A year ago, Mimi’s number hadn’t even made it into the “contacts” list in my phone; now we are both naked, lying side-by-side in a queen-sized bed with our battered legs elevated against the wall, wondering why in the hell these hotel rooms don’t have ceiling fans. I type, laptop resting on my belly, as we try to recall the preceding 10 hours. Then, we dip in to our mobile medicine cabinet hopeful that something will help our exhausted minds shut down so that our exhausted bodies can get some rest.
Welcome to the world of stage racing. Or rather, welcome to the TransPyr, during the hottest week on record in the Spanish Pyrenees.
As you are wont to do when committing to something months before it occurs, after Mimi and I clicked “purchase” on our TransPyr race entries one swirly snowstorm morning in January, we went skiing and promptly forgot about it. When the spring started pushing daffodil and crocus shoots through the Colorado dirt, we thought we should at least think about getting on our bikes.
With the help of a coach and our commitment to not let training take the place of enjoying riding our bikes, we loosely scheduled 12 weeks worth of close-to-home short rides and weekend trips to the desert and high country. An uncharacteristically wet spring dampened a few of our planned adventures—we had to hitchhike home from 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park after it started spitting snow and we couldn’t stop shivering—but our legs protested less with each longer ride.
Then there were all the logistical pieces of the puzzle, which we tackled with typical Colorado laissez faire. We bought plane tickets in May (for the June departure), I was in almost-daily communication with the race organizers in Spain, asking questions they’d just answered in their newsletters, and we still didn’t know quite what type of terrain we’d be riding (other than the fact that there were 800 kilometers of it, with 18,000 meters of accumulated climbing).
But it’s a good thing we didn’t let preparation and anxiety hijack our lives before the race because nothing can really prepare you for what happens after the opening gunshot sounds.
Nothing can prepare you for showing up at the start line with GPS devices that don’t work.
This is a big deal when the racecourse isn’t marked. When the daily distance ranges from 95-135 kilometers, and the route follows no predictable course (pavement turns to singletrack turns to following-the-cowpath in a matter of minutes), you need to be able to rely on something other than your gut. Mimi had a nice new touch-screen Garmin that she’d been using during our training rides to monitor her heart rate and record our routes. I had an older model not really meant for biking, but my boyfriend and I uploaded the GPX files the day before I left for Spain and drove to a Cabela’s in a strip-malled suburb of Denver to find a handlebar mount for it.
Giddy at the start line, we both powered on our devices. Mimi: “Oh, shit.” Me: “Oh, no.”
Hers was nothing but a line on the screen, no discernable detail behind it to tell us if we were in Catalunya or Kathmandu. Mine? Nothing. No files. Not even the boyfriend’s recordings of past moto trips. This. . .could be a problem. But the gun sounded, we were at the front of the pack (ladies first, the Spanish way), so the only thing we could do was pedal. And pray that there was always someone in front of us or behind.
Nothing can prepare you for the weather.
Feeling confident that we had our gear dialled after YouTubing the race and noticing that everyone was wearing jackets and vests, we stuck arm warmers and extra gloves into our packs the first day.
Mimi is fair-skinned and hides in her basement with a bowl of ice cream during our hottest summer months. I love the sun and heat and have the wrinkles to prove it, but I had never seen sweat bead up and roll off my skin at such an alarming rate. Gone was the thought that we would lighten the weight of our packs by carrying only a liter of water. And gracias a dios for the Spaniards who always seemed to know where there was a fountain with potable water in villages that appeared otherwise abandoned. On the hottest day of all, even the South African thought they should have cancelled the race.
Nothing can prepare you for how your body will protest, then adapt, to the physical challenges you present it with.
Nor can you prepare for the power your mind has when the body breaks down.
In the early hours of the seventh and final day of the race, I awoke to Mimi groaning in the bathroom. Oh no, I thought. This is it. She tried, bless her heart, to drink water and muster the will to eat the crumbled pieces of bread I brought up to the room from breakfast, but her body refused it all. Minutes before the starting gunshot (and minutes after she’d ducked into the trees to puke), we arrived breathless at the medic tent.
“Get me something,” Mimi said. “Anything.” The medics weren’t surprised with her symptoms; apparently we weren’t the first visitors that morning. She swallowed two small white pills, and we crawled over the start line, in step with the other struggling riders.
Mimi was sick, but I was worried sick. I didn’t think there was any way she’d have the strength to pedal the last 95 kilometers (and 2500 meters) to the sea. The climbs were—as they’d been each day—punishing, the air crackled with heat, and our pace was tortoise-like. Although she hated it, Mimi let me take her bike and walk it up some of the steeper climbs. She ate a banana when I told her that the orange that she wanted would upset her stomach. She let our Spanish friend Fran ride beside her, pushing her up the worst of the climbs. And she decided, somewhere around kilometer 40, that she wanted to finish. Despite my assurances that I didn’t care if we got those damn jerseys, that we needed to be safe and take care of her, I knew that I had to let her ride.
Nothing can prepare you for the bonds you will forge…
…with your race partner, who hangs back with you as you whinge and drag through Day 3 (the preceding five restless, jet-lagged nights finally catching up) and who inspects your bum to make sure the saddle sores aren’t becoming septic.
With your friends and family, who loan you out to aforementioned race partner and understand that the workout plan trumps date nights and weekends away, then send virtual high fives and hell yahs across the Atlantic Ocean.
You start to recognize the people you meet on the trail by bike and by helmet colour and by their playful quips—like the only other racer who wore baggies and noticed the minute we traded ours for Lycra only (a temporary measure enacted to try and reduce chafing); and the portly South African who always wanted to talk politics and yelled “Obama” when we passed. The German girls from Bavaria—the only other non-pro females—who we leap-frogged day after day, learning about their kids, their boyfriends, their jobs, and how fast they drove on the autobahn. And our guardian angels Fran and Manel, the Spaniards who stayed back on the last day to make sure that Mimi was ok and that we all crossed the finish line together.
Intimacy with others arrives quickly when life seems only to consist of eating, sleeping, and pedaling for seven days straight, and it also forces you into new depths of relationship with yourself.
If you sign up for a stage race, by all means, get prepared. Ride your bike and lift weights. Buy yourself an expensive pair of chamois. Make a detailed packing list, book the hotels months in advance, and arrive at the start line feeling capable and collected. But know that most of what will happen will be an adventure—equal parts peril and fortune—and that you shouldn’t try to have it any other way.
Betsy Welch writes and rides from her home in Lyons, Colorado. She’s always scheming two-wheeled adventures, and dreams of one day living in a place where surfing and singletrack are a stone’s throw from one another. Betsy also loves harvesting food from the garden and spending hours in the kitchen, fueled by espresso or locally brewed beer.