Transcontinental: Until it hurts

Have to pee, holding it as long as possible. Last two toilet breaks had me in tears. Oh the terrible burning of saddle sores. #TCR2015

It appeared Juliana, now a long way ahead of me, was having a tough time of it. During my sporadic Macdonalds breaks (probably a lot less sporadic than hers) I kept an eye on her Twitter feed and we exchanged occasional text messages. Within 36 hours she told me she was washing blood out of her chamois.

I remembered a miserable afternoon I’d spent on the Karakoram Highway, deliberately dehydrating myself because going to the toilet was so excruciating, and my final 100-mile push through the Taklamakan Desert into Urumqi later on that summer, where my saddlesore was so painful that at times I whimpered out loud and, try as I might to distract myself, I couldn’t keep any other thought in my head for longer than a few seconds. In comparison, this ride was still going fairly well. The chafing on my calves was already hardening into scaly-looking calluses, my lower back demanded nothing more than a bit of stretch now and then, and given I had already spent well over 24 hours sitting on it, the cheap saddle that had come with my Genesis Datum, and which I’d never quite got around to replacing, was still only moderately uncomfortable.

I was enjoying myself, I found – and then immediately worried that I might be enjoying myself a little too much. This wasn’t supposed to be another of my rambling adventures – this was a race, and I was supposed to be pushing myself till I bled, not sitting around eating fast food; not admiring the view as distant grey-blue mountains began to loom on the horizon; not holding long conversations with other riders when they pulled alongside me on the long flat road down towards Lyon, hailing me by name having recognised me from the Bryan Chapman 600. (Though admittedly riding alongside someone else always seems to increase my speed by about 3mph – even though we were all being scrupulously careful not to break the rules of the race by drafting each other, I wondered if this psychological slipstreaming still somehow constituted an unfair advantage.)

I envied Juliana’s ability to keep going through the pain – and indeed, to embrace it, and relish it, and push herself gleefully into it. My long-unacknowledged interest in ultra-racing had already taught me that endurance is far more about mental strength than physical ability; about the brain’s ability to ignore, or subvert, or over-ride, the signals from the body that say ‘this hurts, this really hurts, I can’t go on, please can we stop now?’. You don’t have to stop when it starts to hurt. Pain isn’t the end.

I know (now) that I’m a strong rider, and that I can go on for 150 miles a day (and more) with relatively little trouble. So far all I’d done was rely on that physical strength – on my heart and lungs and arms and legs. I still had little idea what would happen when my body began to struggle, and my mind was obliged to take over, and I was afraid that this might turn out to be a register I was ultimately unable to access – like a singer whose vocal range prevents her from being able to take on certain parts. I hoped that my body, with its years of daily cycling and its broad chest and stout calves, would be able to carry me for longer than some of the other riders’ bodies before the pain began. Because once it started to hurt, I’d be striking out into new territory.

It’s well known that ultra-racers (runners, as well as cyclists) are usually a bit older, a bit crazier than more mainstream athletes. Apparently it takes a certain amount of life experience to develop whatever the brain’s equivalent of muscles are: to build up and to break down, to learn, and to relearn, that you can survive whatever life (and the road) throws at you, if you just keep going – that you are more resilient than your conscious mind would like you to believe. When I first encountered depression, for example, in my early twenties, I honestly thought it would kill me, and couldn’t imagine ever being able to turn my life back into something I recognised, and could bear to live. The second time round, in 2013, I felt just as hopeless but I knew I’d eventually be OK, because that’s what had happened before. Experience makes you stronger …or does it? Because, to continue the depression analogy, what got me through in that case wasn’t strength; it was persistence. Oh yes, I tried to fight it. I tried for months, and it just made it worse. It was when I gave in, accepted that I was ill and that all I could do was keep on living until I was better that, almost paradoxically, things finally started to look up.

Next to Juliana, who has already squeezed more triumph and disaster into 33 years than many of us will into a lifetime; next to Shell, the grizzled Leicester Forest CC rider, decades my senior, who rode alongside me on the road out of Maçon; next to all the other assembled veterans, with their weathered muscles, their hand-built steeds and hand-made bike luggage, their time-trialling records, their tales of PBP and LEL and RAAM and TransAm and TCR2014, I had never felt so young, so untried.

I swam through a few more minor ups and downs as I followed the Saône River down towards Lyon, noticing, as I have on many a ride, that my mood tends to sink along with the setting sun (subconsciously despairing that the day’s nearing its end and I still haven’t reached my destination), and then rise again as darkness sets in and the traffic thins out and I realise I have the whole night to myself, with nothing to do but ride. As I paused at the top of a hill to check my route into the city, I noticed that my skin was damp with sweat, my hair and jersey were sticking to me clammily, and realised that the race’s brief prologue of cool weather was now at an end, leaving me at the mercies of southern Europe’s scorching summer heat. I had better carry on into the night, I thought, and make the most of its relative mildness.

As I sped down into Lyon, all the lights in my favour, watching the glowing bridges and spires of the city spreading out beneath me (and thinking that I really must try and come back here one day when I have more time to spare), I found that, quite improbably, I was humming with energy, singing with happiness. This made no sense, I thought, remembering my suffering of the previous afternoon, since which I’d only had four hours’ sleep, and ridden for another 20 or so – no sense, that is, to anyone other than an ultra-racer.

I remembered, with no particular sense of foreboding, a conversation with Mike Hall when I first met him back in 2013.

“You’ve always got to tell yourself,” he advised me then, “when you’re going through a bad patch – this won’t last.”

And then he paused, and grinned.

“And when you’re going through a good patch, that won’t last either.”

I found my way down to the river and bought myself a kebab and a bottle of Orangina from a man who was originally from Turkish Kurdistan. Between us we had sufficient French to talk about my race, his restaurant, and the fact that I’d passed through his home in the winter of 2011. Over the previous 36 hours I had awakened enough of my dormant French to be able to hold conversations with the people from whom I bought my sandwiches and coffees and ice lollies. Some of them had even heard of the race, and wished me bon courage. This would all end, of course, when I got to Italy, and I’d fall back into the familiar, though less comfortable, role of the idiot foreigner.

I sat at one of his outdoor tables, basking in the warm night air and watching people come and go through the mostly empty streets, enjoying my good patch while it lasted, marvelling at the innocent part of my brain that still somehow believed it might go on forever. I got out my phone and looked up Bédoin – the start of the climb up Ventoux – and noticed with some surprise that it was just under 200km away.

‘If I put my foot down now, I could be there tomorrow morning’ I thought, and started doing calculations in my head. I hadn’t really expected to make it through the checkpoints before they closed (this didn’t mean I’d be disqualified – just that I wouldn’t get a stamp on my brevet card, and would have to self-validate with a time-stamped photo or similar), so I hadn’t really bothered to find out when the race car (containing Mike Hall and official photographer Camille McMillan) would leave the mountain. I guessed it might be at the end of the third day, which gave me about 24 hours to get there – which meant I’d almost certainly make it.

I thought about Leo (who was probably miles ahead of me by now – perhaps already on Ventoux), who had planned to race the length of France in two days and start the climb in the cool of the morning, and wondered if I had it in me to get there by sunrise. Almost certainly not, I thought, which meant I might well end up climbing in the heat of the afternoon. Perhaps I should try and get some rest then instead, I mused, and climb in the cool of the evening – but it would be a shame not to make the most of this unexpected surge of energy.

I said goodbye to my Kurdish friend and pushed on out of the city, following a deserted road through silent suburbs and villages until eventually the street lights ended and I was out on my own in the night. Quite predictably, my eyelids began to sag, my residual energy struggling against my body’s natural diurnal rhythms. Maybe I would sleep after all, I thought. Just for a few hours. Just to take the edge off.

I spread my sleeping bag out in the corner of a damp cornfield, lying my bike down a little way off so that the insects would gravitate to its fading dynamo lights and leave me alone, and reluctantly shuffling a metre or so to the side when I realised I was lying in a set of tyre tracks which looked like they were rarely used, but better safe than sorry. Three hours ought to do it, I decided, thinking of the race leaders, who were now well on their way to Checkpoint 2, having slept barely at all. But after less than ninety minutes I was awake again, still sweating in the humid air, and after another hour in which I failed to lose consciousness for more than a couple of minutes a car roared past, lights blazing over me, following the very tyre tracks I’d originally lain down in, and I reminded myself that any time not spent cycling, eating or sleeping was time wasted, stuffed down an almond slice I’d picked up in Lidl the previous day, and got back on the bike.

Often, on my bike journeys, I’ve optimistically reminded myself that a good day usually follows a bad one. I conveniently forget, of course, that a bad one often follows a good one. The 200km to Bédoin felt more like 400km. Although my body had insisted on keeping me awake while I lay in the field, as I rolled down the Rhone Valley towards Valence it seemed just as intent on putting me to sleep. An hour or so after sunrise I snoozed for 20 minutes in the corner of a carpark, and as soon as I found an open boulangerie I installed myself in a corner and spent an hour, maybe more, trying feebly to shift my mood – and reignite my energy – using caffeine and sugar. As I crawled south into the heat, I found myself stopping far too often for ice lollies and bottles of water, and deliberately stringing my breaks out, somehow no longer caring that I was in a race, but still hating myself for my laziness. Ventoux didn’t seem to get any closer. Every turn of the pedals felt like a phenomenal act of will, and the ease with which I’d roared down the Saône Valley seemed as distant as a dream in which you find you can fly, before awakening and discovering it was all a fantasy.

At about lunchtime I heard from Juliana. She was not, as I had assumed, past Checkpoint 1 by now – she was still about 20km from the start of the climb. Her knees had given out, and she was inconsolable, knowing that this was the end of her race, but almost unable to accept it.

I almost burst into tears myself, remembering how she’d suffered on our ride up to Edinburgh, still nursing the damage from last year’s TransAm, and how I’d nagged her to get herself looked at in the intervening months, and how she had assured me she’d be fine, but still only ever replied ‘so-so’ when people asked her how her knees were.

I bombarded her with useless questions. Had she rested? Elevated her legs? Used icepacks? Ibuprofen? Of course she had. She’d tried everything, including just keeping going, but it seems her greatest strength – the ability to ride through pain – was also her greatest weakness. She’d pushed her body so far that it had simply ceased to function.

Perhaps the only useful question I could ask, for either of us, was where she was. Sitting on the main street of a little town called Aubignan, she replied, just north of Carpentras, waiting for a relative to come and pick her up. If I got on the bike now, I could probably be there before she left. Did she want to see me? Yes, she did.

I suppose, if nothing else, I have Juliana to thank for getting me through the next four hours of cycling which, without the incentive of seeing her, might have been more like eight. I was out of the valley and into the hills now, and there was little escape from the burning sun. My skin stung with salt as I panted my way over col after col, and my feet were swollen and throbbing painfully. At one point, passing through a sunbaked little village that smelt of the basil fields that surrounded it, I took both shoes off and plunged my legs into a fountain, imagining them hissing as agony abruptly shifted to bliss.

But there was no time to sit around. Abandoning the route my Garmin had laid out for me I chose the straightest possible line between where I was and Aubignan, storming up the climbs out of the saddle and racing down the descents as far as I dared, pausing only to stuff down a couple of biscuits that I’d had in my jersey pockets since Belgium, and which were the only food I could access without wasting valuable seconds fiddling with the clips and zips of my luggage.

As I sprinted along the long flat stretch of road that was the final 20km into Aubignan I could feel my exhaustion lying in wait for me, hovering over my head like a kettle of vultures. I had drunk all my water and eaten all my food – and burnt off almost all of my energy – but somehow it was more important to see Juliana before she went home than it ever had been making it to Checkpoint 1, or to the end of the race. I remembered saying goodbye to her at the start, and waving at her as she raced past me into the night, and thought about how long ago – and simultaneously how recent – that all seemed, two days and 1,000 kilometres ago.

A car slowed down to drive alongside me as I approached Aubignan, and I listened with as much attention as I had available to what the driver was trying to say to me, wondering what it was he wanted, since he didn’t seem as scornful or hostile as drivers usually do in England when they slow down to talk to you. It took a few seconds for him to work out that I was foreign, and for me to work out that I simply didn’t have enough oxygen in my brain to be able to hold a conversation, but just before he pulled away I caught the word ‘agile‘, noticed that he and his passenger were both smiling at me, and realised that they had slowed down to compliment me on my cycling. That would never happen in the UK, I thought, as I ground my way up the final small hill, over the roundabout and into the town.

Juliana had told me she was somewhere on the main street. I cycled down the hill to the bottom, fought my way through the surprisingly busy evening traffic, and cycled back up to the top. Then I got off the bike and walked – hobbled – down to the bottom, back up to the top, peering into the few bars and cafes that seemed to be open, looking everywhere for her bike, for her white lycra, for her distinctive silhouette. But I couldn’t find her. She was gone. And I was exhausted.

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 11, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant! Looking forward to the next chapter.