“How was your trip away?”
“Yeah good, hard, but good, you know?”
“So would you do it again?”
“Absolutely categorically no.”
I just finished my first week back at work. I wasn’t due to be back until this coming Monday but my race went tits up so I bagged the extra week of annual leave back and rejoined the rat race. In a way it was nice: saw my colleagues again, got back to some sort of “normal” life and the extra week of leave means I can plan something else before 1st April next year. In other ways it was daunting: they’d all been tracking me and rightly so they wanted to know everything, see the pictures and hear my experiences but frankly, I really didn’t want to revisit the wheres, whys, whos and wherefores so soon.
So how was transcon, Grace?
It was really fucking hard. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so prepared and underprepared for something in my life. My training was pretty extensive and you’d probably be hard-pushed to find someone who invested so much into the last six months as I did. I paid a coach for god’s sake! I did a decent number of audaxes, club rides, overnighters and turbo efforts resulting in over 8000km of training since the beginning of the year. I work a full-time job and anything more than the aforementioned would’ve been pretty tight to fit in.
The start in Geraardsbergen was electric: the atmosphere was like nothing I’ve ever experienced and the entire town came out to wish us well up the cobbles of The Muur. I thought I’d end up napping a few hours after the 10pm start but actually, I ended up doing one of my longest days in the race. Adrenaline, I guess. I felt good, I felt strong, I felt like I belonged on that start line and I could see myself on the finish line.
Then Frank died in the Ardennes. At first, I didn’t really process what happened but after I’d slept and reread all the news and emails we got about his death, I felt incredibly vulnerable. I’d cycled through the Ardennes just hours before Frank, so it could’ve quite easily been me who’d suffered that demise. I sought every possible bike path I could thereafter – I decided the pretty, less direct way was worth it if it meant I survived this race.
I saw some incredible sights and had experiences that will stick with me forever: Alpine sunsets, freshly laid tarmac on traffic-free bike paths with a tunnel every few metres, camels in France, riding down to Bassano del Grappa at night along the river surrounded by the shadows of the towering mountains on either side, pictures in front of silly town name signs, talking to locals along bike paths ensuring they (and I) don’t break the rules, leapfrogging fellow riders day after day, sharing hotel rooms with a complete stranger, a friendly beep in Innsbruck and well wishes from the driver, border crossings I never thought I’d do on a bike, the weird hybrid languages you hear around borders of countries, deer running across the road in front of me, gelato with another mountain view, getting dropped by every man, woman and child on an e-bike, the beautiful and enticing Tagliamento, too many cans of Fanta to count, change from €5 after buying two croissants, a donut and a coffee, the sounds of cowbells as the moo-moos munched their way through the day, a viking festival in Karlsruhe, being higher than the fog at sunrise, seeing McDonald’s signs in the middle of nowhere…the list goes on. Point is, I did have fun and I absolutely loved parts of it.
Then the heatwave came. Progress slowed, I felt awful, I knew I wouldn’t make it to CP3 before it closed, motivation was lost, personality failure ensued. I asked myself, and others, why I was doing this. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, someone already died, the roads in Eastern Europe were shit, I couldn’t possibly lose another layer – that’d be inappropriate, Monte Grappa was horrible, I was cycling for the sake of cycling. And that’s why I scratched.
I didn’t sign up to fall out of love with cycling. I wanted to fuel the passion I had for it and do something totally out of my comfort zone. Perhaps this was too far and I aimed too high. How naive of me. I don’t doubt that had the weather been 10ºC cooler, I’d have finished in time but it wasn’t. It was boiling hot and having to ration my water because I wasn’t sure where the next petrol station was to refill was torture. Maybe the likes of James Hayden and the others at the pointy end thrive on it but I don’t.
I didn’t want more risks on the roads of Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria which, by accounts already well documented on social media, were many. No shoulder to ride on, driving standards non-existent, huge trucks brushing past riders, feral dogs, roads turning into gravel tracks, another banned road to negotiate mid-race. Fuck it. This isn’t what cycling’s about, surely?
And maybe I’m still bitter from my experience and haven’t yet processed what it all means. Maybe I’m angry at myself, I know I’m certainly disappointed with myself, for knowing I was physically capable but the conditions and circumstances got the better of me. Hindsight’s great, too. I wonder what’d happened if I’d just pushed on through the day I scratched? Maybe things would’ve got better and I’d have made incredible progress and made it to CP3 in time.
I’ve learned a lot from what I managed to do: I can route myself across countries without anything bad happening. I can ride my bike 350km one day and 200km the next for a week at a time, I can ride through the night with confidence, I can find appropriate bivvy spots, I can get a train from rural Austria to Bratislava without speaking a word of English. Best of all, I don’t give up at the first hurdle, I usually give up at the second or third. I could’ve scratched up Monte Grappa but I didn’t, I had a shit day the day after and I still carried on but the straw that broke the camel’s back came on the seventh consecutive scorching hot day and I’d had enough.
You should be so proud still!
You’re right, I probably should be proud. I rode 1700km in one week in six different countries without a single mechanical or tumble. But that’s not what I set out to do. I wanted to do 4000km in two weeks through 11 countries. I wanted to get to Meteora and have a beer with the rest of the field at the finishing party. I wanted to prove to myself that I had the strength to ride across a continent on my own without any outside help. I didn’t want to fail and that’s exactly what I did.
I’ve had countless people tell me otherwise but I didn’t make it to the finish and nothing will change that. I’ve spoken to my family and in telling them about it, I feel like I’m trying to convince myself I feel better about the whole ordeal than I actually do. My parents tell me how proud they are of me and of course I believe them, my Grandma says she too is proud of my achievements and it’s so lovely to hear. It makes me feel like I did do something out there in that week and to mere mortals I did. Even most of my cycling friends wouldn’t do what I did let alone the non-cycling lot.
I’m beginning to understand what they mean when they say quitting is harder than finishing.
Would you do it again?
In its current format, I don’t think I would. It still feels like I have unfinished business with this race but I don’t know that I’ll be going back to sort it out just yet.
I can’t sit here and dwell on what could’ve been. I have no doubt I’ll still be starting conversations with “oh there was this one time somewhere in Austria when…” and reliving all the highs and I’ll take great pleasure from doing that (even if it is a little shameless brag and reminder to everyone that I rode my bike there!) but I’ve also got other things I need and want to do and I’m going to get cracking with them. I’ve started hiking so I want to do a lot more of that this winter, I love wild camping so I’m going to do that, I love sharing my adventures so I’m going to rope in more friends rather than going it alone. I’ve got my sights on a new bike that I want to save up for (which may mean clearing the stable somewhat!). I want to go off-road and do something that gets me out of my comfort zone again. I want to visit and ride through more places and countries and see what they’re all about. I want to meet people and know their story. I’ve got a wishlist of trips and things I want to do as long as my whole body and I’m so excited for it all!
So even though I failed, this is how I’m dealing with it and so far, it ain’t so bad.