Newhaven – Welcome to England

Rolling off the ferry at Newhaven it’s lashing down, absolute stair-rods. I get to the train station only to discover there are no trains this weekend. It may be the metal roof of the station but the rain sounds like it’s getting harder. I zip up my waterproof jacket and pull up my buff. Four very drunk teenagers walk through the gate. One lad says “I need a piss” and strolls off down the platform.

Very pissed girl: “Hello”

Me: “Hello”

“Are you English?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good. Where do you live?”

“Brighton.”

“Why have you come here? Have you been here all day!?”

“No, I’ve been to France.”

“REALLY! WOW!”

(a few seconds silence)

“What’s it like?”

“It’s nice. It was sunny there.”

“Really!?”

“Yeah. Has it been raining here all day?”

“Yeah. All day. It’s rained here all day. It rains every day.”

“OK, thanks. Bye.”

“It rains all the time here.”

(It stops raining over the hill)

Transcontinental pt.II – CP1 to CP2

Another country, same heatwave, another cemetery tap. Not the first and most definitely not the last.
Somewhere in Germany.
5am breakfast of assorted petrol station finds and a Maccy D’s Hot Apple Pie that I’d been carrying since around 2pm the day before. In a shed next to a big road up a hill somewhere south of Kempten, Germany.
Heading for Austria and the mountains.
Early morning light in Austria.
The river Lech, Austria.
The lower slopes of the climb to Hahntennjoch.
Tunnel avoidance.
Into the squiggles up to Hahntennjoch.
Highest point so far.
Austrian not-Fanta to a soundtrack of AC/DC.
Fast descent to Imst. Crazy fast. Overtaking motorbikes and cars fast.
The second climb of the day, up to Timmelsjoch.
The second climb of the day, up to Timmelsjoch.
It was a long long way to get to the top of Timmelsjoch, and it seems in the evenings this is where the BMW and Audi drivers of Italy and Austria come to powerslide around the corners.
The highest point so far.
Sketcharama.
We thought the descent from Hahntennjoch was fun until we got to Passo del Rombo, the Italian side of Timmelsjoch. Fast, twisty, went on forever. And then some. It may have taken all afternoon to climb the thing but it took about thirty minutes to plummet down the other side.
Looking back up Passo del Rombo.
Hello Italy.
Somewhere between Bolzano and Trento on day 5 (we should have been here on day 4 but there are reasons that shall be written about later).
Trento. After the cycle path of indirectness.
Yet another petrol station machiatto and Fanta. And more water. Lots more water. (We shouldn’t be on this road, we should be in those hills over the way. Again the reasons for this shall be written about later.)
Cyclepath between Trento and CP2.
Cooling down / washing socks.
Campsite shower block roof. Home for the night. Food and rest needed and the climb of Monte Grappa could wait until the cool of the next morning.

Scaling Up

I’ve written about mapping out rides before but plotting a route for the Transcontinental is bigger than any previous way finding I’ve needed to do by roughly a factor of ten. Both in terms of distance and the number of countries involved. I’ve been drawing a line across Europe. Superimposing a single simple line across many complicated interconnecting lines. Many lines have been drawn and redrawn across the continent throughout human history. Many kinds of lines have been marked across the landscape, some connecting, others separating, some natural, others man made. Many are weighed down by history, even though gone still visible in various ways. The line Jo and I will ride is invisible to all but us and we will traverse lightly, a tracing that will leave no trace other than in our memories. This isn’t strictly true as there’ll be dotwatchers following us and GPS recordings, but that is all just a digital simulacra that will be forgotten in the noise of the internet. This line will be our life for two weeks – we’ll follow it, eat on it, sleep on it, maybe change our minds about it, deviate from it, but we’ll always be close to it.

Two weeks of lunch hours, evenings, and weekends of looking and thinking. No prior knowledge, except for I rode up the Muur a couple of years ago. There’s no memory map to call upon this time. Information is gleaned from where ever it can be found; Paper maps, online routing tools, Streetview, Google Maps, satellite images, eavesdropping on Twitter conversations, searching for trans-European cyclepaths, checking (and double checking) the race manual. Checking the Foreign Office website for border controls and travel guidance. I think to myself I’m glad we’re doing this pre-Brexit – this could be a whole heap of hassle in a couple of years, but let’s not scratch the surface of that subject just yet (I’m sure there will be something else to write about being European after I’ve ridden across the continent). Lots of conversations about the pretty way versus the easier way have been had. We’re going the pretty way whenever possible. I don’t really see why you wouldn’t. This does mean I’ve routed us over the highest pass in the Eastern Alps, but oh heck it looks stunning. Anyway 20km of uphill will be followed by 20km of downhill…fast downhill. Sixty switchbacks I read. Then there’s the option of the easy valley road or climbing in and out of the Dolomites. Pretty vs. Easy, again.

All of Europe has been unfolded and laid out across the floor to see how places link up and which of the multitude of ways between them are both the most feasible. Trying to make sense of something that isn’t entirely sensible. Figuring out road numbering systems (is that a motorway?) and factoring in border and river crossings, sometimes one and the same – the Rhine between France and Germany, the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria. Using paper maps for an overview, to see the lay of the land. Looking for ways across, between or around mountain ranges, finding the flat(ter) way, if there is one and as long as it doesn’t add too much distance. Tapping these thoughts into routing apps and tweaking almost ad infinitum. Avoiding one hill just to find a mountain. Forgetting to take scale into account when checking profiles – when the big pointy bit is significantly higher than 2000 metres then the chances are those other smaller pointy bits are still going to be over 2000 metres. Everything is scaling up.

Additionally there is the need to know we can find food and water at regular intervals along the way and the task has been almost as time consuming as the ride will be. Deliberately routing us through the middle of towns to ensure we can find the things we need along the way. This isn’t my usual practice, I usually look for the smallest little roads that pass through nowhere, but experience tells me food and water can be hard to find following this pattern. I’ve been marking down Lidls and Tescos, McDonalds and Shell petrol stations. We want to soak in some of the culture and customs we ride through, take ourselves out of our comfort zones, live in the moment, experience the situation, that’s all part of the point of riding a bike, to be a part of what surrounds you, not separated and simply viewing. Yes these known quantities are easy, the recognisable amongst the unfamiliar, and as much as I don’t like the thought that these chains have leached across the world we’ll want, or more importantly need the convenience and ease of familiarity every now and again when exhausted and hungry. They are the nearest to a comfort zone we’re likely to get. My experience of Streetview is that the photos may be old and that little shop may no longer be there, but the big chains will be. As much as I want to support local economies sometimes I’m just going to want a big cup of coke whilst I upload to Instagram on the free wifi. Also big chains often means clean toilets.

I don’t want to Streetview the entire route (not that there’s enough time for that) but there’s a trade off, a compromise between having some understanding of where we’re going and what’s in store for us, against the desire to leave things to be found and surprise us. We don’t want to find that that road turns into a dirt track through a forest on a Bulgarian mountain, that way lies difficulties and wolves, but it’s nice to know that there’s a little bar on that corner so we can get a coffee and fill up our water bottles. Also seeing the changes between regions and countries, and how things look more and more unfamiliar the further east and south we travel, only add to the anticipation. Finding place names lodged in my consciousness for reasons I can’t quite pin down – Graz, Bratislava, Sofia – but probably from sixties spy films. Perhaps from geography lessons back in school, but some places aren’t in the same countries as they were when I was a kid. Even in my lifetime the borders of Europe have been re-drawn. Other place names mean nothing now but in a few weeks will have taken on all kinds of significance. I’ve found places to go back to and explore at leisure.

However no matter how much looking at maps and photos I do riding 4000km in two weeks will be an entirely different experience. A line, some photos, a list of countries

Belgium
France
Germany
Austria
Italy
Austria (again)
Slovakia
Hungary
Romania
Bulgaria
Macedonia
Greece

and place names. It’s a flat one-dimensional world I’ve been looking at and it certainly won’t be that when we’re there. There again that corner of Hungary we’ll skedaddle across looks a bit flat.

Mayhem Weekender

Sometime after midnight on Monday morning in a 24 hour petrol station on the edge of Brighton

Cashier: “Have you done the bike ride today?” [Sunday was the annual London to Brighton charity ride]

Me: “No, I’ve done a different bike ride. A little bit further.”

Cashier: “Wow, further! Where have you ridden from then?”

Me: “From near Gloucester”

Cashier: “Gloucester!? Flipping heck!”

What I didn’t add was that I’d actually ridden there on Friday evening, done a lap of a mountain bike race that morning, before riding home from mid-afternoon until now. There was already a look of incredulity on the woman’s face and adding this additional information would have only led to the inevitable “Why?” question and I was frankly far too exhausted to think of an answer. I took my change, picked up my ready meal for two, stuffed it in my musette, and walked out of the garage, hopped back on the bike and rode into the light pollution for the final couple of miles home.

The weekend just gone was the last ever Mountain Mayhem 24 hour mountain bike race. I came to this event late, only attending my first one four years ago. That year I was there to help out mates and take some photos. That in turn prompted me to buy a mountain bike and return in 2015 and 2016 and do the solo race (in for a penny, in for a pound). This year being the last ever one I considered soloing again but sensibly decided it was a bit close to the start of the Transcontinental to recover in time properly. A plan to ride from Brighton to Gatcombe Park and then back again was hatched instead. This would mean I could hang out with mates and watch the last race with the added benefit of getting a couple of 200km night(ish) rides in as Transcon training. What with camping at the race too it gave me an opportunity to test out my sleeping stuff for the Transcon and see how most efficient to pack it on the bike. In the back of my mind I knew that if there was a spare bike kicking about I’d try and get a cheeky lap in too.

Friday

I left Brighton just before 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon (due to having run out of annual leave allowance I needed to fit the riding in around work. A couple of long days in the preceding week meant I could bunk off early) and headed along the coast for a bit before turning northwest. Annoyingly there was a stiff breeze coming from precisely the direction I didn’t need it to be coming from, but the sun was shining and the forecast was good for the whole weekend.

It says a lot about the last few months that I now consider the roads as far as Petersfield as ‘home roads’. Distances have not only become greater but there have been a lot of rides out this way, to Bespoked a couple of times, to Wales on an audax, and various long rides that have headed further into West Sussex that I ever did before (I usually head into East Sussex as I know the roads better). It’s only once past the climb over the Ashford Hangers or “Little Switzerland” as it is known locally, and there is something alpine-esque about the climb, in character rather than height, that the roads start to feel foreign and the excitement and anticipation of the long ride kicks in. I have ridden across parts of Hampshire and Wiltshire many times in the last two years but my route this weekend took in new roads to me. I was in roughly the same areas as previous rides, familiar names on signposts triggered memories. It was early afternoon by the time I got past Petersfield and Hampshire looked about as pastoral and bucolic as it’s possible to be. Narrow lanes carried me through endless fields of wheat and barley rolling across low downland until I popped out on a familiar road through the Bourne Valley towards Wiltshire. I crossed the border as the sun was setting and headed for Marlborough. Somewhere along the way a rustling sound from a field to my left startled me and I turned to see a group of deer bouncing through the golden field, not only a sight to behold but the sound of them swooshing through the tall crop was beautiful. Then a barn owl swept across my path. Idyllic.

The last of the light was fading from the sky as I reached Marlborough around 10 o’clock and by the time I dropped off the Marlborough Downs stars could be seen in the dark sky. There was an orange glow on the horizon to the northeast which I guessed was Swindon. From previous years of driving to Mayhem I knew this is where we turned off the M4 so it couldn’t be too much further. The Garmin distance told me similar, somewhere around 50km to go.

The next section passed close to Royal Wootton Bassett, Malmesbury and Tetbury but I’m not sure what the landscape was like as it was properly dark by now and I was tired and concentrating on pedalling, snacking and drinking. At 1 o’clock in the morning I was sat on a bench outside the pub in Avening eating the last of the emergency peanuts before the last couple of kilometres up the hill to the Mayhem site.

A few minutes later, and after getting lost on the campsite, I pulled into our camp where Rory and Shaggy gave me a hug and a beer, and Jo handed me a plate of pasta. Part one completed, 215km in ten and half hours.

Saturday

Much sitting about in the shade trying not to melt in the sunshine. Beer. Food. More beer. Heckling mates racing. Due to some motorway closures one of Jo’s team of ten, My Knees Hurt (usually a team of four and raced all 20 years of Mayhem, singlespeed in the old days hence the team name, this year all previous riders and helpers have combined to make a team of ten) can’t make it to Mayhem so they are a rider down. Frazer from the Pivot Boompods team very generously offers me his Pivot Les to do a lap standing in for ‘Scottish Phil’. Some number crunching is done and it is decided that I will go out for the dawn lap on Sunday morning. I then drink some more beer as I have hours to go before I have to ride.

Sunday Morning

I awoke to Jo saying “Oi, you’re supposed to be awake. You’re out soon”. I checked the time, it’s 04:18 and two minutes before my alarm is due to go off. Bleary eyed I gave Jo the spare number board to go on the bike whilst I dragged my kit on. Half a flapjack and a spin around the campsite to make sure the bike is set up OK and I set off to the arena to take over from Rory when he gets in from his lap. Yes, I know it would have made sense to check the bike the day before but it was being saved as second bike for Rich who was racing solo so I didn’t want to mess around with the seat height until I was absolutely sure he wouldn’t need to use the bike.

Rory beeped over the timing mat and handed over to me. I hopped on the bike and headed out of the main arena into the field before the woods. First corner and the rear end squirmed all over the place. Bloody hell, I’d not ridden a MTB since last November and I had completely forgotten about how low pressure you can run a tubeless tyre. I minced around the first few corners, almost slid out over a root into a tree, until I got used to it and then I was off. It’s a lot more fun knowing you only have to put one lap in rather than ride non-stop for 24 hours. For the first time I was riding up behind people and saying “on yer left” or “on yer right” and slaloming between slower riders. Most of the course was ingrained in my mind from two years of solo racing and the trails are so dry it was easy to get some flow going. Despite not having ridden a mountain bike for months it felt like the best I’ve ever ridden.  After a few corners I can see the sun squeezing between the trunks and branches, sun rise! A magical time of day to ride a bike. I love riding at dawn but my previous experience of dawn at Mayhem is utter exhaustion and a slow (rapid) unravelling of my sense of humour or resolve. I’m usually having a lie down and sulk not long after the dawn lap. This was riding at dawn without all the tiredness and mental fragility of soloing and it was ace. I even rode the entire course, no parts were walked, a mix of having a really lightweight bike to ride and all the Transcon training, plus the fact I only had one lap to do so didn’t need to worry about conserving energy (I may have eased off on a couple of fire roads knowing that I had to ride home later in the day). It was the most fun lap I’d ever done at Mayhem. Through the campsite section I could see Phil was still at camp and not at the handover waiting for me. “Phil, I’m back…” I shouted as I whizzed past. Through the last bit of singletrack into the arena and I span along until I saw Phil riding round to take over. I rode over the timing mat just as he arrived. I passed the baton over and went looking for a bacon sarnie. Then I dozed some more.

The rest of Sunday

All packed up and goodbyes said I pedal out of the campsite just after 2 o’clock for the 200 or so kilometres home. It was ridiculously hot and I had toyed with the idea of just getting a lift home, but this was the last big Transcon training ride, and getting a lift won’t be an option on the Transcon. I had a framebag stuffed full of snacks and two bottles of water which would get me as far as the first shop. I had routed myself home pretty much the same way as I’d ridden on Friday, so knew that I probably wouldn’t see anything open until Marlborough. Two bottles of water would not get me that far, not in the heat, but I also knew that I would pass close enough to Malmesbury to detour if I needed to. However it turned out my route back was slightly different, I rode through Royal Wootton Bassett rather than near it, so was able to buy some food and water to keep me going to Marlborough.

The section between Wootton Bassett and Marlborough was gorgeous. I’d not been able to see it in the dark on Friday but white horses in the sides of the hills at Broad Hinton and Hackpen hill glowed in the bright sunshine. On the Friday I had a feeling that the road between Hackpen Hill and Marlborough was nice, the twilight meant I had been able to make out silhouettes of the surrounding landscape, but it was an absolute cracker made even better by the fact it was a gentle but fast descent for the best part of 7 or 8 kilometres. More food and water in Marlborough before a quick blast along the A4 to get back into the quiet lanes across Wiltshire and Hampshire. The Bourne Valley again. Love this stretch of road. Under the A34. Dinner sat on a step in the shade by the river opposite the little Tesco in Whitchurch. Over the M3. Yet more hedge lined lanes through yet more fields. This part of the country always makes me think of Lemon Jelly record sleeves.

Picture Perfect England™.

A kestrel glides low over the field to my side before swerving across the road and through a gap in the trees to my right. Then I chased a hare along a lane a few minutes later.

Petersfield again. More food, more water. Home roads. Tired. Hot. Probably dehydrated. Actually, absolutely definitely dehydrated. Twilight. By this point I was starting to lose interest in riding, bored even. Close enough to home to just want to be there, far enough away to know it was still a couple of hours away. I plugged my earphones into my phone and hit shuffle. I pedalled on. Home roads. Autopilot. Village names got ticked off the mental list – Harting, Cocking, Graffham, Greatham, Storrington. Dark now, it was late. Even the main roads were quiet. Swerved a hedgehog. Route 1 home. Washington, Steyning, Shoreham. Head down, high gear, push pedals as hard as possible. The fast road and the cement works. A way I would never ride in the day, but 11 o’clock on a Sunday night it was OK. Tempted by the drive-thru MacDonalds, but no, cracked on. Didn’t even cross the lock gates for the quiet of Basin Road, I stuck to the coast road. Hungry. Tired. Get home, maybe stagger to the kebab shop. Then I saw the lights of the M&S shop at the all night petrol station near Hove Lagoon…

“Have you done the bike ride today?”

The (Not Quite) Midsummer 300

When I started to audax a few years back I came up with a 300km route that I planned to do on midsummer’s day – along the Sussex and southern Kent coast, then turn inland and cut across Romney Marsh over the Downs and through Canterbury to Whitstable on the north coast, and back to Brighton. The reason for choosing Whitstable as the return point is that I lived there whilst at art school in Canterbury many years ago, the first place I lived by the sea. I hadn’t got around to it though due to going to Mountain Mayhem for the last 3 years. I’m going to Mayhem again this year but because I was 190km short in France a couple of weeks ago I decided to ride the Midsummer 300 a week or so early.

The route has been tweaked a bit over the years, a mish mash of familiar roads near to home and parts of Kent audaxes (Fairies Flattest Possible 300, Man of Kent 200 and 300) further afield, with a little bit of memory lane thrown into the mix.

Route ridden: https://www.strava.com/activities/1030344156

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.

 

https://www.strava.com/activities/1010244528

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