When I came home early from the Transcontinental last year I didn’t stop cycling. Many people that compete in these sorts of rides and races have to take a break from two wheels for physical or psychological reasons, or both, because it’s all been a bit much and whilst I was tired and had moments where the sharp Achilles pain would return as a shadow to remind me of what had happened and the tingly finger-tips from too many hours on the bars would make braking, steering and lifting full cups of tea sometimes a little vague I kept riding because I still very much enjoyed being on my bike. It hadn’t broken me.
I entered a local cyclo-cross race and because I did surprisingly well I found myself embarking on a CX season by mistake. Being on a bike for less than an hour and getting home in time for tea made a nice change from riding all day, eating on a kerb and sleeping on a picnic bench or behind the bins, and what I may have lacked in speed and skills I sort of made up for in grunt with a year of training in my legs. I’ve always loved racing cyclo-cross but I’ve never really taken it that seriously so it wasn’t much of a step up to dedicate myself to a season of local league events, committing to certain Sundays is always a good motivator to get you through a winter anyway, and unintentionally I had probably my best results despite some races that are best forgotten.
So after over a year of plugging away exclusively on tarmac I found myself accidentally riding almost entirely off-road, short sharp rides getting my lungs used to that race feeling of ripping themselves out of my chest and learning to master the slip slurry and slide. And I revisited mountainbiking again, once a mainstay of my life and now unfortunately an occasional sideline, a victim of circumstance. And yet a good chance to rediscover arm muscles and get a core workout whilst having fun if any justification was needed. It wasn’t a conscious decision to steer away from the road but both my body and my brain seemed to revel in the change and happy playing in the dirt after spending a year and a lot of miles stuck on tarmac. A lot of miles. But I was acutely aware that at some point this mucking about had to cease and I had to find my long road legs again.
In a clumsy turning of the calendar one too many pages it’s been made suddenly frighteningly apparent that the start of the 2500 km TransAtlanticWay race isn’t very far away at all. The flight to Ireland has already been booked, the B&B and the final installment of the race fee has been paid, it’s there, waiting, no going back, and I don’t feel at all ready. I am worryingly conscious that my mileage is considerably down from this time last year, looking back on the things written down on the last calendar shows a constant stream of events and rides that just hasn’t happened this time round. Things that were pencil-in planned simply haven’t transpired; there are the excuses of work (although last year’s ride/work balance was well out of whack as I tried to be on my bike as much as possible and it hit me incredibly hard financially as a freelancer, the after-effects still nudge me on an almost daily basis and that doesn’t need to happen again) and the long drawn out approach to Spring this year absolutely hasn’t helped and has actually brought into focus how last winter really wasn’t that bad for pedaling through, it was just grey, warm enough and damp. But the most obvious sign that I haven’t been on the bike as much is that I’m not hungry all the time, this is the unexpected gnawingly depressing reminder as to where I currently am.
There is some grabbing-at-straws consolation that there’s a school of thought that says there’s actually little benefit to continually plugging out the miles and short fast rides supplemented by a few long ones are all that’s needed, a concept seemingly echoed by many endurance cyclists, but that’s not helping too much. There is a bubbling fear that’s heating up to a rolling boil. I don’t feel especially poised for what’s about to happen. I’ve got about a month to sort that out and that’s not long, this distance away from the Transcontinental Race last year I was thinking about tapering off the miles, this year I need to get some miles in.
To counteract the nerves the whole thing is thankfully a little less daunting than last year, just a little. Racing the Transcontinental was a massive scary step up in my riding and despite not finishing it I, we, learnt a lot and I know it’s in there to do this but that’s no reason to feel complacent, the most important reason being that this time I shall be on my own. No buffer of a partner, no comfort of camaraderie, no help, no nothing. It feels very odd without Transcon pairs partner Gavin, even though we are still in frequent contact there isn’t the constant stream of chatter that preceded the Transcontinental and the silence is quite a heavy weight on my shoulders. Everything rests solely on me now, if I go for a ride the motivation to get out the door is just for me and not because I don’t want to let someone else down. It is just my voice nagging me. It’s easy to ignore that voice, I do if often on many matters.
I still ride with Gavin every so often but he’s been doing his own thing, still seduced by cracking off the miles but at a more sedate pace than before and not in training for anything. The aftermath of the Transcontinental was hard on the boy and he struggled with being on a bike for quite a while but it’s good to see him back in the saddle and it’s still fun to ride alongside him the once in a while, talk the usual bollocks and stop for a pint.
There is substantially less planning involved in the TransAtlanticWay compared to the Transcontinental as apart from the initial stage from Dublin to the first checkpoint in Derry where riders must pick their own course the TAW follows the Wild Atlantic Way, a designated route that runs all the way down the west coast of Ireland to Kinsale after which riders only have to guide themselves up to the finish in Cork. Compare this to planning a route on the Transcontinental where racers are required to plot their own considerably lengthier route between remote checkpoints scattered across the breadth of Europe with all the potential for going wrong that entails. This means there is a whole lot less research and planning to do than last time, although to be fair Gavin did the vast majority of that for our attempt thanks to a job that didn’t tax too much of his time and multiple tabs on the work computer. But there is still the studying of the roads, hills and the towns to be done and where might be good for food and rest and all of the little bits of pre-planning that will make the race easier, well, more manageable.
There is also a noticeably lower level of stress this time round in that I have all the kit that I need for self-supported bike travel. This was a seemingly endless shopping list to cross out this time last year as I was coming into it innocent and under-equipped. Now I could pop the keys back through the letterbox and leave tomorrow, I have the bike and the bags and the dynamo light and the bivvy-bag and the electronics and the gubbins to keep those electronics going and all the clothes. As it’s Ireland I’ve made sure to upgrade my Goretex jacket. The one thing I needed was a sleeping mat, I thought I could live without one for the Transcontinental, a decision mainly forced upon me by money better spent on other things, and I managed without for the first half of any time we managed an extended sleep because extreme tiredness is incredibly comfortable, and then it isn’t. I unwrapped a posh compact sleeping-mat to a raised eyebrow and a sigh for Christmas instead of socks and smellies.
So here I am, not feeling on form, or ready, or in any way confident. My back catalogue of experience that has been relied on as useful before is balancing on a high-wire without a safety-net. The things that really should be lining up about now are most definitely not, I have homework to do, I have legwork to do. I am struggling not to panic, internally there is a fret that’s starting to brew into a tsunami. That needs to start stopping.