The PCR 2021 full route had a huge amount of elevation at 27,507m over 1995km derived mainly from rather short sharp 12-20%+ type gradients rather than long steady alpine style gradients. Certainly not the type of terrain that plays to my physical strengths.
Finally, 2020 delivered me an event to remember.
Ultra Bike Pursuit 2020 – Tourmalet Hardcore Loop – 1100km 22,000m. Completed by yours truly in a surprisingly exact 111hr 11 min.
2020, the historic year of the great COVID-19 pandemic, a turning point for the world that shall surely be written about for decades to come.
COVID-19 has impacted the ultra cycling event calendar heavily and meant that the two events I had scheduled for this year have been postponed to 2021. These were Pan Celtic Race in July and Lost Dot’s Trans Pyrenees #2 scheduled for October.
Once these cancellations had been confirmed I set a new plan for a third attempt at a good clean run on the Transatlantic Way ride. This had been moved from the usual early June to early September due to COVID-19.
In late July, however, it became clear that any form of TAW that ran would be very different to the two previous versions I had ridden in 2017 & 2018 and I concluded that this limited 2020 COVID edition was not for me. This was just as well as a few weeks later it became clear that quarantine restriction would make this event impossible for me to attend anyway.
So, one restless evening in late July I set about looking for a new event. Having not ridden a proper ultra since 2018 I was beginning to feel like a fraud and doubting my intent.
A browse through the calendar on Chris White’s excellent RIdeFar website revealed that the Ultra Bike Pursuit was still open for entries and ideally timed and positioned for me to compete, so I signed up to the middle distance Tourmalet Hardcore Loop option never even considering that there might be very few entrants. I only had a week to spare so the full distance option wasn’t a viable choice for me
The Ultra Bike Pursuit series is a new ultra distance pursuit series for 2020 offering a range of challenging itineraries to suit the needs of everyone from the beginner to the elite riders.
A range of different distance challenges all centred around the amazing climbing routes in the marvellous Pyrenees. Glorious, relentlessly challenging routes on quiet, interesting, roads with a phenomenal amount of climbing involved. Not in anyway easy but sure to challenge and delight also!
The event is run by J-Philippe Soulé and his wife Yumi from Velotopo Cycling who provide high quality bespoke cycling tours for discerning clients.
The event was only announced in June and this, combined with the effects of COVID-19, rather stymied participant entrees for this the inaugural edition but none the less myself and two others, Yvonnick Brossier and Pierre Charles lined up at the start on a damp drizzling Sunday morning 6th Sept 2020.
Pierre was targeting the epic and longest distance option so not in theory racing Yvonnick and myself on the middle distance course but in truth we were all in it together and Pierre would be crossing the same finish line as Yvonnick and I, before carrying on, so effectively it was still a three man race/ride
Doubts, setbacks, misgivings
Since my failed attempt to make the start on last year’s Transcontinental #7 I’ve harboured a slight sense of defeat as if maybe this ultra-cycling thing just isn’t for me to be doing anymore.
Months of training and preparation in 2019 had been stymied by life circumstances, maybe this was a sign I should cut back and just ride less; focus on work more?
Added to this, I’ve been nursing some niggling problems with my neck, recurrent saddle sores and a tight ITB pain in my left leg plus other minor niggles. Maybe I’m just too old for this…?
I’ve learnt over the years that thoughts such as these are of little help and tend to perpetuate rather than alleviate the very issue you’re thinking about. Once you’re caught in the cycle of thinking them, though, it takes some effort to re-group into a more positive mindset.
Cycling can really help with improving this negative mindset! Better ride on then.
Due to all of the above, and COVID-19, I had trained less in the months prior to this event than on any of my previous years but, at least, I now had many “miles in my legs” and a deep level of base fitness thanks to all the training I’ve completed since 2016.
After the demise of my TCR campaign I also ended my coaching arrangement with the eminently capable Martin Burrows so that I could reflect an re-group.
This meant I was now fully self-supported in my training and preparation but I also had a very useful three years of training data to refer back to and learn from.
Being my own coach meant I could easily re-schedule my sessions around my increasingly erratic work life that can have me flying across Europe at a day’s notice; which can really hinder structured training plans set by a coach.
I can also alter my sessions precisely according to how I am feeling and work harder on my fresh days and more gently on my tired days. It is surprisingly easy to over train and set yourself back by doing high intensity interval sessions too frequently and without adequate recovery especially when you’re in your 60s.
Still, this takes discipline as well… “am I feeling genuinely tired or just in a low mood?” a key and frequently asked question and a very good difference to discern honestly.
Bad moods respond very well to cycling but training whilst exhausted isn’t usually so helpful be it endurance training or not.
However, despite my reduced training load I had managed to get my power numbers looking very respectable and over the two weeks running up to the start all my aches and pains were gradually gone as well as my anticipation for the ride grew and my strength and stretching sessions yielded results.
I confess that at the start of the race I was thinking, “well this is a bit silly, just 3 of us…” Turned out this didn’t matter at all.
A murky, drizzly morning greeted us for the start. Organiser Jean-Philippe seemed more openly excited than the three us…
On day one it initially seemed that we might be fairly evenly matched as we completed the first 3km climb Col des Palomieres, just seconds apart. Yvonnick and Pierre paused at the top, I rode on, this was a race, the clock never stops.
The cool damp weather was really quite welcome to me as for the last few months I’ve been riding around the south of France in 30-40c+ heat and getting boiled alive.
As the day past is became clear that Pierre was not really racing but rather just enjoying riding 200km+ a day in the mountains. He’s been riding 200km plus daily, across France for last 2 months before starting this, and he’d ridden to the start from Lyon!
Pierre’s day job has him riding a laden cargo bike around the hills of Lyon. He’d already ridden 45,000km this year before the start of this!
Stomach issues slowed him on day one but as the days past you could see he would get himself a long night’s sleep and then, seemingly effortlessly, start rapidly catching Yvonnick and I up.
Still, at 100km Yvonnick and I were apparently only 10 mins apart.
Bizarrely, my trusty Wahoo Elemnt bike computer, that has barely missed a beat in 3 years, decided that today was the day when it was going to play silly buggers and promptly stopped recording/displaying elevation, grade, temp and power correctly. Fortunately, the mapping was still working fine. No more looking at my power then and gauging my effort that way. That is not a problem at all on something like this but it is still nice to have the power data to analyse after the event and to put numbers to my increasing fatigue.
Yvonnick is local to the area and trains on these hills and mountains regularly. He is most definitely classed as a grimpeur/climber with a weight of 60 something kilos. He flies up these cols, even on a laden bike. He was soon away off into the distance once the next climb arrived.
This was his first ultra bikepacking event and for a short time I thought I could perhaps beat him by using tactics and my experience to ride more efficiently and consistently. I soon dropped this idea and instead resolved to just ride my own ride as fast as I reasonably could but without destroying myself in the way that I had on my previous two Transatlantic Way races. Messing about trying to “beat” people isn’t really why I’m here on this ride with a big field of entrants this may have been different but I resolved to enjoy this ride at a comfortably fast pace and not get distracted by trying out manoeuvre a clearly faster rider or two.
I started weighing 80kg and at 1.88m tall you wouldn’t really class me as having a “grimpeur” type of physique but none the less I enjoy riding in the mountains and winding my way slowly up hills far more than I like speeding around on the flatlands. The push of a climb calls for more focus and I like that.
Enjoyment counts more than speed! Higher weight will favour me on the descents, flats and in headwinds but what with damp weather and random patches of slippery manure dotted about the roads I descended every climb cautiously and slowly. My weight was of little advantage then and just meant more work for my brakes!
Pierre tips the scales at just 54kg so it’s little wonder how he flies up these hills even faster than Yvonnick and barely ever using his 28T sprocket!
Anyone who’s ridden in rural France on a Sunday and Monday will know how difficult it is to find open shops to refuel from. This wasn’t too big an issue on the Sunday and my pre-planned food shopping notes proved most useful but what with all the climbing I was a little loathe to overstock and carry lots of heavy food around that’d make climbing harder.
I treated myself to a pizza at around 19:30 on Sunday and bought a pack of cheese, a pack of ham and some snickers bars. Cheese for supper, ham for breakfast…high calories and more nutrients than sugary junk.
Refuelled I settled in for the night shift and rode steadily on over the relentless climbs. I don’t recall the names and it’s hard to identify them from the map or tracker but they are relentless and exhausting in a good way, this is what I’d signed up for after all, no complaining!
I love night riding and train outside right through the winter, dynamo lights really make this extra convenient. I have a turbo trainer but just looking at it makes me feel sad 🤣.
Night riding moves you into a different zone where your immediate world is reduced to the narrow parameters of the world illuminated by your lamps. The world is quieter yet the wildlife and your senses are louder.
Forests are full of unusual noises, animals cross your path unexpectedly, the stars and moon are extra intense on clear nights, in the mountains and away from towns. The little traffic there is announces its arrival nice and early through the increasing light approaching.
Yes, night riding has its perks, though the wildlife can startle you and makes for slower progress on descents. The last thing you want to do is crash into an animal in the middle of the night! I saw deer, fox, sheep, goats, cows, dogs, and other scurrying little unknown species. I felt privileged to be sharing their world and none of them caused me any bother.
A key intention of mine when riding these multi day trips is to avoid the use of hotels or B&B accommodations. I ride these things for the adventure and escape from the usual comforts. Respected ultra cyclist Mike Sheldrake shares this approach and once said “..check into a hotel and you’re checking out of the adventure…” My sentiments entirely!
I was damp through from the rain and sweat on Sunday night but still warm. I carry a good quality, breathable Gore-Tex bivi bag that lets me dry out as I sleep, it’s really not that unpleasant.
My plan for this hugely strenuous event was simple, ride till about midnight and stop for 5 hours. ½ hour to setup camp and have supper, 4 hours sleep, ½ hour to get going again. Previously I’ve targeted 3 hour sleeps on these events but with the extreme challenge of the riding on this I knew I needed longer to recover between days or I’d just fade out and self destruct. Endless climbing forces you to ride harder and fatigue deeper.
Self-care, is critical to maintaining pace and wellbeing on these things, especially when in your 60s. Destroy yourself on the last day if necessary; not before! I’d learnt this lesson the hard way, twice, in Ireland.
What’s it like then?
Rather than tire you with a rambling account of each passing day let me attempt to convey the essential of my experience of riding these large distances and big climbs day after day.
When reading media accounts of this type of escapade you’ll frequently see words like, determined, suffering, fortitude, battle, fight as if the challenge of the relentless ride is a fight against something, a battle of wills, something to conquer. Perhaps, for some, not for me.
I’m doing this because I feel inspired to it, motivated, driven from within, to keep on carrying on. I’m led along the journey by an inner desire just to keep going and the process nurtures rather than diminishes me, it’s not a fight or a battle against anything. It’s embrace of everything from elation to pain and fatigue. Gravity slows progress but the push of gravity evokes an opposite force from me, it’s not a fight, it’s an exchange, a reciprocal arrangement.
I may feel very tired and have aches and pains but it’s never really suffering, rather I’m enjoying exploring the edges of my limits and moving with the ebb and flow of the unfolding ride, landscape, mind and body.
Pretentious as it may sound, I approach ultra cycling with something akin to how I envisage the mindset of a Star Wars Jedi might be. Flow, rather than push, engage with the elements, draw upon the strength of my surroundings, ride with, never against.
Suffering for me is being forced to do something against my will and I’m really very bad at complying to that.
The majestic beauty of the Pyrenees nutures me as I ride. My days start in the darkness before dawn and I’ll often find myself riding between the stirring forms of sleeping cows on the road, animals that, in contrast to me, display a complete absence of haste unless frightened.
Having inadvertently frightened a lone cow earlier in the race to the degree that it leapt down an impossibly steep bank sending disturbing, crashing, sounds through the woods, as it found its way to safety, I resolved to be most considerate to these residents of the hills. My rush into their realm should never impact on their sedate calm.
There’s another wonderful calm anticipation as dawn approaches. The sky lightens and the tightness in my muscles eases in parallel with the breaking of the new day. Once more, the glory of my surroundings come progressively more sharply into view. Mists swirl and melt across the peaks and valleys. The low light of the rising sun casts long shadows across the day, traffic increases, human noises grow louder. Yes! Another day is upon me, all is very well.
Savour it all, nothing to be done except ride, eat, sleep, free from the myriad demands of my typical working days. Life stripped back to basics.
I’m convinced we humans are meant to be active. A largely sedantary existence eating and sleeping in no way compares to the satisfaction and rewards of a physically active one. It doesn’t have to be cycling, any activity will satisfy. We evolved as active hunter gatherers and we still need active lifestyles now to truly thrive.
On day two, the Monday of this ride, I was feeling ever more deeply depleted having missed any breakfast opportunities and then taken so long to ride up Port de Pailheres that I then missed the shops that had been open until 15:00.
I think this was the hardest day of the ride for me, I can cope on no food and run on fat burning at low riding intensities but the steepness of the col on my laden bike was not allowing a slow cruise. 200w+ was often needed just for me to keep motion forward and at times I walked to save my legs. On a fresh, rested, strong day I might comfortably ride up at 250w+ but this was not one of those days. Even then, I remained, relatively happy enough, slow but content, I was tired, so what?
It’s bizarre how paring things back to the basics of simply maintaining forward motion can be so satisfying.
Passing through fatigue can empower rather than diminish; the lows contrast to make the highs more special. There’s a clarity of intent that inspires me forward, it’s not a force of will power but rather a quiet yet resilient inner focus that somehow propels me forward. Accessing this subtly powerful sensation ever more coherently is surely a key part of the attraction of ultra cycling for me.
Arriving at the summit of Col de Pailheres to be greeted by the grinning Jean-Philippe had me feeling fully alive and fresh again now that the resistance of the incline had past. The relentlessnes of the climb immediately forgotten and the next almost eagerly anticipated.
I find myself riding in waves, from the calm trough to the push upwards, the fresh triumph of the summit and the recuperating speed and flow descending into the trough again before the next climb.
I find it’s never a hardship unless I resist this flow of the landscape and curse the climbs or yearn for the flats. Hardship results from resisting what is. You can’t change the route, you can’t change the topography or weather but you can always change your attitude. Ultra-cycling can teach you some formidable life skills if you’ll allow it.
I plan one proper meal a day on these rides, a big un before the evening shift usually and on this ride, pizza was the readiest option. Pizza vans are present by the roadside in more or less every town and serve up calorie dense food swiftly whilst allowing you to keep a close guard on your bike. Mine were all “grande” in size and chosen based on what I surmised might be the highest calorie content!
Dusk closing in is another magical time of day as the light changes, the world calms once more, and nocturnal wildlife stirs into action. Slowly the world winds down and closes in to the narrow limits of your artificial lighting. The whirr of the bike’s, tyres and drivetrain becomes louder and your peripheral senses sharpen to help guide you through the darkness.
Most people have retired to the cosy warmth of homes and bars yet you ride on rebelliously into the increasing calm of the night drawn by this relentless urge just to keep moving.
I feel a primal quality to these rides as if I might be a hunter from an ancient time pursuing food to sustain my kin, the intention is sharp, laser clear, ride, just ride no other option is present.
Then, by surprise, the call to rest arrives suddenly, I’m hit by fatigue and the imperative to bed down and so yet another phase commences. Where to set my bivouac tonight?
This is an exciting time, the promise of rest combined with the thrill of the hunt. I target secluded covered locations in towns and villages with some nearby street lighting that makes setting and striking camp easier. The ultimate spots are open fronted barns or here, in the Pyrenees, a mountain refuge hut would be superb but I only passed these in daylight hours.
This hunt for shelter provides a renewed freshness from the deep fatigue the day has provided. Zoom my map out and look for the distance to the next village, every village has a spot, what will tonight’s be like? It’s always the new, the unknown, that invigorates and draws you onward.
My 4 bivi spots on this ride were great, bar the one by a supermarket between a coke machine and a 24hr coin op laundrette. It served its purpose well enough but was a bit loud. It’s amazing how many people rock up after midnight, music blaring, in search of a soft drink! I soon forgot them and slept.
The last day called for a final ride up Col de Tourmalet before a long descent to the finish. Whilst seeking food before the final climb I met the inspiring Pierre Charles who’d seemingly effortlessly caught up with me after a good long sleep and late start earlier in the day. “We’ll ride Tourmalet together” he graciously suggested, sounds good I thought until I followed along, I needed 220w to keep up with a relaxed Peirre, riding one handed and chatting on the phone. Phone call ended, I then needed 250w+ to stay on his wheel. Well, that wasn’t sustainable and I let him disappear off into the distance.
He was probably making 12-14kkph+ to my 7kph, he must have reached the summit an hour or more ahead of me! A sobering idea and I immediately resolved to lose more weight from my body and bike in the future.
Pierre Charles is not you’re average cyclist by any stretch and he has continued to ride 200km plus rides daily since completing this event and at the time of writing this post he has climbed almost 90,000m in the month of September alone and close to 50,000km in 2020. I feel quite privileged to have ridden with him for a bit! Very chilled and humble guy as well.
Part way up the climb Jean-Phillipe arrived to see where I was, Pierre the gentleman was apparently waiting on top for me so that we could ride into the finish together. Delightful though this idea was I said “no, please tell him to ride on, he’ll freeze up there” I really was an hour or more behind him! Happily, he did as suggested!
After what seemed like the longest descent I’ve ever made and a map reading error, I arrived at the finish around 11pm to be greeted by, winner, Yvonnick and delighted organiser Jean-Phillipe.
What is really rather bizarre about all this is I apparently took precisely 111hr 11min to complete this ride. You can’t make stuff like that up 🤣
The official results:
#2020 (Sept 6 – 17) – FINAL REPORT
results provided by
Ultra Bike Pursuit Pyrenees
Jean-Philippe lost money running this inaugural event with so few entrants this year but remains committed to running it again in 2021. Numbers will have to increase if it is to be a viable event in years hence. I think the Ultra Bike Pursuit series deserves to grow and prosper as one of the finest options and toughest challenges on the ultra cycling calendar.
Consider these benefits:
- Fixed routes created by an expert local that provide the most interesting riding whilst linking the very finest climbs and scenery on the best roads.
- Fixed routes demand considerably less time from you in preparation.
- A fixed route provides greater safety. (If your dot disappears off the map then finding you is far easier as your route is known)
- Fixed routes provide equal racing as you’re all on the same course.
- Start and finish at the same point. Easy logistics for luggage and bike box storage and pickup.
- Mandatory rest periods ensure greater safety and protect you from the possible wayward decisions of a fatigued mind.
- Distance options to cater for a range of fitness and experience levels yet all operate within the camaraderie and encouragement and inspiration of the elite riders.
- The full Ultra Pursuit course is a staggeringly challenging ride to complete. Worlds toughest? Well, I doubt there’d ever be a consensus agreement on what that is but it has to be up there amongst them. One of the most beautiful? Well, that’s is unquestionaly correct.
- Superb event coverage for dot watchers and family. Jean-Philippe is an accomplished author and this shows in the excellence of his event blog and media engagement.
- Maprogress tracking. One of the very finest tracking apps for your friends and family to follow you on and dissect the details of your ride.
What’s not to like?
My days that were, quite relaxed riding by ultra cycling standards!
Day 1 – 251.06km 4,875m 13:57:26 Moving
Day 2 – 251.49km 4,272m 15:06:31 Moving
Day 3 – 235.29km 4,104m 13:57:55 Moving
Day 4 – 171.00km 4,250m 13:09:43 Moving (Slow day, long stop at a bike shop to charge stuff and replace a light)
Day 5 – 201.89km 4,521m 13:24.17 Moving
In my earlier post Operation Mont Ventoux I recounted my ride of the classic Bedouin route up Mont Ventoux in April 2018. I got the job done but all didn’t unfold quite as I might have wished. I knew then that I would be returning at some point.
There are 3 road routes to choose from with the most famous being the ascent from Bedouin that I’d ridden in 2018 but one of the more extreme challenges on offer is to ride all 3 routes up in a single day. People who complete this get to call themselves “Les Cingles de Mont Ventoux” or roughly “Crazies of Mont Ventoux’.
You can join the club before the ride and buy a €20 card to confirm completion if you want. A browse of the club listings shows that many in their 70’s and 80’s have completed this challenge. The eldest being an inspiring 86 years of age. That’s really quite impressive and encouraging! I’m 60 now so it’s nice to consider that I’ve got so many more crazy years left.
To be the full double crazy, you can ride all 3 routes twice within 24hrs and become a “Bicingles”. (The eldest listed club graduate being 67…ummm 😉 )
Why though? Why put yourself through any of this?
It’s a question I often ask myself. Why is the idea of an ultra difficult or long ride feel more inspiring to me than something far more relaxed and casual? Do I actually enjoy suffering?
Well what is suffering? Enduring mental or physical pain and discomfort is a loose dictionary definition but this can extend to feeling wretched, racked or desperate. Ultra cycling has yet to give me feelings of wretchedness or despair.
Certainly I’ve experienced or suffered plenty of physical pain and discomfort on long rides but mentally and emotionally I’ve felt more charged and alive than during many far “easier” times.
There’s a popular saying “Nothing worth doing was ever easy” I think this can be misinterpreted.
Examples are offered of successful entrepreneurs working endless long hours or famous musicians or athletes practicing for 10,000+ hours. My point is that these people were inspired to spend these endless hours mastering their skill and attaining their goals; it wasn’t suffering or hard for them even though it may have exacted a toll on them and their families.
The drive necessary for their endeavours came naturally to them and they naturally refused to give up or stop; nobody forced them.
To me, suffering is being forced to do something against my will or better judgment.
Choosing to undertake a challenge, no matter how difficult, is a very different thing. It may require a lot of training and “work” but the essential thing is that you or I chose to and were inspired to do it.
As soon as you fully commit to a new challenge, however large or small, you can feel a shift, a change within. Nothing is ever quite the same again, life moves within you, focus and drive become enhanced.
Doing the easy, familiar or comfortable never summons life through you in quite the same way.
The only suffering I feel is from the mental anguish of second guessing myself about any of the above!
It was early June 2019 and I was deep in training and preparation for the Transcontinental Race No7 in late July, quite unaware that I wasn’t actually going to end up racing it.
This June weekend also jmarked the start of the Transatlantic Way ride in Ireland. An event I’ve ridden twice and ideally would have been riding again if time had permitted. Perfect excuse for my own solo companion adventure challenge then. Fine weather and light winds were forecasted for Ventoux so all was well for the weekend.
The challenge was this:
Ride from La Ciotat to near Ventoux on Friday night. Bivi somewhere, and then ride all 3 Ventoux road routes on my loaded bike before riding back to La Ciotat on Sunday.
There’s something special about setting off into the evening on a new adventure; riding into the night and the unknown. I feel a mix of anticipation with a hint of trepidation, the excitement of the new and the fear of the unknown. Start time was 19:25.
Knowing the stresses lying ahead for me I rode this approach very steadily, making a particular point of not burning my energy reserves by charging up any of the many hills or by riding too fast.
The night was warm with temps between 15 -22c and an average of 18c. Still 2 x 900ml bottles was water weren’t going to see me through the ride and keep fully hydrated. Thankfully I was able to re-stock at a Pizza van with a cold Coke and a free water top up. No pizza was required as I’d had a big feed before I set off.
The night wore on with the traffic steadily diminishing; all was peaceful and well.
I knew my approximate destination for the night, 127km in and shortly before a bakery at Pernes les Fontaines that opens bright an early for breakfast.
I rolled into a field a little way down a turning off the main road shortly after 02:00. After a quick wet wipe wash and snack I settled down in my bivi under the stars for a few hours kip. Perfect.
This was training not racing so no need for any serious lack of sleep, that would not help. Around 5 hours later I was awake and enjoying the morning view across the poly tunnels.
More feelings of trepidation. Am I really going to do this? Ah you mad, Chris? Yes, and quite possibly. I had no real doubt however.
Still the important matter of sustenance needed to be attended to before the physical stuff got serious.
I suspect that France may have more bakeries per capita then any other country. There are so many and most serve as an excellent stop for the travelling cyclist with easy access and the ability to keep a close eye on your trusty steed while you re-supply.
I’m particularly fond of the energy rich and protein packed quiches. On this occasion I had a pizza style baguette and a quiche. No concerns about race weight this weekend!
After my leisurely start and breakfast it was close to 09:00 as I rode the final approach to Bedouin. An increasing number of cyclist rode past or were seen to be preparing by their cars and vans. This was it…
I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I’d made the previous year and end up overheating so I duly removed leg and arm warmers and I should have removed my base layer as well but at this point it was still quite cool.
I knew what was ahead and what sort of power I was likely to be able to manage all day, basically around 200w, however, the Bedouin route has some steeper sections that make keeping my output this low impossible. I needed 250w+ to keep moving on some sections. Still, the ride up went far better than on my previous attempt even with temps in the high 20’s.
This main route is quite a circus with an endless stream on cyclists, runners, motor cyclists and cars of all shapes and sizes. I saw one guy on an old rusty and truly antique single speed bike making very respectable progress. Then there were the large men on e-mountain bikes riding triumphantly past me. No matter, I wasn’t racing and was on a very different agenda. It’s a relentless climb with no flat recovery stretches and then, once the end comes into sight, it is still actually far further away than it looks. Hence it’s fame and allure.
The heat was now getting quite intense for me with sweat pouring off and my water supplies running low but all was ok, it was just a tough climb and I duly made the summit at 12:50. Well past midday, one climb completed, non stop, but slowly at about 2hr 45min, a far cry from Chris Froome’s 55mins!
My slow start was going to make for a long afternoon and evening but it was a wonderful day with a great atmosphere so no rush.
Now to top up with seriously overpriced Coke and water before heading down to Malaucene for lunch before climb number 2.
This was a joyous descent and soon I was in town grabbing some supermarket convenience food. I was seriously hungry and a little chilled from the descent in spite of the high temps.
Sandwiches, protein rich salad and fresh berries. Convenience fuel with a hint of healthiness.
The climb from Malaucene was my favourite, its still tough but prettier and much quieter than the famed Bedouin route. By now however the sun was high with temps well into the 30c’s. Roasting.
I couldn’t comprehend some of the riders passing me with just a single water bottle. How acclimatised must they be?
I remember one guy passing me less than half way up, in a heavy sweat, and with his single bottle only half full. I passed him later as he sheltered from the sun under a tree. I never saw him again.
Some riders paused to chat to me and looked suitably quizzical when I explained what I was up to. Cingle…
My second climb was completed at about 17:30 and with the summit now much cooler and quieter. Just in time to purchase more overpriced Coke fuel from the little shop on top before it closed.
One more to go then. I was a bit tired for sure but not suffering in any way. My power meter suggested that my pacing strategy was working well and had me steadily outputting around 200w on the climbs. All was fine and much to my relief temps were dropping.
Down to Sault then for more food and the final, easiest climb. This last climb felt quite fast though it still took around 2hr 20min. My power data shows that I managed a normalised power of 203w and an average heart rate of 127bpm which was greatly helped by the lower temps averaging at 17c as opposed to the 29c average of the previous climb with a 130bpm average heart rate and lower 196w normalised power.
I barely saw anyone riding up here.
I reached the summit at 21:45 and with no option for more Coke fuel and rapidly dropping temps it was time to skedaddle back to Bedouin sharpish and find some nosh.
It was 7c now and breezy, I was rapidly getting chilled. Leg warmers, arm warmers, quilted gilet, wind jacket, gloves on. Descend
Another exciting descent in the rapidly darkening but moonlit night. I just had to pause to take the photo above.
The descent wasn’t drama free. First I got hit by a bat squarely in the head, which made me jump but caused no other damage. Shortly after several deer ran across the road and scared the bejesus out of me and I them. I rode on very cautiously, relying heavily on my brakes!
Finally, back in Bedouin, I found a closing Pizza restaurant that kindly made me 2 pizzas. One probably would’ve been enough but I still devoured all but a couple of slices of the two. My mistake, however, was in ordering one with pepperoni. This stayed with me through the night and again the next day as I ate the remaining slices for first breakfast.
I was feeling good and a tad triumphant about the completion of my mission. I, briefly, seriously considered continuing back to La Ciotat though the night but I was cold and with the next 30 or so km predominantly down hill warming up again seemed far too much like hard work. No need for heroics anyway.
I rode out of town and found another field for the night.
Dawn announced it’s presence with some loud, unexpected rain drops and moody clouds.
It was a fine relaxed ride home though, not withstanding a few rain showers. A pleasant average temp of 27c meant made for few issues with getting wet and I was back by the beach in La Ciotat at 15:23 ready for a shower, more food and a well earned drink or two in town later.
Yes, it would have been far easier not to have ridden this but riding it wasn’t suffering by any stretch and I’m surely richer for the experience.
Surprisingly, in the days that followed I felt physically better than ever. A grumbling ITB issue vanished, my often aching neck felt way better. It seemed I’d had some kind of physical purge.
I felt happier and more contented as well. Perhaps the saying should be
“Why settle for easy when you could thrive on difficult?”
As I write this the the 7th edition on the Transcontinental Race is underway but, sadly, I'm not riding in it.
I ride ultra endurance cycle events because I enjoy it, plain and simple. However, it is also clear that others enjoy reading about my adventures as well as following the races online as “dot watchers”. The supportive messages I receive are very welcome but its great to be able to offer people other ways to lend their support such as donating to a charity.
I don’t claim to be doing any of the rides “for charity” but if I can fundraise for a charity as part of my riding then that really is so much the better!
This year I’m fundraising for The Blue Marine Foundation a UK based charity dedicated to creating marine reserves and establishing sustainable models of fishing.
THE PROBLEM – 90% of wild fish stocks are over-fished or fully exploited. Without fish, the oceans cannot absorb CO2, millions of livelihoods are lost and food security is threatened.
Seafood happens to be my favourite food, whilst the oceans have indirectly supported my entire working life since I was 21. Windsurfing and water sports instructor, wind and surf board builder, yacht painting contractor, yacht painting consultant.
I’ve lived on the coast in various countries continuously since I left London in 1980. Boats, windsurfing, surfing, kite-surfing, paddle boarding, ocean sports of every description have inspired my leisure time. The yachting industry has provided for me and my family for decades. In fact the cycling I now do is the least ocean centric thing I’ve ever embarked upon!
THE SOLUTION – By designating large parts of the world’s oceans as marine reserves and banning industrial fishing, fish stocks are able to recover and ecosystems thrive.
I delight in the idea of giving back to the seas and oceans for all the support, joy and nourishment they have provided to me.
Creating marine reserves and developing sustainable models of fishing seems, to me, an obvious thing to do but actually making this a reality is no easy task when dealing with the many and varied commercial interests involved.
The Blue Marine Foundation have demonstrated their ability to truly affect positive change and have a fascinating portfolio of projects.
How would it be if I chose to approach life as if it was all an adventure that I'd truly chosen to undertake rather than one that I just somehow got lumbered with?
Yes, finally, it's on! I have a place in the race that inspired me to take up ultra endurance cycling back in September 2016.
The Transcontinental Race is the definitive self-supported bicycle race across Europe.
At the sharp end it is a beautifully hard bicycle race, simple in design but complex in execution. Factors of self reliance, logistics, navigation and judgement burden racers’ minds as well as their physiques. The strongest excel and redefine what we think possible while many experienced riders target only a finish.
Welcome to the second and final chapter recounting my 2018 TAWR journey.
In part 1 I covered my exhilarating dash to make the Kilrush ferry on day four, the Sunday evening. Arriving there in a credible 9th position.
If everything had carried on to plan then I only had a little over 2 days to go. Everything did not carry on to plan.
There was something special about that ferry ride for me. When you enter one of these events you become part of a tribe, a unique band of brothers and sisters, with an unspoken kind of camaraderie. There were just four of us who had made that 19:00 ferry. These were my comrades. Pawel Pulawski, grinning, but suffering with saddle sores. Matt Ryan, looking far to fresh but also dealing with a grumbling achilles. David Tomlinson, looking absolutely shattered, and myself, suffering with saddle sores and looking rather old I imagine.
We spent the short crossing huddled in a sheltered rest area comparing tales, struggles and plans. Pawel and Matt were going to ride on at the other side, David and I were heading straight to whatever B&B’s we could find. Then that was it, a brief spell of companionship ended and we went our merry ways.
I found a very closed looking B&B just minutes away from the ferry and checked in. The helpful landlady directed me to a secure place for my bike and I duly unloaded and went to the Spar next door to re-stock on fuel. I think I also found a chippy but I don’t recall clearly.
In TAW 2017 I had suffered with minor saddle sores, no great drama. I’d say about equal to how my backside was on the end of day 3 of this TAW18. In 2017 my shorts were getting a lot of rain rinsing and also had a thinner chamois pad. This year I’d invested in a high end set of bibs with a thick “endurance” pad. 2018 had, so far, been relentlessly hot and sweaty with no rain rinsing and I’d relied almost solely on wet wipes and chamois cream for cleanliness. Poor plan!
On reflection I think the thicker pad just makes for more movement or rub against the skin and holds moisture. I’ve heard others say a thick pad and/or more cushioned saddle causes more problems and this certainly reflects my experience. I’ll keep experimenting but I think two pairs of shorts, regular rinsing and a thinner or even no pad could be the way forward.
03:18 and I push start on my Wahoo Elemnt….. OUUUCH! Oh how my bum hurts, I can barely cope with any saddle pressure. Time to get macho! If I can just stay fully planted in the saddle then I know the pain will ease or I shall become accustomed to it at least. Easier said than done.
This was such a struggle and it seemed I was constantly stopping to apply cream. “Ummm, this is becoming a real issue…” After repeated wet wipe and cream sessions I finally had the bright idea of placing wet wipes in my shorts! It was as if I’d found the holy grail! Pain drastically reduced, I could ride in the saddle. Still uncomfortably, but I could do it. Eureka!
The tracker reveals that I rode past the sleeping forms of Matt and David just before they got underway. Off to Dingle we shall go!
Again my memory is vague and I recall little other than a painful backside and increasingly numb, tingly, fingers. It must have been early to mid afternoon when I first noticed my neck feeling weak.
Oh no! This was at more or less the exact same point that it had given out last year. I knew the symptoms, could read the warnings and see into the future…ease the strain on your neck or it’ll be a repeat of last year and ride over.
T bars were duly banned and I rode as sit up and beg as I could manage. This just put more pressure on my sore backside! Doh²!
David Tomlinson reeled me in at the Gap Of Dunloe. He looked in far better shape than he had at the ferry and after riding together awhile he finally took off into the distance. Leaving me tootling along in my neck easing position.
Not long after Matt arrived and abused me for setting away too early after the ferry. 🤣 Matt and I had some laughs on this ride. He’s a very good natured chap really.
We made it to Sneem moments before the general stores closed.
Matt duly charmed the ladies therein to make us instant coffees as the regular coffee machine was switched off. He later went on to tell me off for not saying please over something… it was quite comical, the banter we had going.
Sadly though, I knew my race with Matt was done along with any chance of a top ten placing. I simply had to make a long stop to rest my neck or face a repeat of 2017 and be forced to scratch from the race. I wished him well and away he rode to finish his adventure.
Resting was an easy decision as I feel strongly about staying safe and responsible on these events, on public roads. In 2017 I’d ridden quite some distance with the back of my helmet cable tied to my jacket as a way of stopping my head falling forward. Don’t do things like this people; no contraptions, no neck braces. If you cannot hold your head up and look readily in all directions then you’ve no business riding a bike on a public road.
It was near 22:00 when I knocked on the door of a nearby B&B. The landlady eventually answered in her nightgown and looking confused, grudgingly, showed me to a room.
“Did I want breakfast?” Maybe (I hoped to sleep long past breakfast)
“How long did I want to stay?” Not sure
She frowned; clearly not used to such vague, indecisive, guests.
Needless to say I didn’t manage to sleep past breakfast. Yes I was tired but I was also in the middle of a race and feeling a little hyper and raring to go. My idea was for a 24 hour stop with lots of good food, yoga and rest. Still, it was a struggle to stay put.
I saw the very helpful village pharmacist and got some antibiotic, steroidal, cream for my saddle sores and some more wet wipes. I re-charged my power bank and devices, hung my washed clothes out to dry and tried to get more sleep. I exchanged a couple of messages with an unlucky Karen Tostee who was stranded a little way up the road waiting for a mechanic to sort out her jammed, broken gear cable.
I then had another go at sleep. Fail
I pressed start on my Wahoo at 13:17 meaning that I’d had about 16 hours rest. It was time to complete the Ring Of Kerry, one of the very finest parts of the route, achingly beautiful and great riding.
Things were feeling really tough now, my sores were sore, my hands were numb and though my neck was holding steady I felt as if I was riding with the brakes on. I missed the fresh form I’d had earlier in the race.
Molls Gap arrived and I enlisted the support of a animal spirit guide! The late collie dog, Molly, that had been the very best of companions to a good friend of mine. Molly would have totally owned Molls Gap, she wasn’t one for sharing with other dogs!
I pictured Molly trotting along with me, shedded a tear or two but drew on her indomitable spirit to inspire and balance my spirits. Thanks Molly.
Awhile later a congenial Alex Hill turned up and we rode much of the rest of Molls Gap chatting together.
I settled in for another night shift and rode on through until 05:00 and a little past Cluin Allihies. Strangely I just don’t recall my bivi spot, the tracker simply shows me in a field.
Away again a little after 07:00 and off to Lambs Head where I met up with Paul Alderson, fellow competitor from 2017 who was using this TAWR as training for his Transcontinental Race campaign in July and not pressing on too hard.
Selfie time. Ragged but happy.
This was to become storm Hector day with some proper Wild Atlantic Way weather. I didn’t mind as it only seemed proper. I felt the rest of the riders had had it too easy with all this sunshine. Truly, they were missing out on the full TAWR experience.
Further silliness. At some point along the N71 I developed a very painful muscle in my right thigh that made pedalling with that leg really difficult. I just could not find any stretch that would get into it. In desperation I called my wife, who’s something of a yoga expert.
So ensued a really comical time with me rolling about on the road side trying different stretches and giggling manically. At one point a lady pulled over to check I was ok and timed it just as I was chanting “I’m such a manly man!” 🤣 Sadly though, stretching wasn’t helping.
I stopped at a supermarket cafe somewhere near Doonemark to rest and take stock on my situation. A hot meal was very welcome after the wet ride I’d been having. Jeremy Koijmans also arrived and I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t enjoying the wet weather anywhere near as much as me! He suggested I elevate my leg as that may help ease the pain off.
I worked out that I’d been riding in a way that had me almost back pedalling in an attempt to reduce the pressure on my sores and these particular muscles weren’t trained for that. Boo!
I’d taken Ibuprofen for the sores pain a day or two back but didn’t want to be filling myself with painkillers for days on end. I’m certain it’s not good for you. So, ignore pain, soldier on, painkiller free.
The weather got properly wild for the rest of the day with driving rain and howling winds. Yes! Proper Atlantic weather, call me mad but I love it. I met Jeremy again and he certainly wasn’t feeling as inspired by the weather and rode off grumbling. No matter.
Some slow wet kilometres further and I made it to the top of the ascent on the Sheep’s Head peninsular. The point at which I’d abandoned the race the year previously. It was an emotional moment that reinforced my determination to finish. It was just me and the route now, no racing, just keep making progress, hold it together till the end.
I made it to the tiny village of Kilcrohane at about 19:00 and in atrocious weather but noted some good bivi spots near the pub. Ok, out to the headland and back before a pub dinner and sheltered bivi, I might even have a Guinness! I had it all planned.
The ride out along the headland was brutal with driving rain and headwinds and of course not aided by my many pains. It was worth it at the end though as the wind whistling round the buildings was insane. I leant my back into it and held 18kg of loaded bike in front of me and it blew out in front like a flag. I couldn’t work out how to take a selfie of that.
The ride back to Kilcrohane was swift with the strong tailwind. To the pub! Pah! No food served, “…you have to go to the B&B, that’s the only place offering food.” Oh well if I must; it felt like a bit of a cheat though.
Still I did really need some recovery time to aid my failing, ageing, body. A hearty meal, sleep and leisurely full Irish breakfast had me set for the final push to the Kinsale finish.
The storm had past and it was a beautiful sunny day but I was in a lot of pain. Just 206km to go but I ended up averaging a lowly 16.6kph and it took me 12.5 moving hours in 17 elapsed.
I could barely ride with my one functioning leg and as the day past the same muscle in the other leg began to lock up as well. I became steadily slower and was forced to walk on many hills as I simply couldn’t pedal with any strength.
I was still moving however and all I could do was keep re-framing the situation according to my changing circumstances. I plodded along pushing my bike as the sun set. Strangely, I had a tremendous sense of well being in spite of my difficulties.
Here I was strolling freely on a beautiful summer’s evening in southwestern Ireland. Many people travel from all over the world to enjoy similar. My issues were self inflicted, there was nothing to feel hard done by about.
Still, I cannot say I enjoyed watching the steady stream of riders passing me by.
As the night wore on I was fully ready for it all to end. The kilometres ticked by ever slower and there seemed to be a relentless succession of hills that often had to be walked. Earlier, I’d passed people relaxing on pub terraces having dinner and thought how lovely that would be.
Stupidly, I’d disabled the “climbing” page on my Wahoo some months previously. This screen provides an elevation profile of your route so that you can see what lays ahead and how far up a climb you are (I’d figured that not knowing was er..”character building”). I think I’d built enough character by now. Just keep moving Chris!
Around 03:00 on Friday 15th June I literally limped into Kinsale, totally spent. I laughed at the sight of the final short and very steep climb to the finish at the holiday village. Race director Adrian must have been delighted when he saw that. There was no way I could ride up there no matter how much I wanted to. As it was I had to pause half way whilst walking!
I’d made it though, I had made it, and I suppose a mid 40’s placing isn’t too shabby for an old bloke anyway.
Still, I have unfinished business with this ride. One day I’ll have a solid clear run at it with no neck troubles. Not 2019 though, I have other ideas for that.
Trackleaders gives race statisics:
Moving time: 5:04:03
Stopped time: 2:12:54
Average daily distance: 292.1km
Moving average: 18.2kph
reflections, what did I learn?
- Any physical issue you have has a knock on effect to other areas of your body as you compensate for it. Particularly saddle discomfort as it tends to make you place more weight on your hands, arms and legs, leading to nerve damage, numb fingers and in my case also trashed legs.
- Self care and recovery are critical. Stay on top of your aches and pains, a ten or twenty minute stop to adjust bike fit, stretch, ease tyre pressures or rinse your shorts could save your race.
- I’m 59 not 29 and I need to make better allowance for that but without giving into age as being an excuse. How do I really need to pace myself for this or say a two week event? Would longer rest stops ease my problem neck for instance? I’ve much to learn.
- Yes, I still love these rides/races.
Some months have passed now since I completed TAWR 2018. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the event and what I’ve learned. The time is right to share my perspective.
This is written in two parts as I approached and experienced the race/ride as two distinct phases.
- Phase 1 make it to the ferry by Sunday night, day 4.
- Phase 2 make it to the finish as quickly as possible.
TAW 2017 was my first ever ultra endurance cycle event and I ended up retiring or “scratching” from the race just 300km from the finish and in an astounding, to me, 6th place. This was due to what’s known as Shermer’s neck whereby your neck muscles become so fatigued that they can no longer adequately support your head whilst cycling.
This condition is very dangerous when descending hills in particular as it becomes impossible to see where you’re going. You’re a serious danger to yourself and other road users. (Another rider in this years TAW and suffering from this ended up cartwheeling off the road into a field. He was very lucky to escape serious injury)
TAW 2018 presented a different set of challenges because race director Adrian O’Sullivan had altered the course to include a ferry trip across the Shannon. I saw this as having the effect of making it two races in one. Those who made it to the ferry before the last ferry on the Sunday (Day 4) night would have about a 10 hour advantage over those behind that missed the last ferry. Race two was within the group that made that Sunday ferry.
The challenge of reaching this ferry really piqued my imagination and inspired me. I knew it was a hard task and looking at my progress in TAW 2017 revealed that I made it to near the ferry terminal on the Monday (Day 5) at around 18:00. Basically I needed to shave about 24 hours off my 2017 time to cover a similar distance. Eeek!
I knew from my 2017 race that I could certainly ride more efficiently and I was also wiser about re-supply options and many other aspects of making progress. So, there it was, my challenge, make the last ferry on Sunday and then secondly make it to the finish.
My technique is to split the GPS route into ambitious but theoretically achievable day length targets. I use RideWithGPS for planning this as it offers me estimated times based on the terrain and my ride history.
The ambitious results look like so:
- Dublin to Buncrana – 363km
- Buncrana to Ballina – 428km
- Ballina to Costelloe – 428km
- Costelloe to Tralee – 294km
- Tralee to Kenmare – 367km
- Kenmare to Kinsale – 390km
I work best with high targets that I may fail to make rather than with sensible targets that I hope to surpass or absolutely have to make. You’ll notice that day 4 is shorter and you should note that Tralee is some 85km further on than the Kilrush ferry; this is the “cushion” in my planning. In hindsight I really think I should have planned more achievable days rather than trying to truly outdo myself!
The end result to the ferry was:
- Dublin to Buncrana – 363km, 15hr 28min moving time, 17hr 30min elapsed.
- Bunncrana to Skreen – 372km, 17hr 25min moving time, 19hr 44min elapsed.
- Skreen to Check Point 2 – 357km, 15hr 50min moving time, 18hr elapsed.
- CP 2 to Kilrush ferry – 315km, 13hr 26min moving time, 15hr 13min elapsed.
- Total duration from race start to ferry including sleep: 3 days 8 hours 30min
- Total moving time: 2d 14hr 9min
- Total elapsed time: 2d 22hr 27min
- Total fully stopped / sleep time: 10hrs 3min
I am pretty proud of this achievement I have to say.
No wonder I looked and felt knackered.
(I also felt extremely content!)
How those 4 days unfolded and my later refections
Coach Martin Burrows had done an excellent job in periodising my training up to the event. I was raring to go with all indications suggesting that I was about 10% stronger than the year previous. It was to be a staggered start organised alphabetically by first name, which meant I was in the first group away, accompanied by race favourites Bernd Paul and Bjorn Lenhard and so it was that I set off directly behind those two and 4th place finisher Aidan Allcock.
I could maintain their pace but I knew that I could not maintain it for more than a few hours so I eased back and let them ride off. It wasn’t long before I was riding alone, then surprisingly Bjorn rode past me, seems I had a better route! Then it was Karen Tostee who whizzed by with a smile. Awhile later she went by again, “I want your route” she said!
I knew that the only way I was going to make my target was to ride the 230km to Derry as close to non-stop as possible. I had 3 x 950ml of water and juice mix plus 2 Cokes and I think a Lucozade, as well as various snack bars. It was hot for Ireland though with temps in the high 20’s. This meant I didn’t have enough fluids for me to do this distance in these conditions but I didn’t want to stop either. As luck would have it I rode past a chap hosing his front garden who kindly let me top up my bottles with barely a pause. Result!
Karen rode past again! She’d stopped to refuel, that lady is quick and if it hadn’t been for some mechanical and other problems she’d have been a serious contender for a win I think.
I made it to Derry as 11th to CP1, I was pretty happy with that. I rode on a bit and stopped at a Spar to refuel and provision for the night ahead. So far so good. It was refreshing to be into the cool of the evening but I was well aware that I still had about 130km to ride to make my days target.
All was going well and I’d already ridden well past my previous year’s bivi stop in daylight when I hit a pothole and my tracker bounced out of its cradle into the long grassy roadside verge. Doh! I spent what felt like a very long hour trudging up and down with my torch until I finally located it. Other riders either flew past or paused to check I was ok. Some helped me look though they probably shouldn’t have according to self-supported rules but either way I did find it myself by treading on it! I stubbornly pressed on to Buncrana and made it at about 04:00 as the sky was brightening and with the challenging climb of the Mamore Gap completed in darkness.
It was my worst ever bivi spot choice though, a midge infested field! My bag has a fly mesh but that doesn’t stop all the sods that join you inside. Never you mind the unpleasantness of the wet wipe ablutions before you get in. The midges were intense on many occasions during TAW 2018 whereas in 2017 I didn’t meet a single one.
First night’s rest was not so brilliant but still I was on the road again at 07:28 with another long day ahead of me. Happy enough though and awake without an alarm,
I remember surprising little of day 2 beyond it being hot. My Wahoo recorded a high of 32c. What I do remember however is the infamous gravel section of the route at the Glenveagh National Park. This was a delight because as I reached the lower sections there were lots of teenage school kids ambling along oblivious to my speeding approach. I’d recently invested in a proper old style brrrriiinng brrrrring type bike bell because these don’t seem to annoy anybody and frankly it just gives me a smile.
So to alert the either chatting or phone distracted youths I took to ringing my bell cheerfully and high five-ing them as I rode past. It must have been a funny sight and I delighted in the connection, an old git celebrates the day with the young! It raised my spirits and hopefully theirs.
This was also the day of a very hot Glengesh Pass ascent.
A lot of riders had passed me in the night but gratifyingly I was slowly moving back up through the field and was back to 12th by late afternoon, though there was a huge and intimidating number of riders very close behind. Again I rode past my previous year’s bivi stop many hours earlier, in bright daylight. I pressed on until about 03:00 which moved me back upto 6th just behind Karen. (I only know this now from re-playing the tracker) That night I bivi’d in the shelter of a timber mill loading bay, midge free.
On the road again 07:25, alarm set but again not needed. Operation get to CP2.
At this point in the race I’m physically fine apart from increasingly painful saddle sores but all good elsewhere. Equipment wise my Igaro usb charger wasn’t working but I had a powerful power bank as backup that might well see me through to the finish anyway. So no real problems, though I could feel the fatigue and my slowing pace but that was only to be expected.
It was about now that I began to meet familiar faces passing me on the road. Firstly Gavin Dempster, young, fast and friendly. We’d chat briefly and compare notes. He was riding fast and recovering longer I was riding slow and sleeping/stopping less as I just don’t have riding that fast in my bag of tricks.
Then, come Achill Island, I met up with Matt Ryan and we fooled about to and fro right till the ferry. Achill was very different to how it was in 2017 and rather boring by comparison. In 2017 it was a gale of wind, rain, sea foam blown from hundreds of feet below and kamikaze sheep leaping into my path. This year it was a slog more than an adventure!
On exiting the isle I stopped at a little grocers to feed and stock up for the night, Matt also paused briefly but then rode on ahead. This was a long night section to make it to CP2. Fortunately I love the peace of night riding and find that time just blurs into a continuum but as the hours passed I was seriously ready to rest and desperately trying to calculate the distance to the ferry and how far I had to get before I could back off a little.
Foolishly I hadn’t worked out how far the ferry was from CP2 and in my head I had it at around 250km, a relatively easy day’s ride. It turns out that it’s actually 315km.
Eventually I made it to CP2 at around 01:30 to the unlikely sight of Chris Herbet smoking a cigarette as he and I think David Thomlinson prepared to depart. Adrian O told me that if I carry on now I’ll be in 5th. That wasn’t an option!
I’d planned on another 3hr sleep but I discovered that it was 315km to the ferry rather than my hopeful 250km-ish. Holy cripes! I had it in mind that the last ferry was at 20:00 but I wanted to target the 19:00 one so as to give me some contingency time. All I had to do now was stop an excited Adrian form talking so much and get some sleep. A mere 90 mins lying on a bunk fully clothed and virtually unwashed. This time my alarm dragged me slowly, wearily, to reluctant consciousness and so began my time trial to the ferry. 03:50 am Sunday.
This was certainly the hardest riding and most exciting ride of the race for me. I felt fully on the mission, go, go, go! Whilst I wasn’t riding as physically powerfully as day 1 I was giving it my all rather than keeping a bit in the bin. It’s very exciting to fully give something your absolute all.
This is a flatter section on the route in general but it is also plagued with some horrendous, cracked, corrugated, saddle sore jarring road surfaces but I ignored it all and basically trashed my neck and hands by spending too long on the TT bars and by taking the weight off my oh so sore backside with my arms and hands.
09:00 had me at Costelloe for my first full Irish breakfast of the trip. The cafe manager smiled and said “you in the race as well? The others left not long ago”, “Indeed I am! Full Irish please and two black coffees” Off I went to freshen up in bathroom. Upon my return a large rotund chap was sat eating a full Irish…my full Irish!!
Don’t they know I have a ferry to catch! The waiter, whom I think hadn’t seen me, just brought it out and gave it to the only customer in the room. Oh well, another was duly ordered and I set about my coffee and catching up with the race on my phone.
One event that I haven’t mentioned was that I’d accidently left my down jacket hanging on a garage toilet door, though I could not say exactly where without lots of battery and time hungry tracker reviewing. My wife had sent messages to race HQ and the media cars were on the lookout which was nice though I knew that even if they found it that they could not return it to me before race finish. Happily, the weather was warm and it was less than essential, even if it did also serve duty as my sleeping bag. I had a few other layers and could keep warm in mid teen night temps.
Breakfast done it was time to crack on! At this point I was once again ahead of Karen, Gavin and Matt and our pack was building a steadily increasing gap ahead to the main bunch behind us. Bjorn and Bernd were in a race of their own well out ahead.
Matt reeled me in at around 15:00 near Doolin and chided me for not stopping long enough at CP2 🤣. Once more he rode off into the distance and I carried on my steady plod. A fatigued while later I stopped for supplies and decided to double check the ferry times. “Ummm last ferry is 21:00 not 20:00, oh fine I’ve got plenty of time then.” I relaxed and bought another coffee.
Then the thought, “Ummm so how far is it yet? Oh, so I could still just make the 19:00 ferry. Better go for that then”
Now began the really exciting bit with long flat fast sections where I though “Yes! I’ll make it easily if it doesn’t get too hilly” only to then be confronted with a hill. At this point I was on an emotional roller coaster, from crying for no reason other than the emotional release, to laughing, shouting and cheering for the shear foolish thrill of it all, relishing the singular purpose of catching that darn ferry. I even accidentally climbed a very steep hill in my 34×28 gear rather than the 34×36 grandad gear that I usually resort to!
Matt caught up again, he’d had a stop as well, and I kept him in my sights ahead as we completed the final dash. Made it with just minutes to spare! A grinning Pawel Pulawski and an incredibly tired looking David Tomlinson were there as well; having just missed the 18:00 ferry. Photographer Richard Marshall captured some images.
It was gratifying to see how totalled these young chaps looked.
I did it, I bloody did it!
I was going to celebrate with a shower and a B&B on the other side!
Reflections, what I might do differently
- Go easier on day 1 in particular. Spread my effort so less recovery is required.
- Plan my days more accurately and efficiently.
- Relax my bike fit.
Not much else, pace, recovery and comfort are everything as I see it. I made the ferry but to have achieved a better final position I’d have had to pace slower and miss the Sunday ferry. I don’t regret this though. These intense 4 days will stay with me forever,
In part two I’ll cover my steady decline from 9th place to 43rd, a different kind of ride/walk.
Ever since I arrived here in southern France I’ve had the nearby and iconic Mont Ventoux in my sights as a ride challenge. Winter mountain weather has made this pretty much impossible up until last week (April 16th) when the weather changed completely. Rather than sub zero temperatures and gales Ventoux was now apparently set for 10c+, light winds and sunshine.
For the past several weeks I’ve been heading out on overnight adventures each weekend as part of my preparation for the 2018 Transatlantic Way Race. The physical and mental training benefits of long, solo, multi day rides are many, whilst getting ever more familiar with my gear and provisioning on route is also very helpful. An overnighter to Ventoux just had to happen.
My plan for this Ventoux trip was to ride about 125km on Friday night and camp out. This will then leave me a 25km warm up ride in the morning before riding the classic ascent from Bedoin; breakfast at the summit, descend to Malaucene and ride back to La Ciotat, just like that..
Friday had been a busy day already as I’d driven from Viareggio, Italy, back to La Ciotat, France and moved into new accommodation but though tired I was feeling pretty keen to get out on the open road again and for the first time in many months not be faced with icy temperatures. As a result of the many doings of this day I didn’t manage to get away until 20:40 but this did make for quieter roads.
You see very few other cyclists when you cycle at night, yet it really is a fantastic time to ride. The roads are quieter and the approach of traffic from behind or ahead comes with a reassuring early warning glow from headlights and added to that it’s generally a less windy time of day. Certainly, there may be an increased sense of exposure and vulnerability as you pass by closed shops, through sleeping towns and hear the eery sounds of waking forests but all of this is part of the adventure, the taking of the road less travelled, even if only because of the time of day.
Still it’s a strange business I’ve gotten myself into, this setting off into the night to ride hundreds of kilometres. I immediately begin counting off the distance on my bike computer until I can stop, as if I’m wishing the time away.
There is a fair amount of effort involved in all this cycling so looking forward to the next rest point is an understandable part of this clock watching but I think another aspect is about simply maintaining a sense of place or position along a route. My tiny computer screen just shows an direction arrow along a road and some other ride data. Place names come and go but in unfamiliar places my memory is unable to place them on a route as the ride progresses so it becomes; 20km done, about 5 hours to go at this rate then, 45km, 4 hours maybe,…etc. Then finally I arrive, or get to rest, and it all starts over again.
Once an adventure is finished then almost immediately the planning for the next begins. One day, when I’ve tired of endurance races, I may just get out and start riding and see where I end up… I’m not ready for that yet though.
Wise people will tell you that a happy life is all about enjoying the journey and not the destination. I agree, though defined destinations can add clarity to a journey.
As the night progressed I faced my usual challenge of finding somewhere to refill my water bottles. In the UK virtually every petrol station has an outside tap or water point. This seems to be a rare occurrence in France and after many failed searches of garage forecourts I happened upon La Cave a Francois in Mallemort at around 1:00 am.
A group of people were sat outside next to a tap..aha! However, I was helpfully directed away from the tap and inside to the rather loud bar which I then discovered was largely full of young women in pretty flouncy dresses…staring at me! I suddenly felt very exposed in my lycra…
My water bottles were kindly refilled and with a smile I headed away for the final hour or so of this night’s ride. It was calm and around 10c which felt comfortably warm compared to some of my previous weeks adventures. No need for any additional shelter tonight. At around 02:00am and with 125km ridden I pulled off down a side road and found myself a nice grassy field to bivi down in.
With no requirement for full race type sleep deprivation I set an alarm for 07:15 and suppered on chicken slices and a cereal bar before getting my head down.
My bivi is an Outdoor Research Aurora and I’d recommend it to anyone. I selected it as being the lightest, fully breathable, bivi with a built in bug net. At 600gm it’s not as light as some but as this is my primary sleeping arrangement rather than an, in case of, kind of shelter I’m happy to lug it about. I’ve slept in here soaking wet and woken up nearly dry.
The only indication left from my presence that night was a flat spot in the grass. Treading lightly; I like that.
I was on the road again by 08:00 and riding towards the beckoning peak but with little real realisation of what really lay ahead.
It was about 9c and I was wearing a merino base layer along with a warm short sleeved spring/autumn jersey plus leg and arm warmers. I duly arrived in Bedouin nicely warmed up and decided to remove the arm warmers but nothing else as experience has shown that it it tends to get a lot cooler as you get higher.
I munched a couple of Snickers bars, had a good drink and set off confidently for the summit. I soon passed a couple of people on mountain bikes and a woman on inline skates but I think from that point on it was everybody else passing me.
I’ve ridden some long climbs already this year but nothing like this and it turned out that I’d made a grave error of judgement regarding my clothing. I just kept getting hotter and hotter… the sweat was pouring off me. I fully unzipped my jersey and pulled my leg warmers down around my ankles but that didn’t help much. My ride data shows that rather than the temperature decreasing or even holding steady it actually rose to 27c!
I stubbornly refused to stop to remove layers. My first Ventoux ascent had to be a non stop event… The road got busier and busier as time passed with people panting past me with a “bonjour”or flying down on the descent.
One guy flew past me on the way down and then flew back past me on the way up again. I saw some highly muscled legs that morning!
I was very slow compared to other riders but I comforted my bruised ego with the thoughts that the others probably hadn’t ridden 125km the night before and slept in a field for 5 hours. They most certainly were not riding on around 18kg of loaded bike and they were generally a lot younger!
Once you get out of the Ventoux forest section and above the tree line the road taunts you with glimpses of the big tower on the summit which seems much closer than it is. By now my body was screaming at me to stop and walk, the sweat was burning in my eyes and I just wanted it all to end. The soles of my feet were also burning from the relentless pedal pressure.
Still it also felt good to be riding a classic cycling climb and to see the writing left on the road from the last Tour De France here in 2016. I could almost feel the excitement and picture the crowds cheering. The idea that Chris Froome and others have ridden up here in under and hour was just mind boggling. My Strava segment shows a woeful 2hrs 32min. I’ll have to return fresh and unladen!
I particularly remember the final few hundred meters when the end was just so close but yet I was also so very, very close to giving up. That’s a memory I shall be calling on for encouragement during challenging times in the future. “Stick at it Chris…it’s not as bad as Ventoux”…
The more usual celebration going on around me was to hoist your bike aloft. I wasn’t going to risk that with my fully loaded bike.
Time to find more drink and and eat something. I loaded up on Coke and water and foolishly bought a bottle of Powerade….uurgh that was so hideously chemically tasting even compared to the Coke! Still it had much needed fluid and calories.
I found shelter from the wind and sat in my black Gore jacket in the sun in order to stay warm. I tend to chill rapidly after a ride so know I have to wrap up even if I feel hot initially.
My planned route down was via Malaucene but it turned out that this was closed due to snow. Ho hum, back the way I came then.
Now I had a new problem. I hadn’t managed to stay warm enough and was shivering. As I began the descent I kept getting this wheel wobbling sensation. I stopped and checked everything and then just concluded it was because I was being too cautious and braking too much… ummmm
I rode a bit quicker, relaxed my grip and gained confidence. Awhile later a group of guys passed me and I thought “…mmm I could use them a pacers” so I tagged along behind and it felt like we were really flying. Ride data shows a fast, for me, 69kph.
Then it all got terrifying, I developed a severe front wheel wobble and was seriously thinking that I might have to bail into a bush or something. I’ve heard of this happening but never experienced it before myself. My Genesis Datum has only inspired more and more confidence descending the longer I’ve ridden it.
I had to think quick…”front wheel wobble, relax grip, ease off on the front brake use the back brake a little more relax, relax, relax..” it worked and I wound steadily to a halt. Pah…what a morning! Frankly I just wanted to go home and cry!
Adrenalin and endorphins did their job though and I was soon back on the descent and concentrating on not shivering or white knuckle gripping the handlebars.
Back in Bedouin it was a hot 33c and I spotted a couple of guys resting their legs in the town fountain. Oh I had to have some of that! I could have just stopped there, had a nice lunch, maybe even booked a B&B and simply ridden back to La Ciotat the next day.
Nope this was a training ride, not a tour. I still had 150km to go and another 1000m of climbing to be done.
Fortunately the next couple of hours were on pretty flat roads so I just treated it as a steady recovery ride and kept eating snickers bars, drinking my Coke and water mix and munching chicken slices. Temperatures were in the low to mid 30’s and I was still a bit over dressed in just my spring/autumn jersey but the airflow helped keep me from overheating too much.
As I made it back to the hills the temp fell to the mid 20’s and then into the teens and by then my body had regrouped enough for me to make quite decent progress again.
I was home in time to have a shower and pop out for a well earned Negroni cocktail and a bite to eat with the satisfying sense of a day very well lived!