Part Two: Bahla to Jebel Shams to Nizwa
171.57km total distance
10:29 moving time
16:01 Total elapsed time
A beautiful morning for a bike ride
I woke up after only four hours of sleep feeling wide awake an hour before my alarm was to ring. I quickly dressed and scarfed down a chocolate croissant and some dates. I clumsily made my way down the hall and back down the stairs, trying and failing to be stealthy; conscious of not wanting to wake anyone else who might be still sleeping but managing all the stealth of the proverbial bull in a china shop.
I set off for Jebel Shams - the main event within the main event, and the moment many had been talking about since we registered. It was a quiet morning and I enjoyed the silence as I rode all alone. My bright light illuminated more than enough of the road in front of me, even with a packet of Oreos bungeed onto my front pack slightly obstructing it.
With each pedal stroke, I felt happier and happier. On the mostly straight road to Al Hamra - the last town with services before Jebel Shams - I felt a positive energy for the day ahead. “I’m doing this!” I thought excitedly. Compared to the previous night’s desperation, I felt positively refreshed. It's incredible what a shower and a snooze can do for one's outlook.
I arrived in Al Hamra shortly after sunrise. I stopped for more water and made a new friend, for whom I seriously considered making space in my luggage.
Race within a race
I started off towards the mountains when a race within a race ensued. The local electrician was just ahead and I passed him in what I imagine is morning rush hour for Al Hamra. I was competing with school buses by the dozens and kids on bikes and scooters were waving to me from everywhere I looked as I navigated potholes and a series of speed bumps.
Once I got through the local traffic, I noticed the electrician was passing me on my left. Long cables encircled his curly raised handlebars and three large tool boxes balanced precariously on the back. With a steely race face, he pushed the pedals in his worn slippers without even casting a glance towards my amused smile.
As the road continued on a slight incline and I was anticipating a tough day, I took it as a sign to take it easy and let him win our little competition (that's the story I'm telling myself anyhow). He eventually turned off down a rocky hill and I thought about how he was keeping all of those tool boxes and wires from falling off. Let's be honest, he would have beaten me by miles without all that gear weighing him down!
It's just the next bit and the next bit...
A text message from John read, “Just break the climb into manageable chunks and remember you’ve climbed Teide so you can do it! I just watched the video and Juliana walked a bit, so it’s OK to walk if quicker and easier! X.”
“Yes!”, I thought, “I have done Mt. Teide! And that was insane. I can do this. I am doing this.” And if Juliana walked, then I won't have to feel badly about walking. This actually helped me create some very realistic expectations that set me up for a wonderful day on my bike. My intention was simply to keep moving forward.
I was going pretty slowly, looking over my shoulder every so often expecting to see Valentina or Jean Francois, but I saw no one. I stopped to take a photo of the goats, but their shyness meant I could only ever get their rear ends wiggling away from me. This was annoying since as soon as I put my phone away, I would inevitably see one standing on top of the tree as they do - the trees being so rigid and gnarled from the wind, the goats can actually hop up onto the branches to eat from the top.
As I climbed, I could see some proper bikepackers ahead, a young couple fully loaded with panniers and touring gear. I made them my first goal. It didn’t take me long as by the time I reached them, they had stopped. I told them we were racing and the woman wished me well, asking with a concerned tone if I knew how much gravel there was to come. “Only about 6km,” I said. “You’ll be fine on that!”.
Bikingman riders started to pass me on their way back down, mostly waving and shouting words of encouragement, and I to them. I had thought I would find that demoralizing to see so many so far ahead of me, but instead I took energy from their freewheeling and satisfied smiles. There were a few grumpers who didn't acknowledge me, but most people were very friendly and cheerful as they whizzed by.
I finally found the shop at the base of the climb where I stocked up my supplies once more and guzzled a cola and another bottle of water. My mouth was feeling gross from all the drinking, but I knew it was heating up and I’d be thankful for not having to climb this mountain even slightly dehydrated.
I was positively beaming as I stopped to take some photos of the coffee shop. My mood surprised me as I still had no idea what was to come and my imagination is always worse than reality. I pushed and pushed until turning the pedals became more effort than walking while pushing my whole bike. I tried taking my shoes off briefly, wanting to get out of the stiff soles, but I didn’t like how my socks stuck to the pavement so I abandoned that idea and stopped to put my shoes back on.
Meanwhile, more riders were flying down the hill past me and I mustered all my energy to cheer them on, “You did it!” I shouted, willing myself to keep going so I too could enjoy that descent soon. “You’re almost there,” one rider said to me when I was clearly not even near being “almost there.” But it worked and I found myself bouncing up the hill one small step at a time. Gavin passed on a fun flowing descent of smooth asphalt, letting out a long woohoooo as he sailed by, a streak of orange. "That will be me later today," I thought hopefully.
As a mountain biker, I am used to precariously steep trails that require careful hiking to get to the top. This, in comparison, was a piece of cake - dry smooth asphalt with not even any mud or stones to slow me down. “Is this all you got, Jebel Shams?” I challenged, encouraging myself onwards and upwards.
Keep going! Nearly there!
Shortly after the shop, I saw a cluster of people at the top of a short steep climb. It turned out to be Andre(as) who had left late the night before or very early morning from Bahla, now standing alongside Perrine and Ceren (who were taking a rest on their descent), and a truck with its driver standing on the road. I was curious, but focused on getting my pedals to churn up the sharp incline.
They all seemed to speak at once. From what I gathered, Andre(as) had notified the organizers of his withdrawal from the race. The driver had offered to give him a lift to the top and Andre(as) had scratched by way of a whatsapp message to Andreas F - one of the organizers. Perrine and Ceren were trying to convince him that it wasn’t that much further. I told Andre(as) that he would forever regret quitting at this point and told him to at least try to get to the top, even if he walked the whole way. Perrine agreed and continued to encourage him as I set off towards the top, now excited at the progress I had already made.
I soon came to the gravel section - "I’m doing it!" I thought again, more and more excited the closer I sensed I was to the top. I looked behind me while trying to figure out which road to take and saw Andre(as) standing on his pedals, pushing with all his body weight from one side to the other, zigzagging and letting out long arghhhhhh sounds of pain and determination. We set off towards the top and I enjoyed the gravel section while it lasted. I relaxed my hands as I pummeled the deep corrugations with my gravel tires in the dry dirt. Trying to keep my mouth covered with my buff, I breathed through my nose to try to avoid inhaling too much dust directly into my lungs.
I crested a hill to see another cyclist coming the opposite way. It was Renette! “You’re almost there!,” she said (insert eye roll here). “Just two more climbs!” Adding, “I am so happy to see you! I was so worried about you after your text last night,” referring to my melodramatic group texts sent from the side of the road still hours from Bahla the previous evening suggestion I might not make it to the top of Jebel Shams by the cut off.
And, like the others, it was not two more climbs - more like twenty. Perhaps we have different definitions of what a climb is? It seemed to go on and on until finally the gravel turned into asphalt once again and I felt the pull to the top. I repeated Gavin's woohooooo from earlier that day on the last descent before standing up to pedal the last long hill toward the checkpoint. I felt my whole body relax as tears sprung to my eyes. Andre(as) arrived not long after me shouting profanities in German and high-fiving me as he dismounted his bike.
What goes up...
We took some photos in front of a fountain, not wanting to spend time finding the real view, which I am sure is incredible.
There is a real balance between exploring and enjoying the beauty of a place while also making sure you keep moving towards the finish line. It’s not for everyone, but I like the sense of purpose and urgency that comes with racing (even when I’m near the back of the pack), and I wouldn’t trade my race for a leisurely day of touring and taking lots of photos of the beautiful scenery. Although it's all relative since most of the front finishers probably think that's what I was doing - just taking a leisurely tour through Oman and stopping lots and lots (yes to the stopping, but leisurely, definitely not!).
I filled my plate with spaghetti and salad (oh, fresh veggies how I missed you!) and sat down to feast but I couldn’t find my appetite. I shovelled in some of the food but left most of it on the plate. I felt nervous about staying too long and as I put my legs up, I started to feel stabbing pains in my knees for the first time. I thought I’d better get going.
I stood next to my bike for a while faffing with my gadgets, looking for sunscreen and lip balm and checking my phone. I hardly noticed a tour group approach me when a woman loudly asked me to tell them all about it - obscenities included, she insisted. Everyone laughed. I looked up to see a crowd of women and a few men coming closer as they asked me about my bike, what I was doing there, and where I was going next. One woman led the conversation, and some others gathered around, curious about my bike and what I was doing riding it up this mountain.
She asked about my bike computer - a Wahoo Elemnt - which I explained shows me all the data from my ride, including maps and how fast I’m going. “Or how slow” a gentleman wryly chimed in from behind me. I laughed. I love British humour. They asked where I was from and I said, “Canada.” The first woman immediately turned, enveloping me in a hug despite my appearance and general filth, “I’m from Kingston!” she exclaimed in a slightly British accent, sounding nothing like an Ontarian. She said she had married a British man. I told her I was from Newfoundland and that my husband is British and they all looked pleased at having found some commonality. I was just as pleased, if not more, to have had some happy conversation with interested strangers.
And down we go!
And with that, I set off up the hill and down again to take a few quick photos at a lookout point before driving myself towards that gravel section I had been anticipating with great enthusiasm ever since climbing it earlier that day.
I tried to keep off my brakes, as I knew the discs could be problematic if I cooked them. I let it all go over the gravel, trying to select lines where I could, and just float over the rocks and corrugation where possible. But there were some sections of steep road where I couldn’t see around the bend and my mind started to play morbid scenes of me colliding with cars until I found myself tightening up and clenching both brakes until they were squealing.
I shook it off and let go again, sending myself hurtling down the flowy hills; even the uphills felt like they were effortless now! It was a beautiful feeling and I enjoyed every moment. I finally came to a long steep climb and took the opportunity to stop and take a few photos. It was a perfect day, but far from over. I still aimed to get to the city of Nizwa and even a bit further if possible.
As I neared Al Hamra, my front rotor was squeaking so badly, it was like maneuvering the squeaky trolly in the supermarket. Made worse because I was berating myself for braking too much, it was now driving me mad. I knew there was a bike shop next to the gas station I had passed earlier in the day, so just pressed on to get there hoping it would be open. But it wasn’t. And it was hot. The gas station attendants said the shop would open in 10 minutes at 4PM. I waited and inspected my brake pads, texting some friends to ask for advice and just craving social interaction in general.
I really didn’t want to turn my bike upside down and start repairing my brakes if it wasn’t serious. I could see the discolouration on the rotor, so I knew I had overdone it. My friend Ela texted me some words of encouragement and asked some more questions about the rotor. John texted to say it was probably slightly warped and might be fine once it cooled down. I lifted the quick release and tightened it again (thanks, Kev!), and it seemed to be fixed. I bought some drinks across the street, downed them and saw the bike shop still hadn’t opened so I set off, Nizwa-bound.
The road to Nizwa was busy - I had decided to take a shortcut to the left instead of backtracking right to Bahla. It was a good decision time-wise, but a bit sketchy because the shoulders were narrow and the drivers were taking more risks than I had experienced on the other roads previously. As night fell, I plugged in my lights and pedalled through a bit of a sugar crash.
No room at the inn
I finally hit Nizwa around dark, and cycling through the biggest city since we had started was kind of exciting. I decided to treat myself to a fancy hotel for my massive accomplishment, and set my sights on the Golden Tulip hotel. The name made me laugh and I had visions of me curling up in a fluffy bathrobe to catch some zzz’s for the night. The thought gave me energy and I had started to feel a bit like a normal person just out for a night ride when I spotted a Pizza Hut. I had whizzed past, but quickly did a u-turn deciding I would go all out tonight. What better way to end my Jebel Shams success than with a hot pizza and a nap in a 4-star hotel?
The staff were lovely and invited me in when I lingered around the front porch area, not wanting to be told off for being disgusting or immodest, or both. I ate my pizza quickly and sadly left some behind as I was quickly stuffed from the sudden splurge. While in the restaurant, I started to have an allergy fit, sneezes coming one after the other. I got up to leave and the sneezing didn’t stop. I think it was another 14km or so to the Tulip and when I rode up to the lobby, I was toast. I couldn’t wait to get inside and get cleaned up and into bed.
As I approached the front desk in the ostentatious lobby, the front desk staff just stared at me. I could see them whispering to each other, ventriloquist style. I barely had the words out of my mouth asking for a room when the woman curtly said, “We have no rooms, ma’am.” I was so disappointed. “I will take ANY room you have with a bed,” I said trying to be cheery but wanting to cry. “We have no rooms,” she repeated. I looked from her to the man and back to her. She was clearly leading the charge. “You didn’t even look,” I said, now desperate. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Have you tried the apartments just next door?” Next door? She was referring to the building I had passed 5km back! Backtracking was not high on my list of things I wanted to do at that moment. Plus, 5km back means an additional 15km in total time wasted searching for a hotel.
I had already heard from Michael who had stopped near Izki (I think), just slightly north-east of where I was. He had been unable to find a hotel so texted me that he was roughing it for the night. I thought of my unused sleeping bag in my saddle pack, but had been so fixed on treating myself that it was hard to get my head in a space for camping.
I trudged out of the fancy lobby, stopped by an equally fancy German couple who wanted to have a look at my bike. The man’s face suggested he was a real bike lover, and as he admired my bike and asked questions about my race, the woman made her way around my bike to position herself between me and her husband. They eyed me like an oddity who would make an interesting story to tell their friends when they eventually recounted their holiday at the Golden Tulip. I could see that I was ruining the atmosphere of the place so, dejected, I headed back the 5km to the apartments for the night where they welcomed me to my very own apartment.
While unpacking and preparing for the morning, I ordered breakfast from room service, which I was able to store in my large fridge in my unnecessarily large apartment.
I took an allergy pill since I still hadn’t stopped sneezing since Pizza Hut, and while I was searching for water started to feel a burning in my throat. My eyes watered and I could feel the tablet was still stuck in my throat. I immediately vomited and it still didn’t help. I started to panic. I drank as much water as I could and ate some of the breakfast delivered by room service, but I could still feel it. My throat was now sore and swollen and I made the mistake of googling my symptoms, which made things a lot worse (I’m telling you now, do not google what happens when you swallow a tablet without water and it burns your esophagus! It’s horrendous!).
Trying to calm myself, I made sure my devices were charging, checked my map for the morning and headed to bed. A few hours later and I was on the road, pedalling in the darkness, now on my way to manned Checkpoint 2: Oriental Nights Rest House...
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