It’s day 13 and the top 20 have crossed the finish. In Meteora, we’re preparing for a steady flow of racers now, with one expected every half an hour for the rest of the day. The hotels are filling up, bottles of Crazy Donkey beer being popped and the riders are lining the street to cheer in new arrivals.
Last night, just as the celebrations were getting going in Pub 38 we saw Chris Thomas. When we caught up with him at the start in Geraardsbergen he’d just pulled on cap 18 and he said was feeling a little anxious about having such a top-ranking number. “I’ve been looking through the list of riders, people I’ve been in awe of for years, and thinking I hope they’re not expecting me to finish there. It must be because my birthday’s the 18th.”
Fast forward 10 days and Chris was nearing the Greek border in a duel with Marin de Saint-Exupéry to reach the finish. What position were they fighting for? It was 18th. Well, technically 17th, as Jonathan Rankin’s 10th place can’t count in General Classification as he was in a pair, but as far as Chris was concerned he had to reach 18th place.
He woke early on Aug. 11 and shifted his way through Greece, past the barking dogs, up the brutal parcours and into Meteora. He said: “I can’t believe I’ve made it. It’s just riding a bike all day long and that’s really painful, actually. But next time tri-bars so I don’t end up with the claw.”
He held up his hand and his little finger was pointed 45 degrees away from others and his ring finger resembled a hook. With no dynamo his lights were running low, his Garmin was flat and he was asking people for directions for the last 100 kilometres.
Chris joins James Hayden in the very small group of riders to claim they enjoyed the gravel climb at Control Point 4. He said: “I absolutely loved that first parcours. Why would you walk your bike up a mountain? I was walking up it thinking ‘who would choose to do this?’ It’s like arriving at Mount Snowdon and saying ‘I’m going to carry a cumbersome bike on a path with no steps and rather than doing it in hiking boots I’ll do it in cleats’. It was ridiculous.”
He said his Canyon Aero was a long way from its comfort zone on the mountain. That seemed a bit ironic given the way he says Canyon Aero makes it sound like he’s referencing the classic song from the The Simpsons about Crusty the Clown’s off-road vehicle:
Can you name the truck with four wheel drive,
smells like a steak and seats thirty-five
Well, it goes real slow with the hammer down,
It's the country-fried truck endorsed by a clown!
Turning to Jonathan Rankin, Chris asked: “What happened to your partner?”.
“He got pneumonia,” Jonathan said.
“Pneuomonia?! It’s bloody boiling,” Chris quipped back. As he held court outside the pub my mind wandered to the prospect of him doing a stand-up slot and a rendition of Canyonero at the finisher’s party.
Half an hour later at 20:55 on Aug. 10, Chris’s nemesis for the past few days, Marin de Saint-Exupéry, rolled in wearing cap 42 and riding the bike he had made himself as his final project of his mechanical engineering degree. Green with go-faster white stripes that segued beautifully from the frame and across the frame bags it was a custom setup dialled to perfection for long hours on the road. The fact that his baby had taken a turn as a mountain bike on the rocky singletrack of Control Point 4 had riled him a little, he said, but he was good-natured about it.
After Marin, there was a gap until Ed Wolstenhome, cap 167, hopped off at Pub38 in Meteora at 02:36 local time. He said: “I didn't want this to finish really, I was enjoying it so much. My low point was on the Greek border where I made a routing error and ended up on a gravel road. That held me up by an hour or two. I also had a double puncture in a dark back lane just outside Tirana. I had to mend my tubeless tyres, in the dark, with my last 2 tubes. That town is like the Wild West... powerful sports cars screaming around all night.
“At the Greek border I knew I was just a couple of hours ahead. I started steadily and then realised I needed to push on. I raced all the way to the finish and moved up the field by around 10 places. I would have been delighted with a top 30 finish. I can't quite believe what I've achieved by hitting the top 20.”
Next in at 04:04 was Ben Snodin, cap 114. He said: “I realised after CP3 that I had to really start racing and since then I've been pushing it really hard. I think I've pushed up from the forties to finish 20th. My aim was to finish in the top 20 so I've achieved that. I am really pleased though I feel a bit confused after endless dark Greece, with f`#*%ing dogs. I just ignored them in the end, they just make a lot of noise.”
As the morning shift began on Saturday Aug. 11 Paul Hoffman rolled in at 08:45. Race co-ordinator Juliana Buhring offered him some clean socks and he was thrilled but said he didn’t feel too dirty because he’d stopped for a swim at lakes along the way whenever he could to freshen-up and wash his bib shorts.
Elsewhere in the race, there was a scare when it looked like the lead pair 256a and 256b had split until they posted a Twitter video explaining they’d lost a tracker way back on the bumpy roads. Ede Harrison, 179, has been doing a powerful job of making up for her lost time due to routing problems and she’s set to reach the Albanian capital of Tirana today. Anisa Aubin, cap 21, is a little under 100km behind Ede and cap 63 Karolina Maciejewska is the third woman in the race at 150km behind her.