Between the Lines
Writing is a lot like ultra distance cycling.
You have to keep going when you feel the urge to stop, to get off, stand at the sideways for a moment, just escape when it becomes too intense, stop thinking, stop pedaling, stop going deeper where it could hurt, it doesn't necessarily have to burn but sometimes it does.
It's unpleasant and if you never felt tempted to procrastinate, you probably haven't gone far enough, deep enough, you just scratched the surface, of your words or your capabilities, the surroundings, the distance. I have to admit, this was no easy one, neither the text, nor the race it's about.
It's about finding that certain flow, a rhythm of it's own kind, something that has it's rules and can only be understood when you're ready to listen, to your body and your mind, to the route and the ords, hiding in every turn of those winding steep climbs, in the freezing nights, near zero descends, the mornings with soft pastel colours and deer, standing in the middle of the road looking at you, asking questions between dawn and day.
The raw facts of the inaugural edition of Mittelgebirgeclassique were pure understatement:
- Tarmac only.
- No heights above 1500m
However, understatement is something that earns it's delicacy through a twist, a fine but therefore even more profound reason why it's not as simple as it may look at first glance. To spice things up, 24000 meters of elevation and a time limit of 113 hours made the formula of this unpretentious event much more than an entree.
The word “Mittelgebirge” stands for “low mountain range“ something that would most people not have a second look at the elevation – which is a mistake, since you don't need the alps to create a course that makes even true climbers reach their limits. In this event, it seemed, cards were being reshuffled, as not only specialists in the field of ultra-endurance climbing feasts attended, but also a quite large number of rookies. The great atmosphere, free pasta and detailed briefing at registration day made everyone feel welcome. The organisers, all experienced ultra- endurance riders, had attempted to create a new challenge in reference to the roots of unsupported road races and this spirit ran like a golden thread through the whole event. Despite being demanding due to the elevation profile (plus cold nights, but we'll get to that point in a few moments) it was 80-95% rideable – depending on the gear ratio of choice in combination with the contenders legs. After a neutralised start, the first kilometers went towards soft hills, leading through the beautiful vineyards of southern Germany's most famous gourmet area with 23.592 hectare of viticulture and a puncheur's dream profile.
As soon as the temperatures rose, we crossed the French border for the first time - only for a short visit in the picturesque city of Wissembourg, where some riders already stormed the Patisseries. During the first hours of the ride I had met a few familiar faces and made new friends - one nice aspect of doing fixed route events is, you will meet other participants continuously. While the Mittelgebirgeclassique still is an unsupported ultra distance race that comes with the usual set of rules - no drafting, riding self supported at all times - the organisers pointed out that the community factor is a core value in their approach. So sharing moments of laughter and chatting was indeed approved and lived to the fullest.
Before you stand at the start of a race, all nervous, freezing, you have a rough idea what it will be like. You focus on the data, on the waypoints, on the facts and then, in the middle of nowhere, it becomes something else, like it always does, because data in the end is nothing but a blurb. You sit in front of a blank sheet of paper, wondering where to start and while your memory slips away, you stare at the blinking cursor - there is no story to be found. The real story is written between those tiny dots, between the GPS tracker's refresh, maybe it's in the lines, the lines on the road and on the weary, tired faces, it's in the lines between each rider, the connection of loose events, faces, random views, encounters and vertical meters.
I met Simon while I was chewing the Sandwich I had prepared at 4:30 am that morning, taking the spirit of "self supported" quite literally. He rode up next to me and complimented on my bike, which is probably the only true way to start a conversation. A few kilometers ahead we joked about meeting later again at one of the few McDonald's on the route, skipping the Patisseries for the moment. "Eat locally" was Simon's dry comment as we rode past the chance to fuel up on the infamous pain au chocolat, instead heading towards the fast food temple of ultra cyclist's choice. There would be more than enough pain au chocolat along the way, we agreed.
However, the resupply options became scarcer after crossing borders again, making our way into the deeper heart of the Black Forest, where the route steadily delivered what it had promised: the hills got steeper, the roads more quiet. In my previous races I had often just started the ride without really knowing too many details. Not so this time, I had even prepared a sort of roadbook, a map with POIs, possible sleeping spots, supermarkets, petrol stations and opening hours – all in regards to the elevation profile. This way I knew what was about to come - but somehow reality always beats theory. The climb at Oppenau marked the border between "yeah, I like to ride hills in my spare time" and "good lord, what have I signed up to again."
The steepness from there on was beyond everything I had ever ridden, it didn't stop to rain 18% street signs for the next days. My gear choice was 1:1 48/32 in the front and an 11-32 cassette, which had been pretty okay during the Two Volcano Sprint last year, an already dauntingly hilly experience. Taking into account that my bike with bags and water was slightly above the 16kg mark, I still don't know how I rode most of those ramps, but at least on the occasions my memory doesn't lack evidence for, I did.
And again, it's like writing. No one tells you when to stop, when to continue and how, good gracious, the how and the if and all the options or you could just leave it, just do something else, simply hop onto the next train and never think of it again, watch Netflix instead or do the dishes. It's not like you sometimes hope it is, just get through with it, just continue, never stop. You need rest, you need to inhale and exhale and in between, there must be a full-stop. After a few failed attempts to get a hotel room for the first night, I decided to stick to my initial plan and ride 280km with 6000m of elevation gain, which took me until 2am. It was part of the rules to not book anything in advance, so one aspect of a self supported ride is to make phone calls or take whatever you find on the go. The last climbs had been especially hard due to the dropped temperatures and when I finally reached the little town where I hoped to find a good bivy spot, it was only 4°C. In such a situation there aren't too many options – either keep riding in the cold or find a place to warm up. I was too tired to continue, since it lies in the nature of unsupported ultra cycling races that you often start with a bit of sleep deprivation. The night before the start isn't exactly one where you'd fall asleep easily and often these events begin either very early or late in the evening, to live up to the character of a challenge and add a little spice in form of sleep deficit to your legs.
The morning has the tendency to be the coldest time of the day, so getting up wasn't so much for the idea of being in a race and having to hurry, but rather because I couldn't bear the cold anymore. After warming up in a bakery, occupied by a bulb of cyclists, listening to stories from the night and envying the ones who had found a room, I continued my ride, becoming aware that the cold night had left me without energy. I wasn't the only one suffering, this day was responsible for many DNFs and in my case it was the one with the most extreme ratio of elevation to distance I had ever done. 150km, which sounds quite short for an ultra distance road race, but with 6000m of elevation. It makes you become quite aware of what a concept gravity is.
When I met Martin I was at my lowest, I think I had been groaning and cursing every two meters, so the first thing I asked him was: “Did you hear me? Never mind, I'm fine, well, kind of, I'm just a bit tired. I don't even know if I made a sound.” He smiled, it was a tired smile on his face mirroring mine, the ones you smile after a long day on the bike when you thought of maybe just stopping for a moment, several times, but you always kept on pushing through and every time you thought of stopping and kept going instead your head gets an ounce heavier, so it will take all your energy to just look up, and in a way, all this shines through when you finally meet someone else with the same tired smile which, for a short instance, makes the pushing through so much easier. I think I heard you mumbling something, yeah, I thought you're talking to yourself.“
We laughed and from there on our smiles got less tired, we started with the usual, how much weighs your bike, is it you first race, and from there we went far, at the end we found ourselves on philosophical levels, the sort of I'd always choose over what you do at university in a seminar with 40 other fearful souls. Out here thought are clear and not so defensively trying to mask your own cluelessness with clever sounding words, no fear of being caught as simple or trivial, no one to impress here but two tired, sweaty cyclists, who know too well that the simplest things are the most complex. A burning saddle sore will give you a hell of a clear mind and so we wondered about this and that, do we really need to want everything we could?
It may sound a bit strange now, off the bike in the real world, sitting in front of a laptop in a room with four walls and a roof on top. Do we really have to want everything, just because we think it could be possible? Those were some thoughts we had, why not just rest and leave the route and stay at a nice place and not be in a hurry anymore, sit down in a decent restaurant and sleep 8 solid hours. Why do we feel it's necessary to push through, to keep going, to torture us up the next steep climb, why do we want to reach that finish line, in the best case not as the last rider, why all the tired smiles and endless stretches of grey tarmac.
Is it necessary, does it make sense after all?
It was cold when we reached the summit of Feldberg, the sun had just disappeared behind the soft green hills. The last steep ramp, a few meters of pushing my bike and it was all downhill from there, freezing, wearing everything I had with me, but this time I knew a hotel room was waiting. There are various degrees of freezing, the cold hits different when there's no outlook on a warm bed and peaceful rest, the shivers get deeper then. There's a momentarily shiver, the one you know will be over in a few moments. And then there's the endless one, the waiting for the night to be over, the longing for a pillow to dig your tired face in. When I reached the hotel, my mind was numb. A kettle in the hallway to make hot tea, heaven had a new allocation.
But how do we do it?
You don't need to be a masochist, actually that's probably even a bit contraindicated because then you won't ever get to the point where it matters. This point is beyond the pain of pushing through, you can only get there with determination and the willingness to accept, at least for a while, whatever this world and your mind throws at you. And when you realise that your mind and the world aren't two completely separated things, from there on it starts to get interesting. So I'm supposed to torture myself, to ride in the cold or the heat or just climb until I fall off the bike, is it that what your saying? I hear you asking. No. That's not enough. You can torture yourself on end, but after all this will get you no where, it's not that easy. You need something deeper than pain, a dream maybe, a goal, a wish, an intention, whatever, just something that will make you more than a beggar, asking for the plot. I never knew why I was there, well yeah, you go to the start and tell everyone in how many days you want to do it, you have your goals and your ego. And then you start the ride, you push through, you keep overcoming all the hurdles and then there's the point where you don't know anything anymore. Take a hotel, take a hot shower, sleep for a few hours and start again. Do we really need to do whatever is possible just because we can? First of all, we have to find out what actually is possible and then we need to figure out if we can, which is surprisingly a completely different kettle of fish.
Can we endure it?
I look at the map. A dot is approaching, it's Simon, probably around the next bend of the narrow road leading through friendly valleys, he will catch up with me. There's always this slightly antisocial aspect in a race: one part of you looks forward to company and the other wants them stay dots, not become an actual person because that means you got caught, you were too slow, you want to beat them, not be last, be better, be faster, be ahead of them, never be caught. But whenever it happens, it might as well be the best part of the whole thing. “I got a hotel yesterday, way too early, but I didn't want to continue because there was nothing else
on the way so I went for it. It was so strange, I sat there on the balcony, they even had these white bathrobes and so I watched the sunset, in a bathrobe, at 8pm. I mean I'm in a race, right?” Simon laughed and this image of him, sitting in a bathrobe on a balcony at 8pm in a race, it got me through a few bad moments.
A bit later, I was in the middle of the first round of the Grand Ballon which we had to climb twice, none of these images was strong enough. It was getting dark and I realised too late that I had miscalculated how much water and food I'd need for a night ride of this caliber. On a flat route it's not a big deal to ride for a few hours without resupply, but it becomes a completely different equation when you add a few merciless climbs. I knocked at closed doors of a deserted restaurant, a light shining from the top windows, but no one answered, so I continued, left alone with nothing in front of me but the vastness of another cold night, the outlook of no sleep and being short on water. I'd have given anything at this point to meet someone, not so much because of the water, but because I felt a sadness arising, the kind of sadness that hits you on lonely climbs sometimes and makes the gradient a lot steeper. Thinking back to remote finish lines, with nothing but myself as a reminder of what it was all worth. And suddenly, a ridiculous clearness spread in my mind. It wasn't all ego, making it in time had never really been that much of an ambition to prove anything to anyone. It was because of the lines, the dots, the tired smiles and happy but worn out faces, it was because of the people. It had been my dream to arrive for the finisher party, that last line to be crossed, let all the dots become persons at once, with crazy stories about how they fixed a flat in the middle of nowhere with only one leftover patch, about knee pains and near scratching, about actual scratching, about the fear, the laughter, the supermarket hauls, about broken front derailleurs and the art of shifting a chain manually by hand while riding, the train station moments of whether to just leave and still hop on the bike the next moment and go all in and eat dots on the way up. And while I was surprised how suddenly it wasn't all so paradox anymore, the ambition to finish in time and dots becoming people, I saw a light shining from another building at the summit. Without much hope I made one last attempt, praying someone would be inside the restaurant despite the late hours. At first I couldn't believe my eyes: There they were, the people. A bunch of riders around a table, food, drinks and they waved a joyful hello when they saw my surprised face out there in the dark. I got my first warm meals since days. What was probably much more important: I was surrounded by laughter, stories and a sense of community which is reserved for those very cold, very long nights. It's true. Nothing that's worth anything is ever easy. But maybe the things that really matter don't need to be solely about suffering. After all, maybe they just happen.
Can we make it in time?
Day 4 of Mittelgebirgeclassique, I was awake since 34 hours except for a 30min nap and I knew my limit was reached. I crept up a hill, cursing myself for passing the supermarket in the village, calling several hotels, as usual without any result. Out of pure desperation I followed a sign, saying "gite, 100m". When I saw the man in front of his garage I must have looked like a ghost asking for a room. Yes, his wife would arrive soon. He was casting copper, little bells, stopping his work from time to time to look at me in silent astonishment, while I told him what I was up to. It's always a funny moment when you try to explain what you do to people who are not familiar with this sport, why you only want to sleep 3 hours in the afternoon and why you look a bit deranged and have no intention of having breakfast the next day. The place was perfect, quiet, a shower, a bed, a dog who shyly stood in the door and followed all my moves with curious eyes. The woman even gave some tins of meat, bread and mini-cakes to me just enough for another night ride, I hoped, pouring the only leftover carbdrink into my bidon, I had saved it for this moment. When I fell into the bed I knew, this was my last chance to get some rest before the finish, still 330km and 6100m of elevation to go - and less than 30hours until the time limit was up. 3 hours of blackout sleep, 3 hours that parted the before and the after, the "I might" and the "I will". It's always the question, which are the moments to write about, what are the scenes that stuck with you, what's the essence? In an ultra you mostly end up with distorted memory anyway, so I played that game with myself; what are the reminiscences that come up first, just the very intuitive stills that hit your inner eye. It was impossible. Whenever I tried to curate my thoughts about this race, first there was nothing, and then it hit, a storm, a wild flickering, too much at once, all the people I met, the views oh those views, the beauty of a sunrise and all that shit, a best of collection, a mix of common tunes. And then silence. The moment I look into the mirror on the last day, after three hours of sleep that felt like falling into a dead-end of my mind. And suddenly I see myself in a way I never did before. It's not about the puffy eyes or the cracked lips, you get used to that. It's about who you see there, a person you thought you knew, a tale about the self, all of a sudden it disappears and what's left leaves you speechless. It's all so easy, why didn't you see before. Of course you will make it. There's no more doubt. And for the first time I really believed I can. I can and I will make it, and I want to, even though it's grueling and if you ask me why I have no answer, but if you ask me, is it possible I say yes, it has always been and what fools are we to question it, of course we never had to prove it, it was already there, already possible, but we just didn't see, but now we gotta go, time is ticking and there's no room for regrets anymore, just one more day, 26 hours to be precise, just a few more climbs, just a bit more suffering and in the end it will be worth it.
Is it possible?
Of course the doubts came back, but I had nearly done it, there was no excuse anymore, no more trick to play, yet it all seemed like it could slip through my hands any time. A mad mechanical, a crash, life will find ways to let you know you were wrong and how dare you thinking you already made it. The problem with Icarus was never the sky or the sun, it was the ground that broke his neck in the end. Well, we know how the ancient story went, he fell into the ocean and drowned, because his mind was too high above the sky, but I like to think of him as a cyclist, always a few meters above the ground, grey tarmac, an ocean of variations to fail. And while Icarus flew too high, the cyclist always stays in plain sight of that grey stretch, it's like falling forward, forever, if you wish so. In this case, the light didn't come from above, it came from behind. I was in the middle of my climbing tunnel vision, after riding through another long night that still didn't give way to the next morning, when I suddenly became aware of a light behind me. It didn't seem to come closer with the usual speed of a motorised vehicle. How long had it been there before I noticed it? It was like waking up from a noise which you incorporated into your dream so when you wake up you are a bit confused about what is reality and what is dream and where did those two become one. It was quiet, no sound, no motor, it took me a while to understand: It was a cyclist. Hell, that light was bright. I heard him say something but I couldn't understand, still too perplex, trying to find out if it was a rider from the race or just a very early up eager commuter.
"Who is it?"
"The one who just had a good nights sleep in a hotel and nearly a full day break from all this". That didn't help, but soon after he caught up with me, I recognised him. It was Roman, and he had suffered from severe saddle sore, the sort that either makes you scratch or take a long break after which you end up loosing a lot of ground only to ride on regardless. He chose the latter and it reminded me of what I had experienced last year in another race, riding on out of category because some conditions just go beyond the scope, exceed the simplicity of a ranking. He saved me, probably without even realising. He did nothing but talk to me about the advantages of tubeless, brevets and paunchy elderly men which seem to belong together in a way, but don't get fooled, understatement is an art and the people are not so different, the ones who ride brevets, the ones who find themselves in middle-range mountains, climbing up cols in the dark, it's the delicacy of fine twisted roads that ties them together. We rode up the last higher Col of the route and after a while he continued alone, off he went into the soft weaving blue of the beginning day.
Is it worth it?
I remember that last climb, my nerves a complete wreck and the most irrational fears crept up my spine, like what if the hill is so steep that I have to push my bike, what if it's longer than it looks on the map, what if my clock is set wrong and maybe the time limit is already through, what if I get a puncture or crash? I was beyond good or evil, rationality just an irrelevant concept that didn't make
sense anymore. There were 50 minutes left, and all I had to do was ride up the last kilometer. 50 minutes before I wouldn't be a finisher despite riding the whole goddamn route, every inch of tarmac grinding between my teeth, every road mark ironed into my brain, my eyes kept showing me white marks when I closed them. I knew the organisers said at the briefing, everyone is a finisher, even the ones who can't make it in time. But in my head this wasn't true, there was only one truth, it was these 50 minutes and everything they stood for, it was to get it done before time was up, now or never.
Does it make sense after all?
It's a matter of perspective, I guess. Isn't it strange, that often in life you wonder why nobody comes to save you and in the end you look back and you'll be surprised to find out, you were never even lost. There were random encounters, lightening up the dark with damn bright front lights, strangers with tired smiles and philosophical minds, strangers with stories about sitting on a hotel balcony in a white bathrobe at 8pm on the first evening of a race, saving you a million times, over and over again. And once again there was a bright light, a neon one, my eyes coming from the night like the eyes of those deer, standing in confusion on a road between dawn and day, out of the woods, out of solitude and for a moment, I didn't see. It seemed like no one noticed us sneaking in, the finisher party had already begun and was nearly over, but the room was still filled with people. And then, without further notice, the applause came like a wave. I didn't drown, I was washed up to a shore, there was no falling, there was no failing, there was just warmth and bright light, happy, smiling, tired faces, lines in their faces mirroring mine, we had seen the same roads with different eyes, everyone a dot, a number, but so much more when you finally see the lines, that last line, the finish, the stories to be told when the dots stop moving, the blinking trackers just a memory of data to be forgotten somewhere on a map. I swam in a sea of lost memory and now now now, just this moment of coming home to the shore and falling down onto a chair with a plate of hot potato soup in my hand forever on repeat and a mind beyond the sky. And if you just keep flying in the right distance above the ground,
you can make it.
You can follow Lisa's ultra distance blog here: ultracycling | pacemypeace