Knees. Starkly aware of my knees all night. Not happy at all. And therefore not much sleep.
When my alarm went off at 04:30 it brought a sense of relief that I could get moving again. I chose not to take any painkillers because I wanted to remain aware of any niggles developing in my body. I ate as I packed, flapjack hanging from my mouth as I squashed my kit down into bags and mounted all the devices I'd left charging overnight.
Food log, 04:35
2 x Instant coffee
3 x Flapjack
6 x Cold chicken nuggets
2 x bread roll
Almost pitch dark, but a suggestion of morning to the north east. The hotel was on the edge of another national park, and so straight away I was rolling along wide, empty roads free of markings, and through first light there was a long, gentle climb across an open terrain of heath and gorse. Deer standing motionless in the mist, then back into deep woods where it was still night.
A banana lying randomly in the middle of the bike path - dropped by another rider ahead? Flat farmland and orderly towns along the German border. Just before 9am, and with 100km under my belt for the day, I stopped for breakfast. I was still carrying plenty of food, so I didn't need a supermarket just yet. So when I came across an invitingly positioned picnic table outside Emmen, I laid out my spread and tucked in. For just a moment, it felt like I was out there completely alone doing some gentle touring.
Breakfast picnic outside Emmen
Food log, 09:10:
1 x Kale and Spinach smoothie
1 x Banana
2 x Ham and Cheese bread roll
3 x Stroopwaffles
I'd been stopped less than five minutes before a cyclist came speeding out of the trees, leaning into the corner and flying right past my table. It was Wybren, #97, the friendly Belgian. He must have slept in.
"Tom!" he yelled as he sped past. "How was the hotel?!"
"Great!" I shouted back. "I had a bath. How was the bivvy?!"
But he was already out of earshot, flying around a bend and along the vanishing line of a row of poplars.
At 10:19 I reached Timing Point 2: the fortress settlement of Bourtrange. I crossed a wooden drawbridge over the moat to reach the centre of the star-shaped, cobbled town.
Crossing the moat into the fortress town of Bourtrange
I planned do 300km again today, which would take me right up Pieterburen on the north coast, but this time I didn't book my accommodation straight away. I knew I would be fighting headwinds as I went north, making it harder to predict where I would end up and how I would be feeling when I got there. I didn't want to repeat what felt like a mistake from the first day of stopping too early, so I left myself open to the possibility of going further.
As I reached Stadskanaal (Canal Town) there was a sudden heavy rainstorm, so I began scanning the streets for a place to shelter and reload with food. A SPA supermarket appeared, and outside a pair of bikes that could only have belonged to other long-distance racers. They turned out to be those of the father-son duo Kevin and Jamie from the UK. Jamie had ridden the race last year as a soloist, so he had a good idea of what lay ahead along the bleak north coast where we were heading next.
"There's not much up there." Jamie said. "Just windmills and sheep."
I raced around the supermarket, grabbing enough fuel to both eat now and also fill my pockets. By the time I came back out, Jamie and Kevin were setting off. The rain was still coming down hard, but my radar app suggested it would be over within minutes. I spent that time eating and drinking as much as I could, and then as soon as the sky brightened I set off.
On the outskirts of Groningen, I caught up Jamie and Kevin again, and we rode together through the busy afternoon traffic towards a KFC where we stopped together. It was 15:45 and I had 215km on the clock for the day.
Food log, 15:42
2 x Chicken Zinger meals with fries
Endless free refills of sprite
1 x Family bucket (saved for later)
That spare bucket of chicken was to see me through the evening into the barren north. I wasn't sure what my options would be as it got more remote, and anyway, who doesn't like the surprise of finding a cold drumstick in their jersey pocket several hours later?
I needed to decide where to sleep. I could stop at Pieterburen, just shy of the 600km point for the race, or continue beyond there and face a remote stretch of coast with few available hotels. Kevin and Jamie had no such decision to make as they were camping, so could just stop when they felt like it. I deliberated over my Zingers, and then conservatively opted for the room in Pieterburen, slightly disappointed that I wouldn't quite be reaching 300km for the day.
At the north-east corner of the country, the entire horizon was dominated by the Google data centre and its ancilliary power stations - an industrial humanless city. On this grey evening, unseasonably cold and wet for May, this windswept wasteland of chimneys and power grids sapped my motivation to keep going. Slow progress along a section of heavy, wet gravel, passing beneath identical towering windmills, and then out onto farm tracks with pot holes and an endless rainy headwind. The sort of wind that makes trees grow sideways and makes barns become parallelograms. I passed an isolated house where an ornamental cherry-tree was tethered upright by steel-cable winches.
Google data centre.
The single-street village of Pieterburen caught me by surprise, as if jolting me awake from some kind of dream. I found my hostel and set all my devices on to charge. After showering, I checked the race map and saw that there were two other dots here in town, my Belgian friend Wybren #97 and another racer Jan-Dick #50. When I zoomed in on the map I could see they were both stopped at the only bar in town, so I went out to join them.
Every time I encountered other riders during the race, I was struck by the warmth of the greetings we gave each another. Technically we were competitors, and yet something about the fact that this is fundamentally a solo effort, a battle against the elements and one's own limitations, lends an element of companionship to the interactions with other racers.
Wybren and Jan-Dick were tucking in to a pair of wheel-sized pizzas.
I joined them at their table ordered a beer.
They noticed that I had showered and was finished for the day.
“What about you guys?” I asked.
They both shook their heads - this was just a short break before several more hours of riding out into the dark. They'd keep going Past Time Point 6 and along the empty coast, finding somewhere sheltered to camp. Once again, I felt slightly ashamed of my comfortable bed across the road.
A pattern was emerging: I seemed to be stopping far earlier than others riding at my pace. But then I was one of the first dots to start moving again in the morning. And for me, riding any further on this particular night was out of the question. I had just covered the most distance I'd ever ridden in 48 hours, and right now was particularly enjoying the 7% Belgian beer in front of me.
Wybren and Jan-Dick packed up and headed out into the night, and I ordered a second beer and battled my way through my own enormous pizza. At some point the entire male population of Pieterburen crowded into the tiny bar, drinking and joshing and bellowing along to the 80s rock from the dusty Hi-Fi. A fellow racer staggered into the bar, rain-drenched and hi-vis, and the crew of drunken men welcomed him with an huge cheers and back-slaps. The rider came over to my table, shook my hand and then slumped into the chair opposite.
Was he stopping for the night here in Pieterburen?
No way. At the pace he was going, he explained, the only way he could finish before the race deadline was to sleep for an hour or two each night by the side of the road, and otherwise just keep going.