Transiberica Badlands

In April 2021, during a birthday party, I met Antoine Breny, well-known throughout Amiens for successfully leading his projects. After several drinks, Antoine mentioned his intention to participate in a gravel race, a cycling discipline that has recently emerged and remains niche for now. The race? Transiberica Badlands, renowned as the second toughest race in the world in this discipline, covering 747 kilometers with 16,000 meters of elevation gain, including 500 kilometers through the desert before reaching the coast, then ascending Mount Veleta at 3,398 meters as the grand finale. Antoine's track record? Nothing. He started gravel cycling just a year ago, and Transiberica will be his first race. He signed up for this adventure as an amateur.

He wants to capture this adventure in photos. Would I be interested? Absolutely! What I find intriguing here? Following an amateur and putting them in the spotlight. With drinks in hand and a bit tipsy, the deal was sealed. Now, it's time to prepare; we leave in four months.
On my end, preparation is going rather well. Contacting sponsors, magazines, and the race's media organization. The latter, due to insufficient funds given my late entry, offers hotels and restaurants along the route, plus media coverage once the race is over.
Meanwhile, Antoine keeps pedaling on all the paths around the Picardy capital. The only issue in my opinion is that this region isn't known for its altitude. The highest point is Mount César, reaching 138 meters. A problem?! Not according to Antoine, for whom the most crucial aspect isn't what happens in the legs but in the mind.

The big day is approaching, and everything is almost ready. I download an app called Koomout, which is supposed to tell me where and when Antoine has been cycling, which could be useful during the race. App installed, phones synced, and a notification pops up: "Antoine Breny has cycled 72 km today." It seems to be working.
A few days before departure, the organization falls into place as we finalize the last details. Jean-Pierre, Antoine's father, has decided to join us for the trip, not to follow the race but rather to enjoy the Andalusian sun for two weeks. We hit the road in 24 hours to meet him at his home in Charleville-Mézières. Clothes, check. Camera, check. Tripod, check. Camping gear, just in case, check. Motivation and inspiration, double check.
Notification. "Antoine Breny has cycled 56 km today." The guy never stops, damn... We ring the doorbell; it's 4 p.m. The car is parked outside, the trunk is open, he's just waiting for me now. Bags loaded, seatbelt fastened, first gear engaged, here we go!
- Ready for the race, my man?!
- Yeah, I'm not necessarily thinking about it, but I know I can finish it. I checked the participants yesterday; the top fifteen strongest guys in the world are on the list, so just to finish in the top 10, it's gonna be tough, and at my level, it's nearly impossible. So I'm going to take it easy, not push too hard, I'm sure some guys are going to go all out, sprint ahead, be in the lead for a while, but they'll burn out and give up. The key is to go at your own pace. My goal is to finish, ideally in four days. I'm aiming for an average of 200 kilometers per day. But the problem, you see, is that all these guys have carbon bikes, the ones that weigh 7 kilos empty, mine is steel, it weighs 13 kilos bare, I can't afford to drop 7000 euros on a new bike! So I'm debating what to take or not? My tent, do you think I should bring it?
- It depends. If you get a full night's sleep after a day of cycling and then it starts raining, it might be better to have it indeed.
- Nah, I'll be sleeping an hour here, an hour there. You know once the clock starts, it doesn't stop until we cross the finish line! So it's going to be all about power naps, like dolphins! You know what? I won't take it; it weighs 1.5 kilos, after all! I'll just take my sleeping bag. After a good two hours on the road, Antoine asks me if I know Woinic, to which I reply in the negative.
- You don't know Woinic?! It's the biggest wild boar in the world!
- Come on, stop messing with me.
- No, I swear! When you see it, you won't believe it, you'll be amazed! Look, it's over there!!! I look up, nothing. He laughs. Twenty minutes later, he exclaims, "There it is!" I don't believe it for a second. "But seriously, look!" I look up, and holy shit! There's a huge wild boar sitting in the middle of the fields, about ten kilometers ahead of us! We take the highway exit and arrive at the feet of this majestic steel beast. Two minutes later, we're back on the highway.

We arrive in Charleville-Mézières, a land devastated by boredom. Antoine's parents live on the outskirts in a beautiful chalet. Warm welcome, delicious meal, we load up the car, grab a few beers, and hit the sack!
The alarm goes off at five o'clock. Coffee, and we get into the car. The goal is to arrive in Burgos, Spain, by 5 p.m. We cover the kilometers while discussing the race, preparations, training, bike equipment, the food he'll bring, and all I can say is that he doesn't seem really prepared. Firstly, it's the second toughest race in the world, and he's been training on flat terrain for just a year and a half. The locals' bikes weigh a total of 13 kg, while Antoine's will be ten kilos heavier. People who participate in this kind of race follow a strict diet, drink little or no alcohol, and don't smoke. An hour ago, we were leaving Flunch to have a smoke. But Antoine keeps repeating, "It's all in the head and legs, I've got the mental strength, the rest will follow. I don't care about eating crap. Got a candy?"
We're in Les Landes, this must be the fourth break of the day. Antoine is checking to make sure the bikes haven't moved on the roof rack he doesn't trust. He stops at the restroom but quickly comes back, "No way I'm shitting here! It's disgusting. I don't want to catch something before the race."

We cross the border, and I doze off. When I wake up, we're about ten kilometers from Burgos. We park in front of the Buenos Aires hotel, in the commercial area. The hotel has a vintage vibe, very 1970s. We unload our stuff and head to the city center. I've never heard of Burgos, so I don't have any particular expectations. However, we must try the morcilla, black pudding with rice, a regional specialty. What surprises us the most once in the city center are all the facades adorned with bow windows that almost enclose all storefronts in a framework of wood and glass. Apart from this ubiquitous detail and an imposing cathedral, it's a rather ordinary city. Antoine is pondering about the race route. The race starts from Granada, then loops through the Gorafe and Tabernas deserts before reaching the sea to the south. Then it follows the coast and stops 80 kilometers from Granada. The issue, according to him, is that except for professionals (who don't pay the €220 registration fee), there's no one to pick up participants once they cross the finish line. This means they still have to cover the last 80 kilometers. Why? We search for the answer at the bottom of our glasses, with a few beers in hand and some delicious morcilla in our bellies, we head back to the hotel for one last beer and off to bed.

We load the car at seven in the morning; an hour later, we're already far from Burgos. The landscapes change, becoming more arid as we approach the south.
It's 5 p.m. when we arrive at our apartment in Granada, Andalusia. The accommodation is right in the center, four hundred meters from the convention center, where the Transiberica Badlands race is set to start.
This morning is free time, wandering through old steep streets from the Muslim era, browsing ceramic shops and carpet merchants in the grand bazaar, enjoying some tapas and a cone of Iberian ham, a beer to accompany lunch under the scorching 40 degree heat. Then we all meet up for an ascent to the lookout point. Centuries-old Arab houses, adorned with white lime, line every winding street leading to the top. Once up there, the view is breathtaking! We have the whole city sprawling below us, and right in front, the imposing Alhambra rising on its rock. But around us, no lookout as indicated on the signs, oh well. Antoine looks at me and says, "I feel good here, calm and happy, but I can't wait for Sunday to start."
The next day, we have a meeting at 4 p.m. Antoine to confirm his presence and collect his GPS tracker, and me for a mini-meeting with the media team to receive my accreditation, GPS tracker, and information about accommodations (lodging and food). I arrive at the media office, introduce myself, and explain why I'm here.

- No, sir, there's no meeting today.
- But that's what I was told last week during the video meeting. I'm Aurélien, the photographer covering Antoine Breny's race.
- There must be a mistake. We don't recognize you, so we can't do anything for you.
To hell with them. I can manage without them. Thank goodness I brought my camping gear! I go back to see Antoine, and he looks disgusted too.
- What's wrong?
- Damn, just look around you! They all have bikes worth 9000 bucks! Look there! That guy has a Pinarello! Damn, it pisses me off... My bike weighs 13 kilos empty, theirs weigh 7, damn it! They all have carbon bikes! I'm the only one with a steel bike! I don't have the right gear at all, but I don't care, I'm not going to push too hard, I'll go at my own pace, even if I get passed by everyone trying to grab the top spots right from the start. I also have to be careful not to overexert on the bike; if something goes wrong and I'm stuck in the middle of the desert, I'm screwed. I won't finish last, I don't care, it's all in the head. The heat doesn't bother me either, as long as I'm pedaling, it creates wind.

Upon returning, Antoine prepares his gear. He has a few hours left before departure. Freeze-dried food, dried fruits, water bottles, a backpack that doubles as a water reservoir, first aid kit, chocolate bars, sleeping bag, tent, ground mat, headlamp, lubricant, cereal bars, wipes, earphones, power bank, drinkable fruit pouches. Now, all that's left is to lighten the load as much as possible. He thinks, circles around the bike, and starts again, removing the tent, ground mat, chocolate bars, one water bottle, ointment from the first aid kit, muscle relaxant, aspirin, but keeping gauze, thread and needles, disinfectant, and bandages.
On my end, I also prepare my belongings. Camera, various chargers, power bank, printed course itinerary, tripod, tent, ground mat, sleeping bag, laptop, book, cap. It's time to go to bed; tomorrow the adventure begins.

Day 1 - Kilometer 0 - 175 runners in the race.

The alarm goes off. Six in the morning. The living room is bustling. I'm the last one up. I double-check all my belongings and make coffee. It's still dark outside; Antoine is on the balcony, alone. He gazes into the void, the streets are silent, he enters his zone. Thirty minutes later, he comes back into the living room, grabs his bike, and exclaims, "Let's go!" On the street, we pass by the San Anton hotel; several cyclists are coming out, the pros of course, but many others too. Apparently, some had the chance to rest in a four-star hotel before the race. We arrive at the starting line; there are already quite a few people, but cyclists continue to arrive. The atmosphere is lively; everyone is smiling, exchanging thoughts on equipment, experience, past races, food, different techniques. Except Antoine, he's alone, focused, observant, undisturbed. The time has come; the runners line up behind the starting line, the headliners in the front row, the rest of the peloton naturally in the background. The competitors eye each other. It's 8 a.m., the starting signal breaks the silence, cyclists brush past me, forming a swarm in a mechanical buzz, then suddenly, calm returns.
I rush back to the apartment to retrieve my belongings and load them into Jean-Pierre's car. He drives me to the meeting point, where I have to rent a car from an individual since I'm not sponsored; it's the cheapest option Antoine could find. I see the car; it's a wreck. A Renault Laguna that must have circled the globe three times. Minimum! I contact the owner to let them know I've arrived, no response. I go back to the app. It asks me to take photos of the car from all angles. Done. The doors unlock remotely. Damn, I'm in the future! I quickly return to the Middle Ages as I step into the vehicle. Filthy windows, torn seats, a steering wheel in tatters, dashboard roughly attached, the driver's window doesn't open, and so on. The app asks me what's wrong with the car, in Spanish please. Nada, sent. I set the GPS, turn the key, I'll be at the first rendez-vous point in 45 minutes. Forty minutes later, behind the wheel of my rolling dumpster, I navigate through a small flood evacuation path shaped like a "V" before facing an incredibly steep ascent, on a single-lane road bordered on each side by a ravine. Clenched buttocks and nimble toes on the pedals, I manage to climb up to the first point of interest. El Mirador del Fin del Mundo. I park the car at the top, with three paths besides the one I just took. One heads North, another South, skirting the cliff, and the last one fades into the East, flat, into the desert. It's 10:15. According to our calculations, Antoine is supposed to arrive around noon, which gives me time to find the best vantage points for my photos.

I traverse the various paths along the cliff. In my opinion, the runners will arrive from the South to head North along the ravine. Another media team arrives; I was alone until now. They are Germans, their runner? Paul Voss. Do I know him? Not at all. And mine? Antoine Breny, and of course, they don't know him either. It's noon. I check my schedule and note the cyclists' estimated arrival times based on their speed; according to what's written, Antoine should arrive at 2:42 p.m. The Germans tell me that the runners will come from the desert and descend the zigzag road that brought me here, which changes all my plans. At 1:30 p.m., different media teams hustle at the edge of the cliff and on the ascent; the first cyclists arrive. Whether disoriented or not experienced enough, I'm not sure, but one thing is certain now, the competitors are coming up the ascent and heading straight into the desert. The first ones are, of course, the professionals; they arrive fresh, smiling, waving to everyone, and leave without even taking a break. The top twenty follow suit, along with all the journalists disappearing. Except for me. It's 2:30 p.m., on the GPS tracker, Antoine is still far from the Mirador; cyclists arrive slowly, exhausted. It's 40 degrees, feels like 127. I'm shirtless, there's no shade. My phone has only 40% battery left and refuses to charge due to the heat. I have to save the battery to access the GPS and tracker. I read my book, smoke a cigarette, hydrate, take a walk, hydrate, read a few pages, look at the scenery, take a walk, hydrate, read a few pages, and so on.
I wonder why there are no "miradors" in places with the same name in Spain. A stroke of genius! Mirador means viewpoint in Spanish!!! It seems obvious now. Mystery solved.

3:30 p.m. Battery at 25%. The sun is beating down on me mercilessly. No sign of Antoine on the horizon. I'm in the car, glued to the seat, flies stuck to me. They enter my nose, eyes, ears, mouth; it's a collective assault. Even though I want to believe, I'm starting to doubt that he'll make it to the end.
4:15 p.m. Battery at 20%. I spot Antoine in the distance, in the middle of the hill. The heat makes him shimmer like a mirage, lost in a dry, arid expanse. Like the thirty or so other competitors before him, he's walking beside his bike. I encourage him and tell him to get back on. He signals back a no. I run down to meet him and see that he's at the end of his strength. He can barely speak, tells me the climb is impossible on a bike, to which I reply that I myself struggled to climb it in the car...

Once at the top, he pumps up his tires, takes a photo of the panorama, and drinks, a lot. He's in 49th place out of 220. Kilometer 94. He tells me he clearly has the worst equipment, but they'll finish together, old school. He regains his composure and disappears into a cloud of dust. And in the blink of an eye, I'm alone again with the sun, dust, and flies. See you in 48 kilometers at Gorafe.

An hour later, after a short drive, I enter Gorafe and find a spot in the shade. The village is pretty and picturesque, but around all these snow-white facades, a macabre peace reigns. Every shutter is closed, laundry dries in the breeze, and only the rustling of leaves animates the streets of this ghostly village. I see runners passing by in one direction, then another, they seem lost, bewildered. Some of them ask me if I've seen a fountain, a water point, a bar, anything to refresh themselves. No. I walk around the village and suddenly hear a festive noise in the distance. I squint my eyes and see what looks like a crowded café terrace. Without hesitation, I navigate through this maze to get there. It's a restaurant! The terrace is packed, it seems like most of the locals have gathered there along with all the participants from the race. Both inside and outside, there's a buzz of different languages. The cyclists have regained their smiles; they all share a joyful moment over basic pasta or rice dishes and sodas, water, and beers for some. Paul Voss's team is here. We talk for a few minutes, then I sit at the last available table. People leave refreshed and full, while others arrive thirsty and empty-stomached. The place is in chaos; the owner clearly isn't used to this kind of rush and can't keep up. So much so that two regulars decide to lend a hand to help serve and clear tables. It's a mess; it takes them an hour to clear and clean my table, removing a glass here, a plate there, wiping here, picking up a can there. The entire terrace is a mess, people are sitting on the ground, but they don't care as long as they have something to drink and a bit of shade. It's 8 p.m., Antoine arrives, this time right on schedule.

- Are you okay?
He doesn't respond, he's dirty, dripping with sweat, eyes vacant. He staggers towards the balcony to park his bike and sits down. The waiter comes over.
- Five Ice Teas, please.
- Five?!! I reply, surprised.
- Yes, and I might have more later. I've been thinking about Ice Tea the whole way. I dreamt of being in an Ice Tea bath. He's clearly at the end of his resources, talking like a teenager going through puberty. His breathing is heavy and rapid, he takes off his shoes, his socks are torn. I wonder if he'll really make it to the end.
- Are you holding up? I ask in a low voice.
- Yeah, yeah, no problems. It's all in the head, physically I'm fine. I just have cramps in my hands from gripping too hard during descents, damn it!
- Why are you gripping so tightly?
- Because it's dangerous, damn it! You're in the middle of nowhere, on one-meter-wide paths, on one side there's a hill, on the other a ravine, I'm exhausted, sweat's dripping into my eyes, I'm seeing double, the sun's knocking me out, and there's no one for miles around to know if everything's okay. If you fall into a hole, you're screwed, you're all alone. And since you're allowed to stop and sleep at any moment for however long you want, the moment they realize something's wrong, you're done for. I spend as much time carrying my bike as I do riding it; this isn't a damn bike race!
I let him calm down. He finishes his Ice Teas, orders two more, and lights a cigarette. He speaks to me in a low voice; I can't hear what he's saying, but I nod to avoid upsetting him or exhausting him further. I ask Antoine if he wants a plate of pasta with tuna or bolognese sauce. His eyes widen, and almost instinctively, he blurts out, "Yeah!"
– I'm starving, but I hate fish, so bolognese it is.
I go to the bar, waiting in line for twenty minutes behind all the other cyclists who are raiding the kitchen. Finally, it's my turn.
- Two plates of bolognese pasta, please.
- We're out of bolognese. We'll have tuna pasta in thirty minutes if that's okay with you.
I return to Antoine to deliver the bad news.
- I don't care. Tuna pasta it is then; I'll eat it anyway.

The order is placed. Thirty minutes later, we're served. Six minutes more, and we've devoured everything. We hit the road without saying a word. I tackle a steep climb in the car, wondering if he'll manage it. At the top, a beautiful path lined with old olive trees stretches peacefully under a blood-red sunset. I park the car on the side of the road and wait for my rider to arrive. I wait, minutes pass, the sun collapses on the horizon. It's getting too dark; I won't be able to take a photo of him as he passes. I decide to head to the next rendez-vous point. Looking at the map, I see that he has to make a big loop in the Gorafe desert. A loop that's completely inaccessible to me and will probably take him the night. I have about twenty minutes of respite left before it gets completely dark when I come across a kind of open space on the high plateau. There are three abandoned houses nearby. I choose one next to which I'll set up my camp. There's no time to waste. My tent is pitched; it's pitch black. All the horror movies I've ever seen flood back to me, and I expect to see a face appear at any moment through one of the broken windows of the neighboring house. With my headlamp on, I grab a snack under my tarp and close my eyes for my first night.

Day 2 - Kilometer 183 - 146 riders in the race.

I unzip the entrance, stick my head outside, and am greeted by a beautiful sunrise. I grab my camera, step out of the tent barefoot and in my underwear to capture the moment. Cyclists pass by and glance back at me, looking surprised. I check the GPS; Antoine is still far away, lost in the desert. I park the car a few kilometers ahead because the rest of the trail is inaccessible for my Laguna. I walk for ten minutes before coming across a stunning western landscape, vast and endless, stretching out before me. I'm transported back to my childhood, expecting to see Zorro or Sergeant Garcia emerge from behind a hill. But it remains a fantasy. Instead, there's not a sound, not a soul around. Hours pass, and Antoine doesn't seem far based on his tracker. Every time I spot a cyclist cresting the mountain in the distance, I rush down from my mound of earth to capture the moment, only to realize at the last moment that it's someone else and I climb back up, breathless, to keep an eye on the horizon.

This time it's him, I'm sure of it! I photograph him from afar and then run to catch up. He asks me to hurry. After capturing his ascent, he immediately stops and gets off to continue on foot.
- I'm exhausted... I just wanted you to take your photos so I wouldn't have only images of me pushing the bike. I'm dead tired... I'm dying of thirst.
- I have water in the car if you want. I'm parked...
- No! No assistance.
We're at kilometer 230.
I return to where I slept the previous night. He passes briefly, telling me we'll meet at yesterday's bar. It takes me fifteen minutes to get there. It will take him forty. It's noon, the terrace is deserted. Strange.
He collapses in a chair. The waiter arrives.
- Five Ice Teas, please.
- Just one for me, thanks.
He disappears.
- Where did you sleep? Antoine asks.
- I pitched my tent where we last crossed paths. And you?
- I stopped for two hours during the night. I got out my sleeping bag and leaned against a rock. The rock was perfect! A little smooth and angled just right. I wasn't completely on the ground and had an incredible view of the stars! Alone, in the middle of nowhere.
- And the road in the desert?
- It was forty degrees. I was dying of thirst, damn it. But I crossed some rivers, which cooled me off a bit. I spent my day and night eating dust; it's all over me! I'm sweating so much that I haven't even peed yet. Did you wait long?
- It's okay. You know, don't worry about me. You're the most important.
- Sorry. It's just that ten kilometers here is like a hundred kilometers in Picardy!
The Ice Teas arrive, along with another cyclist. Chatting, the two realize they took the wrong path. They weren't supposed to come back to the village of Gorafe at the base of the mountain, but rather continue on the plateau to Gor. Their faces fall, realizing they have to climb all the way back up. Back on the saddle!

I follow him a bit in the car, stopping occasionally on the side of the road to take photos of him. Everything seems fine, but unfortunately, it won't last. The road starts to climb steeply. I wait for him at the top. He doesn't say anything as he passes by me, but you can see he's disgusted with himself for making the mistake. I follow him a bit more, then he turns left, kicking up a cloud of red dust.
I have the whole afternoon to kill. What to do? Visit the spaghetti western movie studios! Of course! A few kilometers away, my wallet lighter by 20 euros and my eyes wide open at the sets of so many films that shaped my childhood. I stroll through the streets of this captivating representation of the Wild West, a light breeze kicking up dust behind each of my steps. It's all there. The Mexican part, the American part, the gallows, the old church, the saloon, the bank, the cactus, the barn, the horses, the pool, the pool?!
I enter and ask the bartender what allows us to take a dip. Only to wear a swimsuit, the waitress tells me. It's 45 degrees, I'm in the middle of the desert, I go back to the car, put on my swim shorts, and quickly return to my oasis. Beer, lounge chair, calm, splash. I have a little thought for Antoine who, at this time, must be really struggling. Cheers.

After several hours of lounging around, I head to the saloon. There's a cowboy show at 5 p.m. I'm right on time, order a drink, and settle in. There's a bit of an audience, and dancers in period costumes take the stage to perform a French cancan. Once the dance is over, there's applause, and a cowboy kicks open the swinging door to start the show. The actors, of course, speak in Spanish. Every now and then, everyone bursts into laughter. Everyone except me, who doesn't understand a word. Why did I choose German as my second language? But it's entertaining. Fights, gunshots, laughter, joy, the curtains close, goodbye.
I need to meet him at Calar Alto, a pass at 2168 meters. My plan tells me that the summit is partially accessible, which probably means not for the Laguna. I prefer not to risk it and head to Tabernas, which we could call a "large village". Sitting on a terrace, sipping orange juice and having ensaladilla rusa, a question crosses my mind. Did I do the right thing by not attempting the Calar Alto pass? A cyclist stops in front of me to adjust his gear on his bike. I rush over to him and ask if the pass is accessible.
- Of course! They're filming a movie up there near the observatories, there are big trucks, etc., so I don't think there should be any problems.

I settle the bill, leave my half-full juice and plate on the table, and sprint back to the car. Ignition on, I hit the gas pedal, Calar Alto, here I come! Forty-five minutes of smooth and clean road later, I arrive safely. The place is very beautiful. Two huge observatories face each other, separated by the road. The sun is slowly setting. Without overthinking it, I pitch my tent right next to the car. Campsite set up. As I'm getting food from the trunk, I see something move out of the corner of my eye. I look, and it's a fox! Just two meters away from me! I lean forward very gently to grab the camera and stand up without making any noise. It hasn't run away. Even better! It's sitting at my feet! I press the shutter. The sharp sound makes it flee. I whistle, and it comes back. Incredible. Seeing that the photoshoot with my new buddy is going well, I decide to set up the tripod for a self-portrait. Everything is ready, I set the timer, rush to position myself in front of the tent, whistle once, it comes over, and snap! Got it. I give it some water, crack open a beer for myself, and share some sausage. An hour later, it leaves without looking back. It's night, I'm in the tent, strong winds flatten the canvas against my face. I check the GPS, Antoine is still far away. I fall asleep. Around three in the morning, my instinct wakes me up. Five minutes later, I see a bright light through my tent.
- Aurélien?
- Antoine?
- Yeah.
I step out.
- How are you feeling?
- I'm dead, I'm going to sleep here. I'll tuck myself behind that rock over there. I'll be sheltered from the wind.
- How was the road?
- I had a few scares. I got stuck behind a flock of sheep for a while. I also saw some scorpions crossing the road. But that was nothing compared to the wild dogs!
- What do you mean?!
- At one point, I see something moving in the shadow of my headlamp. I turn around, and it's a damn dog running after me, barking! Let me tell you, that gave me some courage! I pedaled! Once I shook it off, I stopped to pick up some stones to defend myself just in case. And you know what? I ran into another damn dog fifteen minutes later! Same story! This bastard was chasing me again! I threw a stone at its face, and it ran off.
- Are you serious?!
- Yeah, but wait. An hour ago, same thing, I see things moving on the road in the distance.
- More dogs?
- No! Wild boars! I stopped and thought, "damn, where's the mother?
- And?
- And I saw her charging right behind them! I nearly crapped myself, damn! I thought of Woinic. It was a sign.
- And?
- And they kept going their way. Alright, I can't hold it anymore. See you tomorrow.

Day 3 - Mile 349 - 104 riders in the race.

I wake up, call him, no answer. He's already vanished into the wilderness. I pack everything up and hit the road again. I see on the GPS that I can meet him at a specific spot in the desert. An old train station. I descend the mountain and head towards a small village near Gergal. The streets are narrow. I make my way up a small uphill lane before realizing on the GPS that I've taken the wrong direction. No way to turn back. I drive up thinking I see a square. It's not one. Resigned, I start reversing back to the lower intersection. Pressed against the left wall, my room for maneuver is virtually nil. I reverse slowly, taking my time to check each of my mirrors so as not to add another scratch to my pile of mud. Everything is going fine when suddenly, CRUNCH! The car tilts backward with a huge crash, then silence. I regain my senses, accelerate, nothing. I reverse, nothing. I open the door and discover with astonishment that the vehicle is balanced on a garage exit leading to the road. Hard to explain, but simply put, the wheels are no longer touching the ground.

I get out of the car, walk around it, damn it, how am I going to manage?! I'm in the most remote village in Spain! Two minutes later, a 4x4 parks at the top of the street, right where I decided to reverse. I rush towards the vehicle and try, in more than approximate Spanish, to explain my mishap. The driver gets out of her car, approaches what's left of mine, and exclaims, "holalala! Un momiento! Un momiento!" She makes me understand, and I still don't know how I understood, that she's going on foot to drop her children off at school and will be back with a friend. With the kids' backpacks on their backs and them out of the car, she rushes off, one child in each hand, before disappearing. I wait.

Five minutes pass, and I see my guardian angel returning accompanied, as agreed, by one of her friends. The friend approaches exclaiming, "holalala! Un momiento! Un momiento!" before taking out her phone. She hangs up and tells me she's called her husband who will come with a friend.
After a few minutes, the husband, followed by his buddy, arrives at the scene. "Aie aie aie! Joder! Madre de dios!" they exclaim one after the other. At that moment, I think I'm done for, that I'll have to call a tow truck that will cost me an arm and a leg or that I'll lose my deposit. Definitely!

But the two guys circle the car. One scratches his head, the other strokes his chin. They stop, exchange a brief conversation, and mime to me that we need to lift the car and move it by hand. We put our hands under the bodywork. The women also pitch in. One, two, three! We lift, move, and release. They tell me to get back behind the wheel. I do. They tell me to turn the steering wheel fully to the left. I do. They tell me to reverse. I don't. I try to make them understand that I'll rip off the front of the car when it comes down. They assure me it won't happen and seem confident. I close my eyes, reverse, the front of the car falls silently, I open my eyes and see them applauding. Damn! We did it! I can't explain the joy and relief I felt at that moment. I'm a bit disoriented, in a daze, as if I just finished a frantic bike race through the Spanish desert. They seem as happy as I am.

My guardian angel comes to me and asks, still in Spanish, if I want to leave with Pueblo. I deduce that it's the friend's name and I reply yes, of course! I want to get out of this hellhole as fast as possible! She tells me to follow her friend, that he will lead me to the exit, okay. Once at the edge of the highway, he parks and points me in the right direction. I shake his hand and say « gracias Pueblo ! ». I drive off, later learning that pueblo just means village.

I missed Antoine; he had already passed through the mentioned station. Too many emotions for today, I decide to go wait for him in Tabernas. Just before the village, I cross over a dried-up river. I stop next to it and think that the cyclists must pass underneath. I check the map. Bingo! I wait for Antoine on the bridge for two long hours, with no shelter from the scorching sun, cars and trucks passing just a meter away from me.
He arrives! I snap a few pictures, cheer him on, get back in the car, and go wait for him ten kilometers further at the entrance of Tabernas. He joins me an hour later. He looks awful and exhausted as he passes me. I tell him we'll meet at the café in the square three kilometers from here, where I wait for another 45 minutes.

A wreck. That's what Antoine is when he sits next to me. We order tapas and 5 Ice Teas. It's noon. He wants to talk to me but can't string two words together. He can't even look at his GPS. Why did he take so long on the last few kilometers? He got lost in the tall grass of the dried-up riverbed. He kept stopping, turning back, and so on. He fell hard on the gravel, and now his neck is stiff. How did he strain his neck? By tensing up on the handlebars on the descents, afraid of falling into the ravines. With the jolts caused by the rocks under his wheels. While his neck is killing him, he thinks back to the muscle relaxant he took from his first aid kit before the race started.

Two other cyclists join us at the table. Elizabeth and Gregory. She's English, he's Swiss. Everyone regains their composure, we chat, good vibes. An hour and a half later, they all hit the road together. I enjoy a bit more of civilization before heading to Cabo de Gata. The sea is wild, I sit in the sand and watch the elements argue.

I reach the meeting point after a journey through dirt roads. It's 7 p.m. I'm back inland, far from the sea's freshness; here, the ground is red, the climate arid. Not a soul for miles around.
I sit in the car, doors open, as the temperature cools. I eat asparagus while watching thousands of beetles wandering around me. Some seek shelter under rocks, digging small burrows to stay cool. I wish I could do the same. Others roll balls of dung with their hind legs, which doesn't appeal to me at all. Then there are those just strolling about. I check the tracker and see that Antoine has been still for over an hour. Red dust sweeps over the car, sticking to my skin. My phone vibrates. It's a message from Antoine! He writes, "My upper back is completely locked up, I can't lift my head." I ask him what he needs, "muscle relaxant." After that, he doesn't reply to my messages, and I see him completely off track on the map. I imagine several scenarios, hoping the sun hasn't driven him mad enough to wander off on foot alone in the desert.
He finally sends me a new message saying that the two cyclists from earlier, Elizabeth and Gregory, helped him walk to the next village, Nijar, and got him a hotel room. I commend their sportsmanship, their willingness to risk losing places in the rankings to help someone they barely know. I tell him I'm coming immediately, but he categorically refuses, claiming it would be seen as outside assistance. I tell him no one will ever know, to which he replies, "I would know." A courageous decision. In his place, I would have already called the hospital for an airlift and the Saint Bernards, but just for the schnapps while waiting for the helicopter and for some company.

My skin is red with dust and sunburn, my hair stands straight on my head, my nails are black, and around me echoes the deafening sound of silence. There's no way I'm spending another night in the desert! I need a shower.
Night falls. I find a campground two kilometers from here. At the reception, I ask in English for a spot for a tent. "We only rent for campers, sir, sorry," the receptionist replies. A well-placed "damn" in French escapes me.
- Oh, but you're French? the receptionist responds in my native language.
- Yes.
- Why didn't you say so! Among compatriots, we have to help each other out! The police come by regularly, it's a small village, you know, so that's all they've got to do. Here, pitch your tent here, spot 14. Park your car sideways so you're not visible from the road and set up your tent after dark. Tomorrow, pack everything up before sunrise.
- Perfect!

Tent pitched. As I head towards the shower, I realize I don't have any soap. I go back to see Alex, my new friend from the reception.
- Shower gel? Wait a moment, I have some for you.
- Thank you!
- Wait, no need for that between us, alright!
Having shed three kilos of grime, I returned his shower gel before he started the conversation. This man, if what he says is true, has lived ten lives. He went to prison after refusing military service in the 80s. He paddled from Tunisia to Brussels in a kayak so he could enter the European Parliament to discuss refugee migration across the Mediterranean, a feat he apparently accomplished. He also worked for several years at the Lampedusa camp. He was married to a Canadian and lived in the United States for seventeen years. He also lived in Brazil with another woman. He speaks five languages, which I observed during the evening as clients of various nationalities came to rent his services. He now travels the world in his converted van and has temporarily settled in Spain.

Day 4 - Mile 479 - 73 runners still in the race.

The sun rises, I pack up and head to the café in the village of Albaricoques to fill my belly for two euros. Antoine sends me a message saying he'll be at the rendez-vous point soon. Satisfied and full, I return to the beetle sanctuary. They're still there in abundance, and I'm still alone. I'm at the crossroads of four roads, unsure of where Antoine will come from, and as before, I can't afford to miss him. We're at Cortijo Del Fraile, mile 500. An idea strikes me. Other competitors have passed before him, so they must have left traces. I search the dust for bike marks, and there it is! I have my path. I feel like a Montana trapper searching for a rare animal in January snow. My rare animal is Antoine, but in the September dust.

I'm parked on a dirt mound, scanning the distance. He approaches and stops. His neck is in agony. His hydration pack on his back isn't suitable; he angrily tosses it to the side.
- Chuck this crap! It's a jogger's bag, not a cyclist's! It's burning my back!
- How's your neck?
- I'm suffering, damn it. It's unbearable, I can't stop thinking about it. Every meter is torture...
- Do you need anything? I can stop by a pharmacy.
- No! No assistance. If this keeps up, I might have to quit.
- Don't talk like that! You can do it!
- Seriously, Aurélien, I'm at my limit. Mentally I'm okay, physically I'm okay, but I can't lift my head. If I have to quit because of this, I'll be so frustrated...
He sets off again.
An hour and a half passes before he sends me a message saying he's in Rodalquilar, waiting for me. As I join him, I traverse an expanse of white plastic as far as the eye can see. Thousands of greenhouses, apparently visible from space. They call it the plastic sea...
Antoine is sipping a beer on the terrace. It's noon.
- Are you okay?
- No, my neck is still blocked. I found a pharmacy and got a muscle relaxant equivalent. To get the real thing, I needed a prescription.
He takes off his shirt to apply cream. He looks skeletal. He must have easily lost 10 kilos in four days. His gaze is vacant, his soul has escaped, lost in the Andalusian limbo. He grabs another beer and lights a cigarette.
- I'm in too much pain. If it doesn't get better by the end of the day, I'll have to quit. I can't lift my head, I can't see anything. It's incredibly dangerous, especially when I'm alone in the mountains.
- Listen, let's stay here for a while. Let the ointment take effect, and then you can decide, okay
- Yeah.
Every bump sends waves of pain through him.
Two hours later, he hits the road again. I pass him, climb a small hill, and find myself at the top of a cliff, face to face with the sea. Beautiful. I descend to the beach, waiting for Antoine. I wait. Cyclists pass by, but not the one I hope to see. My phone rings.
- Allo?
- I'm giving up, Antoine says, his voice choked with tears.
- Where are you?
- La Isleta del Moro.
- I'm coming.
Once there, I find him on the heights of the village, sitting on the ground with his head in his knees. I can't hear him, but I know he's crying. I take one last photo. And it's the hardest photograph I have to take during this journey. Antoine is the kind of fighter who never gives up unless forced to. So, it's very hard to see him broken, helpless. He straightens up. Tears roll down his cheeks.
- I made it to the sea, Aurélien, he says, a smile on his lips.
- I'm proud of you, Antoine.
He stands up.
- Come on. Let's go eat at the restaurant.
We are at kilometer 520. 80 riders have finished the race. 87 abandoned before him, 7 after. Not bad for an amateur! There are only 227 kilometers left to the finish line.