Monday 8 June 2015

Highland 550

A wild beast of a race that can't be tamed.

At 550 miles it's not the longest race, but every single one of those miles is hard fought. Throughout this race I was taken to the edge of my technical ability; the edge of my psychological ability to suffer and physically to the edge. "She doesn't care" - Mother Nature, the mountain. You're in her world and sometimes she doesn't want you there. These parts of Scotland bear very few scars of our influence.
It's still truly wild, its beauty is unimaginable until you're there living it, breathing it, surviving through it. My eyes, through cowering eyelids hiding from driving rain, still could hardly believe what they saw.
This right here is freedom and most people will never get off their arse and see it and the truth be told I'm glad because this place will forever be wild just how it's supposed to be.

Leaving Tyndrum we all knew the weather was going to close in and this race was going to have a high drop out rate. I did not want a DNF but how far could I go - can I handle this?
On the first day it's essential to get to Fort Augustas before 9 or 9:30 pm at the latest, otherwise you're going hungry and will have to wait to resupply in the morning, wasting too much time. As I approached the Corrieyairack Pass, which is the final climb before dropping into FA, I realised that time was getting tight.
I pushed on - even waddling over a patch of snow - bursting through the doors of the chippy at 8:55pm, last person in. I tied my chips to my bag knowing I had more in my legs and that the rain was settling in I just wanted to keep moving. Note - chips are not ideal trail snacks: soggy when wet.
In the darkness of the night wading through a bog I then had to climb down to the loch edge. I went for the sit on your arse and fall off edge approach. I wasn't going to get any wetter so it was a good move. Skirting around the loch edge I found a ruin with a roof, relative luxury and respite from the howling wind. Bivvy, bed, chips, 4 am alarm, chips, go.

Haunted ruin, first night's stop. Photo credit Markus Stitz.

When I awoke Mother Nature was still beating her rain drum and the sky was black. I passed the bothy where I bumped into Steve Large, I couldn't keep up with him - he'd obviously had his Weetabix.
My next hurdle, literally, was a deer fence. Seeing as I could barely climb over it without a bike - never mind a fully loaded one - this was not going to be very elegant. Much swearing and shorts snagging later I made it over. I stood and cursed Alan Goldsmith.
Considering that the first part of the race was meant to be easier than the northern loop - dududuuuuu - I was already finding the wind and rain a challenge and wondering how the hell I was going to survive the river crossing. Inner tubes could make a rubber ring in desperate times...

Food supplies are sparse so when a tiny village shop appeared we would all bombard the poor  cashier (normally an old lady) with the same requests: Can you heat my pasty up? Can you fill my water bottles? Coffee? Then we would all promptly spend £15 on anything that wouldn't disintegrate into mush in the rain. Who needs a coffee table when you can sit on the forecourt of a petrol station with a handful of other stinky cyclists, while comsuming an unhealthy amount of E numbers and cross referencing where the next pig out would occur?

Oykel Bridge was the last food stop in a while and - lucky for us - they have become blue dot watchers. They quite often stay open late if they see an approaching dot and welcomed us in regardless of our appearance. At this point in the race people start dropping like wet flies. The approaching nitty gritty section is intimidating and claims its victims purely by reputation.

Light was fading and Mother Nature had taken a deep breath and was about to release an almighty roar. As the wind raged down on us the rain became blinding and I was climbing higher and colder with Dutch Steven. We crested the top together and rode through the saddle of the mountain alongside a loch. Descending through the puddles, I lead us down to a lodge in the middle of nowhere.
I tried the first door of an outbuilding and we bailed inside at top speed. Dutch Steven was polite and was going to head back to camp out in the raging storm. "Don't worry, there's room for two, this is no time to be shy." I quickly came to the realisation that the saw hanging from the hooks on the ceiling must mean we were in an abattoir. And the sticky stuff I had just stood in - in bare feet - was a pool of blood. Not to worry, it was shelter and sometimes you just have to clear your mind of logic and do what you have to to survive. I didn't look in the bin for fear of finding a head.

Photo credit Markus Stitz

The next morning I squelched back into my muddy socks and headed out. She was still raging. The path became so steep that I had to walk with my head down, I just marched on. "Must keep moving to survive, keep on keeping on". Even descending I was on foot. The tussocks were interspersed with deep marshy puddles which swallowed my wheels whole. 
My first river crossing and I could feel the power of the swollen river. Above the loch I could see a majestic waterfall hammering down tons of water which was heading my way. With each steep I could feel the power of the water pushing against my thighs. It was like an arm wrestle I could feel myself losing, then that one final step and I scrambled to safety. I cursed Alan Goldsmith.

As I rode along into Kylesku, shaking violently, I found a scarf on the floor - again desperation won over pride. On closer inspection I realised that it was cashmere, "Darling oh how lavish I'm wiping my nose in cashmere."
It was smart dress only at the fish restaurant - I think the scarf got me in. I joined Mike and Javier. I ordered 3 cappuccinos and 2 egg buttys and they clearly felt sorry for me as I got a double egg in each one! When asked if I would like cutlery, Mike kindly pointed out that I hadn't used any for a while so I'd probably manage.

Photo credit Markus Stitz

The next section was rolling and then we were greeted by an almighty view of the ocean. Mountains leading into the sea is always pretty cool. I spied some excellent secret beaches which looked like romatic bivvy spots, perfect on a warm summer evening as opposed to a wet summer evening. I saw a mum with her tiny son making a sand castle, alone on the beach, his face glowing in the wind and a beaming smile. I really felt the magic of the place and it made my pain go away. Learning to take pleasure in the simple things in life is something we should all do.

After Lochinver things got tough, after eventually reaching Cam Loch the hike alongside it was hideously long and rough.  In all honesty I nearly had an accident because I didn't want to undo my bibs in the biting cold. It was a close call and I am glad no one was around, it was however very unfortunate that there were no trees along this section, you could say I was truly exposed!

Passing Oykel Bridge for the second time meant a chance to get a well earned meal, although again the clock was ticking. Last service 9pm and Dutch Steven and I were 5km away. Heads down and we buried ourselves to get there. My face exploded and had the start of what became a three day nosebleed. Now was not the time to faff with a nosebleed so I decided to ignore it and just spit like a camel when it dripped down the back of my throat. Poor Steven must think all Welsh girls are a bit rough. I bolted through the door and forgot about my face. Luckily the owner was putting a boat on the loch and had rung ahead saying that there were two cyclists going hell for leather towards the pub. I tried to do conversation with the lovely staff between shovelling in some sort of chicken dish while sticking a napkin edge up my nostril.
It was time to find shelter from the rain, while sprinting to the pub I had noticed a stable quite close by. I introduced Dutch Steven to breaking-and-entering. In my defence, I didn't actually break anything. I peeled up the edge of corrugated iron sheet, took off all my expensive Gore-tex, sucked everything in and shimmied myself in. I stood on a petrol can, opened the window and told Steven, "Climb in then," head first he came - all 6ft of him. He cracked me up by saying, "I'm too old for this!" We chuckled together.
We left it as we found it and began a wet slog to Ullapool.

In these races the rule is: if you feel good go and you'll meet again on the trail or at the end. It's your own battle against yourself and the clock, sometimes you need to just be alone and work through your own pain, sometimes you need the distraction of others maybe even sometimes you need to know you're not alone. In the vastness of this wild back country there's some comfort in knowing another cyclist will trip over your corpse if anything does happen.
In Ullapool I bumped into Dutchy at the tea room before heading over another mountain. Then I had the ultimate pleasure of meeting Rich and his son Mini Pips, who is a little superhero. Ten years old and out here tackling this terrain - I'm in awe.

Then came the infamous Fisherfield. It takes hours to even get to the river crossing but then a vast expanse of water spreads out before you. I distinctly remember Alan saying, "The line is good," meaning the GPS track is accurate. I looked up and down the edges for tyre tracks but there were none. High winds and rising water levels had washed away any sign of the riders ahead . I made a quick assessment and was prepared to take the risk. My other options would cost time and energy, both of which I had little of.

Fisherfield crossing

I lifted my bike across my shoulders and took the first cold, tentative step into the dark water. The wind was whipping up spray into my face but my only focus was the distant shore. I was frightened. The water rose past my knees and I wasn't even in the middle yet. I was now fully committed. If I fell here or slipped on the rocks below I'd be in deep trouble. Even activating the emergency spot tracker would just mean they'd be fishing for me. I wished in that moment that I was Moses and I could part the waves and stroll on through, with dry SPDs.
With each step it rose, past my thighs, past my waist and at this point my wheels were floating perilously on the water's surface. When my jersey got wet I totally locked my mind into getting to the other side. "You've got this, you're good, nearly there, easy easy, no drama." As the water peaked around my belly button I knew the next few steps were critical and to my relief my pockets started to drain and could see my legs again - I made it!
One final look and I told myself, "what a stupid thing to do that was". I rolled the dice and got a six.
To exit this vast landscape meant a steep narrow hike-a-bike. There's no room to push and walk so it's an over the shoulder hump to the top. One false summit after another, I was cursing Alan Goldsmith, but then before me lay a feast for the eyes, I nearly cried, the view was mind-blowing. Towering giants surrounded a set of lochs with tiny islands within them. The dark, wild weather was punctuated with a few stray rays of light that glowed on the water's surface. Rolling dark clouds were making there presence felt.
I was ready to drop in. Tight rocky switchbacks stole my attention from the view. Picking my way down and trying to be swift but safe - this was a hoot. As I reached the bottom I saw Javier with two inner tubes in his hand and a flat tyre, it was so windy and cold. After much swearing he was back-tracking to a barn so he could dry the tyre and fix it - I name him the Spanish mountain goat, his enthusiasm and strength are infectious - and he was single speed! I felt for him, although I had found his arm warmers on the trail so that was a bit of good news for him.

Nighttime was arriving and I was still soaked through, then I noticed my front tyre was deflating - bollocks. I wanted to get to Poolewe to get some food and time was running out.
At 8:55 I just about got to the Poolewe Hotel in time. After some very unappetising food I retired to a public toilet. The ensuite facilities were excellent and I had enough room to fix my tyre with a old toothpaste tube. I could just about lie down with my head at an acceptable distance from the loo... only just.

Photo credit Markus Stitz

In the morning I rose at 4am and packed my kit, as I tried to stand I fell straight to the floor. I looked down and my ankles had swollen right up. I forced on my left shoe but my right shoe would not swallow my foot. "I'll ride with no shoe, that's a great plan" - quickly I realised that a woollen sock was just not going to get me very far so I did what any sensible person would do and that's have a really good cry, I mean a really good wail. I phoned the other half (I momentarily forgot it was 4am) and wailed down the phone. I wasn't ready to quit just because of kankles. I had no option but to lie down in a pooey sheep barn and wait for a 2cm reduction. I'd ran out of food so waiting for the shop to open was another reason to wait it out.
In a way, although I lost time it did mean I got to meet Fat Phil - fat bike not a fat Phil - and that was a real pleasure. I introduced myself with a hug - sorry about that. 

At the tiny tea shop a women from California came in and asked for an americano. I held in my laugh as the sweet old dear working there had no clue what she was talking about. After eating all her eggs and getting a blow-by-blow account of her operation on her arthritic joints, it was time to face the almighty headwind and rain to begin the beast of a climb from Torridon. 
The weather was kicking my butt and my feet were unbearably sore but I just couldn't quit. I looked up through the storm and saw Phil's silhouette. Across his shoulders, a beast of burden, he was climbing with a fully loaded fat bike up a very steep rock face. Then the stark realisation that I too would have to scramble my way up set in. I let out a roar and began dragging myself towards the sky, giving myself a good talking to with each laboured step, telling the rain to fuck off! Phil and I met at the top and all I could see was rock. Wet, tyre-slicing rock. No time to mess around up here, we had to get off this mountain sharpish. Making each split second line choice while under such pressure was intense. I tried to stay relaxed and then I saw Phil glance back and I knew he was keeping an eye out. In that moment I felt so touched that a guy I'd met in the morning just gave me a knowing glance that meant so much, a look that said a thousands words.
The violent shakes appeared again, my eyes were vibrating in my head and I still had the nosebleed. Luckily the Strathcarron pub was close and we arrived to find a collection of other quivering riders: Dutch Steven, Javier, Alan, Andy. We all immediately tried booking rooms. Being cold and wet for so long took hours to recover from, that night I had my only wash of the whole race. We told the landlord that we would all be off by 4am so he packed us all a goodie bag for breakfast. At 4am Phil and I sat on the floor eating chocolate muffins listening to the ongoing rain on the window. I then remembered it was my birthday - excellent, I'll celebrate with a climb or two. I mustered up my motivation, had a sip of MTFU juice and just cracked on.
Dornie seemed like a nice place, shame we had to ride on through. By pure coincidence, or not given that it was the only place that served coffee, nearly all of us crossed paths at the petrol station obviously we were there to fill up on our second breakfasts. Javier was now also sporting a fine pair of kankles.

Glen Affric was the first time the wind blew us along and I was exceptionaly glad of it given that this valley is incredibly long. Brief glimpses of the sun were followed by sharp downpours but regardless of the weather there was no denying this valley is stunning. For me, getting to Fort Augustus was a big moment. I was a little more familiar with the route and I knew my feet would hold out. Javier was outside the Londis dressing himself in bin bags seeing as his waterproof shorts looked like a flapping sail. He even wore a PVC hat - still smiling.

Photo credit Markus Stitz

I was hoping the Caledonian canal would be easy but Mr Windy decided otherwise. After 30km I bid farewell to Phil and passed out in a Forestry Commission shed with a nest of swallows for company. Regardless of the pain, I was looking forward to riding the next day.
I worked hard on the West Highland Way and aimed for breakfast in Kinlochleven, where I ate five croissants in a row. As I headed towards round two of the Devil's Staircase I met Alan at the bottom. We set a good pace but I couldn't keep up when we had to do footwork. I enjoyed ascending the final big climb, I wanted to soak up every sense I could. I noticed walkers, which there hadn't been many of on the northern loop, I also noticed how clean they smelled.

I've never felt more alive. I was going to make it, I knew I could walk back from here if anything went wrong. The longer I rode the route the more anxiety I felt about finishing, I didn't want to be beaten by weather or mechanicals - things that are often out of your control.

I expected nothing and no one at the finish. I expected to just bask in the glory of a completed challenge and many lessons learnt. I know that to be the ultimate racer in these events there's only one thing that will make you the best and that's experience, so I'm just going to keep on experiencing until I get really good.
To my surprise Alan, Phil, Mike, Dutchy, Jessie and Sarah were waiting at the finish. I had to hold in my inner girliness and avoid a tear. I was given some lovely balloons and a very special hand drawn picture from little Jessie and inside the picture was a pink flipping rabbit. I also got a lovely carrot cake, complete with candles. Jessie and I blew out the candles together - as I'd ran out of puff - and then the cake went in one go.

Photo credit Sarah

Never in my life have I dug so deep and taken so many risks. To complete this I sailed close to the wind and got pushed right out my comfort zone. This is the toughest event I've ever done. It's everything an adventure should be - unpredictable, wild, beautiful and, dare I say it, life-changing. I walk away (well, hobble) feeling stronger knowing that there are still wild places and warm-hearted people and that together in tough scenarios we show humanity to each other and battle on. Not forgetting the riding - frikin awesome.

I thank Alan Goldsmith.

Monday 11 May 2015

The Tuscany Trail

The Tuscany trail is a self-supported bivvy thingy through the mountains just shy of 400 miles, nothing too dramatic.
I had the privilege of riding with fellow Transcon finisher and Starley Primal rider Gaby Leveridge. Also joining us was a member of the Total Women's Cycling team Lorena Jones. Officially a girls weekend!

Stick three girls in a random sports hall with 200 Italian men and it's like bees around a honey pot. No less than four fluoro Italian stallions tried to help Gaby put her wheel in. Apparently you never see girls biking in Italy, they like to shop (an Italian said that not me), so we made the newspaper. I was sporting my best fluoro jacket.
We left under grey skies being chased by an impending storm but nothing could stop us as we were powered by pastry and loaded up noticeably lighter than most. Lots of fattys (bikes not people) and the odd crosser; a right bag of all sorts.

On the first climb everyone ambled along together, very civilised. When we arrived at the goats and donkeys section it was time for a hike-a-bike. I was glad I left the kitchen sink at home as I launched my bike over my shoulder and legged it up. Being short I feel I need to work faster and made good time. Occasionally I nipped down to help Loza and left Gabby to it as I know she's hard as nails and will just crack on.

We made a quick desicion and Loza went on a nice train ride to Florence. We needed to smash over the pass before it got really dark. We expected a big up and a big down but we actually got a camels back which sucked out every ounce of energy we had. The night drew in and the forest became alive once more with its natural inhabitants. I got eyeballed by a stag who turned away and flashed his white rear as he danced off into the darkness. A few bats squeaked around above us and the occasional scuttle could be heard from the bushes.

A welcome relief came when we spotted some light pollution in the distance, this meant only one thing: pizza! A time trial to the pizza and 24 inches of dough later we no longer felt 'the hunger'.
Our next challenge was to bed down. We found a very regal B&B and when I walked in I thought I'd stumbled into a family dinner. They were fully booked but luckily our knight in shining lycra sat alone at a table and after much gesticulation and hand-waving we got the go ahead to share his room. Kindly we got the gigantic four-poster while he galently took the camping bed. We rudely woke him at 4:30 am and peddled off into the soggy darkness.
We were in the flow, heads down women on a mission. At 6:30 am we were ready for breakfast. Our standard order of four cappuccinos was placed, along with a tuna sandwich. I'm not the weirdo who ordered the 6.30am fish sandwich, although I did get the urge to buy a scratch card, which I feel is equally strange. I had three croissants and it all came to about €7.

Arriving in Florence riding along the river provides the quintessential Tuscan image. As cities go negotiating it wasn't too hectic and we were soon above it. I took one last peek at the city and then the focus turned to the Garmin. Making navigation errors is costly so I really felt that not getting complacent and staying on course was important. Between Gaby and I we had it dialed.
Through the undulating countryside we rode and now the route followed a lot of the Eroica route, white gravel roads through vineyards and rich agricultural land leading us towards the ever-warming South.
We got lucky and managed to get to the supermarket just as it was shutting. All three of us overshopped and sat on the floor having a stinky cyclists picnic.
Seeing as we had reached our daily target we decided that it was bivvy time. We picked a suitable field and got cosy, well, as cosy as using an spd for a pillow can get. I was feeling rather smug in my posh new sleeping bag (360g, plus 5 degree, custom made, cost of a months rent, all-singing all-dancing bag made of the finest duck feathers known to man) whereas race whippet Gaby assumed the prayer position for the whole night to retain what little heat she had left. Loza was losing her bivvying virginity and seemed to find grass as suitable as a memory foam mattress promptly drifting to land of nod.

Up at 4:30 am, the first climb was very welcome. We soon passed some other cyclists rustling around in the bushes, we met Giacomo and Alpkit Kenny later that day and they said they'd heard us coming. I shamelessly told Kenny how much I love Alpkit.
The route took us through some pretty spectacular fortified towns with traditional tall narrow streets, cobbled pavestones and a glowing orange hue that can only emit from warm, old Italian earth. It even smelt good. The route now was rolling hills and endless sky. My gelato consumption was impressive and my caffiene requirements excessive!
I was free. Free from rules, free from reality. In that moment I wanted for nothing. This is the life.
After 16 hours of riding we decided to save the island as tommorow's final swan song. With talk of single track we decided it would be fun during the day and that we weren't going to miss our flight so we could relax a bit. Booking into a hotel we then smuggled Gaby in over the balcony. Luckily we were on the ground floor so she didn't have to scale the drain pipes
Starting at 4.30 am is surprisingly energizing. The anticipation of a beautiful sunrise is the perfect reward for getting out of bed. The island provided a change of terrain: quite rocky double track snaking along and through the mountains with a vast beautiful sea down below and the sharp light totally blinding as you crest around a shaded bend.
The "hunger" was taking hold and Gaby and I were contemplating snorting a Torq powder sachet (because water was running low). Judging by the Garmin we would be dropping into a port town quite soon. Narrowly avoiding powder snorting we made for the nearest food emporium. We found the most delicious sandwich shop which had a bar next door serving coffee and behind that was the beach.
We sat in the roaring sun looking out to sea and inhaled our picnic and four coffees, a three course breakfast was neccesary and Gaby hit the jackpot with a bucket of fresh fruit and yoghurt. We dipped our toes in the sea and almost decided on a full submerge as we'd soon dry off in the heat but a salty, wet chamois might not be too pleasant after a couple of long days in the saddle!
We decided to nail ourselves in a TT to the end (just to be silly) plus a sprint finish. It was getting warm and it was time to end the Tuscan adventure and focus on the logistics of navigating Italian trains back to Florence.
No huge crowds, no fanfare, just warm internal peace and satisfaction, knowing you spent your weekend free time wisely and in the following days when you're slaving away at work you'll dream fondly of that moment, when all you had to do was RIDE.

Saturday 18 October 2014

WEMBO 24hr Championships Fort William

WEMBO 24hr Championships Fort William

WHY? The eternal question with a limitless answer.
WHY do I leave it so long between visits to Scotland?
WHY do I put choose to put this pressure on myself?
WHY do I think it's an excellent idea to ride my bike all day?
WHY do I question my sanity?
WHY are there a couple of hundred other people with the same strange idea of fun?

Everyones answer is different but we all have one thing in common, the NEED to do. The lines between wanting to and needing to are almost blurred. We want to ride but we need it too. Through the suffering in training to prepare for this I find a strange equilibrium. I'm keeping the seesaw of life level.
I never pretend to be a hero, I was scared leading up to the 'big one'. I wanted to do the UK proud. I wanted to make my friends proud, they deserved some gratification through success. They believe in me and for that I wanted to show them how much it meant. After all the time Fiona, Spook and Frazer (the whole No Fuss team especially Drew!) put in I wanted to bring the World Champs jersey to the UK.
I was lucky enough to be up in Scotland for a week before the actual race. Tapering became a challenge because I had an OS map and it was riddled with epic potential rides and hikes, I had to reign in my inner wanderer - is it wrong that I get excited by tightly packed contour lines and green patches?
Luckily my partner Laura, Gill and Martin (Laura's mum and dad) and Naomi (Laura's sister) aka Team Welsh, were all in tow to occupy me for a week. I took great pleasure in giving them their first mtbike experience in Fort William! Because of their kindness we were able to have a large dinner party, we cooked two bags of potatoes! If I'm honest Laura did most/all the cooking, I played to my strengths and made a salad and cut up some bread. It was a nice way to have some restbite from my 100mph brain.
I rode the course and decided it was brutal, everything you'd want in a worlds course. It blew me away, the views are some of the best in the world. Even straight after the race I looked up at the mountain and just wished I was here longer to ride more (perhaps not immediately) it makes me feel a bit fuzzy inside.

Race day arrived and my inner calm was overwhelmed by outer panic, "Don't waste energy being nervous Rick, this is what you live for, be brave come on girl." That's what I said to myself.
We were lead out by a PIPE BAND! To be fair to them it must have been rather scary with a whole load of edgy cyclists behind. Just remind yourself of the start of races: the sound of clipping in; the squeak of brakes; the rubber sliding on the gravel; the slamming down of gears; the motorbikes trying to neutralise the speed then they move and you rip it up with every inch of power up the first climb just hovering under the red zone.

What a pleasure to be next to Lee Craigie - the Scottish XC legend - up the first climb. The first few laps were very civilised, I think everyone was well aware that a course like this would chew you up and spit you out if you pushed too hard too soon. Kim Hurst and Erin Greene were on my radar, knowing that these girls are both incredible meant I didn't for one second underestimate them, that would be foolish.

Darkness came quite quickly but left very slowly. The sunset was distracting, I can't tell you in words how glorious the pink light was and the moon shone bright orange for a while. I just smiled to myself - what a privilege to be part of this. My body was doing a great job of keeping me moving, it was screaming at me but my mind was convincing it that it could and would carry on.
By the morning it was clear I couldn't catch Kim but I quickly accepted it and decided not to be a miserable cow and just learn and question what I should do to be faster. Self-critisim is tough but to
learn how to get better I think you have to take a good hard look in the mirror and be brutally honest on why you "failed". Some might say it's a little obnoxious to say coming second is a failure, but I think that to be driven to win there is only one position you'll accept and that's 1st.

I crossed the line at the foot of Ben Nevis 24 hrs 08 mins after starting and it felt so good. Laura gave me a massive hug (I was sore it hurt a little) and then I promptly struggled to 'get my leg over' and get off the bike.
The National Champions jersey and a silver medal were just a bonus for what was a truly special experience.
I must just take this chance to say a heartfelt thank you to:

The Welsh family!!
559 bikes Sarah and Kate
Specialized uk (my epic was faultless and perfect)
Dave fielding
No Fuss
And all the supporters trackside

Who made this happen for me. I'll win for you next time - I promise.

Monday 1 September 2014

Going Feral on the Transcontinental - London to Istanbul

Going Feral on the Transcontinental - London to Istanbul

I honestly had no idea if I could do this, the thought of it was totally overwhelming. It was almost too scary to even begin but it would be sad to live life not doing things because of fear. Many times I've been asked why and my honest answer is why not? Really... why not?

So to begin the journey...

At the 8th strike of Big Ben on 9th August on a car-free Westminster Bridge,100 lycra-clad adventurers started their journey towards the furthest tip of Europe. What lay ahead for many was their own personal battles, battles between each other, against the weather, negotiating tough terrain and many other challenges.

For me, I wanted to ride strong and finish, to step into the unknown and do the best I can, to complete the journey I'd chosen to begin.
I left the ferry at Dieppe at 3am and to ride off into the darkness was at first unnerving. I had to get to Paris and tick of the first checkpoint. Riding through Paris in torrential rain with visibility down to 10 metres, I could just about read the Garmin (a food bag makes an excellent waterproof cover). I must have broke at least 50 traffic regulations as the traffic lights are pointless so I chose to ignore most of them.
At the checkpoint it was definitely food o'clock. Now I don't often invite random men I've never met before to dinner,  but given that John was in lycra and on a fully-loaded road bike it was safe bet he'd be a good dinner mate.
I soon came to realise that a menu becomes unimportant, meals are chosen on calories, days are measured in kilometres not time and darkness does not mean sleep time but quiet roads and sleeping dogs.
My first night was spent in a bush. I didn't bother with an air bed as I figured when I'm that tired I'll sleep literally on anything. I wasn't the only one in the bush, there were a lot of animals rustling around, too tired to care I thought they'd have more of a shock finding me than me worrying about getting eaten by some wild raccoons so I slept well.

I often rose before the sun, eager to find coffee. I would order myself two coffees and two croissants and it totally confused the cafe staff every time, their eyes looking around for the other person. One day in Italy, I stopped at a cafe and ordered two of each then I couldn't face the shame of ordering the same again so I rode 100 yards down the road for my second breakfast in 5 minutes!
On day two the Garmin broke. I wanted to throw the thing in the bin. What I've now established I think, is that it didn't react well to being powered by the plug 3/dynamo. A factory reset was necessary which meant I lost my entire route, I was furious. Navigating by map is just too slow especially as the amount of mapping for this distance is enough to fill a book shelf. Many other riders suffered the 'Tour de Garmin'. I pretty much did 50km the wrong way to Zurich, wasting time and energy I couldn't afford to waste.

Then came the biblical day of rain, it was relentless. Fingerless gloves nearly resulted in fingerless hands . I found an Aldi and bought more arm and leg warmers as I was already wearing all my clothes. The lady in the store was pricing up rain pants but wouldn't let me buy any, "No they go on sale tomorrow." I pointed at the monsoon outside and the fact that I was creating an indoor lake around my feet but she still wouldn't sell me a pair. This was the day the climbing began and I was glad of it, just to create some warmth, but as the road gained height the temperate fell and it was bone-chillingly cold.
You're right on the edge of safe, constantly checking if you can wiggle your toes. I was swearing to myself. "Fu@/# you is this all you've got?!" I shouted through clattering teeth into the deafening wind. "I will not be bbbbb bbbbeaten!" Every now and then I had to refocus my eyes, I saw two deer run through the high alpine meadows and it brought a brief smile to my face.
I phoned Laura but I was so cold I could barely speak so I decided to leave the Stelvio for the morning and seek refuge in a hotel, never in my life have I been so glad to get inside. I went to the restaurant in no shoes and asked for some food, I asked the waiter to choose for me as I didn't really care. My plan was to get up at 4am and head to the Stelvio - I love this climb, it's big and quite often ruthless. I was climbing with excitement: 49 hair pins, crisp air, checkpoint 2, less rain, coffee at the top - the perfect way to start the day. I can't remember how many hours the climb took but I loved every second. My swollen ankle went away and I could no longer feel my sore bum, I was just tapping it out totally engrossed in the mountain. This is why I ride.
I met Gavin at the top, he was making leg warmers out of a foil blanket. I sellotaped them round his ankles, he looked quite special! I decided to put one leg warmer over my head and face as I had two sets, I borderline choked myself but it was warm!

I was settling into the routine of very long days and it felt ok. I wanted to average 250km a day.
The next dash was to Ancona to catch the ferry to Split. I was glad of a wash and the bed, the morning came too soon and the almighty rush out of port began.
Now I never intentionally decided to ride to checkpoint 3 in one day, it just happened. This was the first really hot day and I watched with envy as holiday makers basked in the Croatian sunshine and swam in the clear blue ocean. It's not flat along the coast down to Dubrovnik and across the border into Montenegro.

I'd heard that another rider got some serious hassle from drunks in Kotor, which was the town at the foot of the climb, it had really bad vibes so upon my arrival I decided I had to climb the mountain as it just wasn't safe. It was around 11pm and I'd been riding since 6.30am. Initially it was quite a nice shallow climb but about halfway up I started to get really really tired. I was weaving all over the road (lucky it was so late) starting to lack good technique. I was exhausted, at 1am I was still climbing and navigating to the hotel was almost impossible in such darkness. I got a puncture but it was cold and dark and I thought I was nearly there. 2am came and went, by now I was going wild with exhaustion. Get a grip woman! I was digging in deep to find the strength to keep moving, eventually arriving at the hotel at 3.30am.
Vasiliki the Greek and I arrived at the same time, there were no rooms and the night porter said we couldn't sleep in the reception. Well I'm not ashamed to say we begged him until he had to say yes. Marble floors make excellent beds in times of need. 7am was the wake up call and I awoke to find Aussie and Chris had joined us in the foyer. We promptly ate so much food between us that the waiter actually said "I serve you no more food!" I think I drank 4 espressos.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are places I wouldn't be too fussed about going to again. In Albania I doubt you need a driving licence to drive and there are not a lot of women about. There was a traumatic incident with a dog (be warned you may want to skip this paragraph....)
  A stray dog ran out in front as a car was overtaking which resulted in an almighty collision (it was a big dog) and it ripped the front of the car right off and what was left of the dog lay in the road yelping. You have to understand the dogs are wild here not pets, they're dangerous and if they are pets they are used as guard dogs so you must back right off. I used my water bottle to defend against the persistent ones!
Just outside Tirane I slept in a brothel - a 24hr hotel with red walls, naked women (in pictures), few bed sheets and many towels but the bit that really gave it away was the leather studded door. I was glad Chris was in the room opposite. I had a shower in my cycling clothes and they dried overnight because of the heat. The guy who ran the place carried my bike up/down stairs which I thought was very polite I don't think he was a pimp just a ummm facilitator of sorts.

From Albania it was through to Macedonia which is also quite hilly. The road conditions were surprisingly good and knowing Greece was on the horizon spurred me on, the heat always beating down on me - relentless.
It turns out Chris and I were pretty much the same pace and we chatted. We started a game of who can eat the most ice cream. After all this was a race of excess. The final ice cream count was 6 for me and 8 for Chris - in one day!
The Greeks can cook and in volume and cheap. I got a huge piece of steak at 9pm for €8.
In Greece the temperature rose to 42.7 degrees - it wasn't ideal riding conditions, I just tried to stay hydrated and sun creamed. I got kicked out of a school for sleeping under their trees briefly. My most elaborate alarm was a tortoise crawling on my head - they have sharp nails!

As the last couple of days approached I didn't dare believe I'd make it there until I saw a sign for Turkey and thought, "Oh hang on it's nearly at an end." Part of me craved the sleep, a wash, to see Laura but part of me wanted to carry on, see what else is out there, just pedal on. The Turkish border was armed and prostitutes seemed busy at the truck stop, it felt grim in the dark. The sleep monster arrived and my body decided to throw up so sleeping in a petrol station forecourt for a couple of hours was a good call - even with the lorry headlights and rumbling traffic roaring by. Soon the call to prayer signalled the start of another day in the furnace and the final push to Istanbul.
Throughout the trip I'd had numerous punctures and within the final 100km I had yet another. I stripped my rim and managed to find some electrical tape in a random shop. I used the local water fountain to find the holes in my tube but by this point I was pretty pissed off with fixing tubes. The extra time needed to fix these issues meant approaching Istanbul in the dark, I don't know what is safer because they drive like they want to die or kill all the time!
The final climb through the arboretum came and went all too quickly and I prepared myself for the taxi dodge slalom towards the Rumel Hisari.
With Phil Collins "I can feel it coming in the air tonight" playing on Chris's iPod - I looked across to the glistening Bosphorus and up at the illuminated bridge to Asia and thought, "This is COOL." And then I saw Laura and to be honest I really nearly did cry - relieved to have arrived in one piece. I was privileged to share those final moments with Chris Bennett who over the journey had become a really good friend.

I've had some time to think about the trip and I've concluded that I could do this faster and better. I've learnt that navigation and route planning are key and that my body can do more miles than my brain thinks possible and I can function on less sleep so I ushould.
I've loved this experience and now really want to do more.....further/faster/better.