[Ed. note: apologies for lack of pictures, brain too melted to figure out the links - but damn fine set of accompanying images are viewable here, courtesy of Chris, who also took on the potatoes of Portugal and won...]
Having re-read what I’ve already written, I’ve realised I’ve not really set much of a scene. The other riders are such a big part of a race like the Trans Portugal and were really important to me each day. So I’ll create a bit of an interlude by describing some of the other riders.
As well as structuring my riding by when and what I would eat, by day 3 I had figured out that I could tell how well I was riding or feeling by when some of the other riders passed me. As one of the female riders, I was set of up to an hour ahead of the young (under 35) male riders. In between that time, male riders in different age bands would be set off with the oldest being set off closest to my start time.
I was always set off with Shanti and Manuela. I cottoned on pretty quick that Manuela was going to be super quick. Even before we started riding, she had the look of a very quick rider (maybe it was her Merida team kit and bike) and I wasn’t wrong. Every morning she’d stand beside me on the start line and tell me that I was doing really well and that she just knew I’d be able to finish this stage, then as soon as they said go, she’d be off and powering away. I tried to keep up with her but realised very quickly that I just couldn’t ride at that pace for more than an hour. Shanti, and her lovely pink Elsworth, would always slot in between Manuela and I once we started. Despite having a couple of really rough days because of the heat, Shanti always got back onto the start line every morning to try the next stage. I’d generally be able to keep Shanti and Manuela as specks in the distance for the first hour, but after that, I generally wouldn’t see them again unless Shanti was having problems with the heat and had to slow down.
By day 3, I’d realised that Leon and Jan (both of whom were returning for the 2nd or 3rd time to do the race), who were generally set off between 10 and 20 minutes after me, should catch me within 45 minutes to an hour depending on how flat the terrain was up to that point. I’d know they were approaching by the ting of Leon’s bell, so I’d reply with a ting of my bell and make sure that there was space for them to pass. Despite being around 20 years older than me, these guys were strong and fast! Leon had broken his collar bone on day 7 last year, so was determined to finish the race this year.
Then I’d be on my own for a little bit, until about an hour and 20 minutes in when it would start to get busy. Generally I’d hear the whoosh of the 2 lead riders approaching, Frans, the young Belgian who was very studious about his racing, and Joao, the young Portuguese lad who won last year. I’d always get a grin from Joao, but Frans was so “in the zone” I don’t think he even knew anyone other than he and Joao were in the race! Both of these riders amazed us all by just how quickly they were able to finish the stages each day (a sub 4 hour 100k is pretty impressive in my book, but sets a very tough target for next year when the cut offs will be based on those times). Aside from just how quick they were, we were all amazed at just how much food they both shovelled away at dinner each night…a rough estimate would probably be 3 returns to the buffet for each course of dinner and each plate was piled high with food. I knew it was the right thing to eat lots at night, but I just couldn’t come close to matching that amount. A few of us tried one evening, but failed miserably! Joao lost out on his first place because he lost his GPS one day and decided not to go back to find it. This decision cost him dearly and he was penalised by that entire day’s riding being deducted from his mileage and being awarded the longest time possible for the stage. He didn’t seem to mind though and still rode like a demon for the rest of the race. He said he’d only go back next year to win it if his mum would let him.
Frans and Joao were set off last with the youngest group of riders, so by the time they passed me, they’d already passed most of the field. So shortly after they passed me, I’d usually hear Tom Letsinger shout “Hey Jac, how are you doing today?”. Tom is another vetran of the race who rode it on a 3 speed last time but decided to go with an 8 speed this year – he’ d said before the race that if I did it singlespeed he would too, but I wasn’t brave enough. Tom also admitted after day 2 that he sometimes slowed down to talk to me as he passed so that he didn’t have to try to keep up with the fast pack of riders he was with if he feel like it that morning. Since Tom came 9th overall, I’m guessing that after he rested up with me for a few minutes, he must have kept a terrifying pace!
Next, I’d hear a shout of “Good work Jac!” (no matter how fried I was looking and feeling) from Dave the Canadian as he and a pack of very fast, mixed age group of guys flew past. Most days Erik, the soup drinking Canadian, would be amongst that pack and shout some encouragement as he flew by. Erik had really struggled with the heat on days 1 and 2 and had announced that if he lived in Europe he’d be super religious so that he could duck into all the little roadside chapels to get some shade on hot days. He also ran low on energy food so decided to take to take a water bottle of cold soup with him one day. Apparently it worked quite well.
Then things would start to quieten down again for a while. If I was lucky, I’d be able to keep some of the other female riders just in sight. Sandra, who was set off 10 minutes before me in the morning, would usually ride at a similar pace to me, but sometimes I’d manage to catch her and we’d leapfrog eachother for a few hours.
I would usually expect to see the Belgian train after about 2 and a half hours. These were the rest of Frans’ team of riders. Some of them had really struggled with the heat, despite being very strong riders. Sometimes I’d try to jump on the Belgian train and ride with them for a bit – this worked well if we were riding a stage with lots of gates because we’d all work together on the opening and closing the gates (these gates aren’t your usual gates and will get a full mention later on), but most days I couldn’t keep up with their pace, so gradually left them to it as I settled back into my pace.
Shortly after I’d hear the ting of Chris’ bell. Sometimes that was good, other times it wasn’t. If I was feeling bad, riding with a familiar person semed to bring out the worst in me and meant I’d have a good old moan to Chris about how terrible I was feeling, but if I was feeling good, we’d ride together for a while, swap energy gels for flavours we preferred and generally have a bit of a natter. Eventually though, I’d tell Chris to go on and I’d settle back into my own pace.
Some time around then I’d expect Christophe, one of the 2 French riders to catch up with me. I had stopped to help Christophe on day 2 when he ripped his tyre and he was amazed by all the gubbins I brought out of my camelback before I found my tyre boots. Anyway, despite Christophe speaking no English and my French being limited to the very basics, we managed to have a full blown conversation each day as he passed me. I didin’t know what he was saying and I don’t expect he really understood the pidgin French I spoke, but we always grinned and chattered away to each other for a few minutes.
Then I’d hear “Hey Minx Girl!” from Paul and Mack. These two seemed inseparable when they were riding and seemed to work really well together. Paul was always very concerned if I was looking rough and kept apologising for talking me into doing the race and promising me that it isn’t usually as hot. I think he knew that deep down I was secretly enjoying it despite looking like I was about to keel over
Although I was sure that 60 odd riders hadn’t already passed, there were very few riders who passed me after that. Trinidadian Ryan would always catch me at some point and comment on how hot it was. I’d usually pass the Russian riders, although they were set off after me. Because they were really struggling they would often be driven to the first check point so that they could ride a bit of the course. Evgeny admitted to me one morning that he was finding it tough, not only because of the heat and his fitness, but mostly because he couldn’t ride with his specs on, so couldn’t actually see his GPS and usually ended up making up the route as he went along which generally didn’t go well. (After 2 search parties were sent out for him on 2 consecutive days, he was asked to ride with a tracker in his pack so that he could be found if he got lost again.)
What always surprised me was that, although all of these riders were obviously quicker and stronger than I was, they all treated me as an equal. I wasn’t the numpty slow girl, I was a rider just like the rest of them. As far as they were concerned, I was one of them. I think this just emphasised the fact that although the event was pitched as a race, for many of the riders it wasn’t so much a race against eachother as a race against yourself and the elements. Yes, there were a few of the quick blokes who were racing for a podium place or a top 10 place, but the rest of us were just pushing ourselves to see what would happen each day. All of us suffered in some way because of the heat or dehydration and the distances were tough day after day, but we were all in this together, suffering together, and in some bizarre way, enjoying it together. By the end of the 8 days racing, we were all agreed that the race must be some sort of weird communal penance for something we’d all done. We were all chatting quite openly about bottom sores, throwing up at the side of the trail, sore heads because of lack of sleep and dehydration, the bites from unseen bugs. In the same breath though, you’d always hear a comment about how incredible this bit of scenery or that bit of trail was, or about the amount of pave in Portugal (Roman, medieval or modern day, there’s more pave in Portugal than Belgium, but nobody riding it on cross bikes!). We were a hobbling motley crew of funny tan lines, 1,000 yard stares, smiles or grimaces, but we were in this together and we’d make sure nobody was left on the trail in need.
Now that you know a little bit more about who I was riding with (well, for parts of each day), my next instalment on my adventure might start to get a little bit more into context.