Earlier this year TORQ and former Mountain Biking Pro Sally Bigham of Iron Sally Coaching set out to search for a rider who had suffered adversity in their life to take on an epic challenge – a challenge that would demonstrate how powerful exercise is in promoting both physical and mental well-being.
To provide a brief background before James’ story begins, Sally Bigham of Iron Sally Coaching, a former #TORQFuelled World Class Mountain Bike Marathon Pro approached us with a plan to coach and fuel someone free of charge who had suffered adversity in their life, so that they could benefit psychologically from the achievement of completing a huge challenge. She wanted to help someone and we were 100% behind her – what a great idea! Not only would this person receive free coaching from Sally, but they’d also get free TORQ Nutrition for the duration of their training and event as well as our advice and support, plus free access to the Today’s Plan coaching software package. They also got free entry to the epic Dolomiti Superbike event, accommodation and were supported with travel costs. It was a great deal, but we needed the right person, so we put out an advert through our Have You Got What It Takes campaign and James Wilkinson found us.
On the 15th March 2023, James Wilkinson, a former corporal with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, began his training, just 4 months before the race on the 8thJuly. This was going to be a big coaching challenge for Iron Sally Coaching, not least because James was only 12 weeks post hip replacement, but also because James had exclusively been riding an E-Bike up until his surgery, owing to his extensive injuries caused by an IED (improvised explosive device) attack while on tour with the British Army in Afghanistan in 2011. To learn more about James’ background, read our inspiring From Afghanistan To Dolomite Superbike article. You can also get some insight into the preparation James had to put into this enormous effort by reading our Mountain Bike Marathon Fuelling article.
In this particular article however, James gives us his first-hand experience of the Dolomiti Superbike race. Prepare to follow his honest, thought provoking and emotional journey:
“So, I have finally crossed the finish line and completed Dolomiti Superbike 2023 in a time of 9 hours and 33 minutes. I cannot believe I rode 75 miles of challenging terrain with over 11,600ft (3540m) of climbing! I wrote this just three days later, I am still in shock today. What an incredible achievement. Did I really have the opportunity to take part? Let alone complete it?
In December last year I was laid up in a hospital bed after undergoing major hip surgery and just a few months on, I am in the best shape of my life. Just like I was in 2011 before I was injured in Afghanistan by an IED attack, leaving me with life threatening and life changing injuries. The benefits this process has had on me both physically and mentally are amazing. Living with complex post traumatic stress disorder isn’t easy, but having a goal certainly helps focus your mind and distracts you from the demons you face.
Memories of this incredible race keep popping into my head, with every single one putting a huge grin back on my face. Memories made here will stay with me forever. For me, this wasn’t a race, it was a challenge and without doubt, the biggest challenge of my life. Leading up to race day, I was struck with man flu, the worst of its kind. I was unable to train as I should have been at that point in my training cycle. Right up to the day itself, I was still battling flu-like symptoms which further added to the anxiety, pressure, and excitement of the challenge I was about to face.
Two days before the event, together with my awesome support crew consisting of my wife Bex, three young boys; Freddie, Logan and Harry, my dad Walter and brother Charlie, we flew out to Venice and slowly travelled through the stunning Italian Dolomites to the picturesque village of Villabassa, South Tirol, Italy. I would get to know Villabassa very well over the next few days, as this is the start and finish location of this mammoth Dolomiti Superbike Race.
On Friday morning, the day before the race, I had a pre-race activation ride along the valley, which consisted of short efforts to prepare me for the race to come. What an absolute paradise. The scenery was incredible. My first thoughts of the mountains were that they looked hugely intimidating, knowing that in only 24 hours, I’ll be climbing them in a competitive race environment. For the rest of the day, I had to take my mind off it, doing my best to try to relax. I promptly signed on, got my race jersey and race number (1782) and picked up a copy of the event magazine. Whilst browsing the magazine, I stumbled upon a full-page spread, unknowingly, all about me! This was in the same section of the magazine where 5 professional cyclists were mentioned. At this point everything was starting to feel very real, and I was unsure what people were expecting of me. To calm my nerves, my family and I had a lovely afternoon at the pool in Villabassa. This gave me time to look at the route and plan the locations where my support crew would give me the much-needed TORQ Energy Gels and TORQ Energy Drinks, tools in my nutritional toolbox which proved invaluable during the race.
On Friday evening I filled all of my bottles with TORQ Energy Drinks and organised my TORQ Energy Gels. It was essential to hit at least 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour throughout the race, which I achieved with a combination of TORQ Energy Drink (750ml per hour) and TORQ Energy Gels. The gel flavours are amazing, particularly Rhubarb and Custard!
It was an early (05.30) start on race day, beginning with breakfast at the hotel, which was kindly provided for me by the race organiser of Dolomiti Superbike. I left the hotel at 6:45am and had a gentle 5km ride down to the start line adding in a few warm-up drills and small climbs to get me warmed up and ready. It was when I arrived at the start line and saw thousands of people queuing up and getting ready to start this momentous event, that it hit me. It was deeply emotional and I felt so privileged to be part of something so amazing. I was situated in Zone One right behind the elite riders! The pressure was now on. I just couldn’t believe how many riders had descended on this small Italian village.
So 7:30am was the official start time, although it was more like 7:45am when we finally got moving. The atmosphere was electric with helicopters flying above filming, crowds cheering and giant hot air balloons observing the race. What a way to start a race! I’m used to rolling off a start line with maybe 10 or so people on an enduro race, not 1000’s. It was crazy.
The race was underway and I was cycling out of Villabassa, calmly settling into the first of many climbs. The pace was manageable, but as there were so many riders, we were all cycling at the same kind of pace. After the first climb the field started to spread out. Meeting my support crew on the course was an awesome moral boost. They did remarkably well to find the course route at suitable locations, taking into consideration the number of road closures in the area.
The second big climb was by far the hardest and was probably when my morale was at its lowest. I just had my eye on the finish line and kept spinning my legs. The descents were the rewards for each and every climb. I made the most of these and went flat out, as fast as I dared, to pull back time. There were a few hair-raising moments on the loose gravel, flying into hairpins, but this was definitely my forte, it was on these descents that I could enter my psychological “flow state” and I was able to pass quite a few riders who had past me on the climbs. The checkpoints were always a worry for cut off times. I got to one with only 20 minutes to spare! This gave me a much-needed wakeup call and I was able to pull back another 20 minutes at the next cut off location. I was making good progress.
Prior to the final climb of the race, there was one whole hour of a gentle incline riding up the valley beside the river and past a beautiful lake. This gave me chance to recover, fuel, and prepare for the biggest climb of the day. A fellow racer told me it would be about an hour to the top (which made me feel somewhat emotional!) but once up there, it would be a good descent to the finish. At this point I knew I was going to make it, so I gritted my teeth, put my head down and pedalled. That was my only goal at that point.
After what felt like hours of climbing, I made the top. What a relief! As a nice treat for my efforts, the heavens opened and there was a heavy downpour. The first half of the descent was technical and tricky. I soon got very cold thanks to the high speed descent and rain, but luckily it was just a passing shower and the weather soon turned for the better. A metaphor for darker times passing, and riding literally into the light.
The last couple of miles seemed to take forever. This was not helped by quite a strong headwind. As I chipped away through the final few miles, the town started to make an appearance! I could see Villabassa, I was nearly home! I had a massive smile on my face heading down to the finishing line. Words can’t describe how I felt – it was a mixture of emotions. Seeing my family at the finish line made my day and provided an instant realisation of context to the huge challenge I had just completed. Not just the race, but the training leading up to it too.
The last four months of training had been tough but with a team of professionals behind me, we got the job done. A massive thank you to Sally Bigham at Iron Sally Coaching, Today’s Plan for their app-based support allowing Sally to deliver the coaching programme, and to Marcus at TORQ Nutrition, which fed not only the main event, but also all of my training rides. A big thank you to Dolomiti Superbike for providing the race entry (including a very privileged start position near the front of the race) and 4 nights accommodation at the lovely Hotel Dolomiten. Finally, a big thank you once again to my family for supporting me through it all. I quite simply couldn’t have done it without them. One big team effort!
Before the race Sally told me; “The one who has the most fun wins” What a saying, I felt like a winner!”
Dolomiti Superbike Finisher 2023.
It has been a pleasure to support James throughout this journey and we will continue to support James throughout his rehabilitation. As we have mentioned at the end of every article in this series, James has also been supported by Help for Heroes and should you wish to donate to support other injured servicemen and women, you can do by clicking here.