I woke with a sense of calm. Yesterday I’d come to know that I wouldn’t quit by choice. Either my body would be able to continue or it wouldn’t. I had no say in the matter, so there seemed little point in worrying about it now.
The day begins with a 100km descent out of the high mountains and into the flat plains of Eastern Italy. Then it’ll be a flat 100km before the climb into Slovenia. This was about as easy a day as you could hope for on the TCR and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. I roll out of Cortina shortly before 11am and begin my descent back to sea level. My body had gratefully accepted last night’s 12 hours of sleep and the chance to freewheel meant I could extend the recovery process for a few hours more. This would be a gentle reintroduction to racing.
“Maybe I can recover from this? The alps are behind me and I’m back on terrain where I’m strong.”
As the road snakes its way from town to town I’m also using the descent to recharge my mind. The relative lack of pain turns my thoughts back towards the race. “Maybe I can recover from this? The Alps are behind me now and, relatively speaking, it’s flat from here. Back on terrain where I’m strong and where my achilles aren’t strained.” I pull up the tracker feed and see that I’m in 99th place. That’s the trough, I decide; my lowest position in the race.
I’m shaken from my musings by a car which has only ‘half’ overtaken me and is now pulling in at exactly the point at which the road narrows to wrap tightly around an old stone house. We are descending at 60kph so things are happening quickly, though our speeds are almost matched. I’m level with the front window and being squeezed between the car and the metal barrier that will soon become a stone wall. I shout. I’m on the brakes but, for fuck’s sake, now so is the granny driving the car. I crank the cursing up to 11 and scream a barrage of spectacular abuse that even a deaf nonagenarian couldn’t fail to register. Somehow she does fail and continues on regardless. In the nick of time she comes off the brakes just enough for me to escape behind her before I meet a messy end.
For a few seconds there I genuinely thought that was going to be the end of me. That could so easily have gone the other way. I was seething with anger and flushed with adrenaline. The woman sat in the back (Nonna’s middle-aged daughter, I’m guessing) saw the whole thing play out and now bore an expression like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, mixing utter terror, shock and embarrassment as she looked from the rear window to see if I’d survived. We were still travelling at similar speeds and she, unfairly, became my student in the most angry, depraved and foul-mouthed English lesson any Italian had ever received.
“She became my student in the most angry, depraved and foul-mouthed English lesson any Italian had ever received.”
It took me about an hour to calm down, which is a shame, because the ride should’ve been really enjoyable. As the road gradually grew in size it took a straighter path through the landscape using causeways and tunnels. I’d prepared detours in my route files in case they weren’t legal for bikes but was pleased to find they were unnecessary and progress was rapid. Four hours into the ride I’d reached the flatlands and was looking to refuel in the town of Pordenone.
The mid-afternoon heat in the flatlands had me craving a milkshake. The Golden Arches were playing hide and seek but I spied a Burger King up ahead and remembered the nutritional advice to maintain a varied diet. Oof, I’d forgotten my ankles don’t work. One undignified hobble later and I’ve placed an order and found a table next to the screen showing the Olympic road race. Come on Team GB!
I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision to pace myself on this recovery day or just general tardiness but 30 minutes had passed by the time I’d ordered, visited the bathroom, casually eaten my food and buggered about on Twitter.
What followed was a featureless and forgettable 100km on very straight, pan-flat roads. At 6pm I passed a large supermarket and pulled in to resupply. I hesitated about leaving the bike unlocked when I saw a homeless man standing outside the store. Then I remembered the state of myself and realised people are probably looking at me similarly. I gave him a nod on my way in; the sort of nod that says “I’m pretending to connect with you but really I’m just hoping you don’t steal my bike”.
“I nod to the homeless man; the sort of nod that says ‘I’m pretending to connect with you but really I’m just hoping you don’t steal my bike’.”
This was clearly a store for the weekly shop rather than a dinner break raid. It was all multipacks. I grabbed a 2L bottle of water and a six pack of yoghurt drinks from the fridge, plus a four pack of Magnums from the freezer. There was no way I could hope to finish everything but, if he hadn’t already ridden off into the sunset, I knew a guy who’d be grateful to receive the surplus.
The bike was still there and the man was hugely grateful, especially for the cold ice cream. We were two grubby-looking people, living the hobo lifestyle; but mine was entirely by choice and only for adventure, riding an expensive bike and buying multipacks even though I only needed one or two things. This humbling moment put my whole folly into sharp perspective and I felt like a complete arse for ever doubting the innate basic decency of man.
By 7pm I’d cleared the urban and industrial plains and began to hug the coastline as it turned south towards Trieste. Two hours later and I was about to swap the familiar comfort of Western Europe for the unknown of the Balkan states. Better to get some food before I do that, so I stopped at a pizzeria in Padriciano, the penultimate village before the Slovenian border. I found enthusiasm in my resurrection and was considering riding through the night to try and recover some of the ground I’d lost with the achilles troubles. I used that promise to justify an indulgent 90 minute stop at the pizzeria, getting comfortable in the gardens with a BBQ going and some music playing.
On Twitter the @transconrace account chimed with reports of those who’d scratched in the past 24 hours. Until recently I’d considered each of these a small victory – another competitor I’d bested – but I was now a wiser man. I’d come to accept as truth the cliché that we’re really not competing against each other as much as ourselves. You race as hard as you can and this isn’t affected by how fast or slow other riders are. I’d also flirted with defeat and appreciated how easily my name could be in one of these tweets. 8 days into the race I also knew just how much soul gets poured into a race effort. Now these daily scratch announcements were becoming harder to read. A Twitter followed likened it to the Hunger Games; hearing the cannon fire and seeing names crossed out in the sky. Each a fallen fellow.
“I’m told Slovenia is a beautiful country but I flew straight through it in the darkness of night so I have no idea.”
Four dishes later and I’m away and pedalling into the unknown. It was late at night and the Slovenian border was unmanned. I flew straight through. In fact, I flew straight through the entire country. 90 minutes after entering Slovenia I was leaving it for Croatia. I’m told Slovenia is a beautiful country but I crossed it in darkness so I’ve really no idea.
Slovenia had been one gradual climb up to 600m and now that I’d crossed into Croatia the road dropped quickly down to sea level again and into the town of Rijeka. In the yellow glow of streetlights it looks like any other town in Europe, but at 2am in the morning it is deserted and takes on an otherworldly feel. I’m starting to get tired now and so I’m exploring the area looking for somewhere to bivvy for an hour or two. The wind is howling and there’s little shelter. I’m not yet bold enough to sleep in shop doors on main streets.
I dismount and spend 10 minutes traipsing around a grassy hilltop area by moonlight, like a fussy dog, randomly circling, trying to choose the perfect place to shit. I can’t find any spot to commit to that’s discreet and sheltered from the wind. My frustration at wasting time has banished the tiredness and I decide to press on.
“The air whips around the shelter and roars through the trees; a million tiny leaves howling in the wind like a supernatural choir.”
That wind is growing in ferocity though. There are moments where I’m almost standing still as I head right into it. Worse still are the moments when it violently gusts across me. A strong gust catches me at speed on a gentle descent and tests my tired reactions. They just about scrape a pass. These winds aren’t normal.
I dive into a bunker-like concrete bus shelter which faces away from the wind. Now stationary I can focus through the darkness and see the full strength of this storm. The trees all around are bending to the point of snapping. The air whips around the shelter and roars through the trees; a million tiny leaves howling like a supernatural choir. The balance has shifted and the only thing that makes sense now is to sleep through this madness, hoping for sanity to return before I wake.
Time: 14h 19m