Highland Cross 2017

I actually wrote this ages ago midway through June but forgot about it. Was a great experience and would love to get another opportunity to participate in the same or a similar event.

I had been standing at the window of the bathroom in my hotel room for a while, looking at the Highland village I was staying in. The view from my window was of Beauly square which was barely dark as the summer night had nearly come to an end, it being around 4 am. It had been a sleepless night to say the least, my body kept awake by the pre-race nerves which were haunting me before the race which would now start in little over seven hours. This was perhaps a useful warning that the 2017 “Highland Cross” couldn’t be underestimated, that a 20 mile run over rough hilly terrain starting on the west coast followed by a 30 mile ride back to Beauly wasn’t going to be at all easy. I eventually stopped staring at the flickering lamppost outside the bathroom window and made my way back to bed, telling myself to think positive thoughts. I must have woken up about 25 minutes later, cursing the butterflies in my stomach for causing my far from helpful sleep deprivation.

To participate in the “Highland Cross” you need to enter as a part of a team of three and pledge to raise money for charitable causes in the Highlands. I was lucky enough to be asked to take part in a team with a local to Deeside who had been competing in the Cross for many years, while also boasting an impressive set of marathon medals. In the run up to race day we had discussed the fact that he had been wanting to break five hours for the event for a while now, finishing just outside this target for the last few years. This led to discussions about completing the route as an actual team. A team that would stick together and hopefully assist in helping him achieve that elusive sub five hour time. I could feel that the frustration at coming so close to doing this was nearing boiling point, increased by the fact that when actually competing as a team before, his team mates hadn’t actually raced with him, looking for their own individual times.

His other choice of team mate was an immensely strong tri-athlete, who also happened to be a local. A strong cyclist and runner, this race looked like it would suit him down to the ground. Meanwhile, I had seemingly given the impression to the team leader that I was good at this kind of stuff, despite not having any experience of competing in dualthons. Though I knew that I did have stores of endurance, shown in the past by showings at the annual “Strathpuffer” 24 hour mountain bike race, which I felt would be beaten in terms of challenge by what was coming this time around.

So as race day finally rolled around I awoke from my disturbed sleep at around six in the morning, an early start was needed if I was going to I lot least try and be prepared. I got out of bed and checked my race bag for like the thousandth time after packing it the day before and went looking for my tight lycra which I firmly believe is mandatory. After getting my race gear on I threw on some running tights and a jumper and made my way downstairs for breakfast. One of my team mates was already there and copied he pre race food choice, thinking that he definitely looked like he knew what he was doing unlike me. As we greeted our other team mate I ate the porridge very slowly, seemingly feeling sickly with no appetite as the nerves once again got the better of my body yet again.

Once I had eventually swallowed as much of the porridge as I could, I made my way back to my room to make final preparations before we would get on a bus which would take us to the west coast of Scotland. From that point there was no turning back. Having packed and checked my race bag several times over, I couldn’t help but worry about the nausea that I felt as I contemplated the challenge that lay ahead. My mental preparation didn’t seem to be going to well. Rejoining my team mates, we got onto the nearest bus and I hoped that the knowledge that there was no return ticket would help settle my nerves. I made nervous small talk as the bus seemingly slithered its was through some of the slowest, windiest roads I had ever experienced. This wasn’t helping.

I also had the urge to go pee, and was greatly relieved when we stopped just off the banks of the world famous Loch Ness to let the athletes do what they had to do. When I got back on the bus the empty bladder and the fresh Highland air seemed to have done the job and I started to feel much better, even managing to take on a little bit of food. I felt slightly more at ease and was able to enjoy the dramatic scenery shrouded in cloud as we approached the location of the start line in wet but not cold conditions.

The journey took around two hours and when we arrived we actually had to walk about a mile to the start line. I was relieved to have arrived and felt ready despite the nervous build up. The excitement was papable as we approached the start line which had been at  the front of the mind everytime I had put my running shoes on or got on the bike. The time to shine was now and wanted to everything I could to help my team mate reach the finish line in under five hours. Any worries about mental and physical weakness had to be put to the back of my mind and forgotten about as I convinced myself that perhaps missing out on some of the right type of training in the build up wouldn’t be a justifiable excuse when we returned to Beauly.

It didn’t take long to arrive at the starting point and final preparations didn’t take long. I was carrying a few energy gels, my trusted digital watch and wore a waterproof around my waist in case conditions became wetter. It wasn’t actually really raining as we jostled through the crowd to find a good starting position, though there was many a muddy puddle on the track. After situating ourselves in the middle of the massive field of competitors, it was a short wait until the staring pistol followed. The aftermath was pandemonium as near 500 runners struggled for position in what surely didn’t seem like an effort which was meant to last at least a few hours.

I was relieved that after the first few kilometers the pace settled down as the field became more spread out, as our team managed to regroup. Most people must have realized by this point that it was best just to tackle the puddles head on as we made our way North-East along the flooded path through the mountains. As we neared the ten kilometer mark the path thinned, resulting in a long line of runners as we approached the first real challenge in the form of a steep climb. However, being in a slow moving line of runners meant it wasn’t too much of a struggle and I began to enjoy the dramatic views as I passed a water station at a waterfall. The atmosphere was adeptly assisted by the mountain rescue helicopter as it roared up and down the valley.

By this point we had become separated and I realized that if we were going to support each other we likely needed to stick together. I waited for the team leader, who was a little way down the incline, at the next water station at the beginning of the descent. In fairness to my other team mate he was waiting for us at the next water station down and was looking to be in better shape than I definitely felt. In that moment I seemed to be suffering from discomfort in my knees, which seemed to get worse as we carried on. This was momentarily forgotten about when my team mate took a nasty fall, explaining that he was suffering from bad cramp, hindering his progress. After looking in absolute agony for a few moments his facial expression changed to one of determination and he was back up on his feet.

As we continued past the halfway point I attempted the difficult task of finding a softer running line than the rocky track to run on, as my knees continued to bother me. Eventually we came to the last few miles of the run, Roshan and I battling pain as I started to feel slightly envious of how content Wilbur’s running style looked. I had been warned about the last section of the run referred to as ‘The Golden Road’. A slow, undulating section on track which for a couple of miles towards the end turned into tarmac was to follow. This was becoming a real challenge, as I counted down the miles to the transition point. My Auntie Marie wasn’t wrong when she told me of her experience of wanting to get on the bike just for a seat, after the 20 miles on foot. I wasn’t comforted by the fact that Roshan had seemingly fallen silent, a unusual occurrence lets say.

I think we were all relieved when we saw all the bikes lined up along the tarmac road. After a few minutes in the transfer zone which was on quite muddy, solid ground, we set off again on our energy sapping journey across the Scottish Highlands. After the first few hundred meters it was even more obvious that Wilbur was in much better form than his two team mates as he ploughed on ahead of us. The first part of cycle was quite technical with some gravel and a rough road surface adding to an already twisting descent. I spent most of the descent focusing on my bike handling skills but Roshan was soon on my tail again as we joined some other riders.

At the bottom of the descent we finally caught up with Wilbur as he slowed to let us catch his back wheel and into his slipstream. This rest from wind resistance didn’t last long as Wilbur sped up again, making it hard to stay on his wheel. As I struggled to stay on his wheel I realized that Roshan had fallen back, and I knew I also had to drop back to help him out. This became a bit of a recurring pattern as Wilbur continue to slow and then sped up when we rejoined his wheel. I can sympathize with this as it is difficult to judge the speed that others are going out when on a bike. On the other hand it was massively frustrating for Roshan and I to watch his back wheel go in and out of sight.

After a while I realised that the best solution for Roshan and I was to stay together and help each other get across the finish line in a time under the elusive five hours. As I pulled him along at a pace which suited us both we came across other riders who had the same idea as us. Though unfortunately these riders’ idea of working together seemed to differ with each individual we encountered. Some riders in a group were happy to give fellow athletes a hand while others seemed more focused on gaining as significant a personal advantage as they could for themselves. This could likely be excused by utter exhaustion which I think we could all sympathise with after four and a bit hours of draining exercise.

The chaotic nature of these groups came to a head when we were almost involved in an accident. As a group of around ten of us blasted down the predominantly flat roads we were met by a car coming towards us. As it became apparent that we needed to make more room for it to pass on our right some sudden maneuverers were made in front of us. I know that I almost became a cropper as I hammered the brakes, avoiding the next riders’ wheel by mere centimeters, exchanging a look and a rude word with Roshan before carrying on a little shaken.

As the cycle went on I began to lose a sense of distance keeping my team mate up to date with the time on my digital watch. Towards the end of the race we were rejoined by Wilbur and were relieved and probably surprised when we saw we were coming to the last corner in a time well under the targeted five hours. After taking the last corner the group of us was lined up like a long sprint lead out as we rode the last mile into Beauly.

Getting cut up by a car and some more questionable mannouveres by other riders couldn’t take the icing of a great day as we all crossed the line around the 4 hours, 40 minutes mark. The pain had been worth it and I was chuffed that I had finished the epic event with a performance I could take pride in. The fact that I had also been there to see Roshan achieve a target which he had held onto for a fair few years was also great and I was pleased that I had contributed in some way.

My legs were shot though a seat and an ice cream soon helped me forget about the aches and pains of the race. However, as I struggled up the stairs to my hotel room the pre race nausea of that morning suddenly returned and  floored me for a couple of hours, meaning I missed the main section of the awards ceremony though was fortunate enough to catch the end of the speeches which thanked the many helpers and supporters of the Highland Cross.

This thanks was the least they deserved as the support and organization of the whole event was top notch, with the money we raised for Highland charities hopefully giving a little back to communities which participated. Hopefully I’ll be back one day!

 

Escape into Europe – Part 3

To pick up from last time…it took us just under two hours to travel the 300 odd miles to Strasbourg near the German border from the French capital. Not bad going considering this journey would likely take around 4 hours, 30 minutes by car! After a very smooth journey to Strasbourg we had arrived slightly late and just missed the earlier optional train to Offenburg. This wasn’t of to much concern however as we knew we would just catch the next one an hour later, meaning our two next connections before Berlin would still fit into our make shift schedule.

We wondered through the train station and bought some baguettes (had to be done in France), before wondering out the entrance into a grassy area. It was about 8 pm as we devoured our packaged French delicates in silence. As I ate I looked at the small square we had found ourselves in and wondered whether we were missing something by just passing through Strasbourg. In fairness, our chosen place to seat hadn’t looked that inviting, with lots of rubbish and serious looking old mannies (you get them everywhere), but maybe there was some hidden gems around the next corner.

However, we didn’t have much time to hang about and were soon making our way back through the train station to the platform we needed to wait at. When we reached said platform I must admit I was struck by the fact that it was so much smaller and further away from the other platforms. There was also maybe two benches giving the impression that our next destination wasn’t a particularly popular one. While we waited for the train the sun was preparing to drop below the horizon bathing us in a fantastic orange light.

When we boarded the small train there was the sense of relief that we felt everytime we managed to catch the right train. I sat down and checked I had the passports and interrail passes as I always did before and after moving anywhere. For some reason Rory had thought it wise to leave his passport on my person meaning there extra pressure to actually not lose something for once. The train kept a slow but steady pace through the outskirts of Strasbourg before entering the flat surrounding countryside. It didn’t take long before we could tick another country of our list as we crossed the Pont de l’Europe (Europe Bridge), passing two large German flags.

The train arrived in Offenburg approximately 30 minutes after its departure and after getting off we walked to the platform we needed to be at for the train to Mannheim. Two trains down. Two to go. We still had a bit of time so wondered around looking for advice on whether we should buy tickets for the next train just before boarding. To our disappointment we couldn’t any staff, asking an armed policeman who wasn’t overly helpful. We would just have to board as we were. Everything was going to be absolutely fine.

As our departure time came closer I couldn’t help but notice that the entire station was almost deserted. Scarce passengers and three armed police officers were dotted along the platform. Surely more people were getting on this train. The other concern was that ten minutes prior to its arrival the Mannheim train wasn’t up on the board, Baden Baden being the next location displayed. Rory pointed out that there was information scrolling along the bottom of the board, and hurriedly struggled to translate it through Google. It read that due to rail works north of here all trains would be terminating at Baden Baden, only 12 minutes further up the line. This was not good and it seemed although our plan had been suddenly thrown out of the window.

We hurried to try and find an alternative, reaching for the railway map and bringing up the app on our phone which provided us with train times (this was a life saver, thanks intterail!). It was becoming increasingly stressful as everytime we were provided with a possible option we quickly realised it wasn’t going to work. Eventually we realised we would have to go south, a long way south. Our new plan would include taking a arduous looping route through Switzerland and Austria, before re-entering Germany from the south-east near Munich. Also factored into this was that we would have to spend a night in Zurich train station, before we could catch the next train into Austria. We got on the southbound train at around 10.30 pm, and headed towards our next stop off point, Basel.

As the train whizzed through the now pitch darkness I wondered what type of landscape we were passing through as we headed towards the mountains of Switzerland. When we arrived in Basel just after midnight, we had a quick connection to make for the next train to Zurich. We made this no problem and arrived in Zurich 40 minutes later, contemplating what the rest of the night was going to bring. We searched the train station for somewhere to get a seat with the aim of spending the next five hours. Before we could have a proper look we were guided out of the train station for closing time. This was a certainly a game changer.

We walked out of the train station and headed into the area we thought looked the most central, finding a bench to sit on. This would have to be where we spend the night. A few minutes after sitting on our accommodation for the night, we witnessed a scuffle across the street involving the police. I suddenly felt slightly unsafe, wondering whether we would be confronted. Thankfully our only interaction was with a  local who wanted to purchase some weed. Unfortunately neither us could provide him with this, him being kind enough to translate his request into English for us.

The time on my digital watch seemed to change very slowly as we sat shivering on our wooden bench, looking out at the city lights being reflected onto the River Limmat. Likely a stunning city in daylight, at 3 am it felt rather lonely and hostile. Two hours later we set off to see if the train station was open yet, wandering around the area surrounding the huge building before it finally opened. We found somewhere to sit and Rory instantly fell asleep, while I desperately tried to stay awake, worried that we might miss our train at 6.40 am.

After just about managing to stay awake it took a wee while to shake Rory awake before making our way to the correct platform. Luckily the train was already there and we boarded our train which would take us to Kufstein in Austria. I realised quite quickly that the seats were fairly upright making it difficult to sleep. I found myself in a horrible kind of halfway house between being extremely sleep deprived while being unable to sleep. In some ways this was actually a blessing in disguise as the scenery was incredible. As the train winded its way into Austria the mountains became higher and more dramatic, seemingly rising out of nowhere with slopes which seemed to rise at an almost impossible angle. It was a shame we were so sleep deprived.

When we arrived in Kufstein we had to run for our next train to Munich, just catching it in time. As we re-entered Germany for the second time the landscape suddenly became much flatter, the chatter of German tourists not being enough to keep me awake, as I had 40 winks for the first time in about 30 hours. It didn’t take long to get to Munich and we prioritised getting food during the 30 minute wait for the next train. The huge train station wasn’t dissimilar to a shopping mall as we found a Burger King.

After some well deserved food we walked down to the right platform. The train was labelled as going to Hamburg, causing us some confusion. Though it was quite funny when Rory asked a train conductor whether he spoke English. His was answer was simply “NO!” as he barged past us. Some of the passengers were more welcoming to our appalling lack of German and reassured us that the train also went to Berlin. After a slight struggle to find unreserved seats we were forced to sit across the aisle from each other. I sat beside a businessman in a fancy black suit. We didn’t chat. Finally it looked as if we going to make it to Berlin, almost 24 hours later than planned.

The seats on the super cool, fast German “ICE” trains were much more sleep friendly, and I slept for a large portion of the journey. Awaking sometimes, worryingly close to the shoulder of the poor man I was sitting beside. He cast many strange look at me during the journey, though it remains a mystery as to whether I actually used his shoulder as a pillow. The journey lasted six hours and when we reached Berlin we decided to get off at the first station to make sure we had actually made it. It seemed inconceivable to me that we had actually made it to Berlin!

From Berlin Sudkreuz station we got on the easy to navigate over ground system, taking us to the area where our hostel was located. We expected and wanted a nice place to sleep, being totally shattered and very grumpy. Unfortunately this wasn’t this case, finding out that my 30 euros had been spent on a double bed which fitted perfectly into our room for the night. It would have to do and we soon collapsed onto the bed in exhaustion, looking forward to what Berlin would bring tomorrow…

 

 

Escape into Europe – Part 2

So we had arrived in Lille and had spent the night in a hotel that did the job perfectly. We were all set for going into the French capital, not finding it to difficult to wake up at 7am for our 8.15 train from the huge station in the middle of Lille. For one, I was mega excited as I had never visited Paris before and it had been on my bucket list for a while. This time we found the walk to the train station a bit easier and arrived in plenty of time to find the platform we would be departing from.

When we got on the train I was reminded that my huge bag on my back made it difficult to navigate the tight corridors of the carriages, accidentally hitting people with the numerous straps hanging of my luggage as we tried to find a seat. We had booked tickets the night before but hadn’t been given seat numbers, leading us to sit in seats that had been pre booked by a poor French women with perfect English. She was very nice about it and I carried on whacking people with what I would soon label as my ‘big stupid bag’. Eventually we found our seats and I was able to reflect on the embarrassment of sitting in the wrong seat combined with our inability to communicate with native people in their own language. This would become a recurring theme throughout the countries we visited.

Amazingly it only took the TGV train just over an hour to reach Paris’ Nord (North) station, passing through the Northern French countryside at insane speeds. When we got of the train breakfast was on our minds first and we got some croissants at a café in the station. They definitely taste better in France. After we had been fed and watered we went to try and figure out the Paris subway system, which turned out to be a really effective way of getting across the large city. We decided that we wanted to see the Notre Dame Cathedral first, hopping on a underground train which left us only a five minute walk away from this historic building.

After admiring the impressive architecture and slightly spooky gargoyles of  Notre Dame, we wondered towards the Eiffel Tower, following the River Sienne. The sun was glaring and we realised that our Scottish eyes weren’t used to being exposed to that bright thing in the sky. Sunglasses were sought and then bought on our way to Paris’ main attraction. I went for some blue, red and white ones, (which I am proud to say aren’t broken yet) while my mate went for some black ones. They were both pretty cheap, though I reckon sunglasses can make any village idiot look cool. My friend disagreed and slagged me off endlessly for my choice of sunnies throughout the rest of the trip. You can’t please everyone.

As we got closer to the Eiffel Tower I realised that I needed the toilet. A new challenge had come about, finding a toilet in Paris. We kept wondering down the banks of the river, taking in the impressive sights of the French capital while becoming more and more desperate to find a rest room in some form. We went pass bridge after bridge until we eventually arrived at the bottom of the tower. Unfortunately we weren’t willingly to pay to go up the tower, but I was taken aback by how cool it was to be near such a famous landmark. We took some photos before setting off across the river to continue are mission which was now becoming a desperate state of affairs.

Up some stairs we went until eventually in a small square we had made it. Panic over. We realised that we were actually right next to the Trocadero, an area of beautiful architecture which provides visitors with a spectacular view of the tower. We sat there for a while, admiring the Paris skyline, while drinking some cokes. I never did get my hands on an ‘organia’! From there we travelled to the Champs Elyees and the Arc de Triomphe. I had seen the most famous piece of road in cycling being televised at the end of le Tour de France on many occasions, but it was something else to actually stand there and imagine the likes of Mark Cavendish whizzing past. The Arc de Triomphe was also massively impressive, it sheer size and width being a surprise.

By the time we had looked at these three attractions it was nearing the time that we had decided to book tickets for our next train. The aim was to save money by travelling to Mannheim on the German-French border, before boarding an overnight train to Berlin. These tickets would have to be reserved at Paris Est (East) station, a quick journey away by subway. After a quick discussion with the very French man at the ticket office we were informed that a collapsed bridge near Mannheim was causing issues for trains in that region. He carried on looking for options for us to travel to Mannheim, before suddenly he was buying us ticket for Strasbourg and handing as a schedule to get a train to the German town of Offenburg, before making our way north to Mannheim. Looking back it would have been sensible to have told him that our final destination was Berlin.

After this slightly complicated discussion we wondered around the streets surrounding the train station, getting a last sense of really fascinating city. It had been a short visit which had been enjoyed thoroughly and I hope I’m lucky enough to return Paris one day. I we wondered around with no agenda I was slightly pensive about the journey we were about to make. We now had to make an extra stop in Germany and I knew very little about Strasbourg. I had never heard of Offenburg and didn’t realise that it would become a major bug bear for us. As the afternoon rolled on we boarded another TGV, this time heading east, with no issues. The sun was lower in the sky and we were feeling more relaxed about the journey ahead. Berlin here we come….

Escape into Europe – Part 1

Late on August the 18th I sat in my friend’s kitchen attempting to formulate a last minute plan involving numerous  complications with transport and places to stay. Tomorrow we would set of on an interrail adventure using trains to go between cites. Our rough idea of where we would go included visiting Paris, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Zurich before, all going to plan, we made our way back to sunny Scotland. We had a week to visit all these exciting places and wanted to sleep on overnight as much as possible, hoping to save as much money as we could.

However, we realised that on the majority of the days we were traveling this wouldn’t be possible, leading to us booking two places to stay in Lille and Berlin before we set off. The beauty of having an interrail ticket was that it provided us to jump on most trains without making a reservation. Although we did have to book tickets on the Eurostar for day 1 of our adventure to take us into continental Europe. This cost 60 euros and would take us from London to Lille, just inside Northern France. We had done this journey together from Stonehaven to Lille in 2013 on a visit to Northern France so knew this part of the journey reasonably well.

Our first port of call on our poorly organised but very exciting adventure was the small coastal town of Stonehaven on a pretty non descript (Scottish) summer morning. We awoke slightly late and just enough time to wolf down some breakfast before dashing over to Stonehaven just in time for our 8 am train to London Kings Cross. After a short wait on the platform we saw the first of the many trains we would be experiencing coming around the corner and then slowing. We found unreserved seats fairly easily and waited slightly nervously for the ticket officer to walk down the corridor and check our interrail passes.

To my relief they worked and were on our way to London! From Stonehaven we made our way down the east coast, through Edinburgh and into England-shire through Newcastle and York, which is inland. I even found this first part of the journey exciting as I figured I hadn’t actually left Scotland for over two years! If you ever travel this route you will discover that it is slow up until Edinburgh as the train stops at most of the stations north of the capital enroute. The trains on this route are also often overcrowded as we found out. We hadn’t been across the historic border for long when were informed that we would have to switch trains at York, as our train manager wouldn’t be carrying on with us. I thought you only needed a train driver! This was the first slight spanner in the works, though was child’s play compared to what was to come later on….

We were told to wait at York and catch the next train to London which had departed Edinburgh. Unfortunately this train was packed full  and we ended standing the next two and half hours to London, moving our bags every two minutes to let people through to the toilet. In fairness I felt more sorry for the couple with a baby who had also been forced to sit in the corridor. Thankfully time flew past and we arrived in London relieved to get a seat and some food.

From Kings Cross it was a short walk across the road to St Pancreas station to catch the Eurostar. Our train was at 7pm so we found ourselves with a  couple of hours to spare and to get food. We found a café in the station and complained about the prices of our wraps as two Scotsmen in London should. Then check in time rolled by and we went through passport control for the first of only two times on our trip. In no time we were on the Eurostar, speeding through the English countryside at amazing speeds. When it reached the English Channel the quiet and efficient electric train was plunged into darkness as it travelled the 50 kilometres under the narrow body of water to Calais. It is difficult to get a grasp of the amazing engineering feat which the channel tunnel is as it just felt like a long tunnel.

In no time we were pulling into Lille train station, only an hour and half after we had left London. In France the clock was an hour ahead, meaning that darkness had already fallen on the small city near the Belgian border. However, it was still pretty warm when we left the station, the smell of  a warm day still wafting in the air. It definitely felt like we were abroad! We left the huge train station and walked to the hotel with the help of google maps and the fact that my friend actually had data on his phone. We had managed to book the hotel for 30 euros between us so were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the room when we arrived. A bed, shower and television. I would only realise how lucky we were a couple of days later, but Ill tell you about that later….

Meanwhile we went to bed early after looking at train times on the TGV route to Paris the next morning. It is perhaps useful to know that on all of the main routes in France, operated by TG  high speed trains, it is compulsory to reserve a seat. In most of the other European countries it isn’t essential, though logic can be used when travelling on a busy route to determine whether it would be sensible to spend a little more to make sure you have a seat. We let France get away with it as their trains are generally fast, effective and clean, getting you from one side of the country to other in no time at all. We reserved a seat and fell asleep, pleased that we had at least got this far. Au revoir.

Part 2 to come…….

 

Maciej Bodnar, take a bow

You would likely have to search far and wide to find a somebody, even a keen cycling fan outside Poland who has the name Maciej Bodnar on their radar. As a casual cycling fan I had no prior knowledge of the three time Polish national time trial champion. I am writing this after a stage of the 2017 Tour de France that was almost uncanny in its dullness and lack of energy. Won by Marcel Kittel, it ended in a bunch sprint, a sight which has become the most noticeable image of this tour so far.

In past editions of the 104 year old Tour de France the sprint stages have provided excitement and tension with the world’s fastest on two wheels going hammer and tongs in a 30-45 second period of madness. The issue at this year’s editions of the bunch sprints is that we have lost two of the most talented riders of recent years, as they exited the race in dramatic style over a week ago.

As the sprinters thrashed their way into the final metres of the stage 4 sprint into  Vittel, the current world champion, Peter Sagan was very much in contention for his second stage victory of this years tour. Meanwhile, the 2011 world champion, Mark Cavendish was struggling to make his way to the front. Though often this is the way he launches his winning sprints, coming from far back before leaving his rivals for dust. As Cavendish made his way up the left side of the road he attempted to squeeze through a gap almost fully taken up by his Slovakian rival.

As Cavendish navigated his way into the small gap, Sagan stuck his elbow into the Manx’s side, sending Cavendish spiralling into the barriers, ending his three week job in France early to the tune of breaking bones. Sagan stayed upright, but was unable to defeat Arnaud Demare in the remaining bunch. However, an hour later the world champion’s tour was also over, the commissars not taking kindly to his apparent over reaction to Cavendish’s search for a gap that perhaps wasn’t there.

Due to this highly debated incident, the sprints have become almost too predictable, it being unforeseeable that Marcel Kittel wouldn’t add to his impressive tally in Pau today. In sprinting terms, the German’s other main competitors weren’t really on the same wavelength, with Edvald Boasson Hagan a and the brutish Andre Greipel being his nearest rivals. This also being after Nacer Bouhanni’s antics and Demare’s exclusion from the tour due to finishing stage 9 outside the given time limit. However, there was one man who wanted to upset the German’s procession.

Maciej Bodnar was part of a breakaway that worked hard to gain time over the peleton for the majority of the 203 kilometre stage. It was within the last 25 kilometres that the two weaker riders, Fredrick Backaret and Marco Marcato started to fall of the pace. As realisation dawned on Bodnar that staying at the same pace would mean getting caught by the main group, he decided to make a daring move to attempt to win the stage. He slowly gained time, almost reaching a lead of 50 seconds as his time trialled his way through rolling French countryside and quaint village squares.

Likely this move was not expected by the peloton, the sprinter friendly teams started to up the pace with powerhouses like Tony Martin making fleeting appearances at the front of the main bunch. This also injected a bit more excitement into preceding’s as overall contenders Alberto Contador, Jakob Fuglsang and Romain Bardet all suffered falls which fortunately didn’t result into too much physical damage. With most in the peloton avoiding these incidents, the chase continued with the gap coming down to almost 20 seconds with 10 kilometres remaining. It looked almost unconceivable that Bodnar would stay away and I toyed the idea of an epic victory with my grandfather, who I had convinced to watch the cycling over the tennis.

As the riders entered the last few kilometres I insisted that he was about to be caught, the time at the top of the screen indicating that his lead was barely in double figures by this point. Four kilometres, three kilometres, two kilometres, one…As Bodnar went under the one kilometre maker with 150 cyclists baring down on him I couldn’t believe he was still riding on his own. We began cheering him on, willing him to achieve the impossible.

Then Kittel and 53 riders passed him. I hadn’t felt so gutted since Scotland’s game against England in the Six Nations. This man had put in a titanic shift, with his reward being 54th place. Having turned himself inside out for the last eighth of a 200km ride ridden in no less than 4 hours and 34 minutes, perhaps the only silver lining was that he had ridden a time trial that could likely beat his three victories as Polish time trial champion in terms of sheer effort.

For me he instantly became one of my favourite pro cyclists. As a Scotsman I have an almost detrimental obsession with the underdog when it comes to sporting occasions. I backed a rider who I had never heard off with every bone in my body in those last few miles, his effort inspiring me to post a new best time in my local 20 kilometre route earlier this evening, comparing in peanuts to the ride that the brave Pole put in today.

Lets hope for more racing like it and with the high mountains of the Pyrenees coming tomorrow I’ll be misbehaved and back the rider who can finally knock Chris Froome off his seemingly untouchable perch. Not even national pride stands in the way of underdog blasphemy.

What is This All About?

This is the post excerpt.

Updated – 25/04/18

This blog is about giving an insight into my experiences of adventures which are always out there! Whether this be while running up in the hills, out on my bike, or in my new passion for travelling. A lot of time experiences seen as ordinary can be exciting and maybe slightly scary adventures.

At the start of this year I was in a hugely transitional period in my life. Though I think most of us are most of the time. Anyway, I had done a year at university and  wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue down the pathway I had chosen. I spent months at university seemingly lost, in a poor mental state and cut off from the rest of the world. I had given up the battle against my inner fears and had paid the price when I moved to a new city with new people.

When I arrived home I was relived. The last nine months had been a scary insight into what happens when you become unmotivated and let your anxiety take total control. After finishing first year I worked in my village until the welcome bells of 2018 started ringing. I washed dishes and earned money but that wasn’t what was important. Instead it was more important that I started talking to people again. Yes it took time, but after a while I was relaxed in the company of my colleagues. I started to feel like I had breath in my lungs again.

With this increasing confidence, I decided that I wanted to go travelling in the New Year. I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do. I just knew that I wanted to prove to myself that I was brave enough and that I could push myself to do something a bit mad (by my standards anyway). I wanted to go on a solo adventure to some far off land where I wouldn’t know anyone and would be thousands of miles from home. New Zealand sounded far away enough…

At this point you’re maybe thinking, typical millennial off on a gap year to New Zealand to find himself. This is absolutely true, though I didn’t expect to find myself and having returned I haven’t. However, I have learnt a huge amount and have a better knowledge of the type of person that I want to be. I am in a hugely privileged position to have lived with my mother while I worked for the last six months, meaning I paid little living costs and was able to finance this trip. Thanks Mum.

In the end I didn’t end up in New Zealand, but somewhere equally as far away and perhaps even more magical. Read on to find out more….

This blog has been created with the following words in mind:

  1. Honesty
  2. Modesty
  3. Fun
  4. Adventure
  5. Resilience