2017: Mind games

In 2016, the Transatlantic Way was an alternative, a race I only considered after I didn’t get a place in the Transcontinental. That is a different story. It ended up being a fantastic experience that made me fall in love with this kind of racing even more. In 2017, I did get that coveted TCR spot. When I started planning the months leading up to the big race, I remembered how good my shape was in late summer of 2016, few weeks after finishing the TAW, and just how beautiful this route is. So it seemed only logical to also register for the second TAW and include that in my preparations for TCR, hopefully getting the same boost out of it. When I saw the start list filling up with some well-known names, I was getting even more excited. After just one edition, the race had already attracted a big field with a lot of strong and well-known riders. My friends asked me what I wanted to achieve this time around. There were over 100 riders signed up at one point and I thought it was a good goal to aim for a Top 50 position, but mainly I wanted to find out how much faster I could be over the course by trying to be more efficient. I knew I couldn’t ride much faster than last year, but there was a lot to be improved in terms of not wasting time and managing a better sleep rhythm. In that regard it would not only act as a training camp for the body, but even more for the mind and to gain more experience.

Training, or rather conditioning, started end of December, on the second Christmas Day, two days after learning I had a spot in the TCR. The last couple of years I had done the Festive 500 challenge on Strava and always liked the idea of doing the required 500 km in one ride. So I plotted a 500 km route and started early in the morning into light rain. It didn’t take very long for me to feel that something was not right. Everything was so much harder than it should have been. I felt powerless, the breaks got longer and longer while the motivation dropped. I tried to push on anyway because I just couldn’t accept how this was going, but it was useless. I had no power. Before even hitting the half-way point, I turned around. Kept riding for a while but realized I wouldn’t even made it home in my state, so bailed out and took a train.

The next morning I felt even worse, and then became so sick for the next 10 days that I could do nothing. I had picked up a virus during the holidays, at least now I knew why I had felt so powerless. It was the worst. When I was finally allowed back on the bike by the end of January, my fitness was at a low. I was shocked by how incapable I was of even riding the shortest distances without being out of breath. Cycling was not enjoyable like this, but I had to get fit. I tried to stay as cool about it as I could, but it was really stressing me out. It took me until the middle of February until I could even think about doing a ride longer than 2 or 3 hours. I didn’t feel like a cyclist, there was no endurance or strength left. My short rides were slow rides, too. Towards the end of February I managed to do my first 200 km ride of the season, in a group, mostly drafting and still finding it very very hard. Beginning of March I went to a performance analysis at Roggshop. The results were far from impressive, but I could feel that slowly, I was coming back and my shape had improved a little bit. I did another 200 km ride middle of March, this time alone and while I still didn’t really enjoyed it, it worked out. Then the brevet season started end of March. I had never ridden an official brevet before. This year I was registered for the 200, 300 and 400 kilometer events. The 200 were hilly, very windy and it never stopped raining. It was a struggle, but I could finally start to feel again why I was doing this in the first place and managed to enjoy the ride. I was looking forward to the 300, just 2 weeks later.

In the meantime some more big names registered for the TAW, including the biggest of them all, Mike Hall. I was looking forward to finally meeting him in person and excited about being in the same race. Him being the race director of the TCR, I would meet him at least twice this summer. He was racing the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia and I was following the race closely, fascinated by every bit of information I could find online. Mike was in second place and riding hard chasing down the leader. It was a great race to watch, they didn’t have to go far to the finish line now. So that evening when I came home from a friend’s house late at night, I just wanted to get a quick update on the dots before going to bed. It was early morning in Australia and Mike was close to Canberra, but his dot stopped on an intersection. I checked the usual channels to gather some more info on what has been happening during the day and saw first reports of a traffic accident. Until the sun came up, I stayed in front of the computer searching the internet for information as disbelief turned into shock. I had not met the man, but what happened to him and the circumstances had a bigger impact on me than I initially understood. It changed my way of riding, and it made me reevaluate some of my priorities. It definitely affected my Transatlantic Way race and keeps affecting me to this day.

One day after Mike’s death, I was supposed to get ready for the 300 km Brevet early the next morning. I didn’t want to ride, but then figured it would be even harder not to and spend the whole sunny Saturday at home on the couch thinking. My friend Markus also said I have to get back on the bike as soon as possible. So I rode the 300, and it was a glorious day. As usual, we had a couple of aggressive and impatient drivers which almost made me boil with anger, but before I knew it we were on the last stretch of the route and I just did not want it to stop. It was the first time all year that I had gotten into the flow to the point where nothing matters anymore, where you can just ride seemingly forever. The form was back, only what was it good for now? Would there even be a Transcontinental race? Would I even continue riding my bike so much? The light feeling and enjoyment on the bike was somewhat overshadowed by a feeling that is still too hard to accurately describe. It’s not fear, nor is it doubt, closer to a strange mix of anger and being powerless at the same time. The following weeks I was struggling to get the miles in that my training plan dictated. It had turned into a chore.

The 400 km brevet was up next. I was mentally exhausted and didn’t feel like riding it at all, but started. It was a night start and soon I was struggling to keep up with the bunch. These were mostly the same riders as on the previous brevets. I could easily hold their pace in normal circumstances, but something was not feeling right. I thought I might just need a little longer than everybody else to warm up, but after 120 km, it only got worse. The pace was not fast, still I couldn’t keep the wheels and was falling behind on every hill, with my pulse going ridiculously high. It all reminded me too much of the failed 500 km ride back in December. However, I wasn’t alone on this one and told myself to just chew through it. If this was so difficult for me, how did I even think about racing the Transatlantic Way and Transcontinental races this summer? I convinced Markus, who didn’t want to ride on without me, to take some shelter in a bus stop and get 2 or 3 hours of sleep. I was hoping that I was only tired and that this would sort me out. When we continued it was raining and the light of day was slowly making its way over the night sky. We had about 250 km left and I quickly realized I wasn’t getting any better. Quite the opposite. I saw Markus ride up the hills at a leisurely pace. We’ve ridden together enough, I could tell from his body language that this was really easy for him. I had to use all the power that was left to try and keep up with his relaxed pace, but just didn’t manage. When we approached the next control at a service station, I knew I would tell him to ride on without me. I was only holding him back. I did not want to be responsible for his DNF as well, but he was set on finishing together or not at all, and so we looked up the nearest train station and left the route. Every meter had been a struggle, but the remaining 8 km to the train station were suddenly much easier. It’s been a mental problem and not a physical one. It’s always what the head makes of it and rationally I knew that, but probably had to make this experience to really understand. The body always has some reserves, no matter how finished you think you are. But if the head doesn’t play along and makes the task seem impossible, you can’t convince the body to just work a little bit more. I tried not to let the negative experience get me down, but it was definitely bothering me and I struggled a bit more to find motivation. I tried not to force it and purposely dialled down my training volume. I was supposed to do 20-30 hours a week at this stage of the plan, but did less than 10 each week.

So preparations had been less than ideal. The Transatlantic Way Race was just around the corner and I decided to try and do one more ride, more for the head than anything else. I needed a successful mission to reassure myself that I was capable of doing it. The 500 km ride I failed to complete in December still bothered me, so this was the perfect chance to exercise these demons and see whether I was now in the shape to complete it.

It worked, and I actually enjoyed it. The route was not very hilly like the Transatlantic Way course would be, but I only needed to confirm to myself that I could stand the long hours in the saddle. It was a great relief to pass the point where I had turned around last time and move on. Around the 250 km mark, I slept on a bench for a couple of hours and continued the next morning just before sunrise. This was also one of the first long rides with aero bars fitted to the bike and I liked the additional hand position so much that I was sunburnt on the inside of my arms.

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With this ride out of the way, I felt a little bit more confident for TAW. Last year I had given this race pretty much my all and I did not expect that I could really ride faster this time, but I would try and keep the breaks shorter. Having learned from my rookie mistakes, I planned to take it easier in the first few days and sleep relatively long hours, so ideally I could increase the pace and cut down on my sleep towards the end when other people were getting tired and slower. Last year I had ridden over my limit, not slept enough in the first week of the race and ended up struggling with a lot of tiredness just to get to the finish line. I also told myself that this was “just” a preparation race and I did not have to be in the very best shape at the start. The plan was to find that good shape during the race and then just maintain that for five weeks until the TCR. When I arrived in Dublin I was much more relaxed than I had been the last time. I knew my legs could do it, but only if the mind played along.

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