A stone’s throw to Wittenberg (checkpoint 8)
The alarm rang, and this time I pushed the snooze button. I got up at 6am – what a luxury. After all, I only had 170km to ride today to Berlin and all by 4pm at the latest. 10 hours. Plenty of time.
Time for breakfast. I took the cold meat and cheese from the fridge, and sat down at the small table by the window to eat. The coffee was still hot and the rolls still soft. What more could one ask for?
Breakfast complete, I got myself dressed and used the hairdryer to dry a few choice items, such as my drenched shoes and gloves which I washed the night before (they were looking – and smelling – a little worse for wear after the past few days). I packed up the bike, tidied up the room, and, looking for my hostess, set off towards the gate. It was probably still too early for her – I’d give her a call later to send her my thanks.
The sun was already shining but it was too cold to be entirely enjoyable. Compared to how the area looked last night in the pitch black, the countryside was positively inviting, and I enjoyed riding through the chain of villages heading northeast to Wittenberg. Despite six hours of rest and liberal doses of chamois cream, my saddle sores were worse then ever, and for the first half an hour I had to sit gingerly on the saddle. Eventually they took my weight however, and I could sit properly without too much discomfort.
Over the last 5 days I was pleasantly surprised that my legs, knees and Achilles’ tendons didn’t hurt despite the impressive distance. This morning however I started to feel some pain in my left Achilles’ tendon, something I was concerned about after having my cleats changed in Dresden. I must’ve ridden about 100km with this new position yesterday and was surprised that it started to hurt now, however I needed to do something before this became a problem.
I stopped at the side of the road, took off my left shoe and quickly adjusted the cleat using my multitool. It was clearly out of place, and the imprint from the previous cleat position was pretty visible. Odd that the chap in the bike shop didn’t see this. Oh well, that was the risk in not doing it myself.
The ride took me through some really nice roads and the early morning sun was doing a good job of keeping up my mood. My body still was in however protest mode and my sweat glands were working in overload. By the time I arrived in Wittenberg I was thoroughly drenched in perspiration. This was not normal, but I had to keep going and I made sure I kept drinking water to avoid dehydration.
Checkpoint 8 was a petrol station on the main road running through Wittenberg. I left the bike outside and walked in toward the cash desk. “Hi, I’m in a bike race and I’m supposed to get a stamp here.” “I don’t know anything about that, sorry.” “Are you sure? There should be lots of other cyclists who have been here, Berlin-Munich-Berlin?”
My efforts were rewarded by a blank face. Great. My mind went into overdrive, perhaps I could buy something and keep the receipt? Perhaps a selfie would suffice. At that moment, another employee walked in from a back room to help out. “Oh, you’re one of the cyclists?” “Yes, could I get a stamp?” “Of course, no problem.”
I got my stamp, thanking the lady profusely and walked out again, not before hearing the first employee saying to the other, “I wish someone told us about this…” Luck and persistence.
Onward to Berlin
Standing outside, I loaded the route for the final stage onto my computer. The final 137km. A nice flat Sunday ride, I would aim for 6 hours, no more. I should arrive around 2pm with enough time to spare. After I arrive, I might even nip to the hotel for a shower and quick snooze before the award ceremony in the evening. The route would take me out of Wittenberg, through the forests of the Naturpark Hoher Fläming and the Belziger Landschaftswiesen, into Potsdam and then along the last few kilometres to Berlin, my final destination.
The countryside was pleasant to ride through, and I passed a series of towns interspersed with fields containing a variety of crops, including a large sunflower field. An hour or so after leaving Wittenberg, I seized the opportunity to refuel, stopping appropriately at a fuel station. I treated myself a bottle of coke, chocolate donut and a Calippo, and walked off the forecourt and plonked myself under a tree to the side of the street. One thing that such a long audax will teach you is how to make the most of small moments and to have no shame. A comfortable tree is a comfortable tree wherever it is. Taking one’s shoes off is also a must.
Back on the road, the route eventually led me into some beautiful forests, which seemed to never end. Rather thoughtfully, the asphalt road often split into a gravel track for vehicles, but still retained a narrow asphalt bike path running in parallel. Neither words, photos nor video can fully describe the sensation of riding through such a landscape, with the intense scent of trees, the bird song, the creaking of trees, and the whooshing noise of my carbon wheels.
The beginning of the end
The forests seemed endless, opening up suddenly to a field or a small town, and then I would enter the forest again. The route made for some fairly lonely riding, and I only saw a handful of leisure cyclists riding in the other direction. After about 30 kilometres of riding, the forest changed and became more “industrialised” for lack of a better word. The quiet asphalt road now ran parallel to train tracks, surrounded by concrete, behind housing settlements and across a motorway. The road became quite rough on occasion and during this time I recalled reading a report on Facebook last night from another BMB cyclist who had suffered a major puncture on this stretch.
I rode under a small bridge, across a patch of broken concrete, and then after rounding a corner I felt the sensation that I had been dreading for the last few hundred kilometers. A flat rear tyre. I pulled over quickly, removed my Tailfin – in doing so cursing the thru-axle mounting system – and removed the back wheel. I stripped out the inner tube, and inflated this using my mini pump to see where the hole was. This was relatively easy to find and I checked the tyre itself to see if I could find the debris that caused the puncture. I looked several times and for the life of me found nothing.
At this point I was extremely thankful that I bought those two extra butyl inner tubes in Dresden. I opened one up, fitted it into the tyre, and pumped it up again so that it was relatively hard to the touch. That should be good enough. Checking the wheel over again before remounting, I couldn’t help but hear a slight hissing noise near the valve. What the heck? I tightened the valve but this didn’t help much. My tiredness was showing, and I thought that, with only 50km to go, I could survive on a slow leak. I would just stop every 10km and pump it up again.
I mounted the wheel again, mounted the Tailfin, packed up all my things and set off again. About two kilometres later, I realised this wasn’t working. By this time however, I had reached Schwielowsee, a nice looking lake surrounded by shady trees just shy of Potsdam, which seemed to be a hotspot for local bathers. I stopped at a pristine bus stop, and under the watchful eyes of a few bemused bathers, removed the Tailfin again and the back wheel, and pulled out the rear inner tube. I checked the tyre again to be certain, mindful that if any debris was still in the tyre, I would puncture my last perfectly good inner tube. This time the pressure in the new tube thankfully seemed to hold. Phew, panic over. That was close. 30km left and it was noon. Four hours. Still doable.
The route followed Schwielowsee and the neighbouring Templinersee, with the lakes to my left and forest to my right. The main road was however clearly designed to reduce the speed of cars and had a number of traffic calming measures which were downright dangerous for me as a cyclist. I instead took the bike path which ran parallel, and I had to weave my way though countless pleasure cyclists who were happy enough to ride slowly and take up the entire bike path. Some swore at me as I raced past. I couldn’t really blame them, but I was on the clock.
This would be a difficult day from a nutrition perspective, as I didn’t feel like eating but I still had to to keep up my strength or face the dreaded “bonk” before reaching Berlin. I couldn’t face eating any more muesli bars or Haribo, and I didn’t have time for a proper meal. I stopped off at a drinks van at the side of the road and bought a bottle of water and can of Coke. In Germany, I knew that most bottles require a deposit which you get back when you return them at the next shop. If you were going to finish the bottle in front of the shop, they wouldn’t charge you the deposit, provided that you give back the bottle straight away.
I poured the water into my bike water bottle and handed the empty bottle back. Desperate to get back on the road, I took the can of Coke with me to the side of the road, downed it, and threw it into a nearby rubbish bin. As I was about to clip back in, I heard a shout of “oi, are you made of money?” (or the equivalent in German). Taken aback, I turned around and the man from the drinks van stomped over to me, rescued the can from the bin and walked back to the van muttering darkly. He brusquely explained that cans were also part of the deposit system, a new one for me. Just another thing I could do without.
I quickly rode off, trying to keep up a good average speed in order to still make my own 2pm deadline. When steering into a left hand corner, I suddenly felt the odd sensation that my bike was on rails and became sluggish to turn back straight or right. In a state of renewed panic, I peered down at my front tyre. It couldn’t be? A flat. How? There was nothing on the road.
I pulled over again, sat on the verge, cursing, and quickly removed my front wheel. What now? This was my last Tubolito inner tube and I couldn’t patch it quickly. I had two butyl tubes left – the one from Christian from my back tyre which now had a hole in it, and the new one which somehow leaked air. I took the tube with the hole and tried to patch it with a glueless patch I kept for emergencies.
I patched the tyre and waited a few minutes for it to fix. I checked the inside of the front wheel for any debris and again I couldn’t find anything. Was I missing something obvious in my tiredness? I really had to be careful, if I missed something I would simply puncture my one trustworthy tube. But I could not find anything. It should be ok.
For the third time that day, I pumped up the tyre using my mini pump. It’s a great wee thing but it really takes a lot of effort, especially when working quickly. Now happy with the pressure, I remounted the front wheel and got rolling again. I didn’t lose too much time so far. Not great, but still workable.
About two kilometres down the road, I felt the same sluggish reaction in my front tyre again. A feeling of horror filled me, this was becoming a nightmare. This couldn’t be happening. I was now in the outskirts of Potsdam, and stopped at the side of the road again, traffic rushing past me, their drivers going about their normal business. Becoming increasingly desperate, I thought I could pump up the front tyre again. Surely with just 25km to go, I could make it by pumping up the tyre whenever it got flat?
Potsdam, and a solution presents itself
I arrived in Potsdam city centre and crossed over some tram tracks along my route, cringing when I felt and heard the clunk-clunk-clunk noise of carbon rims rolling against a deflated tyre. What could I do? In the very worst case, could I walk to Berlin in time? 5km/h for 25km – too slow. Public transport would be cheating. I could only succeed by getting my bike rolling again.
Whilst walking my bike to a park to look at the tyre again, I tried to calm myself and think things through. How do I solve this problem? When I’m not wheeling a bicycle through Potsdam city centre, I work in a high pressure job where tight deadlines are a common challenge. Problem solving is my bread and butter. I could now forget my 2pm target “soft” deadline. I was now working to the hard deadline of 4pm. It was 12pm, 4 hours to go. Still doable, but I would need to ride quickly. And there would be traffic lights. This is just like another day in the office. Make the deadline, whatever it takes.
In a park surrounded by people sitting and lying on the grass and enjoying the sun, I sat down on a bench looking thoroughly deranged. I removed the front wheel, stripped out the inner tube and removed the tyre. Work the problem. I inflated the tube and lay it on the grass beside me. It held air. The patch appeared to be doing its job. I took off the tyre completely and examined it from outside and inside. A few nicks and cuts but nothing notable, and using my fingers I tried to feel my way around the entire inside of the tyre, even the side walls. Nothing. Everything was fine. Then what was the problem?
Everything should be ok now, right? I carefully remounted the tyre, put the tube back in, and pumped up the wheel. It held air. I mounted the tyre onto the fork, and packed my things away. I set off down the road again with a sense of cautious relief, but about 300m later the front wheel was flat again. I couldn’t believe it. I pulled over, sat down on a bench and took a moment for myself. This was not happening.
After a few minutes, I went back into problem solving mode again. I took out my phone, opened my maps app and searched for bike shops. After calling several with either no answer or an outright rejection, I got through to an elderly woman. “Are you open? I’m in a race and desperately need a new front tyre and tube. Can I come over now?” The answer was promising.
The shop was 400m away, back the way I had just came. I walked as quickly as I could through Potsdam city centre in cleats, walking through crowds of people with my bike looking pitiful as the front wheel rattled on the deflated rubber tyre. It seemed an age away. I finally reached it, shoved the bike through the door and – looking in a right state covered in dry perspiration and crud from the road – explained my plight to the owner. “I have one and a half hours to get to Berlin. I don’t trust my front inner tube or the tyre. Could you also check the back wheel. Please help me.”
She called a mechanic from the workshop at the back who strode in and took away my bike. Time slowed down as I waited in the shop. One customer came in – “I bought a bike last week but my saddle hurts, do you have another saddle?” A family came in looking for a new mountain bike for their youngest. I had to keep dancing out of the way as the family walked around looking at different bikes. I asked for some water and was kindly given a whole bottle, which I promptly downed. I checked my watch.
A few minutes later I decided to wait outside, the pressure was getting too much. The mechanic shortly strode outside with my bike from a back entrance, complete with its new front tyre and handed it to me, stating “7 bar front, 7 bar back.” I can pay inside. I thanked him profusely, and ran inside only to find that the owner was no longer to be found. After a moment of panic, I located her in an office at the back. When paying I discovered they didn’t take credit cards or ATM cards. Only German EC cards. Everything I tried was rejected. I really didn’t need this. 25 Euros, I’m sure I have some cash. After some quick digging, I pulled out my last note, 20 Euros, with embarrassment. “I’m really sorry, this is all I have on me.”
The elderly lady looked at me in my bedraggled form, certainly with a manic, desperate look in my eyes, and – incredibly – gave a slight shrug, nodded and took the 20 Euro note. She cocked her head towards the road as if to say, get back out there. I almost wept as I walked through the door.
The bike felt totally different. I rode through the city centre, pushing hard on the pedals. One hour fifteen minutes to go. 20km. With traffic lights. Go. I was getting paranoid about the tyres, especially the back which still had the original tyre and tube. The high pressure in the tyres gave the bike a harder ride, which unsettled me.
Progress was good, the roads were largely straight. I came up to the last hill of the journey, a 2km slow ascent up a tiny hill called Schäferberg between Potsdam and Berlin. Nothing steep, but after the past few days and the recent stress, it was a right effort to get up. This was not helped by a woman on a e-bike who whooshed past me. The ride back downhill however was refreshing, knowing that it was all flat, all fast from now on. 15km.
The path on my computer was clear, in a few kilometres there would a straight path through the Grünewald forest and straight into Berlin’s city centre. A flat out time trial. The end was so near.
But disaster. Not for the first time, the road was closed. But unlike the countless roadworks that I have walked through or around without issue over the last 1500km, I could not walk through this one. The road was cordoned off and a police car was parked in front. I rolled up to the driver’s door, and a young, friendly looking police got out and officer explained that a police ammunition dump in the forest was at risk of exploding due to the recent fires. It sounded absurd, but no way through. The only alternative route was the hilly road we passed through when we left Berlin 5 days ago. This would add about 10km to my route, and an additional few hundred metres of elevation.
Game over. With only 50 minutes left to the checkpoint closure, I turned left and rolled along the Hawelchausee road. Any fight in me that I had in Potsdam was gone. With the additional distance, making the Amstel House Hostel on time would be very tight. Had I just spent the last 1500km riding for nothing? Was this really a DNF? It wasn’t fair.
I did the only thing I could think of. I dug out the brevet card and looked for Ben the organiser’s phone number, which he had provided for emergencies. No answer. I kept riding slowly along the road, feeling sorry for myself. A few minutes later I received a phone call from another number. It was Ben. I explained the situation – the main road along the route was closed by the police. Surely this would warrant an extension of the deadline? “Don’t worry, head straight over to the New Order bike shop. We’ll be there until 6pm. You’ll get the stamp. Just take it easy.”
I did just that. Feeling thoroughly exhausted and emotionally empty, I rode back along the Hawelchausee road. The local roadies all waved cheerfully at me, and I tried to wave back. I just needed to keep the wheels turning. I only had a few sips of warm water left in my bottles. I was literally running on empty.
15 minutes later I made it out of the Grünewald forest, and onto the main road into Berlin right beside the Olympiastadion, not far from where I started 5 days ago. All I had to do was cross Berlin. I rode along the same bike paths I had already taken when I did a tour of the city on Wednesday, the day before I set off on BMB. I weaved my way through the countless other cyclists, some of whom tried to outsprint me at traffic lights. Go on, I don’t care. All of them were going about their normal business, heading home from work or to meet friends. I had just ridden 1,500km and over 11,000m of elevation in 128 hours, across a whole country, and to them all I was just another cyclist. One of many.
On the way I couldn’t help bursting into tears on several occasions. I had made it. Despite everything that had been thrown in my way. Me, who had cycled my first 100km just over two years ago. I passed the Siegessäule, the Brandenburg Gate, Unten den Linden, and into the Karl-Marx-Allee, finally arriving at my destination, the New Order bike shop. 4.46pm.
128 hours and 46 minutes. A finisher.
I unclipped and pushed my bike into the shop. The store manager Alex, whom I already met before BMB, welcomed me in and offered me water, electrolytes and a glass of champagne. I was about an hour early for the finisher’s ceremony, so I sat myself down in a deckchair, chatted to Alex and the shop assistants, and sipped my champagne. Waves of exhaustion hit me, and I started to nod off several times.
Resting in the New Order bike shop; the completed brevet book.
I watched the guys set up chairs outside and felt guilty that I wasn’t being useful. I eventually got up, walked over and slumped into a chair. Some familiar faces arrived, all dressed in clean clothes and in various states of rest. Thomas, Bastian, Chris, Simon, and a few others. We hugged and chatted, catching up on gossip. It turned out that Bastian, Chris and Christian rode straight through the night instead of stopping after Dresden. 400km in one day, arriving at 8am. Christian finally arrived, and we hugged. What an experience we had shared. The Rapha boys arrived shortly afterwards.
Ben and the organisers set up for the low key ceremony in front of the New Order, and then called up each of us to pick up our medal and have a photo taken. It was official. BMB22 was over, and were were very proud finishers. The riders and organisers hung around in the early evening with drinks in hand, chatting about our experiences, our bikes, and what we would do better next time.
The medal award ceremony. Credit for all photos: Berlin-Munich-Berlin.org
Eventually it was time to say goodbye. Unable to ride another metre, I left my bike at New Order to pick up the next day, and took a taxi back to the hotel. I ordered in a large quantity of Indian food and wolfed this down hungrily. After showering and tending to my various sore spots, I lay down in the comfortable bed. Making sure I had no alarm set for the morning, I fell into a deep sleep.
Read my next post in the series here!
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- Distance: 181km (total distance: 1,524km)
- Elevation: 730m (total elevation: 11,150m)
- Average speed: 26.1km/h
- View the Komoot route