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Normandicat

As soon as I start pedalling I relax. I know what I’m doing now. Riding bikes. Done loads of it. Cheered off by the organisers and volunteers we all turn left up the street from the Salle des Fetes just after 10pm. Most people continue straight across the roundabout at the top of the road. I turn right. I’ve decided to ride between the control points in an anti-clockwise direction. It seems not many others have. There are three riders ahead but as they cross the next junction back into Bayeux I remember them saying they were heading back to their B&B for a kip before setting off in the early hours of tomorrow morning. I and one other turn down the hill. At the next set of lights I take a left into town wishing the Dutch guy on the Surly good luck, say see you at the finish. His reply is “Maybe”.

Bayeux is quiet as I slip through its streets in the quick fading light, dampness in the air. It has rained most of the evening but it seems to have eased off a bit. Out the other side of town I join a main road heading west. It is long and straight and gently rises and falls like only long and straight French roads can. Behind me I can see another bicycle headlight, maybe the Dutch fella but a few kilometres later a French rider called Pierre passes me saying “Hi”. I hang just behind him for another handful of kilometres, careful not to be so close as to draft. There are no trackers so no one will know but rules are rules. His red rear light blips just a way ahead for quite a while, eventually disappearing into the distance as I slow to turn onto some smaller roads that in turn become narrow lanes through woodland and sleeping villages. The last of the twilight drains from the sky. Silhouettes of trees recede into the darkness. On these narrower roads the way twists and undulates a bit more. I’m all alone in a bubble of light floating through the French countryside. It starts to rain again. I don’t care. I feel at home out here.

I hug the edge of a motorway before dipping under it and tracking the other side. Back on a long straight road. In the pitch black drizzle all sense of scale has gone. The only way I know the road I’m on is long is because the car headlights coming towards me are taking a very long time to get to me. Behind me I can still see a bike light. Glancing right at a road sign I make a rough calculation from the road sign on last bend from where the light appeared and guess they are a kilometer behind me. It takes about 30 minutes for them to catch me two towns later. It’s Pierre. “Hi again”. He follows the road left, I continue straight on, back into narrow lanes through woodland. I next bump into Pierre and the Dutch guy (sorry, I forgot to ask your name) at the first Control Point on the west coast at Portbail. We have a quick chat and then they ride off whilst I unzip the framebag to find some food. I take a time-stamped photo of the bike in front of the church and WhatsApp it to Xavier, the organizer.

I ride back out of town and turning south at a roundabout I’m on another long straight main road so settle into the aerobars and watch the rain flicker through my headlight beam. A podcast in my right ear as listening in on someone else’s chat is likely to be more entertaining than any conversation I’ll have with my own psyche in the depths of the night.

* * *

I spent the last couple of days riding from Dieppe to Bayeux through some strong headwinds praying the wind would die down before the start of Normandicat. Today I’d mostly relaxed. After breakfast I strolled into town to see the Bayeux Tapestry and grab a coffee. Then I went back to the hotel for a snooze for a couple of hours, stockpiling some sleep before riding through the night. From mid-afternoon I was starting to get twitchy, just wanting to get on with it. All the waiting around lets the mind meander and it tends to wander off towards the dark corners where the doubts lurk. I tried to distract myself, watched some telly, had a shower, watched more telly, had some bread and cheese, packed my stuff onto the bike, checked and rechecked everything. Four o’clock, too early for registration but I needed to move. I rode into town, found a bar, ordered an Orangina and a coffee. Half past four. Still too early but I decided to ride to the registration venue and try to relax some more. There was a guy tweaking a Surly on the rack of a VW camper with Dutch plates. We had a quick chat before I sat against the wall and dozed. Riders started to accumulate. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed. Had a chat with Felix and Tom, the latter a veteran on two Transcons and had ridden All Points North the weekend before, I’d been following his progress on Instagram, and both riding TCRno7. More riders arrived. There was a mix of bikes from carbon frames and deep section rims with minimal luggage, steel bikes in full bikepacking set up, old touring rigs with panniers, and even a French trio on cargo bikes including a box of groceries. It started to rain. Registration was delayed due to a keep fit class in Salle des Fetes. I just wanted to get going. I wandered off to find some food and when I got back registration was open. I signed on and waited some more.

* * *

“Un grand café s’il vous plait”

It’s quarter to ten in the morning and I’m sitting outside a café opposite the castle in Fougeres, CP3. I’ve done 225km since 10pm last night and it rained pretty much continually since leaving Portbail. The last CP was about 60km back in Villedieu-des-Poelles where I shivered in a cash machine alcove wringing water out of my gloves and working out if I had any more layers I could wear. The ride through the night is a bit of a blur. I passed signs for Mont St. Michel and there were some long climbs away from the coast. The descents were slow because of fogging up glasses and standing water on the roads. Somewhere I think I was chased by a dog. I definitely heard claws scratching tarmac behind me and they sped up as I got out of the saddle and sprinted. There was a really really really long straight section where it took at least two minutes for the car lights ahead of me to actually reach me. I’ve eaten half a bag of cashew nuts, some jellies, half a lump of cheese, and I found a bakery open an hour or so back so grabbed a small quiche. My socks squelch in my shoes. A coffee is much needed.

I stuff my musette with food from a small supermarket on my way out of town. It’s Ascension Day and a lot of places may be shut today so I need to carry food just in case. It’s good to carry food at all times anyway. The rain stopped an hour or so ago and the clouds seem to be breaking. The next control is about 100km away in Carrouges and the profile of my route tells me I’ll be doing a lot of climbing. However I’m using relatively large roads for efficiency and easy navigation so most of the ascent is gained in lengthy not-quite-draggy big ring climbs. As I climb a dark lump of wooded larger hills appears in the distance. I know the highest point of my ride is over 400 metres in a national park so I guess that is what I’m looking at. In the next village I creak open the gate to the cemetery and fill my bidons from the tap.

The roads start to rise and fall with a little more interest as I get close to Carrouges and it’s getting hot. I ride straight past the castle because I’ve convinced myself the control is a chapel in the town. Half way up the hill into town I start to doubt myself and expect that the castle was the control. Why wouldn’t it be the only glaringly obvious landmark for miles around!? A lap of the town and finding nothing else other than signs back towards the castle I decide that must have been it. I lean the bike against a sign and take a photo as proof of passage. I’m low on water again. Hopefully I’ll pass another cemetery soon as nothing is open in Carrouges. Except the castle, which may have a cafe, but it’s back down the hill in the wrong direction.

Over the biggest hill of the day on one of the straightest roads in a the day of straight roads. The descent is just as arrow straight and hilariously fast and flings me out into relative flat country. Progress is quick and I soon transfer to the next set of hills. I do some sums and work out it’s about 25km to the next control at La Chapelle-Montligeon. The tall skinny guy from the start in toned down kit with deep section carbon rims passes me coming the other way. Fucking hell! That means he must have already done 500km riding clockwise. I spot an open shop in the next village so grab more food and can of Ice Tea from the fridge. Food in bag, neck the drink. A time-stamped photo of Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Montligeon. 400km pretty much on the nose. Twenty one hours. One climb through a forest later I’m ringing the doorbell of a gite in the town of Longny-au-Perche.

All along I had planned to ride through the night and cover 400+ kilometres in the first 20 to 22 hours and then stop at a hotel for a proper rest. For a three day event like Normandicat I could easily manage with a couple of short overnight bivi stops and catch up on proper sleep after the event. For the Transcontinental in the summer though I want to use hotels every couple of nights so this is an experiment to see how it affects my body and head to properly stop and rest between big days. It may be that everything goes into recovery mode and refuses to get going again the next day. On the plus side a shower, a proper sleep in a bed, and fresh kit in the morning can be a massive psychological boost.

Often bikepacking I’ll opt for cheap chain hotels as you can just up and leave early in the morning, get back on the road, crack on. I’m immediately aware that I’ve selected somewhere very nice with friendly owners accustomed to guests using it as a base rather than a pitstop. This becomes apparent with the sharp intake of breath when asked what time I would like breakfast I respond with “Seven?”. Ideally I’d like to be back on the road by six but I’m not going to complain about an extra couple of hours kip. Anyway this isn’t a race, this is trying stuff out, prepping for the Transcon. Also there weren’t many options in the area. The shower is possibly the best shower I’ve ever had and it’s lovely to be out of cycling kit. I sit in the garden and work my way through the food in my musette.

* * *

I first wanted to do Normandicat a couple of years ago, the first edition, but it didn’t fit with TCRno5 plans. Last year I wasn’t in the mood for anything daft, just some touring about. However this year it does fit in with plans and is a perfect prep ride for TCRno7. Essentially it is an endurance alleycat – nine control points and it’s up to you how you get between them, anti-clockwise, clockwise, figure of eight, zigzag, whatever. Roughly 900km in distance and 9000 metres of climbing. Its appeal is two-fold. Like the Transcontinental it’s a free route and I enjoy the process of researching and plotting a ride. The decisions different riders make can make big differences on the road. Secondly I travel to northern Normandy a few times a year to ride and this event means I get to explore deeper into the region, down into Basse Normandie.

* * *

My alarm goes off at six thirty and I get out of bed. Well, maybe not immediately. I’m still sleepy but I need to get on with my day. Having asked for an early breakfast I had also better be sat at that table by seven. I quietly consume breakfast then pack my stuff before wheeling my bike though the gates of the gite. Back on the road, at home again. Today I ride into territory I know, up towards the coast at Treport, another control point but first I have to get to the next CP at Gisors. In a pretty medieval village I stop for a second breakfast of strawberry tart and shove a ham and cheese loaf into my musette. I’ll find shops open today but I’ve learned to always carry food as rural France can be very empty. Clip back in, start pedaling again. Vast skies, wheat and barley ripple in the gentle wind, a sea of green. Soft hills and big gears.

I cross the Seine in a mess of big roads in a large sprawling town. Spotting a bar I stop for a coffee. An unnecessarily steep climb out the back of the bar, a shortcut but probably no quicker than using the easier gradients of the two roads I’m cutting between. I get off and walk 50 metres, it’s as quick as grinding the pedals round and kinder on the knees. Through some roadworks. A long climb through fields. The lyrics to REM’s Losing My Religion induce some tears of tiredness. It’s weird how lyrics to songs that have passed through your brain a hundred times before suddenly trip a switch for no apparent reason. At the summit of the hill the road lies like a ribbon draped across the hillside into the distance. Onto the drops, have a little giggle and sing along to XTC’s Senses Working Overtime. Ah, the ups and downs of the long ride, it’s been a while. Welcome back.

I follow a valley road and then cyclepath all the way to Gisors. A photograph of the castle. A kebab shop plat du jour of fried egg on a burger with chips and salad, Orangina, petit café. Across the road for a ham baguette for the musette. The girl behind the counter asks where I’m riding. I simply say Dieppe as there’s not time to explain. From here I’ve plotted two routes to the coast, one uses a fast valley road, the other over the hills, both through places I’ve been many times before. I opt for the faster route as I’m a bit behind the schedule I set myself. Over some hills I ease into the familiarity of the known. Three hours pass and I recognize the shapes of hills. I also realise I’ve forgotten to eat for the last 75km even though I’m carrying food. I’m still wearing all the layers I put on this morning despite the fact it’s five p.m. and the last pharmacie’s digital display told me it was 28 degrees. I’ve slowed. The engine is overheating and it needs fuel. Seven p.m., time for dinner.

Blangny-sur-Bresle. Been here loads of times, never this tired. I ride from one bakery to kebab shop to restaurant to little shop to the other bakery. The indecision of tiredness. I sit on a bench in front of the church, an apple tart and a can of Ice Tea in front of me. A little sigh. Not really the dinner I want but I don’t actually know what I want but I know I need to eat and this was what I’ve bought so this is what I’m going to eat. I rummage in the musette and find the ham baguette. I could have done this two hours ago before the engine lights started to flash. Idiot.

I hit the edge of land at Treport and find the funicular station, the next control point. I stare at it blankly pondering “Am I allowed to use this to get to the top of the cliffs?” whilst simultaneously thinking it’s 9pm and it’s probably not running again until morning. Just as I’m turning to ride away I hear a door slide open and turn back. There’s an empty cabin in the station. Shit, is it cheating to use it? I delve into my memory to try and remember what the website said.

On vous a aussi préparé une belle surprise avec le funiculaire du Tréport qu’il faudra prendre… avec son vélo ! (gratuit – ne fonctionne pas la nuit).

I’m interpreting that as yes I can use it. I wheel my bike inside.

From the clifftop I can see all the way along to coast to Dieppe. The Newhaven ferry is heading for port. Forty kilometres and I could trundle onto it, fall asleep and be home by morning. I dig out my gilet, clip back in and push off down the hill towards the next coastal town, the sun sets as I ride past the beach. Over hills past signposts with place names I recognise. A sign at a T-junction points right to Dieppe and that ferry home. I turn left along the valley back into the hills. I know these hills. I’ve daytripped in these parts many times before. Arques-le-Bataille. I was here just a week and a half ago.

As the day slides into darkness tiredness falls over me like a blanket. I feel like I’m getting slow, not sure I actually am but it feels like it. I know these roads, ridden them multiple times, and this doesn’t feel like the usual rate of progress round these parts. Set off dog bark tag through a darkened village. Clip a speed bump out of that village, jerks me awake, internal voice “Don’t do that again you fucking idiot!” Do exactly the same entering the next village. OK, I’m making daft mistakes because I’m tired but not so exhausted that I don’t recognise that fact. I need to find somewhere to sleep. I know there’s a town within 5km and a few bus shelters on the way (I hid from the wind and rain in one of them last year) but then I spot a church to my left, set away from the road, huge porch. A perfect audax hotel. Pull the dynamo cables out of the back of my light and walk across the gravel drive. Sshhh! Bloody hell gravel is noisy when you’re trying to be discreet. I unroll my bivi kit and set my alarm for 04:30. An hour later I wake up cold having fallen asleep on top of my stuff. I crawl into my sleeping bag liner and fall asleep again.

* * *

I like maps and I like working out how to get between places. On long events route choice can make or break a ride. Do you use main roads or narrow lanes? Is the shortest line really the fastest route? Larger roads can get boring. Small roads put you nearer the landscape and wildlife. However they tend to also link small villages where finding supplies can be hit or miss. Main roads go from one town to another, places where bars and cafes can be found, supermarkets and toilets. Narrow lanes may shorten the distance between A and B but that advantage can be negated by more junctions to negotiate, sharper little climbs, worse road surfaces. These ways can be the old ways, from a quieter, less busy world. The roads built for cars are designed for efficiency, roundabouts not T-junctions, they iron out the hills a bit. Sometimes you just want to get your head down and chunk out a load of kilometres. Also sections you’re likely to ride at night can be easier on main roads when they are quiet, fewer junctions to navigate in the dark or when tired. A mix of both works well, get the distance covered efficiently when needed, but keep the mind occupied and interested at others, keep away from the traffic, see the pretty stuff. What’s the point of a journey if you don’t look around and take it in?

* * *

The dawn chorus fills the lightening sky as I head towards Rouen. I’ve routed myself through Rouen because it negating the possibility of missing a last ferry across the Seine elsewhere had I hit this point of the ride during the night and food options should be plenty. However I have managed to route myself through suburban streets full of junctions and traffic lights. Get stuck behind a bin lorry. It takes forever and nowhere is open for food, not even either of the Maccy D’s I ride past. Eventually I find an open patisserie on the far side of the city. I stop to eat and de-layer. It’s going to be another hot day and I really don’t need to make the same overheating mistake as yesterday.

A few big roads and a few big hills later I turn onto a narrow road towards the next CP at Le Bec-Hellouin. Freewheeling down to the abbey I pass Pierre sat outside a café and wave hello. Photo taken I spin back to the cafe where we chat over coffee. I’ve not seen him since CP1 and quite honestly didn’t expect to see him again as he was clearly riding faster than me. Turns out he missed the last ferry across the Seine last night so was forced to stop and wait until this morning. My decision to re-route myself through Rouen appears to have played out well. I set off before Pierre but stop in the very next village when I see an open bakery for proper breakfast. He whizzes past as I’m sitting on a windowsill eating. Yeah, he’s definitely riding faster than me.

More woodland, more hills. Under a hundred kilometres to go. A little happy cry (oh come on, I’m tired, there’s all kinds of chemical imbalances going on internally and thoughts bouncing around my head) with the realisation I’m going to finish. Short of a major mechanical this is in the bag. Five commutes and it is done. An ice cream in the shade. Somewhere I run out of road and stare ahead at a gravel bridleway that disappears into a tunnel of trees. Punch the Garmin a couple of times, zoom out. There should be a road about a kilometre ahead. Do I go back and around. Sod it. I ride on. Then climb off and push the bike up a rubble-strewn track. It levels out and becomes a grass track. Hop back on, straight ahead ducking under branches, splash through a puddle, pop out on a road. Make a mental note to double check and triple check the Transcon route for surprises.

Place names I recognize from my ride down to Bayeux from Dieppe a few days ago. Twenty kilometres on a very busy road, head down, aerobars, big gear, smash it out as quickly as possible. Right knee niggles, click to an easier gear. Another town, another pastry, another cold drink. Flood plains towards the coast. Same roads as Tuesday but less headwind thankfully. Pegasus Bridge. I stop for an ice cream, yes another one, and Pierre flies past with a wave. How the hell did I get in front of him again? Oh crap, this means it’s a sprint finish. A thirty kilometer sprint finish.

I roll into the car park at the Salle des Fetes a few minutes after Pierre. We smile and congratulate each other on finishing. I push my bike inside, grab a cold can of Coke, wander back outside, take off my shoes, sit on the grass in the sun. 897km in 64 hours and 47 minutes. I don’t want to but I know I could ride another hundred kilometres today if I needed to.

Which is just as well as I have to ride home tomorrow.

* * *

Prior to this there have been niggling fears that no matter how much I want to be able to do these things maybe I’m not cut out for it, not made of the right stuff. Wanting to do something is not the same as being able to do it. I did a lot of bikepacking last year but those were relatively short days and with long lunch breaks and the comfort of hotels every night. I failed* to finish TCRno5. It took a couple of efforts to complete a 600km audax. I dislike 400km audaxes, find them really bloody hard. However at no point during Normandicat did I have I had any doubts about being able to complete it. Physically and mentally I was within my comfort zone throughout. There was stuff left in the tank. The first 400km were completed more than 4 hours quicker than I’ve finished any 400km audax. I wasn’t particularly fast, just efficient when I stopped (except that evening in Blangny when I was spectacularly inefficient) and I tried not to stop often. Even though my rough schedule slipped I knew I could still finish well within the time limit. The hotel stop on Thursday night was longer than it could have been. Time could have been saved there. I could have ridden for another couple of hours, still managed six hours sleep and been on my way by sunrise. It’s potentially dangerous to extrapolate from a 900km lumpy ride around friendly Normandy to a 4000km race across vast tracts of Europe unknown to me, with mountains and gravel sectors, they aren’t the same thing, but considering how this went and still factoring in those mountains and gravel bits plus accumulating tiredness then completing TCRno7 feels definitely within my capabilities. Many TCRno5 demons have been laid to rest. A quiet confidence with just enough trepidation… and tempered by experience – as I well know, anything can happen.

Bring it on.

* Fail is maybe not the right word if I consider Mike Hall’s words about The Transcontinental and endurance racing “If we treat things as a pass-or-fail test, we can torture ourselves over the outcome. But if we consider it more as an experiment with an uncertain outcome from the start, then we always at least get an answer.”

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