Buying her first road bike from Alpine in November 2014 kickstarted staff member Rachel Crighton's love affair with cycling. Here, she shares memories from her biggest challenge so far – cycling the 150 mile Schwarzwald Super Gold route in Germany. She's a serious inspiration.
Where it all began
After less than a year of cycling, it was quite clear that I had a passion for the sport. I loved the hills, the freedom that came with being on the bike, and most of all I liked the continual building of physical strength. In June Joe – who stays in Germany – suggested that I do the Schwarzwald Super Gold Route. I was thrilled at the idea. As the saying goes, you should never limit your challenges, but challenge your limits. Without much thought to the physical demands of the challenge I was soon signed up.
The months that followed were spent training vigorously. The weeks were consumed with long base miles, and intense sessions designed to both improve my stamina and my strength. I started doing core workouts to increase my upper body strength and help hold posture over long mileage. Most months, my overall mileage was somewhere around the 1000 mile mark. There were weeks when I was tired, I felt like I was getting nowhere and the prospect of the challenge now seemed impossible. The worrying commenced and I feared that I would not be able to complete the challenge.
Many people asked me, ‘how can you be bothered?’ or ‘what drives you to do this?’ To me the answer was clear. When you do something you love, it is no longer a chore. This doesn’t mean that it is not hard, and there are not days where you feel demoralised… But what it does mean is that you will never give up. The motivation is always there and the final goal is always in sight. For me, the challenge was not about completing it in the fastest time, it was about the experience and a way to push my own boundaries, to prove to myself what I could do. In the months preceding the big day, I was quite amazed at the amount I was eating. As my mum joked, she thought she was going to have to take out a second mortgage! Metabolism is an amazing thing. Some days, my calorific intake exceeded well over 3,000 calories and I was still hungry!
In the weeks before, the nerves set in and I doubted my own ability. On arriving in Germany, and having only a few days to acclimatise, it was not ideal. The heat was a big factor and something that I was really concerned about. When I went on my first cycle, it was worrying. I was surprised at how irregular my breathing was and the impact of the humid atmosphere. I also knew that if it was extremely hot on the day, I would dehydrate much faster and – having not been used to cycling in the heat at all – I knew I would quickly tire out. The next few days were spent sightseeing and I had a few sleepless nights worrying. When Saturday finally came, I was really glad to leave for the Black Forest. We picked up the race packs, had a quick bite to eat in the evening and then went to bed.
The big day
After a restless night’s sleep, the alarm clock rang. I quickly dressed, stuffed as many cereal bars in my pocket as I could and left to meet Joe for some breakfast. I have to say, breakfast at 4.40am is not an experience I wish to repeat. A concoction of cereals – muesli, cornflakes and some kind of chocolate wheat cereal – did not go down easily. I thought I was going to vomit and that was before we had even started cycling. After breakfast, we jumped in the car and headed up towards the start line.
On arriving at around 5am, we jumped out the car and sorted our bikes out. The first mishap was the fact that I had managed to forget the attachment for my front light! In a bit of a panic, I asked one of the organisers if he had anything that I could use to help attach my light to my bike. He replied, ‘Do not fear, duct tape solves everything’. After a metre of bright blue duct tape was wrapped around my bike frame, it was clear that my front light was well and truly not going anywhere! Problem solved! By this point, it was time to get going. It was a relatively small group of riders that set off at this time and we ended up in the front bunch of about 20 riders. However, my breakfast came back to haunt me and I had a severe case of indigestion.
At about 8 miles in, I hit the first of the 8 mountains of the day: Thurner. This was by far my favourite climb. When we started the climb, I left Joe as he was doing the shorter silver route and not the gold. It was a weird feeling, heading up into the mountains in the darkness on your own, in a country you had never seen before. The climb was 8.5km long and 515 metres. Whilst steep at points it was not unbearable, and just as I was reaching the top, dawn had broken and the view across the mountains and valleys was truly beautiful. At every station we had to stop and get our book stamped so I quickly did that and kept going.
It wasn’t long until the torrential rain started. Descending at 40mph in semi-light conditions was quite terrifying in the rain. My core temperature quickly dropped, and I quickly discovered that my waterproof jacket was indeed not waterproof. Showerproof at the best, I was soaking. I was so cold that my calf muscles were beginning to seize up and cramp. At this point, I questioned my own sanity. What the hell was I doing? As mad as it sounds, I was delighted when the next climb came along at about 30 miles in. Soaking wet and starting to loose energy, I trundled up the hill as fast as by body would take me. Kandel would have been good for mountain bikers, as there were lots of forestry tracks on the way up and it was quite a steep and long rising climb. Despite being branded the hardest mountain, at 980hm and 11.8km long, I didn’t find the climb challenging, despite the gradient reaching 20% at points. Once I reached the top, there was a panoramic view which made it all worthwhile. Again, I stopped to get my book stamped and grabbed a banana to eat and continued on.
The rain was still coming down thick and fast, but I was relatively warm from the climb. However, as soon as I started descending I began to feel my body shiver uncontrollably again. For the next 15 miles – which included the long descent back towards Oberreid and the flat section that followed – the downpour continued. The conditions were quite poor, the tarmac was wet and there were lots of drain covers. By now I was having thoughts of giving up. However, I could hear my dad’s voice ringing in my ears. He had told me before coming out that, ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself, look how far you have come and what you have conquered to get to get here… I know for sure that you can do it!’ My stubborn side kicked in… I was not giving up!
We headed back towards Oberreid and the rain began to cease. I had what I felt was a ‘badass moment’ going around the roundabout… anticlockwise! This cheered me up and I had a wee giggle to myself. At about 56 miles in we hit the third mountain, Rinken. Rinken is another long climb at 765hm and 11.7km long. It started off nice and steady, and about halfway up the switchback sections reached a gradient that was over 20% for several kilometres. Whilst this was hard, my legs were still relatively fresh so I managed to spin up in my granny gear quite comfortably. Half way up, I got chatting to a young German boy and his father. His father could speak little English, but the son told me that his father could not believe that someone so small and light could climb so fast. The young boy looked at me and told me that they were are meant to be doing the gold tour as well but his father has done no training and that it was going to be a long day. I looked at him and laughed and the father looked at the son for translation of what he has said. Needless to say, there was no translation. At the top, there was a lovely barn, where the feed station was located with lots of local delicacies to raise our blood sugar levels. The rain had finally stopped and the atmosphere was sticky and humid, with the temperature slowly rising.
The descent from Rinken was gravelly and very wet, and so I took my time. I had an angry German car driver pull out in front of me and at that stage my heart was in my mouth. I was so close to going through the back window, my nose practically touched it. EEKKKKKK. The descent did not last long and I was quickly climbing up the fourth mountain of the day, Feldberg. Feldberg was not a highlight for me, mainly because it was relatively un-scenic in comparison to the rest of the ride so far. Feldberg was 9.4km long with 390 meters of climbing and so the shortest of the day. With some steep sections, it was not entirely unchallenging.
The descent into the city hall was beautiful. The long winding road down through the valley was stunning: there were goats grazing in the fields and the noise of cow bells ringing was quite apparent, along with the smell from the pine trees. In the city hall, there were not many riders from the gold route. I got talking to the photographer who told me he couldn’t believe I had come all the way from Scotland: ‘you’re a crazy girl! After grabbing a slice of bread with some jam and creamed yogurt on it, I jumped back on my bike. I wasn’t keen to stop long as the muscles were starting to cool down and I knew I would find it harder to get going again.
The fifth mountain of the day came soon after. Belchen – which is now closed to cars – takes you up to the highest point in the Black Forest at 1360 metres. This was another climb that I enjoyed, as the views were scenic and my legs still felt quick good.
The real monster was the sixth climb, Kabelescheuer. Before I started the climb, I got chatting to a local who said this was the worst climb of the day… and he was right. The first bit was relatively tame but after a few kilometres the gradient started steepening. As I continued, I realised that this was indeed the hardest climb. The last 3km were over a gradient of 24% and I was out the saddle and pushing as hard on the pedal as my body would allow. The climb was tough, and I passed a gentleman who was off his bike and pushing it up the last of the hill, whilst others were frantically zigzagging from side to side trying to make their way up the climb the best they could. However, on arriving at the top, the view was absolutely stunning and probably one of the best of the day… That made it all worthwhile! I was overwhelmed as all the Germans started cheering and clapping when I reached the summit. ‘Chapeau, chapeau!’ they shouted.
With 6 out of the 8 climbs behind me, I was starting to believe that I could really do it. I quickly filled up my water bottles and jumped back on the bike, missing the feed station as at this point I still felt like I had enough energy to see me through. Boy I was wrong. The next climb was Hochkopf which was 10.7km long and 610hm. It started off quite well and I felt good, but as the gradient became steeper it was clear that my blood sugar levels were rapidly decreasing. This was the low point in the cycle for me when about 2km from the top I started getting hot and cold flushed, the power in my legs went and I began to feel nauseous and even started shaking. Just when I thought that I was going to have to stop, the feed station came into sight. I have never been so grateful. I knew I needed a quick sugar fix so quickly drank 500mls of coke, a slice of some sort of chocolate cake and then a sandwich. I probably consumed close to 1000 calories in the space of 10 minutes. However, as soon as I had eaten, I began to instantly felt better. I had been concentrating so hard on not getting dehydrated, I had probably not consumed enough calories as a result. One climb to go I thought, one climb – and I’ve made it.
I jumped back on the bike and descended relatively quickly. Soon after came the last climb. It was tough. The heat was unbearable and it made the climb seem like it went on and on and on. One of the German guys – Ralph – introduced himself to me and we started counting down the kilometres of the last climb: 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… and then the top came into sight. I had finally made it. As I summited the last climb, I was a bit emotional. All the training had paid off. Just 10km to Oberreid and I had done it. I was going to make it!
The last 10km was a descent followed by a flat section. When I got closer to Oberreid, I could see my granny and my mum waiting on the wall beside the finish line along with other spectators. When I got closer, my mum and granny jumped up and started cheering.
It was a special moment for me. I had taken on the Schwarzwald Super and I had not been beaten. I had conquered the mountains and for the most part, loved every minute. The sense of satisfaction and achievement was overwhelming and it brought tears to my eyes. As I crossed the line, many of the German men that had finished with me were clapping and cheering and congratulating me on my success. Not only had I finished, but I was the first woman. ‘You are made for the mountains,’ one man commented.
For me, the day was about endurance, the power to withstand pain and the ability and strength to continue despite fatigue. Whilst it was one of the hardest days in the saddle to date, I can now say that I have cycled 150 miles and climbed 27,000 feet in one day… and in a time of 10 hours and 30 minutes.
I’m sure that’s not the last that I will see of the Black Forest. I’ve only just left and the mountains are already beckoning me back. Hard work and determination go a long way and if I can do it, then anyone can. My love affair with my bike continues…