Running on empty
The alarm rings at 4.30. I’ve slept pretty well, although that’s not too surprising given the comfy bed. It’s certainly better than a bench in a shower room. The first thing I notice when I get up is my back wheel, which is lying against the radiator under the window. It seems that my Tubolito repair kit hasn’t quite lived up to its expectations and the inner tube has completely deflated overnight. Great.
Last night I had faffed around with my spare inner tubes, extended valve Tubolitos, however after pumping these up, they leaked air through the joint making up the extended valve. In a mixture of frustration and the need to get rid of anything that was not helping me, these went straight into the bin.
Christian was now wandering around, busy with his early morning routine. I bid him good morning and ask if he might have a spare butyl inner tube. “Yes? With a long valve? Epic.”
Conscious that time was ticking, I quickly replaced the repaired Tubolito with a classic butyl tube, pumped it up, and chucked the repaired Tubolio in the bin. It had it’s chance. I then got dressed, mounted the back wheel and packed everything onto the bike. I could be wrong, but I thought I could heard two cyclists outside heading down the road. Perhaps it was Bastian and Chris?
At about 5am, we finally wheeled our bikes through the empty hotel lobby, checked out and picked up our pre-ordered breakfast bags. This was another stroke of genius from Christian, ordering food the night before. The only hitch? His minimalistic bike bag arrangement didn’t easily cater for the breakfast spread of two filled rolls, an apple, two bags of biscuits, and a juice box. We stood outside in the early sunshine and ate as much as we could to save space and shoved the rest into our bags. With a hint of regret at leaving, we then rode out of the hotel complex, down and out of town and back onto the main road.
The day’s programme had about 2,000 metres of ascent. Certainly not the worst day in terms of elevation, but it was a good idea to have split up this stage. Today I wanted to hit Dresden (checkpoint 7) and push as far as possible, perhaps even to Wittenberg (checkpoint 8). That would have put me within a stone’s throw of Berlin for Tuesday. Let’s see. For the time being, the route took us down a narrow bike path separate from the road, which we suspected was an old railway line, and we rode through beautiful forests and over rivers with hints of mountains left and right.
We hit the largish town of Aue, and were unceremoniously dumped into the middle of morning traffic, including a fair number of trucks who insisted on overtaking with minimal distance. I was struggling with hills yesterday, however today I really noticed the lack of power in my legs. Christian was in typically good form, and he rocketed up the hill leading out of Aue. I on the other hand was creeping along. I was certain that I could make it today, but it wouldn’t be pretty. After a few instances of losing sight of Christian and then finding him waiting for me again, the next time I caught up I told him to carry on ahead of me. No sense standing around and waiting. I’ll be fine.
No matter how hard I tried, I just could not get the power into my legs on the hills. On the flats they were fine, and they didn’t hurt at all. Just empty. On the plus side, I was glad I had my 34 small ring at the front and 34 cog at the back.
The route this morning consisted of a series of small uphills, however very few flats in between where I could rest my legs. I was managing well, but on occasion I just needed a break. On one occasion, I spotted a bench at the side of the road in front of a hedge, and I decided to stop for a quick snack. I set my bike against the bench, opened up the Tailfin and dug out my filled roll and an apple. I can tell you, dear reader, this filled roll was a revelation. Complete with ham, cheese, tomato, a nice slice of lettuce and complete with a dollop of mayonnaise, this was a moment to relish. What a roll – soft, tasty and with a hint of crunch. This was followed by my apple, which I carved up with my pen knife. What a way to remind myself of the small pleasures of life.
Recharged, I clipped back in and continued to creep my way up the hill. The road undulated through some small towns, people busy with their morning activities and barely giving me a second look. After all, when you see a cyclist, who really cares where they have been or where they are going? Food for thought.
Despite being mid-morning the sun was shining strongly and the heat became quite oppressive. The route took me through an unassuming residential road in the town of Zschopenthal, leading between driveways and well maintained gardens, however with punchy uphill of about 8-16% steep. Given the state of my legs, I got off and pushed. I shoved the bike up the asphalt road, thinking of what my poor cleats were going through, and walking carefully through every available patch of shade to hide from the sun. After about ten minutes, I made the crest of the road, clipped in, and rode across a busy junction avoiding several large trucks.
A few towns later in Brand-Erbisdorf, I spotted a bakery with a very inviting sign “Eis” (ice cream) in front. And who should I see in front of this bakery, but Christian. This reaffirmed the bizarreness about this super-brevet gig. No matter how fast or slow you think you are, you are more or less running at the same speed at the others. We greeted each other in surprise, Christian thankfully cursing the Zschopenthal ascent before cheerfully waving goodbye. I was quite chuffed that despite my poorly state I could still keep up a good pace.
I asked the friendly looking baker if I could park my bike inside the bakery (no bike lock, I already lost that on day 1), and very kindly she let me do so. Spoilt for choice, I opted for a coke, double espresso and a delicious looking raspberry jelly cake with a biscuit base.
It was at that stage I noticed that I was sliding all over the tiled floor. Bike cleats are not renowned for the grip, but this was bordering on ice skating. Sitting at the table, I gave them a quick check and discovered that the remaining plastic parts were hanging off rather pathetically. I’d have to do something about this otherwise the next 300km would be interesting.
Probably my favourite bakery so far, complete with parking spot inside.
Into the storm, then Dresden (checkpoint 7)
From the bakery it was about 50km until Dresden and checkpoint 7. The road was fairly unremarkable until I hit a large forest southwest of Dresden. My computer showed me that I had about 14 climbs on that stage, about three of which were in that forest. The weather was changing however, and my the time I saw with relief that there was only one more climb, a crash of thunder racketed above me and it started raining. I ducked under the nearest tree to get my bearings and put on my wet weather gear. Clearly not the best idea in a lightning storm, but there was plenty of other trees for the lightning to pick on instead of mine.
Faced with the prospect of having wet feet for the day and rolling around the bushes trying to put on my Velotoze (glorified condoms for feet, very aero), I elected for wet feet. The once inviting forest now turned into a steely gray landscape with the occasional car whooshing past on the wet roads, so I donned my rain jacket, switched on all my lights, flipped down the visor of my cycling cap and set out on the final 25km.
Thankfully I’m an all weather rider, so I wasn’t too fussed about the spray or my increasingly squelchy feet. My disc brakes still worked but sounded like banshees in agony any time I touched them. I gingerly descended from the forest and into the series of downs on the outskirts of Dresden, at one point passing a couple of motorbikers sheltering from the storm under a bridge. The audax way.
The lightning was disconcerting, but riding into town did seem the best option at the time. The road started to get busy, with cars and trucks overtaking, every time casting a spray over me. I couldn’t help notice that the standing water in the road had turned into a peculiar cream coloured foam, so I kept my mouth closed, dreading what was flying around in the spray.
Eventually the rain eased off and by the time I rolled into checkpoint 7 it was dry. Now an expert at navigating roadworks, I noticed that I was separated from the checkpoint entrance by a building site where workers were laying a new kerb. Not seeing any bridge or other way around, I tried to delicately cross, and was promptly shouted at by one of the workers. Being quite mild mannered at the best of times, the day’s events got to me, I lost my calm and shouted back at them. “How do you expect me to cross without setting up a bridge?” Another builder came over and kindly helped me find a way, even offering to carry the bike, and I thanked him profusely.
The checkpoint was a large sports centre, and here I again bumped into Christian, Chris and Bastian. Not bad progress indeed. They were getting ready to leave, so we had a quick chat and I looked around to get my brevet card stamped.
I explained – to the utter disbelief of everyone around me – that I had just rode through a thunderstorm. Despite being wet from head to toe and my new squelchy shoes, it took an effort to convince them. I sat down heavily in a chair and Bastian kindly offered to get me a Radler (shandy) from the fridge. What amazing guys.
Once they left, I had some pasta and a quick chat with one of the volunteers (whose name I unfortunately forget), who talked about his various tours, and explained to me how amazing an experience the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) super-brevet is. Conscious that time was ticking, I stocked up on coke and water, and then headed off back onto the road. Instead of heading straight towards Wittenberg, I instead rode into Dresden city centre looking for a bike shop – I had to get new cleats and a couple of spare inner tubes, given that I had thrown away my spare Tubolitos.
Onto the flats, chased by a storm
After a quick and friendly service in a local bike shop, I entered the next stage into my computer and was pleased to see that it was 156km long and flat as a board. After that, only another 140km until Berlin. It was about 2.30pm, I was feeling fairly good and was keen to get moving.
This is perhaps another mistake I had a tendency of making. Embracing the flat terrain, I underestimated the distance and tried to ride faster than would normally be sensible. The route took me along a well surfaced bike path which ran along the river Elbe, and I was enjoying riding at speed for a change. There were a mixture of leisure cyclists and roadies, so it felt like business as usual in comparison to the empty roads from the last few days. Behind me over Dresden, storm clouds were however brewing and I had the distinct feeling that the wind was pushing it in my direction. On the flat open terrain by the river, I felt significantly more exposed and was getting worried.
My saddle sores started playing up again, however I kept riding and eventually my mind turned to food. The bike path looked similar to the Danube bike paths in Austria, so I assumed that – asides from shops in neighbouring villages a few kilometres away from the river (and off the route), there would only be a few restaurants dedicated to cyclists. It was already about 3pm, if I found something I should stop otherwise it could be a while until the next opportunity.
I stopped at the next restaurant which turned out to be a rather unusual find. A hardcore Texas style ranch, complete with horses, chickens, stars and stripes, country music and a menu full of steaks. I could certainly do worse.
Leaving my steed outside, I found myself a comfortable seat at a table inexplicably surrounded with peanut shells on the floor, ordered myself a modest 200g steak, chips and a side salad. This was the protein / carb shock that my body was craving. Whilst tucking in, I kept noticing new small details in the decoration. You had to give it to them, where do you find a salt and pepper holder which looked like a rattlesnake?
Steak and chips; the trusty steed in the yard.
I finished up, paid, nipped to the bathroom to delicately apply more chamois cream, and then saddled up and moseyed off into the distance. The thunderstorm was almost overhead, and it had turned hot and very humid. It was now about 4pm and I needed to find somewhere to crash for the night. During quick breaks where I nursed my saddle sores, I called around and got some unusual replies, including the offer of an attic space which “I really wouldn’t want to sleep in”. Quite the offer there.
As I thought I gave the thunderstorm the slip, I bumped into the Rapha boys, and after surprised greetings, we had a quick catch up. Standing in a quaint town centre by the Elbe, we discussed our sleeping plans. Their goal was the town of Torgau, about 50km short of Wittenberg. I still wanted to aim for Wittenberg, but I would settle for anywhere with a bed.
The 100km sprint
After a few more calls, I eventually found a place about 30km shy of Wittenberg and exactly on the route I was supposed to take in a village called Greudnitz. On the phone, I spoke to a friendly old lady who told me about an outhouse in her garden which included a shower and toilet. I didn’t feel particularly convinced but at this rate I decided it was worth a go. It was still better than sleeping in a bus shelter. I took a double take when she offered it to me for 28 Euro, including breakfast. Very tempted, I explained that I would need to leave very early, and she said that she would make sure that breakfast would be ready and in the fridge. I just had to get there, estimated time 9pm.
5 hours to go, 100km. Should be doable, just a nice Sunday ride. Clearly having not learnt my lesson, I embraced the speed, hunkering low into my aero bars and trying to time trial myself along the road. Things went well at first, and I eventually overtook the Rapha boys, giving them a quick wave as I rode past.
The road was flat, yes, but very curvy. That’s not a problem normally, however it appeared that the municipality had secured a good price on cobble stones, and every junction and every corner of the road for the next 30km was covered in the damned stuff. Things were made worse by my relatively delicate condition due to my saddle sores, and it turned out that a hard saddle being rammed up and down between my legs like a jackhammer did not do wonders for my physical and mental wellbeing. To add to my misery, entire villages appeared to have been designed inexplicably around the humble cobble stone. As I rode through these undoubtedly quaint towns, the locals were treated to a choice selection of profanity in both English and German.
The monotony of the flat roads along the Elbe were interrupted when I stopped at a supermarket to grab a few things before all the local shops closed. With the sun slowly setting, I carried on at my speedy pace, however with time my feet started to hurt and I decided to rest up for about 5 minutes on a convenient bench. I used the opportunity to call and update Mrs MT, and it was nice to hear again about normal life. It was the morale booster that I needed. Just as I was lying back on the bench, I heard a noise and suddenly the Rapha boys rolled past at a fairly sedate pace. They noticed me and we exchanged greetings, but inside I started to despair. Why am I burning my matches like this? Could I not have simply ridden more slowly and still achieve the same distance?
The brain numbing monotony continued as I rode from village to village in the early dusk. Every village looked the same. The river was always to my right, and the landscape was flat and featureless. At this stage I was back into my Harry Potter audio book, which helped me keep my attention. The route deposited me onto a larger road, but thankfully there was not much traffic.
The whole time I was keeping an eye on my computer, in particular the “distance to go” data field. 100km, 70km, 50km, it was crawling down. I knew that with 50km I should be at the accommodation in about two hours. Two long hours. I called the woman just to update her. She was impressed with my progress, but did ask me not to arrive too late. Fair enough, but now I was expecting to arrive at 10pm.
The kilometres crept downwards until I hit the town of Torgau. I raced through the outskirts, past groups of people out enjoying the summer evening. Groups of friends, drinking beer and laughing. The route on my computer appeared to take me up a spiral bike path onto a bridge. I rode up this, however once at the top I realised that I had made a mistake. It must be back down again. Back at the bottom, I couldn’t work out how to get back on route, so I rode across a large gravel trap to get back onto the road, which was of course made of… cobblestones.
The route appeared to continue to follow the Elbe out of the city, but as I rode along, my heart suddenly sank. There was a closed gate across the path. What now? On the map screen of my computer, I scrolled around, trying to find an alternative route. I rode back and onto a parallel route, however this appeared to be blocked as well. This was getting annoying. I then realised that this must have been due to some event, and this time, instead of having a barrier in front of me, there was a foot bridge across a single path. Weird. I lifted up the bike, clambered up and down the steps, and set the bike down on the other side. Thankfully the onward path was clear.
A barrier across my path; the alternative was a footbridge.
With only 20km to go now, I called the woman again. Just less than an hour. 20km is just shorter than two of my commutes. Easy. It was now pitch black and quickly getting cold. I was now on a major road, and occasionally a car came whooshing by. My rear lights were on and bright, and I just kept pedalling.
The last five days were clearly catching up with me, and despite the cold, my body gave up and started to perspire uncontrollably. My chest was quickly wet and I had a small torrent of water running from my cap, dripping around my face, onto my bike and computer. Only 10km to go. Keep it together. I stopped quickly and put on my rain jacket as the last thing I wanted was to catch a cold. I drank some water, conscious of the amount I risk losing.
Keep riding. Punch through the darkness. The street signs flashed past listing various towns, seemingly each with an “itz” at the end of them. Wittenberg was coming up but still another 40km. In a car that would be nothing. Keep the pedals turning. Shift my position so that my saddle sores don’t hurt as much.
3km left. My computer told me to turn down left onto a side road. I didn’t see much around me, just parts of tree branches left and right, caught in my headlight. The road narrowed into a single track road, with a hint of gravel. Stephen Fry’s soothing voice reading Harry Potter helped me immensely. Almost there. The computer tells me to turn right, but I couldn’t see any road. Has something gone wrong? I rode on an extra 50m and discovered that it was a hairpin bend. It made sense, and I turned back onto the main road. It should only be about 500m.
At the side of the road in the darkness I saw a small torch light. I pulled out my headphones and heard the friendly woman’s voice greeting me. I made it. 10pm. I greeted her back and apologised profusely for my late arrive, whilst I was led through her gate. Two dogs are running around and barking, sniffing me and my bike. We chatted a little bit and I explained what I was doing, 1500km in 128 hours. She exclaimed in a mixture of amazement and pity, “you’re the craziest person I’ve ever met!” Fair point, I took it as a compliment.
I was shown to the outhouse and was pleasantly surprised. A lodge for four, comfortably decorated, complete with a table, fridge, hairdryer (important), and an outdoor shower and toilet. There are event some books and a board game collection. I was shown the delicious breakfast prepared for me, and she told me that she had already made coffee, and put it a thermos. Hopefully it will still be warm by the morning. I thanked her again profusely, we settled up, bade our goodnights and I was left to my own devices.
The outhouse lodge, complete with comfy beds; part of my breakfast offering.
I started my evening ritual of charging everything, going for a shower and washing my clothes under foot in preparation for the morning, and eating some dinner. I also treated my shoes to a few minutes under the hairdryer, trying to finally get the water out of them.
Clean, full, tired and happy, I switched off the lights and fell asleep.
Read my next post in the series here!
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- Distance: 257km (total distance: 1,343km)
- Elevation: 2,060m (total elevation: 10,420m)
- Average speed: 24.2km/h
- View the Komoot route