I pull into a tiny petrol station in the small Croation border town of Ilok to buy water as I’m almost out. I would have bought some before leaving Serbia but I spent the last of my Dinar on breakfast in Novi Sad. For some reason I assumed as I was now into the EU that I could use Euro but Croatia uses the Kuna. All I have is Euros or some Bulgarian Lev tucked in a framebag pocket. I ask the guy if there’s a bank nearby but he says “Yes, but it long way away.” I go to put the water back in the fridge and leave, and he says “I buy you the water, a present.” I don’t know what to say other than thank you. I sit in the shade outside and glug down mouthfuls before refilling my bidons. Tired tears are streaming down my face. Yet again the kindness of strangers has floored me. Last time around it was Dilman and the guy in the Italian restaurant, this time a guy working in a small petrol station. I can afford to do the Transcontinental because I’m in a privileged position of having a well paid job that is flexible enough to let me take three weeks off to do something self-indulgent like try and ride a bike (an expensive one that I haven’t paid for with fancy wheels that I also haven’t paid for) across Europe. Yet someone who earns way less doing long shifts filling tractors and plastic bottles with petrol is willing to buy me a bottle of cold water.
The roads in Croatia are nirvana! Smooth and traffic free, initially at least. It’s lumpy for the first part as I follow the Danube but flatten as I turn away from the river. When I get nearer to towns the roads are busy but traffic gives me plenty of space. It is so much more relaxing. Once I’m onto the flatter roads I can settle into a position where the saddle sores aren’t too much of a problem. With a bit of luck I can put in a longer day and start to get near to the daily distance I need to be doing. 230km today, still not ideal, I should be able to easily manage 300 or more on this kind of terrain. Part of the problem is I’m stopping when I find hotels so I can clean myself and my kit so the saddle sores don’t get infected. I just need to push a bit harder each day to cover a greater distance between hotels, get to the next town up the road.
Earlier this evening I was riding alongside another TCR rider called Erwin, our dots have overlapped for a few days now but this was the first time I’d seen him. We rode together for about ten kilometres until reaching the town where we are both staying this evening. We chatted and he said he visits the area regularly as he has friends here, he was stationed here with the UN when in the Belgian army in the 90s. He mentions that Vukovar, the town I stopped in for lunch, was totally destroyed during the Yugoslav Wars. I saw the bombed water tower on the outskirts and signs for a memorial centre, and noticed that the town centre itself seemed very new, but the Transcontinental being a race and not a tour there wasn’t time to stop and investigate.
In the comfort of the hotel I Google ‘Vukovar’. The details are harrowing; a three month siege, complete destruction of the town, over 3000 people killed, more than a third of those civilians, ethnic cleansing. It’s a sobering reminder that for the last couple of days and for more to come I’m riding through a region that in my adult lifetime has torn itself apart and rebuilt itself. I think about what that guy in the petrol station might have been through. Any ideas that I’m struggling are firmly put into perspective. The notion of suffering is prevalent in cycling but it really is ridiculous hyperbole, most of us have absolutely no comprehension of real suffering. I may have thought I had it tough on those Serbian roads but I wasn’t doing it under gunfire. I could stop for coffee and ice cream. I don’t have to do this: I chose it and I can make it stop any time I want. I have a home to which I can return.
Now that I have a phone again I also use the hotel wifi I to download some things to listen to for the next few days. Serbia may have been more bearable with music and podcasts. I spent two days with only my inner monologue to listen to and I’m not sure that was helping matters. Some full on techno bangers may have got me further up the road last night.
It’s really humid and sleep doesn’t come easy. Around half midnight I hear a freehub buzzing along the corridor which seems to send me off as the next thing I know my alarm is ringing at 03.45. I’m out the door and on the road by 04:30. I flick through the podcasts and decide on a Fatboy Slim set from Cream in 1999…
BACK ONCE AGAIN FOR THE RENEGADE MASTER
The sun rises over my right shoulder to the sound of moving to Brighton in the late 90s. Those were the days of Big Beat Boutique and coming home at sunrise. Surviving entire weekends on not much sleep. I need to channel some of that for the next few days. I’m going well, the early mornings suit me. The heat of the afternoon is shredding me but in the mornings I can chunk out a good distance. All seems comfortable in the seating area too, perhaps things are repairing themselves and the smooth roads lessening the discomfort. I stop at 7 to grab some breakfast and as I climb off the bike…erm, and this is the most delicate way of putting this… my shorts separate themselves from my person and it stings like hell! OK, saddles sores aren’t improving. After a breakfast of yoghurts and Fanta on the step outside a little shop, that I share with two guys drinking beer before climbing into tractors and driving off, I find somewhere discreet to apply more Sudocrem.
THROW YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR, IN THE AIR, IN THE AIR…
Feel like I’m flying this morning. Happy tears of exhaustion and elation. Forgot about how accumulated tiredness messes with everything. I can forget about the last few days. I’m enjoying this again. This constant movement accentuates the now, intensifies the moment, what’s behind me is gone and can’t be changed and what’s to come will be whatever it is. No point thinking about anything else other than right now. And right now this is bloody brilliant.
A LITTLE BIT OF THIS, LITTLE BIT OF THAT
Off my tits on espressos and sugary drinks. Kilometres are clicking over, this is more like it. Keep shovelling food into my face, a little and often, don’t overload the system but stop the needle dipping into the red. I know how to do this, keep pedalling, efficient stops. Audax mode, diesel chugger, the kilometres will drop away. If I can get to Austria tonight, put in a 300+ km day, then I’ll be nearer to where I should be by now. String a few good days together. C’mon!
SHE’S THE ONE THAT KEEPS THE DREAM ALIVE, FROM THE MORNING, PAST THE EVENING, TO THE END OF THE LIGHT
Who turned the sun out? The sky turns black, a crack of thunder. It starts to rain. Lightening. Torrential rain. Shit. Spot a bar across the road. Decide to sit it out for a bit. Dammit, didn’t need this. There’s a large town in twelve kilometres where I planned to stop for a late lunch and then crack on for Slovenia and Austria. The bar I’m in doesn’t sell food and for the first time in a week I’m not carrying anything. I order a coffee and ask for the wifi code. Check the weather, hmm, this could rumble on for a few hours. Shit, shit! Can’t afford to lose time today, things were just starting to go well. I wait some more. I’ve wasted enough time, I may as well ride into town where at least I can get some food and waste time more effectively. I really can’t lose any more time and there’s only so wet I can get.
I’m absolutely soaked by the time I get to Varazdin. Whilst I eat savoury pancakes I check the weather forecast and map. The rain is easing. If it’s showers for the rest of the day I can at least make it into Slovenia. There’s a town called Ptuj not far over the border with hotels but I need to get further than that. Maribor is about 70km away, that is manageable and means around 250km for today. I really want to get 300 done and get into Austria but the storm has lost me a couple of hours. It’s frustrating but it is what it is. Let’s see how far I can get.
Over the border into Slovenia, through Ptuj, someone shouts “Have a great ride” on a roundabout. On a bridge across the river I check the time and distance to Maribor. OK, I can manage another couple of hours so book a room in a hostel in Maribor. Fatboy Slim for the third time today. Shouting DER-DANG DER-DANG along to the sped up intro to Smells Like Teen Spirit and munch on sweets I bought with the last of my Kuna in a petrol station just before leaving Croatia. Cyclepaths next to dual carriageways and some confusion on the outskirts of the city. I’ve lost one of the pads on my aerobars in the dark. When did that happen? Ride through the bright and noisy city centre to the hostel on the outskirts. Check in, shower, wash kit, hang up kit, set early alarm, fall asleep.
At 3am I wake up from the pain of saddle sores and bruising in places you really don’t want to be bruised. Might as well get up, planned to be out by 4.30am anyway. Out onto the dark streets, ride through town and clubbers returning home. Pass a coffee vending machine, 1 euro coffee on a bench under a street lamp. An hour later I’ve barely made it ten kilometres up the road. I’m in pain and I can’t pedal properly. The last couple of days were going much better, I was starting to get myself into a rhythm, each day riding a bit further, reaching the point where maybe I could put in an allnighter, survive 48 hours on disco naps, but I’ve been shifting around on the saddle for days and sitting slightly to one side to alleviate pain which has just shifted it elsewhere. I’ve been avoiding taking any painkillers as I don’t want to start disguising any knee pain (which is now quite possible due to pedalling in a weird position) or anything else I should know about. I can’t take ibuprofen or NSAIDs for medical reasons anyway and have worked in the pharmaceutical industry long enough to know sustained use of any painkiller really isn’t wise. I’m putting my body under enough duress as it is without chucking a load of pharmaceuticals into it.
I stop and sit on a sofa on the veranda of a closed bar. It’s still only 05:30. I don’t know what to do. I am determined not to scratch out of this damn race again but right now I can barely ride at 15kph. I climb back on uncomfortably and ride up the road but the pain is excruciating. I turn around and start to ride back towards Mirabor but it doesn’t feel right turning around and giving up. I cannot give up. I pull over into a bus stop and sit and think…
I’ll keep riding. Klagenfurt is about 120km away and it’s 06:00. I can limp that far by mid-afternoon taking it easy and stopping whenever I need to. Hopefully an afternoon and full night off the bike plus some proper rest will let things start to heal and ease discomfort for the coming days. If I can get some painkillers I can at least take them in the evenings so I can sleep properly. I stop for coffee in the next town and check hotels in Klagenfurt, I find a room with a balcony, perfect for washing and drying all kit. Dry kit will also hopefully make things easier. It has been damp for days now, due to humidity in Serbia and not stopping long enough for things to dry fully.
The valley from Mirabor to the Austrian border is beautiful and takes my mind off things somewhat. By mid-afternoon I’ve reached Klagenfurt. I check in to the hotel, shower, and wash every single bit of kit and turn the balcony into a washing line. I stroll into town to find a pharmacy but it turns out they all closed at midday. I’m told I might be able to find an emergency 24 hour pharmacy but quite honestly I’d rather rest than mess around looking for one. I can ride another day through gritted teeth if necessary. I buy a load of fresh food and return to the hotel. I spend the evening lying down, eating, and listening to the radio. I’m asleep before 10pm. I haven’t set an alarm.
I head down for breakfast at 6.30am and demolish the buffet as well as pocketing a couple of packs of Nutella for emergencies. I’m out the door around 7.30am and head west, accidentally on a road that leads to a motorway, a car pulls alongside to tell me of my mistake. I lift my bike over the central reservation and find my way out of town on legal roads. I ride alongside a lake on a cyclepath before joining a road through touristy towns and past lakeside holiday camps. I’m slowly climbing towards Italy but the gradient is gentle and I’m making good progress, I certainly feel better than yesterday. A rest seems to have done me some good. A couple of petrol station coffees and lunch sat on a pile of compost bags outside a Lidl (possibly the most comfortable thing I’ve sat on for days) later I start to climb in earnest. A 40km undulating road up the Lesachtal Valley, the first part is steep and twisting, tight hairpins mean I gain height quickly but every time I gain it I lose it on sweeping downhill sections. This pattern repeats all afternoon; gain height slowly, lose some of it rapidly, gain a load more slowly, lose some of it again quickly… Somewhere a landslide means a lengthy detour on a temporary gravel road bulldozed through forest.
Finally I pass a summit sign and the legs get some reprieve and a series of hairpins swiftly drop me into the Puster Valley. I turn left onto a cyclepath as the SS49 is prohibited by the race organisers. The cyclepath is convoluted and annoying so I decide to hop onto the road for a bit, it’s Sunday evening and it’s not busy. Later I see a ‘No Cycling’ sign so jump back onto the cyclepath and follow it all the way to Brunico where I’ve booked a hotel. The path turns to loose gravel around a lake just after sunset. Great. Now is not the time to be dealing with bloody gravel, I just want to get to where I need to get to. My backside, in fact my entire underside, is hurting again. I nearly lose the front end on a couple of corners and then end up in a bush when I overshoot a bend and daren’t try and steer out of it. Much messing about later I pop out into Brunico and find my way to the hotel in the next village.
Standing in reception I am blankly ignored until a woman asks what I want. I say I have a reservation. She checks for my name and looks at the bike leaning against the wall. “That can go in the cellar.” I dump my bags in the room and change into civvies and stroll down the road to the restaurant that was open when I rode past. The kitchen is still open for pizza so I order one and wolf it down. Checking my phone I realise that check-in at the hotel was only until 7 and I turned up well after 9. That explains the grumpiness. That and the fact I probably should have left my bike outside until I checked in.
The next morning I don’t hang around for breakfast. I want – need – to get to the start of the CP3 parcours as that’s ideally where I wanted to get to yesterday (quite frankly I should have been here two days ago). The main road to Corvara has a lot of tunnels for the first section but last night I found a cycle route online that avoids it. It means a 9km climb up to 1200 metres but it’s pleasantly steady climb through woodland and quiet early in the morning. Then follows a sharp tumble down the mountainside depositing me on the main road next to a shop. Breakfast of yoghurts and fruit juice.
The next 30km is done alongside lorries and fast traffic up to Corvara. The climbing is relentless but the views that welcome me in Corvara are worth it. I’m properly in the Dolomites now and I love the Dolomites. Quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. An expensive second breakfast and coffee on a hotel veranda. As I set off I spot Erwin, I’ve not seen him since Croatia two days ago, or is it three? I say hi and he says he’s decided to scratch. I say I’ve been close to it, saddle sores are making it hard work, but I’m going to get myself over the CP3 parcours before I decide anything. I wish him good luck and head up to Passo Gardena. The climb itself is a beauty and takes my mind off the pain for a while. The gradient is nice and even, not too steep, the roads good, a long climb to over 2100 metres but worth the effort. At the top I decide to have some lunch so that I can digest it on the long descent before the next climb which looks steep on the Komoot profile graph. Spag bol, Aperolspritz, espresso.
The descent is amazing and fast and throws me out into a narrow valley looking up at a wall of mountain. Holy crap, that’s where I’m going! The afternoon heat is getting to me again and the steepness of the road means pushing hard on the pedals which is increasing my discomfort. I end up walking the steeper parts and then climbing back on for the shallower sections. I am going so slowly it’s soul destroying. I pass a rider in a restaurant and wave hello. A kilometre or so later he catches me, his name is Ross and I’ve seen his dot near mine the last couple of days. We chat for a bit, he’s had achilles problems but going OK again after some position adjustments. The road steepens again and he drops me. I climb off and start walking again. I walk a long way. Every time I get back on the bike pain forces me off again. It hurts to sit and to pedal out of the saddle. I’m even walking with a slight limp. Shit.
At this rate I am not going to finish this race. I knew I’d missed the CP3 time window but I was optimistic that once I’d got through the Alps a couple of long days in France could at least give me a chance to get to the finisher’s party on time. It’s pretty obvious to me now that that is not remotely likely and I didn’t come here to muddle through. I scratched out of this race two years ago and I was determined not to do it again but it seems an inevitability now. My legs are good and my head is still in one piece. Every fibre of my being is shouting ‘Don’t scratch!’ except everything downstairs which is screaming ‘For fuck’s sake just stop this!!’ I think through the options: Scratch and ride to Brest the most direct route? Continue to CP4 by the weekend and work out what to do when I get there? Scratch now and go home? In my heart I only want to get to the finish if I’ve actually ridden the race route and even the straightest line to Brest is over 1500km. I have to get back for work next week. I don’t have an indefinite amount of time to complete this – realistically I’m going to end up having to scratch somewhere in France in order to get back on time. Do I really want to ride through the Alps in pain for another four or five days knowing I’m still going to scratch? I have a lot of time to think as it takes a while to walk to the summit.
On the descent to Bolzano I’ve pretty much made up my mind, I’ve only done 110km today so far and the next few days are going to be as hilly. I’ll be lucky to make CP4 by Sunday at this rate. I find a bar in Bolzano, order a drink, pull out my phone and look for a hotel room. At the hotel I mull it over some more. I really don’t want to scratch but it feels like the only sensible option (not sure when sense came into any of this). I promised myself I wouldn’t scratch, that I’d get to Brest no matter what. I feel utterly deflated and beaten. Maybe I could do another couple of days, see where I get? Equally, why prolong the decision? It just means riding in discomfort for the sake of riding knowing that I will have to pull out of the race in a few days anyway. I won’t get to Brest before I have to be back at work. I email the race organisers to tell them I have decided to stop. I stare out of the window and feel like shit.
I consider the my options now I’m out of the race however I know there is only one option and that is to get over the Timmelsjoch, the final climb of the CP4 parcours. The reasons are Jo and I rode over it from the Austrian side on TCRno5 plus Jenny left me a sticker at the summit and made me promise to take a photo of it. This means I can’t take the easy option of riding south on the flat towards Milan or Venice to get a flight home. It also means getting a train anywhere is definitely out. If I get over the pass I can get to Innsbruck and I know I can fly to Gatwick from there. I check flights and there is availability on Wednesday and Thursday. Wednesday is significantly cheaper so I book a flight but this means I have to get over the Timmelsjoch tomorrow no matter what. I email a bike shop to see if they have a cardboard bike box I can have. Thomas from Radstudio Innsbruck replies within 10 minutes to say “I will have one!” With things sorted I go out to find pizza and beer.
The next morning I don’t ride the next part of the official parcours to Merano but rather the cyclepath I know runs along the river from Bolzano. It’s really overcast and I cannot see the tops of the mountains on either side of the valley. Hmmm, this isn’t looking promising. I get breakfast in Merano and buy some food to carry as I know the climb is long and will take a few hours. I head off up yet another valley to the base of the climb. It’s getting colder and windier. I look up… it’s a long way and I can’t even see the top. Click down some gears and start. Then the rain starts, getting heavier and heavier. Water runs down the road. I can see a TCR rider ahead. Thunder rumbles around the mountain. I have no choice but to ride. There’s both an expensive hotel room and flight that I’ve already paid for on the other side of this mountain. It’s been two years since I rode down this side but I instantly recognise the hairpins and tunnels of the lower section, and then the flatter but more open middle section. The rain eases and then increases again. A snack bar on the side of the road is open so I stop. I see the other TCR rider there. I say hello, order apfelstrudel and custard, and sit out the rain chatting with Zach. He was in a pair but now solo. By the time we leave the sun has returned and we ride together for a bit but then I stop to take off my jacket. The middle section is shallow enough to push a bigger gear. By the time the hairpins start on the upper section I’ve pulled my jacket on and the rain is clattering down again. I pass a motorcyclist who has stopped in the shelter of the rocks on the side of the road. I grind past them. I have to get over this mountain today. I get off and walk a bit. The altitude is getting to me. I pass Zach and ask if he’s OK. He feels woozy, the altitude getting to him too. We push on towards the top, the rain stops and the sun returns, a rainbow below us. The road has been resurfaced since 2017 and is so smooth. One long tunnel and into sunshine to the summit. I find Jenny’s sticker and take a photo. In and out of the dip at the top of the pass and into the motor museum for some hot food. My job for today is almost done. Just the 100km to Innsbruck to do now but it’s pretty much all downhill, shouldn’t take more than three hours or so.
Back outside it’s cooling down again and cloud rolls around the tips of the surrounding mountains. The sky looks a little ominous down the valley. I pull on jacket, gilet, knee warmers, gloves, buff. The first part of the descent is silly fast and dry but soon the rain starts followed by thunder and lightening. I am soaked through, the road is like a river. Another 80km of this is going to be dismal. Out of the saddle, push as big a gear as possible. Just need to get to this done now. It’s so dark it’s like riding at night. It’s rush hour and the road is busy. Pedal… just pedal. I know this road is downhill all the way, let’s get it done as quickly as possible, the quicker I ride the quicker this is over. A little over an hour to do 40km. I remember that the town at the junction at the end of the valley is called Otztal-Bahnhof. Hang on, bahnhof means train station doesn’t it? And it’s in the same valley as Innsbruck. Surely I can get a train from there!? I pull into a petrol station and nearly go arse over tit on the tiled floor. I am drenched and leaving a trail of water. I order a coffee and dry my phone with a paper napkin. I punch Otztal-Bahnhof to Innsbruck by train into Google Maps and take a deep breath… a few seconds wait… YES!! Trains every half hour. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so happy.
– – – – –
Massive thanks to Mark and Damon at Reilly Cycleworks for the Spectre, a head turner and absolute dream to ride. Also to Rory and all at Upgrade Bikes for the custom Reynolds wheel build with dynamo hub and reflective decals.
Thanks to Anna and Rory and all at Lost Dot for offering me a place in this year’s race and all the volunteers and dotwatchers that make the race possible. It’s a shame I didn’t get to all the CPs to say hello.
Also it was an honour and a pleasure to share roads and petrol station forecourts with so many other riders. Some get mentions but many more don’t but every day I had interactions with other riders. Maybe as little as a nod and a wave, or a few words, a shared table or kerb at a petrol station, sometimes a few kilometres of road and chat. Some riders I saw just once, others bumped into repeatedly. I know some of them also scratched but many others made it to the finish. Some are still riding across France as I type this. They all have their own stories to tell.
Despite scratching out of the race I feel much more positive about things overall than I did last time. I already plan to enter again next year. My route was good and I’d done enough research to alter it en route when it made sense to do so. My legs felt strong, no lower back pain or tension across shoulders, none of the stuff that can happen on long rides. Apart from my underside everything felt comfortable and strong. My head stayed in one piece. Every day something happened that would have had me doubting myself the last time around. I dug deeper than I’ve ever had to before and learned some lessons but I also made some daft decisions. Not going to the apartment on the third night was a massive mistake. I decided to go to CP2 because I knew I wanted to get there on Monday as that meant I was on schedule. Realistically it made absolutely no difference whether my brevet was stamped before midnight on Monday or early Tuesday morning. If I’d gone straight to the apartment I would have got a decent night’s sleep, could have hung all my kit up to dry, and maybe my phone wouldn’t have died. I would have got up early, gone to CP2, had still had my brevet stamped before it closed, and cracked on across Serbia. By heading to the CP that night it meant I didn’t sleep well, dragged cold damp kit on in the morning, faffed about and left a couple of hours later than I should have done. It was really dumb and had the knock on effect of me stopping early two nights later in Belgrade. Those two decisions probably cost me a finish.
There are definitely things I will do differently if I can get a place again next year. I’ll ditch the bivvy kit, or minimise it to a lightweight bivvy bag and emergency blanket. Hotels were easy to find and a bed and shower make a hell of a difference. That will also save a kilo or two in the mountains. I’d seriously consider mudguards too, as much to keep kit in saddlebag dry as well as me for longer. Dry bags in dry bags for extra waterproofing and organisation.
Also more chamois cream.
Huge effort Gav, mental and physical. I’m in awe and inspired. Sounds like you’re rightfully at peace with the difficult decision to scratch. Saddle sores seemed to be a major issue for so many this year. Time for rest. Training for next year soon begins…
Oh, and a big wave to petrol station guy. The world’s aflood with humanity and kindness, not the fear and misery of our media filled lives.
Thanks. I had a few days to think it all through and that morning in Slovenia I really thought it was over. I’m happy I got as far as the Dolomites after that morning.
How did your mate do? I met him at the airport in Burgas but didn’t see him again after that.
He managed to finish. A club mate caught up with him the day before the finish and filmed the encounter. The man in the film is but a shadow of the one I know. Clearly on his last legs, face hollowed out, the mental capacity to think only of finishing and eating. It’s quite the sight and a very visible portrayal of the hardships, mental and physical you describe here. You talk of the war and of course there’s no comparison to riding a bike, but in a very different way, you clearly do battle with yourself in these races.
Watching the weather riders ahead were having to deal with, and all those still riding this week, their persistence and grit has been something to behold.
Just finished reading this after part 1. Astonishing. Simply astonishing. You captured the highs and lows so eloquently too. Was tracking your dots throughout on the tcr site willing you on and on…