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Join Ben Koch on an exhilarating journey on RaceThroughPoland

Discover the breathtaking landscapes, challenging trails, and unexpected encounters that made this race truly unforgettable. From gruelling climbs to heartwarming hospitality, this race report captures every twist and turn. 

Get ready for a true gravel adventure

The Start 

The race began in Zakopane, Poland’s winter capital. At the crack of dawn, our ever-enthusiastic organiser Piko sent us off up a gruelling 20-percent incline toward the first mountain ridge. This initial ascent unveiled stunning views over the city and its snow-dusted peaks, setting the tone for the adventure ahead. At the start of such races, it’s common to see competitors pushing too hard, caught up in the initial rush of adrenaline. Maintaining a steady, swift pace is key, yet many find themselves overtaking only to falter later. I chatted with a few seasoned racers in the first few kilometres, which bolstered my confidence in the event and its organisers. Predictably, I was passed by nearly everyone within the first hour, but I watched them closely, wondering when our paths would cross again. The opening section was gruelling, featuring numerous climbs. Yet, as we approached Checkpoint 1, long river valleys allowed me to sustain speeds above 30 km/h. The exhilaration of the race, combined with good legs and a fast pace along the rivers, filled me with joy. 

 

Checkpoint 1 - Complete Seclusion (near Ukraine) 

Entering the next mandatory section, I encountered fellow racers who had taken different routes after the start. Along the way to Checkpoint 1, I noticed warning signs about bears. Although I didn’t see any, others recounted some heart-pounding encounters. I did, however, encounter plenty of other wildlife. Near the Ukrainian border, the checkpoint was nestled in a pristine, untouched landscape. I received my first stamp alongside the race leaders. After a quick chat and some hydration, everyone set off on their individual paths toward the next mandatory section at Checkpoint 2. 

 

Komoot (Unfortunately) Always Knows a Way 


My night began disastrously. Following Komoot’s directions, I found myself on a non-existent path. I ended up carrying my bike for 1.5 km up a steep, 20-percent incline through dense bushes, sweating profusely. My legs got scratched up, and the ordeal cost me valuable time, energy, and patience. The night proceeded as planned until I reached the top of a 5 km climb. Exhausted, I realised I had been climbing with my eyes closed more than open and decided to take a 10-minute nap under a rescue blanket. You wouldn’t believe how cozy a crinkly, stiff rescue blanket can feel. Refreshed, I continued my descent and rode into the early dawn, which breaks beautifully around 3:40 AM in the east. Sunday dawned, and as expected, finding supplies was a challenge. I crossed into Slovakia and soon found myself on indescribable roads in Hungary. Mud, broken asphalt, and dirt roads put my Schwalbe tires to the test. Five hours later, I stumbled upon a small open supermarket where I treated myself to iced coffee, bread, Haribo, and nuts. 

Land of Plenty 


When you’re exhausted and hungry in a store during such a race, it feels like you’ve found paradise. It’s a childhood dream come true: buying whatever you want without anyone telling you it’s too expensive or unhealthy. There’s no such thing as too much sugar or too many calories. You grab whatever makes you happy – and as much of it as you can. Pro tip: vegan Haribos are easier to chew – you'd be surprised at what can become exhausting in a race like this. 


Checkpoint 2 – Roller Coaster (Hungary) 


Well-fuelled and in high spirits, I tackled the second course after 720 km with a 2-hour lead. The weather was perfect, and I enjoyed the roller-coaster-like section through Hungary’s mountains, ending with a punishingly steep climb to Kekesteto. Despite the increasing pain in my right foot, which I tried to ignore, I had to stop for 5 minutes to fix my only flat tire of the race. A sharp object had punctured my rear tire. The section back to Slovakia was tough. The main road in the valley was closed by the organisers, forcing me to navigate over ridges and through lots of gravel. 


Close to Giving Up 


As the second night descended, pain spread from my foot through my entire right leg. I couldn’t bear it anymore and decided to stop. I couldn’t apply any pressure to the pedal, and standing while riding was out of the question. I pulled out my second rescue blanket and settled in for a power nap at a bus stop. Afterward, I re-evaluated my situation and concluded: If I quit now, I’d still have to ride home. So I decided to keep going! I adjusted the cleat on my shoe and, with gritted teeth and excruciating pain, managed to apply light pressure again. Most of the effort now had to come from my left leg. At this point, any thoughts of placing well were gone. Finishing became my only goal! I ended the second night at a gas station, restocked my supplies, enjoyed plenty of coffee, and noticed on the Dotwatcher map that I was still leading. This mental boost was exactly what I needed. 


Checkpoint 3 – Summit Storm (Slovakia) 


I had been eagerly anticipating the third course section. Still in the lead, I headed towards Checkpoint 3 at kilometer 1034. The rugged road led steeply up to Krizava, where I collected my next stamp. Comfortably in the lead and managing my pain fairly well, I enjoyed a coffee and a Kofola (a local cola substitute) with the friendly checkpoint crew before heading down – a decision I would later regret. 

 

Lack of Experience 


I descended all the elevation I had gained and spent the next 1.5 hours on a barely rideable trail. Frustration crept in, but I forced myself to keep going to avoid taking pointless breaks. Once back on a decent road, I was roasted by the midday heat and realised my pursuer had gained 1.5 hours by taking a smarter route over the summit. Phillip, racing for the third time, had coordinated his route planning with friends who were also participating, which paid off at this point. Throughout the day, it turned into a race with a constant gap. I took a 10-minute nap at a gas station and started the course for Checkpoint 4 with renewed optimism. 


Checkpoint 4 – Classified Made It Possible (Poland) 


The course began with a 3 km climb averaging 15 percent. I struggled up the road seated, as the pain in my right leg prevented me from standing. Suddenly, music blared next to me, cheers erupted, and the organisers emerged from their hiding spots. Piko had lost a bet against Adrian, who was convinced no one would manage to ride the section with gradients well over 20 percent. They hadn’t counted on my Classified Hub, which allowed me to use the smallest gears. I was the only rider to conquer that section. Such supportive encounters with the organisers and checkpoint crews are a tremendous morale boost. 


Misjudgement 


As night fell, it became increasingly difficult to keep my eyes open and maintain focus. I had misjudged the race, expecting only two nights. I paid the price because I had never raced 1500 km before and wasn’t prepared for three nights. Consequently, I hadn’t slept in the first two nights, and my body now demanded rest. Initially, I saw faces and people everywhere; then, I increasingly lost my sense of direction, questioning whether I had already ridden certain sections, until the third stage where dreams and reality began to blur. 


Feeling Like Mathieu van der Poel 


One daydream went like this: I imagined I was Mathieu van der Poel, dynamically taking a corner. I followed suit, only to be jolted back to reality by my bike computer signaling I was off course. I looked around and found myself in a driveway, while the map on my bike computer showed a perfectly straight line. I had let my dreams guide me and no longer had full control over my actions. At this point, I decided enough was enough. 


Polish Hospitality 


Having used both rescue blankets for two power naps, I decided to ring the doorbell of a stranger’s house. I rang the first house where I saw lights on, but they went out as I approached. Desperate, I rang again, setting off the house alarm. There I stood, exhausted, at midnight in a stranger’s yard, illuminated by a blaring siren. The neighbors woke up and came to investigate. They called out to me in Polish, and I cycled over to explain my predicament. The woman understood and, with the help of Google Translate, told me to follow her. She drove 3 km ahead to her parents’ home, who graciously offered me an entire apartment and even apologised for the lack of hot water. I lay down in full cycling gear, pulled the blanket over me, and closed my eyes for 2.5 hours. Waking up was tough, but my host had prepared breakfast, and I only had to make coffee. At 3:30 AM, I locked the apartment and left the key as agreed – it was incredible what had just happened to me! 


Finale 


By this point, I had accepted that first place was out of reach due to the unexpected stop, so I focused on enjoying the ride to Checkpoint 4 and ultimately to the finish. As I rolled into the final stretch, my legs weary but my spirit undaunted. I could see the finish line ahead, flanked by cheering organisers and fellow racers. As I crossed it, a wave of relief and pride washed over me. I had finished in second place, just a few hours behind the leader. Despite the setbacks and challenges, standing on the podium felt like a victory. The gruelling climbs, the sleepless nights, and the extraordinary kindness I encountered along the way made this race an unforgettable adventure. Second place may not be first, but the journey and the lessons learned were worth far more than a medal.