Ended the last blog at the end of my 8th day on the TCR. Camping out high up in the Swiss Alps, about 2,000m above sea level.
I was awake by 4am, too cold to sleep any longer. I’d tested my bivvy arrangement and was confident I’d sleep comfortably to about 10C. When, after a couple of hours cycling, I saw a thermometer reading 3C – it was wasn’t surprising I’d had a bad night’s sleep. That afternoon I met another TCR rider who’d stayed in a hotel in Sankt Moritz. It set him back £150. I was happy to suffer a little to save myself that amount of money.
The morning ride through Switzerland was stunning but insanely cold. I hadn’t expected temperatures like that. I had all my clothes on and my arm warmers wrapped around my fingers. Even then they were numb. I wished I’d brought leg warmers too.
By the time I’d reached Italy it was 30C again. I was feeling good. Tired, yes. Sore from the climbing, yes. But certain I was recovered from illness.
It was Sunday afternoon and the ride around Lake Como was hectic, but I was focused and fast. By this point I was really in ‘race mode’. I only had one more section in the mountains to conquer before the push across France and I was in a good position. For the first time I was certain I’d reach the finish at Brest. Not only that – I’d probably do it with at least a day to spare. That was an encouraging feeling.
The ride across Northern Italy was shit. Italian drivers are rude and aggressive, many of the roads I pedalled were busy and narrow. An Italian dotwatcher came out to find me. He’d raced the TCR in a previous edition and this year his son was also taking part. I thought that was pretty cool.
The mosquitoes were outrageous in that part of the country. I stopped to put my lights on at dusk and was surrounded in a cloud of them. Great, another excuse for a hotel! I found an apartment on AirBnB for £20 near Turin and called it a night there. I’d stopped washing my clothes, stretching or showering before bed by this point – so I was asleep within 10 mins of checking in and awake 5 hours later.
I had an early start, eager to try and reach CP4 by the end of the day. The first 80km was easy, but then there was a long climb over Mount Cernis – the ‘disadvantage’ of my Italian route. I can’t remember what it looked like. I guess it was probably fairly scenic.
I do remember the landslide that had blocked off a section of the road in France and the tedious diversion following a minor road up and down the other side of the mountain. I recall this really pissing me off. Everything had been going well but my legs were sore and the last thing I wanted was to add on an extra few hundred metres of climbing.
Sleep deprivation was now starting to catch up with me. Everyday I’d hit a ‘wall’ of some-sort in the early afternoon, but I could usually overcome this with a lot of caffeine or a short power-nap. Around this part of the race I started to struggle more to overcome these periods and on this particular afternoon I remember needing a nap half way down one big descent before taking a caffeine pill with an energy drink to get through the rest of the afternoon. I felt permanently exhausted.
The Telegraph and Galibier were punishing climbs. I gather they are famous cols for ‘roadies’ – a lot of people I speak to have heard of, or cycled them. The Telegraph was shit – I never want to do that again. The Galibier, on the other hand, was incredible. It went on forever and became more and more beautiful the higher you climbed. I’d love to do that again.
This was all part of the CP4 parcours, which then took us up Alpe d’Huez via lesser known gravel tracks. Apparently this was very beautiful. Don’t ask me – it was pitch black when I made the ascent. The wind had dropped and it was eerily quiet. I could tell I was high up, but I couldn’t get any bearings in the dark.
My day ended with a descent down the famous switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez. It’s a shame I didn’t get to see that in the light. It looked weird at night – it’s a big descent and there wasn’t a single car out. All I could see were the white road markings and occasional flashes of the surrounding scenery. At times the road seemed to veer out from away the mountain, floating for a while, suspended from gravity before returning to the cliff for the next sharp bend. Actually, it was doing no such thing. My eyes were playing tricks on me. Shadows were moving in ways that made no sense. I’d heard of cyclists hallucinating in endurance events. Was this happening to me? Christ, I was tired.
I reached CP4 around midnight. That was the longest pedalling day (time-wise) I did on the TCR and with 6,500m ascending it was also the most climbing I’ve ever done. It was nice to see a familiar face, as none other than Angela Walker was manning the checkpoint. We met at the end of 2017 when I was completing my RTW. She reminded me that when we’d previously met I was cycling in wellies. “You’ve changed!” No kidding. Now I wear Lycra and clippy shoes. AND I was 30-something position in the TCR. Blimey.
There were some mattresses rolled out in a spare room in the hotel where the checkpoint was being hosted so I slept there was a few hours. I left around 6am, just in time to pick up some croissants from the bakery in the village before riding the last section of the parcours. It was raining again, but only drizzle. One last little climb and I was free from the Alps. Good riddance.
I was on the home straight. A thousand flat-ish kilometres separating me from the finish line. Easy, right?
I cycled through Grenoble on nice cycle paths along the river, before continuing north-west towards Lyon. I think most of the other riders avoided the big city, but I went straight through the middle of it as I wanted to meet my pal Bertrand for a coffee. ‘It’s a race’ I know, but there’s always time to catch up with an old mate.
The last time I saw Bertrand was in China, December 2015. If you’ve read this blog for some time you may recall the name – Bertrand and I met in Uzbekistan and cycled through Central Asia together. We had a coffee right bang in the centre of Lyon and I did my best to have a normal conversation despite being totally fucked from the previous 10 days riding. Then we said goodbye and I cycled into the next thunderstorm. Yep, another storm, I’m not making this up.
Again, unlike many of the riders I headed slightly further north to avoid the relentless hills and reach the Loire valley as quick as possible. I reckon this was a good call. There was only one section of climbing, which would have been fine had it not been for all the rain.
I had an unsettling encounter with a truck in the late afternoon, just as light started fading. The moron driving it reckoned he could overtake me just at a point on the road where it was split into two. He miscalculated and had no choice but to cut me off – far too close. I slammed on my brakes, dodged their tail, banged against the curb but found my balance. It’s a good thing the car behind me saw this and squeezed their brakes too.
Actually, road safety was one of the main reasons I’d be reluctant to do the TCR again. If you spend enough time cycling busy roads, eventually your luck will run out. I had one other close-call in the race. Along the narrow roads of Lake Como a car pulled up a steep bend as I came down too fast. Neither of us did anything wrong, we were just both just going too fast. In the end I pulled off a pretty ‘sick skid’ and brought my rear wheel under control just in time to manoeuvre my bike through the one metre available between wing mirror and a wall. It probably would have looked quite cool if you weren’t the one riding the bike.
The reality is that cycling around London every day is far more dangerous. If you added up the miles that TCR competitors have stacked up crossing the continent over the last 7 years, the number of incidents would be very low. Still, cycling busy roads, battling sleep deprivation and riding at night aren’t exactly a great combo.
I was soaked by the evening having ridden through the storm and it was still drizzling when I reached the next little town. By this point I was convinced that staying indoors and sleeping for a solid 5 hours was the recipe for my optimum output. Bivvying left too much to chance. In hotels I’d have a deep sleep and starting my day with a shower was good for the moral.
In hindsight, I’m not so sure I was correct. On this particular night everywhere was closed and I wasted precious time looking for a hotel that was open. Eventually I found a motel chain that had an automatic entry system. I’ve never seen something like that, but then again – I never stay in places like that. You’d paid via a computer and the receipt gave you a code for the door.
I woke up feeling suspiciously well rested. My alarm hadn’t gone off and yet it was light outside. I was always up before sunrise. I immediately knew I’d fucked up, the question was – by how much had I overslept? The answer was 3 hours. It could have been far worse, during one of my training rides pre-TCR I skipped a night sleep and then slept for 12 hours the following night after my alarm didn’t wake me.
I was pissed off in the morning. I was angry at myself for not checking my alarm was set. I was angry that I’d wasted valuable time so close to the finish. I was angry because if I’d slept outside I’d almost certainly have woken up when it was light. I was angry because on a couple of other occasions I’d tried to take a ‘longer’ sleep of 6 hours, but woken up naturally after 5. Why could that not have happened on this particular night!
I was unnecessarily worked up. If you are going to lose 3 hours on the TCR, the best way to do so is by sleeping. I was out of that hotel within minutes of waking and flying. Taking a route further north was a wise move – the road was flat and there was no wind. I was down in my aero bars cruising at 30km/h like it was nothing. I barely stopped for the first 100km, which I covered along dreamy cycle paths along the canal.
It was one of the shorter days (time-wise) that I cycled on the TCR, but I still made 312km by keeping a good pace. I made the most of the extra sleep and took very few breaks. I only had 2 hours and 15 minutes ‘off’ the bike during the day – an amount of time I only managed on the first and last day. Efficiency makes a big difference on the TCR. I averaged 3 hours and 40 minutes off the bike during the day over the whole fortnight. On the best days I only stopped for a little over 2 hours. Let’s say that I could have saved 90 minutes everyday – that would have made me more than a day faster overall.
That night I slept at the side of the road in an old brick shelter near Tours. There were a few of these old huts in France and they have a water pool in the centre of them. Some old water source for the village? Maybe someone can enlighten me? It was a good enough home for the night.
Another boring day. France was crap. Every road looked the same. The final 1,000km seemed to go on forever. I was bored. I had a couple of saddle sores bothering me again and my right calf was hurting. Brest seemed just as far away every time I looked at the map.
You know what would be a great job? Being a shop owner in rural France. It seems you only need to work for an hour every day. Nothing was ever open. Thank God for the early morning boulangeries, but even I managed to sick of croissants after a while. France was the only place I felt the need to carry a lot of food on me – especially over night. I’d stop in a supermarket before they closed at around 7pm because I might not find anything open for the next 12 hours.
That evening I made one last big stock up on supplies and filled up every pocket. I bought extra energy drinks too – it was going to be a long night. I’d planned on making my final stint an all-nighter with a 470km push to the finish.
Around 8/9pm – not long before it was getting dark – I went to shift down a gear, only to find my rear shifter jammed. Crap. It wouldn’t budge. I tugged at the cable, but it hadn’t snapped. It didn’t feel like it had worn within either, but I couldn’t figure it out. My diagnosis later turned out to be correct – the STI shifter was broken. I adjusted the cable tension and locked the chain into a middle ring on the cassette. It was shit timing – just as it was getting dark and only 160km from the finish. I wasn’t going to gain anything from feeling sorry for myself so I plodded on with just 2 gears.
It was typical, just as that happened, it started to become much more hilly. At around midnight it started raining really heavily. Again. It was pissing it down and I could barely see a thing. I hit a pothole pretty hard and decided to pop into a bus stop and wait for some of the bad weather to pass. I checked the weather forecast and heavy rain was predicted every hour until dawn. It would be a long night.
My rear light had fallen off. This pissed me off, not because it was the main thing keeping me visible to traffic, but because I’d spent 30 quid on it before the race and I hadn’t even owned it 2 weeks. I was also still pissed off because I overslept the previous day. If I hadn’t lost those 3 hours I might have been 60km further ahead – meaning I’d only have 100km to Brest. That would be manageable. But 160km through the night in all this rain? No thanks.
I’d had enough. I was knackered. I sat in the bus stop watching the rain, trying to decide how badly I wanted to finish. If I pushed through the night I’d definitely finish within the top 30. If I slept for 8 hours I would still finish around 35th. I could take 2 days off and still reach Brest by the finishers’ party. Did it really make a difference? Nah. I rolled my mat out in the bus stop and went to sleep.
It had been raining so hard that I couldn’t make out any of my surroundings when I stopped, but as I laid down it started to relent a little. I could hear voices around me and make out a torch beam from across the road. I could make out a house, wait – 2 houses? Great. I thought I’d found a bus stop at the outer edge of a village, but actually I was just in the middle of it. The floor was feeling quite hard all of a sudden. I gave my floor mat a poke and my finger touched the concrete. It had a puncture. Brilliant. Everything was going my way.
I didn’t even set an alarm that night, that’s how much of the race had been sucked out of me and how little I cared anymore. In the end, I woke up after 5 hours again feeling pretty fresh and was on the road before it was light.
I barely stopped over the next 7 hours, I just wanted to get things over and done. I checked the tracking after the race – only one of the guys in the group I was chasing stopped and I overtook him that morning anyway. Had I pushed through the night I’d have finished in 30th. Instead, a couple of people behind me put in a big final shift and went past me in the night/early morning.
The last 70km were the finish parcours, along the same route that the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris audax uses (which would be taking place a couple of weeks after the TCR). It was starting to become awfully windy and on the exposed sections I was getting blown all over the place.
The end of my TCR was incredibly underwhelming. Talk about an anti-climax. My GPX took me into the edge of Brest, but there was nothing at the finish. Where was the finish line? Perhaps I didn’t take the most up-to-date GPX file. I did recall something about the finish moving. I tried to take coordinates from the race brevet, but that didn’t come up with anything. I took my phone out to try and find the race manual but it had now started raining. At this point I saw a couple of people walking past with race caps on. “Excuse me guys, where is the finish?” “Up that road and down the alleyway”, they pointed. “Well done!”.
I followed their instructions and reached the hostel where the finish was located. A couple of people spotted me and a handful clapped as I entered the lobby. A few familiar faces greeted me and someone passed over a beer. Now what?
It was a strange way to finish. I wasn’t tired at all, it had been the easiest day of the TCR. I felt sorry for everyone else coming later, though – the wind had turned into a gale. The people with a full 300km to ride on that Friday had a miserable day riding through drizzly rain and blasting headwinds. A brutal way to finish. I checked into the hostel, walked up to the supermarket to buy some cheap ‘normal’ clothes and had a few celebratory pints in the evening. Throughout the day, other cyclists turned up at the finish – it was nice to see be there and share the moment when they finally arrived.
The finishers’ party wasn’t until Sunday evening. I’d have loved to have stayed, but at the same time I, a) wanted to be back at work on Monday and b) thought I’d go stir crazy sitting around in Brest for 2 days. It was great to share stories from the last fortnight with everyone else, but at the same time I just wanted to go home. The following afternoon I cycled 60km to Roscoff with my colleague Chris (who’d finished the evening before me), and we took the overnight ferry home. In the morning I got the train back from Plymouth to London and was in my living room with a beer in hand in time for Chelsea v Man United. Perfect.
The next morning I was back at work and the TCR already seemed like a hazy dream. What a strange fortnight. What a blur! Trying to remember things for this write up has been a struggle. It’s a weird way of travelling. You see so much, but so quickly. Europe is a big place. To zoom across it in a couple of weeks? That’s not nothing.
I reached Brest in 13 days and 8 hours, finishing in 33rd. All I was aiming for was to finish by the 16 day cut-off, so to arrive that far up the field was amazing. The best part is that I actually enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. I was convinced that I wouldn’t enjoy racing, but I actually really enjoyed the competitive side of the TCR. I thought the whole experience would be painful, but actually there were long periods of the race that I felt really good on the bike. Fit, focused and not tired at all. These periods were fantastic and made me excited about seeing how far I could push myself everyday.
Perhaps I could have gone harder. Maybe I should have been so wrecked that I couldn’t get on the bike the day after finishing and cycle to Roscoff for the ferry. I remember last year, asking my friends who’d done the TCR what they could have done to be faster and this year I asked myself the same thing. I think gambling a little at the beginning and end would have been key, as lots of the quickest people skipped the first and last night’s sleep. I could have been a little stronger and maintained a slightly faster average pace. I could have carried less weight – I definitely had too much on the bike. Most importantly, though, a bit less time off the bike ‘faffing’ would have been key. This is probably the most important thing for most competitors.
It was amazing to see Fiona win, in an extraordinary 10 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes. Only one woman has ever finished in the top 10, but Fiona – a newcomer to ultra-distance racing – dominated the race from the very beginning. The reason women are under-represented at the sharp of these races is because they are under-represented across the whole field. The great thing about ultra-distance races is that it’s far more than just a test of leg power. Unlike the Tour-de-France, there are more factors than how hard you can pedal for a few hours. Planning is of great importance, as are navigation skills. Mental strength is needed to push through the long hours and lack of sleep needs to be managed well. Efficiency is key, as is maintaining a certain level of focus over 10 days+.
Will I do it again? Maybe. I can see why people find these races addictive. They’re a whirlwind of emotion, excitement and ups & downs. Endurance racing is like touring on crack. Every feeling is exaggerated and compressed within just a few days.
I won’t forget how much of my life the TCR took this year. If I do another race next summer, I’ll definitely do a shorter one. All the training consumed too many of my weekends and the race itself sucked up two thirds of my annual leave. It also costs a lot of money. Compared to my expenses touring around the world, the numbers are obscene. Races like this are not cheap and I could have had a very luxurious holiday if I’d not spent all my money on new kit, bike fits and the actual race. Worth it on this occasion? Absolutely.