Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Merselo-Venray 600; overseas brevet

It was never in our original plans to do an overseas Brevet prior to PBP, but plans change and so we found ourselves signing in at the start of the Merselo-Venray Netherlands 600.
The trip over the previous night had been fairly smooth apart from a 2 hour jam around Antwerp, which meant we'd had a quick camp meal and put up the tent to sleep by 11. The start the following morning was not until 8am, and it was less than 2km up the road to get to the start point - easy to do as it was in a windmill!
The field was made up of over a half Germans, the remainder Dutch save for ourselves - so we got a fair bit of conversation as it doesn't seem that usual to get Brits riding over here.
Another interesting difference for us was the high number recumbent machines, and even one other tandem, but no fixed gear cycles, very different to the average UK Brevet. The other tandem couple had bought their bike specifically to qualify for and ride PBP on, the chap being a PBP veteran but the lady having no prior long distance cycling experience so quite an impressive undertaking.
The first stage went quick quickly, we fell in with a group of 4 quite fast riders and did quite a good job taking it in turns at the lead, heading west into a south westerly headwind. This became a little less fun once the drizzle turned to rain, and all the disadvantages of our companions' lack of mudguards became apparent in the form of splattered road dirt in the face!
We also had multiple instances of missing junctions. Despite at least two of the group carrying GPS units, they seemed to be relying on us to do the navigating. An interesting experience! It was very useful to be able to ride with a group at the start of the ride, as we got to see how the compulsory use of cyclepaths works, and see how the natives ride.
By the time we reached the first control at 98km, we were ready for a break though. Having not eaten a great deal of breakfast, we opted for a pair of lovely omelettes while the rest of the group had coffee and so set off a few minutes ahead of us. Another large group of riders arrived just as we were heading out into the headwind of the next stage.
We passed in and out of Belgium a couple times on our way to the Vlissingen peninsula, crossing land borders mid audax being another novelty for us. Only later did we realise we strictly should have been carrying our passports; this was the first real time I'd ever have found an official national ID card to be far more convenient.
The middle third of the ride headed north-east along the coast conveniently having a strong wind on our backs for much of it. The numerous estuary outlets along the coast create many peninsulas that we hopped between, via some most impressive bridges. Without exception these had great provisions for cyclists, just like the roads and well signposted paths between them, so navigation was easy here and progress good. The scenery here was some of the most varied of the two days, and often quite unlike anything we're used to from home, such as riding along the top or side of the extensive dyke network; riding through dedicated cycling roads winding over banks of dunes; or atop a sea wall looking out over literally hundreds of kite surfers pulling tricks on the waves.
Unfortunately the rain had turned the one lightly gravelled track we rode into muddy porridge, and shortly after our front tyre gave in and punctured (the rear having already failed on the Invicta 600 a fortnight before and been replaced before this ride). We then had a good hour of Murphy Law bicycle repair: both spare tubes were defective, the spare tyre wouldn't seat properly and took a couple inflations, I managed to put the tyre on backwards (FWIW), and assorted related faffage. Quite a few riders we'd seen at previous controls passed us in this period, and defined the position we'd ride the remainder of the ride in. So as it got dark we met up with a group of 4 we'd spend most the night riding with and see on and off to the end: a couple Germans (Gert and ?) and two Dutch including Jan, the ride organiser, on his high wheeled recumbent. This was extremely fortunate as it made navigation through the dark so much easier. Also Jan ensued we had no trouble answering the lone info control, although the excellent English translation crib sheet he'd prepared for us beforehand meant it was trivial for seasoned UK riders like us to answer anyway (quite unlike the UK audax tradition, this ride was apparently rather controversial in daring to have an info control at all!).
The misty rain continued most of the night, and made the 4am dawn a very grey drab affair. As it gathered enough light to read the route sheet by, we reached the northern most point and turned southeast to cross the dyke to Lelystad. At over 27km in length this is a serious construction, and in the bleak dawn twilight, and stiff headwind, and a view of nothing but sea to our left and dyke to our right, this felt a most challenging undertaking - perhaps the most of the whole ride. It's not without its reward though: from now on, whenever we look at a map of Holland, we will see that dyke across the bay and remember our tour of the country.
I had been feeling tired for a while, a short power-nap prior to crossing the dyke had clearly not solved this, so on reaching mainland we sought out a sheltered spot for a proper doze. The marina outside Lelystad was geared up for a regatta, with lots of tents setup for sales displays and  catering. The fancier of these had security guards stood around, looking bored at 6am on a Sunday morning and slightly bemusedly at the slow trickle of weary Randonneurs arriving off the causeway. We pushed on a soon spotted a party cafe/bar with overflow gazebo to one side that made a dry and sheltered spot to lie down. I managed 40mins kip, but Emma was put off by the stale beer smell (which I was too tired to notice!) and so sat and rested outside it for most that time. I probably could have pushed on without sleep and got through the doziness, but my body needed the break and most of all the mind needed the switch off, before being able to find the motivation for another full day's riding.
Later that morning the sun finally made an appearance, as we started the climb into the forested area past Apeldoorn. This made beautiful cycling with the warm sun dappled through the wet leaves and shining on the smoothly paved forest bike paths. We must have ridden for 50 or more km through the forest, the majority on these dedicated paths, which was another complete change from UK brevets. For the most part they were smooth and wide so we could make good progress along them, although towards the end they did become rather tracky and unpaved, and suffering after all the rain.
Midafternoon we had a free control in Nijmegen, which offered a great chance to get our first hot meal in 24hrs, at a pasta restaurant on the busy promenade beside the river. Then all that remained was a 65km weave into and out of Germany and back to the arrivee. It had turned out a warm clear evening as we approached the village of Merselo, spying the  windmill whilst still a couple km away a leading us in to complete the ride, and finally complete our PBP qualification.
Looking back, I will remember many things about this ride. The great warm welcome we received from Jan both by email and when we arrived and rode with him. Spending over 90% of a 600k ride on cycle lanes and paths, which for the vast majority were just as good if not better than the road alternative. Crossing more bridges and following more dykes than I thought possible in the distance - and two ferry crossings to boot! National miller's day meaning all the traditional windmills were working away. Visiting our first secret control - in the garden of the vice president of Randonneurs Mondiux! Stopping at the halfway control in a pub at 11pm and finding our German friends drinking bottles of cold beer - alcohol free! Watching Jan's friend eat a whole bree as a snack at 2am, confirming our belief randonneurs are much alike the continent over.  And much besides...
Yes, overseas brevets - even unplanned ones - can be great fun!