Belgium: Early hours of the race

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.

France: First three days

Salut! Three and a half days of cycling has gotten me to the outskirts of Lyon, averaging 140 miles a day, through pastoral landscapes battered by wind, down canal banks in the rain, over single-track across farm fields, down forest trails fit for a mountain bike. So far I’ve slept under the overhang of a McDonalds, in two inns, and alongside a riverbank.

The majority of towns I’ve passed through are eerily quiet provincial villages in the countryside. Folks clearly live there but you rarely see anyone out and about. Windows remain shuttered with lights out. You feel a definite sense of loneliness when this is your only contact with civilization while riding through countryside all day. It’s been a relief to pull into some of the larger more happening towns like Reims, Langres and Chalon-sur-Saône (shown later in the video below). Because I have a lot of time on my hands out here, I’ve invented a new game where I guess what amenities will be available in a town based on the font size of its name in Google Maps.

Despite the solitude, I have a huge soft spot for France. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the landscapes and cuisine, as well as the chance to put my (questionable) French language skills to use.

Early learnings:

-Every several minutes spent route-tweaking before the race saves hours of time during the race: Navigational issues plagued me day 1 and 2 as part of my route led me on gravel roads and trails unfit for a road bike. Since then the Garmin and I have made amends, finding improved ways to collaborate moving forward.

-Eat more calories: I’m slowly learning how to find enough food despite limited hours of most grocery stores and restaurants. (Note to self: stores close at noon on Sundays, so stock up.) In the first two days I was only eating a pastry or two when I woke up, but I’ve learned energy is sustained far better throughout the day with a heartier breakfast from a grocery store – 2 yogurts, 1-2 pieces of fruit, orange juice, carbs (biscuits, bread, pastries, etc.)

-Take the gear you want to bring on a bike trip, remove half, then remove half of what’s left… then remove half of that: Yesterday I shipped out three pounds of gear that I previously thought were essential, but now just seem heavy. These included the only pair of non-cycling clothes and shoes (sandals) I’d brought along – a symbolic move as well a strategic one. We’ve got miles to cover!

-Investing in reliable gear pays off: Despite the early abuse, my gear has held up surprisingly well so far – a testament to the benefits of tens of hours spent researching bike bags, rims, wheel building etc. A mechanical issue at this early stage in the race might have ended it all.

Sightings of interest:

-Belgian hedgehog roadkill, flattened into weirdly artistic spikey pancakes (multiple sightings)

-“Pizza Americain”, a thin personal pizza with the contents of a bowl of chili delicately drizzled over it, topped with cornichons — easily the least American type of pickle. An absolute culinary and cultural aberration. Entirely delicious. (single sighting)

-Young French truck driver unapologetically wearing denim overalls (single sighting)

-Canals on canals on canals… like bridges for one canal to run over another… confusing concept, I know. Assuming the French are just doing this to show off. See Canals video, below. (three sightings)

-Roomba lawnmower tending to a farmer’s yard with nobody in sight. Seriously, how do we not have these yet, America? On second thought, we’re really not responsible enough to use these without incurring tens of casualties a year, finding ways to weaponize them, etc. Ok. Well done, FTC.

More updates, ramblings, and sightings to come! À plus…

Hydrate!
Proper form demonstrated. Hydrate safely out there!

Towns:

Country:

Getting un-lost:

Canals = wind protection + flat terrain:

New friends:

Horse
French horses are well known to take at least three baths a day (see traditional horse tub at left). They spend the remainder of their time discussing existential humanism over café noirs and cigarettes.
Night 3's resting place
Waterfront views where I hunkered down to sleep in the town of Sauniere on the third night. My tent has no poles but it’s water resistant, keeps bugs out, and only weighs a few ounces.

France: Cool doors

I’m starting a photo series called My Bike in Front of Cool Doors. It’s a social experiment to see how many people unfollow my Instagram after seeing the 18th photo of my bike in front of a cool door.

Saint Dizier, France

France: Espressos, pastries, chocolate

As the days wear on, the early race jitters have faded and I’ve relaxed into a pace I think I can sustain for the duration of the race. Knowing there will be no rest days until Istanbul and terrain of unknown (but significant) difficulty ahead, I’ve opted for a somewhat conservative start, leaving time to stop for many an espresso, pastry, and photo opportunity, even while cycling for most all of the day. It’s becoming clear that in a race like this, time spent on the saddle means more than pace alone. If putting a bit less power in each pedal stroke during a rainstorm with a headwind allows you to bike an hour longer before keeling over, you’ll cover more miles by days end with less soreness the following morning – a worthy tradeoff.

Espresso
Espresso, Europe’s preferred sports drink
Pastry
This pastry cost me about $2. In San Francisco it would cost $7 and contain numerous barista mustache hairs.

The rains and headwinds that slowed my progress in the first three days have fallen away, with temperatures warming as I head further south. The town of Tournus proved a great place to stop for lunch and an espresso as I approached Lyon:

I gave myself ten minutes for this aquatic chocolate break… many more miles to cover before dark:

France: Bridges

Cycling along a river is a delight, until you have to cross it, which can lead to complications…

I decided not to cross this bridge:

IMG_4980

Conveniently, this river had a bridge that hadn’t crumbled into it:

France bridge

France: Approaching Mt. Ventoux

Today’s soggy weather along the 150 miles from Lyon to Bedoin inspired new games to play. Rules: Every time a truck passes at breakneck speed and splashes you with puddle water, you shout “THANK YOU SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER!” I made it to 12 points before declaring myself winner and quitting. Eventually the rains parted and my progress was rewarded with a sunset over vineyards and the first glimpse of Mont Ventoux, “the Beast of Provence” which I’ll be summiting tomorrow. Ventoux claimed the life of one of Britain’s great cyclists, Tom Simpson, in the ’67 Tour de France when he collapsed one kilometer from the summit, though cause of death was a combination of heat exhaustion and amphetamines, neither of which will be part of my ride. Looking forward to the stage ahead as I forge into the Alps. À bientôt!

First glimpses of The Beast of Provence in the distance. It will offer the first challenging climb tomorrow.
Fleeting daylight brings color over vineyards – a welcome finish to a long and rainy day.

France: Summiting Mt. Ventoux

Many sights, miles, and vertical feet in the past two days. Yesterday began with a rigorous climb out of Bedoin to tackle the notoriously steep south side of Mont Ventoux and reach the Transcontinental’s first checkpoint at its summit. In just 13 miles, the road rises 5,300 vertical feet, which has you straining against the pedals, often standing out of the saddle to keep the bike moving forward. Sustaining that effort for two hours makes the legs a bit wobbly toward the finish. After descending from the peak, 40 miles of afternoon riding brought me to a good stopping point in the small village of Laragne-Montéglin. With a bit of gas left in the tank, I was torn over whether to keep riding into the night but with the promise of colder mountain air, steep climbs, and more sparse and expensive accommodations up ahead, I decided to hedge my bets and get some rest.

The striking natural scenery along the road up Mt. Ventoux is marred only by discarded energy gel wrappers of cyclists past. Multi-lingual graffiti appearing every few feet on the tarmac appears to equally encourage and discourage you from continuing the ascent:

Descending Mt. Ventoux at high speed still took over a half hour. A cold breeze meant sporting several additional layers:

Having defeated Ventoux in the morning, it only seemed right to take the rest of the day off, but this is a race after all and with many competitors pulling further ahead, I knew I needed to make moves. I spent much of the afternoon recovering while spinning a steady pace through purple lavender fields, offering a complete sensory overload of sights and smells. As evening struck, inclines once again grew steeper as a series of canyons welcomed me to the foothills of the Alps: