The Transcontinental Race (TCR) is an annual, self-supported, ultra-distance cycling race across Europe. It is one of the world’s toughest ultra-endurance races. The route varies for each edition and the distance has been between approximately 3,200 to 4,200 km, and the winners have taken between 7 and 10 days to reach the finish. Interest in the race has grown rapidly: 30 people started the first edition of the race in 2013; Participants applied from around the world for a place in the fifth edition this year, 350 of whom were successful, with only 282 eventually lining up at the start.
It is not a stage race, the clock never stops from the moment the riders leave the start to the moment that they reach the finish, so it is a long individual time trial. Riders must therefore strategically choose how much time to devote to riding, resting and refuelling each day. Being self-supported or unsupported means that drafting is not allowed, receiving any form of support from other racers is not allowed, nor is it from friends or family, all food, accommodation, repairs etc must be purchased from commercial sources.
Sadly, in March this year the founder of the race Mike Hall was tragically killed whilst taking part in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race which crosses Australia. There were doubts whether this year’s race would go ahead, a team of volunteers and Mike’s family rallied together to ensure the race went ahead in Mike’s memory.
The Race started at 10pm on Friday 28th July in the town of Geraadsbergen in Belgium, on the famous cobblestones of the Muur van Geraadsbergen which features in the spring classic Tour of Flanders.
From then on, riders are on their own until the finish which this year was in Meteora, Greece. There are four control points that riders must pass through on route with mandatory parcours to ride. Each checkpoint has a cut off time that riders must arrive by, upon which they receive a stamp in their brevet cards.
CP1 // SCHLOSS LICHTENSTEIN | GERMANY
CP2 // MONTE GRAPPA | ITALY
CP3 // HIGH TATRAS MOUNTAINS | SLOVAKIA
CP4 // TRANSFAGARASAN HIGHWAY | ROMANIA
Just after New Year I received an email confirming my place in the 5th Edition of the Race. I was in a state of shock when I got the news, quite scared but excited at the same time. I knew there was a lot of preparation to do which would take up the following 6 months, as well as the training involved to be able to cycle up to 320 km day after day.Over the next six months I plotted a route which would eventually turn out to be 4196 km. My aim was to reach the finishers party in Meteora, this gave me 14 days to get there.
My average daily mileage would need to be around 300 km. Bare in mind I had to pass through the Alps, High Tatras Mountains, Carpathian Mountains and finally weave my way down to Greece through various other mountain ranges this was going to be a tough challenge. It would eventually turn out to be just short of 50,000m of vertical ascent the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest 5 ½ times.
The time had finally come, at 10pm after a procession lap of Geraadsbergen we climbed the famous Muur lined with spectators wielding flaming torches, then went our own ways out into the dark Belgian countryside riding into the unknown. I got settled into a rhythm quite quickly, trying to remind myself that this was going to be a long race. The mass of red lights in front of me gradually got less and less as the riders went their own ways. My plan was to ride through the night and see how I felt the night after before making any decisions on getting some sleep. My route took me in a south easterly direction out of Belgium into France then Luxembourg and finally Germany. After riding for 24 hours and covering 444 km, I realised I was pretty much on my schedule and decided I would sleep for 6 hours. I found a place behind a sports centre In Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, climbed into my bivvy bag and tried to sleep.
This was what I had planned for each day after, 16 hours riding ,2 hours taken up with food/water stops and 6 hours sleep. This plan would soon change, I ended up averaging around 4 ½ hours sleep per night over the duration of the race which I actually managed ok on.
Sunday soon came and just after lunchtime I arrived at CP1. Covering 616 km in just over 39 hours. At this point I was in 50th position, I got my Brevet card stamped and quickly decided to move on and make my way towards the Austrian border. Just before the town of Kempten I had my first experience of a Dot Watcher, as I rode past I heard the guy shout out my name and cheer me on, it caught me by surprise a little and I just kept riding on until I realised what had just happened. I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t stopped, thankfully about 10 mins later the guy came alongside me in his car, I got him to pull over at the next road end and I had a good chat with him about the race and how I felt it was going. When I eventually got to Kempten I had a quick look around the town for a place to sleep but it was still a bit busy, after a top up of food and water at a petrol station I decided to ride on for a few more hours. Just outside the village of Sulzberg at around 11pm I found a bus stop and climbed into my bivvy bag for some sleep. I had now covered a total of 774km from the start in around 48 hours. As I was trying to get to sleep I noticed a few other riders passing by and sometime later, somebody woke me to see if there was enough room for two people, when he realised not he made an apology and rode off, hopefully to find somewhere as comfy as I had.
After around 5 hours sleep I quickly packed my gear up and made my way towards Austria. It was quite a chilly morning and around 6am I found a bakery just opening so dashed inside, ordered a few freshly baked pastries and a coffee then took a seat inside to warm up a bit. I knew today was going to be one of the first real tests of the race, with two passes ahead of me, the Fernpass then the Brenner pass which would take me over into Italy and a handful of other vicious little climbs thrown in, by the end of the day my total ascent would be just over 5000 meters. One noticeable difference today was that thinks were getting much hotter. Also, this would be the first day I would encounter trouble with traffic. As I was approaching Innsbruck, I had just set off from a set of traffic lights when a truck behind me started to sound his horn, obviously unhappy about the fact I was in front of him he pulled alongside me then proceeded to squeeze me off the edge of the road onto the gravelly verge, then gave a final toot of his horn before speeding away. The car behind witnessed it all and gave chase. Neither of them to be seen again so who knows what happened.
Leaving Innsbruck on the Brenner Pass
After passing through Innsbruck i found myself climbing the Brenner Pass in the afternoon, not the ideal time with the temperature rising. Any small area of shade I came across I would slow my pace down a little just to be out of the baking sun for a few extra seconds. Little did I know that things were going to get hotter still as the race went on.
Whilst riding over the pass I met some other riders taking part in NorthCape 4000, a 4000 km unsupported race from Florence in Italy and finishing at the northernmost point of continental Europe. They too were struggling with the heat, I’m sure things cooled down for them towards the end of their race as they crossed the Arctic Circle.
Reaching the top of the pass and crossing over the border into Italy, it was generally downhill all the way to Bolzano on a mixture of good cycle paths and not too busy roads. It was around 8pm when I reached the town so had a look around for somewhere to eat and quickly devoured two large squares of pizza, drank a couple of bottles of coke and moved on. My aim was to get as close to CP2 as possible during the night, leaving only a short distance to cover in the morning so hopefully I would get to ride the parcours up Monte Grappa before it got too hot.
The cycle path to Trento was of decent quality and with a slight tailwind I was making good progress. It follows the river through a fertile valley filled with orchards as far as the eye could see. I resisted the lure to grab an apple or two as I passed through. Later in the evening whilst sitting in the pitch black munching a couple of banana’s I spotted the lights of a bike approaching. It was Maxime Barat, cap170. Maxime was in the Trekkers Hut opposite us in Geraadsbergen prior to the start. It was good to meet him again and we rode along together for a while exchanging stories before going our separate ways in Trento. I ended up going off a course a little through the town and ended up on some very steep climbs to get back onto my route, although short they were taking their toll on my legs after such a long day.
Finally, around 1.30am I decide to call it a day in the town of Pergine Valsugana. I managed to find a quiet place to sleep behind some crates of wood outside a DIY store.
I was now 1107 km into the race with around 86 km still to go to CP2 at the base of Monte Grappa.
After around 4 hours sleep I packed up and was on my way. Most of my route from here to CP2 was along cycle paths so very quiet at this time of morning. By now though I was developing some serious saddle sores and found it extremely painful to sit on my saddle. I spent the next couple of hours out of the seat, at a cafe where I stopped for some breakfast I could hardly sit on the stool. I knew these were only going to get worse and I wasn’t even half way through the race.
CP2 Bassano del Grappa
When I arrived at CP2 It was around 9am, already It was getting extremely hot. I got my Brevet Card stamped and made my way to the start of the parcours. The climb from the checkpoint to the parcours finish rises around 1550 meters in just under 21km, the majority of the gradient being between 8% and 11%. The lower portion offered some shade but once above the treeline it was an inferno. I was still struggling to sit down so I had no option other than to climb out the seat. Very quickly my arms tired and I had to force myself to sit down, I would only last a few seconds before I was in agony and had to stand again. This routine went on all the way up the climb, each moment in the saddle eventually getting longer and longer until I had to stay seated as I could barely stand. I was in a vicious circle and there was no way out of it. The severe heat took my mind off things for a while, with my eyes fixed firmly on the road just a few meters ahead I slogged on until I reached the summit. I can hardly describe the relief when I stepped off that bike. I got some food and water from the bar and chatted with the other riders outside. Most seemed to be having problems of their own, mechanicals, problems with their GPS and injuries.