Not finishing a ride sucks.
When I enter a long-distance audax or cycling event, although I believe that I am completely capable of making it to the finish, I’m still aware that there are many things that can happen along the way that could prevent me from finishing.
In my preparation I try to mitigate the risk as much as possible. I make sure that my route is nailed down, kit is well-tested, bike is prepped and, if possible, I try to come up with a few ‘plan-B’ scenarios in advance, just in case, as I know mistakes are more likely to occur when I’m tired. I also have a stubborn streak that will often keep me pushing on through to find a way through situations when others may choose to call it a day, but sometimes things just don’t go according to plan and despite all the preparation, those plan B’s just don’t quite cut it. A few simple mistakes can soon stack up and cost you your ride.
This was the situation that Julie and I found ourselves in earlier this month when we took part in the Normandicat as a pair – A 900(ish) km ‘free-route’ cycling event that circumnavigates the region of Normandy in France. Riders plot their own route, which must take in nine checkpoints that are situated throughout the region. The event starts in Saint Vigor le Grand, just outside Bayeux, at 10 pm on a Wednesday evening. From there riders may travel in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, taking in all of the checkpoints, to arrive back at the start by Saturday at 8pm – a 70-hour time limit.
We’d plotted a route just over 900km and planned to travel in a clockwise direction. Usually during this type of event we would have chosen to bivy, but as it was still early May and considering the lousy track weather we’d had with the weather so far this year, we decided to sleep indoors in 24-hour access motels. The limited locations of this type of hotel along our chosen route dictated what our daily distances would be.
Travelling clockwise also involved catching an early-morning ferry across the Seine to reach our first chosen control at Jumieges Abbey. As the ferry didn’t run during the night we’d planned to cycle 73 km into the first night and have a few hours sleep at Deauville, arriving at the ferry early Saturday morning. This broke down the remainder of our journey into 350 km on the Thursday, 300 km on the Friday and 188km on the final day.
We’d planned to have around three hours sleep per night and if we stuck to our usual 20 kmph average we’d make it back for the finisher’s meal with a couple of hours to spare.
All went well on our first night. We had a tailwind and made really good progress, arriving in Deauville an hour ahead of hour schedule at 1am. We decided that we’d make the most of the hour gained by having an extra 30 minutes sleep and set off 30 minutes earlier than planned on Thursday morning.
Waking up to light rain on Saturday morning made us feel justified in our decision to stay in hotels rather than bivy. First priority of the day was breakfast. Julie had planned out a list of potential food stops along our route in advance, however when we were
making our plans we hadn’t realised that the Thursday was bank holiday in France. Thankfully, the boulangerie that we had listed 30 km into the ride opened at 7 am, as planned, and we arrived shortly after. The baker and his assistant certainly didn’t seem to be too happy about being open so early on a bank holiday and netted us with grumpy faces. The supermarkets on our list, however, were all closed until after lunch so we had to take it easy with the remainder of our ride snacks until we could find one that was open.
The roads were very quiet with it being a bank holiday and again we arrived at the ferry ahead of our predicted schedule. Upon arrival we bumped into another pair of riders
from Belgium. They’d bivied in the woods close to the river but hadn’t slept very well due to the cold and damp conditions throughout night. We boarded the ferry together and chatted about out prospective routes and plans. They were planning on visiting the checkpoints in the same order as us so we expected to be seeing more of each other throughout the rest of the day.
The Abbey at Jumièges was our first checkpoint. As we weren’t wearing trackers, we validated our arrival by taking a photo and posting it on social media with the hashtag #normandicat and our pairs race number ’26’. This was a nice way of doing it as enabled us to follow the whereabouts and progress of all of the riders from our phones really easily.
Using the phone for social media uses up the power more quickly but I have an Igaro D1 USB charger attached to my Dynamo so I can charge up my phone during the day as I’m riding along. In order to keep the wires connected to the dynamo my quick release skewer needs to be done up super-tight and unfortunately it hadn’t been done up quite tight enough and the wires had been put under strain. I thought I’d noticed it just in time as my light cable wires were still connected but when I started to charge my phone nothing happened and I realised that the charger cable wires had snapped free from the connector block. I had a back-up charger with me and, as the light was still working (more important than the phone), I didn’t really want to have a go at fixing it until I could be certain that could do it somewhere where I could see what I was doing properly.
We weren’t the only ones having power problems. Our friend V, who was taking part as a solo rider, had also posted upon social media that her dynamo had also failed leaving her with no lights, so she’d had to stop riding as soon as it was dark on the first night and bivy until it was light enough to ride, although she’d had very little actual sleep, so she was behind her schedule and in need of a bike shop.
Julie and I had a second breakfast in a creperie near the Abbey and the discussed the consequences of my knackered charging lead. When we are bivying Julie usually brings along a big power bank that we can use alongside my Igaro to charge our Garmins and other devices for a few days at a time away from a plug-in power source. However seeing as we weren’t bivying and this event was only 70 hours in duration we’d decided not to bring it this time. Now that my dynamo charger had failed, we weren’t sure how long my small back-up charger would last so we decided to just go down to using one Garmin between us instead of one each as we usually do, in order to save its power for later as we expected to be riding for around 20 hours on the first full day.
Undeterred and with a plan we headed off to our second control 66km to the north of our current location, near Neufchatel. The sun was shining now and the day was shaping up to be a hot one. We were keeping our eyes peeled for an open supermarket along the route and were due to pass through a village with a few shops around 30 km away. I’d been struggling to get all of my gears for most of the morning and wondered if I’d somehow managed to give my rear mech a bit of a knock getting it in and out of the hotel earlier – bikes and hotel room doors are never a good combination. Thankfully there were only a few short hills on an otherwise flattish route so I wasn’t really having to change gear that much and decided I’d just wait until we stopped for food and take a look then.
The village of Quincampoix came good on the supermarket front so we decided to have an early lunch and stock-up on ride snacks here for the rest of the day just in case we weren’t so lucky later on. Julie went into the supermarket while I stayed outside to take a look at my gears. The mech looked pretty straight so I figured that the problem lay somewhere with the cable. I pulled on it, immediately felt it go slack in my hand and realised that the cable had snapped. The cable end was stuck in the shifter and I couldn’t get it out, so even though I had a spare cable with me, I couldn’t fit the new one without first removing the end of the old one.
I was pretty annoyed as this was the second time that this had happened to me in the space of a year and this was a new shifter, but I was also annoyed with myself because I’d not bothered to fit new cables before the event. They were last changed back in January and, as I’d not ridden as much as usual this year due to the lousy weather, I’d assumed they’d be ok.
I was concentrating so much on my own situation that I didn’t notice Julie dropping further and further behind. Julie had slowed down as she’d been feeling pretty sick since we’d stopped for lunch. My speed was very erratic as I was making the most of the flat sections then slowing down every time I had to grind up a hill, so I wasn’t the greatest riding partner, yo-yoing along the road as I sped up and slowed down.
We arrived at checkpoint two, took our photo and tried giving the bike shop a call to let them know we were coming. No answer. That meant that they were probably shut – it was a bank holiday after all. I still felt pretty strong at this stage and was beginning to wonder if it would be possible for me to complete the event with just my two gears. Other people complete these events on single-speeds so why couldn’t I have a go? Normandy isn’t that hilly and we were still making good time at this point. I was feeling positive.
Given that nobody had picked up the phone at the bike shop we decided not to take a detour there and just head straight over to checkpoint three at Lyons La Foret, 60 km to the south. In the afternoon heat we were getting low on water and all of the shops and restaurants were closed in the villages we were riding through. We were just about giving up hope of finding any water when we rode past a football pitch with a little clubhouse. We sneaked through the clubhouse gate hoping that we’d find an outside tap and we were in luck!
With our hydration issues solved we pressed on to checkpoint three. As we got closer to our destination the road started getting a little more undulating and I was beginning to find it hard work as my legs were starting to tire from pushing bigger gear. Julie was still suffering and kept dropping back so we were both releived to arrive in the pretty little village of Lyons La Foret around 4pm and find everything open. The main square was full of people and most of the shops and cafes were busy. There was even a bike hire shop but unfortunately the guy working there didn’t have any tools and couldn’t really help me.
We bumped into a few other competitors including the pair of Belgian riders we’d met earlier that morning. As we chatted about my gearing situation and possible makeshift solutions, we noticed that my rear mech’s barrel adjuster was missing. In my haste to remove the old cable and housing I’d forgotten to screw my barrel adjuster in tightly and it must’ve jiggled out as I’d been riding along – I felt like a right idiot for forgetting to check such a fundamental thing. I can put it down to tiredness and frustration but I still should have taken more care.
We had a longer than planed stop in Lyons-La-foret as the cafe owner offered to let us plug in our devices to charge them up for a while. I was beginning to doubt whether my legs had the ability to pedal a further 160 km to our booked accommodation in Alencon with my limited gear options as my knees were starting to feel a little sore. But after a rest, a sandwich and two coffees I felt ok to get back on the bike, physically at least, if not mentally.
Once those feelings of doubt started to creep in, it was the beginning of the end and I couldn’t talk myself back into a positive frame of mind. Two hours later, after struggling up a hill on quite a busy main road around 30km south of Rouen, we pulled into a petrol station forecourt to have a breather and I told Julie that I didn’t think I could continue.
Knowing when to make that very difficult call to scratch during an event – and being happy with your decision to do so – is a very personal experience. Except that when you’re competing as pair you’re not just making that decision for yourself – you also have your race partner to consider.
Julie didn’t put up much of a fight. She was still feeling sick despite our long rest at Lyons-La-Foret and as we’d only been using one Garmin on my bike for most of the day, without a route to follow she was also feeling pretty demotivated. She’d been keeping quiet about how she’d been feeling because of my determination to keep going, and because she knew the feeling would probably pass, but now that she didn’t have to keep going I think she was happy that I’d made the decision for both of us.
So at around 7pm, only 21 hours after setting off and with around a quarter of the distance covered, we officially scratched from the race. We cycled back toward the outskirts of Rouen to find a hotel, take stock of the days events and think about what we should do for the remainder of our trip now that we were no longer racing.
That night in the hotel was difficult for me. As I played the day’s events over and over in my mind I was annoyed at myself for not replacing the cables before the race and for not winding my barrel adjuster in enough once the cable had snapped. I was also angry at myself for giving in and not pushing on further, for doubting my own ability to continue. Other people ride events like this on single-speed bikes, why couldn’t I? But the decision had been made and it was pointless beating myself up over it. The most important thing was that we were both safe and well.
As Julie and I talked it through I think we both realised that that the biggest mistake we’d made was underestimating the race itself. We’d both made the assumption that a three-day race would somehow be easier than a longer event but in many respects a shorter race is tougher as there’s much less wriggle room if something goes wrong and less of a chance to make up the lost time.
I have to believe that I made the right decision to scratch. We went on to get my bike fixed the next day at a brilliant bike shop in Rouen – massive thanks to Quinten for sorting out my trapped gear cable and finding a spare barrel adjuster for my rear mech. What a star! I guess if we’d have continued trying to race we wouldn’t have visited that great little shop and I could’ve spent the remainder of our trip riding around with two gears and sore legs. Instead we made our way back to Bayeaux at a much more leisurely pace with a full complement of gears and much happier knees.
The following day we rode out to what would have been our final control at St. Vaast and had lunch at the seaside before heading back to attend the finisher’s dinner despite not ‘finishing’. That turned out to be a great morale-boosting decision for us both as we discovered that we weren’t the only competitors to have scratched and it was reassuring to chat with other riders who were experiencing the same emotions that we were feeling.
Despite not finishing the Normandicat I still really enjoyed the part of the race that we managed to complete. The event organiser, Xavier, and his army of volunteers who made sure we were all looked after and well fed, should be proud of what they have created. The event took us through some of the loveliest parts of Normandy and the checkpoints that Xavier has chosen are quirky and interesting. It’s just a shame that we only got the chance to visit half of them.
I hope to be back again next year to see the other half and finish what we started – complete with new cables. That’s one mistake I won’t make again in a hurry.