Wednesday, February 21, 2018

On my Way to CP3: Enduring Unbearable Pain

My ride from checkpoint 2 to 3 is a big blur, filled with a lot of pain and agony that I thought would hinder my continuation of the race. I had made a smart choice to sleep an extra hour at CP 2. When I woke up, I could see the majority of riders had already set out to tackle this monstrous climb, The Grappa. I quickly packed up my things and set off before the sunrise. I was amazed to see the checkpoint manned by volunteers bright-eyed and cheery waiting for the arrival of other riders as I departed.

I couldn’t have been more than 20km from the checkpoint going up the parcour, when I saw a cyclist on the side of the road. He was straddling his bike, as if he had decided to pull over and sleep, mid pedal, somehow wrapped inside his bivy sack, embracing his bike. It was a funny sight to see, especially when I realized it was Michael Wacker. His decision to start the climb the following night hadn’t gotten him far,....perhaps he should have listened to my advice and slept at the campsite after taking a nice hot shower. I wanted to stop to take a picture, but the Grappa was so steep I knew I would have a hard time getting back on my bike again if I stopped. Thankfully the photographers saw him to record this priceless moment.

I ascended alone The Grappa alone in the early hours of the morning. The only other riders I encountered were the Italian pair who had gone to the summit and were coming down in the same direction, choosing to cross the northern plains of Italy. The photographers were close behind them in their white minivan. I waved hello and continued on my way. Monte Grappa is an incredible climb, a “massif” that rises out of nowhere! Along the winding 19 kilometers, you can see the valley below as flat as a pancake. The road climb relentlessly with no end in sight, which makes it tough to keep your motivation. There are some incredibly steep gradients which forced me to zigzag back and forth on the narrow road that had to be shared with cars. However I couldn’t complain. I considered myself lucky having hit The Grappa in the morning avoiding midday temperatures around 40C.
The Grappa towers over the flat Northern Italian plains below.  It is a 19 kilometer never-ending climb.

Jonas had given me strict instruction to ask for a free grappa liqueur at the restaurant at the summit from Margarida, one of the servers. He had done the parcour on a recon trip and insisted I pay her a visit. However, I arrived before the restaurant had even opened and there was no one on top. I took a few photos, and another rider arrived, Matt. He was a British cyclist who I’d seen the night before at CP 2, walking around in his underwear entertaining me with his stories of crossing the Alps on the steepest of mountain passes during a thunderstorm. Matt was also taking the same route as me, going down the grappa the back road. I tried to keep up with him on the descent but it was impossible as he rode considerably faster than me. To say it was a delightful descent would be a complete lie as the road was mixed with a lot of ups and false flats. I had lost my patience and was hungry for breakfast, not having any food reserves on me and long since burned off the huge dinner I had eaten last night on the climb. When I finally reached the bottom, Matt and I both had the same idea. We stopped at the first supermarket we found and loaded up on food. I’m a big fan of supermarkets when bike touring because there is more variety than a restaurant. Of course the package sizes are not ideal, but I did manage to eat an entire melon, yogurt and half a pack of biscuits before setting off on my way to find the Austrian border in Northern Italy. I never saw Matt again, although I was motivated to catch up with him and roughly followed the same route he did.

Matt rode up The Grappa shortly after I did.  Surprisingly, we look incredibly fresh after the horrendous climb!

No sooner did I set off, than I noticed a slight pain in my right knee. I thought it would go away as I started to pedal, but the opposite occurred. The more I pedaled the more painful it became! I’ve been a lucky cyclist when it comes to injuries and new had any major injuries in my career of bike riding. Which is why I immediately panicked! How could this be happening to me right now in the middle of the TCR? The pain became intense quickly and by the time I decided to stop at a pharmacy for a painkiller. I got off my bike in such a rush and leaned it up against the automatic door of the pharmacy that when it opened, the door ran right over the right hood of my handlebar. I could have had a serious mechanical issue had the door done damage. Thankfully it didn’t, as I had a one track mind to get some medical relief. I asked for the strongest pain killer they could give me without a prescription telling them I had a throbbing pain in my knee. She gave me a box of painkillers and told me I could take one dose every 4 to 6 hours with food as it might give me an upset stomach. I popped one in immediately and ate a snickers bar at the same time. I started to pedal again, but didn’t make it too far, still bothered by the pain and now overheated and hungry for a real meal. I found a restaurant, ordered some food, and decided that I needed to rest some more. Perhaps when I woke up, my knee pain would disappear.  

The best part of riding in Italy is that no matter where you stop for food, it is always DELICIOUS!

I would love to know how many other riders chose the approach I did for resting. I have a hard time imagining a lot of the men participants curling up in a ball and falling asleep on a restaurant bench. But this sleeping strategy was key for getting enough rest during the race and it only took me a matter of seconds to fall asleep. Rather than resting my head on my water bottle on the table, I chose the most comfy bench seat and used my water bottle as a cushion, curled into fetal position and passed out. I managed to sleep for an hour or two without the man in the restaurant or other clients bothering me. When I woke up I ordered an espresso and a pastry to down another dose of medicine and started riding again. 

As soon as I started pedaling the pain came back. I was incredibly frustrated. I wanted to make it as close as I could to the Austrian border that night, but with all the pain in my knee, I knew that was going to be impossible. I could see the other riders were gaining on me, especially Toastee who had climbed The Grappa in the heat of the day! She was tough! When the medicine kicked in, I had about 3 hours of “pain-free” cycling that I had to take advantage of. Unfortunately, at the same time, the route at this point was complicated. The roads in the area had been prohibited and we were forced to ride the cycle path. I had called hotels and tourist offices in advance trying to plot out the right way to hook up with the bike path, that wasn’t on google maps. My preparations had failed me as I didn’t see the entrance to the bike path, and was left at a nasty intersection of main highways. I decided the bike path must be on the opposite side of the river and crossed over. Thankfully I saw another cyclist coming off of the path and turned on to it. I was following my GPS route, parallel, on the other side of the river, as it seemed like a good alternative, despite being unpaved. Later I would find out that Jonas had a difficult time with this part of his route, couldn’t find the right bike path or a bridge to take him over the river and ended up walking through the river to get back to the other side in the middle of the night. Poor guy!

To make my afternoon all the more entertaining and to confirm my bias judgement about Italian men, an Italian cyclist, out for a relaxing ride, caught up with me on the bike path. He was definitely feeling the heat or trying to attract the attention of others, riding without a shirt. I can understand a lot of Italian, but talk Spanish to communicate in Italy. He happened to be going in the same direction as I was, and wasn’t shy to ask me out to dinner. I couldn’t seem to get it through to him that I was in a race and in a hurry to be on my way. I was having a hard time pedaling faster than him given the terrain, my knee, and my fatigue, so there was no easy escape! Thankfully he turned off and I continued to ride peacefully. When I started to feel my knee again, I managed to find a restaurant where I could stop for a couple of cokes and pop another pain killer. After that, I kept on riding as long as I could. I came across a few other TCR participants and we were all struggling to try to follow the bike path and stay off the main drag. At one point we had no alternative but to cross over the busy highway to ride on the bike path. I stopped to let the organization know what I had done, but felt better that there were two other riders who had done exactly the same thing!

Flattered or disgusted? In the state I was in, he still wanted to take me to dinner!

I rode up until it was well past dark, trying to push through the pain and stop at a decent size town where I could get a warm meal. I lucked out and found a restaurant with a kitchen still open around 10pm with nice comfy bench seats. I hopped on the internet to check my progress and that of the other riders while I ate my dinner. At this point in the race, all the dots were dispersed across Northern Italy and Southern Austria. Some riders chose to avoid the mountains in Southern Austria and instead rode the flatter plains of Italy. I could see Toastee was behind me on the same route, Jonas was way ahead of me on the a similar route, and many dots were inactive, meaning they had decided to call it a night and sleep. I decided to sleep for an hour and keep riding as the nighttime ambiance was a lot easier for me to cope with compared to the heat and traffic throughout the day. I asked the waitress if I could lie down on the bench until closing and thankfully she took pity on me. I got a good hour of rest in before I headed off again.
Probably the nicest bike path I rode into Austria.

I was surprised that the upcoming kilometers were a nice gradual descent and I was able to cover a lot of kilometers, making it past the Austrian border before I decided to call it a day. I couldn’t find a great place to sleep, but finally settled for the a grassy patch next to a bus stop. Blowing up my air mattress, I learned it had a hole! I had patches on me but not the time or energy to spend to look for the puncture. My sleeping gear was now reduced to a bivy sac and a thin liner with no insulation from the cold ground. Thankfully, however, it didn’t matter and I fell quickly asleep and slept a good 3 to 4 hours. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been run over by a train. I still had a lot of knee pain and my body was tired, despite the fact I had woke up without an alarm. I took a selfie that morning, it was a scary portrayal of the reality of my condition: eyes swollen, looking exhausted. I somehow managed to get myself back on my bike and pedal until the first petrol station where I could buy some breakfast and take another pain killer.

Definitely hurting here after a few hours sleep, I don't know how I got back on my bike to continue riding.

This would be the day I had the most pain and thought I might have to quit the race. The pain killers were wearing off faster and faster and I couldn’t pedal more than 2 hours before I had to stop. I got some ice at a cafe, had a coffee and tried to sleep a bit. As soon as I stopped pedaling the pain went away, but once back on my bike it continued. I remember going through a small little city center cursing and swearing at the top of my lungs in complete pain. People turned around to look at me. I didn’t care, I didn’t know how else to cope with the pain! Despite crossing the border into Austria and being in the mountains, the heat was still unbearable and my progress was ridiculously slow. I knew my friends were concerned about me, I could tell by some of their comments in the Whatsapp group. I tried to cover up the fact I was injured and told them I needed to escape from the unbearable heat and would start a nocturnal riding schedule so they wouldn’t worry about me. I couldn’t tell them about my pain. I longed for their sympathy, but I didn’t want to let them down. I was completely frustrated at myself. How could this be? How could I develop a tendonitis now during the race after all the training I had done? It wasn’t fair! I considered my options, I knew them quite well: continue pedaling and grin and bear the pain, or quit.

I started icing my knee every time I stopped to eat or drink.

I pulled over at a petrol station, took shelter from the heat inside, and laid down once again at one of their tables. I reached out to a really good friend in Barcelona, knowing there was nothing anyone could do for me, I just needed to hear a familiar voice. I told him I had developed the classic cyclist tendinitis and that the pain was unbearable. He took pity on me and told me it was OK to stop, that only time would make it better. I knew this was the solution myself, but I was in denial about accepting quitting. I am NOT a quitter! I had never quit a race and after all my preparation I wasn’t about to! When I hung up, needed to start pedaling again. The heat seemed to have dissipated thanks to a lurking thunderstorm. I made it about 30 min. Before there was a complete downpour. I took shelter turning at the first road I saw, a driveway to a few private residences. There was a covered car park for 2 cars detached from the house. I quickly took out my bivy sac and climbed inside trying to keep dry and warm while I waited out the storm. Endurance cyclists have to be efficient with their time. If you are going to stop riding, it can only be for two reasons, to sleep or eat! 

The people living inside the house must have seen me take shelter because they came out to see if I was OK. I told them I was waiting for the storm to pass. They didn’t seem to mind. When the rain turned to a steady mist, I hopped back on my bike and pedaled. I was determined to find another pharmacy where I could ask for a stronger pain killer or another medicine for my knee. Right before closing for the night, I found a pharmacy. They gave me an anti-inflammatory as well as a muscle cream to rub on my knee. With two different medicines, I was hopeful things would get better.

At some point during that night while riding, I remember reading about the possible injuries that could come about with endurance cycling. I decided that I should try adjusting my bike seat to see if that helped at all. Magically it did, it was almost like an instant fix. I don’t remember too much more that night except that the pain had reduced and I took advantage to pedal as long as I could. I took a nap somewhere around midnight on a park bench in the middle of a climb. I remember receiving a message from Felix, who was following me closely. “Sleeping?, he asked, sending me a picture of the park bench from google map. Crazy! I thought to myself. How many details my GPS tracker provided, yet it didn’t pick up on any of the emotional turmoil I was experiencing, my fatigue, nor some of the awful road conditions. After a quick nap, I pedaled quite far that night, pain free after I adjusted my saddle. I knew I had to make up the distance I had lost earlier in the day. Somewhere around 5am I pulled over behind a public clinic and laid my bivy sac out on the concrete patio. No longer did a rock hard or cold surface bother me. I slept soundly until morning, when a person walking their dog discovered me. I quickly got dressed and started to pedal, motivated that I was approaching the Slovakian border. 

I realized I was pretty much pain free, except for a mild ache in my ankle. I decided to adjust the clips on my shoes and this just about eliminated all the pain I had previously. In the matter of 36 hours, I had overcome the worst pain I had experienced in my life from bike riding and I was energized and optimistic to be back in the racing spirit! I also realized at this point in the race there was gear I wasn’t using, extra items that were weighing me down. Jonas had told me to throw out anything I didn’t use to save weight. Being the frugal person that I am, and not wanting to part sentimentally with my gear, I found an Austrian post office wear I could send these items home. Of course I was spoiled by the Swiss postal services with all sorts of packaging material at your disposal to help you mail a parcel. The Austrian post office had nothing except for a mere scale to weigh packages and the lady working there was not in the mood to help me find a box. I quickly scrambled for a solution and ran across the street to find a bar, to use their daily newspaper to wrap-up my extra items. When the attendant at the post office saw me again, she realized I was pretty hopeless and came to my rescue with a small box and some tape. I stuffed my extra jersey, my only pair of underwear, the punctured air mattress, leg warmers, and extra USB charger in the box and sent it to Switzerland. This freed up some space and weight in my saddle bag.

I was feeling pretty good again, lighter, pain free, and determined to keep the lead until Checkpoint 3! I entered Slovakia, through Bratislava. It was my first time visiting this country, but not my first time in Eastern Europe. I maneuvered my way around the city and then headed Northeast to the Tatras mountains. I wanted to ride as close as possible to CP 3, so that I wouldn’t have to make on the climb in the heat of the day. I stopped along the way at some point for an ice cream. If there is one thing I remember about Slovakia, it is their food. Everything looked enticing and the portions were enormous, but the food had no flavor, with the exception of their ice cream and some small powdered donuts I found in the service stations. I couldn’t complain however, as it was dirt cheap! Before starting my night ride, I enjoyed a delicious 3 scoop ice cream sundae. In fact it was so good and cheap, that I went back for a second 3 scoop sundae! This sugar rush gave me the energy I needed to pedal as far as I could before the hunger became impossible to ignore and pulled over for a late dinner. I hit up a local Italian joint with a ton of people sitting on the terrace. I went inside in hopes of comfy seats where I could nap after eating. I ordered a heaping portion of pasta, a pizza, and a salad. I wrapped up the pizza to bring with me, but before I headed off again to ride into the wee hours of the night I took a nap in the restaurant. 

I had developed a very successful riding routine considering the hot temperatures during the day and the empty roads at night. I would stop for lunch around 2pm, eat and nap for an hour to an hour and a half. Then I would ride until about 9 or 10pm and stop again to eat and nap for an hour, before riding into the wee hours of the night, when I would finally stop around 3 or 4am and sleep until about 6 or 7 in the morning. I was getting about 5 hours of sleep divided all throughout the day and my body was OK (or so I thought) with this routine! Not to mention, no one seemed to mind that I sprawled out on their restaurant furniture to sleep for an hour or two. 

That night, making my way to the Tatras mountains, I came across another cyclist, Lee Pearce, a veteran TCR racer. I was impressed by his race strategies. He was organized and coordinated enough to eat a proper meal in his saddle, enjoying a burrito as he rode next to me. I was impressed he had managed to find a Mexican joint in Slovakia, and also a bit jealous he was organized and fast enough to take advantage of sleeping at hotels. He had reserved a room a few kilometers up the road and was determined to arrive before they closed. He turned off the road convinced it was the way to his hotel, I kept going straight, making my way up to the Tatras mountains. I saw him at the end of the race and he admitted he got lost that night and arrived incredibly late for his reservation.

Not a bad place to sleep for a night.  I got lucky finding the plywood and cardboard to insulate myself on the ground.

I pulled off the road about 100km shy of CP 3. I was exhausted and took shelter behind a set of apartments where I found a large piece of plywood and cardboard I used to protect my bivy sac from the bare ground. I slept for a few hours before I was up again, excited to arrive to CP 3. The main road I had to follow was a nightmare that morning, and there was so much traffic I was getting annoyed. I made several wrong turns before I finally pulled over and studied an alternative route up to CP 3, leaving the main drag behind sooner than I had intended. I couldn’t bare the traffic and I saw a few other racers, including Jonas had taking this option, so I decided to give it a try! It was a steep route but the advantage was that I had some downhill before doing the final ascent up to the checkpoint. Shortly into the route, another woman cyclist came pedaling towards me. She seemed delighted to see me and it took me awhile to realize who she was, although she immediately seemed to know me. Svenja Schrade was a volunteer at Checkpoint 3, who had taken a break to go for a ride and thought she could find me along the road after following my dot for awhile. She was determined to compete in the TCR in the near future and was using this year’s experience as a volunteer to learn about the race. Like many other dedicated volunteers, she had rode from Germany to Slovakia as a test to see if she was ready for such a feat. She was awfully nice to come and find me. I think I was pedaling much too slow for her on the uphill, but she stayed along my side for a little while to chat before continuing her ride. 

The Tatras mountains and surrounding forests reminded me a lot of Oregon, USA
Svenja rode next to me for awhile and snapped this shot.

Just after she left, I found myself cursing Mike. He’d managed to choose yet again, another checkpoint with nothing around! There were literally no opportunities to resupply and I was out of food, and soon to be out of water without even reaching the last brutal part of the ascent. I came across what looked to be some sort of mountain retreat, at the start of the 3rd parcour, but I couldn’t find a proper entrance to the building. It wasn’t until I went through the back door and wandered around the hallway that I realized I was in a senior citizen home! I didn’t want to startle a grandma or grandpa and I thought that if I filled up water there or asked for food, it would have been considered “outside assistance” and illegal. So I toughened up and decided I could ration the last small portion of water in my bottle until I got to the top. What I didn’t realize was that the gradient up ahead was so steep I couldn’t manage to balance myself on my bike and ride with one hand while I grabbed my water bottle to drink. I would have to stop in order to drink because I was pedaling too slowly. I thought the The Grappa was a hard climb, but the road up to CP 3 was twice as difficult! It was so narrow, in fact, it seemed more like a pedestrian trail than an actual road with areas of rough pavement at times and gravel batches. I made a mental note to descend cautiously and with daylight! 

Trying to smile for the camera crew climbing up to CP3

Halfway up the climb the camera crew caught up with me, startling me by hiding in the bushes to catch some natural shots of me suffering. Although they were only a few meters in front of me with the back on the van open, I had no extra energy to chat with them. It was hot, I was hungry and thirsty, and the climb was beyond difficult. I did, however, feel fortunate to have eliminated all my knee and ankle pain, in order to give the climb all that I could. I had seen pictures of other riders at the top and saw that there was a pristine mountain lake awaiting me, a feasible “bath” to help me cool down and clean-up! I was eager to arrive!

Final Sprint....over my dead body, I just tried to keep the pedals turning!

The face says it all....

Juliana hadn’t been at the 2nd checkpoint but she was waiting for the riders at CP3 with a big smile on her face. Little did I know the race organization wanted to interview me, still in the number one spot for the female riders. I, however, was fixated on the lake next to the hotel at the top of the climb. I put on my rain shorts, took off my jersey and let out a quick shriek as I took a dip in the ice cold water. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of relief! It was incredibly cold water but felt so refreshing! This would be the second “shower” I would take during the race and felt incredible! I hadn’t followed my normal napping pattern that day, as I could see Toastee was only a few hours behind me. However, I decided to rest for a bit at the checkpoint and did a live interview with the race organization before indulging in a delicious meal, chatting with Juliana, and then descending. With 3 out of the 4 checkpoints completed I was more than halfway through the race and determined to keep on fighting to stay in the lead!
Dinner before my departure, I couldn't have eaten the double or triple, but the clock was ticking....

Saturday, February 10, 2018

From CP1 to CP2: Crossing the Alps

At the top of CP 1, Jonas' spirits were up again before we went our own ways.  He would pass 20 riders in the next 6 hours to regain second place.

As I set off from CP 1 the exhaustion set it. I didn’t realize how much energy had been consumed back at Schloss Lichtenstein and to top it off, I was on a roller coaster riding south to the Austrian border in Germany’s southern hills. I had changed this section of my route after my reconnaissance trip. I opted not to take the German local highways with considerable traffic at high speeds although we were allowed to ride them. Supposedly there were cycle path alternatives close by, but I had had a frustrating experience on my recon trip trying to stay on them, so I reorganized my route down to the Austrian border using secondary roads. I regretted this last minute route change as I seemed to be riding over every small hill, choosing what seemed to be the most rolling terrain in the whole area. I had to cross the Alps shortly and I needed to reserve my energy for the first mountain stage.

That afternoon was frustrating, probably the all time low of the whole race. The heat and humidity had come and with little sleep during the first 2 days of riding, I was exhausted. I rolled into Biberach, a decent sized town in Southern Germany, a pit-stop on my recon trip and I immediately spotted the same ice cream shop I had hit up before. After devouring the double scoop cone, I managed to freshen up in the public fountain, despite the vigilant eyes of the locals. I found a small kebab shop around the corner and quickly signed on to see Jonas’ progress. Sure enough he was quickly passing others and would soon be up in front again.

When I started pedaling again towards the mountains, I could see that I was headed straight into a storm. It wasn't the most ideal weather conditions by any means, but I hoped for the best. A few riders passed me who were "gung ho" on taking on the mountains regardless of the lightning storm that lit up the sky ahead of us. I rode a good distance behind a cyclist with a slight figure who kept coming on and off the road, taking a lot of the cycle paths. I admired them, because I didn’t have the patience for German cycle paths. Everyone speaks so highly of Germany and it’s cycle paths but for road cyclists with a “purpose” they are a true nightmare! I saw the “slight figure” pull over to a petrol station just in front of me. I continued in hopes of stopping at a restaurant just before I started the big climb at the Austrian border. Later I would realize that the cyclist with the “slight figure” who I thought was simply a very young rider, was indeed Karen Toastee, who would always remain within 40 to 100 kilometers behind me for the entire race.

Putting optimism to the test, pedaling straight into a thunder storm in the alps at night as I cross the German-Austrian border.

I saw what looked to be a good restaurant, parked me bike and went in, only to find the kitchen closed. I pulled up to another restaurant a few kilometers down the road and unfortunately the kitchen was also closed. At the third restaurant I tried, I came across another TCR cyclist who was eating, he smiled at me when I entered. Seeing him, I thought I was in luck, but when I asked the server, he told me the kitchen was now closed. I looked back with envy at the TCR rider who was eating so contently and couldn’t help but feel a bit of rage at the same time! By now I was starving and I had tried 3 restaurants and struck out all three times. Every time I got off my bike, I was losing time! You can’t get frustrated when you are unsuccessful finding a place to eat or sleep when riding. This is one piece of advice Jonas gave me before the race, but I also knew it was true from my own travel experiences. He said, don’t get frustrated if you can’t find a good place to sleep or have no luck with a restaurant, there is a better place yet to come. Optimism is the only way to combat frustration, including hunger! So I got back on my bike and pedaled on, forgetting I was about to hit a big town before riding up the Fern Pass. As can be predicted in a town of any decent size, there will inevitably by a Pizza/Kebab joint. I thankfully placed my order and had a seat outside.

At that same time, I saw the same “slight rider” I had been behind before. As they rode by me, I realized it was another female rider, hence her slight frame. I said hello in both amazement and shock. As she passed me I knew I was in for a tough race, she looked determined and tough. Sure enough, when I checked the dots, there were two of us women in the front of the pack. Karen Toastee, or “Toastee” as I called her, and myself. Karen was another “nobody”, like myself, when it came to female endurance riders. I was expecting to see other racers at the top who had experience and were more known, such as Emily Chappell, Paula Regener, and Shusanah Pillinger. As I would later learn, Karen, like myself was a novice endurance cyclists. We both seemed to be pretty tough and have a lot of “grit”, which would make an intense and interesting female race to follow.

As I sat and ate my kebab, I quickly chatted with my family on Whats App. Probably looking for a little bit of sympathy, I told them that a woman had just passed me. I clearly remember my sister-in-law telling me in the most direct of ways without any pity, to simply get back on my bike and ride! Her tough love approach worked and although the sun had set, the sky was lit up with a massive thunderstorm in the distance. In any other circumstances, I would have called it a day, as no cyclist really wants to ride over the alps in a thunderstorm, but I knew I had to keep on pedaling. Toastee was just in front of me and I couldn’t let her get away. I had ordered too much food, as always, and packed up a pizza to take with me on the back of my bike. I started out, hoping luck would accompany me over the Fernpass, and I would stay dry. Miraculously I was able to count my blessings and didn’t get wet, although the pavement gave evidence of the storm that had just passed. On my recon ride, this was a nasty pass to do during the day with a lot of summer holiday traffic. 

Approaching midnight, I had no traffic to contend with and no rain to speak of. Midway through the descent, my route was going to lead me through a longer, but flatter valley into Innsbruck. Alternatively, I had studied a different route that had a short, but steep climb that would get me to Innsbruck even quicker. My legs felt good so I decided to take the short and steep route. I knew that any “normal” person in their right mind would have thought it were foolish to take on a mountain pass in the dark, but you aren’t really a “normal”person when you are trying to pedal 4000km in 2 weeks time! It was then on that pass that I realized just how amazing it was to climb at night. With several lights on my front and back side and reflective clothing, I was lit up like a Christmas tree, completely visible in the darkness. Traffic was minimal and so was the suffering as the temperatures at night are much cooler. In the dark, it is hard to tell just how steep and difficult the climb is because you can’t see too far ahead. Considering I didn’t have this part of my route traced on my Garmin, I enjoyed the suspense, wondering when I would be at the summit. In the end, the climb was less difficult than I anticipated and I was surprised just how quickly I made it over. The next 40 to 50 kilometers to Innsbruck went fast too as it was a gradual descent. 

The last time I had pedaled through Innsbruck, I was overheating and overwhelmed by all the tourists. This time I was completely alone. I quickly stopped at a petrol station, loaded up on some more food and beverages and was amazed at how good I felt. It was now about 3am. A hotel was out of the question. I could see Toastee was sleeping somewhere in the valley, and I was proud of myself for making a last-minute change to my itinerary to strategically regain the lead. I still felt like I had the legs and energy left to start the Brenner Pass. I knew it wasn’t a difficult climb as I had done it before. With an outlet mall at the summit, by no means was it scenic, so I didn’t feel bad riding in the dark. My plan was to ride as far as I could until I got tired. I knew it wasn’t very smart to start climbing and sleep at altitude, but I was on an adrenaline rush and stopping wasn’t an option. 

I made it about 15 kilometers up the road, before I found a bus stop that looked inviting. Of course at 4:30am there isn’t traffic on the road, so I peacefully rolled out my sleeping bag liner on the narrow bench, took off my shoes, pulled my neck warmer up over my eyes and climbed inside. I tried to find the pizza I packed up but couldn’t locate it. On my phone I had received a message from Jonas’ brother, Dimitri, with an update of his progress. He was quickly regaining the lead as he approached Monte Grappa. He also told me that I was very close behind James Hayden, which seemed impressive, but James Hayden was just about to get up for the morning and start riding and I was just going to sleep, hoping to get about 4 hours in order to feel fresh riding up the Brenner Pass in the morning.

My plan to sleep 4 hours was very optimistic. I had too much adrenaline in my blood and I was up again after about 45 minutes. There was a steady flow of traffic driving by and the noise was impossible to sleep through. As I sat up, I heard a “Good Morning!” from a fellow rider who was passing, all cheery and fresh. I, on the other hand, didn’t feel so hot, but knew that I was too antsy to sleep any more. As I started packing up, I found the pizza I had been looking for which made for a nice breakfast as it was actually warm from having slept on it! In the last town before the top, I pulled over at a bakery. I must have looked pretty bad, because the waitress gave me a second cup of coffee and another pastry on the house, after hearing where I had pedaled from the night before! As I climbed to the summit of the Brenner Pass, I came across several cyclists coming down, pedaling in the opposite direction. They had numbers as well and seemed to be in some sort of race as well. One stopped, turned around and caught up with me. He told me he’d done the TCR the year before and this year had signed up for The North Cape race and was on his way to Norway. He took a selfie with me as I continued to pedal. Soon, I found myself at the top The Brenner Pass and started the descent to Bolzano. There is a cycle path that runs parallel to the main road which is probably advised to take, but I had gotten lost on it on my recon trip and stuck to the main road this time. 

Despite the cool air in my face on the descent, I was starting to feel really really sleepy and knew I had to pull over sooner rather than later so I could get some quality rest. Down below in the valley, it was already getting hot. Finding shelter to sleep is not always easy and when you are completely exhausted it doesn’t help either. I made a poor choice and stopped at a busy petrol station. I saw a little room with an open door. It looked like a storage closet and I decided to pull my bike in and lie down. I should have probably asked first, but I was asleep in minutes despite the buzz of people and cars outside and the petrol odor. Five minutes couldn’t have passed when someone was kicking me. I think they must have thought I was dead, lying on the floor. In my Spanish, wanna be Italian, I said, “dormire….vinti minuti!” It sounded good enough and they did leave me in peace, but the sleeping conditions were less than optimal. After about 20 minutes, I decided to get up, buy some food, and keep on riding. The temperatures had gotten really hot and I was overheated and delirious. I tried to ride as long as I could but it was too hot and I started making wrong turns on my route. My mood improved when I got a message from Jonas that he was on Monte Grappa, completely alone, with no other cyclist or race vehicle in the vicinity. I managed to keep riding until the early afternoon when I found a bar to take shelter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much cooler in the bar, but I sat down anyways and ordered some food. After eating, I thought I’d put my head down on the table and rest for a few moments. I used my water bottle as a pillow, still sitting in my chair. 

An hour and a half later, I woke up in a big pile of drool as my head had slipped off my water bottle and was lying directly on the on the table cloth. I think it was then that I realized I had developed an unbelievable ability to basically sleep on command. I’m normally a good sleeper considering the large amount of energy I burn everyday with all my activities. But the TCR had turned me into a professional sleeper. Whether I had 5 minutes, 10 min. an hour or 3, sitting, lying down (and later on the bike) I could fall asleep within moments. As I sipped an espresso, I looked outside at the road and saw a few other TCR cyclists ride by. I got the energy and motivation to start pedaling again as the temperatures had cooled.

Italian bike paths, despite being a total maze, were better than the ones I encountered in Germany.  There was NO alternative as the other roads in the area were banned by the TCR.

It seemed to take forever to reach Monte Grappa and Italian traffic made it feel even longer. I found an Italian pair of cyclists, in bright pedalED jerseys and their twin caps, riding along the bike paths I was also using. They were very friendly and pretty impressed I could keep up with their pace for a good 30 k’s. I don’t think you can be accused of drafting on a bike path, especially when the race organization prohibited the roads in the area. But eventually, as all the other cyclists ended up doing, they dropped me. The scenery was changing from Alpine mountains to lower elevation hills that were blueish-green in color in the early evening light. I thought I would arrive to Monte Grappa before dinner, but it was well after sunset when I finally found the second checkpoint. The bike paths eventually spit me out on a main road, but I got lost trying to cross a river and walked my bike over a pedestrian bridge and hiked back down to get back on my Garmin route. My spirits were up again as I approached CP2 and the adrenaline started to pump as I reached the TCR tent. All the volunteers were so excited to see the first female arrive!

The closer I got to CP 2 the happier I was
At this point, I had seen that Toastee had taken an alternative pass to Brennar, which I had taken as well on my recon ride. She was a good half day behind me, which gave me the motivation to properly rest at Checkpoint 2 at the base of Monte Grappa. It was a popular stop with other riders as they were giving out free shower passes at the campsite. Most riders had been caught in last night’s thunderstorm as they crossed the alps and were filthy! Even if the guys didn’t have a change of clothing, most were showering and cleaning up, wearing whatever “extra” clothes they had, which was usually a pair of briefs. I took the time to take a nice long hot shower and wash my clothes. I finally brushed my teeth for the first time during the race and realized that my personal hygiene was slipping, despite my efforts to try to remember to do these simple things. I had stashed my toothbrush in my feeder bag, but every time I stopped, brushing my teeth was the last thing on my mind.

Posing for a photo at CP 2
Bikes are the perfect drying rack for laundry that needs to dry, no matter where you are.....

It’s amazing how revived a hot shower and clean clothes can make you feel. In fact, for a moment, I contemplated hopping back on my bike and starting up the Grappa that same night. Luckily my rational mind convinced me that I needed a proper meal and some decent sleep. Not to mention, it was fun to chat with the other riders and hear their tales from crossing the Alps. So many had gotten hit by the big thunderstorm. I remember one rider in particular, Matthew telling me an amusing story of descending a very steep mountain pass that Google wouldn’t even let me use as a viable road when I was route planning. I remember thinking at that point, what fun it must be to dot watch the TCR, especially on a mountain stage when there are a diverse number of passes riders could choose. 

At CP2 I also ran into the cyclist I had seen the night before, eating the last meal at the restaurant I had desperately tried to order food. When he introduced himself as Michael Wacker, I couldn’t believe my ears. I knew exactly who he was as I had followed his dot on the TransAm earlier that year. He had been battling for second place, also the first woman, Janie Hayes, when he got hit by a car in the Mid-west. I couldn’t believe that I was keeping up with him, riding almost at his same pace! It gave me a boost of confidence and motivation. We had a good laugh about the previous night and the route option he’d taken to arrive at Monte Grappa. He had somehow managed to ride through a sliver of Switzerland before coming into Italy. I tried to convince him to shower, but he was intent on riding on after getting some dinner. The restaurant at the campsite was a soon to close and I made it just in time to place an order. If I would have had more time, I probably would have ordered a second or third dish of everything. Italian food is a cyclist’s best friend!

I should have ordered 2 of everything!
Jordi, the Catalan video filmer for the TCR, sat down with me. I had met him at CP1 where he had picked up on the fact that Jonas and I were dating. He started asking me all sorts of questions in Catalan. Little did I know he was filming (and would later use this interview in a film to contrast Jonas and myself as riders), I was just delighted to have some company while eating. I popped online to update my friends and family and I was surprised to find an overwhelming amount of messages that I couldn’t respond to. It was the first time it dawned on my just how many people were following the race. My family was tracking me closer and closer and my Dad was writing me a thoughtful email every night. Later, I’d find out from my Mom that he was an absolute nervous wreck and wouldn’t leave the computer room all day except to quickly eat a meal. My older brother who works in the finance world and crunches data on a regular basis was starting to pick up on the patterns of other riders and warned me to slow down and rest more, telling me it wasn’t a sprint, it was a marathon! I knew this, but my body’s energy was relentless. In fact, my energy level surpassed anything I thought I was capable of doing before. Every time I hopped back on my bike it was like I was starting a new ride, fresh and recuperated. I wasn’t feeling the accumulated kilometers, at least not yet! And best of all, my mind was determined to keep riding!
Another cyclist, Wacker, who I rode behind nearly the entire race.

I laid down in my bivy sac down at the back on the campsite, where a few other riders had passed out as well. I set my alarm for 4:30 am to start the climb up Monte Grappa. Just before I closed my eyes, I decided to sleep one more hour. It was a smart choice!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Race Blog 1: Geraardsbergen to CP1

The Start line of the TCR N05 in Belgium

I’ve been meaning to write a race blog post now for awhile but I got too busy with life off the saddle. With the registration for the 6th edition of the TCR just closing, I got my act in gear and found the inspiration to write about my experience. It’s now just 5 months after my arrival in Meteora and you would think those 4000km were just a big blur. Surprisingly, they are not!

A fair metaphor for endurance racing in my opinion would be “bike touring on steroids”! What I enjoy most about bike touring is living in the present. You are forced to concentrate all your energy and thoughts in the current moment.  You can’t help but be immersed in your surrounding environment, which is constantly changing.  All your senses incredible in tune with every kilometer that you pedal.  The extent of thinking ahead, is what may lie ahead in the next 20 kilometers, if not, what the descent will be like after a long steady climb.  You have time to appreciate each and every moment, explore new places, talk to different people and learn about other ways of life.  Of course I can’t forget to mention that your taste buds are on drugs too; and since you have an insatiable appetite, everything and anything tastes utterly delicious!

Endurance racing, while touching upon some of the above aspects of bike touring, feels like you are bike touring on fast forward but with no pause button that ever allows you to truly have a “fresh” start. Granted you don’t necessarily have time to explore and divert your route or stop and chat for too long in an endurance race, occasionally signing on to social media satisfied my social needs.  Exploration comes unwillingly when you end up following a gravel road that looked like a wise choice on Google Maps six months ago, or when you take a last minute detour from your planned route.  One thing is for certain with endurance racing, being in the present moment is considerably amplified during the whole experience and your senses are so incredibly awake, the energy flowing through your mind and body is 100% consumed by the present moment.  In my opinion, an endurance athlete’s biggest challenge is having the mental strength to be alone, by yourself in such intense situation and in extreme conditions (it also became my biggest reward). The only way to evade the situation and to improve your conditions is to keep pedaling, but it is also the double edged sword that is the source of your pain and agony.  You are pushing your limits beyond anything you thought you were capable of doing before!  I’ve competed in a fair share of endurance races from ultra-marathons trail races, mountain marathons, halves and a full ironman, and Grand Fondo cycling events, but never in my life, have I experienced that sort of extreme physical activity for nearly two continuous weeks.  Although I had never experienced it before, the Transcontinental No5 Race allowed me to grow as a person and gain new perspective, which is always appreciated in one’s life journey.

I traveled to Geraardsbergen on train. I love riding on trains and I didn’t want to hassle with dismounting and assembling my bike in a car. Thinking I would have the bike wagon all to myself, I was surprised to see a familiar face as I boarded with my bike into the only compartment bikes were allowed on the direct train from Lausanne to Paris.  It was 6:30am; I  thought I had had an early start, but there was Urs, a Swiss cyclist from Berne who had commenced his journey a good hour and a half before me. We had met previously that year at the memorial ride the Swiss TCR cyclists had organized for Mike Hall’s death. We had also exchanged messages on Facebook. He wasn’t a rookie like me, and so he shared a lot of his stories from the previous year’s race with me during out 3 hour train ride.  Urs told me he and was certain he could beat his time from last year by a day or two. I told him my goal was to finish the race as a  “finisher”, which to me even seemed ambitious.  He’d been following me on Strava and thought my goal was fairly modest considering all the kilometers I had put in during the 7 months leading up to the race.  Of course, when you get good chunks of time off from work and don’t have a family to report to, you have pretty much as much time as you want to spend riding your bike; which was the essence of my training for the TCR No5.  

I was in luck when we reached Paris as Urs had traced the GPS route from one station to the next. I followed him stress-free, without a rush and we even had time to enjoy a coffee and pastry in a boulangerie (as one must do when in France)! At Gare du Nord, we met another cyclist. I had no idea who he was, but Urs talked about him as if this was going to be the winner of this year’s TCR. Of course in my mind I was thinking that was going to be Jonas.  Björn, who was standing in front of me in the iconic kit and sunglasses he wore pre-race, during the race, and post-race.  He looked quite intimidating considering all he had was a small frame and handlebar bag, and virtually no other luggage to ditch before the race start.  But it all made sense when Urs told me he had just won The Transatlantic Way Race earlier in the summer.  I, however, was still rooting for Jonas!

Urs and Björn stayed on the train all the way to Geraardsbergen, but I got off in Lille.  I wanted to take advantage of heading up north to visit some friends of mine I met on my semester abroad in England over 15 years ago. I had planned to cycle up to visit Anne and Connie previously but none of my rides ever brought me close enough. They had newborn baby, but were still gracious enough to let their crazy friend with her fully loaded bike stay the night with them. It turned out to be an excellent visit and a good way to distract me from my upcoming race.  Not to mention the next morning I was a short train ride away from the start line and the small village where my bed & breakfast was located.
Erasmus reunion in Lille with Conny and Anne after 20+ years........

The morning of the race, I wanted to sleep in as long as possible knowing it was my last night in a nice comfortable bed and that the likelihood that I would sleep the first night was slim.  Jonas had warned me to go early to the race registrations to avoid the crowd, but I stubbornly opposed his idea.  Although Jonas and I were dating, I was determined to be self-sufficient and not always rely on others for help! In fact we had agreed to be discrete about our relationship because we didn't want anyone to think either of us had an unfair advantage.  Although we each have a totally different riding style, living in Switzerland, we prefer the mountain terrain over the flat.  Similar as well is our unbelievable amount of willpower to suffer in order to continue pedaling no matter what, and our definition of normal, or perhaps, I should say crazy…..

Peter, myself, and Felix, the only people besides Jonas I knew in this year's race

Despite wanting to be fend for myself, I should have listened to the young, but wise, Swiss.  By the time I showed up to the registration, I waited in the community center with about 200 other cyclists all afternoon!  It was a pretty intimidating experience, especially as a rookie. Jonas was back at the hotel napping and I knew absolutely no one, except for my training buddy Felix and his riding partner Peter.  Everyone looked more experienced and professional than me, with bikes and their gear meticulously organized and arranged.  I tried my best to lie down and calm myself but my heart was pounding and in my head I was panicking wondering whether or not I was really cut out for such an event.  The only way I really knew to calm myself down was to hop on my bike and start pedaling. It was the place I felt most confident and comfortable; where all my worries disappeared.

Waiting to register, the nerves heighten

The Pre-Race rules talk by Juliana

After making it through the registration and the bike check, the women were all corralled into a group photo. It was the most female participants the TCR had ever had register and was worthy of a photo. It seemed to be a heavily dominated British contingency, although I did meet a few French and one other woman from North America.  I met Jonas and his parents just after the photos as they had come to see us off.  They could tell I was a complete nervous wreck, as my broken French was even more pathetic and I hardly touched the dinner I ordered at the Italian restaurant we went to, where, no coincidence several dozen other riders were also eating their last meal.

As 9pm approached, we left his parents there while we quickly went back to Jonas’ car to arrange our bikes and gear for the last time. I was so nervous I didn't think much of it when Jonas handed me two carrots to stick in my back pocket for the first night. Normally cyclists eat bananas, but since the bananas we neon green he had settled for carrots instead, which actually ended up being a good snack in the wee hours of dawn the next morning.  I’ll never forget the comments the carrots sparked on Facebook as someone spotted them in a photo.  According to others, “I must be a Vegan!”

At my finest with that facial expression and the carrots sticking out of my pocket...

I forgot to mention that at some point in the afternoon, one of my students from my school in Switzerland arrived with his parents and brother who were big “Ms.Melissa” fans. I had developed a special relationship with Ben throughout the school year. Due to our similar insane amount of energy, this little 9 year old and I understood each other exceptionally well!  I was honored they showed up to see me off and had even made a big sign to cheer me on! Between them and Jonas’ parents, it felt good to have some familiar faces around to support me.

Some very loyal Ms.Melissa fans from Switzerland!

My Grade 4 student, Ben

Jonas is ready, I'm still holding out in normal clothes knowing that my riding kit will be my only outfit for the next 2 weeks! 
The Last Supper with Jonas, Benoit, Serge, and Marylse

The next thing I knew the clock was ticking down to 10pm and we were all in the central square of Geraardsbergen. After Patricia Hall said a few kind words about Mike, with all of our reflective gear on and the electronic apparatuses fully charged, we were as ready as ever to start pedaling!  I said my goodbyes, wished Felix and Peter good luck, gave Jonas a good luck kiss, and took my place towards the back of the pack. I was not fond of starting in a big group, especially on such a steep incline and a cobblestone road. Granted we had to make two big laps of the city center first, I knew things would get tight as the rider’s ascended the Muur.  Indeed I was right, as the pack I got stuck behind had difficulty making it up the wall. There was a huge agglomeration of cyclists and eventually I had to get off my bike as riding a snail's pace on a 20% trying to dodge a few fallen cyclists.  It was a recipe for disaster and made hitting the open road that much more pleasurable!

I was so relieved to be finished with the Muur as I descended the main road that headed south east of Brussels. It was an unforgettable experience, being in the company of a dense trail of rear lights flickering for as far as I could see in the distance.  Some lights veered off to the left or right, as cyclists took alternative routes, everyone following their own plotted route.  Before I knew it I could only see a few cyclist in front of me and the light of my GPS route was my only faithful company guiding me through the first night’s ride.

My plan was to ride through the night into the morning and try to make it close to the Luxembourg border. Of course I didn't know if I would actually make it that far but I tried. I rode by some others racers and others passed me. Few were up for a chat, everyone seemed so serious and determined at the start. It felt a bit unnatural for me to be riding so close to people and yet not have much of a conversation with them.  I followed a main road that had minimal traffic for most of the night and took an occasional detour (not sure why I choose to route myself on those small roads) only to find myself back on the main road again with a few other cyclists.  Everything was pretty much closed at night but luckily I found a bar still open to refill my bottles and met several other cyclists doing the same thing. I hopped back on my bike after quickly drinking a coke and found a nice Austrian guy on my route. We exchanged a few words, but as I would soon learn, if I found another rider, I couldn’t keep up with them and kept to my natural pace. I knew I would never be accused of drafting because I just couldn’t keep up with any of the guys who passed me.

As the sun rose, I found myself close to the end of my first track, exactly where I wanted to be, 230 km from the start right at the Luxembourg border and just in time for breakfast. I hadn’t eaten much during the night so I wanted to have a nice big breakfast. You are somewhat limited when and what you eat at a service station but at the one I chose, I got a variety of sweet and savory treats and plenty of fluids to replenish. I signed on to internet to check my messages and already had a series of messages cheering me on.  My friends were impressed with my progress the first night, as one friend said, “While most of us were sleeping, Melissa has managed to pedal just over 200km, it makes me feel lazy!”

My first meal and a rather "light" breakfast after riding through the night

It’s hard to sit and and enjoy a meal when you see cyclist constantly riding by.  The clock was ticking and and so I quickly packed up all the food I couldn't eat and hopped back on my bike.  That day my route brought me in a zigzag pattern back-and-forth on the border in this bizarre order: Luxembourg, Germany, France, Germany, France, then finally staying in Germany pedaling closer and closer to Checkpoint 1.  As the early afternoon came, I had somehow overlooked the fact that the road I was taking instantly turned into a major 4 lane highway with a central divide. Although there were no warning signs that prohibited bikes, I knew it wasn’t a legal road for riding in the TCR. Rather than turning around, I took the next closest exit and hopped off.  I wanted to be honest and write the organization about what I had done.  At that same time, I took advantage of the brief pause to seek shelter, escape the heat and lie down for awhile. A bus shelter was what I had in mind, but unfortunately the one I chose had no bench although it was completely covered from the heat. I tried to sleep some but my adrenline was still pumping and after about a half hour, I hopped back on my bike to continue pedaling.
Went through a lot of countries that first day

That night I wanted to pedal as close as I could to Checkpoint 1 to arrive in the morning. I lucked out when I rode up to a local beer festival in a small German village.  I passed on the beer, but sat down for a delicious burger, fries, and coke to fuel up for the upcoming climb. I had done this section of road before on a recon trip and I knew I was entering the rolling hills of the southern German forest. After my meal, just as I started pedaling again, a young guy in his car started to follow me. He kept coming closer and closer until finally I understood why. He rolled down his window, still driving and shouted with excitement, “Are you Melissa Pritchard?”   Indeed I was...but who the hell was he? I’ve had weird-do’s follow me before on my bike trips, so immediately I thought he was one of them.  I wasn’t expecting any friends to meet me, but he seemed convinced he knew me. Through the open passenger window he told me he had been dot watching all day since the start and lived in the area.  When he saw I was close, he decided to come out and find me. I was impressed to say the least, as I didn't realize I had total unknown fans following my dot. This would turn out to just be the start of when a lot of unknown people started reaching out to me.

About an hour later as the sun was setting I came across Rima on the road. He was a TCR veteran and also a close friend of Mike Hall. He had participated in the inaugural race and decided to come back for more this year. In fact, I think it was his 3rd time racing. The rules strictly say you can't ride together, but it just so happened this was the only road choice for a good 30ks up a relentless climb, making drafting is impossible. He assured me we were “ok” riding side-by-side and so we enjoyed each other's company up the climb.

At the top he veered left, the road I had taken on my recon trip. I had changed my route and continued on straight. I wouldn't see Rimas again until Meteora. I kept pedaling a good amount until I finally decided it was time to pull over and get some real sleep.  My route was frustrating me as I was climbing up steep gradients through neighborhoods and again I realized, I hadn’t reviewed my route as thoroughly as I had thought. I found a garden store with all sorts of comfy patio furniture that looked inviting but was unfortunately all locked up. Next to it was a factory where I decided to call it a night.  It was about 10pm, 24 hours after departing from the start line.  My second track of the day registered at 297 kilometers, meaning that I had pedaled 530 kilometers in a 24 hour period.  Never in my life had I done that and it would turn out to be the most kilometers I covered in a 24 hour period during the TCR, although the following days would come close.

I got my sleeping mat, bivy sack, and liner all set-up and hopped in. I turned on my internet for the first time since I had written the organization about my wrong turn and saw my what's app was inundated with messages. I had an email from the race organization about the death of a rider on the first night, Frank Simmons.  His death had hit home and my friends and family were all concerned for my safety. Not to mentioned I had several missed calls from Jonas, his brother, and Felix. Of the three I tried calling back, just after midnight,  only Felix picked up. He told me that he and Peter were dropping out, they felt their safety was in too much jeopardy and didn't want to risk anything to continue. From what I could gather from Jonas’ messages he was also going to abandon the race. His brother told me he had arrived to CP1 where he took a hotel room and was waiting for me.  Where we could decide together what we were going to do.

I was totally shocked!  Yes, it was a tragic death, but at the same time, we all know the risks of bike racing when we registered for the race.  Frank Simmons could have been any one of us.  However, knowing that someone was hit by a car just after you might have pedaled the same road, really shakes your confidence.  Not to mention the guys who helped me get to the start line, stronger riders than me, were giving up! How could this be?!?! What I couldn’t figure out was if the race was officially continuing or if the organization had packed up their bags and were calling it quits. I was overwhelmed and probably a bit delirious and knew that I needed a good night’s sleep in order to get a fresh perspective on the situation. I had been riding for more than 24 hours and slept a meager half hour.
The reward for riding at dawn, priceless!

When I woke up, I was still unsure whether the race was still on.  I pedaled as fast as I could to complete the last 80ks that awaited me. To my surprise on the side of the road, about 5 km from the CP Jonas was waiting for me. I didn't even stop to say hi or ask him what on earth he was still doing at CP1. We weren't supposed to see each other until the end of the race.  There was no way I could ever keep up with his pace and I knew I would always trail behind him by a  a couple of days. On my way to CP1, I made sure he stayed far away. I didn't want the dot watchers to think we were drafting. When I got to the hotel, it seemed as though the commotion had subsided. Juliana gave me a big hug and said “I knew it….I knew this year the women were going to surprise us!” I also saw a familiar jersey from my old bike store in Barcelona and was thrilled to know there was a Catalan racer on the road as well. As soon as the video photographer heard me speaking Catalan, he approached me as well, another Catalan! For those of you who know me, I have a super soft spot in my heart for Catalans and Catalunya and I instantly have a great connection with any Catalans I meet. It was no different with Joan the rider and Jordi the video photographer.  
Joan, a Catalan, was wearing the jersey from my old bike shop in Barcelona

Obviously Day 1, I look too fresh

I Couldn't believe Jonas was still at CP 1, I carefully rode way behind him! 
It seemed I was the first woman to arrive to CP 1 and was the 20th rider overall.  Despite Frank’s death, riders were continuing….all except for no. 60, Jonas. The checkpoint volunteers asked me if I could convince him to continue. They told me he had arrived second and he didn’t want to continue after Frank’s death.  I could tell Jonas was not himself.  We needed to find some privacy to talk, so we headed to a bakery. Jonas explained the series of events as they unfolded the night before when he arrived to CP1.  He was the second rider to arrive.  At that point the race organization didn’t know whether they were going to continue with the race.  Jonas and another rider, Geoffrey Dessault, decided to book a room at the hotel, while Björn decided to continue on.  Just after Jonas paid for the room, the race organization told him the race was going to continue.  At this point he was too exhausted to think straight and decided to eat and sleep, and relook at the situation in the morning. At the bakery, he told me he had lost his motivation and his racing spirit was gone. He felt too vulnerable on the road knowing that one of the racers had been killed in a hit-and-run. He didn't feel safe and now he also didn't want me to ride alone. He thought we could just finish the race more as a tour together, holiday style. In my mind, Jonas was invincible and the strongest rider I’d ever met.  I couldn’t let him quit!  But as this very moment he was on the verge of tears.  

Although I felt the same feeling of vulnerability, quitting was not an option.  I had made far too many sacrifices in the last 9 month preparing for the race, that I knew if I quit, I would live with too much regret.  I had made too many sacrifices in the last 9 months to give up after a day. I was aware that cycling, especially endurance racing was risky.  Just like I did when I set off for my world tour, I wrote my parents a letter before the TCR to let them know what I wanted them to do if something happened to me, sort of like an informal will. I was aware of the dangers and that an accident could happen at any moment, but I also knew that if it would have been me, I would have wanted the race to continue.
The last I saw of Jonas until Greece! His spirits had lifted!

My French is pretty pathetic but somehow I managed to get it through to Jonas that stopping at CP1 was not an option.  We both got back on our bikes and pedaled the parcour up to the castle, Jonas far ahead of me. By the time I arrived at the castle draw bridge his mind was back in the race.  His original goal was to be on the podium at the finishers party, but now he had let 20 riders pass him.  I tried to convince him that the race wasn’t about winning but I could tell I was talking to a wall. His determination hadn’t dissipated!  We took a quick selfie at the castle and that was the last I saw of him until Meteora!