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.
The manager was early. I’d just about got the bike rigged when the girl with the friendly voice who’d taken my booking tripped lightly through the revolving door, flapping her umbrella dry as she did so. She was young, mid-twenties maybe, with blonde hair. There was more than just language, attire, and a couple of generations in age separating her and the night caretaker who she took over from. Standing in front of me, it was like looking at the embodiment of two completely separate eras. This girl was definitely WiFi, not copper cable. The morning had brought with it a thoroughly modern and up to date age. And, of course, a packed breakfast – to which I added an extra layer of wrapping in case my bag’s waterproofing wasn’t up to the challenge about to be thrown at them.
Banská Bystrica, 2136km – 05:40AM (race clock 9d // 07H // 40M)
The main road was now a sketchy tapestry of wet tarmac and deep puddles. Dodging them risked close encounters with the early Monday morning traffic. Not doing so was playing Russian roulette with the chances of an unseen sunken or missing manhole cover – just one would end my prospects of reaching CP3. Rain lashed down from above, and each passing truck threw a wave over me from the side. It was like riding in one of those luxury showers with jets that wet you from every angle. More than once I glanced down at the #Rule 9 sticker on my mudguard from the guys at William’s Bike shop. Never had it felt more appropriate.
With great relief, both GPS simultaneously signalled me off the busy main road. It was short lived though, just a dip down onto the edge of a small industrial estate and then back up onto a roundabout to rejoin the main road again. After a left at the next roundabout though, things became a lot more serious. The route was taking me onto a two-lane stretch of the R1 highway. It was actually not a long section, but it didn’t look legal or pleasant. Scanning the eTrex screen I located a road I remembered on the other side of the river. My first attempt at getting there ended in a field though. Eventually, I figured out that backtracking to the small industrial estate looked like it would lead me to a bridge of sorts – at least according to Open Street Map anyhow.
The bridge was there, and it did cross the river, but it was with some relief that I got over safely. It consisted of bare steel plates, which had no grip coating, and in the rain were lethally slippery even to walk across. In places, just to add to the fun, were gaps large enough to suggest some had been removed and the rest shuffled around to cover for the absentees. With a clear head, on a bright sunny day it probably would have been fine – but on this day, in my state of mind, it felt was a nervous passage.
Once over, a narrow but decently surfaced lane led me around the R1 highway stretch and back to normal main road. Except all that meant was the two lanes each way had become one lane each way. Exactly the same amount of traffic was traveling at exactly the same speed. I stood and stared for a while, but nothing convinced me I’d be more than a vulnerable, mostly invisible dot just waiting for the wrong truck on the wrong bend. I turned around a couple of times before I opted for a side road in a cluster of houses a short way back up the road. There were cycle-route signs suggesting it did would take me through.
For most of the way it was a delightful lane, somewhat sheltered from the rain thanks to being deep in the woodland above the river. It rolled up and down quite sharply though, which took a toll on the knees. And a mixture of leaves and other fallen debris made for some sketchy downhill corners. The worst (and best) part was the final section, which deposited me out into a full blown cart track for the last few hundred meters. My wheels sank into the mud, and I was expecting to end up on my side wallowing in it at any moment. But somehow, the traction held and I maintained just enough forward momentum to emerge laughing at the other end without so much as a muddy shoe.
Except for a few, thankfully short, sections I managed to keep riding parallel to the main road on what I assumed was the old original road through the valley. A bus stop provided a welcome, dry retreat from the rain for a few moments to message home and eat some of the snacks the hotel had provided. A few cars sloshed past as I stood staring out into the rain – prompting me to try and capture the feeling of the morning with my cellphone camera. The thing is though with riding in the rain, once you reach the point where you are wet it doesn’t get any more unpleasant. You just ride on and enjoy the good parts. So I didn’t linger too long in the shelter – mentally it was easier just to stay out there and keep plugging on.
Nemecká, 2172KM – 08:04AM (race clock 9d // 10H // 04M)
One of my subsequent pieces of main-road-dodging took me past another MotoRest, with cars outside and lights on inside. The prospect of a coffee to warm me up was too good to resist, so I pulled in – leaving my bike dripping under their foyer porch. I did rather better than coffee as it turned out. An excellent local smoked sausage of some kind with strong mustard and butter soaked slabs of rye bread also helped banish the chills. I did feel a little guilty as I got up to leave though. The chair where I had sat now resembled a freshly flushed toilet bowl, and a large puddle covered the floor space around my table. Together with my bike, we’d brought a considerable litreage of water into their establishment. I apologised and left, quickly.
The very last section of my trip through the Hron valley was markedly more industrial. I remember bumping along an extremely patchy footpath in preference to riding on the main road – with a metal recycling plant sprawling alongside me for an impressively long way. At times I was pretty much under a huge, high gantry of pipework and ladder-work sections connecting various parts of the plant. The gantry, and the industrial plant continued even after I swung right off the main road to head onto the road leading up to the pass across the Low Tatras mountains. I passed sawmills with logging trucks too – it was considerably more developed than what I’d expected would be a fairly quiet road through the hills.
As I climbed the urban and industrial development did, largely, give way to countryside and thick forest. I say largely because I passed what appeared to be two failed holiday apartment developments. Both were in a mostly completed state but looked to have been abandoned and empty for several year. I wondered if they were victims of the 2008 crash. Further up the climb were much older looking and established holiday lodges, and frequent signs indicating that this was a ski area in winter time. It was obvious why the region was so popular, the mountain scenery was stunning. There was even a few breaks in the clouds here and there to properly appreciate it’s full majesty.
Every minute or two a logging truck thundered past me. Whether I got more nervous as the climb went up, or the road got narrower and they got closer I’m not sure, but I remember a very clear point where they suddenly started to worry me. After standing to climb for a stretch I went to sit back down. As usual, my fingers reached forward to drop a couple of gears for the transition. But my right hand was now so numb from days on the road that, even with electronic shifters, I hit the wrong button and went up two gears not down. With limited power in my legs, I wobbled dangerously as the bike stalled out. Just as I did so, the next truck blasted past me. It was so close I’m surprised I didn’t get splinters from the logs on the side. Somehow I managed to uncleat without falling and just stood by the side of the road, dumbstruck. Eventually, I started back up the hill, walking at first, occasionally riding when gradient courage allowed. The moment had left me badly shaken though, and each new truck that whistled by felt closer and faster than the last. A short way before the summit a couple of other TCR racers past me and the brief exchange of hellos finally lifted me somewhat out of my state of shock. They pulled into the ski lodges at the top of the climb but, having breakfasted already, I was keen to get down and get this section over with.
The road was no better and the trucks no slower going down, but the differences in our speeds was much less. Also, travelling at higher speed made it occasionally possible to take an assertive road position so that they had to wait to pass – although there weren’t many places with long enough straight sections to make this a sensible option. Some of the bends were fiercely sharp, requiring a combination of braking and nerve to get around them with a decent line. It was fun riding though after the slow, scary climb up – until the next issue found me. After a short gravel section through some roadworks, I suddenly had the sensation of resistance somewhere on the bike. There was a slight headwind now but, even accounting for that, I ddin’t seem to be freewheeling as fast as I should be. I was even having to pedal on what felt like downhill sections. I stopped a couple of times to check things over, and even began to doubt myself and wonder if it was my imagination. I was pretty tired after all. Eventually, I pulled over at a gravel side road for a proper inspection. Failing to account for the camber of the turn-off, or maybe just from fatique, I managed to fall and smash up my left knee in the process – at least now I had a matching pair.
The first thing I checked was the front dynamo hub. In theory, I had the new model PD-8X with bigger bearings which didn’t seize up. At this point though, I was doubting everything. Bizarrely, both front and back wheels seemed to spin reasonably freely. The rear wheel didn’t seem to spin for quite as long as it should though, and the pads looked a little close. I had spare brake pads in my bag though, so I figured I’d replace the rear set just in case. At this point, any biker who has the slightest amount of mechanical sense will spot the lack of reasoning in this approach. If the pads I was putting on were less worn than those coming off, I’d probably be making things worse. At this point, my brain wasn’t able to figure that one out – so I merrily set about doing a pretty decent job of completely the wrong fix. I even accepted praise for my work from fellow racer, Caroline Item, who came past as I was putting things back together. Needless to say, under strict race rules she offered no help, and I asked for none. We did both chat about how deathly the trucks had been coming up, and both commented how much we were now battling all but the easiest of climbs.
Needless to say, my surprising well executed fix given my near totally numb right hand had zero effect at helping the situation. I began to wonder if it was all inside my head. Was it really just the effect of headwind on fatigued legs? Or could it be something worse, maybe the rear freehub was failing. I was so consumed with internal debate that I barely noticed the broad expanse of scenic valley which the last stretches of downhill led out into. The towering line of the High Tatras mountains the other side of the valley though was impossible to overlook. Less than 50km away, somewhere up in those cloud covered peaks, was the Sliesky Dom hotel and CP3. But I was beginning to wonder whether, despite it being so close, I’d actually be able to reach it. The road along the valley rolled up and down and, to make matters worse, headed straight into the wind. I was having to pedal even on downhill sections, and on the uphills I was barely making headway even in my lowest gear. Eventually, I stopped to eat the rest of my packed food – it had been a long time since my last stop, and lack of fuel wasn’t helping my mental state.
I pulled over in the town of Východná and set about retrieving an impressive array of delights from my various bags. It was surprisingly delicious, and completely dry – that extra wrapping layer had done it’s job. As well as the impromptu handle-bar picnic, I rang Yoli. The constant battle against wind, hills, and an unseen foe was wearing me down. I needed to hear some words of encouragement. A little further along the road I also did something which was possibly doubtful under race rules, I rang my local bike shop. They are a commercial shop, and it was normal business hours, so technically it was a service open to anyone. But there’s no doubt I got more attention than a random caller would get.
Nr Tatranský Štrba, 2247km- 3:30PM (race clock 9d // 17H // 30M)
Darren answered, and commented very astutely that I seemed to be riding along a valley (also mentioning how much they were enjoying following my dot). I didn’t have the heart to mention that I was likely to be scratching soon so instead I got onto the topic of my call. Darren doubted that it was hub related, and described to me the process of adjusting my rear caliper so it wouldn’t rub. It was the confirmation I needed from an actual mechanic to set about properly solving the issue. Except for one small problem – none of my Allen keys could get into the gap on the frame needed to loosen the bolts. William (my LBS owner) had wanted to check my multi-tool would reach every bolt, and I was now kicking myself for not taking up his offer. Conversation with Darren had rebooted my mental faculties though, and the earlier mistake dawned on me. What I needed was a brake pad that was more worn, not less. Fortunately, my excessive braking on Monte Grappe provided me with just that – my front pads were substantially worn down. Moments later, my bike was upended (carefully I might add), with both wheels removed as I switched over the front and rear pads. I managed the whole process fairly swiftly and without losing anything out of the bags or off the bike aside from one small retaining screw for the brake pad circlip. Luckily this proved non-fatal. Gazing at my re-assembled, now right-side-up steed, I felt rather pleased with myself for thinking outside of the box rather than just giving up. That feeling wouldn’t last though if the fix wasn’t effective.
I’d stopped for this second round of mechanical work on top of a small rise, which meant my answer came almost immediately. As soon as I mounted up, the bike shot forward, rapidly picking up speed. Even on the short section of downhill, the Wahoo reading hit 50km/h and the air ripped into me so hard I started to get cold. The relief was instant. There was an extremely large climb ahead, but CP3 was now only 30km away. The doubts of the last couple of hours blew away on the breeze – I was going to make it.
I sailed along, seemingly without effort. It did help that I was now running downhill along the valley. Signs began appearing for the city of Poprad, whose blocky outline I could just about make out in the distance. I knew the turn across the floor of the valley and up into the mountains would be coming up very soon. With the GPS reading just over 2,258km a long straight stretch of main road led into the town of Svit, but this was where we parted ways. I swung left, across the railway and through the small villages of Batizovce and Gerlachov. One of these, I forget which, amusingly had a Sliesky KOM slogan sprayed on the road, with a line indicating the start. It seemed the climb ahead was something of a local icon beyond it’s current status as a TCR checkpoint.
Gerlachov, 2264km- 4:27PM (race clock 9d // 18H // 27M)
My bottles were nearly empty, there was a long climb ahead, and my later afternoon ice cream craving was back with a vengeance.. As I rode through the village I spied a painted sign which seemed to indicate some kind of bar. But the direction it pointed just looked like somebodies back yard. On closer inspection. there were a couple more tables outside though than would grace a typical garden, so I figured this must be it. I propped my bike outside and walked over to the ordinary looking wooden door. For a moment, my hand hovered nervously over the knob before I mustered the courage to march in. I honestly expected startle some unsuspecting family sitting in their living room but, to my surprise, it was actually a bar.
With full bottles, a coke, fruit juice, and that all essential ice cream, I headed back outside to enjoy what was likely to be my last afternoon stop on TCR. There really was no rush now – I sat savouring the moment and messaged Yoli checked in with Yoli with an estimate of my ETA at the checkpoint.
Although the official parcours started 3km ahead in the village of Tatranská Polianka, the climbing had started as soon as I left the main road in Svit. The gradient ramped up sharply though after Gerlachov. I was already in my lowest climbing gear by the time I finally reached the small brown sign indicating the turn off to Sliesky Dom. It was very welcome, but I knew that my legs did not have much left. The remaining 7km of road to the hotel climbed a further 700m. Even my weary brain could do the maths. An average gradient of 10%, which would no doubt mean significantly steeper stretches in places. I was grateful there were plenty of daylight left, because this was going to be a slow job, much of which I’d probably spend walking.
My day of unexpected trials at reaching CP3 wasn’t quite over though. As I contemplated gradient calculations, the road threw a quite literal last obstacle at me. I was actually stood still on the phone to Yoli when the alarming turn of events unfolded.
I yelled to Yoli or words to that effect. She must have gone into a minor panic because it was a couple of minutes before I got back to the call and said anything else.
A hurtling shape had suddenly appeared from around the tight turn ahead. At the point he spotted me, the mountain biker was still in command of his machine, but he was carrying way more speed than he could control. Simultaneously, I saw his eyes widen in fear, and his front wheel shimmy and back wheel lock up as he made a desperate, and dangerous attempt at braking. He was just meters away, still traveling scarily fast, and heading straight for me. I knew that no amount of braking would avert the impending collision. Fortunately, the out-of-control-biker realised this too. His bike steadied as he released the brakes and hauled on the handlebars to steer out of my path. He somehow got just enough angle to narrowly shave down my right side before grabbing fistful of brakes again. It wasn’t enough though. He ploughed off the road into deep grass, his front wheel dug in, and he somersaulted over the bars, missing the stump of a dead tree by millimeters. Kit exploded into the air in all directions as his body hit the ground with a sickening thud. Time seemed to stand still as he lay there, not moving. I was unscathed, but it’d be miraculous if he’d be so lucky. I rapidly explained what had happened to a pensive Yoli, and went to inspect the crash site.
It was a huge relief when, eventually, he stirred. Obviously I did my best to check he was OK, and help gather up the scattered gear. Only when he asked me to check he wasn’t bleeding did I notice that he wasn’t wearing a helmet. His descent was reckless enough already, but without head protection it was suicidal. I looked at the tree stump again – a head first impact with which could well have ended not just his day, but his life. And yet, after sharing some of my water (his bottles were empty) he rode back off down the road, gingerly, still shaking a little, but by some miracle, still alive. I quickly finished off my call to Yoli. After all the dot watching, she was likely to be out when I reached the checkpoint. It was a stroke of rotten luck, but I promised photos and a message.
The climb was very picturesque – thin stands of trees giving way to open mountainside on the higher reaches. A large number of locals were out for an evening stroll – as, for much of the way, was I. A few of the flatter sections I managed on the bike, but others were ferociously steep. With much of the road being patches and strips of gravel rather than actual tarmac, traction as well as gradient was a problem. Finally of course, as all hills do, this one came to an end. As the last bend unwound, I spotted the unmistakable LEGO-block outline of the Sliesky Dom hotel perched beside the road ahead. Low clouds scudded across the road, occasionally breaking to reveal glimpses of the mountainside behind. TCR had offered up many stunning views, but this one was truly breathtaking. I stood there savouring it for several minutes before mounting up again and, with a last few turns of the pedals, cruised to the end of my race.
CP3, HIGH Tatras, 2274km – 6:42PM (race clock 9d // 20H // 42M)
The exact order of my final acts on TCR is a bit hazy. I definitely messaged Yolandi first, and then contacted Race HQ to notify them I was scratching before sharing any news on social media. Riders are encouraged to pause and think before posting a scratch on social media, and requested to notify the race co-ordinators. In my case, it was a decision made some while back so it was less of an issue really. Quite apart from being out of time by a day and two hours, mentally and physically I was done. There was nothing left inside to cope with more days like the last couple I’d battled through. My head was high though as I grabbed a last GPS screen shot and posted to Facebook. There was no sense of defeat in abandoning – I was proud to get as far as I had, and to have been a part of such an incredible race. Every part of the last 10 days had been steeped in adventure, and I felt lucky to have experienced it.
I do remembering taking a selfie to officially record reaching CP3, checking in, stowing my bike in a downstairs disabled toilet (I’m not sure what someone in a wheelchair was going to do if they needed the loo, but the hotel staff seemed unphased so I followed their lead). I also definitely grabbed a beer and sat outside a while with the few racers coming in or leaving. Caroline Item was one of them. As she rolled off down the hill I made a mental note that her arrival time in Greece would be a good measure of when I might have arrived if I’d continued (she arrived within the late Wednesday / early Thursday window Yoli and I had speculated on).
Reaching the hotel room, with the remnants of one or other of the beers I’d ordered, was distinctly strange feeling. For the first time in nearly two weeks there was absolutely no rush to do anything. I ran a deep, hot bath to relax in and enjoy the last swigs of the beer, and afterwards did my laundry in the bath water out of instinct (where I live near Cape Town is under severe drought restrictions, so any and all water gets re-used). The laundry was not so much for riding any more, but I didn’t want to stink too badly when I got to the B&B which Yoli had organised in Poprad for tomorrow. My saddle bag had just about enough other clothes to consider venturing to the restaurant. The grey waterproof Goretex overshorts looked like almost like an everyday short. They were nice and dry by virtue of the fact that in the last day and a half of downpour, I’d forgotten I had them. My thin blue fleece last worn on Monte Grappa was reasonably unsmelly too. So, looking somewhat less like a trap, I padded along the hall barefoot to get some food.
Despite these efforts, the waiter guarding the restaurant entrance was not impressed. My lack of shoes was of deep concern to her. Only after a lengthy explanation that I had no other shoes apart from cycling ones did she reluctantly let me in to dine. I raided the buffet several times, but it was the delicious goulash and dumplings which got the most attention. Several plates of it went down before I was finally full, at which point my eyelids suddenly became heavy. The two or three beers over dinner had definitely helped with that, but it didn’t stop me grabbing one more to take up to my room as a precaution. The last thing I remember was a Facebook message from a racer asking if I fancied a beer in the bar downstairs. Unfortunately, I fell asleep part way through composing a reply.