Story by Jan Koelmans | Originally published in Dutch in WI☰LR☰NBLAD magazine
In the September of 2021, I rode my first ultra-endurance race. I'm still aware of this every day, partly because my fingers still don't work correctly. Also, I had little energy for at least a month afterward, and my mood was in a kind of continuous 'Tuesday-dip.' Still, it was an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world.
The run-up to the race was stressful. My set-up only fell into place in the last few days before the race. But I'm happy with the result, and I'm confident that the gearbox will do the trick. Although my official target is to finish the race in one piece, I secretly hope for a place in the middle of the pack. Bas Rotgans shares his experience with me in the car to the Czech Republic. But what do I do when it's all wet? Then you make sure everything is dry again on the way. Finally, I realize that I am worrying about nothing. The morning of the start, I think I have everything under control, but suddenly it is 5:59 am, and I am just in time at the start to hear "Let's go!". After figuring out how to turn on my tracker during the first few miles, I breathe a sigh of relief. I am on my way, now all I have to do is cycle, and cycling is what I like doing best.
The pace of the nervous group is high, and soon I decide to cycle at my own pace; it's still 1300 kilometers after all. Suddenly I am on my own, with the Elbe next to me, which is covered in wisps of fog. I am treated to a magical, misty sunrise. I have no idea what the right pace is, and my heart rate monitor stops working immediately, so I try to enjoy myself as much as possible. The surroundings help. Deep dark pine forests with sometimes straight but always sloping roads. Long stretches with nothing but emptiness and nature, and every few kilometers, a climb so steep you have to pull yourself apart to avoid having to stop. This would be the case during the entire race.
As the day progresses, sometimes I meet another participant, and we chat. They are all interesting characters. "Enjoy today; it's the only day without pain; it is a statement that makes quite an impression on me. Waiting for each other feels crazy in a race, so everything that requires you to get off your bike means the end of the conversation. I suddenly realize that I am not eating enough at all. When I am cycling for five, six hours, I know what to eat on the way, but how does that work when you are cycling continuously? I tell myself I am cycling on fat burning, but that is nonsense, of course. And yes, I have a massive breakdown and have to throw in a wagon load of wine gums to get going again. After ten hours of cycling, I already feel terrible and wonder how this will end. I meet Jon Woodroof at a gas station. He is going strong and is considering cycling all night. What kind of madhouse have I landed in?
As far as a plan, I, too, plan to get off my bike as little as possible and ride late into the night. Some people choose to eat on their bikes, but it feels ridiculous to make such a plan without a decent evening meal. Around dinner time, Kylian and I pass a village where people are sitting on terraces, and I'm angry that I didn't have the presence of mind to stop at one. We climb out of the village and find another restaurant, still in the sun. I squeeze the brakes after twelve hours of continuous cycling, exhausted. I sit down and hear, "Hey Jan!" Bas has just come out of the restroom. He had the same thought.
"I have no idea how I'm going to be able to do another day like this tomorrow," I say. "You get into it, and then it gets easier," says Bas. We chat some more, Bas leaves. I see the "normal people" around me relaxing. I've cycled 200 kilometers and 4000 altitude meters. Should I now ride alone into the night and lie in a sleeping bag somewhere in the dark forest? And that for a week? I decided to try to arrange a good evening meal every day, to have something to look forward to.
I get back on the bike and call Moana, my friend. It does me good. I put on a playlist with heavy house tunes, and while the sun sets in the woods, I start to understand what Bas meant. It's not enough at a certain point. You just cycle on until you get there. And you trust that you're prepared for anything that comes your way and that you'll sort it out if not. My enthusiasm is back, and I overtake Kylian again. The route turns out to go straight up a mountain at a given moment, but there is no path. We drag our packed bicycles straight up through the bushes. Below us, we hear Jon scream like a gorilla in the fog while he drags his heavy bicycle up the mountain.
We crawl under a fence and make our way through dense woods. Only one and a half hours later, we find a cyclable path again. Just when I thought I understood the race, I lost sight of it. After 265 kilometers and 4900 altitude meters, I spend the night in a bus shelter together with Kylian, sixty kilometers from CP2. Jon continues.
I get up five hours later. In the village, Daniela is looking for coffee. She has done that monstrous hike-a-bike early in the morning and looks completely feral. But there is no coffee available at this hour. The cycling is going well, unbelievable after a day like this. I go on well and overtake Kylian, who left half an hour earlier. Every time I have to get off my bike to get water or food, he catches up with me again. I'm fed up with it and open up the throttle for a few hours, surfing on my high. I start to sink a bit when the path ends in a huge pond. There is no road around it. Then I have to wade through the water at the narrowest spot, and it stinks like hell. A bit further on the route, I come across a road with some shops, a couple of racers have just finished their lunch. Good, I have overtaken them with all that pounding. They all have dry feet. You could walk over the beaver dam that had caused the misery. I have had it for a while and decided to eat a pizza, even though it is far too early. I can clean myself as well as possible in the restroom. While I am standing with a black lower leg in the up to that moment spotless sink, a man enters the room. I throw him my most disarming smile but get none in return.
The pizza is hard to digest, and the energy I had is now completely gone. There seems to be no end to this forest, and rocky paths have replaced the sloping gravel roads. Around nine o'clock in the evening, I break down in the German village of Furth im Wald. I don't want to go on and tell myself I really need the hygiene of a hotel because of my lenses. There is a hotel, but it is full. The receptionist makes a few phone calls but to no avail. Desperately I call Moana. She manages to talk the hotel out of my head. I see that Bas and Jon are only fifteen kilometers ahead of me. Their moving dots motivate me to start moving as well. Just outside the town, I ask an elderly lady watering her garden for some water. I get homemade lemonade and two bananas. The world is beautiful again.
The route leads me into the next mountain area. I'm completely out of my mind with endorphins, and although I don't have any speed, I don't feel any fatigue either. I'm floating on my music. I pass Bas, who is sleeping under a roof at over a thousand meters, to my great surprise. I wake him up with my headlamp in my euphoria, which I feel extremely guilty about later. At half-past two in the morning, and with 211 kilometers and more than 5000 altitude meters on the day's counter, I go to sleep in a hide—nearly 10,000 altitude meters in two days. Madness!
After only a few hours of sleep, I wake up at 7:30. I feel terrible and settle down in the next ski village for an apfelstrudel with coffee in the morning sun. I have decided I need a hotel tonight. IT IS A QUARTER PAST NINE before I have enough energy to start cycling. Bas had been on the road since 5:45. Catching up with him was short-lived. It's day three, and my but is a real disaster now. My corset muscles are destroyed, my arms and my neck as well. My legs are actually the best. Everything hurts. My hands are cramped, blisters appear, and the skin is coming off.
The route leads through the Sumava National Park and is unrelenting but beautiful. I overtake a walking middle-aged Czech couple. The man starts running along and asks a question in Czech, I assume about what I am doing. "Es ist ein Rennen", I reply. "How far is it?" he asks while galloping. "Thirteen hundred," I answer. The man puts his hands together while running and raises his eyes to heaven. I think that's a bit of much honor, but it reminds me that I'm doing something special after all.
The mountains last much longer than my supply of food. I try not to worry and enjoy the surroundings. Just when I think it is getting really dangerous, a traditional little restaurant presents itself. The Czech owner gives me chicken with fries, fried egg, and spicy goulash and vegetables. I booked a hotel called Hotel Koruna in Kaplice, about five hours cycling from where I am. The grumpy waiter offers to fill my water bottles with a big smile at my departure. Funny people, those Czechs. Twilight sets in when I get back on the bike. It is definitely easier to get on again when you know you are going to a shower and sleep in a bed, I notice. After a mandatory tour through the magically beautiful medieval town of Český Krumlov and a stamp in my passport at CP4, I have one more national park to go to today.
The night woods are dark and lonely and a bit scary. Fortunately, Rammstein has put an end to this. Moreover, behind the dark silhouette of the trees, a bizarrely clear starry sky can be admired every evening. I meet Kylian and Niklas. Together we ride the last part to Kaplice. I don't feel like being careful during a descent on a rare good tarmac road. I want to get there as soon as possible. I'm going well over fifty when I realize I haven't got my glasses on while a huge moth approaches my headlight. I hesitate for a moment and then decide that letting go of my steering wheel for a moment to put on my glasses is the least dangerous option. When I put on my glasses, they turn out to be completely fogged up. At the same time, I discover a large animal right in front of me on the road. A wolf, I think. I break as hard as I can, my rear wheel skids. It's a deer. It jumps away just in time. Be more careful-mental note.
We regroup, and together we buy food at a gas station in Kaplice. I feel guilty about having booked a hotel, but at the same time extremely happy, it is freezing cold in this valley. I take a shower. A shower!
My iPhone cable turns out to be missing, and there's one percent left on the phone. I send a text to Moana to say so, and the phone is dead. I realize I don't have an alarm clock now, so I open the window and hope for street sounds. It's midnight.
I'm sweating like crazy because my body is recovering so much, so I fall asleep without a blanket. At a quarter past four, I wake up shivering from the cold, a blessing in disguise. My body says "no!" in every possible way, but still, I get on my bike. It is freezing cold, and my body, which is still in sleep mode, does not warm up in any way. I almost fall asleep while cycling. After a couple of hours, Niklas catches up with me. The company gives me energy again. The fatigue expresses itself in the craziest ways. I stop to buy a charging cable and am alone again.
It's day four, and I'm reflecting: there is a group of leaders far ahead, with a strong group of riders behind them, which I was just able to join. Behind me, there is a gap followed by an elongated bus, in which I can still get a good foothold. Still, I'm not disappointed. Meanwhile, the roads are unforgiving. The gravel contains large holes and stones, and you have to pay attention constantly. The asphalt is very uneven and makes you beg for mercy even more because you are shaken all the time. Some of the roads look like gravel but are actually crumbled asphalt roads, recognizable by the black gravel. The roads look as old as the landscape as if they have always been there.
Shit, my chain is stuck between frame and crankset. The quickest way is to take off the crankset. Within ten minutes, I am on the road again. My fingers could just about do the job, but I realized that my race would be over if I had to put in an inner tube. The pinched nerves cause my fingers to lose all their strength, and shifting gears becomes more difficult. At the same time, I notice that my energy is coming back. I can enjoy myself again, get hungry again instead of being forced to eat. I meet Kylian again, and we have dinner somewhere. The young girl who serves us wants to give me back a handful of coins, but I tell her to keep it. It's much too heavy. When we leave, she brings me a KitKat as a thank you, with a smile that gives me more energy than any meal. After 235 kilometers and over 4000 altitude meters, I sleep in a field.
Day five starts terribly. My chain skips at the oddest moments, and there is no way I can get the derailleur appropriately adjusted. My dysfunctional fingers make me crazy and desperate. My Achilles tendon starts to get painful from the hike-a-bikes to make matters worse. Finally, after five failed attempts to adjust my derailleur, I "explode." I click the luggage off the bike so I can handle the bike. Then I notice that a chain link is completely bent. That must have happened yesterday, but why is it only a problem today? I replaced the bent link with a quick link and can continue, but the whole story has taken at least two hours.
I don't find anything to buy for breakfast, and I cycle the first five hours without any problems on a bag of M&M's. Physically I am really better now. I catch up with Jon, who has had all sorts of equipment failures, and finally reach Choceň, where CP6 is. I order two pizzas and two coffees in the village and continue. The day is progressing, and only now do I realize I am approaching 'the Hell of the North, the empty border area with Poland, and the toughest part of the route. It is unwise to start without a meal and full power tanks, so in Žamberk, I get off my bike again and order a pasta bolognese. Although I am frustrated about my inefficiency, suddenly, there is the ambition to ride a good result. As soon as the pasta arrives, it becomes clear how good this idea was: my body absorbs it like a dry sponge. "How is this the first pasta I eat?" I grumble to myself.
The pasta gives me energy like I haven't had before, the night is falling, and I feel like pounding. The road is steep but well-paved, so I can channel my inner cyclist. I cycle over the 'Eagle Mountains' at a high heart rate, see encouraging messages coming in from dot-watching friends and feel invincible. The route descends on the Polish side, and I make a pit stop in Duszniki Zdrój. I have to decide whether to continue for another fifty kilometers to CP8. There you can spend the night, and from there it is only 224 km to the finish, which should be possible in one go. I want to be there so badly. But fifty off-road kilometers at an average of thirteen in the middle of the night... that is crazy. I decide to sleep at a playground.
I set my alarm clock to four o'clock, but that too turns out to be madness. At seven o'clock I'm on my bicycle. Still, 275 kilometers to go, could this be a very long last day? Around eleven o'clock, I reach CP8 and hear that the numbers three and four, who were there at the same time yesterday, still haven't finished. So the 224 remaining kilometers will take me at least another twenty-four hours! I'm too tired to get emotional about it, but it sure is a setback. I have to survive another night and get into those pants one more time.
My cycling has become a kind of stumbling. I have no energy at all. I buy things like yogurt and pudding in a shop, which are easy to eat. It doesn't help. I can't think anymore and stare at the shelves inanely. After a long climb to Malá Úpa, I can't do anything anymore. Then, as a gift from heaven, I find a restaurant with a beautiful view. There you sit, the thought of someone bringing good food makes a great shiver through my body—vegetable soup and goulash. I book a hotel room in Špindlerův Mlýn and hope I have estimated the distance correctly.
The sound of a freewheel... Nis Alps passed me by at dinner; I was afraid of him passing me. He's been behind me for days, and now he really exists. I get on and overtake him on an absurdly steep climb. We are both happy with the company. We chat continuously while the night falls. We are sent on a downhill course on a ski slope for the dessert of the day. Nerve pains shoot through my arms while I squeeze my brakes with all my might to prevent an accident. My neck is so soured I can barely keep my head high enough to see in front of me. Fortunately, the agony ends exactly in Špindlerův Mlý. I say goodbye to Nis with the well-known hotel guilt and ride overjoyed to the hotel. The owner offers me a welcome schnapps, which I don't dare to refuse. It almost knocks me down. The kitchen has long since closed, and I go to bed rattling with hunger. How had I ever thought that I could ride to the finish in one go?
The usual story: four o'clock alarm, wake up at five, half-past five on the bike. Another 150 kilometers, but with more descents than climbs. I see that Bas has finished. He must have ridden through the night. It is freezing cold, and in a ski village, I attack a coffee shop that is open at 7:30 am. When I leave, Nils comes by, and I convince him to have coffee too. So I can gain some time on him.
Today I just want to finish. No more meals and use all the fast sugars I have left with me. Full speed over a beautiful plateau, followed by a wonderful flowing MTB trail and a nice gravel climb through a beautiful forest. I fly and enjoy. How is this possible with this worn-out body? I ride faster than I should, but the blow doesn't come. I start to count myself rich, but that's too soon: in the last fifty kilometers, the most extreme hike-a-bikes of the entire race make for a dramatically low average. The Bohemian Border Bash Race doesn't give presents. After twelve hours of fighting and enjoying, I reach the BBB Camp in the beautiful evening light and finish thirteenth. Bas is waiting for me with a big smile on his face.
"I don't think I ever attended a cycling event with so much heart and soul. Very special!" Jan Koelmans
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