TCR No.5 – Day 2

Kaltenengers, 320km – 30 Jul 1am (race clock 01D // 03H // 00M)

A thundering herd of buffalo would have been quieter than my attempts at sneaking out of my room and retrieving my bike from the broom cupboard. It’s somewhere after 1am, and the hotel is closed up and asleep. I do my best to prop the door out to the garage open with a large rock – I’m more than a little paranoid it will lock shut behind me whilst half my gear is still inside. It’s a relief after a couple of trips to have everything safely outside so I can reverse the process of the night before, and get everything back onto the bike. At least there’s plenty of light in the little alcove between the parking spaces and the back door of the hotel – which is indeed now locked. Mostly rigged, I roll up the slight ramp to street level and fix the final few items under the yellow glow of a nearby streetlamp – the hardest task of which is stashing all the food provided by the hotel. I manage to cram most of it into the two feedbags on my bars, but give up on the banana – it’s easier just to eat it.

By just after 2am I’m rolling again, albeit not very safely. Why is the only car on the road heading directly at me? Crap! Even with red tape on my right aero bar to remind me, I’ve still managed to start out on the wrong side of the road.  At least the shock has now fully woken me up. A short way along, my route rejoins the river side cycle path. On an especially dark corner under some trees there’s a group of guys hanging around. My heart races and for a moment I’m scared. But up close their intoxicated state seems more comical than threatening – luckily they seem to have enough of whatever substance they are abusing not to bother robbing me to get money for more. A little further along I see a much shabbier sight – a TCR rider in full kit asleep on a bench by the path. Only a couple of days in, and we’re already lowering the tone of even the hobo’s neighbourhood.

The lead in to Koblenz is distinctly industrial from this side. Massive slab-walled factories, gantries and walkways crossing high above me, tall wire-fenced gates, plumes of steam and smoke, white against the pervasive orange glare of row upon row of perimeter flood lights. The deserted link road amplifies the loneliness of this stark, modern canyon. Eventually I run out onto town streets proper, and am soon navigating my way through the centre of town. By now, I really should be getting used to how busy these major towns are in the small of the morning, but it still comes as a surprise. A few drunken cheers are thrown my way on one street corner, at the next a couple of youths decide to race me – one of them in a shopping cart, the other pushing.

The exit from Koblenz is another route section I have prevaricated over endlessly. The river path does continue, but every indication has been that it’s an unsurfaced, not great track. The route I’ve plotted joins the main road instead, and given the early hour I decide this is preferable. There’s no shoulder, and the few cars I do encounter are traveling at speed, but none pass even remotely close enough to be worrying. In fact, I seem to be more of a hazard to them – several oncoming vehicles flash at the brightness of my light. My main riding beam can be a tad unfriendly, especially to low slung cars. I do my best to angle it downwards, and set it to “Low”, switching on my dynamo light which has a proper road-specific beam pattern. Somewhere, on a stretch of main road in the dark I pass what seems to be a sizeable brewery. I resolve to try and find one of their beers, forgetting of course that I’ll hopefully be hundreds of kilometers away before it’s a respectable hour to imbibe one. By the next town I’ve forgotten the name anyway.

My memory becomes fragmented over the next section – I clearly recall a path between what seem like back yards or allotments, and another cobbled track through a wood. One part I do remember with absolute clarity is a snack stop to fuel my rumbling tummy.

SPAY, 341km – 3:42am (race clock 01D // 05H // 42M)

As tasty as the first of Hotel Larus’s sandwiches were, it’s not what made this stop memorable. Neither was the simple tranquility of it, sat on a bench in the still of the morning with just the sound of the river slowly sliding along a few metres away. For some reason, as well as recording a quick good morning message for Yoli, I decided to check Facebook. Social media is something I had vowed not to waste too much time with on the ride, and apart from a handful of very rare occasions I managed to avoid the temptation. Stunned is too small a word at how the first post I saw left me – I was totally floored. I’d just read the news that one of our own, Frank Simons, had been struck by a car and killed the night before. Sitting there, open mouthed, I was lost – for what to do, or how to feel. I skimmed some of the comments – a few called for the organizers to halt the race. Bravely, they had not done so – they had contacted Frank’s family, and chosen to honour his memory by doing what he would have wanted and continue the race. Given the earlier two tragedies this year (Mike Hall, IPWR & Eric Fishbein, TABR) the easy path would have been to cancel. But as well as courage, TCR is about self sufficiency. Asking riders to carefully consider the facts and make their own decisions was appropriate for both the ride & Frank’s wishes. Some had already posted a decision to abandon – a choice visibly respected by the scarcity of derogatory remarks. Despite the shock – I didn’t want to stop, at least not yet, not until I’d had time to actually speak with Yoli and see how she felt about me continuing. In the letter posted by the organizers, I had read that Frank was a keen Randonneur – for now, I wanted to do what all Randonneurs love and do best. I just wanted to ride.

Rolling away my mood was very different to how I arrived at that peaceful spot. It’s assumed that not all of the 282 starters will reach the finish, but the realization that only 281 will be heading home from wherever they stop is a heavy cloud that suddenly all of us are riding under. From somewhere the idea comes to take a first light photo and post it in memory of Frank, although dawn is still an hour or more away.

In Boppard the path is closed, diverting me up onto the cobbles of the main street through the town before rejoining the river again. The path rises up at a bend, and onto loose gravel where the road is closed for maintenance. There’s a grim looking hotel on that corner which looks closed up, perhaps because of the roadworks. I’m not far from my originally planned stop the night before, and the sight of this shabby roadhouse makes me grateful once more for the luxurious digs I lucked into. Somewhere, I cross under the railway again in another pee-soaked tunnel. The path sticks alongside the road, which at this point veers away from the river. The surface is badly broken, weeds poking through cracks – combined with the sense of being alongside a busy road and away from the river it makes for a dreary few kilometers. As with all things in long distance riding though, eventually it ends and I’m back under leafy green trees, the sound of rushing water to my left.

Bad Salzig, 353km – 4:30AM (RACE CLOCK 01D // 06H // 30M)

I’m forced to stop as I pass by the middle of the riverside part of the town. I’ve reached the end of the first section of my route, and I need to reload both the Garmin and the Wahoo with the next section (excitingly labeled “K1A2” under my naming scheme). The sun isn’t up yet, but the first blue-grey light of dawn is beginning to fringe the range of hills that have begun to rise up above the valley. The river is noticeably narrower and more winding now, and the noise of the current much louder. In places there are small man-made rapids – presumably the submerged concrete ramps help maintain the water level for the navigable channel on the far side. A handful of massive barges slide silently along. I look for where the owner’s cars are hidden, and sure enough, somewhere on each a Mercedes, BMW or other car is neatly lashed down, sometimes under a tarpaulin cover. At some point a section of dirt road leads me down and past a yacht club. At a campsite – heads are poking out of tents, and partly clothed bodies emerging into the morning. I’m in no position to judge their appearance and the smell of coffee brewing and bacon frying is especially hard to leave behind.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, 373KM – 05:30AM (RACE CLOCK 01D // 07H // 30M)

I stop to take the photo I promised myself for Frank, and stand in silence for a moment to wonder at the dawn he didn’t get a chance to see. I do not manage to ride away from this place with dry eyes.

My imagination is triggered by seeing Bacharach on a town sign a little further along. At least one of the grand old buildings gracing the riverside looks like a high rollers’  casino. For the second time on this TCR, James Bond comes to mind (Kurt caused the first by pointing out how many TCR checkpoints are Bond locations). I picture 007 emerging from the building I’ve assumed is a casino – a dinner jacket over his shoulder as he hops into a waiting Aston Martin. Obviously, with the casino theme it’s a very specific Bond that comes to mind, although for some reason the face I see is Daniel Craig not Sean Connery. Oh well, I guess I can forgive myself for that. Craig also became a decent Bond.

Bingen, 390KM – 6:30 AM (RACE CLOCK 01D // 08H // 30M)

A right-angle left beyond Trechtingshausen signals the end of my Rhine Path adventure is nearing. Alongside the railway now, I’m soon crossing a wood planked footbridge over a side stream. Beyond is the town of Bingen, which is where I must head inland. As I stop to snap a “last view of the Rhine” photo (which turns out not to be last at all), a fellow TCR racer passes me and says hello before heading down the ramp under the bridge we’ve just crossed. It’s time to head up into those hills that have been rising up around me, and although the legs feel anything but strong, I’m looking forward to the scenery. I’m also hoping to score a proper breakfast – that smell of bacon and coffee is proving hard to shake.

The flat riding continues for a short way as I follow the path of the stream, but a gradual rise begins up to the town of Büdesheim .  Some roadworks have me disoriented, and I take the wrong left turn, but I’m back on track in minutes. Up ahead though, a more worrying problem appears. The road seems to be a dead end at a busy highway. I’m just about to wonder if I’ve made a routing blunder when I spot a footbridge to the left. I roll over it in relief, and across a busy roundabout which leads onto a the highway. In the message I sent Yoli at 3:30AM I’d remarked it was already 22 degrees. Now the sun is up, it’s evident the rest of the day won’t be nearly so pleasant. The road ahead is dead straight, and already shimmering as a heat haze rises from the upwardly sloping ribbon of tar. Dromersheim is not far off in the distance but I’ve ridden too many sections like this to make the mistake of staring at it wishing it nearer. I lean forward onto the aero bars, focus on turning the pedals, and dream of shade, and coffee, and bacon instead. I’m so lost in thought that I can’t honestly say whether the other TCR rider I met on this stretch is real or imaginary – or whether they passed me, or I chased them down.

Dromersheim and then Aspisheim come and go without so much as a sign of an open cafe or bakery. What I do discover is a testing 180 vertical meter incline, on top of which I’m hit by a stiff headwind. Wind-farms stretch to the horizon, all of them are facing in the direction I am heading. Joy! The wind does at least offer some slight relief from the heat, in exchange for the speed and energy it strips from me. With my now typical bad timing, a short pause for breath and a cereal bar in Ober-Hilbersheim is soon after followed by a proper food discovery. A long and refreshing fast downhill towards Wörstadt ends at a junction. Across the other side is a supermarket which is clearly closed (it is Sunday), but a few cars and people seem to be coming and going. I decide to pull in and investigate

Wörstadt, 415KM  8AM (RACE CLOCK 01D // 10H // 00M)

Customers are leaving the supermarket entrance carrying bread. It’s a promising sign, but I’m nervous about leaving my bike. This being Germany, I strongly suspect there are enforced rules about not taking filthy bikes into shops selling food. It doesn’t seem a bad area, but it seems a pointless risk. I fish out my lock and the cable Steve Lindley very kindly made me and sent to the B&B. It is way way tougher than any cafe lock I’ve ever owned, and long enough to go through frame and wheels. Steve is an aspiring entrant who missed out on a place this year, but managed to snag a premium volunteer spot at CP2 (Monte Grappa). We’ve never met, but exchanged so many messages on Facebook that it seems like we know each other. I’m not sure exactly how many cables he made, but there are a few of us whose bikes are protected by his creations. I hobble inside feeling much more secure. The supermarket isles are unlit, and fenced off, but to my left is a small bakery counter, not only laden down with delicious looking pastries, but with a coffee machine too. In no time, I’m back outside sat on the pavement, a chocolate croissant already reduced to crumbs, and the coffee half gone. It’s not nearly enough energy for what I’m burning in the hills and the wind, so I follow it down with the other, now squashed and slightly warm sandwich from last night’s hotel. As I sit there a young mum rides up on a shopper bike, towing a kiddie cart with her toddler in the back. There’s no attempt at locking the bike as she dismounts and the child clambers out. Only as she is heading in to the shop do I notice she has ridden there without shoes. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect picture of rural bliss than pedalling barefoot with your kid to the local bakery on a Sunday. It makes me think of home, and how much I miss Yoli and Ben – I need to ring them.

Even with my seemingly needless security paranoia, I’m rolling again by 8:30. Yoli is of the same mind as me – if the race is still on, I’m still riding. The road climbs and rolls. On the uphills I begin suffering the steadily rising savagery of the heat. On the downhills I’m battling the wind, but at the same time enjoying the cooler air. Before Ensheim, the road dips steeply downward with a tricky right hand kink in the middle of the descent. Somewhere around this village I see another rider complaining of navigation errors – initially he follows my track, then disappears in a completely different direction. It makes me check my own tracks but both devices show me to be on my planned route. Each of my descents leads to another climb, and it does make me wonder if maybe he found a flatter option.

Flomborn, 425km – 9:45am (Race clock 01D // 11H // 45M)

I hadn’t planned to stop again so soon, but the eTrex began nagging me with a low battery warning shortly after wiggling through Alzey. It’s flipping hot so I pull up at another bakery, this time attached to a closed Lidl supermarket. I’m also desperate for a pee – but they have no loo. I do at least get fresh cold water, and top up my fluids with a bottle of Fanta, and a Coke stashed in my bar bag for the road.

The extra drink and lack of toilet forces a pitstop in a handy line of trees just beyond the town. It’s a huge relief to discover that the rise I have stopped on is actually the last. As I crest the top, a long expanse of flatland stretches out before me. I remember now where I am headed. This rolling section was a shortcut which leads back across to the Rhine. A long eastward bow made the river path here much longer, although perhaps it would have been less sapping of energy. It’s too late to worry about that now, so I push on out of the hills and back down to cross the Rhine one last time.

The final flat stretch towards the river is anything but short, and the heat is now ferocious. At times there is a good cycle path. I remember it rising up and over junctions with farm lanes at the boundary of each field. Muddy tyre tracks grace a few of these, and in a few spots tractors pull over to let me and the numerous other cyclists past. On one of the last sections before the river, the path was either too bad, or too hard to find and I’m riding on the road. The traffic here is much busier and less patient and I get hooted, and occasionally sworn at by passing drivers (even with my limited German I can tell they aren’t offering words of encouragement). Along with the heat, it’s not helping my mood. What would help is food – especially perhaps a pizza, and a beer.

Schifferstadt, 481km – 12:20pm (Race clock 01D // 14H // 20M)

As I head into the outskirts of a town, my eye is caught by red umbrellas, away from the road under some trees to my left. I pull up at a junction and cross the road to investigate. As I do so, another TCR rider comes by and looks like he may follow, but then rides on, presumably not feeling it looks promising. At first, it seems he may have been right – the umbrellas are actually a crazy golf course. There’s a cabin with drinks, but nothing substantial looking. Beyond them though, I spot what looks like a small bar with a lot of cars outside. I’m doubtful but I’m here now, so I head over.

And there it is, on the chalk board in front of me is a list of pizza specials. Seriously? What are the flipping chances. Inside, the small bar takes on a very different character – it’s decked out like a proper, modern Italian gastro pub. I plonk myself down outside, under the shade of an enormous green parasol. The wind is howling now, and everything on the table, ashtrays included, are soon on the ground. I’m amazed that despite threatening creaks, the parasol stays upright. When the waitress comes over I  quickly order a Radler (aka Shandy or Panache) and a pizza with a ton of toppings (salami and mushrooms are the main ones I remember). I hate the social media obsession of posting pictures of meals – but this is so unexpectedly good, I find myself doing just that and sending a snap to Yoli. I don’t recall if I also ate ice cream, quite possibly, but I do remember the owner telling me they don’t make ice coffee. So I order an espresso, a 500ml glass of ice, some milk, and some sugar. A few minutes later, he smiles when I tell him they do now sell ice coffees. The espresso is spectacular – and I’m tempted to have an extra shot, but I’ve already lingered for over an hour, and CP1 is still a long way off. My feet really do not want to go back into sweaty socks and hot shoes, but by 1:30pm I’m rolling again. Judging by the 2nd of two texts I sent Yoli, I must have been feeling some pain by now:

[12:32, 7/30/2017] Lots of memories of Dad  today. Buzzard hunting from a wire, stinkhorn fungus in the woods, and sewage works (he loved those).                       

[12:58, 7/30/2017] Pills & alcohol – what could possibly go wrong

She sent a smiley back, and a note to the effect that Dad, Ben and I all love stinky things – must be a Walker-boys thing.

Very soon I’m pulling into the town of Speyer – the first indication being a T-junction, with cyclists riding along a high bank beyond. It’s the riverside path again, and I swing right to rejoin it for a short way. Before long though I’m weaving through town streets, parks, and eventually looping up and onto a bridge crossing the river. This really is the last view of the Rhine, but the cycle path is too narrow and busy for me to stop and take another last view photo. Instead I’ve become wedged between a husband and wife touring team. Behind me, the lycra clad husband, clipped in with proper MTB shoes, spins frantically as he nips at my wheels. Ahead, the wife creeps nervously along, in a flowing cream summer dress, plakkies and flat pedals. She weaves unsteadily and there’s no safe way I can get past  – so I plod across the bridge between them, a quite literal spare wheel in their relationship. A relationship that a cycling tour may not have done much to help, judging by the harsh words I hear exchanged as we exit the bridge and I finally manage to pass. The argument quickly fade behind me as I stretch my legs across the flat, waterside meadows. The riding is easy now and, combined with fresh fuel, coffee, painkillers, and the occasionally swig of now warm coke, I’m soon flying along. Very often, I find myself naturally dropping to my forearms on the aero bars so I can let the legs turn freely and maximise my effort. The afternoon, still frighteningly hot, is now becoming humid too as heavy grey clouds begin to pile up overhead.

However fast I spin though, there’s an old lady on a shopping bike up ahead which I am just not catching. Her rear light flickers brightly in the gloomy pre-storm light, clearly it’s dynamo powered which makes her pace even more impressive. After zigzagging through a succession of suburbs, she’s exactly the same distance ahead. It’s becoming more than just annoying, until,  on a slight rise ahead the impossible happens – she starts to pull further away from me. Only then does it dawn on me. Cyclo-tourism seems wildly popular here, and the reason for the flying passage of the sometimes less than apparently athletic riders is not some secret cadence magic I’ve yet to learn. It’s a hidden cadence magic my bike does not possess – a battery and a motor. Quite how I’ve failed to notice it until now escapes me, but eBikes are literally everywhere, outnumbering regular bikes by some margin.

The storm threatens with occasional spots of rain for a couple of hours, but it’s only as I reach Bruchsal that the skies fully unleash their fury. I’m faced with an unexpected, but thankfully short, tunnel in the middle of town, forcing some hasty checking of screens to detour myself around. As I twist through side streets onto my original route, the rain lashes down. The timing is so perfect, I don’t even bother reaching for a jacket – the road has begun to rise up and away from the flat river valleys, and the downpour is the perfect coolant for the added exertion of the climbs. The gradients are a joy, I’m soaked through but my feet dance on the pedals, defying the wet grey bullets pelting down from above. I’ve always been more of a puncheur than a grimpeur, and the road in front was made for me. The weather must have known it had lost the battle because it soon gives up trying to wash the smile off my face, and the clouds give way to blue skies again.

GONDELSHEIM, 530KM – 4PM (RACE CLOCK 01D // 18H // 00M)

As I pass through Gondelsheim and then Bretten, I’m off main roads again – a mix of farm roads and cycle paths. Despite the fast, rideable surfaces (tar or occasionally packed gravel) though, the riding effort rises noticeably. The hill profile of the route is etched so deeply in my brain that I have no need to consult the GPS to know that the increasing gradients of each rolling pasture are the beginning of the climb up towards CP1. In my mind, I’m climbing up into the Black Forest, but in reality I’m further East heading through a region known as Baden-Württemberg. Geography was never my strong suit though.

Exiting a section of farm road, the quiet rural lane ahead curves gradually on a long downhill run to a junction far ahead. I let my wheels run and contemplate the view of a church spire and rooftops to the left. I’m craving ice cream, and Neulingen looks to be a large enough town to oblige. But as I approach the roundabout, the purple line on the eTrex is telling me to ride straight on. I make a snap decision to ignore it, and swing right instead. As the new improvised route grinds slowly upwards towards the houses, doubt sets in. I really want to reach the checkpoint tonight, and heading off route into uncertain terrain could be a mistake. The rational voice wins the argument, and I swing around and turn right at the roundabout again back on my original route. Safe as the choice is, it hasn’t cancelled out the craving. The road swings left and upward, around a much smaller and less promising looking village on the ridge of a small hill. I decided to divert through it anyway, on the off-chance there’s an open shop of some kind.

Göbrichen, 544km – 5:30PM (RACE CLOCK 01D // 19H // 30M)

The village, once I find my way into it, is ridiculously picturesque and, as I’d feared extremely lacking in anything resembling a cafe or corner shop. I ding my bell to get past a family wandering ahead, but at the next corner they stroll past me again, as I’m stood scanning the eTrex screen. There was a garage back on the main road at the far side of town and what looked like a hotel further along the street I’m traveling along. The former seems more likely, but I decide to check out the hotel just in case.

It didn’t look especially open, but I hauled my bike up the steps and went inside anyway. The hall was deserted, and so was what seemed to be the restaurant. As I headed behind the bar towards the kitchen, a voice called out behind me. A waitress (maybe even the manager) had finally heard me poking around and came to investigate. After a stumbling, part English, part German interaction I managed to communicate my need for ice cream, and tea – and in return, she managed to communicate that I’d be much more comfortable with my bike in the garden to the rear. Rolling around the block, a small gate led me into a delightful small patch of green with a terrace of tables lower down at the foot of a short path. It takes a few attempts to balance the heavy rig against the narrow trunk of a tall pine, it’s needles forming a springy carpet under my feet as I do so. Once again, I had stumbled into a little patch of paradise at just the point my body had called out for it. Eventually I am sat, shoes off, wolfing down a huge bowl of balls of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, garnished with berries and a coulis. In between a call home to Yoli, I managed to squeeze a second cup of black tea out of the dainty pot. Only towards the end of my visit did I notice that the other diners around me were quite smartly dressed – in total contrast to my grubby visage, blackened bare feet propped up on one of the other chairs. I realised it was probably time to remove my shabby specter from their romantic evening.

I’ve traveled so many paths by now, it’s hard to remember the exact sequence of them. But as the heat of the afternoon gradually subsided I have a strong recollection of crossing between and sometimes through farms, their pastures all around me, occasionally in the shade of lanes of trees either side of the path. Far from any traffic, it was a slice of pure cycling heaven. Spotting an especially steep haul up ahead, I clearly recall hoping the path follows the left fork at it’s foot. It doesn’t though, and soon I’m spinning like a hamster in my lowest gear to get up the vicious little slope. It’s worth the effort though, at the top the path enters woodland, a variety of paths and tracks criss-crossing in all directions. A small hut, presumably for hikers, sits opposite and a family are strolling past, a pair of dogs snuffling in the undergrowth. As I crest the rise they come bounding over to investigate, tails wagging with excitement. The smaller of the two, a white fox-terrier like dog only reaches high enough to sniff my shoes. The other though is huge. I comment to the owners that he looks like a ridge-back, and to my surprise I’m actually correct. His name escapes me now (Juno perhaps?) but I can clearly see the friendly eyes staring up as he buries his enormous face in my crotch for a long satisfying draught of the rich odours waiting to be discovered there. As I ride off I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo of them both.

At 6:30pm the quiet lane I’m on reaches a junction – the sign indicates that the main road running sharply downhill to my right is heading into Pforzheim. After the quietness of the country paths, the busy traffic is off-putting. I have a vague recollection that suburban streets run down both sides of the hill, and decide to try these. The right side looks initially more promising, but soon becomes a confusing mass of side streets and I’m back at the same junction   again. Fortunately the left side is far more successful, although by the time I’m finished I’ve wasted 10 minutes and my Strava log now resembles a squashed spider. The steep run down into town ends in some unpleasantly congested traffic, before crossing a river, and rising a seemingly even steeper road up out of town. So steep in fact, that for the second time on TCR, I’m off the bike and walking again. The worst section is short, and I’m spinning more comfortably as the road rises more gradually past the local Zoo, and plunges into dark, thick forest.

The riding becomes significantly more challenging, and in no time I’m damp with sweat and breathing hard as each short downhill is followed by a progressively longer and harder uphill. I know from the route profile that the last section of my route to CP1 is predominantly uphill, and I guesstimate that this must now be the start of the climbing. Somewhere in the fading light a massive raptor flies across the road right in front of me. It passes so quickly that I don’t get a clear sight of it’s head, but I’m certain from it’s hang glider sized wingspan that it was a Golden Eagle. In his whole life, my father only saw one once, and we never managed to see one together. He’d have been thrilled even at this brief sighting.

According to the GPS log, at 8:21pm I stopped briefly at an Esso garage in Merkingen (575km) but I have absolutely no recollection of what this was for – water or a loo perhaps. I have a very clear memory of what happened soon after though.

Bolingen, 590km – 9pm (race clock 01D // 23H // 00M)

The cycle path I’m on veers away from the main road, and once again I’m crossing between meadows. Both GPS units signal right, but 200m along the direction they’re indicating the path is blocked by a large, partly flattened “road closed” barrier. I ride up to it to investigate anyway. I can see the road beyond, so I push my bike up onto the orange plastic, and gingerly slither my way across the slippery surface. Once across the reason for the closure becomes clear. What is a legal, rideable road on my map has now become a multi-lane highway with speeding traffic. There is  no shoulder and no path. Reluctantly, I turn back and make a second, uncomfortable crossing of the sign which I should probably just have accepted in the first place. Scanning the eTrex map, I can see another path further along which seems to cross over or under this newly constructed motorway. When I get there though, there is even less sign of any previous passage – a stream and an overgrown hedgeway are all that occupies the spot where the path is clearly shown. Dejectedly, I ride up and back several times in the vain hope that some way across the new road will magically appear. It doesn’t of course, and with no other option, I ride out onto an industrial estate road that follows the line of the highway. Eventually, I figure, I must reach somewhere that will enable me to get to the other side,

Clearly this whole area has been undergoing recent major reconstruction as I pass and cross several roads which bare no relation to  the map in front of me, but eventually I come to a junction which does seem to match up. A roundabout of sorts eventually allows me to get under the blockage to my progress. Zooming out the scale on the eTrex screen, I can see the purple track off to my right, and I pick my way through a succession of dead straight newly constructed surface roads between a jungle of concrete and glass offices, an occasional neon-lit cafe or storefront tucked away at the base of the completed ones. I’ve lost probably an hour but finally I’m back on track and motoring again.

Holzgerlingen, 600km – 9:30pm (Race clock 01D // 23H // 30M)

Hungry, thirsty and in need of a loo I pull into a garage conveniently located next to the roundabout I’ve just reached. After some pleading, the young, blonde attendant lets me wheel the bike inside whilst she toasts the salami sub I’ve just chosen. She’s clearly amused at the odd selection of other items I have in front of me to fuel up on – tea with sugar, chocolate milk, chocolate, and a vitamin juice of some kind. I’m not sure she believes any of what I tell her about the race though until another rider arrives at the shop with a matching numbered peak on his cap, and in an even shabbier state than I am. As he grabs a similarly unlikely selection of items, I learn the cause of his torn jersey and bloodied and bruised body. He must have traveled a very similar route to me because I instantly recognise his description of the road and cycle path being separated by a narrow strip of lush green grass, which he had attempted to ride across. The apparently flat surface though masked a hidden storm gutter which his front wheel had ploughed into at speed sending him flying over the bars. I believed him when he said he didn’t remember the few minutes after and may have knocked himself out, he still seemed rather dazed as we sat chatting. Heading around the corner for a loo, I was surprised how well his bike had fared – it was visibly battered, but nothing terminal looking. He was still recovering himself when I returned and I checked a couple of times that he was OK before readying myself to continue. Support may be forbidden, but anything medical is a completely different matter. He seemed compus mentis though, so after the usual “go well”, I headed back out into the night.

I forget exactly where, and whether it was because the night air had got colder or the rain had arrived, but at some stage I donned my jacket. The riding was still extremely pleasant though, and became even more so when a left turn took me off the main road and back onto farm roads again. By now it was 11pm – the GPS was reading 615km, and I was sliding silently along a dark deserted lane, thick damp smelling woodland either side of me. Only the lights of a couple of cars, and a cluster of farm buildings broke up the absolute sense of peace and solitude. The lane ended in a fast downhill to the town of Reutlingen. I recognised the name, and that the checkpoint was now very near by. I was glad of it too – a steady persistent rain had set in, my wheels sloshing through the glistening town streets. On the opposite side of the road a large brightly lit bus stop was filled with riders, apparently not just sheltering from the rain but actually bedding down for the night. The turning for the parcours must have been close and it occurred to me that these racers may have already been to the checkpoint, found no beds available, and headed back to the first dry spot they could catch some sleep in before tackling the mandatory climb up to Schloss Lichenstein itself. I remembered the words from the briefing:

“The only thing guaranteed at a control is someone to stamp your card. There may be rooms or showers, but if not please be respectful to our hosts and take charge of finding your own accommodation”

I was tired, and wet, and seriously did not fancy milling around in the rain looking for a bus shelter. But I did make a mental note of a smaller, but dry looking one on my side of the road which had the bonus of being unlit and empty. I said a small prayer that I would not be riding back to doss down in it.

The lights of a garage on my left slid slowly by, as I slogged up the hill, legs screaming and desperately trying to ignore the riders ahead clearly showing I was nowhere near the top. Somehow, in all my planning, I had completely missed the fact that it was a climb up to the checkpoint not the flat run that for some reason I had been expecting. In the damp, cold night it was a harsh finish to a couple of days hard riding but – as all hills do – it came to an end. The road ahead curved, revealing a sight which lifted my soggy spirits – Hotel Forellenhof. Whatever else happened, I had at least made it to CP1.

Or almost made it to CP1 – actually finding the control took a few minutes. Initially I checked the hotel, before spotting the flag on the GPS showed I’d gone past it. Wheeling back to the previous turn next to an apartment block attached to the hotel I peered into the dark. Someone from a window above shouted down to stop making noise. I thought it was the clicking of my freehub keeping him awake, but later realised it was more likely the riders I’d passed who were chatting loudly on the corner. Either way, I lifted the back wheel to silence it for the few meters to the Lezyne sponsor flags and the small hut where the control volunteers were stationed.

CP1 (Honau), 640km – 00:11am (Race clock 02d // 02h // 11m)

There are  3 or 4 people inside the small hut, a couple of laptops and various papers spread over the table, although my eye was drawn more to the open bottles of beer. I was contemplating asking if they were for riders, but settled instead for a smile and a “thanks” when my stamped card was handed back to me. There was a definite sense of receiving my first ever Audax control stamp at St Ives on LEL 2013. Except it was midnight, and I’d already ridden almost the distance to Edinburgh. Noticing how much the card meant to me, one of the volunteers offered to take a shot of me holding it. I commented how much slower I had been to here than I’d expected – I hadn’t even managed Audax pace around which my time calculations were based. Doing everything for yourself takes so much longer, and my arrival was at least 10 hours later than I’d hoped for. Apparently, many riders had commented the same, and I was re-assured that this was the toughest leg and the rest were easier. I had absolutely zero belief in this, but the words were kindly meant and encouraging all the same.

Wheeling back around the corner to the hotel I was not optimistic of a bed – there were bikes propped everywhere. Inside I recognise James Robertson, one of the official photographers of the race. His distinctive black and white images have captured the struggle and suffering of the last few editions, and probably lured a few of us to want to become part of the magic. It would have been awesome to have appeared in one of his shots, but he lowers the camera as I pass. Perhaps I’m not grimy enough yet, or maybe having a company logo on my jersey is seen as conflicting with the sponsors who help fund the race. I wander on through the hotel. Sat at a table in a corner of the restaurant is Rishi Fox surrounded by cables charging up gear. Having pulled out of the race with heat exhaustion last year she must be cursing her luck at an even hotter edition this year.

I’m in my second hotel kitchen of the day before the elderly owner or night manager spots me poking around. I don’t accept his initial “No!” and after some shameless pleading he concedes he has a couple of rooms that are vacant, but not made up. At that exact moment, 60 Euros for a room where you make your own bed seems like a bargain – even though I’m doubtful whether the promised coffee in the morning will actually materialise amidst the chaos of bikes, and sleeping bodies strewn over every patch of the hotel. The secure bike storage is an interesting experience too. Hauling a 20kg bike down a tiled spiral staircase in wet, cleated shoes would have been a challenge on fresh legs. On stiff, aching ones, that refuse to bend properly, I’m imagining a broken leg or bike as I hobble down. There’s a space in the lower basement just big enough to prop my bike without blocking either of the toilet doors, or the passageway which strikes me may be a fire escape. At least I have the unpacking process now sorted and I’m soon climbing back up the stairs, plus three more flights to my room, glad to be only lugging a couple of Kgs of bag and gear, plus bed linen and one small towel.

The room is small, but surprisingly tidy given some other time-limited racers have just been through. I debate whether I or the laundry deserve the towel more. In the end, the gear gets dried in a large fluffy shag pile bath mat that clearly got leftover from the 70s. God knows what germs it now holds, and in hindsight it was probably the worst thing to use to dry clothes that would be next to various tender parts of my skin for prolonged periods. At the time, I just wanted to get sorted and off to sleep. I can’t be bothered making the single bed up, the room is warm enough not to need a duvet so I just sling the sheet onto the mattress, and throw myself down. The pains start to come screaming back again, but this time I just shuffle around until I can ignore them, and in no time I’m out cold.

 

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