Camping and Wilderness
- By Vin Cox
“It’s almost impossible”… “So difficult, sometimes no-one finishes”… 300 miles of gravel* in a distant land is the kind of challenge I can’t leave alone.
Due to my background (ultra-endurance adventure riding and cyclo-cross racing), I heard of the mother of all ultra-endurance gravel races some years ago. A few social media friends said this was a big deal, so I rather too casually thought I’d join in. I’ve picked out some lessons for the aspirational ultra-distance or gravel cyclist.
TransIowa is a quirky/cult event: No-one knows the route or how much over 300 miles it is until the evening before. The guy in charge is known as “Guitar Ted”, but his name is Mark. Entry is via postcard to Guitar Ted, which must arrive on a precise date and include a code word. The event website is a crazy stream of consciousness which riders must learn to live by. Riders are allowed no support at all – just sustaining themselves from occasional convenience stores and whatever they carry on route. And… the start is at 4am and the finish closes 34 hours later.
Somehow I got the entry organised and had my first go at TransIowa in it’s 9th edition (#TIV9 for short)… and I failed. After 220 miles, in the middle of the night I found myself getting dangerously cold in a freezing night. I raided the bins in a town and insulated myself with newspapers inside my clothes, but I couldn’t ride hard enough to warm up, and there was nowhere to shelter, so I called for help and quit. It was a real pity because #TIV9 was “an easy year”…
1) Traveling too light can catch you out.
2) Anticipate how slow you’ll be going after 24 hours of effort.
3) Don’t underestimate. Believe organisers warnings and descriptions.
For #TIV10 I was better prepared. I was fitter and lighter. I had a new bike and I knew what I was in for; or I thought I did. I at least understood that literally the WHOLE 330 MILE RACE would be on hilly gravel roads. I knew about the gravel being loose, dangerous and energy sapping. I had learned that rural Iowa has a lot of rolling hills and that 10mph was HARD to sustain. The weather was different this time though; we slogged into a gale for the first 160 miles, maxing out on effort just to reach the cut-off point in time to receive instructions to the finish. Then lightening and rain moved in. In a town close to our route a tornado killed someone. I slowed on the soggy roads, struggled to navigate, and eventually realised I couldn’t reach the finish before the time limit. So I quit again. Just a handful finished the race.
4) Both helmet and handlebar lights are needed for night riding and navigation.
5) Aerodynamics matter even going slowly on gravel.
6) Respect that mother nature is in control.
#TIV11 was an epic which I thankfully skipped. No one finished. Only one man made it to the first checkpoint (at 50 miles) in time to be allowed to go on, and then he couldn’t make the next check point, so he quit. The weather is the event’s most notorious participant.
7) Mother nature is REALLY in control.
I couldn’t resist returning for #TIV12. The community had claimed me, and the challenge was taunting me… I had to make TIV12 the one I finished. I flew out with days in hand to recover from the journey. A 150 mile shakedown ride to race HQ at Grinnell on race-type roads was good for me.
The weather was dry, but the wind was strong and some roads were still damp from past rains. We got very lucky that the first 60 miles headed into the wind – lucky because at 4am when the race started the wind was relatively gentle. The next 100 mile leg was a solo effort for me, carefully controlling my effort to leave energy for the 180 mile long slog to the finish through the night and into the morning. A group caught me up at the 200 mile point and we celebrated sunset together.
Iowa’s “B roads” would be called bridleways or white lanes in my home country. They’re unmaintained rights of way. The route always has a few interesting B roads to add excitement to the gravel normality. In the middle of the night my group traversed a beauty of a B road which had us walking and dropped our crucial average speed.
I found the B road strangely motivating, but then at 3am when we finally found a convenience store for the first time in 7 hours I was really shaken up by the experience. It destroyed my rhythm, got me too cold, and I struggled to keep down the food I’d force fed myself. This was my bad patch, everyone goes through something bad in a TI, so I did the important thing; I carried on slowly, and eventually I got over it as the sun started to come up.
Alone again, I was a real “gravel grinder” churning along in a slightly detached mental state. Tiny points of beauty and interest captivated me; a gnarly old fence, a puzzled looking cow, the star spangled banner fluttering perfectly from a flagpole beside a barn. Fresh gravel, big lose difficult rocks of it, absorbed all my complaints. One thing I always focused on was the route card telling me where to go – it’s a self navigated event and one of the easiest ways to fail is to go off course.
With 10 miles to go and nearly 4 hours to do it I dared to begin believing I was going to finish. It still wasn’t guaranteed, and people have broken their bikes that close to the finish in the past, but I hoped that I could walk it in that time if needed. I was a physical wreck by that time, and I stopped to stretch out as my back started spasming.
At 5 miles to go I was lying down in the road to relax my back enough to finish when another rider caught me. I can tell you that after 30+ hours of shared torture and adventure, fellow riders are not rivals, they are comrades. My comrades helped and encouraged me along that road to the finish, where Guitar Ted and the huge TransIowa community were waiting for every finisher. I came 17th.
8) Catching up on sleep before an ultra is important.
9) Holding back something for the tough times is vital.
10) Friends will motivate each other.
11) If at first you don’t succeed…!
The 13th TransIowa #TIV13 is a day or two from now and the weather forecast is worrying my buddies over there (check it at https://www.wunderground.com/q/zmw:50112.1.99999). It’s going to be a tough one. Follow them on the race radio station http://ridinggravel.com/transiowaradio/ and the race website http://transiowa.blogspot.co.uk/
Ultra-endurance events are an exciting new frontier in British cycling too. There was a gravel ride last weekend; the Dirty Riever https://www.dirtyreiver.co.uk/ . I’ve entered a massive 3330 mile race around the country next year; Baa Baa Bikepack http://www.bikepack.cc/ . And this weekend in Plymouth at 9pm I’ll be cheering riders starting the Trans-Kernow challenge around Cornwall https://www.facebook.com/events/1799113573703765. I hope my experiences help other people succeed!
* The word “gravel” has a polarising effect on my cyclo-cross friends: Firstly, it’s a label which is now used to sell bikes – it’s a trend – which naturally creates cynicism. Secondly, most of my friends will never comprehend the scale and character of the gravel roads which sired the gravel scene in the USA, so some see it as nonsense. A third more positive note is that plenty of my friends only care that this word means a go-anywhere adventure bike or event, which many of us like.
Massive thanks to Guitar Ted and the community which has developed around TransIowa. Particular thanks to Steve Fuller for being my host, adviser, organiser, and inspirer. Other key inspirers include Sarah Cooper, Greg Gleason, Jim Philips, Bill Graves and Trenton J Raygor.
Thanks too to Genesis Bikes for this tough and adaptable 853 steel adventure and cyclo-cross racing beast. Also to Alpkit for the frame bag which held all my supplies and spares. My local bike shop Pave Velo in St Austell were also very supportive.
- By Vin Cox
10th April. 74 miles cycled.
I pressed the panic button at lunch: Asked the team how to get out of Sumatra fast… Not that Sumatra isn’t great, no; very friendly people, beautiful landscape etc. Just such hard going!
Many punctures today on road very very broken or not there in places. Sometimes it had been washed away, other times it was never fully there to start.
Plan now to go for Kota Padang 230 miles away south. Ferry or fly from there to Java.
Today saw: Chocolate trees, rubber trees, bananas, coconut palms, pineapple, rice paddies (so many terraces), Dorian, chillies, and peanuts.
Took 1 mile off total due to search for hotel. Also disbelieve cat-eye today as I saw it go mad when I was slogging away super-slow (<4mph). Garmin okayish – just thinks I’ve stopped when under very thick tree canopy.
74mi @ 10.9mph
“The panic button” was my terminology for phoning home and asking my family to see if Guinness World Records would sanction my using a port other than the one registered in the plan to leave Sumatra. The pendulum had swung too far from speed to adventure, and if I kept going like this I might miss the record. I did find myself thinking “if only I had an MTB and less time pressure, this would be paradise”. I had to return to Sumatra, but for now I had to find a way to limit my losses. Approval from Guinness WR would take a while to get, and I’d still have to reach a port, so the rugged adventure riding would continue.
A loaded touring bike with tyres fit for the road is simply not fit for mud and gravel tracks. My shoes, with their carbon fibre soles and large plastic cleat were also not suitable for hiking with the bike. It did all remind me of my cyclo-cross and mountain bike racing days – but the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross was never anywhere near this hot! I was barely a hundred miles from the equator.
I really enjoyed passing through the villages and small-holdings where people were working their strip of land between road and jungle. Chickens would dash for cover and farmers would wave their machetes at me as I waved hello to them – it could have been threatening, but I convinced myself they were just returning my greeting gesture. Children in Sumatra would usually recognise me as a westerner and shout “Hello Mister!”, except in one village where they’d been taught wrong and all shouted “Hello Miss!”.That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
21st Mar. 121.2 miles cycled.
Almost got in a fight with three guys on a motorbike who hassled me in Friozabad – whole town was mad, but they were worse. It’s Sunday and there was a fair near town. I think they were drunk and coming down from the excitement of the fair. It was also 42C! [Cooked their brains maybe?]
Anyway, Agra was quiet and the fort looked lovely, bridge over the river was interesting (see video)!
Tail winds and heavy slow traffic on smooth roads made it a fast and productive day.
Met a nice lawyer running a restaurant and also met a bloke who’s ridden 90,000km so far in 4yr world tour. We had dinner and swapped stories.
121.2mi @ 14mph
My health had returned! With it came happiness, much improved progress, and a new phase of my journey through India. I crossed the state border out of Rajasthan just before Agra and entered Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh is massive: If it were a separate country, it would be the fifth most populated country on Earth. I turned right, and headed South East joining National Highway 2 for the next 800 miles to Calcutta/Kolkata.
Uttar Pradesh is very poor: It has more than three times as many people than the UK, but an economy one fortieth of the size. Average income in the state is less than £1 (UK Pound) a day. I’d been warned that the lack of cash meant products such as soft drinks would be rare at roadside stores. Almost every meal would be dhal (curry) and roti (bread) from here on washed down with dubious local water.
Meeting another cycle tourist was surprisingly comforting – I felt he was family although he was from Slovakia. The hotel told me his room number, so just knocked on his door. We met up a short while later to have dinner together and compare notes. Brilliantly, he was traveling west and I was going east, so we could tell each other what lay ahead. His main warning to me was that the town of Varanasi ought to be avoided and known as “VeryNasty”. I filled him in on what I knew of his route ahead, and he told me of his plans to head for South Africa over the next few months to see the 2010 Football World Cup.
It had been a massive challenge to persuade the hotel staff to let me take my bike to my room, but I had succeeded. My new friend left the dinner table as soon as I told him this, to bring his bike in from the street. It was a nice hotel, catering for domestic and international travellers on a budget. They had en suit toilets built for sitting on or squatting on to suit all guest behaviours:
My new brother in cycle-touring was cruising through India slipstreaming behind trucks. 100 miles could be finished each day by lunch in their slipstreams, but I was worried for his safety, and personally couldn’t stand the noise, filth, and lack of adventure of doing that all the way.The day was visually impressive and diverse, so as I had improving health and morale I filmed a lot. The following edit gives another perspective and shows some moments I’ve not mentioned in text:
That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
4th Mar. 122.2miles cycled.
Lunch at 75mi. Posh sort of place – probably expensive. Road here mainly good but terrible in parts where they’re resurfacing. Loose dirt road or wet tar! Only 45mi more to Port Said.
Big football match last night: ENG v EGYPT 3:1. People keep mentioning it and now it’s re-run on TV in the restaurant.
Headwind finish [into Port Said] and really shitty city made this tough. Hotel okay – one bed has dirty sheets, so I used the other. Restaurant had good cheap food [goat lasagne] and was busy with locals.
Port Said is a duty free zone, that’s why the entrance was so strange and got me lost.
122.2mi @ 13.6mph
Port Said is now famous for a fatal football riot (79 fans killed on 1st Feb 2012). So I’m glad I arrived there the day after my national side beat their national side at the game rather than on the day. I can imagine that the border-controlled nature of the city as a duty free zone make an ideal environment for large scale riotous gang violence.
The wind was tough by the end of the day, but the early morning had been still and beautiful. I’d finally got a decent early start from a camping night and was well along the road as the sun crested the horizon. It wasn’t a tough day because Port Said was closer than I had feared and it was the only place to stay.
I filled the day with observation of my surroundings, which were full of farm and wild life, and also changed radically as the miles went by. I saw fish farms with what I guessed they’d regard as a serious pest problem of herons and kingfishers. Then small fields with noisy antique irrigation systems keeping cereal crops and rows of tall date palms lush – they must have had rodent pests because birds of prey hovered above on the hunt. In a much larger field a man with a sickle was hard at work harvesting by hand while herons and crows picked the insects and amphibians revealed by the blade. I overtook more donkey carts taking farm produce to market and waved hello to many agricultural labourers.
Just before entering Port Said, I had my last sight for this journey of the Mediterranean. Tomorrow I would head south from the city and follow the Suez Canal.
- By Vin Cox
24th Feb. 99.7 miles cycled.
TAKE 3mi OFF YESTERDAY (BACKTRACKED FURTHER THAN EXPECTED THIS A.M. [Guinness World Records rules])
Emotional turmoil becoming more like a hurricane: Every thought of wife, home, friends, family, England… Even every friendly or familial act here can make me cry. Have to stop imagining getting into Plymouth on the ferry – it’s far too intense.
It’s the thought that the tiredness, illness, saddle sores, sun burn, effort, hassle, money etc might actually achieve something. If it’s even remotely related to the scale of difficulty it will be the biggest thing I have ever dreamt of.
Anyway, cross/head wind all day – like yesterday afternoon.
Many Dragonflies still! – Nice Libyan thing, ever since the border.
Chased by 3 sets of mad dogs, run off-road by trucks, and passed dozens of animal corpses – camel frequently – today.
99.7mi @ 13.2mph
Hotel tried to rip us off, but a local offered hospitality while I was working on the bike – so free! Arabs are generous hosts.
In the end, my guide didn’t let us stay with the chap who’d offered. Instead we camped. Walid has kept on insisting that Libyans are all happy and there is no crime, but he didn’t trust people. Other signs of an un-trusting culture were the very strong bars, gates, fences, and security screens around most property.
Bin Jawad was basically a truck-stop town; only a dozen or so buildings, a café/hotel, and a fuel station. That’s not the way the western media talked of it a year later during the “Battle of Bin Jawad” – they said it was a city! It was strategically important in the war like it was important to me during the ride – a refuge in the desert – but it reveals how much we should rely on what we’re told. After the revolution, a mass grave containing 160 rebel fighter bodies proved this had been a serious part of front line.
The only negative for me in the town was being approached by some men and being asked to not wear shorts. They said it was fine for cycling, but now I was stopped I should cover my legs. I knew this was part of Islamic modesty, so I was well prepared and apologetic. It did make me wonder if they’d asked me as soon as they noticed, or only after they’d been annoyed and disgusted by me for too long – I resolved to put on trousers before needing to be asked in future.
One of those dog chases was just an inch from being the end of me. These dogs lived in wild packs eating road-kill (camel and other dogs). The pack saw me coming and went into hunting mode. I had four dogs around the bike and was sprinting flat-out with them going for my ankles, and they so nearly got me. Thankfully, I could maintain that speed slightly longer than them, and I think one got ran over by a vehicle during the chase, so they probably went back to cannibalise it.
Camel corpses are one of the most disgusting things I have ever smelt.
- By Vin Cox
See the previous three days to understand the effort and recovery in the following account…
23rd Feb. 152.9 miles cycled.
Great to ride away from people, buildings, tracks, trees, etc… in to the wilderness of the desert. Was quite a gradual process. Herds of free-roaming camels finally confirmed I was there.
Once in the desert, a new road beside ours was ready but un-opened. I used it – with approval from police and thumbs up from the truckers. Great fun.
Nice to have made and early start too. Late finish.
- May have annoyed my guide somehow…
152.9mi @ 14.4mph
This was a massive day. I woke at 4am, and I remember a long slow ride after dark into the town of Sirte. That distance travelled, and length of effort, were only possible with regular intake of food, and this was the first day after the dysentery I could really eat enough. Getting and eating the food slowed me down though.
Sirte is where the then long-standing dictator General Gadafi came from. Not a big place, and I really didn’t get to see much of the town, but it looked very welcome to me when I first saw it’s lights glowing more than a dozen miles away across the desert. I imagined it was closer, but that was just the dry clear desert air playing tricks on a tired Englishman.
Gadafi’s top cycle escort, my guide Walid, drove behind me with his hazard lights on once it was dark. The driving standards here are quite crazy. Generally drivers just floor-it, particularly out in the desert. There are no speed limits and practically free fuel, so why wouldn’t they? Gadafi’s Libya was very “petrol-head” culturally, so I was not very safe. BBC “Top Gear” was a massive TV programme and people genuinely expected me to know the presenters. Two things occurred to me about this: 1) Top Gear really ought to have visited for one of their challenges. 2) Gadafi ran the country quite like Clarkson would run one.
I asked Walid about the complete lack of road signage in anything but Arabic and he simply said “Do you have Arabic writing on your road signs?” Maybe it was this long dangerous crawl into town which had Walid on edge, or maybe it was just being in Sirte – whatever, he was preoccupied and anxious when we were finding food and accommodation. He was less interested and less tolerant of me than before.
- By Vin Cox
16th Feb 114.2 miles.
Quick start due to traffic flowing at my speed, then the wind started.
I stopped for lunch properly, which was big and great for 5 Dinar (£2.50).
Nice moment when I stopped for water & to fix tyre: Stranger bought me coffee & cake after I fixed my bike – he was impressed I was riding in the storm.
Only 6mph at one point today!
Filthy, simple but friendly hotel £7.50 with hot shower.
114.2 miles @14.1mph
The sandstorm was insane. Cycling was brutally hard and extremely dangerous for hours. Just watch this short clip and you’ll understand:
The hot shower in the hotel was en suite (or more accurately; in the corner of the bed room), but the toilet and sink were shared, dirty, and the loo was just a hole-in-the-ground with a water hose to wash your bum clean. I had to push a bit to be allowed to take the bike to the room, which is odd in such squalor. The final thing I had to do in the hotel was ask for some clean sheets on the bed; it looked like the last few visitors hadn’t showered before bed. They did think I was a fussy foreigner for that. The top blanket on the bed was a beautiful hand-made and patterned wool carpet.
I noticed increasing numbers of “Fuel Stops” at the roadside which almost defy explanation: Basically, there’d be what looked like a homeless person’s cardboard and rag shelter, and a large stack of assorted containers (mainly old drinks bottles). A hand written sign would alert drivers to the crazy low price of the fuel which I assumed to be stolen (selling for about 20p a litre!). The guys in this business lived rough, guarded their fuel with their lives, made a pittance, and were in great danger all the time. I saw one guy filling up a lorry from his pile by hand!
- By Vin Cox
15th Feb 117.5 miles:
Monastir was great, as was coffee stop on outskirts – locals gave me funny looks. Headwind was terrible after that and the road was rough too.
Bum starting to be a problem.
Put back arrival in Libya by 24 hours.
117.5 miles @ 13.3 mph.
This was the day I celebrated 1,000 miles completed! I took strength from remembering that as Guinness World Records paused the clock between ports it was less than 8 days riding time, so I was on schedule to beat the existing record by 50 days! Headwinds like todays could be coped with in that context.
Road-side cafes and restaurants in Tunisia want you to know that their ingredients are local and fresh. Unlike what I’m use to in the UK though, they don’t just tell you; they show you. So all I had to look out for when I got peckish was live farm animals and freshly butchered carcases dangling in the door-way. Appetising, mmmm!
Libya was less than 200 miles away and according to my visa I was due there in the next afternoon. I thought about carrying on thought the night to make the border on-time, but I was exhausted already. Also, I knew that every day in Libya would be expensive, so easing off now and riding hard in Libya could save money. With my bike propped up against a wrecked example of the old French pickup trucks which dominate the roads here, I called the specialist travel agent who’d arranged the visa and the “guide” (government escort – they were the expensive bit), and they fixed it.
My main memory of this day was riding into the most brilliant dawn on quiet streets navigating my way to Monastir. This is the town where Monty Python filmed The Life of Brian: I was a lucky lucky bastard.
- By Vin Cox
14th Feb 101.5 miles.
Tunisian roads, signs, shops, and driving are a shock. Veg & flower shops look great I had no Dinars [currency] though, so only looking. Rain on/off and sometimes tail wind.
101.5mi @ 14.6mph
Was hit by passing car.
Before getting off the overnight ferry I checked my cameras and realised that most video I thought I’d shot had failed because of new unformatted memory cards. I fixed that and charged everything ready to do better in Africa.
It took ages to clear customs; they just didn’t believe I was cycling around the world – and border agents just don’t like thinking they’re being lied to. Eventually I got out a small inflatable globe I carried, and drew my planned route in permanent marker with enough confidence for them to believe I was a mad-man rather than a liar, so they let me in. Having been held up I was so keen to ride that I forgot to exchange money…
The temperature was quite comfortable as I cycled past palms and olive groves, with cacti edging the fields, but my main issue was the vehicles I shared the roads with. “Was hit by passing car”! – I can’t believe that’s all I originally wrote about it. It clipped my thigh and arm with it’s mirror at great speed. That almost had me off, and it scared the crap out of me because I knew that an inch closer would have been messy and I believed it was bound to happen.
Mainly I felt scared and lonely. My wife was high on Mt Kilimanjaro, so couldn’t be contacted on valentines. I had the money issue all day and didn’t feel welcome.
- By Vin Cox
13th Feb 24.4 miles.
Beautiful sun-rise & lovely ride into Marseille. Nice French cyclist drafted me into port after I asked for directions.
750 mi TOTAL FOR FRANCE + BELGIUM.
ENTERED MARSIELLE FERRY PORT @ 9:17am.
Stuffed myself @ lunch on the boat and then had a sleep. Great! Time to think now. Still apprehensive – like when mountaineering; sat on a high alpine bivvy feeling very small and out of place, but utterly committed. Block out the sense of impending doom and scale of the task – enjoy the moments and all will come good.