ONENINENINE/COLLECTIVERIDER BLOG – INTOTHEUNKNOWN Pt.2
As Sheila rode away from Geraadsbergen and into the night the nervous energy transcended into adventure and she picks up the story from where we left off; The TCR is advertised as a self-supported endurance cycle race by which the organisers mean a lot more than simply carrying loads of kit a very long way by bike. Self-supported means you are on your own in a strange, foreign country with limited access to information, no outside help, and realistically, only the tools you carry. If something unexpected occurs, no matter how fatigued, confused or drenched you become, you still need to be able to make decisions and fix the problems on the ground…
Leaving Belgium, my route had taken me across Europe to CP1, at the top of the Bielerhohe Pass in Austria, and now I was making my way across the Alps to CP2, Mangart Sedlo, in Slovenia. After what seemed like, and probably was, days ascending the Alps I was beginning to flag. Physically all was well. Having ridden through the pains of the body accustoming to the load and the hours on the bike, I was in good shape but it was simply relentless and mentally tiring. Avoiding the illegal to cycle, tunnels of Northern Italy was challenging. No “Going on a Bear Hunt” here as I traveled over and around but never through the long fume filled tunnels. By late afternoon I could be found just north of the Dolomites by the side of the road enjoying the warmth whilst studying my Wahoo.
Looking down at the map, my route followed as close as possible to the main road heading towards Slovenia. But looking up, there in front of me was a perfect cycle path winding away from my route descending into the distance of an adjacent valley. I remember standing there and asking myself, “Sheila, what do you want to do? You have CP2 not that far ahead and you need to keep pushing” – True, but I had entered the TCR to race an adventure, and I could see one right in front of me. I pointed my bike, Merlin, down the cycle path and let go – The pure joy and exhilaration of the 20-kilometre long descent was completely worth it and the sense of freedom immeasurable. I was free and playing hooky from the TCR for two hours. I knew these were hours I could ill afford to lose, but I also knew this was the right decision, and my heart began to soar. I made it to CP2, Bovec in Slovenia in time to have my brevet card stamped and prepared myself for the long haul north to CP3.
Špindlerův Mlýnon, a ski resort on the border of Poland and the Czech Republic, had been chosen for CP3. In my mind this was a cruel joke – who would have cyclists traveling south to Slovenia only to turn them around to head northwards again towards Poland? But then again, who had ever promised me this would be easy?
Outside a supermarket east of Vienna, I was packing away my supplies when I became aware of another cyclist making their way over to me. Glancing at the cap confirmed that he was a TCR rider, an understandably rare sight given two hundred riders spread out across Europe. As we chatted he told me of how he was ‘scratching’ from the race due to knee problems. I looked on in disbelief as this tall, lean, athletic young man told me of his pains and his plan to catch a train home from Vienna. He then went on to encourage me that I was doing well and that I was through the worst parts and it was downhill from here. As he hobbled away pushing his bike towards the station, I got back on Merlin and headed north. I don’t know whether it was the embarrassment that he’d got it wrong or that I was ashamed of my position, but I didn’t dare tell him that I was indeed on my way to CP3 and not as he had assumed on my way back. Either way, I competitively punched the air glad to be still in the race and bizarrely ahead of him.
My glee was short lived and some might call it Hubris. A race report from HQ informed riders that the border route I had chosen between Austria and the Czech Republic was heavy with trucks and as a narrow road it was advised that riders take great care or reroute. Combined with a faulty phone and a close shave as my waterproof fell into my disc brakes causing me to stop and my beloved jacket to be shredded I decided to reroute. Maybe I was fatigued, not thinking straight but I felt that these signs were to be taken seriously. Having traveled as solo female many times the one thing I carry in my toolbox that I take seriously is my intuition. If it demands of me to pay attention, I listen. I rerouted back down the road and headed east up the adjacent valley. I try not to dwell on what calamity may have been lying ahead, waiting for me or if it was the right thing to do, but I do know that it was a decision that cost me half a day at a crucial point in my race.
Cycling back from Poland through the Czech republic it was obvious that not only had I not made CP3 in time, but I was not going to make the finishers party either. If missing the party was tragic, the realisation that I was also going to miss my flight home was just utter rubbish.
I had to adapt and alter my goal plan to fit the reality of my position in the race.
There I was cycling along dream roads with sweeping descents and gentle ascents heading back into Austria on a beautiful sunny August day and the countryside was just breathtaking as I descended to a very pretty village marked by chalets festooned with pink and red flowers. Butterflies were flitting all over and the air was filled with the sound of bells from the many cows ambling in the lush green meadows – perfect, just perfect. I remember cycling steadily up one of the long gentle hills out of the village just as tears began to fall down my grubby face. I had to let go, I wasn’t going to make the party, my flight or the weekend relaxing on the beaches of Greece and it was all too much. I stopped Merlin and ‘dropped’ him onto the green grass. I walked away from the bike and sat down on the verge, my head in my hands.
I was just so sad – sad because I was so busy riding this race, so focused on getting to Greece that I wasn’t allowing myself a moment to stop, to take in and enjoy this beauty all around me. What’s the point? What am I doing? What the hell am I doing this for? This is a typical dark moment in an endurance race that I have come to accept will most likely happen and usually it’s best to just give in to it. As I sat there feeling sorry for myself a car came up the hill and stopped.
As the car door flung open, two ladies bounded out and rushed over to where I sat. From their perspective I must have had a terrific crash and seriously injured myself… why else would a rider be separated by meters from her bike and sat on the grass holding her head in her hands, crying! They were horrified by my distress and wanted to help me if they could. This small intervention of human kindness, three little words, ”are you ok?” are all it takes to get you back on your bike, and most importantly back in the race. “Yes, yes, I am, I really am” From my tear-stained face a huge grin began to emerge and wiping my eyes as I headed back to Merlin. I reassured them all was indeed well and I was over it. Renewed in spirit and lighter on the pedals, I cycled off into the distance leaving my saviours, mouths agape and heads shaking in disbelief at this resurrection of a wannabe racer. Party or no party, I was on my way to CP4 in Croatia…
Photos by Sheila and Charles Woollam
Sheila picked up a bicycle nine years ago and rode the Camino from Canterbury to Santiago de Compostella. That’s quite a first ride but since then she’s ridden unsupported around Iceland, from Tunbridge Wells to Budapest, completed the London-Edinburgh-London event and competed in the 2018 Transcontinental, riding 4,202km / 39,352m in 21 days. 2019 saw Sheila winning the long route in the Race around the Netherlands, and after a few weeks of rest, Sheila competed in the Pan Celtic Race around Scotland, Ireland and Wales placing 2nd Solo Female on the long route. What’s next? Watch this space for updates! #TCRNo6cap127 #RATNCapNo88
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