My race report from the inaugural Transcontinental Race. Read on to see what I got up to in August…
The road shimmers ahead as I climb, my head lowers and my eyes stare blankly at the tarmac. I pedal on, one revolution at a time, encased in a cocoon of suffering. Time seems to slow as I force my loaded bike up over a Croatian mountain pass. It’s day six of the race; I’ve ridden over 1000 miles since the start and am facing the prospect of the same again. Just as the mercury hits 45C, and the pounding in my head seems unbearable, I round a hairpin to see the most welcome of sights: a cattle trough in the shade. I climb unsteadily off the bike, stumble over to it, and throw myself in — the cool and silence of submersion putting a barrier between me and the difficulty of the task I’m attempting. Twenty seconds later I’m back on the bike, pushing on, many more miles between me and the next brief respite. This is the inaugural Transcontinental race; an event mad and brilliant in equal measure.
I had heard about the race a few months previously — an injury had curtailed my plans for the 2013 season and I was looking for something to challenge myself with, something to provide a reason to train hard. The Transcontinental certainly fit the bill — starting on Westminster Bridge in London it required racers to cover over 2000 miles and reach Istanbul within two weeks. As if this wasn’t difficult enough, riders were required to compete unsupported, carrying all their own gear and choosing their own route. Only four mandatory controls were stipulated by race rules: the start, the finish, and two checkpoints — the first at the top of the Muur van Geeraldsburgan in Belgium, and the second at the summit of the formidable Passo Dello Stelvio, the second highest pass in the Alps.
Several hours after reading about the race I had paid the £95 entry fee and had thrown my hat into the ring. Training went well, but as I caught the train to London for the pre-race meeting I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to be out of place — an inadequate amateur pretending to fit in with a field of seasoned endurance cyclists that included world-record-holders and RAAM-riders. Apparently I had nothing to worry about: it was a hugely friendly reception, with none of the cagey bravado usually found in abundance at the start of competitive races.
It was one thing to turn up at the race briefing and chat over a few drinks, quite another to push my bike to the start line and point the front wheel toward Istanbul. All too soon the last energy bars had been eaten, the last photos taken, the last goodbyes said and, on the chiming of Big Ben at 8.00am 3rd August, 31 brave riders clipped-in and took their first pedal strokes toward Istanbul.
Given the length of the race, and the fact that riders would have to regroup at Dover to catch the ferry to France, I had optimistically hoped that the pace would be slow and steady. Not so, no sooner had the event vehicle pulled aside and indicated the end of the neutralized start than the first ‘attacks’ started. A combination of nerves and anxiety about missing the ferry meant that the pace stayed high all the way to Dover. In fact, this was one of the few times the event felt like a race — as soon as the Channel had been crossed, riders spread out and began to fall into their own, slower, rhythms.
In giddy exuberance at being underway I’d managed to stick with the lead riders towards Dover, leaving myself plenty of time to grab lunch — a meal which marked my induction to the nutritional madness that accompanies adventure races: the consumption of a gargantuan quantity of food in an incredibly short period of time, a ritual that would become the norm over the course of the race.
During the ferry crossing I’d been sure to drink a lot of water, worried about dehydrating in the heat. Unfortunately this necessitated my unceremoniously diving for the nearest bush as soon as we’d left the terminal — the other riders leaving me in their dust. I decided to ride at my own pace, keen to cover the remaining 90 miles to the first checkpoint before the end of day one. The miles went quickly, the already flat terrain made easier by a helpful wind. Notwithstanding one quick stop for some Belgian ‘frites’, I rode without pause to Geraaldbergan, and the base of the Muur — a tortuous cobbled climb that hits a 24% gradient and is famously used in the professional Tour of Flanders. Despite my delusions to the contrary, there was nothing professional about my ascent of the Muur. I had 170 miles under my belt when I hit the base and could do nothing more than winch my way to the top — grateful that in a rare triumph of sense over bravado, I’d decided to fit a 34×32 granny gear. Incredibly I had reached the checkpoint in 4th position. The riders around me turned on their lights and headed on into the night; although tempted to join them I succumbed to the temptation of a warm bed at a hostel, collapsing into a deep sleep at around 1.00am.
The next four days passed in a blur, but as the miles stacked up, so did my confidence. I’d entered the race thinking that I’d struggle to finish within the time limit of 14 days, but on the fifth day of competition I found myself still with the leaders. In fact I had no idea how well I was doing, not having checked the online tracker that logged the position of all riders, until I caught up to Matt Wilkins as we approached the base of the Passo dello Stelvio.
I knew that the previous night he’d been quite a way ahead, part of a close group of riders vying for third place. Since then I’d put in a huge day — 211 miles and 14,000 feet of climbing — but I hadn’t expected to close the gap. Spurred by the knowledge that I was exceeding my wildest expectations, I once again deluded myself into overestimating my ability on the bike — a dangerous habit that in this instance prompted me into thinking that I could climb the Stelvio that night.
The Stelvio is a grueling 24.3km ramp that averages over 7% gradient along its length. Having already climbed several mountain passes that day, there was no chance of me reaching the top, but that did not stop me trying. I made it 8km up the pass before bivying on the side of the road. An early start the following morning meant I had the Stelvio to myself — empty roads, clear mountain air and spectacular views meant the 48 switchbacks of the climb were some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever ridden. I reached the top elated — realizing that the magic of the Transcontinental wasn’t in race position, but in pushing yourself further than you’d ever have thought possible, against the backdrop of some of the World’s finest scenery. Of course, keeping a good position in the overall GC is a nice bonus and I was pleased to find that I’d reached the top in third place overall.
Mentally, the Stelvio had been the focal point of the race since the beginning. I’d promised myself that if I could just reach the top, I’d have no problem getting to Istanbul. The fact I still had more than half the race to go, and Eastern Europe to tackle, did not really set in until the second checkpoint was firmly in my rearview mirror. Truly, I don’t think I appreciated how alien a challenge the second half of the race would be until I crossed the Bosnian border, three days and 600 miles after topping the Stelvio. I was instantly thrown into a world where everything operated slightly differently: prices were negotiable, a few 10am beers on a weekday appeared to be the norm for locals, and drivers saw a cyclist as a moving target — frequently crossing lanes to overtake and expecting the cyclist to move, or become yet another blemish on the stained and pitted road.
It would take an article far longer than this to fully recount my experience of Eastern Europe; so a few anecdotes will serve to give the flavor. While Bosnia served as a gentle introduction to this strange way of doing things, Serbia threw me in at the deep end. No sooner had I crossed into the country than the road I was on — marked as the equivalent to a British ‘B’ road — began to narrow. At first the surface deteriorated, then became gravel, and then a dirt track. I was eternally grateful at that moment that I’d decided on a steel cyclocross bike for the race. Despite skinny 23c tyres, my wheels were bulletproof and I had some confidence as I hurtled down 20 miles of single-track over the Serbian hills — right up until I pinch flatted a tire. Later that day I was served an introduction to the Serbian form of interval training: outrunning wild dogs. They tend to lie in wait at the side of the road for unwary and fatigued cyclists. Only when the cyclist is right on top of them do they leap out snarling, slavering and barking, at which point a mad 30-second sprint begins. When this process occurs 10 times before breakfast, it begins to become less of an ‘experience’ and more of a serious problem.
By the time I reached the Bulgarian border, I had come to appreciate that the hardest part of the Transcontnental was not the distance, but the logistics of navigating through new cultures and even alphabets. Working out the idiosyncrasies of locals, road networks, and store opening times in each new country. With the two riders leading the race a long way ahead, I had been in a tight race for third as I pedaled across Eastern Europe — Matt Wilkins, James Jordan and I had all swapped position a few times, taking slightly different routes. At the Bulgarian border I checked the online tracker to see that Matt had opened a good lead in third place, I was fourth with James a further 60 miles back. These gaps held until that evening and I went to sleep in the knowledge that the positions were probably set, with only 300 miles remaining to Istanbul and the finish. Checking the tracker the following morning reveled that in a race like this you should assume nothing; James had ridden through the night to open a 30-mile gap on me. I resolved that I would have to ride straight through to Istanbul in one go in order to have a chance of catching James and capturing fourth place.
I caught him part way through the morning, just as he was packing up his sleep kit after an hour’s kip. We rode together for around a few miles before he stopped for breakfast — clearly hurting from the lack of sleep. I knew that he’d bury himself to catch me after a quick feed and so resolved to used some racing tactics for the first time since London — I soft pedaled until he reappeared on my wheel and then went as hard as I could for several hours over the rolling hills that heralded the Turkish border. At the border I had a gap of around an hour, but the hard part was still to come. I’d already covered the first 100 miles of the day, but had nearly 200 still to go.
The Transcontinental was not going to let me conquer it without one last fight — I had a vicious headwind and hundreds of slow, hilly miles to vanquish before I hit Istanbul. 12 tough hours after crossing the border, I approached the city, its millions of glimmering lights spreading out below me as I descended toward the Bosphorus. I reached the finish line in 4th place at 2.30am on the 13th August, 9 days and 16hrs after leaving Westminster Bridge in London. I was greeted by race director Mike Hall and second place finisher Richard Dunnett; a testament to the spirit of the race and something that truly sets it apart from any other event I’ve ever taken part in — there are not many competitions where the leaders stick around at the finish line to welcome in those behind them, particularly if it means being up in the middle of the night.
I spent the next week in Istanbul, welcoming riders and enjoying a small party with each finish, hearing numerous incredible tales from the road, and seeing first hand the sense of accomplishment felt by every rider. Not one finisher left Istanbul before the farewell party 14 days after the race began. Even the race winner, Kristof Allergaet — who had put in a superman effort to finish the race in just over 7 days — stayed until the end. There was no ego, only a load of guys enjoying a sense of mutual success. In this sense, the fact that the finish line party ended with us all drinking beers in a park near the Bosphorus, could not have been more appropriate: no pretense, just a good time. The inaugural Transcontinental, having no prize money and promising no real recognition, lived up to its promise; attracting, in the words of Mike Hall, ‘mavericks, vagabonds and adventurers’ who were happy to embrace the challenge and spirit of the race. Although I rarely saw other competitors on route, I couldn’t have hoped for a better group of trailblazers to ride across Europe with.
Some of the photos used here were taken from the Transcontinental Race’s Facebook page. For more info on the race, check out their website: transcontinentalrace.com. This video from the race organizers is also worth checking out: