Thursday, 3 September 2015

Rocky Mountain High

Considering I was sleeping in such a relatively exposed position, I slept pretty well for about 4 hours, or maybe slightly less. Anyway, I was once again back on the bike as dawn broke and very shortly after that heading into my first climb of the day.

The route out of Lyon was brutal, with two long and winding ascents. The heat increased from mid morning, so that by 11 it was already punishingly hot.

I was pretty happy though having summited my second set of twisting hills, that I was nearing the end of the ridge line that separated Lyon from the easterly route I was now following. I was incredibly surprised therefore, when I bumped into another rider who had happened upon my path from due north, to find that, so frustrated was he with the hills, that he was thinking of heading to Lyon and then south again to pick up the river that he surmised would bring him round toward Mont Ventoux from the south. It seemed like one hell of a detour.

As it turned out, I was right about my own route and soon found myself in beautiful lanes bordered by fields of sunflowers and sweet corn.

As the day wore on, the heat and tiredness mixed with the increasing saddle discomfort caused me to stop more frequently. Never for more than a few minutes, to allow my legs to relax briefly, but it added up and the miles were becoming hard won.

After an eternity Mont Ventoux appeared to my left, a faint outline in the haze, towering above the surrounding landscape. Even from 40 miles away, there was no denying it's supremacy. I recall a colleague from work, himself a cyclist and someone who had cycled to the summit, saying how Ventoux just rises out of the low lying scenery surrounding it, completely out of place given its size.

The problem of course with a big mountain, is that being there from miles away, you have to look at it as it appears to remain on the horizon for hours, never seemingly getting any closer. Eventually though the pictures show otherwise and I at last crawled into Duchamp, dirty, smelly and exhausted, desperately in need of some food.

It's odd sometimes how you forget the restorative power of food. I started by asking for a Coke, thinking that I was just thirsty and then consumed an amazing risotto with duck along with another pint of coke. I suddenly felt like a new man, aided by the almost total body wash that I achieved in the tiny lavatory sink.

Competitors were appearing from out of the slowly dying day, the strain of their efforts etched on their faces and evident in their stiff-legged gait. There was no suppressing the smiles of self-satisfied achievement though. Over 600 miles in 3 days is something to smile about.

Bedoin, the start of the official climb of Ventoux was lively with early evening revellers. There were bikes seemingly at every restaurant as riders either rested prior to heading for the mountain, or settling for a few hours sleep in anticipation of an early start the next morning.

I had already determined that I was going for the summit that night. I was on course to make 180 miles by the time I reached the top and at 21:30 started my ascent. Another rider left at about the same time, catching me up in the first mile. It was nice to chat for a while before then settling into our own rhythms as the gradient increased.

By now it was dark. There was a good moon, but it was hidden behind the trees and gave little light. In some ways I was glad not to be able to see beyond the beam of my light and before long was breathing my newly determined mantra. 'If he can, I can, if he can, I can...' and then he stopped!!

We had been climbing for a couple of hours. In the lowest gear, I doubt we were doing more than a few miles an hour. At times his light disappeared around the next bend and I was rarely closer than 3-400 m.

The climb enters it's final sections above the Chalet Reynard, a beautiful 17th century barn that for others is available to stay at. For us it was a point on a map and the sting in the tail. Why is it that mountains like these save their worst for the top half. It didn't seem that it could have become any tougher.

Though moon drenched and beautiful, the upper reaches of Mont Ventoux expose you to everything that the mountain is famous for and so named. Gusts of wind blew up the gullies, so fierce at times that it seemed impossible that I would reach the summit without getting blown off the mountain. Wind speeds of up to 200mph have been recorded and the wind blows at an average of 56mph for 240 days a year. (

One such gust threw me left toward the edge of the hillside, sending me into a complete 360 deg turn to avoid the drop or a crash, but the next one gave me fewer options, so violent and sudden was it. Chucking me to the right, it was the rocky mountain high, or the high road. I chose the high road and crashed in a heap.

The bike battered and bent would not work properly. I couldn't get the chain to stay on and I had visions of trying to work out how I was going to get down to a bike shop in the morning from up here. It would certainly have been a long walk. For now though, I still had a mile to go and set off, leaning into the tearing wind, for the top.

At half and hour past midnight, I made the summit of Mont Ventoux, 180 miles for the day and 645 miles in three days. Marion and her crew were waiting in the van to stamp my card. Their concern and kindness, so, so welcome. Thank you all.

With the light of the van, I could see that the deraillier problems were not as bad as I had thought. It was bent for sure, but not unserviceable. For now, it was enough to know that I would be on the road again in the morning and I set to arranging my bivi in the lee of the weather station, under a set of iron steps. I was going to sleep like a rock.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

6%, 2 pizzas and a man-bag.

On facebook recently, someone postulated that ultra distance cyclists lost 6% of their grey matter over the period of the event. Sounds a bit drastic, but then as I sit here trying to recall the details of day 2, I realise that I cannot and wonder whether it should have been 6% remaining!

I do know that I was up and cleared of my bivi-bag and back on the road whilst it was still dark. It had remained dry overnight and the mosquito net that my daughter had helped me sew into the mouth of my cocoon had kept the beasties at bay.

I started the morning with the noodles part of my chinese from last night, washed down with water. At this point I am stalling.

It turned into a warm day and the start of what was to be something of a heatwave across central southern Europe.

The target for today was Lyon, 200 miles to the south, heading first through Dijon, Chalon-sur-Saon and then Macon. After the damp of the first 24 hours, I recall little beyond the development of some soreness from the saddle and a change of shorts relieved the greater discomfort at least for a while. The scenery was open, the skies huge and the traffic light. As you can see from the picture, there are also superb hard shoulders on these relatively small highways, for cyclists. Maybe it's a space thing.

I looked at circumnavigating some of the bigger towns to reduce the delays from France's love of red traffic lights, but I took in Dijon anyway, stopping for coffee and a late breakfast.

I would like to have deviated into the city centre, but I just did not have time. I shall need to learn to cycle harder and faster, to buy myself more stopping time. A trip for another day.

By late afternoon having covered about 170 miles, I happened across a mobile pizza van in a large lay-by. Ordering two 12" vegetarian pizza's, I was asked to put my name on the little order slip and told that they would be about 40 minutes.

I wrote, 'The sleeping man' and lay down on the bench next to the van, asking if they would wake me when the food was ready.

At 20 past 8, I rose from my deep slumber, to be told that the pizzas were in the warmer. I don't think they had the heart to disturb me and I was grateful.

So began the rule of thumb of the TCR. TCR riders never buy one pizza! 

I ate the first one, folded the second in half, in half it's box and placed it into my Musette. Now then, if I haven't introduced you to the best man-bag ever invented, then now is the time.

This simple food carrying device, should never be empty. Preferably there should always be at least one pizza in it, and any other food that you might think you need in the next 12 hours. Since it rests on your back, in the full view of the sun, pizzas never go cold, so that breakfast pizza the following day is as fresh as...well 24 hour old pizza and tastes just as good as the first one. Needs must.

I left the lay-by suitably encumbered and headed for Lyon. I was seriously tired and was strangely glad of the dark and the cool evening. I have no idea what the best way through, or around this city might be. I just know that I took in some serious inter-city climbing, before eventually battling a myriad other red traffic lights heading for the southerly outskirts.

Unaware that the city gave way to countryside 5 miles farther from where I stopped, I hunkered down behind an old petrol station in downtown suburbia, sheltered between someones garden fence and a line of trees.

At one point a late night reveler appeared about 50m away at the end of the tree line and I lay there ears pinned back , eyes barely visible feeling as much like a hunted rabbit as it was possible to be. It is an unnerving experience, knowing that discovery would force upon me an early departure. The fox slinked off, none the wiser and I went to sleep.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Blog delay. Food punctuation and 265 miles.

I couldn't advertise that I was about to go on holiday, so I'm now home and hope to get on and finish writing this up.

I had known that there was bad weather coming our way and we had been fortunate enough to miss it for the start of the race. The evening was cool but not cold and having gotten lost in the middle of town during my first couple of miles, I eventually made it out onto the open road and settled into some kind of a rhythm.

Riding hard and long at night is a state of mind. You can't see much beyond making sure that you don't hit any potholes and there's not much that could be done to avoid the bat that smacked me in the chest. His radar was obviously switched off, like my own early navigation sense. I hoped that he would learn faster than I did.

The rain started at about 4ish, falling steadily in that drizzly way that somehow gets you wet in a way that other types of rain seem not to. It made no difference. After last years lessons, I was cycling come what may. This was no diminishing trans-Atlantic hurricane and the terrain was flat.

By 7 a.m I had registered 92 miles on the GPS and stopped in a bus shelter for a rest. Given the level of dust and grime, the hard wooden seat hadn't seen a butt, let alone a vagrant like me for months if not years. I gave up trying to wipe any of it away, laid my head on my arm and fell asleep.

Ten minutes later I woke, shivering and refreshed...or at least that's what I convinced myself. I took off the extra layers that I had donned prior to dropping off, ate a couple of mouthfuls of something and downed some water and headed out...into the rain again. The corner of the bus shelter seat was clean, my back was filthy. My thirst sated and my brain suitably numbed, I determined to reach the next patisserie before I would stop again. I had a pretty good idea that I wouldn't have to wait long.

I have yet to perfect the art of recording events, whilst also riding. As a consequence my recall is dulled. The days become punctuated by food stops and water and spatterings of my teenage French and sign language as I endeavour to make myself understood and my stomach filled. The longed for food stop duly appeared and its recollection merges into those of that day and days to come. A few stand out. There are pictures to prove it.

Some time after mid-day, I recall that the rain had stopped. It was the last I was to see over the next 9 days.

My target for day one had been Chaumont. Strangely also the stopping point after day one proper last year, but this time, 60 miles further along the route. Some time short of it though, I met with a fellow competitor, his jacket torn, his hand bandaged and his back wheel bent. Overtaken on a roundabout in the rain, he had come off his bike turning sharply to avoid the car, that in turn ran over is back wheel and then drove off without stopping! It is a huge credit to his determination that he continued under any circumstances, but with a bump at every wheel turn! It would have driven me to distraction. I guess that he might have ridden in the vain hope of meeting the driver again, but it's probably a good thing that he did not.

We met again a couple of hours later after the cruel and stiff climb up into Chaumont, where we shared the pavement outside a grocery store, still open at 11 at night.

From here, I worked my way through town until I found a Chinese restaurant. I again filled the tank and then 265 miles into my first day, I rode another 100m and fell asleep next to a hedge. Hidden only by the dark and 30m of grass next to the road, I didn't care too much, I was done in!

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Navigtion, Navigation, Navigation

Since the rider briefings began at 18:30 in the t Hemelrijk pub/restaurant just off the summit of the Muur, we began to collect there from late afternoon. It was a great time to catch up with old friends from last year and I was particularly pleased to find Chris White, with whom I had spent a fair bit of time last year.

I was sorry to find out that after so much training, he was carrying an injury that was very likely to stop him completing the race, but all credit to him for making the start and giving it his best shot.

Considering the restaurant was catering for around 250 + people over the course of the evening, they did an amazing job. We somehow got missed in the melee of orders but the huge bowl of pasta that eventually arrived  2 1/2 hours after it was ordered, was well worth the wait, arriving as it did at the perfect time for fueling up the legs for the road ahead.

Since I'd climbed the Muur twice that day already, it hardly seemed to make sense to cycle back down to the registration hall for a lie down. No-one was going to get much in the way of sleep now and relaxing and letting the time drift by felt like the best option. One way or another this was going to be a night of little sleep. Whether once the race started, you decided to stop early and get your head down, would be the first big call we had to make and I already knew which way I was going on that one.

At 23:45 we were called to the start line, where the Town Crier and the Mayor wished us safe travels. Torches were lit and held either side of the road as at the stroke of midnight we headed off on the parcour circuit of the town before again climbing the Muur for the last time.

Racing back up the last section of the hill, with the cheers and whoops of the crowd surrounding us was magical. I've never ridden a cycle race in my life outside of the TCR and the atmosphere and sense of excitement shared by competitors and followers as we dispersed from Geraardesbergen will stay with me for a long time.

The road from the chapel descended to the left, taking us back into the town. From the get go, I had planned my route to avoid some of the main roads as much in deference to Laura's concerns about safety, but also in an attempt to find the shortest route.

It was my first mistake and one that I spent the remainder of the race correcting. I overtook people early on only to meet up with them again as my now obviously tortuous route through slow bumpy country lanes slowed me down and added unwanted and wasteful climbs. I could see already that the secret to surviving 2560 miles would be down to navigation, navigation, navigation!

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Geraardesbergen and The Muur. (The Wall.)

The journey through Holland was uneventful, though I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Milens (sp) an Albanian living and working on Holland. Apart from anything else, meeting so many other European nationals speaking English has inspired me to continue with some form of language learning. I'm never going to learn them all, but making the effort to communicate in someone else's tongue only adds to the experience of travelling.

Milens and I chatted for about an hour about life in Albania and his family. I remember visiting Albania during the Balkan war in the early 90s. At the invitation of the Albanian government and with one of their officials on board, we flew over the oil fields in the north of the country before landing our helicopter on a school playing field. Instantly mobbed by a small flock of children, we were forced to take off again, for their and our safety, but I shall never forget their wide-eyed excited smiles. I was looking forward to going back.

The most useful piece of advice that Milens offered me though, was to avoid riding my bike on Albania at night. He said the drivers there were completely unused to cyclists at night and would have no regard for your safety. What with the risk of feral dogs and crazy drivers, I was beginning to wonder how I would get through.

I arrived in Geraardesbergen at about 11 having made contact with the owners of  Molen ter Walle, the B&B that I was booked to stay at. Everyone was going to be asleep, so they gave me directions to my room and left me to it. (Check out the weblink. It is a wonderful place to stay and the owners could not have been more accommodating.)

Despite my best intentions, I did not lie in until 10 as I had said, but was up by 07:30 and joining the other guests for breakfast. Realising that finding somewhere to rest during the day was going to be a challenge, I booked a smaller room at the mill for the remainder of the afternoon, giving me a bolt hole to return to after registration and then got on my bike and cycled into town.

I bumped into another competitor on the way in. A Welshman living in Hong Kong. We discussed the forecast and the perceived risks of cycling the Muur en masse in the rain and he then headed off the recce the hill and I to find the registration hall. Half an hour later he arrived, having already become the races first casualty, falling on his decent from the chapel on the dry uneven cobbles. Please, don't let it rain!

At 10, the hall was already seeing an early trickle of cyclists. For some reason I was picked out by a photographer doing a piece for SAGA. Well I suppose at 50, I was some kind of good advert for exercise in middle age. He confessed to being interested in the 'degradation' that he expected to witness through his lens over the next 2 weeks and I knew that he would not be disappointed.

Before I returned to my room, I climbed the Muur for the first of  3 times that day. It is steep and bumpy, but not long and I looked forward to the start and climb to come in the dark. For now a few photos of the chapel and a look at my decent from the summit, so that the start of the race, at least, would hold no surprises.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

A ticket to ride.

In the queue for the ferry at Harwich, I was joined by Roel and Nick, his 12 year old son. On bicycles laden with camping gear and memories, they were returning home from a week or so cycling around the Somerset levels and Stonehenge.

Roel was an old hand at this bike packing game and could write a book of his own, telling tales of trips through Syria and beyond at times when it was somewhat safer, but not without it's moments. (I hope to catch up with them again soon, to hear the detail of his earlier travels.)

For now though, he recounted nights spent in fields and being moved on by landowners in the morning. Roadside camping in the midst of some of England's most famous historical monuments will be something that Nick will never forget. (My own boys will share those opportunities in years to come. I can't wait!)

They had also cycled across London and I caught myself and laughed, as I tried to claim that the cycle network in London was pretty good! Here's me talking to a Dutchman about cycle paths. What do I know? Like trying to explain to an Irishman, that they make this really cool ale in Ireland called Guinness. He might like to try it! Doh!

The ferry crossing was due to be a good 7 hours but we were delayed by 2 hours in Harwich for diving operations in the harbour entrance. With Harwich on the southern side and Felixstowe to the north, this is a busy seaway.

As a consequence of the delays, I was doubly glad to have booked a cabin for the crossing. I remembered well enough trying to sleep on the deck of the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry last year, without success. I was not about to repeat that mistake.

Instead, I had a good meal and settled down to catch up on the lost hours shuteye from earlier in the morning. Devoid of the nerves that attend the chance of missing trains and ferries, I could relax properly now and prepare myself for the challenge ahead.

The ships Captain made good on his promise to make up time. We arrived in the Hook of Holland only half an hour after our scheduled arrival time. Roel and Nick were both travelling to Rotterdam by train and I was grateful to them for not only pointing me in the direction of the right platform and train, but in a gesture of solidarity and generosity, they bought my bike train ticket for the entire journey to the Dutch/Belgium border. Roel and Nick, thank you and make sure you keep in touch.

Dreamy times

For those of you you who have become justifiable fans of my ghost writer aka, Laura, my wife, I apologise for the return of normal service. I enjoyed reading her posts of my travails from the roadside as much as you did and I hope we will see a return to this successful formulae on future expeditions.

For now though I feel that I owe it to you all to try to give you a fuller account of the journey from home to Bosnia and the little bit beyond, not least because some of the hairier moments were missed out in our daily communications to save Laura any unnecessary anxt.

On the morning of the 23rd, unable to sleep properly, I had been up at 3. We were due to leave for Norwich station at 5 for a 6 o'clock departure. (I have always been in the habit of factoring in plenty of leeway. I am happiest waiting on a platform, than running for a train.)

I switched on the computer and checked and rechecked the route through Holland and Belgium and then spent some time google mapping the town of Geraardesbergen to get my bearings ahead of time. I would be arriving in the dark and should still need to find my B&B, located about 5 miles out of town. I noted also the forecast that looked ominously like it might shower us with rain from the start. A cobbled street in the rain at night suggested potential for early crashes and I didn't want to be amongst them.

Five o'clock duly arrived. I made the obvious mistake of looking in on the boys, asleep in their beds and wondered why I was leaving. The girls I said goodbye to and was ushered out the door with their
best wishes. These are exciting and disorientating moments. Months of preparation push you out the door.

Norwich station was quiet. Laura and I took some pictures just as we had done the year before. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in her shoes. I have prepared minutely and am confident in my abilities. She knows little of the detail. Only that I shall be cycling beside fast moving traffic for up to 16 days with little more than a blink of sleep and she is anxious. On top of that she has to carry on with all the normal routine of work and home, but with one less person to help. I tell her, may be unhelpfully, to be her best 'single-mum', as much a challenge as anything. I know she will be fine.

The train to Ipswich, is the first part of the intercity to Liverpool Street, so I start the journey by distributing the last 100 or so of my business cards amongst the passengers and empty seats. A few last minute followers can't go amiss. More than a few entrants to this years race will have come from chance encounters such as these.

At Ipswich I changed trains and met up with Paul. We have known each other since I was 5 and have shared more than a few adventures. At a time like this there is no-one whose company is more relaxing and we chew over a few ideas for the future. Paul has undertaken to ride his own bike every day that I am away. Given the forecast, he is likely to have to stiffen his resolve every bit as much as I will, since he is likely to be getting wet for the first few days at least.

I love this bit, the slow and unloaded act of travelling. I am excited by the sight of the ferry. Any chance to relive my time at sea with the Royal Navy. To stand on the quarter-deck and watch the ships wake as you steam toward the horizon. Dreamy times.