Dot to Dot

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.

TCR No.5 – Day 10

The morning lived up to  expectations. A watery grey light leaked through the window to wake me up around 5am. I got up and stared out – the rain fell steadily, as it had done all night. It wasn’t going to matter that my shoes had not completely dried out. They’d be wet again in no time anyway. I wound slowly back down the staircase as if, somehow, taking each flight with purpose might increase the chances of the weather clearing. It didn’t, of course.

Continue reading “TCR No.5 – Day 10”

TCR No.5 – Day 9

As I come down the stairs into the empty restaurant, an elderly caretaker is waiting for me exactly as promised. He helps me retrieve my bike and then watches with an expression somewhere between amusement and disbelief as I stash my bags and gear. I’m dying for a coffee, but our communication is limited to a few nods and smiles, and him handing me the packed breakfast. I’m not entirely sure he’d know how to operate the espresso machine anyway, and my limited German is met  with a blank stare. I settle for downing the carton of orange juice included with the breakfast, and a thank you (which does seem to be understood) before rolling out into the now deserted city streets. Continue reading “TCR No.5 – Day 9”

TCR No.5 – Day 8

MARIBOR, 1638km – 3:30Am (race clock 07d // 05H // 30M)

Everywhere is damp as I wheel back out of the yard, puddles in the street evidence of the storm the night before. The air is wonderfully fresh and cool, a near perfect morning for riding. The first dark couple of hours continue to roll up and down – it’s not really visible, but the countryside feels like parkland or nature reserve. Perched atop one of the last steep ramps an impressive stately home looking building is lit up brightly against the deep inky blue of the pre-dawn sky. I stop to take a picture and send it to Yoli with words along the lines that I found her a palace. The run along and then down from that ridge brings with it daylight. My passage startles a pair of small, red, deer who are grazing in a meadow beside the road. They are the first two signs of life I’ve noticed so far today. The next two are also quite memorable. Continue reading “TCR No.5 – Day 8”

TCR No.5 – Day 7

Ajdovščina1439km – 05:45AM (race clock 06d // 07H // 45M)

The receptionist wants me to wait for 6am when the restaurant opens for breakfast, but I’m keen to get moving and eventually talk her into a cup of coffee and some change for the vending machine. The little torpedo shaped croissant packets it dispenses are not the infamous 7Days brand – I still haven’t spotted those in shops. But my guess is they’re pretty much the same thing. They’re considerably better than I’m expecting, and of the three or four I buy, two disappear immediately, washed down by the first of the coffees – the receptionist is already on her way with the second! The remaining packets take some cramming into my bags, puffed up as their air filled wrappers are. Only later on do I realise the obvious – piercing the packaging allows them to squash down much more easily. Continue reading “TCR No.5 – Day 7”

TCR No.5 – Day 6

The laundry I retrieve from the railings outside is bone dry – the afternoon sun has done it’s work, even in the late evening it’s still extremely hot. My bike is all packed up and ready as I head to the restaurant to fuel up. After a couple of laps around the busy tables, it’s clear Tom and Jen haven’t  dropped by yet, so I grab a table and get an order in for pizza, salad, and a coke.  By the time I’m half way through the first slice the guys arrive. It’s been  superb to have friends around for a few hours, and it’s hard to tear myself away back to the solitude of the road again. Sliding silently through the town streets to the foot of the mountain is quite an adjustment, disappearing slowly back into my own thoughts. Continue reading “TCR No.5 – Day 6”

TCR No.5 – Day 5

COSTE, 1024km – 3:19AM (race clock 04d // 05H // 19M)

The last two pizza slices disappeared so fast they could hardly be described as breakfast, but they filled a hole at least. 3am seems to becoming my regular starting hour – I’m sat on the chairs outside in the quiet of the morning. There’s just the briefest stretch of road, before I’m back on the cycle path alongside the noisy, rushing torrent of the river again. Deprived of views beyond the limits of my front light, it’s hard to recall specific details. Long dark stretches of path, often through trees, occasionally popping out alongside a few buildings or a road. It’s enjoyable – fast and flowing, with superbly smooth tarmac, but in my mind the night before and the early morning have all merged into one, except for the few stretches where something memorable happened. The first of these events is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Continue reading “TCR No.5 – Day 5”

TCR No.5 – Day 4

3am sees me padding around another sleeping hotel – breakfast has been left out at reception as promised, although it takes me a few moments to figure out the latch on the low wooden door to get behind the desk,. The bag is wet in one corner – the culprit, a large dill pickle, slips out of the hole as I pick it up. Bizarre as it sounds, pickles are a well known aid for cramp, although I’m fairly sure it’s inclusion is just a coincidence of regional cuisine. I rescue the pickle, and stuff it in my mouth, putting the rest of the food bag in my musette.

As the basement door opens to the garage I’m greeted by the tracker lights, still flashing away exactly where I had last seen them. Continue reading “TCR No.5 – Day 4”

TCR No. 5 – Day 3

Honau, 640km – 6:25am (race clock 02D // 08H // 25M)

Much to my surprise the coffee was there, and it was darned good – properly strong, dark espresso in a cup just large enough to take a small shot of milk. It was the perfect accompaniment as I sat outside on a concrete step rigging all the gear back onto my bike. Before setting off., some extra cable ties are needed for my front mudguard fix – it’s still rubbing occasionally on rough ground.

The air was cool and skies clear as I rolled out onto the fast run back down the hill, just the odd patch of damp still from the night before. Continue reading “TCR No. 5 – Day 3”