Cycling, Ride Reports

Transcontinental, part 2: to the Alps

Stage 1 (of 1) of the TCR began at 22:00 on Sunday the 24th of July.

The timing might seem inconvenient, but in a couple of ways it actually made things simpler. For most ultra-events you face a tough decision on day one: to ride through the first night or not? You’ll make extra progress on day one, but at the cost of building up sleep debt. On the other hand, you might as well capitalise on your freshness to get ahead early. The effects this will have later in the race are not obvious. It’s not an easy call.

Of course, if the organiser decides to start the race in the evening, they are effectively taking this difficult decision away from you. In our case it also meant being able to escape the densely populated Benelux area at night while everyone was sleeping and the roads were empty. It certainly made for a peaceful start to the race.

Speaking of tough decisions, there wasn’t long to wait before the first routing dilemma – in fact, the difficulty started pretty much immediately on leaving Geraardsbergen.

Day 1: the north/south question

The most direct route to CP1 would take you via Cologne/Bonn and the Rothaar Mountains. This option was about 830 km, with 7,500 m of climbing (according to Komoot). Avoiding this climbing would mean going considerably further north to avoid the Ruhrgebiet: a huge conurbation that would have you riding through 100 km of urban sprawl in the Monday morning rush hour. While the route looked a lot longer on the map, the many looooong, straight roads in this part of Germany meant that it somehow only added around 30 km. On the other hand, it eliminated more more than 2,000 m of climbing, which to me seemed very much worth the trade off.

The two major routes chosen by TCR riders: one to the north, one to the south.
The routing dilemma of day 1

As day 1 of the race unfolded, it seemed like there was no clear consensus to this dilemma. In fact, the field split almost exactly in half, one group favouring the flatter terrain to the north, the other making a beeline directly over the mountains to CP1. In the end, there seemed to be very little in it, with the frontrunners from both groups reaching CP1 at roughly the same time.

The field bifurcates on day 1

Not being a fan of hills, I was in the northern contingent. The route started similarly for everyone – the first task being to escape Belgium and the fringes of the Ruhrgebiet under cover of darkness. Even among those taking a northerly route, of course, each rider’s route was a bit different. I found myself criss-crossing others’ routes in the dark, sometimes joining a road to see a red tail light up ahead of me, only for it to turn away and vanish into the night a few minutes later.

I discovered quickly that on a self-routed event it’s very easy to get spooked when you see someone else taking a different route. Should I really be going this way? Maybe they know something I don’t… Is my route actually totally wrong? This happened to me shortly after leaving Geraardsbergen, with my computer telling me to turn left down some small side road and head down to what looked like a cycle path along a river. Meanwhile, everyone else seemed to be continuing along the road. I didn’t remember at all why I’d plotted that particular part of the route, or even if I’d done it deliberately. It could be that I’d checked it thoroughly and found a really convenient shortcut on a lovely asphalt cycle path. Or it could be that it was an unpaved quagmire that Komoot had decided would be a fun detour for me. I had no idea, so I played it safe and followed everyone else, spending the next hour or so trying to reconnect with my original route.

Throughout the race, I found that I rarely knew why I was actually on a given stretch of road. Unless I already knew the area well, I typically wouldn’t be able to place myself on a map of my route. If I’d been able to see the bigger picture of where I was, I might have been able to remember the routing decisions that had led me to that particular spot when planning my route all those weeks ago. As it was, though, I was just blindly following the line on my computer screen. This lack of situational awareness made it easy to doubt my route if it appeared to be going off in some strange direction, like down a narrow road towards a river.

Still, I recovered my original route and kept pedalling through the night. It was a warm summer night and the riding was peaceful. At around 2am I passed a man standing on a deserted road beside an industrial estate and cheering me on. A dot watcher! The first of many who’d accost me during the race.

After 8 hours or so, the sky was lightening and cars were appearing on the roads. By this point I was somewhere north of the Ruhrgebiet and the Monday morning rush hour was getting under way. After this, most of the day blurs in my memory. I honestly don’t remember that much of it, other than that it was flat, uneventful, dominated by long, straight roads, and rather hot. But not unenjoyable. As it happened, we had a belter of a tailwind, and although the route got a little hiller toward the end it was a very fast day. I’m the kind of cyclist who gets frustrated by the tedium of cycling uphill when I’m trying to get somewhere, so the feeling of moving fast always lifts my spirits, even if that speed is mostly cancelled out by extra distance.

Toward the end of the day, the flat ground ran out – as I knew it would. My mood responded – as I knew it would – and I started getting grumpy about the slower progress. I happened upon a crate overflowing with delicious-looking green plums from someone’s garden, with a note encouraging passers-by to help themselves. Fresh fruit is a real luxury when racing, so I dutifully filled the bento box on my handlebars to capacity and set off again. A few plums were lost overboard, thanks to bumps in the road, but I managed to finish them off in about 20 minutes or so.

Some plums sitting in the snack box on my aero bars.
Delicious free plums

Thus far I’d been studiously avoiding looking at the map on dotwatcher.cc, so I didn’t know where I was in relation to anyone else. A self-supported race is effectively an individual time trial – with interactions between riders all but forbidden (you can talk to other riders, but that’s about it). In this sense, my only real competitor in such a race is myself, and so the positions of others on the road are at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction. If someone’s about to overtake me, what am I going to do? If I’m pacing myself right, I should already be at my limit and be unable to respond to them without blowing up shortly afterwards. So I do my own thing.

Those were my principles, anyway. I’d like to say that I was so focussed on the race that I was head-down with my phone on flight mode the whole time, but I’d be lying. Ultra-racing can be pretty monotonous at times. It’s easy for motivation to start sagging when the going gets tedious, and it’s sometimes hard to resist the odd glance at WhatsApp – if only for the succour of human contact. I’d already told friends and family that I didn’t want a blow-by-blow on where I was in the field, but inevitably I gleaned a few hints as to my position. Apparently I was doing “really well” – what that meant in real terms was anyone’s guess, but I indulged in a mental image of myself near the front of the pack. Nevertheless, someone in a group chat had commented on how interesting it was that the field had split so clearly, so I knew that positioning would be hard to gauge with no single route being followed. Only as everyone came together again at CP1 could meaningful comparisons be drawn.

I couldn’t help but look out over the hills of north Germany and wonder whether the other riders were – would we cross paths? I knew there were hundreds of other riders out there, all heading in the same direction. As the race wore on, the field would stretch out to cover half the continent, but for now we were all still clumped together. But no one appeared, so I carried on into the dusk.

An evening view over the wind farms of Thuringia on day 1 of the TCR.
The wind parks of Thuringia

By 22:00 I’d covered 640 km – the farthest I’d ever ridden in 24 hours – and my spirits were high. I happened upon a comfortable-looking bus stop with a bench by the side of a quiet road and decided that was enough for the day. I’d been wondering during the day how much sleep was in order on the first night, and considered the option of a very short 2-hour sleep to get ahead, but I’d already discarded this idea. I was already about 40 hours without sleep, and the race was only just beginning. So I set my alarm for a luxurious 3 hours and set about unfurling my sleeping kit and cleaning my teeth. After all, it’s not a race to CP1.

The screen of my bike computer showing 637 km covered in the first 24 hours of the race.

Day 2: at the pointy end

I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride from here until well after CP2. The route would loop round in Czechia and head back south into Bavaria, where it would eventually flatten out a bit, but for the time being it was just hills on the menu.

My route on this morning took me through Leipzig (how I hate riding through cities), past Colditz (which I know only as the site of the infamous WW2 POW camp), and toward the Ore Mountains that form the border between Germany and Czechia.

I met my first obstacle fairly early in the morning, probably around the time that humans would call “breakfast time”. I passed someone on the other side of the road, going in the other direction, seemingly carrying bikepacking gear. This was cause for alarm. He was surely riding the TCR as well – was I somehow going the wrong way again? I dismissed the idea and carried on. About 5 minutes later I found the reason.

A difficult bridge to cross with a bike.
An obstacle course for ultra-cyclists

The bridge I wanted to go over had been thoroughly excavated. There was a mini excavator sitting idle in the foreground, along with a couple of men sitting in their van twiddling their thumbs. It didn’t look passable with a 20 kg bike, so I resigned myself to a potentially long detour and walked up to them to ask if there was another way around. But as I approached, the guy in the driver’s seat preempted my question:

Him: “And here comes the question everyone asks” (in German)
Me, taken aback: “Well?”
Him: “If you can get over it, be my guest.”

I hadn’t been meaning to, but after his response there was only one reasonable course of action.

Me: “Challenge accepted.”

I walked up to the ledge (which was about as tall as me), poked around a bit, and then figured that if I could just lean the bike up against it and then somehow get up there myself, I could haul the bike up. I managed to vault up and onto one of the steel posts and from there up onto the bridge itself. Precarious as it was, I managed to pull the bike up from below, and I was back in business. I waved a cheerful goodbye to the men in the van and off I went with a grin on my face… Only to find I had to repeat the process in reverse at the other end of the bridge.

(It turned out that Krystian and Adam – who’d go on to finish in 2nd and 3rd place respectively – had been over this bridge less than an hour before me. I guess that’s who the guy in the van was talking about.)

Two cheerful men in their van, guarding their bridge.
The two cheerful men in their van, guarding their bridge.

The route was otherwise uneventful up to CP1. It mostly just went up and up and up, and I was pretty happy to reach the plateau and finally see some people who understood what I was doing.

CP1 had been a major carrot dangling in front of me since starting – a reprieve from my travails, if only I could reach it. So when I did get there, after a few kilometres on the CP1 parcours (more on this in a minute) it was a bit of an anti-climax. Charlotte, one of the race photographers, was out to take some photos as I arrived and have a chat – at last, someone who knows what the TCR is! I went inside to find the volunteers who were running the control and gave them my brevet card to get it stamped. It felt almost like a normal audax ride.

I couldn’t resist asking the volunteers how I was positioned in the field: 7th. Not bad. I was aiming for at least a top 10, so I was happy with this for now. I still had the rest of the race to work my way up the field.

But otherwise, that was it. My goal of getting to CP1 was achieved, and the affair was over within a few minutes. Now I just had the rest of the race to do.

A bit about the parcours. Each of the race’s control points is accompanied by a mandatory stretch of route that riders must complete as well as visiting the CP itself. The thinking behind this is to take riders to places that they would otherwise never visit on a sensibly planned route – because they are too remote, too hilly, or too technical. Most were 30-40 km long, but CP1’s parcours was a hefty 120 km, and full of hills.

I’d ridden in this area of Czechia before, on two separate editions of a 1000 km audax from Munich (see Sleepless in Czechia), and knew exactly what to expect. The countryside here is really beautiful – hence being selected as a parcours, I suppose – but it lacks two things: a) flat ground and b) decent tarmac. I’d therefore promised myself I wouldn’t do that particular audax route again, but I had no choice in the matter for the TCR.

It was a very hot day and the climbs were really, really taxing. They were typically a few hundred metres in ascent, and often well over 10%. There was a lot of sweating, a lot of swearing, and not a lot of forward progress. Once again, I get grumpy when I feel I’m being impeded by gratuitous hardships. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, because everyone else has to deal with the same parcours, but there you go. I suppose this just illustrates how I find it difficult to treat the race rationally, and how my perception of progress is coupled to my sense of being on a journey. This idea of being on a journey is the story I subconsciously tell myself, and it’s largely what motivates me to keep going.

The mountains of northwest Czechia, close to CP2.
The mountains of northwest Czechia, close to CP2.

It took maybe 7 hours but I finally emerged, both physically and mentally exhausted, at the other end of CP1’s parcours. Riding out into the evening toward the Czech-German border, I passed a lone cyclist in a bus shelter by the side of a busy main road. As I went past, he got back on his bike and caught up with me. He told me his name – Krystian Jakobek – and said how he’d also been exhausted by the parcours, which made me feel a bit better about myself. We rode together and talked a little, but I felt uneasy about it – riding together being expressly forbidden – so I was not very talkative (sorry Krystian), and after a few minutes we went our separate ways.

What northwest Czechia lacks in flat ground and tarmac, it makes up for with its surplus of bus shelters. You can find a decent one in pretty much every village, many of them with proper brick walls. I slept well that night – still in Czechia, but close to the border.

Day 3, part 1: the crash

Although CP1 was a major goal for me, the stretch between CP1 and CP2 was actually the bit I was most looking forward to. The route would take me through Bavaria, down to the Austrian Alps, and finally into Italy to the control point at the foot of Passo di Gavia.

I live in Munich, which is almost exactly halfway between CP1 and CP2, and so I know these roads well, having ridden northeast to Czechia on the above-mentioned audax a few times, and spent a lot of time riding around the Bavarian and Austrian Alps. I’d been down to Stelvio and Gavia a few months before, so all of this was familiar and homely to me. My route even took me right through the centre of Munich (living there gives me the advantage of knowing how to get through it efficiently).

Daybreak over a bucolic scene in northwest Czechia, close to the German border.
Day breaks over northwest Czechia on my way toward Bavaria, day 3.

Before Munich, though, my route would take me right through the centre of Regensburg, being the only practical way to cross the Danube in this part of Bavaria. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, I could’ve just taken the southerly route that everyone else took and avoid the city altogether, but for some reason I didn’t. Probably because this is the route I was used to taking from Czechia to Munich. Oh well.

Anyway, I battled my way through the throng of people on the Stone Bridge in downtown Regensburg and managed to get out of the busiest area of the city centre. I was on my way out of town when I crashed into a motorbike (this was misreported in social media as an e-scooter… It was a large motor scooter). I was riding along a segregated cycle path beside a busy road and he simply drove straight over the cycle path without looking. There was stationary traffic on the road, which blocked him from view until he was right in front of me, and I went into him at about 20 km/h. We ended up in a heap on the ground.

The sequence of events that led to my crash in the TCR.
How the crash happened.

A couple of passers by helped us up. I was pretty dazed by what had happened, but mostly unhurt. The old man who’d been riding the motor scooter seemed to think it wasn’t his fault, as he “hadn’t seen me”, and after it had been established that both of us were OK, he just left without so much as an apology. Although both passers by gave me their details and said they’d confirm that the other guy was in the wrong, no one (including me) thought to actually get his details in case an insurance claim might be necessary. Oh well, lesson learned.

Once I’d come to my senses, I examined the bike and found a litany of mechanical problems:

  • Loose headset
  • Left shifter pointing askew
  • Ripped bar tape
  • Handlebar and aero bars pointing in the wrong directions
  • Both front and rear derailleurs totally misaligned, needing re-indexing (no idea how this happened)
  • … And a few other problems that would only become evident later on

I fixed all of this (except the last one) and got back on the bike, very angry at what had happened. It had cost me 20 minutes or so to gather my senses and put my bike back together. I made it about 1 km before discovering that my rear wheel had somehow lost air pressure. I stopped, started pumping it up, and the valve core snapped right off. Part of it was stuck in the tubeless valve stem, making it impossible to insert a new one, so I had no choice but to remove the valve completely and “downgrade” my tubeless setup to use an inner tube instead. This whole manoeuvre cost me another 20 minutes.

Hilariously, this rear wheel tubeless downgrade almost exactly mirrors what happened to me in last year’s Around Norway event – see the description in this post. These two incidents are the only times I’ve ever had to fall back from a tubeless setup to an inner tube, and both were caused by valve cores breaking in half – for reasons completely unrelated to the tubeless setup itself. Other than this, I’ve always found tubeless tyres to be rock-solid in terms of reliability.

Anyway, with all the problems fixed (or so I thought) I was back in business – though still furious about the wasted time and damage to my bike. Naja, weiter geht’s nach München.

Day 3, part 2: Munich and the Alps

The way to Munich was thankfully pretty easy going. This part of Bavaria is flat and the route was fast.

I’d been wondering whether I should see Miranda when going through the city – of course I wanted to, but it felt like it would be a distraction from the race. I was worried that it might even be a morale drain more than a morale boost. If I’m feeling down or somehow pessimistic about my situation, then having contact with loved ones – in my experience at least – actually makes it worse. Feeling like I’m so close to home and then having to hit the road again and ride off into the night would be really hard. In this situation it’s better just to stay focused, avoid distractions, and keep pushing.

But as it was, in spite of the crash, I was feeling upbeat and actually looking forward to reaching the mountains at the end of the day. In this state of mind, I figured it would be fine to go and see Miranda and my friends at 3mills.cc, so I sent M a message saying I’d be going past the shop at 17:00 ish and could she please be there so I could see her.

On my way through Munich I was intercepted by a number of dot-watchers. I had people ride up next to me and ask me if I was Will, riding the TCR… People knowing my name and me not knowing theirs! I felt like some kind of celebrity. This happened three times on my way through Munich and it gave me a real buzz to know that people actually cared about what I was doing – and not just friends and family, either. A major morale booster. Thank you, dot-watchers!

I rolled up to 3mills around 17:00 and ordered a cold brew coffee and a slice of banana bread. I spent about 10 minutes or so with Miranda and chatting to my friends in the shop, then bought some supplies (replacement inner tube and some lube) and off I went – but not before posing for a photo.

Me posing outside 3mills on my way through Munich
Pitstop at 3mills.cc

The route from here to the Alps I knew like the back of my hand. The terrain between Munich and the mountains is absolutely beautiful and I’m generally out there on my bike at least twice a week. The tarmac is smooth, the terrain is gently rolling – hilly but not too hilly, and every view to the south is framed by the mountains rising up from pre-Alpine plain.

The sun went down over the Bavarian Prealps as I trundled south. My shoulder had suddenly started hurting on my way out of Munich and it was getting increasingly painful to rest on the aero bars. I have no idea what brought it on, but while standing talking to yet another dot-watcher at some traffic lights, the pain started, and after an hour or so I was beginning to think I’d dislocated my shoulder somehow – it was that painful and difficult to move. By this point I was well outside Munich and any kind of physiotherapist or similar would long-since have closed. I looked up some manoeuvres for relocating a dislocated shoulder, all of which were extremely painful and totally ineffectual.

It was already getting dark, and I figured there was nothing to be done but just to continue riding and hope for the best. In the end, after a few more failed attempts to “fix” myself, the pain started subsiding of its own accord. I still don’t understand what happened. Maybe a lingering effect of the crash in Regensburg? Just one of those weird things that happens when you’re riding hundreds of kilometres a day, I guess.

A view into the Bavarian Alps, showing the Zugspitze in the background.
Arriving in the Alps, somewhere near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. That cloud-capped mountain in the background is the Zugspitze: Germany’s highest peak.

I pushed on into the mountains, skirting around the Zugspitze (Germany’s highest mountain) crossing the border into Austria, and traversing Fernpass (the first and most modest of the Alpine passes my route would take me over).

Having come down off the other side of Fernpass (wearing my down jacket as it was bloody freezing by this point) I found a nice, cosy alcove around the side of a non-resitential building in a village down in the valley. It had a roof over it and wasn’t visible from the road, so that was good enough for me. I set up camp and tucked in for the night.

Next stop: CP2 and Gavia, and then would begin the long journey out of Western Europe.

Strava or it didn’t happen

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