Cycling, Ride Reports

Transcontinental, part 1: départ

In July and August 2022, I competed in the eighth edition of the Transcontinental Race (TCR) – a 4,000 km non-stop self-supported bike race across Europe. The race took me through 13 countries, to the limits of my physical endurance, and to some interesting places in my own head too.

But my TCR did not end how I wanted it to. I covered 3,500 km fighting for a place in the top 5 before a terminal frame failure forced me to scratch on top of a mountain in Romania. More on that in a later post, but let’s start with the story of how I got there in the first place.

My route for TCR no. 8, starting in in Belgium, bouncing through 4 control points, and ending up on the coast of the Black Sea in Bulgaria.

So – what exactly is this race about? The TCR is a single-stage self-supported bike race, starting (this year) in Belgium and finishing in Bulgaria. The winner is quite simply the first rider to reach the finish line at the Black Sea, the only requirements being that they:

  1. pass through 4 control points (CPs) along the way (Czechia, Italy, Montenegro, Romania),
  2. receive no support that is not commercially available to other riders, and
  3. ride alone.

All the details are left to the riders to figure out for themselves. No private resupply or help from friends (even in the form of tactical advice), no allowances for rest. Any pause or break you might take (e.g., for sleep) is to the advantage of your competitors, so you’d better make it count.

I’d done a few events like this before, but what set the TCR apart for me was its length – typical winning times are around 10 days – and moreover that it is self-routed. Each rider must plan their own route between control points, often spanning 1,000 km of tarmac and gravel and crossing several countries. This was – quite literally – new territory for me.

Race prep and training

It’s worth saying that the previous edition – no. 7 – took place in 2019. No. 8 was originally slated for 2020, but was postponed twice due to COVID. I applied in early 2022 when a batch of new places was unexpectedly announced. I wasn’t really expecting anything, but to my surprise I got the “congratulations are in order” email confirming my place early in February, and the game was on.

I’d already done a self-supported event similar in distance (Around Norway, 3,400 km, 2021), so I wasn’t starting from scratch. But the TCR is more complicated in a couple of important ways.

Firstly, it passes through 13 countries, many of which are culturally distant from the homeliness of western Europe. I’d have to “learn” a new country practically every day for the purposes of self-supported racing. I had no idea what to expect in terms of availability of food, drink, or shelter, and would have to learn quickly and improvise. For example, in countries like the UK and Germany, I can minimise my stopping time by running my food and drink supplies down to zero, being confident that I will be able to find somewhere to stock up again when needed. This strategy would be more risky in unfamiliar countries, and mitigating this risk – by stopping more regularly – would be costly in terms of time.

Secondly, this race does not have a fixed route. This gives riders the hugely complex task of finding the most efficient route to cycle between each of the control points, using only imperfect online maps (which generally become more imperfect the further from western Europe you get). Factors like road surface, elevation gain, total distance, urban density, resupply options, border crossings, and even prevailing winds all had to be considered and weighed up against one another. A poorly chosen route could cost you hours against your competitors, so this was one of the most daunting aspects of my race prep.

My strategy here was to plot a basic route from one CP to the next with Komoot, and then to refine it iteratively, section by section, until I’d examined most of the route and was satisfied that each bit was optimal. This was super time-consuming (took weeks), and when it came down to it, I didn’t even do it properly. I neglected (or just forgot about) certain parts of the route, and probably ended up conceding several hours as a result. But having to find your own way is the next level in self-sufficiency – it’s what drew me to the race in the first place, and I certainly learned a few lessons here. More on this later, as the race unfolds.

Apologies to the race organisers – this made me laugh more than it should’ve

Meanwhile, my training for the TCR was also not very structured. My job had been demanding and stressful since I’d got my place in the race, which made it difficult or impossible to dedicate as much time and energy to it as I wanted. In an ideal world, I’d have a weekly menu of “hard” rides that I could pick from depending on time available; something like this:

  • 150-200 km – weekend
  • Zwift interval sessions – mid-week
  • Zwift 60 minute efforts, e.g., Ventoux – mid-week

I’d pick 2-3 of these each week and give it everything – the goal being to end the ride at death’s door, absolutely nothing left in the tank. Then I’d fill every other day of the week with 1-2 hours of very easy recovery rides, either outdoors or in Zwift. On the one hand, I wanted to spend a lot of time in the saddle, riding at approximately the pace I’d be pushing during the race (a mixture of zones 1 & 2) and increasing my body’s ability to derive energy from fat. Fat burning is crucial during ultra-endurance events, since there are times when you will have to dip into your body fat reserves. On the other hand, I wanted to push my threshold power up as much as possible, so that I could generate more power while staying in zones 1 & 2. This is what the hard sessions were for.

That was the intention, anyway. The reality of my training was much less disciplined. I was usually too drained from work to have the motivation for the hard mid-week sessions, and so it looked more like this:

  • At the weekend: one 150-200 km ride, as hard as possible
  • Every other day: 1-2 hours easy, with a couple of longer (but still easy) rides thrown in when I had the time

The weekday rides typically meant getting up at 05:30 so that I could be done in time for breakfast with Miranda (I’ve somehow acquired the role in our relationship of “breakfast maker”, so I have to be finished and showered in time to put the tea and toast on, get the marmalade and Marmite out, etc.). Having all of my “hard” training concentrated at the weekend put a lot of pressure on me to get as much out of it as possible, so my weekends were not always restful. Sometimes I wanted to go out and really smash it… But sometimes I didn’t.

In any case, I spent the months beforehand bumbling along with this semi-structured, half-hearted training regime. Of course, I had to do a few longer rides too – to get into the zone, practise logistics and planning, tweak my kit choices, etc. This amounted to one 400 km audax (the Voralpen-Rundfahrt), an 800 km jaunt down to the Alps to tackle the passes of Stelvio and Gavia (see the write-up here), and a 1,000 km audax through Czechia that I decided to do without sleep (described here). The latter two in fact gave me some useful intel about the earlier stretches of the TCR route, taking me all the way to and over the CP2 parcours on Gavia, and close to CP1 in Czechia.

These longer rides also helped me refine my equipment choices. I decided that the sleeping kit I’d used in Norway last year would be overkill in the hotter climes of the TCR, and so bought yet another ultralight sleeping bag, along with another pair of shoes to add to my ever-growing collection and new bags for the bike.

Lonely in Geraardsbergen

The race returned for 2022 to its traditional starting place in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, where we’d be departing at 22:00 on Sunday the 24th of July. Physically getting there was the first concrete step on the road to Bulgaria. I didn’t want to take any form of transport that required me to pack my bike into a box, and this left me with effectively one option. (Yes, yes, I could also have ridden there, but I couldn’t afford the time off work.)

I set off on the Friday on what was to be a miserable 13 hour coach journey involving a coach being cancelled 12 hours before departure, hours spent on the phone rebooking, and finally getting ill on the bus and being sick twice.

The night before, just after finishing work, I got an email telling me that my coach trip from Munich to Brussels had been cancelled, but not to worry – I’d been booked onto a train and coach combination instead. Except my bike reservation hadn’t been transferred, as the train had no space for it. I (and Miranda) spent the entire evening trying frantically to get hold of FlixBus’s elusive customer service to find an alternative route that could accommodate my bike. We managed to find one, but my confidence in getting the bike onto it was still low (after a bad experience in Italy a couple of years previously, where the FlixBus on which I’d reserved a bike space turned up with no means of carrying a bike). I didn’t sleep well that night.

Still, I made it onto the bus in the morning at 07:00, complete with bike. Then I bought a sandwich at one of the stops that had a disagreement with my stomach. What I thought was travel sickness turned out to be real sickness, and I spent the layover in Düsseldorf trying not to be sick (unsuccessfully – apologies to Tomo Café). I wasn’t feeling much better when I got on the next coach to Brussels, and with the onboard toilet occupied at the wrong moment I was very grateful for the plastic bag that Miranda had given me before I left. I felt as bad for the other passengers as I did for myself.

An inauspicious start. Still, I felt a little better when I arrived in Brussels at 22:30, and managed to cycle the 50 km to the hotel in Zottegem without further incident, arriving at 01:00.

Street-lit cobbles between Brussels and Zottegem

After the indignities of Friday’s coach journey, I spent Saturday morning exploring the cobbled monuments of Flanders in uncharacteristically beautiful sunshine, including Oudenaarde, the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, and the Koppenberg. It was pretty cool to see all of these famous places on the eve of the TCR itself, despite still feeling a bit fragile from the day before.

Back at the hotel, having picked up some food in town, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I spent a bit of time talking to some friends on WhatsApp, and a bit more talking to Miranda on the phone, but it was a lonely afternoon and evening holed up in my hotel room. I had nothing to do, and nothing to distract me from the hardships looming ahead of me. Part of me thought it would be convenient if I just couldn’t start the race due to illness, but then I remembered that Miranda had already committed to being a volunteer at CP4, so going home now would suck in a different way. I resigned myself to my fate and ate a miserable dinner of shop-bought pasta salad before turning in for the night.

Oudenaarde in the sun

The day of the race itself was a strange one. The thing starts at 22:00, so you have the entire day to do… well… something. By this point you’ve done everything you need to do and have been waiting for months for this moment (or, for many in this edition, years), and now you have a whole day to kill. It’s a strange and slightly frustrating feeling to be twiddling your thumbs on the eve of something so daunting.

With the town simmering in all this nervous energy, my insecurities came to the surface. I’d never ridden the TCR before. I felt like a total novice turning up to a Sunday club ride with the regulars all kitted out and chatting away, wanting to turn around and go home because the whole thing is just too scary. This was my first foray into the ultra-racing community – and the first time I’d seen other TCR racers in the flesh – and I felt like a newbie all over again.

Of course, this is all rubbish – I do know what I’m doing and I do know that I stand to finish well. But the TCR has almost legendary status in the European ultra-racing scene, those three weighty letters carrying a mythology all of their own. So facing down the start line that Sunday, I felt rather small.

Looking more confident than I felt

The sign-on in Geraardsbergen was from 10:00 until 16:00 and involved picking up the brevet card and tracker and a quick once-over of the bike. Everyone was just milling around after the sign-on, unsure what to do with themselves for the rest of the day. Some people were eating lunch in restaurants, others were trying to nap in the midday sun, but I expect most were just tired of waiting by this point. As for me, I headed off to the Flandrien Hotel, which had been recommended by the organisers and which I will also happily recommend, and chilled there for the afternoon in the presence of a handful of fellow riders.

Waiting for the rider briefing

I spent the final hour before the départ itself in the main square in the centre of Geraardsbergen. There was thumping music, lots of cyclists, and a vibe of something significant about to happen.

I managed to track down a couple of familiar faces for a chat, but otherwise spent the time just loitering, looking at people’s bikes. When the mayor of Geraardsbergen emerged in his finery and rang his bell to announce the start of the race, it was a relief.

Aaaand we’re off!

We filed under the banner at the start and began the customary processional lap of the town, complete with a police escort. While we were doing this, the spectators in the square were receiving flaming torches and making their way up the Muur van Geraardsbergen to line the sides of the climb. As we came back through the square and began the climb ourselves, I saw a little bit what it must be like being a pro in a cobbled classic. A cacophony of cheering fans (OK, most of them were probably friends and family) lining the climb in the semi-darkness, the cobbles standing out in relief under the torchlight.

The processional lap around Geraardsbergen as TCR no. 8 begins. By pure chance, the eventual winner – Christoph Strasser – is dead centre in this photo, wearing black and yellow bib shorts, white socks, and a white jersey (looking to his left).

The crowd thinned out and the clamour subsided as we reached the chapel at the top of the climb. We were treated to one last view over Geraardsbergen under a sky of fading magenta, and a few minutes later the only noise we had for company was the gentle hum of tyres on tarmac as we rolled out of town. This too thinned out as the self-routed nature of the event began to show, people’s individual routes already beginning to diverge from one another just a kilometre from the start. After a couple of hours of riding, I was all but alone.

After the stress of the months, weeks, and days leading up the start, and the strange mixture of hubbub and boredom in Geraardsbergen, this solitude was what I’d been waiting for. All the distractions are gone and you can get down to the task of racing. You’re not fully in the zone yet – that takes a few days – but you can start to settle in and develop that focus that makes ultra-distance racing so special. With an evening start, you have a good 8 hours of peace and quiet with nary a car on the road.

CP1 was around 800 km down the road. I’d be riding out of Belgium, through the Netherlands, and across the north of Germany before crossing the Ore Mountains into Czechia. Most of these places were in some way familiar to me – having either visited them before or knowing some of the country/language – and my pre-race anxiety was starting to fade.

Coming up in the next post: ticking off the first control, crashing in Regensburg, and reaching the Alps.

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