Ride Reports, Cycling

TCR, part 5: FIN

Part 6 of 6 in the series TCR #9

Just a day and a bit to go. I’d had my final sleep stop and now it was just the simple matter of an all-nighter to get me through to the finish line in Thessaloniki.

Between here and there lay CP4 in Meteora – the final control point – and finally the long parcours to the finish line. The layout of these brought riders tantalisingly close to Thessaloniki on their way from CP4 before whisking them further north to start the parcours.

In this final episode:

  • Trying and failing to fight drowsiness with Coke 🥱 (not that kind)
  • Losing motor function in my left hand 🤚
  • Being mobbed by supersonic flies 🪰

I’d stopped the night before at around midnight. I’d intended to sleep a little longer this time – maybe as much as 3.5 hours – so that I would make it through the following night without sleep. But when I woke up – after some pretty weird dreams – I was horrified to see that the sky was already getting light. I looked at my phone to see that it was almost 5am. “Shit, I’ve overslept” were the words that came out of my mouth, I think.

I’m not sure exactly how much sleep I got that night, as my Strava recordings only tell me when I stopped the Garmin one day and started it the next. I tend to take about 30 minutes getting from my bike into my sleeping bag, and a similar amount of time for the reverse journey, so I guess I slept for about 4.5 hours that night. Oops.

In general, I don’t always find it easy it to get up after a sleep stop. Not just because it’s horrible to be woken up after 3 hours when my body wants to keep sleeping for another 9, but because my brain is so addled that I don’t know where I am or what’s going on. I’m still dreaming. Not understanding why I so urgently need to get up, I just snooze the alarm.

After one or two snooze cycles, my poor, tired brain figures out where it is and I frantically pull myself out of my sleeping bag. I suppose the reality of waking up on the ground in some improbable sleeping spot isn’t much more believable than whatever dream I’d been in the midst of. This probably costs me 10-15 minutes a day, and I haven’t figured out a solution to it yet.

Anyway, back on the road; next stop CP4. The last one. It was 100 km of up-and-down through mountains, tunnels, and groups of wandering stray dogs, before reaching the plain that lead on to Meteora and the control point itself.

As I’d worked my way further south, my staple diet had transitioned from börek to the trusty 7 Days croissant. Real croissants happen to be one of my favourite things in life; nothing beats a crisp, buttery croissant and a cup of light-roasted filter coffee. These ones are croissants in name only, more of a brioche filled with Nutella-style chocolate, apricot, cherry, or something sweet. The kind of thing that would get withering looks from any upstanding citizen of France. But Greece invented these things, and they are an abundant, convenient, and actually rather tasty source of calories for a hungry ultracyslist. I typically had 3-4 on my person at any time in the last couple of days (and the days after the race ended).

I stocked up once more on these “croissants” and some other bits and pieces, as I rolled into town, and arrived at CP4 holding a melting ice cream and bottle of Coke in my hand. The volunteers here were super friendly and I had a nice few minutes of banter with them. When I asked where I could find a shop or supermarket of some kind to get some “real” food, they ummed and ahhed, saying they couldn’t reeaaally tell me, as it would count as assistance, while furtively waggling their eyebrows and nodding up the road. “Of course, I understand you can’t help”, I said with a wink, and plodded up the road to a bakery that had the most delicious pastries.

After this it was onto parcours 4c itself – the last one before the finishing parcours, which I’d be reaching that night, if all went well. My spirits were high, knowing that I’d be finishing the race in around 24 hours’ time. The road snaked its way up through Meteora’s spiky rock formations with their monasteries perched on top. I stopped perhaps more than I should’ve for photos (trying to avoid the tourist buses lining the roadside).

Toward the top I saw a man coming down the road on a mountain bike wearing what seemed to be a police uniform. As he passed I saw that it was a police-issue e-bike, and to my alarm he wheeled the bike around, accelerated up the road behind me and pulled up alongside.

“Are you doing the Transcontinental Race!?” he said. “So cool!”

We chatted for a couple of minutes about how the race was going for me, and how much fun he’d been having dot watching. He asked which way I was going after I got to the top, and I replied “Well, straight on to the northeast! What other way is there?” I knew this bit was going to be mountainous (my policeman friend nodded: “Yes, very hilly there”), but I hadn’t seen an alternative. But apparently everyone else before me had. Christoph Strasser, Robin Gemperle, Anatole Naimi, and Tim De Witte had all turned around at the top of the parcours and doubled back on themselves. The terrain to the southeast of Meteora – around a town called Larissa – was very flat, and they’d all chosen to take a detour through this flatland and along the coast, trading fewer metres of climbing for extra distance. This had not occurred to me while I’d been planning my route.

Once again, I thought I’d messed it all up. I stopped at the top of the climb in the shade of a tree to assess the situation. Indeed, the 4 riders ahead of me had all chosen this detour. I’d missed a trick. They wouldn’t all take that route if there wasn’t some sense in it. And it wasn’t like I’d evaluated both options myself in advance, either. I literally hadn’t even thought of it. Bummer.

I had to make a decision: Did I stick to my route, which as far as I knew could be far slower than the detour, or did I risk improvising a route using Komoot, which could end up taking me down some impossible dead end or onto an illegal road? From the numbers alone it was difficult to tell which route would be faster: Mine was 200 km with 2800 m of climbing, while the detour was 256 km with 1000 m of climbing. The difference shouldn’t be more than an hour or so either way, so after a few minutes of desperate hand-wringing I decided to stick with my own route. At least it wouldn’t contain any nasty surprises (or so I thought). Better the devil you know.

I kicked off down the hill heading northeast to the coastal plain that I had to cross before the final parcours to the finish line, to the delight of my Instagram fans:

A message of encouragement on Instagram

The advantage of having chosen this route was the quiet roads and beautiful scenery. Real back-country. But there was a problem with this that I hadn’t anticipated: A dearth of resupply options. While the flat route followed major roads and passed through large settlements, where food would be abundant, all I had was the odd village shop stocking nothing but biscuits and crisps. Not even a 7 Days croissant to be found out here. I’d have to wait until I reached the larger towns once I’d got out of the hills and rejoined the route of the others.

The hills to the north of Meteora

The next problem came as the afternoon was giving way to the evening. I didn’t need to understand Greek to know that I couldn’t keep going:

A sign forbidding use of the road I wanted to use
“Crossing forbidden, road closed” – by order of the Public Power Corporation of Greece

My route was supposed to take me over a dam, which Komoot had told me was perfectly fine. Not so. Once again, I considered my options. I could just ignore the sign and duck under the barrier. I hadn’t seen any traffic in almost an hour, so it was unlikely anyone would be there to catch me out. But this did not seem to be in the spirit of the race. Not only would it be illegal, but I’d potentially be gaining an unfair advantage over those with more scruples than me. As luck would have it, I’d spotted a gravel track heading up into the hills about 50 metres back. OpenStreetMaps indeed showed a track that eventually reconnected with the road some 6 km further on, but it looked absurdly steep and rough, and there was no guarantee it would even be rideable.

Nonetheless, my conscience got the better of me and I decided to take a chance on the gravel. It was indeed absurdly steep and rough, with my power spiking to over 300 W in places as I hauled myself up the gravel slopes. But as unpleasant as it was, after about 30 minutes of winding, up-and-down gravel on an all-but-abandoned track, I found my way back onto the tarmac of my route. Problem successfully dealt with.

A view of a gravel detour I took to avoid a road closure
Where I went instead – this slope was around 15%, and mostly unpaved

Being honest here, if the gravel track had not been so conveniently placed, I’m not sure I would’ve been so principled in my decision-making. The only other option would’ve added around 50-100 km to my route, and would’ve knocked me clean out of the top 10. Unthinkable. But part of me even liked the idea of having to follow some awful gravel track into the hills. After all, the real adventure begins when things don’t quite go according to plan. A bit of forced improvisation is healthy.

It was starting to get dark, and it wouldn’t be long before I’d descend out of the hills and rejoin the “main” route. I stocked up on biscuits from the one village shop I managed to find that was still open, and learned a Greek head gesture for “no” when I asked whether I could pay by card. It was almost like being back in Germany.

As the light gave way to evening gloom I gained a following of large, fluffy insects that looked at first like bumblebees. They mobbed me continuously, buzzing around me and trying to land on me, and just would not leave me alone. And wow were they fast. Only above 30 km/h did I manage to escape them, only to be greeted by the next lot as soon as I slowed down again.

Having done my research, I think they were in fact deer botflies. These things are indeed fast (can fly up to about 40 km/h), but I was surprised to learn that they were once believed to be the fastest animals on Earth, capable of flying at up to 800 mph. That’s faster than sound, and would leave a gunshot-like impact wound if you were unfortunate enough to be hit by one.

Happily, it didn’t come to this and I survived the botfly encounter. I came down off the high ground and onto the Thessaloniki Plain (the largest plain in Greece, in case you were wondering – you can thank my friend Orestis for this nugget). I glanced at the map as my route merged with the flatland option the others had taken, and saw that the order of things hadn’t really changed. I was still behind Tim De Witte and ahead of Robert Müller, who’d also turned back at the top of parcours 4c after I’d gone my own way. He later told me that this had been unplanned, as he’d also been surprised to see everyone else (except me) going the other way. Perhaps my track record in routing made him think twice 😂

Looking at the replay now to see what effect my route choice had… There was nothing in it. My gap with Tim ahead and Robert behind in fact stayed almost the same. Tim was just under 6 hours ahead of me before the detour, and now just over 5 hours, so I’d gained maybe 30 minutes on him. Robert stayed roughly 1 hour behind me the whole time. Not as big a deal as I’d thought it might be.

In fact, the real cost of my route choice turned out to be its remoteness – there’d been barely any resupply opportunities. I was glad to be back on flat ground at last but it was almost 11pm and all the shops were closing. And then there was the small matter of pulling an all-nighter in my already sleep-deprived state. I needed both food and caffeine… But how to find it? I was really worried I’d be going hungry overnight, which could be disastrous. But then I had a lightbulb moment: A late night kebab/burger joint. They’d have high-calorie food and Coke in abundance. I diverted through a nearby town and found just what I was looking for. I came away with 3 or 4 cans of coke and a heap of fast food to guzzle on the move.

The final night of my race went by in a bit of a blur. It was some time around 3am when I reached the finishing parcours, and despite 2 cans of Coke and a 10-minute power nap earlier in the night I was feeling seriously drowsy. The terrain had been flat and featureless and the lack of stimulus had taken its toll. (Except that bizarre 30 minutes I’d spent riding through a sauna-like pocket of air so humid I felt like I couldn’t breathe.)

I had no idea what to expect from the parcours, so my heart sank when I saw the tarmac give way to a sandy, earthy, overgrown track. The track wound left and right, went down and then up and then down again. It was lined with alien plants that looked like they belonged under the sea, or on another planet. In my sleep-deprived state, and with the wending course of the track, the claustrophobic darkness, and the lack of sound but for my tires crunching through the seabed-ish terrain, I totally lost track of time and place. I repeatedly had the feeling that I was going round in circles and was somehow retracing my route from 5 or 10 minutes earlier, like a fish in an aquarium. I have no feeling at all for how long this dream continued – it could’ve been 20 minutes or 2 hours. The replay suggests it was around 90 minutes.

When the daylight eventually started to show its face, I saw that I hadn’t been dreaming – there was indeed a landscape around me, with hills and everything. But I wasn’t any less tired, and the track had become steeper and the soft, sandy surface had given way to rock. After guiding my bike down a particularly steep and technical section I realised that I’d been been half asleep in the process. I looked back up at the rocky slope, horrified that I barely remembered riding down it. It was well over 40% and more suited to a mountain bike with a dropper seatpost than a road bike loaded with bikepacking gear. Some part of my brain must’ve been on autopilot and still functioning enough to keep upright and moving forwards, even as the rest of me was drifting off.

But this was really dangerous. I had to try another power nap, and hope that it would keep me awake until the sun came up properly and my circadian rhythm could kick in to carry me to the finish.

When I finally reached the bottom of whatever hill I’d been lurching down in the darkness, the sun was fully up and I was feeling a bit more alert. No immediate danger of falling asleep on the bike.

I’d sustained some damage on my way down the steepest bits. My Tailfin bag had almost detached itself from the bike from all the vibration (it only stayed on because I happened to have attached the bag’s seat tube such a way that when it worked itself loose from the seat tube, the clamp was held captive between the seat stays). Then there were the bloody scratches up my arm from an over-hanging thorny branch that I’d been forced to ride straight through (stopping or changing line on such a steep section would’ve meant crashing).

But more worrying than this was the weakness I’d started to notice in some of the fingers on my left hand over the last day or so. My hand was still hurting from that stupid low-speed crash I’d had on day 1, so I’d been holding the handlebar in an awkward position ever since to alleviate the pressure on the sore spot. The death grip of navigating the night’s steep, technical, rocky descents had made matters worse, and I was definitely starting to have difficulty moving my thumb and index, ring, and middle fingers. With electronic shifting this didn’t present too much of an issue on the bike – just a gentle tap of the lever and the gear changes cleanly. But it was unsettling, and in the coming weeks and months would become more of a problem for me off the bike.

Either way, it was pointless to worry about it. I could still ride my bike, and there was nothing to do but get to the end as quickly as possible. 6-8 hours to go, and just tarmac from here on.

I was in survival mode for this last bit. Robert Müller was still around an hour behind me – close enough that I needed to be wary of him. Tim De Witte, meanwhile, was hours ahead, nearly at the finish line. No chance of catching him, so the only thing was to keep Robert behind me.

The tarmac was smooth, but the day was an absolute scorcher. I kept stopping for water at every opportunity – asking one man watering his garden to fill up my bottles for me with his hose, and where I could find an open shop at 8am. I was still low on food from the day before and worried that I might run out of blood sugar before reaching Thessaloniki, so I spent a lot of time looking for food.

When the road kicked up for the last big climb of the race, it was close to midday and the heat radiating from the sun above me and the tarmac below was unbearable. I paused by the side of road a few times in the shade, and even ended up riding on the wrong side of the road, where the trees cast their shade.

With all this dilly-dallying, I’d assumed complacently that the gap between Robert and me would stay at one hour. It’d been that way for more than 24 hours, so why would it change? So I got a nasty shock when I looked at the map to see he was now less than 30 minutes behind me, and closing. I panicked a bit – I wanted a top 5 spot. It’d been within reach last year until my frame broke, and getting the result this time round held some significance for me. I didn’t want Robert taking that.

I hit the gas hard. I was only about 2 hours from the finish line, so I just had to hold him off that little bit longer. The tarmac turned once more into gravel and I kept pushing, knowing he didn’t like off-road (and his bike was not really suitable for it) and so I might be able to distance him.

After an hour of exertion I was out of steam, just as the gradient of the road started to get unreasonable. The last throes of the parcours leading into Thessaloniki were the steepest slopes in the entire race, by a considerable margin. Not big, but always over 20%. Entering one of the city’s suburbs, I turned a corner to see the street going up a hill at what must’ve been well over 30%. I got off my bike and pushed. Shortly afterwards, the last descent through the old town of Thessaloniki was so steep that I had to stop and drop my seat post for fear of going over the handlebars.

I was utterly spent as I reached the seafront, practically coasting along the final kilometre next to the water toward the finish line. I arrived to a modest fanfare with a few people cheering and clapping, dismounted my bike, and handed over my brevet. Race over.

Miranda was there to greet me, along with Christoph Strasser, Tim De Witte, Anatole Naimi, and of course the volunteers and race staff. I was in a bit of a daze, and collapsed into a chair while munching on a piece of melon that someone had handed me. It’s often said that the end of such a race is a bit of an anti-climax, and that’s true. For more than a week the race is your whole life – and the end of it is your only goal. And then there’s nothing to really do at the end. I wanted to say hi to Robert Müller when he crossed the line, so I chatted for a bit, as best I could, then fell asleep on the grass for a while. I woke up covered in bites, to discover I’d been lying on an ant nest. Just another thing to add to the list of ailments I’d been accumulating since leaving Belgium 10 days earlier.

Robert arrived an hour or so after me, as expected, looking like he’d had enough of the TCR. We all greeted him, and Miranda and I eventually wandered off to find the apartment we’d booked.

Phew, and that’s it. It’s been almost as exhausting writing this blog series as it was riding the race. I’ll try and muster the energy to do one last piece on the kit that I used, and some broader reflections on what I took away from the race. Until next time 🚴



One thought on “TCR, part 5: FIN

  1. Philipp says:

    Dear Will, thank you very much for taking me on this long and inspiring journey. When it has been – as you said – almost as exhausting writing the blog series as it was riding the race, I can assure you: It was definitely much more fun reading the blog series than riding the race. At least for someone of my kind. And it really takes someone of your kind having fun at something like this. I do admire that!

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