When I started this journey, I wanted to push myself to new limits and see what I discovered about myself when I got there. After four days it was all new territory, and despite 1,200 tough kilometers I was still feeling surprisingly strong. An idea began to root: I could go further; I could push harder than this.
Or rather, I knew that if I kept chipping away, and knocked out two more 300km days then I'd always wonder what if...
...what if I'd given more, ridden further, pulled an all-nighter and finished the damn thing one last massive push?
(I'll be the first to admit that many years of dot-watching has lent a peculiar nostalgia to the act of a cyclist going all-in. Whether the act turns out to be foolish or heroic seems almost secondary.)
What if I doubled the PB that I only set yesterday? It would hurt, for sure. But what would it really be like to go to that place? How would I feel afterwards?
How would it feel if I didn't?
I'd always regret it. I knew that much.
At sunrise I spotted a blinking red light ahead. It took nearly an hour to close the gap, the rider gradually becoming more defined - white shoes, white helmet, riding at a good pace but with a slight tilt to his right one leg.
I pulled up alongside. It was Aram Drake #8 from Australia. We took turns to describe recent highlights - the gorgeous coastal route we'd just ridden through dawn, through small cobbled villages, raised dykes battered by crosswinds, roaring dams and white-capped waves catching the first light of the day.
Aram had blown his knee, but was a steady-rolling man and determined to finish. I wasn't yet ready to tell him (or even admit to myself) that I was starting to feel serious about pushing the whole way through to the finish. We wished each other well for the hills to come, and then I settled down into the aerobars and pressed on.
I covered 317km before nightfall, and stopped at a pizzeria on the Belgian border. Initially the owner wouldn't let me bring the bike inside, despite the only other people inside being his bored kitchen team. I explained about the race, how I was about to ride all the way through the night to the finish. That I just wanted a shit-ton of food and somewhere to recharge my lights and powerbanks. He let me bring Miles inside.
I ate a pepperoni pizza and ordered enough extra food to carry me through the night and into the final day. I recharged everything to 100%. All I had to do was ride the same distance again and I'd be finished.
Food log, 22:50
1 x American Pizza
2 x Coke
2 x Coffee
1 x Pepperoni calzone (takeaway)
1 x Chicken wrap (takeaway)
On the map, I watched other riders' dots come to a stop for a day. I figured that if I continued through the night I could overtake at least seven people, which would put me into the top-20 overall. Prior to the race, I hadn't given much thought to my ultimate finishing position, (this was about me against my own limits, not those of other people). But now it was coming to a head, my competitive streak began to kick in.
By the time I left, the pizzeria staff had the dot-watching map open on their own phones, zoomed in to show #22 inside their restaurant, another rider sleeping in a hotel on the other side of town, then all the other dots strung out along the route heading south to the hills of Tilburg, and then doubling back and heading north to the finish back at Der Proloog. When I left, I was given hugs all round, and they refused to take payment for my three coffees.
Last chance pizza
Blasting down south I had the roads to myself and covered ground quickly. At 1 am I met another racer who was weaving in the road looking for a place to stop and sleep. When I told him I was going all the way through to the end he glanced at me like I was crazy, rode along side me a little further, then pulled off to sleep in a bus shelter. An hour later I caught another racer at a closed bridge. He'd fallen into water and had mud all up one leg. (After the race I learned he had to scratch because he rode through the night and developed got hypothermia).
I hadn't seen either of these guys for the whole of the race, which told me I was doing well, moving up in the field and starting to compete with a different section of the race. Most important of all, I still felt good.
Oh how wrong I was at this point. One hill to go?! Ha! Not sure. Think again....
And then in a very short space of time everything changed.
The hills got my heart beating fast; I started to sweat, and to feel the chill on rapid descents. The temperature dropped to below zero, and there were flurries of light snow.
I reached the Keutenberg climb, and its sign warning of a 22% gradient. It got me up out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, grunting and swearing, eyes on the spot of road illuminated by my lights, tarmac painted with the names of famous cyclists: Hup Tom, Hup Tom, Hup Tom.
Half way up the climb, drained and with nothing left to give, I had to stop. As I got off my bike it fell over, which knocked the saddle out of line and bent my derailleur. Because I was on the steepest section, I had to push up to the top before I could get my tools out. I couldn't fix my climbing gear. My base layer was soaking wet, and the freezing wind cut straight through.
The dark place
I spent the sunrise hour crying, shivering and moaning, unsure how I could possibly finish. I’d never felt such cold or weakness. All I needed to get out of my wet clothes, but it was unthinkable to drop my bibs and get topless for a change of base layer.
Still the hills kept coming. It was not longer the climbs that hurt most, but the fast descents, stationary on the bike, hunched over the brakes getting sliced by ice-cold wind, legs cramping, nose running, eyes weeping and searching the darkness for signs of dawn or a flatter horizon. Shivering, sniveling, barely pedaling, just a wet skeleton following a line of arrows on the screen.
On another climb up through trees I had to stop.
I had nothing left to give.
Just a dot on a map.
I've become a dot.
A McDonalds appeared. It was full of men in suits on their way to early morning meetings, and I hobbled through to the toilet, stripped off my layers and put on every item of dry clothing that I had in my bag. I went double-bibs for extra padding.
I ordered a pair of breakfast menus, and felt instantly restored by the kick of caffeine and the warmth of hot food. I checked the map again for the first time since I'd left the pizzeria the night before, and saw that I'd overtaken seven riders and was sitting in 16th position. There was no one else ahead of me within catching distance, so all of a sudden it was about protecting my position. Now I was the one being hunted down, with a gang of well-rested riders coming up behind me.
The closest of these was #78, just 10km behind me. He was still in the hills, but I had refuelled and had flatter roads ahead. I blasted northwards, barely aware of the passing hours, just trying to maintain a balance of inputs that could keep me going for a few more hours: sugar, caffeine, protein, carbs...
It became an exercise in counting out time and distance. Crossing off place names, all the while staying aware of #78's progress behind me. The gap became 20km, and then 30km, and then 40km.
Somewhere along the River Meuse a tall female cyclist rode towards me, gave me a wave and a smile, and then turned around to ride alongside me. For a second I thought it was my lucky day, but it turned out that she was the girlfriend of #78 behind me. Apparently he was struggling to stay awake and had stopped at a cafe. She told me I didn't need to worry about him catching me, then she wished me well, spun back around and sped off in his direction.
Mind games. Whatever she did, it kicked #78 into action. An hour later I had to stop at another McDonalds on the outskirts of Nijmegen to charge my depleted devices. When I checked the gap to #78 it had shrunk to 35km and was closing fast. I just needed enough charge to make it the final few hours back to Der Proloog, but my GPS was on 7% and both of my power banks were empty from a night running lights on full beam.
I drank coffee while making rapid calculations, weighing off the charge of my batteries against the diminishing distance of my lead. I decided that whatever happened I would get back on my bike when the gap between me and #78 closed to 25km - about an hour of riding. I drank my coffee, filled my bottles, kept the GPS charging until the last possible moment, and then unplugged, saddled up, hit the road again.
I raced through the centre of Nijmegen like a courier in a Lucas Brunelle video. I was jacked by caffeine but crashing hard from the lack of sleep. Progress was brutal. My knees felt like they were filled with ground glass. I swore at another cruel hill, got off my bike to piss on it. I stopped without meaning to under bridges or at junctions, in the middle of long straight dykes with nothing to see but the raised zig-zag road tacking into the headwind. I was dizzy, weaving in the road, stopping every few kilometers just to motivate myself to make it to the next turn. At a junction in Rhenen I took the same wrong turn three times.
Then the final straight, my own car parked right there where I left it. Then Amerongen windmill and the quiet street back up to Der Proloog where it all started.
The finish was anti-climatic and appropriate. I rolled up to the cafe and there was no one else around, and I rested my arms across the handlebars, rested my head and cried deep trembling tears of pure relief.
I finished in 16th place in 5 days and 10 hours.