Let’s wind it back a little. Wednesday 10 August (day -1) at the Amstel House Hostel in central Berlin. After a tour of the city on my bike that day, I arrived at the hotel for the evening pre-race briefing. I was a bit early, but eventually a small queue formed behind some desks, with the BMB staff handing out green and blue drop-off bags, depending on whether we were doing the half or the full distance.
After grabbing a drink, I sat down at one of the long tables in the main hall, where we gradually formed small groups and nervously introduced ourselves to one another. Are you doing the half distance or full distance? What’s the longest distance you’ve done before? Really? Where are you from? What’s your sleeping strategy? What bike do you have? Exciting isn’t it?
Check in; the briefing; starters pack.
Eventually, the organiser Ben Urbanke introduced himself and run through the briefing. It was simple enough. Start tomorrow at 8am at Olympiastadion. Follow the pre-planned route, pick up stamps at each of the 9 checkpoints, but make it before each checkpoint closes. Be back at the hostel by Tuesday at 4pm at the latest, a total of 128 hours. Some checkpoints will have food, drinks, showers, and mattresses, and the green and blue drop-off bags will be available only at Waldershof. Any questions?
Following the round of questions, we all stood up to ladle out some pasta and tomato sauce prepared for us, ate it quickly, and then we were booted out to make place for the next group’s briefing. We continued our discussions outside, commenting on the bikes lying around, and discussing sleeping strategy in more depth. As I was staying at a hotel on the other side of town near the Olympiastadion, I bade my fairwells fairly early and rode back with my new blue bag full of goodies.
Back at the hotel I made my final preparations. I set out my new brevet card in which I would collect my stamps, tried out my new BMB cap, and started to fill the blue drop-off bag with the things I hoped I would need at Regensburg. Chamois cream, electrolyte powder, some tools, chain lubricant, and some spare inner tubes. I finished up with the bike, packed the rest of my things into another bag and locked this in my car downstairs.
Now time for some rest before the big day.
Le grand départ
The alarm rang at 6.30 on Thursdays. Get up, get dressed into my riding kit, eat a king’s breakfast of 4 pre-packaged croissants, a handful of muesli bars, and down a bottle of Fanta, then head off outside to ride the 5 minutes to the starting point.
I eventually found the front of the Olympiastadion. Given that it is a round building with four entrances, there should be a one in four chance you’ll get to the right side the first time. Easier said than done. After some confused gravelling, I finally spotted the two signature towers marking the main entrance as well as the loose group of cyclists milling around in front. With a crisp “moin”, I greeted the organisers and handed over my drop-bag. Now time to find some familiar faces and have my photo taken for posterity. I spotted one chap in a Randonneurs Austria club kit, so I nipped over to say hello. It turned out that this was Simon, originally from England. We had a pleasant chat about the upcoming race and joking about Austrian and German customs. It was at this point I had the suspicion I was carrying too much, but more on that later.
The recent Grünewald fire had caused some problems for the start, as the original route was supposed to have passed through this huge forest lying at the west of the city. It was therefore announced that we would be leaving in two groups to make sure we were sent the right way. After a countdown and cheer at 8 am sharp, the square echoed with the sound of shoes being clicked into pedals, and we slowly pedalled out of the city.
Forming a peloton, we weaved our way through the beautiful Hawelchaussee road which skirts the Grünewald and the Hawel lake. We rode side-by-side, chatting together much like on any group ride. Despite not knowing each other, our common love of cycling formed the basis for good conversation. We discussed bikes, bags, aero bars, gearing, sleeping strategy, you name it. Several riders shot off into the distance, and I was conscious that even our average speed was 30 km/h, much too fast for such a long ride.
Nevertheless, enjoying the group discussions and the free slipstream, I didn’t give it much further thought. We snaked our way our of the city and onto country roads, enjoying the warm weather and conversation. By this time I had already met a few different riders, some doing the half distance, some the full distance. Some were travelling light and had already booked accommodation on their way to Munich – all they had to do was just ride the set distance each day, check in and ride the next day. Much like I had planned last year.
This year was a little different, in that I frankly had no idea how to manage my sleep. I had convinced myself that I would ride approximately 300km each day, stop around 6pm and look for a hotel online. It was early enough in the day, plenty of time to work out a new plan later.
With the pleasant conversation and these thoughts in my mind, little did I realise that things would soon get a little serious. As a racer, I am fairly used to riding in a group. There are certain unwritten rules, most of which relate to safety. The first is to guard your front wheel – if you touch someone else’s back wheel or it hits a pothole, you may get taken down and most likely you’ll take the whole group down with you.
The second is to keep at least one hand on the handlebars at all times. Linked to the first rule, it’s also conceivable that a gust of wind comes along and knocks you off course. This can lead to a nasty fall, and down comes the whole group behind you.
Most of my group seemed relatively experienced which was reassuring, however one rider did seem a little over-enthusiastic. Not hard to sympathise with him, after all, it was a nice day, big group and the beginning of a new adventure. When I saw him overtake our side-by-side formation several occasions and slot himself, then take both hands of his handlebars for a few seconds, I couldn’t help but get a little nervous. It’ll be fine, surely?
I continued my conversation and watched the landscape roll past. Keep an eye on the speed, I still think that we’re going too quickly. Keep a little more distance from the enthusiastic rider in front, two metres should be fine. Quick sip from my water bottle, quick bite from a muesli bar. All of a sudden, time slows down. The rider in front is rolling sickeningly to his right. I dab my brakes, crying out “slow” for the benefit of those behind me. As he rolls completely, he lands on his side on the asphalt, his bike slides to the right and his water bottle detaches and rolls in front of me. Still braking, I push my weight back and try to steer around the bottle, knowing that rolling bottles can be dangerous.
Thankfully I somehow passed the crash safely, as did everyone else around me. I slowed down to avoiding causing a pileup behind me, and about 15 metres down the road I come to a halt and assess the situation, trying to steady my nerve. Thankfully a larger pileup has been averted and there are no cars behind us. Assisted by a few other cyclists, the rider pulls himself and his bike to the side of the road and lies down on the grass verge.
Everyone around is clearly concerned but lacking a leader, most of us stand around uselessly and speculating about what happened and what should happen. Taking relief that a few of us start to attend to the rider, some of us eventually agree that a large number of us standing around is less than helpful, and this can be more effectively managed by a smaller group. Checking to make sure that things are under control and the rider is out of immediate danger, some of us clip back in and slowly roll away down the road.
Now somewhat muted, we carry on down the road making small talk and analysing what happened. The mood slowly eases up, and we pass through some beautiful countryside and lakes. After a while, the new group of about 14 was working surprising well together, with the more experienced riders trying to encourage rotation to ensure that we fairly divided the work. Some did show a clear preference for sitting at the back, however this was taken in good spirit and we kept rolling, with the conversation flowing.
The next few kilometres was on a dedicated bike path, however this was pockmarked with roots and holes, which make for a very bumpy experience. At the front, we started to call out “Wurzel”, “Schlagloch” and “Baum” (roots, pothole, tree!) to warn those behind us. After a while though, the path often consisted more of roots and potholes than actual asphalt, which led several of us to regularly cry out “Wurzel” and “Schlagloch” more out of ironic amusement rather than real necessity, and this eventually became our inside joke.
Eventually as one, the group decided that it was time for a quick lunch break and we stopped at a local supermarket. We piled our bikes outside by the entrance under the eye of a couple of riders who stayed outside. This was something I have never properly seen before – a real “smash and grab”. 10 Lycra clad cyclists wandered in and around amongst normal shoppers, picking out anything vaguely rich in carbohydrates as well as water. We flooded the cash till and stood politely waiting for our turn to pay, then escaped back into the hot air outside to devour our new purchases. Whilst enjoyable, there was an urgency amongst us as nobody wanted to be left behind without having finished.
15 minutes later, fed and watered, we left in force and set off back down the road, destination Leipzig.
Arrival in Leipzig (checkpoint 1)
After several tens of kilometres riding through some relatively dry and barren bike paths, snaking their way around hills, motorways, and the Werbeliner and Schladitzer lakes, we were unceremoniously deposited in the outskirts of Leipzig. We rode through the city, crossing pedestrianised areas and tram tracks, finally making our way up the Straße des 18. Oktober and stopping at the first checkpoint located just shy of the Monument to the Battle of the Nations (Völkerschlachtdenkmal).
The BMB team had set up some picnic tables and chairs in the park to the side of the main road, where we collected our first stamp and refuelled on coke, water and vegan sausages with bread. After 200km of hard riding, it was nice to have a break, sitting down and having a chat with the other riders. Having made enquiries, the organisation team was thankfully aware of the crashed rider, and assured us that he had been taken care of.
Mindful that time was ticking, our group discussed where we were looking to end up in the evening. The next stage was one of the longest with plenty of climbing, promising a total of 227km and 2,360m of ascent. It therefore would make sense to stop halfway. Ben informed us that there was very little in the way of shops or fuel stations before the towns of Gera (an additional 90km) and Plauen (an additional 150km). We stocked up on water and food, and set off down the road towards the south-west of the city.
The landscape changed as we move deeper into the countryside, with our route following tiny, beautiful rural roads. Following the high pace of the first 200km, I slowly felt myself slump into a dark place. I could no longer sit at the front of the group as I had before, and one rider (Christian from Berlin) tried to encourage me and kindly told me just to hold back and rest in their slipstream. This reminded me of the dark place I ended up in during Passau-Vienna, which hit me after 200km and lasted about 3 hours. I really hoped it wouldn’t take this long, but tried to focus on the nice surroundings and repeated the motivational words I had previously stuck on my stem just for moments like this:
- “I chose to be here”,
- “Keep moving”,
- “It will pass”, and
- “Breathe & smile”.
Repeating these under my breath and once in a while forcing a grimace which was meant to resemble a smile, I keep the pedals turning, trying to stay in the middle of the group to avoid having to play catch up at the back. We weave our way between picturesque fields, rivers and villages in the early sunset, however our collective morale took a blow with a steep ramp of up to 15% just after the town of Koßweda. The sudden grinding of gears didn’t help much given my mental mindset, and unlike my normal self I shouted a few choice expletives as I made the top, afterwards apologising to a passing rider just in case he thought I was cursing him.
The group slowly discovered that we were running out of water, with one or two needing a quick top up from those who had some extra. There was nothing around though, so we kept our eyes open for any water fountains or shops. Nothing presented itself.
Supermarket raid and an offer of a hotel
After what felt like an hour, we eventually hit a small town near Gera called Bad Köstritz, and, dumping our bikes outside, we did another smash and grab. I picked up some rolls, salami and fruit for dinner, some coke and water, and lip salve for my now sunburnt lips.
Just before entering the supermarket however, a young lawyer I was chatting to earlier called Bastian asked me whether I was interested in joining him and three others at a hotel in Gera. I gladly accepted and when I returned was told that a couple of rooms were organised, we just needed to ride another 10km. The larger group had now split into several smaller groups, with some riding toward their pre-booked hotel, and some further towards Plauen (an extra 60km). One of our five, Loris, found the way using Google maps, and navigated us through Gera city centre and we finally arrived at the comfortable looking hotel.
We left our bikes outside, and stumble in to check in. My would-be room mate Christian organised everything with the receptionist, including negotiating that we could take the bikes up to the room. Key cards in hand, we went back outside and collapsed into chairs around a table just by the main door. We started comparing our daily stats from our computers, and after this we started chatting about this and that.
After a quick search of the local restaurants, we ordered in from Dominos and eventually I was tucking into a large pepperoni pizza. Not the healthiest option, but in my opinion well deserved after a tough first day. At 10pm the receptionist closed up and we headed off to our rooms. I showered and washed my clothes, making sure everything would be dry for the next day. After plugging in all my devices, it was time to crash.
Read my next post in the series here!
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- Distance: 282 km
- Elevation: 970m
- Average speed: 22.4km/h
- View the Komoot route