An Above Category day

15 Jul

In the professional bike racing world, “tough” climbs are categorized from 4 (not murderous) to 1 (really fusking hard). Most of the climbs that I train on at home aspire to be Cat 4 climbs. The climb that busted my arse, broke my spirits, and required me to be assisted by a “pusher” in Belgium last year was a Cat 3 climb.

On July 14, 2013, R2R sent us up a mountain so steep that its official categorization is “Beyond Category.” In other words, it was/is unimaginably difficult.

The Gavia pass is, indeed, legendary in the cycling world. Google “Gavia Giro 1988” and gape at the YouTube footage and Wiki links devoted to this monstrous beast. And they don’t even show the full horror — like the narrowness of the single lane that is nevertheless improbably choked by trucks and motorcycles vying against one another to speed in opposite directions with little regard for vulnerable cyclists that might be crushed into the granite walls or launched off the cliff face. Nor do the Internets show/discuss the .8mi, 11% grade, iced-over, no-lights, gravel-strewn tunnel that caused many an R2R rider to call for the medical support team so they could receive anti-anxiety meds.

Yes, indeed, friends, make no mistake: The Gavia pass is a fire breathing dragon, yet I made it my pet pony, being the 4th (and ONLY non-sponsored rider) R2R woman to summit. You coulda steered an aircraft carrier into the R2R’s Executive Director’s mouth, it was so agape with disbelief. And, frankly, given my lackluster performance on Haleakala a couple weeks ago, I was pretty damn disbelieving of my performance/outcome as well.

The Gavia grades “average” just under 8%, but there were several >quarter-mile sections with ~15% averages and my Garmin showed 24% at one point. We gained 4,890′ in 12.7mi. Haleakala was 10,023′ in 35.6mi. So, on an “average mile” basis, the Gavia is essentially 250% harder than Haleakala. And yet, at the end of the day, my Gavia speed was only 4% less than my Haleakala speed.

Or, in other words: I CRUSHED that Italian mountain … relatively speaking, of course, the Tour de France dudes would climb it literally 2x faster than I did. (Side bar: There is NO way any human can do the Tour de France without doping. It. Is. Not. Possible. End of story.)

Of course, truth be told, my (relatively) outstanding, 100% doping-free Gavia performance had very little to do with me and EVERYTHING to do with two guys: Ron and Jorge — 8,000mi and 8″ away from me, respectively.

Ron, my coach ( is a certified tactical genius and I (thankfully) am a slavishly devoted pupil. He said: “Find a wheel that you can comfortably hold and just stay on it.” I found that wheel in Jorge.

Jorge laid down, and kept up, THE most steady pace imaginable. Three of us latched on for the ride, rotating amongst ourselves while Jorge stayed on the front nearly the whole way up. We lost him just before the terror-inducing tunnel of darkness and doom when he stopped to take pictures of the mind-blowingly amazing alpine scenery. He never caught back up to us and it fell to me to front the train. Having seen what Jorge’s overall pace plan was, I was able to keep us moving steadily up the mountain. I got us there at 12:26 — more than enough time to enjoy a little lunch before the time cut off /turn around order came into play.

Bruce (the R2R ride director, not my shitty back-up bike) had lain down The Law for everyone: At 1:00, wherever you are, even if you are just 400 meters from the summit, you MUST turn around and descend. There would be no leniency and “close enough” would not cut it.

At 12:59, Melissa rolled in (the 8th R2R woman to make it) and that was going to be that. Lisa would have the heartbreaking task of stopping/turning back the pack of yellow jerseys that could be seen just a wee bit away from the summit.

But wait. Was that … ?
Could it really be… ?
Holy shit it was!!

It was fucking Nate DeWalt, our paraplegic HAND CYCLIST cranking his way up the impossibly steep mountain with a 4-pack of pushers by his side. HOLY FUCKING BADLAM OF AWESOMENESS!

Damn the time limits, we’ve got a paralyzed HAND CYCLIST summiting the Gavia!

Never was I so glad to have carried 2 extra pounds in my jersey: My mini DSLR camera caught a series of stunning photos (even though I couldn’t see a damned thing given that I was bawling like a baby because it was such mind boggling scene to behold). They crested the summit at 1:01 — within Bruce’s “margin of error” timing strictures.

Pandemonium ensued. I cannot recall anything more inspiring happening in front of my eyes or even on TV. This was an unbelievably astounding accomplishment for Nate and R2R, made even more incredible by the fact than none of the 5 cyclists (neither Nate nor the 4 guys who formed his support squad) had planned any of this in advance. They all just came together by happenstance along the way. This accidental unity and selfless brotherhood will probably continue to reduce me to tears (as it is now) for decades to come.

Ergo, your “Daily Drink Tally” is nearly as “Beyond Category” as the climb. I’ve welled up regarding The Nate Summit well over a dozen times in the last 24 hours. And The Nate Summit isn’t the only thing that’s turned on the water works and ratcheted up the Daily Drink Tally. Here are some other tear-jerker moments from the last day and a half:

1. Bastille Day Honors. We have 3 wounded French Naval officers riding with us this week. Because Gavia summit day coincided with Bastille Day and because R2R’s logistics director is one of the smartest, nicest, most organized and gentlemanly people on the planet, he arranged to have the French flag flown and the French national anthem played as part of our pre-ride ceremony. The thoughtfulness of that gesture reduced me to a puddle.

2. My Descending Nanny. While making my way up the Gavia, I grew increasingly stressed about the return descent. That tunnel. Those hundreds of hairpins. The steepness. The treachery. The torrent of torrid traffic. It all added up to one massive PTSD episode in the making. Through teary eyes, I begged Bruce to allow me to take a van back down. He okayed it, but he also set things in motion regarding the day’s second climb-and-descent combo (oh, yes, there were be EVEN MORE CLIMBING after the epically tough Gavia ascent — R2R is diabolical). And so it came to pass that Ray, an R2R staffer who actually was the 1st R2R rider to summit the Gavia, ended up serving as my “nanny” down the Aprica descent. This is a descent that Ray should’ve taken at 40-50+mph. Two years ago, I would’ve joined him. Brain bashed Zeisler, however, is significantly more timid. Left to my own devices, I likely would have burned out my brakes with an overly constrained effort (ie, <25mph) while experiencing extraordinary anxiety along the way. Ray’s careful and steady approach, however, put me right at ease. Following his line filled me with confidence and joy. It was the best, happiest, 6-mile descent of my riding career. When I thanked him for easing me down the mountain, he said: “Are you kidding me? That’s my job. Thank you for allowing me to be able to come over here to Italy to do it.” Whereupon I burst into tears…

3. Birthday Celebrations. An interesting/odd R2R dinnertime tradition is that “with a group this big, it’s always someone’s birthday and tonight is no exception.” This is call-and-response statement is invoked at every dinner. Sometimes it’s for an actual birthday, but more often it’s to “celebrate” somebody for being an exceptional jackass. Very rarely, it’s invoked to celebrate something truly extraordinary and awesome. On July 14 it was invoked to celebrate the Nate Summit team. They received a standing ovation — the first R2R Standing O that I’ve witnessed in 2 years. There were very few dry eyes in the house. Mine were not among them.

4. Being an Inspiration. As we headed to bed last night, one of the guys who rode the “Jorge train” with me pulled me aside and said, “Cristin, I just want to thank you for inspiring me today. When Jorge left us, I was spent. I wouldn’t have made it to the top without having your wheel to follow. And when I was on the side of the road on that second climb and you called out to me as you passed it made me get back on my bike and follow you. You are the person who made me finish today and it was the best ride of my life. Thank you.” And, yeah, you can pretty much bet your boots that I bawled like a baby after that one.

And since I am crying again now, I’m gonna wrap this thing up. You’ll get the July 15 report in the morning. In keeping with the overall R2R Italy Challenge theme, it too was a pretty epic day.

Drink up, Adventure followers. There is much to celebrate in this world.

UPDATE, AUGUST 5: Here’s a LINK to a short video clip of the Nate Summit team as they conquer the mountain. Get your tissue ready.

4 Responses to “An Above Category day”

  1. eawitous July 15, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    ……Awesome, unbelievable & nothing short of goose bumps & of course tears!!!
    You ALL rock. Be safe.

    • justadventures July 15, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

      Thanks! We’ve got a 250-mile bus ride to Grenoble, France today, so wish us luck with not killing one another while we suffer through traffic!


  1. Best Year Ever! | JustAdventures - December 30, 2013

    […] July:ย I cry almost every day this month while witnessing bicycle-based miracles in Europe. Also, I hang out with the Tour de France pros and VIPs and then follow that up with some crazy epic not-safe-for-the-blog adventures in London and Northern Italy with my ex-boss and the cousin who stole my name (Kristin … she was born first, so she got the normal spelling; it’s the only thing “normal” about her, though, which is what makes us sort of like 2-of-a-kind). […]

  2. Unknown Happiness | JustAdventures - April 18, 2014

    […] cycling mentor from Ride2Recovery, Ray (who, incidentally, served as my special “descending nanny” while we were in Italy last year and thereby helped me overcome most of my ย PTSD issues […]

Something you wanna say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: