Tuesday, April 3, 2018

What's Next? Life After the TCR

A lot of people have asked me what’s next? Is there another TCR in store for you Melissa in the near future? I’ve been wanting to let people know what I’m up to next for awhile now, but I needed to make it through writing the other blogs first. There is definitely a new adventure on the horizon, it’s actually coming up quite soon! 

The best part of the TCR was the arrival! I wish all the participants could have all stuck around for a good week chatting and sharing our experiences of the race. It is such an unusual circumstance to find yourself surrounded by a bunch of bike freaks or “crazies”, something that rarely happens. We each come from a place in our own lives, where I’m sure we stand out a bit for our extreme cycling activities. It’s hard for people in our normal lives to understand us. When I tell people where I bike, they can’t even imagine doing such a distance in a car! Therefore, at the finish line of the TCR, it was such a wonderful experience to be amongst a group of people with common, although peculiar, interests. Everyone had their stories to share which were very entertaining. You also saw people you’d come across at some point during the race and never had seen again. The hardest part was recognizing them without their scummy bike kit and dirt and sweat covered bodies.

It never seemed to matter that Jonas didn't speak English, he always found a way to communicate and have a good time with others!

Even though Jonas did not receive a dramatic kiss upon arriving to Meteora, he sure didn’t have any resentment and took good care of me after arriving. At the hotel that night, he stripped me and my bike of all my dirty gear and gave it to the hotel receptionist to wash. He also took care of my sores after I showered, although he isn’t a good liar and had a hard time telling me that they were going to heal shortly. I didn’t want to look in the mirror myself! By touch, I could tell I had two decent “quarter-size” open wounds, one on each cheek. I had to carefully position myself in bed to sleep and every time I sat down. That night, I was so drained emotionally and physically tired, I tried to explain to Jonas why I was so mad at him, but what seemed like reason enough to be mad before, had long since faded, and I fell quickly asleep.

My sleep was anything but peaceful. It was as if I had my Garmin route burned in my eyeballs. Every time I shut my eyes I could see my green route traced, glowing. I was anxious and nervous, intensely trying to follow it. I must have woken up every hour to ask myself if the race was really over. It wasn’t until I could see Jonas next to me that I knew it was indeed finished and there was no rush to get back on the bike. We woke up in the early hours of the next morning, hungry of course. Jonas had purchased some extremely rich Greek pastries the day before, obviously anticipating our hunger. So we ate some and went back to bed. 

Ian was still all smiles after the race too!

In the morning, I needed clothing. I had packed nothing extra, not even a pair of shoes or underwear. Jonas had already gone to purchase some clothing, and so I put on his clean cycle kit and we went out in search of an outfit or two. As soon as we hit the main drag in Meteora, it was obvious there was a slight invasion of TCR cyclists. They were easy to spot, either in their dirty kits still or some funny and bizarre outfit, the cheapest they could find to wear for the next few days. We hit up a sporting good store and I found myself some loose fitting attire. I didn’t want anything tight that was going to prevent my saddle sores from healing. 

Every one was in search of boxes in Meteora. Someone could make a landslide of a business opening up a shop with bike boxes around the start of August in Meteora...

I loaded up on some new antiseptic creams and after about an hour of being out and walking about I was exhausted and we went back to our hotel to sleep. We wanted to be at the finish line for Karen’s arrival in the late afternoon. Surely we’d wake up before then! Unfortunately, we didn’t and by the time we made it out of the hotel room, it seemed the second girl, Inge, had already arrived and Karen was soon to arrive in third place. In fact, on our way to the finish line, we saw Karen rolling through town. Like all of us, she looked dazed, disoriented, and exhausted as she tried to keep pedaling to the finish line. We cheered her on and told her to keep going. She only had a few hundred meters to go! Meteora is a tourist vortex. During the day and evening, the streets are swamped with hundreds and hundreds of tourists, a true hazard for the cyclists trying to pedal through. There is only one main street and every store and every person seems to be on it! I was lucky to arrive in the later hours of the evening and avoided a lot of the crowds. 

Karen Toastee ended up staying at our hotel.  It was a lot of fun to get to know her,....hats off to this strong women, much more than just a dot on my tail!
Jonas and I spent a lot of time hanging out at the finish line between our naps. It was pure fun! If we weren’t there, we were indulging in delicious Greek food. Somehow all the riders who made it to the finish line managed to get back on the saddle for the Frank Simmons memorial ride led by his son and Juliana. The next day, Jonas and I headed up to the monasteries perched on the cliffs that I had missed due to my night time arrival. I was sad I didn’t have more time to spend in Meteora, or at least a mini-holiday after the race. I had had the entire month leading up to the race off thanks to my teaching schedule, but now I desperately wanted to rest and disconnect to enjoy the moment and have some alone time with Jonas before heading back to Switzerland to start my job again. He had planned to stay in Greece for a week, down by Athens, and then fly home, and I needed to start work in 3 days time. I had booked a train from Venice, and was planning on taking the ferry to get there, to avoid boxing up my bike. I also knew I could spend the entire ferry ride sleeping, which is what I did. The journey from Meteora to Lausanne took me about 24 hours, but I must have slept about 20 of those hours. I arrived on a Sunday evening, and had Monday to rest up some more before going back to work.

Although very touristy, Meteora is a neat place to visit in Northern Greece

Just before The Frank Simmons Memorial Ride

I was keen on seeing some friends, and quickly accepted an invite for an afternoon around the pool at my colleague’s house. When I arrived, to my surprise, all my work friends had organized a big surprise party to welcome me back and congratulate me! It was a lot of fun! The next day, when I got to work, the staff at my school was overwhelmingly kind! They had the picture of me at the lake from the Guardian up on the projector to start off the welcome back session for teachers and gave me a huge bouquet of flowers and a delicious chocolate cake!
That chocolate cake didn't last very long, a day or two at most

However, going to work that week was hard. I was eager to get back in my routine of things and settle into my normal life, but my body was exhausted. It was like my mind was still lost somewhere out there pedaling in Europe and without Jonas, I was feeling a bit lonely. I spent my lunches escaping off to the nurse’s room to sleep rather than eating, still prioritizing my most important basic needs. I would come home in the evening and feel a bit empty, not sure what I was supposed to do with myself. I hadn’t realized how much of my time and energy had been consumed by the race until it was over and I had “nothing” left to do or prepare! 

It helped when Jonas arrived back in Switzerland. We spent the weekend up at his family’s house. First we had an intimate family dinner to welcome us back, and then Jonas’ family put on a huge party with all their friends and neighbors. It was the perfect distraction for me. His family is usually all full of smiles, and that weekend was no exception. I remember one of the little kids there ask Jonas, “What did you win?” It made me laugh! Winning prizes is such a relative concept when it comes to endurance cycling. Jonas replied, looking at me next to him and said, “I got a girlfriend!” That weekend, just 10 days after the race, I also got back on the bike to ride up to see Felix and go kayaking with him as he had promised me we could do after the race. I started school getting back into my groove commuting and everything seemed to be going fine, or so it seemed.
Straight from the airport to pick me up at work.  Love those tan lines and bright colors!!

I don't think Jonas took off his TCR cap for about 2 weeks after the race!
Lots of celebrating after the race!

About two weeks after the race, when the adrenaline wore off and I started to come down from cloud nine, the same empty feeling was back. People had warned me that after doing such an intense and self-destructive race, one could experience similar symptoms to post-traumatic stress, but I was in denial this was happening. I also was completely exhausted! All I wanted to do was sleep! I couldn’t seem to sleep enough, and making it through a complete day at school was almost impossible without disappearing to nap! 

Jonas and I continued to accept invites to meet up with friends and family who wanted to hear about the race, which was great, but I was starting to worry about myself. We continued with our active lifestyle, but every time I exerted myself physically, my body couldn’t cope. I was immediately breathless and couldn’t keep up with him. Then things got worse! In the morning I started having hot flashes and would feel really feverish and sick. My digestive system started showing signs of being stressed and I feared that I had put my body through too much with the race. I didn’t know what to do. 

Our friends went out of their way to make us feel like VIP

Lots of cake and alcohol was consumed in the weeks after the TCR!
We even tried out a tandem together.....

That coming weekend, I was going to see a friend in Lyon,France. On the train ride over I remembered sitting and crying, for no reason at all. I put my sunglasses on so the other passengers couldn’t see my tears streaming down my cheeks, but deep down inside I was so frustrated with myself and couldn’t control my emotions. I told Jonas I was getting worried. He wasn’t having any abnormal symptoms and was coping quite fine both physically and mentally. I wanted to eliminate reasons for not feeling well. I had bought some pregnancy tests just to be safe. The next morning, I woke up early to do one, and it was an error. I should have done a second one right there, but I didn’t. I waited until the next morning, but by then I knew what the test was going to show me. Feeling feverish and sick in the morning, breathless, huge mood swings, and exhaustion, I had all the symptoms of the first trimester of being pregnant. The next morning, before school, while Jonas was eating breakfast, I peed on the stick. Before I stopped peeing, the two lines for a positive test showed up, and I panicked! Poor Jonas, remained calm and collected, it was me who was in disbelief!   

The next few weeks were a big blur, filled with lots of emotions and talking.  Going to work and teaching was a huge help and made me stay focused, but when I pedaled home in the afternoon, I was an emotional wreck and couldn’t hold it together.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have kids, but I was just completely caught off guard.  Jonas and I had been careful, but then again, there had been a few times, especially during our celebrations, when we got caught up in the moment and hadn’t! 

We went to the doctor and of course the question she asked was “When did you have your last period?” The thing was, I knew it was suppose to come during the TCR, but it hadn’t come when it was suppose to, nor had it been what it normally is, as is the case when I excercise a lot and put my body through a lot of stress.  I feared the bleeding I had had during the race was spotting and that perhaps I was indeed 1 or 2 weeks pregnant during the race. If this was true, I couldn’t imagine the stress I had put on a little fetus inside of me.  If I was pregnant during the TCR, I had consumed an exceptional amount of caffeine in the form of Redbull and taken a fair share of painkillers with my knee problems. But then again, if I did indeed get pregnant after the race, I had drank a considerable amount in the weeks after the race celebrating the occasion. The situation wasn’t ideal either way! It would only be later, at the first real ultrasound that we would find out the date of conception, which didn’t make sense at all. The 3rd of August…..we all know, especially the dot watchers, that that date was completely impossible! While doctors insisted my due date was the 10th of May, we were somewhat skeptical.

Ironically when we found out I was pregnant, we had planned a cycling trip for the following 3-day weekend. We had planned a crazy 800 kilometer ride through the Vosges in France, camping out in random places and riding to our heart's content. Instead we settled for a three-day weekend in France, cycling more normal distances of 70 to 100 kilometers and sleeping in a hotel.   It was that weekend we decided this little baby was conceived out of a lot of passion, glory, and love, at a very memorable time in our lives and there was no looking back!

Riding the Vercors, France

Cycling the Vercors: Jonas had a lot of patience and waited for me trying to get up the hills
Hiking was a little easier 

Ever since my world bike tour back in 2013, I had started to truly appreciate my independent lifestyle and the choices I had made to be happy. When I was younger, I remember thinking I would love to be married and have a family, but the roads I chose to travel later in life, didn’t take me there. I was enjoying life, traveling, had strong and supportive friends and family and was fulfilled, my ultimate purpose in life. A lot of people discouraged me from riding solo around the world, They insisted I find a guy to protect me.  But I didn’t have a boyfriend to accompany me and I wasn’t going to wait around for one to appear! I had met many guys, but they all just wanted to be "friends" and go for bike rides together. I had learned to accept that and really forgotten about other life alternatives. I had no internal clock ticking and didn’t pressure myself to get married or have kids.  I was enjoying the moment and living my life to the fullest, something you learn to do very well as a result or riding a bike!

A thumb sucker and moving all around since the first ultrasound, this little girl is going to keep her Mom and Dad busy!

Jonas’ life had taken him down a similar road.   Falling in love was not part of his training schedule. He was completely infatuated with cycling. With his competitive spirit and extreme physical fitness level all his efforts had gone into preparing himself to break the Guinness Book of World Record for circumnavigating the world the fastest on a bike. He had spent years saving money, endless nights in front of his computer studying and memorizing maps. He had dedicated almost 4 years of his life preparing for his world tour. Competing in the Transcontinental in 2015 was just part of his preparation. He fell about 300 kilometers from the finish line and also during his world tour, which was why he was determined to finish the race this past summer. When I met him, he seemed way too intense for me, only focused on cycling. Of course this is the way I’m sure I came off to other people as well! 

Just after three months here, I couldn't say I had just overeaten....

I had had my doubts as you know, about being able to complete the TCR. I wasn’t sure my body could make it through such extreme conditions, which is what led me to signing up for the race. I was curious and eager to push myself to my limits and do it! As always, this doubt made me over-prepare for the race. As a result of completing the TCR, and winning it, I finally got me the confidence to give myself credit for being able to do exactly what I set my mind to doing. I knew Jonas had the similar mind-set and outlook. Rather than trying to tell me to slow down or stop, he encouraged me to follow my dreams and push myself. We completely understand each other, not to mention, we share a common passion, love to look at maps, talk about the places we cycled and the places we want to ride together in the future! Thanks to the TCR, the fear of the major life changes that were about to happen and being responsible for the life of another human being in this world calmed.

Unfortunately, my first three months of being pregnant were awful and I couldn’t imagine making it through nine. Any woman who said they enjoyed being pregnant surely had never rode a bike, in my opinion! Exercising was possible but hard work. I tried running, but was always breathless. The same happened on the bike, but Jonas and I still went out for rides. Napping became my biggest past time, which was very unlike me! I was horribly nauseous. I never threw up, but I walked around all day as if I suffered from being car sick. Cottage cheese, my number one favorite food turned into my biggest food aversion along with coffee and sweets. Before I made it to 3 months, I already showed. In fact, before I could make any sort of announcement at school or tell the director, the parents were already talking. I helped out at a swim meet at the start of October. Every time I looked over in the parent section, they were all looking at me. They had watched me go from being at my peak fitness level last year with the TCR to immediately developing a little bit of a belly. Getting pregnant after the race was actually perfect timing in the sense that I had gotten in an unreal amount of kilometers in the prior year.  Since I had gotten my fix that year training, my body welcomed a bit of change. Although preparing for a baby, is also not exactly easy on your body!  

Work colleagues were incredibly supportive. In fact, I was surprised how much my relationship with other women changed once they knew I was pregnant. I went from being this superhuman, crazy woman with extreme cycling interests to being more “normal” now that I was bearing a child. Long before the TCR, I had bought a flight to visit my family for my October holiday to celebrate my birthday in Oregon. The news came as a huge surprise to them, but of course they were extremely supportive. Jonas and I spent a lot of time trying to decide how to go about planning for a baby. We had planned for world bike tours and bike races, but didn’t really know where to start when it came to planning for a baby. We probably went about doing everything “backwards” if you look at it from the perspective of more “normal” people. However, Jonas and I aren’t exactly normal, so the way we’ve planned things has actually worked out quite well for us. I’ve really been trying to improve my French, but I completely understand now, when people say “love has no language”. We understand each other perfectly although neither of us speak the other’s native language very well! We decided to move into a bigger apartment, which isn’t easy to do in Switzerland. Apartment hunting is more competitive than the lottery for the TCR, but thankfully we got lucky though and landed a bigger place with an extra room for the baby. Although at five months pregnant, I was pretty useless when it came to moving! We started collecting some baby items, but more importantly we started to dream together. 

I commuted to school until the roads got icy and my stomach started getting in the way.

From 6 months on the only bike I could ride comfortably was the one at the fitness center at work.

We still managed to do a hiking and camping vacation in Oman over the winter holidays.

We had both told ourselves at one point or another during our lives that if we ever have kids, we’d want to share our same passions with them. We both had dreamed of a family bike tour and so this became a frequent topic of conversation. Of course we have to wait to see how it goes when this little girl arrives here soon, but we would love to take some time off to travel with her on bike! I was already starting to get antsy to travel again before the TCR. Racing is fun and I enjoy the personal challenge, but what I really savor and missed after a year of training for the TCR was a bike trip. I miss traveling at a slower pace, with no time pressure or exact route planned. I miss the social interaction that comes from spontaneity when time is no issue. I miss learning about other cultures authentically and getting a glimpse into their everyday life as you pass by on a bicycle. Jonas calls me his “pocket translator”. He loves the fact I can speak 4 different languages and says we can go anywhere in the world with these languages. He frequently reminds me the number of kilometers together we will pedal and the “big things we will do together”. This helps calm me now that it has been a good 3 months since I got on my bike to ride “for real”. South America is really where we both want to go, since neither of us have cycled there before. Of course, however, to make it more interesting and exciting, we want to start in my home town, Eugene, Oregon, where Jonas was suppose to also go on his world tour! We both know we have to wait and see how things go when this little baby girl comes, but we are both eager to explore the world together with her.

Collecting the essentials for "La Petite"

In fact, we hope to start our family travels together this summer. We’ve applied to be volunteers at Checkpoint 1. It would be a dream come true to make it there and give back to the TCR organization after all they’ve done for us. Volunteers took such good care of us last year, I'd love to do the same for riders this year. And of course if we can,....arrive on bikes! Is there another TCR in store for us in the future? Before finding out I was pregnant, it had crossed both of our minds to ride together as a couple. Obviously this isn’t the year to do so, but it’s definitely a possibility for the future! Right now, we are trying to get ourselves organized before "La Petite" arrives. The official due date according to doctors is the 10th of May, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she showed up before then, meaning that she has already done a bike tour herself! I guess only time will tell....
It's all in the stomach!

It’s been a year since Mike Hall died. I was eager to meet him last summer on the race and personally thank him for giving me the opportunity to participate in the Transcontinental Race. It taught me so much about myself and helped me find direction in my life when I was a little lost. We all love to ride bikes, but there’s so much more to it than just turning the pedals, and Mike knew this indeed! I never imagined The TCR would be the catalyst for the huge life changes up til now and still to come for me and Jonas. We will forever have our little souvenir from this race, that is for sure, thanks to Mike!
This little note on a card I got at the baby shower work had for me says it all....."1 race + 2 bikes = 1 baby!"

Sunday, March 25, 2018

From CP4 to the Finish Line

The most entertaining and exciting part of the race for me was without a doubt from CP 4 to the finish line. When I left the fourth checkpoint, Juliana gave me an update on Jonas’ progress. I knew he was close to the finish line,..she predicted he would finish within the next several hours. I was anxious for him but also excited. I thought he could possibly catch up to the Bjorn for second place, but I was happy he was pedaling strong and maintaining third. 

As I descended the Romanian mountains the temperatures got warmer and warmer and quickly all my gear that had gotten soaked back on the climb, had dried out. I had started descending with Paolo, but of course I couldn’t keep up with him long. When I got to the first village I stopped to eat a proper lunch. I hadn’t stopped for long at the top of CP 4, avoiding getting cold, I hadn’t eaten anything other than my makeshift breakfast of a handful of bitesize 7 day croissants at the start of the climb, and a cup of coffee at CP 2 in order to warm up! I found a restaurant with some nice bench seats and ordered the only thing I could understand on the menu, grilled chicken, fries, and salad. I signed on to see Jonas’ progress and was surprised to find that he still hadn’t crossed the finish line. In fact, I received a message from his brother telling me he had two flat tires and no spare tubes and was struggling to keep them filled with air in order to arrive at the finish line. Despite my growing anxiety to see him finish, I couldn’t fight off my strong desire to sleep and laid down to rest after finishing my meal.

About an hour later I awoke and checked his progress, he still hadn’t crossed the finish line, but I could see Karen Toastee was at CP4 and would descend any moment. I had to get a move on it! My route continued to descend for awhile, then cut off from the main road and climbed some steep gradients on some very quiet roads. It was my first time in Romania and I was NOT impressed. The roads were chaotic, heavily traveled by trucks. Shoulders were rare and if they did exist, they were gravel. If my route deviated from the main road, I paid a steep price on the minor roads, literally. Not to mention, coming down from the mountains, the heat had returned. 

I was surprised to see people alongside the road cheering racers on an offering water. I specifically remember a young boy holding out a primitive sign with the TCR initials and my cap number 233. I no idea who on earth he was, but he had obviously been following me and was eager to offer me some water. I didn’t stop, not wanting any problems with “outside assistance” I continued to pedal on, hoping to keep a decent lead in front of Toastee. Just then I had a really close call with a truck. I could hear a loud horn behind me. I got over as far as I could on the right side of the road, not wanting to go off the road into the gravel. I could see the truck behind me was not budging nor was the driver going to swerve to the left to make me feel safe. In fact, I felt as though he did the opposite, moving more to the right to push me off the road! Having no choice I quickly went off the road right on to the rough gravel shoulder at a high speed and somehow managed to keep my balance over all sorts of potholes and loose rocks. I tried to brake as carefully as I could completely shook up, shouting and swearing at the truck that was long gone, I felt lucky to be alive! No wonder the organization had banned certain roads in Romania when James Hayden called in after having a similar experience. Romania was definitely NOT a bike friendly country. 

Determined to leave this country as soon as possible. I kept cycling as much as I could. I stopped at the last possible hour to eat, just before the restaurants were closing, and managed to find a pharmacy to visit as well to stock up on my creams, as I was running low and knew I had to restock in order to push through to the finish line. Despite having shitty roads, the pizzeria I found shortly before the Serbian border was to die for. I hopped online and an in pour of messages came through. Most importantly I could see that Jonas had made it to the finish line despite having two flat tires and managed to hold on to third place. When I first met him, he told me he wanted to be on the podium, and he had managed to pull it off. I had a ton of messages from friends, cheering me on, telling me I was so close. Close, however is very relative. I recalled several veterans telling me that the hardest part of the whole race was from CP 4 to the finish line. I knew the kilometers in my routes on my Garmin, and I knew there was no denying the fact that I had another 600 to 800 kilometers to pedal. 

At this point in the race, it was extremely entertaining to watch because the riders had the choice of two different routes to the finish line. Some took the route to Greece via Romania and Bulgaria, and others, like myself chose the route through Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia. You could see the dots on your same route and I started being familiar with the numbers that I recognized. In fact, I could see that Paolo, was stopped right across the street at the sports bar, probably eating dinner, which was literally 20m across the road, but I was so tired, and didn’t have the legs to walk up the stairs and find him. Plus after the pizza and couple of espressos I felt amazing and decided to keep on riding. I had taken a nice snooze in the middle of the day and my spirits were high. I was determined to get a good lead in front of Toastee.

That night I pedaled and pedaled telling myself, “just a little further”. I stopped for ice cream bars and fruit for an energy boost, and could see that I was passing a lot of inactive dots, which kept me motivated to keep on riding. I pushed through until arriving to the outskirts of Craiova, Romania, when I decided to call it a night. I desperately needed to wash out my bum wounds, and looked for a hotel, while still continuing to pedal along. I found what looked to be a trucker hotel, and to my surprise the receptionist was asleep but visible at the front desk. She told me they were full, but I begged and pleaded with her to consider any room or sofa at that point, where I could lie down for a few hours. She came up with a tiny room for me, up two flights of steep narrow stairs, that was extremely hot without any exterior windows and smelled. However, it was just big enough for my bike and had a mini bath tub so I could freshen up. 

I remember getting a message from my brother who begged me to sleep more than just 3 hours as I had a substantial lead in front of Toastee, but I put my alarm on for 3 hours after washing up and went to bed. The next morning when I started pedaling, I remember several other riders passing me, and looking rather confused that I had managed to advance them during the night. And it started to be a common occurrence from then on, throughout the last two days until we would all arrive at the finish line. We were all so close together, we ran into each other frequently on the road, each with our own brake schedule, making it so that we passed one another or stayed clustered together. We had all chosen the route through Serbia, Macedonia, and Northern Greece. I had thought that it was flatter and less complicated (avoiding a ferry option) than the alternative route through Bulgaria. 

You always have time for a good laugh and a quick selfie when you meet other TCR riders, Daniel and Maxime

My route actually did go through the tiny northwest corner of Bulgaria. I remember vividly coming to a long stream of trucks, backed up on the border trying to get in. I rode right past them, happy to be on a bike and pulled over at a petrol station for some food. I also managed to take a quick power nap, hunched over in a chair on the outside patio. When I woke up, I saw 2 other cyclists ride up, Maxime and Daniel Johansson. We had a fun time catching up. Maxime passed on a few words of wisdom with some bum cream he recommended from France (obviously I couldn’t get my hands on them at the moment) and we all departed at different times. The heat was still unbearable and I needed to stop every 2 or 3 hours to cool off, which meant drinking lots of sugary drinks and eating ice cream. At the next petrol station, I ran into Ian Walker and Michael Wacker (again)! I had seen Ian’s bike set-up in one of the race reports and it seemed he was suffering from saddle sores as well. When I found him at the petrol station, what a laugh we had about our common bum problems. His were so bad, he was riding in track shorts with mesh that had been cut out. What made this set-up complicated, well, I will let you imagine how short track shorts and no lining work out on a bike saddle. 
Buying ice cream bars at a petrol station with Ian and Michael, I kept finding them on the road while reaching the finish line

It felt like no sooner did I enter Bulgaria, than I left the country and entered Serbia. Several years ago on my world tour, I had tried to enter Serbia through Kosovo. Despite the help of a few UN officers at the Kosovo-Serbian border, the Serbian border guards would not budge and I had to return the same way I had come, retracing almost 100 kilometers to the Kosovo-Macedonian border. Although President Clinton announced that Kosovo was an independent country almost 20 years ago, Serbia is still bitter about losing control over Kosovo and therefore doesn’t allow anyone to enter through that border, showing others they simply don’t recognize Kosovo as an official country. 

This time, I was entering from Romania, on the eastern side of Serbia, and had no problems, thankfully! I had high hopes for the roads in Serbia, don’t ask me why, but I was extremely let down from the moment I crossed. It looked as though the surface hadn’t been repaved in years, if not centuries! I pedaled along until I couldn’t bare the heat anymore around the middle of the day and ran into a few of my regulars at a petrol station, including Michael Wacker, again, still in the same kit but in good spirits compared to the looks of his same dirty and now ripped kit! They were making a quick stop, but I was longing for my midday nap. So I quickly ate some food and took refuge at the abandon restaurant/cafe that was attached to the petrol station, pulling together three chairs so I’d have a surface long enough to lie on. I look back now and think about the places I slept know I could never fall asleep like I did during the race now. But my body was so exhausted, I could have fallen asleep the moment I stopped pedaling regardless of whether I was standing, sitting, or lying down!

There isn’t a tall mountain pass in Serbia to climb, but there also isn’t much flat land in the entire country either! My first night in Serbia, I made it to Nis, a “big” city in Southern Serbia. A city qualifies as being “big” in my opinion, if it has a recognizable restaurant or hotel chain and Nis had a McDonald’s there waiting for me! After making it over a long uphill and descending into Nis, I saw the golden arches. McDonald’s in the land of unknown, is a known quantity, with relatively clean bathrooms, free wifi, and recognizable food items, plus the service is fast! In Serbia I was drawn to the slightly varied menu choices and tried out the Cesar burger and curly fries that caught my attention. Not being a frequent customer, I accidentally ordered some sort of full meal combo with normal fries and ended up with two big size fries in front of me along with a burger, milkshake, and salad. It took me a long time to eat all of that food, and I remember getting some weird stares from the locals sitting around me. I must have looked like a pretty sorry sight. I could see Moms whispering to their kids about me, probably telling them not to stare at me, taking pity on my disturbed looking state-of-being. Ironically, I’ve been on the other side of that conversation, where you see someone who looks so “down-and-out”, in desperate need of cleaning up, and naturally take pity on them. 

The longer I stayed at McDonalds, the harder it was to get up. I contemplated continuing to ride, but my body was urging me to get a proper sleep. I thought about lying down on the McDonalds cushioned bench seat until closing, but that would only be 2 more hours. I quickly hopped on Bookings.com and loads of hotel offers popped up around me including one 150 meters across the street from where I was. I had no energy to ride there, and walked my bike across the street. I checked in, wheeled my bike into my room, took a warm shower, washed my bike shorts, and cleaned-up my saddle sores. I don’t know if the pain had dissipated or my tolerance had gone up, because they sure weren’t healing very quickly. If my saddle sores had any time to dry out at all, as soon as I sat down on them, they would bleed. In fact, when I left the hotel the next morning, I also left a big blood stain on the sheets from my saddle sores.

The luxury of a hotel, washing your bike shorts and bum to avoid further infection

Starting to ride that morning, I could see that Toastee had chosen the Bulgarian route, making it an incredibly exciting race, impossible to tell which route would arrive in Greece faster. I was still determined to try to keep a good lead, and woke up early the next morning to set off on what would be my second to last day of the race.

I continued heading south to the Macedonian border. I remembered during my route planning that this area in Southern Serbia seemed rather tricky as there was a new highway and an old highway, parallel to one another and both viable route for bikes. I chose the newer highway, but when I looked down at my Garmin, my dot was in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn’t actually find the route I was supposed to be. The new highway looked like a proper freeway, prohibiting bicycles, although I couldn’t find a sign that specifically stated so. I spent the majority of the morning trying to figure out a viable route. I looked at the tracks of others to see if they had risked taking the main highway, but it was no use. Everyone seemed to be weaving all over the place just like me, unsure what to do. I was getting so fixated on my Garmin, and trying to find the right road to be on, that I missed the turn to go south to the Macedonian border. I headed about 15 km in the wrong direction before I realized this and turned around. 

Taking a break from the heat.  I had a knack for finding "comfy" places to rest

The road to the border was steep and desolate and the sun beat down on me. The descent to the border was so incredibly bumpy I couldn’t even reach for my water bottle. I was pleasantly surprised to reach the Macedonian border as the officers were unusually nice. They spoke good English, greeted me by name when giving back my passport, and even let me use their toilets, although they were nothing more than a hole in the ground with some running water. I rode just past the border before pulling over to escape the heat and cool down. I didn’t take a nap this time, but used a water hose at a petrol station to wet myself, the next best thing to jumping in a pool or lake. The back roads led into a main road and I continued to ride as far as I could, stopping for an occasional ice cream or beverage to cool off. When I stopped I would look at the other dots and I was surprised to see that Karen Toastee’s dot had been inactive for quite some time! My friends were sending messages like crazy encouraging me to keep on pushing. They’d say only 700 or 500 kilometers to go, as is the distance was not far at all. But I knew my route and I couldn’t get my hopes up, I still had almost 2 days of riding left and anything could happen. 

I always appreciate the scenery while riding, regardless of the suffering (Macedonian sunset)

Having a significant lead, my spirits were high but I was quite annoyed at Jonas. I had heard nothing from him after he had arrived at the finish line and I took it personally, feeling neglected. The dangerous part of having so much time to think while riding your bike is that start contemplating different scenarios and think through things way too much. On top of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, it is no wonder an endurance rider can actually think straight or make good judgements or safe choices! That night when I stopped for dinner, I called Jonas and basically chewed him out for not giving me any words of encouragement. I didn’t even let the poor guy speak up for himself. Little did I know the sensation that awaited me after crossing the finish line. I was feisty and moody with him and let him have a good earful of my frustration before I hung up. He thought I was going to call it a night and sleep, but my anger had given me a shot of adrenaline and I was ready to hop back on my bike and ride! 
Sunset in Macedonia the night before crossing the finish line

Dinner in Macedonia, the only thing I could understand on the menu.  I know, it doesn't look the most appetizing....

I didn’t realize however, the next 50 kilometers were continually uphill and my progress felt slow. I was on a new road and the surface was impeccable, with little traffic. The riding conditions were perfect. The only problem was that I was getting more and more tired. My goal was to reach the top of the climb and descend quickly, but even reaching the top seemed impossible although I could see it in the distance. There was a petrol station at the summit, but I just couldn’t continue to pedal. My eyelids were drooping and as a result my handle bars swerved, quickly waking me up. I was falling asleep on my bike pedaling. This had never happened to me before! I decided to pull over and found a shrine, which I thought was a bit of a message. At some point in time there had been a car accident on this road and the shrine was there to honor and protect those who had died. I chose to sleep there, thinking I was being well looked after and also used the shrine to air out my kit. I knew my family would worry about stopping at the top, so I wrote them a text message. Before I could push send, I had fallen asleep and a few minutes later, I awoke abruptly to my phone ringing. I could see it was my older brother, but didn’t want to pick up to avoid roaming charges. I pushed “send” on the SMS and he wrote back saying “OK”. 
I thought a shrine was an ideal  and safe place to crash for the night

I didn’t even set my alarm that night, but there must have been some adrenaline in my blood knowing it was the last day of the race. There was also a group of stray dogs barking and wouldn’t be long before they discovered me sleeping. I pedaled for 2 minutes before reaching the top and pulled over at the petrol station for food that was already open. The owners were super nice and let me sit down and eat a more proper breakfast. They asked me where I had slept the night before and were surprised when I told him on the side of the road 500m from here. They offered their camper van to me, but they didn’t realize I was pressed for time now. I descended and continued pedaling, appalled by the road surface ahead. The road was entirely cobblestone, little square stones that made for an ever so bumpy ride. 

The reason all my saddle sores opened up again in Macedonia, this was the road surface for the majority of my route
Ian in good spirits despite his mountain biking adventure.  Look at those cleat, or lack of cleats I should say....
Even though I hadn’t gone far, I was getting annoyed with the road surface and decided to stop at a gas station. To my surprise, sitting outside, with a big smile on his face, was Ian Walker. He didn’t look the same as he had the last time I had seen him. Instead he looked like he had gone mountain biking or simply rolled down a huge pile of dirt. Even the soles of his shoes were so worn down he couldn’t clip in any more. It was quite a sight to see! The story he told me was so entertaining, but in reality I considered myself lucky I didn’t make the same route choice he had. It seems there was an alternative road that climbed a similar mountain that I had gone over last night. The only difference was that that road wasn’t paved. Ian said you couldn’t even call it a gravel road, being more like a giant sand pile. He attempted to climb but his tires sunk and he had to push his bike up it for several hours. Thinking he was alone, he was surprised to be greeted by another rider at the top, Daniel Johasson and camped out at the top of the road. They weren’t the only unlucky ones to take that road, many other riders did as well! Considering their ordeal, I felt pretty lucky! After telling me his story he continued riding and I plopped down in his chair and ate some food, although the only thing the store was selling was chips, a bit harsh on the stomach at 9am! 

The rolling hills in N.Greece were brutal on the homestretch! Photo courtesy of James Robertson

That day was going to be my last day riding. I knew it would be long, but I thought I would arrive to the finish line around 6 or 7pm. I crossed the Greek border around lunch time. I asked the border guard if a German, Swedish, and English passport holder had gone through recently, he nodded. Those were my buddies, just ahead of me. We were all on the home stretch. Riding in Northern Greece was a lot more isolated than I imagined. No wonder Jonas had not found a bike shop to fix his flat tires! I managed to pull over and rest a bit at a petrol station. I tried to set my alarm to take a nap, but I had fallen asleep before I actually pushed set. The noise and heat in the bar at the station awoke me after a half hour and I knew I needed to keep on riding.

I passed through very few towns in N. Greece, it was quite an isolated area. Photo courtesy of James Robertson

My last ice cream bar of the race.  I think I ate a total of 5 that day!  Photo courtesy of James Robertson

In the early afternoon the media car found me. Since they always found me close a checkpoint, I thought I was near the finish line. But I knew that I had at least 200km to ride, my Garmin had my programmed route and there were no shortcuts. They took some great shots of me struggling slowly up the curvy hilly roads. I pulled over in a little town to get some ice cream and got lost trying to leave. People in the town saw me riding in circles and eventually yelled at me to tell me where to go. Obviously other riders had been through this town as well! No sooner was I back on my own cycling when I really started to feel like my progress was slow! I felt as though I had a flat tire. I stopped and felt my tires, just to be extra careful and realized I had very little pressure in the back. It was then when I got out my pump I noticed that my hands were frozen in the position as if I were gripping my hoods. I had lost my dexterity and could tell I had some nerve damage. It wouldn’t have been a big problem except for the fact that I was trying to use some fine motor skills to pump up my tire and I couldn’t. I tried as hard as I could to pump air into it. I didn’t want to lose too much time. I felt like I was close, but at the same time, I could tell I had another 40 to 50 kilometers to the finish line. I could tell I was running out of energy, my body was begging me to be done with the race, but I wasn’t going to stop until I had crossed the finish line. 

Again I felt like I was doing an awful lot of effort for at which I was advancing. I dreaded feeling my tire, scared I had a true puncture. Sure enough I did! I panicked before I actually stopped, going through my options in my head. I knew I wouldn’t be able to change my flat tire, I didn’t have the hand strength to even use my pump. I could have fumbled with the tube for hours and watch Toastee whiz past me. I couldn’t walk or run the last part because I still had a good 20ks left. My only option was to stop and pump up my tire every 2 or 3 kilometers and hope that it was a very slow release flat. I pulled over at a bar, quickly stocked up on some sugary drinks, and pumped up. At the same time, my ipod went dead and I had no music to get me through the last part of the race. All the powers of the world seemed to working against me. 

I could tell people were anxiously awaiting me. I saw messages saying, “Where are you?” “Are you OK?” “Has something happened?” and the best one, directly asked me, “Why are you going so slowly!” People following the TCR only see a dot, it is hard for them to comprehend what we see in front of us, looking over our front wheel. By this time, hight had come and it was dark. The only light beside an occasional street light every 500m was the green line on my Garmin, showing a huge squiggly line indicating the switchbacks and turns I would have to make as I made the last climb with an average gradient around 8%. I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I rode out of my saddle for the last 5 or 6 km hoping that would make the air in my back tire last longer. I cursed Mike Hall, I wanted to cry, but determination kept me from doing so. When I made it to the top, I reconsidered my options: descend on a flat, trying to change my tire, walking or running down,.....? I remember writing my family and telling them what had happened, because I could see they were extremely anxious. They all had advice do offer, the best being one of my brothers who told me to “Froom it!” But I knew what I was going to do! I would ride cautiously down, trying to avoid pumping the back tire up again. I desperately wanted to cross the finish line and be done! More importantly I really wanted to sleep; sleep uninterrupted until I couldn’t sleep any longer without any pressure to get back on my bike!

The descent somehow felt longer than the climb. I was sad I was missing all the gorgeous scenery. Meteora is known for monasteries perched on rocky cliff formations. I could imagine something like Montserrat outside of Barcelona, but since it was dark, it was hard to see anything. I started to doubt my route on my Garmin, thinking I might have made a wrong turn. I got paranoid Toastee was going to whiz by and pass me. I was starting to get delirious! I finally arrived to a town, which seemed to be Meteora, but my Garmin route wasn’t finished. I kept riding and riding, passing from one side of town to the other, until I came to the end of the town and saw the turn off for the hotel. There waiting in the parking lot, to my surprise, were loads of people. I was so tired, I didn’t know how to react except to continue on in race mode. I wanted to get my final stamp in my brevet card, I wanted it to be official that I was finished! 

I could see Jonas anxiously waiting for me in the parking lot. When I stopped, he came up next to me, probably hoping for some dramatic hug or kiss. I was still mad at him, well, sort of, because I didn’t have the energy to actually be mad at him. I tried to tell him and the others what had happened, but I couldn’t talk in French, not even in English. I didn’t have energy for anything. He looked rather surprised, when I told him, “Here, hold my bike!” as I’m sure the others standing around cheering me on, were expecting something else! But that’s not me! I don’t like to be in the spotlight, I don’t like the attention on me.

Rolling up to the finish line, my hands were totally numb

I walked, or rather waddled up to the desk where the volunteers were, and plopped myself down in the seat. I handed them my Brevet card and tried to talk for a little bit. Jonas undid my helmet, then I curled up into a little ball and tried to sleep. I couldn’t hold back the urge regardless of the party going on around me. My body was done! It had made it to the finish line, not 100m less nor 100m more!

I had no hand strength left to undo my helmet! Photo courtesy of Lian van Leeuwen.
I fell asleep with a Fanta in my hand. Photo courtesy of Lian van Leeuwen.

I had answered the question I had posed to myself years ago when I had first heard about the Transcontinental Race. Can I do something like this? Am I capable of cycling such an absurd distance completely self-supported? I couldn’t fathom actually doing the average daily kilometers for 14 days, but somehow I had just managed to do so. And how? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question and I’ll spare you that blog post for now. I actually think I could write a book to explain the “how” behind such an event, the “why I am the way I am”. The important part is that I finished the race, achieving the goal I had set out to achieve, finishing in under 14 days to qualify as a “finisher”! And it just so happened that I was the first woman to cross the finish line as well!

Done, finished, finito....I couldn't have pedaled another kilometer! Photo courtesy of Lian van Leeuwen.

Monday, February 26, 2018

CP 3 to CP4: Facing More Challenges That Come with Endurance Cycling

It would have been easy to stay and chat and get really comfortable at CP 3, but I knew that I needed to descend before sunset as the road was dangerous and the clock was ticking. Directly after coming down the Tatras Mountains, riders had to choose how to cross Slovakia to approach Romania via Hungary. I was originally going to go to Poprad and then take some minor roads that led me south of Presov to Kosice. However, on my train ride to Paris, Urs had asked me if I was following the Facebook group discussion about this road. It seemed there was road construction and that it was complicated to pass a final bridge that led directly to Kosice. I had changed my route at the last minute to take the main road to Presov, then directly south to Kosice. I quickly signed on to the GPS trackers to see how others were getting to Kosice. James and Bjorn had taken the route I was planning on taking which reassured me. Other riders were taking my original route, but since I had changed my GPS track, I decided to follow the main road. 

There was a steep climb on the outskirts of Presov, but then a rewarding descent. After the descent, when night had come, I decided to pull over for a second dinner. I tried to find a restaurant rather than a kebab joint, and the locals pointed me to a restaurant up top a building. It was impossible to get my bike up the stairs to the restaurant, so I left it in the stairwell. I went upstairs and found a nice calm pizza/pasta restaurant with some really comfortable seating. It would be a perfect place to eat and then sleep for an hour or two. I ate peacefully after seeing that Toastee was at CP3 and seemed to be inactive. I thought I would have quite a lead on her if she chose to rest there. Descending in the dark would have been ridiculous. After I finished a huge meal, I asked the waiter if I could sleep until closing, around midnight. He didn’t mind, so I quickly lay down and fell asleep.  

Slovakian food always looked so delicious, but it didn't have much flavor.  I hope to prove myself wrong some day!

I woke up, about an hour or so later to the blaring sound of music and young drunk guys, who were signing and creating a lot of noise. What on earth was going on? I couldn’t imagine how this peaceful restaurant with no more than a handful of clients had all of a sudden turned into a bar or nightclub for drunken Slovakian men! I immediately panicked about my biking, imagining they had probably tampered with it in the stairwell on their way upstairs. I quickly packed up, glaring at these drunken men, as I left, as if I had all the right to use a restaurant as a hotel, and they shouldn’t be partying in a bar (Yes, I’m aware, no logic in that argument!) Luckily, they hadn’t touched my bike. However, before taking off to ride, I checked the GPS tracking sight and saw that Toastee had indeed descended CP 3. Anyone who took on that road at night was up for some serious cycling, determined to catch up with me! There was no more time to sleep or rest. I had to keep on pedaling to hold my lead. 

I pedaled as long as I could that night, another 2 or 3 hours on hilly roads that I wasn’t expecting and approached Kosice where I found a McDonalds that was still open around 3am. I pulled over, not to eat, but to snack on the pizza I had wrapped up from the other restaurant. I was close to the Hungary border and happy with my progress. I decided to continue pedaling until I found a good place to hide and sleep for a couple of hours. This proved to be harder than I thought. It was in the wee hours of the morning, and despite being a weekend, I wanted to make sure I was well hidden as I would probably sleep until 7 or 8am when other people would wake. The best place I could find was in the parking lot of an apartment complex. There were quite a few empty places and a dumpster with recycled cardboard, that looked inviting to use as a floor mattress. No sooner did I lay a piece of cardboard down on the pavement, under the carport, when it started to downpour. I had sought shelter just in time, happy to stay dry. I tried to sleep as long as I could, which was probably only a few hours. When you are racing your body says one thing and your head another!

The rain had subsided into a drizzle, and I was determined to cross into Hungary and make my way to Romania. I was prepared for Hungary to be complicated. There were many “no cycling signs” on the roads and it had been hard to research an effective route through this country, which is why I tried to limit the kilometers I pedaled there. I found a service station where I could pull over and get breakfast. Coffee tasted disgusting since I left Austria and I had settled for Flavored Redbull instead. Not much better but at least it was cold! The variety of food at the services stations was becoming less and less appetizing and I was relying more and more on candy bars and prepackaged nasty sweets filled with artificial preservatives and flavoring. Had I been on a bike tour, I would have gone to much more of an effort to eat well, but I didn’t have time to seek out decent food, I had to make do with the options on the side of the road. I remember clearly hopping online for a few moments and writing Jonas, who responded immediately to my message. “You are taking a break too?” I asked him, since he was responding immediately to my text messages. “No!!!” He answered, “I’m pedaling!” I had asked a rhetorical question knowing that Jonas could cycle comfortably and “safely” in his aerobars while texting at the same time. I never attempted that myself, and probably wasted a lot of time messaging others, but it gave me a bit of a mental break from the race. 

I started riding again but struggled that morning. Temperatures had gotten even hotter in Eastern Europe. In fact, there was even an official name, “Lucifer” for the heat wave that was passing through Eastern Europe. Temperatures were already close to 40C and it wasn’t even noon! In the last two days, I had developed saddle sores, something I had also never experienced before the TCR. I had done a lot of reading for how to avoid getting them, including using an array of ointments and creams. I had started using a Chamois cream ever since departing CP 3 but it wasn’t helping. With the heat and the extra sweat, my bum was really irritated. I was reminded of this discomfort every time I started pedaling after stopping, and had to adjust myself well on the saddle for a good couple of minutes before finding a bearable position in which I could ride.

Always such great spirits when I saw Paolo, hence giving him the title of "My Favorite Italian"

In addition to my sore bum, I was exhausted and out of energy that morning. After only a few hours of pedaling I decided that it was best I pull over for a sleep. I choose a nice cafe along the side of the road and ordered a coca cola and a sandwich. After eating it, I rested my head on the table and passed out immediately. When I woke up, thanks to the puddle of drool under my chin, I saw one of the Italians I had cycled with on the bike path back at CP2. I was excited to see a familiar face and asked him how he was doing. His riding partner had scratched and he was continuing solo. He seemed to be in good spirits and better shape than me. We had a nice conversation, he even paid for me before I had a chance to, and then set off again before me. My bum pain was worse and worse every time I got back into the saddle. I had changed bike shorts to my “not so comfy pair” at checkpoint 3 and ever since then I was really suffering. I needed some relief, and quickly thought about how I could increase the amount of padding I had on my saddle or bum. I found a supermarket and went in to search for thin sponges and womens sanitary pads. I was hoping one of the two would provide extra cushion, either by cutting out a donut like shape from the sponge to put around the raw sores, or by covering the wounds with a sanitary pad, one on each cheek. I normally don’t disclose information about these sorts of things, but I think it helps you understand the reality and brutality of such an event. I used my mini swiss pocket knife to make the donuts and tried those for about a half hour. They didn’t seem to help. I tossed the sponges and gave the sanitary pads a try. I put one on each cheek of my bum and slowly raised my bike shorts to try to keep them in place as best as possible. The pads provided more relief, doubling up and using two on each side I had a bit of extra cushion. 

However, between the heat, irritated bum, and complicated road signs in Hungary my morale descended. Soon I found myself on a completely grass path down by the river doing circles to avoid dead ends. I got frustrated at myself and my lack of good navigating! How had I not caught these routing errors while going over my route prior to leaving? I was making stupid mistakes and wasting precious time in the saddle. Something had to change. I needed to sleep so I could make better decisions and lift my spirits. I decided, for the first time during the race, that it was time to check in to a hotel. Unfortunately however, when you want a hotel, they don’t just magically appear, especially when you are off the beaten tourist path in Northeast Hungary, in the middle of the afternoon. I tried 3 hotels and they were all full. I pleaded with each of the receptionists and insisted that they give me any vacant bed, as I only wanted to sleep for a few hours. It was no use! Just when I decided to keep on pedaling and go on to the next town, I saw signs for a pension on the outskirts of town. I rang the doorbell and a nice lady opened, who spoke no English. We communicated with gestures and writing down numbers and symbols. 

She had a room, although she couldn’t understand why I wanted to check-in for only 4 hours. I think people usually probably do this as a couple if you know what I mean, but she let me anyways. I quickly went upstairs, stripped down, hopped in a hot, then cold shower to refresh myself and clean-up. I took advantage to wash my bike shorts, air out my jersey, and clean my open wounds on my bottom. I was in bad shape. My saddle sores were completely raw, about 2 cm in diameter on each cheek, although I couldn’t bring myself to looking in a mirror. They were perfectly placed right where my bum bones contacted the saddle. To make the situation even worse, I was receiving all sorts of messages from my friends asking me why I was stopping so frequently. One of my friends who I adore, a tough love kind of girl and incredibly sporty herself, who had become a TCR dot-watching junkie, insisted that I keep pedaling. She told me Toastee had just passed and was taking the lead. Sure enough, when I checked the GPS tracker, I was now in 2nd place for the women and my overall position was slipping quickly. Previously this had given me enough motivation to keep on pedaling, but now, at this very moment, my body was in full-on rebellion and there was no way I was going to pedal another 100 meters. I desperately needed some quality rest. My plan was to sleep for 3 or 4 hours in a cool environment and then head out in the evening around 7pm. I would pedal as far and as long as I could through the night into Romania to make up for the time I was losing to sleep now. I couldn’t battle the heat any more; my lack of sleep had finally caught up with me!

When my alarm went off at 7pm, I was so sluggish, I had a real slow go packing and organizing my belongings. I went downstairs to checkout and asked the lady where I could find a decent restaurant. She told me there was one right down the road. However, when I pedaled by, it was closed and I decided to keep on riding. I stopped at a petrol station and loaded up on candy bars and red bull and continued to pedal. I was determined to make up the time I had lost in the hotel. My sores were calmer although still raw. I hit the Romanian border a few hours later. The border patrol officer was really nice, so nice, I asked if I could use their toilet. When I saw it involved parking my bike and going through several of their offices, I decided to pedal over to the other side of the border control, and hide myself behind one of the cement posts. It was not a subtle place to go pee by any means, but I had lost all my vanity and didn’t care! Who was ever going to see me or my bum again! Although I can guarantee you they probably had never seem one with sanitary pads on each side! It always seems to happen, that at the beginning of a bike tour or race, I’m much more prudent and discreet when it comes to doing my business. But towards the middle or end of a biking event, I could care less where or what I use as a toilet. It comes with the territory of biking! Going to the bathroom was a tricky routine of pulling down my bike shorts and keep my sanitary pads in place so as not to disturb my sores, and then get them back up again! 

Back on my bike and my first time in Romania, my strategy to sleep through the hotter hours and get some quality rest was proving to be a good idea! I was making good progress despite finding a restaurant where I could eat a proper meal. I kept on pedaling into Romania until I ran out of water. I was in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing around except for the sound of dogs howling, making me even more eager to continue pedaling. I finally came to a small town where it looked as though there was some sort of big party at a community center. I pulled over, and without taking off my reflective vest and turning off my blinking lights, I headed straight inside for the loud music in hopes to find a bar where I could fill up my water bottles. As it turned out, it seemed the big party was actually a wedding. I could see the bride and groom, family and friends, rocking out on the dance floor. But what really caught my attention were the tables where some guests were sitting with huge bottles of water and soda that were at the disposal of the guests. I gestured using my empty water bottle, if it was OK to fill up and they nodded. Just as I was finished filling up my eye caught hold of a massive fruit sculpture on a table close by that was also filled with extra desserts on little plates. I would have loved to have sat down and devour everything in sight but used my rational judgement to decide that would be outside assistance, and instead I helped myself to a banana. I did this at the same time the father of the bride saw me, which wasn’t hard, considering my helmet light was flashing and my fluorescent neon vest glowing. I quickly headed for the door, not wanting to cause anymore problems. He was really, really upset and came running after me shouting something in Romanian I couldn’t understand while pointing his finger at me. I could tell other guests were trying to calm him down and let me hop back on my bike and escape without a problem, which is exactly what I did.

At the time I thought I had hit the Jackpot with all sorts of goodies to help me pedal through the night.
Ironically 20 minutes down the road there was a petrol station still open and I pulled over to stock up on food. It was here in Romania where I first came across the brand “7 Days” that so many veteran TCR racers had warned me about! I bought a few along with some red bull, coke, and chips and devoured as much as I could sitting on a rocking bench they had in front of the entrance. I wasn’t tired at all and decided to keep on pedaling. I checked my progress on the GPS tracker and to see the progress of the other riders. In Romania, there were so many different choices of roads, the progress of the racers was hard to decipher as no two racers seemed to be on the same route. Not to mention the race organization had written all the race participants deciding to ban a certain road that James and Bjorn had both taken. James had had a close incident with a truck and due to all the heavy traffic decided to warn the organization that the road should be prohibited. This last minute change of road usage, didn’t change my routing, but it did affect the route of a lot of other riders. I was approaching CP 4 from the west, whereas most other racers were coming in due north. I had a good look at the route I was going to take to get to the Transfăgărășan road, and started to wonder why I had routed myself so far west. I decided to take an alternative route that other riders were taking including Jonas. I pedaled as far as I could to reach this road. At about 5am, having pedaled continuously since 7pm, I found another TCR rider, who I had seen on the GPS tracker map. He had just awakened for the morning and was starting his ride. We rode together for about half an hour, when I finally decided to pull off the road and sleep for a couple of hours. I found a little church tucked in beside the main road with a fence to protect me. Romania was known for having an extreme amount of wild dogs and I had already heard and seen enough of them in the middle of the night to scare me. I slept for about an hour on the church lawn. I wanted to get pedaling again before the weekly morning traffic picked-up.
I remember this sign humored me....Stray dogs were everywhere in Romania, somehow I think D.O.G is an acronym for something else here....

The road was actually quite pleasant. It wasn’t too hilly and the traffic was light. It was spotted with little towns and I was able to pullover at a service station to get some food. I also found a pharmacy and decided to hit it up for some more cream to help calm my bum. I had enough lubricants but needed something that could numb the surface, the same gel that was used on babies when they were teething. Before the race, I had contacted Janie Hayes who had won the Trans AM race for the women this year and asked her for advice on saddle sores, just to be prepared. She had told me that the least expensive and easier to find anesthetic gel was one that is used on baby’s gums when they teeth. Using hand gestures and the sound of a baby crying I was successful in letting the pharmacist know exactly what I needed. Unfortunately she only sold the numbing gel in small containers and only had 2, so I bought both. Outside the pharmacy I stuck my fingers down the back of my bike shorts, and applied the gel to directly on the raw wounds on my bum. It stung immediately, but after about 45 seconds, the pain had disappeared. I readjusted the sanitary pads that I was still using to give extra padding and started pedaling again.  

All the different creams I was using, plus Sudocream...It was quite an array!

The numbing cream did the trick and I was pain free during a couple of hours slowly making my way up a steep climb. Yes, it was a hard climb, but traffic was minimal so I couldn’t complain, except that I realized why no one was on this road once I reached the summit. There was road construction that started on the descent and lasted the entire 20 kilometers downhill. I had to descend cautiously to avoid any big rocks and loose gravel, not to mention dodge big construction trucks and workers. What looked like a good alternative on google maps, had turned out to be a bad idea. Once down, the road got better, but there was a brutal head wind and with the heat of the midday, my progress was slow. I stopped for an ice cream and a quick nap to regain some energy. I could see that Toastee and the other riders, who had taken a more northern route, were catching up. It was going to be a tight race to CP4. I kept pedaling as hard as I could but the headwind was strong and my progress was minimal. I came to Sebes, a good sized town and looked for a place to eat. The golden arches caught my attention and I couldn’t resist.

I don't get what people love so much about McDonalds.  The food has no flavor at all.  I did like their clean toilets and free wifi though...

It was the first time I had eaten anything more than an ice cream cone at McDonalds in more than 25 years! Cyclists wave about McDonalds because it is calorie laden, a known quantity, cheap, and the restaurants usually are clean, have a toilet and offer wifi. I was not proud of the fact I was eating here, although it did save time and I knew what it is that I was ordering, regardless of the fact it was tasteless. After my meal, I hopped on my bike again, hoping to pedal as close as I could to the turn off to CP4. The wind had died down and so had the traffic and the heat. I continued to pedal until about midnight when the thought of a hotel enticed me. It wasn’t so much for sleeping in a bed, but cleaning up my sores and remaining infection free! The hotel I chose had a really small room, but they let me bring my bike in with me. 

I could see that Toastee was also sleeping and seemed to be struggling a bit coming down to CP4 as she had turned around and back-tracked several times. I was certain we were going to meet on the climb to CP4, and was motivated to get an early morning start. I set out around 5am the next morning and no sooner than I started pedaling, that it started to downpour. I quickly took refuge at a petrol station and took advantage to have “breakfast”. They sold mini Seven Day croissants in multi-packs with peanut butter filling and offered instant coffee. The breakfast of champions for the climb that I was about to do!

The best 7 Days croissant flavor by far with peanut butter filling, irresistible, especially if it's your only choice!
Before departing I put on all my rain gear, including rain shorts over my bike shorts and shoe covers as well. I had a rain jacket, but I thought if I used it I would have nothing left for the decent and if the rain continue at the higher elevations I would be out of luck. As I turned off to the 4th checkpoint, I thought this one was going to be hell of a climb; difficult and unforgettable! With a steady downpour, Toastee right on my tail, and an epic climb ahead of me, the women’s race in the TCR was getting good! I stopped quickly at the bottom of the climb to get my last does of sugar and caffeine, buying a few candy bars and coke. Despite the rain, I was warm, climbing at a steady pace. The first part of the climb went through a forest and there wasn’t much of a view. Then the real climb started and the traffic got heavier as more tourists arrived. The road was lined with all sorts of tourists stands. I would never have stopped there, but I saw that one of the stands sold rain ponchos. Still fearing that I might be cold on the descent, I bought a brightly colored poncho, nothing more than a luxurious trash bag with a hood and arm holes, that I tied down over me so that it wouldn’t get in my spokes. I must admit, it did match my bike kit at the time, but didn’t look very classy and never showed up in any of the official race photos!
Ponchos like this one are not elegant, but they keep you really dry! Photo courtesy of James Robertson
An impressive and beautiful climb!  I would go back any day to do it again! Photo courtesy of James Robertson

Pretty soon the race organization car caught up with me and took some memorable pictures. When the rain let up and I was plenty warm, I took off the poncho hoping to dry out before the descent. The climb up the Transfăgărășan road was tough, but not harder than any of the other checkpoints. The road had the most impressive zigzags allowing you to take in breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls. Along the road was a crippled dog that threatened me with his barking. I was so tired, I couldn’t out pedal the dog wobbling on 3 legs, but luckily he wasn’t too aggressive. It was hard to see where the road ended and I gauged my arrival at the summit by the amount of cars on the road and the tourist stands. I had the race organization car in front of me, and another photographer following me as well, who I would later learn was part of the Apidura staff, the company that sponsored the fourth checkpoint. Despite the heavy traffic I made it to the top of the climb and started descending carefully. The roads were busy and wet and passed through several tunnels. I was keeping a close eye out for the 4th checkpoint as I didn’t want to whizz past it on the downhill. As I approached I could hear people clapping and I knew I had made it. The volunteers, sponsors, and race organizers were also trying to keep warm and dry.

Definitely happy with the rain shorts Chris White recommended on his ridefar blog and the waterproof booties from Jonas. Photo courtesy of James Robertson

In my zone, climbing slowly.....Photo courtesy of James Robertson

Pretty thoughtful drivers on this road in Romania.  Otherwise this country has some of the world's worst drivers! Photo courtesy of James Robertson

I coincided with one other rider there, my favorite Italian, Paolo, who I had seen riding as a pair at CP2 and since then in Hungary. He had descended and passed the checkpoint and had to ride back, climbing up the hill for a good 15 kilometers. I met the Apidura representative, Chris Peacock, who had been super helpful in advising me on the right gear to purchase prior to the race. After warming up with a couple of coffees and chatting with the people who had gathered around, I started the descent with Paolo. I kept up with him for about 20 minutes and then he got ahead of me as everyone did. I could see Toastee was starting the climb to CP 4 and it would be a matter of a few hours before she arrived at the top. The weather had changed and I didn’t need any of my rain gear. 

The descent was long and gave me some time to rest. My bum, that had started out horrendous after CP3 was considerably better now that I could numb the pain and treat it with other creams to try to help the wounds heal. I was prepared mentally although not in the best of physical conditions for the final stretch to Meteora!