The text message read, “You wanna come on a long dirt road ride with us tomorrow? There will be a lot of climbing, and we may find a little snow at the peak.” Our local trails had been saturated by extraordinarily heavy storms, and everyone was looking for a way to get out of the house. I replied with a somewhat reluctant “yes,” as I was more interested in finding drained trails to work on or ride that weekend. I knew a pedal would do me good, so I headed to the basement to check the latex level in the tires on my cyclocross bike.
Both my ‘cross bike and my partner Megan’s bike have Maxxis Refuse 700x32c tires mounted up for riding slick dirt roads, and I figured “a little snow at the peak” wouldn’t be anything to fuss about. The bikes were otherwise ready to go, despite having collected dust in the corner all season.
We rolled out at 9am sharp-ish, which is a rare occurrence in Italy. No one was more than ten minutes late, and we didn’t stop for coffee before departing. While pedaling through thick mud and a thicker fog as we sorted the labyrinth of dirt paths out of town I looked at the bare legs of two of our eight-person crew with some concern. Late fall and early winter are not the time to prove how tough or minimalist you can be with your clothing choices.
We got lost several times while approaching the Alps. All of the dudes leading the ride claimed that they knew where to go, and had done the ride before, yet somehow we were ending up in a lot of farmhouse driveways. At one point someone pointed across an expansive field to the road we were supposed to be on, so I decided to take point and just ride through the field to the proper route out of town. Fortunately, everyone followed suit, and unfortunately, the tractor-throned farmer caught us and decided to scold us like misbehaving school children. The tractor captain didn’t speak Italian, and instead squawked something I couldn’t understand in Piedmontese.
Finally out of the city and farm fiasco, and flanking the Alps on dirt paths at the mouth of the Susa Valley I realized where we were headed. My friend Francesco mentioned that we were going to climb northwest and descend into a little village called Viù. I had ridden through Viù a few years ago on the way to Colle del Lys to watch the Giro di Italia circus crest a long steady climb toward the day’s finish line at the French border. There was snow in Viù until late spring, and there would almost certainly be snow up there today. Oh, and we planned to descend into Viù.
We started the climb in earnest about thirty minutes later, and I took off ahead to get warm. There were plans to stop for coffee about halfway up, and I was far too cold to pull the brakes. At the coffee stop we lost the first rider. A fella I had not yet met was cold and tired enough and decided to turn his hardtail toward home. We continued the ascent, and the road turned from asphalt to soft dirt. Roughly two hours into the uphill slog the soft dirt and steep jeep track combined forces to put most of us on our feet.
Megan was experiencing some hefty nutrition challenges, and a dearth of fitness after two weeks at a work conference in Mexico, and she was not too keen to press on. We discussed turning back, but it seemed to both of us that over-the-top was the easier way home. It was certainly the shorter route at that point. Another hour or so of walking later we started to regret that notion. She had fully bonked, and I was now carrying both of our bikes in the most direct line up the mountain I could manage, skipping switchbacks in favor of the sturdier herbaceous hillside. The snow depth measured level with the top of my dainty XC shoes.
Some time later our frozen posse trudged past a hurken 4×4 vehicle, packed with a wisely warm couple and their snow-white dog. They had driven up to take a look at the snowscape, and were about to head back down, as the sun inched toward its daily retirement. The “little snow at the peak” turned out to be about 6″ of fresh powder, and our numb hands and feet were not offering much encouragement for the coming descent. We had ninety minutes of daylight left at max, and at least a three-hour pedal home. This is where the darker thoughts would start to take over, if we weren’t such a large crew of veteran-idiots.
At the top, we flagged down the lone 4×4 as they passed and asked if they could give my partner a ride to someplace since she only had road tires to descend through the snow. I had the same inappropriate tread, but after seeing their reluctance to give one of us a ride I wasn’t about to ruin it by asking if they had space for a second. I put on every piece of clothing I had, drank the last dribble of fresh water in my bottle, and hoped the snow would provide a soft landing.
We were on the shaded side of the mountain now, and the snow would stretch far further than it had on the climb. I made crab claws of my anesthetized fingers, locked the rear wheel, and pointed into the frigid descent. After roughly five minutes of foot-out sliding, all of my ride pals had rolled out of sight, carefully trusting their knobby tires. The bedrock beneath the snow was difficult to locate, and there was no way to worry about flat tires when keeping the bike upright felt like a monumental challenge.
After another few turns, the cable on my front mechanical disk brake snapped, leaving me with seventy percent less slowing power to descend the slope. The snow continued on below as far as I could see, and I now had no way to slow down or stop myself. I tossed my bike to the ground, sorted my clothing malfunctions, and prepared to run down the steep road as fast as possible. I hadn’t seen anyone for what felt like an hour at this point, and I thought that they needed to move toward warm shelter and leave me to do the same.
The shadows grew thick in front of my senseless feet, but the snow marked a clear direction. My shivering brain started wandering to all of the “what if” and “I can’t” places that it tends to go in these times, while I did my best to redirect it to the ice ahead. “What if I fall and get knocked out? There is no way my friends will get back up here before I freeze to death.” “What if I just lay down here until I regain feeling in my hands?” “What if someone got hurt and they are all headed to some hospital someplace?” The cacophony of thoughts grew louder and more demanding as the once glowing snow dimmed to shadows.
When I finally reached asphalt again, with my longest jog of the year behind me, it was time to coast some more. I had to roll cautiously to keep the bike under control, as the road was steep enough that I would accelerate into a ground-to-cliff missile if I let myself exceeded 12mph. I had to dismount before several of the hairpin switchbacks, as my rear brake and traction were not powerful enough to make the turn, and I was thankful I had learned to run off the bike through all those years spent racing cyclocross.
When I reached Viù I was surprised to find the whole ride crew waiting for me, including Megan. I had genuinely hoped that the 4×4 driver had dropped her at a hot ski lodge, but alas, she would continue to freeze with us all the way home. Our gaggle of humbly-numbed numbskulls rolled another forty minutes through the silent dark to reach the nearest train station, where we thawed to the sound of clacking tracks en route to our respective homes. We parted ways with fewer salutations than usual, as we all had grown painfully hungry and grumpy hours earlier.
Approximately once every season I end up on a “could have died ride” that forces me to re-think some of my lousier decisions, and to further respect the omnipotent power of nature. I am grateful to have experienced these deeper challenges, to be alive to share the stories, and to have the massive privilege of choosing my level of comfort and safety rather than being stuck with a frightening reality like so many people around the world. These adventures may close the book for me one day, and that’s okay. A genuinely challenging life is the one I want to live.