Posted Tuesday, July 25th, 2017 at 4:14 am under me, travel.

Thoughts ahead of the 2017 Transcontinental Race

Last Sunday I did my final training ride before the Transcontinental Race (TCR), which starts in Geraadsbergen (Belgium) at 10pm this Friday night, July 28, 2017.

In February 2016 I happened across Joe Todd’s extraordinary TCR blog. I was captivated, and stunned to learn that people went on 4,000km cycling races across Europe, riding with very little sleep for two weeks, carrying what looked like almost nothing (see the first photo on Joe’s page). It seemed incredible. I instantly knew that I had to do it too, or at least try.

I couldn’t really sleep for the next two nights. I couldn’t stop thinking about the TCR. Just the name, the Transcontinental, just the sound and the idea of it, was irresistible. It somehow conjured exotic youthful thoughts of the impossibly distant Trans-Siberian Highway, Murder on the Orient Express, etc. The more I read about the race, the better it seemed. I loved the spirit of the event, the honor code, the fact that the riders have a say in what is unsupported (1, 2), the inclusiveness, the lack of rules, the madness of it, and the rawness. The distances these people were covering every day seemed crazy. And they were doing it in the mountains, with bags on their bikes, in snowstorms and baking heat. Getting blown off their bikes. Getting lost. Barely sleeping. Totally unsupported. Totally nuts.

And glorious:

How could you not want to be a part of that? To have that be a part of you?

Entries for 2016 had closed, but I mailed the organizers, Mike Hall and Anna Haslock, to ask if I could possibly still get in. They replied to say no, but that if I volunteered to help on the 2016 edition that I’d have a guaranteed place in 2017. I ended up building them a web site with a map to show information about hundreds of Eastern European border crossings, allowing people to submit comments on them. The site wasn’t really used in the 2016 race as there was just too much going on for the organizers ahead of the race. I got to hang out on Slack with the admin team and got some glimpses into what goes on behind the scenes both ahead of time and during the race. One thing I realized is that if you race the TCR you might (very often) feel like you’re all alone, but in fact you’re not. There are dozens of volunteer “dot watchers” spread around the world, who monitor the rider tracking map around the clock. The dot watchers are dedicated and experienced, and they really care. Every rider is closely monitored. The team of dot watchers are still there, watching, weeks after the first rider finishes the race.

I doubt that a single day has passed in the last 18 months without me thinking about the TCR. And I don’t mean having the odd passing thought once or twice a day. I mean thinking about it all the time. For the last six months, at least, when I wake up in the morning the TCR is in my head within the first minute. The TCR rushes in to fill any idle time in my day. I go to bed thinking about it. It has become an obsession. There’s no better word. I read everything I could find online, slowly accumulating knowledge of people’s experiences, equipment, choices, and so on.

I began to ride longer distances, with more challenges. There were questions and uncertainties that could only be resolved on the road. In 1989, aged 25, I’d cycled from Munich to Madrid, 2100km in a month, happily sleeping by the road, in sheds, and on building sites. That worked out at about 100km a day, with a week of rest days. A couple of years ago I thought I was unlikely to ever regularly do rides of that length again. I started going out on Sunday club rides with the local St Ives Cycling Club, and regularly rode over 100km.

Last year I did an Everesting. I rode to Rotterdam and back a couple of times. I rode to Bonn and back. In 2017 I’ve been going after more distance and more climbing. I’ve been hill-climbing in Wales in the ValleyCat, to Yorkshire, in the Cotswolds, in Scotland, and in the Peak District. Most recently, with David, I did a 430km loop including the Dunwich Dynamo. The daily distances have slowly gone up… 150km, 200km, 300km, 400km. The amount of climbing per day has gone up… 2000m, 3000m, 6000m, and of course the Everesting was 8900m (but was relatively very easy climbing). I’ve learned to ride more slowly, conserving energy, riding for 10, 12, …, 16 hours, combined with some resting, and lots of eating and drinking. I raced in the Tour of Cambridgeshire in 2015, in what seemed like a fast time but which now looks slow. I religiously followed the British Cycling Advanced training plan for 3 months at the start of 2016, riding in the rain and the snow, come what may. Then I did the Tour of Cambridgeshire at a much higher pace in 2016, and 2017. I qualified for the UCI Gran Fondo world championships each year, and even went to Denmark to race it (slowly!) in 2015, representing Australia. In 2016 and 2017 (so far), I’ve covered 22,000km. For the last 7 months I’ve been working out 2 or 3 times a week, doing weights, core exercises, and stretches. I taught myself something about bicycle maintenance. I got a fantastic new MASON Bokeh bike, at great expense.

Lately I’ve spent tons of time planning the 4000km route. It sometimes feels like a full-time night job. I’ve been over at least double that distance, looking at route alternatives. There are so many tools to help with the job, and yet many (small) sections of the route are unknowable, at least from this great remove. Things will undoubtedly go wrong. They always do. But I’ve spent a ton of time trying to keep them to a minimum. In case you’re curious, here’s what I’ll be packing (still to be pared down a little).

Anyway now, finally, the 2017 TCR is right around the corner!

Here’s the 2017 teaser video, which I wish was a little longer:

This Thursday (July 27, 2017) Derek or David will drive me to Belgium for the start at Geraadsbergen. Here’s a video of the TCR start in 2016. At 10pm 300 riders, more or less, will head off into the night, and I’m so happy I’ll be one of them. Here’s an article giving a bit of an overview of the route.

There are four checkpoints you have to ride through, each with a mandatory parcours section. One is the famous Semonzo ascent of Monte Grappa. Another is the (infamous) Transfăgărășan highway in Romania:

I just found out that the Transfăgărășan is closed to cars from 9pm to 7am each night, though I’ve no idea why. Someone posted that info to Facebook, to which there was this reply:

Bagoly Levente: This is only for motorised traffic. I know cyclists who passed it this weekend from midnight till four in the morning till vidra dam with no problem.

But its quite scary in the dark. Keep in mind that once your up it doesnt mean that your doing 50km/h till the dam. Besides the lake there is many ups and downs which youll climb slowly and after darknes sets it very scary and dangerous because of people leaving garbage all around the place and bears do come down to check it out. I was passing through there around 10pm after a 600km endurance ride and i have to say i almost layed some bricks along the way… Its a good thing if you have a wistle like i did and blow it every now and then. pepper spray wont help against wolves or bears. although between these two only the wolves will hunt on you. bears only attack under few circumstances when you surprise them. thats why a wistlesound which travels dar away will give them a signal and they will get out of your way. bears dont want any trouble. wolves do.

Hopefully I’ll pass through there in the daylight…

If you’d like to follow along, you’ll be able to track riders at either TrackLeaders or FreeRoute. Here’s the rider list; I’m #85. There’s a party in Meteora (Greece) on August 12, which is day 15. To make it to the party you need to average about 266km per day. I think I can do that, but it’s impossible to know. The distance itself would be hard if that was all there was, but my route has about 37km of climbing, and parts of the route will be extremely hot (over 40C / 104F).

Because the race is strictly unsupported, you can’t have any form of help that wouldn’t be available to all riders. So you obviously can’t have friends sending you SMS messages telling you how to get un-lost or making you hotel bookings, or… anything really.

But you can help by sending encouragement during the race. I’m sure I’ll have lots of fun, but it’s also going to be utterly exhausting. By far the physically hardest thing I’ll have ever attempted. Just look at Alexandre Bourgeonnier’s face in this picture taken as he finished the 2015 race.

So please feel free to send some friendly words in the middle of the night, or any time. I gave up on all social media some years ago, but have recently been hanging out on Facebook because there’s a Transcontinental group there, with tons of other TCR racers and ex-racers, and information. So I guess I’ll be posting things on FB. I’ll post progress sections to Strava. I also have a Twitter account that I haven’t used in nearly 5 years and an Instagram one too (similar) – neither of which is likely to get used, but who knows? You can always send me email or SMS. I probably wont be quick to reply, though. I will likely have my phone in aeroplane mode for much of the time (to save battery), so don’t panic if you try to call and you get voicemail or I don’t answer. Also, people’s dots frequently stop moving on the map for a wide variety of reasons, so don’t panic over that either. I stop often. Too often. It’s a bad habit I’m hoping to greatly improve on.

Want to read more about the TCR? You could read more of Joe Todd’s blog. There are many other write ups of people’s experiences here. I’ve read them all. Many are highly amusing. Or just search online for TCR accounts and videos – there’s a ton of them. Chris White, a TCR veteran, has put together a detailed, comprehensive, and authoritative overview of long-distance cycling in general and the TCR specifically, at ridefar.info.

Here’s an article from a few days ago with an opening paragraph I can relate to:

For the last I don’t know how long there’s been a dull undercurrent of fear, panic and restlessness. It’s that pre-big-exam dread combined with the giddy stomach waltzer of falling in love. A feeling that’s a sticky apprehension churned together with an itching excitement to create a thick cloying inability to be able to think about anything else. A little bit sick all the time, careering in jolts between abject panic and serene calm without touching anything in-between. And then back again. In minutes.

I don’t know if I’ll complete the TCR. I don’t think anyone can know, because there are so many things that can go wrong. People get achilles and knee problems. They get nerve damage in their hands and can’t even hold a knife and fork to eat. They get Shermer’s Neck, back problems, and occasionally food poisoning. Bicycles break. And of course, there are accidents, sometimes tragic.

Here’s a video about the 2016 race:

#171 The Transcontinental Race journey from PEdALED on Vimeo.

Over the last year I’ve tried not to let the talking get ahead of the reality. But now I’m finally there, and about all that’s left to do is to start the thing. I’ve gone from naïvely thinking that of course I could do it (2016), to more realistic thinking there’s no way I could (early 2017), to now being cautiously optimistic that I’ll be fine. I could be fitter and stronger, and I have a couple of niggles (hip, hamstring) that I hope will dissipate, but overall I’m happy with where I am and my level of fitness and confidence. You simply cannot know how it will go, though. Mentally, I don’t know what will happen. I’ve never needed much sleep, but that’s under normal conditions. Maybe I’ll race madly and barely sleep. Maybe I’ll be so exhausted I’ll just give up on the racing and aim to finish by the party. Maybe I’ll give up altogether (though I bloody hope not!). All I can confidently say is that the things I have control over appear to be under control. Now I just have to avoid the wild dog pack attacks in Eastern Europe and Greece, not to mention the wolves and bears in Romania.

Here’s my bike, fully loaded. It weighs 19kg (41.8lbs) with no water or food! Cycling up steep hills or mountains is hard enough even without any bags :-)

And the elevation profile of my route:


THANKS so much to Derek Smith, David Pattinson, Chris Lloyd (of Chris’ Bikes), Duncan Chapman (calves), Arwen Altenberg (wardrobe), Chris White (wheel), Sarah Kelman (weather), Josh, Sam, and Andy at Bicycle Ambulance, Dom Mason and Cal Nicklin at MASON (bike, clothes), Steve Lindley (lock), the friendly members of the FB TCR group, Supernova Lights (40% TCR rider discount), Bethan Roderick and Dafyd (staying up til 3am to feed me after the ValleyCat), Tom Kirkpatrick and the TCR organizational team, the SICC riders who taught me how to ride a bike, and finally to Anna Haslock for her bravery, and the amazing Mike Hall who created the TCR, and who I unfortunately never got to meet.

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