It’s amazing how much you can learn in the first few days of the Transcontinental Race, things that you would have thought you might have picked up before hand. I decided to make a list of some of those points in the hope that I’ll remember them for TCR No. 5.
At least that is the hope! Failing that, it makes for an entertaining list of stupid or funny things that I did, or should have done, or that just happened during the race. I’ve a feeling this is going to be a long ish list, some funny, some just plain dumb, others a little concerning and questionable decision making. At the end of the day, a list things not to do next time round. This is part 1 for now, we’ll see if there’s enough to add (remember) from the rest of the race.
Start -> CP1
Not drinking enough. Really dull, I know but was an important lesson I learned quickly. I made sure that my hydration drink was doubled up with tablets to make sure I got my salts
The route I took. I wasn’t the only one, and it wasn’t that stupid, but it was really hilly. Lots and lots of rolling ups and downs on rural French roads. I did about 6,000 meters on the first day even before I got to CP1.
Not sleeping in the night. I was really sleepy at one point on that first night, and was rolling through the countryside looking for a suitable field to bivvy in. I had zero experience of bivvying, knowing where to bivvy, or more importantly where not to bivvy. In the early hours of that first morning I was about to stop. One look over my shoulder and the sight of a Dynamo light set my mind straight – ride through the night. Its not the daftest thing, and maybe done me alright in the end.
Seeing things/hallucinating at night became quite unnerving. I’m really quite comfortable in my own company, but I think a big part of me needs to have people around or to interact with. When I was tired, alone and looking at the shadows in the trees from my dynamo, a combined sign and street post, I would see people, faces and all sorts. Some were downright scary, others were just weirdly familiar. The first two nights before I got any sleep were so bad for this.
Not stopping to put sunscreen on Day 1. Again, a rider was following me. I felt like had to get away, but they kept getting closer and closer… All very daft. I ended up taking a detour down a random road and found some shelter from the sun and lathered on the sun screen. But not before my hands, arm, face and the palms of my hands (upturned while on the aero bars…) were red with sunburn. Everything was sore already!
No Chamois cream. I’ve not used any in over a year now. Day 1 on the TCR my arse was shredded to bits. I yearned for chamois cream, or something to take the pain away. I did learn that after about 4 hours, the pain subsides. Until you shift your position in the saddle. Then there’s another 4 hours of pain.
Not stopping for proper food. I found a boulangerie in the morning on Day 1 and bought some choquette’s and two pies. I saved one, ate the other. Everything else I ate that day was junk – crisps, chocolate, ice cream, haribo, fruit mentos. A baguette and some cheese should have been the order of the day.
After nearly 600km from the start, I decided I was too tired to go on. I crept into a field where straw had just been harvested. Clumps of 2 inch high straw stems littered the field like an inviting bed of nails. I crept into the field, made my bed and suffered the discomfort
Banging my shin on my pedal. This field was close to a farmhouse so I wanted to be as quiet as possible. I banged my shin on the pedal and all I wanted to do was scream! It instantly swelled up to a tennis ball size lump on my shin with a trickle of blood.
Not really making my bed and laying on the straw. I just laid down in the warm evening covering myself with my gilet, looking up at the stars and drifted off to the throbbing of my shin. I woke up maybe an hour later with light rain falling shivering heavily. No other option than to pack up and get moving.
Riding through the early dark morning when dead tired. Aero bars, night time, 6oo KM in the legs with 1 hour sleep = drifting off/micro sleeps on the bike. I managed to catch myself before it got to far, but should have got myself more sleep
Racing another TCR rider through Clermont Ferrand to CP1. I make it to the checkpoint start, and forget which is the checkpoint hotel. When checking my notes, the rider I had just raced arrives and rocks straight up to the correct hotel, ahead of me.
“Up the stairs, to the left of the lift” is what she said. I got in the lift and went up one floor and couldn’t find the bathroom. Back down and turned right and there it was.
The state of my shorts. And my arse. Sore. I lathered sudocrem and savlon on the sore bits. Really don’t think it helped much.
Chamois cream? Damn it.
Following the CP1 parcours loaded on my GPS. I was so focused on following the parcours exactly, I wasn’t really looking where I was going. Off route came too many times
Not listening or writing down what sign or date I needed to look for at the top of CP1 parcours as evidence of completing it. It was a date on a sign in a window. I think..? No one asked for this information anyway, but I wasted about 10-15 minutes at the top looking for it… Was anyone else sent on this treasure hunt?!
If you have enjoyed this, let me know in the comments below as I have many more tales of woe and failure to divulge.
Politics and celebrity deaths aside, for me it’s been all about the Transcontinental Race. It is more than that though, to think of everything I’ve done to get me there and then beyond; its been incredible. Most of this I’ve blogged about in previous posts but it’s worth mentioning again the amount of fun I’ve had preparing for the TCR while riding with a great bunch of mates. If you want to see those TCR posts, start here
These guys have been with me all the way from winter rides in January through some crazy overnight rides and long mid summer rides. The knowledge and experience I’ve gained just through chatting to some friends and others I’ve met on or in the cafe after rides has also gone a long way to helping me prepare. I’m often terrible at taking on good advice, but with the sheer amount of it some actually stuck in the end.
The TCR itself went better than I could have possibly imagined. I originally had an optimistic plan of a 10 day finish but that went out the window as soon as I realised how poor and naive my route planning was and I hit the third set of mountains in France. Still finishing in 12 days, the main goal I had focused on, was achieved with a time of 11 days, 9 hours and 26 mins. 12th place was a huge surprise, but there were a number of strong riders that scratched ahead of me. Most importantly was how much fun I had doing it. The freedom you feel, coupled with all the sights, sounds and people you meet on the way has me hooked on this type of adventure. The bug has been caught, without a doubt. I’ve met some great people through the TCR, and I’m still meeting them. This is a big community, and I have been fortunate to meet some incredible people. You meet them on the road, at checkpoints, at the finish, at meetup rides and events. The common language and similar experiences, as well as the shared bug for it breaks down barriers.
I was absolutely blown away by a surprise party that the crew at G!RO threw for me when I came back from Turkey. Such a nice gesture, and is certainly a highlight of my year. Since that, it has been tough time post TCR. A little bit of the blues, low motivation, some injuries lingering on. As a result, not being able to ride was tough for a bit, but I did just enough to keep myself happy. I’m really quite lucky to have a good bunch of friends around me that will keep me motivated and join me in slightly crazy rides. One issue that I still have is that I have no control over my diet anymore. Possibly a hangover from the TCR, but maybe just who I am. January will need to see some significant weight loss and will power. Needless to say there’s a lot of stored energy to burn and a lot of ideas to use it up on.
I took the opportunity to relax a bit and try to recover, but still managed to get in a few adventures with the G!RO crew in late August and September. Riding just for the sake or riding with your mates, with nothing to prove is why I do this. Highlights were a late summer cruise out to the Chiltern’s via Henley, and a ‘Castle Crusade’, in search of all the castles we could find between Portsmouth, Steyning and Esher.
In September I took part in the Revolve 24 team relay event at Brands Hatch. This is so much fun despite the tough endurance nature of it. This was the second year I’ve taken part in it with a team from G!RO Cycles, and is the best fun you can you can have on a bike with mates. So much fun! The first session on Track was a Le Mans style sprint across the track, jump on the bike and go for it!
Some serious competition this year as well. On the third lap, I gave way to let some others do the work and rolled onto the last wheel. The last wheels legs were ripped. This wheel turned out to be Jason Kenny’s. I narrowly beat Jason to 2nd in the fastest lap competition. Yes, that’s right, I’m faster than Jason Kenny!
We were doing quite well, but I think my tactics failed us towards the end. For much of the night we were holding 2nd, but gradually lost out to 3rd and finished 4th in the 4 team relay. It’s partly a luck game too – missing out on the mini peloton after a changeover meant working solo and sapping time. Still so much fun. Was a great chance to catch up with some fellow TCR No. 4 riders Paul Buckley and Stuart Bernie who were part of the team that pipped us to 3rd. Josh Ibbett was also there with the Bike Channel, and was great to see all the familiar faces.
We were racing with two 4 man teams from G!RO, and a lasting memory for me was finding a rider from the other team out the back of the track at 4am. What followed was a little over an hour of 2-up chaingang after we had managed to drop the hangers-on. Tired, cold, wet, with heavy legs smashing it round a very lumpy race track – couldn’t have been in a happier place!
Since September, things went quiet on the bike front for a bit. Sort of. I went to Las Vegas for my sister’s wedding and hired a bike. Naturally!
Biggest highlight of Vegas (after my sister’s wedding of course!) was a road trip out to the Grand Canyon North Rim, an incredible place!
I got out for one last big adventure at the end of November before the cold settled in. I rode the bike down to Newhaven on Friday night to catch the ferry to Dieppe. From there I rode down in the cold and dark night to Evreux, then up through Calvados towards Caen for a stop in a hotel before a ferry home the next day. I really enjoyed the lanes and countryside of Calvados, and must plan some more adventures like this. It was worth it just for the Boulangeries!
Christmas was once again a bit of a focus on the festive 500. I also had a target mileage for the year, so used both as some motivation to get some miles in over the Christmas period. I spent Christmas in Kington, right next to mid Wales, and used the opportunity to its fullest. On the way up from my mums in west Wales, I stopped off at Brecon and did a loop of the Black Mountain and reverse Devils Elbow. Stunning place.
Boxing day I headed over to the Elan Valley. Despite some navigational errors and some dead ends, I had one of my favourite days riding of the year. The Elan Valley is a special place, and I’m making some plans to go back there very soon!
I rounded it off with a trip down to Gospel Pass on the way back to the smoke. A really tough day, and a much steeper climb than I had given it credit for. Worth the effort by the time you get to the top – the views are incredible.
To round of my year on the bike we went for a social with the regular G!RO crew over to Windsor for some Iced buns, a perfect way to cap the year off. This ride brought my mileage for the year up to 13,000 miles, just shy of 21,000 kilometers. Happy with that!
This has been an incredible year, and have been really fortunate for the most part. Thanks to everyone that’s been a part of it! I can’t wait for all that 2017 will bring, with lots of challenges and adventures already planned and ready to go. Watch this space – I hope to keep it interesting!
Shortly after as dawn was breaking I made it to the border. I was starting to flag a bit, but there was a certain euphoria at having made it through the night and into Greece. This started to catch up with me and in the early morning sun, and I began to nod off. I decided enough was enough and pulled into a field to sit down for a short snooze to shake the fatigue.
A dog barking in the distance snapped me back into waking, realising that it could be a TCR rider approaching. Time to hop on and push on.
The short cat nap did little to lull the fatigue, but I was handling it for the most part. I’m not sure when my beloved Sportful no rain long sleeve jersey fell off the back of my saddle bag, but I only realised shortly before Seres. I back tracked for about 6 or 7km and found nothing. The frustration of losing my best jacket which had my last good inner tube, large chocolate 7 Days croissant, and my l’Etape du tour 2014 snood; it was quite a low point, losing the time in the search, riding through large puddles from the previous nights rain multiple times in a vain search for my jacket.
After giving up, I resigned myself to making sure I was refueled and covering all the things that I could in order to keep myself moving. I stopped in Serres at a cafe and stuffed myself with a large baguette, washed down with a couple of cokes. Checking the tracker, it was getting close with a number of riders closing in. Again, time to get moving.
I stopped briefly outside of town only to see Daniel Fisher motoring past in an aero tuck. I jumped back on, and proceeded to do my best to chase him down. I mean, I had to have a go, right? We leapfrogged each other a couple of times on the road to Xanthi, and in conversation on one passing, it turned out that Daniel had picked up my lost Sportful knee warmers having found them on the gravel road in Macedonia. Result! Apart from that, it was a bit of an unspoken battle and felt good to be in a bit of a race.
The heat of the day was building with a steady headwind. It was wearing me down, and after a bit of a battering on the cobbled streets of Kavala both my bike & I needed a little TLC. I had to make a hasty repair with cable ties to my seat tube bottle cage that cracked on the cobbles. I also noticed my dynamo light connector had broken while switching to charge devices, so that would need some fixing before a final push overnight to the finish, but could wait for now.
One thing had been building all day – sore feet. All the cycling through muddy puddles had taken their toll on my shoes, socks and feet which were all still wet despite the 30 deg C + temperatures. After seeing Dan & my route split at Xanthi on trackleaders, I took some time out to tend to them while eating ice cream and drinking a double espresso. Trench foot is what it turned out to be, and it was very painful. I aired my feet, socks and shoes for as long as I could, but was itching to get moving.
I took a southerly coastal route to Komotini, so was fairly exposed to the headwind. It was tough going, and although I felt I was losing lots of time, I really wasn’t that far behind Daniel. Even so, by Komotini I was bonking so pulled into a garage to get water, coke and food. I was greeted by some incredible hospitality. The owner could see I was suffering and after a short conversation about where I was going and where I had come from, invited me to sit down and have a coffee and water with him. He refused to take any money for it, and was a really nice moment discussing Greek, Macedonian and Turkish politics.
It was time to push on, and the dogs that had been sat at my feet while chatting away were now chasing me down the road. Little buggers! Before long I was through Komotini and on the road south towards Alexandroupoli. There was a small set of to hills to navigate as it was getting dark, and yet again some distant flashes hinted at an encroaching storm. The darkness set off the fatigue again. With the added heat, I was really flagging and it got a bit dangerous as I was nodding off at times on the descent. I eventually gave into fatigue and made camp in a bus stop for about an hour to recover enough to push through the night.
After about an hour I felt OK again, more driven by hunger than anything. I stopped in Alexandroupoli and ate crisps, coke and chocolate at a cafe and topped up my water bottles. I figured with about 200km to go, this could well be the last stop, so made the most of it.
Pushing up to the Turkish border was really tough. There was a steady cool headwind pushing down the hill towards me, and I was literally crawling. It was quite a low point – I had energy, but no motivation to use any of it. I kept on looking to the distance thinking that the lights ahead was the border, but it just never seem to come.
That’s when Sylvain #223 pulled up along side. His company helped me get through that short eternal road to the border. We rode side by side chatting all the way, sharing concerns about the route to take to Çanakkale. We finally made the border and the 5 or so checkpoints at about 2am. I lost Sylvian for a bit – he dropped something them met again a little further down the road. This was it now, the final stretch.
We road together for a bit, but being on the motorway it became necessary to separate. I really found my rhythm here, and before long I couldn’t see Sylvains dynamo light behind me.
The rest of the night was a bit of a blur. I had some really strange deja vu with some bizarre feeling that I’d done all this before. I had of course completely forgotten about the last hill on the motorway before heading down towards the Gallipoli peninsular, and it seemed to go on for an age as well. The sheer number of buses that past fairly close and at seemingly enormous speeds was a little hairy at times. I couldn’t quite fathom where all these coaches were headed at 3 or 4 am.
My left Achilles tendon decided to give up about here. I’d been pushing quite hard through the night, so must have just pushed it beyond its limit. For a large part of the hill I was pedaling with one leg.
The fatigue really set in too. Theres something about long straight descents at night-time that really send me to sleep. It was getting sketchy at times, but for now it was OK. My tendons were thankful for the rest.
It was about 5 or 6 am, and I was starting to really feel the fatigue. I had been glancing over my shoulder looking for the tell-tale dynamo light creeping up, when I turned back to look where I was going it was off the edge of the road, just as a bus sailed past. Before I could correct the course the front wheel was over the side of the tarmac and I was down. The small 2-3 inch drop was more than enough to stop me in my tracks.
I got up quickly, dusted myself down and basically jumped straight back on. From near sleep to buzzing with adrenaline in one spill. I’d managed to graze my arm and leg, but was largely feeling OK. I kept going for another hour before the inevitable adrenaline crash – I was double tired now. A quick stop in a service station for coffee led to some really friendly staff cleaning me up. There was a fair bit of dirt and blood on my arm and it looked bad, worse than it actually was. They kindly cleaned me up and gave me a free coffee before I jumped back on and headed on my way.
Dawn was breaking now, but the fatigue was still trying to put me to sleep. I didn’t want to stop for the fear of someone overtaking me. If I had mobile data in Turkey, I would have been able to see that I had a good hour or more on the next rider. I didn’t, so I pushed on, keeping the legs turning.
This is where I started talking to things. Partly because I was going crazy and partly to try to stay awake and alert. I would greet road signs and have very one-sided conversations. This carried on for a while, then I tried to mix it up a bit with putting in some efforts. Once I saw the 50km to go sign, I thought I’d pick up the pace.
I tried, really hard. There was nothing I could do to maintain any kind of effort. My heart rate just wouldn’t get about 110. This was annoying! I just wanted to push on and be done, but it wasn’t going to happen in a hurry. This was a grind.
I had a nice burst of pace shortly before the final town of Escabat, and the ferry. Out of nowhere, while slightly drifting off again, two angry dogs came barreling out from the side of the road intent on savaging me. That really woke me up. They had no chance of catching me though – adrenaline really does the job.
I arrived in Escabat, found a cash machine and bought my ferry ticket – the next one having just arrived. I’d done it. This felt really odd, probably as I was so tired, but it was hard to fathom any of it. I was a bit gutted I had no power in my phone and no way of taking pictures or letting anyone know, but I was sure people back home were all following the dot.
I boarded the ferry and purchased a coke, crisps and chocolate feeling utterly elated. I sat down, and slowly drank and ate. I fell asleep then, waking just as the boat was docking in Çanakkale. A sketchy walk down the stairs to collect my bike and walked off the ferry.
A short pedal around the corner to the clock tower, and that was it – finished! The race crew and volunteers were there to check me into the finish, stamp my card and congratulate me. I was asked how I felt at that point, and honestly nearly burst into tears there and then. I didn’t feel I had the energy for that though. I felt relief, euphoria, happy, sad, all sorts of emotions that are hard to describe. I’d had the time of my life and a big part of me didn’t want it to end.
I was asked how I felt at that point, and honestly nearly burst into tears there and then. I didn’t feel I had the energy for that though. I felt relief, euphoria, happy, sad, all sorts of emotions that are hard to describe. I’d had the time of my life and a big part of me didn’t want it to end.
It would take a while to source the hotel, food, clothes, flip-flops, ice-cream, kebabs and new iPhone cable before I could start taking photos and get in touch with everyone back home. But that was all OK.
I finished in 12th place, after 11 days, 9 hours and 26 minutes
I finished in 12th place, after 11 days, 9 hours and 26 minutes. My main goal had been to complete the race in less than 12 days, giving me a good few days to unwind in Çanakkale ahead of the finishers party and heading home.
It took me a while for all of this to sink in, and as a rookie in the TCR I kind of felt like I didn’t belong there so close to the top riders. Chatting to everyone in the days after helped reconcile this, but until I have another go I’m not sure it’ll be fully resolved. I’m definitely going to try to have another go at this!
This has been a truly life changing journey for me, and wouldn’t have been possible without everyone involved with the Transcontinental Race. It’s a huge community, that almost seems like a (slightly crazy) family.
To Anna & Mike for organising such an incredible event, to everyone behind the scenes that helped bring it together. To Tom for sorting out my new tracker. To everyone who watched over my little blue dot for two weeks, everyone at the start, each of the checkpoints and the finish, many of whom are volunteers.
To all the riders I met along the way, to the dot watchers that came out and said hello, to everyone on social media who wished me luck.
I feel really quite privileged to have been part of this incredible event, and hope to come back and have many more goes at it in the future.
While resting at CP4 on the Sunday afternoon, checking Facebook when I saw some from family indicating that sadly, my Nan had passed away over the weekend. This was a bit of a shock. My gran was a vibrant character, even at 95 years of age was very active. I made some calls home to see how my mum and sister were doing, and came away lost in thought, but also with some added determination to get to the finish for my Nan. Before the race she had been really interested in all the training and the riding I had been doing and had sent a good luck card to wish me on my way. I had meant to give her a call before I left for Belgium to say thank you, but with all the preparations and last-minute packing, I sadly didn’t get the chance. My mum reassured me that this was OK, I had asked her to pass on my thanks before the race and she told me how proud my Nan was of me. This gave me a powerful determination to ride – to finish and finish strong.
She told me how proud my Nan was of me. This gave me a powerful determination to ride – to finish and finish strong.
I love this pic of my Nan, mum and me taken a few years ago:
I woke on my alarm at 4am. I’d spent the previous evening sleeping, eating pizza and drying my clothes and shoes with a hair dryer. Putting them on in the morning it was clear that they were still quite damp. I’d resigned myself to getting wet anyway, so wasn’t too bothered. Most of the riders that had arrived the previous day had already pushed on, including the #212’s and #223 Sylvian. A couple of others, Daniel Fisher #133 and Stephane #12 arrived in the night and were also getting up ready to move out in the morning. I was quite organised and after a quick chat with the checkpoint night shift, rolled off down the hill towards Kosovo.
First a long twisty wet and foggy road down, then a couple of moderate climbs, but nothing too challenging apart from one shortcut through a ridiculously steep back street that thankfully didn’t last too long. The last of the climbs was the gentle road up to the Kosovan border shrouded in yet more fog.
One of the lasting memories I have of Montenegro is its familiarity. The place reminded me of my home, Wales in many ways. Steep misty valleys, rocky mountain tops. It was a feeling, and outside of the Durmitor National Park and the road to Kosovo may have little reality beyond my own mind. I regret that I didn’t really see the place, mainly thanks to the shroud of darkness or the aforementioned cloud and mist, and as such I took no photos in Montenegro. This is something I’m going to fix one day!
Check out some of the vimeo videos from the Durmitor National Park here, part of some of the incredible photography and videography from inside the race this year – https://vimeo.com/178151522
The border of Kosovo was shrouded in fog in the early morning. It wasn’t that cold, but visibility was fairly low. After a short chat with the border guard I was off down the misty hill into Kosovo, following a very cautious car. This was fine for me, as the car was a good marker for all the hairpins on the way down. It was about midmorning by the time I was down the and into plains of Kosovo.
I really had no idea what to expect from Kosovo. It was poor, that was obvious. Despite this the friendliness of the people I met was fantastic. Each time I stopped, I would be invited to sit down and talk about my bike and the trip I was on.
Sadly, my impressions of the place went down a few pegs as I moved through the country. The traffic, pollution and driving standards were all worth a few swears as I made my way. It had heated up a little bit as well, and in general really didn’t enjoy my time there. Being driven off the road by a lorry was not fun.
I’d not seen any riders since leaving the hostel in Montenegro, but I did spot some carelessly discarded Haribo Golden Bears on the road (a shameless waste of a favourite) – a clear sign that there were some TCR riders not too far up the road. I still had no data so couldn’t check, but it was a nice incentive to pick up the pace a little.
Going via Pristina was not part of the plan, more of a miscalculation – I skipped my tuning from my GPS file and used offline maps to take main roads. The town was gridlocked and a little hairy at times. Once through it was a relatively straightforward road down to the border. Again, no photos, but don’t feel an urge to go back and correct this. I made the border in the late afternoon, feeling fairly pleased with my progress and glad to have Kosovo behind me. I found the people incredibly friendly, but it was not a fun place to ride my bike.
Shortly after the border, I stopped in Skopje for some food and refreshments, only really the second stop of the day. I bought a feast at a service station that also had free wifi. This was a first chance to check on my position on trackleaders, as well as getting in touch with friends and family. I had been fairly pleased with my progress since Montenegro, but the encouragement I was getting was blowing my mind and driving me on even more.
One of the good things about Kosovo had been the road surface. This kind of fell apart in Macedonia. After setting off from Skopje, I took the only road I knew was available – a sort of back road to Veles. This had to be the worst road on the trip so far, and was just unrelenting. It all started off harmlessly enough, with some minor cobbles exposed under some fading tarmac. As I left civilisation, the road just got worse.
I heard there had been some floods in Macedonia while holed up in the hostel in Montenegro and that it was best to avoid roads to the south of Skopje, and looking at trackleaders I could see other riders had done the same.
This back road surface had deteriorated even further as a result. It was broken, warped, potholes, even large sections of cobbles thrown in. On top of this there were places where large amounts of gravel, sand, mud and debris had been washed across the road. It was tough on the contact points, with my hands taking the brunt of the impact, with my hot feet and saddle sores also wholly unimpressed.
So far, I had little to worry about from the canine threat. I had one huge dog chase me in Croatia after passing his patch of burning rubbish. No barking, growling – just chasing. Another dog I came across in the Durmitor national park, a huge sheep dog guarding his flock of sheep. I stopped in the road with nowhere to go. The dog slowly walked towards me – in a moment of genius I reached into my food pouch and broke off a stick of Twix chocolate bar. I made a friend there and then, and passed happily through the flock.
At the foot of a hill late in the rural Macedonian evening, I passed a small house with a dog barking. At first I thought little of it – he was barking away seemingly inside the borders of the property. All of a sudden this beast burst through a hedge and was snapping away at my heals. The burst of adrenaline and pace and the surprise at my own shouting at the dog was fairly intense. The unexpected burn up the hill used up a bit of energy, and only added to my frustrations.
It was difficult not to let these frustrations get to you, but when its dark and you’re tired it can be tough. The only thing you can do is keep going. Before long I arrived at the vibrant town of Veles. I thought about stopping and take on food and water, but felt the need to push on. Not long afterwards I was rewarded by the company of James & Andy, the pairs #212’s, after meeting them on the side of the road.
It was great to have some company and chat away, and was one of the nicest evening rides I’d had. Obviously riding side by side, listening to some of James’ music and chatting away the kays time flew by for a bit. With the frustrations and dark times I’d had that evening, it was a welcome relief.
We kind of took a wrong turn at one point, and ended up at a dead end that allowed a hop over the fence to a service station. I didn’t need to stop and was keen to get back on my GPS route, so I said my goodbyes expecting to bump into them when they caught me up.
This decision felt like a really bad idea shortly afterwards. I found my road fairly quickly, and almost as quickly as that there wasn’t really much of a road. It was about 15/20km of unpaved gravel track. Early on, there was a tunnel rudimentary carved out of the rock. It was only short, but was teaming with bats chirping away. I’ve referred to this road in conversations many times, and have named it the ‘Bat Cave Road’. I swear, the bats were laughing at me. The thunderstorm started then, and thats when I knew I was going to be in for a very long night.
I swear, the bats were laughing at me. The thunderstorm started then, and thats when I knew I was going to be in for a very long night.
I was trying to keep moving, keep pushing to get through the road. Lots of deep muddy puddles with all sorts of surprises lurking underneath came and went and was starting to feel quite confident. That of course is when I noticed my back wheel was feeling more than a little soft. Great. My first puncture after 3,000KM in a thunderstorm on some unknown road in Macedonia. I checked the tyre to find a large length of wire sticking out. I was still impressed the stones hadn’t pinched the tube, but I was soon to be less impressed by my light situation.
Running dynamo lights means that when your wheel stops moving, your light stops working. I had no cache battery to run it off, so had to resort to the iPhone torch. Not the most practical, but really glad I’d been saving the battery.
I worked quickly to get a spare tube out, hiding at the bottom of my pack. I emptied the contents onto the road, and made quick work of replacing the inner tube. It was filthy work, and was a bit hurried, but I managed to get it all back together in relatively good time.
When putting my kit back into the pack I discovered I’d piled it all onto an ants nest. Everything was covered in large ants. A bit of a shock in the dark – like something out of a horror movie with bugs crawling everywhere, but I quickly shook off as many as I could, packed up and pushed on again.
I maybe lasted about another 3 or 4 km before I accepted the next puncture. I hadn’t put enough air in the first time so made sure I put more in this time to prevent another pinch flat. Getting the wheel back on was a nightmare. I’d managed to dislodge the brake calipers, so had to reset them in order to allow the wheel to turn. I must have spent an hour on fixing both punctures and brakes.
The relief of leaving this road was immense. Buy now it was raining steadily, so took some shelter in an underpass in order to check everything was ok in some street light. After a short stock take and composing myself, I realised I lost my knee warmers and my Sportful Hotpack rain jacket on that one bit of road – the two specific items I was looking for to continue through the night. I wasn’t going back down that road for them. I accepted the loss and pushed on towards the Greek border.
I finally plucked up the energy to push on. A few km’s down the road before Sinj, I found a grocery store and loaded up on food and water. I was fairly baked from the last couple of days and a really bad night so refreshed my water and food reserves, enjoying the ‘delights’ of 7 day croissants yet again. Once I sorted myself out, it was time to push on in a break in the weather.
This break didn’t last that long as the rain and storms kept escalating. At one point I swerved off the road and took shelter under someone’s porch in a torrential downpour. The rain was intermittent but heavy, however I was already soaked so soon realised I was just wasting time hiding from the rain.
I managed to push on for another 20km or so. Each time I crested a hill a clap of thunder would drive me on seemingly chasing me. I finally gave in and found a cafe at a roundabout shortly before the Bosnian border. This was a good stop, as it gave the weather a chance to clear, to load up on some coffee, and for me to get a little extra charge into the iPhone by MacGyvering the cable by holding it at angles. Sadly, this will be the last time this cable worked.
I set off after a couple of hours, followed over the hill by yet another thunderstorm. Keeping low and plodding on.
Moving closer to the Bosnian border the signs of the war are still very visible. Many burnt out buildings riddled with bullet holes. For the most part there had been little I had spotted before this apart from a APC turned memorial next to the road not long after Gospić the previous day, but the signs were becoming more frequent.
Every chance I got I stopped looking for a new cable for the iPhone, but it seems the whole of the Balkans runs on android phones that use the micro USB over the iPhone. I’ll remember this for next time!
Moving down into Bosnia was uneventful except maybe for the loss of all mobile internet, right up until Mostar. The only internet I was able to use was to photo a cheese and ham baguette stowed on the aero bars. When back in the UK this short Instagramming session cost about £20 in roaming data and was probably the reason data stopped working as it maxed out.
I thought I had been making great progress, but had foreshortened the distance from here to Pluzine in my mind, the start of CP4 parcours. This was frustrating.
The road down into Mostar was fast and horrendous for a number of reasons.
The road. More badly laid tarmac that hurt every contact point with the bike. Hands, Feet, Butt.
The horrendous wind. It was blowing in every direction at about 70-80 kph. I still don’t know how I made it down that hill without laying the bike down.
The heat. Coupled with the wind, it was quite brutal.
The dust. Combined with the heat and the wind.
I found myself swearing at the wind, dust and heat many times in Mostar. The dry and dusty wind made it tricky to see and control where I was going.
I finally managed to navigate my way out of the town heading towards the local border crossing after Gacko. Between a massive long climb and Gacko there was a small matter of the most oppressive valley I’d found. It went on forever, seemingly trapping me in with no obvious end to it.
It finally relented and I came out into the industrial town of Gacko. I had a couple of options here, and was especially nervous about the border crossing into Montenegro. There were many discussions in the lead up to the race over the validity of it, and I knew that there was a long gravel road involved with a local crossing point that I might not be allowed to cross. My original plan was to enter Montenegro from the north, with this as an option to cut some distance and time and after spotting a few riders ahead of me using it on the trackleaders site, I took the chance and went for it.
I got to the bottom of the gravel road about an hour before sunset, and slowly edged my way up. It was kind of a bad time to try it, as if it failed I would have had to navigate the gravel road down in the dark, re-routing about 120km.
Fortunately, after a bit of disagreement with my loaded strava route I found my way over the mountain, part walking part riding right until the border. The road literally changed instantly from gravel to possibly the nicest tarmac of the trip. Heaven!
This was a beautiful road winding down the side of the valley down towards Pluźine and my only regret was that it got quite dark and I didn’t get to see it in its best light. You could still get a real sense of the road and environment though, and the road was a real joy.
I rolled in to Pluźine really hungry, so went looking for some food. Literally as I came into town the place went pitch black in a power cut. Yet another thunderstorm had followed me here and had taken out the power. I wandered around a little aimlessly in the dark for a bit until I found a disco bar and pizza place next to the closed hotel at the bottom of town. While ordering my food I weighed up my options, either find somewhere to stay in town or push on up through the CP4 parcours in the dark and stormy night. I really didn’t fancy the later so I asked around for a place to stay and came up trumps with a wooden cabin at the bottom of town for €12. A fair bargain! I ate my Pizza washed down with a coke and headed down for the night.
The next morning I woke late again and had a really good omelet washed down with a thick Turkish coffee. It was my first time drinking one of these, and had a bit of a surprise at the bottom of the cup!
I settled up for the breakfast and coffee and headed up to the petrol station at the edge of town to get some supplies. Here I bumped into Sylvain Blairon #223 and Stuart Bernie #142. I grabbed a few bits from the service station and we all started up the climb together.
I was fortunate to have had a good night sleep and feed, where both Stuart and Sylvain had arrived later in the night and slept rough in a carpark and I don’t think ate well. Before long I was pushing on ahead of them both and made my way up the mountain into the misty rain.
At first, the climb was really pleasant. The whole place kind of reminded me of Wales. Hilly and a bit damp with some lovely fresh air. As I gained some altitude, it was clear the weather over the Durmitor National Park was not going to be good. It started off with misty drizzle that developed into driving cold rain over the top. What I could see of the views was fairly spectacular, but for the most part the entire view was hidden behind cloud. I had to use all my layers to keep warm.
After about 50km I made it to Žabljak. I was frozen and needed to get out of my wet gear, but couldn’t find the checkpoint hostel. I went up and down the street a few times asking for directions until I spotted a TCR and Apidura flag half way down a sidestreet. I was welcomed by the Apidura team manning the checkpoint and got my brevet card stamped, somewhat stunned to find I was in 10th position overall. I decided there and then after a few really tough days that I was going to get clean and dry, refuel and dry out my kit.
The hospitality and friendliness of the family running the Hostel Highlander was fantastic, and shortly after a hot shower and change I was feasting on eggs, bacon, bread, granola, jam… everything on offer. All washed down with more of the Turkish coffee that I was starting to get a bit of a taste for. Stuart, Sylvain and Samuli Mäkinen #84 arrived shortly after me. Stuart & Samuli didn’t stop long and pushed on. The #212’s arrived mid afternoon and were also in a bit of a state from the cold.
By now I had resigned myself to staying the night, making sure my clothes were dry and I was well rested. Many other riders arrived through the day, all the while my position slipping ever further back, but it was good to take the step back and stop. It was a really difficult thing to do, but I think it was a really good idea to recover some energy and make a push for the finish the next day.
It was the shortest day of my TCR but seems I needed the sleep.
I slept badly on the hotel lobby couch. There were a few coming and goings through the night with riders arriving late at the checkpoint, but I didn’t wake to see who as I was pretty tired. Stephane #12 must have made an early start as he was gone by the time I woke up. My iPhone, Garmin & Wahoo batteries was flat too, so I would need to get moving in order to charge devices. Frustratingly, when changing over batteries in the tracker it became faulty so was given a replacement tracker. This would cause some problems later.
The first order of the day was to get some food and to fix up my brakes. The #212’s appeared for breakfast a little after I woke up and were in great spirits as usual. I duly obliged a request to do star jumps to show how happy, awake and energised I was. Truthfully, I’d not really eaten since McDonald’s the other side of Bolzano so not sure where the energy for that came from.
The hotel staff were really friendly and I had a €10 breakfast buffet. I ate a lot of food, piling my plate with all the delights of the much needed buffet. I also had the first coffee since Brussels. Not quite sure how that happened as back home I have at least two cups every day.
Taking a look at my brakes in the cool crisp morning air, a slight adjustment of the brake limiter restored all the braking power I could want. That was a relief! I also installed the new tracker and I could see it picked up satellite straight away.
It was a late start in the end; Andy, James & I started rolling up the CP3 parcours to the Giau chatting away. As the road started to wind up, I had to concede to the #212’s and let them push on up the climb. Both are stronger climbers than me, and they’re unique approach to the TCR – smashing out fast days followed overnight in hotels meant they could be quite fresh by the morning. I felt anything but this, but we would meet again down the road.
Climbing a mountain is a great way to start the day, and had become something of a habit. The Giau was a great climb, and although it got steep towards the top I never felt it was going to defeat me. I posed at the top with the Pedal Ed guys for a photo or two, but declined the hot tea as I was keen to push on. I donned my arm warmers and gilet and pushed on to test the brakes on yet another great descent.
Passo Tre Croci
I stocked up on snacks in a small store in the town at the bottom of the Giau. I figured I would need to have my pockets and reserves replenished as yesterday was a big day, and today would match it. If not for climbing, it would match in distance for sure. Including the Giau, there would be 3 mountain passes before I could get to the Italian flats so it would be slow going for most of the day.
I got to the foot of the last Dolomite just at midday. I spotted an open restaurant, and after some confusion over my pronunciation of Tagliatelli, I was served with a delightful bowl of creamy mushroom pasta. The heat of the day was building, so I drank a lot of water and coke to compensate – it was going to be a scorcher.
By now I had a decent charge on my iPhone and realised that my tracker wasn’t on the map yet. As with the iPhone no service and the previous issues, I wasn’t too bothered a this point as figured it would just need a bit of time to link the new tracker.
Straight after the meal, I was going up hill. Up and up. I hadn’t quite realised how much of a climb this was, and in hindsight should have had the pasta after it. All the same it was yet another glorious climb with some fantastic views. It got a little steep at times, but it was so quiet and peaceful I was just able to enjoy it for the most part.
Suffice it to say I was pretty glad to get out of the mountains and start putting some pace into the day. The road went all the way down as the afternoon was getting hotter. There was a bit of a headwind but getting onto the aero bars made short work of this. I had pushed down all the way to the town of Tolmezzo which marked the end of the current GPX file, so I figured it would be a good time to find some food and water. I really had a craving for a chocolate milkshake or even a pint of milk. I managed to find an Aldi, but I somehow ended up buying a litre of strawberry yoghurt drink instead. I tried really hard to down it, but yogurt is not really suited to this. In the end I had to ditch half of it.
After topping up my water bottles, I headed out of town. I managed to find some good speed right up until I managed to find yet another hill. It’s a skill! Before heading up I made a quick stop for a magnum ice cream and yet another coke to keep the energy levels up. With that out of the way and across the Tagliamento river, I was on the aero bars turning a steady 40 kph heading for Slovenia. Cooking! This felt really good. Despite all the fatigue, my legs felt strong from all the days in the mountains. I was flying and eating up the kays.
It was late afternoon now, and I still hadn’t shown up on the map so I dropped a note to the race to see if there was anything I could do. I knew there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I just pushed on making sure my sister was able to track me on Find my Friends and make sure my mum knew I was OK.
I made yet another stop in McDonald’s about an hour outside of Trieste. I only made a flying stop as I could see I was making ground and catching up with other riders. As it was getting close I decided here that I would try to make Croatia that night, and for the first and only time I booked ahead a hotel in Rijeka.
I pushed onto the border making Slovenia at about 10pm and pulled straight into the first service station I could find. Finally, a service station that had lots of food! There were also a large number of flies about, but in spite of this I had a little picnic outside before pushing on. I chose to stick to the main road to try and get to Rijeka for midnight. This wasn’t a great road, but was quite quick. Lots of traffic moving fast and close. Sketchy.
Slovenia lasted about an hour and is a short hop from Italy to Croatia. Once into Croatia, I had to revert back towards my route as the main road turned into a motorway, but this suited me just fine by me as it meant little or no traffic. It was also all downhill into Rijeka.
A quick cash machine stop, and onto the hotel where I checked in shortly after midnight. While running a bath, I had a feast of the cookies and some other goodies I bought in Cortina and Slovenia, put all my devices to charge on the loaner USB plug. About an hour later I woke up in the bath more than a little confused. Once relocated to bed, I slept through till about 7.30am much later than planned.
Checking my phone over breakfast, I had an email from race control confirming my tracker was now on the map. This was a relief as I know my mum had been worrying!
Once full up, I packed up the bike and rolled out of Rijeka. The initial road out of town was lovely, but I had wanted to move away from the twisty up and down nature of coast roads, so took the choice of cutting inland quite soon after leaving town. Unfortunately I found possibly the steepest and highest hill in the area. Like I said, this is a skill.
I realised halfway up that it was going to be hot out, and I would need as much fuel and water as I could carry. I spotted a small village shop and made the most of their food and water. This was a killer move, as little did I realise the next 80km would have nothing.
The roads were OK, but were twisty turny uppy downy things, like most country roads in hills. It was quite lovely up here, but progress felt fairly slow, and not ideal for making ground on the field. I had resigned myself to just enjoying riding again by this point.
The road popped out most of the way up of the climb out of Senj. I figured that although I’d been going slowly, I had made a fair bit of ground in avoiding the coast. I need to validate this at some point, but it felt right.
Chasing the Breakaway
This road was so much better, and after a short bit of climbing I was able to enjoy a nice descent for a bit. I was running a little on empty this day, so I was grateful for the next service station to loom into view. I would stop at just about every one between here and Bosnia, always fighting to keep getting the calories and water in me.
Looking at the tracker, I could see that I had been making some great ground on others, as well as seeing some behind dropping back a bit. This gave me a bit of a lift, but it changes the mindset a bit from relaxed and unhurried, to adding a little more urgency into things – time to chase down some riders ahead.
It was about now that I realised that my iPhone wasn’t charging. At first I thought there was a problem with the dynamo, but that was still able to power the lights and charge the Wahoo. It was clear I had destroyed the iPhone cable. I could do nothing about this, so went into a power saving mode, leaving the phone on airplane mode as much as possible.
Some of the road surfaces are really bad if you are suffering sore hands, hot feet and saddle sores. It was a long hot day riding through Croatia, and I was not impressed by the roads. Lots of panelled tarmac with large seams in between meant a very bumpy ride. I was shouting and swearing at the road at several points. It was getting quite hard to keep going. I decided to take a short stop and let the pressure off the contact points. I sat on the side of the road in the heat of the day letting the body recover a little. It helped me psychologically more than physically as I’d been pushing all day.
Later in the afternoon it began to cool down, largely due to some clouds covering up the sun. This was a welcome relief, but would be short lived as it spelt a significant change in the weather later that day. In the meantime, I rediscovered a love for Jaffa cakes largely born out of a hatred for 7 Day Croissants. I managed to turn my aero bars into a neat motivational tool.
Rather sadly, about 10km down the road while descending a hill with some significantly dubious road surface as before, the bumps began to dislodge the cakes from the packet. They were in fact flying out of the end when hitting each bump in the road. I tried my best to catch them in my mouth, but I’ve not had the experience of a grizzly bear in salmon migration season and failed to catch any in my mouth. I had to make an emergency grab of the pack and secure them in my jersey pocket before the last 4 or 5 cakes disappeared.
As I was rolling into Knin in the early evening, over to the east I could see a huge cloud mass that was putting on quite a light show. It was great motivation to keep pushing, but some of the pizza stores in the busy town were too tempting. Another national day by all accounts, and everyone was outside in a festive mood.
I pushed on, following a fairly busy road south east towards Sinj. I had been checking the tracker and could see that there were some riders not to far ahead. I was trying to push on, but tiredness started getting the better off me. After a long sit down in a rest area, I tried to push on again but realised it was futile so the search for a bivvy spot began.
I’d learnt a little bit about bivvying now, but was certainly no expert. I found a decent spot in a small field back from the road and set up camp. My plan was to try and sleep through to dawn, find some breakfast and push on to CP4. Once settled in I spent a short time staring up at the cloudless night before drifting off, feeling quite content.
I woke up maybe 2 hours later. It was raining. There were loud rumbles and great big flashes of light. Shit.
After packing up in the rain, I tried really hard to push on through the early hours of the morning. I was exhausted and finally gave up the battle about 15km down the road from my bivvy spot after eyeing up a delightful bus stop. I sat down dripping with sweat, slightly delirious from exhaustion, overheating from being over dressed, and bonking a bit. I had hopped to push on, but my body and mind wouldn’t let me. I crawled into my bivvy bag in the bus stop, ignoring the occasional car horn passing on the busy road trying to sleep. I felt broken.
I woke up much later than planned, but I really needed the sleep. After fueling up on the hotel breakfast buffet, I retrieved my bike from the cellar and headed up to Grindewald to start the CP2 parcours.
I nearly missed the hotel checkpoint, with the name on the buildings on both sides of the road, but safely pulled in to get my brevet card stamped in about 32nd position. I bumped into Darren Franks #114 and met the pairs #212, Andrew Boyd & James Stannard for the first of many times on this journey. It was great to meet up with and chat to some fellow racers for the first time since CP1.
After a brief catch up and selfie with Darren, I was keen to push on so said my goodbyes and headed up the Grosse Scheidegg.
The views on the way up here were absolutely incredible. Just the sheer size of the mountains surrounding were quite intimidating and awe inspiring. I was buzzing over the mountain views. Never mind the steep gradient and the crazy bus drivers bombing up and down the mountain with their horns blaring.
I saw a few more riders on the way up, #89 Joe Todd just after the CP & #93 Geoffroy Duassault again, but was mostly on my own just enjoying the scenery. Still, it was good to meet other riders again as the last couple of days had been quite lonely.
Going down the other side I caught up with another rider, but never got a name, but think it was #14 Jack Thompson. It was really steep and quite sketchy going down, but I love descending, except when a big bus is roaring up the road towards you. Had to duck off the road a couple of times as it was definitely not going to stop…
The surface and road leading up the Grimsel pass was great, but there was also a bit of traffic, most of it trying to race up the pass. Along here I bumped into the #212’s again who said hello handed out some haribo and were off up the road after a short chat.
This was a long and quite tough climb, but once at the top I was rewarded with a view of the Furkapass. This looked spectacular, and really quite daunting.
The descent down from the Grimsel pass was really thrilling and fast, but before I knew it I was up and heading along the Furkapass. I loved this climb. It was quite warm and there was an extraordinary large number of flies, all wanting a taste of the salt deposited on my lycra. In fact, a cyclist road past with at first glance was a dense fly patterned floro jacket. It wasn’t until a few of them flew off did I realise that they were all alive. I spent much of the climb swatting them away, but it really took nothing away.
I was quite glad to get the elevation and feel the air cool off. You could certainly get a feel for the glacial air, but it wasn’t at any point too cold. The conditions were absolutely perfect for this climb.
A quick stock up with some water and snacks, I headed off down the mountain. Yet another awesome descent, despite being stuck behind a bus for much of it. I pushed on down to Andermatt, where I stopped at a restaurant for a well earned lunch of spag bol, plate of chips and a large coke. #93 Geoffroy also stopped and ordered the same on my recommendation, and we chatted about our journey so far.
I didn’t spend too long and made straight for the next 2,046m Oberalppass. This wasn’t too bad, but I was quite happy just to keep turning the pedals and enjoy the scenery. The descent of the other side of this was quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had going downhill. A perfect surface, wide sweeping hairpins mixed with long twisty straights. I was in heaven! Even the short section turned to gravel by some roadworks barely made a dent in my impression of this road.
It kept going for probably about 30km, steadily winding downhill. I turned off at Ilanz and started climbing again. Again, another stunning road and climb, with stunning scenery along quiet mountain roads. It was early evening by now with the sun low behind me, and I was buzzing from the day.
I had planned to push on quite a bit further than I did, but while rolling through the town of Bonaduz, I came across a hotel that just looked too inviting. It was a recently re-opened and re-furnished hotel, and was without doubt the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at.
I bagged an amazing luxury room for 95 Swiss Francs. They sorted me out with some slippers to wear down to the restaurant, and arranged for an iPhone charger next to my table in the restaurant. The food was most excellent also, as was the beer and ice cream. If you’re ever in Bonaduz check out the Hotel Ante Post (or at least the Hotel that has replaced it). I’m going back for sure.
Using the weighing scales in the room, I learnt that I had managed to lose 5 kg since the start of the race. I’ve always had a bit of extra timber, but I hadn’t expected to lose so much so quickly!
The next morning I woke at 4am, packed up everything and retrieved my bike from the underground garage. I noticed my tracker had a mix of green and red lights flashing, but figured it was just a lost signal from being indoors overnight.
It was a bit of a struggle to get going in the pre-dawn darkness, and was starting to get concerned as my tracker had not picked up a signal. I also had a bit of an upset stomach which was not used to 2 proper meals in one day, so was feeling a bit uncomfortable on the bike.
I was a bit stop start that morning until yet again I realised that I couldn’t control the tracker issue, at least not until I got to a town that could sell batteries. Once I’d gotten past this I was able to get into a bit more of a rhythm and started making some progress up the Albula pass.
This was an epic climb, and as I started up it #93 Geoffroy came past again. Had a quick chat, but he was clearly stronger than me so I let him go on.
A little further up the climb I came across a veteran of the TCR, #42 Zbyněk Šimčík and we rode on up over to the top of the pass together chatting away. It’s crazy to meet people all the way out in the Swiss Alps that live maybe 5 miles away in Twickenham. Nearing the top, which seemed to take forever to arrive I spotted what I thought was a cat crossed with a rabbit. It turns out they were Marmots (technically squirrels apparently), and were responsible for what I thought was bird song/squeaks on almost all of the mountain passes I’d been over. Once you’ve seen and heard one, you start to see and hear lots of them.
#42 Zbyněk Šimčík
By the time we got to the top I was totally bonked. I had to say my goodbyes to Zbyněk, and find some food in the cafe at the summit. All that was available was eggs, bread and OJ. This turned out to be a perfect breakfast. While I was eating inside I saw the #212’s yet again, and recognising my bike they called out my name. These guys were hilarious, but it was starting to seem like they were stalking me! I popped outside to say hello, but I needed to eat up so I let them get on while I sorted myself out.
The goal for the day was to get to CP3, and maybe past if it wasn’t too dark. I hadn’t made much progress till now, mostly as I was going uphill, but also as I was faffing with the tracker again. I thought it might pick up some signal again once I was through the pass, but it wasn’t playing ball even after turning it off and on again. I gave in and stopped in a town before the next climb and installed some fresh batteries. I couldn’t find any of the ‘recommended’ batteries, so some Duracell’s would have to do until I got to CP3. Once in my tracker picked up satellite almost straight away. Result!
There were two more climbs done before the long descent out of Switzerland began. Originally I had planned to take a bit of a jolly up the Umbrail pass, and come down the Stelvio into Italy. Given how slow I’d been that day and that I was actually doing quite well positionally, I figured it would be best to save that for another day. I stopped just before the Swiss side of the border to spend some of the last of the francs and stock up on more calories.
Through the border it was all downhill to Bolzano. An interesting route through here that I hadn’t paid too much attention too when plotting. It followed a fairly busy cycle path through various orchards of apples most of the way to Bolzano. The path followed the crisp cool blue waters of a river for the most part, which really helped as it was about 38 deg with a steady headwind coming up the valley.
Before getting to Bolzano, I found myself a McDonald’s. It was too good of an opportunity to miss, and stocked up an large amount of burgers, ice cream, coke and fries. When clearing away the table, I managed to put my phone down on top of the bin, then turn around and head to the loo. Not sure why I came back past the same bin on the way out, but was most surprised and very lucky to find my iPhone still there!
I discovered an awesome climb out of Bolzano in the early evening sun. The views were yet again incredible. This was the Dolomites for sure, with some incredible and dramatic scenery.
Shortly before the sun went down I came across a small town having a festival, which gave me a chance to stop and switch my dynamo across to the lights. I would have loved to have stayed and sampled the food and beer but was really keen to keep moving. Had to stop to let this finish though!
There were two more climbs to go before getting to the start of CP3, and I was really pushing to get there before midnight. I got to the bottom of the last climb, the San Pellegrino pass thinking it wasn’t that big a climb, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. When all you want to do is get cleaned up and go to bed, the small matter of a mountain pass of 1,918m and another 30 km’s to ride once over the top.
It took what seemed to be an absolute age to get over the pass. I was tired and going really slow. At the top I was quite keen to push down the other side and took an awful lot of chances flying down towards Alleghe. Near the bottom of the descent, I noticed my brakes weren’t working as well as they had been. After a few close calls on some hairpins, I reluctantly knocked back the speed well before the corners.
I caught up with another rider, #12 Stephane Ouaja, a few kilometers before Aleghe and we rode and chatted together until we got to the town. When we found the road down to the lake front it was quite clear I had worn them out and nearly rolled down a cobbled street straight into the lake. Not the best way to end the day!
I was totally cooked by now. Sadly there were no more rooms available, so both Stephane and I chose to sleep in the hotel lobby.
As much as I had realised I would be unlikely to compete with my choice of route, I thought that I should at least make a good go of it. Had a quick clean up at McDonald’s, stowed the emergency cheeseburger, packed up the bike and pointed it to the lumpy horizon. I had to laugh at myself as they came closer.
Hills 1: Thiers, Col St Thomas, and down to Roanne
There was a mostly flat and reasonably quick run to the first of the hills, but boy did it step up in Thiers. The town has an almost vertical ramp up into the town followed by an intricate lace of roads on the side of the hill that must average 12% all through it. I was feeling quite strong, and with the race in progress at the back of my mind I pushed up quite quickly.
Fortunately the steep bit didn’t last for too long, after which the gradient eased as I came up and out of the town. The views from up here were fairly incredible, I had a go at capturing some of this here:
Once over the top, reinvigorated with the views, I started pushing on really enjoying just being on my bike. There’s something about a good dramatic view that really gives me energy, which was quite fortunate! The road was fairly level but still a false flat until it started winding up and up. It was getting fairly consistently steep, and didn’t seem to want to relent. Half way up I found a freshwater spring so lept on the opportunity to fill my bottles. It was another hot day, and this water was really refreshing.
I pushed on, and finally crested the top. It was a fantastic climb, and fairly tough – a straight ramp up over the hill.
Going down the other side was a blast, must have been topping out at 75/80 kph on a mostly straight descent. I thought then that I’d accomplished the hills, but after a quick check of the profile on the Wahoo, and a glance at the next lump looming into view I realised that this would not be the end of it! There would be a four categorised climbs before I’d eventually get to Roanne. I rolled into Roanne and decided to check my progress on the tracker. Jack Thurston captured the moment quite well with the below tweet.
That wasn’t the end of it though. After a brief respite the rolling hills went up again. The scenery was pretty fantastic, but was really slow going.
About now is where I realised I had put my iPhone into ‘No Service’ mode. I was killing apps to save battery, but managed to kill the settings app when in Flight mode. If you kill the network settings in flight mode, when you turn it back on it needs to re-initialise and authenticate with Apple before it will connect to a cellular network. It requires WiFi to do this, which is tricky to get in the hills of central France. A real pain and daft ‘feature’. I spent an absolute age trying to get it working before I had figured out the above. I had recalled having the problem before and a google search found the solution, so I spent about an hour trying to ask some really friendly, but non-english speaking locals to borrow their phone to do a google search. I failed miserably.
“I realised that there was no point in wasting time over something that I had absolutely no control over.”
It’s at this point I realised that there was no point in wasting time over something that I had absolutely no control over. Sure, it was frustrating and I was feeling really out of touch, but there was nothing I could do about it then. This was a good lesson for me to learn, and to learn fairly early in the ride. It would come handy later on.
Shortly after, in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a valley I found a pizza van. I didn’t hesitate and rolled over to order two pizza. One for now and one for breakfast, and sat down to enjoy the late afternoon view over the valley.
Once I had filled up, I headed off to find it was all downhill to the wine country which looked incredible in the slowly setting evening sun. I’d made it over the tough obstacles for the day, and now it was time to put some speed down to make up time. It might have worked had I not kept stopping for photos.
This day was capped with a McDonald’s in Bourg-en-Bresse shortly before midnight, where I took the chance to re-charge as much of my devices as I could, get clean and eat lots. I headed out of town keen to find a bivvy spot and get some sleep. I’d only managed maybe 3 hours until now, so was keen to get my head down. I wasn’t feeling as tired as I had been, but the push to the McDonalds had taken a bit out of me.
I followed my route out of town towards the next hills, the Juras, keen to find somewhere away from town and the road. I found a spot in the foot of a valley that was nicely sheltered from the road and settled in. I unpacked my bivvy, but was tired and in a hurry so only half inflated the mattress and crawled in. It was a brilliant starry night, and it really didn’t take me too long to drift off.
I woke up after maybe 2.5 hours sleep. I was absolutely freezing cold. As I shifted in my bivvy something in the woods starting barking. I don’t know what it was as it was a really odd bark. In anycase I was too cold to worry about this so I started putting on ALL my clothes in whatever order I picked them out in. All the while shivering uncontrollably. Knee warmers, rain jacket, arm warmers, gilet, snood, everything. I packed up the rest of my things in short order and pushed on up the road. It took no time at all before I was sweating it out, at which point I realised that my light rain jacket was under my arm warmers and gilet. Kind of felt like I’d put my underpants on the outside. A short stop to sort all this out and I was back moving again.
This part of the route was basically the only way through the mountains within about 40km, so when I saw the ‘Route Barre’ sign at the foot of the pass my heart sank a little. I decided to ignore it and hope it was still passable. It was a fairly short 12km climb with a gradient that was fairly steady. All the way up I was weighing up my options, praying for a clear way through. I didn’t quite fancy re-routing on the fly at 5am. Still, as I was heading up I was checking for alternatives on the offline maps on my phone (Maps.me). A lifesaver when you’re in ‘No Service’ mode!
On the map I could see another road splitting off the main pass, going through a small town and joining up with the original planned route the other side of the pass. I had to chance this as there was no way through the roadworks. The whole carriageway was fenced off. Fortunately the detour was a complete success. It was an odd night with a cold misty fog blowing around and really didn’t get me off to the best start to the day. Dawn was fairly special though and most welcome.
I arrived in Saint Claude on a massive downer. My EU dual USB plug decided it didn’t work anymore, and there was nowhere open serving real food in the town. I settled in a service station eating crisps, coke, cake and chocolate thinking about my options. It was quite a low point, but yet again I realised there was nothing I could do about the USB charger – it was out of my control. I had all day to plug stuff into the Dynamo in anycase, so I got myself together and headed up the next hill.
Did I say hill? Not entirely sure of the name of this Col, but the Haut Crete Saint Claude (I read Hors Categorie) was a bit of a beast. A very rewarding beast at that. It was early, and the morning mist was still clearing from the hills, but it was feeling warm going up this. I had to strip off the layers as I was getting hot, but as I climbed I could still feel the crisp cold air of the mountains. I like this.
“I had to strip off the layers as I was getting hot, but as I climbed I could still feel the crisp cold air of the mountains. I like this.”
The climb was fantastic, and the day was turning out to be a cracker. Over the top, the road was fairly poor, but only on the ascent. When it came to rolling down the other side, the surface was great and the views amazing.
I rolled across the border to Switzerland and the first thing I noticed was the drivers. So aggressive. I’m used to this commuting in London, but it was a bit of a surprise. I tried my best to ignore it and spent a long time rolling down the hill towards Lausanne. I had a huge grin on my face and was seeing lots of riders for the first time in a while so I waved to them all like a crazy person.
It was hot here, but the views of Lake Geneva were incredible. I stopped at a cafe at the bottom of the descent to get water, ice cream and some food along with Wifi. The route down into town was quite pleasant. It was quite quick going, occasionally stop start with traffic lights, but it was a remarkably quick town to get through.
After devouring a chinese (yes, I would like extra rice please), I rolled up and out into the vineyards to the east of Lausanne, where I heard someone call out my name. A dot watcher had come out to find me and we rode and chatted for a while. As we were doing so a car rolled past with a woman leaning out taking a picture on her phone – another family of dot watchers! This was quite cool. I stopped and chatted to them a little further up the road, and they kindly offered me some water and a bit of food. We rode on together for a large part of the climb, and was great to chat to someone after being alone for so long.
From the low of the morning, to this generosity of strangers was such a huge difference. It absolutely was one of my favourite days of the whole trip.
Hills 4…. Juanpass & Interlaken
Climbing out of Lausanne was quite an effort, but I was taking it easy for the most part while chatting with the dot watcher (who I think was Pierre – I’m so bad with names, sorry!).
I stopped and sat down in the shade in Bulle ahead of what I knew would be a bit of a tough climb. I saw #93 Geoffroy Dussault ride past. He had been following a similar path and had finally caught up with me. After several cookies, half a packet of crisps (it’s a big pack), haribo and some water, I pushed on up the Juanpass. This was the Alps proper, and was a truly stunning climb. The valley leading up to it was stunning, with the climb itself was really quite tough and steep but with splendid views.
The views all the way up were pretty epic, and the I topped the pass in the early evening sun listening to my bottom bracket and the sound of music from the hills. I was buzzing!
I was quite worried with my brakes rolling down this hill. The road was good, but steep and with lots of hairpins. I stopped halfway down to check out the rear brakes believing it to have worn out. Turns out the pads must have had some glazing causing some noise under braking rather than from wear. This was a bit of relief as I only had one spare set of pads.
After a quick pit stop in a Spiez McDonalds (that was expensive!), I pushed on along the side of the lake to Interlaken where I found my first hotel of the trip.
The first hotel I stopped at in town had one last room available for 110 Swiss Francs. Ouch. I had already worked out that this was quite expensive, but I really didn’t care and told the manager as much. After a brief chat, sorting a place to keep the bike and telling him where I had ridden from and heading too, he kindly gave me a free can of beer. Love the Swiss hospitality.
A long shower, quick clean of my bibs and base layer I tucked into the can of beer just after 11pm. I woke up at 6am with the lights still on, and the half drunk can next to the bed. It had knocked me for 6! Literally 🙂
Next up, tackling CP2. Lots of real climbing was about to begin!
Wow. The start was pretty incredible. I had barely time to process it before I was trying to work out which way to go next.
A cobbled descent off the Muur, hang a right, spot Paul #67 and gave him a shout, then hang a left where almost everyone seems to be going straight. A pair went past shouting “another one for the cool route!”.
No sooner had they passed me and were pushing on they took another turn, then I was alone. It might have been 2o minutes, but that’s all it took. for the next hour or so at various junctions you would spot another rider, maybe the tail light of one down the road, or a dynamo light over the shoulder.
I don’t really remember how hard I was pushing, only that I was conscious that there were riders to chase after up the road and riders behind to push on from, while at the same time trying not to push too hard. When a rider passes, you sink a little and drift back. Then go again… always best to just stick to your own pace.
Before I’d realised it, the road signs were French and I was well on my way. I pushed on through the night until around 3 or 4am where I started slowing down and feeling really tired. My route was a little further west than most others by the look of the tracker, but I had made good progress. I could see that a large majority of riders were taking a flatter route to the east and seem to be moving faster. I don’t know though – your mind plays tricks on you.
I started looking for a bivvy spot. I had not planned to sleep at all the first day, but I was feeling so tired I felt that I had to. But then it happened. I looked over my shoulder and there was another rider behind me. That made my mind up – no stopping just yet!
I pushed on until about 7am, where I stopped on a bench overlooking the river. I was so tired, I decided I needed to take a power nap. It wasn’t the best sleep, but it allowed my head to shake off the sleepiness and fatigue that was slowing me down. With the day ahead, I actually felt fairly refreshed by the nap, as well as a few words of encouragement from some friends following my dot back home.
I’d done quite well with water and food through the night, only drinking about half my supplies of 1.5 litres. It was a relief to find a boulangerie at around 8am, to pick up some real food and stock up on water.
I remember looking at the trackleaders map at about 10am. I’d been riding for about 12 hours and had covered about 300km. I was quite pleased as it had been really quite lumpy with lots of rolling up’s and downs that slowed the pace somewhat. I wasn’t too bothered about where I was compared to everyone else, but it did help spur me on a little.
Long Straight Roads
Any encouragement was helpful, as through the day the roads became somewhat monotonous and repetitive. Up, down, up, down, up etc. But at the end of the day, all I had to do was keep going! To break things up a bit I had a bit of banter going on with some friends on WhatsApp.
It got really hot as the day went on. The sun was really quite strong, and I remember the further south I went, the wind started getting stronger. It wasn’t bad enough to slow me to much, but it was a hot wind and made it tough to stay cool. A couple times I was going to stop to load on some sunscreen, but then I would see another rider behind and want to push on. I managed to get sunburn on the palms of my upturned hands holding the aero bars. A first for me.
After about 400km, I got to the picturesque town of Toucy. It was really hot, and had achieved my base goal for the day. It was only 4pm though, and was a little unsure what to do. I even went to the local tourist office to see what hotels were available. Thankfully, all were closed or booked up for the national day which helped make my mind up.
I would keep going through the evening, bivvy, then push onto CP1 in the morning.
Shortly after Toucy, I found a nice quiet field where I could attend to a developing problem. Saddle sores. I was quite concerned that they had developed so early in the race, but was not surprised with the heat, sweat and inevitable salt build up. I cleaned up and applied some cream to help ease the pain, and pushed on.
My food through the day was all junk. Ice creams, crisps, chocolate, haribo. I’d eaten the boulangeries delights in the morning, keeping one veg pie back for the night as a backup, or bonus breakfast. I stopped quite a few times for water and coke, and was steadily eating through all my nuts and bars I’d started with.
With the heat and drying wind, I also noticed that I was starting to dehydrate so I doubled up my hydration tablet dose to try and keep salts in the body, without worrying too much about a water deficit. This had seemed to work in the past, and helps me keep my energy levels up without burning through all my water to quickly.
A great highlight for me was riding along the Loire in the evening sun. It was quite stunning in places and is definitely a place I will come back to. Probably via a flatter, less straight and nicer road though!
First Bivvy… sort of
After the Loire sunset and a big dose of flies to top up on my protein, I was starting to get really tired. After Toucy, I’d planned to try and get another 160km in before midnight. 570 km in day one was in reach, but I fell just a little short at around 158 km.
The road was getting slow and lumpy, so I figured it would be best to get my head down and recover some energy for the next day. I found a field that was not too far from a farm house, and tried to keep quiet so as not to draw any attention. Just as a dog started barking I managed to smack my shin against a pedal which really smarted. I managed to stifle any yell of pain, and the knee swelled up instantly with a little bleeding. It was like this, but without any noise (One for the Family Guy fans).
Also, the field was one of freshly cut straw. Not the comfiest with crops of cut straw making it a bit like a bed of nails.
In anycase, I was tired and it was still fairly warm so I pulled my bivvy out and covered myself over on the ground and slowly drifted off under a starry night. Dreams mixed with my reality a bit here, and could have sworn I was chatting to people before I fell asleep. The joys of sleep deprivation!
I woke up about 2 hours later – maybe 2am, freezing cold and getting rained on with a bit of drizzle. Not happy. I’d had the foresight to cover myself in bug repellent, but they always find a spot, and had a nice juicy mozzy bite on the sunburn on the back of my neck. Great!
I pushed on, in a very tired state, but didn’t want to stop. So many hills. You go up one, down for a little bit, then up another. This seemed to be repeated all morning long. It was quite mentally draining, especially with the lack of sleep.
It turns out that resting on the aero bars at 4am is a really good way to start to drift towards sleep. It was the first time I noticed myself starting to fall asleep on the bike. Fortunately, it didn’t get too far this time, and once I’d noticed it I was able to keep ahead of it to prevent it from actually happening.
Prior to getting to Clermont Ferrand, I think I found the biggest hill in the area. Lots of switchbacks wound up the hill for an age. I had spotted this on the profile of the Wahoo earlier in the morning and was sort of dreading it the whole time. In the end it wasn’t so bad, just a bit slow and a little steep in places.
Coming down off the hill, daylight was breaking so I decided to switch to USB lights and start charging the battery on the Wahoo. It was all in all a good dry run for the many mountains to come – both from the climbing and descending perspective, as well as still having the thought power to sort out charging the devices.
CP1 – Parcours
On the way into Clermont Ferrand, I found a large Boulangerie. Here I stocked up on water and purchased an entire baguette pizza. A full size baguette, halved and loaded with cheese and ham. Washing that down with some coke, it was the first decent bit of food I’d had along with a couple of baked items the previous morning. It was heaven!
I decided to get my act together and push onto the checkpoint hotel. When I got into town, I suddenly realised I didn’t make a mental note of which hotel it was…! Fortunately, another rider arrived at the same time and I followed them to the hotel.
The CP1 was hosted by Lezyne who stamped my card and pointed me in the direction of the toilets to get cleaned up. I had a short conversation with Mike Hall, where I explained that I’d basically been hallucinating, and it was only day 2.
It’s also here where I learned that my open jersey along the Loire had meant a base layer full of flies. It took a little while to sort myself out, have a go at cleaning my bibs, lathering on some cream to ease the already sore nether regions.
I chose to push on and get on with the final part of the parcours as my route back came down through town again.
The road up to the Col quite steep, and with the fresh dose of rain that had started made me somewhat concerned for the descent.
My first McDonalds!
So, with CP1 done, I headed to a McDonalds just south of the airport to refuel, recharge and assess my position in the race. This was a major turning point for me, and one that I think helped me get through the rest.
I realised that I was going the wrong way. On the tracker all these dots were spinning off to the north east, while I was a lone dot heading due east for the mountains. In fact, there were three mountain ranges in my path.
It was here that I realised that my route was not ideal, and was not competitive. Riding through mountains is slow – it’s almost always faster to go around them.
But I like mountains! So that’s the way I was going, and that’s where it occurred to me – JUST ENJOY IT!
Crunch time! I booked my bike and I onto a Eurostar to arrive in Brussels the day before the race to allow me an easy night in Brussels, using a free night with Hotels.com to get a fairly decent hotel. I dropped the bike off at eurodespatch where I had arranged to meet with Neil from Bowman, who wanted to do a short interview for the Bowman video blog, and to hand over a spare mech hanger. Just in case. You can see the interview here on their Between the Lines Blog. Bowman Cycles also did a nice pre-race blog post with questions and answers from all the BC Pilgrims riders at this years TCR.
I bumped into a few riders in the train station, notably Socrates #34, and a few others around the Eurodespatch desk, and a few dotted through the station. I wish I’d paid more attention now, but with all the nerves and an inbuilt inability to remember names it was a futile task.
When I arrived in Brussels, I bumped into Olly #22, also riding a Bowman Pilgrims, and while riding through town to the hotel I bumped into Dragan #137. Meeting all the riders on the way out was great, and everyone’s friendliness and openness in spite of all the nerves jangling was a sign of the community that this event has. Strangers are also immediately comrades.
Brussels was a strange place at the time and possibly still is. Countless armoured personnel carriers and soldiers were all over the place, and is a really unfortunate sign of the times. That said, I didn’t feel any safer as a result – just found it odd that in this day and age you need to have such a large military presence in a city.
After checking into the hotel, I packed and repacked a couple more times. Once I was happy enough I headed out for a bit of food and beers. I honestly tried my best to avoid drinking too much. Sticking to Westmalle Tripel may not have been the best strategy for this.
The original plan was to meet up with a mid day group ride organised by Jack Keevil #11, however after waking up, lying in as long as possible then hitting up the hotel breakfast buffet, I realised I would need to hang around for nearly 2 hours in order to join up with the group. Nerves pushed me on, and I decided to just get to the start. The route was one plotted by Jack, and was perfect – lots of quiet lanes followed by a jaunt along the river/canal.
Registration in Geraardsbergen was a fairly straightforward affair. Take a number and get in line! It was a great opportunity to meet other riders. Again, I forget the names of quite a few (sorry!), but I was chilling around and noticed some key contenders sat all around me – James Hayden #75 and Emily Chappell #7. I kind of felt a little bit of a pretender with all the seasoned randonneurs around me. It was great to catch up with riders who I’d met before the race having met either through social media or been on rides with. Chris Herbert #182, Darren Franks #114, Paul Buckley #67 & Philip Schwedthelm #16 were all there.
Once I’d sorted my registration, I went down the road to the pasta bar. I wonder if this place only opens as a pop up once a year for the TCR? Business was booming! I had a big pasta pot with Paul, then rode around town looking to stock up on some food and water for the night ahead.
Mike Hall gave a thorough briefing in the afternoon, after which we picked up our brevet cards in a handy waterproof Lezyne wallet and headed off into the town to kill the 3 or 4 hours left until the race started in the town square.
I met up with Thimothy a friend from Belgium who had come down to watch the start. We met in the square for some food, and I tried and failed to eat a rather large portion of frites mayo, and as this photo shows my nerves were not very well masked.
In fact, there were a lot of other riders hanging around the square not quite sure what to do with themselves. I bumped into Chris Herbert again, who by now had taken up smoking to calm the nerves. I was seriously tempted to join him.
We decided to head up to the Muur to try and kill an hour or so. It was nice to climb up to the top in daylight, and at least have a vague idea of the way. We ended up going the wrong way however, and via slightly less cobbled route which was probably for the best. Chris had a crash only a couple weeks before and dislocated his shoulder, but was determined to continue with the race. The extra cobbles would not have helped.
We all gathered back down in the square at 9.30pm for a 10pm neutralised lap of the town. There were so many people in the square to see the race off, and the atmosphere was buzzing. I managed to get all the Bowman Pilgrims together for a photo which was quite cool.
After the town mayor set us off on the neutral lap, we made our way slowly up and round the town to while all the spectators lit their torches and made their way up the Muur. Coming back through the town, we were able to make a full attempt at the Muur. I made no attempt to hold back on the climb, I was absolutely buzzing!
Once over the top, past the crowds, it got really quiet. Riders turning off left and right, stopping to set up their kit, and make sure nothing had fallen off. Now was the time for racing. The next stop would be Çannakale for some. Many would not make it all the way.
Videos from the start
I’m not sure my words do this start justice, so here is a video short from the start of the race that might help a bit: FIRE & COBBLESTONES (also check out their other video shorts from the race)