It was Wednesday, the day afterwards. I was sitting in my car, driving across Berlin to pick up my bike from the New Order bike shop. It was strange to be back in a car again. After spending the last 6 days on my bike, I felt suddenly isolated from the outdoors. No sun on my face, no heat or sweat on my skin, no chilling nighttime wind – just the seat cushioning my tender rear and air conditioning blowing cold air crudely into my face.
I slipped my way through lunchtime traffic, music playing on the radio. I was listening to some of the songs which a few days ago really helped me though my most difficult moments. Now the problems seemed so far away. I started to weep without tears – I had made it. 1500 km in 128 hours, once an unimaginable feat. A mixture of pride and exhaustion coursed through my body; I really struggled with my emotions during that half hour drive.
Time to reflect
Aside from my training and the drive to Berlin, my BMB experience really began the day before the start. It was in a Turkish burger restaurant near the Amstel House Hostel, the place where we had our initial briefing. I had just finished a quick tour of the city on the bike and wanted to grab some late lunch. I locked my bike up outside on the pavement, walked in and placed my order.
I sat at a table with a view over my bike, and after a while a well groomed man in a suit walked over to me. Whilst I was eating, I had seen him walking around, talking to other customers and tidying up some tables. He introduced himself and politely asked me how I was enjoying my meal, in doing so reminding me of a Turkish Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad (naturally only in respect of his impeccable dress and customer service).
We had a pleasant chat, and he eventually asked me about the cycling kit I was wearing. I told him about BMB, and he then proceeded to passionately tell me some stories about his father’s love of cycling. It turned out that his father had participated on a similar long-distance ride through Germany in the 1970s, and the man was clearly moved when he heard about my trip. When I finally left, he warmly shook my hand and wished me the very best.
This was the beginning of openness and kindness which one experiences so seldom with strangers. Cycling is an unusual sport, in that strangers, upon discovering a common love for the sport, can easily slip into a deep conversation about bikes, parts, racing, experiences, you name it. Talking to the other BMB participants was no exception, and already on the start line I was on first name terms with a number of other riders.
What surprised me most was the formation of our little team, comprising of Christian, Chris, Bastian, Loris and myself. I think the latter three already knew each other before starting, however for some reason I was welcomed into their group on the first day, with an invitation to join them in looking for a hotel. From then on until the finish line, our cooperation turned to partnership and friendship, even when we decided to ride separately on occasion.
BMB was a challenge, but it brought out so many positive experiences, including an incredible community spirit. I could say hello to any random BMB rider on the road or at a checkpoint and have a good chat. In our group we shared water and food when we only had reserves, lent each other tools and parts, helped each other with repairs, looked for hotels, and generally kept each other company. I had expected to be riding solo throughout the entire race, but this was something I had not planned for. (Just in case you were wondering, these are all within the BMB rules.)
A whole new dimension came from the number of my supporters back home who were “dot watching”, following my progress in real time via GPS using an app. I’m not sure who exactly was following, but my phone kept pinging with messages of encouragement from my wife and my team members. One follower in particular was a very enthusiastic dot watcher (you know who you are!), and you could just feel his excitement with every message of encouragement about my progress on our Facebook group.
What really put things into perspective for me was that just over two and a half years ago I rode my very first 100km. Then just one year ago, I rode my first 300km. Now I have achieved what some consider impossible (or simply not worth it).
Now when I’m out for a quick Sunday ride, my legs turn smoothly and I can’t help thinking where the road would take me if I just kept riding for several days. Once a major hurdle, a 100km ride is now simply a measure of time – how far I can ride at a leisurely tempo in about 4 hours. 200km is a fair distance, but give me headphones and good music and I’ll do it with no problem in 8-9 hours. Around the 300km mark, I’d probably start searching on my phone for a nearby hotel when it starts to get dark.
Hills don’t faze me anymore, and the two hills on my Sunday loop are simply there to be overcome. As one of our team joked, it’s not a proper hill until it’s over 12% gradient. Even when I walk into a fuel station, the spirit of adventure takes over and I automatically start looking for a bottle of something sugary, a sandwich, muesli bars, Calippos and Haribo. Clearly long-distance cycling has gotten to me.
Room for improvement
With the benefit of hindsight, I’m certain that I could have completed BMB in a shorter time. True, it’s not a race and I did finish within the given time limit, however with some critical reflection, my trip was characterised by a dependence on hotels. I don’t find this a bad thing, especially given that it was my first audax, however the booking process and effective 10pm check in deadline practically limited the time and distance that I could ride each day.
Based on discussions with other riders, I’m convinced that with a sleeping bag and experience of the area, I could have trusted myself more and slept wild on some nights. This would have allowed me to travel further each day, into the night, and aim for 350 to 400km each day. After all, according to many ultra-endurance athletes, the night is when winners are made. Riding this way, I could then have made better use of the checkpoints to catch up on sleep and wash myself and my clothes.
I certainly carried far too much. It wasn’t that I had unnecessary luxuries, but I carried things which I originally thought would be important but in reality I never used. Whilst I managed well up the hills on the first three days, the excess weight certainly sapped my energy over time. A couple of other riders commented that they were impressed how I managed to ride uphill so quickly with such a heavy setup. On reflection, this was not something that I should have been proud of, and certainly made things more difficult on the last few days. I did try to ditch some heavier things on day 2, but there was only so much I could remove.
So what did it all mean?
Here I am, about two months later, back to my normal routine with a strange sensation that none of it ever happened. I however often dream about being back on the road – leaning into the aero bars, listening to the whirring of the chain and the whooshing of my wheels, the morning sun warming my back with the promise of a great day ahead.
Living in this strange contrast of feelings, I can’t help thinking about what BMB meant to me and how it changed me.
When I returned, many of my friends and family were astonished about what I had achieved. “You’re crazy” was uttered more than once. Some expressed disbelief that I rode 300km in a day (“don’t you mean 30km?”). And day after day. That’s before I mentioned the 11,000 metres of climbing.
Whilst I was back home, it didn’t feel like it did before. I felt exhausted and empty, but at the same time strong and full of pride. All I wanted to do was to share my stories and describe how magical it had been, but I could see that most people that I spoke to simply didn’t appreciate it or weren’t particularly interested. Only the other audax riders I talked to really understood and were keen to discuss it. Not wanting to bore people, I tended to keep quiet and instead sought catharsis by writing my blog.
Some ultra-endurance athletes talk about post-race depression as they process the incredible feats they have achieved and try to re-enter “normal” life. Whilst I felt down for a few weeks, I’m thankful that I didn’t suffer anything too serious. Perhaps writing down my story did help.
The few newspaper articles and blogs which actually write about these events often call cyclists who ride these 1500km audaxes “ultra-endurance athletes”. I don’t really feel like an athlete, even despite my enthusiastic training and amateur racing, but it’s an interesting point. To be honest though, whilst I had my rough moments during BMB, my body and mind performed well enough so that for the most part, it just felt like a very very long Sunday ride.
I’m certain that my base miles from commuting and weekend rides as well as the intensity from racing helped me to manage the long distance. My mental resilience has probably been fine-tuned by my work, where I am constantly faced with multiple tasks, tight deadlines and technical problem solving with minimal scope for failure.
That being said, everyone who finished had their own strategies and tactics to keep up this resilience. I’m certainly not superhuman, and I’m convinced that any cyclist with a good basic fitness and enough drive could manage BMB, one way or another.
Where else can one find sheer pleasure in such simple moments?
If its not about being or becoming a superhuman, it must be something else. At the award ceremony on Tuesday, I had a good chat with my fellow countryman Simon, an experienced audax rider, but for whom BMB was his longest single ride yet. During a chat about our bikes and what we would improve for next time, we discussed what the last few days had meant to us.
What really surprised me was that he mentioned something that I had also been considering for a while – that it was essentially a pilgrimage. Nobody forced us to ride this essentially pointless route, which, whilst interesting and fun, resulted in us cycling from one side of Berlin to the other, just the long way via Munich. We paid good money to take part and received no glory and no podium – simply a paper book with 9 stamps, a wooden medal and a small award ceremony together with the other riders.
BMB was a symbolic act which drew together people of similar character, offering an opportunity to challenge ourselves, our equipment and our resolve, following a physical and emotional path, presenting us with highs and lows, and at the end revealing something new about ourselves and the world around us. Yes, a pilgrimage.
I was asked several times “are you coming back next year?” With my saddle sores, the pain in my Achilles’ tendon, my swollen feet and sheer exhaustion, my response was the same – “let me get back to you after a few weeks”. Speaking just over a month later, I definitely would. After all, now I’m an ultra-endurance athlete.
5 tips for budding long-distance cyclists
- Don’t take what you think you’ll need, take what you can’t do without. Perhaps don’t try this in the back country in Kyrgyzstan, but in Germany you’ll find a lot around you, even when shops are closed. Take minimal clothing – one jersey and two bib shorts were enough, which I washed daily. Time and energy efficiency are critical – travel as light as you dare.
- Keep a steady pace, a power meter is your friend. I knew this but still made this mistake. I treated every day as a single day’s ride and rode quickly. I underestimated long distances, thinking that I could sprint 70km. This is a tortoise and hare story, and on average everyone will ride at about the same speed. The big gains are made at night.
- Don’t take or wear anything you haven’t tested already. My mistake was taking my Tubolito spare inner tubes with the long (defective) valves. Had I not bought the butyl tubes in Dresden, I would have been in real problems on day 6.
- Get a bike fitting, otherwise you can really hurt yourself. I am amazed how well my body managed, and the only problem was caused by a new cleat which was fitted by the Dresden bike shop slightly incorrectly. It may seem expensive, but on such long distances, it’s critical.
- You will think about quitting. Don’t give up so quickly – think about why you started, and don’t quit at night time, and wait until after you’ve eaten and slept. Unless you’ve properly injured yourself or are ill, whatever you are going through will pass.
5 things I should (not) have taken
- TAKE – Proper rain overshoes. To save weight, I took my Velotoze overshoes, which whilst useful for racing are such a faff to put on. When it did rain, I didn’t bother putting them on – this resulted in me getting wet feet on day 5 – horrible if you can’t dry them out.
- TAKE/LEAVE – Compact sleeping bag instead of an inflatable mattress. I read before that it is important to lie comfortably on long rides to ensure quality of sleep. Perhaps true, but now from experience, if you’re tired enough you’ll sleep anywhere. A sleeping bag would have been lighter and would have let me to ride later into the night.
- LEAVE – Water bladder. I was worried about a heatwave, so I took this in case my two bottles wouldn’t suffice. Not bad in theory and it took up little space and weight, but I never used it. For the most part, the two 0.75L bottles were fine, but you need to keep an eye on supply. An alternative approach some tried were having another two bottles mounted elsewhere on your bike.
- TAKE – Lightweight T-shirt and shorts. I tried saving weight here, but regretted it as I had to walk around in the evenings and sleep in my less-than-comfortable clean bib shorts.
- TAKE – Tubeless tyres. If you’ve read my blog over the last few days, you’ll understand why. Given their reliability over clinchers on gravel and reduced puncture risk more generally, I really want to try these out on an audax.
5 things I’m glad I took
- Castelli raincoat. Ridiculously expensive, this was very light, packed small, was excellent in the rain, and kept me warm at night and in the mornings.
- Hammerhead Karoo 2 bike computer. To be honest, the battery life isn’t as long as it could be (about 8 hours with the full suite of sensors), but navigation was easy, the rerouting function worked a dream, and the climber function was a useful to plan efforts on the hills.
- Garmin Varia tail light. After a few close calls with traffic on my local rides, I bought this because of the radar function. It can detect any motorbike, car, truck (or even train) approaching behind you and your computer can play an audio warning. This is literally a life saver, and on BMB it was helpful when I was tired or when I needed to focus on riding (e.g. fast downhills).
- Chamois cream. I’ve used this before for races and longer day rides, but never really appreciated it until BMB. Especially in the later stages, I began applying this about three times a day to make my ride bearable. This is essential for a multi day ride.
- Microfibre towel. This was a bit of a gamble, but I wanted a towel which packed small and was light. An unusual feeling to the skin, the towel was handy for showering at the checkpoints and also for drying my jersey after washing.
Previous post here
Leave a Reply