TCR No.5 – Day 1

GERAARDSBERGEN – 28 Jul 10PM (RACE clock 0D // 0H // 0M)

The market square is packed with 280 odd riders. My room-mate from the B&B, Kurt, and I stand somewhere towards the back of the group. Conversation has now faded to a few words of nervous banter, and the obligatory good lucks with the other riders directly around us. Up front is a small gazebo where the organizers are gathered, and beyond that a orange glow of torches line either side of the first short cobbled ramp out of the square.

Anna calls for a minute’s silence in memory of Mike, and then as a more fitting tribute asks us to make as much noise as possible for him. And with those final formalities done, the planning, waiting, and talking are all over. This is it. All of my vague ideas, hopes and dreams of TCR are a thing of the past – the moment itself is upon me, right here, right now.  If I’d been able to think about it I’d probably have been shitting myself, but I’m too busy trying to stay upright shuffling along the cobbles, and then mounting and trying to ride up the steep ramp through the crowds.

It’s a relief to swing right at the top, and ride onto tar, which after a gradual rise begins to descend around the town.

“KERB!”

Charging downhill fast, I hear a sudden warning shout just in time and narrowly manage to avoid wiping out against a high concrete kerb that I hadn’t spotted.  It would have made for an ugly crash with which to start the race. At the bottom of the hill, our group swings left and through the town again to head back up and through the town square again. I wish Kurt well for a last time, knowing that the climb ahead will almost certainly split us up.

The route turns left this time as we reach the top of the ramp out of the square. The cobbles continue though, and we rattle and bump our way through the top of the town. After a right hand turn, the street steepens noticeably but worse is to come. At the top of this street, the route becomes a narrow cobbled path into woodland. It’s so narrow, I can feel the heat of the torches from the crowds either side. I’m surprised to be still pedaling so comfortably despite the now very steep gradient, but the riders up ahead have come to a standstill and I’m forced to unclip at the bottleneck. It’s a shame, because with a clear run it feels like I’d actually have been able to ride it even with my heavy rig. As it is, I trudge up with the mass – just a few riders manage to clear a path to keep riding through.  The other shame is that I spot Michel again in the crowds, meaning the shot he snaps of me is pushing rather than riding up the Muur. Literally meters beyond there’s enough space to mount up and ride on again.

Much quicker than I expect there are buildings on my left, the path flattens, and an odd calm descends. In the space of a few meters we’ve been ejected from the madness and noise of the crowds, and there’s just a handful of cyclists – some stopped left and right sorting gear, others pedaling straight through and starting the descent off the Muur. I decide to have one last gear check, but in doing so completely fail to unclip. My front wheel wobbles right, the weight of the bike unbalances me and I’m suddenly leaning over at 45 degrees, heading for the tarmac. Literally at the last moment I manage to avert an embarrassing spill, wrenching my left foot clear and stamping it to the ground. A couple of nearby riders ask if I’m OK. It’s not an ideal start, and I’m shaky, but there’s no harm done. I wheel across to the side, and spend a few moments calming myself and double checking I have the correct route selected in both the Garmin and Wahoo. I’ve decided to stick to plan A and take the N8 into Brussels – simple and direct.

My balance is still wobbly as I roll forward again. Swinging right, my wheels spin up rapidly as the path widens into a road and descends the steep pitch off the far side of the Muur. At some point, I forget exactly how far down, the cobbles end and I’m on smooth, easy rolling tar again. In no time I reach a very familiar crossroads – a handful of supporters are cheering and signalling everyone right, but I roll straight ahead and for a short while I’m back on the road leading to my B&B. I’d always expected my choice of the flatter, but significantly longer, easterly route to be less popular, but the moment I cross that junction I’m almost alone. Ahead on the road are a couple of other riders – and as the route twists and weaves between countryside and the orange street-lit glow of sleeping villages, I see perhaps three of four more. The plunge into quietness is such a contrast from the buzz of hundreds of riders at the start that it takes me a few kilometers to adjust. But gradually, with each turn of the pedals a sense of calm grows inside. I’m alone, starting out on a route which literally crosses the whole of Europe. It’s the most ridiculous thing to be attempting, and it feels unbelievable. What was once a far off dream is now gradually logging it’s way into reality on the pair of GPSs on my bars. The words on my jersey could not be truer – this is The Ultimate Test.

With no other riders around, there’s no temptation to chase any pace other than my own. It’s exactly what I need – steadily easing myself into the days of riding ahead. Somewhere around 11pm, after a 90 degree right hander at the end of Zanderbergen, the route ramps gradually upwards through a wooded section. In need of a pee, I pull off the road and lean my bike against one of the trees. The wood is cloaked in a deep silence – amplifying the sound of my feet crunching into leaves and twigs until it seems deafening. Instinctively I switch both my lights off and stand there for a few moments savoring the absolute peace of it. The hoot of an owl would make it perfection, but none comes. Reluctantly, I give up listening for one, mount up and ride on.

Just up ahead I pause at a junction, giving way to a pair of other racers already traveling the main road I’m turning left onto.  Our speeds are similar, and we’re clearing on the same route as they remain ahead over the next few kilometers. With no desire to increase my intensity level, I gear back fractionally to allow the gap of 30m between us to open up to 100m or more. We are not allowed to draft other racers, and I want to ensure there’s no chance I could be judged as following them. I’m so worried about maintaining a clean gap, my concentration is diverted away from the GPS screens and I take a wrong turn. With just 16km on the clock, after taking the correct left turn, I miss a right which follows it soon after. It takes a few moments before the nagging beep and flashing red lights on the Wahoo register with me. Aside from being annoyed with myself, and wasting a minute or two though, no real harm is done. In some sense, it’s a useful blunder that puts my dual GPS strategy to it’s first real test. When the simple map & track display on the eTrex loses my gaze, the Wahoo pulls my attention back to navigation.

As I join the N8 there is no sign of riders down the long dead straight section ahead. Perhaps they all took the minor side roads I’d also considered. My indecisiveness over this section of road proves unfounded though. It’s straight, and fast, and largely free of traffic. It doesn’t make for especially interesting cycling, but I motor along at a rewarding pace. I can’t recall even one car in the single lane roadwork sections, and it seems like only a handful in total have passed me by the time I reach Iterbeek. Turning right off the N8 I head into the outlying suburbs of Brussels itself, starting with Anderlecht and from there towards and across the city itself. One of the blogs I’d read (possibly Chris White’s) had warned about time lost going through rather than around cities. They were right  – but it was more than slow, it was a risky, at times terrifying blend of traffic, tram tracks, cobbles, high curbs, and occasionally even sudden massive holes in the pavement or road. Somewhere that must have been close to the very centre I passed a funfair in full swing, loud music and hundreds of bright flashing lights. My route when straight through the middle of it and, although the roadwork barriers I wiggled around saw me away from traffic, I was then faced with the equally tricky task of weaving through swathes of drunk revelers.

Somehow, despite the distractions and dangers I spend my time avoiding, I manage to get myself onto the N2 heading out of Brussels again with just one more minor navigation mistake (again, a missed turn spotted a few meters beyond). It’s a relief as the road heads out of the city, leaving the mayhem behind. An enormous roadwork site halts my progress briefly. The road ahead is dug up, and in the dark it takes me a few minutes to find a path through it. The first attempt ends on a gravel path that soon becomes a dirt footpath curving away from my course and into a dubious looking piece of wooded scrub-land. Eventually after doubling back twice I spot the temporary ramp of tarmac which leads me back onto the N2 again beyond.

Around 1:30am I pass through Nossegem and then Kortenberg – unremarkable, nondescript suburbs but their names are immediately recognisable to me. I’d plotted numerous routes around Brussels, but all of them came back to join the N2 somewhere between these two names. A ridiculous grin spreads across my face at the realisation that I am beginning to tick off the first few waypoints of this enormous journey. Some quick mental arithmetic also confirms that although slow, I’ve probably not lost that much time going through Brussels. Most of my other route options were sufficiently longer, that I’d have probably taken around the same amount of time to reach this point. Beyond Kortenberg begins one of the many cycle paths I take through the first night of riding. Some go in odd directions, or have sketchy surfaces, but all of them seem to be respected by locals – I don’t come across a single parked car blocking any of them. The one I am currently on is like a road in it’s own right – decent tar, and so far away from the highway itself that even the few passing vehicles are hardly noticeable. My hydration must have been good because at a roundabout shortly after joining the cycle path I’m bursting for a pee again. Luckily one of the turns heads up a secluded farm dirt track lined with trees. By the time I emerge a couple of other racers are crossing the roundabout and heading off along the path. It’s re-assuring to not be the only rider seeing this route as a viable one.

Leuven is a delight after the nightmare of Brussels – there’s still a surprising number of people milling about, but without the feeling of an imminent threat of collision. In a pedestrianised zone, I pull over to take a snap of a stunning gothic building that I assume is a cathedral (it turns out to have been the Town Hall). Nearby staff at a closing bar are putting chairs on tables. I hurry across to them and they willingly oblige my request for a quick refill of water bottles. There’s a confused look on their faces as I reply to their question of where I’m cycling too in the dead of night – for a moment, my response of “Greece” is lost in translation. When they realise I’m serious, they laugh and comment something along the lines of “so those other riders weren’t joking then?“. On both LEL and PBP I experienced various comments about being mad when bystanders hear how far you’re riding. But the idea that you’re crossing a whole continent seems to leave people baffled and lost for anything to say.

Leuven, 72km – 29 Jul 2:20am (0D // 4H // 22M)

Heading out of the suburbs of Leuven, I realise how hungry I am. Despite the time efficiency, I’ve never been a fan of eating as I ride, so I pull up at a comfortable looking wall. It’s bizarre how natural it feels to be sat there a little before 2:30am, alone in some completely strange town, snacking on sandwiches I made the day before.  Although I’m not completely alone – at the exact moment my lack of dehydration kicks in again, another pair ride by to the sight of me relieving myself in a bush. Over the next few days, all such inhibitions will completely disappear, but at this stage I’m still a little bashful over such public displays.

I’m barely back on the bike before a choking fit sends me to the gutter. I really may as well have eaten while riding for all the good stopping did for me! At that exact moment, the owl I was hoping to hear earlier chooses to make it’s appearance. Part of me wonders if this ghostly, pale shape silently winging it’s way across the road is the last thing I’ll see, but I with a final cough I manage to dislodge the stuck piece of food. I kick myself at being so stupid – less than 100km into the ride, and I nearly pass out not from riding too fast, but from eating too fast.

My memory of this stage is a long, near dead straight road, heading generally east. Either side of the road are open fields, a fresh wind whipping across them from the south to my right. I think of Kurt and the other riders heading across the Ardennes. The wind doesn’t really bother me, but for them it could be more of a troublesome headwind. The towns of Tienen and Sint-Truden come up next – also both names I recognise from the planning, and also picturesque in the small of the morning. In one of them (I forget which) the tail end of some town festival is being cleared up. Once again, my route goes bang through the middle but this time the revelers have all gone. Just me, a few street cleaners gathering up bags of litter, and security staff still hovering by the exit barrier. They look somewhat baffled over where a heavily loaded bike and rider have appeared from at this hour.

Around 4:45am (115km) I pull over at a bush shelter. I forget exactly why now, maybe my lack of dehydration needed some attention again. I do recall eating a cereal bar whilst briefly stopped and, of all the weird things to remember, I can still see the security light in the drive of the house opposite clicking on and off every time I move. Luckily they had no dogs to accompany the ludicrously long range IR sensor otherwise I’d have woken up the whole neighbourhood. It was a badly timed stop. Just down the road I stand at a traffic light waiting for ages to cross. Whatever I’d just stopped for, I may as well have done here. Eventually, as I wheel across the junction and into the little town of Borgloon, it occurs to me that I’m heading off the main road only to come back to it again further along. It’s only after passing through and rejoining the main road again that it comes back to me why this detour was there. A road sign in the direction I’m heading indicates Tongeren, and I remember being concerned this may be rather busy way into Maastricht. The alternate route I had planned forked off in the middle of Borgloon onto quieter rural roads. Clearly the little kink through the town must have remained on the  main route as well. It’s only cost me a handful of extra minutes, although I have no real memories of my sightseeing visit into this random Belgian town (I see on Google it has a rather fine town hall, which I carefully managed to avoid seeing).

The next 25km or so are a bit lacking in detail for me. My track has a very recognisable wiggle that I do recall after Tongeren where the N79 crosses the A13 motorway. I remember it for two reasons – the first of these being I zigzagged across the road a couple of times figuring how the cycle path would get me to the other side.  The junction wasn’t especially busy, but the path seemed a safer bet than a wrong exit leading me onto the slipway of the motorway by mistake. The  second reason is a little more bizarre – for the last few kilometers, I’d been composing a letter to Eddie Izzard in my head. The previous day Yoli had mentioned watching his sketch about  The Creation, and how on the first day God had created Belgium from jam. I felt a very strong need to point out to Eddie that of the three things I noticed most in Belgium (great beer, lovely old buildings, and wind), only one of them seemed possible to make out of jam . I made a mental note to take up this topic with Yoli when I spoke to her later – perhaps she could type and send the letter for me. What can I say? Riding alone all night does odd things to ones mind (if you read my LEL account, you’ll find a letter I composed to Jeremy Clarkson).

Vroenhoven, 140km – 29 Jul 6:11am (0D // 8H // 11M)

Arriving at the tiny village of Vroenhoven brought with it a rather special event. There ahead, silhouetted against the first rays of the morning sun, was a short bridge high above a narrow man-made navigation. Lovely as this view was, it was memorable for what it represented – my first border crossing of TCR (in fact, the first national border I’d ever crossed by bicycle). Across the other side of the bridge lay The Netherlands, although by virtue of the fact that this was the narrow, most southerly tip of the country, within 30km I’d be crossing my second border into Germany. But this was the first border, and firsts are always special, so I stopped to snap a quick photo capturing the moment.

The border and the town of Maastricht were pretty much one and the same, and in no time I was heading through yet another city centre. I pulled over on the John F Kennedy bridge to take a photo of the spectacular view. Another rider (cap 164 I think) must have gone through the same thought processes as me. As well as stopping for the photo, she was also on the hunt for breakfast. I’m not sure if she fared better than me, but I ended up eating yet further into my store of cereal bars. They were tasty at least, and I munched happily as I rolled along enjoying another wonderfully smooth cycle lane. It was a scenic and peaceful stretch, green fields and trees either side, but a busier section for TCR racers, with at least 4 or 5 other riders around me at various times. I pull off the path at a Shell garage, hoping that the shop might be open. But it’s still too early – the garage is in 24hr self service mode, closed up apart from the pumps. Rather than waste the stop I find a bench and see if I can reach Yoli at home.  As we chat, yet more riders pass by on the path – meanwhile, as well as remarking on my great progress (I am pretty much where I wanted to be for the 1st morning) Yoli also sets me straight with respect to Eddie Izzard. Apparently Belgium wasn’t created from jam after all, just on the same day. Well that was a wasted letter then. It’s always a lift to ring home, and I start out again in great spirits.

Minutes along the road, and the Wahoo beeps at me to turn left off into the village of Wahlwiller. It’s the start of the route I’ve plotted around Aachen, which initially heads north on rural roads towards Bocholtz. It’s one of two section I still have lingering doubts over and these are not eased by the sight of the road heading up into rolling hills, whereas the other riders around me are continuing along the much flatter main road straight towards Aachen. I make a snap decision in the village, and turn back onto the cycle path I’d just left. It’s easy riding and I’m flying along, but aside from generally heading towards the city centre I have no idea where I’m going. As I ride I zoom the eTrex in and out a few times to try and pick a route. I can’t make out whether the major more obvious lines I am seeing are ride-able roads or are motorways. Eventually I realise, whilst this may be easy cycling, I could waste a lot of time by getting lost – or crashing because I’m looking down at my Garmin. With near perfect timing, I roll past a clearly open bakery.

VAALS, 172km – 29 Jul 8am (0D // 10H // 05M)

After 2 decent cappuccinos, a salami salad roll, and a chocolate croissant I’ve managed to get myself “unlost” (to quote the TCR race manual). Once I got my head around the task it proved remarkably easy. I fired up Komoot on my phone and scanned my original route for an easily recognisable town – Eschweiler. Then simply created a new route, again in Komoot, from my current point to there. The only part which had me battling for a moment was getting the route across to the Wahoo. Quite by chance, I fired up the Elemnt App on my phone, and spotted it had already sync’d the new route across into the App. Once I saw this, Bluetooth pairing to the Elemnt itself took care of the rest. I was rather pleased with myself as I downed the last dregs of coffee and kitted up to ride out. I’d traveled only meters from the bakery when I spotted the German border sign, stopping again to grab an obligatory selfie. At least two other riders did the same – one pair on heavily loaded rigs with full panniers handed me a phone to snap their picture.

Aachen centre was another slow affair, weaving through traffic. I missed the photo of the day at a traffic light which had been ingeniously vandalized. As the light changed colour it revealed pictures that had been stuck over the round lenses: red was a heart; orange a peace sign; and green a cannabis leaf. I kept hoping to see another so I could video the sequence, but of course never did. I also encountered the only vehicle I was to see stopped in a cycle lane. A delivery van was unloading in a truly awkward spot – at the top of a short but steep cobbled ramp, on a bend. To make matters worse, the driver was oblivious to my passage, nearly taken me out with a swinging door, and then a trolley of cartons. Fortunately the rest of Aachen was much less threatening, although the next section alongside a railway line definitely had a feel of being a less than salubrious part of town. It was probably my imagination, but some of the ladies hanging around on corners definitely didn’t look like as if they had dressed for a Saturday stroll.

The road in towards Eschweiler narrowed at some point for roadworks, and the traffic grew considerably busier. Coming to halt in a line of cars at a stop-go section, I noticed the increase in temperature for the first time. It was barely 10am, and already the heat was building. I also have a strong recollection of a crowd sat by the side of the road on a sharp bend cheering at me with some passion. I think this was just on the approach into town. It was something of a surprise, although I realized of course they’d most likely turned out to support a friend, and I’d just happened to pass as they were waiting. It was rather wonderful all the same.

ESCHWEILER, 190km – 29 Jul 10:20am (0D // 12H // 20M)

The reroute definitely cost me an extra hour or so, but now back on course I ducked into a cafe to ask a friendly waitress to fill my bottles with water. She obliged with ice as well which was most welcome given the heat. As I’m exiting the semi-pedestrian zone I spy the purple track on my eTrex screen showing my original route. The roadworks continued out of town – the heat reflects back with added ferocity off the fresh, pitch black tar. Just beyond there’s a road closed barrier, and we’re diverted up a short ramp and through the village of Langerwehe. I’d had this as a quieter option on my original route, but all of the traffic is now crowding down this lane. After the diversion I do manage to skip the traffic for a short way  – first on a cycle path alongside the main road, and then taking a couple of farm tracks around fields when the path ends. Eventually though, I’m out of options  and a bit reluctantly rejoin the main road. The traffic has thinned though, and devoid of markings, the road feels as wide as a highway, meaning the cars that do pass give me plenty of room.

Once through Düren my improvisation is less successful – a tempting, wide gravel path slowly veers off in the wrong direction, forcing me to double back. I need to stop wasting time, and just cope with the traffic on the roads I’ve mapped out. Fortunately though, I’ve reached the point where I managed to route along less busy rural roads. And with this, the character of my ride changes – small villages and quieter roads with more tractors and farm vehicles than cars.

Frauwüllesheim, 215km – 29 Jul 11:50am (0D // 13H // 50M)

Another village name for some reason stuck in my head from planning sessions. There’s an odd looking little roadside imbiss, which seems totally out of character with the rest of the buildings. I can’t resist pulling over for food. There’s a couple on a motorbike tour sat at one of the other tables, and we strike up a conversation as I wait for what turns out to be a massive plate of Schnitzel with mushroom sauce and chips. I watch as their faces go through the familiar range of emotions when they hear my destinations – curious, surprised, confused and finally lost for reply. I can’t sit near them anyway – the sun is now blazing down, and I do my best to hide from it at one of the tables around the corner in a scrap of shade. Despite my best efforts, I barely make a dent on the food – just one of the two enormous schnitzels, and less than half of the chips. It tastes great though, and after a bottle of fizz and coffee I’m refueled for what is clearly going to be a scorching afternoon.

At 1:15pm (235km) just after Friesheim another of my strategies for this part of the route pays off. On the 2nd pass over my plan, I saw a note on some social forum or other commenting that German farm access tracks can be an excellent alternative to roads. All traffic is banned on them apart from agricultural vehicles or for access to farms. The one I swing right onto has a decent tar surface, and precisely one car along it’s whole length. It even has it’s own, tarred bridge over the A1 highway. It’s a great discovery – especially since I have hundreds of kilometers left to travel across Germany.

I have only the blurriest memories of the next 30km. Some combination of heat and fatigue, or putting my head down to make progress but, despite pulling up images on Google, I have zero recollection of Biberach which I rode right through the middle of. The next clear recollection I have is passing a garage, and  then turning back as the thought strikes me that an ice cream is long overdue.

Vettelhoven, 268km – 29 Jul 3pM (0D // 16H // 55M)

The garage had something else the imbiss was lacking, and I now badly needed – an actual, proper toilet as opposed to a hedgerow. Before the ride, Yoli had joked that I should take my bike into the loo with me rather than risk it being stolen. As I sat with my foot holding the door ajar, and my steed in sight,  I realised rather too late that it would actually have fitted inside this capacious outhouse. Luckily, I was at the back of the garage and the work-yard was deserted, so my privacy was undisturbed despite the extra fresh air and view from the part open door.

Back at the front, my needs taken care of, I sat on the step and took off shoes and socks in an effort to cool down as much as possible. I downed an array of cold drinks as I relaxed there, and at least one ice cream (possibly more). I got a few amused looks from a group of biker girls passing through, by this stage I’m guessing I smelt rather too bad to approach for conversation.

A little before 4pm (285km) at Lantershofen the cycle path began the long winding downhill run into the Rhine valley. It was a few hundred meters before I could let the wheels run and enjoy it though. First up it was clogged with a picnic hamper carrying throng, on their way to a summer evening festival I assumed. The next obstruction was a wrong turn, taking me back up and away from the road. Finally though, I got myself right and could let rip down the long easy slope. The surface was bumpy on occasion, triggering a slight thud from somewhere on the bike. It didn’t sound serious, but was a tad worrying all the same. Traveling at speed, I couldn’t safely check anything, so I put it down to mudguards rattling and pushed on.

Dad was my earliest inspiration to cycle long distances and he’s often with me on rides, especially solo ones. During my route planning, one particular map feature had caught my eye about the the next section which I knew would bring him back to me. My path leaves the road and heads through a flat, green, waterside meadow, across which wafts the unmistakable pong of a nearby sewage works. It’s perhaps an odd thing to remind someone of their father, but smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers. Dad was a lecturer in industrial chemistry, and of the many happy terms he spent tutoring students, his favourite topics by far were distilling alcohol and domestic and industrial water treatment. I remember him and my sister taking trips to gather water samples from our nearby river as part of my her A level project.

THE RHINE, 285km – 29 Jul 4:20pM (0D // 18H // 20M)

The path negotiates one last kink through what appear to be an enormous steel door in a flood defense of some kind, and there it is – The Rhine. It’s such a huge physical and mental milestone on my Day 1 journey that I feel a bit choked at the sight of the broad expanse of slow moving water.  I quickly snap a selfie to update Yoli about this uplifting measure of my progress.

I barely manage the first couple of turns of the Rhine Path before I’m stopped again, sending her more photos of an impossibly quaint covered wooden bridge. And as I bump onto and over it, I suddenly realise the cause of that annoying rattle. Two days back, as I sat at the B&B pottering about assembling the bike I initially only finger tightened the fork crown bolt holding up the front mudguard. I’d intended to tighten it fully when adjusted, but I remember now that never happened. Pulling over, my theory is confirmed, it’s rattled loose and the mudguard is bouncing up and down. At points it touches the tyre slightly – which also accounts for the  smell of toasting rubber I briefly noticed on the fast descent. As I haul out tools, I’m kicking myself at the rookie mistake. Worse, none of the spare bolts I have fit – so it’s time for a proper Randonneur fix – cable ties! They’re not elegant, but they appear to be holding everything clear.

The path is busy and, although generally flat the surface is far from smooth – in many places it’s a bumpy surface of set bricks, which have lifted and sunk into jagged wheel jarring waves.  The bell becomes my best friend. Added almost as an afterthought, it’s now the single best value item on the whole bike, allowing me to maintain a decent pace, whilst avoiding the many touring riders. You’d imagine that following a cycle path along a river would be about as simple as navigation could get, but I knew some odd tricky sections were lurking. The first of these came around 5pm (295km) beyond Bad Breisig. The path swung 180 degree up and away from the river and I found myself staring at the busy B9 highway and the railway beyond. I mill around confused for a few moments before I spot the error. A narrow, muddy single lane track left the apex of the bend, continuing along the river. Even after noticing the sign, as I roll down into woodlands and over a rickety bridge I’m doubting this can possibly be the route. But beside the gushing stream, there is a low, narrow tunnel under both the highway and railway. It stinks of pee, and is not rideable, but it’s leading the right way. I trudge under and wheel up onto the road beyond.

After a short stretch of quiet urban road, I’m doing the same in reverse, except this time it’s a clean and pleasant smelling passageway under just the railway. I’m now right alongside the B9 – occasionally actually on it, but only in short stretches and often with a rideable gutter or path. Beyond Namedy, the route veers right and becomes a proper cycle path again across a delightful grassy meadow bordered by a wooded hillside.  Amongst the many tourers, I spot a couple of riders leaving the far side of the meadow in familiar kit – they look very like fellow TCR riders, but I never catch up with them to check. I have seen a handful of other riders along the river, so it’s not a total surprise. Just beyond the meadow I’m deposited onto a busy looking road with no shoulder. It’s not especially pleasant, and I’m wondering if I made a route planning mistake – but as it winds alongside and occasionally beneath the massive concrete pillars of an elevated section of the B9, I recognise where I am. It’s a short link section that soon leads me back to the river at Andernach.

The heat is finally dying down and the orange glow of evening sets in as I wind through urban streets before rejoining the river path at Weißenthur. It’s tempting to push on and capitalise on cooler night time riding to cover more distance, but I’ve been on the road now for 20 hours and I’m beginning to fade. I’m 35km short of my tentative day 1 target of Bad Salzig, and physically I could probably make it fine. But I know it’s a small town along a quiet stretch of river. The odds of finding a hotel with space are anything from certain. The much larger city of Koblenz is just up ahead, so I make a decision to stop at the first likely looking hotel. Unfortunately none of what I see on the path seem that likely. Busy, and swanky, yes, but welcoming and with a vacancy for a grimy, smelly cyclist – doubtful. So much so, that I weave through tables set out in front, and dodge waiters serving diners without so much as stopping to ask. It feels like a complete waste of time – not to mention many have steep steps up to their doors, which I have no desire hauling my heavy bike up.

As the path doubles back on itself, and rises steeply to leave the river side I’m starting to feel a bit lost and dejected. It’s mostly down to tiredness I know, but with daylight fading a park bench is starting to feel more likely than a proper bed. It feels even less likely as I roll through the quiet urban streets of Kaltenengers. The only open business I see of any kind is a not especially inviting pizza cafe. I pause a little beyond to consider going back to at least get some food, which I definitely need. But I haven’t given up the hopelessly idealistic notion of stumbling into a hotel with a room and cordon bleu room service to meet my fueling needs.

KALTENENGERS, 320KM – 29 Jul 6:38pM (0D // 20H // 38M)

I almost ride right past it before noticing. A modest white and blue sign pointing left to the Rhein Hotel Larus. It’s probably going to be a waste of time – another up market, busy river side hotel – but something tells me to go and check. There are tables on a raised patio with diners, but distinctly less busy looking. Even more promising, the sign says “bike hotel” – which suggests at least some friendliness to cyclists, although not perhaps the extreme variety I presently represent. Nervous of it’s safety, I prop my bike outside in the most visible spot I can, and head up the stairs to reception. I’m pretty sure I’ll be heading straight back out, so I don’t want to waste time locking it up.

Unbelievably though, they have a room – I just need to get past the couple in front of me at reception so I can get to it. Luckily, by now I smell worse than a sauna full of tramps, and I’m clearly standing way to close to them. They hurry things along, and in no time I’m also checked in. The receptionist is immune to my plees to take my bike into the room though, and it takes another half an hour at least to find a space which I’ll be able retrieve it from at 2am when the garages at the back will be locked. It’s a downstairs broom cupboard, which doesn’t lock, but we manage to hide my bike at the back. Then follows a process which my slow brain struggles to figure out – what exactly I need to grab off my bike and take up to the room. Dry bag is easy, 2 clips and it’s off. Battery packs, USB charger, light battery and I’m set. Bugger, no I’m not, water bottles need to be full in the morning – I go back and fetch them. Finally I’m set – slung over my shoulder is the bulging TCR musette which I am now very glad I stuffed in my pocket rather than ditching.

Yoli will joke at me for the rest of the ride at what happens next. I’m sat in a bathrobe in my room, the sink is full of laundry which I’ll wring out shortly, but an enormously plate of cordon bleu food demands my attention first. With her spiritual nature, she claims I manifested exactly the thing I needed just when I needed it. For me, I’m just thanking my good luck. I’ve even got a German Pils, and on the side is a packed breakfast for the morning. Whether luck or some higher power, it really is near perfect.

After checking all my devices and phones are charging, I tackle the laundry process I have watched on video a few times. Laying my gear out on a towel, rolling it up, and then twisting it tightly to wring it out. I’m surprised at how dry the jersey and shorts come out, and as I hang them up to dry fully they don’t even smell too bad.

Bugger – I wasn’t set, I didn’t bring my glasses. Another trip to the broom cupboard is needed before I can take my lenses out and crash in the bed. I’ve not exactly been quick, but at least I have the process down now. Hopefully future nights will be a bit more streamlined. Time for sleep. I lay down and prepare to drift off. Except that isn’t what happens. Instead, a small army of invisible trolls creep under the sheets and start beating my muscles with hammers. There is literally no position I can lie in without excruciating pain. I’ve felt no discomfort all day, but now I’m in agony. I give up and go to the bathroom to get painkillers – or at least that is what I attempt. One thigh locks in cramp as I try to get up and I fall to the floor. Eventually, I manage to crawl to the bathroom, down the pills, and crawl back to bed. Somehow, I do eventually drift off – not because I’m actually any more comfortable, but I’m too shattered to do anything else.

 

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