The courtyard was full of lean, experienced cyclists fine-tuning shiny road bikes. Mine sat idly in the corner battered from 6 months of inattention and bad roads. On a slightly tipsy whim I had decided to enter into a 1200km bike event and a day before departure the reality was starting to sink in.
I brought a notepad and pen to the cyclists meeting, assuming there would be some nugget of information that was going to get me through the 1200km course. There wasn’t, and the reality was pretty inescapable: get a route map, get on your bike, and cycle 1200km over four days with a very small amount of sleep. The meeting was just to socialize with the other cyclists and I felt a bit out of place, grimacing as I admitted this “super-brevet”, the longest distance in the series, was my first “brevet”. It was a word I grew to like as I got to know to the non-competitive culture of the international “randonneur” circuit. There were no big egos, just friendly people keen to see each other stay safe and do well, and the response to my admission was uniformly a big grin and one word – “great”.
Soon enough a small conference about what I needed for my bike had started and a group of old hands were discussing in detail how to attach my lights, which I had managed to procure earlier that morning. They couldn’t go on the handlebar as the handlebar bag would block the beam needed to illuminate dangerous potholes in the dark of night. As a long-distance cycle tourer my standard approach would be tape and/or string. But this was met with a grave shake of the head, kindly concealing inevitable exasperation, and perhaps the most wizened old hand proposed a bit of welding to create an extension to screw into an available bolthole at the top of the front fork. I set off into Tashkent to see if I could find someone willing to give it a go.
Free from luggage and having made a few repairs, I was gliding through the traffic, back on the bike for the first time after a week’s wait. I found a guy at a building site with a welder and we scoured the floor for bits of metal among the rubble and wire, and settled on an old plastering tool and a cut-off pipe. I tried to keep my distance in the tiny courtyard, as he connected the live wires of the plugless welder to the electricity and started fashioning what I hoped my hand gestures and gesticulating had adequately explained. It was very impressively beginning to take shape. He didn’t have a drill, so melted a gap in the metal and welded new edges in a smooth circle, and the new extension was successfully attached.
My bike set up, with an extra bit of character, I returned to the hostel and started to pack my things. A 5am start for a 6am departure felt like long enough to get a good breakfast, as I failed to sleep in an all-male dorm room beset by really discordant snoring. The next morning, ready to go, after silently gathering for a heavy duty breakfast, I couldn’t find my headphones. Newly nauseous, and panicked at the prospect of 90 hours of barren plains without music, I ran around the hostel searching, momentarily forgot my helmet, and set off into the cold morning feeling very unprepared.
The group of 15 raced out of Tashkent, a continuous stream of cyclists cutting through the traffic and cool breeze. My average day is about 75km, and it involves extensive breaks, so a two hour, 65km, race to the first checkpoint was a shock to the senses; 20 minutes later, setting off to do it again for 165km felt like moving to a new and different reality. But I felt good, with Magnus from Germany, cheered on by groups of cotton workers limbering up as the sun started to slowly warm the cold fields.
60km or so in we were caught by a fast group of cyclists led by the Italian contingent of Diego, Giorgio, and Francisco. I struggled to keep up, dropped off the group, and was left with only my thoughts, a deafening lack of music, and 1080km to go. Making the decision to push on, each moment, gradually ceded to regular breaks for caramel wafer biscuits. After a few hours of self-recrimination, to my surprise, I spotted a trio of cyclists in the distance. I stopped for a pot of tea. 1030km to go.
A flat tire extended the delay from just right to very frustrating, a slight wind started up, and a fast and furious last 50k to the checkpoint expended my remaining energy. 230km done for the day and 970km to go, as the sun started to recede over the small mountain pass up next. A strange interlude at the restaurant with an elderly drunk man trying to pick fights and often falling over brought me back to earth. After bolting down lots of plov and heading off solo into the night, I started to settle down for the long haul after the up and down of the first day. My timing was just right to see the last of the sunset at the top of the peak, and a descent in the dark ushered in the end of day one at 10pm, making it 330km for the day, and 10,000km since the UK.
A lot of cycling followed, basically. There wasn’t much else going on, apart from eating.
I can’t really remember much of day two. I set off alone, at around 3am. Newly inducted in what seemed like a slightly crazy world, it was easy enough to go with it. By mid-morning I got picked up by the group of Italians as well as Oleg from Russia. We caught up with Magnus by the afternoon, and after a few hours the group fragmented after a long stretch of potholed roads. Magnus and I arrived in Bukhara at about 8pm, after defying the road conditions to make a 60km break for it at speed. Initial plans to depart almost immediately quickly floundered over stew, bread, and beer. The next checkpoint would not be open until breakfast time, and that afforded us the excuse to get some sleep, in the gym, at the specialist sports school that was our lodging for the evening.
I set off alone on day three, or just before it, at 11.30pm, on cold, cold roads in the barren and solitary landscape between Bukhara and Samarkand. Magnus caught me up an hour or so later as I changed a second punctured inner tube. I was grateful for a companion, but quickly praying for an excuse to stop cycling, struggling to keep up with the constant pace of the former time trial specialist, but knowing that the kilometres would fly by if I hung on as long as I could. I got my wish, with my third flat tyre, and, out of inner tubes, I needed to spend 15 or 20 minutes repairing the puncture at the side of the road. It was 4.30am, freezing cold, and we had already completed half of the 160km stage, so I bid farewell to Magnus and thanked him for the lift.
I was there for about 30 minutes in the pitch black, struggling to keep my hands working. The tube I thought I had fixed quickly deflated again, and I started all over again, before finally resuming the ride. I quickly crashed and burned, wobbling along, struggling to stay awake. I decided to try and make it to a cafe, intent on each set of distant lights, only to find nothing but open pit mines or gas facilities in the really, really solitary landscape. I didn’t ever get very close, with the glowing eyes of barking dogs warning me against too much introspection.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a cafe for another 50km, during which time a strong headwind started, blowing the sand and dirt of the landscape into my eyes. I didn’t have any sunglasses, and the combination of potholes and oncoming traffic made closing them a very bad idea. I spent sunrise slumped at the side of the main road, propped up by the barrier, and half-slept for 20 minutes. The final 30km passed by, somehow, inching along and stopping constantly for what seemed like an age, and I reached the checkpoint alone, shattered, and sat down to a big meal. It slowly dawned on me that other people were struggling too, and I was overjoyed to see the Italian contingent as well as Oleg from Russia arrive soon after. After a long lunch the five of us simultaneously bowed our heads and amicably extended long legs in the tiny room to sleep, before setting off into the wind. Progress was slow and steady, somewhere around 15km an hour, constantly dreaming of being somewhere else, and long after darkness fell we arrived in Samarkand.
I decided to strike out early, and set off at about 3am. By chance, after about 8 hours of presumably blissful sleep, Magnus was setting out too, and we were joined by Pascal from France. We immediately made two wrong turns. But the wind had gone and from nowhere we did the first 100km, with the climb, at an average pace of nearly 30km, with only one short break to change the batteries in my lights. Pascal left us at about 60km in, and Magnus and I descended through Timur’s Gate, a stunning river valley, really, really fast as the sun came up. The first 80km of the next 165km stage was the fastest I have every cycled. We hovered between 30km and 40km an hour and took turns to up the pace, before stopping for a whole watermelon at the side of the road. Then I crashed and burned again, and blearily tried to focus on Magnus’s wheel in front of me for the remaining 80km, only momentarily emerging from my zombie-like state. A cocktail of energy drink, energy bar, and lots of fanta eventually brought me back to partial life.
A big lunch at the final checkpoint left us with 60km to go, and we arrived at the outskirts of Tashkent in darkness to do battle with traffic and roadworks after, in my case, 10 hours of sleep over three nights.
We were the first finishers to arrive, and ate pizza and drank beer for a few hours, grinning widely, until the others arrived, one hour before the time limit, before crawling into bed.
Everyone had made it through the wind of the previous day, some entirely on their own, like Ivo from the Netherlands, arriving in Samarkand at 2am in the morning. But three people had to retire as a result, through injury or lack of time. Unfortunately in the early morning of the final day one other had been hit by a lorry. It had veered to the side suddenly, it seems because the driver fell asleep, into the back of Arthur’s recumbent bike. Arthur got up immediately and got the driver into shape to put the bike and him in the lorry and find a nearby hospital, and needed 10 or 20 stitches in his head and in his arm. He was waiting for us at the end, stoically drinking a beer, and somehow far more chatty than either of us.
Three weeks on I still cant feel the tips of my fingers, I think because of the pressure on my hands rather than the cold. But I am completely hooked. And this was at least a good excuse for losing two games of Jenga in a row a few days later.
I’m not sure why I wrote all of this narrative. Probably to avoid cycling today, but also because participating in this event was such an amazing experience. It was such a huge surprise that it was not the physical challenge I struggled with. Yes the sight of me walking up and down stairs afterwards was very, very funny for bystanders. Really it was a mental challenge, and just a case of carrying on when normal social convention said it was time to stop. Not very difficult, just very different.
And in any case I did write it, so am not going to delete it or edit it down – if you have reached this far I salute you!