Friday 22 July 2022
I guess I have some explaining to do. I mean how does one get from the previous blog post where I questioned my desire for more long distance riding, to sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow watching baggage handlers load my bike box into a plane bound for Brussels and another TCR. I can’t even blame it on hallucinations – the lurid blue smurfs decorating the inside and outside of the plane are actually there (apparently the national animal of Belgium). The answer starts in the middle of an unusually mild British Winter.
When I looked back on There and Back Again – Day 3 I realised the downbeat end could be put down to a couple of fairly fixable factors: poor fuelling; and riding harder and further than I’d prepared for. With those two in mind, I made a concious decision to avoid the “hiding indoors on the trainer” approach of the last two British winters and suck up the cold and wet and force myself to also go outdoors on longer club rides. As 2021 ebbded into 2022 this was beginning to pay dividends. My fitness was starting to get back to where it was when I took part in Munga. I was within 10% of the FTP I had then, and riding much more comfortable on rides over 100km. And that was where the trouble started – around that time, the route for TCR No. 8 was announced. Back to the iconic Geraardsbergen start, with some equally classic forays into Eastern Europe and The Balkans. Added to the fact that two of my Cape Audax buddies would be lining up to start (Nico Coetzee, Chris van Zyl) it was hard to resist. So, after some intense discussions with Yoli, I sat patiently until the wait-list entries opened. I couldn’t guess at how many places there were (maybe less than 50), or how many hundreds might have applied – but I threw my name in the ring. And by some miracle, at the end of January 2022, I got offered a place.
I was in decent shape, with five full months to prepare. What could possibly go wrong? COVID, that’s what. The start of February was lost to the only bout of COVID which has properly knocked me down, immediately followed by Flu to really put the boot in. As I began to train again in March, not only had I lost a month, my promising winter fitness had evaporated. The first 100 miler I attempted was a near disaster – I got home physically exhausted and mentally dejected. The only thing which prevented me from immediately pulling out was the realisation that from here, it could not possibly get worse. And it didn’t. With each ride, my stamina slowly returned. The 100 milers started to feel easier. I DNF’d two local Audaxs (a 200km and 300km), but in both cases the reasons weren’t about fitness but more about time and logistics. I ended up riding at least as far on each of them, but with improvised routing around getting me home rather than back to the start within time.
To mix things up, I borrowed a training routing from Nico’s playbook: his 10 x 100km. Yolandi and Ben were visiting South Africa for 10 days which gave me exactly the right amount of free time. It quickly became a rewarding, and not too difficult routine: start work early, eat lunch around midday, ride 100km in the aftenoon, bath and stuff my face in the evening whislt catching up on emails, sleep. Most importantly was a subtle detail that I hadn’t appreciated when I started the regime – 100km began to feel like an easy 5 or 6 hours out on the road, not a long or hard distance. Confidence begain to return. But I was still short on individual longer rides. That came in the form of a pair of out and back rides to Upton St. Leonards as part of a long weekend trip when Yoli’s parents were staying. Despite a decent amount of elevation (and some steep ramps on the outward leg), it felt about as comfortable as I can remember a pair of 200km+ rides being. Enjoyable even, mostly.
So here we are – sat on the tarmac, with some training in the legs and a mix of excitement and (probably misplaced) optimism to be heading towards Geraardsbergen again. The agreement with Yoli is I have around 20 days for this (220km per day), which based on my training feels doable. It won’t be a GC place, but it will be a finish. In truth though, neither of us have any real clue, so the feeling is very much “get to the start, see how much I have inside and how far that gets me“. One final pungent irony is that someone sat near me on the plane has terrible BO. It’s an especially perfect touch since, in not many days time, people in hotels and cafes will be turning their noses away from me for the same reason.
getting to the start part 1 – Brussels Airport to Geraardsbergen
I guess travelling is always a lot of waiting – but heading to events, with a specific start time, seems to amplify that. And a flight delay and long wait for the oversized baggage trolley do nothing to ease that aspect. By the time I make it out of customs and around to the quiet corner of the airport which Nico has commandeered as an impromptu bike assembly workshop, he’s already done and ready to ride. Time is pressing on, and it’s already looking like we’ll reach our respective B&Bs quite late, so we whiz off apologetic messages to the owners as I hastily unpack and assemble my steed. Too hastily, it turns out, as I trap the Di2 wire under the stem clamp, necessitating me going through the whole handlebar setup twice. And even then it’s a bit of a stuff up. I lost the shim to one of the Wahoo mounts somewhere, meaning an ugly Gorilla Tape kludge is needed. And clearly I didn’t tighen all the bolts quite fully, although that issue will only come to light later.
Eventually we do roll out of the airport on our bikes, with our civvies for the next 2 days in bags on our backs. It’s early evening by now, but there’s plenty of summer sunlight still left to ride by. And a benefit of the later time is that traffic seems to have died down. The route I’ve plotted (part borrowed from Philip Malcom on FB) is a decent one too. A network of mostly empty bike paths lead us around and away from the concrete maze of flyovers and busy highways which surround every big international airport. Even as we do role into the center of Brussels itself, it’s fairly quiet – more bikes on the paths for sure, but still not much traffic. We dodge through one way streets, across tram tracks, around roadworks, and even a scenic tour of what seems like “biker central”, with Harley’s and other gleaming street machines cruising around the block, engines throbbing to a deep bass beat. But before long we are visibly heading out of the city and into the surrounding countryside and suburbs. Compared to my last city centre experience of Brussels it was remarkably quick and trouble free – so much so, Nico even begins contemplating altering his Sunday evening start section to go direct through the City. A part of that is probably due to the ease with which we navigate the short section of dual carriageway N8, before heading off onto quiet rural lanes for the last 20km or so to our waiting B&Bs
My engine and fuel tank work very differently to Nico’s – and I’m on empty. Spying what looks like a bar, I spin around and make the call for chips and beer. I’m not sure Nico was even remotely hungry, but the prospect of a beer seems to do the trick. The establishment is rather fancier than it appeared, so much so we refuse the hosts gracious offer of a table inside and sit under the parasols outside. Whilst we demolish gourmet pulled pork burgers, fries, and beers a torrential rain storm explodes over our heads, but doesn’t quite manage to penetrate the blue and red canvas above us. We also learn that this is Remco Evenepoel’s home town, although neither of us pay enough attention on how to find his bike shop and give up looking after the first couple of corners. We’re heading the wrong way, and the light is now beginning to fade.
The rest of the journey could hardly be a more idyllic evening for riding – perfect temperature, beautiful rolling countryside, even a short stretch of cobbles. These end up being a wrong turn, but serve to cast even more doubt in Nico’s mind on his choice of route after the start. Even the short cloud burst doesn’t really get us either wet or cold. Better still, this part of the riding (which I think is Phil’s route rather than mine) seems to be almost entirely “Fietspad” (cycle roads for bikes and local traffic only). Pulling through Grimminge, the town where my B&B is located, we find ourselves in the middle of a lively street fair. By some mad coincidence Franky Poelart (the owner of the B&B I stayed in for TCR No.5 in 2017) is standing right next to me getting beers as we wander through. This isn’t even his home town. After a brief exchange we explain we need to get to our accomodation and roll on.
Our lights are lit, but more for being seen than seeing our way by the time we pull near to my B&B. Or to be precise, Nico’s B&B. Without realising, Chris (who sadly is not with us due to breaking his hip two weeks back on a training ride) has changed their B&B booking from a place 10km away to one almost directly opposite. Nico is already in his room by the time I’ve doubled back and spotted that the modern white house, whilst having no sign, is actually my destination (the hosts heard my phone and are on there way to greet me as I turn into the drive). The moment I step inside I’m pleased with my choice – the B&B Blue Garden is hospitable, clean, modern and provisoned with everything I need and more. .
Getting to the start part 2 – SIMs, The Muur, Pasta & Beer
You need a day contingency in case stuff is broken or lost in transit. In Nico’s case, there is a little of this to add some final essentials to his bike (one of which is the mandatory rear reflector, I forget the other). For me though, everything seems to have come through OK, which means a leisurely breakfast, check over the bike, and dive into Kindle to distract myself with the book I am reading (Tiamat’s Revenge, the last in The Expanse saga).
When we do head out it’s to meet a couple of needs: food (for me of course), and a European SIM for Nico (which he didn’t manage to find on his earlier excursion into Geraardsbergen for the reflector). We ride towards Ninove on the Dender cycle path – a delightful meandering, mostly tarmac, trail along the Dender river. It immediately changes my plans for the start. There’s a couple of vicious gradients between Geraardsbergen and the N8, which this totally avoids (without incurring much extra distance either). Our initial foray’s in Ninove prove less fruitful on the telecom front – but after a closed shop, and some looping back on ourselves, we strike gold with an Orange shop in town that has a prepaid SIM covering all of the 14 countries we’ll be routing through. Pleased to be sorted, we head off to grab a sandwich. Although the first store I try ends up less than ideal (in hindsight, it was rather obviously a pet store from the outside, not quite sure what my mind latched onto thinking it was a local spa type store).
The next store is the opposite end of the scale – a massive, Costco style bulk shopping store. But they do also have cool drinks, snacks, wraps, and sun cream (which is looking increasingly essential as the European heat wave shows no sign of abating). Plus I grab a multi pack of Haribos for those little energy top ups between real food. Rolling back along the river we are both fully sorted – all that remains is to while away the day. Which is easily done with the bank holiday weekend (another reason Brussel’s was so quiet) funfair in our B&B town providing a couple of beers in the shade. And then onto Geraardsberge itself for a quick climb of The Muur (from the back side), and a recce into town for food at the legendary Pasta Al Dente on the river front. There’s an unintentionally large pile of empty beer cans by the time we leave, which attracts amused comments from the handful of other TCR participants on tables around us.
Getting to the start part 2 – registration, killing time
With amazing generosity, my B&B hosts are happy to set an extra place for Nico at breakfast (his place is room only). So we get to enjoy a decent continental spread and umpteen cups of good coffee before heading off to be at registration when it opens at 10am. We follow the other half of the Dender path right into the heart of Geraardsbergen, and straight to the entrance drive towards the registration hall. We seriously needn’t have rushed, there is absolutely no queue and we wheel straight in. Collecting our caps and trackers (in Nico’s case, confirming registration of his own SPOT) is done in a few of minutes. The bike checks take a little longer, with a couple of guys ahead of us. Both our rigs pass without comment or observation (except a remark on my Titanium seatpost, and the weight of my rig – I’m too much of a pessimist to pack really light).
Before departing, we grab pictures of each of us with our rigs and those precious numbered caps. I’m not quite sure why, but something stirred in me at this point. Instead of just quickly grabbing a random shot, I very conciously posed and cropped mine – the backdrop, the slightly defiant look. It’s as if something of the wannabee photographer I had been as a teenager returned, with a desire to tell some of this TCR story in visuals. I think, in recognition of that, I also opted for an old school filter from the colour film we used to shoot back in those days (X-Pro 2).
With that done, we literally have an entire day to kill – most of which is done around the pool of my B&B (again, a lovely gesture by the hosts to let us stay until we need to head for the briefing at 5pm). We grab a tapas lunch from them, snooze in the heat, and swap stories with the only other guest who is also riding TCR. Our rigs bake in the furnace of the afternoon sun, and (Kevin) relays a story of his Wahoo catching fire in such conditions recently. Luckily, no such infernos break out for us – although I’m pretty sure my snacks will be moulded into one sticky lump somewhere in my bar bag and top tube bags. The last act before heading to the briefing is to donate our bags and clothes for a local charity. The B&B hosts offer to sort this for us, rather than use the recycling “basketball net” we had earmarked for this on the ride in. In my case, the clothes are old but usable. I doubt the backpack will last much longer though. It’s Ben’s old one from school and I’ve already had to sew the straps back on and Gorilla Tape the bottom and corners to get it this far. But at least something may get re-used.
As we roll towards the last few hours before the race proper, another aspect of arriving strikes me. For the last day and a half we’ve been reminding ourselves how to “live by bike“, plus getting used to riding on the right hand side of the road again. By now, it’s feeling like second nature to go everywhere on our rigs, which brings a layer of calm confidence to the nerves which are beggining to flutter.
Getting to the start part 3 – briefing, more pasta, town square
Where the Jeugdcentrum had been quiet for registration it was now an excited hum – riders, volunteers, friends, family, media. Every corner or barrier were you could park one bike had three propped up. Nico and I found almost the last empty space of wall right at the back, a narrow triangular gap alongside a parked truck.
The briefing itself was largely familiar – one of the videos by Mike Hall about the significance of the rules and fair play. Anna and one of the other organisers (Tom, maybe?) place some emphasis on the nature of the event, the importance of respecting the volunteers and each other, and the fact that controls only provide a brevet stamp and may not have other facilities. And, as in 2017, a phrase which would stick me down the long lonely kilometers: “remember every one is riding for two, yourselves and the other person who was not lucky enough to get a place“. Fuck me – as if my bike wasn’t already heavy enough with me, Theunis, and my recently departed Mum. Now there was four of us onboard. No pressure then.
Nico was a picture of single minded focus the moment the speeches ended and we had our brevet cards: “Pasta, now!“. We were the first table eating at Pasta al Dente, which moments later was swamped with hungry riders with 4 hours to kill and nothing to do but eat and drink. It’s part of the event and process, but it sure is a long drawn out day. These last few hours being the toughest. Our bellies filled we aimed for a lie down on the benches the other side of the river. But Nico spots a problem – gaps in the boardwalk perfectly sized to lose a phone into the depths below. One startled nudge waking from a catnap and that new SIM was going to be pretty useless as it sank to the bottom. Instead he pointed us to a car park across the road – nothing more than concrete and a kerb, but essentially shade. We check with the other rider there that we’re not intruding, and sprawl out. With a rolled up jacket as a pillow, it’s surprisingly comfortable and calm lying there, staring into the blue, criss crossed with con trails from the busy air traffic.
As we lie there some old ladies from the town come and look in the window of the shop we are crashed near, drawn by the big “SALE” sign in the window. I joke to Nico that maybe we should tell them we’re in the queue for when they open tomorrow. At some stage the other rider’s girlfriend arrives (they’ve driven from Germany) and they go off to get a takeway Chinese. On the way back he shares a massive bunch of bananas with us – joking that support is allowed between riders for a couple more hours still. Eventually it’s time – I need coke, and some extra Euros. We head up to the town square, but the shop I recall is gone. We end up doing our own lap of the town ahead of the race procession until we spot a small store in the side streets which provides what we need. A coke for now, and one for my pocket for the night. I’m sure I’ll see an open gas station but this is a precaution.
We wind down the last hour at a table outside one of the bars at the bottom right of the square. One last beer, a chair, and use of their toilet. And then, without a word, riders begin to funnel into the square. We kit up and follow them. The hands of the town clock edge edge towards the hour. The town crier announces the start of ceremonies, and the moment is here once again. For each of us, this is the second time we’ll bump over the cobbles towards the start banner and the incredible continent spanning adventure that is TCR. It doesn’t matter whether we’re ready – it’s time.