It’s raining and I’m cold. I’m wearing an insulated gilet under my waterproof jacket and climbing up a mountain and I’m cold to my core. I shouldn’t be this cold. I’m fifty maybe a hundred metres behind Jo and struggling. I have little strength and my reserves are empty. Even if I can drag something from the gritty sludge at the bottom of the tank that will be it, there will be nothing left for later, and we’re getting close to the part of the journey where we know it’s definitely going to get harder. I realise that I am about to scratch. I don’t know what else to do. This thought hadn’t entered my head when we set off this morning. I look up the road to Jo. Shit.
Jo slows long enough for me to catch up. I ride alongside and look across and I can tell he knows instantly without me saying a word. I need to get somewhere warm quickly. There’s a hotel ahead somewhere, I’ve seen signs. I ride on, head down. Jo drops back for a moment then rides up to me, says nothing, puts his hand on my back and pushes me up the road. The road levels and Jo drops back again, I ride on looking for the hotel. I follow signs but I can’t tell on the Garmin whether to follow the road or the gravel track. There are no more signs. I stop and take my phone from my pocket. The screen is wet, my hands are wet, raindrops fall on the screen. I swipe the screen, nothing happens. I wipe it on my jersey. I swipe it again. Nothing. Fucking hell fucking work! Jo appears by my side,
“Where are we going?”
“There’s a hotel up here somewhere. I need to get warm for a bit.”
I break down in tears on his shoulder. I’m shaking.
This isn’t how it was meant to end.
Giving in hurts.
Letting a friend down hurts.
The previous Wednesday, a bit before 6am.
I look down at my Garmin. 19kph. For fuck’s sake, 19kph. I’ve done tired commutes on a Friday night faster than this. At the end of the cyclepath I ride straight past Jo, turning left instead of right, lean my bike against a wall and sit on the floor, head in hands. We set off about 20 minutes ago and it’s gone to shit already. I am full of snot, most of which seems to have settled on my lungs. I have no energy whatsoever. I can’t get oxygen into my system quick enough. My legs don’t ache, nothing aches, my body understands and accepts what I’m asking it to do but there’s just no energy getting to it. Less than a kilometre into the day I was dropped. I watched Jo’s rear light fade into the distance and then disappear. If this is frustrating me then I know it’ll be really pissing off Jo.
There is a stark realisation that the pay-off for the benefits of riding as a pair – the chat, the support, the laughter, the “did you see that?” – is an absolute crapload of stress and guilt when you know you’re the weaker rider. Fully fit I’m not quite as strong as Jo but we’ve trained together for months to get to the same place. I’m not the rider I was 12 months before. I trained well and rested properly. I’m better than this, I know I can ride better than this. I knew when it came to the big climbs in the mountains I would get dropped, but I should be able to, know I can hold his wheel and take my turns everywhere else, but right now I can’t even hold on to it on an ever so slightly downhill cyclepath. Why can’t I breathe properly? Why can’t I pedal. Fucking hell, what am I going to do? The mix of guilt and stress and just simply my body not working properly is starting to play with my head. I know from audaxing and 24 hour mountain bike racing that if my head goes then I’m, and hence we’re, in trouble. Big trouble.
Do I scratch? I can’t scratch, what will Jo do? I know if I scratch, he’ll scratch. It’s not something we talked about before the race, neither of us considered anything other than finishing. At least I hadn’t. Start thinking about this shit before you start and you’re halfway to fucked already. I don’t know what to do. This is bad. Really fucking bad. Do I tell Jo to just go ride his own race? He’s strong enough. We promised to ride this thing, no not ride, race this thing together two summers ago as we were both unsure we had what it took to do it alone. But I’m not racing it now, I’m getting by, and that’s not what we agreed. Maybe we weren’t ready two summers ago but a lot has happened since then, a lot has happened in the last four days, and I know that we both probably could ride it alone so perhaps I just tell him to go on. I’ll keep riding as far as I can, I’m not ready to stop yet but I can’t hold Jo up any longer. He could have got to CP2 yesterday if it wasn’t for me. I should tell him to forget about me and just ride but I know Jo and I know his unwritten codes of conduct and if I stop he’ll stop. I didn’t come this far, literally and metaphorically, to screw up his race. Anyway that agreement to do this was made at the memorial service of one friend whilst at the same time knowing about another’s terminal illness. I can’t stop just because I’m full of snot. I’m in bits. I don’t know what to do. Giving up was never part of the plan. I didn’t train for months and months to give up. Anyway I can’t let Jo down, he’s also given up the best part of year to be ready for this, but I’m letting him down already by not riding as well as I know I can. I think again I should just say “Go ride your own race, you can finish this on your own, you’re strong enough.” Mentally and physically. I know he won’t though.
Right from the first morning something hadn’t felt right. I was sluggish and had no appetite. I was eating but just didn’t want to and wasn’t eating enough. That first night and day we’d done 330km and ended the day in Metz. We should have been well on the way to Strasbourg by the end of the day. If we were going to get to CP1 on Sunday then we needed to be further than this. I felt rubbish, suffering from a headache all day and then cramp. Perhaps it was dehydration, but I’d been drinking a lot. Maybe I just needed to ride myself into this thing. Perhaps it was the result of not enough rest in the couple of days leading up to the start – travelling to Belgium and the whole registration process. I don’t know but something wasn’t right.
Day two wasn’t much better and again we didn’t cover as much distance as we needed to. We don’t make CP1 and that was where we should have got to. I cramped on the side of a mountain in a thunderstorm. Great. I wake up on day three with a sore throat and headache. Dehydration again? We make it to CP1 before it closes. Just. My sinuses started to ache on day 4 and by the end of the day I am full of snot. At least now I knew what I was dealing with and it explained the previous few days. A cold, now? Seriously. Why now!? Usually this wouldn’t stop me from doing what I need to do but I’m not usually trying to ride 4000km across Europe in under two weeks. My body is struggling to deal with both these things.
That day we had to get across the Alps, twice and in extreme heat. It was a hard day and I spent a lot of it feeling shit and off the back. In fact I didn’t see Jo for large chunks of the day. I punctured half way up the climb to the 2500 metre Timmelsjoch pass and had to sit down and have a word with myself before I completely lost it. (The 40km down the other side to Merano was stupendously awesome though. Switchback after switchback, lots of laughter and overtaking cars in the hairpins.)
And now I’m being dropped on the flat. Fucking fuck. We find a petrol station and Jo buys me a coffee and donut whilst I pretend to look for the phone charger in my framebag in order to wipe aways tears with a filthy snotty mitt. Shit, what the fuck do I do? I rationalise in my head what I can do, what is feasible in the circumstances. I check the distance to CP2. OK, even slow and steady I can get there before it officially closes later today. Let’s just get there.
We’ve been going better the last few days. We’d made the cut at CP2, just. I’d had a minor breakdown on the outskirts of Trento when I realised I didn’t have a mountain climb in me so we changed from our planned ‘pretty way’ to the easy valley road alternative. Fortunately I had three alternative routes plotted for that bit of Italy. Unfortunately the valley route started the other side of Trento. Up another hill. After much swearing and finger punching of Garmin and phone screen trying to work out how to get onto the other route we’d settled into a rhythm for the rest of the day. I was determined we would get to CP2 before it closed. Rather than climb Monte Grappa that evening in the heat we stopped for pizza and sleep so I could recharge the batteries as much as possible. We climbed Monte Grappa at sunrise the next day and then started to drag ourselves into the race a bit. Checking the tracker I could see we were gaining on others, finding ourselves amongst other dots rather than scattered out the back of the pack. We rode across Italy in not much more than a day, then Austria, and now Slovakia.
We’d ridden pretty much non-stop since the night at Dilman’s. Forty hours straight on petrol station coffee and bus stop naps. Almost 600 kilometres. We were aiming for CP3 before it closed but that slipped but getting there the same day had seemed possible. We knew friends would be there. George was there and sending messages willing us on but yesterday had been tough. After refuelling in Bratislava in the evening we had ridden through a very black night into a day of headwind and then the weather deteriorated as the roads steadily got worse. We ended the day on a road which under any other circumstances I wouldn’t ride but was the only real choice, riding through the foothills of the High Tatras mountains in the gutter of a main road in rain and spray as cars speed and trucks thunder past. Eventually we had to give in to our bodies and sleep and after finding food we hid behind a shipping container behind a department store next to a multiplex cinema and multistorey car park and fell asleep some 50km from CP3.
This morning after petrol station coffee and three breakfasts in MacDonalds we set off on in the rain again and that’s how I ended up here – sitting in a wood lined hollow in the concrete entrance hall to a very plush hotel high in the mountains. Jo has gone to see if there’s a cafe or bar where we can get a coffee. I’ve now got my down jacket on over my insulated gilet and not thinking very much other than I’m glad to be warm. Jo returns and says he’s found a bar upstairs. I leave a chamois shaped damp patch on the wooden shelf as I get up. Upstairs we order hot chocolates and try not to think what our rain sodden shorts are doing to the nice cushioned bar stools.
Using the hotel wifi I cancel the booking I made for tonight in a hostel in Kosice. The plan had been to get to CP3 this morning and then get as far as Kosice by evening and treat ourselves to a bed after a week or more of essentially sleeping rough. I make another booking for a hotel in Poprad, the town that sits at the foot of the mountains we’re sat in. It’s about thirty kilometres away. We’ll get there and work out what to do next.