The Transcontinental Race (1/3)
The boys converged on my place in Camberwell the night before the start so we could roll down to Westminster Bridge and kick off our epic adventure. Spirits were high and the sense of nervous excitement was palatable. Fortunately, whist we’d never attempted anything remotely close to this before, we had done our fair share of challenging adventures together, so we went through the motions with our usual, last minute, she’ll be right attitude. Everybody had their own style of preparation and made a few good and few bad calls each, but we seemed on the right track. Wherever we disagreed about what we were taking, we each smugly went our own way secretly looking forward to the moment we’d be proven right. I packed very light, shunning “luxury items” such as leg warmers, trousers of any description, a gillet and a few other things which sparked debate. I got all my kit out on the living room floor, got Ron to do the same and we packed piece by piece into our ludicrously small vaude silk road bags to check we hadn’t forgotten anything. I scoffed as Ron packed his 12 AA bateries.
Meanwhile, K-ron spent literally about an hour searching the two rooms of my house he’d been in since I handed him his transponder, for his transponder. He also had some interesting strategies for the race. He only took one pair of bibshorts for instance. I am not sure what the strategy there was, but, seemingly, it didn’t often involve a clean chamois. He also loosely “attached” what later became referred to as “mega-pump” to the underside of his top-tube. Obviously K-ron wasn’t overly fixated on weight savings and this was clear to see in his selection of pump. The mega-pump shared more similarities with a track pump than a mini-pump. Stoney, Ron and I looked at each other quizzically as K-ron “attached” the mega-pump to his top tube while our featherlight topeak micro-pumps tucked away in a carefully selected compartment of our vaude silkroads. Little did we know at that stage that the mega-pump was a stroke of genius which saved our bacon on multiple occasions.
The reason I used speech marks for “attached” is that this meant something different to K-ron than it did the rest of us. For us it meant secure to an appropriately robust part of our bike or person. For K-Ron it often meant rest precariously in the first available location. This was an ongoing theme which, surprisingly, at no point seemed to frustrate K-Ron, despite the fact he had to turn around 3 or 4 times a day to go and pick up whichever of his possessions was now bouncing down the road. For me, the intermittent reaction tests resulting from whichever of K-ron’s belongings had this time been jettisoned were sometimes frustrating, sometimes a welcome break from the monotony and sometimes mental aides helping me cling to consciousness when my eyelids began liberating themselves from my control.
As always, packing took longer than expected, we got to bed way later than we planned and we only got 4 or 5 hours sleep before the first big day. “it’s alright, we’ll catch it up in France” I erroneously thought.
Day 1 Westminster Bridge – (Troarn 140km)
I woke up to the familiar cocktail of tiredness, excitement and trepidation that often accompanies the hours before we set off on these adventures we sign ourselves up for. Soon enough we were posing for the customary photo in front of my house and then attempting to get our heads around the thought we were riding down my route to work but on our way to Istanbul.
When we got to Westminster Bridge, a big crew of my very good friends were there to see us off. It made for a bit of a nervous time for me really. I’m not sure why. I knew I’d be fine (relatively speaking) when I got going, but waiting for Big Ben to strike 8 was a bit nervy. However soon enough we were off.
Everybody cruised off the start line, maybe the guys at the front bolted off, I don’t know, I was happy at the back to wave to my pals and take it all in. About 200m later, before we’d gotten off Westminster Bride, I was gifted more time to soak in the moment while I waited for Stoney after seeing the water bottle fly out of the holder on his Vaude Silkroad and skid along into the gutter.
Before long morale was high, we were off, heading towards Portsmouth for an afternoon ferry to Caen whilst almost everybody else headed to Calais. We’d decided going the route with less cycling and climbing but more waiting was good for us. Now a lot of thought had gone into our TCR preparation and we all felt really good about that. Even looking back, we nailed it. Our route was strong thanks to Stoney, our kit choices were more or less spot on (I’d recommend knee warmers in hindsight), our decision on accommodation and ferries worked fairly well, we were all good. All this stuff came as a result of a massive amount of preparation on all fronts. You can’t just whack London and Istanbul into google maps and click the little bike for it to spit out a route. One thing it does mean though is that there are some decisions to be made. The first one that got us questioning ourselves came as we were blasting down the A3 which, often with three lanes in either direction for maybe 10’s of miles at a time, looks like a motorway, smells like a motorway and sounds like a motorway. In hindsight, maybe a few extra k’s down the scenic route would have been better. As far as the list of reasons we love cycling goes, the overwhelming majority of them are missing on the A3. It did crop up in conversation that maybe there might be a possibility that one or two of the few hundred other roads we’d planned to go down might also be sub-optimal for cycling, but we quickly confirmed that this was unlikely and everything would probably be perfect as soon as we got off the f*#king A3.
We finally turned off the A3 and went about moseying to Portsmouth. It felt good to get there with plenty of time till our ferry and we were soon stuffing our faces with pizza and refreshing the online trackers to see where everyone was at. We got to France just as the sun was setting. I wasn’t too enamoured with riding in the dark but I figured this would be one of the few times we’d be riding in the dark at night as we planned to set off very early in the morning (which we did, every morning) and arrive each night before dark (this never once happened).
I guessed it was about 12km to our accommodation for the night from my memory of looking at google maps and booking the accommodation. So after K-Ron had obliterated our supply of emergency bog roll after shating himself at passport control in front of a queue of about 25 car loads of people (dodgy guts), we set off towards the hotel.
In what was to become a daily routine, without exception, we underestimated the distance to our destination, arrived much later than anticipated in the dark and ate a worrying hole into our already alarmingly short sleeping time. After arriving and wearily dealing with the monumental faff which surrounded the check in/store bikes/shower/wash kit/source food processes, we got to sleep about 4 hours before we were due to haul ourselves back out of bed.
Day 2 – Troarn to Provins (313km)
Strangely, neither Ron nor I slept very well in our double bed during the 4 hours we had a chance to that night. Not to worry, I quickly snapped out of bed as my alarm sounded keen to ensure I was not holding us up and I had time to get my food down me which was a key part of my overall strategy. I can’t remember from where we had procured the disgusting, soggy, cellophane encased “baguette” of indeterminable content which I had for breakfast, but I was determined to see it consumed before we set off on our ~320km day across northern France. Soon after, we’d packed up, gingerly clip-clopped out into the morning darkness in our cycling shoes to getting our bikes out, rummaged around for rain capes and bag covers as the cold, morale eroding rain drops began beating down on our helmets. We then spent about 20 minutes of the following night’s sleep time establishing which direction we needed to go in and we were off again.
Seemingly, the most important things that are needed outside the obvious food and drink when tackling ultra-endurance bike rides, are a feasible strategy and a rhythm. As I’d find out over the course of the next 10 days or so, the most difficult challenges in these events are mental & emotional, so a rhythm and a feasible strategy are a riders two key stabilisers that can keep you on track. Maintaining both for vast expanses of time while your body and mind goes to extreme lengths to shoot holes in them is the tough part. Anyway, we struggled through the rain on the second morning and I remember a particular blow to morale that I had to delicately absorb when I looked down at my Garming (Stoney’s had already broken by this stage, thanks Garming) to see we’d covered significantly less ground than I had thought (still 280 odd km to go for the day), and we were travelling below 10kph. When you’re tired, your mind can be quite mean and persuasive with facts like this. As we would countless times a day for all the days to come, I concentrated on silencing my doubts, turning the pedals over again and just getting over the brow of the next rise or to the next corner.
My mental strategy seemed to be built around bagging the first 100km of the day (seems achievable), stopping for food (luxury), knuckling down for the middle 100km, then counting down the last hundred or so. On day 2 our post 100km stop was at Evreux. After peering through the windows of a couple of boulangerie’s we saw a sign for McDonalds and after having ground through a morning’s riding against a stiff wind in the cold rain, our morale quickly seemed dependent on a McBoost. After a medium length wild goose chase we were at the counter ordering. Interestingly, the girl behind the counter seemed to be just as disgruntled with her situation as we were with ours. I briefly thought there may be a possibility for us to relate on that note and exchange reassuring gestures. However, the girl quickly made clear her strong preference not to interact with me on any level whatsoever. Multiple McMeals in tow we sat down and consumed a shed load of food. Meanwhile the weather deteriorated until it resembled that scene in the Shawshank Redemption when Andy finally emerges to freedom out the sh#tpipe. We were soaking, freezing, tired, in the middle of nowhere and Istanbul felt an inconceivable distance away. The challenge felt near enough impossible from this point. Reluctantly, I scooted out of the beautiful, warm, dry McBooth and made my way out to join the boys in the storm.
After an extended period of a delightfully refreshing crosswind piledriving rain into the side of our faces, we were making decent progress towards checkpoint 1. Café au Reveil Matin, the start point of the first Tour de France. The traffic lights riding through the outskirts of Paris were incredibly bad for morale. The point where you realise you again have to revise your ETA because you didn’t account for spending most of your time in Paris stationary, is a bad one. So is the one when you turn around and see the frightening noise behind you is K-Ron in the process of binning it on a roundabout. In the space of a fraction of a second it was worrying as he was heading down, comedy as his hip skin began to awkwardly grab on the tarmac and slow him down, concerning as I again worried about his welfare before the guilt set in about finding the middle bit funny. He was fine, as were his prized Europcar bibshorts, so we quickly cracked on.
The check point was a decent boost to Morale although I was very quickly cognisant from my back of the fag packet calculations that we were staring down the barrel of another very late night so I was quickly and unsubtly encouraging the boys to get sorted and ready to go. Just as we were readying to leave I saw that Stoney was selfishly helping another competitor fix their bike. Unbelievable.
I wasn’t massively fond of the don’t-worry-about-dinner-just-eat-another-snickers strategy but safeguarding morale had become my primary concern and stopping was counterproductive in that sense so I just got on-board with it. Interesting events which happened on this final leg of the day included me inadvertently running over a suicidal vole (re-killed by K-Ron), Stoney calling us to a halt and strangely nearly fainting and the Gendarmes then pulling over to critique the range of effectiveness of our lighting solutions. We finally got to Provins about 10 or 11pm. The hotel was one of the more expensive ones we’d booked and in a great location (on route). It was great to arrive but laced with a sour taste as in the back of our minds we knew we were only looking at 4 hours kip in the big comfy beds before starting all over again. We commenced the usual chores and got to sleep.
Day 3 Provins – Belfort (328km)
Such was the luxury of our Provins accommodation that the night staff had brought our bikes up to the lobby for us and made us breakfast for our 5am wake up call. Obviously tired and almost in awe of anything edible was wasn’t encased in chocolate, we took our time having breakfast, each of us trying to ignore the reality that these were just minutes sleep we’d lose the next night. We finally got going, behind schedule, as daylight was breaking. It was good for morale to be instantly on our planned route and not navigating back to it. Morale was quite buoyant through most of the day if I remember correctly and we pushed on over the rolling hills down towards Switzerland. Some of the guys found the terrain difficult mentally as it was hard to get a rhythm on the rolling hills and the scenery was repetitive. It didn’t really worry me.
We were much more focused on minimising our stops by this point as we had been riding at a very good clip on the two previous days but arriving very late because of stops for this, that and whatever. We aimed to keep lunch to 20mins and managed 40 which wasn’t too bad. We topped that up to an hour pretty much instantly as someone who shall remain nameless marched off into the woods and came back half a stone lighter (hint: no pun intended). Nonetheless, everything seemed to be going as well as could be expected. As was now becoming a daily occurrence, we got to the ~250km+ mark, it started getting dark, I suddenly got really tired and things got tough. It seemed like at this point each day my body was deciding that this is where we should end the day. Unfortunately, I had to then convince it that this was not the case. It’s dramatic how quickly you can go from chugging along really well to teetering on the edge of despair when you’re crossing these distances.
By the time we got to Belfort nobody was in great shape. In a bid to balance the extravagance of our Provins hotel, I’d booked us into the Ibis Budget Belfort. This must be, without doubt, one of the most depressing places in Northern Europe. I wholeheartedly recommend avoiding it. The only food we could find was from a fried chicken place. Knowing the importance of getting some fuel in, I rounded up what they had and brought it back. I don’t mind a bit of fried chicken, but this was so ropey you wonder whether it was legal to sell to humans. We all tried to eat some but didn’t get far. It was revolting.
Day 4 Belfort – Davos (309km)
Slowly regaining consciousness to a chorus of alarm bells was by now another one of the beautiful TCR experiences which began to characterise my existence on the race. My mind instantly went into absolute overdrive rattling through reasons that I shouldn’t ride my bike and that I should go back to sleep. It was really quite impressive. Another 4 or so hour sleep on top of another 320km or so day and a few things weren’t stacking up. We had only completed 3 days, we were still in France and crossing the remaining 8 countries and 2,800 odd km just seemed farcical given the state we were already in. I had a decent emotional wobble in the Ibis Budget Belfort. Seemingly, when I become exhausted, I get fairly emotional and I had to take a bit of a timeout in the stairwell. I couldn’t tell you why I was emotional, the scale of the challenge and how dramatically different it was to what we were expecting were presumably playing a part. We thought the riding would be tough but we hadn’t properly accounted for the building sleep deprivation or that it would be virtually impossible to maintain a sustainable diet. We had some breakfast, got going and I was in a bad, bad way. I couldn’t really speak for the first 2 hours of the day. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t rationalise in my mind how I’d be able to ride another 300km to the top of a ski station in Switzerland by that evening, I just couldn’t get my head around it so I just vacantly carried on pedalling. I figured It would be best to carry on in the right direction until I worked out what I needed to do. By this stage I was tired. Properly tired. This effects you in various ways including compromising your judgement and reaction times. One crash later after i/we miscommunicated intentions around a natural break and we were back on the road again. At the next natural break, Stoney had his bike lent up against him while he relieved himself (we later got our techniques incredibly well dialled in to the point they were so effective that regressing back to socially acceptable methods proved a notable ballache). His bike started slipping over causing a chain reaction which resulted in Stoney battling against the unmanned fire hose. It was obvious we were all close to delirious because the three of us found it hysterically funny while Stoney was really less than impressed with our reaction. I felt bad that he was pissed off (/on), but in honesty it was genuinely funny and the laugh shared with Ron and K-Ron was a brief moment of connection to one of the core reasons for being on the adventure. I needed that at that point. He laughed about it later.
My morale still teetering, I’d at least regained the power of speech as we got close to Switzerland. A new country was a boost to morale and I was improving. The morale rollercoaster continued as somehow we were soon off-route following a random old Swiss bloke on a “shortcut” which my Garming suggested was definitely further than our originally planned route. Seeing as I was already unsure whether I’d be able to make it to Davos that night, or continue the TCR past this day, I wasn’t very appreciative of the additional km’s, sound of music scenery or not. I again lost the power of speech for about half an hour and got a bit wobbly. After a while, we rejoined our planned route and plodded on. Power of speech reinstated, we all saw that something had to change. It hadn’t exactly been the experience we’d signed up for to this point, it was unreservedly brutal and we wanted to enjoy it more. With that goal in mind we stopped at lake Zurich for near enough half an hour I’d guess, chatting to a swiss bloke who’d cycled from Zurich to China over a year on a single speed bike. Lake Zurich was beautiful, the sun was shining, we were laughing and joking and at this point, that seemed more important than our cumulating deficit to our schedule. Happily, there were a good maybe 100km of fast, flat road before we got to the foothills of the alps. We smashed it down the straight flat road and everybody was feeling better. We got to the foothills of the alps and morale was high. We were in Switzerland, in the foothills of the alps, straight out of a scene from the sound of music, and we rode here in a few days from my front door in Camberwell. Sweet. We had one decent climb (~700m vertical maybe from memory) then down the other side, chunk of flat, then a massive mountain ascent to Davos.
A few minutes into the first climb and I heard a disconcerting sound. I looked down at K-Rons’ back wheel infront of me, saw the rear derailer ripped from the frame, straight around the cassette and into the wheel. ‘He’s not going anywhere tonight’ was the first thought that crossed my mind. I shouted for Stoney and Ron to stop. Stoney rolled back down the hill for a bit and I caught his eye and shook my head as if to say ‘she’s a gonner’. K-Ron had apparently fallen off earlier in the day when he was on his own, bent his rear mech hanger, and now it had given up. Upon discovering that K-Ron hadn’t bought a replacement rear mech hanger, Stoney got his own out and started sizing it up. These hangers are specific to certain bikes but after a bit of sizing up, Stoney declared he reckoned he could bodge it. Hero. However, that was easier said than done. Around this point, an elderly lady came out of one of the houses speaking German and kindly offered us a track pump. Unfortunately this wouldn’t be of help I tried to gesture and she toddled off. Stoney was at this point asking whether anyone had a file as he started trying to file his replacement mech hanger a shape that would fit K-Ron’s bike. It quickly became apparent this wasn’t really working that well. Seeing as my inability as a mechanic is so embarrassing, I quickly volunteered to try and find the pump lady and ask if he had a saw so I could be of some use. I didn’t see where she had gone but after wandering around looking lost for a bit, she came back out. I used the international hand signal for saw to indicate what I needed and the lady gestured for me to follow her. As I went through the door into her basement It definitely occurred to me that this could easily be a scene from the human centipede or Hostel and I felt a bit concerned. She led me down a corridor to a fully renovated workshop which was perfect for fixing bikes or dismembering broken down cyclists. As I became more confident that it would be used for the former, I gleefully skipped back to the boys and outlined that not only had I found a saw, but a fully equipped workshop we could use. Stoney was in there half an hour or so cutting chunks off and filing down the mech hanger to fit K-Ron’s bike. The screw fixings that attach the hanger to the frame didn’t align so Stoney clamped the mech in place using nothing more than the tension of the rear skewer. Chapau my friend. The point was underlined that if either Stoney or K-Ron bin it and break their rear mech hanger from this point on, it was game over. We wondered how long this bodge would last and discussed where we thought the nearest bike shop on route might be to get a more robust fix. In the end he just rode it like that all the way to Istanbul.
We were now back on the road and it was nearly dark. We were absolutely miles from where we’d booked a hotel that night at a ski station 1600m above sea level. We got an incredible view of a beautiful sunset on this first climb which aroused mixed emotions by highlighting the beauty of the challenge and the scale of the night ahead. It was dark when we got to the top and we stuck our lights on and started descending into the freezing darkness. I don’t know what exactly happened in the 50 odd km from the bottom of that mountain. I obviously bonked horrendously which must have combined with the sleep deprivation and whatever else but I was suddenly in a really bad way. Riding along the flat in the dark I started seeing things I knew weren’t there. I could see children playing in the fields in the pitch black of night with our bike lights reflecting off them. I took this as a bad sign. I could also hear these incredibly eerie and loud beeping noises that sounded as we passed whatever it was that was that was making them. I thought those were real but I wasn’t sure, so I thought, I’ll ignore them and someone will obviously mention them because they’re so weird. Nobody mentioned anything and I finally asked what they were, while kind of cringing in case nobody knew what I was talking about. Everybody could hear them which was a bit of a relief. I guess they are sensors to keep foxes or something out of farmers fields. Who knows? I don’t care. Knowing they were real things was enough for me at that point. As we went on into the darkness I daren’t ask how far was to go or what was coming up. I just kept going and kept going and kept going. I felt I could do that and worried that knowing how far was to go could crack me so I avoided finding out. As we passed a few pubs I realised I needed some energy, badly, but everywhere was shut. I decided I then needed to know how far to go. Ron told me, its 10km to a left turn, then it’s a 25km climb up to Davos. I remember thinking, I’ll get to the turn, I’ll lie down for as long as I have to, then I’ll get up and climb the mountain. I have a credible strategy. Sweet.
After what felt like one of the longest 10km stretches I’d ever ridden, but was soon to be surpassed by multiple longer ones before that night was through, we took a left turn and were greeted by a bright light, my oasis in the desert, an open petrol station. We pulled in and I was in a fairly desperate way. Exhausted. Everybody knew I was in a bad, bad way. I sent the boys into the shop and said I would follow in a minute. I went round the side of the petrol station, just out of the lights, sat on the floor against the wall and went to sleep instantly. I must have slept a handful of minutes and woke up just as the boys were coming out the shop. I felt fractionally better and felt there was light at the end of the tunnel as it was the first improvement I’d felt in hours. I went into the petrol station and bought everything I thought I could possibly stomach. It was mainly peaches, banana’s and apples as my new found aversion to chocolate bars was probably what got me into this situation in the first place. I could feel the peach nourishing my body as I scoffed it. We sat for a bit as we ate and K-Ron took the below picture:
As we were getting up I saw Ron’s face change. I instantly had an idea of what was going on. He explained that the left turn wasn’t the one that he’d thought and that there was actually another 30km to the left turn where the 25km mountain starts. The 30km before the mountain was all uphill. My condition could be described as sub-optimal but I’d improved since the petrol station. I just kept plodding along and that was easier than it had been. The concept of time seemed strange by this point. It felt like we’d been riding so long it must be deep into the night and morning couldn’t be far away. I stuck within the mental parameters I’d set myself so as not to get overwhelmed and got myself in a position where I could keep going and that I did. After a long time of riding uphill in the dark we got to the left turn which we thought we’d been at maybe 2 ½ hours before and turned onto the climb. 25km’s is a long climb at the best of times but this one felt crazy long. We’d been climbing for a while up the steep bottom sections when we came to a tunnel. There was a turn at the start of it so we didn’t know how long it was. It was pitch black and the road through the tunnel was the road on our route so we rode into it. I kind of marvelled when we’d ridden the first couple of hundred meters in the tunnel and got around the corner. The tunnel went on, literally, for as far as the eye could see. The long halogen bulbs above our heads, laid one after another, becoming smaller and smaller in the distance until everything was so small you couldn’t interpret what you were looking at. I’d never seen anything like it. Now we were in the tunnel we could either, turn round, go back, and work out another way to get to Davos, if there was one, or ride through the tunnel because we knew Davos was less than 20km ahead down this road. We cracked on. It was so surreal. We’d ridden maybe 2 or 3km, uphill, through this willy-wonka-crazy straight tunnel when we heard the first low rumble. Alarmed but with a limited amount of options I hopped up the curb onto the workmans path as the rumble grew louder. It was a good few minutes that the rumble of pending doom grew louder and louder and by the time the car went past us it sounded like a jumbo jet. I have no idea how long the longest tunnel we went through was, 4km? 5km maybe? All uphill in a straight line.
By the time I was half way up the mountain, on the shallower gradients I was finding it difficult to ascertain whether I was going uphill or downhill. That seemed to indicate I wasn’t in great shape. By this time it was freezing cold, in the middle of the night and we were on the side of a mountain heading into the middle of the alps. Again, not ideal. Morale was briefly buoyed when, after a quick pit stop at the end of a megatunnel, Ron sped off on some route reconnaissance in a bid to try and avoid any more tunnels. He climbed up the road a bit further, turned round to shout he’d found the way and took a turn off the main road. K-ron quickly scooted off in chase of Ron. Stoney and I took the opportunity to scoff some more snickers and shiver our legs back into action because from where we were stood back down the road you could see Ron’s road would loop round and join back onto our road further back down the mountain where we came from. Now out of shouting distance, we watched the two sets of lights chase each other round the loops and then realise they were now behind us.
The road seemed inexplicably steep considering the climb was supposed to be 1000 vertical metres in 22 odd km’s. We cracked on. By the time we got into the safety zone where we were only a few km from where we were staying for the night, I started to think about what time it might be and what that might mean. The sound of music detour early that morning, the morale boosting time spent hobnobbing around lake Zurich and the hour and a half or so spent partly in the German lady’s basement, all comes our your sleep time in the end. We got to the hotel at 3.30am. We had no food. It was cold……
to be continued.