Fear and Loathing in Zwolle

by Marc Farrelly

Arrived in Zwolle the night before staying in the Hanze Hotel which was quite nice, little Tapas bar downstairs. Got up around 10:30m the next morning, had breakfast and started rebuilding my bike mid afternoon. Unsurprisingly, the two wheels had gone slightly out of true and i also had two punctures. I got the front wheel straightened OK but there was still a minor kink in my back wheel but nothing major. I got my third flat 10 meters up the road on the way to the starting point and then I was off. I got to the ZBC basketball arena, stuffed up with 2 large plates of pasta and ended up having a conversation with one of the competitors mothers about Ireland and how lovely it was (she came there for a holiday 20 years ago). So for the start of my problems, my new tyres (one had gotten shredded in an accident a few days before) where slightly larger than expected and when fully pumped scraped the mud guards. I decided not too waste time and pulled my mud guards off as everyone was now waiting for me.

We got our pre start safety talk, ie there was a pace car for the first few kilometers in the city outskirts and lights must be obeyed, after this, it was a case of you should obey the ROTR but there would be no one there to check but if you do break them, don’t get caught. I started talking to a guy from Amsterdam about the price of equipment and our enjoyment of ordering from CRC. The discussion then moved on to the legalisation of soft drugs in Holland and Head shops in Ireland. Then we came across an accident. Everyone was filtering past. Some kid had been travelling down the wrong way and panicked when he saw the large collection of cyclists, tried to hop the kerb and slipped, cutting through nearly to the bone, with a large sliver of fat and muscle hanging from his fore arm. Realising he was Swedish and no one could talk to him we tried to calm him till help arrived. My friend Paul (a former irish/Dutch Audaxer) elevated his arm, while I studied the wound and decided that waiting for an ambulance was better as, while he was covered in blood, it had slowed and it was to hard to get the child to cooperate as was. The ambulance arrived promptly and then Paul and myself had to wait for the Police (this is the law in Holland) to give statements. 45minutes behind and only 25 km in we decided to pick up the pace. I decided just before the first control to let him go on though as he seemed to have a racing spirit and that was not my plan. I lied and said I had to check my sugars and let him get a bit of time on me.

At the first control I got a refill of water and some Coke and headed for Lemeer. Missed one turn that sent me about 5/6km in the wrong direction but I found a sign for leemer and decided to take the alternative. 2/3 km down this road I found 2 signs for leemer, one pointing back the way I came and another in a direction that seemed wrong to me. I seen a farmer having a smoke and went up, asking for help, he pointed me the right way (which was not the way of the signs and informed me I should not turn until the T junction, along way away). I found this section quite pleasent on my own and kept a nice pace till Leemer. I could not find the control there so I got a picture of me and my ATM receipt and continued on again. Took me another 20 minutes to find the correct way to Sondel but then I was motoring. I got to Nijeeridum, the first major control to find that everyone had gone, or I was on the wrong side, I never found out which. Nor did I waste time, got another ATM receipt and headed onwards.

It was now that I made the first of my major mistakes. The road I was meant to travel had been mis signed and after becoming lost in Workum for an hour I headed the wrong way. Panicking on the lack of expected markers, I turned back after 20 minutes, where I eventually found a really stoned German man to give me directions. Good as they were I missed the turn he forgot to mention and ended up at a camping centre called “Il Suil”, this area cost me another 50 minutes when I eventually gave in and called the organiser and told him I was lost. He finally found me on the map and got me back on track. Now it was hell for leather along a lane, covered in sheep and cattle at 2/3 in the morning, when the heavens opened, lightning and thunder everywhere. Oddly I found this enjoyable and started to pick up time as I was already well behind. From here on signs, routes everything flowed brilliantly. I made it to the Noord See Canal crossing over 15/20km of Sea on my own with the odd lorry beeping me ( I was on a path off the road so I presume it was in support). Half way across I got a call from Gerricht asking for my location, when I said where he said we are waiting for you on the other side and we could chat in a few minutes. Repairs at the end of the crossing meant I took a turn with a lip too fast and slightly damaged my rear wheel but not enough to stop me. Chats were had, coffee was made as well as a supply of cheese and ham rolls. I was offered rest but said I would push on. I was back on time at this point and within 8 minutes of the time limit.

Next for Maasdjiik 120km away. I decided with my new found ability to read directions to push hard for this control to get some sleep. I went off course and decided to follow signs for major villages as I believed I had no time to waste. A bit from Maasdjiik, my back wheel buckled almost completely. Realising I had neither the time nor the expertise to correct this I adjusted the spokes as much as possible so as it would turn in the frame and inverted my rear brake. In the end at at one point on the wheel I could not get the kink out so I deflated the tyre, loosened the spokes and became a MTBer by savagely beating it into a semi round shape. I tightened up the wheel again and hooray it would again turn, just grazing the frame once on each rotation. The next section was torture, no more freewheel due to one of the spokes hooking the cassette and a kink that stalled you on every rotation but I made it to Maadjiik nonetheless. Got into a very nice LBS (in Maasluis), got a new 36h rear Shimano wheel, slightly wider than my old for 45euro and switched it myself. I had at this point actually went slightly past the control and cycled back out to it (2 km out the road).

Joy of joy, I had done the impossible, I had actually caught up with 4 people and gained almost 2 hours. Making friends with an American and an Englishman I headed off again in good company, although I had lost the 2 hours again sitting at the control. The next checkpoint was also closed, we soon found out that there are very few things that are 24hours in Holland. Pictures and ATM receipts all round. We did climb a fence onto a motorway at one point to get to a petrol station where after buying food we were generously given free coffee and meatballs. We made Maastricht but due to several problems we were now 2 hours behind schedule. It was here that Bill’s rear wheel buckled and I’d like to point out the sheer uselessness of the bike shop in Maastricht train station. Who not only overcharged us, were incredibly useless, telling us they didn’t have certain things and then seeing them ourselves after buying alternatives. Bill had to buy a wheelset as they refused to sell them singly and when he paid, handed him 2 front wheels?!?, then the manager had to come along. I changed the cassette, tyre, tube for him as it was less stressful than being in one of the worst cycle shops I have ever been in.

We made it as far as Castenray but could not find our intended control. We decided to sleep here as some of us were finding it tiring, my 2 companions kipped in a church door while I set up on a bench in the village square. I was rudely awakened by a car 30 minutes later flashing its lights at me. I got up, dazed and confused to be met by 2 very attractive police ladies. Alas I was not dreaming though as they informed me that being homeless was illegal in Holland. I explained my situation but they said sorry, wished me no harm but local residents had already complained (this was at 1 in the morning). ID shown (my laser card and my UCI card), they asked that I wake my friends. She did give us good directions to where we were meant to be sleeping and ended the conversation with “you are insane”. Finding Texaco we got some more food and a 2 hour kip on the side of the road.

We made the next major control a little behind time but improving all the time, we got seperated slightly taking different routes to the macDonalds outside Rhade but arrived within 5 minutes of each other,750km done, and seemingly back on time. Next we headed into Germany where a stop at LIDL was made for a better lunch than the Liquorice Allsorts I had been munching had been providing. A healthy slab of Meat, Cheese and bread and a few nods from a local cycling club out training we set off again, determined not too waste time anymore. From now on we had a steady pace of 27km/hr. We hit two big climbs here which were epic to me and throughly enjoyable if not a little tiring. We soon got separated though as I hit a wall of tiredness before Zwolle and found it hard to stay on the bike. I pulled in and lay down and let them continue without me. 2 hours later a car woke me up when the driver feared I was in medical distress and came over to wake me up. I explained the situation and he said OK, its just a mental thing. I thanked him for his concern and started moving again. Getting to Zwolle quite quickly I was impressed with my new vigour until of course the inevitable mistakes started again. I was 2 hours behind but I became so lost in the outer industrial estate which is miles of repetitive structures. I knew I was near but I could not find the rest control. Eventually another attractive Dutch woman helped me to my destination, now almost 4 hours behind. I had a shower, stripped my bike down. 400km left, there was a lot I did not need. I decided to jump on the bike and head on 400km in 14hours was not impossible but would be a test that I would not be fully prepared for.

I got lost within 20km as a few minor mistakes on the routesheet through me off but I got back on track. I had no illusions about making the time but now my aim was to stay the course. Flying along I reached Rouveen quite quickly although the cold was so bad I felt like vomiting continuously, then to Staphorst in a few minutes more, Half weg was found soon after. This was torture, dizzy patches and the road and grass were to damp to lie down on, there was to be no more rest. Coming up to Ijhorst is where things got bad, Coming under some trees I appeared in a tunnel, like a train tunnel with a light at the end. Thinking this part of the route but annoyed it wasn’t on the routesheet I ploughed on. Only when a light shone from behind a house and scared me awake, I slipped and jumped from the bike, standing there shaking, it was so real it was incredible. Personally, I’ve had day dreams, and even issues with my diabetes when I was younger that gave minor lapses in judgement, but this hallucination was a new low. Out came the liquorice allsorts again with some sandwiches, I walked for a few minutes, till I felt a little bit better. The next few hallucinations weren’t too bad, often of work people, family and friends at the side of the road, then came the one where I was on a laptop controlling a game that looked exactly like the the route, blank patches started appearing every 5 minutes, I couldn’t even stay on the bike, often going to sleep and only waking as the bike fell sidewards.

I had made it to between Smilde and Zuidvelde, when I let myself down and gave in, I was beaten, I thought I could take a lot of things but the hallucinations were too much, too real, too believable, for my own sanity, I had to stop. I slept by a wall slumped on my bike for awhile before I made the heart breaking choice to pack in and head back for Zwolle. I regret this as its possible I may have made it if I’d kept to Groningen and got some sleep there but I think it may also have killed me. The journey back to Zwolle was worse, falling over continuously, I had to psyche myself out with every bit of will power I had left. I made it back to Rouveen before a member of Zwolle CC found me asleep on my bike standing on the path. I pulled it together and got to Hessenport, the coldest place to be at this point as a freezing fog descended, I got through it and got to Zwolle where I fell asleep again 1km from the ZBC. Again woken by a member of Zwolle CC I got lost 8 times on a straight 1km road, I felt like breaking down, and yet again I was saved by a beautiful dutch nurse who led me in the right direction. I came in, apologised, and fell asleep in the shower room. I woke a few hours later to be asked where I had been and then they said there are beds in the hall if I’d prefer. I turned around to see my American friend pull in. He got to Groningen and felt as me and turned back. Our englishman pushed on and said he would stay the course, ending up finishing it at 10 the next evening but finishing it nonetheless.

I learned a lot from this experience and I know now what suits me best, I alas had to find out the hard way. It was tough, the flats make it feel like you are on a fixed gear all the time as there is little or no freewheeling, it’s a challenge but one I would recommend. The only downsides were the fact that many of the controls mentioned were not open and I think that could have been better but the support from my view was excellent.

Will I do a 1200km again? To be honest, I have no doubt that I will, I also have no doubt that I will complete the next one. I completed 1105km with a couple of hours left. With better planning I think it was doable this time but I have no proof, so I’ll have to prove it next year. I also have developed “Handlebar palsy” but the doc says this should be gone in a few weeks. A big thanks to Paul O Donoghue, whose advice was invaluable and I found it blatantly obvious when I didn’t obey it. Also a big thanks to RottenHat whose laughter at my first attempt this year helped me drop a lot of bad habits quick.

Note: One year later, Marc went on to finish his first 1200, the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris.

Long-distance cycling in Ireland