Day 9: Kotor Bay to Shkodër – 147km
Being extremely tired isn’t fun. I remember being onto it and first ready on this morning. I think it was mainly due to the fact that I’d worked out that if I kept busy and focused on small tasks like packing my filthy belongings into my filthy little bag, then it limited the potential for me to think too deeply, thereby minimising my propensity for a massive mental meltdown. We left the hotel and got our first glimpse of Kotor Bay in daylight and it was stunning:
The beauty of the bay was scant consolation for the fact we were then faced with the task of hauling our acutely tired, slowly failing bodies over the top of the f*ck off-mountain that rose abruptly out of the sea up to the third checkpoint which was inconveniently located at the top, seemingly somewhere near the edge of the stratosphere. Cycling through beautiful places by this point, I was starting to feel like the unloved street urchin, scrounging for food at the gates of the Palace. We started the climb and Ron was on dog attack alert 5, the highest state of alert. I don’t know how long he climbed with his dog attack repulsion whistle in his mouth, cocked and ready, but it seemed fairly obvious that when the dogs did attack, the whistle was going to prove ineffective.
My morale was low but stable for the main part on the climb. We trundled up and it took ages. There were some stunning views but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this mitigates the unshakable sense of foreboding in any meaningful way. I spent the morning just plugging away. I was amused by the fact that Ron was greatly irritated by the inclusion of the Mount Lovcen (Lovchob) checkpoint in the route. He suggested that it was neither on the way, nor of any significance to cycling culture and was just included as a cruel twist of the knife. The greatest thing to happen on the slopes of Mount Lovchob, presumably ever, was the advent of ‘the Dutch Lady’. When you’ve cycled 12-14 hours a day, with ~2-4hrs sleep a night, for a week and a half, your body has certain ways of reminding you that it doesn’t want to cycle anymore. Most of these involve pain. ‘The Dutch Lady’ is an advanced manoeuvre pioneered on Mount Lovchob whereby the experienced endurance rider sits completely upright, extending one’s arms and fingers as completely as possible so one is just able to control the bicycle with ones fingertips. The upright riding position not only enables the rider to generate unprecedented power output, but also stretches ones back and rests ones hands, all whilst resembling the unparalleled grace of a 1930’s Dutch lady daintily riding home from the bakery on a Sunday morning.
As we neared the top of Lovchob, we got lost and scammed out of €2 each entering the national park but after an almost completely unfeasible length of time, a not insignificant amount of which i spent fairly sure that we were lost, we finally got to the checkpoint. It was a nice hotel which I felt was taking the p1ss, dangling the carrot in front of our faces. We decided that rather than crack on, we stopped for a nice lunch round the corner. K-Ron immediately fell asleep at the table, I had a big lunch, 4 coffee’s and 4 Fanta’s.
You might think we’d be feeling refreshed after a good feed and a bit of rest. This is far from the reality. It felt kind of like letting someone who you’ve kept awake for three straight days sleep for 10 minutes and then slapping them in the face and sending them back to work. All the time you’re constantly trying to balance on the knife edge of resting enough to be able to continue whilst knowing that each minute you’re stationary is a minute out of your sleep time that night. Fortunately, it started raining to wake me up and save my tyres from all that friction which wears them down and keeps you from sliding under oncoming vehicles. Coming down the mountain I had one of my first experiences with what I presume was extreme fatigue. It felt very much like when you’re driving down the motorway to go visit your family after work on a Friday night and you’re screaming along with the radio and slapping yourself in the face with your head out the window desperately trying to focus your eyes on what’s in front of you while racking your brain as to how you might stop the noise and vibrations you later realise were being caused by the rumble strip. Funnily enough, the only way address either scenario is to pull into the nearest service station and dose up on sugar and caffeine. I should note the rejuvenating powers of both substances have notable limitations.
Anyway, once we were off the mountain I was so tired that I suggested that we all split up for a bit. I just felt so tired that avoiding crashing into other people on bicycles seemed an almost insurmountable task. Pootling along alone for a while was actually really nice. I didn’t feel like I was holding anybody up if I eased up for a bit or stopped for any reason. With the whole open road ahead of me, my greatly inhibited reaction times weren’t such a worry anymore, I could just cruise along like an oil tanker in the ocean.
As we crossed over into Albania the scenery rapidly got weird and awesome. Changes in the landscape were really noticeable. The earth and rock were scorched red and basic roads trundled through massive open tundra’s framed by massive mountains. The first person we saw in Albania was a lady walking a cow on a rope along the roadside. Behind her, in the direction she was coming from, there was nothing as far as the eye could see. Ahead of her, in the direction she and her cow were heading, there was nothing as far as the eye could see. Where that pair were going from or heading to I pondered for quite a while. I wonder what they’re up to as I write this….
The atmosphere in Albania was strange. The road quality was good which was a bit of a surprise but everything seemed totally random. People either rode donkey’s or blacked out Mercedes and the roads seemed to just go wherever they wanted, turning not because of some geographical feature or urbanisation but just because that was the way. After a few heavy days we were keen to call it a day early. We had made amazing ground to this point in the race but we were suffering. We wanted to finally achieve what we had tried but failed to do nearly every day of the race and finish in the daylight. Morale got pretty intertwined with that idea.
Someone suggested we should stay the night in Shkoder. It was at that point that I realised I knew literally nothing about Albania. Apparently Shkoder was a city, but I probably wouldn’t have used that word to describe what I saw there given my previous understanding of the word. It was quite different from, say, Coventry or Berlin. First of all, everyone on the street was staring at us as if we’d just appeared out of thin air in a DeLorean. I guess they don’t get many people riding through there wrapped in skin tight lycra and riding race bikes with dumb little bootbag’s on their pannier racks. I found this point a little unnerving. To say we didn’t blend in is a bit of an understatement. It wasn’t the type of place you’d see the reassuringly recognisable outline of the golden arches or a holiday inn, although, if you were in the market to purchase a heavily worn car tyre, your luck was in.
We rode into the town and I pondered how on earth we were going to find somewhere to sleep. We saw a cash point and stopped. We didn’t have any local currency as the Albanian Lek isn’t sold anywhere outside of Albania. We established our own exchange rate after Ron saw Steak and Chips on a sandwich board for 800 odd Lek so we guessed this was about £6 or £7 so we spared our fragile minds and rounded up to 100-1. We carried on down the road to the big roundabout of chaos which presumably must be exempt from any form of traffic laws or etiquette. On the busy massive roundabout there were two cars stopped side by side as the drivers discussed something they seemed to find relatively amusing. Once we and the rest of the traffic got round them there was a guy stood in the road stamping a car tyre down an open manhole. I found this experience fairly surreal. We carried on, fingers crossed and then we saw it. Our ivory tower. Grand Hotel Europa *****. I think it may have been Stoney who went in and came out with the incredible news that we could stay for €25 each and keep our bikes in the secure underground car park. We finally finished a day’s riding before dark and even had some beers on the roof terrace looking down at the intriguing, bustling, frightening city beneath us, safe in our five star, luxurious, very reasonably priced ivory tower.
Day 10: Shkoder to Pogradec (Hotel QAFE Plloce) – 240km
This was the first day I woke up to the call to prayer at 5am. That was pretty surreal as I wasn’t expecting it. I found it strangely beguiling and I wondered what life was like in Shkoder… for about thirty seconds and then got back to packing my filthy kit into my filthy little bag again. After the supreme luxury of beers and a decent sleep the night before though, morale was high (relatively speaking). We got going early and I was well keen to crack on before anything too weird happened to us.
The first couple of hours were flat and fast which went down well but things, from an already elevated level, were getting increasingly weird. Look right and there’s a man riding a tiny donkey laden with 4 full sized suitcases. Look left and there’s a petrol station forecourt with a couple of hundred chickens running free on it next to the highway without so much as a wire fence keeping them from wondering onto the road. I realised just how weird everything was when i saw all those chickens next to the freeway and didn’t even mention it to the boys because it was completely in keeping with the rest of our surroundings. We just cracked on towards Tirana which is the capital city. About 20km away the road turned into a motorway. Our Garming’s had the purple line to follow but not much mapping outside of that. It seems Garming don’t map Albania. We stopped at the side of the road to discuss whether we take a punt and turn off into the mountains or crack on down the hard shoulder. We’d passed a policeman and he just waved us down so presumably it was tolerated. The mountain punt seemed almost certainly ill-fated and its incredibly difficult to turn away from a straight, flat road going directly towards your destination when you’re exhausted, so we went down the motorway. It must be a strangely liberating experience driving in Albania, nobody seems to bog themselves down with the small stuff like concern for human life. They just cruise to their intended destination and repair the dents later.
Tirana wasn’t our favourite place, the constant threat of death was a little uncomfortable, as was the consistent stench of rotting garbage. We could not get out of there fast enough. Consensus at this stage was fairly stoutly anti-Albania. However, after getting out of town and into the countryside of the south, things started to look up. The landscape was gorgeous and the weather was roasting. The quiet roads of the south made for quiet riding between the scorched red mountains which was an absolute pleasure after the trauma of Tirana.
We hoped to cross the border into Greece that night after riding through the mountainous region further south but after taking a mountain pass rather than risk a tunnel (Davos experience front of mind), we had a big hill and then long flat section next to the massive Lake Ohrid which we hoped to fly down and then a few hills before Greece. There was a town on the side of the big hill which was in keeping with our other experiences in Albania i.e. it was properly weird. The air of hostility I felt in the bigger cities was replaced by one of excitement. Drivers beeped and waved, kids pointed and cheered, It was like they thought we were one direction or something. I have no idea what was going on. Also, every single household in the village, and it was dusk at this point, I’m talking like 30 blokes all at the same time, were watering their tarmac’d driveways….? No idea.
After the hill, the 30km flying down the flat lakeside road we thought would take an hour actually took more than two as we found the lakeside road had no surface whatsoever and was covered in boulders. Before long the familiar feelings of being exhausted and behind schedule somewhere properly random in the dark of night returned. We stopped on the side of another decent hill to put our lights on and prepare for the evening. We agreed, now we were well on track to finish within the 14 day cut off, not chasing a ferry crossing and had had a decent day all challenges considered, we’d stop at the next hotel. I mean, why not? Why do we have to ride through the night to get to Greece? Feeling good about the plan, I pushed off first while K-Ron adjusted his ridiculously inadequate lighting solutions to his favoured slow pulse setting. About 20mtrs down the road with K-Ron still stationary, there was a hotel on the side of the road. Sweet. Obviously, it was weird, but not in a scary way. We put our bikes in what may have been intended to be a conference hall and commenced our usual routine. Ron asked to come and use our shower after K-Ron flooded their bathroom and bedroom which I hoped didn’t cause anyone (mainly us) too many problems. We went down for dinner and the hospitality was outrageously fantastic. The owners, a couple of brothers, made us incredibly welcome and even called up a friend who spoke English and made him come over to translate. The food was fantastic and we feasted like skinny, exhausted, ravenous little kings.
Day 11: Pogadec to Thessaloniki – 267km
We went down for breakfast at 5am. The brothers assured us they could make us breakfast at this time and, rather harshly and I assure you not at our request, forced their English speaking mate Endrei to get up, come over and translate at this ungodly hour. We had a big breakfast and chatted to our hosts. We were aware that taking our time at this point would come back to bite us in the a$$ but it’s easy to brush that aside when you’d prefer to sit drinking coffee and eating bread soaked in honey. I don’t think we left until nearly 7 which kind of undermined the 5am start but not to worry. The theme of dragging our heels was sticky on this day and, after we got to the Greek border which wasn’t too far away, we spent ages buying and eating ice-creams and soggy, vacuum packed croissants filled with a variety of rank goops. We did bump into fellow rider Chris Dobbs though who’s a lovely bloke. It’s nice to chat to someone new on the road and I think he was glad to see us also. After our extended stop we pushed on. Past the Brown Bear warning signs and towards one of the last mountains we would have to climb. I was properly knackered at this stage, just so sleep deprived that it’s hard to stay on your bike or do what you want to do. Its not like you’re puffing and panting and have to slow down because you cant keep up the pace like if you’re running a marathon or something, it’s more like the universe had decided at what pace i could move and increasing that pace, no matter by how small an increment or what the circumstances, involved overhauling the will of the universe. I didn’t enjoy that, however, while I struggled to keep up with Ron, Stoney and Chris, K-Ron was falling behind. His ankles were giving him a lot of jip. He was dosing up on pain killers and trying to push on but stopping regularly. As much as its very difficult in that scenario, after a couple of stops, we just kind of had to carry on slowly to encourage him to either sort it out as best as possible and push on, or make a call and seek some help for it. We waited at the top for a good while for K-Ron and, on arrival, he had a rest at the top. We plunged down the other side and K-Ron needed to stop again. His ankles looked bad. I didn’t really see how it would be possible to ride the 6 or 7 hundred km’s to the finish on them, they were swollen up like tree trunks. At that point, Ron had a quiet word with him and pointed out the fact that we couldn’t go on like this, that we had to sort it out or think about what options we had. After the incredibly effective pep talk, K-Ron strapped his ankles extra tight and we pushed on. I don’t know what Ron said but we didn’t wait for K-Ron to nurse his ankles after that until we got to the stairs in our apartment in Istanbul. Fair play, it looked excruciating and you could see it was deeply affecting him. He constantly had pain etched onto his face from that point on and i’d suggest he may not have stuck to the recommended dosages of painkillers either. It was another one of those situations where for a bit you wish that you could do something to help before fairly swiftly getting back to worrying about your own problems.
I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned this before now but Greece is hot in August. Like, really hot. Over the other side of the climb we went through a town and suddenly emerged on a newly built road in the desert. We were chalking the k’s of fairly swiftly which was good but heat beating down on the barren land makes you weary. On the long straight roads the heat haze fills your vision and the overbearing sunshine evaporates your energy. There were a few little hills you could see far away in the distance and they weren’t the interesting fun kind. We were all pretty cognisant of our water supplies given you need a lot of it to cycle 200 miles in up to 40 degree heat and we picked it up at every opportunity. There was one point where the feeling of panic got very unpleasant as we passed the third abandoned petrol station in a row and water supplies were running dangerously low. The first one being closed is annoying, the second one seems unfortunate but when you get to the third one and you know there’s no water for 30 or 40km’s in the direction you came from and you have no idea about the direction you’re going to, it starts to become concerning.
We did come across a petrol station after a while and we got a good feed. Going back out into the blazing afternoon heat to cycle through the rest of the daylight and into the night is bad for morale. I reassured myself that we just needed to push on until we got to the Ocean and things would improve, I envisaged there would be a sea breeze, ice creams and hydration aplenty. I also, despite numerous examples as recently as a couple of days previously, was under the impression that roads by the sea are flat. As night began to fall, K-Ron got a puncture somewhere in dogsville (almost everywhere in Greece could qualify as dogsville) on the outskirts of Thessaloniki and we stood around fixing the puncture whilst morale faded with the light. I won’t be going back to Thessaloniki and don’t recommend it unless you take some pleasure in being literally hounded by aggressive and potentially rabid packs of wild dogs. We’d planned to ride through the other side of the city and stay there but it was dark, it had been a(nother) long and tough day so we pulled into the nearest hotel. This happily happened to be the elaborately dinosaur themed Hotel Nouvelle. We convened at the poolside restaurant for pizza and beer which sounds delightful but the weighty spectre of sleep deprivation and the continued accumulation of extreme fatigue definitely takes the edge off.
Day 12 Thessaloniki to Alexandroupolis -333km
The familiar yearning of your body compelling you to not haul yourself out of bed after another ridiculously short sleep for another ridiculously long day in the saddle was something I tried to placate by desperately clinging to the thought that this would be the penultimate time that I would stuff my filthy stuff into my filthy little bag. Rummaging around sorting your bike out in the black of a 5am start in a Dinosaur themepark when you’re exhausted is a pretty gross feeling. Following the familiar pattern, things didn’t improve much as we set off in the dark to head out of town. I’ve often heard that warming up is important, but I’m not sure starting 300+km days with full gas sprints away from packs of wild dogs is the ideal way to start. One of the positive aspects about being really tired is that you tend not to care very much about stuff like being filthy, eating vegetables or being attacked by rabid dogs for instance. Some of the times we got attacked I couldn’t even be bothered to sprint once I thought the dogs were chasing someone else. It would be fair to say we were glad to see the back of Thessaloniki. At least we could just get on with it back in the desert traveling in straight lines with minimal danger of being attacked by wildlife.
We were really motivated to get cracking on this day. The end, whilst not in sight, was within reach. I struggled for the first few hours, I had that feeling of when you feel bad before you get going, apart from I didn’t get going. Nonetheless, of course, we cracked on. I finally got my ice cream on the sea front after 100km when we bought copious amounts of junk food off a massive lady in a tiny kiosk. We went on to cover the first 200km’s of that day in 7 hours and before 2pm. That’s very good going. There’s always a price though and a long lazy lunch followed by continued extreme heat made for a tough afternoon and night. The supermarket we stopped at was odd in almost every capacity and stood in the midst of a town you could say the same about. We purchased the most normal food available and I drifted off for a couple of mins sleep before we pushed on. Getting back on your bike after doing 200km in 7hrs followed by 3 minutes sleep towards the end of a non-stop transcontinental race is hard yards. The heat and tiredness continually jabs you in the face all day long setting you up for the big right hook of nightfall. It messes with your head when you set off in the dark, ride through every ray of sunlight as the temperature rises up to 40 degrees and back down again to leave you again riding in the dark. Keeping track of days becomes challenging, especially as you’re just as tired when you set off as when you arrive, on the occasions you think back to a time earlier in the race, it seems almost impossible to rationalise whether an event you remember happened earlier that day, yesterday, two days ago…
Half way through our final 100km’s of the day we reached a big milestone. Unfortunately only Ron and I were aware of the milestone but it was a big one for us. We hadn’t talked about it but I knew Ron would share my excitement and anticipation about reaching it as he was a fellow Garming bearer. We’d split our route up into 20 .tcx garming files of roughly equal size. They varied significantly in distance as the size of the file was dictated by the quantity of information like turns and whatnot, but next to a random little patch of grass with a picturesque little tree offering shade to a bench, we loaded up the final map (406km to go). I lay down on the grass for a bit of a rest as I soaked in this satisfying fact. It wasn’t very long before we had to get going although we were delayed a couple of minutes as the lads brushed the oversized Greek ants off me that I was now covered in after lying on their nest. K-Ron reminded me as I was writing this that I clearly didn’t give a shit I just stood there like a zombie as the boys brushed them to the floor.
The tide can turn quickly. We were well on, if not ahead of schedule after doing 200km by 2pm, however, shortly after our TCR20 final map break Stoney got a puncture. Not long after that, we had another puncture. A while after that, the garming took us up and over a big hill, down the other side towards the ocean where we’d follow the coast road to Alexandroupolis. However, towards the bottom of the descent of the hill, garming wanted us to turn onto what could fairly accurately be described as a steep gravel death path. Turning around is a blow, going back up a hill you’ve just come down is really bad for morale. The days light finally running out leaving you absolutely knackered, in the dark, f*ck knows where in Greece. This is also bad for morale. The route started taking us up into the hills on a small road kind of parallel to the main road. There were no street lights and the more we climbed, the colder it got. There are many reasons that normal people choose to ride their bikes in the day and not at night. It’s fairly depressing in that situation how time and km’s can pass so slowly in the context of a 12hr+/300km+ ride.
When we finally dropped down into Alexandroupolis, I was relieved to be amongst civilisation. Ron made a characteristically positive comment about how lively the city was in a bid to buoy morale and K-Ron tiredly responded, “I don’t give a shit”. The city was very bright and lively and we sort of got a hotel room at the second port of call. I say sort of as Ron, Stoney and I had to share a double bed with K-Ron on a camp bed beside us. Ron and I went out in search of food while Stoney and K-Ron repaired some of the tubes we’d punctured. We got some kebab type things and brought them back for everyone. Everything is such a mission when you’re exhausted. Especially communicating in any capacity with someone who isn’t in the same position as you, particularly if neither of you have a language in common. Its stressful when it takes 40 minutes to get food and so it takes your 4hr sleep down to a 3hr sleep. K-Ron unwrapped his ankles and they did not look good. Well, I say that, but you couldn’t actually see them beneath the swelling.
I was too tired for even the Walrus noises that K-Ron seems to make in his sleep to keep me awake. Last day tomorrow…
Day 13 Alexandroupolis to Istanbul (347km)
I thought that the jubilation of it being the last day would carry me to Istanbul on a cushion of air. It did not. It did not even carry me from my bed to my bicycle. 347km is always a long way on a bicycle, more so when you have more than 3,300km’s in your legs from the previous 12 days riding and have been averaging around 4 hours sleep. I stuffed my filthy stuff into my filthy little bag in an acutely tired haze one last time and we set off into the dark again. I remember desperately indulging the thought that at some point on this day (early following morning actually) I would be able to throw my f*%king filthy, tiny little bag in the bin and never see it ever again. I epically struggled with tiredness on the last morning. I have never experienced anything like it before or since. I was keenly focused on keeping my eyelids open while we were riding through the darkness but even with them open, my brain just wasn’t processing information. My reactions were so delayed it was scary and I was frequently genuinely unsure if my eyes were open or not. Focusing on staying awake is ironically very tiring. There’s no daydreaming as an easy 20km breezes past, you have to concentrate, all the way around every pedal stroke. Its acutely soul destroying.
I didn’t really know what to do with myself but the Turkish border wasn’t too far away so I just did what I could and hoped that when I got there something would help me out, a conversation, stretching the legs, a red bull, I didn’t care, anything. I remember cycling early on in the dark sure my eyes were open but not being able to see and I remember the desperation of fighting to get up the last hill (tiny gentle rise) to the Turkish border. I was in a bad way when we got to the border. I wasn’t alone in that although I was definitely fairing the worst which is not ideal. We crossed the border and went into the services. I got myself knee deep into anything I thought had even an outside chance of altering my situation in any capacity. Food, coffees and those ridiculously large cans of energy drinks which usually seem a ridiculous size aside from on this occasion where I drank two with coffee chasers. We sat down and had a rest. I think we’d done about 30km so it’s not ideal to be quasi-delirious with over 300km’s of riding to go. I remember Ron saying that we could just take our time and get there safe, that it was the last day and it didn’t matter what time we arrived. I found some comfort in that momentarily. I refilled my disgusting bento box with an array of stomach turning sugary diabetes tokens and we set off again. It was light by this time which was good for morale. Ron’s words stayed with me for what my mind has compartmentalised as the first section of the day. I chugged along slowly but surely and it felt kind of sustainable. As the caffeine, sugar and daylight started to lift my head out of the haze, a few things which I’d not previously paid any attention to started to stand out. Firstly, we were riding down the motorway. Not like a big road or a duel carriageway, clearly a motorway. Secondly, on at least half a dozen occasions, cars turned around and drove up the hard shoulder (where we were riding) going in the wrong direction down the motorway. To be fair, they did all do so while regularly sounding their horn to alert oncoming traffic. People seemed generally very friendly, all tooting horns, waving and shouting what I assume was generic words of encouragement. That did buoy morale. For hours we rode up the motorway toward the finish as the day grew hotter.
Seeing the first sign for Istanbul was exciting. There was a big number next to it, 200km maybe, I don’t know, but nonetheless that was a fathomable number. By our calculations, our destination was 60km further than the road signs had Istanbul pegged for as we needed to skirt the city and get to the edge of the continent, the Bosphorus River, on the other side of which is Asia. We had our 100km stop at a power station somewhere near the motorway and I was still majorly struggling. I sat down on the first perch I found and was asleep literally within 5 seconds. I woke up a few minutes later and the boys were going about their power station chores recognising that I needed to sit. I have mentioned it a number of times but it was really, really hot. Like 40 degrees hot. We had our lunch in this little weird restaurant next to the power station. Fuelled up on millions of sesame snaps which are seemingly the only food available in Turkish power stations, we reapplied a generous helping of chamois cream and headed back out into the morale wilting heat. Just before we set off I remember getting a text saying something along the lines of ‘You’re doing amazingly, only 200km to go’. Whilst I deeply appreciated the support, despite numerous attempts, I couldn’t read the message without sarcastically emphasising the word ‘only’. It seemed a bit unfair that I felt somebody envisaged us victoriously cruising to the finish line when we were actually scraping along on the bones of our ar$es… ‘only’ 200km…
The motorway turned even weirder as we got closer to Istanbul. One section was a ridiculously steep and long straight downhill section where we were going like 70+kph down the hard shoulder alongside the cars and lorries and whether you’re coming off or staying on, sliproads always provided some form of terrifying experience. With our relaxed attitude and determination to plug away, very slowly but almost surely the numbers ticked down on the signs to Istanbul (always remembering to add your 60km back in). We had a couple of wrong turns which took us onto a strange sort of housing estate that I really didn’t enjoy being on and then we got fleeced by a power station attendant that charged us like £20 for a couple of mars bars because we weren’t sure of the exchange rate having only crossed the border that morning. At that point, a familiar feeling started arriving once more. Sat on a power station forecourt as the light fades and you start to get your head around facing the night. When you’re very tired and night time arrives your body naturally and decreasingly subtly reminds you that you should sleep. When it’s been slowly shutting down for a fortnight already this can be a problem. When your exhausted and you’re riding down the motorway in the black of night with lorry after lorry thundering past and jumping on their horns, presumably to recommend that you come off the motorway, the problem becomes pretty scary. When you look back over your shoulder to check you can pass the sliproad without being vapourised by a hurtling Lorry and all you can see is a sea of headlights, it’s fairly unpleasant all round. Going into Istanbul the advice we’d received was the best, easiest and safest way was to head in on the motorway until a certain point and then come off, so that’s what we did. The motorway was a deeply traumatic place to ride so we got on with it. Shortly after turning on K-Ron got his first puncture. The hard shoulder was littered with glass, wire from tyre carcasses and an assortment of other generally unhelpful materials. This was potentially a blessing in disguise as it was actually right by a power station and we got some hot food, without which, in hindsight, we may have been in more trouble. K-Ron and Stoney fixed the puncture, we ate the food, realised K-Ron’s tyre was going down again, fixed it again and had a discussion about the motorway. It kind of went along the lines of, we all hate the motorway, its shit scary, but we just need to get to the finish as soon as possible. We consulted the garming, it was either a big detour into the unknown or 20 more km down this god forsaken motorway. We got back onto the motorway and ploughed on with some serious impetus. Before long we were all diving over the crash barrier and lying down in a storm drain performing some form of role in fixing another puncture, this time for Stoney. K-Ron went straight to sleep which I enjoyed because it was a strangely nice feeling in the storm drain. It felt kind of insulated from the motorway of despair despite not really being so in any capacity. We had another couple of punctures meaning after having one or two in the first 10 days we’d now had half a dozen in the last day or two. Stoney’s tyre was so shredded by whatever he’d ridden over there were some further emergency talks about getting off the motorway, one of which resulted in a brief cyclocross bikes on shoulders run up a grass bank only to end up back down on the motorway. It was very scary on the motorway. We agreed nobody would say anything at all unless it was vitally important as it was hard to hear and slowing to communicate was dangerous. At one point, a police car passed us shouting something in Turkish out of their loud speaker and flashing their lights. We don’t speak Turkish.
Getting off that motorway felt amazing. Potentially if I’d have known of the trauma’s which still lay ahead I might not have felt so relieved. However, for the time being I was very relieved. We hit up a power station and got some supplies. A local guy took the time to come over and tell us that all his countrymen are crazy drivers and we were almost certain to be killed on the roads before the night was through. Thanks mate. From the power station forecourt I could literally see the dog that subsequently attacked me as soon as I headed down that road. We’d gone the wrong way and it attacked me again on the way back through. Then K-Ron got another puncture. Then we got lost in a graveyard for 15 mins, and this is all within about 5km’s of the motorway trauma. We’d ridden through some cities that were pretty awful for riding bicycles but Istanbul is another league. Before long we were cycling up perilously narrow flyovers in heavy traffic in the middle of the night. I fell off on a railway crossing (so I was lying on what was effectively both a busy road and an active railway line) because there was such a big ditch on the near side of the rail that I couldn’t get over it. Morale just continually bounced along the bottom. I mean, we were in Istanbul, that’s the end isn’t it? Ride to Istanbul?… It wasn’t the end… at one point we genuinely stood at the side of the road for what must have been getting on for 15 minutes in the middle of the night because the traffic was so bad we just couldn’t cross it. We got out of the busiest section of the city and headed towards the Ataturk Arboretum (4.5 stars on tripadvisor, my experience was more 0.5 stars) which was the way the race prescribed you must get to the finish line. Whichever source of deep trauma we got rid of was invariably replaced by a new source. The motorway was replaced by traffic then the traffic was replaced by packs of aggressive dogs. Irritatingly as we headed away from the traffic and into the darkness it got freezing cold. I have no idea why, at no point after that night did it ever get cool enough to even sleep in Istanbul nevermind get cold. We had 3 hills to climb and then a cruise down the waterfront to the finish. It sounded easy enough but predictably it wasn’t. I got a puncture on a particularly horrible section of busy contraflow and we had to scramble into a ditch to fix it rather than get flattened by unconcerned cars and then the dog attacks stepped up a gear. Frequently there were packs of up to maybe a dozen dogs just littering the street waiting to attack and try and bite us. I remember sprinting away from one at one point, having to dive ultra-aggressively into an elaborate evasive manoeuvre to avoid Ron who was sprinting away from a dog and into my path. After completing what ended up being a relatively impressive evasive manoeuvre, I was then stuck going down the wrong side of the road sprinting away from dogs hemmed in by a central reservation. Not ideal. It was tiring, I was exhausted 300km and 14 hours ago and this point was not a high for me. There were aggressive, big, scary, skanky dogs everywhere. On the quieter sections with no street lights you could just see their eyes and then hear them start chasing. I had a knack for spotting them first, not sure why. We didn’t want to get separated by the dogs so we made sure we stayed together, this slowed us down and we found that if we went really slow and rode two abreast, the dogs seemed less likely to attack us. On the downhill sections, you could barely see where you were going so had to go almost as slow as on the uphill sections, plus the dogs would still attack you. Dreamy. Our progress was now outrageously slow just ~50 odd km’s from the finish.
At one point I got (another) puncture going down a hill, we’d had like a couple in the first week and then a dozen in the last day. Thanks E80 (some wretched motorway in Turkey). I had been a bit off the back because I felt I could see better if I did. I rolled a few mtrs to the nearest lamppost for light and shouted to the boys who were 10m ahead. However, they were now getting chased by a pack of dogs and disappeared into the night. I didn’t enjoy being alone in the dark with a puncture as the pack of dogs returned to their patch. It’s particularly difficult to deal with when you’re emotionally exhausted. I started trying to fix my puncture but it felt like someone had kept me awake for a few days then thrown me a rubicks cube. After a bit of a while, once the boys established that I wasn’t going to ride through the dogs on a flat, they came back and we fixed it.
When we got out of the black hills we emerged onto the waterfront of the Bosphorus. It’s hard to describe how that felt. I sort of acknowledged that this should be a relief but I didn’t feel any relief. As I had on innumerable occasions to that point, I just carried on. At one point, presumably out of pent up frustration from being chased by dogs, plagued by lorries and repeatedly kicked when we were down, Ron and Stoney cranked up the pace to near enough full gas. We barrelled down the waterfront at like 45kph for a while, which I found fairly remarkable given our state of fatigue, but I didn’t really understand why they were doing that and eventually got them to slow down. We followed the Garming towards where the Garming told us the finish was. With maintaining morale having been a constant war for a week and a half I didn’t want to tie it too closely to the end being imminent. At any moment, without warning, light can shine on a navigational error that sends you back into the darkness of the hills or the bridge you can see can turn out to be an hours ride from the bridge you thought it was. I didn’t really know what we were looking for and communication was tough through the fatigue so I just kept on riding. When you look at the race profile you tend to get caught up in how you might cross the alps or what might be the quickest way to cross Albania rather than what does the finish line actually look like. We felt we were close and kept on going.
In the days beforehand, when I’d had low moments, I thought of what it might be like to reach the finish line. I knew my girlfriend and some great friends had made the trip out to meet us there (planes) for which I remain truly grateful. I thought this touching gesture combined with the realisation of what I considered, in the most part, from inception to completion, a challenge which was genuinely incredible and at the furthermost reaches of my capabilities, would leave me lying in tears at the roadside. The plausible prospect of which I envisaged being uncomfortably embarrassing. The reality was very different. I looked towards the cheer and saw my gorgeous girlfriend and a dozen other friendly faces. Rather than a wave of emotion, I just thought…. ‘must be right here then…’. I turned up a short sharp hill and there was a wicked congratulations banner (thanks guys). I propped my bike and was welcomed by my girlfriend and friends. It was a very strange experience. Rather than being the massively emotional experience as I was expecting, it was very much the opposite. I didn’t feel myself, aware of my emotions or connected with the amazing people that surrounded me. I found myself thinking hard about what I was supposed to be doing, hugging this person, shaking that person’s hand. I smiled because I thought that was what I was supposed to be doing. I don’t have any similar experience to relate this to but my guess is it was just a result of extreme fatigue. One thing I didn’t need prompting on was getting a beer into my hand.
We arrived at the edge of Europe, on the Bosphorus river in Istanbul at 2.45am on the morning of Friday 22nd August 2014 having finished a bike ride that started from my front door in Camberwell 12 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes and 3,600km’s previously. I got to sleep quickly after reaching my hotel. Mercifully a cab took our bikes with us to the apartment. While it was a strange and vacant feeling arriving at the finish line, after a bit of sleep, a shower, some fresh clothes and constant eating, the emotion, relief and sense of achievement came pouring in as we celebrated on the rooftop wading into bottles of champagne, beer and Jagermeister with no discrimination as the call to prayer drifted through the air as the sun set. It was a beautiful moment followed by a beautiful few days and weeks as it all sank in. The Transcontinetal Race for me was a beautiful but merciless adventure I shared with some special people and from which I got a great sense of fulfilment. I definitely think the physical demands are within the reaches of most but it was the emotional and mental exhaustion which was the serious test of character. A week later I was still sleeping 10 hours every night, 2 hours each afternoon and struggling to stay awake more than a couple of hours at a time. Three months later and there were still patches of my fingertips and toes where I was waiting for sensation to return. I am immensely glad and proud that we did it. But make no bones about it, its fucking hard yards.
I will be amazed if anybody has actually made it this far and read my blog to the end, however, if anybody has, i have a couple of people it’s very important that i thank so i hope you don’t begrudge me a few more words…
Thank you to Oli and the guys at Morvelo for the absolutely top shelf kit, your support and your hankering for a big challenge.
Thanks to Cyfac for building me a bike that I never had to worry about once.
Thanks to Phil, Deebs, Rab, Ricky, Saurab, Booty and Laura for coming to see us at the finish line and ensuring we celebrated properly in Istanbul.
A special thank you to my Girlfriend Alice who supported me, not only through the race and the weeks afterward where i could barely stay awake or feel my fingers and toes, but in the months beforehand, through the countless hours on my god awful turbo trainer.
A heartfelt thank you to my dear friends K-Ron, Ron and Stoney for propping me up for a few thousand km’s.
A massive thank you to my family for their constant support.
And a final thank you to my Grandparents Jack and Phyllis and my dear friend Simon Fenn for the inspiration to give it a crack.
Day 5 Davos to Pratto Allo Stelvio (95km)
I seem to remember we set our alarms for 6am rather than the customary 5am following the trauma of the previous night but the fact remained that this would, again, still only give us a few hours’ sleep. I woke up feeling no worse than I had on previous mornings which seemed a result considering I’d been hallucinating the night before at a point where there was still 5 hours riding into the mountainous darkness ahead. We commenced the morning routine and started loading up on breakfast in a bid to average down our outrageously extortionate room rate. The elephant in the breakfast room was the weather. It was sh#tting it down with rain and looked feral outside. It was the tail end of Hurricane Bertha I’ve since heard. Ideal. Despite spending three bowls of cereal and a few bits of toast worth of time feverishly hatching plans of how I could make the next 15 hours of our lives fractionally less miserable, the truth that there was only two feasible options available to us. Crack on or give up.
Before long we were glumly standing in the cold mountain rain preparing to depart. I remember a German coupe from the hotel coming over to ask where we were going.
“To the Stelvio” I told them.
“Over the Flüela Pass?” the lady asked in an excitedly quizzical yet disparaging tone.
“Yes” I despondently blurted
“it’s really cold up there… really cold… like 2 or 3 degrees colder than here….” she said whist assessing my obviously inadequate attire.
“Righto. Thanks. Have a good day.” I said as they shuffled back into the beautiful, luxurious hotel of sanctuary.
We were climbing straight out of the town. I felt ok as it goes and in the context of the array of other sources of misery we’d become accustomed to ignoring, the rain didn’t really stand out. Through the climb I was constantly rationalising strategies to deal with what I knew was about to happen. I knew that Stoney and Ron were also cognisant of what was coming because we’d shared an awful experience descending the Col du Glandon in the rain in 2009 which was, until the day I am here describing, our benchmark of debilitatingly freezing, near hypothermic cycling experiences. Going up was never going to be a major problem, coming down was always going to be a major problem. A few km from the top, I asked K-Ron how he was doing. He said he felt pretty tired but that was being balanced by his first (daytime) Alpine ascent. ‘Drink it in’, I thought, ‘because it’s about to turn to sh#t’.
We went briskly over the top in a bid to generate some heat but the first couple of km’s were still bad. This side of the mountain was exposed to a harsh wind which was now piledriving freezing cold water into our faces. It got worse from there. The cold just seemed to be accumulating in my bones. It was properly cold and for some reason unbeknown to me, my bibshorts did not appear to be keeping me warm. The further we went, the more desperate the situation got. By what may or may not have been somewhere near half way down, my violent shivering was causing my hands to judder the handlebars so severely that it was causing an uncontrollable death wobble. I knew I had to stop. Ron pulled alongside me and I felt mildly reassured by the fact the was clearly in the same boat. We both stopped.
As soon as we put our bikes down we both instinctively started pumping our fists in front of our chests.
“What are we going to do?….. What are we going to do?” I asked Ron with a decent dollop of desperation in my tone. I remember feeling pretty confident at that point that Ron would know what to do.
“I don’t know…. I don’t know.” He replied. I’m not sure why violent shivering encourages you to repeat yourself but it definitely does.
“How far is it?” I asked. Ron shuffled back over to his bike and crouched right down right over his garming to try and make sense of the map through the water droplets. His quivering hand slowly reaching out towards the screen.
“20k” he said. ‘That doesn’t sound good’ I remember thinking. It also didn’t sound right from my memory of the route.
“7k… its 7k” he said after further inspection.
Upon completing his task and answering my question, Ron looked up from the garming with a hopeful look and I realised that just as I was looking to Ron for direction, he was looking straight back.
“We could walk down” I said, “We could put our shoes on and walk the 7k… We’re not going to die walking down.” We pondered that thought for a few seconds, still furiously pumping our fists infront of our chests.
“We need to get warm……. Squat thrusts….” I suggested
As I was on all fours in the middle of one of my squat thrusts, it did occur to me that this is not what I’d envisaged the transcontinental race to be like. We did maybe 25 squat thrusts which was the balancing point where I felt I’d got all the warmth I was going to get out of squat thrusting and my overworked legs started protesting about the new burden. We quickly jumped back on and started down again. It was still absolutely freezing and we were very concerned about our safety. After not too long we caught our first glimpse of a town. That was incredibly good for morale. It still took ages to get there but we got there. Everybody was in a bad way. K-Ron had ridden down without any gloves on. Fair play, sounds rank. Gloves should clearly be prioritised over knee warmers, everybody knows that.
We bolted into the first over-priced swiss Hotel/Restaurant we laid eyes on and the owners took pity on us. We walked straight into the restaurant kitchen and huddled around the open clay pizza oven. My jaw was still chattering maybe 20 minutes after we got to this oven. It must have been 40 minutes after I got there where I finally felt warm enough to step away from the pizza oven of life and pursue alternative methods of thawing out such as showering. We’d rented a room there for the night which was a pretty easy decision as nobody had any appetite to go through that again. Not long after that, we were all showered, warm and lying down in our beds in the shared room. That was an incredible feeling. We agreed we couldn’t ride through the mountains in this weather and we’d take the remainder of the day to recover, catch up on sleep and food and continue on the following day. That decision buoyed morale for a while but it was a short lived pipedream unfortunately. While we were indulging in a banquet lunch which was to set us up for the afternoon of recovery, the weather eased. I felt the sense of foreboding return. I was facing the window in the restaurant and when I saw the first TCR rider come down that we had earlier in the morning and turn up the road towards the Stelvio. I think we all realised what was happening without any words being exchanged. We’d all checked every weather report the internet has to offer and they all said the weather was only going to deteriorate.
‘If we’re going back out there, I’m getting tooled up’, I thought. We went to the corner shop and I stockpiled newspapers, rubber gloves, bin bags, 60m of tin foil and 60m of cling film and set about making our cold weather gear. The pièce de résistance for me was undoubtedly my binbag tunic. This was a thick plastic binbag in which I’d made holes for my head on arms. For a period of a few days, this became my most valuable worldly possession, although I did also make a fairly impressive pair of tin foil/cling film leg bracers. Before long we were off again climbing back up higher into the mountains. Relentless. For our decent into Prato Allo Stelvio we got all our gear on and we were fine. It was very effective. Particularly the bin bag tunics. After a bit of soul searching and pizza we decided to knock it on the head for the day there. I didn’t want to start climbing the Stelvio in the dark after my experiences earlier in the day.
Day 6: Prato Allo Stelvio to Ferrara (410km)
We’d agreed we’d try to catch up the km’s we lost in the storm on this day. I, personally, agreed on a best endeavours basis. To be honest, I couldn’t see how we’d manage to ride what I erroneously thought at the time would be ~380km to Ferrara, with the first 25 of those km’s being one of the most revered climbs in the world, when we’d only managed 95km in total the previous day. Nonetheless I was willing to give it a crack on the premise that sense would prevail when necessary as it had the previous day. The alarm went off at 4am and we were tired. Properly tired. Probably not the sensation you’re looking for when taking on a 410km day. We were up and off and again cycling up a mountain in the dark. I felt relatively ok and its much (much) better cycling in the dark when you know that dawn is on its way and you’re not just pushing on into the darkness of the night. It took us 3 hours to ride to the top of the mountain. Not an ideal average speed for the first 25km of a 410km day but not bad considering. We passed a rider or two sleeping in bivvy bags at the side of the road on the mountain and patted ourselves on the back for making the right call the night before. The 48 hairpin bends passed slowly but morale was high as we counted down each epic hairpin. We saw quite a few riders on their way down as we neared the top which was reassuring. We got to the top, had a hot chocolate and got our brevet cards stamped and started to rug up. It felt like we’d been through an awful lot to get that second stamp but we were nowhere near half way done with the race. You can only wonder whether the empty space where your next stamp should go will ever get filled. We had some fun getting our bin bag tunics and my tin foil leg bracers on in the warmth of the cafe. The descent was long and slow but we were warm enough.
It’s strange how you can be encasing yourself in tinfoil for warmth on top of a literally freezing cold mountain and then generously slapping on suncream a hundred km’s later, but it was roasting down in the valley road as it got towards lunchtime. We cracked on and kept a good pace for a long, long time. There were a few mishaps, we got stuck in a danger tunnel and then lost in an apple orchard but after a while we stumbled upon the cycling path of dreams which must have gone for something like 100km exactly where we needed it to go. It was flat, fast and traffic free. We were doing very well. By the time the light of the day was fading we’d done 280km including the Stelvio and we had reached Verona. We grabbed some pizza and begun the night shift. Ron reckoned it was 70km to Ferrara which sounded achievable. I figured it must be more like 90km from the information I knew. We started off enthusiastically and soon ran into Ben and Gaby, a couple I knew from before the race who were also on the TCR. We’d already seen them at the Swiss hotel/restaurant after Flüela-gate and also coming down the stelvio as we neared the top (a lot) earlier in the day. They’d also done well for the day and I think they were as glad to see us as we were to see them. A bit of interaction with someone different and sharing of a few war stories is great for morale. We were all riding the same way so we pushed on whilst having a chat. After a while, people were getting really, really tired. We’d started tired at 4am and as it got towards midnight everything was hard. A particularly savage thunderstorm didn’t help. Later Gaby said she enjoyed riding in the storm. I have no idea how this could possibly be the case. I did not. The 70km from Verona which I thought was 90k turned out to be 125km. The last few km’s were overwhelmingly grim. I remember seeing a sign for Ferrara that said 12km. It was inconceivable to me at that stage how I’d be able to ride another 12km. A few km’s from where our hotel was we stopped to plug the postcode into the garmings. Given the capacity for the garmings to get things wrong and given our condition at that stage, we plugged it into a phone also. Stoney and Ron were looking at the maps to work out where to go (thanks chaps). The situation was fairly desperate. It was about 3am and we’d cycled over 400km since starting the day at the bottom of the Stelvio. I really didn’t want to cycle anymore. After maybe 5 mins of comparing the garming map to the phone and a bit of discussion, Ron declared that the maps on the two devices just weren’t the same. I didn’t feel well positioned to assist at this stage. After another couple of minutes Ron had a Eureka moment and turned the phone upside down. The phone map was north up and the garming one forwards up. We got to the hotel at 3.30. I’d felt for a lot of km’s that the chance of us getting checked in in the middle of the night seemed remote. I had buried that thought along with a plethora of other unhelpful ones. After some determined and mildly aggressive badgering, somehow Stoney woke the guy up and got him to let us in. I was so tired that it didn’t really occur to me that we hadn’t really eaten on the 125km since dinner. We commenced the ritual, got showered, washed our kit, got into bed and set the alarm for 90 minutes time to start again…
Day 7: Ferrara to Ancona (248km)
We had a ferry to catch. We had to be there by 6pm, it was 250km away, we’d had 90 minutes sleep after a 410km day and nothing to eat when we got in. We got ready and the disgruntled man from the previous night we’d awoken to let us in took pity on us and gave us a lemon curd croissant thing. Grazie. And we were off. I felt horrific. I mean, I felt bad every day but this was really bad. I couldn’t get going. I was acutely aware of time and distance constantly and how neither were passing at a sustainable rate. I was a mess. Morale bouncing along the bottom and seemingly no avenues to bring it back up. I couldn’t even look at the route, I could barely lift my head to see where we were going, I just looked down at the road. I just pedalled and tried not to get left behind. I couldn’t really talk, nothing seemed important enough to justify expending the energy talking. It was really tough for morale when we were struggling with our route. We turned round a couple of times going back on ourselves when we were trying to navigate around a motorway we ended up on. I just followed and didn’t ask any questions because I knew I couldn’t contribute to the solution. My condition was awful and not improving. Somehow, Ron seemed relatively spritely and was navigating and calling the shots. It wouldn’t be the last time. Chapau Ron. After about 80km the pain I’d had in my left foot for who knows how long crossed the boundary into excruciating. It was very intense and very acute and it came in waves. I’d get 5-10 seconds of intense pain a couple of times a minute. I had some pain killers and half an hour later it was still bad. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t last the day, wondering how I’d explain that I wasn’t able to continue and what I’d do when the boys cycled off and I was on my own in the middle of nowhere. We’d come a long way though, I still wanted to fight on until I physically could not for one pedal stroke longer. It seemed inevitable that that point was approaching. I was operating on a moment to moment basis. My foot was bad, saddle sores were bad, I was incomprehensively tired and Istanbul was near enough 2,000km away. I was struggling around following the others, completely choked up with my eyes welling up but I kept going.
Our on the fly route which avoided the motorway took us to a coast road where we had to stop so the fellas could take a look at the route. I took my shoes off and lay on the pavement. Stoney bought me what was, by some distance, the worst ham sandwich I’ve ever consumed. Quite how you can mess up a ham sandwich when you have all the right ingredients, I’m not exactly sure. Morale was rock bottom. We were at a beautiful beach resort with loads of sun tanned youngsters cruising round enjoying the summer and we were in an awful state. We didn’t want to be there, we wanted to be on some gloriously filthy highway gunning it south to the ferry port. The boys were studying the route, I was trying to piece myself back together. After 10 mins or so Ron said it wasn’t possible to get to the ferry. Avoiding the motorway meant taking the coast road and that would add 100km onto the distance. We would never make it in time. The following day was a national holiday. No ferries. We were all distraught. I was welling up head in hands. Ron requested that nobody ask him a question for 5 minutes and sat down head in hands. That was clearly the sign of resignation. 2 minutes later and K-Ron was asking him questions about the motorway. I wondered how that would go down given Ron’s seemingly reasonable request only a couple of minutes earlier. Over the course of 5 or so minutes, K-Ron took the reins, called someone back home, established that the motorway turned back into a regular road only 10km further south than where we were. Declared we were back in the game and lead us off down the road. Hero. Morale sky rocketed as did our average speed. We got back on the highway and absolutely smashed it down to the ferry port with consummate ease floating on a buoyant cloud of relief. We arrived at the ferry on time and over the course of the next hour or so a good 10 or so TCR riders rocked up. Nearly all of them looked brutalised. Morale was high though. We were certain to be not getting onto our bikes for another 12 hours which was a luxury I vaguely remembered from my previous life. We had our cabin booked and life was good. The faff of getting our tickets, boarding, getting food and showering ate into our sleep time. When you’re truly tired, even simple tasks can become incredibly taxing. I remember a discussion trying to establish if there was a clock change required for arriving in Croatia and working out when this meant we needed to set our alarm. I think we just guessed in the end and went to sleep.
Day 8: Ancona to Kotor Bay (300km)
We had had five hours sleep. FIVE. Pow. Relatively, I felt like I’d spent a weekend at a luxurious spa retreat, perhaps somewhere in Kent. I felt better than I had in days. That was good. While we were waiting to disembark, Ron took the opportunity to interrogate Mikko Makipaa (TCR Legend) about the most effective strategies to mitigate dog attacks in eastern Europe. We’d heard a lot about packs of wild dogs attacking cyclists and Ron was particularly concerned about it. My concern list was way too congested to worry about dogs at this stage, although I do admit that Ron worked me up about it enough for me to put a handful of stones in my jersey pocket to use as defence missiles when the attacks started. I carried those stones the best part of 2,000km and through what must have been a dozen dog attacks and never launched any of them. They were more good luck charms by the end. How was I ever supposed to throw a rock at a dog when I’m sprinting full tilt to get away from it on a bike? If anyone ever asks me about the most effective strategies to mitigate dog attacks, stone missiles won’t be one of them.
We rolled off the boat, stocked up on pain killers, mainly for K-Ron’s ankles, and got going. The Adriatic was the back bone of the race for me. While I knew we still had more than half the distance of the race remaining and 60% of the climbing, a daunting thought really considering our condition, I now believed rather than hoped that we were going to reach Istanbul. Whether that would be within the time cut of or not was another question entirely but that didn’t really matter so much anyway as long as we got there. 100km prior to getting on the ferry I was choking back the water works, head in hands and then 100km after getting on the ferry we were cruising down one of the most beautiful coastlines in Europe, chatting away, basking in the sunshine.
It sounds bad, but, it’s always good for morale to not be suffering the most (provided whoever is is still ‘OK). When you’re on a bad day and suffering the most, holding everybody up, struggling with the pace and always chasing to catch up, its brutal on morale. If someone else is in that position you naturally take heart in the fact that it could be worse, that could be you. We all had our days or sections where we were that guy (many in my case, few in the case of the Ron-bot). On this day it was K-Ron. He was struggling and I felt ‘OK’ (n.b. this word has a different meaning in the context of this race). After a brief excursion into Bosnia & Herzegovina, we rose up into the hills above Dubrovnik looking down on the beautiful city and out to the ocean. Whilst that was an amazing experience, it’s hard to rationalise why you’re riding on past all the holidaymakers frolicking in the ocean or sipping beer at a beach bar as you root around, with filthy hands, for Mento’s hidden amongst an inch of biscuit dust inside the dysfunctional bento box that you hate.
We stopped at a power station (term mistakenly substituted for petrol station in a tired haze and stuck because the idea of powering up there on snickers bars and Fanta seemed comforting) for our evening meal. It’s incredible how those cellophane packets keep the sandwiches so fresh and full of nutrients and flavour. Once I’d forced down a couple of these, the obligatory few snickers and magnums and refilled my bento box with my trademark mix of mento’s and biscuits mixed together with the pre-existing bento-filth residue, I was nearing ready for off. At this point, fellow competitor Yorkshire Rob rocked up to the power station. Despite having spent time with him on numerous occasions since, I’m not sure whether he picked up this moniker because he actually hails from Yorkshire or just because he wore a Yorkshire Grande Depart jersey. Either way, it was great to see him and it seemed as if he was pleased to see a few friendly faces too. He sped on a head while we dithered around at the power station and, just as we were about to set off into what would inevitably soon turn into a desperately tired night shift, K-Ron let us know that he just needed to ring Santander to adjust some direct debits. Shortly after Ron had explained that there may be a more appropriate time to do this, we were heading towards Montenegro.
It was proper night and proper cold when we got to the border of Montenegro. Despite conversations that we might do shorter days now we had more freedom to do so this side of the Adriatic, we decided to push on to Kotor bay which was where Mt Lovcen, home of the third checkpoint, climbed out of. We decended from the border control towards the bay. As we got to the start of the bay, I erroneously thought, ‘our bed is in Kotor Bay, we are in Kotor bay, we must be nearly there’. This was not so. Around the usual time, riding through the darkness, delirium began to set in. This time we had the fortune to be surrounded by Montenegrin party goers enjoying a nice summer evening. It was fairly surreal. It’s not like riding home from the pub after a pint soho on a Thursday night. We finally got there. Luckily sourced some very tasty but disconcertingly well priced food and headed to bed. Arriving back at our hotel (very late. I don’t know what time. Time doesn’t have the same relevance it does in normal life. You ride as long as you can, you eat when you can’t ride anymore and you sleep when you can neither ride nor eat.) We saw Yorkshire Rob enquiring about a room at the hotel we were staying at. They were full as were the neighbouring places. He decided to just start riding up Lovcen. Crazy. When we finally got up to the checkpoint the next day we saw his name marked down as arriving in the wee small hours of the morning. Nails.
to be continued….
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.
So over the first May bank holiday weekend, the lads and I took on ‘Hell Camp’. I got the train up to Ron’s in Holmfirth and, as always, the fresh air and stunning scenery quickly reminded me why BBC1 chose this village for their smash hit Last of the Summer Wine which graced our screens between 1973 and 2010.
I met Ron at Huddersfield train station (Huddersfield was presumably out the running as a setting for LotSW early doors) and we cycled back to his lovely pad in Holmfirth. Excitement was fever pitch as we awaited the arrival of K-ron and Stone and we set about plotting the route for the following day on the computer to upload to our Garmings. A couple of things dawned on me as that 20 minute task rolled into its third hour; 1) technology’s filtration North seems to have reached a stumbling block somewhere in the Midlands 2) There is a small chance we could encounter some form of logistical issues on the way to Istanbul.
Finally everyone had arrived and we were in the pub. Sweet. The weekend consisted of three century rides (100miles) around the Peak District. Many people will be thinking that doesn’t sound too bad because England is flat, however, it turns out this bit isn’t. I would be reminded of this fact and one other regularly throughout the weekend. The second fact was that deciding not to bother checking which cassette I had on my rear wheel on the basis that only one cassette of the half dozen I have would be drastically inappropriate, was a fairly significant error. I’m aiming to be less hungover when I pack for the TCR than I was when I was packing for hell camp.
The three rides were the notorious Savin’s Savage Century ™ on the final day (after the difficulty of SSC made it into folklore on the back of tales of its brutality, I asked Ron Savin why he didn’t schedule the easiest ride for the final day as I had to get a train home in the afternoon. He worryingly informed me that the SSC was in fact the easiest ride planned). The middle day was the White Pete Wolverine ™ (Originally White Peak Wolverine but after I misheard and questioned as to who this White Pete was it was renamed). The first ride had been planned especially for Hell Camp but was later named Savin’s Scenic Century ™.
After a night on the inflatable mattress I shared with Stone, spirits were high as we set off on the Scenic Century a mere 50minutes behind schedule. One of the beauties of riding out from Ron’s house is riders need not waste time warming up as riding in almost any direction you find yourself on a disconcertingly difficult climb within 3 minutes of being waved off. Another beauty being that the combination of questionably steep roads followed by perilously sketchy descents keeps your average speed well in check around the 22-25kph mark just to ensure you’re not short changed on your 8 hours of enjoyment.
This was our first century ride as the four of us which are taking on the TCR. Camaraderie was strong and it was a chance for us to all reassure each other of our ability as a team to complete this ridiculous challenge of riding to Istanbul with impressive displays of power and demonstrations of our peak physical condition. It was also the first time we got a good idea of each other’s riding style which is good to know heading into such a challenge. The most intriguing of riding style’s was K-ron. A man who trains largely in solitude in the peaks, he certainly wasn’t daunted by any of the descents, no matter how many gravel surprises we found left for us on the apex of crazily steep off camber hairpin bends. Early on I found this reassuring to an extent but the frequency with which Ron shared crash stories as we past scenes of K-rons previous episodes of misfortune balanced that out leaving me around level pegging.
As well as his strength on the descents, K-ron also demonstrated his handling ability on the brief sections of flatland (there weren’t many). The most impressive demonstration I saw was K-ron cycling along no handed on a notably rough and uneven road surface, sitting up with a lucozade bottle in one hand, the lid in the other hand and chatting to his wife on the phone which was sandwiched between his cheek and his shoulder. I decided to give him a couple of extra bike lengths space at that point.
Interestingly, a couple of weeks before Hell Camp, I had a call from Ron who spoke in a noticeably apologetic tone. I was a bit concerned as I waited for him to explain the reason. Once he explained that he was calling to apologise because he and K-ron had a track session at Manchester Velodrome booked for 5pm on the first day of hell camp but there were no more spaces for me and Stone I could barely have felt more smug. K-ron was given a gift of a track session and booked it for the pair of them a few months in advance such is the demand to get on there and they hadn’t realised it clashed with Hell Camp until shortly before. So with that being the case, we plotted our route for our 168km to finish at the Manchester Velodrome. I found it an almost overwhelming morale boost that after a 168km ride with 3,300m of climbing and with two similar days in prospect to follow, I’d be sitting in the stands at the Manchester Velodrome with a coffee and a chocolate bar watching Ron and K-ron smash an hours track session into their legs on top of the 168km we’d already done. This thought provided me with enough morale to get through even the toughest sections of the ride with ease. “Go easy on us tomorrow boys, you’ll have that extra speed in your legs from the track session don’t forget” I regularly quipped as we hit climb after climb on the way to the velodrome. We arrived about 45 mins before the track session started, ample time to recover from a 100mile smashfest I thought.
Ron and K-ron were super strong on the first day. It almost didn’t make sense how they had the energy to thrash around the track as Stone and I looked on. At the end of the day, we could all be content in the fact that everybody was riding impressively strongly and we could rest knowing we’d done well. When we finally got home from the velodrome Ron’s wife Ellie had prepared dinner for us and we cleaned ourselves up. I thought i wouldn’t have been in a good mood if we were on the TCR and I had trouble sourcing food after a ride.
On the second day we took on White Pete Wolverine ™. About 20 miles into the days ride we were to go up Wynatts pass. The lads told me it was steep. I moaned about only having a 23 tooth sprocket (a lot). Despite the warnings I wasn’t really prepared for how steep it was. The climb is 1,600m long and there’s a section that’s 500m long in the middle of that which must average a decent amount above 20% gradient. Climbbybike claims the maximum gradient is 28.2% and even that sounds low considering how it felt. I encountered numerous issues on the climb. Firstly and most obviously, 39×23 is drastically inappropriate as a gearing ratio to try and get up 30% gradients, especially 120 odd miles into a 300 mile weekend. Secondly, the steep section started only a couple of hundred meters from the start of the climb and I had no idea how long it would go on for which was incredibly bad for morale. I was on my limit just to keep the bike upright and moving. I was going so slowly that it seemed only logical to consider what I’d do if I had to stop, something I really didn’t want to do. Getting going again would be incredibly difficult and it wouldn’t exactly be a good indicator for the TCR and the prospect of riding from home to the bottom of the stelvio and then up it. I plodded on finding myself increasingly jealous of Stoney’s 32 tooth sprocket. I reached the top after Ron and was massively grateful to unclip whilst the Stoney and K-ron pedalled up to us. Disappointingly, they were only a few metres behind me as I’d hoped for a bit more recovery time. Wynatts pass had taken a big chunk out of me and I slowly ate half of one of my sandwiches feeling more daunted than ever about the prospect of the remainder of Hell Camp. The prospect of the TCR just seemed too ludicrous to contemplate at that point so I just chose not to (Tekkers). After 2 minutes to eat the sandwich there was only one thing to do, roll on. My tank felt heavily depleted from the climb (that was only 1600m long) and the other boys still looked pretty spritely. It was at that point that this White Pete became a personification of the difficulties of the route and it’s fair to say, we gave White Pete a bit of sh*t through the remaining 80 miles. By the end of White Pete Wolverine ™ I was cooked. In honesty, it was actually a decent way before the end that that happened.
Back at Ron’s house and after our experience in the morning, we had identified that it was key to ensure we did all the preparation work the night before rather than in the morning as we had some time pressures on the last day. It was K-ron’s turn to make the sandwiches for the next day. We’d got the formula right on the second day after falling a bit light on the first and established that we needed 3 ham and cheese sandwiches each. We would eat a barely feasible amount each day with the rides ranging from 6 hour ride time (still 7+ on the road) to I think 7.5 hours ride time on the White Pete. However, we found 3 sandwiches was the max you can fit into your jersey pockets once you’ve stuffed a few energy bars in there also. We’d supplement this on the road with anything from pringles and sausage rolls through to a range of weird, unbranded brown cuboids that K-ron kept buying. Anyway, so after a long day, K-ron seemed to have taken stacking the 24 slices of bread required into a giant bread-stack once he’d buttered them. I observed as I was preparing the bottles. To be fair, only once did I have to alert K-ron to the tower beginning to fall and, once it was completed, it was fairly impressive. On the flip side, in K-ron’s enthusiasm for constructing the tower was such that he’d overlooked one of the core fundamentals of sandwich bread tower construction and not stacked the buttered sides facing each other. The consequences of which were two fold, firstly, once the sandwiches had been warmed up by sweat for a few hours in your jersey pocket, the butter on the outside of the bread added an interesting warm, sloppy texture to the sandwich was somewhat unusual. Secondly, butter on the outside as well as inside of the sandwiches ensured a nice, frictionless coating on your hands, handlebars and breaks which added an additional element of surprise to various elements of your bike handling. Nonetheless, the sandwiches tasted amazing on the final day as our bodies yearned for almost any form of fuel available.
On the final day we faced Savin’s Savage Century™. Everybody was a bit in the dark as to how our legs were going to respond after a couple of seriously tough days but fortunately we were able to shed light on this relatively quickly as we were climbing the mighty Holme Moss about 2 and a half minutes after stepping out Ron’s front door. The SSC lived up to its billing and delivered a suitably cruel amount of climbing to ensure we were thoroughly knackered when we finished. Over the 3 rides we climbed well over 9,000 vertical metres which would leave you with some change after getting to the top of Everest from sea level. A logical question would be, if you were knackered after three tough rides back to back, how are you going to 12-14 on the Transcontinental race? I’m not sure any of us know the answer to that question just yet but we’re pretty excited about finding out and even when we’re suffering like we’ve never before at some point on the race route, i’m certain that with these boys there a laugh is never too far away.
Despite the customarily enthusiastic start, its been longer than i intended since my last (and first) blog entry. I actually wrote the following entry a little over a week ago before the May Bank holiday weekend but between work, bit of social and cramming in some training for this transcontinental race, i found enough distractions to delay the posting until today. Anyway, here is my update and the next one will follow soon as i definitely have some stories from Hell Camp which i need to share…
It’s been a month since my last (and first) blog entry so it felt the time has come to update those who are interested on how my compadre’s and I are getting on. It’s been a great month for me personally with spring having been more often than not in the air, a great Easter weekend break in the Lake District with my girlfriend which was mercifully bereft of the downpours and a suitably sizable 30th birthday celebration for a couple of friends to top it off.
Amidst this vast array of exuberance I was fortunate enough to have the pleasure of bumbling through, you will be glad to hear i did manage to keep my transcontinental quest largely on track or at least no further than a stone’s throw away. I’m sure most people can identify with times when real life encroaches on our ability to indulge our need to dress up in lycra and imitate Mario Cippolini and in the last month I’ve experienced a few of these moments. Fear not however, between these times I’ve been disciplined enough to climb into those tight lycra shorts, slick my hair back like the great man and pedal away for a few hours to keep myself on track for the Transcontinental Race.
I’m sure everyone is dying to find out how Ron, K-Ron and Stone are doing and I am happy to report everybody is doing well. We’ve all bought some of the stuff we’ll need on our adventure, some of which I never envisaged needing to buy before signing up to this. Items purchased so far include a dynamo hub (shout out to Ron for doing the boring research into which one is best) and a “power pack” which I’m told I will also need (thanks Ron). Unfortunately i’m told the power pack doesn’t power the bike itself. Presumably there are more exciting purchases on the horizon (more in number rather than offering greater excitement which is surely impossible).
The next key milestone on our Transcontinental quest is ‘Hell Camp’ which begins this Friday. Id usually expect us to have come up with a wittier name with which to dub our training weekend but Stoney seemed to find the name Hell Camp apt enough and with our minds clouded by the scale of the event itself this name seems to have stuck. In fact, the only other suggestion came from Ron’s wife Elly who mistakenly referred to it as ‘Death Camp’ but this didn’t catch on. The camp is over the long weekend and will consist of three particularly savage century (100 mile) rides around West Yorkshire. Apparently I’ve been told to expect distances of ~100 miles and ~3500 mtrs of vertical ascent per day. Best not forget the chamois cream.
I’ll be writing a post on the events of Hell Camp very soon. Stay tuned as there will certainly be an entertaining anecdote or two to share from that.