0km – the start – 22:00 24 July 2022
The atmosphere at the start alone would bring me back to TCR every year. The plug of riders compresses together as we funnel under the Start banner, and then fans out again into the slightly wider channel beyond, flanked either side by a cacophony of cheering supporters, clanging bells, and the wafting heat of those torches. I’m already mounted up and pedalling slowly as we pass under the banner. As soon as the space opens in front of me I stamp on the pedals – the rough cobbles are every bit as steep as I remember and I spin like mad to get up and over them with some semblence of balance. It’s a frenetic, somewhat chaotic start but it’s done in seconds and I’m cresting the rise onto brand new smooth tarmac (did they lay this just for us?). I barely have to back pedal before Nico is alongside. The road is closed and we have space all around us as we begin the cruise back down into town. We’re not racing yet – this part is to be enjoyed. We exchange banter about keeping an eye out for dangerous kerbs (a reference to my near mishap in 2017). Other riders slide past us, and we do the same as the throng jostles and settles into position. Once we are around the town, the gloves will come off and we’ll be racing for space on the narrow ramps of the Muur.
We track along the same streets we’d visited earlier to stock up on snacks, and back up the ramp to the market square for the third time this evening. Winding right and left around the cordoned off square, we’re back by the town clock and heading under the Start banner again in no time. This is it now, the real start of TCR. The cobbles seem almost steeper this time, maybe because they mean something this time. Misjudging the left turn at the top, I swing wide and bump through the gutter – although arguably it’s smoother than the rough stripes of bricks set into the road. From here to the top there will be no smooth tar, just bone and hand jarring cobbles. Nico and I ride together as far as the next right turn, but I know he’ll be faster than me on the steep climb – we need to find our own space and rhythmn to the top.
“Gonna have to take my own pace from here” I shout across “Have a great race and see you in Burgas for that beer“. Or words to that effect. Nico replies with something similar and gradually pulls away ahead.
This part of the route is still a road between houses – some of their occupants are out cheering, others seem to be going about their normal Sunday routine. There’s a few parked cars and vans to negotiate, creating choke points on the hill. But that does help to thin us out before we swing right onto the narrow, properly steep path of the Muur itself runs up through the trees. It is way steeper than I remember from last time, or from coming down on Saturday. The crowds lining it are just as thick as 2017, but I’m in a quieter bubble of riders. At this stage, the only thing I need to concentrate on is keeping the pedals churning up the steep, bumpy path. Which is far from easy, with my front wheel bouncing around barely under my control. My heart sinks as the riders directly in front of me converge and I see them unclip readying to stop. I really do not want to suffer the indignity of walking this hill again. But by some miracle, as they put their feet down, they each do so to the opposite side, creating a narrow but perfect V shape between their bikes. The sliver of road between them is no more than 30cm wide, but it’s big enough. I surge forward into the gap and force my way between them. No contact is made, but I can hear their breath as I pass. And that’s it, nothing but clear cobbles ahead. I hang on to the momentum of that surge, spinning furiously until I’m past the bar on the left, and that welcome short flat spot to catch breath before the last ramp up to the Kapel itself. With one last push, I urge my legs into the fastest cadence I can manage, passing several riders over that last, nastily steep section. My heart is pumping as we reach the little church – but despite being heavier than a small sun, somehow I’ve made it up on the bike this time. A single solitary thought passes through my head with absolute clarity.
‘This TCR is already different’
Dropping down the first, short section of path from the top I pull into a space on the right to check all my gear, select routes, and reset my watch to “race distance” (I will use it’s readout to track distances into each segment against my printed cue cards of possible shops and services). A few other riders around me are doing the same – whether you enjoy riding at night, or plan to do much of it on TCR, this is one full night of riding that you can’t really avoid (unless you are extremely fast and can catchup the hours you’d losing by going straight to bed). The upside is you’ll probably cover one of your longest daily distances in the 20 to 24 hours on the road ahead.
4km – The Muur – 22:20 24 July 2022
The next part of this TCR is not so different – I roll down the back of the Muur, off the cobbles back onto tarmac, and across the main road out of the town. And once again I’m struck by how few riders seem to have gone this way. I guess not everyone fancies the direct route through Brussels, but based on what Nico and I found on Friday I’m really not expecting it to be bad. Just up ahead I spy the familiar figure of Lionel Bobb – we swap a few words and encouragement, before he and his riding partner (he’s riding as a pair this year) turn right, down towards Frankie’s B&B in Atembeke.
I have to make another stop for something I’d forgotten (maybe a jacket, or arm warmers, or perhaps some Haribo) – whatever it was, I’m mildly annoyed with myself at not doing everything on top of the Muur. That annoyance soon passes though as I roll through Grimminge and back past the B&B. The evening air is on the perfect side of slightly cool – greetings with the few riders around me carry with them the remnants of that amazing spirit we all shared in at the start. I begin to get pleased with myself once more as I swing left onto the pan flat Dender cycle path, instead of ramping over the few short but ugly ramps that would have been waiting if I’d followed my planned route to the right. The Wahoo starts beeping frantically, getting progressively more annoyed with me as I ignore each of it’s attempts to re-route me until eventually, we’re far enough along the path that the next possible turn is the one I’d planned anyway. My wheels whir rythmically, cutting through the low mist and the silence of the almost dark path – ahead a lone flashing red light marks another racer, and one or maybe two pass me on this serenely peaceful stretch. Even on it’s second to lowest setting, my front light has no trouble picking out the occasional lumps in the tarmac caused by roots or subsidence. I recall wondering why I hadn’t recce’d and taken this stretch in 2017 – it really is the most tranquil few kilometers to settle the nerves and get TCR underway. It’s all too short though. Before long I’m snaking around the athletics track to join the N8 on the outskirts of Ninove.
17km – N8, Ninove – 22:55 24 July 2022
Make no mistake, the N8 is a busy dual lane road that I’d avoid like the plague on a bike under normal circumstances. But that logic inverts on this evening. I’m expecting almost no traffic, meaning that 2nd lane is an entire empty lane with which the few cars and trucks can pass me in safety (plus there is the occasional semi decent cycle path too). With one exception, it’s an almost perfect strategy. It’s clearly harvest time, and there are a handful of tractors towing trailers of hay etc. which seem reluctant to use the whole 2nd lane. Those are just moments though in an otherwise long and straightforward stretch of rolling main road heading steadily towards Brussels. And none of them result in any really close passes.
The rest of the way it’s just undulations and traffic lights, which do of course limit my overall speed a tad. But I’d take that for a simple route and easy gradients any day. One other rider shadows my path, and we alternate places a couple of times. He comments that he’s happy to see someone else taking the direct route before promptly taking a wrong turn and heading off into the blackness of the surrounding fields. I doubt if I’d have kept seeing him but he’s clearly not using a GPS which nags him the way mine does. I’m glad of those persistent reminders that I’m on track (or not) – a definite step up from the eTrex I’ve used on previous rides. The eTrex is a great unit in many ways, but is quite happy to let you go get lost for as far and as long as you like without so much as a peep.
Shortly before Brussels proper I spot a familiar sight – a truck lay by which the cycle path winds through. I know that section is overgrown and full of rubbish and dog shit – so I stay on the main road. It may be law that you must use cycle paths when present in Belgium, but only when they’re in good condition, which this one very definitely is not. Sailing past my previous exit at Itterbeek I push on into the heart of the city.
38km – Brussels – 00:05 25 July 2022
Brussels itself is predictable – some traffic, some cyclist and pedestrians to avoid, plenty of stopping for lights, but otherwise fine. This route seems to suffer fewer staggering drunks and tram tracks than my previous TCR, or maybe my memory has faded. I pass what is possibly city hall, twist around a busy junction that was much easier to navigate than it appeared on Google Maps, and head along the river (or maybe a canal) for some distance. There are more “Night Shops” than I remember seeing last time – which is a shame really, because at this stage of the ride I don’t need anything. And I’m sure by the time I do need something I’ll be out in the sticks and there will be none. One thing that is beginning to bug me is my handlebar. I clearly have not tightened the stem bolts enough, and it’s rotated slightly – causing the drops to be lower than is comfortable. I know I’ll need to fix it soon, but would rather do it in daylight (or at least the bright lights of a gas station forecourt). For now, I sharp yank pulls them back up enough to be tolerable. The preload on the stem also feels a bit loose too, which I’ll fix at the same time. The picture of “not quite screwed together properly” is completed by the right hand, primary, Wahoo developing a forward and slightly outward droop due to the Gorilla tape not quite being a firm enough shim to support the weight of GPS and light. I guess it could be worse, they’re annoying as shit, but none of these are race ending.
Somewhere on the way out of the suburbs (Zaventem, Kortenberg) there’s a familiar junction which confused the heck out of me last time due to roadworks. It’s all fixed now, and I sail effortlessly down into it and up the other side. Ahead are a pair of racers, one of whom seems to have their rear light off. As I approach though I can see it’s on but partly obscured by his bag – I’m thinking I should say something, but as I slide up there is clearly some bigger issue. He’s wobbling around and looks very uncomfortable, and the front rider seems to be cajoling him along. Hard to tell if it’s a bout of the dozies, some physical or mechanical issue, or just my imagination. I decide that my intrusion is not needed though, sicne they are a pair they’ll figure themselves out better without my probably unwanted comments on something they’ve almost certainly already noticed.
Somehere just before or after this point, I spy a roundabout with a very familiar quiet and dark rural road to my right. Like a dog re-marking it’s territory, I pull over at the exact same spot I did in 2017 for a nicely private pee. At least four or five other racers cross the roundabout as I do, unaware of my presence in the bushes along their route. It’s all a little voyeuristic, watching the race from the sidelines for a moment.
68km – Leuven – 02:00 25 July 2022
As it did in 2017, Leuven provides me with an open bar whose friendly and curious staff fill my water bottles as they inquire about this crazy group of night time cycle racers (one of them is a tri-athlete, and I can feel the spark of TCR inspriation settle in his brain as he looks it up on his phone). But that’s all I score – all but one of the restaurants I spot are closed, and the open one (a kebab shop) seems so disinterested in serving me that I give up waiting after a few minutes. I have plenty of bars and snacks, and there’ll be something up along the road for more at some stage.
Tienen, Sint Truiden, Borgloon, and finally Tongeren. Each of them slip past in the silence of the night with a steady familiarity, but also with a subtle difference. I’ve marked several “24 hour” gas stations on my cue cards, but none of them have 24 hour shops, just fuel. Other places are closed or, quite often, boarded up. Nico and I both noticed the same in Geraardsbergen – business we remember shuttered and gone. I remember visiting Athens shortly after the 2008 crash and feeling the same – a sense of recession stamped onto the graffiti covered hoardings were once thriving businesses had been. The social devastation from COVID seems to be all around me. A corner may have been turned and recovery beginning, but it’s a long road ahead.
One of the towns I pass has an impromptu “gravel parcours” through roadworks on the way into the middle of town. On benches just off the town square sit a couple of racers who I say “hi” too as I wheel through – behind me is another rider, snaking a similar but not identical route through the town. My guess is these are probably the riders who passed me at the roundabout – not many seem to have come this way, although by Maastricht up ahead I suspect many of the diversions around Brussels will converge and I’ll start to encounter other riders. I wonder if Nico will be one of them. He’s a faster and stronger rider than me, but his route was further, hillier, and possibly on worse roads. Some of that may well cancel out. It’s a question that gets pushed down the mental pyramind though – as the sun creeps over the horizon I spot a much more important layer on my hierarchy of needs.
139km – Riemst – 06:00 25 July 2022
In the urban sprawl beyond the non-descript town of Riemst is a sight which instantly elevates this place to not far short of heaven. An open store. Better still, on closer inspection ‘t Gazetje Riemst isn’t just a store – it’s a cafe too. The owner is super friendly and in no time at all I am sat outside with coffee, sausage rolls, croissants and full water bottles. Although I’m not sure he should have been so generous in the use of their toilet – the flush isn’t quiet strong enough to deal with the full force of my night time back log. After a few attempts, I give up and get myself kitted for a rapid departure. Luckily I’d already attended to my handlebar issues, swapped morning “hellos” with Yoli, and checked in on the tracker for Nico’s location (he’s just up ahead in Maastricht but too far for me to try and chase down). So I roll off quickly before anyone notices the disaster behind.
There’s a peculiar familiarity about the next few hours of riding: familiar because it’s near identical to the route I took in 2017; peculiar because nothing is quite the same. Maastricht comes and goes much quicker than expected – the bridges over the Maas naviation and the Maas itself, a couple of road junctions, sections of cyclepath, and I’m already out the other side. And next the rolling path alongside the main road which leads towards Aachen, and Germany. Which is peculiarly longer, but also less up and down than I recall (or maybe I’m stronger). Either way, my initial thoughts on it being too early for another stop at the same cafe outside Aachen as last time are starting to seem less significant when finally I do reach there. Except, sadly it’s gone – another victim to COVID maybe? The red and white shuttering reads something along the lines of “thanks for 30 years of custom” (my German is rusty). Looking around, the neighbourhood has a more run down feeling than I recall, not shabby, but not swanky either. One of the things I’ve started this TCR with is the intention of riding smarter and more consistently, and a part of that is to stick as much to a 3 hour riding / short food stop regime as I can (with a longer stop for 1 or 2 bigger feeds during the day as opportunities allow). I know from recent rides this regimen works fairly well for me. This would have been an hour or so before time, but the fact that it’s gone is rather sad.
I misread the Wahoo once through the centre and end up doing a loop to get under the adjacent railway and get back on track. Soon after I miss another turn, forcing a U turn to get back on track. Juggling traffic, navigation and some lingering fatigue from the night of riding are becoming evident in my erratic GPS track. Not much further along the road I find myself on a recognisably bumpy cycle track. I’m sure this section of road was closed last time, and being dug up as part of what seems a popular summer sport in Germany: “dig up the town main street and resurface it“. Now with fresh tarmac to ride on I ditch the cruddy path. With near perfect timing, a bakery with a cafe comes in to view almost bang on the 3 hour mark since my last stop.
187km – Atsch – 09:20 25 July 2022
My eyes light on a Caprese toastie which is suddenly exactly what I fancy, plus something which really worked for me in 2017: Green Tea. I may have grabbed something sweet also, maybe a cookie or somesuch. Table space outside is at a premium, and soon after I site down I’m sharing my table with what feels like the Atsch Housewives weekly meeting before long (to be fair, they did ask first). It’s more offensive to them than me I suspect, given the state of me.
Yoli is delighted to hear of my progress, as we chat whilst I stuff down my food. Although also disturbed about how far adrift the online tracking site stats are (they’re already showing me well over 200km). She resolves to email them to see if there is an issue with my tracker or t the overall accuracy. Regardless, I’m happy to be closing in on 200km and probably only another 100km or so before I park up for the night. My original goal was something north of 300km for today and we’re well on track for that. The green tea was good, but I’m still in need of something. I head back in and grab some kind of fortified sports juice from the fridge and also that essential water bottle refill from the staff. The juice is refreshing, maybe some of the advertised minerals will help top up what I’ll be losing soon. Central Germany is likely to be sweltering in the current heat wave.
I can see now, looking at the elevation profile, that I’d been steadily climbing before the cafe stop. As a result, the next section is fast easy riding – largely flat or downhill. Eschweiler seems a little familiar, although I avoid the centre this time. Düren too, although that has to be an illusion – I’m sure I turned south before this point in 2017. The rest is something of a blur of rural roads and farm roads (only open to cyclists and local traffic, occasionally gravel but often good tarmac). Storm clouds gather briefly but dissipate again with just a handful of drops of rain. The afternoon is beginning to get properly hot, although it’s only really noticeable when I slown down and loose the breeze from cycling. Thanks to the easy terrain I’ve covered a solid distance since the last stop and am in need of some proper food. Where the Wahoo says turn right I spy a garage to the left and go to investigate. Close up it looks unpromising for more than road snacks – but a little further, across the road is what seems to be a proper restaurant.
250km – Merten – 13:30 25 July 2022
I struck gold. Despite the non Italian sounding name, Restaurant Zagreb is open and pasta seems a speciaility. I decide to risk triggering the dozies with a Radler (Shandy) to accompany the broccoli and bacon pasta dish. The little patio is sweltering, but I’m so glad to be sat on a real chair eating something real I hardly notice it. Amusingly, I notice Nico’s dot is barely a kilometre or two away – he’s found the McDonalds which I’d marked on my cue cards but hadn’t thought to check. I wouldn’t trade this delicious pasta for a burger, but the company would have been nice! Too offset the beer I order an espresso with the check, plus beg the obligatory bottle refill.
Not long after rolling out again I pass that same McDonalds, on the run in to Bonn. If you head east for long enough in Germany, you’re pretty much bound to reach the Rhine. And Bonn is where my route crosses it. The bridge is visible for from a distance, although it takes quite a long stretch of river path riding to get there. The ramp up is an amusing 360 circle of raised cycle path – it takes a low gear and a bit of concentration to stay in my lane and not overlap my toes with the mudguard of the turning front wheel. We’re a long way off the ground, but a solid barrier flanks – falling is definitely more a perceived risk rather than a real one. The bridge itself is reminiscent of the Severn crossing into Wales – a nice quiet path alongside lanes of thundering trucks and cars seem to which make the bridge bump and sway (again, probably imagined more than real).
My route out of town is a chasm of construction. Where road and path should be are a gaping hole, and blocks of fresh concrete with rusty steel re-inforcements poking out. No amount of walking and pushing are going to get me across what lies in front. I’m beginning to love the Wahoo at dealing with this kind of on the fly re-routing. Where the eTrex would have shown me a network of roads and left me to figure it out, the Wahoo has me plotted onto an alternative no sooner have I gone back far enough and followed a seemingly parallel road. Within a couple of kilometers of cyclepath, the GPS beeps at me, pointing left across the highway and I’m back on track. Wonderful.
I know the terrain will begin to kick upward as I approach one of the possible overnight stops I’ve earmarked Altenkirchen). Which makes sense now I see the geography on the ground – of course we’re going to climb out of the Rhine valley. But is that before or after Altenkirchen. That question answers itself as a I navigate around the outskirts of Hennef. On lovely quiet rural lanes I find myself spinning in my lowest gear on punishing double figure gradients. Under the blazing afternoon sun my water is disappearing fast and the Haribos are being called in for urgent short term fuel needs. Any risk of the dozies has been thoroughly banished as the lush green pastures and leafy woodlands deliver me a beating that seems completely out of character to their beauty. As my track joins the main N8 I spot a garage shop. It’s ahead of schedule slightly, but I need top stop, rest, and recharge if only briefly.
291km – Elan Tankestelle, Daubenschade – 17:00 25 July 2022
I know exactly what I need: ice cream! And something refreshing – I may have ended up buying both coke and the strange sports drink, with a label which promised many good things (I want to call it C20, but a web search on that shows something different). Plus of course cold water. Inadvertantly, I end up buying naturally sparkling water – but it’s a happy accident, it instantly becomes my new favourite water bottle top up.
It’s a short stop, but by the time I’m rolling again I seem to be in the middle of rush hour traffic. The sections with cycle path are fine, but where I’m on the N8 itself it’s hideous. Cars and trucks travelling at high speed, often passing each other in the smallest of spaces. The risk they take may be calculated, but they are also insane – and scary as shit to be in the middle of as a slow moving cyclist on a road which climbs upward. It’s just a regular road too – no passing lanes. My nerves force me to pull over and check the GPS – Juliana’s words from 2017 coming to me once again:
‘Find another way’
There’s a network of rural roads to the right which look like they may offer an alternative. I spin back and head off this death track and let the Wahoo do it’s thing and find me some other way. At first it’s fairly succesful, albeit with some extra climbing. But I reach an impasse where the only options seem back to the N8, or onto a grotty farm track. I take the latter, which instantly becomes less of an actual track and more of pair of tractor ruts across field. Amusingly, there’s a cycle path showing at the top of the rise – which turns out to be just a single rut. Lovely on a mountain bike, and navigable on my gravel tyres. Luckily it’s short, dropping me off in a farmyard a little ahead. Clearly all of this part was meant to be in some weird cosmic way. Because standing against a wall in the cluster of buildings I ride up to is the unrecognisable outline of Nico and his bike.
“How’s it going bud?“, I call out or something equally bland.
Nico looks up from his bike with a grin, he hadn’t spotted me. We swap stories about the crap road, tha laughable single track across the field, and TCR and life in general. We discuss calling in the stretch of N8 as a dangerous section to race HQ. But in truth, it’s only really the rush hour traffic which has made it so, and by the time the message gets circulated it’s unlikely other riders will hit this road at rush hour. We ride apart and keep each other in sight along the next stretch though for safety. The traffic has quietened down though and there are several stretches with cycle path. Nico is planning to push on, but I’m aiming at the McD’s in Altenkirchen for food and a check on my phone for a hotel. I’ve covered the distance I wanted too for the day and would rather start early than ride on and miss the chance of a proper bed to catchup on last night’s lost sleep.
The extra sized Big Mac Meal hits the spot, but I’m drawing a blank on hotel. I’ve not got my mind quite into “TCR hotel hunt” mode yet, and it feels like I’m missing the obvious. I do spot the Sport Hotel in Altenkirchen which was on my cue card list, but I can’t quite figure where it is (I’m definitely also suffering some mental fog here). Instead, I ride on somewhat aimlessly and in somewhat low spirits, having failed to secure a definite booking. I realise as I rise up and out of town that I am not just going to “stumble across somewhere“, so I pull over and check my phone again. Except, somehow, it seems I may have done just that. Up ahead is a turning into a park, which is exactly where the Sport Hotel is located. I pedal like a mad thing to try and get there before reception closes.
317km – Sporthotel, Altenkirchen – 19:40 25 July 2022
My spirits lift as the sliding doors open, and then sink again when the reception seems deserted. But a girl appears when I ring the bell, she was literally about to close apparently. Her expression does not look promising initially, but then she announces she has one of her favourite rooms free – the “climbing” room. It seems all their rooms are sport themed, although the extent of this only becomes apparent later (I can onlyassume “cycling” was taken). Better still when I ask about storing my bike and explain I must leave early, she apologises but says I’ll have to take it into my room. I don’t think she’s met many TCR riders before, and quickly explain no apology is needed.
The lift is even big enough for me and the bike. The room key is an interesting 6 digit combo as well as the usual swipe – which takes two attempts to get right.
She wasn’t lying about the “themed” part, there’s a full blown climbing wall on one side, and the bed sits elevated above something which I assume is meant to be a cave. As fun as it is, it’s also an utter pain in the arse. I can’t get up into the bed or under into the cave without stooping, something my knees really do not take kindly too. And finding places to plug my dual USB chargers, and batteries, lights and devices into becomes a mission itself. But, I;ve got a bed, a shower for me and laundry, and a coffee machine for the morning (assuming I can figure out how to work it).
Eventually I’m washed, my gear is hanging to dry, my bum, feet and hands are liberally lathered in Sudocream, and it’s time for sleep. Which comes easily, after the obligatory few minutes of lying flat on my back as a small army of gnomes batter my knees with tiny hammers (seriously, that is how it feels).