Rocacorba Renaissance

Rocacorba Renaissance. An early season major training event culminated in my own Renaissance artwork, which you see above. It’s at the finish line of the Rocacorba climb near Girona, Catalonia.

This is a 6.2-mile-long ascent, scaling 2,445 feet, with an average grade of 7.4%. However, the average grade fails to reveal the extended stretches of 13% inclines. A tough one by anyone’s standards, including professional riders.

Why Rocacorba Renaissance? There’s so much going on in the photograph; it’s my own version of a painting from the Renaissance genre, a Uccello “Battle of San Romano” or a Botticelli “Primavera.” It’s my Chain Gang Cyclists teammates at the top of the brutal ascent. Some cheering. Some photographing each other. A lone cyclist wondered who this animated bunch was.

My fat backside on the bike, me shouting David Goggins’ “You don’t know me, son” after taking one hour and six minutes to climb Rocacorba, well within my target time. I heard a former pro cyclist say, “Your age plus ten minutes is respectable, ” which was me dialled in. He probably wasn’t accounting for a man 65 years and 11 months old in his calculation, but he put it out there, so fair is fair.

27 members of the London cycling club Chain Gang Cyclists went for a five-day trip to experience the area’s rich variety of cycling routes, from coastal rides to big climbs. The challenging Rocacorba was to be one of the highlights of the trip. Cyclists have a gleefully masochistic culture of anticipating pain and suffering. It was pain and suffering, hence the joy in the Rocacorba Renaissance image. Pain, suffering, joy, bonding.

It was a significant achievement for me. Climbing has always been the domain of the lightweight mountain goats floating on the pedals. For big old carthorses such as me, it’s a grind. The beauty of the changes in cycling these last years, enabled by clubs such as Chain Gang, has meant I’m not the only big unit on a bike. We had Peter, Dean, Yan, and myself all comfortably over the 100-kilogram mark. And we all got up there. All 27 of us got up there, including Brandy suffering from post-Ramadan digestive issues.

My approach is to go into my world when faced with this kind of challenge. I don’t want to speak to anyone, nor do I want any music on. For a period, a friend was just behind me, and I could hear the gentle noises of his drivetrain. It started to get into my head. I just wanted to be alone. Halfway up, I saw another friend off the bike, taking a breather. I didn’t want him to talk to me, but he did. I vaguely remember what he said, and I replied, “I’m taking up chess.” But put my head down and pushed on.

My head went down, and I started to count pedal strokes. “One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four …” I looked up again, and Darren had passed me. I wasn’t aware of him overtaking me, but I was pleased. For some reason, at this second, I thought, “I could stop now.” It was a split second of fight or flight, certainly triggered by seeing someone off their bike and an optical illusion that Darren had stopped too. That was my only split second of doubt. During the rest of the ride, I was positive I would succeed.

I remember rough, damp stretches of road under the trees. I remember the smell of the climb. I don’t remember much of the scenery at all. At one second, I put my head up and was rewarded with a spectacular view across a valley. But my memories will be an intricate knowledge of Catalonian tarmac, a damp mossy smell, and beautiful suffering.

A short stretch where the road dipped for a few hundred yards, the radio pylon on the summit still out of reach. Three cruel, steep hairpins to the top. I completed the first and felt good. As I approached the second, I could hear voices. The voices of 20 of my teammates up at the finish line. I may have even smiled at that point.

Round the last hairpin, and it was time to apply the final brushstrokes to the Rocacorba Renaissance. A last steep dig and being loudly cheered on. My eyes flicked to the right, and I saw “Embrace the pain and U will win” sprayed on the wall. Damn right. As I rolled towards the finish line, I shouted two or three times, “You don’t know me, son!” at the point this photo was taken. A few of the young, quick guns responded to my call, “Who’s gonna carry the boats?!” A perfect David Goggins call and response as I rolled to the line.

I was feeling good. A mental and physical achievement. A fundamental building block towards my 2023 cycling goals. Up a long climb in a time David Millar would bless, building my fitness and endurance.

One of the best parts of the day was seeing my handful of teammates still on the climb finishing. Everyone was hurting that day. Fast, slow, experienced, rookie, big, small. To see every one of our 27 get home was a treasured experience. The world was perfect for those moments. The warm presence of a tremendous bunch of people, the quiet camaraderie and mutual respect. Sport builds mental health as well as physical health when with the right people and conditions come together.

6 thoughts on “Rocacorba Renaissance”

  1. This has made me smile so hard. A special day one we’ll reminisce about for years and beautifully depicted by you. We’re creating new narratives about who can ride, climb and endure. And you are a part of the story,

  2. Such a beautiful memory for you all, that writing on the wall it really sums up what this challenge was about Indeed you embraced the pain and become victorious!!

  3. You really have a way with words Stephen! Takes me right back to a ride with friends that will be etched in my memory for years to come! My fellow ‘Big Bike Bandit’…i salute you.


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