Transcontinental Race 2017

When I watched Melons, Trucks and Angry Dogs back in 2013, I had no idea what this would eventually lead to. It was Mike Hall’s creation and the big impression it had on me that made me pick up my bike in the first time since years. The 8 km commute to work was challenge enough for me at first and quickly turned into something I was looking forward to every day. Things changed, in itself a story for another time. Fast forward.

Just a few years later, I’m in Geraardsbergen to ride TCR no. 5 myself. I’m number 125.

I usually don’t think too much about what I’m getting myself into with such things, the gut plays a big part. And so it is only very late, having arrived in Belgium, that I fully realize the absurdity and scale of this one. I’m amongst them. One of them. We are TCR. This in itself is potentially overwhelming. The importance this race played in my life over the last few years is hard to describe.

It’s a difficult time for unsupported long-distance racing, which I am still fairly new to. I think I am ready. Checklists have been written and completed, things double and triple checked, hours and hours spent with meticulous route planning only to change the whole route around just days before the event. I thought of seemingly everything, but never considered for one second what I would do if the unthinkable happened again. Mike Hall’s death had affected me deeply, and just after finishing the TransatlanticWay Race five weeks earlier, I had felt the numbing helplessness of receiving the news of Eric Fishbein’s death on the TransAm. We shared a minute of silence on the wonderful green square in Blarney and I remember that feeling very well. You could probably argue that with the recents events still so fresh, it was very naive for me never to consider what to do should it happen again. Maybe it was, maybe one can never be prepared for something so senseless to happen. There are things you can reason with, actual problems on the road you can encounter, physical pains or logistic problems, things like that. I thought I was ready to deal with it all, but I wasn’t. My race only lasted about 42 hours. It did take me a while to come to terms with it, but I still need to tell the story of that race, if only to get it off my chest.

Friday July 28, Geraardsbergen, Belgium
10 hours to start

The days heading up to the start were spent in nervous anticipation, but now things have calmed down. I’m in Flanders and this race is becoming a reality. There’s nothing I can do now to be better prepared. Nothing I didn’t think of. Nothing I can do about my route. All that’s left is riding, which is an incredibly relieving thought. When I roll into town, I see the first riders. One is taking a nap on a little green strip by the side of the road. Enter the wonderfully weird world of long distance cycling. I’ve done enough of it by now to feel quite at home. Eating greasy fast food on the floor sheltering from the rain in shop entrances pales in comparison to the things we are ready to and about to do. No time for good manners. The best part is entering the registration building and recognizing familiar faces.

George introduces me to Jo and Gavin, the pair with the most impressive colour coordination in the race. I’m meeting James and Yves, Paula is still working on her route and changing her bag configuration around. Impressively unorganized, which calms me down. I’m in no position to be joking, since she made it to the finish while I scratched early on. Contrary to popular belief, preparation isn’t everything. It’s also about being able to improvise and keeping on moving no matter what happens. I think. Or mental preparation, if you want to call it that. I don’t know really, you tell me when you managed to finish.

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#tcrno5 #tcrno5cap014 #tcrn05cap125

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Registration takes much longer than expected. Afterwards I head to everybody’s favourite pasta place where many other riders are hanging out. I bump into more veterans of the TransatlanticWay Race like Daniel, Stephen and Gavin. It’s all a kind of family reunion. Our world is small.

There’s a buzz in town that is hard to describe. We can’t wait to get going. After lunch it’s time for the rider briefing.

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It's happening #tcrno5

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We are all proud to make it happen and be a part of it. It’s a celebration. There is a certain kind of bond between us. You care about the other riders, they’re not just rivals. Probably this is also why what happened to Frank this night would affect me so much. I don’t know him personally like many of the other riders, but he is like a friend to me the moment we start riding into that night.

Two hours to start

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All that's left to do now. #tcrno5 starts in 2 hours.

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The whole town knows what is happening. Everybody is wishing us good luck, we even have to pose for photos for total strangers. We’ve entered a parallel world that I know would suck us in deeper and deeper over the following days. Just a few clueless tourists are wondering about the odd bike setups and ask what we are up to. We are going to race across the continent. Just going for a ride to Greece. When you regularly ride long distances on bicycles, you get somewhat used to the expression on people’s faces when they find out where you’re coming from or going to. It’s always somewhere in between shock, disbelief, pity, usually accompanied with a shake of the head. For the rider, this can range from amusing to embarassing. I’ve played down long rides before, because I don’t want people to think I’m absolutely crazy, which they do anyway. „So where are you riding to?“ „Greece“. The word almost gets stuck in the throat. This time I’m the one in disbelief. Did I just say that? Is that really where we are going? The thought of that is still overwhelming. I had managed the anticipation by breaking down the ride into smaller segments, it’s just from point A to point B, then C and then some more. Tick every point off one by one and you’ll be good. But don’t think about the whole thing all at once.

30 minutes to start

We make our way up the little rise to the market square. The sight that awaits is overwhelming. It’s a sea of bicycles, blinking lights, reflective wests and pure excitement.

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Here we go #tcrno5 #tcrn05cap125

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Chatting to a couple of other riders, time flies by and suddenly it’s three minutes to the start. I turn on the camera on my handlebar, but forget to turn on one of the Garmins in time. Priorities.

Friday, 10 pm, Start

A few words, tears and goosebumps, then noise. Off we go. George is skillfully trackstanding his way through the crowd of cyclists that slowly begins to move towards the torch-lit incline. After a couple of minutes on the neutralized lap around town, I finally take note of the blank display on my stem and turn both Garmins on at once in a slight panic. I read so many reports of riders stopping directly after the Muur to check their navigation and I don’t want to be one of them. Flying down the hill at 40km/h I fiddle with both my Garmins. Both are not picking up any signal. I should simply have turned them on once after coming to the country, to give them a chance to pick up the location. I’ve had all day to check and prepare things like that. When we roll by the burger place we had dinner at, I see the owner and guests waving and cheering. Back on the cobbles of the market place and the race is on.

The atmosphere is incredible. 300 riders climbing the Muur all at once is more than you see at any pro race. As to be expected, there are some spills and lots of people have to push up. The trick is to always keep a little bit of space in front of your wheel so you can react and keep moving. I have to stop several times because of the carnage, but luckily never on the steepest bit so am able to continue and ride over the top at full speed. It’s silly to exhaust yourself on the first few hundred meters of a 4.000 kilometer race, but I’m just so excited and will have plenty of time to recover on the first flat 400 kilometers of my chosen route. I see Paula flying away in the drops, passing riders like the sprint finish is near. We’re speeding down the hill in the dark, everybody is lit up with reflective vests and lots of lights. It’s a beautiful sight. The bike runs smoothly. The display on my stem has mercy and shows me where to go, just in time. I have everything I need to be self-sufficient. Let’s do this. With lots of riders in front of and behind me, it looks like a nightly procession. I take a left turn towards Galmaarden. After a while I look back, nobody has followed me. I’m alone. That was earlier than expected. Time to settle into a rhythm. It doesn’t take long and a bright red spot appears ahead of me. Slowly reeling it in, I’m taking care not to get too close too quickly. I want to enjoy following my temporary pacemaker from a distance.

Saturday, 01:19 am, Beauvechain, Belgium

Somewhere between Brussels and Waterloo, the adrenaline is wearing off. A bus stop shelter by the side of the road looks very comfortable. Maybe a short nap? Without second thought I lay down on the wooden bench inside and close my eyes for about twenty minutes. It’s not proper sleep, but it helps to calm the thoughts and marvel at the thought that this is it, this is the TCR, and I’m doing it. It’s not like I ever imagined it. It’s not glamorous, but so exciting. Right now it’s being alone in a Belgian bus stop at night with your heart racing. I’m trying to judge how tired I really am and decide that I’m fine for another hour or so. Riding at night is always special, even more so when you feel like a member of a secret society which other members sometimes appear like a flash in front of you, or sleeping on a bench by the side of the road, and disappear as fast as they came. I’m constantly scanning the surroundings for places that are suitable for a nap. It becomes a habit even when I’m not looking to stop. I start rating the spots in my mind, from places I’d only sleep in an emergency to luxury, five star opportunities. All of the latter ones are, upon closer inspection, already occupied by bike riders. I’m passing a silent ghost town, nobody is out on the street, not even a cat in sight. No sound, nothing. But when I roll over the market place and risk a quick glance over to the illuminated lobby of the bank, I see them again, spread out on the floor inside, covered in neon jackets or bivvy bags. Spot the sleeping rider is my favourite game this night.

02:09 am, just before Tienen, Belgium

After 83 kilometers, the Garmin powers off. It should surprise me, but it has developed a habit of letting me down when I really need it, somewhere I’ve never been. Which is why I brought a backup. I find it’s too early to rely on backups, so power the stubborn unit on again. It seems to recover and shows me the way, but the recording of the following 233 kilometers would be corrupted later on. Then I find another cosy spot for myself, a picknick table that nobody claimed yet. It’s directly on the cycle path I’m riding on, away from any roads. Drifting into some kind of semi-sleep, I notice some voices coming closer. The short nap is over and it’s time to get some distance in. I only have a rough plan, but want to be at the German border around sunrise.

03:13 am, close to Sint-Truiden, Belgium

It only takes an hour for me to accept that I’m still tired and won’t be at the border by dawn. I haven’t even crossed the Maas yet when a little forested area by the side of the road lures me in. It’s a good spot in the dark, hidden from the road and protected by trees. Just after getting inside my bivvy bag on the soft grass, I hear the unmistakeable ticking of a freewheel. A voice with a French accent declares „This’ a nice spot!“ He chooses a nearby tree and gets cosy underneath. This is weird, I think, but I’m too tired to care and fall asleep for almost two hours.

04:49 am

When I push my bike back onto the road, he is audibly still enjoying his snooze.

The road is still empty, but it’s only another hour until sunrise and I remember why I wanted to get through this section before the day breaks: I’m on the N3, by daytime surely one of the busiest roads around. At night a perfectly wide and illuminated road and most importantly, the flattest option.

06:37 am, Tongeren, Belgium

The sun’s already up when I search for coffee in Tongeren and find it at a gas station. Now also equipped with croissants and some sugary snacks I feel some strength returning to my legs.

09:46 am, De Plank, Belgium

I’ve been to the Drielandenpunt on Vaalser Berg before, the point where the borders of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet. But I never knew just how beautiful the surrounding area is. I’m enjoying the ride more and more, starting to get into a good mood after the night which I had found tough. Night starts are just not for me. I’m telling myself to come back here one day and explore the area between Liège, Aachen and Eupen more closely.

11:03 am, Aachen, Germany

5 hours later than my rough schedule dictates, I finally arrive in Germany. No big deal, I’ll make up for this with a long day. There’s a long and familiar flat section along the Rhein waiting for me. Tonight I’ll be through Bingen easily and can sleep in the hills of Rheinhessen. Then I’ll have all Sunday to make my way to Checkpoint 1 near Reutlingen. I’m stopping by a gas station at the outskirts of town and have an appropriate sit-down meal on the pavement. Back on the road I realize I am not alone, there are other racers on the same route as me.

12:55 pm, Langerwehe, Germany

I keep bumping into Enric, a racer from Catalunya with a contagious smile. We’re riding together and chatting when we see somebody on the top of a little hill who seems to be waiting for something or somebody. When we get closer, he starts clapping and cheering and even shouts my name as we pass. I’m so surprised, I only manage an awkward wave and we’re gone. How did he know my name? Should I have stopped and said hello? Later I’d realize Klaus is a follower of the race and went out of his way to come out and cheer us on. I feel flattered and even worse for not stopping a minute. It can make such a big difference. I’ve experienced it on the TransatlanticWay, where it actually made ALL the difference.

Thank you so much for coming out!

01:41 pm, Kelz, Germany

I’m known to always take too many pictures on bike rides. There is just so much to see. I haven’t done that reputation justice yet. When I get my phone out in a tiny village by the bench under the tree, I notice a message from Pieter, a friend who lives in Flanders and is watching the dots.

be careful out there, reading about a cyclist that got hit in the south of belgium last night and he didn’t make it. Driver fled the scene. I am afraid it is one of the riders from the race…

I sit down. That feeling I had in Blarney. That feeling I had staring at the screen showing a stopped dot a few weeks earlier. It leaves me unable to think. After an eternity, a thought. „I hope it’s not a rider from the race.“ Does that make any difference? Of course it doesn’t, somebody has lost their life. But somehow it does. How many other riders were out there in the south of Belgium in the middle of the night? Why am I even asking this? It shouldn’t make a difference to me.

I’m calling home to let them know I’m ok before they can read any rumours online.

Deep inside I know it must have been a racer, but I don’t want to think about it. The feeling is all too familiar and I can’t go there if I want to stay in the race. Maybe it’s all a misunderstanding. My enthusiasm for the ride had just slowly started to rise after the tough first night. Now there’s no enthusiasm, nothing anymore really. I’m dragging myself along, but the sense of any purpose seems an eternity away.

03:20 pm, Straßfeld, Germany

Email from the TCR team.

Urgent Communication

Dear TCRn05 Riders,

Early this afternoon we received confirmation of a fatal road traffic collision involving Frank Simons, rider 172. It is the saddest and most shocking news and our thoughts are immediately with Frank’s family, who we have been in contact with through their nominated next of kin.

It’s still a shock, even though I somehow knew it all along. Another call home.

What do you think will happen now? Maybe the race will be cancelled. We have to wait and see. Is there anybody with you? Hold on, I see another rider. I’ll talk to him. Stay safe.

I see a rider in bright yellow with packed bicycle. When I catch up to him I realize it’s not a racer, but a commuter with a basket on the bag of his bike. My head is empty. I’m trying to reach a place where I can sit down and drink or eat something, anything better than a bench in the middle of nowhere.

04:20 pm, Meckenheim, Germany

I’m having the biggest strawberry ice cream known to man. It’s delicious, but doesn’t make anything clearer in my head. Checking the tracker I see a couple of riders close by, so spend some wasted time trying to find them. None of them is stopped. Might as well head on down my route, it’s not far to the Rhein now, where I’ll be on a cycle path away from the cars. Maybe that’ll help. It’s ridiculous. I can’t focus when I’m on the bike. My thoughts are too many, my mind is too full. I can’t switch it off. So I stop, get off the bike, sit down, breathe, to get some relief. And that would be worse. With the legs not spinning, it seems the flood of thoughts is even higher, crashing in like a wave. It’s too much to process. When I thought I was prepared for anything, I forgot about the possibility of somebody dying. A very real possibility. In fact a real possibility not unique to the TCR, but present every single time we get on our bikes. I am constantly aware of it and yet constantly somewhat ignoring the thought, if that makes any sense. You can’t be scared all the time. I’m riding on, but this doesn’t feel like the Transcontinental Race anymore. I don’t even really know what it feels like, only that it doesn’t feel right. Every minute on the bike is spent thinking about where to stop next, to make it stop, to find out of the miserable mind state. Every minute off the bike is even worse. A mix of guilt for not moving, not having a good enough reason to do so and general feeling of „what is it worth it anyway“. It feels as if the race is over already. I’m hearing of the first ones scratching, they are somewhere close to Bingen, maybe I can get there and see from there. Am I going to scratch too, I ask myself. Of course not. I tell myself to wait for the official word that the race is cancelled, so I wouldn’t have to take the difficult decision to stop myself. Some kind of sanctioning, if you will. No way I’m quitting on my own behalf.

08:22 pm, Andernach, Germany

Considering a powernap in a dusty bus stop, I tentitavely check my phone and find another email from the race organisation. The race goes on. I’m staring at the message in disbelief. I’m not sure how to feel. I wasted quite some time thinking it was over, but so would be many others. The bigger problem is that in the last few hours, every bit of motivation to race has left me. This race isn’t over though. I feel a lot of pressure. The message clearly states that it is up to each rider whether to stop or continue, but it feels like stopping would be disrespectful. It’s like I’m at the start line again, ready to set everything back to zero, but at the same time totally drained mentally. The legs haven’t been tested yet, they are not even warmed up properly. But the mind is out of the window. I have to find a reason again.

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Where there's light, there's shadow. A fellow Transcontinental racer has been killed by a car. I stopped for a while but that didn't help to think clearly. It's easier on the bike. Yet I cannot come to a conclusion. To stop or to go on? The motivation to race is obviously gone. I could continue this in touring mode, but this is a race and not a tour. There are better routes for touring and I would have brought different equipment. Already lost a big amount of time stood still because I assumed the race would be cancelled. I don't want to let down my supporters either. This is difficult to call. My route takes me to Bingen next from where I could ride home easily. I hope that I made up my mind until there. #stopkillingcyclists #tcrno5

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I’m stocking up for the evening in a fast food restaurant near Koblenz and book a room on the other side of town. My rough plan has included going to at least Bingen on the first day and not use any hotel rooms before the alps, but everything has changed. Maybe some good sleep will help me put my mind in the right place.

09:57 pm, Stolzenfels, Germany

The air in the hotel room is warm and sticky, I’m opening the window and close the curtain, lay on the bed and stare at the dirty ceiling for an eternity. Seeing how little I slept in the last two days I should be really tired, but now I can’t get to sleep. The regular passing of loud cargo trains what sounds like meters from my window doesn’t help the situation. At some point I do fall asleep and wake up physically sick. At first I can’t understand why I feel so incredibly angry, what I’m angry at or even really where I am. There was no alarm set and the sun is already up. I feel pathetic.

Sunday, 07:40 am

I forget to eat breakfast and get on the road, which is still technically the Rhein cycle path. James and some other riders have scratched in Bingen. That’s about 80 kilometers, so I might as well go there and see them. No use in staying here. The ride along the Rhein was always going to be something to get over with. I’ve ridden it often enough to be kind of fed up with it anyway, but having to navigate it on a sunny Sunday makes it worse, as it’s full of pedestrians. I’m glad to have brought my bell. My mood is rotten which I realize when I start shouting rudely at some kids to get out of my way, asking myself what’s wrong with me shortly after. I cannot deal with this. It’s a cycle that continues for most of the day. I stop and sit to catch my thoughts and calm down or maybe catch some sleep. Neither works and I push on becoming increasingly frustrated. If I want to keep up with at least the back of the field, I have to make up my mind and get back at it. At this rate I’m just falling behind. This is not a tour.

I’m meeting a few riders along the way. Everyone reacts differently to the news. We all have different backgrounds, too. Some people travelled long distances to race, and have flights booked out of Greece. Stopping is not an option for them. Of course not. And I know very well that the race did not suddenly become any more dangerous due to what happened, it’s still just a bike ride. Just try to enjoy it. James has caught a train further north in the meantime. I was joking before the race that if I had to scratch, it would probably be in Bingen, because that’s the spot closest to my home town. The further I would get away from home before any problems start to appear, the better. I’ve never liked long flat rides, I only chose this way because I figured it would be better to leave the hills for a little bit later, so when I leave Bingen and roll south into the gentle hills away from the river, the legs are happy about the change. It’s the mind that doesn’t play along. I keep struggling to find any motivation or even positive thoughts.

12:07 pm, Aspisheim, Germany

When I come up to the top of the first hill, I can clearly see Feldberg on the horizon, with the unmistakable towers on top and the surrounding Taunus mountains. That’s home, that’s where I could be now instead, temptingly close. But I don’t stop yet, because I know that for one, I couldn’t forgive myself if I did now, and simply because I’m not that desperate yet. The race has only started, surely some sort of miracle will appear on the road in front of me shortly to give me back the motivation. It always happens. Instead of the miracle, it’s another restaurant that’s more tempting than the slog of the road ahead. Sitting down is like admitting defeat.

12:16 pm, Ober-Hilbersheim, Germany

This is not racing, I’ve covered not nearly enough distance yet to allow myself such a stop. Yet I’m looking for any excuse I can get not to pedal. It feels pathetic and senseless. Not being able to make a decision makes me numb and immobile. While the rest of the field is slowly making its way through checkpoint 1, I’m sitting a good 200 kilometers north trying to think, going nowhere. And the only conclusion I seem to come to is „I want to be somewhere else“. Only the thoughts of the people who supported me prevent me from scratching at this point. I don’t want to let anybody down. While I’m having my food, a random road cyclist stops by for a drink. There’s chatter on the table next to me and when he remounts his bike, the locals ask him about his ride. He is doing a 180 kilometer loop which leaves the table in astonishment. I’m dreading the same question when I finally get back on my bike. Of course it comes. I take a deep breath. I’m riding… south. They are not satisfied. So I shrug my shoulders and tell them I’m going to Greece. The reaction is worth remembering, but I mainly remember the words coming across my lips and feeling like a lie. Who are we kidding here? I’m hopeless. I’ve spent almost an hour and a half at this place.

01:42 pm

Back on the road I still find myself meeting other racers, which I find remarkable for being so slow. Every kilometer pedaled, every random town bench stopped at, every lazy coffee stop and every negative thought amounting on top of another I slowly drench out all hope of mental recovery out of my mind. I’m beaten. I need time to think about this, to process it. I cannot seem to push the thought far away enough to pedal freely and think about anything else. At the same time it’s the single dark thought that brings me nowhere, and I’m aware that this doesn’t change when I quit the race. I’m actually afraid of quitting. A rain shower is the perfect excuse to stop for another coffee, as if coffee would have some sort of magical power. This is the one race that inspired me pick up my bicycle in the first place, that moved a lot in my life, that was without understatement in many ways the most meaningful undertaking in my life so far. I had dreamed about this day so many times but never imagined it to end like this. I call Tom from race organisation and have a good talk. One last time I give it a try, get back on my bike but deep inside I know it’s over.

04:38 pm, Worms, Germany

In Worms, not far from the river bank that I’m supposed to cross and turn right towards the Alps, I type the scratch notification and send the email. A couple sitting by the side of the road is drawn by my bike setup and she wants to know where I’m headed to, the usual question. I tell them about Greece, about the fellow rider that got killed and that I’m going home. She is genuinely shocked and tries to show empathy by saying „You stay safe out there!“

We always try to stay safe, it’s just not always in our hands. I cross the river and turn left.

trackleaders

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With a heavy heart I pulled out of the Transcontinental Race this afternoon. I struggled with this decision. It takes a strong mind and full focus to ride this race under normal conditions. I lost that after the senseless death of my fellow rider. Those who know how much the TCR means to me will understand the decision. I was not feeling unsafe, neither am I regretting my decision to start this wonderful race. As road cyclists, we are fully aware of the dangers of the open road. It was the shock, anger and quite some more emotions that in the end left me unable to ride as hard as a TCR is worth. The TCR team did an outstanding job of ensuring the best possible safety of all the riders. I salute the ones riding on. Rest in peace Frank.

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It took me four months just to write it down and what happened will surely stay with me for a time. One day I’m going to finish what I started. Of course I wish I could have continued and finished this time around, but I couldn’t and more importantly, know now, with some distance, that the decision was the right one at the time, for me. Some of my friends battled on and I feel utmost respect for that, regardless of whether they made it or not.

The dangers of the road shouldn’t keep us from riding our bikes, they should rather encourage us to do something about it and improve the situation between drivers and cyclists.

Never stop riding.

Rest in Peace Frank, Eric and Mike.

9 thoughts on “Transcontinental Race 2017

  1. Hey, good read! And it sounds pretty much like my own writeup – except it took me a day longer to accept that I had lost all motivation….

    Have you figured out yet what you’ll do when the application process for next year starts? I haven’t – and I am sort of dreading the day when it is time to make the decision whether or not to apply again….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot! I was the same (undecided) until a few days ago when I realized I still “have to” finish TCR, but I’m not ready yet for 2018, or I don’t want it enough right now. I’ll probably apply again for 2019. 2018 will do Italy Divide, Transatlantic Way and a bikepacking ride in Taunus in August.

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  2. Great write up Jesko and really interesting to read how this event affected everyone differently. To scratch was a tough decision and shows your strength of character. Hopefully our wheels will cross again in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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