TCR No. 5: The Race to Meteora

Missed my last post, click here:  CP4 to Macedonia

Start from the beginning here: TCR No 5 – The Start

Good Sensations

I set off, enjoying the cool air and fast road and made good time. Just before Bitola, the dubious sandwich I’d had a couple hours earlier was confirmed dodgy. I made a dash into the loos, and while there checked the tracker on my phone and spotted #80 Nelson was stopped just ahead in Bitola, and hadn’t moved in a while. 6th place wasn’t too far away, and with a bit of renewed nervous and excited energy, I moved onto the border.

It seemed to take an age to get through passport control, but once rolling I started upping my pace trying to put a bit of a gap between me and Nelson. #187 Rory was a little too far ahead, but it was exciting to be in a bit of a race to the finish line.

It was 10 am and already 29 Degrees, and I was low on water. I spotted a service station just off my route, and made a dash for some supplies. They only had coke and water, and didn’t take cards for such a small amount, but thankfully after a bit of fishing around in my jersey pockets, I found the last of my Euros. 3 water bottles (NO GAS!) and two cokes for €2 – half my budget for the day.

Topped up I pushed on, finding I was checking the tracker for movement frequently. I’d managed to get about a 15-20 km gap on Nelson, but #131 Robert was also closing in about another 15 km behind. It was hard to judge as I imagined our routes would differ. These sorts of distances are nothing in a race like this, and it was a strange feeling to be pushing virtually full gas after 3,800 km and 10 days. Since leaving Bulgaria the morning before, I’d moved from 10th to 6th. I was buzzing 🙂

I made two more quick pit stops, one for sunscreen (yay! they accept cards!) as I’d run out the day before in Serbia, and another for some water and coke using the last of my Euros. The roads didn’t always match up with the route in these parts, as there were a number of new ones that didn’t show up on the Wahoo. I put my faith in the ELEMNT and fate, and pushed on.

There were a number of incredibly fun and fast descents. Full aero tuck race mode initiated in the hope that I’d make up some time for my slow climbing speeds. Knowing that the finish parcours of Meteora would likely mean Nelson and Robert would gain some ground when I got to them. At one point while checking the tracker on my phone while on a climb, I looked up to find myself heading for a foot high kerb. I somehow managed to bunny hop onto the pavement before having a strong word with myself about making sure I get to the finish, rather than worry about where everyone else is. All I needed to do was keep going and finish; it’s all I could do, all I could control and silly mistakes and sheer bad luck were probably the only two things that could work against me.

After crossing a short bridge over a lake, I turned up onto the first of the 4 or 5 climbs I had left before the finish. Checking the tracker was a mute point now as the sun was overhead and incredibly bright – I couldn’t see a thing on the screen. That same sunshine was almost the undoing of me. There was a slight tailwind following me up, meaning there was dead air, and the temperature here peaked at about 47 Deg C. My heart rate was going mental in complaint. I put my cap on under my helmet, doused in water in a vain attempt to try and keep my head cool and the sun off it. It was brutal. I remembered from a trip to Sardinia earlier in the year on a really hot and steep climb, where focusing and slowing my breathing allowed me to bring my heart rate under control. A technique specific to hot climbs. It was not quite as effective here, but it certainly helped me get it under control.

As focused as my breathing may have been, some part of me became quite confused. For some reason, with about 60 km to go, I thought that I was already on the parcours for the finish. This was compounded as I came to the small town at the top, where the road became a very loose and rocky gravel track. In my mind I had a wry grin, thinking this had Mike Hall’s cunning plan written all over it. If the sunshine wasn’t so bright I’d be able to see that it was another 40 km to the start of the last finish parcours climb.

“…the road became a very loose and rocky gravel track. In my mind I had a wry grin, thinking this had Mike Hall’s cunning plan written all over it”

Once I was onto tarmac, I relaxed and dropped off the pace significantly. There were 4 more climbs, each fairly significant especially in this heat. On top of this, my water had either been drunk, poured over my head, or evaporated in the heat. I was thirsty.

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Getting distracted by the scenery, just 4 more climbs to go…

On a climb up to the town of Elati, I honestly thought I was going to pass out. In the square of the town was the most magical sight – I had found a bar. I had no money, so hoped they’d allow me some tap water. I must have been an absolute state and could barely string words together; “w-w-w-waaatteeerr, please…”, or something equally as pathetic sounding. I’m sure the barman recognised my plight quite quickly, and ushered me to a sink behind the bar. I drank a lot of water in a short space of time, and also put my head under the tap to cool down.

The temperature here had peaked on my Wahoo at 49 degrees C. Maybe it was from when parked outside the bar, but it felt about right. I’m certain I was suffering from heat stroke at this point, and was glad to find a table in the shade to compose myself, cool down and re-hydrate. I knew I couldn’t hang around for long, so took the opportunity for one last refill before setting off.

The next 20 km aren’t clear, but following the tracker I could see #12 Nelson had taken a completely different route. For some reason, coupled with the thought that I was already on the parcours, I thought that he’d skipped it and was heading straight for Meteora. Very confused. I remember at one point checking the tracker with two climbs to go and seeing he was less than 10 km behind me. It kind of made me wonder if the tracking sites had been slow to update and he was now right behind me… this was in fact partially true. My dithering, heat exhaustion and slow climbing meant Nelson had made some big gains. He was also on a route to the last climb with significantly less climbing in.

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Feeling ‘fresh’. That base layer washed out well.

I was still somewhat oblivious to this. I actually went straight past the turning for the last climb by a few hundred meters. I had virtually nothing left. I was on my own for the lower slopes, with the exception of about a hundred flies determined to get into my eyes. While swatting them at one point I knocked my sunglasses out of my helmet onto the road, so had to stop to pick them up. Getting going again was not easy. It was steep, and a real struggle to clip back in and get momentum.

Not long afterwards, Camille McMillan and Jacopo pulled up alongside in a car, chatting and taking photos. I was suffering big time, with steep roads, dead air with another tail wind, and hundreds of flies buzzing around my face. Seeing them gave me a bit of a lift, but it faded as soon as I realised their expectations may have been for me to move a bit quicker.

By now water was almost out, but the finish wasn’t far so just kept turning the pedals as best I could. My lower back was getting tight from the steep gradient, and I was moving very slowly. I recall passing Bjorn’s girlfriend who said she’d come out to see Nelson and I. I believe I said I didn’t think Nelson was doing the parcours today… My mind was not clear, as I’d have normally made the small leap that it would mean Nelson was basically right behind me.

I was so relieved to get to the top. I stopped by a sign that must have been the ‘summit’ sign and took a couple of photos and selfies. The way my head was hanging shows how much I was suffering.

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Waiting for Nelson… Hardly able to hold my head up.

I decided to just get it over with and started to head off, only to come around the corner to find Jacopo and Camille in a car park. I rolled over to say hello. I was broken, and just happy to see some familiar faces. I slumped over the bars, taking a moment to recover a little. I swigged the last of my now warm water, while Camille snapped away.

The next thing I know I see Nelson sailing past with a cheeky wave. I was a little mortified, but I was still clinging onto the hope that he’d only done ‘part of the parcours’… Yeah, I know… I’ll remember Camille’s words just then as clear as day… “You’re not going to let him get away with that, are you?!”, but only after he got ‘The Photo’ of the pass. #93 Geoffroy came bombing past as well, having finished about 24 hours before, was now equipped with a moped. I could have done with one of them!

I duly gave chase, and after a 3 second sprint from the car park, I knew the game was up. I had absolutely nothing left to give. I gainfully tried to make time up on the descent, but with the fatigue I’d lost all skill in descending and cornering and there were also a couple or reverses.

Little did I know, dot watchers had gone mad watching the race for 6th & 7th. I’d joked many times about keeping dotwatchers entertained. I think this was job done!

I decided to focus on just getting down in one piece, and was kind of grateful to bump into a dot watcher on the way down. It meant I had someone to talk to, although I’m not clear on how much sense I was making, nor entirely sure what was discussed.

Into town, and through to the edge and the finish at Hotel Divani. I’d half expected to be in tears and really emotional at the finish. I had been at a few points along the way, feeling really low, sad, thinking of Mike and Frank. In the end, I was genuinely just so happy to be over and done with riding my bike, and being cheered in by a handful of veterans and riders friends and family, and the volunteers at the finish I had a huge smile on my face.

I was 7th over the line, just missing out on 6th by 7 minutes, completing the race in 10 days, 20 hours and 31 minutes.

I was quite broken at the finish. I was handed a beer, and kindly given a Gyros pitta, which was the most amazing thing I’d eaten. Ever. Thanks Flo! It would be the first of about 100 I’d eat over the following 5 days.

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Hobos. Thanks for the Gyros, Flo!

I could barely hold my head up properly, and after the second beer I was feeling quite pissed and ready to sleep. Only problem was, I needed to find a room!

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L->R #80 Nelson, #154 me, #75 James, #26 Bjorn & #93 Geoffroy (pic from PedalEd/Jacopo)

Checkpoint 5

If there’s one thing that stands out about the Transcontinental Race for me, is that even with spending the best part of 11 days on your own riding your bike, you have the feeling are constantly part of something bigger. Chance encounters and a passing conversation or hello with fellow riders, the unbridled enthusiasm and friendliness of checkpoint staff and volunteers, the occasional dot watcher who’s waited out seemingly in the middle of nowhere in 40 degree heat to catch you passing for 5 minutes or so. And finally, the camaraderie, friendship, stories, many many beers & meals, and mutual respect of other riders and friends and family at the finish. You can guarantee there’ll always be someone wanting to go for ice cream, a second, third, fourth lunch, a beer or few at the finish location of the TCR. The gathering at the finish with beers bought and shared generously; welcoming new finishers with beer, applause and hugs – it’s a natural, primal need for most racers, friends and family. It’s a great atmosphere, and a highlight.

All the food, beer, ice cream, shops and hotels in abundance. Meteora has everything you need post race.

 

Exploring

A few of us headed over to a nearby mountain lake for a bit of a swim thanks to a tip from Geoffroy, taking the opportunity to explore a little and have a go at being a tourist. The whole surrounding area is worth an explore, if there’s time it’s worth hiring a car or motorbike (very cheaply) from one of the local car hires.

The Meteora Monasteries

After a couple of days in Meteora of not doing very much at all, I felt the urge to go and explore the amazing Meteora Monasteries. This did mean going for a bike ride, but I was quite glad to spin the legs, despite the heat of the day. I intend to explore the actual monasteries if I get back there again, but without wanting to leave the bike unattended outside them I skipped it.

 

Ride for #172 Frank Simons

It was really important that we did something to remember Frank Simons, who tragically died early in the race. Frank’s son, Job Simons had travelled from Canada to the finish in Meteora. After a few words in the centre of town, taking a moment to remember Frank, we took a short ride around the outside of Meteora with a police escort. There was a big turnout, and was nice to have a ride and short chat with Job.

 

Finishers Party

The finishers party is an essential part of the TCR, and the main target for most racers. A time to look back at the race, celebrate all the finishers, those who were still out on the road, and those who couldn’t make it. It was also important to thank all of the volunteers, dot watchers and everyone involved in the race. There’s so much that goes into making this race happen, especially so this year with the late decision to go ahead and make it a race that Mike would have been proud of, and I’m certain that he was.

There’s so much thanks to give to everyone involved with this race, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I have so much thanks to give everyone involved. This race, and the last have given me an opportunity to do something so far removed from normal life that at times in my life I could never have dreamed possible. Life changing possibly doesn’t really cover it. For Mike, Anna, Juliana, Rory, Pat, Russell, Mike’s family, all the checkpoint staff and volunteers, all the dot watchers, riders, friends and family. Big thanks to EVERYONE involved for making this an amazing race, and one that I believe Mike would have been proud.

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It was great to see so many finishers and riders who had made their way to the finish after scratching. There were a number of race veterans as well, Vasiliki Voutzali, and Rose McGovern amongst others to share beer and stories of the road with.

Heading Home

The day after the party, I carried this bastard of a box down to the bus station. From there, it was a bus to the main bus terminal hub in Trikala, before changing to another bus headed for Athens. I’d had the foresight to use my avios points to buy a business class return ticket back to London, meaning I spent the best part of 2 hours in the business class lounge eating and drinking for free, followed by the comfiest and most relaxed flight back.

My good friend, Rob kindly picked me and the bike up from Heathrow. I had a suspicion that the guys and girls back at G!RO were planning another welcome home party, but wasn’t sure as it was nearly 11pm by the time I was nearing home. Rob is terrible at keeping a secret, and broke straight away. As it was so late,  the welcome home was at a local curry house in Esher. This was perfect – beer and a curry with friends. I was pretty shattered, but really happy to be back with everyone who’d supported me and followed my dot. Lots of stories to share.

Official Results

For me, it doesn’t really change too much, but in the official results there were a number of penalties applied to riders ahead of me. This meant that I was promoted to 5th place, due to both Rory & Nelson incurring a 3 hour penalty. It just goes to show how close the racing was after 4,000 km and 11 days.

Final stats 3,976.5 km, 34,659 m, 10D 20H 31M

Official results can be found here

Some results analysis and details can be found over on Chris Whites Ultra Distance Bible site here

Last days stats

  • Distance: ~250 km.
  • Elevation:  ~1,500 m
  • Moving Time:  12 hours, 30 min approx
  • Strava: File 1
  • Ice Creams: 2

 

 

 

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This doesn’t really hint at the experiences that can be found by riding your bike.

 

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Check out this site to explore all the riders social media posts on the way the Meteora
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