The Transcontinental Bike Race
In January 2015 I sent off for an entry for the Transcontinental Race (TCR) across Europe, from Belgium to Turkey, a 4300km self-supported bike race. Despite being the most inexperienced cyclist in the field by far, my experience in expeditions led to the organisers giving me one of the 200 precious places. Until that day my longest ever ride had been 145km with 3600m of climbing during L’Etape du Tour. However just a few months later I raced for 11 days, covering a total of 3200km, averaging 300km a day with my longest day on the bike of 350km.
The organisers describe the TCR as “a bike race where riders can simply shake hands on the start line and race thousands of miles for the pure satisfaction of sport and no other motive but for the learnings of one’s self. It will be a beautifully hard bicycle race, simple in design but complex in execution. Factors of self sufficiency, logistics, navigation and judgement will burden the racers’ minds as well their physiques. Even experienced riders may only be so bold as to target a satisfactory completion.”
It’s a one stage race, the clock never stops. Racers choose where, when and if at all to rest. There is no support, racers can only use what they take with them, or what they can find en-route at commercially available services. There is no route, only mandatory checkpoints ensure that racers visit some of the most famous pieces of road in Europe and connect with the suffering of their forebears. The rest is up to you the racer.
Sadly after 11 days in the heat of Albania i collapsed off the bike with chronic dehydration and was forced to withdraw from the race. Of the 172 starters, 70 riders finished by the race cut off times. Of the 10 women who started the race only 1 made the finish. Of the remaining 9 woman I was the only other to pass through the penultimate check point 4.
If the challenge wasn’t big enough, there was the small matter of my carbon framed bike cracking in 5 places during the flight over! Not what you need to find when you unpack your bike 6 hours before the start of the race! In addition I had decided to enter as a pair, and met my partner for the first time at the start line! I had entered as a pair because my parents where concerned about me racing solo for my first big ultra endurance bike race. Sadly with a month before departure my original race partner had to pull out. I spent the next few weeks searching for a partner. Eventually through a Facebook campaign I found Jayne. We didn’t know each other, we weren’t even friends of friends, just two strangers who where going to race across a continent together. Jayne signed up 10 days before the start and because we live in different countries we weren’t able to meet until the day before the race on route to the Belgium start. Jayne is a brilliant cyclist and has so much experience in so many disciplines of cycling. She has been riding a bike for more than 15 years and rides most days a week all year round. In comparison when I added up my cycling rides to a similar frequency to Jayne, it equated to 10 months of cycling! This massive difference in experience and ability obviously meant I really struggled to keep up with Jayne in both speed and stamina, but on the flip side, in those 11 days on the bike she taught me so much, I learnt years worth of experience from her. Jayne went on to be the only female finisher which was very much deserved. Find out more in my race diary below…
Race Diary – updated from the road
So we are currently on the way to the famous cobbles of Flanders, to the Muur Van Geraardsbergen start line. The organisers didn’t want to ease us in gentle, so we start at midnight on heavily ladened bike going up cobbles at 20% gradient! …Nerves kicking in now. Here are some answers to your questions answered by the race handbook… What if my bike breaks? Fix it. What happens if I get lost? Get unlost. Sounds like a nice cycle tour, why race it? Why race anything? The Tour de France would probably be a nice bike ride too, but its not; its a race and so is this. Why unsupported? As such the race is more than a measure of leg power, it’s a journey of self sufficiency and a challenge of fortitude and competence. Being alone and self reliant is part of the test and part of the adventure. It is a bike race where riders can simply shake hands on the start line and race thousands of miles for the pure satisfaction of sport and no other motive but for the learnings of one’s self.
First catastrophe … Just unpacked bike from flight and carbon frame has 5 cracks!!! On my way to a bike shop.
So I have just returned from collecting my bike from bike shop. Frame has been drilled, filed, filled and glued, so here’s hoping it gets me to Istanbul. 3 hours to go till the off!
DAY 1 – Sooo much harder than I expected the first day (with fresh legs) to be. The broken carbon frame yesterday, meant the day was busy and stressful with no time for sleeping. The amazing start at midnight on the Muur was lit up with flame torches. It was nerve racking but exciting! However, with the lack of sleep it was only 4 hrs in to the race that we were both nodding off on the bikes… scary!! 5 hrs in the torrential wind and gale force winds started. Making our tired eyes close even further, squinting the best we could to see anything at all. 9 hrs in the rain stopped and we hit the vast agricultural plains, not a hedge in site, and we spent the next 6 hrs fighting against a cross wind that was gusting the bikes across a whole lane of traffic, and I was forced to ride the bike heavily tilted into the wind. Therefore I am well and truly knackered …in fact beyond knackered!!! Jayne is just a machine on a bike and hopefully has the patience of a saint, as she has to wait for me constantly!! 325km done, now for bed.
DAY 2 – Okay so I didn’t pick the best route for today, stunning scenery, perfect tarmac and no cars, in fact we didn’t see more than 3 cars for first 100km. However, today was hilly for tired legs. Dead straight roads that went up and down like rolling waves. It was mentally sole destroying. Last 100km was flatter but our overall average speed was down a bit because of the hills. After yesterday’s 17 hrs on the bike in wet shorts, I found that when I took them off last night I took most of my skin off with them! So today has been fuelled by pain killers so as to sit on the saddle. Jayne’s knees were hurting her today, which we concluded was her SPD’s as they don’t have the float of her normal cleats. So at lunch she removed her cleats and has just peddled balancing her shoes on the little SPD’s. No pulling up on the hills plus a struggle to keep her feet on the peddles in the rain…she is a cycling machine and nails! Tomorrow we are going to try and get her some flat peddles or baskets. I can not feel any of my toe they are completely dead,…not sure what that is about. On a positive the weather was better, a bit of rain and head wind but not too strong, and Another 300km done. Eat, sleep, ride, repeat!
DAY 3 – No words!! Plus the hardest day on paper faces us tomorrow. We will start our assent of Mont Ventoux at 4am. Will try and write moro tomorrow. 920km done 3180km to go. Motto of the day… Everything passes!
DAY 4 – A bitter sweet day. Hands down the hardest day I have ever had on a bike to date! However, we conquered the first checkpoint of Mont Ventoux… Now I know people say it’s windy, but seriously, that was ridiculous, enough to stop your bike dead, and poor Jayne was on flat peddles not cleats. We were very slow up and down, but we got there and we’re thrilled to have a stamp on our brevet card. Then following 100km was beautiful Provence, then we moved into the Alps, all bathed in blue skis so what was not to love. Plus it’s the first time in 4 days that I wasn’t down on my tri bars staring at the pavement just 2m in front of me. Today the scenery was spectacular and worth looking at from time to time. However, 50km from Briancon the body started screaming, and there was no way I was going to make it to Italy today. We did 240km with 4000m of climbing on very tired legs. The additional 2000m of climbing to get to Italy wasn’t going to happen! In fact the last 50km to briancon nearly didn’t happen as I battled with my will power. I was well aware this trip would be super hard, but I didn’t expect quite so much acute pain. Today it was sore feet, knees, calves, lower back, skinless backside, 7 ulcers, cold sore and split lips… But it was my choice to do this I have to keep telling myself. Right must go, only three hours till were up and on the bikes again.
We have climbed two mountains this morning and have made checkpoint two. Plus I was the First Lady through the checkpoint which is a nice added bonus. We rewarded ourselves with a cup of tea and breakfast. Now if everyone could keep their fingers crossed that my bike holds over next 60km of gravel track at over 2000m I would be very appreciative. It has already destroyed some bikes that have already attempted it and their’s weren’t already broken before they started! Here goes!
DAY 5 – A once in a lifetime road! So for those of you have become dot watches, you will probably notice that after climbing the Col d’izoard and the climb up to Sestriere to checkpoint two, it then took us 8hrs to do 40km along the gravel pass!! The pass was truly stunning, in fact the most amazing road I think I have been on, but it is NOT for road bikes. Everyone expected it to take 3hrs… Oh how wrong we all were! We past someone who was on their 10th puncture, and saw a number of people on their 5th or more. Neither of us got a puncture, but we took it very slow mainly because of my bike. We took the bag off the back of it and made some straps with an inner tube so I could wear it as a backpack to take any extra strain off the cracked frame. The frame made it, wahoo, but my cleats didn’t, so onto my spare pair already. After the gravel pass we then climbed a seriously steep little bugger up to the Col Fenestrelle followed by another long descent on gravel, although no where near as bad as the one early in the day. Our wrists and feet took a hammering on the descents, and I think Jayne emotionally took a hammering at the state of her expensive S-Works bike! The epic ness of the day means we are 190km behind schedule so we need to get our skates on! The Alps are now behind us and the organisers have really tested us all. Tomorrow we will make a start to cross Italy.
DAY 6 – Chimp Paradox! So for the first 150km of today I battled with my chimp who was sat on my shoulder constantly telling me to quit. Telling me that the pain and suffering was not worth enduring for a cocktail party in Istanbul!! By lunch time I had pulled myself together and won that particular battle. The roads were long and straight, so it was just on the tri bars staring at the tarmac hour after hour, so there is not a lot to report. The only new development is my left hand no longer has any strength or dexterity in it, so I have to use my right hand to change both sets of gears. It won’t even grasp a fork… Very inconvenient! 6 days in I have concluded 5 things that are essential to me completing this beast 1) painkillers, 2) coke cola, 3) red bull, 4) micro napping at any opportune moment and 5) your messages! Although when thinking rationally we know that the elation of completing this race will be worth the torture, but when sleep deprived and loosing the will with the bikes we forget this and it’s the messages that make us do the next hour, so a big thank you. Sending all our best and speedy recovery to those who had bad accidents today.
DAY 7 – Hideous head wind all day, gusting up to 70km/hr. Nerve injury in hand now spread to whole arm, so couldn’t hold handlebar with two hands which was dodgy in the wind on the awful Italian roads (next to no hard shoulder and we are on a major lorry route!). Hopefully I will be able to get back on the tri bars if the roads improve, as that helps my arm. The only other thing to report is that we and many other dots around us, have resided ourselves to the fact that we won’t make the finishers party. The gravel pass just ate into our time too much. To bed I must go as up again at 2am.
We are in the middle of nowhere in Slovenia on a Saturday night and Jayne has a blown rim and a bust spoke! On the hunt for a bike mechanic…. Hoping the people of Slovenia are as wonderful as the country is!!!
DAY 8 – Slovenia I am in love! Left Italy at dawn (thank goodness, didn’t like it at all) and once across the boarder Slovenia stole our hearts. It is truly stunning in every direction across the entire country. Plus it is cycling obsessed, with cycle paths everywhere and perfect Tarmac and next to no cars. We should have crossed out the other side this evening into NE Croatia but sadly 10km from the boarder we had a mechanical in the middle of nowhere. Turns out Slovenians are equally as wonderful as their country is, and we found a retired bike mechanic who sorted the wheel and spokes for us, and wouldn’t except payment, whilst another man translated. Someone else gave us their pizza and another helped me find us somewhere to stay. They were so so kind. Cyclists I would highly recommend a cycling holiday to this country. Sadly this blip has put us back another 65km, but Istanbul we are coming… Over halfway now!
Just taken my first ever fall of my bike! Landed on head and right shoulder, but came off much less injured than we thought I would have. Right arm sore, left arm still useless, but legs and bike are fine so we are peddling on.
DAY 9 – Big Day! So we left Slovenia and crossed the boarder into Croatia in the very early hours. First thing to happen was I took a fall from my bike onto my head, but am miraculously fine. Although sad to leave Slovenia we were quickly impressed by Croatia, the roads are good and as it was a Sunday traffic was light. The downside of it being Sunday is that everything was shut apart form petrol stations. Thankfully Croatia have had the best petrol stations yet, every 50km we would stop and eat a heap of snacks. We covered 350km to get to checkpoint 3, but 15km from the checkpoint we were caught in the biggest most frightening electrical storm I have witnessed, it was more like a film set. The sky was being lit up all around us with lightening bolts coming down in all directions. In the pitch black of night what started out as impressive, quickly became terrifying, as we soon found ourselves directly in the middle if the storm. With gusts of wind that were breaking trees around us, we couldn’t keep the bikes upright, then the torrential rain started. With nothing around us we kept going for a little bit, but we were two very frightened bunnies. By chance we then came across a bus shelter, got in it and wrapped ourselves up in our foil blankets, and then waited out the storm. Got to the checkpoint just before midnight.
DAY 10 – Sleep Deprivation! So having had between 3hrs sleep a day for 10 days now, plus none on the start night, I feel it’s really starting to catch up with me. First 3 hrs of today were such a battle to keep awake despite red bull, coke and caffeine tablets! Bodies have just had enough! Bosnia has been very different to how I expected, with beautiful forested mountains, however this meant we had to cross them. Climbing several peaks including through the Olympic ski stations. This in turn has meant a slow old day on the bike covering only 240km. We are now in Sarajevo and will make an early start in the morn as we have many more mountains to climb. I have decided that this is far more like the hunger games than a cycle race… The cycling aspect is such a small part of it, it’s just about surviving. Mechanicals, injures, illness, fatigue, hunger, dehydration, navigation, sleep deprivation…these are all reasons why people are quitting at a rapid rate. Oh and earlier I nipped into the woods for a quick pee stop, taking my bike as Jayne was already up the road out of sight, I then got back on bike to notice the land mine signs…oops no more peeing in the bushes for me.
DAY 11 – Too Much! It’s late so I will be brief. We have left Bosnia and now in Montanegto. We were pleased to leave Bosnia. The scenery was spectacular but we weren’t such a huge fan of much else, plus the spectacular scenery loosed its appeal when we had to climb up and over it with tired legs. We covered just shy of 300km through the mountains, 7 or so climbs I think. (6 too many on my little legs). The first half through stunning forests and rocky gorges, the second half through much more barren landscape in 42c heat! With 50km to go I ran out of steam, with 30km to go my right leg had died, and Jayne like the superwoman she is took my bag for me in the hope I would be able to peddle with just one leg quicker. With 10km to go the tears were in full swing and I was unequivocally quitting!!! But somehow I have been talked around and will attempt my worst nightmare which is the traffic of Albania. That’s after an accent of the mighty Mt Lovcen. Will try to right more tomorrow.
DAY 12 – Bad day at the office! So after an emotional evening last night as reality set in that my body might be giving up on me, I woke to be feeling good and with a smile on my face. First task was climbing the 1560m spectacular beast that is Mount Lovcen. Rising from the Mediterranean sea and the town of Kotor (somewhere I would like to go back to) we peddled are way up to checkpoint 4 where we were the last people through before they closed the checkpoint. It was a nice climb and we giggled and chatted our way up. I have had no sore backside, legs, back or anything else for two days now so thought yesterday’s exhaustion was just a blip and that I had turned a corner towards home. By the time we started making our way towards the Albanian boarder the temperature was up to 46C dry desert heat and then again in an instant, just like yesterday, it was like someone cut the engine. I forced my legs on to the boarder control, trying to make them work, but once the other side I could barely breath and looked down to see on a dead flat road that I was doing little more than 6 or 7km/hr!! Considering for the past 11 days we have been averaging 25km/hr this was a bit of a worry! Still not being able to breath very well and feeling
dizzy, Jayne said we should pull into a restaurant to get some shade. As I went to get off my bike my legs wouldn’t work and just gave way beneath me. Then I went through the usual exhaustion stuff; sickness, shacks, pins and needles, numbness etc. The restaurant made a bed up for with some chairs and were incredibly helpful considering it was all done by charades as none of us spoke the same language. After a couple of hours I felt strong enough to peddle the 9km to the nearest hotel, albeit very slowly. Now in the hotel tucked up in bed I feel fine but we are pretty sure the same thing is going to happen again! Basically food is the issue, for the past few days I can’t eat anywhere near enough food, I’m just not hungry, and when I try and force myself to eat I just want to be sick. Been drinking plenty so I don’t think its dehydration. The major problem comes in that Tarka and Jayne think I may be too far into the red to come back from it without many days rest. We will try once more tomorrow morning but if the legs can’t sustain a good pace by Tirane, then I will bow out and let Jayne smash it to the finish line. Sadly just going a bit slower won’t actually get me there in this instance as the damage has already been done, my own stupid fault at not eating enough (huge lesson learnt). Anyway not given up all hope yet but we are being realistic. Shame willpower alone can’t seem to overcome this little power issue. Just tried to eat dinner but after a few mouthfuls I now feel sick as a dog errrrrr!!! On a positive note, so far Albania seems way nicer than I expected. Will let you know what tomorrow brings.
Devastated! My race is over, and I am currently an emotional mess about it, as failure does not sit well with me. Mentally I long to continue but physically I just can’t. After only managing to eat a few mouthfuls of food last night I have just got weaker. Set alarm for 3.30am but when I went to stand I just fell straight back down again. So we set the alarms for 6am but I felt no better, everything just shakes and has zero strength, and on trying to eat I just get sick, so was unfair to hold Jayne back anymore. She has gone on alone and will be there in a flash as she is a truly brilliant cyclist and deserves to be the only female finisher of this race. The organisers made the race much harder this year than to last, and in truth I am not really a good enough cyclist to have even got this far in the cut off time frames. This was only managed through willpower, but never did I think food would be my downfall. So next year when I will have to come back and do it all over again, as I can’t leave it un conquered, I will definitely need to be a faster and stronger cyclist, as the times are quite tight, ideally you need to average 24km/25km an hour not the 21km I had trained for. Right I’m now off to find a way to get to the capital so I can get to a doctor to see if my stomach can be sorted so that I can feel a bit more human. Thank you for all your support and sorry to have let you down.
I have now made my way from Albania to Istanbul so that I can support Jayne at the finish. We were actually on track for the finishers party when we went through last checkpoint, which means now Jayne can spread her wings and ride at her supersonic pace, she has a great shot at making the finishers party despite the delay when I was ill. Well that’s if her navigation holds out, both our Garmins broke a few days ago so we have been using paper maps and Jaynes not a huge fan of map reading!!
I have now had a day to get my head straight, and although still mightily disappointed, I am trying to look at the positives. The first being that I rode 3200km which is approx the same as the Tour de France this year and did it in 11days (the tour does it over 23), so im happy with that as training rides go.
Jayne has taught me a lot, and I would like to think that in just 11days I have become a much better bike rider thanks to her wisdom. She has also constantly reminded me that she has ridden her bike nearly everyday day for 15 years, in all sorts of disciplines and all over the world, and that it takes a long time for the body to have ingrained cycling muscles like hers. My 3 or 4 rides a week for the four summer months of the past couple of years isn’t really enough for the expectations I put on myself.
I have found the TCR/ultra cycling community incredible. No matter whether you are at the front or the back everyone is willing you on with such amazing support. It’s worlds away from the competitive world of sportives, where it’s all about your tan lines and how expensive your bike is. Ultra cycling feels more like a large family and I love it. …Although I will confess that Jayne and I did occasionally take a teeny weeny bit of pleasure when we would catch up with a fit strong male TCR rider who would second take us and increase their speed, as if to say ‘what are girls doing here’ (seemingly known as being ‘chicked’), but this was quickly swapped with smiles and chats of the scale of our misery. The moral boost of seeing another rider when you may have not seen one for a day or two is immense, particularly if you are solo. We came across emotional broken men sat on the side of roads, who were crying at messages from home and struggling to find the will power to continue, but on seeing another rider and chatting for 5 mins was usually enough to spur them on and visa versa.
For anyone thinking of entering the TCR next year… It is not an event where you will see Europe, enjoy cultures or even like riding your bike necessarily, it is a race where you test your limits on an hour by hour basis, you endure misery, pain and suffering nearly all of the time, but it is addictive and brilliant and I will back to do it again, along with TransAmerica and hopefully many others. I think I have found my new sport and am looking forward to getting back on the bike next week to start training.
Now it’s all about Jayne, so let’s will her little dot speedily to the finish line.
DAY 16 – Jayne is now in Turkey on the final straight. She is hoping to come in late tonight but I think it may be tomorrow now from looking at the map. I have spoken to her on the phone and she sounds tired but determined.
Last night was the finishers party in Istanbul. The Turkish tourist board kindly put on a roof top cocktail party for the 150 guests. A great evening was had by all. As well as the award ceremony, it was a chance for racers to take to the stage and tell unbelievable stories of what they have endured… from crashing into the back of cars when you fall asleep cycling, taking 12 hrs to get across 50km of gravel pass, killing wild dogs in self defence, being shot at, chasing down a thief who had stolen your bike and having to have a fist fight to get it back, hallucinating and having long out load conversations with Alberto Contador who was saying to stop and sleep now… and much more! …and these guys made the finishers party!!!
Most of the talk from the organisers was an unapologetic conformation of how much harder the race was this year to last year. Not just the fact it was 600km longer, and that the checkpoints were harder, but mostly the weather was far tougher. Last year the riders had tail winds and cooler temperatures. This year everyone was faced with horrific head winds or crosswinds from start to finish, plus one of the hottest summers.
I think this is summed up by the 25 hardcore finishers in the finishers photo out of the 178 starters!
I hope they don’t make it harder again next year as I really would like to be a member of this exclusive club.
DAY 17 – Jayne’s done it!
LAST POST OF 2015 TCR – Jayne and I are both now home in our respective countries, and although pleased to be home I also feel sad to have left the TCR family behind. To be surrounded by people who ‘really’ understand what it was like, and who also haven’t felt their toes in three weeks, or who can’t hold a fork, do up a zip or sign their name on a credit card slip because their hands still don’t function properly due to nerve damage, was a comforting thing.
To chat to other riders at the finish and find out their backgrounds on the bike was also comforting, as so many where seriously competitive road and MTB racers with some serious pedigree! Which helped me feel a ‘tiny’ bit less disappointed in what I did or didn’t achieve considering my comparative lack of experience on the bike.
It already feels like a life time ago that I last rode my bike and can’t wait to get back on it tomorrow and start my recovery rides (Jayne has given me strict instructions).
Although Jayne and I can both conclude that it was physically the hardest and most demanding event/adventure we have ever endured, we both also loved it, and have both agreed to do it again next year. We wont be riding together however, as our paces are just too different. But we sat on the plane, discussing what we will and won’t do next year, how we can improve and what kit we will change etc.
Mike Hall the organiser concluded that all though he wont make the route/checkpoints any easier than this year, he can’t imagine the weather could be so tough on us again, so tried to assure us it wouldn’t at least ever be any harder than it was this year.
I would like to say a massive thank you to Mike, Camille, Red, Barney and all the other TCR team and volunteers who made it just such an incredible experience. But an even bigger MASSIVE thank you to all of you who supported Jayne and I via dot watching, and amazing messages of support, you really can’t believe how much it motivated us.