Map story #2: Reflecting and resetting with Ben Ray
The maps we produce are minimal by design, it's how I like it, but being a cyclist I want to know about the journey. I know under those lines some epic tales must of unfolded. So here is our second map story article with with Ben.
Estimated reading time: 26 minutes (Ben's tells a great story so read on!)
So let’s start at the beginning. What’s your name and where are you from?
I’m Ben Ray and I grew up three miles outside the village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. Over the past 25 years I’ve lived in France, Israel, Hong Kong, New York and London. I now live in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
How did you get into cycling and how long have you been turning cranks?
Back in the early 80’s when there was less traffic on the roads and parents were less uptight about letting kids out of their sight, my brother and I would ride our bikes into the village to see friends, ride around all afternoon and then ride home again.
Whilst I’d always been fascinated by The Tour via the limited British TV coverage from as long as I can remember, I didn’t ride up a col until 1994 whilst working in the Maritime Alps one summer. I was living near the foot of the Col de Turini. On a day off I borrowed a steel tank of a mountain bike and headed off uphill. 18km seemed like nothing. I stopped in Bollene for a beer and a cigarette and then carried on. I think it took me almost three hours to reach the top and every car that passed, slowed down and offered me encouragement. It was an incredible feeling. People can be so kind and so warm. I was shaking like a leaf at the top, downed two double espressos, two Mars bars and then shot back down in less than 20 minutes. #hooked. When I moved to HK a couple of years later I never really found any trails or other people interested in riding, besides which, I was too wasted most of the time I wasn’t working to think about riding anyway. It was that kind of a vibe, work then get mash up. These days there is a massive roadie community in HK but life on a bike was different in the 90s.
When I got to NY in 2000 I met a totally awesome and life changing group of mates and things on two wheels accelerated rather quickly. I rode my first 100 miler (on a mountain bike) and was still a heavy smoker at the time. I really enjoyed the sensations of prolonged effort and wanted to go faster. We’d sit on the back of the roadies, then overtake them sitting bolt upright and talking as we cruised by, hiding our discomfort to make our point and would then smoke at the rest stops. I smoked for 15 years but riding an mtb fast and smoking wasn’t sustainable of course and we soon realised we needed faster machines, so we all went to a bike shop called Toga and purchased a bunch of steel Bianchis. One thing led to another and rides got longer and more frequent but the real game changer for me was 2004 when a couple of us decided to ride from Montreal to NY (MAP 1). I quit smoking that June on my 30th birthday.
How many bikes have you got and what's your favourite?
I’m as excited about tinkering with and reading about bikes as I am riding them. Since the 90s I’ve had and then sold or broken a Cannondale Delta V 2000, the steel Bianchi, a steel Giubilato, a couple of TCRs, alu and carbon and an alu Ridley. Currently I have a mongrel Ribble as my 1x10 trainer/commuter, a fixed Nishiki lowpro (selling it), a Storck Aernario Pro, a glossy black 90s steel Casati with silver lugs and a Fat bike which is just so much more fun than a MTB. My fave ride is the Casati. One day I’ll go to Monza and have the brothers make me a bike with the same geometry, it’s a kind of magic. I bought it from R&A in Brooklyn around 2003 as NOS and put Chorus and Campy hoops on it. They used to have loads of Italian steel hanging from the rafters in there and apparently the team had ridden Casatis at one time. The same group of friends (Bill and George) who’d bought the Bianchis from Toga upgraded to NOS steel from R&A. Bill a sleek azzurri fillet brazed De Rosa and George a Colnago Master X Light. I remember doing a CRCA race in Central Park and being so distracted by the bikes. One guy was riding a powder blue fillet brazed Rossin with the most attractive seat post & stay cluster I’d ever seen. I just sat on his wheel because it was the prettiest bike in the bunch.
A silent bike is a beautiful thing. My Casati only speaks to me via the clunk of a Campy shift, which occasionally resonates through the EL/OS steel with the clarity of a tuned bell. They say steel is real, maybe but external cable routing and a sensible headset makes for a very quiet and smooth reality. I do all my own maintenance now which is sometimes frustrating but also rewarding. I think my Ribble looks wonderfully gauche and delightfully unfashionable. I think it was Coldcut who issued the government stealth warning “Don’t drink from the mainstream”. Try as I might to silence it, my Storck makes all kind of noises from time to time, either from the pressfit BB whose cups need changing every couple of years, cable rattles or just the temporary but infuriating ventriloquy that modern bikes speak, seemingly on a whim.
Let’s talk about the maps. What’s the story?
MAP 1. MONTREAL – NEW YORK
So the first map was a four day ride with Bill (De Rosa) Rigby and supported by Carl Freeman. I honestly don’t remember where the idea to do it came from, probably Bill and certainly it was hatched in a NY bar late one night. Carl volunteered to drive support for us if we covered the cost of the rental, so the three of us drove up to a place called Chambly on the outskirts of Montreal, found a bike shop, bought a jersey with Chambly printed on it and headed South towards the border back into the US. I don’t think we really did much route planning. It was more a case of seeing a sign for a town in the right direction, riding towards it and then repeating the process. The route followed Route 9 for almost the entire way down to the GW Bridge so there really wasn’t much need for a map. It was almost exactly 100 miles a day for four days. I rode the Casati, Bill rode his De Rosa, the Italian steel flattered our capabilities.
Carl thought he was going to be napping under the trees and having a holiday but he worked harder than we did. He pitched the tent each night, cooked dinner, sorted the beer and wine, woke us up with breakfast and tea, broke camp after we left and then stopped throughout the day to feed us sandwiches. It was a privileged existence, pedal, get fed and watered. Like being a pro without the pressure to perform, money or massage.
Upstate NY is wild, compared to most of Europe and for hours all we heard was the wind and the Summer insect chorus.
That ride killed mass participation rides for me.
The idea of paying someone money to ride somewhere beautiful and not be able to enjoy the serenity of the place no longer made sense. The roads are free and like for many people, a bike offers freedom and escape on your own terms. It was for me when I rode into the village without my parents as a child and it still is today. Racing a bike, which I have only done infrequently, is only on your own terms if you’re strong enough to impose yourself on everybody else (ITTs notwithstanding), otherwise you’re under the cosh but touring is another thing altogether. You still measure your effort but unlike a race, touring affords you the time to absorb your surroundings. Hemingway has a better quote about sweating and coasting over contours, to the same effect.
As we rode into Central Park on the eve of the fourth day I felt so incredibly happy and so calm. Four days in the saddle, rather than four days in an office chair. But I didn’t want it to end and I realised then that I needed that feeling of fatigue that comes from decent back to back days on a bike.
It’s not just being tired, it’s an intensely satisfying sensation that fills the space that used to be occupied by effort. It’s as much mental as physical. A deep pleasure that is more than just being tired. Tiredness is an absence of energy but in place of the energy was a brilliant mental clarity and the release of previous emotional baggage.
I moved to London in 2008 and was soon riding with my friend Victor Anderson. Vic had been racing for over 20 years in South Africa, Belgium and England and at 40, he was still riding in the Surrey league. I’ve a lot about riding a bike from him. He’d recently ridden from St. Paul’s to St. Peter’s with another guy and had the same motivation to do his own thing. It wasn’t long before we planned our first ride, a London Paris, self supported, two days. The brevity of the ride doesn’t warrant a map but it was a test run for what was possible. To learn how we rode together and measure potential. We carried everything in the Deuter Race Air backpacks we used to commute in and out of London with, stayed in a hotel on the first night and then at my brother’s in Paris and came back via Eurostar. Over the next few years we did several trips to the Alps using either Briancon or Evian as home and just did our own thing. The biggest single day we did was 250km with 5,500m of elevation doing a Montgenevre, Sestriere, Agnello and Izoard loop, but the desire to ride a multi stage A to B route was growing. Ending in Paris is good but it’s a long way from the mountains and that was where we wanted to be.
MAP 2. PARIS – NICE
The next map was Paris Nice in 2013. Logistically we just figured that starting in Paris via Eurostar was a whole lot more enjoyable than riding there from London, besides which we only had a week to get to Nice, we wanted to take in the Alps en route and we wanted to be washed and with a drink in hand by mid afternoon each day. I’ve done a 600k audax and whilst it wasn’t altogether unpleasant, I have no interest in doing another one over 300. This was a holiday, not an audax.
I think my backpack weighed 7kg but on later rides we got the packs down to around 3kg, in return for washing kit becoming a daily event and sharing the minimum of tools and spares. Rumours that Vic cut the handle down on his toothbrush to save weight are unfounded but we spoiled many a pretty hotel balcony view with the sight of drying bibs and jerseys over the railing. Flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts are all you need at the end of the day. We both rode 53/39-12/25 and I was on the Casati which weighs about 8.5kg, so not a weight wiener set up at all. The first 3 days were just under 200km each and mostly flat except for crossing the Morvin, the watershed between the Seine and the Saone. Descending the Western slope of the Rhone through the Montrachet vineyards without stopping was a reminder that we were riding to get somewhere rather than actually stopping everytime we wanted to. I remember the heat of the day, the large refreshing hotel swimming pool and being served pizza by a lad who looked just like Philippe Gilbert.
We rode up The Alpe at the end of day four and the next day down the Sarenne and up the Lauteret, to follow our version of the Route des Grands Alpes, taking in the Izoard, Vars, Bonnette, St Martin and of course the Turini. Riding down into the Vesubie valley towards Lantosque and the Turini I reflected on the previous 19 years since I’d last ridden the climb. All the places I lived and travelled to, friendships made, people passing, marriage, children... on a mountain everything makes sense, the mountain is always the same, only your reaction to the incline changes. Plus ca change.
Finishing on the promenade in Nice is de rigueur, not only for its historical significance in cycling but ending a ride at the sea is a natural conclusion. It’s also a good place to celebrate and fly home from.
MAP 3. TOULOUSE – BARCELONA
This was an excuse to ride a few Pyrenean climbs and parts of Catalonia. I’d like to go back and ride the French side and Western Catalonia some more, as the climbs were pretty and mostly quiet. The climb up to Andorra was a heavily used road with shopping malls and a petrol station at the top. Andorra features a startling lack of charm but the significance of it as a major crossing point on to the Iberian peninsula and the necessary elevation gained, warranted the ride through it. Going down the ‘motorway’ was one of the fastest and safest descents I’ve ridden. For this trip I was on a Ribble Stealth. All black hoops and finishing kit, with gold accents like QRs, seat clamp, bar ends and tan side walled Vittoria CXs. I was going through a bling phase.
The Catalonian climb up to La Molina was very gentle but the 35km descent from the Collada de Toses on the N260 to Ribes de Freser and then Ripoll was out of this world. The road surface and the cambered and predictable bends top even the SS241 into Bolzano from map 4. Leaving the high mountains and reaching Girona, the coast and Barcelona, was less uplifting than riding in the mountains, a factor of the proximity to other humans and everyday life. The roads were great but far busier than further West and the coast road turned into a two up time trial to just get it done with.
MAP 4. LJUBLJANA – NICE
Setting out on a ride with everything you’ll need either on your back or at the side of the road is a complete liberation. Just one thing to do. Get from here to there, that is all. It is easy to forget how much needless emotional weight we collect and carry around with us and it’s not until you are reduced to having a singular purpose that it dawns on you that without any effort whatsoever, you are completely free of it all.
A wise person said you can choose to be happy. True and sometimes we need a little nudge too. My youngest son was diagnosed with leukemia in Great Ormond Street Hospital. An intense yet clarifying 12 hours passed after which time the hospital declared they had made an error. In that time I also completely emotionally reset, I was free of the noise that had been needlessly occupying me only half a day before. These moments are corrections in our continuum, of course we also choose how they impact us and I’m fortunate to do well in these situations but I draw the parallel to explain my reason to ride, it’s to reflect, remember what is important and reset. That said, given the choice of the two, I recommend going on a bike ride to reset rather than facing cancer.
In 2014 we rode from Slovenia to Nice and then did it again a slightly different way in 2017, which is the fourth map. The 2017 route had started with great ambition, incorporating deviations into Austria and Switzerland. But just as enthusiasm for route planning is easy behind a desk, so enthusiasm for speed overtook me whilst I was overtaking a car on the south side of the Vrsic pass on day one and we lost time on bike repairs in Bovec, so made a plan B. The GPS said 120kph max on the descent and it’s true that once you clear the 24th hairpin the road does open up but I’m not sure that speed was right but I’ll take it. I’d been visiting and riding in Slovenia since 2005 and had fallen in love with its Julian Alps, combination of Italian, Austrian and Eastern European influences and down to earth attitude. Once I’d moved back to Europe from the States it was inevitable that I’d start a bigger ride from there.
We flew in with soft bike bags, put the bikes together, packed the bags with compression straps and shipped them to Nice using SendMyBag. Ljubljana is a cool town and the ride up to Bled is an easy one. Once you swing a left to the ski town of Kranjska Gora you’re on to the famous Vrsic pass. There are 24 cobbled hairpins on the way up and 24 regular ones on the South side. I’ve ridden it both ways a few times and you soon learn that these roads are not the engineered excellence you can expect in the French Alps. Blind corners tighten up giving plenty of opportunity for the reckless to go over the edge and the gradients constantly change too. Totally awesome and thrilling roads. I hope the Giro rides this mountain soon. It isn’t the highest road in Slovenia, that title goes to Mangart which is a brilliant climb too but it’s also a road to nowhere, so it didn’t make our route plan.
I had a general idea of where we’d end up each night but nothing set in stone. In 2014 I rode it on a white aluminium Ridley frame that I’d picked up on eBay for £67. I put an old Dura Ace 7700 kit on it and borrowed a pair of DA C24s from Vic. With a black 3T finishing kit I thought it looked great and it was totally dialled in. People who talk about alu frames being harsh probably need to let some air out of their tyres. Sadly the thing cracked and failed a year later, the second alu frame that cracked on me. Alu isn’t as real as steel apparently. This time I rode the Storck with carbon rims and a new Chorus 11s groupset, it weighed about 6.5kg.
The plan B route ended up being 1400km with 23,500m of elevation including 15 mountain passes.
Day 2. We climbed the eerily deserted Sedlo Ucja / Selle Carnizza into Italy, the old border post is unoccupied and seems incongruous to the modern era. The Isonzo Front of the upper Soca valley saw some of the most brutal fighting in the first World War. Hundreds of thousands died, often in hand to hand combat above 1,000m and fortifications are scattered across the landscape as testament to the grimness of mountain warfare. There is a brilliant museum in Kobarid that is worth a visit.
The road down into Italy and the Resia valley is a horrifying piece of construction, averaging over 12% for 7km and in the rain it was a sketchy affair. I’d ridden it from the Italian side a few years before and knew it would be unpleasant going down in the wet. As the rain came down and we restored ourselves with a thick veggie soup in Tomezzo, the thought of riding over the Zoncolan en route to Cortina was highly unappealing, so we didn’t. Plan C. A choice neither of us have regretted since. We rode straight past it 3 years earlier too on our way to the Sella Ciampigotto and Tre Croce. I was geared slightly better than 39x25 but even so, descending in the wet isn’t fun and neither of us feel the need to tick off climbs from a list. Horses for courses...
After what seemed like an eternity riding up the 40km of slow poison to the Mauria pass and into Veneto, the sun came out and life became a little bit better. We sat at the side of the road and laughed about the ridiculous idea of having planned to go into Austria and Switzerland. The ride down and up to Cortina was brilliant. One of the joys of riding West is riding into the sun in case the day’s riding grows long.
Day 3. I think of all the mountains I’ve ridden, the Fedaia from the Caprile side is the most deceptive. We rode up it under clear skies the next day from Cortina, having crested the Falzarego before it (in 2013 we did the Giau first). After the impossibly cool Serrai di Sottoguda you emerge on a stretch of road that goes straight up the mountain towards a series of hairpins under the gaze of the Marmolada. The road holds a steady 12.5% for about 3km which isn’t so dreadful on paper but the straightness of the road and the enormity of the Marmolada bearing down on you under the sun, combine to make this stretch drag on forever. Down the other side and up the Costalunga reveals one of my favourite roads. It’s the descent into Bolzano on the SS241. Another glass smooth piece of tarmac that follows the river and drops at a consistent 5% for 15km, ending up in a well lit tunnel. The road is wide and you can spin your biggest gear without fear of a poorly engineered curve or a traffic junction. The tunnel feels like being in a video game. I think we got carried away with speed because to cut another 10km off the ride I took us briefly on to the motorway. We were just about to clear the exit ramp when the police Alfa Romeo came flying up and pulled us over. So close… one hour and lots of paperwork later we rode the final 5 km to the hotel. Some short cut!
We ended up staying in a brilliant hotel just north of Bolzano with a killer swimming pool, We borrowed the hotel’s crap town bikes to ride into the village for dinner, drank too much and were evacuated from the outdoor restaurant bizarrely by an air raid siren. No idea!
Day 4 was a simple affair. Ride 80km up the Adige valley through endless apple orchards, then cross the Stelvio to Bormio. Like with The Alpe, if I never ride the Stelvio again that’ll be fine. If The Alpe is the Ford Mondeo of cycling mountains (popular but uninspiring), then the Stelvio is the inverse Mt Sinai of Moses stories (enlightenment on the way up followed by the disappointment of humanity on the top). It reminded me of climbing the 6,000 steps of the South Gate to Heaven up Tai Shan in China only to realise they had installed a cable car on the other side of the mountain and converted the temple into a casino and gift shop.
Day 5 was better, the Gavia was far more serene and near the top of the Mortirolo we ate pasta, drank beer and slept under a tree on the grass.
Day 6 was a flat one, straight down the Adda valley to the ferry at Varenna, across lake Como to the Western shore and into town. That evening we had a rather decent hotel with a large pool and some very restorative bottles of chilled rose to help take the edge off the day’s efforts.
Day 7 from Como to Asti across the Piedmont plain was another flat day and having left the mountains we were exposed to the heat all day. It was over 40 degrees by 10:30 in the morning as the news reported another day of heat waves across southern Europe. We stopped to swim in the Ticino river and at one petrol station they had an airconditioned shop which we lingered in just long enough to lose the shade of puce that I had been turning. The roads were stunningly smooth and we flew along doing our own version of the Trofeo Baracchi. Reaching Asti we rolled straight up to the hotel which had several inviting tables set up on the large stone pavement, under the spacious street side arcade, around the main square and ordered two large glasses of anything gold and cold. It was still 38 degrees at sundown. The hotel had gone beyond faded glory and was verging on historical ruin. I’m sure the balcony of our room had supported Il Duce as he addressed the fascist horde in the square below and several flags hung limp in the thick heat of the evening alongside our recently hand washed kit.
Day 8 was almost 200km across the plain and then over the Lombarde into France, down into the Tinee valley and up to St Etienne for dinner. Another hot one, we stopped to dunk ourselves in the fast flowing roadside irrigation channels that bring cool mountain water into the fruit fields. We stopped for lunch in Borgo San Dalmazzo before the climb and had one of those meals you never forget. No menu but would you like salad she said, yes we said and it appeared. A sumptuous assortment of fresh and roasted vegetables with burrata and fresh grissini. A quick spez at the Fort in Vinadio and then we were back in the Alps already. The Lombarde is a stunning climb, the initially tight valley opens out into a natural amphitheatre of massive proportions. The road also connects two relatively remote valleys and so little traffic passes. We stopped near the bottom to cool off in the river and then again about 3 km from the top for me to brush my teeth. Sometimes a good toothbrush is as good as a power nap.
There was a beer and ice cream van playing reggae music on the broad saddle of the pass. The falling sun seemed to have paused for breath, filtering everything over 2000m including the reggae van, me and the handful of hikers and motor bikers with a golden haze. Everything seemed under the spell including the wind which was conspicuously absent, even the marmots shut up. Maybe I was dreaming but at that moment, high above the oppressive heat of the plain and the valley floor I didn’t want to go down hill again. I could have stayed there until either the sun or the reggae ran out. There is safety in remoteness and there is a comforting unity sharing the experience with others. Hands in the air moment. What’s ya name? Where’re ya from? And what’re you on? That golden evening had it all.
Descending into France we soon dropped below the horizon, under the sun and its euphoric golden blanket. The drag up the valley to St. Etienne in falling light couldn’t finish soon enough after the highs of the Lombarde and the high temperatures of the road from Asti that came before it.
That evening we ordered masses of food and when the waitress asked if we could eat it all, my instant and confident response verged on the defiant and defensive. Anyway the food was dispatched promptly, heartily and without further comment from our hostess.
Day 9 involved over 4000m of climbing with the Bonnette, Cayolle and Valberg to put a cheeky loop on the ride and keep us honest. We’d ridden the Bonnette a few times but had never been caught in a storm before. I suppose the heat wave had broken. We huddled in the Gite Bousieyas about half way up the climb along with hikers, motorcyclists and the proprietor. I’m sure he has never had an easier job taking orders and serving coffees. We ordered in turn, he made the drinks and they were delivered hand to hand across the tiny room. We huddled shoulder to shoulder hoping nobody else would try and enter the already full room and waited for the worst of it to blow over.
By the time we reached the Cime we were hot and dry again. I hadn’t ridden the Cayolle before and was delighted by its solitude. I think one car passed us, maybe two. Not far up there was a water fountain. We were refilling our bottles when a small, slow moving old lady appeared from the building across the thin road and offered us coffee. Were it not for the lycra, our bikes and the tarmac of the road, we could have been in any decade of the past three centuries and perhaps this lady had been! Time stood still, the mountains were the mountains, water spilled gently from the fountainhead and all was well. I was back on the Lombarde.
Next up was Valberg, a left turn away from the Var valley and up to the eponymous ski resort. It’s a pretty climb, we took the Peone route up, although a moan between Vic and I that had surfaced on the descent of the Cayolle separated us at the bottom. We hadn’t eaten properly and 9 days of riding was showing.
Day 10. The procession to Nice. The hard work being done we resolved to stop at every ice cream shop between Valdeblore and Nice, almost. There is a restaurant in Peira Cava, along the ridge of the Turini looking West over the Vesubie. The view is brilliant and the knowledge that 10 days of riding is coming to end is bittersweet. We’ve come to call the place Windows on the World, like the restaurant in the North tower of the World Trade Centre. It’s a reminder of the best and worst of humanity. High in the mountains away from the madding crowd, where clear thoughts and clear air allow ambition to form into resolve we prepared for the inevitable descent back into the ‘real world’ that isn’t quite so clean.
It was appropriate that we stopped there and reflected on the journey before rolling into Nice, with its heat and people busy with nothing and everything. We reflected on what it means to be a part of society, whether back at our desks in the City, or out here on the roads. We’d both lost friends and colleagues in 911 and it being the first year anniversary of the terrorist attack on the promenade in Nice we took one more long stare at the Maritime Alps, rode down to Luceram, the col de Nice and on to the promenade, refreshed, emotionally reset and with that deep rewarding sense of fatigue...
Wow. When I decided to reach out to some of the people who had used the map tool this was exactly what I had hoped to find. I'm lucky in a sense that I've not had an emotional reset like Ben experienced but reading these stories really reminds me to make the most of my time (with my family and on the bike!)
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