August 20, 2015
I failed. My goal was to complete the Transcontinental Race in less than 15 days in order to make it to the finishers’ party. But I reached Café Hisar on the Bosphorus in Istanbul on August 9, 15 days, 20 hours and 25 minutes after starting from the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen in Belgium. No party for me.
Why? I was fit. I was well prepared: my Scott Solace was the right bike for this gruelling challenge, I was carrying exactly what I needed, and I had plotted the best possible route thanks to the invaluable advice of my friend Chris, a TCR veteran (without him, I would still be trying to get out of some Bosnian dirt road as I am writing this piece).
But I made “rookie” mistakes.
The “rookie” mistakes
1) I forgot my passport in a gas station where I had stopped for ice cream in the Rhone valley on day 3. By the time I realised it, I was already 60km away. So I had to ride back. That’s 120km added to my route, or approximately 5 hours lost.
2) On day 5, I was a bit too enthusiastic (read: fast) on Strada dell’Assietta, an amazing but very, very bad gravel road above Sestrières, Italy. It took me more than 6 hours to complete this 40km section due to 4 pinch flats. I had to walk the last part to save my only good tube, having failed to patch the others. By the time I got off the mountain, it was almost dark. I should have followed my friend Chris’ advice to pack a better, only slightly heavier air pump which may have saved me from the seemingly endless stream of pinch flats.
3) The infamous energy drink. Coming into Greece on day 13, I was feeling very sleepy. This is one of the big challenges for all TCR racers. Riding 15 to 17 hours and sleeping 4 to 6 hours a day (in my case) is surprisingly manageable, but there are times when you just struggle to keep your eyes open. After a while, especially on straight roads, the ride becomes monotonous and fatigue starts setting in.
Coffee, singing out loud and sprinting for imaginary town signs did not work this time. So, instead of stopping for a power nap in a field, I decided to have a so called ‘energy drink’. Within half an hour, I was on the verge of collapsing on the road side. I barely made it to a gas station where I threw up everything. I thought I would be OK and kept going, only to ride into a giant thunderstorm. This proved too much for my body, which started to shudder and shake. My only choice was to check into the next hotel, spend an hour in a hot shower and crawl into bed, thinking that my race was over.
The next morning I was fortunately feeling better. I managed to get on my bike with an empty stomach, very little appetite and a constant head wind. But in this state I could only ride 200km that day, and I had lost another 6 hours, a lot of energy and any hope of making the finishers’ party. However I was back in the race and I knew I would make it to Istanbul, no matter what.
4) Last, but not least, I failed to recognise the very nature of The Transcontinental Race. It is a race, yes, and there are some very fast riders out there. The winner, Josh Ibbett, made it to Istanbul in 9 days, 23 hours and 54 minutes. That’s more than 420 km per day, and the guy is an outstanding athlete (read more on his blog).
But for the other mere mortals like me, the TCR is about crossing a whole continent on a bike, managing one’s own speed, abilities, mechanicals, navigation skills, and inner voice which is constantly pleading to stop. More than a race, it is a life changing adventure, riding through the most remote, beautiful places, and meeting amazing people on the road.
There is no official route for the Transcontinental Race. Just a start line in Geraarsdbergen, Belgium and a finish line in Istanbul, Turkey. However, you have to ride through 4 checkpoints in between: Mont Ventoux (France), Strada dell’Assietta (Italy), Vukovar (Croatia) and Mount Lovcen (Montenegro). How you get to the checkpoints is largely up to you.
My route, plotted with the invaluable help of Chris, was not always the most direct one; but it proved just perfect. First of all, it used roads that actually existed and were rideable. Many racers ended up on dead ends, road works, dirt roads or mega highways. Careful research using Google maps, Strava heat map, Chris’ experience last year and common sense ensured I never had such a problem. I knew I could trust the purple line on my Garmin and almost never had to improvise on the road.
This route took me through breathtaking places which is why I struggle to choose the best moment of the race. Was it the Strada dell’Assietta at sunset, in spite of the problems I had there? Or crossing Slovenia, the most bike friendly country I have ever visited? Or the mountains of Bosnia, a war field not so long ago, the unexpected discovery of the trip? Or riding up a remote pass in Albania at sunset? Or the bay of Kotor before climbing Mount Lovcen? In the end, the route was about discovery, not picking favorites, and now I have endless memories of places I wish to revisit.
The TCR is not just about where you go, it’s also the many people you meet on the road.
One of the few rules of the TCR is that drafting is not allowed. You must ride alone. But, with 170 riders all going from Belgium to Turkey on roughly similar routes, you inevitably bump into fellow racers on the way.
I never saw the top riders after the start. By the end of day 1, some were already 200km ahead of me (!). My game plan was to sustain a relatively fast pace by getting enough rest and sleep in hotels. That, combined with my passport adventure on day 3, meant that I spent the whole race catching people on the road, while some would pass me again when I was stopped. I also spent days without seeing anyone because of some specific route choices – this was the case in Bosnia on day 10. On that night, I checked into a hotel in Foca, a small town. What did I see when I asked the receptionist where I could put my bike? Another TCR rider’s machine. Kurt, a hardcore and friendly Flemish dude, was there. We had a chat in the morning, went our own way and met a few more times that day.
Did I feel lonely during the race? Sometimes. But there was always somebody around. I felt there would always be a helping hand if I had a problem, even in the most unlikely places. Like on the slopes of Mount Lovcen where a bunch of Italian tourists helped me fix a flat I was struggling to repair due to my numb hands (see below). Albania was another great example: my route took me deep into the mountains, away from the busy highways. But the roads were incredibly bad and the temperature rose to 42°C before a massive storm forced me to a stop. I found a gas station where I waited out the storm, had the best omelette ever, and was able to skype with my wife thanks to perfect wifi. I spent the rest of the day going up and down a beautiful mountain pass leading me to the Macedonian border. Every village I crossed was full of life: men chatting and laughing at café terraces, kids playing and cheering on me. This was in stark contrast with France where the countryside is deserted and I sometimes had to ride 30km before I could find a place to buy food.
The human body is amazing
I learned a lot during the TCR. About my continent, about people, but also about myself. In short, the human body is amazing. I trained hard but had never done anything close to this huge challenge. So I had no idea how I would cope with riding so much for so long. What did I experience?
1) The pains disappear. Perhaps the biggest issue I had during the first half of the race was pains in various parts of my body. Rain and cold in the first two days in Belgium and France were hard on my knees. Soon, my Achilles tendons became very painful. Riding a long portion at the end of day 2 in the aero bars strained my right hamstring. Sitting on the saddle was more and more uncomfortable. I was concerned that it would only become worse and I would eventually have to quit the race, like many. Reading their heart breaking story on the TCR Facebook group was not very comforting.
But, as new pains were coming, others were fading. The knees got better. Riding up Mont Ventoux and across the Alps meant less tension on the hamstrings. Frequent self massages and warmer weather healed my Achilles tendons. By day 9, my body was painless and remained so until the finish. My body was my best buddy.
Also, as incredible as it seems, my legs were never sore. Because riding for so long meant that I had to ride at low intensity. No KOM attempts. No town sign sprints. Just riding at a sustainable pace. On day 11, I rode 276km and climbed 4070m in Bosnia and Montenegro. My moving time was 12 hours and 54 minutes. For 11 hours and 44 minutes (91%), my heart rate was below 110bpm. My maximum was a ridiculous 123bpm.
2) Nutrition was an area where I kept making mistakes throughout the race. Gas stations are handy: they are on the road side and you can quickly grab food and drinks. But they offer a limited selection, and it’s almost all highly processed, packaged food. And you can’t race on only coke and snickers. Or maybe you can, but not for days on end. When your race is 15 days long, you need real food, not just sugar. I experienced huge dips of energy on days where I would skip meals and try to survive on only soft drinks, biscuits and potato chips. My energy was at a maximum after having burger in France, pizza in Italy, pastries in Slovenia and local, unnamed specialties in Turkey. So the lesson is: eat real food and the body will perform.
3) The main problem for the second half of the race was a numb right hand. It is known as ulnar neuropathy, a common issue in ultra endurance cycling: you spend so much time holding your handlebars that you compress the ulnar nerve in your hand. The result is a loss of strength, dexterity, and sometimes pins and needles.
I started having trouble changing gears, holding a fork and giving change in gas stations. That was the funny part. However, it was more stressful to find out that it was becoming increasingly difficult to put my tire back into place when fixing a flat. I almost cried after I successfully did it at the end of a hard day spent in a head wind in Greece. The next morning, I found a bike shop and had my tires pumped up to 100psi. It ensured I had no pinch flats until the finish, but I reached the Bosphorus with a very sore bottom.
Now that I am off the bike and recovering, the hand is recovering too. Just more proof that nothing is permanent and the body can and does heal itself.
4) By the end, I became very slow. My ‘energy drink’ incident, instead of giving what the hype promises, took a lot of… energy from my body. By day 14, every railway bridge would see me drop to my 34×32. 18kph had become the new 25kph. My heart rate was rarely going over 100bpm, even when sprinting away from stray dogs. This was the body protecting itself, working as it should to keep me going at a very minimum with very little reserve. It was obvious to me that it was time to reach the finish line.
The last day
I started day 16 at 4am in Kesan, 280km from the finish line. The last day. I was relieved because I was getting very tired. I was also incredibly sad that this was all coming to an end. At 5am, I stopped at a gas station for some food. Everything was quiet. I was treated with the best toasted sandwich ever. It had the taste of the 4000km adventure I had just spent on my bike. At the table next to me, a worker was drinking coffee and his phone was playing traditional Turkish music. I knew that there would be tears on my last day but I did not think it would start at 5am.
I still had 260km to ride to the finish and spent the rest of the day in the pain cave, fighting head wind, stray dogs, endless rolling hills and big trucks on crazy highways. And I finally made my way to the Bosphorus and Café Hisar. Then it was cheers, more tears, and beers. I was a TCR finisher.
Total distance: 4’463.8km (279km per day)
Total time in lycra: 263 hours 14 minutes (16 hours 27 minutes per day while my goal was 15 hours)
Total moving time: 189 hours 40 minutes (72% of total time in lycra – not a great ratio compared to many racers)
Total climbing: 32’458m (2028m per day)
Number of flats: 8, 4 of which on Strada dell’Assietta
Starters: approx 170
Finishers: approx 82 (some are still on the road)
This is not an Oscar ceremony, but I want to thank here the people without whom I would not have made it to Istanbul.
My friend Chris. You rode the 2014 TCR, convinced me to enter the 2015 race, taught me everything I needed to know in terms of equipment, logistics, routing. You turned a hardcore roadie into an ultra endurance racer. I cursed you many times along the way for dragging me into this madness, but can’t thank you enough today. You started the race with severe sciatic problems and were way ahead of me until you had to quit, beaten by the pain. Shaking hands with you in Cervignano, Italy and riding on to Slovenia was one of the hardest moment of my race. Get well soon, my friend.
My wife Lillie. What can I say? My best supporter in life, and on the TCR. I spent so many hours training for the TCR, and you never complained. You were with me at the start. You were waiting for me at the finish. You spent 16 days nervously watching blue dot #20 (not always) moving on an online map, and worrying. I love you so much Lillie. And I promise you that we will spend our next biking adventure together.
Heather, Chris’ wife. You were a great support to TCR widow Lillie. I will also never forget the poem you texted me as I was heading into the dark at the end of a long day to Ohrid, Macedonia:
There once was a man named Alain,
Who hatched a great cycling plan,
From Brussels to the Bosphorus,
My that sounds preposterous!
But if anyone can do it, he can.
Mike Hall, the organiser of the TCR, and all his team. As fellow participant Mike Sheldrake wrote on the TCR Facebook group: « Thank you Mike Hall for having the imagination, vision, drive and organisational skills to make this incredible event roll. It’s unique and born from the best philosophy. You have created far more than a bike race. TCR brings people together and changes lives. Keep spinning those imaginative cranks. »
My bike! The Scott Solace was a very loyal companion. Fast when it needed to be, smooth on bad roads, comfortable at all times. Zero mechanicals apart from flats which were mostly due to wrong tire pressure. Thanks buddy.
Last but not least, my family, my friends, CyclingTips and all my followers on social media. Your support has been amazing and gave me strength in difficult moments. It was fun sharing this adventure with all of you. Posting a daily picture and reading your comments on CyclingTips’s Instagram was the perfect way to wrap up each day and get ready for the next stage.
Getting back on the bike when my body has recovered. A new house in a few weeks. A baby in October. An exciting new job which involves adventures on bikes, for everybody.
You can follow me on:
And don’t forget: anybody can go on an epic adventure. It does not need to be of the scale of the Transcontinental Race – it can be your longest ride ever, a holiday to discover the Alps or a multi day tour with your best friend. But riding bikes makes happy. And it changes lives.
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