Julio Greff / Cycling

Race Report: Race around the Netherlands 2024

I consider myself a veteran of the Race around the Netherlands. Even though I only finished it once, this year is going to be the fourth time I start, therefore I have a good idea what to expect, and there would probably not be a lot of novelty, so this time I have results in mind: 96 hours or less.

The Bike

3T Strada, in its most aero configuration so far

I usually run very aero setups despite the course, but with such a flat race that’s where they really shine. Not much has changed since the Ardennes Monster. Gone is the massive 10-44T cassette, replaced with a more appropriate 10-33T, paired with an 46T Alugear AERO chainring. Perfect for the tailwinds, a bit dubious for the steep climbs in Limburg, but having survived with weaker legs two years ago and a 44T chainring, I’m hoping it’s going to be fine.

Another new bit of kit that always gets tons of questions are my rear bottle cages. I got a Topeak Backloader Wishbone, just a piece of metal that attaches to your seat rails, and allows you to mount standard bottle cages to it. The correct choice of bottle cages is important, since the setup does have the tendency to launch bottles into the air. All told, the two extra bottles allow me to carry almost 4 liters of fluid, which should last me about 16 hours with the expected weather for the race.

The rest of the setup remains the same, except for some extra reflective tape required by the race organization, and some fresh bartape that was sorely needed after a couple of years of abuse.

The Plan

I stopped for meals and hotel stays last time, but to make it my goal of 96 hours the strategy this time was to spend all of the time either making forward progress, or sleeping to recover. Checking into hotels wastes time, so I prepared myself mentally to spend a few hours during the second and third night at the best bus stop I could find. Similarly, waiting for your McDonald’s meal or for a gas station cashier to scan your supplies is time spent not pedaling or sleeping, so I carried enough supplies to last me for the first 48 hours of racing.

48 hours worth of carbs. Energy and caffeine gums, and different drink mixes to tackle palate fatigue

After exhausting my supplies brought from home, I calculated two more stops would be enough to see me to the finish. I also included a planned stop at one of the last McDonald’s on the route if I happened to be head of the goal time, as a treat to keep the spirits up all the way to the finish.

For the rest, the plan was to ride long, ride as hard as the body could handle, and keep an eye on niggles like any pain or saddle sores and address them immediately instead of letting the issues compound.

All very simple, but much, much easier said than done.

Fast is Fun!

Excited and nervous at the start line

Picture by Martijn Rouwen

Due to the amount of participants this year, the start was split into 3 waves, starting from 8:00, 8:10, and 8:20. I was to start on the second wave, so I lined up close to the front just after the first wave left. Waiting to start were some long ten minutes, and either the temperature or the nerves made me very cold, so I wasn’t the most comfortable ever when the metaphorical gun went off. Fortunately the race starts with a short climb, so by the time we reached the top I was already warmed up and ready to go.

After absolutely flying down the first descent, I had a quick chat with Lennart Nap, the last edition’s winner and one of the race favorites. We had a car behind us, so we got separated. I was then in the front of our wave with nobody else to banter with, so I just got down on my aerobars, got up to the power I planned on riding, turned my music on, and away I went.

The wind conditions on the day were very benign, so I was cruising at 35km/h without doing any effort at all, and soon I started to catch the riders at the back of the first wave. One by one at first, then small groups, as is normal at the beginning of a race. Despite not feeling like I was doing any effort, my heart rate was higher than what it should’ve been for the power I was putting out, so I assumed it was just nervousness, and decided to ignore it for now and go by feel for a bit, and reassess in a couple of hours.

And how good the feeling was. It could’ve been just the adrenaline, or being fresh for the first time after a month of hard training, but the legs were feeling strong, and I let the body do what it wanted to do.

Averaging over 35km/h for the first couple of hours I finally catch up to Job Biersteker, the rider from the first wave that was furthest along, putting me in the lead. At around this point I take stock of the situation: the body appears to still have lots to give, but it’s a long race for one to blow up so early, so I decide to keep the strong pace until I leave the Hoge Veluwe National Park, then settle down a bit to save some energy.

On my way to the national park, I recall looking behind me a few times and seeing a rider. I assumed it to be either Job, who I had just passed, or Lennart that had come to get me. Either way, I thought my lead had lived a short and beautiful time, and I was about to be passed. Somehow, I entered and left the park alone, and was excited to be about to reach at least one timing station in first place. I wouldn’t check the tracker until much later in the day, but it turns out I had a gap of 12 minutes over the rest of the field.

As I had promised myself, I slowed down the pace and enjoyed riding my home roads, and meeting dotwatchers cheering by the side of the road. I had expected the wind to start punishing us a little bit by now, but no such thing, and the time and kilometers just flew.

Flying down the Holterberg!

Many hours later, with Gelderland and Overijssel already well behind me, I look at my bike computer to see it’s been 400km already, averaging almost 33km/h! I also started to wonder what the heck was going on behind me, as I didn’t expect to be ahead for this long after slowing down, so surely somebody must be about to pass me right now. I check the tracker for the first time and see Lennart about 10km behind me, but I have no idea if the gap has been constant or shrinking, so I assume I have some time before he reaches me, which is perfect since I need to stop to refill my water bottles soon.

13 hours in, and I make my first stop in Emmen. I had to get off the route for a water fountain, and upon checking the tracker right before getting on the bike again I see that Lennart’s dot is exactly where mine is. Since there’s a 5 minutes lag between updates, that can mean a lot of things, but now I no longer know for sure who’s chasing whom. Whatever, he probably needs to stop for water too, maybe I’ll catch back on.

I’m surprised again to make the timing station in Bourtage 5 minutes ahead of second place. The gap is getting smaller, and while the body is still feeling fresh, now it’s taking concentration to keep the power up while riding in the dark. I’m glad to have reached the north of the country this early, which means there’s likely to be less wind. It is very exposed and remote up there, which is already pretty depressing by itself. A strong headwind is definitely something that doesn’t add to the experience.

Also the sheep. So much sheep. And it’s so much worse at night. Last time I rode the section in the north of Groningen and Friesland was during daylight, so the sheep weren’t acting so stupid. The bycicles must startle them at night, and they swerve unpredictably. All the concentration I should’ve been using to be put power to the pedals is now being used to avoid riding over so much shit, and hitting the sheep. I eventually fail at the latter, and a sheep tackles my front wheel pretty hard. Thankfully it’s early in the race and I’m not so sleep deprived, so I react in time not to hit the floor.

The rest of the night proceeded with lots of sheep, but no more incidents. Sunrise did bring a puncture with it. Lost a lot of sealant and pressure with it, since it took a bit to stop leaking. Quick stop to check the tyre for debris pump it back up (shout out to the BBB Traveller Telescopic!), and back on it to suffer another puncture in 100 meters. Same procedure, but now I’m uncertain that this one actually sealed, or will seal at all since I lost so much sealant already. I decide to ride it and wish for the best.

The best didn’t come, and I’m almost immediately with insufficient pressure. Fine, I’ll just put a tube in already. Remove wheel, clean up as much sheep shit as is practical, and dread the procedure I’m about to engage in. Even though I’m probably out of sealant now, I thought I could try sticking a dynaplug in, it couldn’t make matters any worse, and it might make them better? When I find the puncture again, I notice it’s no longer bubbling, so I backtrack and decide to just try to pump it up one… more… time… and it holds! I’m happy I don’t have to mess with all this filth, and still no rider coming from the horizon to get me.

Turning south after the endless fields of sheep the conditions turn much less benign. This far north is a bit windy, but the forecast for the next 200km does not look good, with very strong winds for the rest of the day. I start to dread my choice of wheels, and decide to change the plan and stop at the next available supermarket for an emotional support cola and pastries.

It was still early in the day for anything to be open, but I was surprised by my friend Hans waiting for me north of Workum. We ride together for a bit, and it’s good to have somebody to talk to after 24 hours by myself, to take my mind off the carnage that all that headwind ahead of me is going to be.

Eye of the Storm

I finally find a supermarket in Lemmer, have some food, refill bottles, and save a pastry as reward for when I reach Amsterdam. From now on, only pain and suffering await. The stretch between Lemmer and Urk is tough, wasting a lot of power to ride at less than 20km/h, but at least it’s a straight headwind and I have no trouble handling the bike. Between Urk and Lelystad there are stretches that are more sheltered, so I try to make up time as often as possible. Things are tough, but not as bad as I thought!

When I reach Lelystad I take one last look at the tracker, and again Lennart’s dot is right on top of mine, and there’s not much I can do about that. The headwind is now a savage crosswind, and it only gets worse and worse. Being a very light rider, riding very deep wheels, I can just barely stay on the road, and I’m probably riding more distance sideways rather than forwards. And yet I haven’t been overtaken? Did Lennart stop at Lelystad to wait this out? That would’ve been a better strategy I should’ve thought of, since this is such a waste of time and energy. In any case, too late to turn back now.

The stats do not confirm it, but it sure feels like the worst wind I’ve ever experienced. Just a few kilometers from Almere the route turns dead south, and things grind to a standstill. The gusts are so strong that I’m blown off the road and fall on a grass embankment. I stand up quick from the adrenaline, but the wind is quick to throw me immediately back onto the ground again. I check myself and the bike for damage, everything looks fine, but how the hell am I gonna get moving again? A couple of riders going the other direction, leaning at a 45 degree angle, just shrug at me and laugh.

I walk my bike a few meters to a small elevation where the road also changes direction a little bit, and I use that to get moving again. The wind tries hard, but I prevail in keeping the rubber side down all the way to Almere.

The wind finally dies down when things get a bit less exposed. I let off the gas for a bit, have my pastry before planned, take a wrong turn, and finally get passed by Lennart. Guess he didn’t stop at Lelystad after all. I’m cold and mentally broken, so while the legs give it a try, the head just can’t give chase right now. At least that tailwind going north is gonna be nice, right?

All of Noord-Holland appears to be under construction, so detours abound. Poorly signaled ones at that, and I take several wrong turns. The route also passes over a very narrow lock gate after Volendam, and my bike is both too heavy and too wide for me to muscle it past the little gate, so after almost dropping it I decide to ride further to where there’s a bridge.

I’m now cold, hungry, and annoyed. I decide to change the plan once again and make a stop at the McDonald’s in Enkuizen. The tailwind I expected never materialized, and while the ride from Hoorn to Enkhuizen was easy, it wasn’t as fast as promised.

Less cold, less hungry, but approximately as annoyed at how things went off the rails, I leave McDonald’s to find the next shelter for me to sleep. Turns out there aren’t many of those around the dykes where the route takes us, but I finally find a bus station in Medemblik.

While preparing my sleep system, which is nothing more than a down jacket, I’m finally overtaken by Job, going down the road singing to himself. I set a timer for 3 hours, and do my best to rest. I’m usually afflicted by pain in my legs, but this time it was cold knees keeping me from sleeping. The night is colder than what I was expecting, and I don’t have anything appropriate to cover myself with. I make do by tying my rain jacket around my knees, and that provides enough relief. I wake up a few minutes before the timer goes off, still very cold, but at least alert enough to continue.

The Wheels Come Off

Riding to Den Helder and back south towards the dunes felt much shorter than my last time around here. The rolling terrain also leads me to notice that my front brake is no longer engaging. It’s a bit sketchy, but the rear brake will have to do for now.

Getting to the Schoorlse Duinen I’m forced to turn back, apparently the recent rain has flooded some paths and they were blocked off, the only way around I could find from the map were foot paths, and that didn’t sound like a sane decision, so in the end I rode back a few kilometers and took the detour you’re supposed to take at night, when you’re not allowed to ride through the dunes.

When I checked the tracker, Job’s dot was far ahead, but it appears I had passed Lennart’s, which had been stopped somewhere in Limmen for a while. Not long after Lennart catches up to me, but it’s starting to get warm and I decide to get changed before riding after him.

It was a long and uneventful ride through Noord and Zuid-Holland. I pass the timing station in Rotterdam approximately 2 hours after Job, and one hour after Lennart. I’m unlikely to close that on leg power alone, but I’m happy that there’s an even bigger gap between me and fourth place. I stop at a gas station in Rotterdam for my first planned resupply run, filling up on Haribo and Powerade. I didn’t know it then, but this is where I took to the darker timeline and things were about to get a lot less fun.

Can’t remember now if this was gradual or all of a sudden, but I notice that all that Haribo stopped tasting so good. It started to taste bitter and chemical, just like my Powerade. Too much sugar, maybe? I slow down the pace a lot, and try to eat a bit less at a time. Had it been most anywhere else I wouldn’t have been worried, but I had just entered Zeeland, and I didn’t expect to find much in terms of supermarkets, gas stations, or restaurants. I was still far from Burgh-Haamstede, where I had some stores on my map, but it was very unlikely I would catch them open. For now, just stay positive, and stay moving!

I finally find an open snack bar at the Brouwersdam, where I had some chicken nuggets, fries, and a Red Bull. I immediately feel much better on the bike, and I’m hoping that my food problems are solved. Half an hour later, I discover that I was wrong. Everything I have onboard still tastes like death. I start eating Haribo one by one, to see if the flavors make a difference, and while anything remotely cola flavored is immediately gag inducing, nothing really goes down easy. I bought myself a second life with those nuggets, but that’s going away fast, and now all the stores are definitely closed.

I run on fumes all night. I find a vending machine in Goes that provides a few more hours of fuel. “Fortunately” it is just what I have on board that’s disgusting now, not food in general. I start to get really sleepy, and with the hunger I’m so far from thinking straight. In retrospect, the best thing I could’ve done was to sleep, but instead I decided to keep on riding. Eventually two riders catch up and startle the hell out of sleep deprived me, waking me up a little bit, but I’m so spent at this point that I’m not able to keep up with them. My front light also dies a premature death not long after, so I have to ride with my head torch instead.

I finally find another comfy bus stop, and bed down for just another hour of sleep. I wake up and it’s raining, and the thought of scratching briefly crosses my mind.

The Last Stretch

My food problems are eminently fixable, my bike is mostly working, I have no injuries and I’m not even in a lot of pain. 96 hours is no longer feasible, and a podium finish is probably gone forever, but I can certainly still finish! I begrudgingly put on my rain jacket, get on the bike, and look forward to a big breakfast in front of a supermarket in Zundert.

A pile of pastries and a big bottle of chocolate milk set my body mostly straight, and in place of a carefully chosen diet of Haribo painstakingly tested during training I’m now fueling with a bag of waffles.

I make another stop at a HEMA in Goirle to replace my iPhone cable that hadn’t been working properly during the whole race, and some plasters and gauze to relieve some chafing that started to bother me in the last few hours. I get out of the store, look at the tracker, and see Andrew Wilson’s dot just around the corner from mine, and decide that now it’s pedal to the metal to keep 5th place.

Having slept so little and so poorly, everything from then on is a blur, I rode on autopilot for most of the day, slowly but surely ticking off kilometers. I only really fully woke up for the climbs around Valkenburg, probably due to the horrible noise that my now completely unlubricated chain was making when on the easiest gear. Descending was also “fun” without a front brake, meaning I was glued to my brake lever the entire time to prevent the bike from accelerating beyond what would be safe in case I needed to come to a sudden stop.

I get to the top of the Vaalserberg just after dark. I load the last chunk of the route on my bike computer, and remember how incredibly boring these last 200-odd kilometers are.

I soft-pedal until I find a place where I’m the most unlikely to be disturbed while I sleep, but also with some shelter, since there appears to be a thunderstorm in the horizon. It takes me a long time of riding around like a zombie until I find a bus stop in the middle of nowhere just before Sittard. My plan was to sleep for three hours, but Annedirk Douma also seems to be riding all night not too far behind me. I hunker down for just an hour before starting out again. At this point my saddle sores really start to impede progress, and I have to stop a couple of times to adjust my clothing to try to make things better. Unfortunately when the pain goes away sleepiness takes over, and I’m basically forced to take an emergency 10 minutes nap to avoid actually falling asleep on the bike.

Waking up it’s pedal to the metal again, although by now there’s significantly less power available. The rest of the parcours is flat, empty, and incredibly quiet. It could’ve been the time of day, or maybe I was really hallucinating, but things were so quiet that it felt like the roads had been closed for the event.

Proof that I in fact met Martina at Tacitusbrug

Martina, my wife, had decided to come give me one final cheer up at the Tacitusbrug, and for the next hour I couldn’t decide for sure in my head if that had actually happened or not. My perception of time was also completely busted by now. The hour and change that it took for me to get from there to the finish easily felt 10 times as long. I knew it was all in my head, as I was trying to sing along to songs, but kept on getting the timing wrong.

Before long though, in real time anyway, I arrive at the last roundabout just before De Proloog, and reality magically appears to have gone back to normal, and I finally believe that I have finished this thing once again.

Finally arriving at De Proloog. Happy, tired, but somehow still strong

4 days, 5 hours, 11 minutes of bike riding after...

Finishing during the day is much more fun, as it’s more likely for people to be around to celebrate. Some of the earlier finishers, and some scratchers were around, and it’s always great to chat to people after so much time by yourself. I also got to celebrate the arrival of a few more riders, especially Annedirk, just 28 minutes after me, which in ultra terms is basically a sprint finish!

Me, before 😃

Me, after 😑

Update: a rider in front of me has been disqualified for outside support, so my final placement is 4th place instead of 5th.

Lessons Learned

Above all else, the training paid off hugely. I beat my best power for every duration above one and a half hours, and by a very large margin past 12 hours. The best 24 hours were the best bike riding I’ve ever done and I think I’ll struggle to beat that this year.

A bit related to that, while I don’t think my fast start gave me any actual advantage in the race, it certainly didn’t detract from it either. I trained to be able to deliver efforts like that, and I’m glad the body rose up to the challenge on race day. I couldn’t deliver the same intensity during the night for some reason, but I only did one overnight training ride this year, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

On balance, I also don’t regret my choice of wheels. It was sketchy and I hated it for 200km, but for the entire rest of the rest I think they were much more of an asset than a liability. I’d be singing a different song if I had to ride the entire coast with those winds, but fortunately it wasn’t the case this year.

Another idea that turned out to work well was to have several different drink mixes. I started with brown sugar with a couple of grams of salt, then moved on to Etixx Isotonic, and then the lower carb, but incredibly delicious Isostar Powertabs. My palate didn’t burn out, and I had something to look forward to every 16 hours.

Unfortunately the change of flavor was also my downfall. I had previously trained with both Powerade and Haribo, but never after such a long time, nor after eating so much of something else. It’s not something that I even thought could be a problem, and I would have a hard time testing anyway. I guess now I know!

I was also very unhappy with my stops. Not the duration or frequency, but the low level details of handling the bike. Since all of my luggage was inside the Tailfin, the bike was very back-heavy and quite unwieldy. It’s not something I ever worried about before, but maybe it’s because other issues were more urgent and are now solved (yay experience!). I’ll probably adopt some sort of frame bag in the future.

I also was very annoyed with pee stops at night, wearing too many layers of clothing. Late April is a complicated time of year to dress for (my bike computer registered temperatures between zero and 23 degrees!), but I think I’m willing to sacrifice some versatility and space for fewer, warmer layers.

Final Thoughts

What a bittersweet race. Leading the race for 30 hours, but still missing my goal by only a few hours in the end, not because of the legs, but issues that would be easily avoidable if only I had known.

I am happy with the effort I put in, though. Especially keeping my head up and hanging on when everything was going sideways. It’s easy to look at it from the comfort of my couch now, but in the moment it feels like the world’s ending. As always, lots have been learned too.

I also had much more fun. While I was racing much harder than 2022, I was also much better prepared. For much of this race it was about competing, while previously it had been about surviving, it’s a very different experience. After the race, my body is also much less destroyed, nothing but a saddle sore, a numb hand, and very tired knees.

Would I do this again in two years? Tough question. I’d love to, but I’m only coming back to compete if I know for a fact that I can shave off another 12 hours from my time, and I’m not sure if my life can fit the amount of training necessary to do that. But I might return just to party pace and have fun in the mid pack. Who knows…