Wednesday 19 July 2023

From Afghanistan to Dolomiti Superbike: A Story from The Finish Line

Earlier this year Iron Sally Coaching and TORQ set out to search for a rider to take on an epic challenge. A challenge that would demonstrate how powerful exercise is in promoting both physical and mental well-being. The Dolomiti Superbike race organisers offered one rider a free entry to their race as well as free accommodation, and Today’s Plan also came on board and gave a free subscription to their online training platform. Sally Bigham, from Iron Sally Coaching provided free of charge coaching and TORQ provided a free of charge product allocation to meet the energy requirements of the rider's training and racing. 


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. 

Here we read James’ 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 Dolomite 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, a tool 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 energy drink (750ml per hour) and gels. The gel flavours are amazing, particularly rhubarb and custard!


It was an early (05.30am) 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 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 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 CoachingToday’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!”.


James Wilkinson, 

Military Veteran, 

Dolomite Superbike Finisher 2023. 

Thursday 14 March 2019

Iron Sally Coaching

Are you looking for help to achieve a personal cycling goal? Whether that's simply to get fitter, do the odd challenge/event or race regularly, then check out my new website and see how I can help you. Any questions then just get in touch. I offer a free, no obligation consultation to discuss what you're looking for and how I might be able to help you to achieve your goals. 

Monday 24 September 2018

Iron Sally Coaching

Website and more information coming soon. If you're interested and would like to chat then get in touch. I'll be taking on riders of all abilities from October.....

Interview with Rachel Sokal

A short while ago I was chatting to Rachel Sokal about motherhood and cycling. Here's a link to her write up.... she's very recently joined motherhood too - wishing her all the very best with her little baby boy 👶A 

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Chatting to Maria David from Total Women's Cycling

Follow this link to hear about my experience of cycling during pregnancy and as a new mum.....:

Sally Bigham on Pregnancy and Life as a New Mum - Total Women's Cycling

Monday 12 February 2018

Life as a pregnant athlete: the finish line and the best prize ever.

Just a really quick note to say that our beautiful baby boy was born on January 5th at 10.22am weighing 3.3kg. I continued cycling, swimming and walking right up until my waters broke. Keeping active made my whole pregnancy really enjoyable and has certainly helped me to get back on the bike afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed being pregnant and now I'm looking forward to getting back into shape and returning to racing. Topeak Ergon Racing Team have changed to Canyon Topeak Factory Racing and I'm honoured to be given this opportunity to continue my cycling career (post baby) with them.

I'll write more soon about the birth and postnatal recovery. For now here are some photos and videos:

Sunday 12 November 2017

Life as a pregnant athlete: third trimester

The changes in pregnancy have been so gradual that I haven't noticed many things. The comments of strangers, or people I've not seen for a while, take me by surprise. I find myself initially thinking "how do they know I'm pregnant!" and then I look down at my watermelon-sized bump and smile. I look at my reflection in shop windows with wonder - is that really me! Since we moved house 2 months ago we haven't had a full-length mirror so when I do catch a glimpse of myself it's quite amusing. I love my baby bump.

So, what's changed since my last blog and what hasn't?

Things that have changed:
  • All of my old clothes are packed away and I wear Dave's cycling clothes. It's neither cool nor a fashion statement but it works and gets me comfortably out on the bike. Squeezing into my old clothes became a wrestling match and started to restrict my breathing. 
  • I've started swimming in preparation of a time towards the end of pregnancy when I might no longer be able to cycle - and also in preparation of bad weather days when cycling might be too hazardous or simply too horrible. The first time back in the pool for years saw me floundering and almost being rescued by the lifeguard. Changes in buoyancy meant my entry into the water was a little less elegant than intended and a poor breathing technique had me clinging to the lane rope spluttering. With perseverance however I can now swim for 45minutes, which is enough for me - it's nowhere near as much fun as cycling. 
  • Slow has been redefined. Weighing 10kg more than pre-pregnancy means that my climbing prowess has been somewhat hampered. It's akin to riding with another bike strapped around my waist. Dave is most definitely faster and has started riding circles around me. How the tables have turned! 
  • I've become familiar with the term 'symphysis pubis dysfunction' which in simple terms means pelvic pain especially when turning and getting in and out of bed, as well as pain standing on one leg and walking. It soon became apparent that this was caused by long hikes and for a short time I thought I might have to stop the hikes completely. However a support belt  has allowed me to resume 3 hour hikes without crippling side-effects. This comes as a relief as I was starting to resemble a centenarian requiring help to prise myself off the sofa and hobble around. 
  • My bedtime routine now involves a complicated procedure involving a huge snake-like maternity pillow which I spend several minutes adjusting into the correct position. I then remain on my left-hand-side for the entire night. Attempting to get out of bed, rearrange the pillow and lie on my right-hand-side is fruitless because Little P doesn't tolerate it for more than a few minutes before he starts inflicting side-swipes with his little, but no less powerful, feet. It seems he's happier when I'm lying on my left-hand side because he can stretch his feet out and practice his rib-tackle (catching his feet under my lower right rib). 

Things that have not changed:
  • I still love being pregnant. I feel great and have loads of energy. Perhaps this is because I've been fortunate enough to be able to continue exercising and eating healthily. Other than the pelvic pain, I have no unpleasant side-effects of pregnancy: no swelling (shoe size is unchanged and I can still wear my wedding ring), no heart burn or other complaints. 
  • Spending time cycling is brilliant. I feel really comfortable on the bike - more so than off it sometimes! I'm very slow and only ride for an average of 2 hours (occasionally a little less or more), nevertheless it's so nice to get outside and breathe in fresh air. It really is amazing therapy for body and mind. Most of the time I'm riding on quiet roads but occasionally on smooth fire roads or fields. No trails or technical stuff. It's all very sedate. I'm still riding according to feel and keeping my heart rate between 130-150bpm. 
  • Pre-natal yoga still feels good and I love to stretch and keep flexible. 
  • I'm not plagued by unusual food craving or aversions, though I still don't drink coffee. This is now more to do with avoiding caffeine rather than a revulsion. On the contrary, I love the smell and I look forward to a post-pregnancy flat white - though breastfeeding would certainly delay this.

I'm curious to see how things will change during the finals weeks of pregnancy but I hope to stay active throughout (and during labour, though I'll not be taking the indoor trainer to the hospital. Hahaha!). 

Stay active. Have fun.
Sal :)