To this day, I am not quite sure how the idea arose. Even by my standards it seems a little extreme to decide to cycle 1000km just to support some friends doing a race. But this wasn’t just any race, and these weren’t just any friends.
Ironman Frankfurt – the oldest Ironman in the world – was also the European Ironman Championships, and as such offered coveted extra slots for the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii later in the year. Just one week later, Challenge Roth, an equally prestigious and world-renowned festival of a race, would be taking place some 300km southwest, near Munich. With 3 athletes competing, along with some of my dearest friends, including my flatmate, I knew I had to be there for both.
Still unable to run some 6 months post knee surgery, I also knew I needed to find a challenge equally as tempting and exciting. Something I wasn’t quite sure I could do, which fed my need for adventure and freedom. Initially I contemplated cycling between the two races – and for a few days this seemed like an exciting plan. But still, something didn’t feel quite right.
If, I mused, I am going to go to all the trouble of flying to Frankfurt with my bicycle, only to cycle between cities, well, why not cycle straight there?
After all, if I am capable of cycling 300km, surely I can cycle for 800km? And that was that. The seed planted, I set about daydreaming for a month or so before madly scrambling to bring my plan to fruition.
I wanted to the trip to be a challenge, but most of all I was driven by a sense of adventure and exploration. With this in mind my route was devised thus: looking at a map I picked out the cities I had never been to and always wanted to see. I also decided upon a rough distance of 100-160km per day, which in theory should a) be manageable and b) allow me ample time to explore my new location on arrival. I settled on: Bruges, Antwerp, Maastricht and Bonn (with an unavoidable first day stop in Calais). This did leave me with a rather long last day (Bonn – Frankfurt, by my estimation 177km) but I figured by then I should have found my cycling legs.
The European heatwave (a real stroke of luck) made it easy to pack light. Armed with little more than a change of kit, toothbrush and a Pom Pom I set off from London to Dover to catch a ferry.
A few weeks prior to setting off I vaguely mentioned my plan to my wonderful physio, Ashes at Ultrasports. She wasn’t impressed. No, she said, when I told her my plan. You can do 1 day on, 1 day off. But no more. Oh. Ok, I said, not set on ignoring her but equally not quite ready to abandon my plan.
By the time leaving day rolled around I had made some concessions. The first, a nod to Ashes and my still-recovering knee. The first leg was the one I was most anxious about – and the only one with a strict schedule. I had to make it to Dover by 3.30pm to catch my ferry. The best route from Richmond to Dover was almost 180km. For the first day I conceded this was a stupid idea. Mostly because if I wrecked my knee before I arrived in France the whole gig would be off. Not to mention my longest ride to date was around 135km. So I decided to cycle instead to Charing Cross and jump on a train to Tunbridge Wells, thus cutting off 70km and the least fun part of the trip – the journey out of the city.
The second concession was to at least take a Garmin with me for some navigational support. I’d been set on travelling with just a map and an iPhone (and a compass!) but really who was I kidding; that was (the first of a few) bad ideas. So armed with a borrowed Garmin (thank you!) and some Strava routes, off I set.
DAY 1: LONDON – DOVER (110km)
Honestly day one was the worst by far. Anxious of missing the ferry I rode like a maniac for 70km and landed up in Folkestone tired and wired. And lost. It took me an hour of climbing dead end roads around the coast to get back on track and by that time I was exhausted (turns out climbing with a pannier is hard and takes some getting used to). I did make the ferry (where I slept face down on a table), and that night in Calais I couldn’t sleep because my shocked legs hurt like I’d run a marathon. Not surprising really- the day’s total of 110km and 1900m elevation was the most I’d cycled in over a year. Still, I was more excited than concerned about the days to come.
DAY 2: CALAIS – OOSTCAMP / BRUGES (110km)
Amazing what a bit of sleep and a good coffee can do. I set off from Calais feeling great. I knew this second day should be easy; the first few days through France and Belgium were pancake flat so nothing to trouble me too much, I hoped. The ride to Gravelines was quiet and straight-forward until roadworks sent me off-piste; an hour later I was finally getting lost again in Dunkirk which was annoying but also quite fun.
It was hot. I figured 110km wouldn’t take me that long, so I planned on exploring Bruges a bit before heading to my Airbnb in nearby Oostkamp. In fact, a late start faffing over coffee and croissants and the getting lost fiasco meant I was too knackered and also too late for Bruges – so I decided to leave it for the morning. I remained oddly unconcerned about how tired 110km could make me.
DAY 3 – OOSTCAMP – BRUGES – ANTWERP (140km)
Determined to see Bruges, I set off early to make the 20km round trip to Bruges and back before continuing on towards Antwerp. Bruges was gorgeous! I cycled round and round the cobbled streets smiling like an idiot. I found a little cafe, ordered a coffee and prayed my bike wouldn’t get stolen when I went to the loo (stupid decision number 3 was not to bring a lock). I would have stayed longer but the sun was getting hotter by the minute so I cracked on shortly afterwards towards Antwerp.
Although interspersed with roadworks and the odd power station, this was a beautiful route; pretty much as soon as I crossed the border from France to Belgium the cycle paths sprung up and life was lovely. I made my way along cycle and towpaths towards Gent and on to Antwerp. At one point I cycled onto a boat thinking it was a bridge which was alarming but fun!
I also got caught by a guy on a rather beautiful TT bike who was unhappy with his setup – after offering up my multi tool he fixed it and after giving me his best Ironman chat cycled off. Some things don’t change 😉
Having felt ok up to this point, I spiralled downhill quite quickly in the last hour as the temperature soared; the hotter it got the more lost I became.
I spent about half an hour deliriously trying to find a bridge in Antwerp that turned out to be an underground tunnel FOR CYCLISTS. Amazing.
I finally found my Airbnb and dragged myself out to see the city and sink my customary celebratory beer. It was really HOT!!!!
DAY 4- ANTWERP – KELMIS via MAASTRICHT (180km)
After a restless night’s sleep battling the heat I set off at the crack of dawn for what would be my biggest day so far. The route planned was 140km, ducking into the Netherlands briefly and skirting the city of Maastricht before heading onwards into the German-speaking minority town of Kelmis. Once out of Antwerp I made great progress: My strava route had me following towpaths for the first 100km, which was brilliant for the first 80km or so, and I felt quite pleased with myself when I sat down for a break at what I thought must be about halfway.
Unfortunately, from the halfway point onwards the towpaths became off limits due to works. My stubbornness and inability to read the Flemish diversion signs combined perfectly to get me thoroughly lost and frustrated.
Eventually I conceded I needed to take a big diversion. By the time I reached Maastricht I had clocked up 140km, knowing I had at least another 35km to go. I didn’t want to do this any more!
10.5 hours after leaving Antwerp I finally rolled in to the beautiful province of Kelmis. Despite arriving in a semi delirious state, after some food and a Belgian cider I was soon chatting happily away in the sunshine in the garden of the beautiful Belgian farmhouse, marvelling both at how far I’d come, and how far I had still to travel.
DAY 5: KELMIS – BONN (110km)
After my mammoth day 4 I was seriously starting to question my sanity and my ability to complete the final day of this leg, which was planned at around 180km. Knowing how much I struggled with the climbing on the first day, and with the distance of the previous day still haunting me, I was starting to wonder how on earth I would combine the two on the last stage, from Bonn to Frankfurt. This worry was weighing on me as I set off into Germany on day 5. Although *only* 105km, today the climbing started, so I was stealing myself for a tough day out. With this in mind I made a big decision – I swallowed my pride and took my foot off the gas from the start.
Going against all instincts, at the first sign of an incline, I changed to the little ring and spun my legs. I felt silly, but as I rolled through the beautiful German countryside, I realised my strategy was working. I felt good! In fact this was the best day of the whole trip. Despite the climbing the roads were beautiful, and in fact I spent most of the route off the road and on cycle paths, weaving through thistle fields and zig zagging through the countryside.
I came to learn my favourite German word “Schattenstrasse” or (shaded road) which to me not only sounded pretty but signalled welcome respite from the blazing sun…
…(*side note – least favourite word of the trip = “Omleiding” or “Diversion”).
Little over 4 hours later I rolled into Bonn, via the gorgeous Rhine for a glorious river swim. Once in Bonn I wandered around aimlessly, marvelling at another new place and stunned with gratitude, again, at what my recently broken body had just allowed me to do.
DAY 6: BONN- FRANKFURT (191km)
And so the ups are followed by the downs. Day 6 dawned at 5am, the jubilation of the previous day a distant memory as nerves and sleeplessness sent panic coursing through my system. But I knew I had to start early to give myself the best chance of surviving the day. Today was a day I knew I could run into trouble.
My legs had surprised me so far but I was under no illusions as to my fitness – I had no business riding 180km.
I was, therefore, prepared for a long day out, punctuated with frequent stops and gatherings of thoughts. I was also keen to get as many miles under my belt as I could before the oppressive heat closed in.
The day did not start well. The room I stayed in was insanely hot; no matter what I did I could not get the temperature down or the fan to work. I barely slept; a combination of the heat and near race-like nerves setting me on edge all night. To make up for this I made the bizarre sleep-deprived decision to down two strong coffees and head out straight away.
First stop was a lovely bike shop I had found the evening before. After 5 days of riding my chain was in need of a clean but I could only find a huge bottle of chain cleaner for sale – not something I was prepared to carry with me on my journey. The lovely guys at the shop took pity on me and sold it to me for a few euros – and in turn I promised to return the near-full bottle once I was done with it. Chain clean, I left the bottle, along with an old rag they also loaned me, on the bike shop doorstep. Off I went.
It took about 20 minutes before my stomach started objecting to the rocket fuel strength caffeine I inhaled at 5.30am on an empty stomach. Rule #1 – never try anything new on big days! My stomach was in knots the whole day. Although I suspect the nerves also had an effect. Irritatingly it took me about an hour to get out of Bonn, twisting and turning through various complicated bicycle paths, but once out the roads opened up and were once again, a sight to behold. I had been bracing myself for this day – with over 2,500m of climbing I knew it would be a big day – but I hoped that spread over 180km it might not feel too bad. 90km later however, I was a little concerned that I seemed not to have made much of a dent in the total elevation. Perhaps strava was wrong?
Around midday I rolled into a beautiful town of Diez. I stopped to take some photos and fill up my water bottles, suspecting that I had a few hours of climbing up ahead. One fear I had begun realising over the last few days was that of running out of water; the intense heat coupled with the rural route meant that I was never sure how long my water supply would last. So every opportunity to fill up became crucial.
Once stopped in Diez I realised how fierce the heat was. When you are actually riding it doesn’t feel so bad, the wind gives a little relief against the heat and tricks you into thinking it isn’t so hot. But off the bike it was a different story and I began to feel pretty ropey. I ventured into a tabac for water and grabbed a coke too (very unlike me, I don’t like coke). The lady in the shop looked at me questioningly and asked where I was going to. When I replied ‘Frankfurt’ she looked horrified, and then seemed to understand. “Ah, but you have a motor!” No, no motor, I said, feeling totally stupid for not having a motor. She waved me off clearly thinking I was mad, “Strong lady” she said, shaking her head.
Strava was not wrong. I started climbing shortly after and did not stop climbing for the next 6 hours. It was totally relentless. The roads got steeper as the day got hotter. Higher, higher, hotter, hotter. A wave of seriousness came over me as I realised this was a serious situation; I knew I needed to stay hydrated and in good shape and not get stuck in the middle of the German countryside. I could not have a meltdown here. It took all my energy to force negative thoughts out and replace them with confidence. I was focused for the first time, in a different way than before.
A few hours after leaving Diez and I started feeling weary. By my reckoning I still had over 1500m of climbing to do, which seemed impossible. My water supplies were running low and I was tired. I stopped quickly to check my route and picked up a message from one of my dear friends Jackie who had been following my progress on Instagram.
Most of my friends (along with my family!) it has to be said, had no idea I was doing this. “You’ve got this!” she said. “6 months ago you couldn’t walk, use that to push you through!”
It was all the motivation I needed. For 20 minutes I climbed, up steep cycle paths and into remote villages. At the top of this climb I found my proposed route – what seemed to be a gravel path through a forest. My heart sank. I had no idea how long this gravel would last, and with 150km on the clock and 36 degree heat, I knew I couldn’t face the prospect of puncture. I turned around, back down the climb, feeling deflated and a little panicked. I checked my phone to find a diversion – no signal. No water and no signal. I sat down on the side of the road to consider my options.
I knew it was fairly critical that I make the right decision here, and not ride for any length of time in the wrong direction – I feared that would be a fast track to a meltdown on one way or another. So I knocked on a door in this tiny German village and out of nowhere summoned up some German I didn’t know I had locked inside my brain, to ask for directions to Frankfurt. Again the man looked at me like I was a lunatic, but he did point me in the direction of my final destination. 40km – that way! He said. Relieved, I set off (up the hill, of course).
An hour or so later, as I crested yet another hill, the metropolis of Frankfurt appeared on the horizon. I could have cried. As long as I could see the city, I knew I was going to make it. The final 10km was all downhill and through the city, and even a few final wrong turns could not dampen my spirits. Finally, but finally, I rolled up to the hotel where I would be staying with my friends. I got off my bike, sat on the hotel wall, and smiled.
IRONMAN heroes (clockwise from top left): Marija, Simon, Liv/Marija finish line hug, Haukur, Trin, Nicola)