Conscious now of my army of spectators, I cycled on towards Sisteron, remembering ruefully that riding with a tracker comes with as many disadvantages as it does advantages. During last winter’s journey through Alaska and Canada my father had (quite predictably) become obsessed with the hourly updates from my YB tracker, and even started a spreadsheet, which he updated every day, with my distance cycled, average speed, temperature range, estimated time to finish, and various other arcane measurements. I didn’t know of the spreadsheet’s existence until the final month of the trip, and I was glad of this, because once I knew he was watching I would curse him on difficult days, knowing that he’d be sitting there at his comfortable desk, thinking ‘why is she going so slowly?’, with no idea of the headwinds and unforgiving gradients and exhausted muscles that were reducing my progress to a crawl.
And now, thinking of all the dotwatchers sitting at their desks and armchairs, checking my progress on their phone as they sat on the bus, or idled away their business meetings, or sipped their post-ride coffee, I felt uncomfortably exposed. Everyone could see I’d foolishly carried on through the mountains instead of following the rest of the pack along the lower route, and there was really no way of pretending that this was somehow part of my strategy, since I was clearly wasting a lot of time and energy by doing so.
The day began to heat up. Initially the eastern side of Ventoux had seemed cooler and more hospitable than the western, but now I realised this was just because it had still been relatively early in the morning – having started at 4am, I felt as if it must be the middle of the day by the time I stopped for my email check, but of course it was really only breakfast time. By the time I rolled into Sisteron my head was humming and throbbing with the heat, and I had long ago emptied my three litres of water. I stumbled into a small supermarket and, with the flimsy logic of the hungry shopper, came out clutching a two-litre bottle of water, an ice lolly, a bar of hazelnut Milka and two large soft peaches. The water, eased down with a nuun tablet, disappeared into my grateful body as quickly as it would have been absorbed by a patch of dried-out soil. The fruit and ice and chocolate followed suit, and soon I was back on the bike, casting barely a glance at the huge serrated cliffs overlooking the city, in keen pursuit of the Transcontinental peleton, which I now assumed I had fallen off the back of, thanks to my unnecessary detour.
But, just as I had the previous afternoon, I found myself alternating between energy and sloth, longing to stop and rest in every field I passed, giving in to my baser impulses every time I spied a petrol station or anywhere selling ice lollies. It was just too hot, I thought to myself as I sat on the pavement, outside yet another tabac (this time in Espinasses), throbbing feet resting on the shaded pavement on either side of my discarded shoes and a small pile of juice cans and flavoured ice. It was a shame Juliana was no longer in the race. She thrives in heat. I much prefer the coolness and freshness of an English springtime, which I most certainly wasn’t going to find here.
I looked up just in time to see another rider flash past me. For various reasons, it was always immediately obvious to me whether someone was a fellow Transcon racer, or just a local roadie out for a spin. And this was very clearly one of the former. He had Apidura bags on his bike, and he was wearing one of the bright coral Rapha jerseys that I’d last seen on Leo, as we lined up together in Geraardsbergen (just over three days ago – it felt like a lifetime). Could this possibly be Leo himself? Could I somehow have overtaken him? Was I about to run into a friend? I got back on the bike and set off in pursuit, wondering if anyone who knew both of us might happen to be watching my dot slowly gaining on his on the tracker page.
We were approaching Lac de Serre-Ponçon, which I knew from my route planning was one of the race’s more inconvenient obstacles. To get round it, you could either stay north of the lake, following a small road whose abrupt twists and turns suggested it would involve a lot of climbing, or you could stick to the main road that went south of the lake, but took you a long way out of your way, and added an extra 15km. I can’t remember which route I’d programmed into my Garmin. By this stage I was only keeping half an eye on it anyway, having failed to develop a deep and trusting relationship in the short time we had had together before the race. So when I saw the-man-who-might-be-Leo take the left fork (towards the shorter, wigglier road), I followed him without hesitation. If nothing else, this meant there’d be no more embarrassing Twitter commentary on Chappell not running with the herd.
The road immediately ramped upwards, and began to wind itself along the edge of the cliffs than plunged down towards the lake. I relished its hairpins, for the sense of progress as I ticked each one off, and for the alternate shade and sunlight that gave me some small relief to savour or to strive for. Up ahead of me I could see the coral jersey of the-man-who-might-be-Leo. I wasn’t losing him; in fact, I might even be gaining on him. Down to our right, a huge dam swept down into the valley. The-man-who-might-be-Leo pulled in at a small viewpoint to admire it (and probably also to take advantage of the shade of the trees), and as I joined him I discovered that he wasn’t Leo (I hadn’t really expected to catch him), but he was Kristjan, who had disappeared down Mont Ventoux the previous night, while I camped on the veranda of Chalet Reynard. It turned out he had slept somewhere near Sault – and that I’d probably even drawn ahead of him at some point, before I delayed myself with that pointless (but enjoyable) mountain detour. He loved descending, he told me. That made sense then. I told him I much prefer climbing, where at least you have some control over the bike.
We befriended a Scottish rider who’d been enjoying the same patch of shade (looks like I hadn’t dropped behind after all), and carried on up the climb within sight of each other. It wasn’t only a climb though. In order to traverse the various spurs and outcrops that overlooked the lake, the road rose up, then plunged downward again, losing us all the height we had so painstakingly gained. I watched Kristjan plummeting down the hill ahead of me, fearlessly racing towards an oncoming van (which prudently got out of his way), crept downward in his wake, and then set about catching him again on the next climb.
I failed. By the summit of the climb I was within sight of him and the Scottish rider, but then all of a sudden my energy failed me, and I pulled over in the shade, sat myself down by the side of the road, and calmly despaired of ever getting any further. For a few minutes I just sat there, forearms resting on knees, eyes staring blankly at the hot tarmac, knowing that in a few more minutes’ time I’d scrape together the reserve to get back on the bike and keep going, and hoping that somehow it would get easier, that I’d be able to recapture the joy with which I’d spent those few hours of the morning, skimming my way along undulating roads with a cool breeze playing against my skin. Now there was no breeze, and the heat was so oppressive that my skin throbbed and my head thumped. I was probably dehydrated again, I thought, gloomily, despite the litres of water I’d sunk in Sisteron.
Wearily I got back on the bike, wearily I pedalled my way up and down the remainder of that fiendish road, crossed the lake, and sat for half an hour on a restaurant terrace, filling myself with spag bol and baguette and tap water, and envying myself the purity of my struggle up Ventoux, which had already retreated into personal legend, leaving me with the messy and compromised business of an unfinished ride.
Eventually I pressed on, towards Embrun, where the road signposted towards Briançon was also very clearly signposted as being forbidden to bicycles (and tractors), and I was obliged to follow a smaller one, which wound up and down the hillside through the town, rather than following the valley floor. Another couple of racers chose differently, and I watched them shoot off up the valley, not finding out until two weeks later that they would have received a hefty time penalty for disobeying the rules of the road.
The road climbed and climbed – no longer the vicious switchbacks I had endured that afternoon, but in consecutive ramps, so that I had the curious impression I was going upstairs – and as night slowly fell and the sun sank behind the mountains, I noticed that the heels of my hands were becoming sore. To my dismay, when I removed my gloves, I found that they were pink and raw, and had the beginnings of blisters, and knew that, no matter how carefully I gripped the bars from now on, there was no way that the next few dozen hours of cycling wouldn’t eventually break the skin, and leave me riding on bare flesh.
After a few more merciless miles, I rolled into Briançon, my strength and resolve flagging, knowing this would be a night where I caved in and found myself a hotel, rather than spreading out my bivvy bag in the corner of a field. Some of the men I’d spoken to along the way hadn’t spent a single night outdoors, and while I was convinced this would cost me far more than I could afford in both time and money, right now I was past caring about either.
It was around 11pm, and although I searched high and low, there wasn’t a single hotel that was open, or had anyone on reception whose attention (and sympathy) I could plaintively attract. Grumpily, I resigned myself to another hour or two of cycling, a chilly berth somewhere in the mountains, and a hungry push on towards Sestriere, nearly 1,000m higher, in the early hours of the morning. Even more grumpily, I ignored the catcalls of a nearby table of Englishmen, sitting outside one of Briançon’s late-night bars.
They weren’t dissuaded.
“Hey! Yes, you!” shouted one of them, waving me over.
I am never less amenable than when summoned by drunken men outside bars, and was just about to turn tail and ride for the hills when one of them shouted
“Are you with the race?”
Oh. I turned back their way, and rode cautiously towards them, still half-assuming they were a bunch of drunken louts for whom I’d be part of the evening’s entertainment.
Turns out they weren’t. They were mountain bikers, on holiday in the area, who had been sitting at the same table all evening, eating and drinking after a long day on the trails, and had quickly noticed the sporadic stream of tired-looking roadies passing through the town. After flagging one down and asking what was going on, they had started buying them beer and pizza (on the table next to them was a huge pile of empty boxes). I was easily persuaded to join them for a bit, and to accept a glass of lager and a cheese-and-ham sandwich, since the pizzeria was now closed for the night, along with the town’s hotels.
The beer went down surprisingly well, and I found myself in a chattier mood than I expected, probably because of having spent the last few days with little more than the bike for company. We compared notes on our lives and jobs, and I discovered that these weren’t just any mountain bikers – they were the organisers of the Trans-Provence, a mountain bike race so well known that even I had heard of it.
“Is there anything else you need?” one of them asked.
“I think a nice comfortable hedge is next on the agenda” I told them, explaining that I had arrived in town too late to find myself a hotel room. My new friends exchanged glances.
“Well… we’ve got a spare bed in our hotel room. I mean, we’ve got a bed each, but there’s a van one of us can sleep in. Would you be up for that? I promise we’re all totally non-weird – I’m married, and he’s…”
They continued in this vein long after I had accepted their offer, assuring me of their non-weirdness all the way to the hotel (it was one of the ones I had failed to get into earlier on), while I assured them in turn that they were making a terrible mistake by allowing a smelly ultra-racer into their sanctuary, but if they were really sure…
And then they left me in peace to have my first shower in four days and well over 1,000km (I washed my hair with the tips of my fingers, not wanting to disturb the blisters on my palms), insisted on adding a couple of stickers to my bike, and fell asleep as quickly as I did, all three of us (and no doubt Plons out in the van) snoring our way through till my alarm went off at 3.30am and I reluctantly crawled out of bed, fumbled about in the dark for my things, whispered goodbye and stumbled out into the still-dark streets to start another day of riding.