The first night of the race saw tension from weeks of frenzied preparation melt away as tires moved from the Muur’s uneven cobblestones to smooth tarmac leading south. Within minutes of jostling up the Muur with hundreds of fellow riders, I found myself alone, riding through sleepy Belgian towns, following the flickering lights of a few cyclists several thousand feet ahead.
Using a GPS unit was still new for me, and I slowed to check my bearings as it led me out off town streets onto a small paved path running alongside a canal. I pedaled through the night, guided by the canal through fields and forest, with only my bike’s headlight to resist the enveloping darkness. Unfamiliar surroundings meant every rustle on the periphery kept my imagination busy. There was little else to occupy me besides gazing at the spotlight my bike cast on the path ahead, occasionally illuminating the ghostly figure of a sleeping swan floating across the water.
An hour passed and the canal continued on. With no signs of other riders, I began to grow restless and stopped to check on my progress – 25 miles and counting. Shortly after, my route diverged from the canal and led down a countryside road that devolved into gravel, and then a trail strewn with rocks, roots, and fallen branches. Before I could palm my forehead in frustration, bike lights bobbled around the corner and three fellow racers approached, remarking that the trail was completely blocked ahead. Navigation tools can get a bit confused by international borders. We’d run up against the northern edge of France.
As quickly as we met, at 2:40 a.m. on a trail in the middle of the Belgian countryside, our unlikely peloton broke off as each rider chose a different strategy for re-routing into France. After spending hours riding alone in the dark, even an interaction as brief as this provided an enormous boost, and the fact that others were facing similar predicaments in the first miles of a 2,500+ mile race was hugely validating. At least I was heading in the right direction.
The border itself was nondescript, but subtle differences like the style of street signs offered a sense of familiarity, thanks to a semester of studying abroad in France eight years earlier. After threatening rain for many hours, the clouds finally opened up, and the roads of french countryside towns glistened under streetlights. The light rain continued and early race adrenaline began to fade. I became cognizant of feeling increasingly cold and weary. Many of the more experienced riders were opting to ride straight through the first night, only breaking for rest the night after the first full day. But since I was already susceptible to making any number of rookie mistakes, I’d decided the least I could do would be to get some rest on the first night – a worthy investment towards better decision-making over the first 48 hours.
As the miles wore on, my eyes darted across the road looking for small nooks where I could get a few hours rest. My bivy lacked full waterproofing so finding some kind of shelter was a must. In time I came across a McDonalds, and after setting up my bivy beneath the overhang between its playplace and front entrance, I fell asleep within several minutes, shortly after 4 a.m., completely unaware of any apprehensions I once had about sleeping outdoors in a foreign country.