Race report: Transcontinental Day 1-4 – Enjoying France!

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It’s over 8 weeks ago and finally found some time to start writing a few lines about my experiences and more important, my learnings for next races. After finishing, I immediately knew I would race again, no doubt whatsoever. In the past few weeks I’ve been medically struggling: during the trip to Turkey I managed to pick up some parasites and a tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) and to finish it up I had multiple surgeries to my mouth removing my last wisdom tooth including a benign tumour. That’s done so time to reflect on the most intensive two weeks I have ever experienced.

Friday, 22:00 – Geraardsbergen

After registration, catching up with a few other Dutch riders, talking with some online fans that came to cheer and having my last meal together with Louise (#149) without being in a hurry for the last time. Around 230 riders lined up to race to Turkey, eager to start racing. You could feel the anxiety and eagerness to start the race across the plaza. I have to admit I was feeling at ease. I knew I needed every bit of energy for the upcoming weeks and I was confident I prepared well. In the days before I had two wisdom teeth removed and eating was still painful. I thought about cancelling the race, but I am so glad I didn’t walked away from the challenge. Everything that would go wrong along the way to Turkey, could not have been prevented up front. I made the agreement with myself to just see what challenges would come along.

The mayor and Mike Hall introduced the crowd, the race and wished us luck. Before I knew, we were pacing through Geraardsbergen, doing a slow lap before we were released on the street to the Muur. A steep, epic climb that officially started the race. I wanted to go slow and not spend too much energy but once the race started, I pushed with all power I had. The crowd was amazing, all carrying torches and shouting. So much energy! Got a great personal record on the short climb and a first real test of my legs. They felt good!

muur-geraardsbergen-tcr

Source: Toerisme Vlaanderen

Coming down from  the Muur, the dark roads and the real adventure were lying ahead. Some people stopped to make sure they loaded the right tracks but I already prepared and checked the surroundings the week before. I was immediately chasing a few of the fast guys and could maintain a proper speed. Temperature was still warm enough for riding in shorts. Maybe I was going a bit too fast, but the adrenaline made me not feel anything else but happiness. In the middle of nowhere, not knowing what will happen the next few hours, or days or even weeks enjoying myself with my Mason. The only thing you needed to think about was riding (fast & far) and make sure food and water intake was enough. Within a few kilometres we entered France and I choose some alternative roads. I was happy I checked the complete first 500km of roads with Google maps / Streetview so no unexpected gravel or cobble stone roads.

Throughout the night my pace was great and I could maintain my focus. During my first real break of 20 minutes I checked Trackleaders just to be sure my tracker was working properly. Completely surprised I was racing in the front of the race, somewhere in the top 25. I knew I could continue throughout the night without sleep where other took a few more resting stops. Due to the small hills, riding never got boring.  Along the way, my Garmin navigation crashed a few times, but I already was prepared for it to happen. Restarting and losing my data was the solution and I told myself the reason was that I was riding to slow.

trackleaders-top30

I loved riding into the sunrise around 04:45 Saturday morning and I was sure the first bakeries would open up soon. The best smell you can every imagine, riding across the rolling hills in France, being welcomed into a small village with the smell of fresh baked chocolate croissants. Live was good, at that moment at least. I just needed a quick breakfast and some fresh drinks since I packed enough food to survive the first 24 hours. The weather was great: a bit of sun and a little bit of wind made riding conditions great. No problems and steadily progressing. A  short 80-minute nap next to a small lake in the early afternoon was good move to get a bit of recovery for the legs. And nothing but nice views while hitting the 300km mark within 12 hours.

epic-views

Food & water: always challenging

During the afternoon, finding food and water became a bit challenging. Finally found a pizza van and stocked up with two pizzas and a few cans of coke for the upcoming hours. After circling around a bit I found a nice graveyard providing me with fresh water. I aimed at riding at least 450 kilometres the first 24 hours so after reaching 475km averaging 28,5km/h, I decided to find a spot to bivy. Longest & Fastest 200+ ride ever, not a bad start.

I have never slept outside in just my sleeping bag and mat before, but I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t stress my body to much the first 48 hours already so I wanted to catch some rest. I setup up my luxury bed next to a little forest at a picnic place, close to a road where no traffic had past me the last two hours. I ate a few fruits and topped up with water so my body could recover a bit during sleep.

6 hours later I was still awake, cold and wet due to the fog. Due to the adrenaline and the current state of wanting to race, knowing others were not sleeping, I just couldn’t catch any REM sleep. I decided to go riding again and just see what would happen with my body & mind. Due to the changing nature of the roads, I was able to keep awake easily.

After a few hours my food and water was finished, which caused me to have a new focus and mental state. Google Maps couldn’t help me finding graveyards or fountains so I finally decided to just walk into a few gardens and check if they had outside taps. It was still early in the morning and if someone would catch me, it would have caused some funny scenes. Trespassing and finding water renewed my energy levels, ready to tackle the next day. Riding without proper food does influence your speed and mental state a lot. First clear learning was to eat more calories.

Cruising towards Clermont Ferrand – Checkpoint 1

60 kilometers done, and my Garmin completely freezes. No way to reset it through standard protocol so I had to do a hard reset. This meant I had to do a factory reset and lost all my maps and tracks. I carried a backup maps and tracks on a SD-card but that didn’t worked out so I needed to find my way by old school navigating. I was happy I explored the route properly through Google Earth and Google Streetview so it slowed me down a bit but not too much. Next race I’ll take a bigger SD card also storing the tracks besides the maps.

During the night I never saw anybody else, probably due to me taking a unique route towards checkpoint 1. Coming closer to the point of convergence, Col de Ceyssat, I met a few other racers on the road. Good to see others were struggling to and sharing experiences of the first 36 hours took away the sharp edges of my state at that moment. Also met one of the other Dutch riders, sharing a few words and his experiences from previous race.

I still focused on proper food, the pizzas from the night before were an exception I had to make. Eating properly makes a huge difference. During the afternoon I found a nice supermarket so I could stock up for the last 150km towards Clermont Ferrand. It was the last proper food for the upcoming two weeks actually.

Due to the lack of sleep, navigation issues and lack of food in the morning I only rode 240km.Funny to read that back, only 240km a day… TCR completely changed my mindset about what number of kilometres is possible during 24 hours. I decided that riding checkpoint 1 would be enough for day 2. I got my first stamp at position 50 in Clermont Ferrand, did a quick ride up and down of Col de Ceyssat before checking in at a nice hotel. Not fan of climbing, my legs were not liking it at all. To bad they still had 48000m of climbing to go.

col-de-ceyssat

It was still early, 19:00 so I quickly ran into the city, on my cycling shoes, tick tacking along the streets with my cleats to find a Subway and order 3 sandwiches, 2 for recovery, one for breakfast since I wanted to leave early. It cost some effort, due to me not able to speak any French besides s’il vous plait, l’eau and baquette but I managed to get proper food. My French teacher would have been proud! Enjoyed my baquettes, fixed my Garmin in the hotel lobby and went to bed early.

Forward to the real mountains

Sunday morning 04:00 – Happy that I survived the first two days, without too much trouble besides having a few tough hours without food and losing my maps, I was feeling OK with the current result but I knew the tough part still had to come. My aim was to ride at least halfway towards checkpoint 2 during day three so I set a serious target of 300km or more. It was a day without any real issues. After lunch I lost a bit of focus, resulting in riding the wrong direction for 5 km, while passing other riders. Greeting another rider made me think about me riding in the right direction. I couldn’t really mind, 10km extra is nothing compared to the 4216km I would ride eventually. I was still enjoying the French bakeries and especially the sweet sugar rich macarons before entering  Swiss territory.

The weather was challenging with temperatures between 25-30 which meant drinking a lot. During the afternoon I finally found a water tap on a public plaza in a small village which stated drinkable water, but it was for usage by local government only. Luckily my mind was still working properly and I managed to get the water flower by using my multi-tool to open the tap. Glad I took it with me, since I doubt if it would be useful during the ride.  I was able to pick up some good speed, and after a night of good sleep the legs felt strong.

proper-feuling

That feeling disappeared fast once I hit the first serious climbs again. My ass was hurting and had some blisters on it, but it masked other pains in my legs and back. I could easily think away the pain by knowing others were suffering from similar or even worse physical issues. A bit If you want to know more about how specific body parts experience the TCR, have a look at Darren Franks’ Twitter accounts: his arse, balls and legs had their own accounts. What a pity I only learned about them after the race.

The malfunctioning Garmin, showed some serious climbs coming up and it was already in the evening. I didn’t want to take the risk to get into the mountains and be left without food and having to find shelter in a cold place so I turned around into the closest city, Bracon, and found some bushes in the middle of a residential area. I Slept OK and woke up due to the smell of fresh of the local bakeries!  While sleeping reasonably good, I felt amazingly crap, the efforts of previous days finally caught up with me. After buying breakfast, I was not motivated to get on the bike at all, so I first found myself some fresh coffee. The first coffee in 3 days!

My legs were still not happy but I knew I had to get across the hills. On the tracker I found a few other riders closing in and I set a target to stay in front of them. I rode up the climbs at a slow pace, trying to figure out how to get motivation back. So this was the feeling I would be having the next few weeks? Before the final climb into Switzerland, I stopped in the McDonalds in Pontarlier. Catching up with a fellow rider, from Germany, got me renewed spirit.  Filled up with bad calories but enough to try and reach the next target: checkpoint 2 in Grindelwald. I knew that descending into Boudry would be easy and the road towards Grindelwald would not have too much climbing in it.

15percent-into-zwitserland 15+ % into Switzerland

My awesome route planning skills caused me to find a small and steep (15%) hidden road into Switzerland, seriously could have been a movie scene. The disadvantage of the road was the downhill part: was really not wide enough to really make some speed and a lot of leaves were making it slippery. Anyway, due to the great road I got my spirit back and was dedicated to make Grindelwald before the evening started. I raced across the flats along the Lac de Neuchatel toward Bern and passed a few other riders all heading to the checkpoint. Chasing others was much more fun than chasing your Garmin tracks. Overall it was a tough day, from a mental perspective, but the roads were awesome. Exactly that is the beauty of a race like TCR!

Around 18:00 I arrived a Grindelwald, quickly got my second stamp and I was happy to book an expensive hotel and get some proper sleep after last night bush camping. After a 40EUR pasta and a 35EUR pizza I was ready to catch up on sleep. Those prices would be a great motivator to race out of the country as fast as possible. Anyway, I was impressed with the results so far; 1250km in just under four days and some serious climbing done. I can still remember I bought my first proper race bike three years ago and I had trouble doing 30km, averaging 27km/h at an average heart rate of 180.

The next day would be the crucial stage for me during the race. Over 8000 meters of climbing divided across three historical mountain passes. As a heavy weight sprinter, riding a heavy loaded bike I was not looking forward to it at all…

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