What I really need is my own personal camera crew following me around this week. That way they would have captured my miserable looking mug yesterday at the point I decided to give up and ride back down the Stelvio and then today the expressions on the faces of my three riding companions when I turned up in the cafe at the top of the Gavia pass. To say they were surprised was an understatement: there was even a few moments hesitation while Rachel tried to register it was me. That reaction will be the highlight of my trip. For the record, all three of them smashed it up the mountain 40 minutes ahead of me.
To rewind a bit. After yesterday's failure I was in two minds about where to ride today. So much so I was awake at 3am weighing up riding with Trevor and Bridget up the other side of the stelvio or with Rachel, James and Fiona up the Gavia. The Gavia is another mammoth climb, only slightly lower in altitude than the Stelvio, but longer, so less step. In theory. I opted for the Gavia, worried that second failure on the Stelvio would see me selling my bikes and putting an entire wardrobe of Rapha kit on ebay.
After a short warm up ride, I set off with the other three on the 26km climb but had been dropped within 2km. This suited me as I was certain I wouldn't complete it. My back pain was at 6/10 within 15 minutes. Before long they were distant dots on the horizon and I was forced to take the first of many stops to relive my back.
It was hot and I was sweating buckets, finishing a bottle before the town on of Sant Antonio. Stupidly as I passed an open shop I didn't bother to stop to refill my bottle thinking there are bound to be others further up - there were not. That first 5km had averaged between 4-9% the whole way with no flat for relief. In fact there was very little relief the whole way up. From Sant Antonio the road kicked up into a series of switchbacks through a forest. Each hairpin revealed a spectacular view of the valley below. I stopped twice to look at the views and ease my back. I was overheating and desperately regretting my earlier decision on the water refill. I couldn't afford to drink all of the remaining bottle as I had two hours to go. I stopped and goggled 'is it safe to drink the water from mountain streams in the Italian Alps?'. The answer was a resounding 'no'.
After 90 minutes my back pain had stabilised at 7/10 but no higher. The climb was unrelenting. I was praying for a flatter section around the next bend but it never came. 5% became the new flat. I played leapfrog with a young Italian couple for 30 minutes or so until one or both of them broke and pulled in to collapse in a heap. After 2 hours, the road kicked up again to 9% and kept climbing. At 17% I got off and walked for a 100m unable to cope with the back pain and unable to restart even if I could. I could lie or just fail to mention the walking, but it happened and I won't lie about it.
Once the road had dropped back to single figure elevation I was 7km from the top and determined to finish - if only to exorcise the ghost of yesterday. I was leaning over the front of the bike like I was in some kind of photo finish. At 5km to go, a speedy Italian geriatric passed me shouting 'the rest is easy. The struggle is over'. Maybe for him and his 70kg body but not for me. Still, he was right, it was flattening out to only 4% - practically snooker table flat. My back pain though had reached 9/10 and I was riding half on half off the saddle in an effort to relieve the pressure. I couldn't give up once again when I was so close to the top of a mountain could I? I messaged the others with 3km left to say I was going to make it without realising they had no phone signals at the top. As ever, in times of highest need I thought about my eldest son Danny who is an inspiration to me. He's a para-athlete and lives with greater challenges every day than I will ever face.
That final 3km was technically the easiest of the whole ride but physically very tough. When I arrived at the cafe at the top I struggled to get off my bike, incapable of getting my leg over the saddle. I practically had to lay it over to 45 degrees to do so, gritting my teeth and closings my eyes. I must have looked like a complete knob.
In the cafe the reaction from Rachel and my friends made that final effort feel worthwhile, although it was 20 minutes before I could sit down during which time I wandered around shell-shocked like those people you see on TV emerging through the dust and rubble of a collapsed building.
Elsewhere, Bridget and Trevor were completing the double on the Stelvio in rain and hail so bad they paused only long enough for the photo at the top before making their way carefully back down the mountain.
Once again I can acknowledge that my efforts mean bugger all to anyone else, other than maybe my ever supportive wife and kids. Hundreds of people ride up these mountains every day. But for me the end result is huge. Three hours fighting pain and negative thoughts and coming out on top is something I can bank for the future. Plus the celebration beers back in Bormio tasted all the better.