04 TCR No.6 – finished!

A somewhat belated newsflash! For more little and random posts from throughout the race, check my Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Strava.

This past Monday (13th of Aug 2018) around 17.30h CET I finished my Transcontinental Race #TCRNo6 in Meteora/Greece, after 14d19h18min, 16 countries passed over 4029km and 32030m of altitude gained. (I will probably be listed around Position 65 out of ca. 280 starters)

A BIG shoutout and thank you to all of YOU who watched my GPS dot, sent me messages and comments of encouragement and interest. You can‘t imagine what an incredibly important force you were to me – who knows how/if/when I would have arrived without you..?

My arrival was extremely overwhelming to me as I flew down the mind blowing descent of the final parcours to then fall into the arms of my parents and brother who came all the way to the finish line (by plane though 😜). That was after a final stretch from close to Sarajevo to the finish line in Meteora/Greece: ca. 60 hours (303+520km) with just 3h of sleep including a feverish nightmare trip through the Albanian heat and night, chased by stray-dogs and starting hallucinations. I just wanted to finish this.

I am incredibly happy and a bit proud – it was a crazy journey that will accompany me for all of my life. Many ups, downs, beauty, ugliness, happiness, comfort, love, anger, fear, ecstasy, physical pain…

I will certainly publish various notes/articles on this blog some point. If you wish, you can enter your email address (see column on the right) to find out when I posted something (no spamming of course).

Yours, Malte / Cap36

#TCRNo6cap36 @Meteora

Here are some visual impressions as I had also shared them on my social media channels for this “finished” post:

Family reunion at the finish line
Family reunion at the finish line

Summing up my stages. With a slight tremor in my hand..

Summing up my stages. With a slight tremor in my hand..

Tan lines...

Tan lines…

Leg comparison (and showing of the ATPS logo on my bib shorts)

Leg comparison (and showing of the ATPS logo on my bib shorts)

Amy and Anton - a rider pair that lifted my spirits in a moment I very much needed it

Amy and Anton – on the last morning before my finish they approached me from behind in the flatlands of Albania. I was mentally not in a good place so their unexpected company meant the world to me

Selfie attempt on the final parcours down to Meteora

Selfie attempt on the final parcours down to Meteora

03 TCR No.6 – Hopes, Motivation & Fears (3 lists)

You are now at post 03 of my TCR series. If you wish to read them in order and/or first want to find out what this is about.., voilà:
01 Next BIG thing: The Transcontinental Race – I’m Cap 36
02 TCR No.6 – Preparation
03 TCR No.6 – Hopes, Motivation & Fears (3 lists)


shooting-star_1f320.pngMy hopes & goals…

There are many ways to approach this endeavour. Here’s what each of them would mean to me.
In order of importance and intensity to me:

  • survive. That would be nice!
  • finish in any time. I would have had a fantastic adventure that surpassed any cycling I’ve ever done. I’d be incredibly happy and thankful!
  • finish for the party. Oh Lord (or whoever), this would be unspeakably overwhelming to me and make me very very proud (I’d have to admit). I would be able to share an evening with many heroes. And some days with my parents and brother who will be there for me!
  • finish a few days before the party. Wow, I think it would take me some time to process how this could have been possible. I will check my agenda a couple of times to be sure I didn’t make a mistake and mixed up the dates. I would also consider that I was unknowingly involved in some time travel experiment by some alien civilization. Also a ripped time-space continuum or a glitch in the matrix would be options to consider.

As you can see, none of those points involves my placement among the riders. What other riders do affects me in the sense that it can be inspirational benchmarks. They will show me what could be possible and will certainly keep me sharp and make sure that I won’t be hanging around. But primarily I will experience my trip just by my own standards.

flexed-biceps_1f4aa.pngWhat motivates me…

(In no particular order)

  • My parents and brother are waiting for me at the finish line in Greece. If  I manage to arrive (let’s assume I do), that will be one of the best things.
  • That drive to make it! Would take too long to explain in detail; it has to do with independce, agency, learning, achievement. You can also check my “approach” section in the “about” menu
  • The sense of community among riders. We will all go through the same and will understand each other. That is very new to me, since in the past I was an almost exclusively lonely rider (apart from many friends following/encouraging me online! And one great duo trip with Jon through Japan)
  • Stunning scenery. Especially looking forward to the parcours! I have the feeling the organizers of TCR really have a good feeling for dramaturgy! (independent from that strange excursion to Poland : D )
  • Arriving on top of the pass. And then descending for ages.
  • Insight & connection. Into myself and how I cope with adversity. And into the world because I will again very tangibly have experienced a part of our blue marble. (Attention, seeming corniness ahead! But I mean it) I think an important part of my/our kind of cycling is that it allows us to bridge some of that very natural and archaic gap/detachment between our inner and our outer world.
  • International exchange. Among the colourful bunch of riders but also across the nations of Europe.
  • “You have nothing else to do than cycle. So you’ll automatically move ahead” That’s a paraphrased quote by Ultan Coyle; a crazy, very successful and also very kind and humble Irish TCR veteran. I had the chance to have a chat with him after a short presentation of his in Berlin. I found that actually very eye-opening!

fearful-face_1f628.pngWhat I fear…

(in that particular order)

  • Stray dogs. I’m really not a “dog person” – as long as they’re not on a leash, they terrify me! (ah, btw. is there a linguistic link between “terrier” and “terrifying”?). I have no idea how to interact with those beasts.
  • A sore arse. No need for explanation.
  • Crashes. Not so much from traffic (strangely), but rather from slipping in a curve or from falling asleep, or because of:
  • The heat. In particular its effect on my circulation. I know I can get headaches from heat
  • that my body wont keep the food down. I’ll need tons of calories and I know the feeling when the body can hardly take any more. In contrast I also fear the almost inevitable moments of “hitting the wall” due to under-fueling
  • Sweat in my eyes. I burns so bad.
  • That the route might not work out. Despite my confidence in the research I’ve done… you never know.

green-heart_1f49a.pngAll that’s left to say…

I wish all my fellow riders a lot of fun success, health and a great adventure. – I wish dotwatchers and friends and families a lot of fun watching and supporting their loved ones and that they will have a lot of good sleep at night because it’ll all be fine. – I’m thankful to the  organizers of the TCR and wish them a smooth event and as much time as possible to enjoy it together on the road, too!

Lastly, once more:

All the best,

Malte, Cap 36, Cyclingtourist

02 TCR No.6 – Preparation

[Attention! This post might be boring to some (and interesting to others), cause I go into some technicalities further down. Reading at your own risk.]


You are now at post 02 of my TCR series. If you wish to read them in order, voilà:
01 Next BIG thing: The Transcontinental Race – I’m Cap 36
02 TCR No.6 – Preparation
03 TCR No.6 – Hopes, Motivation & Fears (3 lists)


What makes TCR and the preparation special?

The Transcontinental Race (TCR) is not “only” a regular bicycle race because it is not just a comparison of physical performance. Consider these features:

  • TCR is a self-supported race. That means: no outside-assistance is allowed. Riders are not allowed to cooperate in any way (unless they formally entered the race as a couple). No drafting, no sharing of food or equipment, no friend waiting at the side of the road handing a banana and no food or sleeping places provided by the organizers. It’s supposed to be a solo bicycle tour.
  • There is no fixed route. There is a start point and finish line, and 4 Controlpoints (CP) in between that have to be reached in order. At each CP there is also one parcours that needs to be followed exactly. But apart from that each rider needs to research their own route to navigate as smartly as possible between all CPs.
  • The clock never stops. So there are no scheduled breaks, no fixed stages. If a rider rides through the night while others sleep; well, then he/she gets more miles done and finishes quicker.

Those features mean that riders have to be extremely independent, well prepared, experienced in routing and navigating, efficiently equipped, know their gear and how to fix it, have high resilience (e.g. when sleeping outside in the ditch), need to know themselves very well. The winners (or even finishers) are not those who are just strong cyclists. But those who also make the best decisions, prepared thoroughly and manage to motivate themselves also when facing adversity.

As a consequence, I, too, prepared a lot (enough?). Here I’ll go into:

  • Training
  • Route planning
  • Gear adaptations

Training

I never really trained for cycling. Because what I love about cycling are all those touring experiences; but a short quickie around the house..? Never was my thing. (see “approach” in the menu) Last year for my Freiburg-Barcelona trip was the first time I deliberately did some more riding before the summer. This year 2018 had to be very different of course. I’d say a TCR attempt without physical preparation cannot even be called an attempt.

The sensible thing would be: Set up a training plan, do 5 road bike rides a week, practice various disciplines (sprint, mountain, endurance, etc.)…
Did I do that? NO – despite my best intentions to do it.

So here’s what I DID do:

  • The most important training: In March I got my old trekking bike from my parents place to Berlin and set it up as a real good city bike. From one day to the next I didn’t take any public transport anymore. I did all my trips within Berlin exclusively by bike. And crucially: I always cycled with very high pressure! When I didn’t feel my leg-muscles at work, I simply went faster, also trying to get my circulation going. Seriously: I’m convinced that habit made all the difference – maybe 75% of my current fitness level!
    I estimate that I did on average 15km per day. For 5 months (March-July) that’s 2250km under high pressure. (I did not record those on Strava). Clearly that kind of riding style in the inner city earns you some strange looks – if the observer’s eyes were fast enough to catch op with that lightening of a cyclist.
  • I already did one or two rides in January. And was surprised in what poor shape I was (I think one has to be stupid for being surprised about this after a fall and winter of sportive nothingness…). E.g. I got dropped by the local peloton (albeit a high-pace one); completely overestimated my physis. As soon as I knew I would do either NorthCape4000 or TCR I started mounting my horse 1/2 or 1 time per week. By March, April it got a bit more. I think I had probably 1 1/2 rides per week, often around 70-90km. Again: I really tried to push it when on the bike. No lazy rides. I even started enjoying this battle for speed! (I previously found no pleasure in it).
    I ended up having 3200km in the bank (road bike riding) before TCR. That is really not much; but much more than I had done in previous years.
  • I also did a few long distance rides. Those were:
    • 620km, 4300m in 2 days; from Berlin to my hometown Essen.
    • 323km Berlin-Hamburg in a day. Very flat route. This was a great pacing exercise
    • 208km, 2671m through the “Thüringer Wald” with full TCR gear (inkl. luggage). Starting at 3pm in Erfurt and riding until the early morning hours. To see how my clothes were doing, to train some climbing (not much to climb around Berlin) and to try again how sleep deprivation on the bike feels.
    • And quite a few shorter day-rides in the 160km range.
  • However: 3 weeks before the race some mechanical issues came up with my rear wheel, in combination with many commitments at work and privately that kept me from riding. And coincidentally somehow I didn’t feel like training around that time… I wanted the real thing to start! So I had a break of 2,5 weeks and after that just three rides before the race (50k, 150k, 40k, high pressure). I hope this break didn’t ruin it for me and trust that it’ll all come back within the first race days. According to my experience I get fitter during the first few days of a tour; at least in case of my more relaxed touring (like last summer).

In any case: That was really not particularly much training. But still: That way I was fitter than ever before in my life! That does not mean “fit enough for the TCR”, of course. Whether I’m fit enough for it will only show while I do it.

You can check all the road bike rides on my Strava (not my commutes in Berlin) – and btw also each day of my TCR attempt; will upload instantly (whenever possible)

Route

To me, all preparation was fun! But especially the route planning. Because here you get a first feeling for the geography; get a first glimpse into foreign terrain and it very much inspires to daydream about what it would be like when I’d physically traverse those places. Additionally, route planning is also intellectually quite a challenge. You have to make tradeoffs all the time and draw from your experience to judge what a certain thing on a digital map might mean in reality…

I spent hour after hour, evening after evening in front of the screen; for weeks: Scrolling down, zooming in, copying, dragging&dropping waypoints, bathroom break, promenades through StreetView, changing window, downloading GPXs, a sip of Coke, deleting GPXs, renaming and sorting routes, merging/converting/up-/downloading files…

Some of my planning  results are:

  • 3950km
  • 37000m elevation gain (according to Komoot)
  • 16 countries
  • 19 border crossings

I think I found a rather efficient route. It might be that in some instances I made decisions that differ quite a bit from what other riders will do. But in many cases there are only few obvious choices, of course.

Planning tool: I tried around a bit. In the past did everything with “mymaps” (by Google) and GoogleMaps. Then in January tried RideWithGPS and Komoot. Finally Komoot (paid version; incredible value for money!) turned out to be the handiest tool. Especially since by then I had also switched to a Wahoo GPS unit (see below) that communicates seamlessly with Komoot.

Goals & Tradeoffs in route planning:
The most important parameters are…

  • shortest possible distance
  • least possible amount of climbing
  • best possible pavement
  • Roads have to be allowed for bicycles
  • border crossings need to be open

Those are many things to factor in. To get proper pavement I firstly relied on Komoot to suggest a proper route (Komoot actually checks official road entries of municipalities to verify road conditions). Then I checked the pavement with StreetView. Where that was not available I had to make guesses based on how the road is labled (large enough?) and how it looks on Strava-heatmap. I focussed on main roads. There is still a lot of uncertainty.

For the best tradeoffs between low horizontal and low vertical travel distance, I simply compared several route options next to each other, switching forth and back, routing over and around hills. To get a feeling for which basic options there are on a large scale, I used the terrain-map-layout in GoogleMaps because it illustrates elevation and mountains in a very useful way.

For border crossings I usually assumed big roads to be working crossings. But also checked on Wikipedia and some dedicated websites. In one case (Bosnia to Montenegro) I actually contacted the German embassy aswell as a local police station. The information I obtained that way had impact on which option I chose in the end (namely the more risk-averse one).

It is not always easy to know whether a road is allowed for cyclists. It is very important to know though, because riding forbidden roads can get you disqualified from the race! Especially Hungary is a nightmare. So there I literally traveled along all the possible roads with StreetView to look out for “no bicycles” signs (thankfully there’s StreetView there!). However, StreetView images are usually not up to date. So there is a lot of uncertainty left. E.g. for hungary I prepared two routes: a fast one and a safe one; similar for Czechia.

I am still considering to complete a list of towns and roads to pass and have a printout of it with me. If my time allows it, I’m certainly going to do it!

I also played around with excel to calculate all kinds of things, including a scenario automation based on the km I’d on average ride per day and including the closing times of checkpoints. I won’t go into detail now; but so you get an impression, here you find a screenshot. However: It was more for fun and out of curiosity. In the end all calculations don’t help… I have to cycle it anyways: (click to enlarge)

FUN with spreadsheets! Scenario simulation....jpg

And here’s an overview of the countries:

Route Länderübersicht.jpg

 

Gear adaptations

For detailed info about this years set-up, check the “gear” tab in the main menu.

I used the cold winter months in Berlin to do research on adequate gear.

My past trips were all rather leisurely: always with rest in the evenings, days off and some spare days at the destination. All that spare time needs additional equipment (e.g. normal shoes, civilized clothes, etc.). The TCR however demands much more time in the saddle, much more efficiently; so I had to rethink my setup to make it..:

  • more compact
  • higher performing
  • as multi-functional as possible
  • lighter
    (in that order. weight really doesn’t matter soo much)

During the past months I did a lot of research: read blogs, followed forums and facebook-conversations and also was in exchange with fellow future or veteran TCR riders. So I learned a lot from other people; it was a very rewarding experience (shoutout to the TCR Facebook group (English) and attached TCR community!).

The following are the changes I made compared to the last years:
(You can also check my “gear” menu at the top of the page to see pics – at the bottom of those gear pages you also find links to the previous years’ setups)

GPS: Garmin Edge 1000 -> Wahoo Elemnt

My Garmin was always a reason for worries – so many glitches, so cumbersome to handle. And on a tour, especially TCR, the GPS unit is the one thing you REALLY need to be able to rely on. I had read up a lot about the Wahoo devices that recently entered the high-end bike-GPS market as the first serious competitor to Garmin. I decided to get a Wahoo Elemnt; and do not regret it at all! It simply works. Is very easy to handle. The fact that most of the setup happens on the smartphone makes it even better.
I only had some issues with the speed meter. But Wahoo’s E-Mail and phone support is excellent! So all worked out. There are certainly also some things missing or not working like it would be best for long distance trips (esp. at night); but no show stoppers…

I even decided to not bring my Garmin as a backup, but rely on my phone as a backup option (and/or buy paper maps in the worst case).

Backpack -> Saddle bag

Specialized Bubba Seatpack 10L
Specialized Bubba Seatpack 10L

In the past I was a defendant of backpacks on road bike tours because I did not like to have much stuff attached to the bike; and strangely it gave me more of the “travel vibes”… hard to explain. Also, my Vaude Bike Alpine pack was a great piece of equipment!

But I changed my mind; I realized that having a free back is indeed much much more comfortable the longer the rides are (other people knew it all along). And comfort is really criterion #1 for these trips! So I followed what I had by then seen many times: I bought a seat pack (and consequently also ditched the rededicated rack that I used last year). I had a look at virtually all options out there (online) and finally went for the Specialized Bubba 10L. I went to a local Specialized dealer (Pedalum Mobile. Thanks!) with all the relevant gear I wanted to stuff in there, and test-packed the bag to see if I need the smaller or the larger size (10L is the smaller one. Obviously also bought it there). I chose that model because a) it is very compact, but more importantly b) it is held in place by a tiny aluminum frame under the saddle, so it wouldn’t swing left and right. Because one thing I loved about my strange rack-construction during the last years: it was rock solid! A swinging seat pack would drive me nuts.

To get the bag in the right position (horizontal enough) I needed to attach the little aluminum frame with its clamp has high as possible on the seatpost. That was not possible on my previous one, so I had to get a new seat post. I got one where the tube remains straight for as high as possible; still it turned out it was slightly wider at the top so I had to use a rasp on the clamp of the bag to make it all fit. Quite a hassle, but now it fits perfectly.

Rim dynamo -> dynamo hub

"wheel lacing design" – with the super professional technical drawing software "PowerPoint"... purpose: to better picture he lacing layout...
“wheel lacing design” – with the super professional technical drawing software “PowerPoint”… purpose: to better picture the lacing layout…

This was a very important change. I have praised the super efficient Velogical rim dynamo in the past, and I still do! For some purposes it may be great. But for the TCR I need a rocksolid solution to power my lights and devices on the road. So I did a lot of research on what rim/spoke/dynamo hub combinations make sense. Luckily DT Swiss sells a rim that is identical to the one I already have on my backwheel (R23 Spline db) and I ended up choosing 28 spokes (DT Swiss aero spokes). For the dynamo there are only two viable options: the cheaper Shutter Precision (SP) from China or SON from Germany. No doubt: both are great

SON dynamo hub laced (no tension yet)
SON dynamo hub laced (no tension yet)

hubs and also the SP is widely accepted and proved. But after I had ordered an SP it somehow felt cheap… Maybe the peace of mind and trust in gear is more important on the road than the actual differences in quality; so I decided to pay quite a bit more and get the SON hub.

I laced the wheel myself and intended to bring it to a wheel builder to just put it under tension and true it. But (luckily!) he discovered I made a mistake in the lacing; so he turned the spoke/wheel combination by one hole (shout-out to Komponentix in Berlin! thanks a lot!). I’m sure that on some pictures you noticed the “wrong” position of the valve in the wheel 😉 so that will always remind me of that wheel building episode…

Speaking of wheels… I brought my wheels to that same wheel builder just for a “routine checkup” 3 weeks before the start, not assuming anything to be odd. Hell was I wrong! He found that in the back wheel many nipples got stuck, so he couldn’t true the wheel and had to replace all nipples first. The bearings were done and there was plenty of play in the freehub, so those needed replacement, too. Thank God (or whoever) did I do that checkup. He fixed those things and now it should all be good. Don’t want to think of what might have happened if I had noticed that stuff way into the race…

Tent -> Bivy bag

2018-02-15 18.25.15
MSR AC-Bivy. Sorry for the poor pic

A tent is nice as it is really like a home and provides a lot of shelter, privacy and space to move and breath. But: pitching a tent – and especially packing it again – is extremely time-consuming. Probably the overall time I had spent in the past with pitching and packing cost me the equivalent of 50k of riding per day. On the TCR that can be an arrival difference of several days! Additionally a tent weighs much more than a bivy bag but more importantly takes more space on the bike. I got the MSR AC-Bivy, primarily because it has a zippable mosquito net – ’cause bugs drive me crazy and can really deprive me of my well-needed sleep.

Sleeping bag -> Silk liner

That was not an easy choice… sleeping bag = warmer but bulkier | silk-liner = smaller, less insulation. In the end I decided to go for the silk liner only. Honestly I never tested it outside in the bivy, so I’m really taking a risk here, but my front (under the aero bars) is SO much more compact/aero/light. I just think that it will be cold up on a mountain pass, but not further down. Also, the more south I go, the milder the nights will be – I hope.
I picked a liner from Globetrotter that felt as much like cotton and as little like plastic as possible and that was densely enough woven so it would at least feel like giving shelter in case I’d use it without the bivy.

Gearing (cassette) 11-32 -> 12-36

The organizers of the TCR really like to torture us… on those obligatory parcours they send us up gradients of up to 22% – that’s insane. And since I’m not an experienced/trained climber I really need very light gears. Last year I went down to a combination of 34-32 (front-back), this year I got a SRAM-cassette that goes down to 36! So I will have a 34-36 gear with a ratio of smaller than 1 (= back-wheel turns less then 1 time per full pedal stroke). Just as an example: According to the incredibly interesting and resourceful ultra-endurance blog “RideFar” (by Chris White), even James Hayden (last year’s TCR winner) said he could sometimes have used something lower than 34-32 – so going with 34/36 was a “no brainer” for me. Anything lower would have required majour component changes though that I was not willing to do; and: we’re just talking about a tiny percentage of the route where I would actually need or like to go lower (I hope!!).

However… the SRAM cassette was an 11-36 cassette; given that it’s still 11-speed of course it means more spread-out gears (namely: 11-12-13-15-17-19-22-25-28-32-36). There was particularly one gap that was really odd and annoyingly large in an important range (namely the 30km/h-range; between the sprockets 13-15-17). So I built my own Frankenstein-cassette (to insert a 14). Bought some parts from Miche and got rid of the 11-tooth sprocket  and used the now free sprocket space to fill the annoying gap.
The outcome: SRAM/Miche-Cassette 12-36 (12-13-14-15-17-19-22-25-28-32-36)

In hindsight I’m not sure how much I really gained from the following rather analytical approach to cassette design; actually I’m sure I over-analyzed things and there would have been simpler (also rational!) arguments to come to the same conclusion. But I had no idea where to start, and of course I learned a lot again. So… just so you get an idea what kind of research I did..: Here you find an excel sheet where I entered the sprockets for different models; including some that I already know, so that I’d have an idea of what would work for me. As you can see I had even considered to ditch the 12T sprocket and start at 13T. But I concluded that with 46T(front)-13T(back) as the highest gear I would have gone a bit too far in shaving off the high end of my gear range.

comparing sprocket combinations and designing my own custom cassette
comparing sprocket combinations and designing my own custom cassette…

On the right you see links to a great gear calculator. I used it to check for each original cassette how big the jumps between gears are. That way – based on the cassettes I knew already – I had an estimate of how large of a gap to tolerate and where. Then i entered the details of my Frankenstein-cassette into the same calculator to see if it made sense:

Bildschirmfoto 2018-07-27 um 02.12.31.png

So, the largest gap was now 13% (between 15-17). (Much more convincing is the argument that one of my past cassettes had the exact same sprocket configuration from 12 upward and it worked perfectly for me; that’s what I meant with the “simpler rational argument”). But more important than numbers is the feel: To get used to the gearing I put on that cassette already in May despite almost only riding in the flatlands around Berlin. And it feels really natural. I’m not missing any gear ratio at all.

A word on the chainrings: At the front I run on 46T/34T. A rather unusual combination I’d say. The 46 is already very small and thus means I have less high gears than what would be standard (50T). Now with the 12T instead of 11T as the smalles sprocket in the back I limit my higher end of the gear range even more. THAT’s how much I love grinding on low cadences. My reasoning: With the combination 46-12 I can still put pressure on the pedals at speeds around 50km/h (with a high cadence). But >=50km/h means down-hill. And down-hill means: Relax your legs! Recovery time! So there’s no sacrifice at all; and it grants me the filled gear gap. Furthermore: I very much like that the two front chainrings are so close in terms of teeth: I don’t have to do much compensatory cross shifting when changing between the rings, which encourages shifting more at the front. And there is high overlap between the two rings which means a more nuanced choice of gears.

This hole gearing episode really worked out. Let me add that in the course of it I was in touch with a fellow rider (René) who I only ‘knew’ from the TCR facebook group. He has a similar view on gearing and had the same plans (build a custom cassette), so we teamed up to import the parts from a vendor in the Netherlands.

Air pump with pressure gauge

Last year close to Barcelona my shitty shitty Topeak Rocket (yes, it deserves to be name shamed!) hand pump model failed for a second time. I had bought a nice, very light air pump the day after. But this year I wanted one with a pressure gauge. Because: I switched to tubeless tires. But what made a much bigger difference for ride comfort: I lowered my air pressure by a LOT. Now riding 28mm with 4 to 5 bars. And I certainly don’t want to ride on too low pressure.

Originally my requirements for the pump were: a) the pressure gauge should be analogue so that I don’t have another electronic device to feed with batteries and b) it should mount to the valve directly and not via a soft hose; because I was still traumatized by the shitty shitty Topeak Rocket (rot in hell, you bad piece of gear! (sry, I just got a bit emotional)).

Luftpumpe Lezyne KopieWell… I got some good advice in ‘my’ bike shop in Berlin (Pedalum Mobile), where I had btw. also bought the Specialized seat pack: According to that one employee, a tube outlet of the pump would actually be much better because there’s no strain on the valve while pumping. And a digital gauge is more precise and less prone to failure. Not sure about the latter, but about the valve strain: I tried one of my pumps that attaches directly to the valve and indeed it rocks the valve quite a bit. And because I’m tubeless (well, my tires are), I don’t want that at all: The movement could potentially break the fragile seal between rim and valve. So, in that shop I got this beautiful Lezyne Digital Road Drive pump – with all that I originally didn’t want: a) a digital gauge and b) a tube outlet. The power of good arguments…

“Bike-fitting”

In January I got a new seat post (because of the seat pack clamp; see above). But I failed to note down any measurements of my working setup; so I ruined my position. I had to try a lot of things to make it work again. In the course of it I did quite some research on bike fitting methods, rules of thumbs, etc. and came up with a very rudimentary method about what steps to follow in what order (if you like I can send it to you; for now only in German). In any case, I was amazed to see what huge difference even small adjustments made. E.g. changing the saddle tilt by some invisible amount: no sore butt anymore. Finding the proper cleat-position = super relaxed feet and knee. Saddle hight 4mm too low = knee pain.
In the end I found a very good position – and I wrote it down!

New glasses

I need prescription glasses; that doesn’t make it easier to find a good pair. Last year I travelled with three glasses to cover my as you’ll see high demands. This year I wanted to do it all in one pair of glasses. I had the following requirements:

  • they should be “friendly looking” (usually means: rather round shape). Seriously, road cyclists like us look already dehumanized enough… more like android robots. And we don’t tend to look friendly. But I want to be recognized as a sentient human being; not at last to attract drivers’ sympathy to not run me over, but also by the shop owner to fill my waterbottles or the border guard to let me pass quickly. I’m more serious than I’m joking with this! Also, I want to wear them in social contexts in the evenings of my tours (does not apply so much to TCR)
  • should be curved enough around my forehead to offer wind protection
  • but should be straight enough to still work with normal prescription glasses
  • need to be light and comfortably padded on the nose
  • I’ll need to fit UV-sensitive photocromic (self-colouring) lenses so they adapt to all lighting conditions
  • the shade of glass colour should be a neutral grey (don’t want to distort my colour experience)

Adidas Proshift with custom prescription glassesYou won’t believe it… I found those glasses! I did a lot of searching and stumbled over a new collection by Adidas. I ordered two models, “Adidas proshift” seemed perfect. I sent them in to an online optician to fit custom prescription lenses. Now it’s really perfect. They are super light, have comfortable nose pads, look friendly (I think), are quite curved but still accommodate glasses with the cheaper fitting-method (higher curve would have meant 350€ for lenses; now I paid 150€). The UV-adaptation works like a charm.
Took me a couple of days to get used to them because the curved angle of the glasses distorts the view at the edges quite a bit (that’s the effect they need to compensate with even more curved glasses, hence their higher cost).

I even like them so much that they became my primary every-day glasses.

Clothing

I needed some proper clothes to keep my packing list at bay and also have high quality gear to make everything as comfortable as possible.

Suomy Gun Wind helmet
Suomy Gun Wind helmet
  • New helmet: Suomy Gun Wind. A light helm makes such a difference!
  • Arm- and leg warmers: I tried (and then sold) several models. Ended up with Mavic Ksyrium, merino warmers
  • Over-shoes: The age-old problem. I wanted some that are light, do not keep me warm, waterproof, easy to put on. Ended up with GripGrap RaceAqua, in combination with some foam/rubber-seals for the transition to the leg (“CyclinGaiter”). Surprisingly, I really like dry feet. Not sure how long they would actually last in proper rain; I had no chance to try them, but it’s good to know I tried my best.
  • Isolation vest: I needed one a) to keep me warm while riding at night and at high altitude and b) to keep me warm while I sleep outside. I tried several models. And it was really not easy to find one that can really be packed small. I ended up paying quite some money for the Endura Primaloft SL vest in black. Ordering it was quite a hassle. But it felt really good the few times I tried it!
  • Long sleeve jersey: Ended up with a simple merino jersey by dhb. I liked that purple!
  • Long gloves: To wear over my cycling gloves. Same requirements as the overshoes: water proof but not warming. I went for a pair of Gore M Windstopper gloves. Sadly lost one somewhere in Bavaria at night. So had to order again (and a size larger). I submerged my hand in water as a test: absolutely water tight. And the inside texture feels fine, too, also with naked fingers; I’ll wear them over my regular short gloves in the rain or cold.

That way I had clothes that I could mix in many ways to cover a wide range of conditions.

That’s it for preparation… as you can imagine I learned a LOT in the process – that very rewarding even by itself. I’m so much looking forward to seeing how all of that will turn out on the road…

I really wonder how many readers arrived at this sentence and have read it all. I’d guess 5%. So I see this rather as an account for myself; like a diary.
In the next (last pre-TCR-) post will briefly(!) address how I’ll approach the race, what will motivate or scare me: 03 TCR No6 – Hopes, Motivation & Fears (3 lists)

01 Next BIG thing: The Transcontinental Race – I’m Cap 36

You are now at post 01 of my TCR series. For an overview on my TCR posts, voilà:
01 Next BIG thing: The Transcontinental Race – I’m Cap 36
02 TCR No.6 – Preparation
03 TCR No.6 – Hopes, Motivation & Fears (3 lists)


Dear readers and riders,

this coming Sunday at 10pm my craziest cycling adventure yet will beginn. Together with 280 other maniacs I will participate in the notorious ultra-endurance race across Europe:

I will participate in the 6th edition of the by now infamous
Transcontinental Race across Europe (info below)

For now just some little facts and figures. I will release another post about what I’m planning to do here. But be sure that I approach this with a lot of humility…

To follow me, check…

About the race:

Start: Sunday the 29th of July at 22h in the evening in Belgium
Finish: ca. 2 weeks later in Greece

  • It is a self-supported race, so there is no outside-assistance or cooperation allowed. (see the beginning of my TCR-post 02 for a more detailed explanation)
  • We riders will have to pass 4 Controlpoints that are spread all over Central and Eastern Europe. We had to plan our routes individually
  • ca. 280 riders
  • ca. 4000km and about 40.000m climbing | each TCR Logorider has planned their own route 
  • The clock never stops, so it is up to each rider when/if/where to sleep, where and what to eat | There are no scheduled breaks and no race-service
  • the fastest riders will do this in under 10 days! (not me!)
  • More information about the race: www.transcontinental.cc

The Controlpoints are:

  • Start: Geraardsbergen (Belgium)
  • CP1: Bielerhöhe (Austria)
  • CP2: Mangart Sedlo (Slowenia)
  • CP3: Karkonosze Pass (Poland)
  • CP4: Bjelasnica (Bosnia)
  • Finish: Meteora (Greece)

Check this map for an overview.
Routenskizze breit

Within the next days I will upload some posts about how I approach this race, technical stuff (gear), my preparation, etc.

Yours, Malte
Cap 36, Cyclingtourist

Next post: 02 TCR No.6 – Preparation

10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…

You are now at post Nr. 10 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


This was my last little stage to Barcelona; so short, I hardly count it as a real cycling day. Ideal to have a late start after some beach and Paella action with Pascal and Anneke, and an early finish to sort out my arrival in Barcelona and meet Mireia and Cris. In this post I will briefly recap this whole summer trip. But in short: It was all that I had hoped for and more! Just the perfect mix of heavy cycling, traveling/exploring, social moments, stunning scenery and in a way even some relaxation. (This blog post is about the 2nd of August 2017, written on the 20th of May 2018 in Berlin, Germany)

This was the last day of my trip. But actually the last real cycling day was yesterday, because today was a real shorty: 45km final from Canet de Mar to Barcelona. Accordingly there was no need to start early what so ever. Instead I spent some time with Pascal, Anneke and their little daughter.

Breakfast preparations:
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Mediterranean beach at Canet de Mar:
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Paella:
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An then, some time in the afternoon, it was time to hit the road. On the way I stopped at a bike shop to buy a new pump. For the rest it was mostly incredibly sweaty, very flat, and an interesting ride into Barcelona, cause I didn’t really notice at what point the city started.

As you know, I put a lot of effort into preparing and planning my trip. However I did not do any research on Barcelona whatsoever. So at some point – just by coincidence – I passed by “this building” that looked somehow important and iconic – only later did I fin out it is the famous “Segrada Familia”. In any case, picture time!
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I met my friend Mireia, who I still knew from my years in Amsterdam, at the Station Gràcia. We headed to Placa del Sol, where we also met Cris who had a free room where I could stay for some days (a week in the end). Briefly went there to get back into a civilized condition, and then una cerveza at Placa del Sol.

Finale! Arrival. Showered, happy, finished.
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Later that evening the whole square was occupied by more and more people, each of them had a different two weeks behind them; and I was fulfilled with mine. That night I had one of the best sleeps ever.

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Text continues below!

STRAVA: click here

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Everything felt so complete in that moment. And that was because my whole trip had fulfilled all I had hoped for. There were no open ends, which is a rather exceptional state, I think. To recap the goals I had set out when deciding what kind of trip to do, and that led me to do this one:

  • summer weather
  • interesting and diverse landscapes
  • approachable people and culturally rather familiar terrain
  • a sportive challenge
  • regions I have not visited before
  • more social moments than on previous trips

And you can read this list of goals as a description of how that summer tour actually turned out in the end. Each of these wishes got fulfilled or over-fulfilled. I had set out to me ambitious day trips in terms of distance and altitude gains; and I managed them all. I wouldn’t say without suffering, but it did not drain me as much as for example my trip last year to Russia and Finland. This summer was supposed to have more of that enjoyment of the moment, and I got it: the landscapes were SO surprising, stunning, stimulating. It started already on the first day when I entered Switzerland and each day showed me something new. I got to know parts of Europe that I had never seen before and of whose look or even existence I had no imagination previously; most notably the absolutely mind-blowing beauty of the Massif Central, the majestic Pyrennees and the stunning Costa Brava; but even the Jura offered me views I had not expected at all.

I met old friends on the way; like Diana and her partner on my first night in Freiburg, Bérengère (my old Montréal-friend) and Goeff in Lyon where I also kind of bumped into my dear friends Jochem and Vera from Amsterdam, some wine-loaded warm conversations with strangers in French at a little open air theatre show in the Massif Central. The kind Dutch family in Casteil, and finally Mireia and her great friends in Barcelona. All this was socially very fulfilling – quite a contrast to the not only meteorologically cold time up North last year.

What came now was one week of relaxing in Barcelona. I did not feel any pressure to do a lot in the city, cause I felt I had been active enough before. So I took it easy: sleeping in, going for walks, going to the beach, some exhibitions and musea etc. And of course I spent a lot of time on writing up my previous blogposts (up till No 08 that is).
Here are just some more visual impressions from Barcelona:

You remember Florian and Johannes who I passed in Geneva and who were also on their way to Barcelona? They cycled less each day, but did not do any rest days; so they had already been in Barcelona for some days. We met up at the beach for a beer, as we had promised each other on our encounter in Geneva. Showing of our cyclist calves:
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In Barcelona I also met up with Robert, a friend who I still knew from Amsterdam. In a bar we got to know Manon and her friends and had a long and fun evening:
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With Mireia and Cris and their friend. We went to a beach; and by coincidence I had just passed through exactly this spot (yes, this alley along the beach) by bike on my last cycling day:
DSC09654exp-2.jpg

Enjoying the view over the city from Parc Güell:
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Interesting road shapes:
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Radio tower:
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Interesting architechture… can’t remember which building it was, but liked the pic:
DSC09776exp-2.jpg

And a long train ride back to Cologne:

In Paris:
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Literally bike packing:

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Fin.
Something completely different will happen this summer. It will be more than just a notch up…

09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)

You are now at post Nr. 09 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


Yes… you’re right. This post is delayed. About 9 months delayed! My apologies. The previous post was about pretty much the climax of my trip in 2017, so telling that story felt kind of complete. But I need to finish this, because only then I can tell you about the next CRAZY cycling-thing that’s coming up for me!
So, let’s keep this brief… A story rather in pictures and video clips.
One more post about the very last little stage and a short trip summary will follow within the next days. 
(This post is about the 2nd of August 2017, written on the 20th of May 2018 in Berlin, Germany)

The previous blog post ended with me getting some rest in my hotel room in Tortelà, after a crazy crazy day and after meeting my friends Marion and Thomas. This next morning started in a similarly relaxed way: Marion and Thomas had invited me for an extensive breakfast and a swim in the pool of their super luxurious chateau-hotel. And because for that day I had only a 140km ride planned there was no need to hurry.

Temperature in the morning at 10h: about 30°C. Time for the pool:
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One group selfie with Marion and Thomas. Thanks so much, you two!
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Getting ready in the garden of the Chateau:
2017-08-03 22.14.01.jpg

And on the road again, and a bautiful one, and for now mostly downhill:

My bottle cages were still broken from the stress the previous day, so had to improvise:
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And passing Besalu, where the night before I was with Marion and Thomas for Dinner (by car though), this is the apparently famous Pont (bridge) de Besalu:

At some point found an excellent bike shop in Banyoles. They were incredibly helpful and gave me great advice on even a simple thing like bottle cages, and this was also a perfect opportunity to refill my water bottles that were empty already after these just 21km..:
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“Hells Angels” in French:
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After climbing a last mountain ridge before the Mediterranean Sea, there it finally was in the distance, looking onto the city Calonge:
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Already along the Mediterranean Coast at the Costa Brava:
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My original heuristic was: “Coastline = flat”. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Right around the hottest part of the day I had to face the toughest climbs along the Coast; but again, climbs mean descends:

I was already looking forward to cycling through Lloret de Mar – I guess because my way of spending my holidays was so much different from the way Lloret is famous for. Still, in that moment I shared some features with presumably many of the Lloret tourists: My passion for calories in combination with not really caring what exactly it is I’m eating…
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Slowly approaching the destination of that evening: A campsite in Canet de Mar (50k before Barcelona), still along the coast.2017-08-03 20.33.07.jpg

Just 3km before Canet (!) I got a puncture. Of course I was in principle well prepared: pump, spare tube, patches etc.. But it all doesn’t help if that crappy piece of s*** pump fails me again (like a previous time). It is SO poorly designed; and it deserves to be name shamed here: The TopPeak Racerocket. Do not buy it!! It ruined the valve of the spare tube and rendered it and itself useless. Luckily there was a kind cyclist from a neighbouring village passing by and helping me out. The pump ended up in the trash the same evening, accompanied by a feeling of celebration, relief and revenge.

At some point around 21h, much later than I had planned, I arreived in Canet de Mar, welcomed by my dear friends and colleagues Pascal and Anneke. A cold beer, swim in the pool and… ZZZzzzzzzz…….

It was a great day, with incredibly beautiful landscape, crazy hot – in fact one of the hottest days in that region that summer: around 36°C, probably I drank 6-8 liters of water that day…
I took it quite easy, but also underestimated how exhausting the day would be.

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STRAVA activity: click here

Stats of the day:
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and the route:
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08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks 

You are now at post Nr. 08 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


Without any doubt: this stage is the core piece of my entire tour – crossing the Pyrenees. And I am not exaggerating: in some ways it was the craziest ‘cycling’ day of my life. It went from Casteil in France, to Tortellà on the other side of the Pyrenees in Spain, where I would meet close family friends. This day is special to me in at least two ways: 1. it involved a very high degree of uncertainty because I had deliberately picked a truly remote and high summit (at 2350m) to pass, about whose ground, profile, etc. I had hardly any information, and 2. it turned out to be physically extraordinarily challenging to me as you will read. This post will come in chapters and include regular juxtapositions of my prior planning/expectation vs. a corresponding reality check. (This post is about the 2nd of August 2017, written in Barcelona on the 10th of August 2017)

I will deliver this post in the following chapters – feel free to jump to the one that interests you the most (the threads are linked though):

  1. The night & morning before (or: “Are there bears in the Pyrenees?”)
  2. Planning & expectations
  3. The climb & the summit
  4. Slowest descend evah 
  5. The surprise & its payoff
  6. (Feels like) home


1. The night & the morning before (or: “Are there bears in the Pyrenees?”)

My previous post stopped in the campsite restaurant after two main dishes and a beer, and before a good-night-Congnac whose order was inspired by that nice Dutch couple at the neighboring table, with who I had a chat. At that point I had not set up my tent yet, even though it was already 11pm or so.

That’s where already some complications for the night started. Firstly, this was my compartment on the site; big and empty:


The campsite was clearly laid out for more permanent visitors with cars and caravans instead of ‘spartanic vagabonds’ like me. It was impossible to pitch the tent: the ground was too solid for the tent pegs. So I spread my tent on the ground as a ground sheet and attempted to sleep openair on it – as if my tiny and erected tent wouldn’t already have been a surprising enough view for my fellow campers. I tried sleeping like that for a while; without success: I had to either wrap my head tightly in my sleeping bag and boil in it, or keep it airy and be attacked by moskitos. That way the first 1,5 hours of sleep were lost.

So I inserted the tent bars in the tent and pitched it – the two most strategic points held in place on the ground by the weight of my backpack and one filled drybag. So instable and slack – but at least I had a shield between me and the hostile luxury campsite wilderness. We’re now 2h into my intended sleepy time.

I cannot really sleep well on the ground in a tent anyway plus I guess I was enthusiastically excited about the next day, so I was in a semi-lucid state for a while. It suddenly got interrupted by an incredible, very deep and low, wild growl or moaning that sounded like it was loud not because the animal that produced it did so very forcefully, but because the animal would simply be really big. I would have guessed it to be ca. 100-200m away, somewhere a bit up the hill. This was not one of the campers’ dogs – too heavy; it must have been more like the weight of a bull. But I’ve never heard a bull like that. I lay there for a while, half-awake. And then… did it just change directions? Was that beast wandering along or even over our camp ground? Also very untypical for caged cattle. It growled every 15 seconds on average, I guess. Are there bears in the Pyrenees? I grabbed my phone for a quick google search (not a smart move btw. in such a situation to turn on the display light, like a marker for the beast to find its first aggressor): “There are now some 20 bears roaming the Pyrenees, with conservationists keeping a watchful eye on the population.” also roughly in this eastern region. Imported from the Balkan. “They prefer thick forests”: check, got one right next to me. “…and altitudes between 1000m and 1500m” – we’re on 850m; that’s not much lower. Damn… I was really quite nervous now, not at last because I was the only one who was not protected by a caravan outer shell, but instead presented as a delicate snack wrapped (loosely…) in some ultra light, semi-transparent, silicon-coated tarpaulin. In the (i still made myself believe ‘unlikely’) case this was really a hostile creature, I’d be the first one it could get. I’m not kidding… these were thoughts going through my head – I’m not making this up.

I also have this usually helpful technique to envision unusual or unlikely scenarios as more realistic and justifiable: I think about how the seemingly odd scenario will be viewed in hindsight after it happened – this way, the impossible or unlikely becomes just an interesting turn of events; one of those turns that make for a good story; and good stories happen all the time. This technique is helpful when trying to find the courage for bold decisions, like career choices, or for example the decision to do this (as you will see) seemingly unreasonable way of crossing the Pyrenees. In this case however, the realistic hindsight scenario was an imaginary news report: German tourist, male, 31, from Cologne, tragically mauled by a brown bear in the French Pyrenees. On the more serious news site the article would last half a day; on Bild and the Sun maybe 3 days – then forgotten forever. I wouldn’t find such a news report very unlikely, and thus such an event wouldn’t be unlikely either.

I just couldn’t believe that I would get into such a situation. There must be a simple answer to this weird situation… I was torn between a high pulse as a symptom of mild panic on the one hand, and being very tired on the other hand – because remember: the exhausting trip to Casteil ended just a few hours ago. Don’t ask me how, but somehow I fell asleep in the midsts of the still frequent ultra-low-frequency growls. ROOOOOAARRR…. *beast heavy breathing*

Around 8am i woke up, after I guess 5 hours of very bad sleep, and slowly moved and packed my stuff together. Brushing teeth, unpitching the unpitched tent… getting ready for the big day. I felt messy and sludgy and moved slowly.

Then Jan, the guy from the young Dutch family that I met the night before, passed by and saw me. He’d go to the bakery in the neighboring village down the mountain – because Casteil does not even have its own bakery (I mean, we’re still in France!). He offered me to bring me something – after some short hesitation I agreed..: a chocolate croissant to start the day with some calories would actually be perfect to give me a kick. With that he also set a good example to be active early and maybe that made me a bit more productive and by the time he returned – with a Chocolate croissant and a mini pizza – I had already packed most of my stuff. He raised the social momentum even more by inviting me on a coffee with his wife and kids at their caravan after I packed. Starting this big day with a coffee and kind company: that was too tempting, I agreed and joined them. We five had chats about all kinds of things… Jan’s cycling adventures (he’s also a road cyclist and brought his bike there), the little zoo they visited in Casteil the day before, my adventures, languages, etc etc. all that was a very motivating and warm start into this big day – I had no idea yet how it would turn out.

I left Jan and his family (not mentioning all names for privacy reasons, but if any of you reads this: hi! : ) ) and briefly dropped by the reception to say thanks and bye. Ah, and about… “c’etait quoi l’animal la nuit dernière?” What was that animal last night? – a prompt answer as if she gets this question all the time: “c’est le le lion” – sure… it was the lion. What? “The lion”?? Yes. In the zoo. The one the kids visited. I felt a bit ridiculous now. But on the other hand: please, which town on earth has no boulangerie, but instead a zoo including a Lion!?!? And: how did it change direction? It didn’t… the Cognac had changed my sense of direction.

First adventure today: Staying in a luxurious campsite.

Status: mastered like a pro.


2. Planning & expectations
‘Why Casteil?’ you might wonder – this tiny mountain village and deadend in the eastern Pyrenees. The answer: I wanted to cross the Pyrenees somewhere, but I didn’t want to go through the regular passes that are used by cars, too (e.g. the one through Andorra). Instead I had something more adventurous and ‘liberal’ in mind. I wanted to experience real mountains. And next to all the great infrastructure I had at my disposal on every km of my rides so far, I wanted to get even more into the ‘adventurous explorer’ mode that already motivates me on the even most civilized stages – discovering the unknown. And admittedly, maybe there was also some vanity involved… I mean: everyone can cycle over a pass that is exactly built to get you across/through mountains in the easiest way possible. Additionally I did not want to cross the Pyrenees too far West but stay closer to the Mediterranean Sea (where, naturally, my final destination Barcelona is located) – further East in turn (closer to the Mediterranean) would have been too low altitude for ‘proper mountains’, I imagined. But admittedly, there were lots of assumptions and guesswork involved.

So it had to be somewhere around here. I checked google maps. You really have to zoom in quite a bit to find alternatives to car routes at all. And then search a bit to figure out which ones actually have any connections over, and not just along the Pyrenees. In the following screenshot you have to look closely to figure out the trail – the summit ridge is marked by the change from green to gray ground, btw:

Zooming in a bit further, you see the summit pass here:

And here is a link to the summit location, so you can explore it digitally yourself: CLICK

Clearly this path fulfills all my criteria: it crosses the mountains around the right location, it is really remote, and it goes pretty high. Perfect!

The only problem: google does not offer any information about what kind of ground (or even pavement) these paths have, nor how steep it is. My bike is configured for the road – so there are limits. Streetview ended already in Casteil and starts on the other side only further down the slope. On the last StreetView locations on the route it looks a little… sandy. Satellite offers only some light lines on the ground, like this (couldn’t remove the street overlay now):


And then of course there’s the problem that from above, it all looks pretty flat even though clearly there must be quite some elevation gain.rather late I noticed how high it actually goes.

One last chance: sometimes people upload pictures from up there to Google. I found some in the map. I googled the name of the uploader and miraculously immediately found him on Facebook. A Dutch guy who does incredible adventures – which could have been a warning already as to what kind of path this would be. (Check his YouTube channel!). He kindly replied very quickly, but wasn’t quite sure either if it was cyclable – however, he kind of confirmed the attitude that I had already gained about this path: “I’d just do it”.

In short: everything between Casteil and some place on the other side of the mountains was pretty much a black box to me. Right now, you have exactly the information about that route that I had at this morning of my departure.


3. The climb & the summit

After coffee and conversation, I clipped into my pedals and started the ride. Looking up and ahead into the beginning of the wall I intended to surmount:


Briefly checking Komoot: 12km horizontally from Casteil to the summit. Elevation difference (and assuming no downhill passages: also the accumulated gain): 1,5km vertically. Just now it dawned on me: that makes a 12,5% average over a distance of 12km.

Holy moly. This would be wild. And that with luggage!? Generally I was aware of the option to ‘just’ push the bike if it turns out not to be doable by bike. So I was glad it was ‘only’ 12km and not a multiple of it. So far I was still on a paved road. Already steep though – 8% I guess (but below the average = even steeper than average later). Pretty quickly I reached this point where StreetView stops and where hikers can park their cars as their base to return to:


(Taken from StreetView) As you can see, the road is indeed sandy. It was less even and smooth though, in real. More medium rocks. It was 10.30h and already very warm. I was dripping from sweat already now before the show even started. Just a few hundred meters further behind these cars as the ‘last marker of civilization’ (yes, exaggerating), and the option to push the bike turned into a mandatory reality: too steep – cycling would be extremely exhausting and inefficient. No way I could do this for 12km when I was already struggling with 12m! And importantly: the ground was too rocky and too loose to get any grip or even get into a rolling rhythm. Please not that NONE of the pictures I post here in this entire post even remotely confers how steep it actually was.

The decision was made: I’d have to push it and walk – and hope that there aren’t any other surprises waiting. For example I did not account for the fact that such a route could be closed – I just noticed the possibility when I saw an “Ouvert”-sign for the next section.

Oh, and of course: I had to change shoes. My clip-in cycling shoes wouldn’t be of any use for the next hours. Here again a piece of my planning worked out beautifully: I had bought these sneakers just weeks before, already with exactly this possible situation in mind: heavy profile and (thanks mom, for the tip!) mesh openings for ventilation that worked out perfectly.


Going on… usually in such a situation I would set some landmarks to work towards. I could have picked the Refuge Mariales – some sort of mountain hut (quite large and well equipped even, as i guess) – and some of the major bends on the way. But somehow I didn’t, maybe because in this case landmarks would just have made it easier for me to imagine how far it actually still was, instead of providing any motivational benefit.

As I walked up I passed several hikers at some points. They looked a bit in disbelief – cause why on earth would anyone bring their bike up there? And there were still cars going up here – like the one of a young couple asking me if there’d still be a parking lot up there.

Of course as it was hot and I was really working hard, I had to drink quite a lot. My biggest concern for this day was if I might run out of water – that would have been the only real showstopper I could have imagined. That fear was inspired by the previous day, of course, where I missmanaged my water supply on a climb (see post 06). However, this turned out not to be a problem at all! Because once in a while my path crossed a creek. I hesitantly tried the water, but it was really super fresh and clear and cold, with hardly any dirt in it. So once per, say, 2km I refilled a bottle and got my head wet. Ideal.


I was still on an altitude with rather thick forest so I could usually find some shade to walk – or let’s say: clumsily clump – in. It was certainly above 30 degrees now (I checked in hindsight: 34 degrees). But the vegetation changed at some point. Here you see me approaching the timber line (altitude where the forest stops. Thanks, dictionary).


So I had to prepare against the direct sun and identified my button up shirt (yes, I bring one on each tour) to be perfect: light colour, thick fabric, absorbent (-> sweat).


At this point btw would have been an alternative path leading to the refuge I mentioned. But there was no reason. I went on. And on.

Further up, passed a last parking lot for the daring drivers. A km later, to my surprise a little Fiat 500 approached and passed me from top – incredible that this car managed to get up and down this gradient and rocky surface. In it a young woman who briefly stopped. “Is this a road bike!?!” (“velo de route”) – “yes, a stable kind of road bike” – “I’ve seen mountain bikers just sometimes up here. But this..?!” I mentioned I want to cross the mountains and reach Spain, with the intention that she would then alert me of any issues with the route if there were any. Instead she just wished me good luck and went on. Reassuring.

On and on, step by step. I felt a pain in a tendon in the back of my right knee becoming a bit more prominent. But it felt familiar and I didn’t worry. I passed the mountain hut of the Fiat-lady – strange shape… round, white plastic like truck tarpaulin, garden chairs in front and some empty kind of cattle compound next to it. Good bye last hut! Slowly, with the gained altitude, the air was getting a bit fresher. Up and up. Drinking, stopping, mueslibar, up and up – I still hear the creaking of stones and sand under my shoes and the rattling of the poor, pushed bike on the rocks. I tried to see my bike not as much as baggage that I had to push up and along, but as a kind of walking cane I could lean on a bit. I think that way of fooling myself helps sometimes.

Now probably around 1900m altitude. I thought about the nice morning with coffee and chocolate croissant. And the night, where I couldn’t sleep properly. Yet, strangely, I was very awake right now; that was probably because every step asked for my attention and I constantly needed to plan where exactly to place the next ones as to get the least resistance. Last night… now quite amused at the fact that the roaring was ‘just’ a Lion in the next door zoo. But now for real: Are there bears in the Pyrenees? Crap. If I would now encounter one.. what would I do? Nothing. I had pepper spray with me, but that would hardly impress a brown bear. There would be nowhere to go. Getting a little nervous again. I heard cracks in the scarce vegetation to the right of me, up the hill. Suddenly I was more aware of all sounds, my pulse a bit higher. I know it’s ridiculous – but it was all a somewhat unusual situation for me.

Luckily: Slowly I approached what I later recognized as a summit cross, which was odd, because it was clearly placed at the bottom of another slope. No idea what it meant. In any case I bumped into a group of hikers up there who were about to descend. This must have been at 2000m. We had a very brief chat, looked up the mountain and they reassured me (more with gestures than words) that it was getting a bit flatter soon. “Ah! Cyclable?” I asked hopefully. “Naah, not so sure” one of them said accompanied by a wide smile that seemed to stem from his internal comparison of my naive optimism with the rocky reality he saw up there. Bonne journee!

And further up. Still thinking a bit about the bear thing, but really: there was not a trace of a forest and I was above the general bear zone (probably I was never even in one). Should be fine. The next bend I knew would be the last one before the summit. I took a picture – the camera is facing back into the valley I came from – somewhere down there must be Casteil; down on the left you see the path I had come from. (Camera placed on a rock, with timer)


And going on, indeed the path became flatter but not in the slightest more rideable. And since the terrain was getting flatter overall, what I call “the path” was actually rather like a visual suggestion where to walk, but not really any more walkable than the surroundings. In fact, I noticed it was now much easier to move on the grass covered rocks next to ‘the path’. Anyhow, now it didn’t matter anymore anyway. The top turned out to be more a kind of plateau, which is not so surprising since there were some other higher, more peak-shaped (but inaccessible) summits many hundred meters next to this one in both ridge-directions; so this was really some kind of pass. The 2350m high bit was a smooth, wide hill situated right next to the rocky path, grass-covered and soft in shape and look, but not smooth in terms of its actual surface. Because of these hill-features, ‘climbing the summit’ was a gradual experience and not so much a situation of ‘now I’m there’. In fact, it was not so easy to distinguish which was really the highest point here.

Anyway, the moment of truth, around 14.15h:


And here an obligatory summit selfie:


I took a greeting video for my family. And spent quite some time up here. Maybe half an hour. This moment was the central part of my tour. It was somewhere in the back of my mind throughout every km I cycled before through Germany, Switzerland and France. So I had to wallow in it for a bit. My ‘old valley’ to the North, and my ‘new valley’ to the South.


One technicality: here I had the first and almost only material failure of my entire tour: my bottles, each 1 Liter (= 1kg) were putting the bottle cages under such stress during the wild, bumpy and lengthy ascend, that – while I put down my bike on the ground – the front bottle cage broke off completely, and I noticed my rear bottle cage was broken, too, at the bottom, so the bottle had slipped through it. (See the summit selfie) There were two things somewhat ironic about it, in the Alanis-Morrisette-sense: a) that this failure happened exactly on the summit instead of at any other point. And b) these bottle cages were the only part of my bike and equipment where I deliberately picked the cheapest and simplest option – falsely thinking a simple thing as a bottle cage wouldn’t require special attention. And they failed. So from there on I’d strap one empty bottle to the rack, and put one in my backpack and still had a smaller bottle strapped to the aero bars. Could be worse.

Back to more essential things: A theme that really struck me up there, which I anticipated already, was: loneliness. In fact my desire to experience this sentiment was one major reason to cross the mountains in this way at all. It might get a bit sentimental now, but: up there, that was true loneliness. Only me. Some rocks and wind. No one in the surrounding kilometers would be higher than me. And to get here, to get me, there’d be some way to cross through all 3 dimensions and more obstacles. It was a moment of escape. I was hidden from ‘the world’. No one saw me, I saw no one. My current state only counted for and to me and itself. Importantly: yes, the loneliness was prominently presented to me here… but was the basic feeling really different from any everyday situation? Aren’t we always lonely in a way? I will not go on with this now – if you like we’ll have a personal chat about it, that’s probably more interesting and appropriate. Let me just say: all this was a moment of happiness, satisfaction, positive prospect and beautiful memory. Pretty touching, too. But most of all it was just now.

4. Slowest descend evah

I declared the official summit moment to be over. It was already around 15h. But keep in mind: all that text before was referring to only 12km of horizontal distance. I wanted to arrive in Tortellà in Spain in the evening, which was over 100km further. Continuing on the rocky path, for a while it seemed like the mountain could not decide yet whether to keep me on the ascend or finally put me on the descent. It guided me around another hill, opening up the view into a new valley. Going uphill again. In the meantime I terminated some attempts to cycle: still way less efficient than walking and pushing.

Going along the mountain ridge:


POV:


Up to the summit I had been primarily occupied with the struggle of getting up there. And I used the following heuristic with which you’d probably agree: “up = difficult, down = easy”. But Pustekuchen (look that word up! ; ) ). After another turn around a rocky hill it was clear: now it’s going only downhill. I mounted my horse with enthusiasm, optimism and full of energy. A state that lasted for about 5 meters when I noticed: the path’s surface was at the best marginally better than on the other side of ‘the Pyrenees’. Sure, I did not have to invest any more energy into propelling myself upwards – getting ‘up’ is a very simple challenge, it only requires energy, but not so much thought. Instead I was physically challenged very differently now: I had to a) absorb constant shocks, so I could only stand on my bike and not relax any of my muscles at any point. Constant tension. And b) I had to steer my bike with a precision of less than centimeters over and through the stones, rocks and sand. A mountain biker would have known this before. But I’m a road guy, and I completely underestimated this. Also: I had road tires: 28″ slicks, 5,5 bars, 32mm wide. This was a job that did not require just raw energy, but challenged my fine motor skills under force – continuous attention. Of course, previously I had envisioned my descend to be rather smooth and rapid, but now realized: 8 km/h downhill would be my average speed until I’d reach paved roads again – and that would be several km from here (not sure how many exactly).

This meant: the descend would not be much less challenging and only a bit less time consuming than the ascend. How could I have been so foolish to underestimate this? Maybe it had been a motivational and protective psychological mechanism to simply neglect it.

Somewhere on the way:



And like this I continued for a long time… at least I had some spectacular views on the way. Very interesting, exactly around the summit the colour of the mountain changed. You remember the map-screenshot further back? Where the summit ridge was represented by a change from green to gray? This was real! While the north side (facing Casteil) was characterized by rather thick green and warm sand colours, this South side looked much ‘colder’. The rocks were grayer, dryer, rougher and it looked more alien and hostile. This surprised me, because I would have assumed the South side to be more “friendly” and alive, since it was facing the sun.

My path downwards:


The whitish, ‘cold’ stone on the South side:


The descent took ages. Sometimes more sandy, other times more rocky. Constant rattling, shock, absorption, missing a rock, sliding away… You know that feeling when a body part gets numb. I had this in my left arm.That tickling sensation indicating a obstructed blood flow or pinched nerves or something. It feels a bit like tiny water droplets sprinkled of your arm, hardly noticeable. Well, surprise! Or: reality check! My little water bottle between the aero bars was leaking. No worries; my arm wouldn’t die; it wasn’t so bad. Instead as soon as I realized it was the water, I embraced the refreshment.

FINALLY at some point pavement began!!! Very shitty pavement, but in that moment it felt perfect like the surface of a velodrome track! Time to change back shoes. This was the first time since 10.30h in the morning that I could get on my bike and execute more than 3 or 4 normal turns of my crank. It felt fast. And great. Because to me it meant:

I have crossed the Pyrenees.


pavement begins!


5. The surprise & its payoff

Of course now it was a long downhill ride. The road was getting gradually better. At some point I was surpassed by the red jeep that you saw on one of the pics and that belonged to two hikers who I saw and who saw me shortly before the summit. They new what I had behind me and gave me some friendly and encouraging honks.

The route now lead me to Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste, the first village to pass on this side of the Pyrenees. I did not have water left, so I refueled my bottles there in a Café. I was damn tired. And still had to process how the day went so far. Holy shit. I just walked over the Pyrenees – to put it a bit dramatically. Through a scatter of rocks, uncertainty, memories, anticipations, pain, exhaustment, views, all kinds of shallower and deeper thoughts. I was really quite done now. Somehow the real exhaustment waited to catch me just now as if I was numb about it before, similar to the pain that sets in only a while after a severe physical damage and after the danger of the injury-moment is over. I had 80km left. So despite it being such an eventful day already, I had only covered less than 1/4 of the distance. There were two things that kept me motivated now: a) the idea that I would arrive in a hotel later and meet my family friends Marion and Thomas – a motivation that was present already all day like a light but constant breeze (to emply some romantic metaphors here). And b) the (presumed) fact that it would be mostly downhill from here. I mean, it would be downhill, right?

It took me just a few hundred meters to realize: no. It would not be downhill now. In fact I read something of another ‘col’ (pass/summit) on a sign. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

I stopped the bike at the side of the road. Immediately began dripping from sweat again, because it was still hot (34 or so degrees) and this was back down at 750m – lower than Casteil! I checked GoogleMaps to get an overview. And realized my so far heaviest route planning error: while planning I had assumed all those curly streets behind Prats-de-Mollo to go down to the Spanish border. Instead they would go up! The Spanish border would be on top of a pass.

This is the part I’m talking about: the D115 from Prats-de-Mollo up to the Spanish border which you see in the bottom left. Sure, now with the elevation markers it is obvious.


Facts and figures: Prats-de-Mollo is on 750m, the Spanish border is on 1500m. Distance: 12km. Consequently an average gradient of 6,25% but really with most of it above 8%. This is a killer. To me at least, after that kind of day.

But is there anything I can do? Yes: do it. So,  I sent a brief message to Marion and Thomas that my arrival would be delayed; just “another climb of 700m”. Getting back on my bike. I spent most of the climb standing. The short parts of ‘only’ 6%-gradients made for excellent ‘relief’ phases. Had to stop several times; actually this was one of the first times on my tour so far that I had to really stop because my body uncircumventably dictated it – my muscles, my circulation, my temperature, or the burning sweat in my eyes (that was actually the biggest problem)… many reasons to stop many times. I don’t think I had a climb of that quality before – and its timing wasn’t good.

One last view back onto ‘my Pyrenees’ before penetrating the border ‘wall’ to Spain:


At some point I approached the last 4 short, but pretty steep bends and stretches that culminated in a last straighter stretch towards what I’d now call the “gate to Spain”, cause, if you look on the above map, that’s really what it is: a gap  up in the mountains through which you first look down and then ride down into Spain.

The gate to Spain (marked) as seen from 1km or so away:


Spanish border, basically on top. I guess you see the exhaustion in my face (and some traces of the Catalan independence movement – not in my face though, but on the sign):


Looking back into France…


…and looking literally into Spain. A pretty ‘magical’ moment to me:


On the border and the viewing platform there was a Dutch family. The dad carried his son on his shoulders and said to him in Dutch (assuming I would not understand him): “Look, Bouke, that guy cycled all the way up here!” – how right he was. I had to smile.

Ok, this was tough. You read it. I remember it. But let’s move on. The day wasn’t over yet. Still about 65km to go until my arrival in Tortellà. To briefly summerize the situation now:

  • I was now in (or on the border to) Spain.
  • I had finished all climbs for the day (I promise. I checked!)
  • It would go almost exclusively downhill from here
  • The weather was warm, but since the sun was already low, the temperatures were getting better
  • I could now anticipate an arrival in a hotel (=shower and clean clothes!)
  • And most importantly: I would, after this crazy crazy day of loneliness in foreign terrain be united with two very familiar friends. As I mentioned, a recurring theme of motivation today.

You’ll agree that all this sounds perfect. And it was. Superficially it was almost as if the rest of the day had never happened; but certainly all the past events of today heavily shaped my inner and outer of the moment. The first descend started. I didn’t take many photos, but some videos instead, because taking videos while cycling takes less time and it also captures the atmosphere better:

Right after crossing the border:


It turned out my route planning worked out excellent now. Instead of following the main ‘veins’ I branched off East earlier at Sant-Pau-de-Seguriès into a very quiet valley with only one but perfectly paved(!) road. This way I would remain rolling downhill without going lower than my final destination – and thus without ever going uphill again today. It was a beautiful ride:​


At some point I was already very close to Tortellà, and it was getting dark. Time to switch on the Christmas tree:​

​​

Entering Tortellà:


Witnessing the first signs of real Spanishness – older people hanging out outside very late:


Arrival at the hotel:​


6. (Feels like) home

I was now in a country whose language I mastered even much less than French. But somehow the communication with the lady at the hotel worked out. In the process Marion and Thomas arrived but it was a bit too hectic for a proper ‘hello’ yet. The hotel lady was very funny and lively and nice. Certainly an example for how the Spanish are very different from the French (not judging though! both charming). A quick shower in this really excellent hotel room. New born. Then went downstairs where I was welcomed by Marion and Thomas who took this photo of a clean and happy Malte:


Now I was in a presentable and huggable state: HELLOO you too! Immediate familiarity. How nice this was.

We got into their car. A modern VW. A CAR! I was sitting(!) in a relaxed position while covering many km at high speed. No sweat in my eyes. The smell of new and clean leather. Perfect climate. Casual, effortless conversations. Miraculous. This felt very alien to me. Such a contrast to the rest of that day. Villages, road signs, street lights – things that would usually really occupy my mind, demand my attention and be crucial for my route and arrival – now zipping by almost unnoticeably. Surreal.

We drove to Besalu. A town further South, with a midevial city center. It had become so late already by now, 22.30h I guess, that most places didn’t serve the so much needed food anymore. We found a touristy restaurant on the main square though. Everything works. Lord… that beer – so refreshing. Thanks, you two, for that evening and invitation!

Of course I told Marion and Thomas about my day. But I was very happy that they also told me about their holidays and we talked about my friends (their kids) Lena and Helen; because I had not really processed this day sufficiently yet to give any explanations. All day I was occupied with so many internal and external impressions that this was the ideal conclusion – a perfect moment to get accustomed again to a pleasantly more normal state.

The day was full of what I called ‘reality checks‘ in the title of this post: where reality hit my expectations or filled gaps of non-expectation. Now this was a ‘reality check’ in a different sense – and excuse me if that sounds a little far fetched; I thought quite a bit about what made this situation so special and I believe this might be an explanation: Somehow it felt like here I got presented with my usual and predominant, more familiar reality of myself: two kind and familiar friends who are a reference to all my past life (because I have known them for as long as I can think) and in that way the situation pointed towards the entirety of my person. All this in a civilized and very comfortable environment. That is much closer to how my life usually is, and how most of this day was not.

After this great dinner (for other reasons than the food) they drove me home – it felt less alien this time. I went upstairs and fell asleep.
STRAVA: Click