Satisfied with our rise up the rankings over the previous days (we were up to 83rd on GC in the men's field, well inside our top-100 aim), we faced day 5 - another longer stage at 68km, and more inkeeping with the "typical" transalp format of big climb early on. Thankfully, Nick was continuing to keep a close eye on the stage profiles, perusing them with great concentration every evening, so he knew every inch of the stage to come. I was taking an approach more suited to my poor memory of sticking a sellotape-laminated profile to my top tube.
First up was an amazing breakfast spread right next door to the camp (sadly not in the town's disused nuclear bunker as in previous years), although the amazing array of muesli didn't make up for the less-than-perfect strength coffee that tasted mostly of milk. I took the only sensible approach, and made up for quality with quantity going back for a second cup with Naomi and Mike, who were by now our regular eating companions.
The morning was tangibly warmer than the first days of the Transalp had got us used to, and i made the mistake (one i would make again) of wearing arm warmers for the start, only to have to peel them of straight away. I had been particularly looking forward to the stage to Livigno, it was one where we got the amazing high-alpine singletrack that had so inspired me six years previously. The start was suitably manic, and took us over a covered bridge out of town, which was thankfully devoid of the post slap bang in the middle that Mike's prescient warning had reminded me of from years gone by. We climbed up into Val Minger (fnar fnar), and continued our ascent, more gently on some stunning narrow meadow tracks that definitely differentiated well between the roadies and the mtbers around us!
Once we had crested the Passo Costainas, a spot of "noodling" was in store for us, as we climbed and descended small rolling hills through some beautiful high valley scenery until the Passo del Gallo, which marked the big singletrack descent of the stage. In the back of my mind as i rode through here was the possibility that i could do it all again in a month's time - the National Park Bike Marathon also uses these trails, and how could you not be impressed by a bike race you can enter in the local Coop! Somewhere down the descent, Nick flatted, and foolishly i failed to notice him - i looked behind me a couple of times on the hairpins, and could see a guy wearing a red helmet. Imagine my dismay when, as i slowed down to allow him to catch up as the trail headed skyward, i realised that Nick had grown rather significantly in stature in the last twenty minutes. Ooops. Cath Williamson and her partner Ischen Stopforth rode past, and told me that Nick had got a puncture "about an hour ago" whilst i sheltered in the shade of a handy tree and waited. Panic ensued in my exercise-addled brain, but just as i was contemplating hiking back up the hill, along came a very understanding and good-humoured Nick!
Off we headed up the gravel climb to the Alpisella pass, the final significant climb and descent of the day, before the mean Ulli Stanciu joke of taking us most of the way into Livigno, then back out and up a hill before allowing us to finally drop into town. We finished the day in baking sunshine, and tucked into the salty salami and cheese at the feed at the end with great abandon.
As soon as we had finished, my mind turned to the following day - the "queen stage" of the race, weighing in at 106km with 3,500m of climbing, including a brutal ascent of the Mortirolo, using the same road as the Giro d'Italia had back in May. The key to surviving that would be recovery after the day's stage. We ate plenty, lay down and put our legs up, applied the very kindly-supplied urea-based fusscreme and then headed for dinner with our posse, Mike, Naomi, Meg, Pete & Cath - the anglophones united! We got the thrill of the day's presentation, and Cath got yet another trophy for second place on the stage behind the irrepressible Sally Bigham and Milena Landtwing, and then it was time to hit the hay.
The next morning dawned a little overcast, but it was clear that as soon as the mist burned off, it was going to be hot. We were pushing from the tax haven enclave of Livigno into "proper" Italy today, and also dropping down to the lowest altitude for quite some time to the town of Grosotto at the foot of the Mortirolo, so more reasons to think it would be toasty. Another frantic, forgettable start, and we were out of the blocks for the queen stage. I had decided, with hindsight possibly unilaterally, that today would be the day that Nick and I would make our move upwards on the GC - i was feeling pretty good, we had both figured out how hard we could push and get away with it, and the teams around us were flagging a little. The all-aslphalt climb of the Mortirolo seemed like a perfect place for it, i could use my strength to give Nick a bit of a hand, and hopefully we'd be able to move ourselves a few places up in the rankings...
First, though, we had to contend with the leg-sapping and tricky alpine singletrack out of Livigno, followed by a fast, flat run on gravel roads through the valleys to the foot of the Passo di Verva. With Mike's wise words "if you're not doing 40k/h here, you're going backwards" ringing in our ears, we hung valiantly onto a fast-moving paceline of riders. A small climb later (still 400m, but your norms get adjusted pretty quickly on the transalp), and we were ready to start the longest descent of the whole race - 1700m straight down to the small town of Grosotto. It was already feeling warm at the top of the climb, so it's perhaps no surprise that we were melting by the time we reached the bottom.
The climb itself started with some amazingly steep ramps of tarmac, that tested mine and Nick's pushing technique to the limit. In the end, we decided that Nick hanging onto a pocket was best, and once we got things dialled, we were motoring. As we climbed past Aussie mates Team Radical Lights, i realised we were on a bit of a flyer, and was determined not to let up. Nick was also digging deep, and I can't lie, it did feel fantastic towing my team mate past other blown teams. At the top of the Mortirolo (but sadly not the top of our ascent) we came across Mike & Naomi, who had had a bit of a nasty mechanical with a seized jockey wheel. We asked if we could help, and then rode on towards to the top of the climb. At the summit was the oasis-in-a-desert sight of a feed zone, where i necked a load of water and gel, and tried to force something down Nick's throat, as i thought he looked a little peaky. A fast, rocky, slightly scary descent took us down to Ponte-di-Legno, where the fun finished for the day. We made it in 6h38, for 57th on the stage, our best result yet.
Unfortunately, when we sat down to eat post-stage, it became clear something was up. Nick wasn't really feeling up to eating much, and when he started to shiver in the 30deg heat, it became clear it was time to call the medics. The race doctor did a fantastic job of looking after Nick, took him over to the medical tent, checked his blood sugar and response and then gave his diagnosis - v low blood sugar from pushing himself too hard! I ran around making sure our bikes were cleaned and worked for the following day, and tried to collect some food to make sure Nick had something to eat when he felt up to it.
Suitably recovered, we had dinner in the presence of the first ever women's olympic champion, Paola Pezzo who lives nearby, and then headed to bed. The following stage, whilst not as long, or with quite as much climbing as day 6, was definitely not to be quibbled with. We need to make sure Nick was ready for it!