Dot to Dot

Cool, clear air, crystal clear waters of a high mountain lake, wispy clouds scudding across the surrounding peaks. As I slogged up to CP3 in Slovakia almost exactly a year ago, I was pretty sure this was the final chapter in TCR for me. Nothing much challenged that view in the days which immediately followed – heading down to Poprad, flying to Athens, and arriving in Meteora for the party as a tourist rather than a finisher. The feeling in all of this was a prolonged farewell to an incredible experience. It took me a few months to complete my blog entries, but doing so felt like the last words I’d ever be inspired to write on TCR. But one of the great joys and mysteries in this life is that we never really know what lies on the road ahead. And TCR, it turns out, is no exception. Because just as my attempt on this monstrous beast ended, so the gauntlet was picked up by friend and riding buddy Nico Coetzee.

We met up for breakfast a few days before he flew out for his attempt – I’d be lying if I pretended there wasn’t a tinge of FOMO mixed in with the excitement that he’d soon be starting out on his own adventure across Europe. Any doubts that I should also have entered and be joining him for a second attempt myself were dispelled brutally though just a couple of days later on the next Cape 200 Audax. It was a new experimental route – taking in the stunning Gydo Pass, which we’ve been wanting to include on a ride for some time. With just five of us starting out at 6am from Wellington, there was always a high probability that our paces wouldn’t match and I’d be spending a significant time riding alone. Ordinarily this would trouble me, but for some reason on this crisp, blue, winters day the idea of riding solo was almost something I was looking forward too. So when Gary and Shaun dropped back a shade on the first ramps of Gydo Pass, I ground on steadily and allowed the gap between us to widen. For the remaining 140km I enjoyed every aspect of the solace of the ride and the stunning mountain scenery. With limited stops, I even managed to finish an hour inside the time I’d expected for a strenuous ride with four significant climbs.







What is perhaps most significant about this particular Audax though is the date on which it was ridden – 28 July 2018 – the day before Nico would line up on those iconic Geraardsbergen cobbles for the start of TCR No.6. I rode solo, I finished strong and faster than is typical for me, and I enjoyed the ride. But absolutely no part of me felt fit and ready for another attempt on TCR. My general physical fitness has definitely improved, but it still feels insufficient to maintain a high enough average speed across the whole distance to complete TCR in time. More than that though, the latent numbness in my right hand has actually degraded since last year. It’s becoming something of a battle on the bike, kicking in at anything from the 80km mark onwards. By the end of this latest Audax, I was again struggling to control the brakes and shift well enough. Massage, physio, gym core work – all of these I’m working through, but it’s unclear yet whether any will yield enough improvement for the really long distances again.

Over the last three weeks following Nico another, equally significant factor has entered my consciousness. As a dot watcher, I’ve come to realise exactly how much trauma our families go through whilst we as riders are out on these big adventures. Every time Nico’s dot paused for too long at some unlikely spot you could almost hear a collective intake of breath from our local TCRNo6 WhatsApp group. Was this just coffee, or a sleep, or was something wrong?. In fact, all of those scenarios panned out over the next 16 days – including several mechanicals. But, with his typical calm and unflustered perseverance, Nico soldiered on stoically to overcome all of them. And his final run in to the finish was filled with the kind of drama that none of us watching needed, but which somehow seemed a perfectly fitting finale to this epic battle.

With 1 hour and 15 mins left on the clock Nico had a last 200m odd of climbing before the long, all downhill run of the parcours into the town of Kalabaka and the end of his journey. At which point, the Trackleaders site died and stopped updating. All we could do was guess and wonder. My estimate was that he had around 20 to 30 minutes of uphill and another 20 to 30 minutes of descending left. It was going to be nail bitingly close. We sat, staring at a frozen map, pinging each other messages and wondering if he made it. For some reason, I’d expected Nico’s wife Valerida would relay the news, but with about 5 minutes to spare it was Nico himself that messaged us to say he had made it. Sliding just inside cutoff, Nico became the very last rider of TCR No.6 to finish within time, and the first ever South African rider to do so. According to one of those there at the end, he did so with typically unassuming aplomb – reportedly riding up, and hopping off and parking his bike looking as fresh as if he’d just gone for a gentle spin around town.

A few days since Nico’s magnificent achievement I realise how much it has helped frame my own thoughts on TCR too – both my own attempt on TCR No.5, and also whether I’d ever try it again. First and foremost of course, it’s re-enforced my absolute love for the personal battles and triumphs this amazing event inspires – the drama which unfolds every day, as ordinary cyclists and individuals take on the immense challenges that the road throws at them. Every fragment of my being yearns to be a part of this unique cycling adventure once more. But I’m a realist too. Sat glued to the screen watching Nico’s dot crawl across that enormous map has helped me come to terms with how improbable that scenario may be. I know I can ride 2,300km in around nine and a half days. If I am going to put my body and my family through the stress of riding out again, I need to have a reasonable degree of certainty of getting further – much further. Borrowing Andy Alsop’s phrase from the title of his LEL book – ‘barring mechanicals’, I need to know that I can complete the whole 4,000km within 16 days. My current training, and the recent Audax have given me a level of belief that my riding pace and time management are heading in the right direction for that outcome. As things stand though, my right hand and neck remain a much greater question mark. Until they are capable of taking the punishment, my participation in future TCR editions is likely to remain as an avid dot watcher and fan.

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TCR No.5 Prologue Part 3 – Route Planning

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”

Mike Tyson’s famous quote seems oddly appropriate for this third and final part of my pre-TCR blog series. Ironically, despite covering the aspect which has taken by far the most time of all my preparations it’s going to be the shortest entry. You see, under TCR rules, we’re strongly discouraged from sharing details of the actual routes we have planned. The four checkpoints are well known and common to all riders. But what lies in between them remains a closely guarded secret that each of us will hold until the wheels start to roll, and the trackers reveal our various directions. Continue reading “TCR No.5 Prologue Part 3 – Route Planning”

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TCR No.5 Prologue Part 2 – Preparation

“One doesn’t train, one prepares”

It’s a phrase oft quoted in the Audax world, but it’s even truer for TCR – especially so in my case. Early on in my preparation came the realisation that I was likely to reach the start line considerably shorter on kilometers than most of the other entrants. In other words my actual physical training was in all probability going to be under done. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, more of an accepted reality of the need to balance my time. But I also knew there was something I could do about it – focus on quality over quantity. Rather than endless hours without purpose, I’d aim at rides with targeted goals. Kit testing, pacing, sleep deprivation, terrain – everything longer than a regular training session would have specific aims. Continue reading “TCR No.5 Prologue Part 2 – Preparation”

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TCR No.5 Prologue Part 1 – Kit

Be careful what you wish for

Regular readers will have noticed the blog has been rather quiet for the first six months of 2017. There’s a reason for that – the letter right arrived in my inbox on January 5th. Reading it was both a moment of elation, and also a stern wake-up call. An immense and sudden ground-rush of hopes and dreams about taking part in an ultra-endurance cycle race. It was actually going to happen, in seven months’ time, ready or not, I’d be lining up to start #TCRNo5 (the PedalED Trans Continental Race No5). Continue reading “TCR No.5 Prologue Part 1 – Kit”

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Funding the Unfunded

For some riders, The PedalED Transcontinental Race No 5 (#TCRNo5) is a full blown race. A gargantuan ultra-marathon across the continent of Europe. Battling it out alone, unsupported, around the clock, for a distance of close on 4,000km from the start in Belgium to the end in Greece. For other riders, like me, it’s an adventure. A physical and mental challenge unlike any we have undertaken. Victory for us will be simply to reach the finish inside the 18 day cut-off time. Or better still within 14 days to arrive in time for the party! But for all of us taking part, one thing this is not is a sponsored event. Most riders, like me, are privateers – funded from their own pockets, and using up precious annual leave for their race across Europe. Not being sponsored or funded does not mean that no funding can be raised though. And for me, there are a couple of local causes which I’m passionate about and have chosen to raise funds and awareness for.

Continue reading “TCRNo5”

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Not a fluke

Cape 600km, 17th March 2017

With no Argus for me this year my March riding highlight was the Cape 600km Audax. With near perfect timing, my Niner RLT9 rig was complete in close to it’s planned final TCR form the week before.  And just to top things off, we’d be riding a new variation on our regular route, with around half of the Randonneurs – myself and Theunis included – taking a novel ant-clockwise option on account of the wind forecast. There was much to look forward too. Continue reading “Not a fluke”

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A gem of a tour

It’s a little before 8:30 in the morning. And it’s Wednesday. But this is no ordinary weekday. I’m not sat at my desk working – instead I’m cresting this morning’s climb. It’s been a long, tough, and utterly delightful haul – made even more pleasant for a number of, also unusual reasons. Firstly the bike I am riding. We are far from home, and we have a full 160km of riding planned for the day, but I am not on my normal heavily loaded Audax bike. I am on my Giant TCR Advanced – a nimble rocket-ship that has just made effortless work of the first 40km and 1,000m or so of ascent to this point. Continue reading “A gem of a tour”

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Climbing a South African icon

7th November 2016

A faint trail of dust rises up behind the bakkie, depositing a fine coating on frames, saddles and bars of our bikes, before swirling across the arid landscape and fading out completely. It’s somewhere after 7am, and the morning air is fresh and crisp as I step out to open one of last gates as we leave the farm behind us and head back to civilization, family, jobs, and lives where something other than cycling takes centre stage. Continue reading “Climbing a South African icon”

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Running doesn’t suck

Bentonville, Arkansas, 6th October 2016

Business travel can be a chore, but it becomes significantly more interesting when one’s destination is new. Not only had I never been to Arkansas before, I’d never ventured into the southern US states either. I must confess, our destination of Bentonville, Arkansas was a complete surprise. I’m not really sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t a hipster cafe society vibe – complete with uber-trendy coffee shops and art galleries. It was easy to forget we’d actually swapped from our regular venue in Sausalito, California. But this was not just Arkansas, it was “North West Arkansas” – a subtle but important difference which we were reminded of more than once. Continue reading “Running doesn’t suck”

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Assumptions and Angels

10th September 2016, Cape 300km

I’d already resigned myself to the fact that in all likelihood I would be riding most of this 300 alone. In fact I’d said as much to Yoli the evening before. Neither Gerhard nor Theunis were riding, and everyone on the signup sheet was a faster rider than me. So it came as no surprise to see the blinking tail lights of the main group slowly shrinking ahead of me as the gap between us widened. It was 4am, and I was completely alone in the dark – the civilization of Franschhoek was still 15 or 20 minutes riding ahead. I reminded myself that this would be my reality for two whole weeks if I take on TCR next year, so I’d better get used to it. Continue reading “Assumptions and Angels”

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