Words by Pieter Steyaert, photos by Jeroen Tiggelman
It came as an unexpected wake-up call and it clearly indicated the deeply fatigued state I was in. I shook my head, blinked a couple of really slow blinks, and let out a big sigh, none of which helped wake me up. I decided to squeeze the brakes a bit harder, for safety, making us even slower than we already were. This was not a gentle, easy downhill you can mentally switch off for. This trail had wet roots, rocks, tight corners and because I had to ration my batteries, limited visibility.
The rain reflected on what little light I had, adding to the difficulty. Nobody yawns on descents like this. You need focus. But I did, somehow. Before I slowed down to a speed that felt safer, I let out another big yawn. “What the f*ck?!” Definitely time for that last caffeine gel I’d been saving for the home stretch. We’d been going for 20 hours straight through relentless rain that turned the trail into peanut butter, forcing us to walk our bikes much of the time. But we were finally approaching the finish line, where a warm shower and a bed awaited us.
Some 65ish hours back, my riding partner Bram and I lined up in a COVID-proof start for the A-Cross the 3 bikepacking event. Not a race, but by no means an easy outing. Riders get 72 hours to complete a 500ish kilometre GPX track, with 10,000 meters of elevation gain. Completely self-supported, no assistance allowed. The track starts and finishes in Eupen, Belgium, and passes through Western Germany, Luxemburg, and a long stretch through the Belgian Ardennes. We were warned not to bring gravel bikes, but trail-worthy mountain bikes, and rightfully so. Adding to the challenge, resources along the track are rather limited and far between.
Before setting off, it was obvious this event brought together a community of kindred spirits. The energy before take-off was nervous and excited, but also very warm and friendly. If you’re a bikepacker into ultra-endurance challenges, you’re probably rather alone with that passion in daily life. But here, people gathered for the same purpose, providing lots of opportunities for sneaking beta and lusting over bikes and setups. Of all the people we spoke to before the start, none had managed to finish on their first attempt. In fact, nobody had finished at all. What did we sign up for?
With a forecast for non-stop rain, Saturday proved to be merciful. Mostly quite nice, even. Though the rain from the previous days meant the trails were not very fast, they were perfectly rideable. The forests were lush green with a lovely climate. Rolling into Germany, riders get a nice warm-up. Climbs are long but gentle. Up until they lose their mild-tempered character and get really steep and long and are stacked one after the other. Kronenburg is where we spent our first bivy, choosing to stop a little before our mandatory daily average of 167 km, favouring a nice shelter.
Numerous riders who knew the route warned us about Luxemburg. Supposedly very technical and featuring numerous hike-a-bike sections, this might have been the toughest section we faced. Difficult? Yes, but I mostly remember beautiful vistas, cute villages, and amazing trail riding. The occasional hike-a-bike sections are simply a vague memory a week later. Getting through Luxemburg and into Belgium was the main challenge for the second day. Managing this by around midnight, we set up our shelter at 300 km. The past two days had been tough, but we agreed to sleep at least five hours each night. With 200 km to go on Monday and a cut-off time at 9:00 in the morning on Tuesday, it did not look like sleep would be expected tomorrow. After stuffing down some freeze-dried beef potato, I lay down and woke up after what felt like 10 minutes of sleep… blissful sleep.
We were right in assuming that Monday would be one of the toughest days in our cycling careers, though the morning turned out to be quite okay. Forecasted showers vanished and rocky paths rode rather quickly. However, we were foolish to think it would be smooth sailing until Eupen. The heavens opened around lunchtime and pretty much kept pouring with varying intensity. A heinous hike-a-bike, followed by a technical, rocky descent led into La-Roche-en-Ardenne, our last resupply point. A spaghetti, two colas and a coffee followed by Belgium’s toughest climb for dessert, the Col de Haussire. Managing to keep precious stomach contents inside, I made it up the soaked plateau. Sticky mud made the average speed drop to a painful 10 km an hour.
With 110 km to go, the math was easily interpreted: I was going to make it! But it was going to be a long fight, lasting until sunrise the next day. Riding by myself most of the afternoon, I stumbled upon two riders we’d been sharing the trail with for a bit in the first two days. We rode together for roughly 60 km, all praying Benedikt’s chainring, held together with zip ties, would hold up. By 450 km or so, one of our companions decided to hold back. A broken team of two, we relied on each other to forge on. I had no more food and Benedikt’s GPS had run out of juice, so I was happy to trade navigational assistance for calories. We were told the last 30 km would ease up, thus kilometer 470 became a logical mental milestone. I won’t spoil whether they did or not, but let’s just say we earned every kilometer right up until the finish line, where we arrived just when the sun came up, awaited by my riding partner with beer to celebrate the achievement. After 68 hours, I got straight to bed with deep satisfaction and muddy legs, looking forward to showers, steak, and beer.
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