Browsing the ultra-cycling race calendars online, the entry for the BBBR caught my attention: something about the beautiful “Switzerland National Park” (I live in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, so I figured the location would be somewhere close), 1,300 kilometers with a limit of seven days (perfect to maximize the value of one week of vacation), and the race was less than two months away (excellent since I am not very patient). I’d found my race! By the time I realized that national park in question was in Bohemia, and not at all in Switzerland, my excitement was already so far in motion that there was nothing stopping it. My confusion about the location turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I would have otherwise probably not have had the idea to come race in the Czech Republic, a region I knew almost nothing about. And what a magical place it turned out to be. An amazing landscape and people, forests, lakes, and mountains, all traversed by endless gravel roads, that often gave the feeling of a much more faraway place than here in the center of Europe.
I lined up at the start, before the first rays of sunlight on Saturday, May 28th, with my fellow participants feeling a mix of enthusiasm and nervousness. The weather forecast did not make things particularly easy, with cold temperatures and rain announced for the first days. I figured it would take me somewhere around five days to complete the route, and I was shooting for 5,000 meters of elevation per day. Soon after the start, the predicted rain really came, and my waterproof socks became clogged with freezing water. Frustrated, I stopped to take them off and put on my merino socks instead.
A few hours later, I met the enthusiastic race photographer Mathy Podrouzek at the exact moment when I discover that my back tire was losing air and almost flat. Mathy apologized that he could of course not assist me in any way, and instead took some photos as I nervously tried to pump the tire up with frozen fingers. Upon inspection, there were no signs of a puncture, so I kept topping it up about every two hours hoping that it would just hold somehow. I was definitely flustered, but the stress about the tire made everything else seem easy, and the kilometers flew by.
Close to midnight, with my goal of 5,000 meters of climbing achieved, I hesitated about whether to push further on or to stop for a hotel. I erred on the side of caution and veered a few kilometers off course to a nice spa hotel with 24-hour reception. As I got to bed, I quickly checked my overall position in the race: first woman and tenth overall. This ultra-racing thing is fun! A worry came into my head that I’d definitely not eaten enough during the day, but I shrugged it off and set my alarm for four hours’ time.
The next day brought some more cold rain showers and some more back tire pumping. At that point, I made a deal with the universe that my tire held up up, I would happily pedal the rest of the remaining kilometers to the finish. And my wish seemed to come true: the tire held up. Soon after, my GPS track ended in a marsh. With no experience of river crossings before, I decided to take off my shoes and proceed. I didn’t even bother raising my knee warmers. After two steps, I slipped into much deeper water than I thought, and I was up to my waist, just trying to not fall over completely.
I got out on the other side and reached a gas station in five minutes, looking like a wild animal that emerged from a swamp. Quite the contrast to the families having BBQs in the sun. Progress definitely became slower than I’d hoped, and the route, while beautiful, was absolutely relentless. There are no free kilometers in the BBBR. After a long and seemingly endless push into the cold night, it was a surreal experience finding the hotel. In the middle of nowhere in a Czech forest, there are two hotels with the name OREA: the first is a completely abandoned hotel that looks like it’s from a horror movie. The second, my real destination, is a posh and modern hotel with cake and chips at the 24-hour reception, located just 800 meters further into the dark forest. My mood went from desperation to joy all within 10 minutes. By the time I was in bed, it was already 2 a.m. To keep up with my 4 a.m. daily start would mean only two hours of sleep. I set my alarm and hoped for the best. Checking the online tracker, I was still the first female and tenth overall, but my confidence in keeping up this pace wass definitely decreasing.
Despite finally some better weather, day three was when the wheels started coming off. As the day went on, I was feeling weaker and weaker. I figured part of it must be due to not eating enough on the bike and the short sleep the night before. Part of it must also be that my only previous ultra race was three days long, and I was now in unfamiliar territory, not even halfway through the race. I adjusted my strategy by having a seated lunch (a schnitzel mit pommes) and taking a nap during the day. Despite this, I struggled with headaches and nose bleeds and finally got a hotel early at 9 p.m., hoping that some extra sleep would fix my problems. I mentally gave up on the five-day pace, but I was still the first woman and remained optimistic.
On day four, I was starting to feel better. I wanted to make a push past dinner in Telc, but I was stopped due to not finding any hotel that would accept a late check-in. So, I go to the kebab place to have a second dinner and then found a very nice hotel. I chatted with Hassan, a very friendly Turk who told me his life story and how he ended up marrying a Czech woman. After I got to my hotel room, a big storm passed, and I was happy with my decision to stop early, despite losing some spots in the overall ranking.
The next morning, I became slightly panicked after losing my warm gloves, only to find a pair of gardening gloves by a forest hut that end up saving my life. Who knew gardening gloves can be perfect for cycling? Further on, my progress was slowed by another comical mistake. Trying to improve the saddle sore situation, I decided to take a five-minute break in the middle of the day to dry my chamois in the sun, but when I put it back on, it was somehow full of bugs that me violently all over before I could throw them back off. So, I continue with a great stinging sensation to complement the saddle sores.
After dinner at CP6, I was feeling strong again and made a long push into the night well past 1 a.m., despite perhaps the worst hike-a-bike sections of the whole course. When I arrive at my hotel, disaster: even after calling and being reassured that a late check in is okay, the hotel was completely closed and the phone number I was told to call was unanswered. I pulled out my emergency bivy, which I really wasn’t planning to use, put on all my clothes, and got on top of a wooden table outside a restaurant since I had no mat or sleeping bag. Luckily, the terrace had some umbrellas that saved me from the passing rain.
Flustered in the morning, I left my Garmin charging cable at my bivy spot. Faced with the prospect of no more navigation device, I decided to ask around if someone had a cable, until I came across the nicest guy in Czech Republic, who speaks no English at all, but after a lot of gesticulating, he confirmed he had a cable and he was willing to give it to me and even refuses to accept any cash for it. At this stroke of luck, I was starting to think there was nothing that could stop me from finishing the race.
I got a hotel at 9 p.m. to ensure that I didn’t have to spend another night outside, and I planned for an early start. The hotel owners, upon hearing my plans, prepared six take away sandwiches. Day seven came along, and I was in a great mood. At that point, I was the only solo female left in the race, and way past my expected finish time. I was definitely no longer in the top 10 or completing my goal of 5,000 meters of elevation per day, but I was solving my problems as they come along, one at a time, and moving forward.
The finish line seemed tangible, the weather was great, and I was confident I’d make it before the time limit. It was also perhaps the point when I started to fully appreciate the scenery around me: the forests, the animals, the mountains, and the views. It was all making sense. I cycled a long section with race photographer Mathy, and his clear admiration for his home country rubbed off on me. Later on, I found cycling reporter Cory Benson, who told me about his move to the Czech Republic and the life he has built. We laughed about how my plan to finish in five days went out the window, and he urged me on toward the last checkpoint. I arrived there at midnight. There were 50 kilometers left, but based on the other riders ahead, it’d take five or six hours hours with a big hike-a-bike section. And there was a big storm coming in the night. Without hesitation, I got a hotel and went to bed without even setting an alarm.
In the morning, I waited for the rain to stop and had breakfast at the hotel. I started at a leisurely 6:30 a.m.. What a luxury on the final day! The ride was not as enjoyable as I’d hoped, despite the added rest. My aching Achilles didn’t have any patience for the hike-a-bike. As I got closer to the finish, I was feeling like I’d never get there. I both wanted to get it over with and don’t want it to end end at the same time. At nine kilometers from the end, I met my husband Philippe, who’d finished two days before. He cycled alongside me to the finish, where I am greeted by many of the finishers. All was right in the universe again. I was super happy. At the party, I chatted with Max, the male winner, about our origins only 60 kilometers apart in Transylvania. I also happily caught up with the friends I made along the race.
Much more than cycling, in the end, it was an exercise in problem solving, damage control, and sheer perseverance. Despite all the difficulties, I also had a lot of nice moments shared with the other riders. After my marsh incident, I came across Martijn Van Loon, who not only fell into the marsh like me but also damaged his phone by getting it fully wet. We immediately bonded as marsh buddies. I also learned from him and Nils Thomsen over dinner that night the key tip of always ordering a second pizza to go, which I started implementing in the next days. While Martijn lost some time finding another phone, he then flew through the field with some newfound wings. We intersected at another low point for me, when I had to do the emergency bivy. Luckily, he was also in the same village, and I set up next to him. By the time I woke up in the morning, he was already at the next checkpoint. We only saw each other again at the finish.
At the end, Ondrej, the organizer, asked me what kept me going in the hard times. My answer was simple: I actually love doing this. I got to traverse a new and beautiful region, get to know its people, make lasting connections with other participants and locals, all while doing what I love most: riding my bike. So, while I will be left licking my wounds for a while after this adventure, I wouldn’t hesitate in a second to do it all over again.
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