After scratching from the Race Around The Netherlands in 2019, it felt oh so good to come back this year and finish what I started. Read on if you want to find out more about this flat but far from easy race, why it was so different for me this year and how I approached and finished my ‘unfinished business’ with RATN. It is a very long blog … sorry.
TRAVEL TO THE NETHERLANDS
27 April 2019
I rolled off the overnight Harwich-Hoek van Holland ferry on my own and with some unusual luggage for a bike race: my laptop and my large monitor. The bed in my hut had not seen much use and StenaLine had earned a nice little extra in 24hr WiFi fees.
28 August 2020
This time I rolled off the overnight Harwich-Hoek van Holland ferry together with my husband Chris, with work deadlines nicely boxed off and as far from my thoughts as possible.
2020 had been a year of big changes: the year of going down to 50% in my management consulting job, the year of starting my own cycling coaching business, the year of consistent training (rather than being distracted with other races and events) and the year of the luxury of four months of furlough due to Covid-19. All this meant that I was not just highly motivated to finish my ‘unfinished business’ with the Race Around the Netherlands, but physically and mentally in a much, much better place.
Another silver lining of Covid-19 had been the postponement of RATN from the original start date of 1 May to 29 August, which meant much warmer and nicer weather.
THE DAYS BEFORE THE RACE
28-30 April 2019
The plan had been to spend some time with my dad, but unfinished work deadlines meant that I was mostly staring at two large screens until deep in the night. And even when there was a chance to spend some quality time together, he somehow didn’t quite seem himself.
He looked sombre and withdrawn, easily 10 years beyond his age. His face was fallen in, his clothes were at least 1 or 2 sizes too big for him. He ate like a mouse – which is highly unusual ! – and was complaining about feeling cold all the time. He would doze off regularly during the day and by 9pm he would announce his bedtime. The house was dirty and he appeared to be neglecting himself.
Things didn’t feel right at all. I was worried about him, but was too pre-occupied with myself to give it due attention and raise alarm like my sister did when she saw him at the end of May 2019…
28 August 2020
Having learned from last year, when I had planned for family time before the race and then had left myself only 4-5 days to complete RATN due to a fixed ferry booking and anticipated return to work, I turned things around this year. It meant that I would have more leeway in case things went wrong during the race, but also had the incentive to hurry up as it would mean more time with my family. With the race out of the way, I would also be able to give my family my full attention.
Luck and coincidence would have it that, after having lived in Dubai for the last decade, my sister decided to move back to the Netherlands earlier this year and settle down in Rhenen, less than 10 kilometres from the RATN start in Amerongen. So instead of staying at a local B&B, Chris and I were treated to the best family hospitality one can wish for by my sister, my brother-in-law and my 3-year old niece.
Little Jasmijn even accompanied me to the race sign-on and race start. She was rather fascinated by the pink bike that was parked up at the Proloog. Will she be caught by the bike racing bug too ? She already has this thing where she gets upset if she isn’t at the front during family bike rides, shouting both encouragement and instructions at her dad “Maar ik wil voorop ! Kom op pap; sneller, dat kun je wel”.
RACE DAY 1
1 May 2019
With a forecast for unseasonably cold nights, and even some snow forecast for the south of the country, I started RATN 2019 dressed in full winter kit and with a plan to only sleep in hotels. As with all races of this ilk, you are not permitted to book any hotels prior to the race start and would be foolish to do so anyway as many things can happen along the way and you may not end up where you hoped you would.
There were quite a few familiar and friendly faces at the race start: fellow BikingMan Oman racers Donncha Cuttriss and Marcel Graber as well as other riders who had come over from the UK such as Stuart Birnie (aka Hippy), Robbie Ferri, Paul Mellon, Jack Peterson, Sheila Woollam, Rich Skidmore and Kate Berry to name a few. Julia Freeman made the effort to get a start line picture with all the women of the race: 11 out of 141.
I felt tired and worn down from the sleepless nights working away and worrying about my dad, but nonetheless looked forward to the race. After a slight uphill start, I let the fast guys disappear up the road and hovered a while behind them, but in front of the bulge of the field.
For the first 40-odd kilometres the fixed-route led north from Amerongen to Flevoland, through the forest and the fields, on small roads that were vaguely familiar from growing up on the Veluwe.
The ride along the southern edge of Flevoland, with the Veluwemeer on one side and the vast and open expanse of polder land on the other, stood out during RATN2019 for the constant and fierce stream of flies. They were hitting us riders face-on as we battled through the wind. Sunglasses were a must. Open your mouth and you were guaranteed some additional protein. But the sun was shining, and life was generally good.
After about 125 kilometres the route enters the Hoge Veluwe National Park. I did have the foresight to pre-book my admission ticket, only to have left the print-out at home … so spent some time queuing for a ticket while other more clued-up riders passed by. Once in the park, it was a stunning ride along the undulating paths, flanked by heather fields and forest: one of my highlights from RATN2019.
The first climb of the route, the Zijpenberg near Arnhem somehow felt harder than it had felt during a short training ride during the last few days before the race. By UK standards most people wouldn’t even call it a hill, let along a ‘berg’ (aka mountain), but for Dutch standards it is about as hilly as it gets, aside from the ‘proper’ hills in Limburg, in the south of the country.
I had hoped to see my dad cheering me on just a few kilometres after the top of the Zijpenberg, at the Postbank Pavilion, but he didn’t quite realise the delay on the tracker (i.e. the tracker only relays a GPS signal every 5 or 10 minutes and the riders are generally some distance ahead of their last tracker location) and he was nowhere to be seen when I came through.
My first proper stop during RATN2019 was not until a roadside Esso petrol station in Drempt, about 175 kilometres into the race. I recall a few other racers refuelling at the same place, some upbeat race chat and a clever racer filling his belly with a warm rehydrated meal. Warm food served quickly is one of those luxuries you won’t come by so easily in the Netherlands, unless you like ‘broodje bal’, ‘kroket uit de muur’, ‘kapsalon’ or are lucky enough to pass a McDonalds or Burger King, which appear only sporadically along the route, at the right time.
After Drempt, the route continues east, through the Achterhoek and then north through Twente and Groningen. For a country that is supposedly full (according to some), there is a striking amount of empty space in the east. Endless farmers fields, little villages and not a lot else. I got to the Shell station in Ommen just before dark and prepared for the cold night with extra layers. My evening meal consisted of another bad ‘gehaktbal’. One of my race food mistakes in 2019 was too many ‘broodjes gehaktbal’ (a warm meat ball in a soft white bun). It seemed innocent comfort food, but made for too many toilet stops.
A little beyond that I passed Collendoorn, which is just a stone throw away from where my grandma lives and I recognised some of the roads from a training ride I had made whilst staying with my grandma for a few days the previous autumn.
I passed through Bourtange, one of the race timing points, at 23:15, as first woman, about 2.5 hours behind the race leader and only 40 minutes behind Hippy. I wasn’t aware of these timings at the time though, as I had decided to ride my own race and not look at race placings until much later. In the daytime the small, restored fortress town of Bourtange, dating back to the late 1500s, must be quite an impressive sight. At night, it just felt like a maze of left and right turns.
29 August 2020
Here I was again. Same, same but different. Same rider, same bike. Different circumstances, different attitude.
Julia Freeman was helping out with race registration and commentary this year and made sure another start line picture was taken of the women of the RATN. Sadly there were just 5 of us this time after several last-minute drop-outs due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
If you are contemplating entering RATN next year, you can’t get any better insight into the route and the challenges that await than by reading the detailed and elaborate race preview Julia wrote for Dotwatchers.cc … And if you are wondering about what bike setup to go for, Dotwacher also compiled an interesting overview of the bikes of RATN2020.
After the first 10 kilometres I made an effort to leave the big bulge behind me and enjoyed riding at my own pace, some distance behind the race leaders, although I briefly found myself ahead of last year’s winner Bas Vlaskamp when he punctured on pretty much the same location as last year. Needless to say that he stormed by not long after that, not to be seen again until he was unfortunate to be caught out by a bridge closing in Elburg (after stopping to fill up his water bottle) and well, then never to be seen again.
The route was more or less the same as last year, but the conditions were so much better. Not too hot, not too cold and starting out with a nice tailwind. Luckily, Flevoland isn’t pestered by flies at the end of August or the flies are not such a feature with a different wind. Either way, I enjoyed the fast stretch through the polder in the sun.
Having already marked up my whole route in RideWithGPS with handy cues for food, water and sleep stops (including opening and closing times), this year I had the luxury of just adding a few additional options and double checking if certain places still existed. It was a good thing I did as several of the petrol station shops I had used in 2019, had closed down this year. Relying on a petrol station strategy really doesn’t work in the Netherlands…
On the other hand, there is an excellent network of very recognisable free drinking water tap points all over the country , as well as a handy app for public toilets, and another fantastic bit of support infrastructure for walkers and cyclists, fellow RATN2020 Eline van Straalen pointed out to me after the race: ‘rustpunten‘. With the exception of the rustpunten, you could probably find the taps and and toilets if you used the OSM cycle maps too.
This year, I had remembered to print out and bring my pre-paid ticket for the Hoge Veluwe National Park. The park looked stunning, with the flowering heather in the warm early autumn sun. Plenty a day-tripper on surprisingly fast e-bikes enjoyed the same views. Race organiser Michael made some brilliant shot of the RATN racers here.
Unlike last year, I had not been in touch with my dad this year about him trying to cheer me on during the race. It has been a tough year for him. Last July, after my sister had insisted on several tests, we finally found out why he was looking so terrible: it was multiple myeloma, aka bone marrow cancer, which is treatable, but sadly not curable.
It had been quite a shock to my dad and all of us.
How far advanced was it ? How much longer could he expect to live ? What treatment would he get and how would that make him feel ? I had heard stories from others who had lost loved ones within the space of a few months after a multiple myeloma diagnosis, but also had gained some hope from stories of others still living happily with their cancer under control up to 10 years post-diagnosis.
I didn’t really know how to deal with it from distance. It wasn’t until a fellow Kingston Wheeler, who had battled non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for a number of years, died in early August 2019, aged just 36, that I found myself crying disproportionally. I had spoken to him when volunteering for the same club events and exchanged a few messages that summer after my dad’s diagnosis, but we were not particularly close. I realised that some of these tears definitely were for Andy, but the intensity with which I reacted to his death was because of my dad’s situation.
A year-long programme of chemo followed for my dad, with 9 treatments each lasting 5 weeks, receiving an injection (and initially also pills) every Friday for 4 weeks, followed by a ‘rest’ week for the 5th week.
When I saw him next in October 2019 for a weekend in London for which my sister had also come over from Dubai, he looked a little better, but was still very frail, couldn’t walk well and was easily fatigued.
He was touched by my plans to raise funds for Cancer Research once more during my planned race from North Cape to Tarifa in summer 2020, but this time with a drive that was hitting much closer to home of course. He even planned to be at the finish in Tarifa at the end of July. Covid-19 put a halt to all that, but I doubt the doctors would have let him travel anyway, with the timeline of how his chemo treatments worked out in the end.
So, you can imagine my big surprise when, as I passed the Posbank Pavilion during RATN2020, I suddenly saw my dad by the side of the road cheering me on !
That first afternoon was just golden. I had already gained a massive mental boost from seeing Miriam, one of my coaching clients, standing by the side of the road near Burgers’ Bush on the approach to the Zijpenberg climb. Spotting my dad by the side of the road shortly afterwards and looking good filled me not just with joy, but also with purpose. I can’t quite remember which other riders were near me at the time, I think it was one of the pairs, but I couldn’t stop telling people that my dad had just cheered me on by the side of the road !
RACE DAY 2
2 May 2019
The next race timing point after Bourtange is the city of Groningen which I hit at 02:42 in the morning. I certainly didn’t realise it at the time, and it means little to absolutely nothing, but looking back at the LegendsTracking data, that would have made me 3rd on the road, after Daan Marsman and Sam Thomas. Most other riders had the foresight to rest up in a hotel for a couple of hours in Groningen during that cold night, but I opted for the 24-hour Shell and just sat on the cold floor for 2 hours, eating anything I could and trying to sleep upright for a bit: not so clever…
I recall bumping into Hippy and Robbie a little after Eemshaven on the way to Lauwersoog, the next timing point in the race which we passed around 8:30am that morning with only Daan Marsman ahead of us at the time. Hippy and Robbie were smart enough to refuel at the last opportunity before ‘sheep Armageddon’ would start on the other side of dike, while I pushed on, into the wind.
From here, it was just under 100 kilometres of riding along a windswept dike, on asphalt covered in uncooperative sheep and caked in sheep shit, interrupted by uncountable dismounts and remounts to open and close surprisingly heavy gates. On the plus side, it didn’t rain. Exhausted from all that effort, I veered off the route briefly for a lunch stop at the SPAR in Ferwert. They even let me take the bike inside.
By the time I reached Makkum it must have been about 2 in the afternoon. I had been on the road for 30 hours now and felt exhausted by the cold, the wind and my crazy fast start. I stopped for some Dutch pancakes and a few hours of sleep at a hotel in Makkum.
The next stretch from Makkum to Amsterdam was quite a challenge with cross and head wind if I recall correctly. Riding along the Markermeer towards the sunset feeling somewhat refreshed after my afternoon sleep was another highlight of RATN2019. I had not seen any other racers since bumping into Hippy and Robbie at Lauwersoog so was pleasantly surprised to find another rider approaching when I couldn’t quite figure out my way around the dead end near Muiderberg and Muiden, due to some roadworks. That other rider was Bas Verheijen who lives in Amsterdam and knows the area well. Having his rear light as a beacon made it much easier to navigate that final stretch along a small road full of dark obstacles that turned out to be yet more sheep …
Looking at LegendsTracking, Bart and I arrived at Madmen, the bike shop in Amsterdam that opened 24/7 for RATN racers just after 1 am, with at least 7 other riders already having passed by or still lingering here. So far, so good. But then I made my biggest race mistake. Seeing other riders sleeping on the floor at Madmen, I decided to lay down for a bit too. I had not planned for it but once arrived in this little half-way oasis, it just was too tempting not to stop and have a rest. Unlike the other riders who were shielded from the cold floor by their inflatable mattresses and snuggled up in their sleeping bags, I lay down in my wet cycling clothes on the stone cold floor.
Unsurprisingly, I did not get any sleep and, to make matters worse, the other riders trying to sleep there at the time probably didn’t get much sleep either. The most disgusting sounds were coming from my nose and my throat and setting an annoying alarm and not snoozing it immediately didn’t make me any friends either !
30 August 2020
This year, I arrived at the Bourtange timing point half an hour later than in 2019, but technically it was half an hour earlier since the race start last May had been at 7am and this year in August we had started at 8am. Bourtange looked as dark and deserted as last year and I felt as isolated in the race as I had done last year. If only I had looked at the tracker, I would have realised that Bart Verheijen was just 5 minutes up the road, but these races don’t work out well unless you race your own race anyway.
I reached Groningen at 03:45am in the morning, so pretty much exactly after the same race duration as last year. I stopped at the same 24/7 Shell petrol station, one of the few petrol station shop stops that still existed, but stayed well away from the ‘broodje gehaktbal’. Instead of sitting on the cold petrol station floor, I contemplated giving in and grabbing a hotel for a few hours. But when I reached the NH Hotel it turned out to be fully booked so a decision was made for me. The night porter was kind enough to let me use the toilet, escape a short spell of rain, warm up a bit and even offered me his staff coffee !
During the next stretch, lack of sleep was clearly affecting me. I kept on stopping to check, double check and reload the route on my Wahoo, convinced that I was off route since it didn’t look anything like my memories of thousands of sheep. Partly that can be explained by a different route around Lauwersoog this year, and partly by the fact that there were just fewer sheep out on the fields (or at least only mature sheep and no erratic little lambs to dodge). However, it wasn’t until Bart Verheijen passed me again that I realised I was indeed on the correct route and shouldn’t worry about being disqualified for going off route.
The next few hours became a bit of a faff fest as the heavens opened for a couple of fierce down pours. Every time I stopped to put on my rain layers consisting of the Gore C7 ShakeDry Jacket and Gore Wear C5 Paclite Trail Shorts, both brilliant pieces of kit. I absolutely love this set-up for the rain, but arguably I should have just left them on for a few hours rather than this stop-start on-off business. At one point the rain was so severe I contemplated sheltering in a large marquee that I spotted in a garden, but the marquee was securely closed off, so back out into the rain and strong cross wind it was.
The SPAR in Ferwert had closed down this year so I continued towards Harlingen where I had a nice relaxed proper seated lunch consisting of baked potatoes, fish and mixed vegetables plus a large hot chocolate with cream. This year the priority was to finish the race and look after myself, not trying to get round as fast as possible and then risk having to scratch (ie withdraw) from the race again …
By the time I reached Makkum, possibly because of the nice weather or the warm sit down meal I just had in Harlingen, I didn’t feel like a needed a sleep stop like last year. Instead, I pushed on towards Lemmer where I raided the SPAR just before it shut for the day and found a fantastic manned public toilet just around the corner from the supermarket with a friendly staff member watching my unlocked bike.
With a massive tailwind, the stretch from Urk to Amsterdam was such good fun to ride this year. Flat and fast. Cap number 86, Bob Billy (Martijn), passed me along this stretch and seemed worried about making the 11pm closing of WildBunch, the bike café and race timing point in Amsterdam, but with such a tailwind, I wasn’t too worried and just enjoyed the cruise.
I arrived in Amsterdam at 22:32, just in time for the 11pm cut-off. LegendsTracking shows 21:32 but I think those timings are 1 hour out. As it was, the nice guys at Wildbunch kept their doors open 24/7 again. After a coffee and a slice of apple pie at WildBunch, it was off to bed at the Amadi hotel just around the corner for a couple of hours. So much better than sleeping on a cold floor like last year … The hotel had a 24hr reception, excellent secure bike lock-up, comfortable bed, plenty of charging points in the room and a powerful shower, plus bananas to shove in my jersey pockets upon check-out.
RACE DAY 3
3 May 2019
It was still dark when I set off from Madmen again to ride the next stretch, heading north towards Den Helder and then finally enjoying some tailwind while heading south towards the next timing point at the Keukenhof. I was a bit blurred during this stretch and I could feel I had given my health a serious blow. I recall feeling baffled by how the hell to get my bike over the very narrow lock gates across the Oorgat at Edam and ending up taking a longer route around it. I also remember the pleasant company of dotwatcher Norbert Cuiper between Hoorn and Enkhuizen, followed by breakfast at the bakery in Enkhuizen and second breakfast at McDonalds at De Kooy, just south of Den Helder. But I don’t recall noticing much of the landscape in the far north or appreciating the beauty of the dunes. I am not even sure if I didn’t notice any tulip fields near the Keukenhof because I was so lost in my own mind or because the tulips were late/early that year.
As is so often the case with these kind of races and events, the cycling is the ‘easy’ part. It is the other areas where you can get properly tripped up. When I reached Camperduin, I made yet another race food mistake and tucked into a children’s menu consisting of hot dogs, apple sauce and some fries. The highlight of that stop was the mother of Sam Thomas, a fellow RATN2019 racer, who must have been not far behind me. Sam’s mum said her family had all been cheering for me and were so happy to see a woman do so well in the race. I wish I could have lived up to her expectations !
A few more unwelcome toilet stops followed after this and meanwhile the amount of yellow phlegm coming up from my chest was pretty disgusting too. The section through the dunes after Camperduin is absolutely stunning, but my main recollection is of finding secluded spots where I could crouch down for some wild pooing.
By the time I hit Velsen and got off the ferry my legs had lost all power and climbing ‘t Kopje van Bloemendaal (which actually isn’t that steep) was a real shock to the system. I was going so slowly and at least two other riders who had arrived on the next ferry after me overtook me. If you tell me I walked part of the way, I’d believe it too.
According to LegendsTracking I passed the Keukenhof timing point at 17:48, in 10th place.
Not long after that, when I got to Noordwijk after c. 1120 kilometres and just over 60 hours of racing, the heavens opened and, as the rain intensified, my desire to keep going waned. At first I just stopped at a cozy looking restaurant with nice heaters and ordered myself a big pasta dinner. Then, as I started to warm up I realised how bad my health was and what hole I had dug myself into. Even multiple deserts couldn’t fix the damage.
And then I made the next mistake: I scratched there and then. They say ‘never scratch at night’, but I knew I had to finish the race in 5 days to catch the ferry on time (Monday evening 6 May) and somehow couldn’t picture how even a good night sleep would enable me to still make that deadline. On top of that, my head and heart were no longer in the game. I also had a, perhaps misplaced, sense of duty that I couldn’t afford to get properly ill and had to return to work on Tuesday 7 May because of important projects that couldn’t wait.
I was stupid, in many ways.
31 August 2020
The timing of my sleep stop in Amsterdam this year couldn’t have been better. It meant that I missed some rain and the strong northerly wind had died down somewhat, which made the push into the headwind north to Enkhuizen and onwards to Den Helder a bit less challenging than it had been for other riders passing through the previous night.
The crossing over the lock gates at the Oorgat was still a little puzzle, but totally feasible this year, especially if you wheel your bike over on its rear wheel …
To my pleasant surprise, Norbert Cuiper popped up again in Hoorn to cycle along for a few kilometres around sunrise before peeling off just before Enkhuizen to get to work. It is funny, the only two times in my life that I have met Norbert are when the keen dotwatcher popped up to cheer me (and other riders) on during the RATN. He is neither family, nor an old friend and has no incentive for cheering me on other than a shared passion for the sport. Yet, riding those few kilometres together and feeling the warm burn of his enthusiasm and support, make me feel connected to him.
The bakery in Enkhuizen was as good for an early breakfast as it was last year. The swimming pool on the exit from Enkhuizen made for a great toilet stop and a friendly cheer around Andijk from a car driver (possibly a friend/family member of another rider), made for an excellent early morning spell of riding. The stretch from Medemblik to Den Helder is somewhat monotonous, but by the time you reach Callantsoog some of the most beautiful stretches of the race route await.
Although I claim to have learned from last year’s failures, there are of course always new mistakes to make. Not bringing suntan lotion was one of the new ones. I had been wondering during the first 2 days why I felt like I was burning up and why my face and my head were so hot. At first I though it was fatigue or perhaps my hormones playing up shortly before my period, but when I looked in the mirror on the third day somewhere along the Noord-Holland coastline, I finally realised that my face was totally sunburned. A quick stop at the DA (drugstore) in Callantsoog followed to buy suntan lotion and a tongue scraper, a handy tool I recalled Darren Franks talking about to keep the bacteria at bay and prevent mouth ulcers (in addition to limiting sugary foods).
Having washed my first pair of shorts (Endura Pro SL bibshorts) overnight and dried them out on the back of my bike, it was time to switch back into them again as my spare (other brand) bibshorts were chafing me up and meant that all those picturesque cobbled streets (kinderkopjes en klinkers) could only be tackled riding standing on the pedals. It took until Limburg for the chafing to heal/settle.
The next stretch was crucial. All along my race motto had been to ‘keep it steady; look after yourself’. But the first major goal was to ‘make it beyond Noordwijk’, the location where I scratched last year. A good sign along the way was that climbing ‘t Kopje van Bloemendaal felt like an absolute doodle this year despite carrying more on the bike than last year. My legs were strong, my airways were clear, my energy was high and apart from the saddle soreness, everything was good. Perhaps the groentekroket (vegetable croquette) I ate on the Velsen ferry and my chat with Julia made a positive difference too. You can read the ferry interview here and Julia even posted the interview to Soundcloud too if you prefer to listen to it.
I passed the next race timing point, the Keukenhof, at 15:49, in about 11th or 12th place. It was so good to reach Noordwijk in the afternoon sunshine, feeling strong and happy and ready to explore the second half of this race !
As I passed through the dunes before Scheveningen, a cyclist who I assumed to be a random stranger started riding alongside me. It wasn’t until he started talking to me that I realised it was Martin, our friend who lives in Scheveningen and where I stayed after scratching from RATN last year. It was so funny because I had never associated Martin with cycling. He had taken it up during Covid lockdown and was quite into it now. I loved riding and chatting with him for a bit until he had to swing off for dinner in Scheveningen. Just as he swung off his neighbour Kees, a keen cyclist, joined until the skyline of Hoek van Holland appeared and he too headed back for home. That afternoon/evening, the world was just perfect. It was warm. I was riding with a nice tail wind. The dune landscape was beautiful. I could almost see myself living in the Netherlands again, enjoying evening training loops in the dunes…
Arriving at Hoek van Holland on the boat just 3 days earlier felt like a life-time ago. I passed Ralph Cullen along the stretch from Hoek van Holland to Vlaardingen as he complained about pain in his knees. This is not uncommon. I think that at least 50% of the people who dropped out of RATN did so with severe pain and swelling in their knees. On paper such a flat race may seem easy. In practice, it means you are pushing on the pedals all the time, and of course the wind doesn’t make it any easier either. With a hilly race you get lots of recovery on the descends. During RATN, the 6 minutes on the Velsen ferry may be your only in-ride recovery until you reach the hills in Limburg.
I stopped at the Burger King in Vlaardingen to put on my evening layers and stuff my face with a big evening meal. As I left Vlaardingen and made my way through Rotterdam I felt good. The plan was to push through the night to benefit from the light winds across the delta works in Zeeland.
But finding my way out of the Rotterdam urbanisation was easier said than done. I was unlucky to find the Spijkenisserbrug, across which the race route ran, closed that night and was sent away by the guys working on the bridge to make my way across the Oude Maas via the Botlekbrug instead. The Botlekbrug is a major motorway and finding the right access by bike took some time, including riding back to a McDonalds to grab their Wifi.
Lesson: always buy a local sim card and always check that your offline maps have indeed fully downloaded …
However, the bigger problem was how to get onto the Brielse Maasdijk again to continue the route. On paper it had looked like I could just take a left turn off the Botlekbrug onto the Hartelbrug and then take a right to continue along the Brielse Maasdijk. In reality however, there was a good 10-20 meters height differential and the only way to get off the Hartelbrug was not until I found myself on the ‘wrong’ side of the water.
At first I explored the option of just staying parallel to the route all the way to the Brielse Brug or perhaps as far as Oostvoorne, but then got worried I would be cutting out too much of the official route and might end up disqualified. In the end, after a good 2 hours of faffing with the Wahoo and my phone and riding forward and back, I finally found a way around turning right on the Markenburgerweg and looping around the outside of the cycling circuit, to make my way back onto the Brielse Maasdijk. I don’t think I have ever been so happy to find myself on a small sheep and sheep shit invested dike !
I felt stupid for wasting so much time, but what is done is done. Put it in a box and move on. After that it was a lonely, quiet, cold and uneventful night.
RACE DAY 4
1 September 2020
As I arrived in Domburg upon dawn I searched out a hotel with 24hr reception to see if I could have a room for a quick shower and a snooze, but I didn’t quite feel tired enough when they told me that would cost me 175 euro ! Although I had carried all my sleep kit, it had simply felt too cold to bivvy during the night. In the end, I ended up staying for a hot coffee (again thanks to a kind staff member offering me a free one !) and moved on again after a toilet and chamois cream stop.
Lesson: always bring more chamois cream than you think you need …
If I get a chance to ride RATN again I would love to see that early part of Zeeland by daylight. The second part from Domburg heading back east towards Goes wasn’t so special.
Ever since the Groningen coastline my rear tyre had been somewhat soft, but I had not been able to find an obvious hole, so I kept stopping every few hours to pump up my tyre and give my arms a bit of a workout. Having tried to inflate the (tubeless) tyre with CO2 to force some higher pressure through in an attempt to identify the hole, had resulted in me freezing up the valve which meant that this arm workout became increasingly harder. It wasn’t until the next day in Goes that I spotted an excellent bike shop dealing with road bikes (rather than Dutch family bikes) and finally got the puncture properly sorted.
Lesson: always carry a spare valve and practice more with the CO2 release.
Once the valve was replaced and the mechanic had hooked the bike up to the high pressure hose, the hole was easily found, and I could plug it quickly and easly with one of my DynaPlugs.
By now the wind was very light, almost non-existent. Friendly encouragement from the family of Johnny Uitterhoeve, one of the other RATN racers, also helped to boost my mood.
During the afternoon I had a bit of a lull. The roads were a bit straight and boring, the sun was hot, my belly was full of food and I seemed to be moving as if in a dream. Awake and aware, but somehow imagining my sister was behind me giving me instructions about where to turn left and right.
That all changed by the time I hit Zundert. I don’t know what it is with those villages along the Dutch/Belgium border, but I was surprised to find some road rage and even some of the shouts of abuse I have sadly become accustomed to in the UK. After enjoying so much goodwill and exemplary behaviour from car drivers everywhere else in the Netherlands, this was a bit of a shock. Luckily, this didn’t last long and by the time I reached Hilvarenbeek in Brabant I was perked up again by several things.
First, there was fellow RATN rider Martijn Driedonks rolling into the same petrol station stop after (unbeknown to me) having chased me at 10 kilometers distance for most of that day. Chatting to Martijn, whilst refuelling for the evening ahead, was another highlight of RATN. Some people just have such a positive vibe that it can’t but rub off on you.
As he set off from the petrol station a little bit ahead of me, Martijn had told me he would probably stop off for a bit in Borkel en Schaft where he knew family and friends living there would be by the side of the road to cheer him on. Wow – and what a fan club he had ! As I passed through Borkel en Schaft, Martijn was standing by the side of the road with at least 10 or 15 other people. I had the privilege to be cheered on by all of them and ride underneath a giant banner spanning across the road (meant for Martijn but raised for me too). Thank you so much Martijn Driedonks fan club !
And then, to top it all off and make it really the best evening of my RATN, suddenly there was a car with a bike rack on the top beeping its horn at me. I waved at the car and didn’t make much of it yet. “Probably another one of the Martijn Driedonks fan club”, I thought. It wasn’t until I noticed the same car parked up a little further along the route, that I started thinking, “hold on, that car looks a bit like our car”. And when I saw my husband Chris standing by the side of the road, I couldn’t mutter much more than “hey, you, here ?!”
Chris has been working from my sister’s house in Rhenen and driven over after work to catch my dot somewhere en-route. He leap-frogged 3 more time with the car to pass on messages of encouragement from my mum and my dad and off he was again, like a beautiful dream. Totally worth the speeding fine he incurred on the way over as he passed through Tilburg he says.
Not long after that, as I had stopped for some more evening layers, suddenly Martijn was there again and two of his friends were riding behind us for a little while. After a few kilometres his friends turned around for home and I let Martijn carry on ahead of me into the dark. I remember joking with them about where to stop for the night. I had booked a hotel in Ormond-Stein which seemed perfectly timed for the hills, as it would give me about 1 hour to warm up on some minor undulations before hitting the proper hills, but I think Martijn had planned to stopped in Valkenburg and thus could look forward to riding up the Cauberg with cold legs..
I absolutely love night riding, possibly even more than riding during the day. Everything is quiet, the wind is usually calmer, fewer cars to worry about and just you and your bike out on a little adventure. The stretch into Limburg in the dark was probably some of the best night riding I have ever done. As this was my fourth night of the race (and having had only 4 hours of sleep at the 40 hour mark), sleep deprivation was starting to take its toll and I was experiencing my first ever proper déjà vu.
Déjà vu. Re-experiencing the unexperienced. A term I have loosely used before but never experienced as vividly as I did during that 4th night of RATN2020. It happened on the stretch between Maasbracht and my hotel in Ormond-Stein in Limburg. The route is pretty rural, consisting of smaller roads and lanes, flanked by water and grass that looked rather psychedelic as it was waving lightly in the wind and illuminated by nothing but my dynamo headlight.
These visual distortions were nothing new to me and I found it easy enough to distinguish between what was real and what was imagined. Something jumping out of the verge, hitting my shoulder, then my saddle bag, my wheel and finally disappearing into the verge on the other side of the road, was real.
But this really strong sensation that I had been riding on these roads before, a sensation that was not just visual, but I could even remember what certain corners and the descend to my hotel had felt like, none of that was real.
Checking into the hotel, I was still convinced that I felt perfectly normal, but the strong sense of having been there before lingered. I have checked my Strava files over and again since the race, but I had never been there in my life !
It is fascinating what tricks our brains play with us when tested by the cold and sleep deprivation. I had always wondered what hallucinations on the bike would be like. I had pictured it as something funny or scary, a bit of an ‘out of body’ experience, but I had never anticipated that it could be like this and actually a feeling where I felt very much present and very much in control.
I even remember thinking while checking into the hotel in Stein that I did not really need a sleep break, but should probably take it anyway given I had booked. Things can flip quite quickly in ultra endurance cycling. You can feel fine one moment and clearly have pushed too far the next. On hindsight, I think I made the right decision to stop there. The clearest sign was perhaps the fact that I forgot to set my alarm and slept for 7.5 hours straight in Stein !
RACE DAY 5
2 September 2020
As I woke up on the final day I knew a top 10 placing was no longer on the cards and I took Martijn’s advice and just enjoyed my riding that day without pushing, but bathing in that awesome feeling that I was going to finish the race this year and I was going to finish it feeling good.
Riding the hilly section of the route in the morning sun was my absolute favourite part of the whole race. The Cauberg didn’t feel like much compared to the climbs I had done during my holidays in the Pennines in July. The Keutenberg was indeed steep (22%) and the ascent was made just a little bit harder with a large truck descending towards me just on that steep, narrow section. But I could hold my line and pedal up without too much trouble. The views from the Gulpenerberg and the Camerig were beautiful and the descends were just so much fun to ride in plain day light. Taking in the 3 Landenpunt was a nice cherry on the top of this year’s RATN. I am not sure what it would really be like, but again I could see myself settling down in the Netherlands and enjoying weekend rides on and off-road in these hills …
The main thing that went through my head during the stretch north from Limburg was just to bring it home now. The sun was shining. I was feeling good. The already bright day was brightened up a bit more by a cheer from Helen’s parents at a random traffic light near Sittard and from some other dotwatchers as I passed through the Mookerheide and Groesbeek area. After several hours in the land of Maas and Waal, it felt great to cross the bridge over the Waal at Eewijk and start the final stretch through the Betuwe.
Heading west over the dikes from Andelst, to Doodewaard to Ochten and then north to Kesteren and Rhenen I became quite nostalgic. Riding through this landscape that was coloured in the most beautiful reds and oranges from the sun setting after a warm autumn day, I reminisced about family bike rides all those years ago, growing up not far from here. It was one of those happy moments you simply want to put in a bottle and keep safely under your pillow.
The last 10 kilometres of the race were one big party.
Chris, my sister, my brother-in-law and his mum had all gathered in Rhenen at the final traffic light and were cheering me on with the sounds of drums and bells. I raced their car as I sped along the N225 cycle path and couldn’t wish for a better finisher’s award than falling into the arms of my now so much healthier dad who was waiting for me at the finish at the Proloog in Amerongen.
What a difference a year can make …
4 days 13 hours 8 minutes. 1st woman. 11th overall. Unfinished business finished.
4 May 2019
Testament to how little brain function I had left when I scratched was that it was only upon waking in an expensive hotel in Noordwijk that I realised that, while it is forbidden to stay with friends or family during the race, I could of course have cycled just a little bit further to Scheveningen where my husband Chris was staying with our friends Martin and Helen. Why didn’t I think of that the previous evening ?!
Justifying the expensive hotel by sleeping in and eating as much as I could from their breakfast buffet, I continued towards Scheveningen along the RATN route the next morning and rode a few kilometres alongside one of the guys still in the race. I sadly can’t remember his name or cap number anymore. He was going well. I felt a strange mix of relief that I no longer had to race on the one hand and misplaced jealousy on the other.
Arriving in Scheveningen at Martin and Helen’s place, I was happy to see them and really happy Chris was there to support me at this low point. The feelings of sadness and failure continued to build as time went on.
Why oh why did I screw up the race ? Why did I have to be so ambitious in my race timings ? Why was I not still out there riding my bike like everyone else ? Was I too much of a weakling and just not cut out for this kind of stuff ?
I wasn’t doing myself any favours with such thoughts.
However, what did do me a world of good was catching up with Donncha Cuttris, who, like me, had completed BikingMan Oman and scratched from RATN, and happened to live just around the corner from Martin and Helen in Scheveningen. Being with friends and family helps, but there is no cure like sharing that low with a fellow racer who knows the highs of doing well and the lows of scratching. Donncha is a former boxer and soldier and has competed in the big ultra races such as the Race Across America, TransAm and IndiPac, with many successes but he is not unfamiliar with scratching either. He knows a thing or two about perseverance and grit, but is also a master in perspective and reflection. Thank you Donncha for passing on some of your wisdom and helping me see things in a different light ! That was the first important step towards returning to RATN in 2020 to finish what I had started.
Afterwards I didn’t have the energy or the words to blog about my RATN2019.
3-6 September 2020
After a nice long sleep at my sister’s in Rhenen, I headed back to the Proloog in Amerongen to applaud a few riders who had just finished their race and catch up with Eline van Straalen and Lindsay Mccrae, each with their own scratching sadness to overcome, but which is so much easier when shared. Luck would have it that Thursday is market day and I got my herring and Dutch cheese fixes from the trucks parked up just in front of the Proloog.
Friday was about catching up with my dad and seeing him beam with energy and pride as he did the whole family BBQ. Saturday was about catching up with mum, who had come over from France, and enjoying a family bike ride. And before I knew it, it was Sunday and time to head home on the ferry.
But this time I did so with the best feeling ever: having completed and won my race was one thing, but the biggest win was seeing all of my family so happy and healthy again.
This trip to the Netherlands is by far the best thing that happened in 2020 and has been totally worth the 14 days self-isolation upon return. Was it essential travel ? For me it was.
WHAT’S NEXT ?
The big goal remains the 7,400km long North Cape Tarifa which was postponed from June 2020 to June 2021 due to Covid-19. I will train for the NCT and hope it can go ahead, but given the compounded uncertainty of the Covid situation and regulations in each of the 15 European countries the race passes through, I can’t 100% count on it happening and may enter alternative races at the last minute instead.
WAS THAT MY LAST RATN ?
I am not sure …
The Race Around the Netherlands has excited me ever since I saw it first launched. Could I do it faster ? Yes, I think I could, but I have to admit that this year’s conditions were almost perfect. Could I race it smarter ? Hell yeah ! But, I don’t think the race will ever be the same emotionally. This year’s race had real meaning.
Never say never though. I am always up for drumming up more female participants, so if we could get a huge number of women to enter RATN2021 I would definitely be up for it again. I would even offer a special coaching discount for female entrants.
Alternatively, the idea of perhaps giving the male pairs a run for their money together with Melanie Wasley, with whom I did a DIY hilly 500km in less than 24 hours along the Trafalgar Way last year, could be fun …