*I wrote this a while ago, but never got round to posting it for many reasons. This is part 1 – general ramblings about my first couple of days of TCR No4. There will be a second installment fairly soon.*
Getting to the start line
It’s today. It’s the 28th July and I’m on the Eurostar from St. Pancras to Brussels. It feels like just another one of my brief, vivid dreams that I’ve been having of late. There’s no need to pinch myself; the discomfort of the vintage train seat, which was clearly designed for Europeans of smaller proportions than mine, is enough to make me realise this one way ticket to the Transcontinental Race is very real.
The Parents surprised me by coming up to London to wave me off – I can’t work out whether their being there subtracted or added to my already multiplying nerves. Old friends, the Solomides family, were with us too. The Dad, Socrates, is also doing TCR. They’ll be travelling with me to Geraardsbergen, a town that Socrates already knows well having done TCR last year. I go off to hand Shirley the Surly over to the Eurostar baggage handlers and see a cyclist with an Apidura seat bag. “Hello! Are you doing TCR too?”, I quiz him. “Yes!”, he replies with a naive glee that I, as a fellow TCR virgin, also possess. “What’s your name?” I ask. “Rob”. “Great – I’m Alice”, I reply. “I know – you’re Alice Rosella; I follow you on twitter!” he exclaims. Mortified, I immediately apologise for how boring my tweets are and then leave him to get checked in.
I’m actually really relieved to have set off. I’ve been checking and double checking my bike set up, my routes, my documents, my health. I’m so ready. Scared, but ready. I booked a table seat in a quest for more leg room and, to my delight, I’m joined by hilarious and, Hallelujah, vertically challenged couple whose short legs give me space to relax.
They quiz me about why I’m wearing bike shoes/attire and I simply tell them I’ve bought a one way ticket to Belgium and am going on a solo adventure. “Are you running away? LOL! Joke – that sounds fun!” – their silliness helps to cheer me up and calm me down. As I start to relax into the journey, I suddenly realise just how tired and hungry I am. I’ve slept terribly the past week and have felt physically sick with nerves about this solo mission; I only managed half a bagel before setting off this morning.
We arrived in Geraardsbergen very late, after some confusing train delays on the outskirts of Brussels. My hunger had exponentially increased, so we decided to dump our stuff and hunt for a midnight meal. Fellow TCR riders had congregated in the Marketplace, despite the light rain, and were watching the final scenes of “Inspired to Ride” (a film about the Trans America Race) on a massive, outdoor screen. I’d watched this at least twice (maybe three times?) in the run up to TCR and I highly recommend it to anyone considering a long distance cycle race or looking to understand the mindset of those who take such challenges on. Juliana Buhring, already one of my favourite sportspeople, has a major presence in the film and provided me with even more excitement and determination for TCR thanks to her performance and wise words.
All of a sudden, I realised I was standing next to the formidable Mike Hall, arguably the star of the film (he won the TransAm and is the co-founder/organiser of the Transcontinental Race), so I introduce myself and then feel strangely starstruck and struggle to find appropriate words. I decide to leave the poor man alone; he’s no doubt had to meet hundreds of people today and deserves some calm before the TCR storm. Already aware of how the film ends and with my hunger growing painful now, we leave the square to search every restaurant and bar in Geraardsbergen for some dinner. Failing to find anywhere, we reluctantly resigned ourselves to the fact that dinner was not going to happen today. It’s not like I was about to embark on something extremely physically demanding; who needs to carb-load anyway? I somehow managed to control my “hanger” and headed back to the hotel with the Solomides parents. Then something absolutely beautiful happened – a porta-cabin with a self-explanatory “FRITERIE” sign on it appeared down one of the cobbled side roads. “A CHIPPY!?! IS IT OPEN?!” I shouted.
Yes. Yes, it was. We ate our chips from an upside down paper cone inside a bus shelter. They were crispy on the outside, fluffy and hotter than lava on the inside. They were the best chips I’ve ever eaten. Satiated and tired, we finally returned to the Hotel for 40 winks before registration and the briefing the next day.
After another frustratingly bad sleep, we woke up and went to breakfast. Many of the profile pictures from the Transcontinental Facebook page were eating multiple breakfasts in the same room as me and it was great to finally see these strangers. James Hayden, “the guy who’s neck stopped working last year” was sitting straight ahead of me and I had another fairly surreal moment where my feelings of awe for the combative rider came flooding through and I just wanted to tell him how crazily determined and inspirational he is etc etc. I need to stop being such a fan girl, but this is the effect the legacy of TCR and its riders have had on me the past couple of years. One of my best friends, Ellie Perkins (Solomides), introduced me to TCR and I’ve been obsessed ever since. She is an amazing human being and such an inspiration to me for so many reasons. I’m so grateful to her for encouraging me to do this wonderful event.
At registration, we were greeted by many more friendly strangers. Some of them came up to me with some variation on “Alice Rosella! From the internet! You’re the Cat face jersey lady! Gosh, you’re tall!”. I don’t know why I was so surprised that they knew who I was. I posted on the group a fair bit and I know who they all are, so the excitement of finally being able to put faces to names/twitter handles/bike set-ups was being felt by others and not just me. Some veterans looked very calm; Josh Ibbett was chilling with his dad near the back of the room, Kristof Allegaert was chatting happily and looked incredibly nonchalant . Generally, though, people were chomping at the bit to get going. It was really wonderful to meet, even if only briefly, the likes of Marion Esfandiari, Leo Tong, and Katie-Jane L’Herpiniere et al at registration – Thank you for the encouragement and helpful advice.
(Nick Pusinelli (left) chilling with Kristof (middle) at the back of registration, like a couple of cool kids)
Ellie and her new husband (she didn’t have a different one before, they’re just newly married), Phil, who are currently cycling across the world to New Zealand, timed their trip to meet us all in Geraardsbergen. As a result, Socrates and I would have our very own cheerleading squad on the start line that evening, which I really appreciated. After our “last supper” and a few final words of wisdom, it was time to head off and congregate in the Market Square. Like rats in Hamlin, we eagerly awaited to be led through the town in a neutralised lap before being sent off into the increasingly dark Belgian countryside by Mike, our Pied Piper. It felt like every single resident and visitor of Geraardsbergen had come out, flame torch in hand, to cheer us all on. The atmosphere was medieval and awesome. I could see my buddy from my rowing club in London, Nick Pusinelli (a fantastic athlete, who recently won the Visitors’ cup at Henley), on the start line. Even he looked a smidge nervous, and he’s basically the most chilled guy I’ve ever met. We gave each other a “good luck nod” as the Mayor of the town gave a speech and the crowd began to crescendo in excitement. The clock struck 10pm and off we went. Some struggled to clip into their heavily-loaded bikes, thanks to the cobbled uphill start (by some, I mean me), but we got going and started our neutralised lap of the town.
(Shirley the Surly – ready to go!)
Passing the Solomides/Perkins clan with their torches and cameras at the ready, I lap up words of encouragement. “GO ON, ALICE! YOU’RE MY HERO!” Ellie yells. “WTF?! I’m HER hero?!” I think to myself. But we are all embarking on something pretty awesome – something that has been a vehicle of inspiration for me for a long time, so, maybe, for a brief moment, I am her hero. Her words spur me on. I want to do everyone proud. Flooded with adrenaline, I cruise round the neutralised lap of the town and meet more familiar faces from social media. Rory “Bear” Kemper and I got chatting about whether or not we should be using our big or small ring on the Muur, which launched a thousand sexual euphemisms from surrounding cyclists. I hope it’s not a coincidence that I didn’t bump into him again after that…
We then had to schlep up the infamous “Muur”. Stuck in the mele of cyclists, a few, including me, lost momentum and I found myself forced to stop briefly and clip back in – something that is not easy to do while going up a cobbled hill with a fully loaded bike. Having to push my bike to an area where I wasn’t in every other competitor’s way was mortifying, but, as I hopped back on, I hear Ellie again “GO, ALICE! YOU’RE NOT THE FIRST TO HAVE TO PUSH AND YOU CERTAINLY WON’T BE THE LAST. WOOO!”. The Solomides clan had run up the Muur to wait for me and Socrates while we were doing our lap of the town. Embarrassed further, I pedal as hard as I can and, thanks to my stoppage time, am one of the last to get up to the Muur, where I’m greeted by “GIRL POWER!” “WOOO! GO, GIRL!” “ALLES ALLES ALLES!” by strangers. I learnt later that Juliana Buhring, one of my sporting idols, also had to stop and push up some of the Muur just a year previous, so I don’t feel so bad about it now.
In a mere 92 metres, the Muur was over. The flame lit cobbles and screams of encouragement disappeared and the sudden change in atmosphere made me feel as though I was in a dream, going round a corner from a crowd to find myself alone and in a completely different scenario. It was like a spotlit memory from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; tangible excitement suddenly erased without warning. It was a most severe change and one that didn’t waver for days. After that first night, I didn’t see or speak to another rider again. This was something I expected, but it still sort of surprised me. I loved being alone. I really did. I was actually looking forward to some solitude. I’ve always been someone who enjoys my own company, despite being a fairly loud and social person. I live alone in London, but I’m rarely ever lonely. I relish the opportunity to sit on my sofa in my pants and an oversized t-shirt while I belly laugh at cathartic car crash telly. My alone time on TCR would no doubt be very different to my “normal” nights alone on the sofa, but I still looked forward to it.
The only time I ever felt like I wanted someone with me on my ride was when my ***SPOILER ALERT*** achilles heel started to hurt. Having someone to ask for advice about that would have been good, but generally, I was fine. The dark was more intimidating than I’d anticipated. With 20:20 hindsight, I should have fitted a dynamo hub to the bike and got much brighter lights; I struggled to see potholes and debris on the roads, especially on descents. As a result, I found myself needing to stop each night at about 10pm. Frustrating, but safer than moving forward with not enough lumens. Nevermind – it was just one of many lessons learnt.
I had a couple of nights in hotels (to help my achilles repair), but I slept rough the rest of the time. After dark, rural France is filled with a cacophony of wildlife and a deep darkness that widen your pupils to the point of aching. I’m not normally afraid of the dark, but cycling in the middle of nowhere with limited water and no knowledge of where you will be sleeping is actually super unpleasant. For those who know me, I annoyingly suffer from Thalassophobia (a fear of large bodies of water), probably thanks to nearly drowning as a young child (thank you for saving my life, John), which I think might have contributed to some of the fear I experienced at night. Once the sun went down, I experienced a sensation similar to when you are swimming out into the ocean and the water suddenly becomes dark and cold. I became acutely aware of my place in nature’s pecking order at night. Once I’d found a nice enough spot to sleep and settled down though, the stars, like a lullaby, were a great distraction from my child-like nyctophobia. Gazing up at the cloudless and clear milky way (I just had a bivvy bag – no tent etc), I saw shooting stars aplenty and convinced myself I could see the ISS at one point (I almost certainly didn’t see it, but I was very excited all the same).
(One of my sleeping spots – pure glamour)
Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ played through in my brain, replacing my feeling of night-time vulnerability with the strangely comforting reminder that I’m living on a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Instead of feeling small and vulnerable, I felt small and humble; I wasn’t scared of falling asleep alone in a field, I was grateful. Grateful that, at that exact moment, I was doing something I have longed to do for some time and I was lucky enough to be doing it. Many people with a sense of adventure aren’t in a situation where, for a multitude of reasons, they’re able to pursue it and do something like this. I was afraid and happy simultaneously. I was so tired, but felt so alive. It was terrifyingly awesome.
(Another sleeping spot – being woken up by my natural alarm clock, the sun, at 5am)
During daylight, without the fear of the dark, being alone had a slightly different effect on me. The comfort and security that comes with the light and warmth of the sun allowed my mind to wander. This was especially the case at sunrise, when it wasn’t yet too hot and I had food in my belly and water in my bottles. The mornings definitely made my favourite moments of the trip. The roads were empty, my legs were at their most fresh, and the scenery was just ridiculously photogenic. I self-indulgently took these opportunities to really think about and appreciate what I was doing. Solitude of this kind brings to the front of your mind what has been sleeping in the depths of your soul. I know – CRINGE. It sounds cheesy to say, but it’s seriously something that happened to me, not just for a fleeting moment, but for extended periods of time in my saddle.
It was quite meditative and I found myself becoming surprisingly emotional. How lucky am I to be in the fortunate position where I, a young(ish) and able-bodied woman, have the ability to travel across countries solo? I was dedicating this race to my family friend, Anda, who would never have been able to do what I was doing, as a result of her Muscular Dystrophy. I was so aware of how lucky I am and my appreciation for my situation grew, I feel, exponentially with each pedal turned.
(Warming up in the morning – unbelievably cold and unbelievably happy)
In addition to my appreciative moments, I also missed my loved ones. I didn’t miss them in the traditional, hankering sense; I just wished I could have shared this experience with them. Pictures and words wouldn’t do what I was experiencing justice. I’m frustrated, even as I write this, that I can’t convey it adequately. At the time, I knew the onus was on me to do my utmost to savour the moments as they happened and do my best to treasure them thereafter. That’s what life is about anyway, I guess. It’s much harder to do than it sounds though.
I genuinely feel that I grew a great deal on this ride (abbreviated as it was). I’ll never forget it and will likely never feel quite the same emotions again.
“Alright, enough of the soppy stuff!”
This is supposed to be a cycling blog, after all!
So, in terms of the experience of the actual cycling, it’s pretty hard/boring to write about – I sat at a comfortable speed (around 23kmph), spinning my way along the flats, trying not to over-exert myself on the gentle but repetitive climbs, and savouring the free speed and momentary respite on the descents.
I was surprised by how good my legs felt every day; I expected them to feel heavy or tight each morning, but that tended not to be the case despite sleeping rough. My tendons suffered from the cold nights though. My achilles bore the brunt of my ill-chosen sleeping spots; by the third day I felt a familiar crunchiness in my left achilles that was especially bad going up hills. I had terrifying premonitions of it rupturing half way up a climb in the middle of nowhere and I desperately wanted to ask someone what I should do. I grew more and more annoyed at my body for betraying me like this; my control panel was telling my heel to pedal, but it was resisting more and more with each rotation.
The rolling hills of France looked lovely, but were a perfect purgatory for me and my growing injury; hectares upon hectares of small-medium sized hills, no shade, hay fever-inducing crops at the height of harvest, and (what felt like) hundreds of the same provincial villages. I thought it might never end. Every village seemed to be designed to a specific formula – a Mairie (Town Hall), a monument dedicated to “les enfants de la guerre”, very little traffic, a pharmacy, and a local shop that always seemed to be shut. On a normal bike ride, this would have been a perfectly pleasant thing to cycle through, but, thanks to my ankle and unquenchable thirst, the lack of medication and/or water was absolute torture. I’d scour my route on my Garmin, desperately trying to figure out how far away the next village was and how long it would take for me to get there on the off-chance that I might find water and medication that I needed so badly. What I thought looked like sizeable towns, were actually tiny hamlets when I reached them and the 15kms or so in between towns seemed to last for an eternity.
On one of the days, this must have happened to me about 8 times in a row. Every village was a ghost town, shuttered up and unable to help this thirsty, weird British girl in excruciating pain. I thought I was going to collapse. It got to about 7pm and I was beginning to scan every farm I passed for hoses or taps on the side of their barns for me to steal water from. Needs must etc. Dusk was creeping in and I felt ever so slightly terrified I’d end up falling off my bike under some wind turbine in the middle of nowhere. Between the useless villages, every sprinkler in every field taunted me. I almost drank from a scummy creek. I was in post-apocalyptic mode and I wasn’t handling it as well as I had egotistically assumed I would have done.
I check my watch. 8pm. Honestly, where the hell IS everyone?! WHY IS EVERYTHING SHUT?! URGH. I HATE FRANCE.
Finally, I saw a water tap on the side of a barn in the small village of St. Flavy and, despite angry dogs outside the building, I slowed down to take advantage of the situation. Creaking to a stop (thanks to my sore hands) and stumbling off my bike, I looked up and made the most miraculous of discoveries; a beautifully naff LED sign outside a working men’s club that was flashing “OUVERT!”.
“YASS. FINALLY. THANK YOU” I wimpered (to an audience of none).
Fumbling with my empty water bottles, I struggled to open the antique door and was greeted by 5 drunk french grandpas. Shocked at my huge and “glowing” appearance, they looked at me like I can only imagine the shepherds looked upon the Angel Gabriel. Dressed in an high viz vest from an Amazon factory, I was immediately quizzed about whether or not I had a parcel for them. We then had a very confusing exchange where I struggled to explain that, although I do work for Amazon, I wasn’t delivering anything from Amazon at that moment in time and I was simply attempting to be high viz because of safety laws for cyclists on French roads.
“Es-ce que je peu avoir un petit peu d’eau, s’il vous plait?”, I desperately asked them in pathetic GCSE french. The owner took my bottles and the quizzing started again (in french)…
Grandpas: “What are you doing, young lady?”
Me: “I’m cycling across Europe”
G’pas: “Where are you going?”
G’pas: “Where did you start?”
G’pas: “Who are you with?”
Me: “No one”
G’pas: “Why are you doing this?”
Me: “Not sure really. It’s a challenge.”
G’pas: “You are a very strange woman.”
Thanks, guys. Growing impatient, I asked again for a drink – water and coca cola. They joked about giving me an Aperitif. I politely laughed, but secretly was desperate to bend over the bar and shove my face under the cold tap and quench this thirst.
Meeting a (really really smelly) female under the age of 30 was likely a very rare occurrence for them, so they each introduced themselves to me, which was nice, if a little bit too drawn out. There was a dog too, Victor, who was very interested in the swampy smell I was giving off.
They finally gave me three bottles of ice cold fat-boy coca cola and 2 litres of the most delicious tap water I’ve ever tasted. The owner, Gérard (like Depardieu “mais sans le gros nez! Hahaha!”), was convinced I was “a huge German who is pretending to be English” for some reason. Even so, he kissed my hand (which had atrocious B.O. from sweaty gloves – no, seriously, it’s a thing), proposed to me, and said I was the most courageous and strange lady he’d ever met. Although they all meant well and had a million questions (as well as multiple tattoos to show me), I insisted I needed to pay and get to Auxerres before nightfall. “ALLES, ALICE! COURAGE! VALEUR! ALLES!” they shouted as I left.
(This guy had a tattoo of himself on…himself)
And so, off I pedaled into more hectares of onshore wind farms, sunflowers, and 10ft high crops of Marijuana. Thank you, St. Flavy and it’s geriatric mega-lads, for saving my life that thirsty Sunday.
(One of many fields of 10ft *high* (if you’ll pardon the pun) Marijuana)
I didn’t quite make it to Auxerres by nightfall. Instead, I slept on the outskirts of Arces (or, as I renamed it – the “Arces end of nowhere”) in a ditch.
First thing in the morning, I moved on to Auxerres and absolutely smashed 2 MacDonald’s breakfasts. It was then that I realised (despite my smell and appearance) I was living my best life.
To be continued…