Descent from the Col de Ceyssat
I was happy that my route to the second control point, at Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps was relatively flat. I’d made a few tweaks to help achieve this, in particular, routing slightly to the north just before the Saone to clear some hills and taking some cycle tracks down to Neuchatel to avoid a hill on the main road (more about this later). And the stage started with a big descent from the Col de Ceyssat.
The descent was painful! A problem I’ve been getting over the last 18 months is that whenever I have ridden for more than a couple of hours, I’ve had a sharp pain in my neck. I’ve learned to manage it and it tends not to get any worse and, on very long rides, sometimes goes away eventually. It hadn’t bothered me much on the way down through France but it tends to flare up on descents, when I’m on the drops with a lot of weight going through my shoulders, especially more technical ones where lots of braking is needed.
The Ceyssat descent was not too technical but my neck got really sore. I stopped a couple of times to give it a rest it and do some stretches. It made me apprehensive of the big Alpine descents to come.
While I was still descending, and acknowledging it was now Sunday afternoon in France with limited food available, I made what was to be my only visit of the race to a McDonalds for an infusion of calories.
McDonalds has changed since I last ate in one a good few years ago. Not so much the menu, which has new things but still includes the old stuff, but I found that you now order on a computer terminal rather than at the counter, access to the toilets is controlled via requirement to enter an access code printed on your receipt, and, most surprisingly of all, the food is delivered to your table by a cheerful waitress. The food was still the same, though! But it filled me up and meant I would be able to make my stocks from the previous day’s Lidl visit last through the night into tomorrow.
I joined a pair of German riders who were already there, and they told me how they had ridden very hard last year but had had to drop out in Croatia, and that one of them had subsequently had hand problems which meant he’d been unable to work – as a maxillofacial surgeon – for several weeks afterwards. This year they were taking it a bit easy to increase their chances of staying the course.
An hour or so after McDonalds, just before I got to Vichy, I started to feel tired and, spotting a lane next to a wood, rode 50 yards up it to get away from the traffic noise, and had a lovely sleep for half an hour or so. When I woke it was about 7pm, so I decided I’d ride later into the night to make up, planning to stop around 2am. That would be too late for a hotel, so I would bivvy somewhere.
Evening ride across Burgundy
As the evening wore on, I had three concerns:
My biggest one was that a slight pain was developing in my right achilles tendon. I’d never had this before. It wasn’t bad but it was persistent. I hoped that it might just go away, maybe overnight. I was less worried about it than I might have been because some other pains and niggles were going away.
I’d started the ride with pain in my left knee. This was an ongoing problem that began after a bike fit last winter that put my saddle a bit too high. It had interrupted my season, prevented me from time trialling and meant I was not as fit as I’d hoped to have been at the start. I had just about got it under control in the last couple of weeks before the start but, foolishly, I’d done a final yoga session just a couple of days before. Yoga had helped me a lot with my other ongoing problem, the neck pain. And it had also helped me get a much better position on my bike by giving me a lot more flexibility. However, this final session had made my knee flare up to the extent that, at the start of the race, I thought there was a risk I might have to abandon because of it. Previous editions of the Transcontinental had had something like a 50% dropout rate so I realised that there was a significant risk that these niggles would develop into a ride-ender. While the achilles was a bit annoying, my knee settling down, and my neck being largely benign meant that I was actually feeling my chances of lasting the distance were pretty good.
The second concern was finding more water on a Sunday night. Spotting a sign to a service station, I followed it, wondering what might be there. It was a bit of a detour, but it was open and I got my bottles refilled. Outside, where I’d parked my bike, I spotted a discarded set of raceblades, and wondered if they were from a fellow racer who, perhaps, had got sick of rubbing!
My final concern was finding a bivvy site, but waiting until I was properly tired made that much easier. Coming out of the town of Charolles, by which time I’d done over 335km for the day, my Di2 battery gave out – after only two long days of riding – which made it easier still, and I decided a patch of grass slightly away from the roadside would do nicely. When setting up camp I did notice that the grass was slightly damp, but thought nothing of it, and went to sleep.
Day 3 :Charolles-Neuchatel
I got up around 5 as it became light, and realised there had been a heavy dew, which made me feel pretty cold, and decided that riding singlespeed until the sun got up to get warm was a better option than messing around with my Di2 charger. Pumping my soft rear tyre up a bit also helped to warm me up.
After an hour I was warm and stopped to charge the Di2 from AA batteries, which worked fine. I was able to ride as it charged, and blasted across Burgundy in the morning sunshine – although I was conscious that my achilles had not settled down.
The low point of my morning was when, just before crossing the Saone, I heard a bang from my rear tyre. I was pretty sure it was the same puncture as before, and it re-sealed, but only at around 30psi once more.
By this time my Lidl supplies were running low, but, in the smaller towns I passed, everything seemed to be closed on Mondays. Around lunchtime, in the busy town of Louhans, I found a supermarket and stocked up again, before spending a bit more time getting my tyre back up to c.60psi . I also moved my AA battery charger from the Di2 to my Garmin, and set off again.
After the next town, Lons le Saunier, the climb up to the Jura plateau started. Before tackling it, I decided I needed to take action about my achilles or it would get worse and threaten my race. Some searches recommended rest, ice, moving my cleats back and moving my seat down. The first two were not possible. I tried the third, but my cleats were already as far back as they would go. So I moved the seat down. Immediately it gave me relief! I did the climb, but was starting to feel very tired and my power was pitifully low. So I had a nap on a bench at the top, and moved my seat down a bit further!
The Jura plateau was a different world. Architecturally, the houses, and the churches, looked very Swiss. And, the vineyards of Burgundy had given way to cows, with bells. From about here until Bern I would be broadly following the route of this years Tour de France stage.
At the next town – Champagnole – when I stopped at a supermarket to stock up with food for the night, I realised that I had screwed up badly. I’d lost the wire that I needed to charge my phone and Di2 from my AA battery box. I could still charge my Garmin from AAs but would need my battery packs for the other gadgets. Both packs were now dead, my phone battery was on the way out, so, as I rode on, I pondered what to do.
As I was going up a steep hill, another rider, Max Kraus, drew up alongside me. We chatted for 15 minutes or so as we went up the climb then, at the top, he sped away as I gathered my breath. He was obviously a very strong rider and I didn’t expect to see him again until Canakkale.
On the plateau, I decided I’d stop where there was mobile signal and book myself a hotel on my phone before it died completely. I pulled in to a layby to do it and another rider asked if I was ok. I said I was booking a hotel and he stopped to chat for a minute. He (Urs) lives in Bern and was planning to have pizza with his wife that night. I advised him to get going as I reckoned it was 70km to my hotel in Neuchatel, which I was hoping to reach around 11pm, and a further 50km to Berne.
In the final French town before the Swiss border – Pontarlier, I passed a large hypermarket that looked like it might be open. I decided to check, it was, and I scored two 5mAh battery packs. That solved my immediate problems and I was able to recharge my phone, and banish fears of having to take on the Alps with one gear.
I crossed the Swiss border just before dusk. I knew it was their national day but wasn’t sure what to expect. It looked like they celebrated by having an early night as I found the first couple of towns completely deserted.
Eventually I approached Neuchatel, and set into action my cunning plan to cut through the back roads and cycle paths. This turned out to be my worst single routing idea of the whole ride. The paths were hilly, bumpy and went through dark forest. I climbed a long way, and had to take care on the descent to avoid the gravel. It cost me at least an hour. I was so angry with myself for selecting this route rather than a straightforward, gentle climb on the main road. Later, when I told Urs what I had done, he just laughed, and said those paths were very pretty on a nice day but not a quick nighttime route to Neuchatel.
This meant I got to the hotel at after midnight. In my room I started charging things with every available socket. And I decided to fix my puncture properly. To avoid spraying the room with latex, I took the wheel out and put it in the bath. I pumped the tyre up to 100psi and waited for the puncture to spurt – which it duly did. I then plunged an anchovy into the hole. This time I managed to get it to stay in. The tyre re-sealed around it, and I put it back up to 100psi, left it in the bath and jumped into bed for 5 hours of idyllic sleep.
An anchovy – a bit of rubber, not a salted fish – with fork to insert into tyre (photo: Singletrack World)
Anchovy plugging a hole in a tyre (alas not mine, photo: Road.cc)
Day 4: Neuchatel to the mountains
I set off with everything working out well. I was well-rested, my achilles was under control, I was enjoying my firm tyre, and I picked up a main road and made fast progress. And my confidence in my route-planning even recovered as, skirting Berne, a young couple passed me, we chatted for a minute, but they were riding faster so went off in front. 10 minutes later, having taken a slightly different route, they passed me again. And I saw them once more half an hour after that!
After a couple of hours I stopped to take off layers and was just congratulating myself once more on fixing the tyre when, as I was looking at it smugly, the thing went ‘bang’ and dropped back to 30 psi! The anchovy had been forced out by the pressure. I thought about trying to put a second anchovy in but decided I would now cut my losses and get a new tyre.
I enjoyed the Swiss scenery – mountains, rivers and lakes. Soon, the climb for Grindelwald started –about 400m over around 18km, mostly gentle but steep (10-14%) in parts. Finding food, once I’d headed into the tourist areas remained a challenge. While there were plenty of waiter-service restaurants, I found no shops or even takeaways on the way up to Grindelwald.
I made it into the town in mid-afternoon and found I’d slipped back 10 or so places, with the tyre problems, Neuchatel forest trails and the start of the climbs.
After Grindelwald the serious climbing would start: the four big Alpine passes awaited. Three – the Grosse Scheidegg, Grimselpass and Furkapass – formed the compulsory section. The forth, the Gotthard Pass, was my escape route to Italy, where the warm, dry sunny weather – rather than the rain of Switzerland – was forecast, and flat, fast roads were guaranteed 🙂