I had set my alarm for 4 hours but the bone-dry sides of my swollen throat pressed against each other and the pain prevented any real sleep. Limping to the sink I leaned over and coughed up a bloody mess and then looked up at myself in the mirror. I was physically broken but raging with determination. It was essential to prove the doubters wrong and to satisfy my own ego by finishing in a way I could be proud of.
There were two borders and 600km between me and the finish in Çanakkale. I can visualise that distance. I’ve ridden it before. This is the sprint finish now. I’m also committed to making the party and that kicks off at 20:00, giving me 33 hours.
I climbed to the border and as I dropped into Greece on the other side the scenery and the climate changed rapidly. Hot and arid with angry desiccated shrubs and very sparsely populated. My initial experience of Greece was as I had imagined, after their financial crisis; the towns felt desolate and abandoned. Perhaps everybody was simply hiding away from the sweltering heat.
I had caught the Dutch pair by late afternoon (passing them on the left hand side) and they found me again at a burger joint in Kavala. I was getting fuelled for the night and told them I looked forward to sharing a beer with them at the party. Only, they told me they weren’t confident riding through the night so they were going to grab a hotel later and miss the party. “Hell no!” I said, giving them as much advice and encouragement as I could. There’s no way you can be within reach of the party and not go deep. They switched from their resigned touring mode back to race mode and we set off at the same time, with the light fading fast.
My route tracked alongside a motorway, using a battered old service road. Every so often I’d have gravel sections and shallow water crossings to deal with, meaning it wasn’t any faster than the alternative B-roads. Late into the night my service road route required a short section heading west and as I made the turn I passed the Dutch pair heading in the opposite direction, no doubt wondering what the hell I was up to.
Our paths crossed again – like slot cars swapping lanes – this time both heading east. I was 200m behind them and I don’t think they saw me. The feral dogs they roused definitely did though. Normally with dog chases you get to hear the barks and you can give yourself a head start. This time the pack were already in the road having just chased off the Dutchies. More interval training in the middle of the Transcontinental. It was uphill, obviously. It’s always uphill!
Damn, this mad wind. The forecast didn’t warn me about this but the crosswind was ferocious. Not ‘Croatian bora unrideable’ ferocious but still enough to have me worried about being blown over. I took shelter in a bus stop that faced away from it and suddenly a wave of fatigue crashed over me. If I can’t make much progress now maybe I should snooze and wait for this wind to die down. I closed my eyes and failed to nap.
The wind hasn’t abated and I now realised it was spilling off the mountain ridge I was skirting. It wasn’t going to ease so I just had to get it ridden. I remember plotting this route and thinking there was nothing between this or the branch closer to the coast. From now on I’ll be more aware of how geography can overrule a wider weather forecast.
A 24 hour service station offered a brief oasis from the weather. Chocolate milk, nougat and baklava hit the spot, even if it savaged my shredded mouth. It’s 3am and Greece is a bit more lively. In one village I pass there’s a banging party going on, though it feels like a regular thing rather than a special event. Fatigue is catching up with me and my plans for riding to the finish without sleep are not looking sensible so I find a smelly bus stop full of piss and litter and settle down for an hour’s shuteye.
Sunrise is beautiful and it occurs to me this will be my last of the race. It’s not long before the temperature soars. I have the bit between my teeth now and flying. I pull into a petrol station and grab a bottle of water from the outside shelf. A guy shouts out “My friend, have this one” and tosses me a cold one. I reach into my pocket for some cash and he stops me. “No, my friend. Is free.” Hopefully he worked there.
Coming into Alexandroupoli I caught up with Ricky Eden and we stopped to grab some breakfast and recharge my phone. I only recently discovered (when he read the blog entry for day 13) that he was the zombie who scared the crap out of me in the middle of nowhere in Macedonia. I just happened to stop exactly where he was bivying and in his semi-conscious state he called out to me.
With a little charge in my phone I looked at the tracker and saw there were about 10 riders within the next 50km. I was riding relatively fast compared to the rest of the field at this point and I figured I could probably catch quite a few of these before the finish, so I quickly packed up and shot off towards the Turkish border.
Leaving Alexandroupli the road bears around to the north and suddenly you’re staring at a very long and open carriageway, climbing relentlessly uphill for as far as you can see. The wind was now a fierce headwind and I realised that the gap to riders ahead was much longer than the distance made it seem.
I passed a couple of riders toiling up that hill and finally turned east towards my final border crossing. I’m racing but I’m still British, so I still felt sheepish rolling past the queuing traffic to the border gate. And then the next one. And the next one. Bloody hell, how many gates are there!? In total there were four checkpoints in the crossing into Asia. That sucked up a lot of time but the end was now tantalisingly close.
Soon enough I turned south onto the Gallipoli peninsula and felt that roaring wind on my back. 80km and one last climb and then it was downhill to the ferry into Çanakkale. I pushed hard up the hill while I tapped away on my phone, checking the tracker to see who I could catch and which of the three ferry crossings would be fastest for me right now.
“FUCK!” Searing pain from my right achilles. Instantly I know I’ve done some real damage. I could feel the tear in excruciating detail. It even felt like I heard it. I’m reduced to pushing with only my left leg but mercifully I’m almost over this hill and then it’s downhill with a tailwind.
“I’m reduced to pedalling the last 80km with one leg, hoping I can hold off the chasing pairs. Then I get hit by a car.”
Over the crest and onto the aero bars for the downhill, I’m able to stop and just focus on being aerodynamic. I check the tracker and see that the chasing pair are only 10km behind me, with another pair 10km behind them. There’s only 40km to go so I’m hoping I can still hold them off. Then I get hit by one of the many lunatic drivers in Turkey.
I’m hauling ass going downhill on the aerobars when a driver appears on my left and veers off onto the slip road, physically pushing me with him. Thankfully the speed difference wasn’t too great and it was more of a push than a hit. Somehow – and it was just luck more than anything else – I’m able to stay upright, regain my balance and get my hands back to the brake levers.
I climbed back up the slip road in time to be above him as he drove under the carriageway. He may not have understood the exact words I screamed at him but I’m pretty sure he got the general gist. I stopped to let the adrenaline subside and to check myself for any (new) damage. What hurt the most was my ruined throat, made much worse from screaming obscenities at the arsehole who almost killed me.
Once I’d stopped shaking I clipped back in for the final 40km but within minutes the Dutch pair cruises past me as if I were standing still. They offered a cheery “hi” and were quickly off into the distance. That crushed me. Then all too soon the second chasing pair also breezed past me.
“The two pairs caught and and breezed past. I was crushed but a cunning plan had begun to form.”
Those last few miles took an eternity but as I approached the ferry at Eceabat I checked the tracker and could see the pairs were still at the dock. Their ferry hadn’t yet departed. A plan started to hatch. I could ride the extra 10km to the third ferry option at Kilitbahir, which ran less frequently but crossed 30 minutes quicker than this one. There was nobody close behind me so I had nothing to lose. The pairs are in a different category to the solo riders. We’re not really racing each other but right here and now this felt like the entire race and beating them would feel like winning. I eased in as much power as I dared and sped off towards Kilitbahir.
I couldn’t believe my luck; there was a loaded ferry waiting at the dock. Screeching up to the attendant’s booth I flashed a credit card and he told me it was cash only. I’d not stopped to pick up any Turkish currency. My face must have told quite a story and he quickly waved me through for free. The ferry was already moving but the ramp was still down and I sprinted towards it as fast as I could. By the time I’d come to a stop, on the boat, I turned to see a gap already 1m wide. That could not have been any tighter!
Quick! Check the tracker… Damn my phone has died. I know the clock tower that represents the finish line is just outside the port but I don’t know which direction – I wasn’t expecting to be racing the last 300m. I rush to the deck to find a socket and wait, frantically, for my phone to spring back to life. As we are coming into port the phone reboots and I go straight for Google Maps. “Out of the harbour, straight a bit and then right”. I slide down the steps and spot the other ferry already in the harbour. Rolling off the boat and weaving through traffic I also spot the Dutchies! Holy shit this might actually work. They have no idea I’m chasing them and I sprint past, turning the final corner. There’s the clock tower, surrounded by finished racers who’ve come out to see us in.
I thrust my brevet card into the hands of a race official and somebody helps me off my bike and another takes the weight as I hobble to the steps to sit down. Matt Falconer hands me a beer and a kebab and they taste like the greatest food I have ever eaten. Efes beer actually tastes like stale urine but if you ride your bike to Turkey first you can make any beer taste great.
14 days, 18 hours and 18 minutes.
My pre-race goal was to finish (or not) knowing I gave it absolutely everything, leaving nothing in reserve and learning how I cope when things get seriously tough. In that respect I’m hugely satisfied. Sitting on the steps of the clock tower I am physically broken and mentally exhausted. Somebody asks me if I will be back for another TCR and without a second’s hesitation I say “sign me up now!”.