Conor Dunne's Giro d'Italia diary: 'On the edge of hypothermia, I contemplated peeing myself to stay warm'
Tuesday May 28: Stage 16: Lovere to Ponti di Legno (194km)
With the weather forecast predicting rain all day today, my teammates and I spent quite a bit of time this morning getting our wet bags ready on the bus at the stage start.
With rain jackets, gloves and other paraphernalia stuffed into them, these bags were then transferred into the team car that travels behind the race so that we could call for them during the stage if needed.
After packing my bag I was in a bit of a rush to get to sign-on before it closed, so I rode over in full race kit - bar the sandals I'd been wearing that morning. When I went to sign on however, the official at the start absolutely berated me for wearing the sandals. He was going berserk about it and tried to make me go all the way back to the bus and put my cycling shoes on before allowing me to sign my name.
After a bit of arguing back and forth I eventually told him that I wouldn't be going anywhere as (a) I didn't have time and (b) If he thought wearing sandals to sign-on was bad, then he should come to the end of the stage - where I guaranteed that I'd be looking a whole lot less presentable after six hours in the mountains.
Although the Gavia Pass was culled from today's route due to ten foot snow drifts and the risk of avalanches near the top, the race organisers added in two more climbs to make up for it so today was still expected to be the toughest stage of this Giro.
Even with that in mind, the stage started pretty fast with a big breakaway containing some pretty strong climbers going clear inside the first 20km.
I got over the first two uncategorised climbs well enough today even if I found myself caught behind a split on the descent of the first one and had to chase back on, which was a bit annoying.
I made sure I was nearer the front for the second descent and, after making the most of the rest day yesterday, I was feeling pretty good for the first 100km as the Movistar team of race leader Richard Carapaz controlled things at the front of the peloton, setting a steady enough pace.
As we approached the town of Aprika shortly after, one of guys from the French FDJ team told me they intended to just ride their own pace up the next climb and from there to the finish.
With the experienced FDJ guys ignoring the front of the race and riding a tempo that would ensure their team and points classification leader Arnaud Demare would get to the finish inside the time limit, I joined them for the next 90km, along with Krists and a couple of other like minded souls.
For me, it meant I could get through the day reasonably comfortably for such a huge mountain stage. There were only about eight of us in the group initially but we shared the workload, picked up a few riders in the valley and came to the infamous Mortirolo Pass feeling reasonably fresh - which is just as well.
The Mortirolo is probably the hardest mountain I've ever ridden up, comparable with l'Angliru in Spain, maybe even harder. For those back home, it's steeper than Seskin Hill in Carrick-On-Suir and goes on for 12km.
On a granny gearing of 36x32, I tried to keep my tempo at about 350 watts average on the slope.
If you were to ride that gearing on a flat road your legs would be spinning like hell and you'd be going nowhere, but today but I had to grind it a couple of times just to keep moving forward. I would have used a 34 front chainring if I could have - it just wasn't possible with the ratios needed for the downhill parts of the day.
Although it had been dry all day, as we went skywards it got colder and colder and when the rain began to fall the temperature had dropped to just four degrees by halfway up. About 3km from the top, I grabbed a rain jacket that I had stuffed into a sawn off drinking bottle before the start and pulled it on.
By the time we got to the top the rain had turned to sleet and it was absolutely freezing so, having been unable to call our team cars up due to the sheer volume of fans on the side of the road, our whole group stopped at the summit to pull on warm clothes.
As I pulled on arm warmers, a thermal Gabba jacket and neoprene gloves, I couldn't help but smile at the madness of it all. There were directeur sportifs and soigneurs hurriedly trying to dress frozen riders in the middle of the road, surrounded by appreciative but very boisterous Italian fans, while more tifosi cooked barbecues in the freezing rain at the roadside. The atmosphere was crazy but I'd probably recommend the top of the Mortirolo to any fans who ever wanted to come and have the full Giro experience.
The descent was pretty crazy too for the first few kilometres. The weather was so bad that some of the fans wanted to get off the mountain as quickly as possible and had begun riding their bikes down ahead of us, which made things pretty dangerous.
To avoid an accident, we had to shout every time we went around a corner or came upon a group of fans. Some of them had hoods up and couldn't see or hear anything coming behind them.
While stopped at the summit we had been told we were 20 minutes behind the front of the race, so we knew we had about another 20 minutes to get to the finish and didn't have to take too many risks but the descent was so sketchy, you really had to concentrate all the way down.
When we got past the fans we began to pick up more riders who had been dropped on the climb but by halfway down we had a new problem - fog. It was so thick that I was following Demare around the corners and literally all I could see was his ciclamino jersey of points leader in front of me, nothing else. If the Frenchman had fallen I would have ridden straight into him.
Even though I had more layers on, the wind-chill effect of the half-hour long descent meant I was shivering halfway down it. By the bottom, my fingers were barely able to pull the brakes and I was rattling so much that it was hard to keep my handlebars steady.
There was still 14km of a drag to the finish afterwards but when we all started pedalling again our legs were like blocks of ice. On the edge of hypothermia, I contemplated peeing myself to stay warm but was so cold I couldn't go.
I tried to ride harder to get my body temperature up and when the road widened enough the team cars came up with welcome bottles of warm tea to share among the group. Instead of drinking them though, we poured them over our legs in an effort to thaw them out enough to get us to the end of the stage.
As we got nearer the finish, I was more worried about where the bus was than where the line was and, after radioing to the car to find out, I kept going - right to the bus door where I peeled myself off my bike and clambered aboard for shelter.
Within five minutes, I had undressed, showered and put dry clothes on, using a hot hair dryer in an effort to get some heat into me.
Thankfully, it only rained on the final climb today. I don't know how many riders there would have been left if it had started earlier.
It's been a pretty epic day but it's not over yet. It's an hour and a half after the finish now and we're still on the team bus trying to get off the mountain in traffic. We then have an hour's drive to our next hotel. It's going to be a long time before we get a massage and dinner tonight.