June 27th, 8am, Llançà, Spain.
After much anticipation, the 2021 edition of the Transpyrénées starts. It’s my 13th ultra-cycling race, however it is a very special one for me. 7 months ago I broke my knee in a traffic accident. After getting a titanium plate screwed to my tibia, I had to hop on crutches for two months and stay off the bike for three. And now here I am, deprived of any winter training and about to embark on a 1000km long journey with 24.000m of elevation gain. From the coast of the Mediterranean all the way to the Atlantic. The first big test for my knee. I don’t put too much pressure on myself. If the knee holds up, I’ll race the entire course in one go without sleep and will try to finish on the podium. If the knee hurts and starts swelling, I’ll just stop, get a good night sleep and then get going again, aiming only to finish. In any case, the big question is about to be answered: am I ready to race again?
We set off at a fairly fast pace. After the first hill, there’s about a dozen of us ahead. Newcomer Justinas Leveika leads a pack where we found experienced racers like Ulrich Bartholmoes, Omar Di Felice, Joe Rass-Court and myself. We follow the coast line, cross into France then head to the Madeloc which towers above the picturesque village of Collioure. But there’s no time for tourism. The climbs are short but steep. The pace is exhausting. We welcome a flat stretch in the Argelès area and pedal somewhat easy to catch our breath. Then, unsurprisingly, comes more climbing. After the Col du Fourtou we are down to 5 racers. Justinas, Omar, Ulrich, Joe and me. It’s getting hot and whenever we spot a faucet we declare a truth to fill up our bottles. After 7 hours, we reach the bottom of the Col de la Llose. It’s nice to get back on small back roads after a long stretch on busy tarmac. I look at my GPS and can hardly believe the 28kph average speed we kept to get there.
It’s a mammoth climb and the guys keep setting a relentless pace. There’s about 300 vertical meters to climb when I have to let them go. I’m gutted but let’s face it: three months off the bike is a lot and comes a time when you have to pay the bill.
I now have to race my own race, by myself with whatever energy I have left. I reach the top of the climb and then it’s only a short downhill to Font Romeu before I have to climb to Porté Puymorens. It’s the high Pyrénées now and many long climbs await. The frantic pace of the first 8 hours left me with not much in the tank and I’m moving painfully slow. I swallow a few pills of electrolytes to prevent cramps and I’m starting to suspect I actually overheated in the Col de la Llose. I should eat but the idea of putting any sort of food in my mouth makes me nauseous. So I keep going without food. I summit Puymorens at 1900m, on to a short descent then I have to climb Envalira which culminates at 2400m. I enter Andorra on a wide road. The landscape is wide open and a bit intimidating. My GPS marks 230km and more than 4000m of climbing.
Tackling the highest pass so early in the race is a mental boost. I make way to the top and then it’s: okay, I’m done. Sure there’s another 19.000m of ascent, but that brutal stretch from seal level to 2400m is over. The downhill is exhilarating! The road is super wide and virtually empty. I often reach speeds above 70kph. Down the hill is the town of Canillo and, of course, right after it, is another climb. It’s short and easy (at least that’s how I remember it) and a few kilometers after the top, I get caught by Justinas who had stopped somewhere between Font Romeu and Canillo to lay 15 minutes in the grass, trying to recover from previous efforts. We get acquainted as we are riding toward the climb of Arcalis. This one is a bit of a mind game as it is a dead end. We have to climb for 17km and then go down the same road. I’m none too pleased with this but I have to do it nonetheless. At least it’s going to be an accurate way to determine where each rider stands at this point in the race.
We are about 6km away from the top when we see Ulrich blazing down. According to my calculations, that’s a good 40 minutes that he has over us. 5 minutes later comes Omar and we’re about to reach the summit when we see Joe. There’s about 100m vertical meters to go when Justinas opens up a gap. I could try to keep up but honestly I don’t really see the point. I keep going at my own pace and then u-turn and back to where we came from.
At the end of the descent and before tackling the next pass, I make a quick stop at a gas station. I buy drinks and some candy. I carry all sorts of food in my packs but the one thing I crave is candy. Actually it’s the only thing I feel I could eat. For some reason, the idea of carbs, fat and salt sickens me. So I down a powerade and eat my candy while making my way to Andorra la Vella as the sun sets.
It’s always weird to ride across a big city on a warm summer night when you’re racing. You see people chatting, laughing, drinking, partying, while you’re in indescribable distress, with every fiber of your body hurting. Two opposites collide and the joyous crowds appears like epitome of indecency to your apathetic eye.
As I leave the capital, I see fireworks exploding high in the sky and I think to myself: oh Andorra, could you be even more insensitive?
After a hellish climb, I reach a 3km gravel section. I get a pinch flat on a rock I didn’t see and while I’m putting in a new tube, it starts raining. When emptying my saddle pack in search of a tube, I find a bag of dried fruits. It’s sugary content appeals to my palate and I manage to put a little bit of fuel in my tank.
A wet downhill with countless switchbacks takes me to who knows where. When it’s dark, places stop having names. Everything is just a blur of somber shapes. I’m riding in zombie mode, not looking at my power nor my speed. Forward progress is all that matters, even if it’s slow. The rain gets heavier as I leave a tiny village to climb yet another pass. It’s a hard and long one. The kind I feel will never end, especially at night. But everything ends at some point, even the rain. The bottom of the descent marks the end of the magic land of Andorra. I had no idea it was this big and this unforgiving. Some people call it the Las Vegas of the Pyrenees and for sure, it does seem a bit strange and fake. I’m happy to cross into Spain. Especially since my last few kilometers in Andorra almost ended in a crash when my front wheel slid on a manhole cover as I was cornering down a hill.
There’s a fair bit of flat tarmac as I enter Spain and I welcome it with open arms. I’m starting to feel really tired and sleepy but I know I don’t have too long to hold on before dawn. Tucked in my aerobars, I pedal and struggle to stay awake. As the sun rises, the climbing starts again…
As I slowly get out of zombie mode, Joe, fresh from the full hour of sleep he caught not far from here, catches me and proceeds to fly away. I try to hang on from a distance, but I just don’t have enough energy.
The small climbs of this part of the route go through lovely little villages and under the clear skies, the storm from last night seems like a distant memory. Pretty soon I spot Joe who stopped on the side of the road to grab something in his saddle bag. I wave and keep going. After a little while I ride across a small town. It’s early and all the shops are still closed. I haven’t eaten anything all night and I’m in dire need of calories. But the food I carry, which consists of salty nuts, sweet protein bars and half a sandwich, still doesn’t tempt me. Luckily I spot a gas station before embarking on the next climb. I down a liter of chocolate milk, eat a donut and I’m on my way. The climbs are shorter now that I’m done with Andorra and that’s a good thing. The super long climbs of the first day really wore me down physically and mentally and I welcome the change. I summit Puerto de Bonansa at 1380m then it’s on to a straight wide road. The climbs are steep but the downhills are really fast and I see my average speed go up which is a huge boost to my morale.
After a couple of hours, I take a turn off that big road onto a lovely small one. I stop to take a leak near a building and spot a trash can. That’s when I do something really stupid. I throw away all the food I was carrying from the beginning, convinced that I’m never ever going to want to eat it and that it’s just dead weight. I get going and finally, I’m enjoying myself. The scenery is beautiful and I take it in, forgetful of the race and all the pains that derive from it. I stop in a shop to drink more chocolate milk and eat another donut. I look for gummy bears but to no avail. The Canyon de Anisclo comes next and it’s spectacular! I have to say I hated day one but I’m really loving day 2. I let the views sink in and listen to the roar of the water down the gorge. I climb out of the canyon and up another pass.The rest of this day is a bit of a mess in my head. Sleep deprivation makes it hard to remember which parts came when. I remember climbing on a road that was so broken, it could be classified as gravel. I remember stopping in a gas station for two small sandwiches and telling myself “hunger is slowly coming back”. I remember trying to push hard on some climbs to see if I still had some power left. I remember fighting a head wind coming from the west and wondering if I would have to fight it all the way to the Atlantic. I remember entering somewhat of a big town but having to exit it before seeing any shops. A remember a climb that was short but had a steady 15% gradient.
Around 8pm, after another day of cycling on a virtually empty stomach, I stop in a town called Hecho determined to find food. It’s now or never. I struggle to find the only bar that serves food. Turns out it only offers fancy hot sandwiches, which I guess take too long to make. I spot 4 croissants on the counter, buy them all and leave. I’m going to have to make due with this, most likely until tomorrow morning.
I probably should ration but I’m too hungry to do so. I think of all the food I throw away and I feel stupid. For the second time in the race I have a look at the tracker. Ulrich is 50km ahead, on his way to a stunning victory. Omar and Joe are 20/25km behind. And since I don’t plan on stopping tonight, I don’t expect they will catch me.
Around 10pm it starts raining. While looking for my rain jacket in my saddle bag, I stumble upon a protein bar I didn’t throw away. Jackpot. I eat it straight away. It might not be the smartest thing to do but it’s hard to be smart when you’ve been cycling for 40 hours straight.
It’s not only humid, it’s bitterly cold tonight. I’m wearing all my clothes and my winter gloves and still not enough to keep me warm. When you’re there, you look forward to climbing and dread descents.
What time is it when I spot a blinking light coming closer? Hard to tell. It must be past midnight because I’ve just spent half an hour fighting sleepiness. Knowing a rider is closing in on me is a very effective way to wake me up! I find some unsuspected energy and start pushing like crazy. It looks like it’s working because I see the blinking light getting further back. The GPS says there’s 150km left to the finish: it’s gonna be a long sprint.
At some point I feel like I have opened up a gap and I stop in a small town to get a Coke at a machine. It lasts only a few seconds but sure enough on the next climb, I see the light got closer.
When the sun rises, Omar still hasn’t caught up to me. I enter the Basque country with its steep gradients and grey skies. It’s a weird part of the course, much more populated than the rest, much greener and… I don’t know… just weird. Like it doesn’t really fit with the rest.
There’s four climbs and about 50km left before the finish when I see Omar smiling next to me. It’s gonna be a battle. And I’m gonna have to fight it on an empty stomach. He attacks immediately to test my legs. I’m surprised to see they still pack a punch and I keep up. 50km is just too long to attack relentlessly, even for Omar, so we go back to a reasonable pace. With a gentleman’s agreement of not trying anything in the descents. He stops for water and I wait for him. We’re going to do this by the rules. A la pédale as we say in french.
We’ve just started the penultimate climb when Omar picks up the pace and starts going away. I’m not sure what’s happening. Is he really attacking? So far from the finish? I kinda took it for granted that Jaizkibel, the last pass of the course, would be the one where the fireworks would happen. But it looks like Omar had other plans.
I lose precious seconds hesitating, not sure if he’s attacking or not. When I decide to pick up the pace, it’s a bit too late. I panic, shift recklessly and derail. Precious seconds lost again. I push hard but I’m reluctant to really push as hard as I can. There’s another climb after this one and I want to be ready for it. Also there’s a downhill and a flat bit afterwards where I hope I can make good time and maybe catch Omar.
When I reach the top, I have no idea how far ahead he is. The descent is steep and wet and I have to navigate it cautiously. There’s no point taking risks. I keep hoping to see him but he’s gone. The flat stretch is fairly busy with traffic and I use my messenger skills to keep it from slowing me down. On my right I spot a bakery, and for a second, I think of stopping to get some much needed food. I feel like I’ve already lost the race for second place and since I haven’t had anything to eat in 12 hours, a nice breakfast is tempting.
But I can’t. I owe it to myself to keep believing. I have to try to catch Omar or I’m going to regret it. Before the race, with all the doubts concerning my knee, I would have been more than happy with a 3rd place. But during these two days, my racing mentality came back. And it’s driving me to push as hard as I can.
I get to the bottom of Jaizkibel and now no more holding back. I just give everything I have in hope of catching Omar before the top. It’s hard to describe: legs hurt, lungs burn, breath is heavy, heart reaches 175 bpm, mouth stays open and drool comes out. After ten minutes of this, the inconceivable happens: I see Omar. He looks back. He’s seen me as well. The chase is on. I keep pushing. Not harder, because I can’t. But as hard. At every corner I seem to be getting closer. I don’t know where the power comes from, but it’s there. I finally catch him.
He tries a first attack, I keep up. He slows down and I take advantage of this truth to catch my breath. We ride at a gentle pace for a few minutes. Then the course leaves the main road onto a steep, narrow, strip of tarmac for the final kilometer. Omar chooses this moment for a very sharp attack. He opens up a small gap but I’m able to close it. We ride side by side for a minute or so, shake hands and wish each other good luck.
There’s about 250 meters left. I waited long enough, it’s my turn to attack. I throw whichever energy I have left into one last effort. I don’t look back. I don’t try to see if Omar managed to keep up. I just give it my all. Full blast to the finish. I leave it all out on the road.
I cross the line first.
50 hours 31 minutes. Ulrich finished 3 hours earlier but I don’t care. This time and this second place: this is my victory. 7 months after breaking my knee, I could not have hoped for a better comeback.
I step off my bike and give Omar a hug. We fought a good fight. We pushed each other further than we could have ever imagined.
I can now finally do the thing I’ve been wanting to do for more than 12 hours: take my shoes off.