French Divide 2018 - Day 3

Posted: Wed 06 Mar, 2019, 10:24

Day 3: Mouzon, Ardennes to past Verdun (534 km)

That morning, soon after I was back on the trail, I decided to ditch anything I was carrying that had not been used. It was early days, but I felt I was carrying too much. I ejected a dry bag from my solar panel, a spare top, some waterproof shorts and a pair of compression socks. That dropped a bit of weight and made packing of my saddle bag a whole lot easier. The ride that morning was pretty special. It was a stunning clear morning and I was reached the hills which would continue to Verdun, which began with a straight climb to the top of an isolated escarpment. The view from the top quite stunning and was enough to make me stop, take photos and send a few home.

Day three was the the hottest I have ever ridden in. It was hot and stifflingly humid, so although I sweated all day there was never any relief. The heat climbed all day, and the ground we covered became increasingly tricky. The course took us through forests trails which were a continuous sequence of climbs and drops, all day. By the middle of the day there was no wind and unfiltered sunshine directed straight down onto the dusty trails. The hunt for water was an increasinly critical task and towards the end of that day was the only time I really felt I was a bit short. I calculated that I drank 15 litre of water that day.

By mid-afternoon I was seriously struggling and decided the time had come for a break. I found a shaded grassy spot and literally collapsed onto it. As I lay there, all the wildlife that had been silenced by noisy approach slowly began to resume normal behaviour. Birds chirped, animals scurried around just behind my head and something bigger cracked twigs not far away. As I was beginning to recover I heard a bike approaching, from the wrong direction. I pushed myself to see Ben approaching. My first thought was that I had become disorientated and he was travelling the right way, but in fact he had lost his mobile and backtracked for over 2 hours through the hottest part of the day to find it. He was almost back to where he thought it had been left so I carried on in the expectation he would catch me up pretty soon. After about an hour the trace directed me through 50m of steep undergrowth to a just visible trail on the other side. I could see that some other bikers had gone this way so I pushed through, never questioning for a moment that the trace might have a slight error. The further down I went, the more impossible it became to go back and the more obvious it was that I was the only person who had come this way. There was no path, no route just 20 metres of dense undergrowth between me and trail. In an effort that took me to the edge of complete exhaustion, I pushed and dragged my bike through. The nettles were taller than me and every possible area of bare skin on my legs and arms had been stung. Finally emerged onto the trail with a defiant scream of pain and anguish. My stupidity was compounded by seeing Ben waiting, having looped a little further ahead to avoid this madness, he had witnessed my emergence from the undergrowth like a dinosaur approaching in Jurassic Park, where only the vegetation moves and grunts are heard before the crazed creature finally breaks cover.

We cycled together on the final stretch to Verdun. I was glad of the company to keep me moving and push me on, as my pace would definitely have been slower on my own. After some time we reached WWI Rememberance monuments and endless fields of perfect white crosses. The scale of the loss in this area alone was suddenly possible to quantify by the number of crosses, but also impossible to due to the fields being so vast and endless they seemed to be uncountable. The route of 2018 French Divide was specifically changed and extended through these forests where battled had raged around the strategically important town of Verdun to commemorate 100 years since the end of WWI. There was a feeling that our battle through the intense heat and hills of that day was our own heartfelt yet somehow insignificant tribute to the courage and strength of those who had been lost.

Finally the route dropped in a series of switchback turns down to Verdun. As we rolled in passed the pharmacy, the temperature reading outside said 43 degrees celcius. We reached the town centre and raided a local cafe for Oranginas and probably the best raspberry slushes I have ever tasted. Ben felt he had done as much as he could to find his phone and could put it to rest. Rather than buy a new one and inevitably lose time on setup, he decided he was just going to manage the rest of the way without one. His main concern was no longer having a link to stay in touch with friends and family, which I totally understood. After we found a supermarket for a resupply we parted. I was extremely overheated whilst Ben was fully intending to ride on in the punishing heat, and try to make up some of time he had lost. He said 'See you later', but I knew that was very unlikely as few people were faster than Ben on his singlespeed. I found a campsite, paid for an overnight and did my usual routine. Shower, wash clothes and then lie down. I actually slept there for over an hour in the shade before calling home for a good chat with everyone. By the time I left Verdun I was feeling great.

I rode out of Verdun about 7pm and put in another two hours. By this time, I was on high ground, the wind was kicking up and thunder was booming around me. I found a sheltered spot at the edge of a forest and decided to pitch up here for the night. It seems silly now, but the storm seemed to be a bit away and I really thought I would escape it somehow. In fact I had no shelter at all, just a some branches from the edge of the forest. When the rain really started to fall in the middle of the night, I knew I had badly misjudged the situation. I lay in bivvy bag making futile attempts to prevent the rain from getting down inside. After two hours, my sleeping bag was decidedly wet and I was beginning to consider my options.

Body Shock

The first noticable impact of commencing back-to-back days of 16+ hours exercise was immediate loss of appetite. I suspect that my transition from a quiet desk job to riding flat out for days on end sent my body into shock. It took at least four days to fully adjust to my new routine, and until then my energy was often low. Even on day four I wishfully bought a delicious chicken kebab in Vitry but was unable to finish it. It was not until the following day that food finally seemed appealing again and my energy, enjoyment and spirits rose accordingly.

My weight at the start was definitely not as trim as I hoped, but with four days of flat-out exercise and little food, the excess was quickly reduced and I then had the added benefit of a better power/weight ratio for the following days. This was the same pattern as the year before when I really started to enjoy the riding through the middle stages in Morvan and volcanoes. This year however my weight did not continue to fall. After this initially reset, I ate huge amounts and this allowed me to compensate for the daily output. I could not have eaten more any case, virtually every break was spent eating.

The most common complaint from all riders after saddle sores is probably numbness of fingers. Flat bars which are overall more suitable for the trace as a whole are unfortunately not so forgiving on the hands. By half way, my ring and little finger going numb and I was worried the effect would spread to the other fingers. Much to my relief, it did not and I maintained good dexterity in the others. Some riders were not so fortunate, Benedicte for example to talk a willing volunteer through how to rebuild her brake reservoir/cylinder on her Hope brakes because although she knew what to do, her hands were complete useless. The aerobars definitely helped me rest my hands.

Musclar changes this year were interesting for me. At the start I could not get comfortable on the aerobars dispite a lot of faffing and tweaking. They suddenly felt good on day three with no obvious changes, it was just that my neck muscles had finally toughened up to allow me to ride with my head raised enough. Another change that surprised me was when I would stop for lunch each day. Normally when sitting with nothing to lean back against, I would quickly become uncomfortable. Yet on those days, my core had somehow built up to have significant strength, and I could sit without tiring with my back bolt upright, leaning on nothing but in complete comfort.

Next: Day 4: Past Verdun to Foret de Orient (720 km) Not Alone