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!

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