This year I returned to the Transcontinental Race for my second attempt, in spite of promises to myself and my long-suffering partner that I wouldn’t. I’d vowed last year not to repeat the TCR in 2023 – such was the burden on my personal life. But when I scratched, all that changed.
Despite being in many ways a tougher race than last year’s (thanks mostly to the weather and terrain), this one had a much happier ending. Spoiler alert: I didn’t scratch 🥳
I was cap 119 and here’s part one of my story.
The format was the same as usual:
- 4 control points, each with a mandatory “parcours” to be ridden
- Free choice of route between controls/parcours
This year’s edition started in Geraardsbergen in Belgium (the traditional home of the race) and finished in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki on the Aegean Sea, with control points in:
The route was the shortest but hilliest in the race’s history, weighing in at around 3,500 km and 47,000 m of climbing (compare with last year’s 4,200 km and 43,000 m). Such mountainous routes take me out of my comfort zone and I knew this TCR would be tough.
(For a bit more about what the TCR is and what makes it special, see my post from last year.)
The most obvious need since last year’s race was a new bike. After my trusty Kinesis Tripster ATR snapped in half last year, I opted to replace it with an Albannach. I took the opportunity to rebuild most of the bike, replacing the old 105 drivetrain with an electronic GRX groupset, and building up a brand new wheelset specifically for the TCR (using wider deep-section rims from Duke). I’ll give a full run-down of my kit choices at the end of this series, but suffice to say there were lots of cardboard boxes arriving at the door for a couple of months.
The training was OK. I was more consistent earlier in the year (work was less stressful), but less so the closer the race got.
With all the climbing in this year’s route, I’d considered starting some kind of off-the-bike strength training regime to do something about my appalling lack of core strength (which has always been a hindrance for me). But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if I don’t enjoy it, I won’t do it.
So instead, I took up actual climbing in November last year (you know, the kind with ropes and stuff), and was trying to fit this in alongside my regular training routine. What started off as a way of building core strength turned into a second hobby – I ended up having so much fun that sometimes it took priority over actually riding my bike. It was so nice to do something not entirely based on cardio endurance! Still, I managed to make it work, tapering off the amount of climbing I was doing (reluctantly) as the race approached.
On the bike, I did a lot of short but productive indoor interval sessions in the spring to push my FTP up, transitioning to longer outdoor rides as the weather got hotter and the race got closer. Still, the southern Balkans were gonna be hot, and so heat acclimation had to be a part of my training too. I stuck it out with indoor sessions during the week as much as I could, even as temperatures climbed past 30°C. It was a real sweat-fest in the spare room, but I knew it’d pay off.
The final few weeks I didn’t manage so well. I’d foolishly signed up for The Bright Midnight: a 1000 km gravel race in Norway, starting just two weeks before the TCR. This left me only 5 days between returning from Norway and departing for Belgium, so practically speaking I’d need to have everything ready for the TCR before both events in order to avoid a big last-minute panic.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a smart move to try and do both. In the end I scratched from The Bright Midnight after the first day and came home a few days early, having realised that doing such a tough route in “easy mode” (in order not to exhaust myself before the TCR) wasn’t working. Shout out to the many people who warned me this wasn’t my greatest idea. Shoulda listened.
So I was back in Munich with a week to spare before departing for Belgium. I spent most of this time stressing about all the little bits and pieces that I inevitably hadn’t managed to finish off before going to Norway. I complained about the race still being so far away, I complained about the race being so close, I complained about having to do the race at all. It was a mix of emotions, and Miranda tolerated me
After last year’s experience, I’d resolved never to travel with FlixBus again, and so on Friday morning I got on the train to Brussels with @estelle_bve. The journey was better than FlixBus, despite being re-routed from our high-speed line to the other side of the Rhine, inexplicably stopping at every tiny train station, and consequently missing our connection in Cologne. But we eventually made it to our hotel in Geraardsbergen in time for dinner with the other riders.
Pre-race anxiety is a big problem for me, and being alone makes it a whole lot worse. I’d spent the weekend before last year’s race in a B&B about 20 km from Geraardsbergen and got terribly lonely and miserable. It’s kinda ironic, one of the core features of ultra-racing being total solitude, which I can manage perfectly well. But the difference is in having something to do: right before the race, with all your prep done, you’re just idling and have all the time in the world to worry about what’s ahead.
So I decided to stay at the Flandrien Hotel this time round. This is a very cool hotel designed especially for cyclists, and in this case specifically for TCR riders. Having other people to talk to who were in the same boat was a welcome distraction, and the energy of having not just riders but also, as it happened, the race crew staying there helped psych me up.
The race begins
The weather was lovely up until race day. I spent Saturday making my bike ridable, exploring the Ardennes with it, gorging on pastries from local boulangeries, and shooting the breeze with other riders.
And then on Sunday the heavens opened, and promised to stay open for at least the first three days of the race, until I’d cleared the Alps. It was a dismal morning and afternoon spent making the final tweaks for the race that was to start at 22:00 that evening. The rain got progressively worse throughout the day, everyone at the Flandrien gazing grimly out of the window. I was putting on a brave face that afternoon, joking with everyone and joining in with the gallows humour of it all, but really I was feeling pretty miserable inside.
This blog post’s header image is from the courtyard of the Flandrien a couple of hours before the départ, with my bike hanging forlornly on the rack, preparing itself for the ordeal to come. James Robertson, long-time chronicler of the TCR, was in attendance and
taunting us asking riders to “reflect” on the situation while he captured our woes on camera. Apparently happy people don’t make good portrait subjects. “Imagine it’s 4am, pitch black, and raining”, he said gleefully. Click click click. Photographers are awful people.
Fast forward a couple of hours and the race is starting: the neutralised lap of the town with police escort, the torchlit ascent of the Muur with the din of cheering spectators, and finally the relief and solitude of at last, after so many months, racing.
Except there wasn’t much solitude to be had that night. Everyone had chosen the same route through Belgium/France and whenever the road straightened out there was invariably a red tail light or two to be seen. Call me unsociable but I was quite looking forward to just being out there on my own.
Getting out of Belgium wasn’t fun. The organisers had made a point of reminding us at the briefing that cycle lanes are always mandatory in Belgium. This is annoying at the best of times, because the road surface can be pretty bad there and they put you in a vulnerable position at the side of the road. But thanks to the torrential rain earlier in the day they were awash with debris from road-side trees and bushes. After just 40 km I glanced at the tyre pressure read-out on my Garmin (I have fancy pressure sensors on my wheels) to see that my rear wheel was losing air.
For the first day or so of the race you’re full of beans, motivated and still driven by an intense sense of urgency that makes even 30 seconds not moving feel like an eternity. So I was cursing violently as I brought the bike to a stop, resenting the stream of riders passing me in the dark. The tubeless sealant wasn’t stopping the leak, so I had to get my new (as yet untested) Dynaplug kit out. I pulled out the thorn and jammed a plug into the tyre, but it still wouldn’t seal. I put another plug in and spun the wheel. The fizzle of sealant and air stopped. Just 40 km into the race and I already had a damaged tyre and only one plug left. 5 minutes wasted. Not good. I pumped some air into the tyre, got back on the bike, and kept going.
I wasn’t the only casualty that night, lots of other people apparently having suffered early punctures – or worse. Some time later in the night, passing through a town, I saw a group of people ahead waving for me to slow down. There was a bike on the ground with a rider lying next to it, not looking in a good way, apparently having been taken down by a raised railway line joining the road out of nowhere. Flashing blue lights announced the arrival of an ambulance as I lifted my bike over the rails. I continued into the night.
Coming up next
- 👤 The field thinning out, and getting some proper me time at last
- 💥 A stupid crash that would have consequences much later in the race (I feel like this has happened before)
- 🌧️ Rain, rain, rain
- 🏔️ Reaching the Alps
- 🌧️ More rain
- 🥶 Freezing up on the mountain passes
- 🥵 Roasting down in the valleys
- 🎯 CP1