My 2013 major race
Officially, for year 2013, I had planned two "serious" races. The first one was a six-days running where I wanted to beat my personnal record (501 miles). This one I failed in May. The second was the Race Around Ireland with just one simple goal: finish it. It's ambitious to have two major goals within one single year. It can work. But nothing sure. It's possible that during the 6-days, my mind was elsewhere. This Race Around Ireland (let's call it RAI, it's shorter) is indeed a hell of a race. I think it did scare me. I made all sorts of calculus, and all of them drew to one obvious conclusion: finish within the 132 hours time limit was doable, but no more. On the paper, I could barely do it. Because it's not only 1350 miles long (I've seen various distances between 1332 and 1363 miles advertised as being "the distance" so we'll set on 1350) but it also features about 70000 feet elevation. Yes 70k, it's the same as the Italian trail Tor des Géants.
In short, this race with its time limit of 5 days and a half has the same elevation than a trail running race which takes place in the Alps (and with a reputation of "not being so flat") and lasts more than 6 days. Isn't there a probleme here? As a side note, I initially planned to go to the Tor in 2013 (I had been there in 2011 ) but I was not selected, I got it wrong at the lottery. So I pulled out my "B plan", which was RAI. The idea had been around for some time, to participate in an ultra-cyclism event, different from the traditionnal randonnées such as PBP or LEL. I don't know if some day I'll be on the start line at the RAAM but I must admit I already considered doing it. In any case, RAI is a required step, and being "Europe toughest cycling challenge", with a rather low finisher rate, it did have everything to attract me. So I signed in.
First thing about this race: you need to organize and plan a lot of things. The registration fee (about 600 euros) is not much compared to all the other expenses I had to cover. Globally, given the race rules and conditions, you need, at least, two cars which two drivers per car. I chose this minimalist solution. No van, no 5th guy. Just two cars, and four people. Then, I let you imagine all you have to do: make one car travel by ferry, rent another one in Ireland (for 8 days!) and so on.
But the most important thing about race planning is the human aspect, I mean, you have to carefully choose your crew. Let's be honest, I had the perfect team, the exact team I wanted, no second-hand fellow.
Then Jean-Paul, my father, who also knows me very well, knows what an ultra is about, knows what being on a bike is about, and, as a side note, is pretty efficient when it comes to fixing a broken bike.
Marc, who was with me in Lensahn, 2010 . I trust him totally to understand what is going on, and be where he's needed. And yes, he's funny ;)
Gilbert, race director of Grand Raid 73, with many six days and amazing long races such as Trans Europe foot-race as a running background, has also been crewing a lot, including, but not limited to, helping Alex Forestieri on the MilKil (running across France, 1000km in a row, no stages). Yet another solid guy coming from the mountain, you can count on him.
Apart from some long solo rides and LEL my mileage is everything but impressive. On the starting line, I only have 4300 miles done since January 1st. Globally, RAI represents a quarter of my yearly mileage. Still, I run. I run a lot. Do I know what it feels like to make some significant physical effort for five days and a half? Yes, I know already . And this is a pretty strong advantage.
Put it another way, I did 700 hours of sport, all sports included (running, walking, cycling, swimming...) since January 1st. Should I have biked all that time, I'd probably be around 9000 miles or something.
Other important thing to know: I'm still injured, following the 6 days in the Luc, but fortunately the injury does not impair me on the bike. Yet in May I almost did not train at all, and June was quite light too. The theory says this is just so wrong, but I already signed in, so I'll show up, and we'll see what happens.
I still ride my good old Cannondale Synapse, from 2010. I recently had some problems with brake cables (conflicting with the handlebar bag...) so I fit some new Shimano 600 gear on it (it's supposed to be called Ultra, but I've been calling this "Shimano 600" for years), and what's more, I had the crank bearings changed (BB30, a bit special). Thanks to my local store Cycles Périgois, who did really help on that point.
But on this bike, the 3 things I really, seriously care about are :
- the saddle
- the shoes
- the handlebar
Don't try and search something complicated, they are simple the points of contact with the body. For any ultra distance, it's IMHO the most important. The saddle is a leather model from Gilles Berthoud, the shoes I put thick double soles inside of them to provide extra cushion, and the handlebar is very simple (no triathlon gear whatsoever) but filled with a triple layer of cushioning material. With this, I manage to ride for a long time in a relative comfort.
First French racer
No kidding, I'm the first French man to have registered for this race. This is probably because, anyway, not many people have participated yet. Only a dozen of entrants per year, and it's been around for 5 years only. I'm obviously - and by a hudge margin - not the best French rider, but well, we'll see, I'll just do my bet and if it can motivate others, it's just fine.
Before the start, I seldom meet the other racers. Everyone has his (or her) own business. We do meet at the racers meeting on saturday afternoon, but then, it stays sort of superficial as far as I'm concerned. I know nobody yet, and even if my English is correct enough to chat for a while, not being a native English speaker does not help.
Respect the rules
The rules got me tired. I read them all in the ferry coming from Roscoff. It's a thick document of about 60 pages. I tend to like simple concepts such as "go from point A to point B, first guy wins". I think the race organizers are just trying to do their best, preventing the problems and conflicts, rather than treating them afterwards. But the result is quite long to read.
In practice, Irish people are an order of magnitude less boring and strict than these administrative papers. I mean, they do care about what's written there but there's always a solution and my bike and spare bike (Jean-Paul lent me one) pass the control without any trouble. Everyone is willing to help and everything's fine.
The only problem I had where the orange roof lights. I bought some that can be plugged on the cigarette lighter socket. But there's only one of those sockets per car, and I need to plug also the BlackBlox GPS tracker, charge the phones, and so on. So the race organisation kindly gives me the address of a shop where I can find a multi-socket adapter. I buy this, and also buy a kettle supposed to work on this socket as well. My plan is that this way I could have hot coffee almost any time. Back to the hotel I try the kettle plugged on the multi-socket adapter. No, hopefully it's the multi-socket adapter. After a quick analysis, it can only support 10A, while the kettle requires 135W. A bit angry, I put all that gear right in the nearest garbage, including the kettle - I don't want to take any risk that this happens again - and buy another multi-socet adapter. Cold coffee is just perfect anyway.
The start line is just in front of [Trim Castle| Le départ se passe devant le château de Trim which, as a side note, was used when making the movie Braveheart in 1994. I'm mentionning this so that you understand it's just beautiful, the morning it rained - we're in Ireland after all, not Arizona - there's a typical west wind blowing, just add a few knights and the picture is complete.
A racer starts every 3 minutes. It's a race against the clock, no drafting, everyone races alone. I give a quick interview, where I explain I'm mostly a runner, but also enjoy riding my bike. Then I start. I feel much better. The last days, weeks, before the race, I was just so excited, and even scared, by this strange challenge. Now the pressure is over, and I only have one very simple task to do: move forward.
5 nice hours
We started with the wind in our back. The course, so far, is flat. I'm just so fresh, untired. So, logically, I move at unreasonnable speeds, given my level. Logistic aspects are setting up with time, the grey car (with its steering wheel on the left side, Made In France) is following me 99% of the time, while the black one hops from one point to another, distant from say, 5 to 15 miles.
Less than 3 hours for the first time-station I believe. At this rythm I'd be back on wednesday. Of course I know it's impossible and a bunch of things are going to happen that will slow me down, but at the same time I'm aware that when conditions are so favorable, it's wise to just use that chance and move fast. Still, I don't push the machine too far, saving my forces for later. As usual.
But let's come back to the time-station. What is a time-station, after all? In that case, it's a gas station. Very often, the time-station is a gas station. Sometimes it's a hotel. At the time-station, there's usually nobody. The shop keeper is usually unaware there's a race. We just call the race quarters and say "hey there, Christian arrived at that point!". And that's it. As it's a gas station, it's convenient because one can by food. And fill the car's tank. But globally, nothing differs between a gas station that is a time-station and a gas station that is not. Sort of strange, but pretty smart.
It's a good thing I didn't brief my crew too much on "what to do at time-stations". As I repeat it, one needs to adapt oneself to the environment. In France, we would have been searching after bars and bakeries, but here, the most efficient strategy is to use the gas stations, everything depends on what kind of shop you can easily find. Yet another aspect of tourism.
The fun is over
Soon after I leave the first time-station, serious stuff shows up. First, we get our first hills. Then, there's no more sun, and rain comes in. Our first contact with Northern Ireland (UK) is very nice, the landscape is beautiful, and the see being so close gives a nice atmosphere, I love those wet forests.
A bunch of racers passed me already - I'm one of the slowest ones, and moreover, I start slowly to preserve my forces... - and I passed one or two of them, but globally, I'm now on my own, just alone.
Alone but with a car just behing me. The following car proves very useful when I get a flat back tire in the middle of the night. No big surprise as the road was filled with water and, in some places, dirt as well, including, but not limited too, pieces of tree branches. We put a spare wheel on and agree with Gilbert that it's no use to fix the other one now, if I get another flat rire right on it would be "no luck", and we'll see what we do. Meanwhile, there's plenty of air tubes in the trunk, so no big risk taken.
Going around Belfast is not so much fun, maybe there was no nicer road than the one we use. In any case, I feel like I'm riding on a way-too-big road, with much traffic, reminds me of N104 which circles around Paris at a distance of about 20 to 30 miles. The following car is much needed. 2x2 lanes, fast traffic, this highly contrasts with the previous little roads in the country and it's a good RAI overview: the route is impossible to describe in a few words because it's so ever-changing and different. From "almost a motorway" to "barely a drivable road", we get a bit of everything.
Punishment, act I
I think I slept a bit that night. Half an hour I think. Anyway, what I remember is the morning. And in the morning, I've been punished. Already, the evening before, we had an excerpt of "what it can be like when it gets bad", but now it's on a different scale. I'm heading west and a strong (strong!) wind is blowing right in my face. Of course I've already been on a bike with a contrary wind, but this one is sort of unpleasant. Moreover, there are lots of small hills, and one looses speed all the time and needs to push again and again to maintain an average speed. In short, it's hard. It's hard and I'm dead slow. But I can't really help it, it's only the very beginning of the race. Should this be a marathon, we'd only be at mile 5, so let's be cautious. I'm getting battered by wind and rain. The builtin car thermometer indicates 40 degres farenheit. Cold.
Dawn, the day is back again, I imagine with the sun, everything will be fine again.
Punishment, act II
Yeah, things get better. They always do, as far as I'm concerned, when the sun is up. But there's something wrong. I see, far away, some "big hills". I ride accross a bridge that is quite exposed and I really would have not liked to be there without my following car. Unless you enjoy taking useless risks and do not care about being alive or not, a following car is a must have on some of those roads.
Then, finally, I come to this part I'm longing for. The extreme North of Ireland, that's to say Malin Head. From a conceptual point of view, once I've been there, I can say "this is done".
Yet, I need to get there.
And then, I've been punished a second time. Wham! I end up on a road which is just perfectly flat - following the sea, a fjord or something - with some wind in my face, but not the same one than a few hours ago. This one is just blowing so strong, I only knew that kind of strength in gusts, but this is different. My speed goes down. 10 mph. 9mph. 8pmh. Yeah right, 8 mph, and it's just so flat - you can trust the sea to be flat. This is just unbelievable, unseen. That wind is blowing strong, constantly, it never ever stops.
I keep going up to the very end of Ireland, and the route ends up in beauty with a nice good old little climb, in which I must take care not to fall, being battered by the wind. In my back, front, from my left side. Keeping straight in that climb (I judge as being a classic 15%) is a matter of both skill and luck.
I thought I had seen it all this night, but was so wrong.
Yet, the scenery is awesome, and this unusual weather suits it very well, you get no trouble trying out to imagine that this is the "end of the known world".
Punishment, act III
I leave Malin Head. Now, I get the wind in my back - the right way! - from time to time. Or sideways. I remain very cautious when going downhill, because sometimes the road is narrow. I remember being caught by wind gusts - from my right side - just before crossing a bridge that had stone borders. I need to try and follow a straight line, and this is not the easiest task.
The section on which I was riding at 8 mph, I cross it at 25 mph now. It still rains. The rain is going *even faster than I am* and I get it on my back only. This is just crazy, never seen such a weather before.
I'm now heading west again. I'm fed up with going west, I want to go back, the other way. I change my GPS zoom level to see when, at last, we're going to go, if not East, at least South. Having the wind coming from my right side would, even if not perfect, be OK and better than what I'm experiencing now. OK, a dozen of miles and it should be over. Patience Christian, patience. I'm having a hard time, taste the wind, the rain. Curse that Irish weather.
But everything has an end, and the route, at last, goes South. Even, it goes slightly East. I'just so happy.
This happiness soon ends. I see the Y turn on my left and ouch! What's that? A good old "wall", that goes straight up the hill. I'll learn later that thhis place is a local curiosity, it's called Mamore Gap, and has its reputation as being quite steep. I shift all my gears "full left", the easiest settings, stand up on my bike, and fight to pass this. Hopefully, I get the wind the right way now, so it's helping me.
At this stage, I think now, finally, I got it. I learnt something. I had planned 1350 miles. I was expecting 70 000 feet to be "somewhat hard". I knew the Irish weather could be a difficulty in itself. But this, honestly, is hard. I know I'll falling back way off my schedule. I had almost dreamed of ending this within 122 hours. Now I know this was a dream. I'll just try and get back within the 132 hours time-limit, tail between my legs, and it will be just fine
Ultra is known to teach modesty, and some lessons are learnt the hard way, on the road.
Now the route takes us to Boa Island. It's not only a difficult route, it's also really beautiful. I tried to enjoy the ambiance, while the clock is ticking. This island is special, the small bridges that allow us to enter and leave it are just so cute. I imagine this place is great for he who wants to mediate, or write a book. But this is not what we came for.
After this long day, rich in unexpected events, here's the second night.
And tonight, I decide to go to bed quite early. I've been exhausted by those "not so nice" conditions. My guess is that it would be counter productive to try and fight the sleepiness until one a.m., after such a day. Usually I try and ride in "zombie mode" for some time before going to bed, but given the average road and weather, the "zombie mode" is likely to make me a zombie for good.
With the crew, we agree to stop for a "long night" of two hours and a half. Two hours and a half because this way I'm sure to have a complete sleep cycle (my cycles last about 90 minutes) even if I'm having trouble to fall asleep. Two hours and a half because I need to rest my feet, hands, butt, all the points that are in contact with the bike. Two jours and a half and not more because this is a race, I'm not that fast, and I must be back before the time limit.
Two jours and a half because after my experiences on 6 days and other ultras, I've been able to verify, hands on, that it's a good compromise. No theory can replace real world feedback.
You liked it, want some more?
I think it's in the end of this night that I found out myself following, with some distance, Shusanah, the only girl in the race. I slept my 2 hours and 30 minutes, so, mechanically, I stopped for 3 hours.
And it's a the time-station that we learn the news: the race director, generous and understanding the weather was sort of bad, gives us an extra credit of 12 hours to finish the race. So the time limit changes from 132 hours (5 days and a half) to 144 hours (6 full days, exactly).
This is rather good news. I thought I was able to make in within 132 hours, but these 12 hours lower the pressure. Cool.
Now we enter this area of Ireland everyone has heard about, and is called "Connemara". I was there about 15 years ago, with a brass band I was playing with, called Fanfare Piston. It was a nice place, sunny and all. But now in September 2013, it's not the same picture. I can easily imagine people living there are not wimps, you probably don't last a long time if you're too weak.
Jean-Paul informs me the next section is rather flat. Wow, I still wonder how he imagined this, but what I see, and experience, is not flat. Hopefully, in some hard climbs, the wind greatly helps me. Going downhill is frustrating because the roads are sometimes uneven, and don't allow me to ride as fast as I'd like.
And in one of these downhill sections, at about 35 mph, I loose my GPS, it just bumps out of its slot. This Garmin eTrek 30 is quite solid after all, it bumps several times on the ground, flies, but looks fine. The screen is barely scratched, just a little mark on the outside rubber. Wow.
Talking about the GPS, I use a model with batteries (to avoid autonomy issues...) and my crew - especially Gilbert - did a wonderful job, changing those batteries whenever it was needed, I didn't have to worry about it. They even managed to fix problems in my front lamps. They were just perfect, everything went smoothly.
The route goes on. Nice lakes, and then this climb. Oh, not a very long one, not even a mile long, but it takes me 10 minutes to finish it. I had the wind in my face, I get loads of water in my face (rain...) the road is about 10% grade or more, in French I would call this "une vraie boucherie". Dunno how to translate this, but I end up swearing and using a wide range of curse words. No one hears me anyway, no one has the strange idea to peer out in such a bad day.
It's been about 40 hours I've been cycling under the rain. The common point of view, when one has biked for 4 hours under the rain, is to think this was a hard time, and one deserves some good old rest in the sofa. Now this is not about 4 hours under the rain, but just 10 times more.
Just after this, at the bottom of the following downhill, Valérie is here, waiting for us, at the pub. Now that is an idea. I was dreaming of this. A real pub, with real hot food. This is just so good. Yes, I loose some time, and I could maybe have gained 20 minutes by flying by, without stopping. Yeah, 20 minutes, but at which price? Don't forget that we're not even half way, I need to keep going for days.
The next city is Galway. This is supposed to be a nice place with beaches, people would swim in the ocean here. I suspect nobody is swimming today. We pass the city and plant our tent soon afterwards. By "planting our tent" I mean this is where we sleep our daily 2 hours and a half. Concerning the comfort, this is minimalist. The crew sleep on their front seats, the ones they spend almost the whole day on, whereas I can use - what an advantage! - all the back seats, where I can lie down in my pyjamas. Yes pyjamas, very important, it allows me to quit my lower cycling gear which, otherwise, is a real second skin. I think it's fundamental to let the skin (especially on my butt...) "breath" a minimum. The rest of the time, my body hygiene follows: never wash, put cream on. Loads of cream, especially, I put some back on everytime I go to the restrooms (else it ends up wiped out pretty quick). This is not what modern standards recommend, I believe it's bacteria friendly, it sounds dirty, but it's fast, cheap, and works. I have no problemes, everything is fine, I won't change anything.
It's raining, snails are out for a ride
Waking up is hard. I finish the night under the rain. Again. The route is near the coast, it goes up and down. I can't find my rythm. I'm busted, I fall asleep on my bike. And this is only day 3. This is not a glorious day. I need to stop regularly to regain forces and, what's more, concentrate. I know this is bad for my average speed, I see Gilbert understands the situation and figures out I need to speed up, even with 12 more hours, I'm likely to miss the cutoff. But I can't make miracles, I need to stop to be able to ride in correct conditions, I could try and do it the hard way, and risk to fall asleep for good. But I do not wish to take that risk.
At dawn, we are at the time-station, which is an hotel. Had I been there 10 minutes later, I would have been able to take a real breakfast. But now, it's too early, it's not served yet. Well, too bad, I keep going, I do not have the time to wait, the clock is ticking, the margin is small. En route!
After a night which has been a disaster as far as speed is concerned, I now have an opportunity to gain time back. And also, the weather is... OK! I'd even say it's nice. Is it nice? Yes, it is! This is the end of bad times, now riding my bike becomes what it should always have been: a pleasure.
Limerick. Valérie wanted to see Limerick, she's read an autobiography that relates a miserable childhood over there. The city is indeed somewhat dirty in some areas.
My memories now become blurry, but now I think it's around mile 800, near Waterville (what a name!) that I've been videotaped by an official. That was an epic moment, probably the most western point of the route, this meant than on an average, during the rest of the race, I would have the wind in my back. On an average.
And now I move toward what is, according to race organizer, the hardest section of the race, between TS13 and TS14.
From TS13 to TS14
I admit I almost did not read the route book before the start of he race. Oh yeah, I had a look on the map, I think I saw on Google Maps that the elevation was harder in the second half, and I saw this message on Facebook, stating that TS13 - TS14 was something that you would not forget. And, one could take a shower at TS14.
My ideal, perfect plan, was to do this at night, and then sleep near the hotel, until the next day.
That was the perfect plan. Now, reality. Reality is that once dusk has come and the night is back again, I'm dead tired. And now I enter this section. Rude contact, rather hostile. It's climbing, the road is crappy, OK, I'm done, I stop and sleep. In any case, I'm falling asleep on my bike, so this is not even a decision, rather a consequence, it's impossible to go downhill in that state. Rain stopped, and the weather forecast for the next day is supposed to be good.
We sleep in a rather savage place. With daylight, it would probably have been beautiful. I wake up and ride at night again. Rain came back. Bloody rain, I did not need that again. The first climb is "offered" because I can use the "just woke up" effect. But there are two more climbs ahead. And again, I have to fight to move forward. I move so slowly. I end up going downhill at 11 mph (yes, downhill). Indeed, with the narrow road sometimes filed with potholes, fatigue, darkness, rain, it's not my fastest ride. I'm sort of resignated, I just know I need to keep moving, and at some point, this will be over. As bad as it can be, any situation comes to an end. And then, finally, the final downhill section, the sun is back again. Rain stopped.
I finally have the wind in my back. I'm enjoying that moment, I move at 25 mph without any significant effort, that's a ride! One had to be patient to enjoy that one. There's still a climb, well, a climb and a half, before the hotel, but this is just nothing. Fundamentally, it's good, I did the hard part. It took me ages, but it's done. Just a regret about this area, probably beautiful, and which I crossed in pitch-dark mode.
Hotel * * * *
Now, about the hotel. This hotel is ran - as far as I understanding - by a bike addict, a race fan, who offers us a free shower. On the other hand, I got showers for free along the road for 3 days already... No kidding, it was very nice, and what's more, the hotel is a magnificent four star hotel. It somewhat makes me think about the Shining hotel, without Jack Nicholson.
I do not take a shower. No time for this. But I do take a large breakfast, along with the crew. A hudge full Irish breakfast, with sausages, bacon, scrambled eggs, and that "boudin noir" (what's the English for this?) which I like so much, and is pretty rare in the world (so far, the only countries where I've seen this are France and Ireland).
On the parking area, I meet Christian Krause, the other guy named Christian in the race. He's Danish and very nice. He's experiencing pain in his butt. These are things that happen. I already have my load of problems, which are enough to handle. More precisely, after keeping my hands on the handlebar for a very long time, it hurts. As I write these lines, eight days after the race, my left little finger still hurts. I probably have some nerve squeezed or something. In a general manner, after a race, I wait for 15 days before considering a pain is "a problem", before, my point of view is that it's part of the game, the human body is probably not designed to stay on a bike for a week, it's no big surprise it fires signals now and then.
To infinity... and beyond
The next part is nice, beautiful weather, so nice I can even take of a bunch of clothes. This is a-ma-zing. What's more, the wind is helping me now. A little climb, with a superb view. Caha Pass, that was, I think. With such landscape and conditions, I don't mind climbing, especially when the climb is very even. I'd even say, easy. On the other hand, I remain way behind schedule, my 132 hours target will be hard to catch. Oh sure, I was granted 144 jours, but still, 132 hours would be better. And more convenient for everyone, for instance, we could sleep before taking the ferry or the plane back to France.
On the way to the southern part of Ireland Mizen Head I meet Valério Zamboni. He must be an hour or two ahead of me. Not much more I think. Good to know, it's always nice to have people not far ahead or behind, it helps remaining motivated. I was in the same kind of position back in the North.
The South of Ireland is a beautiful place. The sun is shining. Let's move on.
The route now takes us North-East. The wind is not as strong as when we where in the North, but it's still there. And globally, it helps. This is a must have, else let's be clear: I was off the time limit. I don't know if I can use the term "luck" to describe my relationship with weather during this RAI, but it's true that now, it's easier.
I'm resignated as far as the elevation is concerned. Hills. And hills. I just stay zen, and try and do my best.
We arrive near Cork. It's at this point that a cyclist starts talking with me just after dusk. It's Mark O'Donohoe, who knows the race well. We run side by side. Just the act of chatting a bit gives me an unknown energy. I surprise myself - and my crew - by riding at a good pace in the middle of the night. Mark offers me delicious cookies before he leaves (it's not allowed to ride together for too long, even when not drafting). He's informed me that there's a hill called St Patrick Hill awaiting for me, in Cork.
I plan to sleep after this hill. Just after the difficulty, and outside the town center.
It's a wise idea. This epic climb, which is right in the middle of the town, is just a real curiosity. Tracing a route that borrows that kind of steep section is both a good joke and a form of mild torture. Hopefully, the road is quite dry when I'm there, so I don't slip. I hear there are some stairs on the sidewalk. I did not take the time to check, but just to give you an idea of how steep this is, Gilbert, coming direct from the French Alps, preferred to stop and then drive the car in a row through it. He did not wish to take the risk to follow me at 4 mph and have to stop / start with a manual gear car right in the middle of it. This climb is the kind of thing that make people bet 'I will climb 100 times St Patrick Hill'. In short, this is a must-see, I'd even say, a must-ride.
The long night
We sleep in our usual dual-car palace. The bike is "secured" on a side mirror with some plastic rings. There's no more place in the cars, they are packed. The idea is that someone trying to steal it would not even notice the rings, and would bump the bike on the car, thus waking up Gilbert, who could just see what's going on.
Nobody tried to steal the bike during the night. As expected.
But what was not expected is that in none of the cars did the alarm clocks wake anybody. Between bad settings and a two-low ringtone, I do not care what went wrong, who cares. By chance, Valérie woke up "by miracle" an hour after the programmed hour. So I "lost" one hour. Well, "lost", this is not even sure, because that way I slept 3 hours and a half. I even had dreams. Total luxury is this context. No whining, the team is solid, the positive state of mind that eradicates obstacles, it's right in that kind of "bad pass" that one can test it.
And the team handles this pretty well. I prepare without wasting time. But not fast enough to prevent Christian (the other one, the Danish) to pass me again. Hey, I just need to pass him again!
Last day before the final night
This almost-last day, is a rather good one. Part of the crew expects me to be in Navan at 12:00 am the next day. They must imagine I plan to play it lazy and sleep tonight. No sirs, a last night is the sort of beast you try and dominate by mere force. This is a race.
I use the wind, again and still in my back, to move as fast as possible. I better my average speed a little bit. I enjoy the nnice weather. The GPS falls and bumps again in a fast downhill. It's still working (hell, that's a really solid artefact).
I complete my junk-food experience, swallow two hamburgers directly coming from the nearest Mc Donald's. I'm hungry. I need calories. Bike without fuel is something I can't do. I and can't be fed with gels and other sport-related food on such distances.
Less than 24 hours to go. I did more than 1800 km already, this is the longest distance I ever did on a bike (during the deca-Ironman ). Each mile I pile up over this is a personal record. I'm tired, but not exhausted. My base speed is low, but I got no serious problem. Stomach: OK. Mind: OK. Butt: perfect. I mean it, perfect. The leather saddle is just making wonders, it's a miracle. On some occasions, when crossing pot holes, I even put my whole weight on the saddle, to ease up the effort on hands and feets. Hands are a real problem, they do hurt, especially my right hand, I need to pull out my bottles with my left hand, tendinosis is in the air.
RAI is a piece of cake
Near the South-East point of the Island, late in the afternoon, a "race fan" offers us cakes. He follows us in several places, cheers me up. A little like Mark in Cork, he does the same with other races, it's just crazy to realize that in some random places, fans pop up without any warning.
There are few of them, but the quality is there. As for the cakes, they are just delicious, and do bring their load of calories.
TS19. Only a big, hudge night to pass. Logically, once at TS20, nothing can stop me, it's impossible to give up, this is even more likely when one understands that it's TS19-TS20 that is hard, the last stage is easier.
The climb starts the wrong way. I think I saw a racer ahead. But I'm not sure. I miss a turn and lose the route, turn around, and waste almost a mile. This is too ridiculous. Then I learn there are some grids to prevent sheeps from escaping, and that we should probably step off the bike to cross them. K73 and K57 I think I remember. Valérie and Paulo will wait for me in those areas.
I'm having a hard time. I did a good job today, now I pay for it. One also has to realize this is September, nights are long. Officially, roughly 12 hours. I expect the ever-closer finish line to give me the final push, the secret and unkown energy to magically go through this long night. This works and works not. Talking about magic, strange things happen. I see shapes emerging from the borders of the road. A complete army. There are spades, monsters with long heads. The ferns end up in fantastic sword points, and this never stops, new shapes over and over. I'm impressed by my own brain which makes all this up by itself. The human brain is magical. Apart from this, I'm falling asleep. And this is just so dangerous, one should not waste too much time decrypting one's own hallucation, while riding a bike on open roads.
Worried by these alive dreams, I decide to try out a new technique: I talk to myself, aloud. It's very natural, because the lights of the car make project two shadows of myself in the fog (two lights = two shadows). The right shadow and the left shadow. So I can start a nice chat between those two instances of myself. It gives something like this:
- hey Christian, how's it going?
- I'm OK, but this is hard!
- hard but you're doing well, that's a good job Christian
- oh really, are you sure Christian?
- yes, keep going, don't let it go, you won't get intimidated by this little hill that is not even 10% of a real moutain?
- no, for sure...
- so go ahead, just like this, keep going, ever and ever!
My bet is that talking will keep me awake, a bit like when I talked to Mark last day, this gave me a good kick. But all these techniques have their limits, I still long for a good sleep.
I tried all sorts of things, I sang, tried to mimic animals, but there's nothing to do, fatigue is a strong adversary.
By measure of security, I stop quite often.
I think it's during one of these stops that Gilbert caught me talking of elephants and poles. The big pole and the small one. Yeah sure Christian. Might not be a bad idea to go for a nap. I multiplicate those small naps. I do not wish to sleep for several hours. Not now, the finish line is close, and if I sleep for a long time I would need to undress, then dress, and then I'm not even sure to complete avoid this "10 minutes in the car sleeping / 50 minutes on the bike riding" rythm I'm reduced to. 2 hours and a half isn't a real complete night anyway. It's really a difficult decision to make, one could say "if in doubt, sleep", but then, I would still be in Ireland. Other example, when I stopped to tell Gilbert and Marc I had seen a guy on a skate board (pitch dark, 1000 feet elevation, lost in the middle of hills in the Irish country...) in front of me, I think I did the right choice by stopping. And when I learn that there was of course no guy on skate board, but that I followed a deer for some time, ondulated with it on the road, and given the fact this deer story is what the crew saw, but I did not see it, then I'm dead sure it was really time to stop.
Also, I sweat a lot when going uphill, and I'm freezing when going downhill. The humid climate does not help - we're stuck in a cloud or something - and all my clothes layers are wet.
I'm having a real hard time in those never-ending hills. My back is stiff and it hurts when going downhill, which are anything but rest. Given my state, I must make miracles of concentration going downhill if I don't want to go off the road. So I stop. Again and again. But the good news is I'm still moving forward, getting closer and closer to the finish line. At this rythm, I might make it, you know. Even if those last climbs prove really hard with my fading body, I got that RAI goal set in my head, I "just" (yes "just") need to keep going, and avoid making a big blunder.
At the last time-station, before the finish line, I have not been very efficient. Yes, I could have been quicker. But took the time to put dry clothes on. I took the time to chat with the rest of the team. It was dark, I was exhausted, I think I needed some good old cheer-up session. OK, it's no superman attitude, I would love to write down that I passed this TS20 with a knife stuck in my clenched teeth but no, this would be wrong. I was just a poor boy lost in the night, seeking for some help before the last straight line.
As a native French, I often listened to a song by Bernard Lavilliers, a French singer. This song is about young unwise guys, and also about Ireland. And at dawn, what I saw made me think of this song, just as I crossed Sally Gap. How should I expain... Not easy. You need to have been battered for days by the wind and rain, climbed for hours, woken up dozens of times in wet clothes at the back of car at night to ride your bike again, to get the taste of this beautiful scenery, this unique ambiance. A few sheeps wander about, clouds everywhere, but still we can see the hills and have some perspective. And ahead of me, not even 60 miles. I almost did it. I almost did it. I almost did it.
One last shot
They had told me, there's just one more climb. OK, I'm now used to it I understood the 70 000 feet of elevation are not a legend. I do not care any more, go ahead with your climb, I'm ready for it.
Strangely enough, while until now it really did not disturb me, the following car, featuring DJ Marc and MC Gilber, is a pain. I cannot really tell them. They were so great. They stayed behind me for hundreds of miles, they endured all my little wishes, coffee here, dry gloves there, went through the (probably unbearable...) stench of my dirty clothes drying in the car, skipped the shower in Sneem. They did all this.
But now, they just annoy me with their f*cking car (mine, by the way, and why did I buy such a noisy diesel?) that makes such an ugly and loud noise, and ruins my pleasure. I get even more aware of that as I climb very slowly, and they wait some distance behind. Then for a minute, just a minute, everything is quiet. Just me, the wind, the birds that I start to hear again, and the little clicks of my bike. Then the car is back. Just go away, I don't need no civilization! Of course I said nothing to them, it would have made no sense, I would have never found the right words to say it. I would just have wasted 5 minutes, and probably set up a dreadful atmosphere.
And after all, they are not responsible for this, it's the rules that require this following car. And anyway, they did a perfect job.
I think it's time for this race to finish.
1 mile - 2.5 miles - 20 miles
I read that on a marathon, at one mile of the end, it's done, you know you have done it. I mean, you finish with your mind, with a few rare exceptions, everything is set. For a running ultra, and this is strange, the equivalent distance is 2.5 miles, and this does not really change wether you run a 100k or 200 miles. 2.5 miles before the finish line, you know your final time. On a long bike ride, I'd say it's about 20 miles. At 20 miles, you know how it will end, no more surprises.
And this is what happens. I even manage to speed up in the end. It's not that hard, it's flat and the wind blows the right way. I always wondered what these final sections meant. I mean, no one seriously believes you're going to drop out at this stage. So why do we ride them, if we know for sure it's doable? There's a paradox here, I find. But I need to ride them anyway.
A race official - grey car - drives in front of me between Trim and Navan. Because yes, from Trim (start line) we need to go to Navan (race HQ). The Race Around Ireland, it's a race around Ireland, plus a little bit.
Off we go
Once I cross the finish line, I feel stupid. I think I'm loosing my mind. I should probably have chatted a little more with the two racers that were here, especially Donncha, who arrived quite a long time before. Valério was there an hour ago. He wasn't that far.
But hey, I need to take the ferry now! Indeed, with the extra time for the race, I now must pack my stuff quite quick, put them into my car, and drive to Rosslare. I do not even take a shower, I don't take a chance, I don't want to miss my boat. The next one leaves... in a long time, and I work on Monday.
It's on that Ferry that, finally, I will have time to A) take a shower and B) drink a guiness. After this, I slept 12 hours, non-stop.
Would I do this again? For sure! It was a great adventure, something really unusual, frankly hard, but with style and elegance. The only drawback is logistics, it's quite complicated, all in all I think I tend to prefer events where I may not ride so fast but with less complications such as having several following cars and all the things that come with it. But still, that race was something. I won't forget it.