Cycling, Ride Reports

TCR9, part 2: rain in the mountains

Part 2 of 6 in the series TCR #9

CP1 in Livigno, and its Alpine surroundings, were the first serious challenge in the race and it was gonna be tough. I was nervous about it. For around 400 km there would be repeated climbs of 500 m and more, with precious little flat ground on which to recover.

Long climbs like these have in the past been a bit of an Achilles heel for me, my lower back being weak and tending to get painful after too much climbing. And that’s to say nothing of the forecast of rain and near-freezing temperatures up on the passes in the coming days.

In the meantime, I had to cross France and Switzerland to get there. Unlike last year, there was no big routing dilemma on the first day. Most of the field chose the same route through France (with a few oddballs going further north), so I had more company than I’d bargained for for at least the first 9 hours or so.

Day 1: rain in France

The first night went past in a bit of a blur. By this point I don’t remember that much of it, other than that it stayed dry for a few hours, then started raining again.

There were still a lot of riders around as the sun came up and I’d catch sight of someone at least every few minutes. Someone who looked suspiciously like Christoph Strasser went past me at a totally unreasonable pace and I wondered how he had ended up behind me if he was going that fast. Looking at the replay, it turns out Christoph was actually about 25 km ahead at this point, already in the lead, so I have no idea who this was.

Most of the day was spent going through small French villages, getting soaked in intermittent showers, and leap-frogging other riders. The sun would come out for a while and allow me to dry off just enough for it to be really unpleasant when the rain came back and drenched me again. I’d take my rain jacket off and enjoy the fresh air, try to keep it off for as long as possible when it threatened to rain again, and then inevitably have to put it back on. It was very tedious.

Sunrise on day 1, somewhere in France. The road is still wet.

The day eventually dried out some time in the afternoon (though not before drenching me in the heaviest downpour I’d experienced that year – see video). The route at this point followed the N66 for several hundred kilometres in the direction of Basel and for most of that I enjoyed riding along a very lovely cycle path following the Canal des Vosges. The sun made the occasional appearance and I had the chance to dry myself out and just pootle along at my own pace (not too many hills), enjoying the scenery.

I got wet

I made my first food stop at the end of the day. It was a little boulangerie on the slopes of Col de Bussang, the only hill of note on day 1. I did the normal thing of buying as much as I thought would fit into my bags, plus as much as I thought would fit into my mouth. This amounted to a heap of croissants (disappointingly mediocre), a lot of mille-feuilles (made a terrible mess of my bags), some mini pizzas, and a bag of gummi-sweets that were still making my fingers sticky as I was climbing Passo dello Stelvio the next day.

As I was stuffing my face with pastries I saw that the shop next door was in fact a bike shop, and the owner was in the middle of locking up. With only 1 out of 3 tubeless plugs left, and still 3,000 km to go, I was pretty anxious about having a tubeless failure that I wouldn’t be able to fix, so I wanted to restock. I hurried over while wiping the custard off my face to ask if he had any tubeless plugs in the shop and whether he would be so nice as to sell me one. His English was as bad as my French, but we managed to get by in German instead. After a bit of back-and-forth he understood what I was after (the word we settled on for plugs was Schlangen – “snakes”) and offered me a Muc-Off plug kit. It wasn’t quite the right type (I’m now a card-carrying Dynaplug fanboy) but it would hopefully do the job in an emergency. I thanked him and got back on my bike.

On my way out of the town I stopped at a spring that I’d found on OpenStreetMaps to top up my bottles. It looked a bit dodgy, but there was a sign certifying that it had been tested and was fine to drink, and I didn’t really have much choice anyway as I needed water. I filled up the bottles and took a swig. It was fizzy. Yuck. 🤢

The “Source Marie” spring did not look very inviting

My first routing error came shortly after this. The N66 (the road that goes over Col de Bussang) turns into a dual carriageway as it approaches a town called Mulhouse. I knew this from my route planning, and had been wringing my hands over whether I wanted to risk riding on such a road, or take a detour of 10 minutes or so on smaller, safer roads. I’d dug around on Street View and various road maps and found no explicit prohibition of cycling there. So I’d decided that I’d just see what the traffic was like when I got there and make a decision in the moment.

It was the end of the day and the traffic didn’t seem super heavy, so I decided to follow the N66 as it became a dual carriageway. The further along it I got, the heavier and faster the traffic seemed to get. Cars were beeping at me as they went past, and I started feeling pretty unsafe. Only then did it occur to me that perhaps all dual carriageways were forbidden for cyclists in France – with or without signage. I checked my phone (which I have mounted on the handlebars) and yep – I was not allowed to be on this road.

I swore at myself and took the next exit onto some minor road. Seeing a space by the side of the road where I could stop to figure out which route to take, I pulled over. I didn’t spot the patch of gravel there and as my front wheel turned, I came down with a crash on the ground.

I was already angry with myself for having made such a stupid routing mistake, and this just topped it off. I picked myself up and inspected the bike. Scratches all over the place (rear derailleur, brake lever, bar-end shifter, etc.) but seemingly no serious damage. Still, what a rubbish end to the first day. I got back on the bike and raced off down the road in a surge of frustration.

A map of the my N66 mistake

I knew that riding on illegal roads – quite apart from being, well, illegal – would attract a time penalty in the race. The organisers’ official advice in this case is to let them know immediately and “surely everything will be alright”. I never really understood this wording, and I kept turning it over in my head even after I’d sent a WhatsApp message to Jon Endres, the race’s comms manager, saying what had happened. The shortest alternative (i.e., legal) route would’ve taken an extra 10 minutes or so. Would the penalty just amount to this? Or would it be more punitive and add significantly to my finishing time? I had no idea.

Last year’s race included all sorts of penalties for various infringements, ranging from a few minutes to many hours, and the methodology in how they were calculated was totally opaque. If I’d actually finished that race, I would’ve fallen foul in several places where I’d ended up on illegal roads without even knowing it at the time. In some cases, there’s no signage when joining a road that you are not allowed on it with a bike, and you only find out several weeks after the race that you did something wrong when you end up in a spreadsheet of penalties.

To top it off, I noticed at this point that my left hand was hurting – quite a lot. It was very painful to move my thumb, even to press the shift button on the end of my aero bars – so much so that I had to use my index finger for this for the remainder of the race. As it would turn out later, from an MRI scan back in Munich, I had a microfracture. It didn’t stop me from riding, but damn was it uncomfortable. I had to change where I rested my weight on my left hand while riding to alleviate the pain, and this had consequences later in the race (and afterwards too). More on that in a later blog post.

Anyway. I was in a bad mood as the light started fading. I hadn’t looked at the tracker so far (I avoid it early in the race) and for some reason had a notion that I was not doing all that well. My mistake and accident had made this feeling worse, and I didn’t want to ride competitively any more. What was the point if I was not doing well, and now had potential penalties to reckon with?

Still, I tried to put these thoughts out of my mind and just concentrate on riding the bike (as Jon had advised me to do when I reported my mistake). It’d been dry for a few hours now and the sky was starting to clear, which helped to lift my spirits (but don’t worry, more rain was forecast for the next day). My route took me over the Rhine and through Basel in the evening light – hopping from France into Switzerland, briefly into Germany, and back into Switzerland again. I even remembered to buy a data package for my sojourn in Switzerland to avoid bankruptcy from roaming charges 🥳

Around 10pm I started looking for places to sleep. I found a fire station just off my route and went round the back to see what was there… 🔥 The rear entrance was covered, out of sight from the road, and sheltered from the wind. No bench to sleep on, but it was good enough, so I settled down for a 3 hour nap. It was nice not to have wet lycra at the end of the day.

The Rhine in the evening light
The Rhine in the evening light

Day 2: into the mountains

This is where the climbing started. The parcours and control point location demanded a circuitous and very mountainous route through the Alps, taking in 8 major passes along the way:

It was still dry when I got back on the bike at 2am, but that changed soon enough. At 4am the heavens opened once more and I spent the next 5 hours riding through an unrelenting deluge.

The first serious routing dilemma came that morning. Much fuss had been made of one particular road in the weeks and months leading up to the start: the Axenstraße, a major route leading along the eastern shore of Lake Lucerne in the direction of Gotthard Pass. This road is notoriously awful for cycling on, and had been banned by the race’s organisers on safety grounds. There is no continuous segregated cycle path – it exists in some places and is absent in others.

Unfortunately, this road was the only direct tarmac route from the northern side of Lake Lucerne toward Gotthard, and so riders were forced to find some alternative that would inevitably involve a lot of climbing and/or questionable off-road sections.

The field bifurcates around Lake Lucerne in a bid to avoid the terrible Axenstraße

I took the eastern route, going over a big hill and down a terrifying gravel track on the other side that had me walking sections of it because they were simply too steep to ride in the wet. But it was just a taste of what was to come later in the race.

Back down to Axenstraße
Back down to Axenstraße

Next stop: Gotthard Pass. The first real climb. It had finally stopped raining and the climb actually went by surprisingly well. The TCR media crew were in attendance halfway up the climb so I grimaced smiled for the camera and did a quick interview on the move with one of the crew running alongside me. At one point Robert Müller went past me. I knew he was one of the strongest riders in the field, having won B-HARD earlier in the year, so that was a bit of a surprise. I still had the idea that I wasn’t doing all that well, so what was Robert doing here? Still, I didn’t look at the map.

After a couple of hours I was cresting the pass in bright sunshine, having had to take all my wet weather gear off, and then it was down into valley on the other side (I avoided the famous cobbled descent as I figured it’d slow me down).

Down in the valley the temperature was almost 30°C and my poor, confused body was trying to adapt to this change of climate. There was some time to recover as the route led down the valley toward the base of San Bernardino, which marked the start of parcours 1. I even stopped and treated myself to an ice cream.

I started on the parcours and it was time for my first mechanical. Two of them, in fact.

Warning: Nerdy bike jargon incoming. Feel free to skip it.

My headset had started creaking loudly on the way down the valley, and it was getting worse. Stopping at a garage to borrow the T30 Torx key I needed to adjust my headset, I discovered that somehow the spacer stack was too low and the headset cap was bottoming out on the fork steerer tube, causing the whole headset to be loose. I have no idea a) how I hadn’t realised this beforehand and b) why it had taken this long to start creaking/wobbling.

It was an easy fix, if only I could get hold of an extra headset spacer. Which I couldn’t. Google Maps told me there was a bike shop at the top of the climb, but it was closing soon and there was no way I’d reach it in time. I brainstormed reckless alternative fixes as I continued up the climb, including extremes like filing down the top of the carbon steerer with the sandpaper from my puncture repair kit. But by this point I’d left the garage and didn’t have the Torx key I needed to take the headset apart. I had no choice but to keep juddering along and just try and find a bike shop the next day.

End of nerdy bike jargon.

Mechanical 2. While pondering my headset problem I realised I needed to stop to top up the pressure in my rear tyre. This is the one that had punctured on the first night and had two snakes plugs in it, doing their best to keep the air in. They’d been doing their job fairly well, but every few hours, the tyre pressure would drop all of a sudden and I’d need to stop and put more air in.

So I got off the bike, put the pump on, started pumping, and PSSSSShhhh… Broken valve core. This has become something of a tradition for me on ultra-races. It happened in 2021 on day three of Around Norway. It happened in 2022 on day three of TCR no. 8. And now again (albeit on day 2). Every time it’s a valve stem failure on the rear wheel that forces me to downgrade from my tubeless setup and put a tube in. It’s kind of funny in retrospect, but I didn’t see the humour in it at the time. I raged at the god of tyres, angrily put the tube in, and pumped the cursed thing back up to pressure.

By the time I reached the top of San Berdardino I’d calmed down enough that race reporter Ross Brannigan was able to have a civilised conversation with me as he jogged alongside with his microphone. He’d interviewed me at the start of the race and had come up to the top of the climb to catch up and see how I was doing. I told him I’d been avoiding looking at the tracker and just racing for myself, not mentioning the mini-tantrum I’d had further down the climb. The write-up I received made me sound much more composed than I really was 😇

The rest of the parcours was a wet and miserable affair. The rain set in again and the final climb over Splügenpass was bitterly cold. I was planning to sleep somewhere around Chiavenna, which was at the bottom of the descent on the other side. But getting down there was awful – all of my clothes were wet, either with sweat or with rainwater, I was shivering uncontrollably, and my hands were totally numb. The light was fading and I really wanted to be in my sleeping bag.

Looking back down the valley to Splügen from near the top of the pass
It was cold and wet on Splügenpass

The temperature rose as I descended and I gradually became more comfortable. Once I’d thawed out a bit, the descent became quite thrilling, with endless switchback turns under galleries, inside tunnels, over bridges. It seemed to go on for ever, and I was quite ready for some sleep when I reached Chiavenna.

I didn’t want to sleep in the town itself, so I rode through several villages on the road toward Maloja Pass looking for a sleeping spot. I eventually decided on a church that was set back 50 metres or so from the main road and settled down again for 3 hours of sleep (which I would do consistently for the rest of the race).

After the planned amount of sleep, I woke to hear a sleeping bag rustling a couple of metres away from me. I didn’t dare get involved, so packed up and fled the scene as fast as I could. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I now know this was cap 271, Philipp Hanneck. Hi Philipp!

I set off up the road to Maloja Pass in the dark. I’d be at CP1 in time for breakfast.

Sleeping with company
Locations not 100% accurate. We were sleeping a couple of metres from one another.

Next time

  • 🎯 CP1 (yeah, I said last time I’d write about that in this post but it’s already long enough)
  • 🏔️ Escaping from the mountains at last
  • 🥵/🥶 More wild temperature variation
  • 🎯 CP2
  • 🤦 An awful routing decision that almost made me scratch

The Strava bit


One thought on “TCR9, part 2: rain in the mountains

  1. Jack P says:

    Always enjoy the write ups Will, very honest and insightful. Looking-forward to the rest of the series even with knowing the outcome 👌

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