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Road to Nowhere
Words by Rasmus Pellizotti // Photos by Jonny Hines
I found myself laying in the dark, a couple of meters off the road in a ditch after crashing for the second time on a descent down one of the numerous steep, slippery backroads of the Pyrenees. The truth was that I simply could not brake, nor did I have the skills to manage my bike under the circumstances. My body had become stiff and the danger of descending was getting to me. Physically, nothing was broken, and I came away with only a few minor scratches, but mentally I was cracking, and I found myself in a very dark place. I did not think it could get any worse until a nearby dog emerged from down the road and decided to sink its teeth into my leg. And so here I was, scared, angry, with animal waste from the roadside on my shoes, feeling like giving up, and thinking about how to get away from this shitty (literally and figuratively) mountain. I could see some lights a kilometer down the road and pulled myself together. I got back up, scared the dog away, and proceeded to walk down the mountain until the road was rideable once again. Things were ok – in the end we all laughed about it, but I felt disappointment in myself for not being able to manage the difficult turns. This is the essence of cycling to me.
I wanted to do something special – some unique test of my physical and mental fortitude which would challenge me every step of the way. As an act of propitiation, I cut out alcohol for the year preceding this challenge in an attempt to incur some divine favor among the fitness gods. Those first few challenging steps came almost immediately as I learned what it meant to not drink in a culture where the notion of alcohol being the predominant underlying foundation of human interaction has become a social construct in Denmark’s modern society. Initial concerns from friends for my physical health and mental wellbeing soon gave way to rescinded social invitations and acute feelings of isolation. This challenge became the perfect precursor for what would lie ahead – a means of stripping away any superficial priorities in my life and uncovering a more concentrated understanding of what lies underneath.
In the end, I wanted to feel the struggle and reward; the pain and fatigue; the volatility of emotions during something so incredibly challenging while I did what I loved the most – something that made me feel alive. I wanted to make some sort of sacrifice in order to make the experience feel more deserving, and I wanted a few people to take part in this journey with me. Not a lot of people understand what it means to be out there for 12 or more hours a day, but some do. I had some of those special people with me. Strong, grown up guys with big hearts and maybe a touch of grey, but by no means pretending to be anything else than amateurs. Guys that were in it solely for the love of cycling.
Don’t drink for a year and then ride somewhere beautiful. Preferably somewhere with steep climbs, unknown cols, slippery backroads, crazy descents, and rocky gravel paths resembling something that used to be tarmac. Long days of riding that continue into the late hours of the evening to get to the hotel. Make it as difficult as possible and test how much a few guys working desk jobs can handle on a road bike. 8 days, 1.450km, 40.000hm. The Basque Country, Pyrenees, Cantabria. A reward of some sort. #NoBeerForAYear.
It is challenging for me to find an accurate way to capture the essence of this journey. So many things happened – so many special moments and so many different emotions and unique experiences. This is what makes you breathe. Perhaps hard in the moment, but the feelings, photos, and memories last forever.
I found myself in the middle of this thread of messages about gearing, apparel, bikes, tires, and general logistic planning to make this all happen. I started thinking this was all becoming too much – too much stress and too many details to sort out. The essence of riding seemed to be lost and I started feeling as though I wanted to get this all over with rather than looking forward to what was supposed to be an incredible experience. There was too much going on all at once: house renovations, a new job, and forced training, but not enough of it. I received so much help and energy from the rest of the group. They helped sort out the routes, hotels, and riders who were coming from all over the world to join in on this adventure. I felt guilty for not wanting it more. Perhaps I was not as hungry as before and maybe this time I just could not do it.
But eventually the time came. The team arrived, bikes were assembled, and we received endless assistance from our sponsors and supporters. There was a buzz in the room that first night before we departed - pizza, a quick briefing, and then it was early to bed. The next morning, as I fixed my gear for the departure, my mood went up. I suddenly wanted this to happen. The mind is a weird thing.
From that point on things became a constant blur – a glimpse of sceneries, insanely steep climbs, fast descents, fatigue beyond words, riding in the dark, the heat, the cold, bliss, anger, fear, and pain. Eventually you find yourself on a 26% climb at the end of the day and you cannot ride faster than 5km/h on your 34/30 gearing. It is hell. It is amazing. You laugh about it at the top, but minutes earlier your legs were burning and you wanted to put your foot down every minute. Somehow you are able to convince yourself to avoid this failure and continue.
It is interesting for me to witness the dynamics of a group with such different backgrounds, nationalities, form, bike skills, and personal reasons to sign up for such an adventure. You can play games and do the usual half-wheeling, watt comparing bullshit, but that all disappears quite fast. Layers get removed gradually until you find the person underneath. It is not always pretty, but it is real.
It is a social experiment as much as a bike ride – seeing people transform when things are hard; when they get tired or afraid; when they bonk or crash; when they lose that sparkle in their eye, become quiet, and then regain their spirit an hour later. This is the essence of riding on a journey of this magnitude – this is what drives me: the range of emotions and experiences; the resilience that people can deliver under strenuous circumstances. You become a team, the egos disappear, and you help each other riding down a mountain as a group with only one functional front and back light. You look after each other and become humans again.
To me this was as much about the people on the journey as it was the road and the journey itself. I am proud to have been able to ride with such amazing humans. Not everyone enjoyed it the same way. We each had different perspectives and criteria for success and that was the beauty of it. It meant something different to each individual and I know it will stick around in my memory for a while. It was something truly special.
Finding yourself in challenging situations becomes normal. You create new limits. You go beyond yourself. Maybe you do not break any records, get any KOMs, or go any faster. Perhaps you look in the mirror on day five and see an old, worn out man in contrast to the youthful exuberance you feel inside about going on another 200km/5000hm bike ride. It is the latter that matters.
One moment you find yourself suffering hard on Artzamendi, Los Machucos, Larrau, Urruztimendi, or any of the countless unnamed cols that seemingly continue to break your legs, and the next minute you are celebrating at the top or rewarded with the joy of riding up the relatively easy and beautiful Portillo de Lunada in the rain. However, that feeling of elation as you cross over the mountaintop dissipates as you begin your descent down the other side. Some way down you realize there are strong, blustering winds fighting to push you off the edge at every hairpin. The ride back to the evening’s accommodations after summiting the final peak of the day is always a sobering experience. This became evident when we were heading towards 5000hm of climbing on the day, finishing the last 4km up the Col de la Pierre Saint-Martin. Here we enjoyed one of the most spectacular sunsets, only to realize we would now have to complete the 30km technical descent in the dark, a task only complicated by our shaking limbs as our bodies combatted the night’s bitter chill.
The days went on like this – everything going well and you are ahead of schedule, only to realize that your current route along an old disassembled railway does not have any packed gravel. Rather, it is made up of large rocks and traverses through a network of slippery tunnels, resulting in you getting lost and not reaching that evening's hotel in time for dinner. Perhaps you feel confident and secure while descending – only to crash in an easy corner covered with animal waste, hit a giant pothole, or get a double blowout after hitting a grind at 65km/h and only barely saving it. Maybe it is late and you are beyond tired, but you somehow still find the power to ride the last 15km to the hotel at 40km/h, holding onto the wheel in front of you while the illuminated eyes of giant toads watch on from either side of the dark tunnels. Minutes later you are eating pizza and fries, drinking coke, and dipping your croissant in chocolate milk at a café in the sun. All the highs and lows – they are what make you feel alive.
It was a special, surreal eight-day blur of feelings, thoughts, and emotions coming together in a bubble, which somehow made you go on – made you want to continue no matter what.
So I found myself in the airplane heading back home to normal life, wondering if it was all worth it. Residual numbness in my fingers and toes, some bruised ribs, a few scratches, a dog bite, saddle sores, and the forthcoming desktop depression. The incredible, but rough nature, the climbs and ever-changing scenery, the animals, the people, riding in these remote places on what used to be roads, the feeling of things going well – and then not. The temporary distance to normal life. The danger, the adrenalin, the pain, the joy. The like-minded people..
You realize you are just passing by. Life moves on without you and you think about what matters most in your own. It is a reward. You appreciate your luck for being able to complete a journey such as this and come out the other side stronger than before.
I wiped away a few tears from my eyes. It was over.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
- Dylan Thomas