Extraordinary cyclists who happen to be women. That’s how Lucy eloquently introduced Lee Cragie and Rickie Cotter last night at the Bristol screening of their film Divided.
Last year Rickie and Lee raced the 2,745-mile (4,418 km) Tour Divide. An annual mountain biking race that traverses the length of the Rocky Mountains from Banff in Canada to Antelope Wells on the Mexican border. They raced as individual units but set off side by side with the intention to self film their race.
Lee stated that they were woefully mistaken to think that they could race well and do a good job of filming. When I saw the trailer at Bike Night of the Kendal Mountain Film Festival I could see how gruelling the ride was, how beautiful and treacherous the route was. Knowing Lee and Rickie, I could see their personalities and how their warmth and friendship came through despite the blurry and often hasty self-filming. What wasn’t clear was how this trailer would come together to produce a film that told the story to someone who didn’t know all the context, who hadn’t had countless conversations with Rickie about the race, the route and the experience. How would their little nuggets of film come together to stand on their own in a film?
Well, turns out film makers are wizards! They had cut the film with added interview footage from the terrible twosome to make something truly exceptional! The story flowed, the jokes and ‘bikeoke’ ran alongside rattle snakes and colossal body and mechanical failure. One of my pet gripes about adventure stories is how the pain and difficult parts are often erased or played down, not this time. The film bottled the true essence of a long trip with the exception that the usual solitude is replaced by the camaraderie shared between these two extraordinary friends.
The film paid tribute to the late Mike Hall; a close friend of both Rickie and Lee, the record holder for the Tour Divide and an inspiration and cohesive force to so many. My hopes of making it through the evening with dry eyes fell apart right there!
The story flowed in a way that needed no additional explanation. The interview pieces with the two stars of the show coupled with two smiling, bobbing heads in helmets meant the story just told itself. It wasn’t a perfect story, it didn’t unfold as expected. Just how many of our own stories never unfold as expected. Seeing Lee and Rickie’s emotional turmoil reminded me of my own personal ‘failures’ of last year. Mike’s words hovered over the whole film:
“Enjoy it, don’t lose sight of just how lucky you are to be out there and above all, manage your expectations. If we treat things as a pass or fail test we can torture ourselves over the outcome but if we can consider it more as an experiment with an uncertain outcome from the start then we always at least get an answer.”
Things rarely go how we expected them to. Sometimes our expectations are our own worst enemy.
The two talked about why it had taken them both so long to start this race. They’re both incredibly accomplished mountain bike riders and racers, but their own expectations and fears had stopped them from getting to the start line. They articulated how there’s always more preparation to do, more training you could have done, more experience that you could have experienced…
You don’t arrive at the start line when you’re ready. You get to the start when its time.
I was looking for an old quote that put this in a more eloquent way and found this:
That’s the thing about taking an action. You don’t know that you can do it until you do it. And then you become someone who does it.
Unless you’re a migratory bird there isn’t much great about British winter time. It gets cold, dark, frequently damp and occasionally snowy.
Many hang up their bikes for winter and opt for more seasonal hobbies such as bouldering, walking, hibernation and Netflix.
Much to Liam’s delight I’ve started mountain biking much more since the days got shorter, there was even a point in late January where I realized I hadn’t ridden my road bike since the New Year! Shock horror!
We’ve also carried on bivvying but realised we’re among the minority there!
Winter wild camping can be just as fun, and not necessarily uncomfortable type two fun.
There are many reasons to have a microadventure over a one day adventure.
you can go further and explore more
you can wake up in the wild and enjoy porridge in your sleeping bag
you really feel like you’re having an experience. It makes you feel like you’ve made the most of your weekend and you feel refreshed again to start the week (once you’ve sorted the washing!).
The above don’t change according to the seasons, you just find that time spent preparing and packing is proportional to how cold it is. Kit, escape plans, poor weather mitigation and good company has made the difference in keeping me active this winter so I thought I’d try and share some of what I’ve learned.
You also want to keep an escape plan handy incase you are taken by surprise by the elements. Successful bail attempts this year have included: staying with friends, abandoning 20km into day 2, abandoning in day 1.
Escape plans might mean: having the car/friend’s house nearby and riding day loops from here, train stations nearby, checking the weather and not trying to be too heroic.
Mitigation plans might include: having dinner in a pub to warm up, sleeping under a tarp or small tent to keep the rain off, sheltering in a bus stop for lunch instead of taking in the view, lots of hike a bike to keep warm!
Your kit list will also expand. I have acquired: waterproof shorts, several pairs of wool socks, a super warm sleeping bag in the xmas sales, a merino skull cap, warm gloves. I never leave without a good insulated jacket.
Evening: shorter days and longer nights. The night draws in hours and hours before you want to go to bed. Either you go to sleep at 5pm or you ride into the dark. There is also a compromise: the pub. Preferably with an open fire and some amusing locals to ask for bivvy spot recommendations in return for looks of shock and amazement! The pub also comes with a risk, you might get too warm and not want to go back outside! Usually it isn’t as bad as you think it will be.
Overnight: Whereas in summer you might take a pair of shorts to sleep in and just sleep in your base layer in winter you want to pack a full change of dry, warm clothes. This also means keeping your kit dry in either a drybag or waterproof bikepacking bags. I use the Apidura waterproof bags and they haven’t failed me! You will need a warmer sleeping bag compared to summer. Liam normally uses a very lightweight bivvy bag and 3/4 length mat, these aren’t great for winter. I have a full length thermarest neo air which has been fine for UK winter and my rab bivvy bag is fine under a tarp.
The next day: there are limits to how much kit you can carry on a bike. Carrying dry layers for overnight and more bulky sleeping kit means you’re probably going to be wearing much the same kit as you did the day before. This means that it will be wet and muddy. If it was sub zero overnight it also means it will be frozen solid unless you kept it inside your bivvy!
Breakfast: In summer we normally just pack nuts, fruit, cereal bars etc for breakfast. In the colder months we pack a small gas stove for hot porridge and coffee to warm us up. Although so far thanks to amazing sleeping bags usually the night is the warmest part! Pulling damp kit on the next day is usually the worst bit but you don’t want to sit around in wet kit eating your porridge…!
On new year’s morning we woke up in a sleepy Exmoor village, a man was walking out towards us in his pyjamas. I was worried he was coming to tell us off for bivvying where we were. He’d come to wish us a happy new year and asked if we wanted to join him for porridge!
You can’t have enough: layers! fabrics like wool are great because they keep you warm even when wet. Wear lots of layers and you also heat the layer of air between layers and this gives you added insulation.
Trails: these have mostly been either parts of longer bikepacking races – Exmoor or routes like the west country way, others’ rides pinched from Strava – Quantocks, or exploring on the Bear Bones winter weekend.
What a shame that most people will read the BBC article and not her witty and far more useful prose.
Now, I was pretty rubbish at statistics but I know that sample size is important. If the goal of a study is to make about a population from a sample (in this case this is how the BBC portrayed the Sustrans study) then your sample needs to be big enough for your study to have any statistical power. Basically, if your sample isn’t big enough or representative of the population then you may as well go home and gaze at your crystal ball. The Sustrans study the BBC used was only 7.7k people across 7 cities not including London. So really, how representative of the UK population is this study?
Here is another article on the barriers to women cycling from Cycling Weekly.
Female Strava users were surveyed and 60% said they didn’t feel that there were any barriers to stop women getting into cycling.
Let me draw a parallel from my work life. Take STEM subjects where the research population is roughly 16% female across all career stages, reducing to single figures % at once you go up the levels of seniority to professors. There are obviously some barriers to women and other minorities in this field. Ask a senior female academic if there are any barriers, some will say ‘Well I made it, so anyone can’. Ask a male professor and the response is often much worse. Of course, there are some brilliant individuals who are trying to improve matters but they remain in the minority.
When it comes to barriers, if it doesn’t affect you then you don’t see it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a barrier. Surveying Strava users about the barriers to women in cycling is a waste of time because you’re not asking the proportion of the population that was prevented from riding because of these barriers.
Sometimes it does affect you, but you have something to encourage or help you to pull through. Coming back to cycling it may be financial, a massively improved commute, a very supportive friend or club, or the idiocy to sign up to an event and refusing to accept defeat.
Ok, rant about bad statistics and even worse reporting over.
Despite the pitfalls of these studies they do suggest that women’s experience of cycling is different to that of men.
Is it that because testosterone makes men more aggressive and so more likely to ride defensively? There are various bits of data that suggest that more women die in on bikes in London than men (but the data are often cherrypicked. Or is it because when we were evolving women had to survive; to reach reproductive age, survive 9 months of pregnancy and then raise a child. Men, by comparison, only had to survive long enough to reach reproductive age and inseminate a woman. By comparison, men were disposable (sorry guys!). Women therefore are hard-wired to avoid anything that represents a danger to life? Now, there is a reason why I’m not an evolutionary psychologist!
Safety on our roads is everyone’s problem whether male, female or neither.
What was brilliant about the article posted on Single Track was that it placed a lot of the observed figures into social context.
Not some rubbish about helmet hair, or watery mascara.
You can’t do all this if you’re fearing for your life in busy traffic!
While proper cycling infrastructure, segregated bike lanes, laws and policies that improve the status of cyclists as road users would make this better for everyone this example, as well as the example of women in STEM highlights one thing: our society is sexist.
Women’s lives look different to men because the moment we drop out of the womb men and women are treated differently.
How can we expect women and men to take up sports like cycling and subjects like maths at the same rate when we subject them to many subconscious and conscious biases?!
A few weeks ago Liam drew my attention to a post on the Bear Bones forum about why there were no women in (mountain) bikepacking (or talking about bikepacking on the BB forum).
While bunch of beardy middle aged mountain biking men pondering on the dearth of women in their sport is a bit embarrassing it does highlight one thing, they realise there is a problem and they want to fix it.
When I started road cycling I entered a few sportives. These were sausage fests. Not only was there an obvious dearth of women but for everyone who turned up on their mountain bike or hybrid to have a go at their first major ride there would be at least 10 super serious lycra clad MAMILs with 10 grand bikes, deep section carbon wheels and pro team replica kit.
Last year my friend Aoife introduced me to the trail centre at the Forest of Dean. At the Pedalabikeaway cafe it was like a diversity cloud had lifted. There were families here, children, dogs, mums and dads, groups of girl friends, groups of boyfriends, hire bikes, cheap hard tails and fancy eMTBs all enjoying the mountain biking! It was amazing! No judgement, no cars just happy muddy faces!
Maybe mountain biking was the answer?
A few weeks ago we went for our first off road bikepacking event, the BearBones cafe racers.
The bikes are not flashy, the kit isn’t flashy. What would be the point in a flashy bike, it is going to get covered in mud for several days straight!
This was the most low key, least intimidating, most welcoming cycling event I had ever been to. I was even greeted on arrival with ‘oh goody another Woman! We’ve got 6 now!’
So why so few women?
There is still the leisure time, lifestyle difference by gender argument.
Camping in mid Wales in January is intimidating! If you can’t borrow the kit you might give it two thoughts about trying it out, assuming you can get a weekend away from the children in the first place!
We are discussing the symptoms, not the causes. Differential numbers of women in cycling are not because of some biological or psychological difference. Our society is still sexist, if we can accept that then we can start to think about how to make it better. Better cycling infrastructure, education and training can help to lower the barriers stopping women from enjoying life on two wheels.
Women want this. Men want it too.
We should combine this revolution of with trying to create a more equal society.
In classic El fashion I was up late the night before popping routes on Garmins, final adjustments and fresh tape for my TT bars. Added a bell. Checked my tyres. Packed and re packed and re packed again. I think I got to bed at around 3am. Luckily I had an afternoon train so could have a lie in….. or not. I had to dash to the solicitors in the morning to drop off the signed contract for the house I’m buying, head to Asda to find the special lithium batteries for my SPOT tracker and pick up a fresh asthma inhaler.
Nearly late for my train, I was glad to be on my way but I knew my anxiety wouldn’t subside until my bike and I were in Belgium.
Right off from leaving the train station in Bristol, as I was putting my bike onto the carriage I recognised another parked up as that belonging to fellow racer Calvin O’Keeffe (we’d met on the train before). I went to go find him on the train and we had nervous chatter on the way to London. Both catching the Eurostar to try and avoid airport baggage handling related mishaps before the start. It was reassuring to have the company at this stage of the journey.
Cows on the line.
No worries, I’d figured a 3h time buffer into my plans. That was reduced to 2h and I became nervous.
Calvin and I rode to King’s Cross together from Paddington. I’d managed to find it in my Garmin and followed the purple line through central London. Then Calvin got wise and decided to follow signposts. I followed suit but we lost eachother. Not to worry, I was close now. At StPancrass I looked for the signs for Eurodespatch where I would drop off my bike. No sign (!) of them. I went towards Eurostar and asked someone, right round the other end of the station was the answer. Casually eating into my buffer time.
Here I caught up with Calvin and another TCR rider, Eurodespatch was just like a TCR party. I also got a send off from best friend Pria, I removed the bags from my bike and handed her (the bike, not Pria!) to the Eurostar handlers and said I’d see her on the other side.
Pria and I went for refreshments. What did I want to drink? Easy, TEA! A proper British cup of tea, I wouldn’t be having another one of those for a while. We caught up and she gave me the sweetest good luck card that I popped into my waterproof bag with my passport. The queues for Eurostar were getting long so she bade me farewell and I went to join the line, not before raiding M&S food for train snacks!
On the Eurostar I met Eachann another racer. We’d met on Twitter and knew we’d be on the same train. We had some nervous chat. He’d realised he hadn’t uploaded something onto his Wahoo GPS so was hoping to find some wifi to sync the device with. We shared our hopes and fears, both wanting to finish for the finishers party neither of us knowing if that was possible.
I went back to my seat and had a beer. We were over the other side of the channel by now.
Liam met me off the train (having flown over earlier that day) and we went to the hotel where we had booked a room. Here we met another rider Lee Pearce. Lee is a TCR veteran and had ridden it twice against my Audax Club Birstol friend Gareth. We had breakfast with Lee the next day. One thing that hits you about the TCR is the global community of people around it. Registration was like a reunion of friends, not all of them having met before in real life but having followed each other’s preparation for months over social media.
We had a slow morning and started the 40km ride from Brussels to Geraardsbergen. There was a headwind, but seeing as our race started off in the opposite direction we knew we’d have a tail wind that night. So not all bad. Just before arriving Liam’s GPS fell off his bike. It’s called a shake down for a reason, folks! A little bit of reinforcement meant it wouldn’t wobble off again. Just as we arrived at registration we saw Grace leaving. Grace and I are like Transcon Forever Friends. Meeting over twitter through the race and supporting each other through our pre-race panics. We’d continue to offer moral support throughout the race and I honestly don’t know how I would have gone through this whole process without her.
Registration was busy.
Lots of nervous faces, fancy and less fancy bikes. Old friends, new friends and heroines. It was incredible meeting Kajsa and Jenny, I’d meet Jenny in Austria and then again in Italy climbing the second parcours. There was obviously someone missing from registration and Mike’s absence was felt even more strongly that evening at the riders’ briefing. The organisers had really pulled together to pull of Mike’s swan song. With bike checks forming a bit of a bottle neck in the registration process it was a long, nervous and frustrating wait. We met up with the Brighton Boys Jo and Gavin who were there when Liam and I first met. They enjoyed hearing the stories of how romance had blossomed and just as I finished Liam’s dad turned up! I told Jo and Gav that as well as race registration, I was also meeting the in laws! Liam’s parents went to go for a wander and brought us back some mattentaarts. At a waiting point in the registration process I decided now was a good time to call up an insurance company and complete my building’s insurance policy. Once done I forwarded the details to my solicitor, they’d be exchanging contracts sometime today. As I was queueing up for something Emily came up behind me and gave me a big hug, this instantly made me feel better. Emily’s inspiration and encouragement was a big part of why me and many of the other women had signed up for this race. I also met my hero Juliana in the women’s toilets. She seemed to recognise me but had confused me with Paula. Two smiley bespectacled female riders. I took this as a compliment saying Paula was a really strong rider, ‘so are you from what I’ve heard’ she responded. I don’t know what she’d heard…
House purchased, race registered, I went to meet Liam’s parents and we had a practice run up the Muur before the rider briefing. Dinner, a quick kip in the back of the family car and it was time for the race to start. That quick lie down in the car was so emotional. I realised how much Liam had supported me through the last couple of months and I was terrified to face the race without him. I knew that this was something I needed to do by myself, for myself but I was terrified. I didn’t know what I’d face on the other side of the start line. I knew it would be hard, really hard. This was the first time I cried. It wasn’t easy for Liam either and I felt bad for putting extra pressure on him.
The start was absolutely incredible. The most amazing atmosphere I have ever experienced. We had a minute’s silence for Mike and then a cheer for him too.
We ran a neutralised lap of the town and then climbed up the Muur which was lined by spectators carrying burning torches and cheering. The most incredible experience. Someone in front of me was going so slowly and unclipped and started to walk. No way around them, a bunch of us behind either unclipped to walk. On to a bit of flat and I re-mounted and sprinted up the final cobbled climb. I wanted to ride up this hill and take it all in! The town crier yelled my number as I rode past him and I saw Liam up on the right. We had a last hug goodbye and ‘see you in two weeks’. We headed off into the night and mass of riders, he quickly pulled away from me.
There were so many riders, around 300 total. At every cross roads some would peel off in every direction. I rode a bit with a Russian guy, on every incline he’s drop back ‘i’m riding to power he said’ he had a box of energy gels strapped between his TT bars. We eventually went our separate ways.
At one point I ended up on a dual carriageway. Balls balls balls balls balls. I turned off as soon as I could and emailed the race saying it was an honest mistake, I wasn’t cheating please don’t disqualify me. My phone battery was very low despite having been charging off my dynamo for the last few hours. I’d later work out that my cable was broken and this would prove to be a real pain in the backside not being able to use my phone to communicate, check the tracker and reroute with google maps.
At one point while I was riding alone in the night I could hear a rider coming up behind me, to my surprise it was Liam fresh from an hour’s kip. Neither of us was expecting to see each other again so soon and it was so lovely to see him. We chatted a little then he sped off. I also rode along with a racer called Doug. Doug had ridden TCR before and the Indy Pac earlier this year, he had some strong views on safety and said that sleep deprivation was over rated. We parted ways and it was back into the night.
My plan wasn’t to ride through the night but to stop when I started to feel tired and get some sleep. But I was ok and at this stage I was worried about not falling too far back in the pack and as I wasn’t seeing any other riders kipping out at the side of the road I wasn’t inclined to be the first. I was also still being picky about sleeping spots and not seeing anything ideal decided to keep riding. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable and thought it might be good to have a 10 min sit down off the bike. I got a sandwich out of my bag and had a nibble. At this point Emily and Jenny rode past. It hit me, up until then I’d been ahead of Emily Chappell! No longer but hey small victories. I got back on my bike and pedalled off feeling my route can’t be that bad if last year’s leading lady is going the same way (how wrong I was!). I unknowingly crossed in to France in the Ardennes. It was starting to dawn and I thought it might be good to have an hour’s shut eye just to let my body reset. I rode past a park and saw a bench. Bingo. I didn’t bother getting my sleeping kit out and just pulled on my insulated jacked and kipped down. I was in Wellin and had covered about 150km overnight.
I’m not sure I slept and I didn’t feel refreshed, only cold. Someone else had also spotted the park and came over to say Hi. I can’t remember his name but he had an orange Mason bike and jersey. I was packing up and munching on some flapjack and saw some other racers including Eachann pass by on the road. It felt good to be among other riders it meant A) I wasn’t really badly riding out of the way and B) I wasn’t really badly off the pace.
A cheeky pre packed flapjack and I was off again. I was tired and sluggish. The Ardennes and surrounding area are lumpy. I passed by a little village shop that was open. From previous expereince I was aware of how sparse rural places can be and that this might be the only roadside stop for miles. Some water to refill my bidons, one of those cold coffee drinks, a snickers.
Off I pop again, mindful to minimise time stopped. More lumpy bits. A nature wee. The roads were quiet enough that the lack of bushes wasn’t a problem. I was getting warm now. I tugged down on my arm warmers while riding, a manoeuvre performed countless times, but for some reason (maybe because I was sleepy) I loose control over the handlebars, swerve out into the middle of the road and crash onto my side. Thankfully the car coming up behind me had plenty of time to stop safely. The driver got out and tried to help me pick up my bike and collect my bidons that had scattered all over the road. I almost violently refused help worried that it would disqualify me. My first priority was to get myself off the road. Next priority was my bike. The driver was happy once I got the chain back on my bike and hopped back in his car. Another TCR rider came up from behind and stopped to ask if I was ok. I reassured him and myself that I was. I really didn’t want to be disqualified because someone had to help me, the rules are quite clear about being self supported and not having outside assistance that isn’t commercially available. He told me to stop worrying, that stopping to check if a rider was ok was not against the rules and that he would email the race incase any dotwatchers saw our stopped dots together at the side of the road and thought it was suspicious.
I checked my bike over, I’d bashed the rear shifter and rear mech. The shifter was scuffed but still working. The rear derailleur cage was badly out of shape and so the rear mech couldn’t shift. I was left with a two speed bike, my two speeds being determined by my front mech. The rear shifter was totally out of action. Stupid Eleanor. Had I put myself out of the race for the most unspectacular, idiotic reason on record? Stupid, stupid, stupid. Well my bike still moved forwards so there was nothing else for it. I started riding, worried about the lumpy terrain and my now limited gears. After riding about a km I passed the nice rider who stopped to help, I guessed he’d deliberately paused to check I’d be alright.
I didn’t know how to fix this. My bike moved forwards. It was a Saturday. It was Europe. If I even found a bike shop would it be open? Next town I came across seemed pretty big, there was a cafe with a seating area that was next to the road and boasted a handful of TCR riders enjoying a coffee. I went for a quick explore but no bike shop. I tried using my phone to search but low battery and poor signal. I decided it wasn’t worth wasting too much time over or deviating too far from the route. The really hilly terrain seemed to be over, I’d ride until I found something.
I don’t think I’ve ever ridden with such focus or determination. I was blinkered to everything else, focused on two goals. Move forward and fix bike. I was reading the road ahead. Carrying as much speed as possible into a climb, timing my shifting and when I stood out of the saddle in such a way to maximize speed and prevent myself from grinding to a halt on a hill. I probably rode that 50-60km faster than if I’d been riding with the full range of my 11 speed cassette. A quick stop at a bus shelter for a week and check of google maps to find a bike shop. Nothing much was showing, there was one in Arlon but the number didn’t work and no indication on Google as to whether it would be open. My next bet after that would be Luxembourg. Keep riding. Focused.
At this point I was still completely oblivious to the tragic events of the first night.
At one point I passed a man riding a mountain bike in the opposite direction. I decided to stop and ask him if there was a bike shop anywhere. Between my terrible French and his limited English we managed. There was one about 15km behind me (in the direction I’d come) but I’d already decided I wasn’t going to deviate from moving forwards along my route. There was another one, further away in Arlon, near the train station. Arlon was on my route so that’s where I’d go. I thanked him and pushed off. More rolling terrain. A traffic jam around a roundabout. I think I rode about 60km like this before eventually getting to Arlon. I bumped into another fellow racer, Scott. He wished me luck. I got off to push up the slow hill into Arlon town centre. Followed signs for the train station. Rode past the station. No bike shop. Back and forth. Couldn’t see it. Stopped and asked for directions. It was hidden inside the station building.
I opened the door and wheeled my limping bicycle into the shop. The owner looked a bit startled. I explained what was happened, that I was in a race and could he do anything to help me? Turns out he was familiar with the TCR, I wasn’t the first competitor to grace his workshop that morning! The bike shop were amazing. (If you’re ever going between the Ardennes and Luxembourg I highly recommend VF bikes in Arlon!) It was my mech hanger that I’d bent. I know a lot of people carry a spare of these bad boys, but this was the first time I’d ever been in need of a spare. He managed to straighten it out then and there. The mech was shifting again, not perfectly but good enough. I offered to hug him but appreciated he might not want the enthusiastic thanks of a sweaty Welsh girl. I settled for a handshake and a very sincere thankyou. 15 euros and I was off again. The repair was remarkably quick and I don’t think I’d lost too much time but I decided that I probably hadn’t travelled far enough to earn food stoppage time. It was now late morning ish so I decided a big lunch would substitute for lack of a proper breakfast. I was still running on adrenaline anyway and not that hungry.
I carried on to Luxembourg. Flat roads with nice tarmac. That’s about all I remember. Roadside lunch options were pretty limited. Then I passed a sign for an all you can eat Chinese buffet lunch for 10 euros. Well I suppose that will just have to do! I pulled up and who should be leaving but the same man I’d shared the park with that morning! Relief that I hadn’t lost too much time with my misadventure. I stuffed my face with food and went to the loos to change my bib shorts and handwash the dirty pair. Saddle sores were already threatening.
Stomach filled, bum cleaned, brain caffeinated.
Off we go again. It was pretty hot and sunny. Over the next few days it would get much hotter. I slapped some sun cream on my arms and face and got on my way. My rear mech was shifting happily but slightly out of alignment so I was now accompanied by a light ticking noise. Pedalling along. I eventually crossed into Germany. The land was flat and little villages popped out of the countryside, visible by their church spires. The roads were mainly lined by maize fields or other more open fields, basically roadsides that were not friendly for quick toilet breaks. Eventually I found a hedge.
While stopped I checked my phone. A message from my mum. A few whatsapp notifications. I opened the app and scrolled to the new messages.
News that a fellow racer had been killed after being hit by a car.
I phoned my mum.
I’ve grown up knowing all too well how dangerous the roads are after my dad was killed in a car accident. The death of Mike Hall earlier this year had stirred up some of that grief and gave me a flavour of what we put our loved ones through when we’re out on the roads on our vulnerable little bicycles. I wasn’t riding on if my mum was being torn up with worry.
Mum encouraged me to keep going. That if my number was called and my time was up well that was it and it didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing.
It wasn’t clear what was going to happen and if the race would continue. Everyone was in grief stricken limbo.
I text Liam, aware that he wouldn’t be checking his emails. A few friends had immediately made the decision to scratch, unable to carry on.
I was in the middle of nowhere behind a bush so I had to keep going for now. I rode without any particular drive or purpose for the rest of the afternoon. The German countryside was beautiful, rolling and I’d picked a nice quiet shaded route that kept me out of the sun. Eventually I ended up on more major roads, heading towards Sarbruckn. A busy route through the town, I went in hunt of a cycle path alternative along the river. The riverside path was beautiful, flat and quiet. Just what I needed to have to not worry about cars. I rode along and outside Saarbrücken bumped into my friend Alex. He’d made the decision to scratch and head back to the UK with Gareth. At this point I was pretty sure I wanted to carry on, but I hadn’t really fully considered this. I left Alex and carried on. Before the I needed to leave the cycle path and rejoin the road I checked my phone. Liam. I gave him a call. He’d been badly affected by Frank’s death and was in a bad way himself. I was so sad that I couldn’t be there to comfort him.
After hanging up the phone I didn’t know what to do. I called mum again to talk. And then Rickie. Their words were reassuring and balanced. All the phone calls had drained what little battery I had. Phone dead. Garmin low. Light fading.
Dynamos are pretty amazing things, but they do have a limit for how many things they can be used to charge at once!
The roads were now slightly more of the main/busy variety.
At this point I realised I’d been too preoccupied that the people I cared about were OK that I hadn’t really given much thought to how I felt. I felt very alone. Scared. For the first time I started hallucinating. Shadows in the verge were scary animals with clawed hands reaching out to scratch me. I stopped in a bar to try and calm myself down and grab some mains electricity. I didn’t calm myself down and my pesky phone didn’t charge. I was so distracted when I packed up my bike that I left my seatpost bag wide open and had to retrace my tyre tracks to retrieve my rain jacket.
I wanted to be back in Saarbrückenwith my Bristol friends. Instead I was alone in the dark. Afraid of the dark. I negotiated a road closure then decided it was probably better to just stop and try and find somewhere to sleep. I knew that there was some countryside coming up but felt that I would feel safer with an urban bivvy. Strange logic. Eventually I found a bench in the middle of a bunch of new build houses and a sort of village green somewhere the other side of Zweibrücken. Three hours or so of not really sleeping, I got up again while it was still dark. Ate some flapjack and started climbing into the dawn.
The dawn was beautiful. Really beautiful colours in the morning sky.
I climbed out of the towns and villages. The revellers were leaving the nightclubs. I didn’t have much water left, petrol stations not open yet, not sure I wanted to see inside a nightclub. I found a water fountain ‘kein trinkwasser’. This either means ‘yes this is drinking water’ or ‘no not drinking water’. Not many options I filled up my water bottles and took a swig. Seemed ok. Added a water purification tablet for good measure. Turns out it means not drinking water. A bit of riding up some hills a bit of riding down some hills.
Saw a bakery at the side of the road in Primasens. Stopped at said bakery. A nice sit on a real toilet and a bit of a sink wash. Two massive delicious pastries, two coffees and a couple of pastries for the road. As I was re-packing my bike I saw a pair of riders go past. I jumped astride my bike and chased after them. The pastries fell off my bike and into the road. Glad it was still stupid o’clock in the morning and no cars, I went back to retrieve them.
I caught up with the two guys cycling through some beautiful wooded hills between Primasens and Karlsruhe. Two German friends. I was feeling pretty chuffed with my route if my route through Germany had me going the same way as the locals (haha it’s a big country, Eleanor!) They had decided to stop racing following the news of Frank’s death. They were riding to Checkpoint 1 to hand in their trackers then going to go on a bit of a tour around Italy and Austria before heading home.
At Karlsruhe I met Liam on the bank of the Rhine, to discuss what we were going to do. I was pretty keen to keep going, at least to CP1 so we parted ways again. I got to CP1 that evening but not the easy way. I made good progress towards Tübingen then promptly took the worst route possible from there to Lichtenstein. Every wobbly, windy road, gravel bike path, you name it I took it. I was wasting time. I got to Lichtenstein and felt very frustrated so decided to climb the parcours before going to the CP, the idea being I could then just crack on the next day. Error.
I started climbing the road up to the Schloss and heard the most almighty thunder. A few minutes later the biblical rain started. Not much point in turning back, I was drenched in seconds. I rode past riders sheltering under trees, what were they doing?! The rain wasn’t going to pass quickly. A few minutes later hailstones the size of grapes started attacking me. I did stop to hide under the canopy (ignoring what this probably meant for my lightning risk) to save my skin from the hail. Hail turned back into rain, there was no waiting out this storm so I carried on. Further up the hill the rain turned into a waterfall turned into hail again. I took cover in a little wooden shelter with two other riders. We waited out the worst then carried on together. The rain still pouring down. We passed some photographers. I shouted ‘Be More Mike!’ through the rain at the lens. Up to the castle. Hokey cokey and back down the hill. By now the rain had stopped but there were rivers running downhill sweeping mini boulders into the road. Glasses obscured by raindrops it made for a sketchy descent. Wet through I was frozen by the time I made it to the bottom. The light was fading and I made it to the hotel of Checkpoint 1 just after dark.
There were bikes strewn around the garden at the back of the hotel. Two dudes in a little gazebo were running the checkpoint stamping brevet cards and recording rider times. To their right there was a wall socket with an almighty number of extension cables and adapters charging every available phone, headlight, GPS and cache battery.
There was a strange mood at the CP. A mixture of everyone dealing with their grief in their own quiet way, looking to others for strength and reassurance. I got a hug from Anna, Bruce and Juliana. I was among those who were trying to remember what their own motivations for racing were and to remind myself of how those still rung true even in these tragic circumstances. There is an incredible community that has grown around these kinds of events and the mutual strength and support this community gives is truly heartwarming.
The CP dudes told me that the hotel had a spa and you could pay 15 euro for a shower and a sauna. This was music to my chilly fingers and toes.
The hotel was full, the kitchen had stopped serving. The spa was closed. Nowhere to shower, dry or even warm up. I was at rock bottom. Not even seeing Liam again at the checkpoint could cheer me up.
I got changed into dry clothes. Number 1 rule of doing stupid things, always have a dry change of clothes or in this case: legwarmers, merino boxers and my insulated jacket. I look like I’d walked backwards through a cycling shop but I was dry. Some dry socks (worth every gram to have some spare dry socks!) plastic bags from the bar and I could even keep my feet dry in my squelchy shoes. With the restaurant closed and apparently the restaurant at the next door hotel also closed Liam was preparing me for the reality that my emergency Soreen was likely all I’d have for dinner (I’d not really eaten since those pastries that morning, ERROR) when someone rode in to the CP saying they’d passed a pizza place in the previous town that was open. Pizza, chips, beer and a calzone for breakfast. We ate dinner in a bus stop cheering other riders on as they arrived at CP1 under nightfall.
The night was spent under the canopy of the train station much to the amusement of some (very) early morning commuters.
The stupid early alarm went off in the morning. I did not want to wriggle out of my warm bivvy cocoon and pull on soggy cycling kit. In fact, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I was already exhausted both physically and emotionally. A quick stop off at the checkpoint hotel to fill up water bottles and I was off…. up a hill.
The descent was foggy and chilly, I stopped at one point to pull on a layer. My wet kit was chilling me. I got overtaken. Some foggy (German?) valley. Seemed pretty desolate. There were a few other riders, everyone opting to take the cycle path that ran parallel to the road.
Came across a road-side bakery. Couldn’t believe my luck. It was shut. Could believe my luck.
It was warming up, my kit was dry, I was hungry. Hallelujah for last night’s calzone in my musette. I was still sleepy. In flat Germany it is easy to pick out towns and villages because the church towers point out of the landscape like little Google pins. I kept on scrolling on my Garmin screen looking for a town that was squarely en route where I might be able to stop for coffee. Eventually I lost patience and detoured to the nearest big town that was just off the main road I was pootling down. No caffiene but there were some wonderfully well kept public loos where I could stop to relieve myself and have a bit of a wash. I sat outside the church to finish my calzone. A church play group wandered past the children all bemused by this strange ragged creature with a multicoloured bicycle. They all wanted to play. I asked the grown ups if there was anywhere near for coffee, nope there wasn’t but they wanted to know all about where I was going. It was funny and their amused shock really lightened my mood. I sent a quick video to instagram to let people know how I was getting on, the flood of messages I got back willing me on lifted my spirits enough to get back on my bike.
Pootle, pootle, pootle. Yes this is a race but when you’ve already covered 700km with a handful of broken hours sleep and the temperature approaching 30 degrees it does get quite hard to race! I rode over some scientifically significant marshland and into Bad Wurzach. Now this looked like the sort of town big enough for an Aldi, and sure enough there was! I think I nipped around the aisles with a higher kph than I had when I was riding my bike! Coffee, pastries, cereal bars, nuts, WATER! Anything tasty that wouldn’t melt and was chock full of calories. I sat outside on the forecourt stuffing my face and questioning my life choices.
Another female rider rocked up. I can’t remember her name nor her cap number. It was nice to see another crazy human, we shared stories of the horrendous storm last night. She’d been sheltering from the storm last night when a local had spotted her and taken her in to their house, fed her and offered her a bed for the night! This was the first road angel story.
I needed to reapply bum cream. While still on the Aldi forecourt I loaded my hand with Bepanthen and plunged it down my bib shorts. No decency, no dignity. Back on the bike with my musette and my stomach refilled.
Just as I was leaving the town I met Adrian who was remarkably cheery. He was on his way to Aldi. We shared a short conversation but I wasn’t going to keep him from his German supermarket lunch. We’d bump into eachother again more than once!
On we go. A few sketchy gravelly cycle paths had me worrying for my tyres. Occasionally I’d move back onto roads but only when the surface got so bad I was sacrificing speed. Another roadside bakery for a water refill. It was warm. I was fed up of the pretty flat and by now boring, repetitive, samey German countryside. I was barely plodding along, I was basically holding enough speed to keep my bicycle upright. My determination and energy levels were verging on non existent.
Eventually I noticed that the corn fields had stopped and that there was a lot of clover growing in the fields at the roadside. The start of the Alpine meadows! Soon enough there were streams and views of snow covered mountains. This change in scenery gave me the much needed boost I required to keep going, after I’d cooled my feet in an alpine stream of course!
Through one last big town/city before the elevation of the Alps started to kick in and I decided it was worth stopping at a big supermarket to try and find a replacement charging cable for my dodgy one. No luck there but more food.
Up up we go, and it was hot! The max reading from my Garmin that day is 40 degrees C. The road was pretty busy but soon I could hear the adorable sound of cowbells. Whoever decided to put bells on cows was a genius and the gentle sound will always take me back! I rode through a ski village (A SKI VILLAGE!) overtaking a few riders who had stopped in the shade of petrol stations and I crossed into Austria!
Bye bye Germany!
I promptly got a bit lost as my route sent me down a dual carriageway and I tried to seek out an alternative. In the next town before the start of the Fernpass there was a handfull of riders stopped in an outdoor area of a McDonald’s. Content with my musette of sustenance I just zipped through. I turned a corner in a residential area and who’s rear end should I see except my buddy Grace! She was looking strong and I felt a bit intimidated. Our routes split again as quickly as they had converged. As I left the town and started up a slip road to the Fernpass I hesistated, the road was busy and I wasn’t sure if it was a dual carriageway. As I tried to check my route and the tracker another rider went past. The tracker showed a huge convergence of routes going this way so I assumed it must be fine. On I went. The road was suffocatingly heavy with traffic. With light disappearing I stopped in a layby to pull on my reflective vest where I converged with Grace again. We both exchanged the same look about the state of this road. We seperated along the tarmac but our similarity in speeds meant we just carried on riding 10m apart. My mum even text me to ask if we were riding together. Imagine what the dot watchers might be thinking! Except then Grace tried to descend a mountain bike trail and I tried to go through a forbidden tunnel (I say tried, I saw the massive cycles forbidden sign and froze at the side of the road before retreating and finding a way around). We met up again, then I tried to take a MTB trail. When we crossed paths again it was in another little chalet village at the point where dusk was setting in, the sky was beautiful. We were both exhausted and ready for sleep but it was too early to stop. We would waste valuable saddle time to stop now, besides the hotels all looked mega expensive. We looked at eachother, we had no idea hot cold it got in the Alps in summer at night. We weren’t sure if carrying on at this point was stupid.
And on we went. The advantage of it being later is that the Fernpass was getting quieter.
Then something really strange happened. Something very strange happened to my legs. They switched from tired and reluctant to strong and invincible. I was climbing like superwoman, barely getting out of breath my legs lapping it up. I hate hills and I was zooming up the side of the Alps fresh as a mountain goat! I’ve never felt like that before or since but I imagine that feelings like that are what would bring people back to endurance racing time after time. That feeling was incredible! I bumped into Adrian again, and Grace again. In Nassereith it was about midnight and there were a few other riders in the square. We all bumbled around for a bit looking for a hotel but everywhere was full or shut. It really probably wouldn’t have been too cold to bivvy but my head told me I was in the mountains and I hadn’t had a night in a hotel yet. After the fiercely warm day really fancied a proper wash not to mention a proper sleep. I checked the map and the tracker, I saw that a few people had diverted off the Fernpass down to Imst which was a bigger ski town. I figured they might be on to something after checking google for hotels and headed off. Then I felt something rip in my calf/Achilles.
Pain seared through my lower left leg.
My superwoman alpine climbing had caught up with me.
I carried on riding without flexing my left foot to protect my injury.
Once in Imst I recieved a text from Grace saying her and Adrian had found a hotel and there was space for me in their room. Then my phone went dead. With no way of telling where they were and not enough riding to do to charge it from my dynamo. No way of googling for hotels open it was the old fashioned riding around looking hopeful. I passed a group of well to do looking men (one was smoking a cigar). I asked if anyone spoke any English and did they know of a hotel that would be open. They started chatting about their friend called Hanes. They called him, I don’t understand German but I heard ‘fraulein’ and bicycle. Hanes it turned out owned the hotel we were standing across the square from, he came down and let me in. He was eager to hear what I was up to. I asked for his cheapest room as he opened up reception and made me up a key card. He seemed to think that I was nuts. Let’s face it, he wasn’t far wrong. He was a wonderfully kind man and as he passed me the key card I asked how much, he assured me there was no charge. What a road angel.
The kind owner let me leave my bike in the lobby so I removed what I needed from my bags and headed up the stairs. Once in the hotel room I realized I was hungry and didn’t have a huge amount with me to eat. A few cereal bars, a bag of nuts. I munched down half saving the rest for a few hours time.
I guzzled down a few glasses of water and treated myself, and my kit, to a shower. My hair was getting matted and my skin gross from layers of sweat, suncream and dust. I didn’t feel clean after a wash but at least I felt a bit less disgusting.
I smothered my bad leg in voltarol gel hoping it would solve everything.
Finally ready and so eager to lie down in a proper bed I realized that with my phone battery dead I had no way to wake myself up in the morning. When exhausted I have been known to sleep in to 4pm.Panicking again I frantically searched the room for a USB plug with no luck. Then I thought, hotels usually have a wake up call function on the phone. Not understanding a word of German I was thankful that the hotel’s instructions were pretty picture heavy and succeeded in setting myself an alarm for 5am.
I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep quicker.
Or woken up with greater reluctance.
I nibbled on the remaining contents of my musette and pulled on my slightly damp but clean but still smelly kit. Creamed up my saddle sore rear end and got ready to leave the comfortable safety of my hotel room.
Sitting on the side of the bed I fired up my garmin to see where I was riding today. I’d diverted off the Fernpass to get to Imst and it was essentially a straight line from here to Innsbruck. It didn’t make sense to retrace back to the pass so I’d have a go at routing myself on the fly. My edge 820 was less keen on routing on the fly and point blank refused to come up with directions. Luckily Rickie had leant me her touring edge as a back up device so I trust my fate in its glowing screen of hope.
Out of Imst onto a beautiful cycle path that went through a stunning river valley. 10 points to backup garmin!
Ankle deep in muddy track. 15 points deducted from backup garmin!
Across the field and up an embankment there was a busy road. I am not a fan of busy roads but I wasn’t going anywhere fast pushing my bike down some quagmire of an agricultural track.
Hike a bike up to the road and waited for a break in traffic to get going.
I wasn’t plugging away at the pedals for too long before I came across Grace again! Trying not to ride together but also reasonably well matched for speed we just yo-yo’d eachother along the road. We were riding on the opposite side of the river to the Fernpass. I should say, the much flatter side of the river. I sat on my aerobars the whole time, that evening when I saved my ride my garmin told me I’d set a new record for my fastest 40km! That cheered me up a bit but also made me think I was probably doing a rubbish job of pacing myself!
We passed another rider leaving his hotel room in the morning. Everytime I overtook someone (usually when passing petrol stations) I’d definitely start riding a bit harder my competitive spirit getting resurrected.
Grace and I had plotted different routes through Innsbruck. It was already warm. There was a climb to get into Italy. When I passed the golden arches I took it as a sign from above that I had to order a double breakfast before tackling the climb.
I weaved through Innsbruck and the road started to creep upwards. Superwoman climbing Eleanor was no more but at least I wasn’t injured. I’d probably picked the Brenner Pass because its one of the lowest passes going from Austria to Italy and I wasn’t the only one. I caught up with Thomas then Joel and Jenny. I climbed the last bit of the pass alongside Joel and Jenny, we stopped at the last petrol station before the summit to treat ourselves to ice cream and cold coffees. It was a chance to catch up on the events of the first day. Grief is such a personal emotion but it helped to share.
At the summit I crossed into Italy and customs barriers met massive sports outlet centre! Weird. I promptly diverted off the main road onto a cycle path. I remembered plotting this part of my route, and in my memory this cycle path went all the way to Bolzano.
It did not.
I ended up half way on the side of a mountain stood in the middle of a meadow. The path I had been following turned into rubble and then into nothing. I walked back up the hill, tried to find the ‘real’ path, a few more turnings, riding along some very narrow and steep minor roads that wove through a tiny village. Some very steep minor roads, I could smell the heat coming from my disc breaks and stopped to dowse them with water and to lean over the handlebars in despair.
Eventually I found the ‘correct’ path and it was windy, up and down and slow. I passed a family of 4 on a leisurely ride on mountain bikes.
Eventually the path ran along the main road. It was horifically busy. I thought it might be a banned road and maybe that was why I had routed along this frustrating path. I wanted to check the tracker and the race manual but I still had no phone signal. There was a cafe a few hundred metres ahead. I bought a ridiculously overpriced coke and charged my phone. At one of my water stops earlier that day I’d managed to find a shop selling USB wall chargers. I thought this might help put an end to my battery woes. I plugged it in, nothing. By the process of elimination it was a problem with the charging cable. I wouldn’t succeed in finding a new one until after I’d stopped racing ( petrol stations in Europe could make a KILLING if they sold USEFUL stuff!!).
A bit of fiddling and a near panic attack and I managed to get enough juice into my phone for it to allow me to check about this road. It wasn’t banned and plenty of riders had been along here.
Back on the road, I passed the family going for their holiday pootle. I was going as slow as a family of four going for an afternoon ride and I was supposed to be in a race!
I couldn’t keep beating myself up for long as my attention soon turned to surviving. This road was savage with heavy traffic. The heat was savage. As soon as I reached the next town I had to stop for gelato to cool my nerves.
Here I met Eachann, he had fallen into the invisible cycle path of doom trap as well. We vented and ate ice cream.
Part of the idiocy of this race, to me it seemed, was here I was in the Italian Alps, in summer, with my bike, eating gelato and I was angry, upset, frustrated and hating on my situation. I mean honestly, get a grip on yourself Eleanor! I was so privileged to be in that position but in my frustration I forgot that.
Frustrations vented we headed off again. While riding through an underpass I bumped into Grace again! Taking a moment in the shade. We rode on a bit and chatted. At one point her wheels narrowly missed a snake! At this point there was a cycle path, a real cycle path! That didn’t magically disappear in the middle of a field. It was quite an incredible cycle path with some precarious skirting about a river gorge. In Bolzano Grace dissappeared to find some food. I wasn’t hugely hungry in the heat so decided to keep on. I was also still frustrated at how much time I’d lost that day and others and didn’t feel I could justify another stop (error). From Bolzano there was an incredible bike path to Trento. Pan flat, quite straight and good surface along the water. Surrounded by the river and the white slopes of the Dolomites it was pretty spectacular. The riding was pretty boring, but I was certain I was going the right way. So in that respect, I was OK with boring. I couldn’t sit in the aero bars for as long as I wanted, my lady bits had taking a real mashing so far so I decided to spare them for the afternoon at the expense of my hands and wrists.
This bike path was a bottleneck for riders heading to CP2. It was nice to ride along with others, catching up on how they were feeling (sore, tired and hot). It is always reassuring to know that you aren’t the only one suffering. One lad had huge amounts of luggage, I asked him what he was carrying and it turns out it was all full of food! His plan was to ride at night so he had planned plenty of space to fill up with supplies seeing as nowhere would be open at night. A few people who were cycling wounded and just wanted to make the checkpoint before scratching. I felt thankful that other than a very sore rear end and some hand aches I was in good shape, even my leg/achillies thing hadn’t bothered me again.
Now, one of the problems of these beautiful cycle paths is that they don’t have many places where you can disappear for a modest, wild wee. There were a few cafes (now closed) along and the occasional water tap, although the latter were nowhere near frequent enough for even the evening heat. I really needed a wee. With very limited options to stop I ended up with no choice. Possibly my least proud moment, I crouched behind a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The Madonna doing little to protect my modesty. The mixture of sweat and urine in my chamois was stinging my saddle beaten lady bits. There was a water tap here so I thought I would change my shorts and wash my worn pair. While I was mid short change along come a couple of Eastern European tourists walking their bikes. The guy had got a puncture and wanted to borrow my pump. He had no idea how to pump up a bike tyre to save his life, I offered to help but he refused. I washed my shorts, filled up on water, lost patience with the man and asked for my pump back because I was in a race!
Most riders that I met along this path were planning on riding though the night to tackle the parcours in the early morning. This was also my plan. The CP wasn’t that far beyond Trento, I was planning to get some dinner and have a wee rest in Trento then plod on. Sadly, I got a bit lost/confused/just tried to go Trento in a really illogical way and didn’t pass any sort of reasonable food options. Not so sure of where things were I didn’t want to deviate too much without guaranteed success for any foraging mission. So I kept going.
There was a banned tunnel exiting Trento. This meant going up over the rocky lump that the tunnel went through. Logically I knew this, but I hadn’t noticed how steep the climb would be when plotting the route. I thought I must have just been an idiot and plotted the daftest route imaginable because I am an idiot, but then thankfully another rider joined me in tackling this horrific climb (or maybe he was as much of a route planning tool as I am). The climb ended me, what little energy I had left was gone and I ended up walking my bike up the hill in a sweaty mess.
I negotiated a road closure and decided that maybe I should just find somewhere to sleep. I crawled past an industrial estate but no obvious bivvy spots presented themselves. Then, a short while later I rode past a 20m high lit up sign ‘PIZZA’. Cue heavenly chorus! There was also a hotel behind the pizzeria, I contemplated bivvying on one of the sun loungers out the front but decided I wanted a wash and a good rest because I was feeling gross.
I didn’t even have enough energy to eat all my pizza. No bad thing I thought, I can have the rest for breakfast!
The next morning I snoozed and snoozed and snoozed. I think I left a little over 2 hours after my first alarm went off. I was so exhausted, I just couldn’t tear myself out of bed. Even more disheartening was checking the tracker and seeing how much progress others had made overnight, including Grace who was well on her way to CP2.
Onto another cycle path headed for Monte Grappa. I was now thankful for stopping last night because this path passed through beautiful countryside and I was glad to be able to appreciate it in the cool morning air. I was also tempted to have a dip in the river but felt so far on the back foot I couldn’t bring myself to stop. I was eating a bag of mixed nuts for breakfast. I’d balanced the bag between the rests of my aerobars but cursed every time I went over a lump or bump and sent walnuts and hazlenuts flying, lost calories!
Eventually, around late morning, I made it to CP2!
The mood at this checkpoint was different to the first. Partly because it was daytime and partly because more had happened since the tragic events of the first night so people had more to talk about. There were lots of injured riders sitting around with no intention of getting back on their bikes to race and were negotiating transport options home. Some riders could be seen at the end of the campsite snoozing in the shade and others were piling in and out of the showers. I’d had my shower and my sleep, so I guzzled as much water as I could, got a hug off Rob Jordan and headed off again.
It took about 10 minutes for me to regret climbing up the parcours in the heat of the day. A few switchbacks at the bottom and I dismounted to sit in the shade and sip water. Not knowing how many water points there would be on the way up (the answer: none), I knew I had to ration my three bottles. A few more switchbacks, I stopped again to sit in the shade and cry. I’ve never been that hot! I text Gareth, a TCR veteran and the sort of sage you go to for advice in times like this. I stated that nothing worth doing was never easy, but asked him where the line was between difficult rewarding difficult and just suffering for the sake of suffering. He told me that only I could know where that was. He also sent me a screen grab of Emily’s tweets to reassure me that I wasn’t the only one suffering in the extreme heat.
I was empty, using every bit of energy I had to move myself forwards up this mountain in the crippling heat. I took off my jersey thinking it might be cooler. 1 emergency energy gel. The switchbacks had ended and the climbing was steeper. I got off my bike and decided walking was a better option. Sweaty, exhausted, in my bib shorts and sports bra, pushing my bike in exhaustion but not yet defeat, the race photographer zooms past on a scooter and stops to take my photo. They really know how to capture a girl’s good side!
The gradient eased off and I re-mounted my bike only to dismount again soon. My second (and last) emergency gel. The feeling that every ounce of energy was going in to getting me and my bike to the top of this mountain. It felt stupid, painful and hot. This wasn’t even on my route. Monte Grappa was a parcours, a mandatory climb for all racers to cover. It is one thing to make a safety call when it comes to traffic and roads but this felt just as dangerous! I really questioned why I was doing this. Yes it is for the race but there is an element of free will to it. It occurred to me that this was part of Mike’s intention with the TCR. It isn’t just to test a rider’s physical ability but also their mental resilience.
Eventually (after about 4 hours) I got to the top and promptly bought myself a beer and some food. I had to sit there for some indeterminate length of time eating, drinking, chatting with riders and dot watchers until I felt human enough again to ride.
As soon as I’d pulled myself back together, I fell apart again.
There were several things that made the descent harrowing.
it was steep
it wasn’t all downhill, there was still climbing to do!
the road surface was sketchy
there were random cows blocking the way
it was still scorching hot
there were sheer drops and tight switchbacks
Add all of the above together and put it in the context of a nervous descender who is heat exhausted and sleep deprived… well you get the idea.
More stopping to cry. Finally at the bottom of the descent I feel lucky to have survived and start to really question why I’m doing this. I rode past a supermarket. More ‘I feel at rock bottom ice cream’ was called for.
Outside the supermarket I bumped into a guy I had yo-yo’d on Monte Grappa. I was so thankful to see another human who understood what I was going through. He tried to compliment me with something along the lines of ‘look at you, you’re this little girl and you’re at the same place as me and I’m a big guy’. I wasn’t sure how to take that…
I called Janine and we chatted along on hands free while I was riding until I got lost and thought I should probably spend what mental energy I had on following my route! I stopped for a wee and called Liam and cried. I was so low, tired, exhausted.
I stood at the side of the road for a while just feeling empty.
I got back on my bike and tried to keep riding. I was slow but I was moving. As the light dimmed it didn’t get much cooler. I was riding along the SS13 and it was horrendously busy, diverting off to cycle paths whenever I could. The close passes and constant presence of traffic wore me down even further. I had made such abysmal progress that day but I couldn’t give any more. I passed a roadside hotel and services complex and pulled over. A TCR rider was pulling out.
Jeff was a TCR veteran from Shanghai who had been suffering with some medical issues and had slept through the day to try and recover. Jeff said that his room was paid for until tomorrow and I could grab the key from reception. Another road angel.
In the room I called Grace, we were both feeling much the same.
Sleep didn’t seem to help. I was still exhausted and achey. A sluggish wakeup and I was back in the heat. Thankfully my route turned off the busy SS13 and along bike paths and beautiful little villages. At one town I stopped for a pharmacy and was relieved that someone spoke good enough English for me to purchase the Italian equivalent of Sudocrem. I had brought my own supplies but they had been woefully inadequate. I also bought SPF lip balm, constantly drinking from my water bottle meant suncream was washing off my lips and they were now blistered and sore.
The villages and the architecture of the little houses and churches was beautiful. I would have loved to sit at a cafe with a glass of wine and just admired the surroundings before going for a swim in the beautiful blue rivers. Alas, no time and no wine and no swimming.
I rode up into some hills that were thick with forest. The shade of the trees was so cool. I didn’t know where I was going or if it was the fastest route, but I didn’t care. SHADE! A few closed roads and re routes and I stopped to find some lunch having emptied my musette supplies.
Back on the bike, I thought I spotted a shortcut. Nope, said shortcut was a dried up riverbed. Hashtag beyond gravel!
Slowly slowly slowly and I got to Carnia. In the square there was a fountain with blissfully cold water. I took my shoes off and dunked me feet, socks and all, into the good stuff. I allowed myself a lengthy stop to cool down and rehydrate. I chatted with a family on a touring holiday, they had just come down the cycle path that I was about to go up and over the Alps on. A quick gravelly detour to avoid a section of banned road and I was climbing again. This must be the easiest Alpine climb in history. A very gentle gradient, this fell into the boring but reassuring class of cycle paths. Into Austria on the other side where the air was cool. A drop in temperature meant one thing – CHOCOLATE! A bar of Milka for now and another in the bag for breakfast. Out of the Alps and thankful for cooler air and an absence of Italian drivers.
I skirted around the outskirts of Villach and along the edge of Lake Worth. I couldn’t sit on the bike in any way that was comfortable. I couldn’t sit up on the saddle or down in the TT bars. I’d pedal a few strokes out of the saddle, get tired, try and sit, whimper, and start riding out of the saddle again. I repeated this until I could barely stay awake. I was in a residential area and it was around midnight, I rode past a bistro/bar type place that was shut but with a nice under cover verandah out front. 5* audax hotel. I didn’t need my sleeping bag so just lay inside my bivvy bag for modesty.
The next morning it took me so long to get going I knew that mentally I had given up. My hands were so weak it too me ages to thread my bag straps. I wasn’t even excited about Milka for breakfast.
I was slow.
I was so hot.
I stopped in the shade under a tree and just cried and cried. I spoke to Liam and his wise and mature words gave me the strength that I needed to be kind to myself. He spoke about his days when he had crashed out of pro racing in Belgium. How failing at one thing doesn’t make you a failure. That if I wasn’t enjoying and didn’t want to keep racing I didn’t have to. He gave me the strength to swallow my pride.
I also spoke to Grace. She had also fallen apart. We weren’t that far away from eachother so we decided to meet up and ride to CP3 together.
As soon as I stopped racing I felt a huge weight off my head. The landscape seemed more beautiful. Grace and I met up. Hugged, cried, and ate watermelon. Finally free of the self sufficiency rules of the race I gave Grace some voltarol gel for her neck and she gave me a tie for my matted hair. Composed, refuelled and with a new sense of freedom. We could do whatever we liked!
We rode along a bike path, then accidentally along some part closed dual carriageway and caused a bit of a traffic jam! The heat was too much for both of us and as we evaluated how much ground we would have to cover to get to CP3 before it closed. Sat in the shade eating jelly worms the exhaustion took over.
Now that we had scratched, the last bits of fight were leaving our bodies. We wanted to be kind to ourselves and that involved food and rest. We hatched our escape plan.
We got a train.
Once in Vienna we had made contact with the wonderful Bruce Dalton who was working with some of the race sponsors, so he had a van full of stuff and space in the van for us on the return journey. We just had to make it to Poprad and we could recover at CP3 before heading back to Blighty.
We had a hillarious time trying to book our tickets to Bratislava over the phone. Grace had to spell our her surname with the Nato alphabet ‘Lima, Alpha, M…. M…’ she couldn’t remember M.
M is Mike!
We booked a hotel on the train. Enjoyed a wash and dinner with no rush. When you’re in the race and constantly aware of the clock ticking it is so strange when you decide to stop. The following day we went to go find some clothes, but we had no shoes… I bought a hairbrush and had to cut a huge clump of tangle out of my hair.
Liam had ridden all the way to CP3. The three of us slept, ate and tried our best to encourage those still racing. It was difficult, people asking why I had scratched and then to see the disappointment in their faces. I knew that I had made the right decision for me, but it was difficult to swallow.
So there we go. That was my TCR experience. We rode the pong wagon home and then normal life resumed.
I got a very bad case of the post TCR blues. I was tearing myself up for quitting. I hated riding. It took about 2-3 weeks for my saddle sore to heal. I hated being back on the 9-5. I’d seen what I could achieve when I really applied myself. That feeling when every ounce of energy is going into pushing your bike up the Dolomites in 40 degree heat. 9-5 life seemed pointless in comparison.
I had wanted to ride TCR because I wanted to do something where the outcome was uncertain. I wanted to challenge myself. I knew it would be the hardest thing I had ever done but it was far harder than I could have imagined. This gap between expectation and reality was a bitter pill to swallow.
I had loved preparing for TCR. I had loved the rides, the people, the scenery. I enjoyed setting myself the challenge and watching myself grow into the sort of person that could attempt it.
Kajsa shared this excellent poem with me that really hit the nail on the head.
Am I glad that I did TCRno5? Yes
Would I do it again? Immediately after I said a very strong NO. Now that there is some distance and hindsight I think I might give ultra racing another go one day.
Best piece of kit? My bike, she didn’t let me down!
Worst piece of kit? That damn phone cable! I had used it before on many rides but I suppose it just gave up at the wrong time!
Be kind to yourself.
Ride your own race.
One of the best bits?
All the messages of support on the road. I loved getting messages like ‘I went to bed last night and you were in Austria, I’m eating my breakfast now and you’re in Italy!’
Dot watchers and invisible peloton you were incredible! Not just for TCR but in the months of training and preparation that lead up to it.
1 Bike (28mm GP 4000s, shimano ultegra 50/34, 11-32) tyres and gearing is what everyone always wants to know!
Luggage was from Apidura and most of my kit came from Rapha and huge thanks to them for their support. Thanks Rickie for loaning me your SPOT tracker, headlamp and spare Garmin!
Waterproof handlebar pack 9L containing : OMM sleeping bag, thermarest neo air mat and Rab bivvy bag.
Accessory pack: Toothbrush, toothpaste, first aid kit: tape, pain killers, ibuprofen, water purification tablets, ezema cream, suncream, bum cream, usb wall charger, spork, inner tube, spare garmin, voltarol, leatherman tool, small cafe lock, diarrhea dehydration salts (these would come in handy for the heatwave).
Extended top tube pack: Food, cables, cache battery.
Regular top tube pack: Repair kit. Brake cable, lube, another inner tube, multitool, chain link, tyre levers, brake pads, some cable ties and electrical tape for bodging repairs.
Waterproof saddle pack 9L: Brevet shorts, pro team race cape, insulated brevet jacket, mesh merino base layer, knee warmers, merino boxers, compression socks (to sleep in and reduce lower leg swelling), overshoes, pro team socks, high vis belty thing, brevet gilet. SPOT tracker strapped to the top.
What I started wearing: Helmet, number cap. Exposure diablo, Findra merino baselayer, rapha bra (seriously comfy and supportive), souplesse lightweight jersey (pockets stuffed with flapjack, phone, brevet card, money, passport, keys), brevet shorts, brevet socks, GT shoes (best cycling shoes EVER!), brevet mitts, merino buff.
3 water bottles. A musette for extra food.
Navigation: Garmin 820 main, Garmin Touring backup, RideWithGPS and Google maps phone apps for backup for the backup in the event that I had phone battery.
1 woman started TCRno1. 30 started TCRno4. Thank you to everyone who encouraged us.
There is no set route. It is part of the challenge but it also means you can be in control. I can pick a route with less climbing, assess the roads from street view to see how much traffic is on them. It also means a lot of effort researching routes in unfamiliar countries. I have no idea about border crossings in Eastern Europe and no idea if my route is actually any good. Will I end up lost on a gravel track somewhere? On a banned road and need to turn back? Accidentally route myself through a field? Certainly, probably at least once a day.
The race is completely self supported. That means no outside assistance that isn’t commercially available to all competitors. I need to be on top of feeding and watering myself. Find my own camp spots or hotels. Fix my own mechanicals and most importantly, manage my own mind to motivate myself through. Constantly risk assessing to make sure that I am safe.
People ask me what my plan is. Do I know where I’m going to sleep. Well, I haven’t got too much of a plan. I have a route and the equipment to sleep pretty much wherever I feel safe. I’ll carry my own food and water and be self sufficient. I plan to be flexible and to take each day as it comes. If I book a hotel room 6 days away, get a puncture, hit an obstacle and have to re route. Well I miss out on my hotel, my money and beat myself up about being a lousy cyclist. So being flexible I think is the way to go.
Live in the now and here and not worry about what might or might not come.
It is also just a bike ride.
If long rides and Audax have taught me anything it is not to view a ride as the entire distance. Just ride in the moment. Ride to the next checkpoint/cafe/sleep. Long training rides have also told me that the bad patches are only temporary. And if you’re having a lousy time, chances are most others are too.
Undertaking this while I’m still recovering from an anxiety crisis may not be the best idea. Cycling for me is a pursuit firmly grounded in positive values and therefore a good platform for self exploration. Learning to cope with the unknown will help me overcome my anxiety. I can’t leave my fears at home. I need to learn how to acknowledge them but not let them take over.
When I first committed to doing the TCR I wanted do push myself. I wanted a challenge that I didn’t know if I could complete. Now that uncertainty is what makes it terrifying. But if we only experienced life in situations where we are comfortable, or certain of the outcome our world would be small. Learning to cope with uncertainty, with ‘I don’t know’. To learn how to stop my mind from running away with negative thoughts about failure, possible calamities or mechanicals and instead to start experiencing the here and now. To ground myself in the present moment through my senses and experiences.
Lee Cragie resurfaced this quote from the late race director Mike Hall:
“Enjoy it, don’t lose sight of just how lucky you are to be out there and above all, manage your expectations. If we treat things as a pass or fail test we can torture ourselves over the outcome but if we can consider it more as an experiment with an uncertain outcome from the start then we always at least get an answer.”
Un, dau, tri. Bant a ni!
I am incredibly grateful to all the support I have received. From my amazing friends who have been patient with my absence from social gatherings (or turning up to them late/in cycling kit!),from Audax Club Bristol for company on training rides and believing in me. Thank you Rickie Cotter for being the most incredible mentor, friend and happy influence. Cheers to my housemate for being cool with having half the house taken over by cycling paraphernalia.
I’ve also been very fortunate to have the support of Threo, Matchy, Apidura and Rapha.
Threo were the first to come to my aid after the fiasco with Pearl Izimi. Jehu also offered kit to reaffirm my faith in the cycling industry. Then the cycling karma fairies kicked in mega times and Rapha sent me the most amazing TCR kit package. Thank you all! Obviously nice kit is nice but I’ve also just been really chuffed that these brands that have a million other important things to do took the time to support me. The people at Apidura were very helpful in helping me work out what bags and setup would work best with my frame (short person = small frame = limited space).
There’s also an amazing twist to my story. Way way back in Spring twitter friend Jo Burt asked me if I would take part in a panel talking aboutthe TCR at Bespoked . Here I met a bunch of nutters, felt wildly out of my depth, inadequate, scared, overwhelmed by talking in front of an audience of bicycle nutters when I didn’t really know what I was doing- I hadn’t even ridden very far yet! One of the other panellists was about the same age, also based in Bristol. Liam seemed a quiet soul but clearly capable of some crazy stuff on two wheels. After the panel we exchanged a few logistical emails and I encouraged him to come out with Audax Club Bristol sometime to meet some other TCR entrants. Then one Saturday a few of us planned an impromptu 300km ride. I remembered our earlier conversation and messaged Liam at 9pm (it was that impromptu!), he said he was supposed to he having a rest day but why not?! Long story cut short: 300km, a few club runs, recovery rides, a river swim and bivvy date later and the penny finally dropped!
I’ve been off work. Had days where I don’t leave the house. Worried myself silly. Cancelled on friend’s hen nights and birthdays. Cried a lot. Felt lonely and isolated. Dealing with grief that I’d never let myself experience as a child.
Social anxiety. Anxiety and depression.
They’re scary words when they come from professionals.
Many people would disagree with me writing about this or discussing it on public platforms. Your private life should be private.
A song that rings out to me is Dignity by Bob Dylan. What is the right thing to do? I’ve grown up in a time where the boundaries between offline and online life are blurred at best. That doesn’t’ excuse anything. Plenty of my peers don’t openly discuss aspects of their personal life on open platforms. Does that earn them more respect? Do my methods of expression make me less honourable?
Another internal battle is the one between wanting to try and make myself better, focusing on things that make me happy and trying to reinforce that while also being a bit of a mess inside. Then feeling guilty for doing that. Feeling guilty for having a good ride, or a nice time meeting up with a friend for coffee, all while I’m off work. The brave face dilemma.
The internet is many different things to different people.
I’m aware of the dangers and pitfalls that exist. That platforms like instagram and twitter can have a negative influence on anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Or just the conundrum of how much of your private life you keep private.
When I first wrote about my wobble a TCR veteran reached out to me to discuss how riding helped them to manage their mental health. This was hugely helpful when I was wrestling the decision as to whether attempting the race at this time in my life was the right thing for me. You know who you are. Thank you.
If I post something that reminds me about what it felt like to feel OK, reminds me about what I value: support, community, friendship that sends ripples and I get reminded of this. Messages from friends, let’s meet for a ride/coffee/hug. Things like this remind me why I made the life choices that I have and reinforce how fortunate I am not only to have an incredible support network but that things will get better. This isn’t how I’ve always felt and will not be how I will always feel. I’m thankful that despite feeling like this I don’t pose a risk to my own safety or that of others.
I had a conversation with someone who had experienced similar issues with anxiety and returning to work. We talked at length about the feelings of guilt that you get from doing things to make yourself feel ok. What if someone sees me out and judges me? Nothing looks wrong, I’m not at work, out in the fresh air on a lovely day. Feeling guilty about being off work, the commitments I’m missing, the extra work load I’m putting on my team in my absence. We understood each other completely.
One of the worst things I’ve been told by a GP is ‘you don’t look depressed to me’.
The challenge with anxiety is that your brain just overloads on negativity and pain, feeding off it like some Dementor type creature. If something helps me break that cycle and bring things back to what I value then is it a bad thing? If something reinforces that free running train of negativity of judgement and criticism should I avoid it?
I don’t know what I’m doing.
I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know what the right thing to do it.
I know that I will make mistakes.
I’m thankful to everyone that has supported me and continues to support me.
I think with talking therapy and trying to be kinder on myself that I am making steps in the right direction. I ask that people are kind to me and kind to others. Accept that I will make mistakes. I won’t get it right. I might move two steps in the right direction then take three steps backwards. Or more likely, unclip my left foot and then lean over to the right!
This year I’ve set myself some pretty steep challenges. In January I’d never ridden over 100 miles in one sitting. There was work to do. I knew from other hardened mile munching cyclists that a good way to build up the miles was to enter Audaxes so this became a big part of my preparation for the Transcontinental.
Most would maybe do a 200km event first. Some would never be tempted to ride further. Why would you? 200km can be a full day in the saddle and enough of a challenge for the fittest of riders.
Some would go for a 300km ride, likely to involve some night riding depending on your pace and necessitating reasonable care over your hydration and nutrition.
As we all know, muggins here ignored all sensible advice and plumped straight in at 400 and 600km Audaxes. Having done those it was perfectly logical to complete a Super Randonneur series to tick that box. After having done all these rides I do honestly believe that most able bodied people are capable of doing this. You need a reliable bicycle, a strong pair of legs and a strong and resilient mindset.
Super Randonneur. Audax UK’s traditional award for the top 10% of hardened night-riders. Ride a series of 200, 300, 400 & 600km all in one season.
So after the 400km Brevet Cymru and 600km Bryan Chapman my ACB friend Telbert took me out on a 200 and 300 DIY Audaxes from Bristol to help me complete my series. Given I’d been experiencing a low patch getting out on my bike in the sunshine was the best thing for me to do, I just needed a little encouragement. After the 400 and 600 riding these shorter distances really let me just enjoy riding being confident that I could complete the ride I’d set out to do.
A DIY is where you don’t enter an Audax event but pre-notify Audax UK of your ride and submitting a GPS route then sending in your track once you’ve completed. It was a bit of a faff getting my head around the online form but actually it is quite straightforward. I wish Audax didn’t have so many acronyms and unique nomenclature because it can make it seem more complicated than necessary…
I know that I’m critical of myself but I have to remember that this is a huge achievement for any cyclist. Given how little long distance stuff I had done before I should be super chuffed. I am, I’m a little relieved that I’ve been able to do it. It wasn’t easy and Audax Club Bristol certainly made it feel easier.
I thought I’d reflect a bit on the rides I’ve done for my SR series and what they’ve taught me.
Self sufficiency – you don’t know what the roads will throw at you and it isn’t as scary as it sounds. Pack some food, take plenty of water. Have a good repair kit. On an organised audax there will usually be someone coming up behind you, more likely than not they’ll stop and lend a hand. You can always bodge it until you get to a control.
Look after your bike and your bike will look after you – nothing worse than having to cancel a ride because of a broken spoke/headset/chain etc. Most of these are avoidable with good maintenance. If you can’t do it yourself get to know your local mechanic and buy them chocolate!
Look after yourself. Eat and drink lots. Eat and sleep the night before. On any multi day rides keep your saddle area clean. Look after your mind too.
Just keep pedalling – if you’re able bodied likelihood is that the hardest thing about long distance is the mental aspect. Keep making progress whether that is riding, feeding or watering yourself or sleeping. Try not to waste time that isn’t contributing to progress. You will have bad points and they will pass. The good points will also pass so get used to making hay while the sun shines!
Power. Chances are you use a GPS computer to help navigate (audaxes aren’t signposted and some do go old school with a route sheet and map). These little angels are often not designed with long distance in mind so have an idea of how you’ll keep it topped up with juice. Ditto your phone and ditto your lights if they are battery powered. I run an igaro off my dynamo to charge my gadgets.
Contact points. They will probably give you issues. If they don’t you’re lucky. Feet and ankles will likely swell so think about loosening your shoes. Move your hands around the handlebars a lot, varying your position will stop making any one set of muscles/nerves/pressure points too sore.
Enjoy it! I’ve met so many amazing people on Audaxes. Chat and be friendly. These events aren’t competitive and the people you meet will either have great stories, top advice or both!
For rides 300km and over consider packing: 2x inner tubes, tyre levers, patch kit, mini pump. Multi tool with chain tool, leatherman (or mini pliers for bending things back into shape), a cache battery (even with a dynamo I take a small one of these), lights, spare layers (even in the hight of UK summer the temp can drop siginificantly over night), a rain jacket if the forecast suggests, lots of snacks, sudocrem or something similar for the sore bits, wetwipes, cash and ID, SPF lip balm, some bits of tape and cable ties for bodges.
I’m in a bit of a funk. I don’t really know what to do.
I’m one of those people that likes to pile their life plate high on things to do. I usually thrive when I’m busy. Riding bikes, seeing friends, working hard, side projects etc. Normally, I think I’m a pretty resilient human being. Happy to roll with life’s punches. Pick myself up, dust myself off and keep smiling.
Sometimes life throws you hard curve balls like bereavement, assholes and anxiety.
Sometimes it gets too much and something gives.
This time, it was me.
I’d noticed I’d been struggling. More teary than usual. More anxious. I won’t go into detail but one day it became too much.
I’m not sure where I go from here. I have reached out to friends and family who have been amazingly supportive. I’m waiting for therapy and counselling. I haven’t been able to see the GP because waiting times at my practice are so long. I have been spoken to the mental health nurse who has given me some ideas of places I can go for help. The NHS service that links individuals with local charities has nearly a month wait for a telephone consultation. I’m reading a book that my mum got me about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the meantime, learning some of the theory behind it before I start therapy.
I know that I am very lucky. I am not writing this to wallow or self indulge my emotions. Nor am I looking for sympathy. I am writing this to be honest.
I know that I am lucky to have a roof over my head, to have income that allows me to feed myself well and indulge my hobbies. I have amazing friends and a top mum. I have good physical health and I’m not looking after children/a disabled relative. But sometimes life is hard. It isn’t always rosy.
I’m still riding, although I have less energy and I’m incredibly anxious. I’ve been very grateful to Telbert for riding with me last week. Just getting me out of the house is an achievement some days. Finding the right balance between keeping busy/distracted, working on myself and time for rest.
When I feel like riding it helps. It is a bit of respite, gets me outside and distracts me. But it is just a fix, not a long term solution. Like a dodgy patch on a puncture. Putting pressure on myself doesn’t work at the moment, so I’m just taking each day as it comes.
When I was around 20 I remember coming across an article about a ride nicknamed ‘Wales in a weekend’. I was completely captivated by this account of three friends riding the Brian Chapman Memorial Audax together. This ride is Wales end to end in 600km. It starts in Chepstow by the Severn Bridge, goes up to the Menai Bridge that joins Anglesey to the mainland and back again to Chepstow.
The mental and physical toughness required to ride up and down Wales in under 40 hours was one thing but I was also fascinated by the complete grass roots nature of Audax. On an Audax there are no banners, no medals, no crowds. Bananas and beans on toast (not at the same time!) replace energy gels and protein bars. Steel is the frame material of choice and you’d be hard pushed to find a deep section carbon wheel. Audax is about understated, hard riding and is supported by an army of amazing volunteers who give up their weekend to help feed and organise exhausted, smelly, dishevelled cyclists.
This write up made a lasting impression on me. I banked it in the ‘amazing things I would like to do one day’ list thinking honestly I would probably never be able to do anything like it – this was years before I became a ‘proper’ cyclist. Nevertheless, I didn’t forget it.
Funny how once an idea is in your brain it stays there and resurfaces years later.
Fast forward about 5 years and I’m a bit more of a ‘proper’ cyclist aka roadie struggling to balance work, commuting, thesis corrections and then my grandmother died…
While I was slowly grinding my physical and mental health into the ground I followed dots along The Transcontinental Race 2016. Read ‘What Goes Around’ by Emily Chappell and Juliana Buhring’s ‘This Road I Ride’. I knew I wanted to do something, to do something for myself, an adventure and a challenge. But was I capable?
I met some awesome women through the Bristol cycling scene. One evening, at a flat party hosted by my friend Janine I said that I was thinking about signing up for the Transcontinental.
I was still unsure. I had never done anything like it before. I sought advice from people like Emily. She came back with something along the lines of ‘you are capable of so much more than you think’.
JFDI. Just Fucking Do It.
I put my TCR application in and before I even knew the outcome I joined Audax UK and signed up for the Bryan Chapman. I’d wanted to do it for so long and if I got a place on the TCR it would be great preparation. If I didn’t get a place on TCR I’d wanted to do this iconic Welsh ride for years and it would be a challenge in itself.
Fast forward 6 months and I’m rolling out of the Bullwark Community Centre in Chepstow.
Now, in true Eleanor fashion I wasn’t completely prepared. I’d spent the entire week leading up to this feeling run down and lethargic with low mood and glands the size of golf balls. But there was nothing actually wrong with me. I decided to drive to the start this time after the nightmare that was getting to the Brevet Cymru and anticipated post ride exhaustion. Except I missed the junction on the motorway, I was too excited at having seen cyclists crossing the bridge that I drove straight past the turning off for Chepstow!
I hurriedly parked the car, pulled my bike out the boot and reassembled her front wheel. Plugged in my dynamo, pulled on my shoes, strapped my seat post bag on and pushed off. Around the corner into the Bullwark community centre and the place was jammed with cyclists. I had time to quickly run inside, grab my Brevet card, run back out and search the sea of lycra for some distinctive Audax Club Bristol (ACB) orange. Friends located just in time. The mass of cyclists surged out of Bullwark, along the quiet residential streets and out of Chepstow at 6am.
Now I can’t compare this to the start of my first Audax, the Brevet Cymru, because I missed the start of that one! But it was amazing. A very understated start, no glamour and no ceremony as around 200 cyclists set off along the road to Monmouth. It was incredible riding with so many others, clearly I wasn’t the only one excited and we steamed along. There must have been around 60 still in our peloton when we went through Crickowell and it was still early enough in the morning that the few cars around didn’t seem to mind too much.
Along the road I met a rider called Dave, he asked if the cap I was wearing (my JFDI cap) was from Casquette magazine. I said it was and he asked if I knew the editor, Danielle. I said I had exchanged a few messages with her and we had vowed to ride together sometime this summer. Turns out he is a friend of the magazine and had given them some advice on a few projects! Small world!
The first control was the Honey Cafe in Bronllys. As the field hadn’t yet spread out very much it was busy. We weren’t sure whether it was a good idea to stop for a proper break here as it could waste valuable time, but when we saw how quickly the organised kitchen was churning out bacon butties we changed our minds. Baconed and caffinated we got back on our bikes feeling more human. The next control was at Llanidloes on the other side of Mid-Wales. This seemed like a really long way away and one of those places so much further North from where I grew up in west Wales that I didn’t know the area very well.
The A-roads we followed took us up a few long slog climbs and the heavens opened. Wales was being typically Welsh. The field had thinned out a bit by now and we had a handful of ACB riders and friends riding in a group. We discussed whether it was raining enough to warrant stopping to put on our rain jackets, by the time it took us not to make a decision it was too late and we were wet through! We needn’t have worried, this time it was just a passing shower.
We were enjoying the smooth rolling A-roads a bit too much and we sped along snacking on trail mix from our top tube bags to fuel as we rode. As we pulled in to Llanidloes at around midday our average speed was just a pip under 28km/h. Unsustainable. We all knew it and vowed to slow down! The climbs in Snowdonia would slow us down anyway and we weren’t even 1/4 of the way through. Pacing is important over 600km.
At Llanidloes the cafe control had turned their car park at the back of the cafe into an al fresco extension. Just another demonstration of how much organisation has gone into this weekend. Other road users bemoan cyclists but we do a lot to support rural businesses and cafes.
Next came the mountain road to Machynlleth which I’d ridden last December on day 2 of Bristol to Bangor. Realising that in half a day I’d covered what took us over 1.5 days to cover 6 months earlier made me realise how far I’ve come as a rider in a relatively short time. P.S. If I can do it, anyone can!
These hills were the first ‘proper’ climbs of the ride and I started to struggle. I was probably feeling the effects of having been under the weather the previous week but I was climbing like a snail. Luckily they all stopped to take in the view across the reservoir where I caught them up and we descended into Machynlleth together. Quick info control and we popped into Coop for some water – all that climbing had dehydrated us.
Someone in Co op said ‘is there an Audax on’. Clearly seeing a couple of cyclists rushing around the aisles in search of 2l bottles of water and chocolate bars is a telling sign! We said yes, we were riding the Bryan Chapman. He then started chatting to us outside the shop, asking us what gearing we were using on our bikes. We didn’t want to be rude but we really wanted to get going. It becomes all too easy to lose dead time to faffing and the boys were growing impatient. From Machynlleth it was into Snowdonia National Park.
Beautiful climbing and the sun came out. We stopped a couple of times to delayer. Leg warmers and arm warmers off. It felt like I hadn’t ridden with bare arms and legs in so long and the feeling of the wind and sunshine against my skin was wonderful. Up to Dolgellau we rode for our first stop at the King’s Youth Hostel. The figure of eight route stops here twice, the first time for food and the second time for food and if you’re lucky – a few hours sleep.
The road up to the King’s Hostel is a tiny little steep country lane, I took note of this as I knew the next time I would be climbing it in the dark with 375km in my legs. Not a nice thought. In the daylight it was a lovely rural lane running along a stream. The air was fresh. We were in the middle of untouched countryside and it smelled delicious! We envied the riders leaving as we arrived, but it wasn’t a race and we were still making amazing time!
The organisers take over the whole hostel and the amazing volunteers, many of them Audax riders themselves (I recognised Ian from the Brevet Cymru) know exactly how we are feeling and go out of their way to make sure we are welcomed and fed. Here, Dave (off of earlier) pounced on me to get a (very unflattering) picture of me in my JFDI cap to send to Danielle. I didn’t see him again until the end.
At King’s we passed over our Brevet Cards to be stamped and filled in a food order. I ordered everything (of course!) and had seconds of the apple pie! The place was full of cyclists and as people would finish and set off again new riders would arrive. We were starting to feel it a bit and shovelled in as much food as we could, we would need it later! A quick bit of faffing to repack and unpack my seat post bag with all the layers I’d shed over the afternoon and we were off again. At this point we had become a group of 7 which was much more manageable. A lot of people ride audax solo and this makes a lot of sense because everyone will ride at their own pace and have different strengths, weaknesses and surges. But so early into a ride this epic I think we were all glad of the company and the support that provided.
As we rolled down the steep tarmac out of King’s other riders were arriving. Role reversal. We wished them good luck.
The next bit of the ride was just stunning. We rode across the wooden railway bridge into Barmouth under blue skies and warm sunshine. Where the bridge ends there is a steep path into Barmouth and here we found a lone duckling sliding down on his bottom his feet unable to grip the steep concrete. I wanted to take him with us but the group didn’t think it would be neither fair nor aerodynamic to have a duckling mascot. We rode on along the beautiful North Wales coast in the sunshine. It was so beautiful. I’d never been here before and I’m determined to go back. It was torture not dumping the bike on the beach to go for a swim!
Rehydrating in the sunshine and as we approached Harlech Jess and I were both desperate for the toilet! Boys can just stop by the side of the road but it is harder for girls and there wasn’t anywhere discrete enough for us to stop so we went off to find a public loo while the men went off to find the info control. Relieved and reunited we plunged into the depths of Snowdonia through Beddgelert (where I inaccurately retold the story of how the place got its name) and up Llanberis Pass. Again, muggins here dropped like a stone on the climb but it was too beautiful not to enjoy the stunning landscapes of Snowdonia. An info control and a group photo at the top of the pass before layering up for the breathtaking descent.
I over-layered and quickly overheated on the final push on to Menai and the 300km point. At Menai we met ACB club mate Elfyn who’s headset was ‘fucked’ and he was hitching a lift back to King’s for the night. I felt for him. This is a gruelling ride and not where you want your equipment to fail.
At the Menai scout hall the volunteers were churning out baked potatoes and cheese and beans. Despite their efficiency I still had time to shove a couple of custard creams in my mouth while I waited for my potato (every second counts! time spent off the bike not eating is dead time!!). As we sat and ate conversation fell to fatigue. Jess said she thought 300km was her distance, long enough for a proper ride and any further and you just get exhausted. I said I thought 300km was the tolerance my bottom had for riding. Denise passed the Sudocrem. Water bottled filled we clip clopped outside.
The light was starting to fade. Rain was coming. We turned out dynamo lights on and layered up. I left my armwarmers and a base layer off to try and avoid boiling in my not-as-breathable-as-it-claims rain jacket. This is where it all started to go pear shaped for me.
Back over the Menai bridge and into Snowdonia as night and rain began to fall. I wasn’t managing to keep up on the climbs and slowly watched the rear red lights of my riding companions disappear into the distance. While trying to take a drink and with one hand on the handlebars I was caught in a vicious crosswind that came out of nowhere and was nearly blown off the bike. Rain pelting down, wind battering and darkness thickening I stopped enjoying and started enduring. One from the group held back with me for a while, I was grateful for the shield that he provided against the unrelenting headwind as we rode into Beddgelert. Somewhere along this ride we turned a corner and were faced with a wall of tarmac. I panicked, I had limited visibility in the dark with the rain gathering on my glasses, my chest tightened and I nearly had a panic attack that I wasn’t able to ride up the hill. Being unable to climb a hill and falling off or rolling down backwards is an anxiety of mine that often surfaces to plague me. I managed to hold the panic away but my chest had tightened and stayed like that. I couldn’t open my lungs to gulp the air that I needed to ride. In Trawsfynydd we rejoined the others who had stopped for a modest comfort break and the friendly cyclist stopped to go find some batteries for his headlight. I turned to one of the ACB riders, Martin, and said ‘I’m scared’. My chest was still tight and my breathing was shallow, no matter what I did I couldn’t force air deep into my hungry lungs. From Trawsfynydd to Dolgellau I crawled along, unable to breathe properly, terrified of the unfamiliar wilderness that lay in the darkess, cold and ready for this ride to be over. I felt sick. That jacket potato wasn’t sitting well in my stomach and my insides were grumbling. Was I going to need to stop to throw up?
I wasn’t in a good way. But I knew this road from when I’d ridden it last December and remembered a few landmarks like the turn off for Coed Y Brenin. I just did everything I could to keep the pedals turning and eventually started ticking off landmarks that told me I was getting closer to a point where I could stop and get warm and dry.
I knew what lay between me and the King’s Youth Hostel, those two sharp kicking hills. I turned off the main road and got out the saddle. I was struggling to get traction on the wet roads that were half covered in vegetation. My chest tightened. Rain on my goddam glasses meant I couldn’t see and there was only light cast in the direction my handlebars were pointed so I couldn’t see around corners. I freaked out, screamed. Made it to the top of the climb and unclipped. I bent over gulping air and fighting back the tears. Rob’s familiar voice came out of the darkness and he put his arm around me. They must have been waiting at the turning for me. It later emerged that they’d had to stop in an Audax Hotel (bus stop) before Dolgellau to rest and eat to fight off the tiredness. Rob bless his soggy socks comforted and reassured me and we rode the rest of the track up to the Hostel.
I removed my seat post bag and squelched into King’s.
It was 1am. Inside everyone was in a bad way. Martin’s knee was bad. Everyone was exhausted and soggy. Now, everyone says 400km is the hardest Audax distance because there is no sleep. That 600km is easier because you get a sleep. But for this ride we had already ridden 400km by the time we even got to the sleep stop! This didn’t seem logical to any of us. We ate in subdued silence. The fortune of being the underrepresented gender meant that Jess, Denise and myself got a bed for the night. Rob was contemplating riding back out into the night (we had passed riders leaving the hostel as we were arriving) but reconsidered that being out in the biblical weather alone at night might not be the smartest idea and he kipped down in the lounge for the night. We agreed to meet back in the main room for breakfast at 5.30am.
I went for a shower. I knew that it would help me warm up and my sore bum reminded me of the need to keep that area clean to avoid infection. The warm shower was bliss. My backside was sore and I gently cleaned myself with a bottle of hotel shampoo I’d packed. I dried myself off with the inside of a soggy leg warmer (who needs a towel?!) and pulled on some dry leggings and a soggy merino base layer. I climbed into my bunk and put my head on the pillow. Despite being utterly exhausted it was hard to sleep, the room was warm and muggy and people were constantly leaving and arriving in the building. I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat. I must have had some sleep because I was woken by Jess gently nudging my arm to stir me at 5.20am. I wasn’t convinced that the 3.5 hours lie down would have done much for me. I felt hungover, dehydrated from the warm night and legs sore from the previous 400km. One thing I was glad for, the clean and dry shorts I had packed.
I shovelled in some Spanish omelette for breakfast. Martin’s knee was in a bad way and he was going to pull out. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the prospect of getting back on the bike. When I rode the 400km two weeks previous I was wrecked and I wasn’t exactly feeling fresh as a daisy this time!
Once on the saddle I didn’t feel too bad. Amazed at what a difference a little bit of rest and some clean shorts can make. As we rode down that killer little road I met my friend Grace wheeling her bike. I had been looking out for her all ride and was so glad to see her. I unclipped and gave her a hug. She wasn’t in a great way and was unsure if she was going to be able to finish with a dead Di2 battery. I felt for her but was also amazed at how un-dishevelled she looked.
I quickly caught up with the others and rode into my tired legs. They felt OK, amazingly. I’m not sure how. The rain had stopped and the air smelled like fresh air in mid Wales smells first thing in the morning after a downpour (trust me, this is a thing).
Sunshine and second breakfast at the next control in Aberhafesp. My hamstrings were threatening cramp and I was crossing my fingers for bananas. On the approach Jess, Rob and myself were fantasising about what greasy terrible junk food we’d love to stuff our faces with. A few familiar faces at the control and I sat down to a banana and nutella sandwich (such luxury!) followed by a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee.
From here there were a fair few old climbs into Newtown before the next control at Llandrindod Wells. I lost Rob and Jess on the climbs just unable to keep pace with them on any incline. I arrived at the control as they left. I was riding solo at this point and placing a lot of faith in my GPS, route cards and own ability to navigate. Some soup, a bread roll and some lemon drizzle cake and a chat with some other riders. I knew there wasn’t far to go now, but it seemed further than I was capable of. My knee was also starting to make my brain aware of her presence. I popped some vitamin i (ibuprofen) as a precaution.
There were no more controls now until the finish and I wasn’t sure if I was capable of riding that 90 odd km without a proper rest to break it up. I kept telling myself it was only the distance of a club run, but I had over 500km in my legs! I set off by myself into the undulating Welsh lanes. Seriously, Wales. All the hills!
The sun was beating down and I stopped once to take off my arm warmers. I didn’t take off my knee warmers because I thought if my knee was going to be problematic I didn’t want to risk it getting too cold. I met an Islington rider near Boughrood and the company picked up my speed a little. But he dropped me on a climb.
In Abergavenny I was joined by a couple of Pembrokeshire lads who we’d met on the first day. I rode with them on the flats along to Usk. I was enjoying the lack of incline and settled into my TT bars and powered along at 30kph. One of them asked me if I’d ever time trialled. I said I hadn’t but he encouraged me to give it a go. He said he’d once ridden Brevet Cymru with the national 12h TT champion and they’d got back by 3pm!
We rode along and accidentally dropped one of them. His friend stopped to wait for him and I carried on saying they’d catch me on the hill. In Usk I caught up with Rob and Jess grabbing a sit down outside the village shop. As we started along the road to Chepstow (nearly there now!) we experienced a couple of close passes by motorbikes. They dropped me on the climb and the Pembrokeshire boys caught me, and dropped me. As I crested the hill before Chepstow at the alpacas sign a scooter came down the hill telling me there had been an accident and police were turning traffic along. My heart sank, those close passes by motorbikes. What if a cyclist was involved? I also wasn’t going to turn around, I was getting back to Chepstow come hell of high water. I came across the accident and the policeman said as I was on a pushbike I could go through, I asked if a cyclist was involved ‘no, a motorbike’ was the response. I was relieved that my friends were safe.
My knee was in agony as I crawled up into Chepstow. I had an internal argument about which bit of my body hurt more out of my knee and my bum. When who comes up behind me but Robin who I’d met at the start of the Brevet Cymru! We rode into Chepstow and the Bullwark community centre. I unclipped and hobbled into the hall and handed over my Brevet Card for the final time. Relieved. Exhausted.
I hobbled into the back garden and collapsed on the floor next to Rob and Jess. The amazing organises were concerned about the state of my legs and fussed about, I reassured them I was fine. It took me about 3 hours waiting around the control to feel safe enough to drive home and in that time I met Judith, an incredible rider who has ridden this ride 11 times! Audax royalty as one other rider described. She’s also a bit of an authority on saddles so I picked her brain on that topic! Just as I went to go fetch the car to load up to go home Grace comes around the corner. I was so pleased that she’d been able to finish despite all her setbacks. We had a cuddle and a quick chat. She showed me the kitten that I’d missed at King’s. We both exchanged fears at how hard this ride had been and how would we do the 4,000km Transcontinental if we found 600km so challenging? I don’t know the answer.
After the ride people have congratulated me on finishing my first 600km. I just feel frustrated at not having ridden well. At being dropped on every hill and having had such a bad time on Saturday night in the wind and rain. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved something, I just feel frustrated with myself. I’m disappointed that I let myself have such a breakdown at night. Far from making me feel like I’m better prepared for the TCR I’m worried that I don’t have it in me.
Back in January I rode some 150 miles home to Bristol from Cambridge. The weather was gnarly and it was my longest trip so far. I was broken afterwards. My bottom was so sore I couldn’t even sit on the turbo at home to spin my legs out. I was tired, constantly hungry because I hadn’t eaten enough while I was on the bike. Legs exhausted. It took me about a week before I could get back on the bike and my legs still felt empty. I tried to chase Grace Lambert-Smith around the lake district the weekend after and boy I could tell that my legs weren’t happy.
I’m not going to lie, I really questioned whether my goals were completely unrealistic and out of my reach. If I want to do the TCR then I’ll need to be tapping more than that mileage daily, for two weeks!
I didn’t have too long to panic because another week and I was off on holiday to sunny South Africa for 10 days to see an old friend get married. Barring a near death experience with a Kudu while driving at night the holiday was just what I needed to have a good rest, some sunshine and forget about cycling for a bit.
Back from holiday, I started to regret the 10 days of eating and boozing. But meh! You only live once.
Once back I made an effort to try and commit to a more regular training schedule. Trying to get in 4 sessions a week, fitting it around work. Longer rides when I can but trying not to burn out. I made an effort to join in on club rides when I could. When I ride by myself I have a tendency to just pootle along, at snail’s pace. Which is great for a fun day out. Not great for a 4,000km race. Riding with a club is a great way to make my brain and my body think that riding faster is a thing.
For the most part I managed to stick with it and kept up pretty consistent efforts over the weeks of March.
In early April, following the death of Mike Hall I decided to off and do the Gospel Pass Audax from Bristol. 225km with 2,700m of lovely borderland hills. This was the most climbing I’d attempted so far in one sitting and boy did my legs know it! More than that, my arse was aware that this was the longest I’d spent in the saddle since January.
I have a new saddle now, a Specialized power. It is brilliant for relieving pressure on my lady parts and has resolved all discomfort in this area. The downside is that less pressure through my lady parts means more pressure through my sit bones. I’ve been riding this saddle a while and I don’t know if I’m breaking it in or it is breaking me in. Either way I’m not sure how much longer I can persevere.
The good new is, although I did burn myself out a little bit somewhere in the hills around Hay on Wye, two days later I was back on the bike. Ok my legs didn’t feel fresh but I was riding at decent pace and able to maintain contact with the saddle!
The following week my legs still didn’t feel fresh but my numbers on Strava were looking good. I keep on getting personal records (PRs) on local segments and even managed one up a hill! Internally I felt like I wasn’t riding as strong or as fast as I should but outwardly there didn’t seem to be too much to worry about.
Easter weekend came around and I was off up to Scotland with some friends (I might write something about this because Scotland is epic!). While I couldn’t keep up with the boys all weekend/on every hill I managed to stay with them and even beat Jimmy up the Cairngorm climb. My speed was good and my legs seemed to be getting used to day after day of turning the pedals (recovery helped by hot baths, loch swimming and whisky!).
After Easter my school friend Laura was getting married back where we used to live in Wales. I’ve previously written about the challenges in balancing work, bikes and life while still making time for friends. So what better way to put all of this into practice than to cycle to the wedding! It was about 190km out on Friday and 160km back on Monday.
My arse issues still aren’t resolved but at least the skin seems to be healing. My legs keep turning, they even feel strong on occasion.
In summary, I’m building up volume. It seems to be working although I’m not sure how effective it is. I seem to be getting stronger, faster. My body aches a bit, but is also capable of getting back on the bike sooner.
The real test will be this weekend where I attempt the 400km Brevet Cymru…