Cross-Germany, Part II

Experience from the field: “My legs were burning and I could no longer remember why I had wanted to be there”

On The Town | Christian Cummins | October 2009

A good mountain bike ride can bring on a welcome bout of amnesia. I was speeding down a slick and zigzagging single-trail through the meadows of Oberwiesenthal. The mud track led from the highest point of the race – the Fichtelberg – down over flower-strewn meadows, past ski lifts and in front on a huge ski jumping arena where local hero Jens Weißflog had learned his trade, before curving tightly round into the finish arena of Stage 6.

The murderous, lung-bursting climb to the top was already forgotten. Exactly five hours after leaving Schöneck, in Vogtland, I had reached my best finishing place yet 262nd out of 301 starters (immerhin). I felt like a million Euros.

Just 27 hours earlier, I had been sitting all on my own eating chocolate chip cookies in an empty sports hall (our camp for the night) feeling as low as I can remember feeling. I was tasting the bitter loneliness of defeat. For one thing, I had started the week as the only competitor without proper cycling shoes, which have a sort of binding mechanism that attaches the shoe to the pedal and massively improves efficiency. Getting hold of a pair had become an obsession, my Holy Grail – the magic formula that would end all pain and make cycling easy.

We’d ridden hard through the spruce forests of Saxony, close to the Czech border. The forest had been cloaked in a thick fog, and the long line of riders ahead would gradually disappear into the mist. Then we briefly emerged and, caught by the rare sun, swung over a centuries old stone dam. At the bottom of a winding switch-backed plummet through the woods, we had splashed through a pebbly ford, the spray exploding around us.

It had been an utterly beautiful ride. The shoes with clips, that I had finally tracked down in Thuringia, were working wonders. But my joy had turned into bottomless despair less than 48 hours later on Stage 5, just 200 metres out of the start out at Bad Steben. One of the clips had broken and got stuck in the pedal. The shoe had no grip. I couldn’t continue.

Then a man swept up the field on a quad bike. In the relentless pouring rain he and I struggled to prise the clip out of the pedal and screw it somehow back onto the shoe. By the time we had managed it, I must have been 15 to 20 minutes behind. I put my head down and pedalled desperately to catch them. But the race marshals must have thought everyone had already passed; somewhere I missed a turning. I found myself utterly lost on a main road. I powered on, hoping against hope for a sign I was on the right route. When I got to a junction with an autobahn, hope finally ran out.

As the lorries swept by and the rain came down, I poured over the route card, unable to make head nor tail of it. I thought about turning round, and retracing the race. But I would be an hour behind the last man and, more importantly, behind the rescue bikes. I had a vision of lying alone and forgotten in the dirt and the rain.

Then my brain kicked in. When a support vehicle came, I got in with my bike. In a couple of hours I was in Schöneck – the very first biker to arrive.

It’s hard to describe the desolation I felt in that empty cold sports hall in the former East Germany. I thought of all of the fighting I’d done to keep pace in the first four days. I thought of the long weeks of training – getting up at dawn for a ride before work. I thought of the five nights on the floor in smelly halls, washing my clothes by hand. I thought of the saga of getting the clippy-cloppy shoes. In the end, I just felt numb and empty. And, I’d let down everyone who had been supporting me back home. All because I hadn’t screwed a tiny piece of metal tightly enough into my shoe – a ‘typical’ beginners mistake, I’m told.  For want of a shoe…

I’m not telling you this because I want pity. A week earlier, I could never have imagined that I would care in the slightest. Even now, I was 6th last of the men under 40 – the little team I have formed is entirely made up of women and men over 40. In any sensible terms, my exit from the standings hardly made a difference. But there is something about a race like this that drags you in. All I had been thinking about was pedalling and eating. I had arrived with my i-Pod, thinking I would need some distraction during the six hours on the bike. As it panned out, I was always totally absorbed by just following the wheel in front. I was absolutely determined to finish every kilometre.

During the race, my riding mate Sissi said she was kept up in the night trying to pedal in bed. I think we were all going a bit bonkers, to be honest. I’d always thought that endurance athletes were a fascinating, but strange, species. Now, I was gradually learning what made them tick.

Anyway, to cheer myself up yesterday, I went to the local thermal baths and had a jacuzzi – Schöneck, a holiday resort. I thought about Roger Federer and his tears of misery in Melbourne and tears of joy in Paris. It’s not getting knocked down that makes you a loser, they say, it’s not getting up again.

I decided to race my lungs out for the rest of the week.

But the final day was anything but a parade around the Champs-Elysées. After a sharp climb out of Oberwiesenthal, we found ourselves perilously close together, on a long, fast downhill track through a birch forest.  It’s exhilarating, yet terrifying, when you are speeding down a track in the middle of a line of over three hundred bikers. The mud was slippery and the gravel always felt perilously instable. I knew that I was going faster than I felt comfortable with, and that any slip could cause a pile up.

Less than half an hour later, we had a nasty reminder of just how risky the sport really is: On the left of an innocuous looking track through the woods, a cyclist lay motionless. The medical team, which chases the field on motorbikes, had put a neck brace on him and attached him to an intravenous drip. It seemed callous to just ride on by, as if it had nothing to do with us. After all, we are team mates of sorts… It certainly put everything in perspective.

This was the shortest stage, so why was I so tired? Once again it was raining and the tracks were muddy. That is, added torture for laboured legs. The difference in speed between biking over mud rather than over dry ground is similar to the difference between skiing through slush rather than on hard-packed morning snow. Every now and then we had to pump our thighs to get the wheels through patches of flood water. That extra exertion demanded an energy that I barely had left to give.

I had been in the saddle for around 40 hours, over the course of seven days. My legs were burning and I didn’t seem to be able to gulp enough air to service my lungs. I could no longer remember why I wanted to be there.

Then, as we rounded the corner, a lady was handing out little glasses of prosecco and, side by side with the two companions that had dragged me through most of the week, I could free-wheel over the finish-line in Seiffen, in the Erzgebirge, utterly exhausted but elated after the physically toughest week of my life.

It was a strange feeling finishing, but not having really finished. It was like celebrating Christmas after the actual date. Fun, but you can’t really persuade yourself that it’s real.

But then it was evening; I was finally drinking a delicious German beer with the riders who had shared the insomnia, the cold, the muscle-ache, the triumph and the disappointment. Celebratory fire-works exploded in the rainy sky above us. We knew we had shared something very special, something that the pain had only made more meaningful. Long after the aches and pains had subsided, pedalling through Germany would remain unforgettable.

Other articles from this issue