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From the start to control point 1

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  • Post category:2023 / TCR09

On 23.07.2023 the time had come: Race day. The start of the Transcontinental Race TCR No9 at 22:00 was only a few hours away. I had everything prepared and packed. After a leisurely breakfast, my wife and I set off on the two-hour drive to Geraardsbergen. After it had been dry all the last weeks, a big rain front moved in just in time for the start and it rained. At the beginning I was still hoping that it would only be showers. But it turned out to be quite different.

On the way, shortly after Brussels, a quick stop at a burger chain for a coffee and on to Geraardsbergen, the town at whose “Muur” many decisive attacks of the Tour of Flanders had taken place in the past. We found a parking space right next to the youth centre where the registration took place, and went immediately to the registration desk. After checking the personal details, I received the tracker, the race cap (#tcrno9cap11), passed the check of the bike including safety equipment (helmet, reflective waistcoat), followed by a briefing on the use of the tracker. After that, there was still time until the obligatory briefing at 17:00, where each participant was to receive a brevet card. From now on, this card was the most important document for the next few days. On the brevet card, the times when reaching the checkpoints were noted together with the corresponding stamp. As I said, there was still time to eat something and explore the city until 17:00. The weather was lousy. Rain and wind. Many participants hid in the driveways of houses, bus stops, or somewhere where they didn’t get completely soaked. Those who arrived by car, like us, spent the time in the car, on the passenger seat, or the shop floor, depending on the vehicle.

During the briefing, the most important rules were explained once again. The much discussed Axenstrasse in Switzerland was also mentioned. Beforehand, there was some confusion as to whether one was allowed to ride on the road (or the combined cycle/pedestrian path) or not. In the end, it was forbidden by the Swiss authorities. In my opinion, they were right to do so. I had driven there a few weeks earlier by car for the start of the #swissbikeadventure (SBA). Although the combined cycle/pedestrian path is wide enough in principle, it could still lead to dangerous situations with 300 participants. It was a good decision to ban the road for the race. I had already re-planned my route accordingly in advance. The briefing lasted just under an hour, so there were still 4 hours left to eat something and to recover and sleep. The rain became heavier and heavier. According to the weather forecast, however, the rain should be over by the start at 22:00. At least for one or two hours. We went to the market place again and ate pizza or pasta. Several participants joined us, including Jesper Avén from Sweden, with start number 238. Strangely enough, our paths were to cross more often.

At 21:20 I got ready. I pumped up my bike, put on my water bottles, rain jacket, helmet and signal waistcoat, and at 21:45 I slowly rolled to the start on the market square. Even before reaching the start, I noticed that the specially changed bottle holder for my tool bottle was broken. Now there was no time to change it (I didn’t have a replacement with me anyway), so the whole thing was fixed somewhat rudimentarily with a Velcro strap. “I wonder how long this will last,” I pondered.

Start at 22:00 o’clock

Arriving at the market place, I was one of the 360 starters. A lot of people were very nervous. I decided to start quite far back. Not all of the participants are comfortable riding in a crowd. Let alone riding up an 18-percent incline in the field on wet cobblestones. The mayor started the race with the traditional announcement, and all the participants set off for a circuit around the town, to ride through the starting arch again, then tackling the well-known “Murr van Geraardsbergen”. Friends and relatives stood along the Muur with torches and cheered us on. It was a great atmosphere that literally carried you to the top. At least, until someone in front of me had the idea of shifting gears on wet cobblestones. You can’t do that. So he stopped and I stood. Starting is not possible there, so I had to walk a few metres. I was a bit worried about my shoes. Looking back on what was to follow later, I can only laugh about it now.

After the chapel on the head of the Murr, I continued on a rain-soaked road towards the southeast. It took a few hours before the participants separated. You could see flashing tail lights for kilometres. At first it was dry, at least from above. There were many crashes of the other participants on Belgian roads. I had looked through the whole planned 3700 km on Google Streetview again and again. One dangerous spot in Belgium was in a small town where railway tracks met from the side running almost parallel on a piece of very bad cobblestones, following a left turn. It was easy to remember the spot as it went through a sort of town gate beforehand. I recognised it directly even in the dark, and slowed my pace accordingly. There was about 1.5 m of space without rails on the left side of the road and I rolled leisurely along there. At the end of the left-hand bend, I was then in the middle of a storm of flashing blue lights. Several ambulances, fire brigade, police, maybe even Belgian army? Unfortunately, that was the end of the race for some of the participants. Very nasty falls. At least everyone received professional care and there was no danger to anyone’s life. After this dangerous spot, everyone somehow rode more calmly. A little later, there was also a WhatsApp from the organiser, who explicitly pointed out this danger spot. Many more WhatsApp messages were to follow in the coming days.

I continued towards France. Around 1:30 a.m. it started to rain more heavily again. Shortly after 2:00 a.m., it was no longer possible for me to continue driving because of the heavy rain. I sheltered at a petrol station and got a lot of company from other participants in the following minutes. When it started to rain a little less, I decided to continue, because I was starting to get cold from standing around. Fortunately, the rain let up later, and it stopped raining altogether before reaching the French border. By now it was 4am and I was tired. I decided to stop at a church 500 m before the border and took a short power nap in the church portal. After that, I continued and a short time later it was slowly getting light on the horizon. At about 6:10 a.m. I finally found a bakery. There were fresh baguettes and croissants, as well as coffee. What a relief. After the short break, I continued towards Metz. That was my destination for the day. I stopped briefly to brush my teeth and for a little “cat wash” before heading south-east along bunkers and the front line of the First World War for the next few hours. Combined with the showery weather, driving through areas and landscapes where thousands of people had lost their lives didn’t really add to the mood. Every now and then I took a little break with a power nap in the covered bus stops when the rain got too heavy. Once there was even a small chapel open.

I reached Metz around noon on the first day. Now, finally, the sun came out from time to time. My route went more or less through the middle of the city, which turned out to be not very bicycle-friendly. After Metz, I continued through small villages in a south-easterly direction. My overshoes were far too tight and cut into my calves. So I threw them away in the nearest wastepaper bin. It went well, and in France you can find plenty of shopping opportunities in every major town. Around 17:00 I decided to book an Airbnb. I wanted to drive until at least 22:00, so I booked accommodation about 100 km away. My original plan was to sleep outside the first night. But rain was forecasted for the night, and I had enough of that. I reached the accommodation around 22:00 and enjoyed the shower and the opportunity to charge my powerbanks and devices. A little over 400 km were now behind me. I quickly posted something and fell asleep, while outside the rain was already pelting the window pane again. The hosts did not miss the opportunity to prepare breakfast for me for the next morning. It must have cost me half an hour, but it was worth it.

On Tuesday morning, I first headed east along a small canal to Saverne. After that, the route changed to the south. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t change much. Again and again showers, partly very heavy, with thunderstorms. In Schlettstadt I finally found a bike shop to buy a new bottle cage and repair kit for my tubeless tyres. The repair kit was at home, I guess you always forget something. Before Basel, a heavy thunderstorm came from the west towards the Black Forest. There were leaves, branches and even trees on the track. Luckily I was so late that I didn’t get caught in the storm. The route went well and I was very happy with my choice to avoid the Vosges.

Before Basel, it was over the Rhine for a short appearance in Germany. A little over 500 m homeland before going directly to Basel in Switzerland. There was a lot of traffic in Basel. Through the city it was nevertheless safe on cycle paths. When it went out of the city, I took a break. It had been dry for several hours, what a treat. After a distance of about 600 km, there is really uphill for the first time. Even if only for about 600 m, but again in heavy rain. To my surprise, just before the end of the climb, several dotwatchers stood at the edge ,cheering me and another participant I had just passed. The right motivation at the right time. On the other side of the mountain the sun was shining and I reached a supermarket where I bought provisions for the rest of the day. As I got on the bike to start riding, my provision bag got caught on an advertising sign and snapped. I managed to fix it with knots and cable ties so that I could continue riding. But the construction only lasted until shortly before Sursee. There I had to somehow pack everything into the other bags and my bag only held light things. On the way to Emmen, I passed a pizzeria. Just a few metres after passing it, I started to feel hungry. The smell was just too good. I couldn’t turn around. In Emmen I found a snack bar that also had pizza (and a very tasty one). Outside, a thunderstorm with heavy rain was raging while I enjoyed the pizza. Still in heavy rain, I drove on, through Lucerne and towards Flüelen. It was dark, wet and already late. Airbnb? Nothing to be found. Because of the persistent rain, my phone wouldn’t charge. Worst case scenario, I would have to switch to my spare phone, so no problem. On Google Maps I spotted what looked like a covered place. A bit off the beaten track, but worth a try. What I didn’t know was that it was very steep uphill to get there. Google also sent me across a meadow. Once there, I saw that it was a school with a covered playground. Perfect, at least until I entered the courtyard. Motion detectors and floodlights. In the middle of a village. I’m sure the Swiss don’t like that when you spend the night here. Luckily, there was a kind of hut under the covered area with a 45 cm gap to the wall. Enough width for my bike and me, and in the blind spot the motion detector. I used the bike as a clothes horse for my soaked clothes, and after inflating the sleeping mat, I crawled into my sleeping bag around 11:30 pm. At 4:00 a.m. my alarm clock rang. After drying the loading platform with a paper handkerchief, I was able to load the same in the morning while having breakfast.

For breakfast I had a yoghurt, a cold coffee, a packet of biscuits, and a slice of pizza. Not bad. Then I continued towards Flüelen. Behind Emmetten, the road climbed. And it really did. More than 300 metres of altitude gain in a short distance. Shortly before the end of the climb, there was a cable car with a public toilet. As always in Switzerland, perfect, clean and in order. At the top, I turned right and after a few kilometres I reached the end of the road. Further down into the valley it was only on foot, with lots of steps. The whole thing was more difficult than expected. On the one hand because I had to carry the bike most of the time, on the other hand because the steps were very slippery. Stairs, ladders and I will never be friends. But it was part of my route, and the alternative with a gravel section on the other side of the lake was not up for discussion. Just ahead of me was Jesper Avén, whom I had already met by chance in a restaurant in Geraardsbergen on the evening of the start. After a good half hour, this episode was over and I could cycle again. Because I had thrown away my overshoes, I got pain in my Achilles tendon on my right leg. I am very sensitive to the cold. When I arrived in Flüelen, I went to a bike shop with the intention of buying new overshoes. The weather forecast for the Gotthard promised rain or even snow. However, I couldn’t accept 180 Swiss francs for a pair of overshoes, so I continued without them. The Gotthard road stretched uphill. Less traffic than I had expected. In a supermarket in Wassen I bought sandwiches, a pack of 14 mini Snickers and a roll of cling film. I made some temporary overshoes out of it. I continued towards Andermatt. It’s a great scenery to drive along. Impressive by car, but even more so by bike, as you cycle on smaller paths right through the bizarre landscape. 

In Andermatt, I briefly cycled to the Teufelsstatur, the destination of the SBA from a few weeks ago. An Indian tourist couple couldn’t believe that it was possible to cycle in these mountains. They had their picture taken with my bike so they could show it to their friends in India. I then cycled the last few kilometres up the Gotthard road to the pass. I decided to ride on the new road. I had ridden the Tremolo a month earlier in beautiful weather. In wet and cold weather, I wanted to spare myself the cobblestones. After the obligatory photo at the top of the pass, I started the descent. After a few kilometres, however, you have to take the tremolo with your bike, as the road turns into a motorway. At the bottom, the thermometer suddenly showed 25 degrees Celsius. Finally sunshine, finally out of the rain jacket. And on I went towards Bellinzona. I stopped again at the same corner shop where I had a delicious ciabatta made in June. An ice cream, a soda and a ciabatta. I couldn’t buy more than that because the bag was broken. And I couldn’t find a replacement anywhere.

Then, before Bellinzona on the flat section, I suddenly felt a twinge in my right knee. Continue? Stop? Why right? My problem knee is on the left. I stopped. What to do? The pain was so bad that I was afraid the TCR would be over before the first checkpoint. A short break. Then I continued with pain. A little slower, but forward. After half an hour, still before Bellinzona, the pain disappeared just as spontaneously as it had come. It was not to be the last time…

The first parcour started in Bellinzona, i.e. a fixed route that had to be completed by all participants in a certain direction. From here, the route went up the San Bernardino. A long but moderate ascent of 2006 metres in altitude over 52.1 km. Halfway up, I needed some extra motivation, and I opened my emergency ration of “vampires” that friends had brought over the night before the start. We were a handful of participants who kept overtaking each other. Everyone rode at their own pace. Below the village of Bernardino, I put on the warmer clothes. The sun had set and it was getting chilly, the time for shorts and short-sleeved jerseys was over. Shortly before 22:00 I was in the village. Many participants spontaneously decided to take a hotel there. But I wanted to go on to Splügen. It got cold, very cold. Three degrees Celsius. So I put on everything I had with me. At the end of the village there is a petrol station. “Quickly buy some provisions” I thought. But the plan didn’t work out. It was 22:01 and the petrol station closed at 22:00. It was still open, the lights were on, but the attendant didn’t want to sell anything to me or a participant from England. I said goodbye in a less than polite way, but it came from the heart….

While the cars drive through the tunnel after the petrol station, the cyclists have to cross the pass to the top. After a few kilometres under a beautiful moon, I finally reached the top an hour later. I carefully rode down the descent. In the valley, there was no free, roofed possibility for a night’s lodging. Everywhere there was an opportunity, there was already a bicycle. In Splügen I decided not to ride the Splügen Pass. I was too tired. A large bus stop, more like a hut, had room for many, but there were already 4 or 5 participants and their bikes in it. There was a bench in front of the bus stop, which I then occupied. It was only 5 degrees Celsius. Borderline for my equipment. Around 2:30 a.m., I could only sleep a little, as I was always getting a chattering from my teeth, a participant set off to ride over the pass. The snoring of a colleague got on his nerves too much. Perfect. Because that freed up a place for me in the little house. Earplugs in, and good night. At 5:30 the alarm clock rang. I quickly packed up and ate the remaining bars. The supermarket in town was still closed, so I went up the Splügen Pass (8.7 km | 653 m | 7.5 %) with an almost empty stomach. I reached the top of the pass at around 8 am. A cold wind was whistling and the descent, apart from the beautiful scenery, was more of a battle against the cold. Forty minutes later, and a few metres further down, I found a supermarket with a bakery.

Now I had a good breakfast and bought some provisions. It was now getting noticeably warmer, which was certainly also due to the fact that I finally had something to eat again. At the end of the descent, I turned left towards Sankt Moritz. The busy road stretches for kilometres up to the Maloja Pass. Somehow it didn’t go at all. My legs felt terrible no morale and knee problems. In Vicosoprano it was over. I stopped and was about to give up. I took a power nap and forced myself to keep moving. Up the Maloja (31 km | 1490 hm | 4.8 %) it still didn’t work, even though I was able to overtake some participants. At the top, I was overwhelmed by a breathtaking view. The other participants also all looked like I felt. This somehow gave me enough energy to continue towards Sankt Moritz. It was slightly downhill with a pushing wind. Somehow I managed to free my legs, and suddenly everything was just right. Sun, speed, view.

In Sankt Moritz I first went to the Lidl. And there were backpacks. Big ones and small ones. The small ones were actually for kindergarten children, I think. They just fit. And big enough for what you buy. I also found the rucksack kind of funny. As it turned out later, not only me, it was often photographed and posted on social media. With food, backpack, and good legs, I continued immediately. “Still the Bernina Pass (2330 m, 17 km | 616 Hm | 3.6 %) and the Pass for Livigno (2315 m, 3.5 km | 261 Hm | 7.5 %), and I would be at the first checkpoint” I thought. The Bernina Pass was not without its difficulties. Not particularly steep, but the headwind hurt. At the top, a dotwatcher was waiting, who also took a few pictures of me. A short descent and I entered Italy, heading for Livigno. I rode the last climb and the descent as if in a frenzy. At the checkpoint, my backpack was admired and photographed. After my brevet card was filled out and stamped, I treated myself to a pizza and a non-alcoholic beer. While enjoying the meal, I booked a room in Bergamo. I was going to continue on to Bergamo today.

to be continued….