Cycling Across Europe | The Transcontinental Bike Race Proved Harder Than We Thought
If you've ever had romantic dreams of bivi-biking across Europe, read this enjoyably brutal account first
The feeling of dejection was total as we sat on the platform waiting for the 09:50 train to Milan. We’d been on the road for a week, but any thought of reaching Istanbul was over as I texted race director Mike Hall to say we’d scratched. We’d actually made the decision 12 hours earlier, but after giving it one last go we knew our hearts just weren’t in it.
As we sat in the sunshine we reflected on the enormity of the previous days. It was difficult to comprehend how far we’d come, having embarked on the mad dash from the flatlands of Belgium to the very western edge of Asia. But, for us, this year’s Transcontinental Race was not to be.
The bike race had started at midnight on the legendary Muur van Geraardsbergen in Belgium with cowbells, flaming torches and rowdy townsfolk, as Fraser [Glass of Shand Cycles], myself and 173 other riders headed into the night, unsure of what exactly lay ahead. Our heads full of apprehension in our ability to reach the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul before the official finishing party in 14 days time.
The first nights’ riding was relatively uneventful and after an hour’s snooze in a churchyard around 5am, we were woken by rain and in no time it was bucketing down. Back on the road, we were nearing the French border when I managed to slip, crashing to the ground closely followed by Fraser riding over the top of me.
"I was pretty beat up with deep gravel rash to my knee and backside, a grizzly puncture wound to my forearm and a badly staved thumb."
As it was wet we had on all our gear, which saved the worst injury, but I was pretty beat up with deep gravel rash to my knee and backside, a grizzly puncture wound to my forearm and a badly staved thumb. Fraser was not fairing too well either with a pulled Achilles, aggravating an old injury. We patched ourselves up and continued, sore but in one piece, and were relieved to reach our target for the day with the first 300km and 20 hours of riding in the bag.
A few more long days brought us towards the first checkpoint on the summit of Mont Ventoux in Provence. Our planned schedule had us climbing early morning, but as we were now half a day behind schedule we expected an uncomfortable ascent in afternoon heat compounded by 150km in the legs.
Slowly we ground our way up the notorious climb and enjoyed the sense of relief in reaching the summit, rewarded by spectacular views and kind words of support from the checkpoint team. Inevitably, what goes up must come down and we had further rewards careering through pinewood forests to Sault in the early evening sun, Fraser’s superior descending skills leaving me for dead on the corners.
By now the cracks were starting to show with hands and backside raw from 14-hour days on the bike, further compounded by injuries from the crash. All the time the race clock was ticking and we knew we were falling behind schedule and it would be difficult if not impossible to make up time.
We reached checkpoint 2 the next night, after riding through spectacular landscapes with the mountains growing evermore impressive, as we pushed further into the Alps. The climbing was hard but it was good to be away from the dull monotony of rolling farmland and to have the scenery and change of pace take the mind off physical discomfort.
Arriving at Sestriere around 10pm another TCR checkpoint team were in the hotel lobby to greet us and stamp our carnets. Race director Mike Hall happened to be there too and I had a quick chat about how things were going.
"I thought I could detect concern [from the race director that] he might have made this year’s race just a little too hard."
He warned about the Strada dell-Assieta that lay ahead the next day, telling tales of punctures and general carnage. I thought I could detect concern he might have made this year’s race just a little too hard.
The hotel had kindly put on rooms at discounted rates, so after scoffing some pizza nearby, we made use of the luxury to get clean, replace dressings and get a good sleep for the day ahead - a pleasant change from roughing it in a bivi bag.
We were up early and after stuffing faces (and pockets) from the breakfast buffet, we wheeled our bikes into the cool mountain air and towards the Strada. In no time we were off paved road and onto gravel winding through sweet scented pine trees onto the old military road than runs along the high alpine ridge from Sestriere to Susa. The views were spectacular and we took delight in skipping along unpaved roads similar to our favourite roads in Scotland.
However, the fun was short lived and as we descended the 2,000m towards the valley below, our spirits sank as the heat became oppressive and we knew we were in for a long and tedious slog across northern Italy. The headwind had picked up too and as the adrenalin of the morning faded, we returned to flat monotony and aches and pains as we rolled through agricultural flatlands and industrial towns and cities.
By now we knew there was no chance of reaching the finishing party in time and we’d also be cutting it fine to catch our flight home. It called for drastic action so we decided we’d miss the Vokovar checkpoint 3 in Croatia and take a ferry to Montenegro. Two ferry crossings across the Adriatic were allowed in the race rulebook and although there’d be a penalty for missing a checkpoint, we knew we’d effectively abandoned the race.
Our hearts were heavy as we deviated from our route and headed for Ancona, battling the wind and the dull monotony that comes from 15km stretches of flat, straight roads through fields of maize and mosquito-infested drainage ditches. Monotony was compounded further after running out of GPS maps (I’d only installed enough map tiles to cover our planned route) so now there was no virtual targets on the GPS screen to play mind games with, which is about all you can do when focusing on pedal stroke for hours on end, and regularly changing hand and seat position to ease discomfort.
And so came the night of our decision to quit, sitting on the terrace of a gelateria café, drenched from another of the thunderstorms that had followed the continental heat wave. We had covered just under 1,800km, but there didn’t feel much point in carrying on if we couldn’t technically finish the race.
"It came down to just the two of us as we shook hands and finished the box of jellybeans we’d been munching."
Fraser had family he was missing deeply and I had commitments to think about too, so it was rather emotional to make the final decision – especially after months of training and the patience of loved ones, colleagues and supporters who neither of us wanted to let down. In the end, however, it came down to just the two of us as we shook hands and finished the box of jellybeans we’d been munching.
Josh Ibbett eventually won the third Transcontinental Race after riding 4,239km in an astonishing 10 days (9 days, 23 hours, 54 minutes to be exact). 175 Racers departed from the Muur van Geraardsbergen and with only half the field finishing, it proved to be a much tougher race than anyone expected.
It took a while to get over the disappointment in scratching, but as I’m writing this I received an email yesterday to say my application for 2016 has been accepted. The route for 2016 looks totally fantastic and with more mountains it will take a very different race strategy, but just as much commitment as before. An exciting prospect for sure.
Hear Russell talk about his Transcontinental Race experience at Bespoked - The UK Handmade Bicycle Show on 17th April 2016 (bespoked.cc), where Shand Cycles will be exhibiting their range of adventure bikes, as ridden by Russell and Fraser in the TCR.
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