Not officially, for legal reasons, but unofficially we were in no doubt. A mass start, a live online leaderboard fed by our trackers, results ranked in order across the line, and a finish party scheduled such that I would have to ride for all but the mandatory 5 hour overnight rests to be within a chance of making.
The mostly off-road route ran underneath the flight corridor flown during the Berlin Airlift – the aircraft of which were nicknamed the Candy Bombers – during the Soviet blockade of Berlin in the post war years. We started from their old base at what’s now Frankfurt Airport, and each carried a ‘care package’ of a gift we’d bought to hand over to a childrens’ charity at the finish, the Berlin Velo Fair being held at Tempelhof Airport.
I set off riding with Tino, a Berliner I knew from the 2nd Torino-Nice Rally and whose idea it had been to enter the Candy B Graveller. He’s a strong rider and, though he was riding slower than he would usually so that I could better keep up, my laboured breathing was soon reminding me I’m not. I managed to hang on for an hour, maybe, but when I lost his wheel as we negotiated a slower group I sat up and let him go rather than bridge back up. Much as I wanted to, I knew I wouldn’t last the day sustaining that pace.
As the morning went on the field spread out – by which i mean rode away from me – until there was no longer anyone in sight to just follow. Of course I had the track on my etrex but the rushed preparations I’d made for Candy in the couple of weeks after getting home from Tour Aotearoa hadn’t included taking a look at the base map I’d installed on it for Germany. I was too focussed on stripping my bike down, replacing all the bearings and building it back up. Besides, a base map is just a base map. You only have to pick a distinctive colour for the overlain gpx track and follow that. Magenta normally works well in wooded areas. Except that, on this base map, the colour used for forest paths changed as I zoomed in. From grey to something very close to magenta. Which I didn’t know. Which is how I came to find myself off-course when everyone else was passing CP2.
I regained the route easily enough once I realised. I remembered reading some advice to consider it’s a long race when these sort of things happen, and that a little time lost on the first day won’t be significant after a couple of nights. Still, it was looking like I was off the back as a result of my detour, and set to be riding the rest of the day alone. So I was heartened when, not long afterwards, I came across a threesome who were just getting going again from a stop. One of them, Svenja, I’d met earlier at the breakfast sign-on. A TCR No.6 entrant who works for a German bike magazine, she was in the enviable position of participating on company time. We chatted as we rode and found we shared the belief it could be faster overall to ride within ourselves and to keep moving rather than to ride faster but keep having recovery breaks. It’s always more enjoyable to cycle with someone else, and as our paces were similar we kept together. I felt we had the making of a great team, with a potentially winning combination of athleticism and wisdom. Both of which she brought. I’m not sure what my contribution was.
So far the track had been mostly flat. Mainly well surfaced woodland fire roads, punctuated by the odd tractor track across a grassy field. The climbing began about 85km in, with a track up through a vineyard so steep that I didn’t see anyone try to ride it. It was a nice excuse to get off and rest the cycling legs for a few minutes while pushing up, and I’m a sucker for a good view. At the top we were greeted by a radio reporter, I think, or maybe a blogger, either way he had a huge box of snacks for us and was holding a microphone asking everyone questions. Thankfully my interview was in English, but I’m still not sure that any of my answers made sense. The break meant we were stationary for a few minutes though, and not long after we stopped Tino came over the hill. Apparently he’d waited for me earlier where a group of riders were having lunch, just off the track. We’d passed by without spotting them, but he’d set off to chase me down when he’d checked the tracking site afterwards and seen my dot was ahead.
There were a couple of other riders with Tino, and our regrouping coincided with a change in terrain. We were going through hilly woodland now, sometimes on well defined tracks, sometimes not. The gradients weren’t gentle but they weren’t long either, and I was really enjoying the gravel descents that followed each climb. We rode as a little group for a while until the others one by one pulled away again, leaving Svenja and I at our own pace. Feeling like tortoises to everyone else’s hares.
We started thinking ahead about when to stop to sleep. The rules for the event mandated stopping for a minimum of 5 hours each night. It was stressed at the start that, of all the rules, that was the one that had zero leeway. It makes sense when wild bivvying to pack up before dawn, mainly to avoid being seen but also to reduce the condensation that can form on your sleeping kit from the morning dew. Since it started getting light around 6am, we’d decided the best time to stop would be around midnight. I hoped that we could make Fulda by then. If we did, we’d be on target to make the finish before Sunday evening and the close of the Berlin Velo fair. There was a Candy lounge set up for us there in the centre of the main hall, with a drop box for us to deliver our Care packages. Arriving in Berlin after the fair had gone would be very much an anti-climax.
Night fell, and we were still going well. As we got closer to Fulda we could see thunderstorms ahead. Out towards the horizon, lightning forked spectacularly down on ground but the rumbles of thunder sounded distant enough that we weren’t overly worried. It wasn’t even raining where we were. When we rolled into Fulda we found the roads completely soaked. Had we been faster we would have been drenched, and I wondered how the hares had fared.
Although wild camping is illegal in Germany, I’d been told it’s tolerated on public land to some extent, if you follow the usual good practices of picking somewhere out of sight and leaving no trace. Apparently, if you are caught you’ll usually just get moved on rather than into any real trouble, especially if you’re being low-key and have crawled into in a bivvy bag rather than set up a tent. In the woods you can sometimes find Schutzhütte, wooden shelters intended for hikers to hide from the rain but great places to bivvy. We’d passed a few during the day and I’d been keeping my eyes out for another for the last couple of hours but without success. We’d been through Fulda and were climbing out the far side when, almost on the dot of midnight, Svenja spotted an open-sided lean-to on the side of a farm barn. Dry, sheltered, discreet. We would have had some apologising to do if the farmer had decided to visit at 3am, but otherwise it was perfect.
As Svenja prepared her bivvy, I decided to waste precious sleeping time by heating up some food: my TA staple of instant pasta mixed with canned tuna. She pretended not to mind and checked her messages. There was one from a follower saying her dot was in 18th position on the tracking site. We were amazed. So many people had been riding faster than us that we’d assumed we were well towards the back. Aesop had been right about hares and tortoises afterall.
Next: Day 2 – Mud, wet and broken gears