So here it is. My story, 2644 miles, from Geraardsbergen to Istanbul over 2 weeks and through 11 countries. It was a pretty awesome experience and definitely, by far the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I’m going to apologise upfront for the pictures – often I’d forget to take some, or they were too blurry and I didn’t have a film crew to take non-selfie pictures of me.
The past 6 months...
November 30th 2014, I'd signed up. I had filled in the questionnaire but had my doubts I'd get on. Oh shit, 'what experience do you have in this kind of thing?'. I had no response and just left it blank. If I get on, the next 9 months will be plenty of time to get 'experience'.
Surprisingly a few weeks later I got the email saying that I had been accepted. This was an even bigger 'oh shit' moment; somehow I had managed to slip through the net and Mike had let me sign up. Now what was I to do?
The first things I did were to start reading others' blogs and to start saving some money. Nothing really happened from October till January - it was cold and I was working long 80-100 hour weeks but the plan was, come January, to get on the bike and start pedalling. The initial plan was to start at 100km a week and increase it 5% each week. The weather, winter and work continued to play its toll and training never really took off.
At about this point I decided to start on the off-bike preparation. So I created this site to start both documenting the process and getting my thoughts onto paper. I came up with a kit-list in February.
Then in late February/March I went off to Japan to begin my 'training'. I didn't do as much cycling out there as I'd hoped but I definitely kick-started it. The cycling out there was fantastic; smooth roads, considerate drivers and brilliant climbs but the temptations of Japanese beer, sushi and onsen were too much and subsequently spent rather more time off the bike. I would certainly recommend Japan for cycling - you just need a lot longer. Three weeks is not enough for both sightseeing/cycling/eating/drinking in a country.
When I got back to England I realised my fitness was not what it should have been and at this point my training had to kick up a gear. I decided to go largely vegan for a few months which resulted in a significant weight loss of about a stone however I wouldn't say it was necessarily down to the vegan elements of the diet more the fact that I didn't eat so much shitty MacDonald’s and frozen pizza. Although don't get me wrong, I love MacDonald's, and it would form a core staple of my TCR diet.
In terms of cycling I started up my usual things; chain-gangs, TTs, club runs, casual rides with my dad and friend Robbie Zhao. But the cycling never got too serious in terms of miles.
It was at this point I spoke to a friend’s dad - head of British cycling development and here was his advice:
'The advice you need, only a doctor can do well. '
Other than that he suggested that training needn't last longer than 4 hours as this was the point at which fat starts to get burned and this is what I should train my body to do well. He also said that to supplement these 4 hour rides with weight sessions and stretching.
Nutritionally he said that it was key to continue eating and that no more than 60g of carbs was needed and anymore would waste energy in terms of digestion. He also stressed the importance of protein and suggested that 10g an hour was a good idea as well as lots before and after.
I encountered my first other TCR rider when André Schuster emailed me having found my site and asked me some questions. It was a great relief to discover that I had someone in a similar boat in being as inexperienced as me.
Over the next few months the training grew albeit very marginally but the kit list grew more specific and longer and I started to ask for sponsorship. I was very lucky in that another friend's dad, Iain Brown, kindly bought me my rain jacket and then a few weeks later my local and the best outdoor shop in Cambridge - Open Air - gave me a Rab gilet.
With 2 months to go I knew what I needed to get but didn't have the money - it was going to be close before the event before I got everything - leaving not a lot of time for kit testing. I also began my route planning. If I'm honest, I basically just let Strava do the entire route which actually worked out well - mostly. I'll come onto the rest of that later.
With about a month to go I did my first big ride of the year - the Dunwich Dynamo. I did just about 350km. However, I pulled my Vastus medialis and ended up in A&E. I thought this was curtains. I expect the cause of this was perhaps pushing it too hard on the London-Dunwich section and then stopping at the beach in Dunwich for a full English without stretching. The good news on this ride was that I had felt no other pain at all - certainly thanks to Tim William's excellent bike fit which he had done for me a few weeks earlier. One week off the bike focused my “expert” abilities on route planning, kit ffinalising, Wiggle ordering and Netflix.
On July 15 I left the UK with my two friends Robbie and Ollie to head to France for a week of Alpine cycling including l'étape du Tour. As you can imagine this trip turned into another classic 'Joe Todd tries to go cycling in another country but ends up doing something else/drinking a lot'. We did manage the étape which I did in 8 hours and 11 minutes. But after that we spent a lot of time drinking and we found a lot of pleasure in hitchhiking and spent the remaining 4 days after l'étape going up and down the mountains thanks to the generosity of strangers rather than our bodies' fitness.
Back home on the 22nd I had only 36 hours before I needed to leave for Belgium. A quick kit wash, final purchases and bike service all ensued. Final meals, and friends were seen. I cleverly had the idea to stay up late the night before in order to get my body ready for the midnight start - really good idea that was! At 6 am my mum kindly drove me to Cambridge railway station, and transferred some money into my almost empty bank account , and now the adventure was about to begin.
I caught the 0715 training from Cambridge to King's Cross. It was the commuter train and I could tell everyone was keen to avoid the cyclist in Lycra even though at this point I was still very clean - I'd literally used a week's worth of soap in my last shower in lieu of probably not washing much for the next two weeks. Then I took the Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels. This was very smooth - no issues here and did manage to get 3 hours of sleep on the train. After that I had a short 40 km cycle from Brussels to Geraardsbergen. Now this got me worried. I started cycling and found myself on cycle paths and gravel roads - now these are car free and nice for a casual cycle but not for serious clocking up of mileage - was this a sign for what was to come thanks to my lazy route planning? I also had my first puncture and my headset started clicking - which actually continued for the next 14 days.
I arrived in Geraardsbergen tired and stressed out. To make matters worse I had only navigated to top of the Muur and had no idea where anything was. I saw another TCR rider and thought about asking but was worried that he'd only think 'if this guy can't find the registration centre then how will he cope with getting across the entire continent'? So after an hour or so of cycling around Geraarsbergen I came across more and more cyclists and found the registration centre.
I joined the queue of waiting participants. I was pretty nervous and shy and spent most of my time trying to figure everyone out. Nelson Trees introduced himself but I was a bit out of it to really chat - luckily I'd meet him a few times later and he turned out to be a great guy.
With registration done, tracker on and pre-photo done I went in search of a bike shop to sort out some niggles and buy a new tube. After that I went to the first of many Lidls to stock up on food. Here I'd meet the great Simon and Jon who I'd consistently meet for the next week. We then cycled up for the final briefing on the Muur where I met another Cambridgeshire racer - Alex Metcalfe and fellow LFGSS forumer James Hayden, who would go on to absolutely smash the first half of the race but unfortunately ended up with Shermer's neck. He was certainly my favourite serious guy and he even let me drill him for a bit for advice at the end.
This was the point where my 'stay up all the previous night' plan started to fail. They had promised to reopen the registration hall for riders to get some sleep. I turned up at around 7pm but it wasn't open till 10pm. It did give me a good chance to meet some other riders and was the first time I'd really experienced some of the TCR camaraderie, which I would come to love. Christian Ekdahl, Gregory Barry, two Australians, Matthew Swain and I all had a big chat from the race to kit choices and with two Australians behind present obviously Durian rider. Eventually I got in and used the WiFfi, charged my phone and ate a giant pile of mayonnaise and chips, but failed to sleep.
At 11:30 it was back to the top of the Muur. It was very exciting up there. Lots of fire torches and large crowds had gathered. There were cameras and even drones! I finally bumped into André about 15 minutes before the start - wished each other luck and shook hands. The mayor came out and gave a speech and before we knew it we were off.
The race began at 00:00 on July 25th. It was pretty exhilarating, especially with it being my first ever mass race start. We began with a lap of the Muur with the control vehicle - all of the serious guys (and me for some reason) were riding at the front right behind the control vehicle. I caught up with James who was chatting to Josh Ibbet who would go onto win the race. I wished James the best of luck with the race having read his blog I knew he was serious about racing it rather than surviving it like my plan was. After a final climb of the Muur we finished and departed our own ways. Another 'oh shit' moment: I was the only one to go my direction and I ended up on a bloody canal path.
After about 15 km I eventually see some lights - it was André! So we cycled together for a while but after 40 km or so we made our separate ways - André to the east. At about 2:30am the clouds had thickened and I could see some lightening in the distance. Luckily the storm didn't hit until about 5am. I was also, at this point, absolutely starving. Luckily I entered a village and found a bakery open, I met some other riders here. With my jersey stuffed with croissants and coke I headed back out into the night.
When the sun started to rise so did the storm. Headwinds and thick rain came down through northern France. I began to get really cold so I decided It may be sensible to ignore my initial plan of no stopping till night on the first day. I felt pretty shit. I managed to find refuge in an abandoned barn where some French yoofs had started to literally shit everywhere. I got naked and tried to dry my clothes. I struggled to sleep constantly worrying that French yoofs would come to do their daily shits to discover a naked English guy and have a field day. I managed to get a few minutes of sleep but woke up to find a mouse crawling over my leg. I felt really shit. I was still cold and now I felt guilty that I had stopped so early on. I put on my wet clothes and continued on.
The rain started to relax a bit but my left leg began to hurt. It was then exacerbated by the undulating hills of Champagne. I eventually found a town with a pharmacy and got some Dolipan - a lovely strong continental pain killer. Speaking to my sister, who is a doctor, she informed me that what I had been doing was extremely dangerous - I'd been taking about 4-8 grams of paracetamol a day, which could have resulted in liver failure. This was the turning point of the day. The weather improved and my leg healed up and I was able to appreciate the magnificent French countryside of Champagne. The rest of the day went without any significant events. I got to Troyes where I demolished the first of many MacDonald's and utilised the Wi-Fi and toilet facilities. I enquired about a hotel but it was about 150 euros. I continued on for about another 80 km. This part of the trip was fantastic - I was in the lovely French countryside it was warm and I was the only person for miles and the wind had died. I got to a small village and built myself a small shack in a building site. At about 10:30pm I was fast asleep.
I awoke with a start. I was absolutely fucking freezing. It was about 3am. I knew I had made a mistake not bringing a bivvy bag. My hands were completely numb and I was shivering uncontrollably. I had to run up and down the street and do star jumps to warm up - even when slightly warmer it still took about an hour to pack up even though it was just a sleeping mat and liner. I managed to get on the road at 4am, which was a bonus. It was quite nice cycling on the truly empty roads and I even encountered a family of wild boars which squealed and ran away as some crazy cyclist woke them up at 4am. When I got to a village a sign above a pharmacy revealed that it was 6 degrees! Six degrees in France?! In July?! At around 6:30am the sun rose and I found a small town that had a bank open. I managed to get a good hour and half of peaceful warm sleeping done in the bank only to be woken by a man in military uniform standing above me trying to get money from the ATM above my head.
At 8am I continued my journey and was pleased to encounter Simon and Jon again. They were just outside the village that I had been sleeping in repairing one of their many punctures, I waved and continued on - it would not be the last time today.
Now this was the MacDonald's day. I passed Jon and Simon again, repairing another puncture and entered the first MacDonald's of the day. Now I must stress the importance of MacDonald's for me - it was my sanctuary from the race. It was a nice air conditioned unit, with familiar food, power outlets, clean toilets, Wi-Fi. It was guaranteed that I would not be the smelliest person in there and nobody would give a shit if I fell asleep in there with my bike at the table. It also became a common meeting point for TCR riders. At most points in the day it was virtually guaranteed that you would meet another rider tucking into a family's worth of food.
The rest of the day was great - I went through some very nice white wine country and managed to maintain a fairly fast pace. I got to a city.... And saw Simon and Jon again. It was at this point I cycled on my first big road which I cruised down for 3-4 hours. Second MacDonald's of the day done, I met Simon and Jon again as I was leaving. We spoke of sores and the fine art of applying chamois cream. Nearing Lyon I had my 3rd and final MacDonald's of the day - a perfect day for me.
This next section was some of the best cycling I'd have. The evening from around 7pm-10pm would become one my favourite times on the bike. The roads had quietened, the heat & wind had dropped and I normally found myself in some nice place. The roads around Lyon were fantastically smooth and rolling and went from quaint village to village.
I got through to the south of Lyon and found a football stadium to camp in. I got round to the back only to find another TCR rider already camped there! Only after the event using track leaders did I discover that it was Neil Jack Peterson, At around 1:30am I got to sleep.
I was back on the ride at around 6am. This day was fairly unexceptional aside from the immense heat and my obvious route failure. Today I was going to reach Mont Ventoux but rather than taking the flat, slightly indirect route following the river I took the direct route which went over some large hills. Compared to other days I only saw one rider (Emily Chappell) until the check point (CP).
At around 7pm I had arrived at Bedouin and found some pizza. I had noticed that when I got to Provence all the villages had become extremely pretty and I just wished I was here under more relaxing conditions. I tucked into my pizza and I was just finishing it when I turned around and saw Mike Hall and the others round the corner. I had a great chat with them and met Barney who was filming the event and the eccentric photographer Camille McMillan, who had been on the Cambridge Chain Gang 15 years ago.
With my morale improved, I continued on up the mountain. Having been told that it was the perfect time to climb, the wind having dropped and temperature cooling, I found myself in that perfect 7-10pm time yet again for the third day in a row except this time I was climbing Mont Ventoux - a true bucket list climb. Previous to that the hardest climb I had done was Col Du Glandon, which now seemed easy in comparison. The first 2 hours were in the steep forest then the final 8k was on the intensely windy open section. The temperature had really dropped but I continued on, powering up still only in my skinsuit. At about 10:00 I arrived at the summit and passed Jon and Simon again. Only at this point did I realise it was absolutely freezing.
With CP1 done and 65th position I was fairly happy. To take some refuge, I went into the Mont Ventoux cafe/bar where an Italian team were buying everybody beers and chips - the dinner of champions. The wind was howling and the prospect of leaving the warm cafe with the good company was not good. After about an hour we had stuffed our jerseys with newspapers and went outside. The wind was so extreme that I descended the first 3 km unclipped at about 10 km/h. From then on the decent was fantastic. Silky smooth roads with few bends found me 20 minutes down the road having done 15 km in the village of Sault.
I decided to continue on from Sault to the village of Aurel. Cycling from Sault, as I looked in the hedges I could see about 10 cyclists all bivvying alongside the road and I found myself a nice storm drain to sleep in. It was surprisingly warm especially with the newspaper.
The fourth day was absolutely fantastic. I awoke at about 5:30am and I peered out of my storm drain to see a rider passing by. By 6 I was on the road and the day began with a very pleasant 8 km climb through some Provençal villages.
It was here that I met my favourite racer. I'd just finished the climb and then I saw a rider coming towards me. This was my first encounter with #159 Patricio Ortiz de Rozas. We cycled down the mountain together and for most of the morning. Pat was a great guy we cycled out of Provence and past Gap which took about 6 hours. We discussed everything from our injuries to Ventoux to motor biking. Just after Gap we got to a fruit market at which point I left Pat in search of a toilet and a recharge point (a MacDonald's would have been extremely useful!).
The ride from Provence to Gap was brilliant - it was largely downhill and came through a fantastic gorge. Then from Gap it entered the Alps where it became stunning - the only problem was the intense heat. Passing through the Alps we passed lakes and went up climbs and a MacDonald's (where I bumped into Pat again and a crazy German guy who shared my passion for MacDonald's).
Before CP2 there would be 3 fairly significant climbs. The ffirst was along the valley floor to Briancon where I met the Italians again. The second I did with a pair of Germans (after another MacDonald's of course) where we went through some pretty cool tunnels. The third one I did extremely slowly. Eventually at about 8pm I got to the check point.
Of all the check points this was my favourite. As I had arrived so late (or relatively late) the organisers suggested that I leave Asseta until the morning and that I check into the hotel. 'Oh no! What am I going to have to do?!' It was an easy choice. I checked into the hotel and went for a great meal with some other riders, some of the volunteers and Camille. A few beers later and some fantastic pasta I was back in the hotel washed and ready for some sleep. To cut some costs I shared the room with another rider - Rod Aitchison. We chatted for a bit about our rides, he was suffering from significant knee pain and had accidentally descended the mountain we were on from the wrong side and had to do a bonus climb.
Rod and I had discussed putting on an alarm for 5am but for some reason both of us had forgotten. In the end we woke up at 7am after a good 8 hours of sleep. I went down to breakfast in my unfortunately still wet skin suit and I met Jon and Simon again who had arrived at the hotel late the previous night and had fully involved themselves in the hotel bar.
I was told that the Assietta could take between 3 and 10 hours depending on conditions/punctures. At 8am I set out on my adventure. The first part was a 7km climb and I thought it was largely okay - there were some difficult patches where I really had to put down the power in order to avoid falling off. After the first climb I caught up with Jon and Simon again. I reached the peak at about 10am where I took some photos.
Little did I realise the worst was yet to come. The descent was actually slower than the climb. The road became brutal and my 23c tyres showed their weakness. Jon and Simon swiftly caught up with me again. Eventually 4.5 hours after I left I reached the bottom where Jon, Simon and I went for a great breakfast. It was the first time I had encountered the crazily enthusiastic New Zealander Chris Bennet who insisted we all try the yoghurt. He was correct and the yoghurt was brilliant but I couldn't help feel that it would be improved by some strawberry jam in the corner.
One final road climb up the Finestre and then an off road decent (which Contador had won on in the Giro) would finally see me done with the Alps. However, near the bottom I bumped into André. He unfortunately had had 5 punctures and looked pretty damn miserable. Unable to do anything I was forced to continue to Susa.
It was after lunch and I had only clocked 50 km! But now I knew it was downhill till Turin and then flat till Slovenia. I shifted my saddle forwards and up for a more aggressive TT position (I'd regret that). Finally though I managed some speed and got to Turin in about 2 hours. Locating a MacDonald's in Turin I tested out the Italian fare and it was pretty damn good. The fries were decent chunky chips and the burger may have even been served medium rare!
After that it would 160 km of the Po Valley. At the start I relished the flat land but by the end it was my nemesis; a never ending hot road, with trucks, headwinds and bloody Mosquitos. After spending many hours cycling I eventually found ways to overcome boredom . Music helped a lot and I actually got a chance to listen to some music I hadn’t listened to a long time. I also luckily have both the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars soundtracks on my iPod so I was able to play the movies in my head whilst listening to the soundtracks. Another interesting thing to keep me going was the constant conversion between kilometres and miles. I’d also treat myself every two or three hours to a quick look at my phone to see where I was on the map.
At 6pm I stocked up for the night with another brilliant MacDonald's and headed out into the darkness. Just as I was leaving I bumped into Pat once again but continued on - he'd made a detour from his route to get here - for some reason my route naturally went past it almost as if some prior to the race I had pin pointed all of the MacDonald's in Europe and chosen a route between them.
This part was one of the worst for me. I rang my sister, mum and dad for the first time and they told me of the great fun they were having dot watching. But then the Mosquitos hit. I made the foolish mistake of stopping and immediately I was swarmed by them. My body began itching intensely. At times I would have to stop to itch. I thought I was going to have to scratch (pun not intended). Eventually the pain was too much - I found the first person and begged them for spray - nothing. I found an Italian bar and they brought out some industrial spray. After using literally a full can I was still in pain. It was at this point that I first felt the generosity of the general public. A group of Italians took me out to the streets and started throwing buckets of water on me. This may not sound generous but it was truly was magnificent. An old guy bought me some cokes and a panini. However, the itches continued - eventually one of them took me to their house for a cold bath and even lent me their toothbrush and razor (I declined). I was just finishing my bath when I heard lots of talking outside. I peered outside and it was Pat!
Pat had been speaking to the locals and they had informed him that the Po Valley at sunset was famous for small Mosquitos that would massacre anyone in the countryside and cause allergic type inflammation. Pat and I continued on cycling together for 3 hours until we reached a hotel. We shared a hotel room together. It was quite a funny moment, at 3am Pat and I were both naked in our bathroom towels sharing some milk and cookies chatting about the ride so far.
This was largely a very low day for me. I had initially planned to be past the half way point by this day and so far this had not come to fruition. Out of the hotel by 8am, my aim to was to hit my 400 km target by the end of the day - a target that I would not achieve, only increasing my feeling of guilt.
I managed a quarter of my target, 100 km, by noon and stopped off for an espresso. The Italians do caffeine in a fantastic way. I'd stop off in a little cafe and place a euro on the bar and be immediately presented with a double espresso and a sugar sachet. You'd pour the sugar into the espresso and drink. It was a brilliant drink with the bitter coffee followed by the intensely sweet dregs of the dissolved sugar/coffee mixture at the bottom.
At about 3pm after a MacDonald's I bumped into Jon and Simon. I was pretty glad to see them as I had been feeling pretty bad all morning. For the rest of the day I cycled with them. We had a good time chatting, stopping for Italian ice cream (petrol station ice cream), and trying to find a lake/river for swimming. However, in the evening morale dropped. Jon and Simon were both suffering from injuries. We bumped into a supporter who had been waiting for us with a sign - unfortunately we weren't as enthusiastic as we could have been. It had been another long monotonous day in the Po Valley and now we had to transverse the urban jungle that is the outskirts of Venice.
Venice, or the part we were in, was awful. It was stop start traffic with confusing roads and prostitutes every 50 metres - far from the gondolas punting tourists down the canals. Eventually we got to a MacDonald's where Jon and Simon kindly waited for me to charge and indulge myself in another fantastic Italian Big Mac.
Eventually we finished with Venice but the rain had started. Should we go on or not? We made the correct choice and stopped. We went into a Pizzeria. At this point the rain absolutely bucketed down. We were fairly close to Venice airport so we tried some of the nearby airport hotels but unfortunately all were full. We ended up bivvying in the airport terminal which I personally thought was pretty good with it being warm and secure. It was also the closest to being home – I could see Easy-jet fflights were available for the next day.
Jon and I awoke to discover that Simon, Jon's partner, had gone. Simon had been struggling to sleep for the last few days and had decided to continue on for a bit - he was about 20 km ahead of us. Jon called Simon asking what was up and Simon said that he may scratch but he was going onto Ljubljana and going to get an early night and sleep on the matter. Jon went ahead in order to catch up with Simon and to see what the situation really was and whether a scratch was really on the cards.
In the morning I was going to be cycling through Udine in Italy where a friend of mine was training with the professional cycling team Friuli. However, my ffirst significant mechanical (a busted gear cable) prevented me from getting to Udine in time.
Nearing the Slovenian border I stopped following my route and just followed signs to Ljubljana. This is how I met perhaps the most eccentric character on the race - David Goldberg.
David Goldberg was a veteran to these events, having completed numerous Tour Divides and a Trans Am. He had literally thousands of stories he could recite to me and did so riding a long side me with Italian and Slovenian lorry drivers bleating their horns at him without batting his eye lids - occasionally he'd say 'Man, I don't give a shit'. We cycled for a few hours discussing everything and eventually got to Slovenia where we had lunch together. David if you're reading this I still owe you 10 euros! After lunch we parted ways.
David had taught me an important thing though - it's all about tits. He stressed that Time In The Saddle was key to these events and it didn't really matter too much how fast you actually travelled when cycling just how much of your time was spent riding. From this point my mentality significantly changed and this is really where I started to gain places. I no longer would stop at every petrol station to stock up I would now fill every Jersey pocket and water bottle to the maximum extent and go for as long as possible without stopping. I'd try to do everything without stopping. I even pissed a few times on the bike - mostly pissing all over my leg and shoes but by that point 'man, I don't give a shit'.
It was also this day that I really pushed myself and got ahead of the bunch that I was with. I got to the Slovenian capital at around 8pm and rather than locating a MacDonald's, I located a supermarket and bought thousands of biscuits and chocolate bars - this was now going to become my diet for the next week. I thought should I stop here and get an early night and wake early? I knew though that that plan doesn't work too well for me and I tend to wake up at the same time no matter what. I decided to set the goal of Zagreb and I would not sleep until I got there. This new goal setting process significantly helped me.
I finally got to at Zagreb at 3:30am. It was at this point I felt most uneasy on my trip. On my way a car had swerved into my lane as a joke at high speed, I saw a car getting pulled over for obvious drink driving and in Zagreb I saw a lot of violence between some kids. Despite there being many signs for hotels I had a real struggle to find any. Eventually after about 45 minutes of searching on the cobbled and tram lined streets I found a hotel.
Day 8 was one of my favourite days on the bike. The roads were largely flat and it was the first day that there was no significant headwind (obviously there was still some). I actually got quite lucky in regards to winds as apparently in Slovenia the next day there were gusts of up to 60 km/h
Out by 9am I was on the road again having consumed what was soon going to become an intrinsic staple of my diet - the hotel breakfast of loads of bread, ham and cheese. I bumped into my first TCR rider in a long time – Martin Frerichs. We were both planning to get to CP3 that evening.
The day largely went well and I failed to experience the aggressive Croatian drivers that many riders spoke of. Unfortunately Croatia was also the site of my last MacDonald's and from then on my diet would consist of buffet breakfasts and petrol station shit (ice cream, biscuits, chocolate, crisps and coke). This perhaps explained my increase in speed too - no longer would I ever stop for more than 20 minutes at a time.
By 6pm the winds had completely dropped and I was really putting down the power, perhaps foolishly. I was significantly wasting energy but it was fun. It was about this time that I passed this sleeping cyclist - a classic TCR image.
Eventually at just before midnight I reached CP3. The main volunteer gang had departed that morning but still there manning the CP were the lovely folk at Apidura. A brief chat with them and a failed attempt to get some food from the hotel and I was checked in. I had initially planned to wash all of my kit and sort everything but that failed as soon as I hit the bed.
Eight hours of blissful sleep later I awoke feeling refreshed although panicked. Quickly wolfing down another breakfast consisting of bread, cheese and ham I got on the road. Luckily I asked at the CP if most people who had checked in the previous had already got on the road and most people had had similar ideas to me and had a lie in.
Today was hot and I noticed a significant worsening in drivers. The move into Bosnia went without a hitch and I was pleasantly surprised - the roads were still in good condition and there were plenty of petrol stations with Wi-Fi. It was also the day that I may see some of the CP 4/3 switchers.
Around lunchtime the traffic ceased but the hills started. If I'm honest I actually don't mind the hills now - time seems to go by quicker and it was great relief from the past 4/5 days of flatlands. However, it was the mountains that saw my first bonk - I got to the top of the climb shaking all over and went into a shop hoping that they would take card - nope. Luckily I was able to roll down the hill a few km and I got to a petrol station. Inside I ravaged them for three tins of sardines (for some reason I had a giant craving) and a whole pile of chocolate and Red Bull. The guy running the petrol saw me massacre a tin of sardines and came out with a loaf of bread for me to have with the sardines instead - a much better idea.
Well-fed and covered in Sardine oil I continued down the hill. After that I effectively had one long descent into Sarajevo. I passed two of the 4/3 switchers one of whom was the absolutely crazy Stephan Ouaja #152 who was riding on a fixed gear. As darkness came so too did the traffic. I found the best thing to do was to cycle fairly assertively in the middle of the road and hold out your arm. I got a few toots but often they were toots of consideration after they had passed and I had waved at them. I was fairly lucky with the cars and only had 2-3 incidents where they came within any significant distance (all in Turkey).
As I approached Sarajevo the traffic became immediately worse although it was pretty slow. My initial plan had been to sleep in the airport on the south side and get a quick exit of the city in the morning. However, in the end I decided to go into the city centre. To my surprise Sarajevo was in full party mode and I got a lot of abuse in my cycling gear. I found a very nice/cheap hotel and slept. Something I perhaps hadn't considered was that Sarajevo was not the halfway point between CP3 and 4. It was certainly not the halfway point in terms of climbing - oh well, the next day was going to be tough.
Today was a monster day with crazy climbing. Up early - well, early for me I got on the road at about 7. I could see large thunder clouds and waited for the rain to begin - lucky for me it never did. The day continued and continued with climb after climb. The day went fairly steadily through Bosnia. In the mountains, however, the shops were few and far between and I stupidly chose not to restock in order to save time. I got severely dehydrated and by the time I was finally off the Bosnian mountains I was going delirious. Eventually I guzzled about 2 litres of water at the first petrol station and continued. Looking to the east I could see some pretty impressive storm clouds. Luckily I headed directly south for an hour or so and was able to avoid the worst of the rain.
From the Bosnian border to Koto border we had a very fast decent. I really kicked in the gear and put down the power once again - perhaps foolishly. I was hitting 70 km/h at times despite some Bosnian youths deciding it would be hilarious to overtake me in their car, then slow down. I wasn't actually too fussed at the safety implications more that they had ruined my rhythm in my awesome Bradley Wiggins does TCR mode. Oh well. Eventually I turned off to Montenegro.
By this point I had become sceptical of my own route finding - lots of times I had gone on rough roads that significantly slow you down, so I tried to communicate with a local whether my initial route would be bumpy or smooth. His hand movements suggested bumpy but his thumbs up and big grin also suggested that I should htfu and do it anyway.
The road out of Bosnia was fairly bumpy but nothing to worry about - there weren't any potholes to watch out which is the key. Eventually I got to the border. They pulled me over. Fuck, what had I done?! They then took me into the office where three border police looked at me. Eventually a fourth one entered only to be holding a bar of soap. Apparently I was too dirty to enter Montenegro so they showed me to a bathroom and I had to clean my face and legs.
Oddly, as soon as I entered Montenegro the road surfaces significantly improved. After about an hour I passed by first other TCR rider in 24 hours: Andrej Zaman. He was stopping for some food in a restaurant - I'd just had my dinner of a bag of haribo eaten in about 15 seconds. The decent into the Kotor bay was fairly nice. However, at about 10 km from the bottom, I thought I had made a terrible mistake and gone down the wrong side of the bay. Fearing that it would cost me hours I began frantically searching my phone. I was screaming fuck all the way down the mountain. To make matters worse I almost killed myself going into a pitch black tunnel with no lights and having to stop and, not realising my speed on the descent, almost skidding down most of the mountain. Eventually I got to the bottom and realised that my route was probably the correct version and, had I followed my Garmin accurately, I would have probably ended up on Col d'Assietta mark 2.
It was also extremely hot. I went round the bay thinking how nice it would be to come back here on a holiday. About an hour later I made it to Kotor - I was pretty excited with the prospect of getting to the CP4. I restocked, including 4 litres of juice, and headed up the mountain. I thought it was a pretty cool climb actually - the hair pin bends were surprisingly flat and the views, despite being dark, were pretty cool. There was a huge lightning storm out on the sea which looked pretty sweet from up on the mountain. Barney drove past me on the climb up, apparently Josh was about to make it - so he was about 3-4 days ahead of me - fuuuck.
Eventually got to the CP. Unfortunately it wasn't the fanfare I'd hoped, just the quiet night shift, but it was still good to relax and chat for a while. I was informed that I needed to continue up the mountain for a bit and collect what the sign said at the top. Thinking it was only a few km up, I set off into the night. Finally at about 2am I made it to the top of the mountain where I met Jonathan Elliot. Despite it being close to 40oC at the sea it was absolutely freezing at the top. I couldn't sleep there, so I headed down the mountain until it got warmer. Eventually it did as I got to the town of Certinje - the old capital of Montenegro.
I tried to find a bivvy spot but dogs would keep coming to find me. Luckily the town had free Wi-Fi and I was able to locate a hotel. I turned up and the receptionist said 50 euros. Okay I thought. Then he said, actually it's late - 36 euros. Cool nice I thought. Then he said fuck it's really late 25 euros. Sweet, this really good. Then he said, “Actually that includes tax I'll knock it down to 20”. Wow that was the easiest negotiation I've ever had. Got to the room and passed out for 5 hours.
Yet another bread, cheese and ham breakfast later I was on the road by 9am. I did the 20 km descent to Podgorica. Found some free Wi-Fi and searched for the nearest MacDonald's as it was a fairly large big town - but oh no: no McDonald's in the entire Montenegro. I'd liked you so much before today - cya Montenegro, hello Albania.
Within 3 hours I'd be regretting these words. Immediately across the border the roads worsened and it got hot - very hot. Then about an hour in I had eaten all my food and drunk all my water. Thankfully,there were plenty of petrol stations... but they would not accept my card or euros. Eventually, about 2 hours later, I reached the town of Shkoder where I eventually found the only ATM in the entire city. I took out some cash and continued the demolishing of Haribo and Oreos.
Eventually, I got out of the busy flats and into the mountains again. I went past the infamous bear that tried destroying Josh Ibbet's bike as he'd tried to take a photo. The roads worsened and got fairly pot-holly. At about 10pm, where the road was particularly pot-holly I met Ervin. Ervin was an Italian who had come to visit the rest of his family and his childhood home in Albania. He saw me struggling and invited me to the house.
The hospitality was incredibly generous, despite me smelling like a skunk. They washed and reclothed me. Then they fed me a feast. They kept bringing out dish after dish even though I hadn't finished the first plate. Eventually they brought out a giant bowl of offal just for me! It wasn't bad actually! At about midnight they saw me tiring and took me the bedroom. I crashed out blissfully for 6 hours. I felt bad though as I hadn't gone as far as I had wanted. Nevertheless, I rationalized that the roads were too tough to navigate at night and it would have been a really inefficient use of my time to ride them at night.
Waking at 6am, Ervin was already up. It's at these times it's hard to tell people that I'm in a race and that as much as I'd like to spend a leisurely morning eating breakfast with him and his family but I had to keep going. Eventually I managed to coax him out of breakfast and as a compromise he gave me some red bulls, an emergency blanket, some plasters, Albanian currency and of course a selfie.
I pushed through Albania and finally made it to Macedonia where I got my phone signal back. I was pleasantly surprised my family were concerned that my dot had stopped so early the previous night. Grabbed a whole pile of food and made my way through some mountains it was a lovely gorge kinda climb that led to a giant decent and long flat section into Skopje, which I really appreciated. It was along a pretty sketchy road though, with trucks and then a giant thunderstorm, just as I wolfed down a whole pile of chocolate milk in a petrol station. Luckily it was sideways rain so I could just hide behind a sign, and was left relatively dry, except for the lorries that went past that still drenched me.
At about 8pm I made it to Kumanovo. This is actually the first time I had followed my own route since Montenegro. My initial route was a bit shorter but went straight through Kosovo - I decided against it - I was tired of dodgy roads so stuck to something more trodden. I also wanted to avoid Sofia at all costs. Chris Bennet the yo-yo rider had warned everybody against and, it's also where Ultan Coyle (4th place on a TT bike and also 24hr TT champion) had 'Pringled' his wheel.
I ate two burgers in a petrol station and headed out for my final leg of today's journey into Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the next 100 km were fairly miserable - very undulating roads, poor conditions and my lights were failing quite significantly. It made night riding mentally intensive and when combined with fatigue, it could become dangerous.
About halfway I met some Macedonians and they told me it would get hillier. They also told me that they were happy to drive me to the border! We also briefly chatted about my great surprise as to how good Macedonia was in terms of infrastructure. About 3 hours later I made it to Bulgaria after a pretty steep climb. I potentially illegally entered Bulgaria as the guy at the border crossing point just waved me through, without looking at my passport - oh well, it proved no issue at the other end.
Then after the crossing it was a fast 20 km descent into Bulgaria. It was not fun at all. I imagined in the day it would have been great but by this time it was freezing, my light had completely gone, and I was just using my iPhone light. There were also some pretty big potholes, which had I gone into at speed with only one hand on the bike, narrowly avoiding a race-stopping crash.
At about 3:30am I made it to the town of Kyustendil. I checked into a Hotel and Spa. This was probably the best hotel that I had stayed in - generally I was feeling good - I'd pushed through and hopefully in 48 hours I'd be done.
I woke pretty late on day 13 and was only the road by about 10am. I received some brilliant news. My dad was coming out and meeting me at the finish. This got me pretty emotional actually. For the first time in the race, I knew I was going to do it and I was going to have someone to share it with.
I began really powering it - perhaps one of the worst things to do in terms of getting there - oh well. Unfortunately a headwind started, I mean a proper headwind, and I was slow - struggling to maintain 15 km/h on the flat. Luckily I knew there were some mountains coming and upon getting there the wind relented and progress continued. The wind had put a real downer on me - if it had continued it could have added another day or two onto my initial plan.
Four hours of hills of no significance, except for a very kind local offering to buy me a few drinks in a cafe, I arrived going downhill into Plovdiv, which was the main advantage of taking the Bulgarian route rather than Greece. I really motored it through Bulgaria until about 8pm. The night started and I got really tired. I was getting some minor hallucinations and my lights were still not great. I had to stop every 20-30 minutes simply to compose myself. I kept trying to convince myself to check in but I had told myself no stopping till Turkey. Eventually after a decent 30 minute coffee break I continued and made it to the Turkish border.
The Turkish border was crazy. Even at 3am giant queues lined up on both sides, people slept on blankets outside of their cars. Luckily I was able to just dash though. It was always interesting to see people's facial expressions at the borders when I cyclist would come through in the middle of the night. After about 30 minutes I was through, and checked into a nearby hotel which would be final sleep for the journey. If I'd been smarter I'd have checked the wind and gone on through the night and slept for a few hours in the middle of the day at the height of the windiness. Although I'm being captain hindsight, and stuff normally failed according David Goldberg and you'd just end ruining any pattern and having a really shit next day.
Woohoo! Last day! I woke up at about 7am after only a few hours of sleep - smashed down a breakfast and got on the road with my jersey stuffed with about three loaves of bread. My plan had been to go on the E80 as suggested, as despite it being illegal to cycle on, it was actually far safer than the N100 to the south. I began cycling on it and got to the first toll point where the police told me to get off. They couldn't understand my point and eventually I had to give in, even after a second failed attempt at cycling through, acting ignorant. N100 it was to be then.
It wasn't too bad actually and I imagined it would have a greater frequency of petrol stations but there were more sketchy sections. It was also at this point that the wind picked up and the most annoying hills in the entire world started. Initially, I had some motivation as a noticed another spec on the horizon! Another TCRer! Eventually I caught up with Paul Toigo. He'd gone through the night and was moving quite slow by then. We parted ways. I was finding this really tough. This was by far the worst cycling I'd had done in the entire trip - it was just boring. I'd run out of stuff to think of.
I decided to take refuge in a shopping mall as I'd looked to see the weather was worst was from 1-2. I played a little joke and went through the metal detector into the Burger King and obviously set the alarm off. The security didn't seem too fond of me. Luckily the Burger King staff loved me for ordering a family's worth of food and managing to eat it all. The Burger King cheese burgers are really good! As are the 1litre cokes. Thirty minutes of sleep later and a few more burgers stuffed into my jersey I got back onto the road and headed out into the tornado.
Eventually, I must have turned slightly and the headwinds turned into crosswinds. Progress increased but the danger doubled. I was drifting 2-3 metres on the hard shoulder when a gust hit. I was forced twice into the hedgerow. I'm lucky this wasn't England as I'd have been forced into road kill instead.
Perhaps at about 6pm the wind dropped a few notches and I was able to push it a bit harder. At about 150 km I got my first puncture of my race. I was pretty angry and just sat at the side of the road for a couple of minutes. I repaired it really quick - not bothering to check for thorns - I just wanted to get there. I foolishly continued on the N100 for a bit longer into Silvily- this was the most dangerous part of my entire journey. I held my arm out to keep cars away - it largely worked except for one van which brushed my fingertips. I re-joined the much better E80 and knew I would be leaving the main roads for the final time and I would start my climbs in the mountains north of Istanbul.
I stocked up a lot with about 80km to go, having heard all of the warnings that you shouldn't forget to eat in the final section. I started to enjoy the ride again, in the hills I couldn't feel the wind as badly. The traffic was harmless but I had hundreds of dogs to deal with. After a while my journey became terribly arduous as my Garmin wanted to take me on annoying gravel paths. I thought that perhaps I sleep there and finish in the morning but that was really out of the question.
After about 4 hours I made it Kemerburgaz, the site of my last climb. I started ascending and was confronted by literally hundreds of dogs - all harmless though, just wanting a chase. At the top of the climb I knew I'd done it - just a swift decent into Istanbul to go now. Queue the music.
It was a pretty awesome feeling riding along the empty Bosphorous. I had a giant grin and was laughing. I narrowly avoided two taxis and rather getting angry I just smiled at them and continued on. I really pushed this final section. So eventually on August 8th at 2 am I had made it. 4255 km, 101,749 feet elevation, 14 days, 2 hours and 11min.
My dad and Mike's brother came out. My dad and I hugged each other, perhaps the first time since I was a small kid. I think his first comments were about how proud he was followed shortly by me ‘looking like shit'. I was pretty damn happy - I'd just completed the toughest thing I'd ever attempted both mentally and physically.
Istanbul and the end
My dad and I stayed up chatting for an hour or so before eventually the adrenalin wore off and I got tired. I'd had one beer and felt pretty wasted and smashed my leg pretty heavily on the taxi as I tried to get in. 'Oh well, I'm not gonna need that for the next few days'. Then the taxi driver had to slam the door on my bike in order to get the bike in. 'Oh well, I'm not gonna need that for the next few days'. With my dad there he kindly got me a hotel room at the Hilton. Despite being really tired I still made it up for the breakfast at 10am and raided the buffet.
The next day I headed down to a cafe and started meeting some of the riders and volunteers, lots of back slapping all round. There was a brief photo shoot, then I went back to the hotel and out of habit ate three bags of Haribo in 20 minutes.
Then eventually I got back to the party. The prizes were given out and stories were shared. I managed to win a spirit of the race award for being the youngest rider, which was pretty cool. I spoke to James about his seriously awesome ride and his neck. He'll be back to demolish this race. Then off to Bunk for the after party where I fintially got chatting to Nelson Trees. Pretty wasted off only a few beers again, I made my goodbyes and set off.
The next day I had my flight to catch - strangely this was actually the most stressful part of my entire journey. I had about 2 hours to dismantle my bike, find a box, navigate the absolute madness that is the traffic of Istanbul and get to the airport. Eventually I did it, thanks to Sedona bikes that had kindly prepped everyone bike boxes. I saw a stressed out Lee Pearce who was in the same position as me, trying to catch the same flight. A few hours later we were sat chatting at the gate ready to catch the fflight.
Finally I just wanted to say a large thank you to everybody along the way:
The Perse School for their support.
Cambridge CC for always helping me along with cycling and facilitating it.
Tony Purnell for his great advice and helping me with some kit.
Shelford Deli and The Navigator for giving me two jobs this year. I think washing pots for 8 hours a day really prepared me for the hours of solitude on my bike.
Robbie Zhao and Ollie Purnell for largely being training partners and helping with kit, and Zhao especially he sent me £20 with the message 'surprised you're not dead yet, this is for a couple of McDo on me'.
Open-air who very kindly donated a Rab gilet - which came in extremely handy - I hadn't expected such cold mornings.
Tim Williams for helping me out with the bike fit - I had no problems at all really: especially surprising considering the longevity of the event.
Iain Brown who kindly helped me out with some kit
Bike Ambulance the best bike shop in Cambridge and perhaps the world! You can tell these guys give a shit about bikes and don’t just want to fleece you out of money. They’ve always helped me immensely from putting up with my stupid questions to giving me very generous discounts! Cheers Rick, Andy, Sam and Josh!
All of the strangers I met along the way who were happy to help give directions, food, water and their home - especially Ervin.
All of the riders who made such excellent company, Simon, Jon, David and Pat. It was a pleasure to ride with all of you guys.
Mike, Anna and all of the other awesome volunteers who made this possible and took so much time out of their lives. Especially to Mike who had the genius to come up with such an awesome race.
Probably, most importantly to thank my family, however. My aunt, uncle and cousins who all became fanatical dot watchers, it was always nice to know there was someone watching. I don't thank these guys enough but my parents in particular - thanks for having me, clothing, feeding, and giving me bikes and putting up with me. I know sometimes I may not show it, but I do appreciate you guys.
This is me signing out for a while. I've got some thoughts and reflections, but this piece has taken ages to write, so they'll be coming soon.