by Jim Cotton.
The Transcontinental Race (TCR) is a race like no other. It’s a far cry from the slick and scientific world of pro-cycling or the frenzied and frantic world of local amateur racing. The TransCon is an ultra-distance race across the entirety of Continental Europe. And, as a fully self-supported race, the riders are completely on their own for however long it takes them.
At TCR, other than a mass start, riders are alone until they reach the finish; beyond the need to check in at four official checkpoints, the route is their own, and the ride is their own. Support of any form is prohibited, as is riding in groups with other participants. They must find their own food, their own sleeping arrangements, sort out their own mechanicals and monitor their own physical wellbeing. It’s about as tough as it gets.
Although the experiences of the race are highly unique to every rider tackling an approximately 3,800km (2,300mile) epic, there are themes that are common to all, as we learn from two racers who took on the 2016 edition; James Hayden and Stuart Birnie.
The fourth edition of TCR started in the Belgian cycling-mecca of Geraardsbergen and took riders to Canakkale in Turkey, via four intermediate checkpoints that forced riders into mountainous routes through France’s Massif Central, the Swiss and Italian Alps, and the Durmitor Massif in Montenegro, amounting to something in the region of 50,000m (165,000ft) of climbing. James was racing TCR for the second time, and finished with both fourth place and the coveted combativity prize, whilst Stuart – a noted ultra long-distance Time Triallist – was racing for the first time, and finished in 15th position.
Between the checkpoints riders plan their own routes and the choices vary quite significantly. Ferries are allowed at certain points and the choice whether to go via these are as hotly debated by the riders (and the army of ‘dot-watchers’ who follow their progress online) as the more obvious choices of going “over” or “around”. And then comes the question of how long do you ride for before you stop…
The physical demands of the race are unrivalled, with riders pushing themselves to limits that many wouldn’t know existed, meaning illness and ailments are commonplace. These are not purely due to the massive stress on the immune system, but also due to the physical demand of spending seemingly endless hours on the bike. For example, Stuart suffered saddle sores so severe that he was forced to ride out of the saddle as much as possible for a number of days…. which in turn resulted in massive knee pains throughout the remainder of the race.
James is no stranger to the physical challenges. In 2015 he developed a condition known as Shermer’s Neck, where the strains of riding ultra-distances mean that the neck muscles can no longer support the weight of the head. Incredibly James attempted to ride on with this hugely debilitating condition by duct-taping his head into a position where he could see the road ahead but he was eventually forced to scratch after 3,100km.
And yet, the challenge is just as much mental as it is physical. To push yourself to keep going day after day with only your thoughts for company, and relying on snatched hours of sleep in a bivvy bag, requires a mental fortitude that many simply do not possess. A component of coping with this is being able to switch down your mental activity. Anyone who has spent long days in the saddle will have experienced that blissful state where the head empties. As James describes: “My brain just shuts off, all thought processes stop and time becomes irrelevant. I can go for hours without noticing. It’s really quite beautiful, I seem to operate outside of time.”
Inevitably though that blissful mental haze eventually cracks too, with sleep-deprived and caffeine-addled minds rebelling. Both riders describe tales of near-lunacy towards the end of the race, something that James had prepared himself for as a very realistic by-product of the demands of pushing for a podium position. And then the desire to simply ‘make it stop’ gets louder and louder. The dropout rate – known as ‘scratching’ – is inevitably high. Of the 200 starters, 73 riders scratched and a further 21 were unclassified* leaving the number of official finishers at a little over 50%. The 2016 race winner, Kristof Allegaert reached Cannakale in 8 days, 18 hours, 02 minutes , a full day ahead on the second placed rider. James and Stuart’s TCR’s lasted for 10 days and 12 days respectively.
After battling through that and completing the race however, both riders’ recollections are weighted towards the positives more than the negatives. The experiencing of new landscapes and cultures is at the forefront, as is the slightly counter-intuitive fact that doing so under such extremes conditions (and on two wheels) actually provides a more lucid and human exploration of the European environment.
The differences in the ultimate highlight of the event pinpointed by each rider are striking though. For Stuart, being surprised by his fiancé and his coach cheering him on at the side of the road near Gallipoli – a relatively short distance from the finish line – is something in particular he picks out. As he states, “Like most Aussie blokes I’m a bit like Darth Vader when it comes to emotions, but riding away from them was probably the closest I came to shedding tears during the race.”
Stuart’s side project of having at least one beer in each of the countries he passed through is a great testament to the range of approaches and attitudes to the race, and provided more great memories. For example, in Bosnia, “a bunch of random blokes at some outdoor bar waved me down in in the early hours and we had a chat – I had a local lager with them but had to insist I stopped at one because I was already struggling to stay awake. They raided the fridge and gave me a bunch of cans of soft drink instead!”
Conversely, having lost a lot of time to a chest infection early in the event, James passed a great deal of the field in an attempt to attain a podium place and consequently found one of his highlights to be based on solitude. After missing a ferry crossing that would have taken him into the finishing town, he was forced to wait for hours in the dead of night for the next boat. This period of helplessness after days of brutal self-motivation during which he says that he had “not stopped, not thought, not relaxed since clipping into my pedals and pushing off from checkpoint one”, provided a time and space to reflect upon and contemplate his achievement whilst still within the race. It’s ironic, but wonderfully poetic, that this moment of inactivity became the lasting memory of his TCR.
The TCR is clearly more than a just a very long bike race. It’s an adventure in the old tradition and, for most of the riders, the journey is far more important than the final finishing position. Something happens to all of them out there. As soon as the flag drops in Geraardsbergen, they become the Masters of their own Destinies. Alone, they make the choices that will shape their immediate futures. Alone, they encounter the obstacles, endure the hard times and overcome the self-doubt. And, as bike riders, they do it exposed the elements and powered by their own muscles. For all the pain and suffering, this liberation is clearly a very potent drug; as many riders come back for more.
In a small way, it’s the same for us all; whenever we climb aboard our bikes, we experience something of this feeling of the liberated individual. When viewed like this it becomes a little bit easier to understand the motivations of those who have the strength to keep riding clear across a Continent.
LINKS FOR MORE INFO:
Great 30min film from TCR sponsors PEdAL ED – though please note Stuart is mislabelled as Jack Keevil. The photos used in this piece are taken from this film.
* TCR – Unclassified: “Despite crossing the finish line in a certain position, these racers are unclassified due to starting in a pair and finishing as a solo, starting as a solo but riding a significant portion of the race with another racer, or due to receiving outside assistance.”