The shutter doesn't shut and there is no soap or toilet paper, but the food is superb and the chef grins when I tell him so. A would-be Mafioso, double-breasted and as broad as he is short, struts up and down shouting into his mobile phone as I eat.
It is Sunday, but many shops are still open. I have got into the habit of buying fruit and croissants, or , in Italy, brioche or panini, to eat on the road. A hard day: Busy roads and a sore leg. Not just the leg, either, as I cannot ride out of the saddle. In the hills I get lost and two local cyclists, doing their customary weekend 80km circuit, guide me for some distance. They are not club cyclists (the trade tops are a giveaway) and they do not know who is leading the Giro. I have to walk up to Castell' Arquato, but it is worth it. Spend about an hour there.
I give up at Parma. In the local bar the youths are watching a subtitled American film. The proprietress clears Marco and his mate off a table so I can sit down to eat.
I have difficulty finding Sassuolo. The town is hidden inside a ring of industrial estates. It seems to be the world's centre for ceramic tile manufacture. Dust and heavy lorries every where. The woman at the bar denies having a stamp. I do not believe her. At the tabac down the road the daughter is keen to practise her English, and relays my explanation to her parents.
In Bologna it is unnerving to watch the kids on scooters, holding shouted conversations, and riding five abreast towards you. Meet a latter-day Bob Dylan in a dark, cool bar. A veteran cyclist, short and voluble (he reminds me strongly of an acquaintance of mine in a local club) takes me 3km to the Via Emilia. Roads do not come any straighter than this. But I manage to get lost in Imola and Forli. An important discovery is that squatting on my heels eases the pain in my thigh. My hotel room has a balcony with a clothes lines, but I do not discover this until the morning.
16km to San Marino. The entry to the republic is announced with large signs. The road goes up and it is either honk or walk. To my delight I can get out of the saddle. My leg has cured itself. 'PANTANI' is written in huge letters on the road. The city itself is one huge duty-free zone. The shops glitter so much that it is difficult to see what they are selling. A balletic policeman controls the blind entrance to the city. A stylised gesture is directed at me as I exit and he calls 'Stopp-a'. Descending out of the republic, I notice that the Italians do not bother with signs to announce my re-emergence on to Italian soil. The rest of the day is a wonderful trail across the hills and valleys, from town to hilltop town. My backside hardly touches the saddle. To the coast and stop at a mouldering but unfinished hotel full of barking dogs and shouting children.
It is getting hotter: 34°C today. At Cermignano a dignified bar owner with a melodious baritone voice puts ice in my bidons, unasked, and suggests that I should really have whisky or gin in them. At Casalbordino the proprietor refuses to take my money and I learn that Pantani is in the lead, just. Everyone is on tenterhooks.
The road gets flatter near Foggia. The countryside is criss-crossed with powerlines as far as the skyline. Slums and travellers' camps line the entrance to the city. The centre looks very affluent. The air-conditioning in the hotel dries my clothes perfectly.
250km left to ride. It is very hot: 39°C. The road is flat and seems to go on forever. I am in long sleeves to avoid sunburn. A carabiniera comes into the bar and I am aware of his gun as he stands next to me. I mistake the signs for Binetto and Bitetto and make another detour. Approaching Adelfia the road has partially fallen away, and large concrete blocks bar the way. With difficulty I hoist the bike on to the wall, aware of the twenty foot drop on the other side, and gingerly make my way past the barriers. At Alberobello I get the penultimate control stamp and take photographs of the strange conical roofs. The temperature reads 41°C as I leave.
It is nearly six in the evening and there is 70km to do. Suddenly I am flying along. The exhilaration of being nearly at the end of the journey is tempered by a sudden realisation that it will soon be over 'Well, you can't have it both ways,' I tell myself. A couple of kilometres outside Brindisi I stop and change into the Exeter Wheelers' jersey, so as to finish in proper style. Then, suddenly, I feel very tired and stop at the first hotel in the town. On the wall in the lobby is a poster showing the Indian Mail Route. The hotel manager thinks that Pantani will win the Giro. Food is served on the seventh floor by a waitress who calls me 'Meester'. I do my washing and look forward to a lie-in tomorrow.
I flew back to Heathrow on the Saturday, and surprised my sister by turning up on her doorstep. On Sunday I made a gentle journey home by bike and train. Monday I was back at work. Later that week I phoned Shawn Shaw to check on my entry for his next event and somehow found myself persuaded to do a 600 permanent that weekend. It rained and it poured. At one point I was wading thigh deep through floods on tiptoe to avoid getting my chamois wet. One of the kids watching said I should have ridden through. I told him about getting water in the bearings, and, as he had been kind enough to demonstrate how deep it was by riding it himself, suggested that he oil and grease his bike thoroughly when he got home. I wonder whether he did so?
And Pantani did win.