I had to get up crazily early, pack my belongings and rush to the agreed meeting point for my transfer. Breakfast happened on the bus, but I did manage to enjoy a quick Espresso in Conegliano before picking up the bike, handing in my luggage and storing provisions in the Mavic van. 9am – the starter’s gun sounds and off we go. At a leisurely pace we face this first stage. Most competitors are amateurs and so, as with La Marmotte, the general attitude is more relaxed. For most of the cyclists, a race like this is a real challenge. The field is made up of mainly Brits and Frenchmen; there are only few Germans.
The breakaway pack is different, however. I didn’t know anyone other than Nico before today’s stage, as there is no starters list for the Haute Route. We cycled across the Passo san Boldo and began to get a taste of the fierce competition at the top. Following on from the very technical downhill into Tirchiana, which I already knew from the GF Bellunese from the previous year, and a heartfelt welcome from my friends Stefano and Paolo, who waited for me at the side of the road, I made my way uphill through the valley past Sedica, Agordo and Alleghe.
Rolling through the valley gave many riders a chance to catch up and after Alleghe, the breakaway group consisted of at least 100 riders. The first climbs following Caprille made me increasingly confident, as I already knew the track ahead from last year’s photo shoot in Alta Badia. That helped me to ration my strength perfectly and enabled me to start three serious attacks to find out who, out of the riders I did not know, had to be taken seriously. Two of them followed closely on my back wheel, but I managed to shake off most of the other competitors. Neither one of us wanted the leading position and so I waited. After the short flat part of the track came the demanding uphill of the Passo Giau – and my time to attack!
The end of the pass also signalled the end of the timed part of the race and so I had nothing left to lose – I meant business! Only then did I manage to shake off one of the two pursuers, yet, the other still looked incredibly relaxed. I, on the other hand, struggled. I remembered last year’s Endura-Alpentraum race and tried harder until the second competitor also had to admit defeat and fell behind. Now the fight was with myself. The distance between myself and the other cyclists increased only slowly and I had nothing left to give. The Notfallgel gave some relief, but the last few kilometres were absolute hell. Icy snow started to fall and quickly developed into a full on hailstorm. The tyres crunched as if on a toboggan run. I did not dare to turn around and kept fighting the merciless wind and the cold, always remembering that I needed every second in the upcoming stages. As I reached the top, my body was empty. I could barely even brake. Luckily, I was instantly handed my warm jacket. The van had rejoined us after the Flame Rouge and was ready to hand out supplies. The downhill was cloud nine in comparison and even the sun dared to come back out as we reached Cortina.
Now, after food, a massage, team briefing, award ceremony and sauna, I can sit down to write and enjoy my triumph. It took longer than expected, but my first win of this season gives me a positive confidence boost. The way I start the race tomorrow will determine the rest of the stages. To have a serious go at tomorrow’s stage win in Meran I will have to attack early and race the entire track alone. This tactic could be dangerous, particularly with the queen stage finishing on top of the Gavia pass, but I will tell you more after the race. Tomorrow will be extremely demanding. The race starts at 7am and sees us climb the Falzarego as the first challenge of the day, then following on to the Prodoijoch and Karer-pass, finishing with a high-speed downhill through the Eggen-valley, a seemingly endless flat track from Bozen to Meran, where Alexander will await me. Best wishes from Cortina d’Ampezzo – see you tomorrow!