Cool, clear air, crystal clear waters of a high mountain lake, wispy clouds scudding across the surrounding peaks. As I slogged up to CP3 in Slovakia almost exactly a year ago, I was pretty sure this was the final chapter in TCR for me. Nothing much challenged that view in the days which immediately followed – heading down to Poprad, flying to Athens, and arriving in Meteora for the party as a tourist rather than a finisher. The feeling in all of this was a prolonged farewell to an incredible experience. It took me a few months to complete my blog entries, but doing so felt like the last words I’d ever be inspired to write on TCR. But one of the great joys and mysteries in this life is that we never really know what lies on the road ahead. And TCR, it turns out, is no exception. Because just as my attempt on this monstrous beast ended, so the gauntlet was picked up by friend and riding buddy Nico Coetzee.
We met up for breakfast a few days before he flew out for his attempt – I’d be lying if I pretended there wasn’t a tinge of FOMO mixed in with the excitement that he’d soon be starting out on his own adventure across Europe. Any doubts that I should also have entered and be joining him for a second attempt myself were dispelled brutally though just a couple of days later on the next Cape 200 Audax. It was a new experimental route – taking in the stunning Gydo Pass, which we’ve been wanting to include on a ride for some time. With just five of us starting out at 6am from Wellington, there was always a high probability that our paces wouldn’t match and I’d be spending a significant time riding alone. Ordinarily this would trouble me, but for some reason on this crisp, blue, winters day the idea of riding solo was almost something I was looking forward too. So when Gary and Shaun dropped back a shade on the first ramps of Gydo Pass, I ground on steadily and allowed the gap between us to widen. For the remaining 140km I enjoyed every aspect of the solace of the ride and the stunning mountain scenery. With limited stops, I even managed to finish an hour inside the time I’d expected for a strenuous ride with four significant climbs.
What is perhaps most significant about this particular Audax though is the date on which it was ridden – 28 July 2018 – the day before Nico would line up on those iconic Geraardsbergen cobbles for the start of TCR No.6. I rode solo, I finished strong and faster than is typical for me, and I enjoyed the ride. But absolutely no part of me felt fit and ready for another attempt on TCR. My general physical fitness has definitely improved, but it still feels insufficient to maintain a high enough average speed across the whole distance to complete TCR in time. More than that though, the latent numbness in my right hand has actually degraded since last year. It’s becoming something of a battle on the bike, kicking in at anything from the 80km mark onwards. By the end of this latest Audax, I was again struggling to control the brakes and shift well enough. Massage, physio, gym core work – all of these I’m working through, but it’s unclear yet whether any will yield enough improvement for the really long distances again.
Over the last three weeks following Nico another, equally significant factor has entered my consciousness. As a dot watcher, I’ve come to realise exactly how much trauma our families go through whilst we as riders are out on these big adventures. Every time Nico’s dot paused for too long at some unlikely spot you could almost hear a collective intake of breath from our local TCRNo6 WhatsApp group. Was this just coffee, or a sleep, or was something wrong?. In fact, all of those scenarios panned out over the next 16 days – including several mechanicals. But, with his typical calm and unflustered perseverance, Nico soldiered on stoically to overcome all of them. And his final run in to the finish was filled with the kind of drama that none of us watching needed, but which somehow seemed a perfectly fitting finale to this epic battle.
With 1 hour and 15 mins left on the clock Nico had a last 200m odd of climbing before the long, all downhill run of the parcours into the town of Kalabaka and the end of his journey. At which point, the Trackleaders site died and stopped updating. All we could do was guess and wonder. My estimate was that he had around 20 to 30 minutes of uphill and another 20 to 30 minutes of descending left. It was going to be nail bitingly close. We sat, staring at a frozen map, pinging each other messages and wondering if he made it. For some reason, I’d expected Nico’s wife Valerida would relay the news, but with about 5 minutes to spare it was Nico himself that messaged us to say he had made it. Sliding just inside cutoff, Nico became the very last rider of TCR No.6 to finish within time, and the first ever South African rider to do so. According to one of those there at the end, he did so with typically unassuming aplomb – reportedly riding up, and hopping off and parking his bike looking as fresh as if he’d just gone for a gentle spin around town.
A few days since Nico’s magnificent achievement I realise how much it has helped frame my own thoughts on TCR too – both my own attempt on TCR No.5, and also whether I’d ever try it again. First and foremost of course, it’s re-enforced my absolute love for the personal battles and triumphs this amazing event inspires – the drama which unfolds every day, as ordinary cyclists and individuals take on the immense challenges that the road throws at them. Every fragment of my being yearns to be a part of this unique cycling adventure once more. But I’m a realist too. Sat glued to the screen watching Nico’s dot crawl across that enormous map has helped me come to terms with how improbable that scenario may be. I know I can ride 2,300km in around nine and a half days. If I am going to put my body and my family through the stress of riding out again, I need to have a reasonable degree of certainty of getting further – much further. Borrowing Andy Alsop’s phrase from the title of his LEL book – ‘barring mechanicals’, I need to know that I can complete the whole 4,000km within 16 days. My current training, and the recent Audax have given me a level of belief that my riding pace and time management are heading in the right direction for that outcome. As things stand though, my right hand and neck remain a much greater question mark. Until they are capable of taking the punishment, my participation in future TCR editions is likely to remain as an avid dot watcher and fan.