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Five Sevenths

Half way up the hill out of town I spot a bench nestled under some trees. Shade, at last. I pull over, lean my bike against one end of the bench, sit down, and take a swig of water. A few minutes earlier back down in the town a bar owner had kindly filled my bidons with ice and water. The digital display in the street outside had indicated 41 degrees. I check the Garmin, it’s 1pm and I’ve ridden 525km out of a planned 715 but I’m not sure about continuing. The heat wouldn’t be so much of a concern if I could be sure of finding water regularly but it’s Sunday afternoon in France and everything is shut. I might be okay if I was routing myself though, or even near, larger towns but I’m not. I’m using back roads as much as possible to avoid traffic. The last open shop I saw and made use of was 50 kilometres back. Since then I’ve been completely reliant on taps in cemeteries to fill my bottles until I managed to catch that last bar before it closed for the afternoon. However I’ve worked out a strategy to deal with the heat. I can eat now and sleep in the shade for a while. Then I can continue and ride longer into the night than planned when it’s cooler. There’s still a lump of hills to get over but from about 650km the route starts to tip downwards into the Dordogne valley. I should be able to do this.

I’ve got food – cheese, ham, bread, dried fruit, and somewhere in the framebag emergency energy bars – that should get me through the next 160km to Argentat where I may find an open restaurant or bar. That’s the only large town I know that is coming up. Worse case scenario is by the time I get there I will only have 30km of valley road to go to get to Mum and Dad’s house, my final destination. I can ride that far on water if I need to, or even ask my parents to drive out and stash some food under a bush somewhere.

However my rear hub is shagged and getting worse and this forces the decision to bail. If it was just two out of the three issues – heat, water, knackered freehub – then I’d continue, but all three is making hard work of it and the hub is the breaking point. It’s definitely getting worse and may not even make it as far as the end of the ride. I send a message to Mum and Dad requesting broom wagon services. I’m nearing enough to them for it to not be a complete pain in the arse to drive out to meet me. I can ride as far as the next village, about 8km along the road. I’ll find some more shade and collapse and wait.

At some point after dinner yesterday evening, at around 260km a strange noise started to emanate from the rear of the bike. I assumed it was the hub but couldn’t work out what, everything seemed alright, nothing was loose. I even checked the frame for cracks as it was quite an unnerving creaking noise, but overnight the noise ceased and whatever was going on back there faded from my mind. Now it slips when I pedal and catches when I freewheel and threatens to throw the chain into the spokes. I’ve had enough and can’t be bothered to deal with it any longer. It’s making me ride inefficiently and right now I could do with all the efficiencies I can muster. It was probably messing me about last night but I was really struggling with tiredness so wasn’t aware of it. I guess when the noises stopped something internal had finally broken and it’s steadily been getting worse through the hours. I was concentrating too hard on not falling asleep at the bars to notice.

** ** **

I leave the ferry port just after 5am and head south, a direction I will follow all day except for the occasional meander east or west to join up the southern bound roads. There is already light in the sky and I’ve ridden out of Dieppe enough times over the last four or five years that I can probably find my way by feel and instinct and without the need for lights. Slowly the world around me comes alive, sunlight gradually saturating my surroundings with colour, blacks become muted and faded tones become bright hues. The only noise is my drivechain and tyre hum mixing in with the dawn chorus.

I roll across Normandy literally and metaphorically, undulating over small hills and dipping in and out of valleys. Skirting the edge of Rouen I follow the Seine towards Evreux. It’s warm already by mid-morning and by midday my jersey is unzipped. After stopping for a picnic lunch outside Evreux I continue across endless fields of gently rippling wheat, a visual reminder if it was needed that I’ve had a headwind all day and due to simply pointing south for 700km will continue to nudge into the wind until tomorrow evening. The landscape reminds me of driving across the American Midwest, all big skies and seas of swaying green. The main difference being the church spires sticking up from small villages on the horizons. I cross main roads and motorways (something about French motorways always make me think of Julian Opie images), and occasionally drop into and climb out of river valleys, some small, some significant – Seine, L’Iton, L’Avre, Eure – and follow and cross Le Loir many times.

Between rivers the landscape isn’t changing a great deal – wheat, flat, more wheat – the passing of time and therefore distance is indicated not by changing vistas but by my shadow that has slowly crept from my right to my left. Somewhere along the way I stop for a quick coffee to perk me up and the next 20km whizz by. The caffeine spike and straight roads mean I tuck down on to the aero bars and tank along. This is the first proper ride with aero bars and they are really making a difference. Not only are they are real help in making myself small in the face of wind, but they transfer weight from my hands to my arms. Having suffered from numbness and tingling in my fingers on long rides this is great. Thankfully for the last few months I’ve been swimming and doing pilates which has made me bendy enough to be comfortable tucked down on the bars.

By mid-afternoon I hit the 200km mark, just a handful of minutes behind my fast schedule. In my pocket I have a sheet of paper with a list of place names and three sets of times; quick, medium, slow. My aim is to tick along at the fast schedule for as long as possible to amass a bit of a buffer so that things can slip to the middle schedule. This will mean I can factor in some sleep overnight. By dinner time I’m a little closer to the middle schedule as I lie on a bench in a town square watching swifts and martins dart back and forth, crisscrossing the air catching their own dinner. The heat of the day started to get to me over the last couple of hours so I’m resting for a bit so I can ride for as long as possible into the night before the inevitable happens and I have to pass out. Hopefully I can tap out a good chunk of distance before that happens. The further I can ride overnight the more chance I have of being able to rest in the afternoon tomorrow to avoid the heat.

Thirty kilometres later I’m napping in the short grass outside a cemetery where I’ve filled up with water (top tip from a French audaxer – most cemeteries will have a fresh water tap for watering flowers). I get up to leave and walk around confused as to where I left my helmet until I realise I’ve already put it on. Oh dear, this is not a good sign. I’m starting to pay for the lack of sleep on the ferry last night. Tiredness is clearly getting to me and it’s not even half past nine and the sun is still (just) above the horizon. Somewhere on this last section my rear hub started to make a weird noise.

I continue into the darkness, slowly clicking the kilometres down. Every one ridden is one closer to my destination and one less to ride tomorrow. I stop again forty minutes later when I’ve had enough of my front light being dipped too low. I can’t really see where the road goes and it’s making me ride slower than I know I could be going. The extra concentration is only adding to my tiredness and because I’m not fully awake I wait until the second time I’ve nearly ridden off the road to actually stop and sort it out. Two minutes is all it takes. Why the hell didn’t I do that half an hour earlier when I knew it was an issue? Exhaustion induced fecklessness. And I already know this won’t be the last stupidity of the night. This needs to be remembered for the Transcon. Light sorted I crack on and much faster pace with the benefit of actually being able to see where I’m going. Idiot.

Not long after this things start to get fuzzy. I cross a wide expanse of thick darkness that is the Loire, somewhere near a castle straight out of Disney, lit up at the end of an avenue to trees along the bank of the river. A sign shows Tours off to the west. All day I’ve been passing signs to large towns and cities I’ve driven through or stayed in before. Along with my shadow this has shown me that I’m working my way down France. I think to myself the last time I drove to Gagnac I stopped and stayed in a hotel in Tours. Why am I riding it non-stop again?

Then follows a dull road. Even in the dark I can tell it would be boring in daylight. It’s more kilometres passing under the wheels, keep pedalling. I cross another river, Le Cher, climb again, bloody hell I’m tired now. I pass a village square and spy a bench. Bed. Garmin says 01:11 and 365km. That’ll do, that’s 100km since dinner five or so hours ago. I lie down on the bench and drift off looking at stars pinpricking the blackness overhead. An hour of fitful sleep later I am awake and cold. It is only now I decide to put on my arm and knee warmers. Idiot. Again.

I ride on and within minutes I’m too warm and wish I hadn’t bothered with the arm warmers, or rather wish I’d bothered with them before I slept. I get comfortable on the aero bars and promptly fall asleep and nearly crash. Fucking hell. I stop in the next village and sleep on a stone step behind a car. Thirty minutes later I set off again. It’s gone four so I know there will be light in the sky in an hour and once the light returns I’ll be fine. Turns out I’m wrong and ten minutes down the road I’m falling asleep again. I decide to sack this off as a lost cause until daylight and find a comfortable looking bit of grass verge to kip down.

I wake up to light in the sky. Brilliant, this will sort me out, but I realise I’m down to half a bottle of water and have no clue as to where I am. I check the distance against my list of towns. Crap, I’m in the middle of one of the bigger gaps on the list, it could be a while before I hit anywhere large enough to have a shop. Hang on, it’s 5am, nothing is going to be open for at least two hours anyway. I might as well ride, keep moving, eventually I’ll find water. Overnight I could tell I was riding through forest and the terrain wasn’t flat but I seem to have woken up to flat fields again. This is OK, I don’t mind flat, I need to get on. I feel like I’ve lost time in the last four hours faffing about neither sleeping or riding properly, and now I’m rationing limited water which also feels like it’s slowing me up. I spot what looks like a cemetery down the road…please be a cemetery. It is! Bottles filled. One is half drunk and topped up. Six am, 410km. Forty five kilometres in 5 hours and barely any sleep. I should have just bedded down for two or three hours and ridden refreshed, rather than dicking about trying not to crash and getting cold.

Ride on, I just need to keep riding. The terrain is starting to change, I pass through a land of lakes and long straight roads. Long straight undulating roads. My drivetrain doesn’t feel right. Keep riding. Stop for a coffee. Wake up. Keep riding. I see hills in the distance. I must be getting near to hills north of Limoges. This is good, Limoges is the last city I pass before Gagnac, once past there it’s the home straight.

The large fields end and the roads wiggle and climb and drop and wiggle some more. This is definitely the start of the hills north of Limoges. I seem to only be climbing. I remember the profile of the route showed a steady inclination from about 450km. Two hundred kilometres and it’ll be predominantly downhill. Two hundred, that’s just a short audax. Crack on. It’s hot. Silly hot and the road keeps going up. I’m definitely slowing. I do some sums. No, it’s all good. I’m well ahead of the slowest possible schedule I can ride and still finish the 700 within the audax allowed time limit. Well it would be all good but my drive train really doesn’t feel right. There is definitely something very wrong with the rear hub and it is starting to piss me off.

Freewheeling into a town I spot an open bar. It makes sense to stop, sit in the shade for a while, eat properly, and rest before continuing. I stop and scan the menu. Pasta dishes for 6 euros. Perfect. The bar owner comes outside to say only food in the evening. Ah crap. He realises I’m English and starts to talk in English and I realise he’s also English. I order a drink, plug my phone into a wall socket, and ask him whether I might find food in the next 50km. Probably not. I start to consider my options…

The bar owner closes up as I’m leaving, but an English friend of the owner arrives, and unlocking my bike I can hear the owner telling him what I’m doing. Through the glass door I hear a muffled “Fuck off, that’s bullshit, you can’t fucking do that on a bike! There’s no way he’s done that.”

** ** **

A few minutes after this as I climb out of town I decide enough is enough. With less than 200km left to ride it’s a frustrating decision to make, even though I know it’s a wise one. It’s a disappointment but I’m not considering it failure, just that sometimes you have to choose your battles. This has been a massive game changer. I’ve learned a lot, proved to myself I can do more than I thought. I’ve ridden further than this before, but that was with friend and Transcon team mate Jo. I’ve ridden many long audaxes, but with manned controls and other riders around. Safety nets. This has been different, trying to ride across a country solely on my wits. Things have changed, again. Horizons have expanded yet further. I realise I’m lucky that I’ve been able to ask my parents to pick me up. However if that wasn’t an option then I would limp as far as Limoges, find a cheap hotel and wait for a bike shop to be open. Turns out that the limit of my comfort zone extends far beyond where I thought it was. I’m more than happy to ride alone into the unknown.

I think the Transcontinental is going to be the start of something rather than the culmination of what has gone before.

Thanks Mum and Dad for the broom wagon, water and food.

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