It started as an idea last summer: maybe I could actually try racing in one of these things, instead just being a dot-watcher. At that point, the furthest I'd ever ridden was 100 miles. The idea of doing an ultra endurance race was a fantasy that piggy-backed off the exploits of other riders I had dot-watched on the Trans Continental Race, the Tour Divide, and the Trans Am. I had no experience of racing, but I wanted to know what that was like. I wanted to learn how I'd respond to that sort of challenge.
A plan developed on spreadsheets and maps. It gave me reason to ride silly distances in ugly weather, spurred me on through a winter of training, and helped me find the fun in doing so. Ultimately, it brought me to Der Proloog cycling cafe in the town of Amerongen, which serves as both the start and finish of the Race Around the Netherlands. Last night Der Proloog buzzed with the energy of 120 racers sharing stories over beers and a pre-race pasta dinner. It felt odd for something so long awaited to be finally here.
Rolling to the start with Jeremy
The early morning was colder than I'd expected, misty fields and farmyard smells as we rolled the flat 5km from Leersum. Left at the windmill in Amerongen, and when Der Proloog came into view it was packed with a flourescence of cyclists, all fettling and stretching and eating.
At 07:55 Michael Wacker, the race organiser and 3-time TCR Finisher, came to the front to give the final briefing. He welcomed the riders, restated certain rules, wished us all well, and then without much ceremony the race was underway.
Michael Wacker giving the safety briefing before the start.
Except I didn't ride off with the other racers right away. As the race flowed out of the square and turned left to go north, I unclipped my phone from its mount, opened the Booking.com app, and reserved a room for the night in Rijssen, 302km along the route.
Here's my thinking: one of the rules of the race is that no accommodation can be booked before the start. Once the race is underway you can freely book hotels and B&Bs (or just camp if you prefer) so long as any resource you use is available to other racers. Nothing pre-booked and no staying with friends or family. Judging from their bike set-ups, plenty of racers were camping , but as this was my first race I decided to focus on riding the distance, and having a shower and a proper bed every night.
With so many people riding along a rural route, I imagined it might be tricky to find a hotel later in the day. So right after the start I booked a room for the night, and then a little bit late to the party I hit Start on my GPS and rode off to join the back of the race.
Click on the picture to play video
I worked my way up through the peloton, giving greetings and good wishes as I passed. Then the field spread out and I found my own pace. The first hour was all flat roads and 90-degree turns around fields. The second hour was fast along the waters of the Veluwemeer, past glass-box houses and sailing clubs, with long car-free stretches through woodland where I had a near miss with a woman walking five labradoodles.
Several KM riding side by side with 21 and 40, Erik and George
The route turned south through the cobbled centres of towns and then away from traffic into a forest of pine and sand. Later it became rolling heathland reminiscent of the New Forest.
I'd purchased my ticket to the Veluwe National Park in advance to avoid queuing to buy one on the day. I had it folded in my passport in the pocket of my jersey. Six or seven other racers were waiting in line to buy theirs, and I couldn't help feeling a little smug as I jumped ahead through the gates into the park.
Photo by @cyclerob
After the Veluwe came the gorgeous sweeping climb through woods up the Posbank, where I paused for food for the first time since the race. 160km done and feeling great.
Lunch with a view
Food log: 14:29
2 x flapjacks
1 x cheese broodtje
A cloudless afternoon. For hours I didn't see a single other racer, which made me wonder if I'd gone off-route. I saw a boy riding an omafiets around a BMX pump track getting serious air. The smell of fresh runner beans took me straight back to the summer of 1986 to my parents' garden in Germany. There were smallholdings with llamas, goats, and miniature ponies. Another kid came towards me down a long straight road pulling an endless wheelie. I stopped to fill my bottles from a tap outside a barn and realised that I was having quite a lot of fun doing this.
Voice note from mid-afternoon. Click to open in browser.
Even out here in the countryside, roads and bike paths were impeccable. Arm warmers off, legs feeling good, and not another racer in sight. I had plenty of food, and only had to stop to fill my water bottles.
In Enschede, at 260km for the day, I stopped at McDonalds for burger(s). Judging from the pair of bikes leaning up against the outdoor seating, I was not the only racer pausing here. I joined the other two, who it turned out had both ridden the TCR in previous years. They seemed surprised when I told them this was my first ever race, and assured me that I was making good time. When I checked the tracking link on my phone, it looked like I roughly a third of the way back, and behind me there was a gap of about 20km before the nearest rider.
Food log, 15:32:
Large Big Mac meal with fries and Sprite
12 x chicken nuggets (6 for now, 6 for later)
2 x Cheeseburger for the jersey pocket
Leaving Enschede I met Wybren #97, the kind-faced Belgian with whom I'd chatted the previous afternoon back at Der Proloog. We rode together out of town. He was going to keep going until late in the night before finding a spot to bivvy. I felt soft for having a hotel reservation just 40km ahead. Wybren was clearly riding a faster pace than me, so I dropped behind and watched him ride off into the distance.
The sun was still above the horizon as I reached my hotel at the 300km mark. After a little persuasion, the receptionist let me take my bike up to the room, where I ate cold cheeseburgers with a beer from the bar. I took a long bath, cleaned my bib shorts, ate some more, and put all my devices on to charge.
As I drank a second beer down in the bar, I checked to see the progress of other racers. Just in the short time I had been stopped I'd been overtaken by at least ten other people. By the time I went to bed, I had dropped back to the middle of the pack. Everyone else appeared to be pushing much later into the night. Was I doing this all wrong?