Last year I found myself helping out with the control (obligatory stop) on the London Edinburgh London Audax (long-distance cycling event). You can read all about that here.
Because I enjoyed it so much, when I heard that there was a similar (but longer) event taking place in Germany that went through Köln, just an hour and quarter away from home by car, I thought it would be good to help. As it happened, I had met one of the organisers of this event whilst on holiday in December in Hamburg and so I contacted her to offer my help, which she happily accepted.
The event, HBK (Hamburg Berlin Köln Hamburg), is 1570km long and people have to complete it within 126 hours (5 days 6 hours). Which generally involves lots of cycling and not much sleep.
There were five Brits riding this event (I had been in contact with most of them beforehand) and also a German friend, Morten, who rode LEL last year.
A month before the event I received an extremely detailed email from Bärbel, the lady who was organising our control in Schloss Eulenbroich in Rösrath. She had very efficiently organised everything but I was slightly alarmed to discover that we weren’t just helping for 10-12 hours or so but were expected to stay there for the full 48 hours. And to sleep in our cars.
I’m 43 and I’ve never slept in a car so I emailed Bärbel back and suggested I drove home each night. She said she didn’t really recommend this so I resigned myself to two bad nights’ sleep in a small Honda Jazz.
We were to arrive for midday on Sunday 10 August. I had packed the things I could usefully bring (spare 20 inch tyres and tubes, various phone chargers, changes of clothes, food for the dog) but was rather perturbed by the fact that there were no showers here. Three days with no showers!
The drive from Kempen to Rösrath was OK and I arrived at five to twelve. It’s an imposing building!
The cyclists, when the arrived, had to cycle through this nice little arch. Very posh!
When I parked and wandered through the gate to the Schloss I found that Bärbel and the others were already there, unloading Bärbel’s car which was full to the gunnels with food and drink and other necessary items.
The building we were in was the cellar area of a large house (the Schloss) and it consisted of one largeish open room and several smaller rooms with low ceilings. The kitchen area was very dark indeed which made it tricky to see what was going on, plus had low ceilings. Poppy, being a small black dog, tended to get in the way and she was hard to see so she was trodden on a couple of times.
We had one room reserved for sleeping and another with various airers to hang damp clothing. Most of these cyclists would be riding in largely the same clothes for five days, maybe washing them through and hanging them to air whilst they had a few hours’ sleep.
We would provide some hot food (pasta with tomato or cheese sauce), salad, fruit, cake, breakfast items, tea and coffee, soft drinks and beer (they had to pay for beer).
There were six volunteers: Bärbel, Frank, Werner (a German who lives in England), Martina and Berthold – and of course Poppy and me. We each had a badge with our names on (except Poppy).
Most of the others were seasoned audaxers – in fact Frank had done LEL last year so I might have met him at Great Easton (although we didn’t recognise each other). This meant they were used to going without sleep which was useful!
Preparations included sticking maps of the route on the wall:
We also put up signage to direct the cyclists to where they should go.
We prepared the room, sorting out the food, washing all the new plastic crockery, starting to make some of the salads (we were permanently chopping things to go in the salad and to keep it relatively fresh and not brown) and looking after the drinks.
The cyclists left Hamburg at 6am on Saturday 9 August, heading first for Berlin. They would ride at different speeds obviously but could start to arrive with us from 2pm on Sunday (when our control officially opened). As it happened there was a very strong headwind and some rain so we didn’t see our first punter until 5:30pm – a yellow Milan velomobile ridden by Hajo. Before that we were generally just sitting around chatting as everything was ready.
Hajo had had a few problems with his rear wheel which involved a couple of broken spokes I believe. Frank, who was our resident bike technician, didn’t have the right size. Fortunately Hajo’s family live just round the corner and brought some spare spokes with them.
After we had fed Hajo and sorted out his velomobile he headed off.
Hajo ended up as the first finisher, completing the ride by Monday at 22:52, which was just over 64 hours for 1527km (just under 1000 miles). And that is total time taken, including stops (the clock continues running whilst you stop). Total available time is until Thursday at midday so Hajo used only slightly more than half the available time!
We had heard from the previous Control that the next riders had left a long time after Hajo so we weren’t expecting to see them until early in the morning. At that point there wasn’t much to do so it seemed sensible for me to drive home and sleep in my comfortable bed. They suggested I didn’t try to travel down the Autobahn to Köln the next morning before 9am as the traffic would be so bad so I said I’d be with them by 10:30am.
The drive home was pretty tricky as there was a huge thunderstorm and torrential rain – I felt very sorry for the cyclists out pedalling in that lot!
Poppy was really tired when I got home and conked out immediately. I cooked myself some dinner and then went for an early night but collected a standard lamp to bring the next day to help light the kitchen area. Gudula also offered that I take their VW Bus the next day as its rear bench seat converts into a bed. I wasn’t sure as it’s always a bit scary using someone else’s car (in case you crash it – although I am insured) so I said I’d think about it overnight.
When the morning came I realised I couldn’t fit the standard lamp in the Jazz so I would be taking the VW. Lars helped me convert it into a very decent-sized bed.
I had also been able to have a lovely shower and wash my hair – not possible for the rest at Rösrath.
I headed off again towards Köln, first taking the Autobahn towards the Ruhrgebiet and then turning onto the A3. I was in a traffic jam for a few minutes but it wasn’t a bad journey – the VW Bus was surprisingly easy to drive. Especially bearing in mind it was a left hand drive diesel manual vehicle rather than my right hand drive automatic petrol Jazz. Although I’ve rarely driven a manual in the last 22 years it takes just a few moments to remember what to do.
I arrived at about 10:30 and there had only been four cyclists arriving in the meantime, including an orange Milan velomobile. We had somehow inherited a purple child’s bike though that we were looking after for the day.
There was an excellent selection of cakes available as well. The helpers had the occasional slice in the downtime between riders.
The standard lamp in the kitchen made a huge difference – we could actually see something!
As the morning wore on a few more people trickled in and then in the afternoon people started arriving in larger groups.
Poppy was generally underfoot a lot of the time. She had no real chances to sleep as there was always something going on so she was getting more and more tired as the afternoon wore on – if I sat down at all she tried to sit on my lap and go to sleep.
Mid-afternoon saw the arrival of Gert, the Dutch chap with the black Strada who I’d chatted to when helping at LEL. He tells me that if you google ‘black velomobile’ you get directed to this blog site! He said that the route had been a bit too hilly really for a velomobile and was hoping the next stretch was a little gentler.
We had a good chat (he is very gracious with his time, considering he’s cycling a time-limited event) as he talked to me lots at LEL too. I told him that I had now got a Velomobile and he already knew that so it is confirmed that the Velomobile world is quite small and people seem to know what’s going on generally!
I waved Gert off, after marvelling that he had melted the plastic caps over his wheel axles by hard braking! They were now held on by cable ties.
A little later friend Morten from Hamburg arrived, still riding the Goblet recumbent trike that he had used for LEL last year (although he had talked about changing it – nothing had yet happened though, but its lack of suspension is rather an issue on bumpy roads).
Here is Morten with me – he makes me look tiny but I’m five foot nine! (1.76 metres).
There were a lot more people now and our phone charging station was getting good use!
The first of the Brits, Adam, arrived. He had camping gear with him including coffee and teabags. Being a proper English cyclist he started with cake.
He gave me updates on the other Brits, one of whom had been taken to hospital after feeling unwell with a racing heart, but the hospital couldn’t find anything wrong. They kept him in overnight just to be sure. The other group of three Brits had a plan to ride 300km every day and then stay in a hotel overnight for a short time and were a little way behind Adam.
Adam’s front wheel wasn’t quite right and so we handed his bike over to Frank and did our best to explain the problem. Frank managed to sort it and Adam reported that it was fine for the rest of the ride which was great!
I looked after both Adam and Morten for a while before returning to my kitchen duties. After standing up (or stooping over the portable cooker or washing bowl) for the best part of a day my back was rather hurting so I decided it might be time to go to bed for a few hours. Morten and Adam were sleeping at Rösrath so I decided to catch a few hours’ sleep myself and then I could look after them when they woke at 5.
I checked with my fellow workers and it was fine to me to stop for a few hours so I headed out to the VW Bus which had now turned into a Wohnmobil and ended up with five hours’ sleep on a reasonably comfortable bed.
When I woke just before 5am Poppy refused to come out of her crate so I left her in there to sleep some more and went back to my duties in the kitchen.
Morten and Adam appeared from the sleeping area (I never ventured in there) and it was good to chat to them again before they set off for the next leg of the epic cycle ride.
It is worth mentioning at this point that there are some advantages to volunteering at an event like HBK or LEL. Not only helping out fellow cyclists, meeting and chatting to new people, getting to see a range of bikes and recumbents and velomobiles and meeting people from all over the world, you get to see very fit people in various states of undress. I saw a fair few six-packs over the two days at HBK which was a bonus. There was one chap who decided to change his shorts whilst I was in the room but the other riders were a little more circumspect than that!
The female riders (there were about eight overall, I think) had a better option at Schloss Eulenbroich as they had a set of ladies’ toilets to themselves which of course weren’t often used. I was really impressed by the women and how well they were cycling. I chatted a bit to Helle (who had been photographed in my LEL blog post airing her backside – she had read it and talked to me about it) and more to Birgit a bit later on. Birgit was even kind enough to let me record her saying ‘squirrel’ for my records – this after an awful lot of kilometres in just a few days. Nice lady!
There had been a female velomobile rider but she damaged her VM on some train tracks at a level crossing quite early on and it was unusuable, which was very sad. I gather she had been going well up till then.
Poppy stayed in the Bus until 8am when I thought she really ought to come out – she was shivering slightly but not through cold, I think she was just really overwhelmed by all the people and still a bit tired! I suggested she might like to come for a Walkies and that seemed like a good idea so she bounced out of the crate and happily trotted beside me, tail wagging. When we returned from the walk she was happy to go with me into the control and seemed quite recovered.
A little while after Morten and Adam had left the remaining Brits all arrived in a bunch – Postie, Lordy and Cyclofabrica (cycling forum names). They were very cheerful and chirpy, having spent several hours of the night in a hotel. They seemed happy to tuck into the food that we had on offer though, and were delighted when I offered them proper British tea. Here they all are with their Tetleys.
The Germans I was volunteering with found the whole English tea thing very amusing.
The chaps enjoyed it so much (their first decent cup of tea since arriving in Germany, of course) that they had another each.
This is the spread of food on offer at breakfast time.
They stayed for an hour or so before getting ready to head off to the next control. Here they all are outside ready for the off.
Although we had been very busy for the last day or so there were a few odd moments of downtime between visitors, washing up and cooking and we had a selection of cakes that we could enjoy. I had this very nice slice of Mandarin Cake.
Our control was due to officially close at 13:30 and we knew that there were about eight riders still on the road who had left the previous control. We hoped that they would all arrive reasonably early so we could pack up sooner but knew this was unlikely! But we began to do a few bits of tidying up and packing when time allowed.
Unfortunately my hearing aid started bleeping that its battery was running low and I couldn’t find my spares. After an hour and a half it had stopped working and I discovered at this point how much I had come to rely on it. It became extremely difficult to hear certain softly-spoken members of the volunteer team – it’s strange how isolating it feels when you can’t quite hear what people are talking about. However my washing-up skills were unaffected so I was able to carry on with that task at least!
Poppy was tired again and put herself to bed in her crate in the VW. The door was open and she could come out when she wanted but even a group of 20 children walking right past wasn’t enticing enough for her to wander out to say hello. However later on she managed to stir herself enough to be fussed by a group of four young girls who came in to give her a cuddle.
One of our stalwart workers was Martina, a friend of Bärbel (the Controller), who had worked tirelessly in the kitchen. She had to go a little early so I took a photo of her outside the control before she headed off to catch a train. She had been brilliant!
The oldest rider, a Canadian, arrived with another cyclist and we fed them although we were now running rather low on strawberries (our dessert option). The pasta was almost finished but we had a couple of portions of rice which worked well for the Japanese chap who arrived a bit later.
As the closing time approached we knew there was one more rider on the road. We cleared up and packed away as much as we could, leaving out food for this rider if he appeared. And he duly did, three minutes before the cut-off time. We gave him food and encouragement but I think he realised he was not going to make it round within the time limit as he spent a long time on the phone after he went outside to set off again.
It was then a rush to tidy up and clean and pack everything away. I retrieved the standard lamp from the kitchen and packed all my stuff away and we did all the final washing up. I left before the others at the point where all that was left was heavy lifting (which I can’t do) but foolishly left my fleece behind. Fortunately Bärbel posted it to me later. I also won two extra iPhone cables, one a very nice pink colour which matches my velomobile. The other spare, a white one, was claimed by a chap so I will send it to him.
I was fairly tired after my two days but the rest had worked with less sleep – I am very impressed by their ability to keep going on just a few hours’ rest. They are mostly audaxers though who are used to going without sleep – I haven’t ever done an audax as I know I am not good at cycling overnight and really need my 7-8 hours.
Thanks to Bärbel, Frank, Berthold, Werner and Martina for their good-natured company and for helping me a bit with my German. It was a great opportunity to meet some cycling friends and acquaintances again – but I have no desire to cook pasta with tomato sauce for the next year or so!
And this is the report by Adam of the whole ride:
Phew! the High point and low point of my first season all in one weekend. ::-)
Anyway, here’s my account of what happened in Germany.
I rode with Postie, Cyclofabrica and Lordy for the majority of the first two days.
The first day was as flat as you like and we got a good rhythm going and managed to avoid the showers by ducking into conveniently placed bus shelters and played yoyo with Team Italia in their Ferrari jerseys and plastic bags.
Day two took us into the first manned control at 450km where we met Salvatorie and the man from Canada. We stopped for an extended breakfast/lunch and sat out a huge downpour, from there on we started to ride over sections of cobbles the size of babies heads and a few rail crossings that seemed always to be laid at jaunty angles to the road, which made for some interesting riding. At about 650km the hotel boys wanted to stop as it was pissing down and the hills were about to show, so I rode on as I wanted to stay at the 750km control.
This is where it started to get a bit hilly and a bit weird, I rode onwards into the night and got a good soaking for my troubles, but I was glad I carried on, as when it got dark I could make out the outline of the surrounding hills with hundreds of blinking lights from the wind turbines hovering in the air above them. A brilliant sight and well worth the drenching I’d had earlier.
Salvatorie had warned me about the desert that we were about to enter between controls and he was right. My water had run out and I wasted a load of time trying to find a tap for a refill……..there was nothing……… for miles. No bars, no services and no garden taps….dry.
Eventually I spotted a hosepipe hanging on the wall of a house. I tiptoed quietly into the garden as best I could in cycling shoes on a gravel path, but I couldn’t get it off the tap, so I filled up with rubber hose water. I took a big swig and nearly puked as it tasted strongly of vulcanised rubber, but that was all I had and I put my only desperado SIS gel in the bottle to try and mask the taste.
I Plugged on into the wet and increasingly windy night whilst sipping gingerly on orange flavoured rubber hose water, I had thoughts of all kinds of gastric trouble that I was bringing upon myself for the next day. When LO! over yonder appeared a bar, still open. I pulled up in the car park alongside a pair of young lovers, who seemed to be trying to swallow each other whilst locked in an amorous embrace, dismounted and burst into the bar with both water bottles drawn.
Inside a party was in full swing, the dancing stopped and everyone turned and stared. I made it to the bar and offered up my plastic bottles to the barmaid for a refill. Someone grabbed my shoulder and I turned and stared at a man who was tapping at his watch and shouting at me over the loud music, well of course speaking no German I simply smiled the best I could and shrugged. “Eeeengliiish” I said and he looked at me and rolled his eyes, turned to the rest of the party goers and shouted he’s speaking “Eeeengliiish”. A couple came up to me and kindly reminded me that “it’s a bit late to be riding your bike, you know”, “can we take your photo” and “do you want to dance ?” I must admit I felt like a Larry Let Down when I explained that “Er well no, I didn’t really feel like dancing, but thanks for the offer” and that all I wanted was a drink and to get back on my bike and ride into the night.
Turning back to the bar I collected my now bulging bottles and was asked for €4.50 by the barmaid, that’s a bit odd so I paid anyway, said my farewells to the party and left.
“Water”…. fantastic, so I took another big swig and it all exploded back out, she’d filled up with fizzy water, but at least it didn’t taste of Goodyear radials.
Off I went into the dark. I was intending to get to the control at about 2am, but ended up getting lost and missed the turning. Whilst lost and going in a big circle a car pulled up along side and I waved them on without looking, as I was on a mission, suddenly the night lit up with this amazingly beautiful blue light, it was the police and they wanted to chat. It must have come as a surprise to see a lone cyclist riding down the middle of the road in the dark, swearing to himself. So I stopped and they got out.
“Eeeengliish” I said for the second time in one evening and the police officer looked at me in disbelief, so I gave her the option of “Dansk” too.
So Eeeengliish it was to be and she kindly pointed out that; a.“It’s a bit late to be riding your bike, you know” and b. That I really should be riding on the bike path and not in the middle of the road. and c. Where exactly was I going at this time of night ?
I had to stand there in the dark, getting cold and explain like a naughty boy what I was doing, why I was doing it and where exactly I was hoping to be, very soon.
So I ended up with a police escort for a while, what an eventful night this was turning out to be,and she kindly put me on the right track and I rode off into the night with a cheery wave and a Germainc “Bon Chance”.
I finally reached the control at 3:30 am fell into the shooting club and promptly got shooed back out of the door and told off for bringing my bike in.
That was it!!
The FACE ON! switch had been thrown and I was officially having a “special moment”.
Day 3 & 4 went in a blur of bus shelters and hills, hills, cake, cake, hills and were completed in an easy touring stye, with numerous refreshment breaks and an overnight in the control at Rösrath. With a wheel true from Frank and cake with hospitality from Helen and Fixillated, I relaxed knowing I was on the home straight. I won’t go into the thoughts of murder that were whirring around in my head during the night, but lets say I wished I’d bothered to pitch my tent as I wasn’t getting any sleep.
I got back to the control at Petersborn at about 5pm, slaked my thirst with 4 beers, sat in the sun, ate alot, did the laundry and generally loafed. Postie and CF turned up later and went off to do a few more miles. Then Lordy turned up, changed and got on his bike. I looked at the sky and mentioned that “It looks like it might be going to rain“ He looked at me oddly and muttered something about wanting to get down the road coz he was knackered after the hills, so off he went and down it came.
Rested I left the control at about 5:30-5:45 am
I met team Italia at the intermediate control, they appeared to be shadows of their former selves and didn’t seem to be talking to each other, one can only imagine what horrors they must have experienced to make them look this way, so I left them with a cheery “Ciao” and rode off into the sunny day with my ice cream and a giggle.
I caught up with Postie and CF at lunchtime in the control at Lindern after doing a head down 200, wolfed down 2 plates of sausage stew, quaffed a large shandy and rode with them and my friend indigestion the last 200 km’s over the Elbe at sunset to the finish at Großhansdorf.
I used the king of route sheets in a map holder and had the whole route on one track on the Garmin and still managed to get lost. I rode it on my 1986 steel bike with camping gear on a 53/39 X 27 8 speed, had a lot of fun and I shall return for more.