It started with a question. During the 2012 Festive 500, after getting rained upon on every single ride, I was wondering if it would be possible to ride 500km in one (obviously very big) ride. I liked the idea of the challenge, but I was also keen to get those 500km over with as quickly and cleanly as possible.
Then the idea became a route: one that started 500km from home and saw us ride back. I thought it would be easier to ride to the comfort of home than away from it.
Talking to some people (hypothetically at this point) the idea came up that we should start in Paris. Without knowing the exact distance I believed Paris to be about 500km from my hometown of Haarlem in The Netherlands. The idea to start from a place as iconic as the Eiffel Tower felt cool and fun. Something that was almost tangible.
Some of the people I spoke to thought I was crazy, but there were also a few that were intrigued by the idea. In October 2013, over a few too many beers at a bike show, my mate Thomas was the first to bite. He had ridden from the Netherlands to a music festival in Hungary and competed in a 24-hour bike messenger race. When I explained my idea he instantly took to it. He had trained for and run a few marathons that year and felt like he could do with a proper challenge to wrap up the year.
My feeling was that a small team would be most advantageous. Enough manpower to have some strength in numbers, but small enough to be flexible and move swiftly. Next person to buy into the idea was Wolf. I met Wolf through Strava and we’d been out on a few mountain bike rides together. Wolf seemed like a fit guy and had ridden a lot of kilometres.
Paul was the last guy to give me a call and let me know he was interested in joining. We had spent an evening at an Italian restaurant during Eurobike a year and a half before where he had spoken about his few years of riding pro for a Portuguese team. At that dinner he seemed like a sound guy with lots of riding experience. With his racing background he seemed a lot stronger than the rest of us and he might have been able to drag the group behind him.
At this point two other people got on board: my brother Michiel who’s a photographer (and whose photos you see in this post), and my friend Michel, who’s a cameraman (and whose video you can see at the bottom of this article). They both liked the idea and were keen to see if they could capture some of the madness, and possibly damage.
Everyone decided to approach the ride in his own different way. I myself spent a lot of time thinking about what to wear, what to ride on and how to get through a ride that long. In the end I tried to organise everything around comfort. I wanted to be as comfortable as possible on something so long.
Starting with a Canyon Inflite AL, a cyclocross bike with disc brakes, I fitted the wheels with 38mm Schwalbe Marathon Racers. Unconventional tyres, but again I was aiming at the most comfort for what we expected to be pretty crappy asphalt.
I had a new front wheel laced up around a Supernova dynamo hub. This produces electricity for a powerful headlight, and when you’re not using the headlight it delivers a charge that will load any device that’s USB-charged. Since we’d be riding mostly in the dark, this wouldn’t be enough to charge all electronics, so I brought two additional battery packs along.
To the bike I fitted a Revelate seatbag and framebag. These provided all the room I needed to store my three changes of thermal underwear, gloves, cap and socks, food, and a few inner tubes. I also brought a second pair of cycling pants, a pair of short rain pants and a rain jacket. Little did we know that we’d be spending 80% of the time in the rainwear.
As far as bikes were concerned everyone was running something different. Paul was on a St. Joris steel frame that was laced up with wooden rims. Wolf’s bike was probably the most ‘conventional’ — a Focus carbon bike. And Thomas was on a titanium Salsa mountainbike frame that he had converted to road use, with the same 38mm tyres I was using, and a tri bar.
We wanted to start at midnight, at the instant the clock switched to the 24th of December. It took some time finding our way from the train station to the Eiffel Tower. Funny how we were stressing for time at that point when we were going to have hours and hours to ride afterwards.
We took our token picture at the tower and started on our way. The wind was gusty but still no rain at this point. Paris flowed by quickly and before we knew it we were following a long canal with a sweet brand new bike path along it. We were making good time and at this point the wind was helping us along on certain stretches.
When we left the confines of suburban Paris and started entering rural communities that same wind was blasting us along on some parts, but it was like riding a rodeo bull. Exhilarating, fast, but also very sketchy and dangerous at times.
Kilometres were flying by, but in the dark night sky it was already apparent: we were being chased by a rain front and it would only be a matter of time before it caught up with us. We managed to outrun it until three or four in the morning and then it hit us hard. Rain was coming down like it had been sent to destroy our plans.
We ducked for cover, slipped into our rainwear and carried on. To this day I wonder if we’d have given up if we’d known, at that point, how much time we would spend riding in the rain. We just carried on and by morning were trying to find a place to get a bite to eat.
The area of France we were in seemed to have little economic activity and by the time we actually found a bar, they’d only serve us beer or coffee. We opted for the latter, ate a few croissants from a nearby bakery and were on our way.
The day and kilometres carried on. We passed small stretches of Belgian cobbles and had a hard, hard time finding places with any food, let alone something suitable. Michiel and Michel certainly weren’t carrying anything, since they hadn’t expected to be a support car and we hadn’t asked them to.
We rolled into Brussels in another crazy downpour. By now Thomas had worn down a pair of brake pads and Wolf wasn’t doing too well. His jacket wasn’t as waterproof as he had hoped and you could tell he was awfully cold.
We were waiting outside a fancy bank building in the heart of the city and the concierge let us into the lobby. He didn’t have the heart to throw us out. After wrapping Wolf in an emergency blanket it was obvious: it would be dangerous for him to carry on.
Thomas made a wise decision to pull out too. His brakes were gone and he felt like his body had very little left to carry on. Paul and I looked at each other — were we going on? Paul gave the nod. We were.
We filled up our bellies with pizza from a place across the street, changed into anything dry we had left and started riding. At first the renewed simplicity of our group gave us wings. We flew from Brussels to Antwerp, 50km done and dusted in no-time. Then disaster struck.
In a span of ten minutes both our Garmins crashed. They had been tracking close to 400km and it seemed that the file size was killing them. Without navigation of any kind we were lost.
We spent an hour and a half messing around the Antwerp harbour, trying to find the right way. I caught a flat from some glass and something inside us broke. This wasn’t going to happen. We were toast.
Michiel and Michel had moved on about 15km ahead of us when they received our call. We were finished and done. We explained where we were and they came over. Later they admitted to having agreed on something in the car: if we were to give up, they wouldn’t have anything. The pictures, the footage, it wouldn’t mean anything without us finishing the ride.
When they reached us they gave us a very swift kick in the ass. They handed us the GPS they had used in the car to follow our track, pushed us back on the bike and pointed us in the right direction. Without them we’d have given up at that point.
And after that intervention we just carried on. There really was nowhere else to go but forwards towards some invisible finish line. Water was everywhere, most notably spraying from our frontwheels.
Slowly but surely all systems were crapping out. Battery packs refused to give power, we had finished the last Snickers bars we’d scored at a late night shop an hour before. When Michiel and Michel announced that they were on the north side of Rotterdam, while we were still south of the city, we practically broke (again).
Paul was very wet, I was starting to make doubtful decisions, every kilometre was taking up too much time. When we finally reached Michiel and Michel, we were relieved. There were just a few kilometres before we reached the 500km mark.
It was 3:30am on the 25th, roughly 27 hours after we left Paris. My wife Marja, cycling-buddy Jeroen and one of my brothers were there. My mind couldn’t process it anymore. By this time we had been awake for more than 40 hours.
Seeing my wife and Jeroen there, dressed up to join me if I wanted to carry on to Haarlem sparked my interest. They’d brought dry clothes and after saying my goodbyes to Paul, we carried on. A little later my phone died at the 533km mark and stopped registering. I will never know the exact number of kilometres we did, but later estimates using a GPS put the final total close to 570km.
In the final hour I was starting to nod off on the bike and my mind was seeing all kinds of stuff by the side of the road. Finishing at quarter to six on the Grote Markt square in the centre of Haarlem was rather underwhelming. But the whole experience was pretty epic, soul quenching and mind-numbing.
At this moment I honestly don’t know if I’d ever do a ride of that magnitude again. But I’m glad to have at least tried it once. And with such amazing teammates to boot.