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Verona Garda Gravel 500, a 540-kilometre circuit through the northern Italian region under the direction of Giorgio Murari, alias Musseu, Sport Verona. Anyone who has taken part in one of his events knows that it’s something special. This time I thought that the ONLY 540 kilometres would be uneventful, but I was proved wrong …

First my video:

Thursday/friday, night 1:

A dreamy sunset in mid-March, not far from Lake Garda. A little chat with some cyclists I already know from other events. Quite a few have already emerged from their cycling hibernation this early in the year… 540 kilometers for a start is quite a lot. Doing it all at once is too much for me, so I’m carrying a bit more with me: my four walls, meaning a lightweight tent, mat, warm sleeping bag. Knowing that I can take a sleep break whenever and wherever I want—even in the first night—makes me start calmly. Well, calm until Giorgio „Musseu“ Murari emphasizes at the briefing that it would be ideal to ride with light luggage. Too late. But in my head, I start to wonder what lies ahead for us. Musseu’s handwriting in route planning doesn’t bode well. Have I brought too much baggage? I can’t think of anything to leave behind—but whether it’s 20 kg or 25 kg—what does it matter? I also begin to doubt if my mountain bike wouldn’t be better for this… Furthermore, Musseu warned that due to the heavy rainfall in recent weeks, there would likely be some mud on the trails—a slight understatement. We set off in a group of 50 on the big loop through the upper Italian region, to the shores of Lake Garda, along the Mincio, then onwards to Verona, through the Colli Euganei to Abano Terme, further to Vicenza, through the Colli Berici and heading west, back over countless „mountains“. Initially flat, then garnished with plenty of elevation gain (7600m by the end). As I set off, I assume the ride will probably be uneventful, but if so, the story will be user-friendly short… But…

Just in the first kilometers towards the shores of Lake Garda, my front light gives out. Due to the shaking on the gravel surface, the lamp suddenly tilts downwards, and I suddenly see nothing but blackness ahead. Full brakes. Leaning the bike against a wall, I rummage for tools and firmly screw the lamp back on. I must have been sloppy when mounting it at home. Conclusion: everyone else is now gone, I don’t see a single rear light anymore. Riding along gravel and muddy terrain, I follow the Canale Virgilio. I overlook a small footbridge. Wrong turn. Turn back. I shout „sbagliato strada“ (wrong way) to a group of cyclists (oh, are there still some behind me?), but they ignore me. With a little smile (I did warn them!), I see them following the canal on the other side, then their lights vanish into the woods as they ride uphill…

Pothole. It presses my arse hard into the saddle. A thought suddenly pops into my head, which now has no distractions in the dark: I’m wearing my new Colombier cycling shorts from Skinfit, with a very thin gel pad. So what? Yes, but I’ve only got the other new shorts without the bike insert with me as a change, also unworn. How unreasonable! What if …? It’s my own fault if I have to struggle with sitting problems after 100 kilometres or so. (Looking into the future: there are no problems!!! But the headline would fit here: Unreasonableness dissolves into pleasure …)

Puddles and mud again and again, into which my front wheel digs. Perhaps I should slow down to prevent a fall.

In the distance above me appears the illuminated Castello Scaligero, beautiful. Here in Valeggio, I have to leave the Mincio. Pedaling through olive groves and vineyards towards the east. Occasionally, I overtake a nocturnal cyclist.

I pass through Villafranca with its beautifully illuminated city walls and castle. In the castle park, fortunately, I find a water source; I only have one bottle, and it’s questionable when I’ll find water again.

Then the nocturnal Verona. My track goes straight ahead. Roadblock. A lot of police and military are standing around. Huh? Was I going too fast and got caught in a speed trap? I joke. The road is blocked because the Arena di Verona is around the corner. There must be an event just ending.

I look for an alternative route. A first serious climb lies ahead of me. Very steep, I now follow the walls of Castello San Felice in solitude, feeling somewhat guilty because I’ve squeezed past a barrier sign. Between two fortress walls, I go through, complete darkness. As it goes downhill again and my track doesn’t show any descent, a few cyclists rush past me. I follow them for a bit. That can’t be right. I push my bike steeply back. There! Inconspicuously, an arched opening in the wall, blocked by a large stone. Is that where I’m supposed to go? I have to heave my fully packed bike over the obstacle. Memories of the GBDuro come to mind. Phew! Then a narrow path along the wall through the forest. Is this right? Yes!

Soon I’m racing downhill towards Montorio. Racing is an exaggeration because an irregular cobblestone pavement significantly affects my speed. I already know the canal I follow from Montorio. Very idyllic to cycle between the two watercourses during the day. Now somewhat eerie, with the deep black shiny bands on the left and right, wisps of fog, an owl or something larger calling, and are those frogs croaking? Aren’t they cold? The damp misty air seeps into everything. Quickly onward to warm up again.

Fortunately, now two small mountains, then flat to the Colli Euganei. Soave offers variety. In the illuminated square in front of the city walls, a surprise awaits, calling for a photo session. A huge pink snail with a child. And me, the „lumacagabi“. Lumaca means snail in Italian, and I am slow but persistent. Filippo and Luca (?), whom I would encounter several times over the next few hours and the next day, patiently take my pictures. Then onwards, a small group starts. I don’t join them; riding in a group is not my thing. I want to be independent and not have people feel responsible for my progress, waiting for me on climbs.

The trails get muddier. Fortunately, I can’t see my bike well in the dark—it’s probably splattered with mud. Thinking about the next bike cleaning, and I probably got some on me too, I ride through an underpass—and get stuck in the mud. Here, water has collected. I take my foot off the pedals, and it’s almost ankle-deep in the mud. With a sucking sound, I pull my cycling shoe out of the mud. That’s it for clean shoes. The path now disappears into a meadow. The ruin of a dilapidated house adds to the eerie atmosphere. Scenes from a thriller audiobook come to mind suddenly. My GPS is acting up. I can’t tell where I am compared to the correct track. I ride back. There! In the distance, I can see two rear lights cycling in the opposite direction, I follow them. Thank goodness! I’m back on the right track.

It’s well past midnight now, exactly half past two. I’ve been yawning on this tour for some time now, in the next step, I’ll start seeing things that aren’t there, and then… microsleep! I struggle internally, should I? Shouldn’t I? If so, then… I mean, should I set up my tent? Then I’ll probably be completely exhausted and ride behind the field the next day… But what the heck… I pass by a small chapel surrounded by a small patch of lawn. That’s it! My campsite! Leaning the bike against the little church, I pull out the tent ground. Unfortunately, under the sparse grass, the ground is almost liquid. Mud here too! But my brain doesn’t want to go back now. I’ll have to pack up dirty utensils later. I hunker down in my sleeping bag, skipping dental and body hygiene. I’ll just be uniformly dirty. Yuck! My sleep is restless. I keep hearing the whirring of passing bicycles.

Even though I pull the sleeping bag tightly around my neck, I keep shivering. I lie like this for two and a half hours, then decide to get up. Whether I’ve slept much is questionable. The tent is wet inside and out. The humidity is noticeably high here in the plain. And at the same time, it’s hardly warmer than 2-3°C. I pack my wet and clammy sleeping gear into my bags and start cycling. Birds start chirping, it’s getting light. Of course, I ride in the wrong direction. One indulges oneself with nothing else. Realizing the mistake, I turn around and pedal hard to warm up. On the SeteTrack app, I see that hardly anyone is behind me. However, most others will probably take a longer sleep break in Vicenza in the evening, so I’ll probably gain positions.

Friday, day 1:

I arrive at Montagnana as the first rays of sunlight pierce through the dense blanket of fog, with its medieval city walls, Gothic cathedral, and beautiful palaces. I make a breakfast stop with brioche and latte macchiato. First, I disappear into the bathroom—for at least half an hour of body and clothes care, resulting in a completely messy and flooded bath. I emerge somewhat clean after hastily cleaning the floor and sink, appearing in the dining area.

Fortunately, the coffee hasn’t been prepared yet; it would now probably be iced coffee…

I take a few turns through the town, getting lost, then back on track along the Frassine stream. Musseu had already announced there was a construction site here, and one would have to detour extensively. Since the machines are still idle and I can see some bike tracks in the gravel, I also disregard the traffic ban. At first, everything is easy. Then the journey becomes tricky; turning back is not an option as I would have to go back several kilometers. Heavy machinery had torn up the asphalt surface here on the stream bank. I wobble slowly over the irregular terrain. And then it happens. My front wheel slips and digs into the deep fine gravel. I fly over the handlebars. Ouch! After sorting out my limbs, I get back on with trembling knees, or rather, initially push my bike a few meters. Everything is okay except for a cut on my hand, a scraped knee, and probably a large bruise on my thigh.

How I look doesn’t matter: my right leg warmer is completely dirty, as is the cycling shorts over my right buttock. Oh dear! Now I match perfectly with my completely dirty bike again. However, there is something good about all of this—given the many muddy sections ahead of me, I don’t need to roll slowly to minimize damage. It’s futile anyway. So, full speed ahead!

I realize that I should probably turn off my light, powered by the hub dynamo, by now. Huh? What’s this? Where’s the switch button for my Edilux? There’s nothing where the rotary switch for turning it on and off was, just an empty groove. How did that happen? Can it come off? I get out my tools and try to manually unscrew it. No luck. During a brief phone call with Hermann at home, I receive a reprimand: „Looks like you’re having some trouble with those lights…“ referring to my experience during the GBDuro, where the lamp broke off in my crash and a short circuit subsequently disabled the buffer battery. What should I do now?

At least now I learn that the thing can be turned on and off by a magnet. And I had lost that. If the lamp remained on, it wouldn’t be a problem. However, then I couldn’t charge any devices. Without light, I wouldn’t get far in the next two nights either, because even the Lupine Piko on my helmet would eventually run out of light. What now? I’ll continue riding, maybe there’s a solution at the checkpoint at the Aloha 1 bike shop in Abano Terme.

It’s getting very warm now, and my water supply is running low again. A fountain comes in handy. Here, I try to clean myself and my bike hastily. Whether this makes much sense is questionable, as the paths ahead of me probably won’t get any better or mud-free. I visit the mountaintop residence of Francesco Petrarca, one of the most important figures in early Italian literature. Then it’s downhill again.

The lamp keeps swirling in my head. Maybe I could get a magnet somewhere and stick it to the lamp… Yes, that should work! And indeed, Ricardo from Bike Aloha, CP1, disappears into his shop to return with a piece of metal and a long strip of power tape. We try how the magnetic metal affects the lamp when held in different positions. And behold. Slightly to the left, the lamp turns on, further right, it turns off. I put the piece of metal away and also get a long strip of power tape. Bring on the next night. After Ricardo also oiled my chain (mille mille grazie, Ricardo!), I set off again.

One-third of the journey is now behind me. All the altitude meters are still ahead. It’s almost Friday noon now, and the weather is glorious. Immediately, I tackle the first serious mountains, entering the Colli Berici near Sossano. The inclines are unforgiving. 26% – I can’t handle that seated. Someone ahead of me is also pushing. Elena! We push and ride together for a few kilometers until I take the opportunity for a stop—hot chocolate and something sweet. But soon, I see Elena pushing ahead again. That’s how it goes over three mountains. And another salami sandwich stop; Elena leaves as I arrive. Leaning on my triathlon handlebars, I’m quite fast on the 30 kilometers of flat terrain before Vicenza. I lose sight of Elena in the process. Since she’s riding through the third night, she’ll probably reach the finish line ahead of me.

On the way, I take a long diversions along a canal. Unfortunately, the bridge builders won’t let me through and send me off-road. To get back on the road, a farmer graciously lets me through his private property. The neighbour’s dogs are not very pleased.

I ponder where I could find dinner. Will I find a restaurant near Vicenza where I can safely park my bike and get in despite being so dirty? There! A sign announces a pizzeria: Ristorante e Pizzeria Giorgio & Chiara. Where’s the entrance? I wander around the courtyard and encounter someone who eyes me suspiciously from head to toe. Yes, this is a restaurant, and they’ll open in 10 minutes. I wait outside the house and spot a garden hose. I hastily clean my clothes, wipe the mud splatters from my face. I ask if I can hose down my bike a bit. I can! And now I can also park it somewhat hidden on the terrace. I’m still the only guest. I’m glad about that.

A glance in the mirror shows me that the makeshift wash outside didn’t do much. I strike up a conversation with the owners. They are amazed by my ride. The world is small indeed. We have some mutual cycling friends. There are also sporting connections: triathlon. We chat, and in August, I’ll follow Giorgio from afar during the Inferno Triathlon and reminisce… I’m treated to one of the most delicious pizzas ever and indulge in a crema Catalana. Reluctantly, I leave this fine place.

Meanwhile, dusk has settled over the outskirts of Vicenza. The other cyclists have probably already checked into their hotel rooms. They’re lucky… As I continue riding, I notice that it’s bitterly cold in the valleys, and as soon as you gain some altitude, it gets noticeably warmer. I’ll choose my sleeping spot accordingly. But it’s not time yet. I still want to pass by Lake Fimon and cross at least two mountains. My lamp eventually turns on by itself—spooky? Don’t ask me how… I’m so relieved, I have light. Passing by Lake Fimon, it gets very serious, an incline that not only steep but rocky, forcing me out of the saddle. The hike-a-bike isn’t just uphill, but also downhill. I curse inwardly at the course designer, Musseu. I would have been much better off with my MTB here.

Friday/saturday, night 2:

During the subsequent ascent, I find my next dream sleeping spot: again at the forecourt of a small chapel. As I’m setting up my tent, Alessandro passes by; after a little chat, he continues pushing his bike. Down the path, I hear a car and see headlights flickering through the trees. Then silence again. That makes me somewhat uneasy. I feel a bit queasy. This is a forest road and not really suitable for car traffic. Who drove up here? And why didn’t they continue? What if someone comes and steals my bike while I’m asleep or something…? As soon as I sink into my sleeping bag, I sleep very well. I only wake up shortly before the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., my bike is still there, and nothing happened to me. Just before 6 a.m., I continue. I definitely need to practice and get faster at dismantling and packing the tent. Maybe tonight?

Saturday, day 2:

My gear shift is causing problems, I can’t shift to the big gears in front anymore, but who needs big gears on this course anyway? It’s continuously up and down. I’m just afraid it might be the precursor to a shifter cable tear. Better not try to shift gears in the front anymore… At dawn, I pass by a castle cliff, the Rocca dei Vescovi, then I get lost again because who would think that the large iron gate allows passage. Right after, another wrong turn. I end up at a farm instead of going around it.

Back on the right track, I make an amazing discovery: in a meadow, there’s a jumble of old aircraft from the last World War. A gruesome sight, with the barrels of artillery guns threatening the dark sky. Tanks and motor gliders are scattered around here. Strange collecting obsession.

In Altavilla, in the next valley, latte macchiato and pastries with vanilla cream tempt me. Strengthened, I continue into the day. Let’s see what happens. After a thorough night’s rest, I tackle the climbs, which live up to their name. Steep grades, often hike-a-bike sections, and often so muddy that even lesser inclines force me out of the saddle. I curse – not always quietly – to myself.

But the beautiful sections outweigh the hardships. There’s an extra climb to the Castelli di Romeo e Giulietta, high above Montecchio Maggiore.

Just before the end of the second leg of the route, I stop at a supermarket. I hadn’t had any opportunity to clean my clothes, face, let alone the bike before. I’m not ashamed, but people still stare. I quickly gather the essentials and pay. There are no seating areas outside the store, but a children’s swing serves me well. I notice that I forgot to buy water. The supermarket manager comes out, and I ask if there happens to be a water pipe or something around the shop. She denies it and tells me to wait a moment. Shortly after, she comes out with a bottle of mineral water and gives it to me. Probably because I look so disheveled… maybe it was pity for this poor dirty woman who probably had been riding around for weeks… Or maybe she just didn’t want me to enter the store again?

Again and again, it’s hike-a-bike, rocks, mud… Eventually, I reach my breaking point as I curse inwardly over and over again. I type in the WhatsApp group that next time I’d rather go hiking with the Club Alpino, but without carrying my bike. Then, I’m soothed again by beautiful descents. Sheepishly, I delete my post. Hopefully, no one has read it.

We climb a long hill through olive groves and vineyards. Suddenly, I spot posters with the names of the participating girls, including „Vai, Gabi!“ I grin, remembering Giancarlo doing the same at the Verona Garda Gravel Extreme two years ago, cool!   By midday, I’m in Campiano, where I had eaten with Hermann two years ago during the Verona Garda Gravel Extreme. Here, I meet Alessandro, Stefano, and Roberto and sit down for homemade pasta with tomato sauce. Very tasty.

I continue riding with Alessandro, and chatting makes the next climbs (there are still 5 long ones) fly by. Or should I say, „from the foot“?   I come across a fountain and leave the track for a few meters. That was probably my biggest mistake of the day because disaster strikes immediately. When I try to start riding again, my Garmin navigation goes crazy, as usual. It’s on strike!

The map is not oriented in the direction of travel but appears northward. This means brain jogging for me: If I ride north, everything is normal. South is still easy since the directional arrow simply comes towards me. It’s also easy to follow when the route turns left or right at right angles; I just turn in the opposite direction. However, it gets difficult when it goes southwest, northeast, or even worse, northwest-north or something similar. Completely confused, I keep turning the wrong way. It’s still manageable in broad daylight, but what if it gets dark or if I can’t maintain concentration anymore?

Saturday/sunday, night 3:

Alessandro and I treat ourselves to a pizza break in the little town of Avesa. Afterwards, I set off while Alessandro gets ready for the night ride. Of course, my brain doesn’t quite kick into gear as I leave Avesa. At numerous junctions, I logically head in the wrong direction. I’m not far from Verona, and the traffic is accordingly heavy. It’s Saturday night – party time. I’m relieved when we get back off-road.

Here, Alessandro catches up with me, and together we cycle on to Domegliara, where CP2 is at the Bar La Prua. We enjoy a hot chocolate, then continue. During the next stretch along a narrow path right by the Adige River, I’m glad I’m not alone.   Since the evening is already well advanced, I decide to set up my camp at the next opportunity. There are only about 65 kilometers left to the finish line, and Alessandro says that’s about 3 hours on the bike, but I had a good feeling that I didn’t want to push it.

I would later find out that Alessandro had only arrived a few hours before me, so much for those 3 hours. It will take me another 6 hours including breakfast, crossing the river, and various photo sessions.   Shortly after Cavaion, it seems like the ideal spot for camping presents itself to me: a small olive grove near the large wind turbines. The place is slightly elevated and outside the icy cold air pockets that were present today as well.

I start setting up the tent. Suddenly, there’s a buzzing in my ears: a deafening high-frequency sound. What on earth is that?   I suspect the farmer is trying to deter something with a device. But what? Unwanted camping guests? Will the olive farmer soon appear here and chase me away?   I move my tent three olive trees away from the noise (back home, I google the experience: it’s an ultrasonic animal repellent). As soon as my tent is set up and I’ve curled up in my sleeping bag, the wind stills and the large wind turbine in the nearby vicinity starts turning. It gets loud. That, and the knowledge that I’m probably unwelcome here, make me sleep lightly and restlessly.

Sunday, day 3:

At dawn, I pack up my things (I’m a whopping 10 minutes faster than the last two nights, so practice makes perfect!) Then I set off for the final kilometers.

Shortly thereafter, my ride is abruptly halted. A stream flows across the path. It’s 5-6 meters wide, about twenty centimeters deep, with a small waterfall to the left. Should I ride through it? Probably not, if I don’t want wet feet or, even worse, a full bath (although I really needed one). Do I dare to ride? No, absolutely NO! Shoes and socks off, and I push my bike across, carefully along the edge of the drop-off. If my feet were cold before, the icy cold stream water quickly makes my toes feel hot. Great!

Not even a kilometer further, another stream. This time, there are narrow, shaky planks to balance on.  

A short while later, in Caprino, the usual latte macchiato stop (with 2 sugars, as always). The barista says she’ll bring my order outside. That says it all… the „ragged“ person, ME, isn’t even given the choice of whether I want to enjoy my coffee inside or outside.

I pass through Costermano via bike paths and nice trails. Through the Valle Lunga, there seems to be a popular MTB trail, as people on their e-bikes keep overtaking me, giving me sympathetic looks as I hike-a-bike. Still, I don’t want an e-bike – I mean it.

And then suddenly, there it is: the vivid blue Lake Garda, far below me. Along the slope with a view of the lake, through beautiful olive groves, we head south. After Punta San Virgilio, following an almost insurmountable obstacle, we head directly to the lakeshore. The obstacle presents itself as a pedestrian passageway. Pedestrians can squeeze through a narrow passage on the right, but it’s impossible with a bike. No one in sight, just me with my heavy bike alone. We’ve encountered similar obstacles countless times during the GBDuro in Scotland, there in the form of blocked cattle gates. I lift the front wheel, hoist it over the bar, then shoulder the rear wheel with the heavy bag, not exactly back-friendly as I slowly lower it on the other side. Done!

Now along the shore to Garda. Many pedestrians and spectators of the Regata delle Bisse, which is taking place today, slow my progress. After Garda, we head back off-road, luckily, because the lakeside promenade wouldn’t have been advisable today.

I don’t skip a quick coffee stop in Peschiera, at the Bikehotel Enjoy.

Then it’s on to the finish at Agriturismo Le Fornase in Castelnuovo. Enjoying a delicious plate of bean stew and other treats, and after chatting with other cyclists, the VGG adventure slowly comes to an end.  

It’s a shame, two and a half days of gravel riding have passed by too quickly. The ups and downs are quickly forgotten. But the next adventure will surely come…  

Thank you Stefania and Giorgio for the VGG experience. It was wonderful to ride through new beautiful landscapes, Giorgio, alias Musseu, always surprises… and to make nice cycling acquaintances.

Unfortunately, there are only a few women participating in such events. So, female cyclists – dare to join in!!! Maybe my report and the video will encourage you…