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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Transcontinental: On the right track

For the first twelve hours of the ride (race, it’s a race, Chappell), I barely stopped smiling. Because, after all, cycling along quiet roads through the cool night air, with no human company beyond some occasional twinkling red lights ahead of me, is one of the things I love most in the world.

DSC_0787Excellent photograph by Schollaert Xavier

Within a few minutes of leaving Geraardsbergen I was almost completely alone, though I suspected there must be other riders all around me, just out of sight – if we all continued at the same pace, we wouldn’t meet until one of us stopped, and the others caught up. I wondered ever so briefly whether the pink line I was dutifully following on my Garmin was leading me in the right direction, but the compass in the corner of the screen pointed directly towards me, meaning that behind me was north, ahead of me was south, and if I carried on riding in that direction I couldn’t go far wrong. And now and again I’d pass another rider, or one would pass me, usually with a smile and a wave, and we’d both know we were on the right track.

So far the race felt exactly like the many night rides I’ve done down to Brighton or out to Dunwich – the smooth lanes, the fragrant hedgerows, the silent villages – the difference being that this night ride would turn into a morning ride, and an afternoon ride, and another night ride, and another, and the gentle countryside of Northern Europe would eventually give way to the jagged Alps, and the hellish heat of the Balkans, and ferocious dogs of Turkey and Bulgaria, and whatever other horrors we hadn’t yet been able to imagine. But I didn’t need to imagine all of that – it would become a reality soon enough. I was determined to enjoy the first couple of days – and to get in as many miles as I could while the weather was still cool, knowing that for most of the race I’d be riding at temperatures far higher than I’d normally choose to inflict on myself.

We had been warned it would rain, and sure enough, an hour or so into the ride I was hit by a few brief flurries, while lightening flickered ominously on the horizon. It was at about this point that I followed my Garmin down a narrow lane that rapidly deteriorated into gravel, and then abruptly switched to cobbles. My dismay was only momentary. In the UK such a road would almost invariably lead to a remote farmhouse (with an angry dog), or simply disappear into a ploughed field, but I knew this must be one of the legendary cobbled roads of Belgium, and that it would lead somewhere, and that even if it didn’t, I had all the time in the world to extricate myself because, really, I didn’t stand a chance of winning this race, or even doing particularly well, so I might as well do a bit of exploring along the way. My front beam lit up the uneven pavé ahead of me, and the brambles and stinging nettles crowded in from both sides, at some points brushing against my legs as I steered myself round a pothole or a particularly sandy bit of gravel. I wanted to stop for a moment, to savour the silence that would crowd in as my wheels stilled and my breathing slowed, to enjoy the sense of being cradled by the hedgerows, here in this tiny lane, somewhere on the earth’s surface with the flickering sky above me and no one watching, but I was here to ride, and so I rode on.

Eventually the lane turned back onto a main road and almost immediately I began passing other riders again – it looked as though the pack had split shortly after leaving Geraardsbergen, taking two different routes south that were now converging. Ultan overtook me with a cheery wave. ‘What a nice young man’ I thought, as he raced off into the night on his futuristic time trial machine. “See you there!” I shouted at his back.

DSC_0786Another excellent photograph by Schollaert Xavier

I stopped briefly to rearrange the contents of my frame pack, which had begun to chafe my calves with every pedal stroke (it’s been pointed out to me that this may have more to do with the girth of my calves than the size of the frame pack), and every rider who passed me called out to check whether I was OK. (Pointless, now I come to think of it, since the ‘self-supported’ ethos of the race would mean instant disqualification for anyone who tried to help – but not even Mike Hall can legislate against camaraderie, and neither would he want to.) After a short while a voice said “hello love!” and Juliana zoomed past me. I chased her for a mile or so, but she was riding harder than I’d ever seen her ride before, and far too fast for me to keep up with. ‘What a shame’, I thought, having hoped that our paths might cross at more length along the way – that we might ride alongside each other for a while, or that I might spot her bike parked outside a café somewhere in Italy, or even that I might reel her in and overtake her on one of the long climbs. It could still happen, I reminded myself. Who was to say how either of us might speed up or slow down over 4,500km? She might be held up by a mechanical; I might get into my stride and pick up the pace on day 4; I might make an unplanned detour and fall behind again; she might have a burst of insomnia and keep going for three days straight. But watching her disappear into the night, I doubted that I’d see her again. I had thought I was on good form, but she was in another league. I still had a long way to go.

Soon we were into France and, as the sky gradually faded from black to blue to grey, the wind picked up and the rain came down – or rather, across. We found ourselves crossing a vast and empty region of rolling yellow wheat fields, with not even a hedge to break the monotony – or the wind, which roared in from the west, driving the rain like bullets into our bare faces and legs, and occasionally elbowing us out into the road. This appeared to be the only obvious route south, and the riders had settled into a long, loose, strung-out pack, one or two usually visible ahead of me as I crested the hills. A few pairs passed me, efficiently slipstreaming each other, and I fell into my usual rhythm of overtaking the men on the climbs, and being overtaken in turn on the descents.

Not everyone was enjoying themselves as much as I was. A few of our passing exchanges focused exclusively on the unpleasantness of the weather and the hardship of riding through the night, and I had already seen one or two riders asleep by the side of the road; one curled up at the edge of some dripping woodland, another huddled between two haystacks that stood like twin skyscrapers at the crest of a hill, and were the only windbreak for miles around. And as the day set in, so did the hunger. Despite my three dinners, I had already finished off most of the snacks I was carrying in my fuel pods and jersey pockets, and was reluctant to break my flow by stopping to rummage in my seatpack for the tray of Tesco flapjacks I’d bought on the way to Dover.

It was a mild shock, as it often is on overnight rides, to realise that it was still before seven – having already spent so long in the saddle and watched dawn break, I felt like I was already well into the day. The quiet acres of wheat continued to undulate on either side of me, and I started to wonder how long it would take me to get to the next village, and whether there’d be a boulangerie open when I did.

A few minutes later I rolled into a small wet town, whose name now escapes me, and as I rode past the main square, I spotted a lit-up shop window at one end (and furthermore a couple of bikes parked outside) and knew that it was breakfast time.

The wind calmed down as the day wore on, and I left the wheatfields behind me for a frustrating hour getting lost in Reims (and noticing only as I got off the bike to carry it down a flight of steps onto the road I was supposed to be on that my tracker had already managed to saw through its zip ties and was hanging on by a thread), and then a delightful afternoon of following my Garmin’s eccentric route along broad gravel roads that cut straight across the fields under acres of rolling cloud. Here and there tyre tracks told me that someone else’s Garmin had had the same idea, though I had no idea how long it was since they’d passed that way.

photo

I had attempted to check the tracker on my phone during a brief stop at Macdonalds in Reims for third breakfast (or possibly first lunch), but had only just managed to locate my dot when the page crashed, and I stopped bothering after that. So I had no idea of where I was in relation to the rest of the pack. Quite far behind by now, I imagined, after my various detours, and having been significantly slowed down by the gravel.

I hit my first low point at around six that evening. I had been on the move for 18 hours by then, and awake for 32, so it’s not really surprising that things started to unravel, but it’s very difficult to get any sort of perspective when you’ve been cycling for that long without sleep – something I was to discover again and again over the following week. All of a sudden everything was impossible. My legs slowed, my eyelids began to droop, and my mind angrily scolded them, insisting that this was unacceptable, that I’d cycled for much longer stretches without needing a break, that the other riders must be hundreds of miles ahead by now, that there was no way I could give up and sleep so early, that I was failing, that I was a failure…

This pointless battle continued for an hour or so, as I flogged myself along the D444 towards Chaource, trying to appreciate the beautiful beech forest on either side of the road, but really wondering if it held any promising camping spots, and simultaneously telling myself that even if it did, there was no way I was allowed to stop now. I imposed myself on one of Chaource’s chic little cafes, drank an overpriced, undersized orange juice whilst trying to prop my head up and keep my eyes open, stretched, got back on the bike, and insisted to myself that I would at least ride until it got dark before allowing myself to sleep.

I followed my Garmin’s beeps through the remainder of Chaource and my heart sank as it led me onto yet another gravel road, meandering off into the golden farmland and the golden evening sunlight. But lacking the energy or initiative to stop and replan my route (and listening to one of the chattering voices in my head that told me every time I stopped pedalling that I was wasting time), I pressed on, the sleepiness gradually falling away, succeeded by a deep, patient tiredness, that told me I could go on all night, if I really wanted to.

photo-2It’s a lesson I learn on almost every long ride I do, and then apparently forget and have to learn all over again on the next one, that no matter how exhausted you think you are, no matter how empty your legs, no matter how sincerely you believe that this is it, you’ll have to stop here, you can’t go any further – if you do go on, eventually this will pass, and everything will become wonderful again.

My spirits rose as the shadows lengthened and I followed my gravel road up into the golden fields – and then they began to soar as the road became a stony track, and plunged downhill into an ancient wood, the green branches meeting above my head, birds singing all about me and startled deer and rabbits leaping out of my path. Once again the world – and the race – felt a very long way away.

photo-3A few hours later, after emerging from the darkening woods and following a succession of roads and riverbeds and winding lanes into the quiet French night, I felt my eyes trying to close again, and knew that it was finally time to sleep. I found a patch of grass between some woodpiles on the outskirts of a tiny village, went through the brief business of eating, changing my shorts, unrolling my sleeping bag and setting my alarm, then lay on my back looking up at the stars above me, enjoying the feeling of my tired limbs settling into the ground, and savouring my last few moments of consciousness before I sank into slumber.

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Transcontinental: The Start Line

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start. And it was a very good start. I had been slightly mournful, I think, that I hadn’t got my act together to enter this race in one of the years it set off from London. It would have been surreal, and rather magical, I thought, to leave Westminster Bridge and ride out along the familiar roads of South London, down to the sea and further and further away, until finally I arrived in Istanbul. But I have actually already done that once, and in reality I would have stayed awake all night in my flat, fiddling with my bike and my route, thinking of items I suddenly had to pack or unpack, and worrying about all the things I’d forgotten.

As it was, I closed my front door behind me with over 48 hours to go. I was driven down to Dover, I stepped off the boat after midnight, and the 100-mile ride to Geraardsbergen was just as I had hoped – dark, swift and silent. I arrived a few hours into the morning and spent the rest of the day sitting in cafes with the wonderful Juliana, before falling into a deep 12-hour sleep in a yurt surrounded by cornfields. By the time the day of the race rolled around, and the streets of Geraardsbergen began to fill up with eccentrically packed bicycles and anxious men in lycra, I was ready, and I felt it. As with any trip, beginning is almost a relief, because it means the stress is over, and now all you have to do is ride.

The race set off at midnight, from the top of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and began with a lap of the town before reascending the Muur – which of course meant we had to ride up it twice, once after the starting gun, and once before. But it felt funny to mind about that, given that we had 4,500km ahead of us, and goodness knows how much climbing. Half a mile or so on steep cobbles should make no difference really.

I had felt drowsy and exhausted all afternoon, but I knew, from night rides past, that this was part of the process – that it might even be my body’s way of conserving energy, by keeping me lazing limply around in the build-up to the ride so that I can go like a bat out of hell as soon as I’m on the bike. (My body often seems to know better than I do about matters like this; I’m slowly learning to trust it.)

As darkness fell, the riders collected at the top of the Muur, even though there were still several hours to go before the start. Most of them were already observing one of the time-honoured maxims of ultra-racing – that unless you’re riding, eating, or sleeping, you’re wasting time. And since the ride still hadn’t begun, there was nothing worth doing other than eating and sleeping. The restaurant was crowded with carb-loading cyclists, the waiting staff increasingly wild-eyed and ragged-looking as the evening wore on. And here and there, under tables, on the grass outside, were prostrate bodies, muffled in what scant waterproofs and knee warmers they had brought for the first chilly hours of northern France, their cycling caps over their faces, trying to catch up on the sleep that anxiety had deprived them of the previous night, and cycling would deprive them of over the coming ones. A few were still huddled in corners, hunched over their laptops, making last-minute tweaks to the GPS files or, in at least one case, planning their whole route from scratch.

I found Juliana tearing into a steak, joined her and ordered my third dinner, having already had two (pasta and chips) down by the river. Even though I hadn’t started cycling yet, my body readily – even eagerly – seemed to absorb everything I put into it. It’s almost as if it knew what lay ahead. Then, with nothing more to do, and nothing more to say, we found a slightly quieter back room, stretched ourselves out under adjacent tables, and spent the last two hours before kick-off resting our eyes, and in my case sometimes almost managing to doze off. At one point I was faintly aware of the noise of a camera, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to receive this image from official photographer Camille Macmillan after I got home.

_DSC5237

With half an hour to go before midnight we stumbled out into the crowds, and realised that, as well as all the cyclists, a sizeable number of ordinary people were gathering as well – some of them the friends and relatives of the riders; others clearly interested locals who had turned out to see us off. We fought our way through to the bar, ordered a couple of espressos and toasted each other with a grin. I tried to remind myself that we were effectively rivals – our ride up to Edinburgh in June had shown us to be reasonably well matched (though she claimed to have done almost no training at that point), and since the previous year’s female winner – Pippa Handley – had been kept out of the race by injury, I was the only female entrant who stood any chance of challenging Juliana’s domination.

It was strange that we liked each other so much, I thought, and, in fact, strange that our mutual affection seemed to have almost entirely supplanted any sense of competition, to the extent that we were relishing racing together no matter what the result. “You’re chasing my tail, I’m happy. I’m chasing your tail, I’m happy” she had said in an email a few weeks previously. Perhaps it wasn’t that we’d lost our sense of competition. Perhaps it was more that we both knew we’d be competitive anyway, no matter who we were chasing, and it was comforting to have someone to chase who felt the same way, who knew that, no matter how sincerely either of us might strain to overtake the other, the real race would always be against ourselves. We’d agreed that whoever made it to Istanbul first would have a beer waiting for the other one, and I was already entertaining two different fantasies – one in which I ground to a triumphant halt by the Bosphorus, looked all around for Juliana and realised that I’d beaten her; the other (more likely) in which I staggered into the final checkpoint to find her waiting for me with two cold bottles of Efes.

unnamedPhoto by Kate Lines

As the riders began to empty out of the bar towards the start line, I noticed that my whole body had started to fizz with excitement, as if someone were opening bottles of champagne behind my ribcage. Juliana smiled indulgently at me. She herself seemed rather more distant and preoccupied as we hugged, and wished each other good luck, and went our separate ways – her to the front of the crowd of riders; me to the back where I found my friend Leo, and a fresh-faced young Irishman called Ultan Coyle, whom I’d met earlier that afternoon, and who Leo had whisperingly informed me was a former UK 24-hour time trial champion.

“I’m trying to think of some last-minute support I can offer you” said Leo’s girlfriend Kate, reminding us that we only had eight minutes left until the starting gun went and we were on our own, immediately out of the race if we accepted any outside assistance. I realised that she’d be alone too, along with all the other friends and family members who had come to Geraardsbergen to see the racers off, and wondered how the atmosphere would change once we’d finally disappeared into the night, and they had nothing left to do but trudge back to their lonely beds. Some of them would be flying out to Istanbul to meet us at the other end; others would spend the following two weeks anxiously refreshing the Trackleaders map, watching 200 orange dots spreading out across a continent. We couldn’t think of anything any of us needed, so we settled for hugs all round, and then she stepped back into the crowd.

unnamed-2L-R: Leo, Ultan, me (excitement very clearly visible). Photo by Kate Lines

Up on the hill beside the church, the torches were lit, and our ears rang with the cheering of the crowds and the clanging of their cowbells. I found myself grinning uncontrollably, as much with embarrassment at the absurdity of it all as with the excitement and happiness of finally being about to start cycling. It felt very much like the day the Pakistani National Cycling Team welcomed me to Lahore, and I followed them to the velodrome on my loaded touring bike, aware that I was being filmed from at least two press cars, and trying to stop my face contorting with amazement, disbelief and – yes – embarrassment.

And then we were off! The pack immediately thinned out as we soared down the tarmacced hill back into the town, and a few minutes later it thickened again as we returned to the Muur and the narrow cobbled lane curved up into the trees, clogged with struggling cyclists. I had reminded myself repeatedly that I’d probably get left behind in the early stages of the race, and that that was OK, because I’d have over two weeks to catch up – but once again I proved to be faster than I’d thought, and I caught up a lot of the people who had lost me on the initial descent, darting in and out of the hordes of sweating men, and picking up my pace even more as the roaring of the crowds (and the clangour of the cowbells) came back into earshot.

“Go on girl!” shouted a few people, and I thought once again how visible the few women in this race inevitably were, and how that could become both a blessing and a curse.

And then we rode over the top, once again, past the church, past the last few familiar faces, and out into the great streetlit silence of Belgium, our next stop Mont Ventoux, a thousand kilometres to the south.

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A brief update

You’re probably wondering how it went, aren’t you? Unless you were following my Twitter account, in which case you’ll know that I pulled out on Day 8, after ending up in hospital in Ljubljana with mysterious chest pains. They turned out to be nothing fatal, and although I didn’t end up finishing the race, what I […]

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Time for the Transcontinental

“I’ll be following your dot!” is what everyone keeps saying to me at the moment. They mean the dot on the map, showing where my Spot tracker, me and my bike (assuming we’re all together) are at any given moment during the Transcontinental Race. Here’s a link to the map, if you’re interested. You can […]

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See you in London?

I’ll be giving a talk next Wednesday (the 8th July) at the Oakley pop-up on Exmouth Market, EC1. Come, and bring beer. (And in case it adds to the incentive, I will almost certainly have my shiny new TCR bike with me.)

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Over-reaching myself

Do you ever realise you’ve become a very different person? And perhaps that you’d been this sort of person for quite a while, and everyone else was fully aware of it, and you were the last to know, as ever? No one was surprised that I entered the Transcontinental Race. No one except me. Turns out […]

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On chasing men

Don’t ever get the impression I’ve got it all sorted. Just when you (I) think you’ve (I’ve) got life figured out, and it’s all plain sailing from here, you either discover something completely new that you have to get your head round, or simply realise that you’re not the master you thought you were. Both […]

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How to host a cyclist

I quite often get to the end of a ride and say to myself ‘that’s probably the toughest day I’ve ever had on the bike!’, and then remember all the other times I’ve said that, and briefly try to figure out which day was actually the toughest, and then decide that I don’t really need to […]

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The kit list to end all kit lists

Here’s a treat for all you gear nerds. A few weeks ago I found myself with a spare morning (or at least, the disinclination to fill it with anything more useful), and decided to spend it clearing out my panniers, going through all my stuff, tidying, itemizing, editing and repacking it all. I was staying […]

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