How a terry towel saved my first ultrarace
and why you shouldn't always opt for the lightest setup
As the title is already suggesting I'm going to offer you nothing less than pearls of wisdom today. I'm about to deconstruct one of cycling's major doctrines: Going light is everything.
Now be aware that this is obviously not circling around the already well known argument that saving grams can be at the expanse of losing durability which could be the case when buying tubes that apparently fall to peaces taken out of their box. After all nowadays everyone rides tubeless (except a few old fashioned weirdos, still rolling on narrow tires and clinchers, including myself) so this shouldn't be a concern anyway.
Well, of course the material we're planning to challenge over thousands of kilometers on more or less rough terrain needs to live up to a certain demand of not letting us down in the middle of nowhere, especially if you plan to sign up for an unsupported ultra-endurance event. No one wants to pull out of a race because of material failure; we all want to find the limit of ourselves, not the one of our precious bikes.
So I guess we can agree on a rather balanced ratio of weight to durability for starters.
Apart from this axiom there's indeed a relatively huge range of possibilities to save a few grams and don't get me wrong: I'm a weight weenie myself. Much like children's eyes on Christmas I will get that certain sparkle when I finally found a way to save weight on my bike which of course can never be light enough. I could have just skipped that extra carrot cake on the last ride but that's a whole different story.
Outsiders who don't cycle will never understand the joy of 204g saved mass on a steel bike – and they'll always underestimate what prices we are willing to pay for that.
Going lighter makes us happy and the more we payed for it, the happier we are. As a matter of principle.
Still I often wonder if all this weight frenzy is really the path to enlightenment when you're not part of a sponsored pro team riding La Vuelta. Said by someone who lost a considerably high amount of time during a self – supported bikepacking race to carry all kind of unnecessary and way to heavy stuff in ultralight, super expensive bikepacking bags across the alps (not from north to south but lengthwise from east to west, to make it even better). Just to reconsider on top of the first checkpoint at a height of 2243m that at least 2kg of that mass was dispensable, which led to even more wasted time at the post office. Only to, after a few wonderfully light days, carry an absolutely not at all light, not even slightly outdoor quality appropriate, horribly huge, beyond all rational pack sizes abnormally thick
Size 100 x 175 cm.
What on earth had been going on with me, hefting such an inherently redundant piece of textile decadency over the course of a pretty climbing intense long-distance cycling trip? Performing a sport, where even a spare Bibshort is seen as useless splurge and don't get me started on a spare jersey.
A sport where people ride their bike 4-10 days in the same piece of kit without an excessive use of soap, showers or even a laundry service and were this pattern of behaviour is not at all seen as something extraordinary.
How did I lose my ultracycling proprieties to such a degree, why did I dismiss the morality of long distance riders in such a disgracefulfashion?
I will have to explain myself and tell the story of that terrycloth monster.
It was on a rainy evening during the Three Peaks Bike Race when I found myself on a boring stretch of a federal highway somewhere near Belley in France, when I noticed a car which didn't make any move to overtake me. The boring ride through the rain now became the nightmare of every cyclist, at least every female cyclist, because someone in a car at night driving slowly behind you is the ultra incarnation of the power imbalance between cars and bikes. Someone who would do this could only be up to something unpleasant, to say the least. Whilst trying not to pay too much attention to my suddenly accelerating pulse I continued riding in the spotlight of my anonymous escort. Through the ongoing noise of other passing vehicles on the wet road I realized that the driver decided to get in contact with me as I witnessed a car window winding down.
The co-driver in the car, driving next to me with an average speed of 23km/h was:
A small, roughly 10 year old, blond girl.
I immediately calmed at her sight, even though she was yelling something in french I couldn't understand. After all I didn't feel much like having a conversation, partly because my french consisted of not more than a smattering and also because talking to someone from a bike in the rain, while the other person is shouting though a car window, is not my favourite setting for a pleasant chat.
I tried to gesticulate that I was okay, but she displayed ongoing worry and continued to shout french words that didn't make any sense to my ears. The mother behind the wheel joint her daughter until I finally figured out that something was wrong with my taillight. I stopped and realized it had suffered an electrical short circuit from invading rain. Relieved and full of gratitude I thanked the duo for being so attentive and I thanked myself for being the control freak I am and bringing three taillights, two of them already lost or broken.
I hadn't been riding for long after this incident when I saw the car with mother and daughter waiting for me again. This time I was less scared and after a chat with the help of google translate it turned out that both of them were worried why I was riding at this hour on such a not quite bike-suited road all by myself. They couldn't be convinced to leave me like this, so I agreed to let them drive behind me until Belley and to be their guest for dinner. Without knowing much about my story, those two had intuitively grasped what a cyclist, who rode all day through the rain, needed. Thus I headed, while being escorted and once without the fear of being overtaken too close by anyone on a dark and lonesome street, to the place of longing for nearly every long-distance cyclist: McDonald's.
Readers who might not be accustomed to the eating habits of ultra endurance athletes may be assured that I would always avoid these fast food restaurants outside the context of ultadistance cycling. But “on the long run” there is nothing better than high caloric, easily digestible, quickly accessible food, more or less everywhere the same, so you don't end up crying in front of an embarrassed waiter because you are unable to pick a dish out of a 20 pages menu, written in a language you don't understand and when you finally decide it turns out that the chef is on his lunch break and there is no WiFi and no toilet and the only available socket isn't working. The level of self awareness and contenance needed to not end up screaming at the friendly waiter in such a scenario is found utterly rare in individuals who ride their bike on as little sleep as possible, while trying to be as fast as possible. So if you want to do yourself and the world a favour, safe the culinary sophisticated excursions for the time after you reached the finish.
While politely not trying to stuff food into my face the way I usually did during the last days, I sat there, happily together with those two beautiful souls who were curious and full of praise for my sporting activity. I could finally convince them that I would be okay and after hearing how much distance I had already covered they were relieved to hear that I obviously only looked less capable than I really was.
The farewell was warm and I felt a bit saddened to continue my lonesome ride into the cold and wet night.
The little girl even offered me her shoes because mine were soaked completely - of course I had to deny this as I was riding clipless. Nonetheless she insisted to help me out in some way and off she went to fetch something from the car. When she returned she solemnly handed me a very large, very soft and wonderful scented, freshly laundered terry towel.
She just gave it to me, probably because I made a pitiable impression and I realized only much later how wise she and her mother really had been.
I'd never asked for their help and it wouldn't have had any negative impact on their lives if they'd just driven past, not caring about that random cyclist without a taillight. But despite this, they decided to stop and care, even though I was totally slow-witted at that point and they had to insist on helping me, a complete stranger.
They gave me time and patience, a meal and warmth, company and appreciation for what I did, even though none of them was a cyclist.
In the end they even gave me compassion through such an ordinary thing like a terry towel and I doubt that anyone who has never been on such a ride can comprehend what this means for someone who is riding for several days all alone through foreign countries, without family or friends to accompany and through all sorts of apocalyptic weather, steep climbs, daring descents, breathtaking sunrises and pitch black, endless nights on deserted roads, the last warm shower already history, smelly and soaked and all in awareness that this will continue to go on for a while.
So there I sat there in front of a McDonald's, the employees had already left and while I packed my stuff, the light that had been shining from the inside onto the parking lot, went off.
It was dark again.
I was alone again.
And I think I never experienced such lonesomeness during the whole race again.
But I had the towel. First I thought about leaving it there, because it was indeed pretty heavy and completely impractical.
Of course I took it with me. Hadn't I sent 2kg of useless bulk home before, it wouldn't have fitted into my bags. The possibility to continue carrying pointless pieces of equipment on my bike through Europe was just given because I had lightened my bags beforehand.
I started off into the night and rode on until I found a sleeping spot in front of a butcher's shop in the early morning hours. When I took out my sleeping bag the towel fell out as well and because I had no other use for it I converted it into a pillow by stuffing it underneath my head. In the days before I'd always had neck pain since I brought nothing to sleep on. I had planned on using some of my spare clothes as a pillow but I was always freezing at night, even when wearing everything I had with me. With the scent of a freshly washed towel I slept like a baby for the first time since the start of the race. From this day on I never experienced neck pain anymore and the scent of the towel was conserved until I reached the finish, even though it was packed in a waterproof bag with a pair of atrocious smelling socks.
A cheer for fabric softener.
So what is this all about? What's the conclusion? That you should use fabric softener?
That a towel is not only an essential piece of kit if you want to hitchhike through the galaxy but also when you go on a 2000km bike ride through Europe?
To the first matter: No.
To the second matter: Maybe, but that's not what I'm trying to say here.
I'm not a huge fan of fabric softener and I wouldn't consider bringing a terry towel to my next ultracycling adventure. Nonetheless, for future adventures I will not save the 120g an inflatable pillow weighs, as neck pain is the last thing you need on a roadbike. Furthermore, the value of the towel is way beyond those pragmatic means. It's a symbol for all the things we think are necessary or clever to save on - also in our daily lives. The mother and the daughter could have saved time and energy if they wouldn't have helped me. There was no practical utility for them by doing so. They even lost time, money and a towel. But they still did it, even though no one asked them to. For them it was just a towel, for me it was warmth, compassion and a reminder that I wasn't alone, a reminiscence of being at home, even though I never use fabric softener. It was also a reminder that sometimes there are more important things than just reaching the finish as quickly and as light as possible,
because in the end the ultimate goal for everyone is to arrive at all.
I can only assume to what amount the towel actually helped me to arrive safely. No one can tell what would've been if I hadn't been warned by two friendly strangers that my rear light had turned off. I might have as well found out myself at some point.
Maybe I'd been lucky and every passing driver would've seen me just in time on the dark and flooded road.
Or I might have been not so lucky.
I might have reached the finish even with neck pain and bad rest.
Or I might have developed a condition called Shermer's Neck which makes it unable to keep the head up due to complete failure of the neck muscles. Or I might have had an accident due to sleep deprivation.
A self-supported multiple day race will most likely get to everyone, it doesn't even need to bring on the apocalyptic weather the 2020 edition of the Three Peaks Bike Race did. Nearly every person I've heard of who had done events like this cried at some point and the reasons for these tears are as diverse and multifaceted as the peloton itself.
In every life there has been sorrow and the enormous strain an ultrarace puts on you will bring up every bad memory you thought was already forgotten. The occasion may be trifles in itself: A jackass in a car, overtaking you that one inch too close, a lack of carbs or just the sudden feeling of loneliness. When your demons arrive it's always good to have some armour against them. There are ways to do this completely based on your mind, but first you'll have to recognize, that weight in itself is per se something relative. Not necessarily the physical weight, but the importance we give to certain things.
The pure weight of an off-the-shelf terry towel may be relatively heavy compared to an easy drying outdoor towel. Or compared to even not taking any towel with you at all. However, the weight a selfless gesture carries is something else. Empathy and compassion weigh out everything else without weighing down. What about our own personal demons we carry all the way on our shoulders wherever we go – they seem a lot heavier when we are weakened by sleep deprivation, the arbitrariness of the elements and endless climbs with aching bodies.
To carry all this load we need symbols to reconsider what weight we give to certain aspects in our lives and we need people who remind us that the most important moments are not the easy ones but the ones where a burden gets a bit lighter.
Through an ordinary thing like a terry towel I was reminded that there are friendly people, good things like empathy, solidarity and the scent of freshly laundered towels. I was reminded that even when there is coldness and dark and the way seems like a never ending struggle, there will be the moment you'll have a warm shower and a soft towel you can hide your tired face in. You will get up that mountain with a little bit of extra weight. And maybe you won't be faster with heavier baggage but it doesn't get easier by all means when you try to save on everything.
And despite all
you will arrive.