Cycling, Ride Reports

Transcontinental, part 5: epilogue & debrief

What does the aftermath of the TCR look like? How did I scratch, what did I do afterwards, and how did I feel about it?

Featuring:

  • 🧛 Adventures in Transylvania
  • 🤕 Bodily afflictions
  • 🏖 Transitioning from an ultra race to a beach resort
  • 💸 Finding out how much I actually paid for the TCR
  • 🔮 My plans for the future

How did I scratch?

I sent an email to Jon, the TCR comms manager, telling him that I was scratching, then I phoned Miranda to let her know. I have to emphasise here how lucky I was to have scratched where I did. CP4 was only about 10 km away, so it was not difficult to get there. In the very worst case I could’ve walked (would’ve taken an hour or two), but as it happened Luca, one of the CP4 volunteers, was kind enough to just drive up to the mountain top and collect me. Within half an hour of phoning, I was down at CP4.

The self-supported nature of the TCR generally applies also to scratching. There’s no broom wagon to collect stragglers, so you make your own arrangements. If I’d had to scratch in the middle of rural Montenegro, for example, I expect there would’ve been a lot of hitchhiking and improvised bus and train journeys involved (entirely non-trivial when you have a broken bike to look after). There’s always a way to get home, but it’s likely to be complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. This is one of the risks you accept.

For this reason it’s often easier just to keep riding – unless there is something that is physically stopping you from riding your bike or an easy out presents itself at the right moment. If you have to ride another 100 km to the nearest train connection and then wait many hours for it to turn up, then by the time you’ve got there the circumstances that caused you to want to scratch might have changed. It can be more a state of mind than anything else. But in my case, both of these conditions coincided: an immediate and insurmountable obstacle to continued cycling and a fabulously convenient way to exit the race.

All-in-all my scratch was an “easy” one. I had no difficult decision to make (my bike made that decision for me) and the logistics were dead simple.

CP4 & beyond

Once I reached CP4, all I had to do was stay there for a few days while Miranda finished her volunteering duties, and then we could travel together to Burgas for the finishers’ party.

After climbing out of Luca’s car, I spent a while chatting with the volunteers in the hotel lobby, until I could feel myself starting to fall asleep on my feet. Miranda had managed to wangle us a double room at the hotel (the last one, as it happened), so I shuffled upstairs and used the last of my energy to shower and shave before falling asleep for a solid 14 hours.

CP4 was a small hotel in a small village in the southern tail of the Carpathian mountains as they sweep through Transylvania. Miranda had complained extensively in the weeks leading up to the race about how remote the village was and how much of a pain it was going to be to reach by public transport (actually impossible, as it turned out).

Her journey comprised two trains (Munich → Vienna → Cluj-Napoca), a coach (Cluj-Napoca → Petroșani), and finally a lift from one of the other volunteers to the control point itself, since it was not on any bus route. After an overnight stop in Vienna Miranda’s journey had continued for 15 hours to Cluj-Napoca in Romania, including a 90 minute stop at the Hungarian-Romanian border for the usual border control tedium.

And as I’m writing this Miranda is telling me the story of her coach journey from Cluj-Napoca to Petroșani, when the coach stopped in a small town somewhere. To pick up passengers, right? No, this is Romania. Instead, the driver got out and walked over to some dude sitting in front of a house with a cheap trestle table stand. He was selling strawberry seedlings and the bus driver wanted them. There was some haggling and the vendor retreated back into his house to get some better specimens before the driver was satisfied. Business done, driver put strawberry plants in bus and the journey continued.

Fast forward to CP4. During my stay there, I spent time in the hotel lobby chatting to the others (Miranda had to tell me not to spook the riders – “ooh, I wouldn’t use those tyres”) and trying not to get in the way too much, exploring the surroundings, and sampling the delights of Romanian mountain food. It was nice to finally be able to sit down and talk to people and make connections that lasted longer than a minute or so.

I joined the volunteers in their dot-watching – avidly following the agonisingly slow progress of riders approaching CP4 over the Transalpina. Of course, the volunteers need to know when the next rider’s going to turn up so that they can hide the pizza boxes be ready to stamp their card efficiently. This area had very patchy phone signal, though, so the trackers (which transmit data over the normal phone network) could not give a reliable ETA. But not to worry, this is Romania! The local population of dogs succeeded admirably where the trackers failed, alerting us with their barking when a rider was coming down the road. Thankfully no biting (from rider or dog).

A plate of bulz: grilled polenta with sour cream
A plate of bulz: cheese-stuffed grilled polenta balls with soured cream

Burgas: the finish line

What to say about the finish line? Well, it was hot and windy and hosted by a beach resort hotel on the coast of the Black Sea.

I think my scratch in some ways made the end of the race easier. It eased the come-down that often accompanies the end of such a race. You cross the finish line to a minor fanfare, spend a while chatting with the volunteers there, and then… Nothing. You go to your hotel room and wonder what to do with yourself. It’s rather an anti-climax. Having already finished under different circumstances – and spent time with the volunteers at CP4 and a night in Bucharest on the way to Burgas (thanks Cristi!) – I’d already been able to re-adjust somewhat to civilian life.

We spent two nice afternoons chilling under parasols on the beach, punctuated by visits the finish line to shoot the breeze with the riders and volunteers milling around there. War stories were exchanged, injuries examined. The infamous CP4 parcours – a 40 km stretch of serious rough off-road fun – got a particularly thorough retelling.

By this point I’d mostly come to terms with my scratch. While it had been upsetting, the rational part of my brain knew it was the right thing to do. Even if I could’ve found some way to continue, I was not keen on scrabbling around for a non-competitive finish. The delay would likely have been more than a day, which would simply have been too big a change of gear. My goal had been to see what I was mentally and physically capable of in a continuous, unbroken effort, and that would be lost. There was no point in continuing like this, hence the scratch.

I had some fun at the end showing people the crack in the frame to exclamations of “ooh” and “ouch” before packing the bike up in a cardboard box and consigning it to the hotel room. I then set about scouting out people’s frames at the finish line as they arrived, looking for candidates to replace my trusty old Kinesis Tripster. I knew from a round-up of bikes being ridden in the race that a couple of people were riding J.Laverack frames, which I’d had my eye on for years, and I was trying to track them down. But in the end it was the Albannach bike ridden by Neil Henderson that caught my eye. I chatted with him about the bike, did some research, and ended up placing an order for one when I got back to Germany. Hoping it arrives in time for the next TCR 🤞

While not voyeuring on people’s bikes, I spent time with Miranda down on the beach and in the hotel swimming pool – as well as eating my weight in cereal, Ben & Jerry’s, and chocolate. We stayed until the finishers’ party on the 8th – by this time almost a week after my scratch in Romania – and after that it was back to Munich to resume normal life.

The hotel had a dearth of sensibly-sized cereal bowls
The view from the TCR finish line in Burgas
The Black Sea, viewed from the finish line in Burgas
A view of the finish line in Burgas
Chillin’ at the finish line in Burgas
Sharing war stories at the finish line in Burgas with Krystian, Robin, and Ian
Sharing war stories at the finish line in Burgas with Krystian, Robin, and Ian

The cost of racing the Transcontinental

What did the TCR cost me? Both financially and in lifestyle sacrifices?

Money: during the race

I tallied up all my outgoings between the départ on the 24th of July up to my scratch on the 1st of August: €550.

That included:

  • Two hotel stays (about €20 each)
  • Some first aid provisions for my crash on Gavia (€15 ish)
  • A replacement inner tube and some extra lube in Munich (€15 ish)
  • Food

So my total food bill was around €500 for 9 days. €56/day. At first this seemed like quite a lot to me when I tallied it up, but then you pay zero attention to the price of what you buy when racing. It is absolutely the least important factor (at least for me). If I’m a week into an ultra-race and I want that expensive-but-delicious-looking thing, I’m gonna buy it. Cravings trump economy every time. And your daily calorie intake is not exactly modest, either (close to 10,000 kcal per day).

The majority of this was paid by card. I’d been worried about the practicality of this in the further reaches of the Balkans, but actually I rarely needed cash. I was stopping mostly at petrol stations, which invariably are fine with card payments. There was the odd rural shop or bakery that I needed actual coinage for, but that only happened a couple of times.

Money: before & after

What about the rest?

  • Race entry fee: €509 (£425)
  • Medical certificate: €70
  • Getting there:
    • To the start (FlixBus): €65
    • Accommodation at the start (2 nights): €140
    • Food on the journey and at the start: €40 ish
  • After the race:
    • Flight home (Sofia to Munich): €156
    • Bus & taxi from Burgas to Sofia: €25 ish
    • Hotel in Burgas (4 nights): €173 (although Miranda paid the same)
    • Food: didn’t keep track of that bit.

In total: €1,178.

This includes 4 nights of accommodation at the end of the race (in order to be there for the finishers’ party), which maybe doesn’t count. It doesn’t include all the money spent on kit and preparatory rides I did in the months leading up to the race itself. I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Overall, the race cost me around €1,700.

The non-financial cost

In total, I took 14 days off work for the TCR, including getting there, racing, staying for the finishers’ party, and getting home again. That’s almost half my annual holiday allowance, and I didn’t have nearly as much time left as I’d’ve liked for “real” holidays with Miranda and seeing friends and family. For me, this is in fact the hardest thing about doing the TCR – the huge opportunity cost. It’s demonstrated to me that time away from work is a very precious commodity, and that the things I value most in life – travel, adventure, exploration, remoteness – require a great deal of it. I’d love some day to do the 7,000 km NorthCape-Tarifa, for example, and I’d need at least 20 days off work for it. There are far more races and adventures out there than I’ll ever have the time to do, but the more I can do, the better.

A close second in terms of “cost” is the way it dominated my thinking for most of the first half of the year. Everything I did in this time I did under the shadow of the race. Even when Miranda and I took a holiday in Paris – which was lovely, despite the mouse – I couldn’t fully relax for anticipation of the exciting-yet-terrifying event ahead of me.

That said, I’m pretty sure I was better with this than last time (Norway, 2021). Experience diminishes the anxiety. You know what to expect – and more importantly you know that you can do it. The TCR brought some new challenges (self-routing, so many different countries, heat), but I have the basics of self-supported racing nailed. While a 1,000 km event (for example) once felt scary and unknown to me, I can do that pretty much on autopilot now. I expect (hope?) my next attempt at the TCR – or whatever I end up doing – will be easier still.

FAQ

How far did I cycle per day?

410 km (ish).

50 km per day more than I’d done the previous year in Norway. My goal going into the race had been 400 km per day, and even that had seemed ambitious. So I am very proud of this 🙂

The worst road?

That one from Trento up into the hills. Oh my god. 17% average for a good 10 minutes. I have a suspicion that this was the origin of my knee problems.

(If my bike hadn’t broken before I could reach it, my answer here would probably be the CP4 parcours.)

The best view?

Tough one! I’ll cheat and name a few:

  • The descent of Passo di Gavia after CP2 – up until the pitch-black tunnel
  • The view out over the Adriatic Sea in the evening light from the mountains above the Croatian coastline
  • The Transalpina (not where I scratched, but closer to CP4)

The best food?

Balkan börek. And those delicious Italian pastries on day 5. And the Papanași we had in Bucharest on the way to Burgas. Mmmmmmm.

A tasty börek in my bento box at CP3
Image credit: James Robertson
A plate of Papanași in Bucharest
Papanași: my new favourite dessert

Country I’m most likely to revisit?

🇲🇪 Montenegro. The mountain scenery there was beautiful and unlike the Alpine and Northern European mountains that I’m used to. I’d love to go back and explore it, but also connect a bit with the human side of the country. You don’t see much of that when you’re racing.

Country I’m least likely to revisit?

Uh, difficult one. If we’re talking specifically about cycling, then it has to be Romania. The dogs’ appetite for cyclists was just too much. I escaped unharmed, but several people got bitten and had to go to hospital for rabies jabs. That’s really not fun. I liked the country itself and the people – just not the dogs.

Worst (bodily) affliction?

My knee pain toward the end. I really think this might’ve stopped me from reaching the finish if my frame breakage hadn’t done the job first. I’ve had problems with my knees forever and while they’ve never outright stopped me, this one was getting close. My right knee was mega swollen for several days after finishing.

How did I feel after the race?

Tired. Hungry. All the time.

It took several weeks for my appetite to return to normal, and I actually put on several kilograms after the race – so confused were my eating habits.

Other than that, my ankles were massively swollen with oedema for almost a week after the race – so much that I had to loosen my sandals to get my feet into them. They looked like foot-shaped balloons. I wasn’t the only one at the finish line with this affliction, and there’s even been a paper written on the topic (spot the ultra-cyclist in the author list).

Most interesting encounter

Getting woken up by the police in a Croatian supermarket carpark. Sleeping outdoors in a town is sketchy and I won’t be doing that again anytime soon. Not just because there are some nasty people out there, but also because there are nice people out there who will be worried for my wellbeing and wake me up to check that I’m OK. I don’t want that either.

Aside: this also happened on my first 1,000 km audax, when I was riding with a couple of other people and we all decided to stop for a short nap by the side of the road. In retrospect, a bunch of people lying with their bikes at the side of the road was always going to cause the first person who saw us to pull over and check on us. Needless to say, we didn’t get any sleep.

My race in numbers

409 kmridden per day (on average)
3,513 kmridden in total
292 kmthe shortest day (Montenegro)
643 kmthe longest day (day 1) – also the furthest I’ve ever ridden in 24 hours
96,303 kcalburned
€500spent on food (mostly in petrol stations)
193 kcalconsumed per Euro spent (assuming I broke even on consumption/expenditure)
4 hoursoff the bike each night
3 hourssleeping each night (I need to get more efficient at packing/unpacking)
87%stopping efficiency (i.e., the time spent moving vs. not moving, not including sleep stops)
23 km/h average moving speed (not including stops)
8dot watcher encounters
15dot watchers encountered
2crashes
1crash that was my fault
3times overtaken by Christoph Strasser
2nights spent indoors
2showers taken
13countries visited 🇧🇪🇳🇱🇩🇪🇨🇿🇦🇹🇨🇭🇮🇹🇸🇮🇭🇷🇧🇦🇲🇪🇷🇴🇧🇬
1illegal border crossing
countlessbörek eaten

So what’s next?

Well, I’d like to do the TCR again next year if they’ll have me. Entries haven’t opened yet and the route has not yet been announced, so I’ll wait and see.

In the meantime, I’ve already entered The Bright Midnight: a shorter (1,000 km) event around the highlands of Norway in mid July. That country really captured my heart last time I was there and I’ve been longing to go back ever since. I think this is one ride I won’t be racing – rather taking the time to savour the Norwegian wilderness. And the boller.

Whatever I do, I think the TCR has put me in good stead for my next adventure. The 3,500 km that I rode over the course of the race showed me so much that I do not feel cheated out of the experience by having had to end it early. I know now what it is to race the TCR, and I’ll take that with me.

To be continued 🇳🇴

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2 thoughts on “Transcontinental, part 5: epilogue & debrief

  1. Stuart says:

    A great read indeed Will, glad you came that horrendous experience on CP4 unscathed. I got a Tripster ATR v3 in July after losing a Litespeed by theft, chuffed with it, nine centuries so far…but had I heard of Albannach I might have been tempted to endure the wait for one. Sure you’re going to be very happy with it. Looking forward to reading about your next adventure and pics of the Scottish beast when it arrives.

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