The Morning After
For the first morning in nearly two weeks, I awoke without any need to rush. It felt a little surreal not counting every minute between opening my eyes and swinging my leg across the bike. As I lay in this blissfully unhurried state a vague memory sent me digging through my phone to find the message I’d seen just before falling asleep. Too my surprise, the sender Nick Philpott (cap 005) was still at the hotel and we arranged to meet at breakfast. By the time I got there another rider, Anisa Aubin (Cap 186), had also arrived. At this point I was the only one of us who’d actually scratched, although Nick was himself battling the decision on whether to ride on or abandon. Well aware of how easy it is to be swayed by others, I took great pains to avoid talking about my own reasons and thought processes. Instead, I busied myself with multiple visits to the breakfast buffet – so much so I lost count of the number of cups of coffee and platefuls of food I stoked up on.
At some stage we wandered outside to cheer in an arriving rider – Ive Weygers (cap 173). I forget the exact nature of his woes, but by all accounts he’d had a torrid time over the last few days. Cesare Pedrini (cap 136 – on a fixie, as if TCR wasn’t hard enough!) was the last rider to join our unofficial welcoming party. The relief on Ive’s face was evident as he rounded the last corner. He would ultimately join myself and Nick in those who abandoned at this point, but Anisa and Cesare would continue to finish.
It was hard to tear myself away from the beauty of that place – the morning and the scenery were breathtaking. But down in the valley, a box was waiting for me somewhere in a bike shop in Poprad. Not only did I have to find it but I needed to get my gear packed down which, in my mental and physically depleted state, was unlikely to be a quick or easy process. Nick was also keen to get home, and we rolled out from CP3 together.
The road home
If I had harboured any lingering doubts over the decision to abandon, what happened just moments after we left the hotel would have banished them. The lane was narrow and steep, and our speed picked up quickly as we started the descent. Suddenly, a delivery truck travelling at speed appeared from around the first sharp corner. I seem to remember yelling a warning back to Nick as I grabbed as much brake as I dare. The distance between us was closing faster than I could lose speed though, compounded by my reduced hand control and somewhat sketchy brake pads. The truck filled the road. He may have made an attempt to pull over, but it was barely noticeable. I veered as far right as I could, my wheels finding the crusty edge of the tarmac and bushes snagging my shoulder. Somehow, my handlebars cleared the truck, but my left shoulder slid down it’s clean white side as I finally came to a stop around the middle of the vehicle. Nick had been far enough back to stop well clear of the danger, but my heart was pounding as we started out again. Of all the near misses, this was one of the scariest and served to underscore the feeling that the road was telling me to go home.
For the rest of the descent, I was extremely nervous and cautious. A descent which, aside from one short uphill into the quaint town of Vysoké Tatry-Starý Smokovec, was an unbroken 20km downhill from the hotel at CP3 to the outskirts of Poprad. It was an easy and refreshing run made all the more enjoyable by the company of a fellow racer and some war stories shared as we flew along. Nick’s brain and GPS skills were rather more intact than mine and he was largely responsible for successfully navigating us into the city center. By contrast, my waypoint finding left a lot to be desired. The first bike shop we visited was not the right one – although after a few minutes wandering around, the right one turned out to be just around the corner. We parted ways at the door of Bicykle Rabatin – Nick rolling off towards the train station where he would meet up with Ive Weygers.
I’ve struggled many times whilst writing this account to convey the sometimes profound experiences of my TCR, but nowhere have words failed me quite so badly than in Poprad. One of the first teasers the race organizers posted almost a year ago was a black & white photograph – the stark, blocky outline of apartments contrasted against a towering backdrop of mountains. It’s a picture I gazed at countless times during evening planning sessions, wondering what it was actually like as a place – and whether I’d ever see it in person. True, there were iconic places further along the road which I wouldn’t reach – but none of them resonated with me in quite the same way as this place. And I was actually here. Somehow the bike and my body had carried me across half a continent to witness the city from that photograph. I lingered a moment before opening the iron grid door and stepping inside the bike shop.
The owner spoke no English, but with a series of hand gestures, and some translation from his helpful assistant, I was soon in possession of the enormous box they had set aside at Yoli’s request. A steady succession of the workshop’s tools were brought to my aid, and finally intervention from the owner himself when he could no longer tolerate the sight of my painfully slow, bumbling efforts. In no time he had the bike and ancillary gear wrapped and stashed tidily away. The generosity did not end there though. My response to the assistant’s question on how I would reach my hotel was clearly too vague for her liking, and moments later the owner was grabbing his car keys and giving me a lift to the nearby B&B. For a random stranger to walk into a shop and receive such incredible hospitality and service might seem unlikely in the modern age. Except for the fact that, across the globe, there is a community of owner-run local bike shops that would have done exactly the same thing. I know William’s, my own LBS, would have.
The B&B Yoli had found was another delight – a lovely house and garden in a network of quiet streets just a couple of minutes’ walk from the centre. Which was fortunate, because my first task after checking in was to go and buy something other than smelly cycling gear to wear. And to get some food, and a beer. In true British-male fashion I played it completely safe, headed for the first chain store I recognised (which happened to be C&A), and bought everything I needed off the handful of racks and shelves in the menswear department. Right down to the underwear, belt, and flip-flops. A similarly swift raid on a nearby pharmacy saw me with bathroom essentials – the most important being what I hoped was powerful deodorant, and razors strong enough to remove two-weeks’ worth of beard growth. Chores done, I swung by a large bowl of pasta, two even larger glasses of beer, and an ice cream cone on my way back to a very extensive personal hygiene session. At some point later in the afternoon, I emerged from a nap, fresh, clean and wearing nothing remotely cycling related to enjoy the rest of the day drinking beer and lounging on the easy chairs of the B&B’s covered patio.
Twenty four hours later, I was threading my way through the Arrivals crowds at Athens Airport, my passage impeded by an especially obstinate trolley and the world’s largest bike box which almost completely blocked my vision. Somehow I scraped through without incident to a joyful re-union with my family who were checked in and waiting at the Sofitel across the road.
It was, definitely, a shame not to have ridden through the mountains to experience the spectacle of Meteora. But arriving comfortably by car didn’t detract from the breath-taking sight of the monasteries perched atop towering granite columns. For the next couple of days we soaked up the sightseeing, and on two evenings settled into one of the roadside restaurants at the top of town. A perfect vantage point to dot-watch for arriving riders, and step out onto the street to wave and cheer them home. Part of me would, of course, like to have been riding down that last street to the finish, but if I had made it this far I’d have done so to a town devoid of racers and my family – they’d have packed up and gone home long before I pulled through. This way, at least, I got to savour a last few moments of TCR No.5 surrounded by the racers I’d started and ridden with for so many days. And, of course, we got to attend the finish party on the Saturday evening.
The party itself isn’t easy to sum up. Obviously a part of it was about awards, speeches and celebrations for the winning riders and war stories from anyone brave enough to take the microphone to share their adventures. Above and beyond those formalities though, it was a moving evening which on more than one occasion put a lump in my throat. Mike, of course, was one of the reasons – his brother, Russell, giving us all cause to shed a tear in remembrance. For me, personally, though it was the speech by Frank Simons’ son Job which reached deep inside. He told us that originally, he hadn’t intended to visit the finish, but had changed his mind on realising how much the event meant to his father. It was when he said Frank died the way he would have wanted too – riding his bike, not in a hospital bed – that I think he spoke into the hearts of every rider there. The words I wrote in the remembrance book and exchanged with Job after the ceremonies seemed wholly insufficient – but hopefully there was some comfort being amongst those Frank had raced with and who shared his passion.
As we headed out we also bumped into race winner James Hayden. It was great to shake his hand as a worthy winner who’d thoroughly earned his victory after disappointment in the previous two editions. Yoli even got a kiss on the cheek from him just before we exited the hotel and I said a last goodbye to my TCR adventure.