James Wilkinson puts all the hard work to the test

1 August 2023

James’ Dolomiti Superbike 2023 race blog

Earlier this year Iron Sally Coaching and TORQ nutrition set out to search for a rider to take on an epic challenge, one that would demonstrate how powerful exercise is in promoting both physical and mental well-being. Dolomiti Superbike stepped up to offer the lucky rider a free entry to their race as well as free accommodation, and Today’s Plan also came on board and gave free subscription to their online training platform. On the 15thMarch, James Wilkinson, 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 he had exclusively been riding an E Bike up until his surgery, owing to his extensive injuries caused by a roadside bomb while he was on tour in Afghanistan in 2011. 

Here is James’ race blog:

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 of climbing! I am writing this only three days later and I am still in shock. What a fantastic achievement, I really can’t believe I had the opportunity to take part, let alone complete it. In December last year I was laid up after hip surgery and now I am in the shape of my life, like I was in 2011 before I was injured. The benefits this 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.  

Memories of this incredible race keep popping into my head, with every single one putting a huge grin right back on my face. Memories made here will stay with me forever. For me, this wasn’t a race, it was a challenge, without doubt the biggest challenge of my life. Leading up to race day, I was struck with man flu, the worst of its kind and was unable to train properly. Right up to the day itself, I still had symptoms adding to the anxiety, pressure and excitement. 

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 amazing Italian Dolomites to the picturesque village of Villabassa, South Tirol, Italy. I will get to know Villabassa very well over the next few days, as this is the start and finish location of this mammoth challenge. 

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 were very intimidating knowing, that in only 24 hours, I’ll be climbing them in a competitive race. For the rest of the day, I had to take my mind off it and try to relax. I promptly signed on, got my race jersey and number (1782) and a copy of the event magazine, in which, I later realised, there was a full-page spread about me! This was in the same section of the magazine where 5 other 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 also allowed me to look at the route and plan the locations my support crew would give me the much needed replacement gels and energy drinks, something which proved invaluable during the race.

On Friday evening I filled all of my bottles with TORQ energy powder and organised my TORQ gels, it was essential to hit 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour throughout the race, which I achieved with a combination of energy drink (750ml per hour) and gels. The gel flavours are amazing, particularly rhubarb and custard. 

It was an early (5.30am) 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 very 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 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 over while filming, crowds cheering and giant hot air balloons observing. 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 this first climb the field started to spread out. Meeting my support crew on the course was an awesome moral boost. They did remarkably well finding the course at suitable locations, considering the number of road closures in the areas. 

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 strong point 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 kick up the ass and I was able to pullback another 20 minutes at the next cut off location. 

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 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 really 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 and pedalled. 

After what felt like hours of climbing, I made the top. What a relief! As a nice treat for my efforts, the heavens opened up and there was a heavy downpour. The first half of the descent was fairly complex and tricky. I soon got very cold thanks to the high speed and rain, but luckily it was only a passing shower and the weather soon warmed up again. 

The last couple of miles seemed to take forever. This was not helped by quite a strong headwind. I could see the town! I could see Villabassa! 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 made it all 100% worth it. 

The last four months of training have 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!