Further: a race into the unknown
By Slo-Mo - October 2, 2019
Friday 23rd of August 2019
“Goooo!” Camille shouted. We look at each other. Is this it? The first few racers start running and soon the others follow. It’s only 100 meters, only 0.018 % of the race, but it feels important. My heart rate shoots up. What am I doing? This is not what I trained for. I reach my bike and jump on it. I look around and find my friend Dan. We have done some great bike trips together, but this one is different. This is the inaugural race “Further”. The brainchild of Camille McMillan, a photographer and former editor of Rouleur. He drew 12 sectors on a map. Taking us over unknown terrain in the Ariège of France, Andorra and Spain. In between those sectors you need to find your own route. Just as you need to bring your own food, sleeping gear and tools. Self supported races are special events for “special” people. How did we end up getting invited to such an exclusive party? Through a combination of persistence (on social media) and stupidity, it is amazing the kind of trouble you can get yourself into.
Just 400 meters into the race and the unpaved forest road goes straight up. Together with everyone else we jump off the bike, having just mounted less than a minute ago. We run up the hill and my heart rate goes above 180. Emma Pooley flies by us. The former time trial, triathlon and duathlon world champion recently decided to switch to trail running. A sport/skill set that would prove to be handy in a race like Further.
At the top we jump on our bike again and race onto the first gravel road. Everyone’s adrenaline levels are still high as evidenced by the bidons, Garmin computers and bike-packing bags strewn all over the road. No problems for us though. We are feeling smug after having tested our bike setup the day before by riding the first 20 km of the route. Quite confidence rises when we see race favorites Josh Ibbett and Hamish Paine make a few early navigational errors. Through this early intel, we can keep up with them without pushing. Dan and I get behind each other and try to find a rhythm. Dan coaches me constantly not to push myself too hard too early. This race will be long and the big differences will be made later on. Pace yourself (he said).
We take turns and feel in control. We have a small advantage on the tarmac as we are allowed to draft as a pair. Besides us, there is only one other pair racing. The rest of the participants are riding solo. Also the cross bikes we ride have relatively narrow gravel tyres which helps us on the smooth roads. They contrast significantly from the adventure bikes with monstrously wide tyres of our competitors. Our good feeling is confirmed and we start overtaking people. After only 25 km we see the petit figure of Emma Pooley. According to Wikipedia she weighs 48 kg, which makes her only three times as heavy as my bike setup. She slows down and we pass her! Easily one of the biggest achievements in our cycling careers to date. Taking over a legend! Later we hear she had a mechanical that afforded everyone a 45 minute head start. Nice of her, but 45 minutes would turn out to be nothing on her quest for victory.
We continue to take turns and find our rhythm. We keep overtaking people. Our first self supported challenge arises – we need water. It’s noon and the temperature is rising towards 35 degrees. Working on the route for the past few weeks, I made a list of possible water sources that I could be identified through the Internet. We reach the village sign of Chalabre and based on my research, on the right side of the road there should be three fountains. Two minutes later we see a sign with Chalabre crossed out, we left the village sans water. Should we go back? The first doubts creep across our minds. We need water, but looking for sources that don’t exist will make us lose unnecessary time. Minutes later Dan spots a camping site. We race towards the sanitary building, fill the bottles and ride off again, slotting in just behind a group of riders. We didn’t lose much time while the others probably still need to do a pitstop. Formula 1 tactics prove to be useful. We later overtake some racers while they stand in line for a little fountain at the side of the road.
We soon establish roles according to our skill sets. Dan acts as our spotter while I’m constantly bent over my Garmin attempting to navigate. Dan doesn’t like computers so building the route wasn’t his thing, but he speaks French, while I don’t get much further than “omelette du fromage“. Dan rides steady and knows how to pace himself, while my performance is more dependent on, well … let’s just say external factors.
We quickly finish the first two sectors. Sector 3 takes us through Gorges de la Frau. A beautiful, but rocky descent takes us to the foot of the Montsegur. While we go down we see people climbing up. It is 15 km shorter to trace back a part of the sector, but nobody knew how bad the path would be. We see people struggling to get up the ramp. The path is only 2 km long, but it’s hard. You need to lift up your bike and step up the rocks. Some people even hide their bikes on the side of the road to climb faster. We are happy with our route selection.
We continue on tarmac up to Montsegur. The sun keeps burning and I start to feel a bit ill. My stomach refuses to accept any more food or drink. I try to force myself as I know I need it. I started feeling a bit nauseous before sector 3. But I didn’t want to tell Dan at the time. Not only did I not want to be seen as a complainer or not man enough, but I was also scared that this could be disastrous for our race. Let’s wait and see. The waiting didn’t last long. I’m struggling up the mountain and I feel I’m overheating, close to puking. I need to stop. We stop and sit down on one of the switchbacks. Not much later a group of riders passes us by. It’s Mathieu, Phillipa and Notchas. Mathieu is a triathlete who prides himself on preparation. When earlier this morning he had to go to the pre-race bike check, he was nervous. Not because he was hiding a motor, but because he doesn’t like anyone else touching his bike. He does all his own maintenance, no one else. Contrast that to Phillipa, whom I met the night before. She is one of the numerous Mason riders. Mason is a brand that specializes in the niche market of adventure bikes. The guy from Mason took her bike and started rebuilding it on the spot. He replaced the brake pads, tyres and all the other stuff that was worn out. Philippa was amazed by the work that Mason put in to her bike. For her, if the wheels were able to rotate, her bike was in mint condition. Notchas, it turned out, was maybe the most colorful racer we met. Riding in a unbuttoned shirt and a helmet of his own design, he has smiles for miles. Where he and most other riders did there best to look different (read, cool), Dan and I went for the matchy-matchy look. We both ride a blue and yellow Canyon Inflite, wear the same white Dandy Narwhals kit and even have the same bike bags. We look ridiculous.
We get back on the bikes and decide to extend our water refilling stop at the top of the Montsegur with a nice sandwich break. Hoping a change from the energy bar diet would help. I feel like all the power has left my body and try to revive it with a big glass of coke. No luck. During the descent the cool wind feels amazing, but the descent is short and soon we start climbing again. Mont Fourcat is a 27 km climb and the biggest challenge of day 1. The start is on tarmac, which shouldn’t be a problem, but I’m suffering. Dan tries to cheer me up. He asks me what pizza I will order when we get over this mountain. I’m nauseous and thinking about food makes it worse. He then changes the subject to Florine, my 8 month old baby. It instantly puts a smile on my face. She makes me happy. But the climb slowly kills the conversation and I start thinking – why I’m doing this? What am I trying to prove? Shouldn’t I be at home just taking care of my baby? What unnecessary risks am I taking by pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into a big unknown adventure? Earlier this year when my cycling performance was falling off due to a lack of sleep, I got frustrated. Every time I got on a bike, I wanted to compensate by pushing myself really hard. Only destroying myself more and more. Is my participation in this race an extreme form of over compensation for my failing “cycling career”? I haven’t ridden so few kilometers since 2013, before I joined Lola. Why take on my biggest cycling challenge now? Not that the timing was much better for Dan. He is also expecting to become a father in a few months and is literally in the middle of moving houses. But when we received the invite to join the race, we just felt like we had to take the opportunity.
My mind is wandering off…
My Garmin beeps. Off Course. Oh no! Did I just screw up my task? Garmin doesn’t lie, we need to head back down. Within 2 minutes we undo 1.5 km of climbing and head up a different road. I feel guilty and angry. I am the weakest link and I’m slowing down Dan. I say sorry, but Dan doesn’t seem to mind my mistake. Is he masking his anger or does he really understand that these mistakes can be easily made? I hope and think the latter as we know each other well, but I still don’t like failing him. The only thing I can do is power through. But that’s just what I lack. Power. The temperature drops and the nausea slowly disappears, but the inability to drink or eat for those few hours will take its toll. The tarmac ends and we continue up a gravel road in a big forest. Still doable, but we are happy we changed our chainring from a 42t to a 34t. We are both grinding up the climb in the 34 x 42 gear. The road gets a bit rougher and it instantly breaks my rhythm. The lack of power and speed makes every loose rock or branch an obstacle. Before I know it, I’m on the ground. The white Narwhals jersey will never be white again. I’m on the ground and stay there. Not because I think I broke something or have a severe injury. I just need to catch my breath. Sitting upright will use energy I don’t have. Dan encourages me to eat and drink something. I abide and after a few minutes we continue. I start with walking and within a few minutes I’m able to mount my noble steed once again. Climbing goes well and I notice I have a bit of an advantage when the road goes up. Mentally this helps me as I feel less of an anchor weight for Dan.
The Garmin beeps again. Turn right. There is no path and I continue to cycle, hoping it will appear later on. After a while of not spotting any paths I stop and check my phone. There is a signal and Whatsapp messages start pouring in. I can only read the last one. It’s Berend telling the other Narwhals that we are way behind Emma Pooley, but still in front of the peloton. Emma Pooley? We saw her at the side of the road. When did that pocket rocket pass us? However, the idea of still being in front of the big group gave me motivation. Dan catches up and I point towards a small path covered by bushes. “This should be it.” I say without any confidence. We start walking and soon the Garmin confirms we are on the right track. But it’s not making us feel any better. We are pushing our bikes up 50% gradients through bushes and climbing over fallen trees. Any experience with the boy scouts would have been useful. Every time I stop walking I need to apply the brakes so as not to fall backwards. I start to get frustrated with my stiff MTB shoes. Climbing up these steep grades, hurts my toes and puts a lot of strain on my calves. I try to experiment with walking sideways. What are we doing here? Where did we end up? These are questions I keep asking myself. Then the forest stops.
We see meadows with sheep and rocks. On top of all the rocks we see the checkpoint. Just 1 km from here. We should get moving, but first I check my phone quickly because we have signal again. I have a message from my wife Ellen. It’s a picture of our daughter, with the caption: “Hup, papa!” My wife wasn’t a big fan of me going on this trip. She didn’t want to know anything about our plans before the race. She said she was not interested. I accepted this because my motivation for joining such race was purely egocentric. But the real reason for her not wanting to know anything about the race was probably the risks I would take by participating. Now I have the confirmation that she does support me and the photo of my daughter makes me swell with happiness. A tear rolls down my cheek. The exhaustion is making me emotional. I told her how much energy the photo gives me and from that moment on she keeps sending me pictures for the rest of the race. Dan shouts my name. We need to continue. It’s 19:20 hrs and we have only 1 hour and 20 minutes left before the sun goes down and we’re not allowed to move above the treeline. According to our plan, we expected to be at the top around 17:00 hrs. The late start of 45 minutes didn’t help, but we are definitely far behind schedule.
The rolling meadows turn into rocks. The path turns into cut-out steps. Our pedals constantly scrape our shins as we try to walk alongside our bikes. Sometimes lifting up your bike is the only possibility, but my bags and my exhaustion prevent me from doing so. We then see a lone saddlebag along the path. Whose is this? We continue to a fork in the path. The rocks on the left side will take us directly to the checkpoint, it’s short but there are no water sources and it is steep. The path to the right is longer and has a stream running alongside half-way through. It will take us twice as long though. We then see someone with his bike on his back coming down the steep rocks. It’s Angus Young, a biathlete and runner up to Lachlan Morton in the GBduro. The sight of him coming down like the hulk scares us. Combined with the fact that we are out of water, we take the long route. The time is ticking away and after a while we see a shadow coming closer. Not much later it passes us. It’s Ingeborg. We met her when we arrived at ZeroNeuf (our starting village) the day before and discussed the truly magical wonders of tubeless tyres. She is still very energetic and she quickly disappears into the distance.
I slowly lose motivation. When we find the stream we start filling up our water bottles and I sit down for a bit. We now know we won’t make the curfew, but there is a chance we make the refuge only a couple of hundred meter from here. At 20:40 hrs the sun is down and we still didn’t reach the refuge. We call Camille and ask for permission to continue to find a safe haven. He asks if we know more about the others. At that moment we see Ingeborg climbing over a little fence of some sort. Camille grants us permission and ask to investigate into what Ingeborg is doing. We continue to climb and when the darkness falls we reach the refuge. We find Ingeborg talking to some shepherds. We are allowed to sleep in an old stone hut just meters from the comfortable shepherds house with a burning fire. We found out that Ingeborg decided to hide her bike at precisely 20:40 hrs, and to continue on foot. The refuge has a two person bed, best described as a wooden platform. We decide to share it three ways. Then someone knocks on the door. It’s Rob Quirk. The award winning frame builder from the UK. There is no more room on the platform. He has to sleep on the floor.
While everyone is preparing for the night, I sneak out. I want to call my wife. I tell her about the challenges we faced that day. About the magical sunset I’m watching at that moment. About me slowing Dan down. About me making the navigational error. I feel guilty. I tell her that we will have to wait till sunrise before we can continue. 10 racers made the cut and are now enjoying pizza. They will ride through the night while we are stuck at refuge with energy bars for dinner surrounded by sheep shit. I feel guilty. Ellen tells me not to worry and is probably happy that I’m not allowed to cycle through the night. I go back inside to go to sleep. It’s toasty inside.
Saturday 24th of August
After some restless hours, the silence is broken by Dan as he tries to find his way out of the cabin. When he returns, Rob goes out. I wait my turn and minutes later I’m in the pitch dark urinating off the mountain. The four of us check our phones. Rob breaks the silence: “Josh scratched.” A former winner of the Trans-Continental Race and pre-race favourite to win Further just quit. According to Camille, Josh planned to be back at ZeroNeuf on Saturday night. He was right, but not how he planned. He had a heatstroke, and just like a few others, he had been vomiting. Not a great start to such a race. I feel like I had been close to a heatstroke as well and was happy I didn’t push harder. Emma Pooley and Angus Young are already way ahead. Most of the others that made the cut slept at the start of sector 5. “This happens when you go to sleep.” Ingeborg said. There are still 17 of us stuck at Mont Fourcat. Some even didn’t make it to the treeline.
I feel revived. Ready to go at it again. We talk about getting to the top early at sunrise and whether we should leave the bike bags or even the whole bike at refuge, to pick them up later on our return. Ingeborg still needs to get her bike 50 meters below the refuge before she can continue, which makes her a bit nervous. We share our experiences from the day before and how they differed from our expectations. Everyone expected to go over Fourcat on day 1, but less than 40% did. All the time schedules we made are useless now. Does it even make sense to continue? Ingeborg leaves the refuge. We slowly start to pack. It can’t be long now till the sun comes up. It takes a while before we acknowledge that Ingeborg didn’t go out for a sanitary break. She won’t come back. She started day 2. Our slow packing changes to frantically stuffing everything in our bags. We get our bikes and start walking up the mountain. They feel so light now, without the bags. The top is covered with sheep, they beat us all. Just before we reach the checkpoint Emma Osenton comes from the other side. She slept at the start of the hike-a-bike segment and climbed the super steep ridge in the twilight. What kind of monsters are we up against?
We take a picture at the top as proof of our achievement and quickly descend. We need to pick up our game. We put the bags on the bike while we see Rob and Emma ride off. Ingeborg is just behind us. The descent is technical and I’m struggling to keep up with Dan. I force myself to ride as hard as possible as this is a chance to drop Ingeborg who uses my preferred strategy: walking. The presence of the riders around us feeds my competitive character. When the descent turns into a tarmac road, I push through. At the bottom we enter Mercus-Garrabet, the village we planned to have pizza the night before and search for a boulangerie. When we find it, Rob and Emma are just leaving. We order everything that looks even remotely delicious and start eating right away. Ingeborg arrives when we jump on the bike.
The route continues on beautiful tarmac. We take turns and soon find our rhythm again. We feel like we are making up lost ground. The road goes up and we’ll have a nice 10 km climb for second breakfast. Within a few kilometers we find Rob sitting next to a fountain. Rob, the strong frame builder that probably can bend frame tubes with his bare hands, struggled to keep up with Emma when the road went up. We join him and stop for some water as the sun is already shining bright. This time I do everything to prevent a repetition of the day before.
We continue the road up the mountain which quickly turns to gravel. We find our rhythm and Emma Osenton. She takes the time to snap photos, while we just try to power through. Though we met at the start line, I had joked with her a few times before the race on Instagram. She seems to be friends with more than half of the racing field – mostly through other races. She is definitely part of the scene. We leapfrog for a while and make use of her experience. She spots water sources where we just see ugly houses. She also finds the little paths we have to take. Sector 5 starts with a stupidly steep forest path. Emma starts power walking and we follow foolishly. After a while she stops at a water source to wash herself. We seize the opportunity and continue on our way. We are now in the lead of the riders that didn’t make the cut the night before. With the end of sector 5 we say goodbye to the gravel roads for a while.
On top of the mountain we find Camille drinking a cup of coffee, seemingly admiring the damage he has done to the battlefield. We nod but say nothing as pick up the pace – scared he might take us out of the race at any moment for lagging behind. Descending into Massat we go in search for a place to eat lunch. Someone waves at us from the bar. It’s Notchas! We copy his order of a coke and two sandwiches, one to eat now one d’emporter. He tells us the story of what happened to him and the others the night before. After they had pizza together he had had enough of his bike. So he slept at the bottom of Fourcat. Feeling recharged mentally, he continued his path. Together we look at the trackers and see that Angus is already climbing up port du Rat into Andorra 50 km from here. Emma Pooley who actually went to sleep last night is making up ground on him quickly. We discuss our plans for today with Notchas. We agree that we need to get into Andorra by nightfall or we may risk scratching due to time. That’s all he needed to get motivated. He grabs his helmet and rides off. When we finish our first sandwich, Emma arrives. She orders a coke and two sandwiches, one to eat now and one d’emporter. We jump on the bike and ride off into the hot valley towards port de Lers.
We start taking turns again. Back into the rhythm. We keep drinking as much as we can. But soon the heat gets to me again. We take small breaks and I try to cool down in a little stream. Closer to the top the temperature drops and I start feeling better. But then I hear a bagpipe playing. Am I hallucinating? I check with Dan. He hears it too. There it is, on top of a mountain, next to the road a van is parked and a woman plays the latest hits from Scotland. It puts a smile on my face and I can push a few extra watts. We descend and after a quick break we start at our biggest challenge: Port du Rat.
The road goes up on tarmac again, but as Camille, our God for the three race days, said: “the mountain starts where the tarmac ends”. We were warned. The road is long and hot, but we pedal through. In our heads the clock starts ticking again. When we stop for refilling our bottles the Hunt wheels van stops next to us. It’s Josh and his girlfriend. They are on a rescue mission. We dare not ask what went wrong. Being ignorant about the dangers that lie ahead of us feels safer. We do want to know if we will make it before the curfew, so we ask them. They look at each other, nod, and decide it’s better for our motivation to say yes. This does not give us the confidence we hoped for. Back on the bike I start struggling again. I feel like I’m not strong enough. We’re with the first 10 riders of the race, but the back end of the race is closing in on us. We need to get into Andorra tonight! The tarmac leads us to the top of a dam. I need a break. We sit and lie down while trying to eat our sandwich. The blazing sun didn’t do much to enhance the flavor of our snack but we couldn’t care less. While I was grinding my teeth into the rubbery bread, the Hunt van stopped again. They had returned from their rescue mission. “Everything go well?” we asked. “Yup, he is in the back.” The tinted windows added to the suspense. Who would be behind door number 1? The door slides open and it’s Hamish Paine. The multiple Grinduro winner scratched. It’s the heat and the elevation. It’s just too hard. We tell them we agree. The sectors are very challenging, but the only few roads that connect them contain 1st category climbs from the Tour de France. We feel bad for Hamish, but secretly, I’m proud. We are outlasting really strong riders in this race. Where will this end? These thoughts give me wings again. We should get going!
After a few flat kilometers we enter hiking-paradise. A parking lot marks the start of a grueling climb. In the middle of the road we see the American camera crew from Topic. They filmed all the interesting people and now decided it’s time to pack it in and head back to ZeroNeuf. We feel like we are just extras in the background of this race. But them cheering us on helps nonetheless. I find some new spirit and I need it because this gravel road is rough. It’s now around 17:00 h and a huge stream of hikers is walking towards us, back to their car. They look confused. What are those two clowns doing? Don’t they know they can’t cycle up there? We zigzag through them and a bit later we find the other photographers of Further. The cheering from them lifts me up and I’m able to ride over rocks that otherwise would have stopped me. Dan and I are looking for the best lines up this road. We leapfrog each other every time we have a bit of luck with the line we chose. After awhile Dan is one switchback ahead. I find him sitting next to his bike. “I can’t get into my 42. Where is the multi-tool?” For weight saving purposes we only brought one for the two of us. I put my hand in my bag to get it out as quickly as possible. I don’t feel it. I start thinking: did I misplace it? We haven’t used it yet. After a few minutes of frantically searching, we conclude it must have fallen out during my crash the day before. “Sorry Dan.” I feel guilty. In the distance we see Emma coming up, we decide to wait. We stop her and she hands over her multi-tool. The tool feels like it went through a lot. It’s heavy and I can barely rotate the allen keys from the tool. Unfortunately it wasn’t the gear cable slipping from Dan’s derailleur. The hanger looks bent or at least it isn’t aligned. We have no choice but to continue. Luckily there is less than 2 km of the ride-able part of the climb left…
A small sign shows the beginning of the hiking trail. The trail looks bad, but it’s only just past 18:00 hrs, so these 2 km of hiking shouldn’t be a problem … we think ignorantly. Emma “the Goat” Osenton shows us the way. We struggle behind her. Lifting the bike isn’t easy with all the bags on it. I remember Ingeborg telling us that she put the saddle on top of her shoulder. I try it. My front wheel dangles centimeters off the ground. But with a bit of a push I cover a few meters within seconds. This might be it. I shout to Dan to try the same technique. We learn on the job. But after a few bursts onto some rocks I start to fatigue. The bursts become shorter and the rests in between become longer. This is going to be a long hike. I drink my last sip of water.
The real mountain starts where you run out of water.
I’m losing ground to Dan and Emma. Every step becomes a struggle. There is no power left in my body. I start losing my balance more often. Not wanting to fall down these rocks, I just drop the bike and throw myself against the mountain whenever I lose my balance. This drains even more energy. I take a few breaks and try to get my breathing under control. My Garmin constantly pauses even though I set auto-pause at 1 km/h. There is only a few hundred meters left, but I feel time is running out. Then I see a guy coming towards me. I think, “strange, all hikers left ages ago”. He has a huge backpack and is constantly looking around nervously. When he sees me he stops. Acting as if he is just chilling on the mountain. It must be an illicit smuggler. A real smuggler! They look different than on television. I tell him I’m having a rough time and ask him for water. He looks at the little bag he is carrying in his hands. Then he says no. Is he scared to get involved with me? Does he think I might be setting him up? I continue. He probably feels sorry for me and tells me it’s only 200 meters to the top. As I leave, I hear him whistling to his colleagues with huge backpacks scattered along the mountain. Not much later I see Dan and Emma at the top.
They put on their jackets and when I arrive Emma starts the descent. Dan informs that they booked a hotel in Andorra. Because of the curfew, we won’t be able to cross the border to Spain anyhow. Speaking of curfews: it’s now 20:40. We are at the top, officially not allowed to continue. Should we call Camille? We know his answer. Get your ass down there Now! We decide not to call him to save time. My body has been in a state of panic for a while now. We only have about 20 minutes of twilight left and need to descend 200 meters almost straight down. Every step requires concentration to find a good spot to place our feet, lift the bike and take another step. The process goes slowly. I trip and fall a few times. Twice landing with my foot and full weight on the side of my wheel. So happy they are bombproof. It’s getting darker. Beneath us we see vans gather on the road. The road is a dead end, probably once meant to connect France and Andorra. Now used as a parking place for smugglers. Underneath the road there is a drainage pipe. We see people going in and out with torches. This place is a hive of activity. Emma reaches the bottom and we see her leave. Dan turns on his bike light to see where he places his feet. I see him do it, think it’s smart, but somehow I don’t allow myself to stop and do it as well. I want to get off this mountain Now! I reach the bottom in the pitch dark. I turn on my light and we start cruising down the huge road. It’s starts with a mix of gravel and tarmac, but after a ski station we enter descending heaven! We go down this road, but I don’t feel like I’m really riding my bike. I’m empty, I’m cold, I don’t trust my wheels, my brakes and I have no idea where we are heading. We stop frequently to check Google maps for the hotel. If I would need to ride back up that mountain I might choose to just sleep there and then on the highway. After a while we find it. Emma is just checking in.
On my phone I see some messages from Camille. He is angry. Why didn’t we abide by the rules? I’m confused. We weren’t at the tarmac road at 20:40 hrs, but we did everything to get back to safety. We had no other choice. Camille then corrects himself. Apparently the tracker was lagging behind and he thought we were still climbing up Port du Rat at that time. He is happy to hear we are now safe in a hotel. According to Camille everyone chose to check in somewhere, except for Angus of course. Angus just keeps on going. He and Emma Pooley are now the only two in Spain. The rest of us 7 riders, the only few that are left in the race, are in a hotel in Andorra. All the others that didn’t make Port du Rat that night scratched. So Ingeborg and Rob with whom we spent the night before in the cosy refuge, are out. Now 7 riders are less than 10 km apart. Theoretically the podium is in reach for us. But we are not thinking about the podium or even the race. We are trying to survive. Following the route is just the easiest way home. We need to get some food to recover. Emma settles for the answer from the reception that they don’t have food and won’t serve breakfast before 8:00 hrs. That answer is not good enough for us and we continue our search to find a pizza place further down the road. The lady at the counter is almost closing the shop and is amazed to see us. We might look a bit strange. Dirty cycling kit and a strange gait while walking might give away as not being 100%. We order a pizza for every leg we have and buy all the pastries that are left. The lovely lady behind the counter feels bad for us and offers to bring the food to our hotel so we can ride our bikes without hassle. Andorra is full of entrepreneurs, like the ones we met on top of the mountain, and nice people. We feast in our room and make contact with the people back home. Good to hear from them. We’re so happy to receive everyone’s support. Before we go to sleep, we plan to start riding again at 6:00 hrs. The Port du Rat took its toll and we need to rest.
Sunday 25th of August
We wake up and see that the others were thinking otherwise. Some riders are actually already crossing the border into Spain when we jump on the bike. The road to the border is one big climb on beautiful tarmac. This is where we are in our element. But soon we get ripped out of our happy place. Dan’s shifting got worse. We try everything we can do without a multi-tool. Hope is fading until I remember something that happened to me the day before. After a break, my brake began to rub. When checking the wheel I found out there was hardly any tension on my QR. The bad roads unhinged my wheel. Maybe this also happened to Dan’s wheel. When opening the QR the wheel slots right back into place. Bam! We’re back in business! We start taking turns and have that mountain for breakfast. A pro-looking guy fully dressed in Endless cycling kit over takes us. He looks like doing his weekly Sunday morning ride up and down the mountain. Comparable to Roel’s Hoekje Om. We won’t let him get far and soon we reach the top. He puts on a jacket and turns around to descend the same way down. We look back into Andorra while finishing the last few pizza slices we had left from our feast the night before.
The descent into Spain is a lot less comfortable than the road from Andorra. It is a gravel road with big holes and many loose rocks. My hands start to hurt again while riding over all the bumps. I start longing for a break, not because I’m tired, but because of the pain. I think that’s a weak excuse to stop, so we continue. After a while a small village pops up. We find two people working in front of their house and we take the opportunity to let them refill our bottles. The terrible gravel road turns into a small winding tarmac road which guides us through a beautiful gorge. Time to enjoy the ride. At the bottom we discuss the descent. Why was there a curfew again? The road wasn’t good, but we’ve seen worse. Maybe because of the border crossing? Oh wait, wasn’t there the story of the little village called Tor? A village with 13 houses and 4 murders. Descending we only saw one village, the one where we got our water. Chances are it was handed to us by a murderer…
Notchas sent a message in the WhatsApp group. He scratched, losing the battle against his hotel bed this morning. We check the others with the GPS trackers. Only 8 riders left in the race. Emma P and Angus are back in France and are working their way back to ZeroNeuf. Philippa is only 20 km in front of us. Emma Osenton is still in Andorra. Still at our hotel. Did she scratch? We get back on the bike. The next 50 km will be on smooth tarmac and we will have an advantage over the others with our narrow tyres and the ability to draft.
Besides a few Garmin hiccups we don’t have any problems. The temperature is a lot less incinerating today and we feel the chances of finishing this race increasing. There is a bit more than 150 km left with one great obstacle left in our way – Port d’Aula. A 2500 m climb back into France. The road up there? Non existent. It’s gonna be another hike! The closer we get, the more nervous I become. How rocky will it be? On WhatsApp I see my colleagues making bets on whether we will make it. There are beers to win for us. We need to get up there!
The hike up the mountain started well. It was steep, it was hard, but not that rocky. Our inability to lift the bike was less of a problem this time. The biggest problem we faced was path finding. Which small goat path should we take? We started tracking tyre marks. We could be certain that the tracks we found are from fellow racers. Nobody would be stupid enough to go up here by bike. We imagine how it would have been for Emma P and Angus. They hiked up Port d’ Aula before sunrise. Did they use the stars to navigate?
We are getting closer to the top. Dan finds out that his gear cable now actually slipped. It probably came loose from all our efforts to make the shifting work. When we get up this mountain he will have to descend in his highest gear and then climb up a few thousand meters of elevation gain with a cadence of 25 rpm. If we only had a multi-tool. We spot a place in between two peaks. We recognize it from a photo we found on the internet. That’s where we need to go. By now I’ve had it with finding the best path up. I decide just to go straight up. No matter how steep it is. Dan goes right to take the sensible approach. We see a little figurine on top of the mountain. Who is stupid enough to hike up here. The man is taking pictures. He is taking pictures of us. Who is that? Is he part of the Further crew? I try to lift my bike and walk fast. I love to have a nice photo of me up there, looking cool and all. I’m getting closer. Now I can see it clearly, it’s Greg. We met him the day before the start. On top, I catch my breath and ask him immediately if he has an Allen key. He has, but only one. No idea what size. He starts looking in his bag. Dan arrives and I immediately start telling him that Greg is our hero. Dan doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I’m clearly over enthusiastic given the small chance that we are saved. The exhaustion is definitely affecting me. It fits! We’re actually saved. Greg hiked up the same way we did and has been waiting here for more than 5 hours to take a few photos of the riders. 5 hours without signal, 5 hours without an idea if there are still riders coming. He tells us Emma eventually left the hotel and was moving when he hiked up. She is the only one that might still be coming up, but he is uncertain if he should wait for her. Greg then asks us politely if it is okay to take a few more photos of us, if we can wait with our descent so he can take the perfect shot. This is an easy request for us as we are more than happy to take it a bit easy. It’s still early in the day and with another day to finish, time is no longer our biggest enemy. We follow his directions and start the descent.
The views are impressive and the grassy gravel road is winding its way through the Pyrénées. This should have been 17 km of pure enjoyment. But we’re hurting. The hike took its toll. Walking up the steep grades with stiff shoes put a lot of pressure on the front of our feet. So now every bump we go over hurts. Trying to relieve the pain we put more pressure on our hands and saddle, but these parts already took a beating the past few days. We take a break to film one of our vlogs we make for the Dandy Narwhals. It’s an inside joke in our group, meant as satire. There is nothing to say, but we do it to make the pain stop for a while. We continue the descent and notice that the performance of our brakes are sub-optimal. Still without a multi-tool, we have to accept this and simply cut down on braking. Just hope for the best! At the bottom we get back into our rhythm. It’s 17:30 hrs, so we can still do a few climbs before getting a nice dinner. Eating while sitting down on something more comfortable than a saddle. The thought alone is mouth watering. We get out the list of the villages and facilities we made before the start. Ercé will be the place we dine. We get into race mode.
In Ercé we sit down, it’s still light, so we are wasting daylight to eat. But we don’t care. We deserve a steak! Checking the phone we see Emma Pooley has won Further. During the race she made clear she is something special. Being twice as fast on the hikes than us, carrying just 1 water bottle. Before the start she also proved her stardom. Just an hour before the start of this 550 km race she went for a run. But the most impressive thing about her is that she is one of the most modest and nicest people participating. My wife texts me asking if we are having dinner in Ercé. Her brother has been following us every step the past few days and is keeping her up to date. This thought really makes my day. The feeling that we are not just slowly killing ourselves anonymously fools me into thinking that the suffering has a purpose. We order huge pieces of meat and Dan tells the waiter we are in a bit of a hurry because of a race. The waiter nods politely. What are those two crazy cyclists thinking? They aren’t racing, they just smell bad. On the tracker we see Philippa and Ed just 15 km away. Just one small mountain between us and Massat. Should we try to race them? They probably are already well rested and will ride through the night. That’s there specialty. We should just take it easy and be happy we are finishing. We shouldn’t risk our chance.
The meal tastes delicious and soon we are back on the bike. During dinner we agreed to ride to Massat. That’s at the start of sector 11, the foot of Col de Péguère. In my head I’m thinking about pushing through. We have hardly ridden in the dark this trip because of the curfews so I want to experience this. But not much later we find out that sector 10 is not just a mountain, there is gravel involved. The darkness, the unknown and the cold air makes me turn quiet. Instantly I’m just looking forward to laying down. These 15 km take ages. When we finally get to Massat we try to get in a hotel, but this town looks deserted. All lights are off and there is no place to stay. A drunk woman of around 40 is sitting on a terrace. She instantly starts flirting with Dan. I guess she would have a place for him to stay, but for both of us she advises us to try the local camping site.
When we arrive there, the office is already closed. So we find a nice spot to roll out our bivi bags. We are finally camping outside! Using our gear. Gear carefully selected with the help our adventure specialist Headwind. Headwind is a badass. Months ago, when we had just received the invite to race, we sat down with him and let him tell us what we needed and how to prepare. His advice and his stories helped me a lot. In a few situations I was thinking: what would Headwind do now? Emma Pooley should watch her back if he joins next year! After a nice wash at the sanitary building we go to sleep. I slip into the bivi bag after a few tries. There must be a better way, but I’m happy I’m finally in. The first experience in the bag is sweaty. I’m instantly uncomfortable. During the night I get in strange state where I’m vaguely asleep. I don’t really feel in control, but I notice all the discomforts. The few hours we sleep seem to take ages. When I am finally allowed to wake up, I feel broken. A lot worse than before I went to sleep. The hay-fever that normally only affects me around June is now very present. I have tears in my eyes and feel totally blocked up. We start packing up the bikes, but everything I do takes twice as much time. When I finally finish we jump on the bike and ride into the dark.
Monday 26th of August
We start off with climbing col de Péguère. The first few kilometer are only 5 % and I’m hoping my body will recover before the second part starts. The hard part. This second part of the climb marked the beginning of Alaphilippe losing his yellow jersey in this year’s Tour. Now we are riding up the 18% grade with all our gear. But still somehow I can find my rhythm and within no time I’m flying over all the names painted on the road. Besides the usual suspects, there are messages from le gilet jaune and from the local residents. They aren’t happy with their new fellow residents. Environmentalists worked hard to get a bear community growing in the Pyrénées, and succeeded! But the old residents are not happy and used the road as a protest sign. As this doesn’t fit in the marketing machine of the world’s biggest bike race, the Tour de France crew did their best to negate the negative slurs on the road and adjust the texts. I enjoy deciphering the original texts and before I know it I’m at the top. I have the feeling I just finished the last big challenge of the race and start texting a few people we’ll be at the McDonald’s in Foix soon. Then I check the GPS trackers. Ed Wolstenholme rode through the night to finish around 5 in the morning, in pitch darkness. He lived up to the image we have of him. A cross between a pirate and Rambo. Philippa kept riding the night before till just before Foix, slep shortly and started again early in the morning. It can’t be long before she finishes. Emma Osenton is still a few hours behind us. Without any accidents we will finish 7th. Can’t wait to put my feet up. Dan arrives shortly after at the top and we get back into race mode. Big Mac here we come!
After a while of riding, we consult the map. This easy ride into Foix is taking a lot longer than expected. At least it’s a beautiful gravel road on the ridge of the mountain. We should fully enjoy this, but all I can think of is Big Macs. Many of the riders that scratched before reaching Andorra rode this sector 11 for fun. They loved it, but for me it feels tame after the things we went through, almost boring. Even though before the race I expected most sectors to be like this. Rideable beautiful gravel. We glide up and down the road and only have to stop when a big truck loads up trees. There is no room to pass it. The workers don’t seem to care, so we have to climb over the logs with our bikes while the crane dangles a huge tree above our heads. At this moment, this doesn’t even feel risky. We leave the forest and dive down Prat d’Albis into Foix. Breakfast at McDonald’s is finally happening!
Dan orders two McMuffins and some donuts. I go for a Big Mac, McChicken and everything else that’s on the board. It will be our last break. We feast! The finishers before us shared their celebratory photos at the McDonalds via WhatsApp, so Dan sends a picture of us surrounded by food. It’s a magical place. I don’t think many racers will go to McDonald’s in their free time, but you can almost be certain they visit one on almost all of their bikepacking trips. The shameless carb loading option guarantees a quick service so you can be on your way again. I wonder why McDonald’s doesn’t advertise in the cycling community… We go for a second round and ask the fellow racers what we need for the last sector, sector 12. Jon Woodroof response immediately: “Hydration!” We think he is talking about his bottle of whiskey he has been carrying around. It’s a recurring subject in the WhatsApp chat. After topping off our bodies and knowing it probably won’t make us any faster, but it just felt too good, we take off.
Sector 12 is a road built by the Cathars, a people who were probably pretty good at road construction back in the day, but we’re afraid they can’t live up to current road standards. We’ve seen that most racers took a few hours to cover merely 15 km. Emma Pooley’s message saying the sector made her cry could also be interpreted as it being beautiful, right? Knowing that this race is organised by Camille we conclude that Sector 12 will probably destroy us. It starts with a hike, of course! The road is built somewhere up a hill and to get there we need to climb a wall of some sort. Our experiences from the days before begins to pay off. But after covering a few hundred meters I’m already losing rhythm. My body is too tired. When sitting at the McDonald’s I was already struggling to keep my eyes open. Now I have to fight for every step. Dan is slowly moving away from me. I don’t care about that anymore, I just want this to end. After the climb we arrive on something that looks like a road. A gravelly road with holes, but it’s rideable sometimes. Somehow I can’t recover from the climb and every time there is a rough patch I need to dismount as there is no energy left in my body to overcome these small challenges. The frequency with which I lose my balance increases. I’m getting angry and frustrated. I have had it with this race! After one of the many tumbles, I notice quite a lot of blood on my arm and bags. I’m in pain, but it’s not just my arm. I’m in pain everywhere. My legs, feet, hands, back, neck, really everything. Nothing stands out. I feel like a zombie. A state in which I don’t feel in control of my body. I’m only able to steer myself in a sort of direction. It all became fuzzy. Drunk without alcohol. I’m lucky that I can’t just quit right then and there on the path. To just get home I need to continue.
Dan has been waiting for me. I’m no longer in the mood to be friendly to him. I just say I will continue straight away so I’ll have a head start and he doesn’t have to wait anymore. There is only 2 km to go on this sector. I keep grinding and every time I turn the pedals I sound like a women’s tennis match. Oeh! Ah…! After a while I look back and I can’t see Dan. There is a split in the road, so I need to tell Dan we have to take the horrible path up. I wait. A few minutes pass. No Dan. I check my phone. No signal. I shout his name. No response. He might have crashed. I probably should head back, but I can’t. Every step backwards means I will need to travel further. I don’t want to go further. I want to go home. Then there is a response. He comes around the corner. Apparently I missed a split in the road earlier and he had no idea where to go. Starting his Garmin and finding out how to load the route took some time. Dan is one of those rare people that rides without computers, without sensors, as if cycling outside is just something fun to do. I’ve never seen a fun ride on Strava without someone recording it on a device, so can’t imagine how this would work. We continue and soon we start the last descent of this sector. The last unpaved descent of this race. Leaves, rocks and branches are covering the steep and narrow path. I no longer trust myself as I’ve been tipping over constantly. With one stupid crash we could still lose the whole race so close to the finish. I ran out of water about an hour ago. Apparently Jon wasn’t talking about his whiskey this time, we really should have hydrated better. We walk down. I don’t cover more than 20 meters before I fall over again. My once white jersey is now the color of clay. Dirt from three different countries is represented along with a wild collection of salts, it created geological artifact. When we finally arrive on the paved road, I feel relieved. The chance of ending this race with a fracture has been exponentially reduced. In the first village we immediately try to get water. With this I mean, I told Dan to collect water. I’m no longer friendly and all I can do is hang over the handlebars and cry. So I do.
After ringing the doorbell of a few houses Dan finds a man working in the garden. Dan’s suffering is definitely less theatrical than mine, but he must also be in some sort a survivor mode. To see him now making polite conversation to the man in the garden as if we are on a nice little coffee ride is just surreal. But it’s just easier than explaining what we’ve just been through. Dan collects the bottles and we start riding the finishing straight. In the Netherlands we would have called it 30 km of rolling hills. But after these last few days, it feels like the flattest road we have ridden. We take turns and push ourselves. Pain doesn’t matter anymore. Just push. There are no more limitations. We start recognising the roads from the first day. We’re really close now. With a few hundred meters to go, we stop pushing and we take time to thank each other. I am not sure if I would have been able to do this without Dan. I’m grateful for the times he pulled me through when I was suffering. Not once was he bitter or negative, we were always able to communicate our thoughts. We each had our roles and we trusted each other to fulfil them. I’m thankful for our friendship and the gift he gave me for completing this horribly beautiful bike trip. We turn up the driveway of ZeroNeuf. We are there. We’ve finished. No more Further!
Somebody rushes inside. “Camille, they are here.” we dismount our bikes one last time. A few people gather and start clapping. It’s not the emotional finish I expected. I’m just tired. I’ve been crying throughout most of sector 12. Now I’m empty. No tears left. I sit down. I don’t feel the pain anymore. Mentally I shut down. August Farmer, a very talented photographer, comes towards us. “I need to take a photo of you. Don’t clean the mud off your face.” I try to follow him, but I have difficulties walking. My body is cramped up and my balance off. But compared to Augustus, I shouldn’t complain. A year ago he had an accident from which he is still recovering. It prevented him from covering the race action, instead he uses his magic on the start and finishing portraits. His wife Sarah oversees his first steps back into his profession. When he focuses the lens, she focuses on his balance. It’s endearing to see. Two beautiful people, different roles, working together on one goal. Then there is the obligatory jump in the pool and the beer we’ve been yearning for.
A few weeks later I look back on a beautiful journey. A journey that took us 76 hours and 46 minutes, in which we met a lot of beautiful and special people. So many of them that I wasn’t even able to put them all in this journal entry, but I should thank them all for the great experience they gave me. Next to the new people I met, I’ve rediscovered myself in a way. The whole year I have been frustrated about the fact that my cycling ability was declining. Not that my daughter isn’t a fair exchange for this, she definitely is! But it felt like I was losing something I really love. With completing this challenge I proved to myself I’m still capable of doing stupid stuff and that is something to be proud of. For the past few weeks, despite how stupid it might seem, I have been generally happier.
Would I do it again next year? Dan and I are looking for a cx tandem…
Photography by: Greg Annandale, Dan Peat, Maurice van Roosmalen, Emma Osenton, Breakaway digital, Augustus Farmer and Camille McMillan
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