Puh..., this was tough. Wet and dirty clothes. Can't decide if I feel like smiling or crying. I just gave everything to finish this race. Less a race more a real adventure. But let's start from the beginning:
Go hard on all the hills.
A-Cross the 3 is an unsupported bikepacking adventure across Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg. You have to cover a distance of 500km and 10,000 vertical meters in less than 72 hours. The unsupported part: you carry your own luggage (choose wisely), you manage everything on your own – where and how you spend the night, where and when you gonna eat. Just the starting and end point are given. And don't forget the time limit.
Riding 500 km is one thing. Adding at least 10,000 vertical meters is another thing. Luckily, I'm living in a highland area (Bergstraße and Odenwald), with a lot of MTB Trails. Therefore, my plan was to cover as many vertical meters as possible during my winter training. Done!
The plan worked out quite well. During my training, I extended my bike commutes after work, put the long rides on the weekends and bought proper winter and rain clothes to train outside even in bad weather conditions. As they say‚ there is no bad weather only bad clothing'. Before the start of the race, I covered 2500km and 45000 vertical meters. I did most of my rides with a MTB and a Crosser. Aside from the bike rides, I swam twice a week (I have a triathlon background) and tried to boulder at least once. Swimming and boulder helped me to increase my strength and power in the upper body, which was very helpful in the hike-a-bike sections.
Day one was a gentle start. Before the event began, I first had to register myself, put the tracker for the live tracking in one of my bags and attached the race number to my bike. Together with 65 other participants, we started the race at 1 pm in three waves. I started slow and didn't try to over pace myself in the beginning. This worked out quite well. In front of me, a few riders formed a group. They were not much faster than me, but I kept my distance to focus more on my own speed. However, from time to time I came back to these groups because either the group leader missed a turn or a fallen tree crossed the track and everybody had to push the bike over it.
The first 30 kilometers passed very fast. The climbs were not steep and most of the single trails were easy to ride. I kept my power low and the cadence high to save as much energy as possible on these simple kilometers.
Afterwards, 30 or 40 kilometers further, the climbs got steeper and with every new climb the groups got seperated into even smaller groups, forcing everyone to focus on their own speed. While I kept the power very low on these straightforward climbs I pushed a little bit more on the steeper climbs. This increased my position in the field and I could leave some of the groups behind me.
The first checkpoint was at 50km. Until then, I still was surrounded by other riders. After passing that checkpoint, suddenly it got quiet around me. In front of me was nobody and I kept focusing on my own speed. A few kilometers further, on a short downhill section, I saw another participant pushing his bike back on the track. I first thought that he had crashed. I wanted to offer my help, but it turned out that he just missed a turn and then went straight back to the course. After we talked a little bit with each other, we quickly realized that we were on a wavelength and had a similar pace. Perfect match! This rider was Yves. Over the next days, we became a good team and finished this race together.
Fast forward to kilometer 75: We had our first stop for coffee and coke at a small hotel. Just as we sat down at an outside table, Stefan Maertens, the organizer of the event crossed the street with his car and shouted at us that we should not make so many stops. We laughed about that and enjoyed our drinks before we continued the race.
A few more climbs and downhills later – the sun was nearly set – we decided to stop in Schleiden to have a proper dinner. However, we didn't reach Schleiden before 9:30 pm because some hills were really challenging. We found an open bar and asked for food. First response: Kitchen is already closed! So, here we are, after hours of biking and hungry as the wolves hoping for food. But luckily they offered us "Currywurst" or a "Strammen Max". One dish wouldn‘t be enough in our state, so we ordered both dishes – for both us. You gotta eat for high performance!
Sitting there, drinking and eating, getting more aware of our bodies – we slowly realized how cold we are and that we need to put on some more clothing. Yves' stomach also didn't feel great and he almost had to throw up. We played with the thought about spending the night outside in our tents and that it could get really cold. We both didn't feel comfortable about this idea. So we looked for hotels in Schleiden and found exactly one. After a quick call it turned out that only the big luxury suite was available. We first said no and wanted to move on. But after we got out on our bikes and started to shiver, we went straight to the hotel and asked if the suite was still available. We were lucky – again – a few minutes later we put our bikes in the basement, had a nice shower and fell asleep in warm and cozy beds.
Sleeping during a bikepacking race
Something trivial as sleeping is challenging during a bikepacking race. The time you get off your bike and start sleeping is quite short. While the body can make the switch very fast – the brain needs more time. Therefore, my sleep was less restorative than usual. My thougths kept spinning about what I had accomplished during the day and what I would be experiencing the next day. In my dreams, I was still checking my Garmin for the next turn or drinking some more water to stay hydrated. For me a six hour sleep felt like I only had two hours of relaxing sleep and the rest was something in between.
Hike-a-bike in Luxembourg
In the morning, we got up at 5 am packed our stuff and left the hotel a few minutes before sunrise. We went directly to the gas station of Schleiden to have the first breakfast and get some food for the day. A few minutes later we were back in the forest and climbed the next hills. During this morning we came across some other riders that slept around Schleiden. However, it didn't take long time and we were back alone, meaning: nobody in front of us. Though, there was a lot of wildlife taking place in this early hours. We crossed the path of some deers, rode along with a group of wild boars and observed some birds flying through the forest.
A little while later we stopped at a small bakery to take our second breakfast. Once again, we were lucky: this bakery is only open in three days a week. Stefan Maertens later told us that he had never been in this bakery because it was closed every time he passed it. Besides us, there were a few other guests. It seemed, they know each other very well. The nice old lady in the bakery told us that she has a hard time to keep this bakery running. She made us aware of the remoteness of this area. It‘s exciting, not just the biking, but also get to know different people of different places. Each story of the people I met was unique.
Three pieces of cake later, we got back on our bikes and rode to the last bigger village, before we reached a very densely populated area. We checked that we had enough food and drinks with us and had a short chat with the organizers of the event Berten and Stefan. Berten also took the chance to record a small interview of me (Watch the video on facebook).
On the next 80 km of the track, there was no chance to stock up with food or water. Luckily, the track was not so hard and we could keep the pace a little bit higher than before. While we had enough food with us our water resources used up quicker than we thought. Just after we notice that we only had some drops left a big farm appeared on the side of the road. We took the turn to the farm, ringed the bell and hoped that somebody will open door. It felt weird to ring on bells of strangers and asking for a simple necessity as something to drink. A super friendly lady opened the door and was very pleased to provide us with tap water. After a short chat about what we are doing, we were back on the track to our next destination: Luxembourg.
Luxembourg welcomed us with a lot of steep climbs and my first weakening of the event. After pushing my bike another very long mountain I felt completely out of power. Fortunately, we found a bar on the top of that climb. A large glass of coke helped me to overcome my down (I'm always fascinated by how Cola can change your mind) and I was ready for the final leg of the day. This last part took us to Esch-Sur-Sûre, a small town in the north-western of Luxembourg. To get there we had to face a lot of small singletracks and hiking trails. Our progress was slow and it took us three hours to complete the last 30 km. This felt so different from the first 30km of the first day. We arrived at around eight o'clock at a campsite with a restaurant. A schnitzel, a burger and some drinks later we were still sitting there and chatted with the other riders about our experiences over the last two days. Together with Yves and Sebastian I shared a hut at the campsite and called it a day.
Time is running quickly
The third day was very similar to the day before. We got up at 5 am and left the campsite at around 6 am. In the city center of Esch-Sur-Sûre, we found a hotel that was already serving breakfast. Refueled and one hour later, we hiked our bikes out of Luxembourg and when we finally reached Belgium the sun was out and the terrain was much easier. After a little fish-burger break, we were heading towards La Roche-en-Ardenne. One of the other riders nicknamed this part to “Little Luxembourg” because of the long hike-a-bike sections. After a short stop in La Roche-en-Ardenne, we realized that time was running quickly today and it was already 6 pm. The weather forecast for the night was everything else than brilliant. A little bit afraid about what the night will bring, we looked for an accommodation near the track but a few more kilometers outside of La Roche-en-Ardenne. We found a really nice B&B that we reached at 9:30 am. After a hot shower, and a little dinner, we went into our beds and fell asleep.
Snow in the Ardennes
The final countdown! Again, we got up a 5 am in the morning. When I looked outside the window I noticed snow on the roofs of the other houses. While it was still dark, we didn't recognize how much snow had fallen over night. But after we got back on our bikes and faced the first climbs in the dawn, we noticed ten centimeters of fresh, powdery snow. We felt like little children on Christmas eve and were close to sing Christmas songs. It was wonderful, but also a very unexpected scene: Snow in May. Even so, we had much fun with the white powder, still, our progress to the finish line was very slow. We needed a lot to hike-a-bike because the snow was quite slippery. Additionally, a lot of trees blocked our ways, because their leafy branches were pushed down by the snow. Sometimes we wished for a good, old machete to clear the way in front of us.
The longer the day lasted, the warmer it got and all the snow slowly melted – converting the track either to a river or to a muddy and slippery path. At some point, we didn't try to find ways around the big puddles, we simply went through them and hoped for the best. A few hours had passed and suddenly we got around a corner on a nice tarmac backroad. The sun was shining and warmed us and the street. It felt like we just passed a nice summer rain shower. We quickly looked at our GPS-device to see if we were still on the right track – a tarmac road and sunshine this must have been totally wrong. But it turns out it wasn't and half a hour later we got into a hail storm (so much fun).
At 4 pm we finally reached the finish line. Three hours after the time limit but still happy that we made it. Even though, we didn't make it in time, I will remember this last day for a long time. Sun, snow, hail, rain, cold, wet, all in less than 24 hours. It felt like I just went to 4 seasons in one day.
Big thanks to Yves, who became a very good friend during these four days. I'm not sure if I would have made it without him. He also took most of the photos you see above. A big thanks also goes to Berten and Stefan, who created a really challenging and adventurous track!