Thwack! I didn’t see it coming until it was too late and now it was spiraling towards the ground in a cloud of feathers. This was not the start to the Transcontinental Race that I had imagined but in this race you have to be prepared for anything, even Kamikaze pigeons at one in the morning.
Its cruel to start a race a midnight, the waiting is unbearable. Trying to sleep is futile. How can you sleep when you know that you have to ride over 2500miles unsupported across a continent? I obviously didn’t learn my lesson last year as I was back waiting to go, waiting to ride off into the dark Belgian night on this adventure thinly veiled as a race.
The 2015 Transcontinental Race began in Gerradsbergen in the heart of Flanders. Cycling here is almost a religion so it was fitting that our race began with an ascent of the Kapel Muur, the hallowed cobbled climb to the chapel made so famous by the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
Dive bombing pigeons aside, the first few hours of the race went to plan. I was anxious at the start, I’m impatient at the best of times and hate waiting so for me a midnight start just works me up. I just wanted to go, I wanted to ride, I wanted to begin this journey, to be alone in the night pedaling to Istanbul. I had used my experience from the 2014 edition of the race to form a clear plan in my head, I didn’t want company or outside influence for this race. Race is the wrong term for this event, this is an adventure and a challenge, a challenge against your mind, a challenge physically, a challenge to finish. For me racing too early on in a race this long is a mental distraction, for now my primary focus was to finish without problems or mistakes. Only later in the race would I worry about the other riders and so with this in mind I rode the Kapel Muur flat out! I probably rode it too hard but there was method in the madness, I wanted to escape alone and settle into my own rhythm.
The first night of the race was a little wild with strong crosswinds and the odd rain shower battering northern France. The Transcontinental race uses a series of checkpoints to guide racers on their route to Istanbul, the rest is self-navigated. For 2015 the first checkpoint was atop an icon of the cycling world, Mont Ventoux, so as dawn broke on the first day the 200 riders of the Transcontinental race were cycling south down France. During the night I felt very alone. I saw no lights from fellow riders and had no communication with the outside world. For all I knew I could have been the only cyclist in France so it was somewhat of a surprise when I passed a fellow rider diving into a boulangerie for an early morning pastry raid. I had no idea which competitors maybe fast in this edition of the race and didn’t recognise the rider but he shouted my name and there was a temptation to stop, however there was still a pack of Belgian waffles bungeed to my handlebars so I judged it a bit too early in the race to stop for extravagances like gossiping over a croissant.
The weather settled and temperature rose as I made my way south and escaped the approaching storm front. I encountered the first significant climbs of the ride as I approached Dijon, not massive in the grand scheme of things but enough to hint at things to come. It was approaching Dijon that I had my only significant meeting with a fellow rider. I stopped to attend a call of nature and as I remounted a cyclist on a loaded bike came into view. I knew this must be a racer, it seemed too much of a coincidence that there would be two riders on the same road at the same time with similar bike setup so I made sure I rode as hard as possible whilst looking like I wasn’t trying.
The sight of another rider must have spurred Alexander on as soon he cruised up next to me with a similar forced relaxed face on. We rode together and exchanged pleasantries, comparing notes and complaining about the wind and rain of the first 24 hours. Alexander Bourgeonnier, a Frenchman from Annecy, was on his first Trans Continental race and seemed to relish the opportunity to cause some discomfort to a passing Englishman. The pleasantries continued as the half wheeling began and before I knew it we were tearing down the short descents as if the finish line in Istanbul was at the bottom. We hit the next climb and I moved alongside Alex doing my very best to continue the conversation and subdue my heavy breathing but he was having none of it and cranked the pace up a notch. Who was this guy? I prayed that he couldn’t keep this pace to Istanbul and calculated in my head weather the single soggy Pain Aux Chocolate in my rear pocket contained enough energy to fuel me to Dijon. I decided it did and reached into my pocket. Alex sensed my weakness and took off up the climb in a full on road racing attack. There was nothing I could do apart from sit back and refuel. If I rode any harder I would blow so I stuck to my own pace and counted the stars that were beginning to spin around my head.
France is not renowned for its convenience food so it was with disbelief that I pulled up at the mobile pizza van. Chasing Alexander had taken its toll and I was running on fumes so the thought of a nice big pizza was comforting and I ordered the biggest one on the menu and sat on a bench stuffing my face as a crowd of locals stood around discussing the disheveled stranger in their midst. Refueled and content I set off once more and a quick supermarket sweep in Dijon left me fueled up and ready for my second night of the race.
Thwack! Tonight’s wildlife was a low flying bat deflecting off the side of my head as dusk fell. No harm done, just a gentle reminder to expect the unexpected. Southern France was lovely and peaceful. The wind had settled and I was settling into the rhythm of the ride. In my mind I had the target of riding 400 miles before my first sleep but as midnight approached so did the weariness. I called it a day after 370 miles non-stop riding and I didn't feel too guilty, that’s the furthest distance I’ve ever cycled non-stop on a bike. As reward for such effort I treated myself to a 3 hour sleep on a concrete floor under a car port.
The alarm rang at 3 am, I had already been awake for 5 minutes, a good sign that my mind was in race mode and was focused on forward momentum. Within ten minutes I was up and riding straight through a massive party. It seems the small sleepy French village I had chosen for my sleep was having a Fete so the first challenge of the day was to dodge the drunken revellers staggering home. I have to admit I was extra careful after my run-ins with wildlife so far and made it through unscathed.
A fast flat run down the Rhone valley took me into my second afternoon of racing and the beautiful Provence region, home to Ventoux. The temperature was in the mid-thirties and I was resorting to garden hose pipes to keep hydrated and ice creams to keep cool. My Pain Aux Chocolate supplies had begun to run low as I approached the shadow of Mont Ventoux so I decided an unscheduled food stop was in order. Beumes-de-Vinese was the town I stumbled into searching for food, it’s a beautiful ancient town which attracts tourists from all over the world. I’m not entirely sure the sweaty half cut cyclist image fits in too well with their visitor demographic, but I did buy enough food for a small army so at least the local economy has been boosted!
Fed and watered once more I began my approach to the first checkpoint of the race atop Mont Ventoux. I was pleased with my timing, the heat of the day was beginning to subside and the sun would be setting as I reached the summit. As a cycling fan it’s always a bit surreal to be riding the same roads that host the biggest bike races in the world and I was very aware of the history and significance of this particular road whilst I struggled up the steep lower gradients. I was thankful when the batteries died on the GPS, it gave me a genuine excuse to stop at the side of the road and have a rest while I replaced them. Eventually I made it out of the tree-line and onto the iconic moonscape for the final six km to the summit where the official race support car came into view. It was nice to have a conversation with someone for the first time in two days, even if it was an interview with race director Mike Hall driving alongside in the car as I desperately tried to stop the flow of blood from a nose bleed. Not quite what I had imagined from my TV début but maybe the blood made the whole scene a bit more heroic, or maybe it just made it look like I’d picked my nose.
I sumitted Ventoux around 7:30 pm and after a quick restock of water in the gift shop was able to take stock of the race situation. Until that point I hadn't really had much information regarding the race situation, so I was nice to hear that I was third to check point 1. First was James Hayden, who it turns out was the mystery croissant raider from the previous morning, and second was the German Bernd Paul who unfortunately was forced to retire after suffering from an allergic reaction to the intense sun. This effectively left me in second position some 3 hours off the lead. However the curve ball was that I had slept for 3 hours and James had stopped for nothing more than a few power naps. I was confident that James would not be able to continue with his race strategy without cracking eventually so decided to ignore him and focus on my own game. More concerning to me was Ultan Coyle, the Irish rider on the full time trial setup with the funky carbon aero luggage who was rapid on good roads. I knew he was faster in a straight line, I just had to hope that the aerodynamic advantages offered by his bike were nullified when the going got rough in southern Europe.
Provence is an incredibly beautiful part of France and I couldn't help but stop for a quick food break to watch the sun set over the lavender fields surrounding the giant of Provence. The next challenge was the Alps and my aim was to clear them the next day. That night I slept for 3 hours in an apple Orchard and it was probably the best night’s sleep of the entire race, hotel stops included, and I woke up feeling fresh and strong, a good sign for the looming mountains.
Check point 2 was an Alpine affair located in the ski resort of Sestriere, this check point came with added ‘Parcours’. Not content with just giving us the challenge of cycling all the way across Europe unsupported, race director Mike had decided to send all the riders of the TransContinental along the Strada dell Assietta, a 45 km gravel road at 2000 meters altitude. As a mountain biker at heart I wasn’t too phased by this additional challenge, if anything I was relishing it, confident in my off road ability and more importantly my equipment. Overnight I had maintained my second position in the race and reached CP2 around an hour and a half behind James the race leader. My mind was still focussed on my own game plan but I was still very much aware that James had had no significant sleep and that Ultan would have an advantage on the other side of the mountains once we hit the fast flat roads of northern Italy. After a quick can of coke and a wash in the sink at the checkpoint I set out to conquer the gravel.
My pre-race plan was to attack this section hard to try and gain as much as a buffer as possible over Ultan Coyle before the flat. The first part of plan ‘gravel attack’ was to let some air out my tyres for extra grip and comfort. Running tubeless tyres meant that I could run low pressures with no risk of pinch punctures. My bike selection was based around the fact that some of the roads I would encounter wouldn’t necessarily be silky smooth tarmac. The phrase ‘to finish first, first you must finish’ is particularly relevant to the Transcontinental race and with that in mind my bike setup was tough; 28mm tubeless tyres, Hunt 4 season disc wheels, a Mason frame, hydraulic disc brakes and plenty of frame clearance.
I was keen to make amends for my rather dismal TV debut on Ventoux and the Assietta offered the perfect opportunity. The climb up to the ridge went smoothly, I felt strong despite the 2000 m+ altitude and the bike was performing faultlessly; I even managed a race face for the camera. Thwack buzzzzzzzzzzzzz! The illusion was broken as I tore down the first short downhill section only to experience my third wildlife encounter in as many days. This time a bee had inadvertently flown into my ear. Cue the comedy head shaking and arm waving as I struggled to control my bike on the loose gravel corners as it stung the inside of my ear. Of course all this was captured on camera so now my TV career has been put on hold for a few more years.
Wildlife encounters aside the Assietta ridge was good to me. I pushed hard on the climbs and rode smoothly on the descents using my years of mountain biking experience to pick the smoothest and fastest lines. The final descent off the ridge was another story all together. The gravel track gave way to a super rocky loose broken cobbled road. At this stage I was wishing I was on a mountain bike not a road bike and the best way to proceed was slowly and with caution. Speed only increased the risk of punctures and crashes and the vibrations through my carbon soled race shoes and rigid forks required frequent stops to ease the pain of my cramping muscles. I made it down in one piece though and when I saw Mike later on in the race I put it to him that he had a rather skewed perspective on what constituted a gravel road. ‘I didn't actually ride it before the race’ he replied, thanks Mike!
The Po valley, “a major geographical feature of Italy extending approximately 400 miles in an east to west direction” according to the internet. Hell on earth according to any Transcontinental rider. The next phase of the race could be considered as more of a transitional stage however it proved tougher than Google maps may have suggested. Long straight flat roads in 35 degree heat with a nice cross headwind to boot isn't a pleasing formula for a tired cyclist. For me the challenge was more mental than physical, my body was feeling strong enough despite the heat but mentally I was really bored. The novelty of large trucks overtaking at speed and a monotonous agricultural landscape numbed my brain so I convinced myself that stopping regularly at McDonald's and every open café en route would A) help refuel me and B) give me some mental stimulation. In fact the most mental stimulation I received on this particular segment of the ride was working out the best way to avoid mosquitoes when bivviing at night. The answer to this is that you can’t, as I found out when I shared my bivvi bag with a number of the blood lusting beasts. I consoled myself that at least there were less inside my bivvi bag than outside and that I would be forced to make a quick getaway in the morning after my 3 hour sleep.
Even passing Venice was disappointing. I had imagined that I may catch a passing glimpse of the floating city but all I encountered were busy roads, traffic jams and prostitutes lurking around traffic lights. However I did meet the first road side supporters, those crazy dot watching fanatics who hunt down passing riders to take photos and offer encouragement. This was a welcome turn of events and it snapped my mind back into focus after the tedium of the past day and a half. I had lost a bit of time to James over northern Italy, no doubt because I had spent too much time slacking, but I was feeling strong and well fed. My concerns over Ultan Coyle had also disappeared after Strada dell Assietta took its toll on his sleek time trial machine forcing a long walk and an overnight stop. Now the race had settled and the overall picture was much clearer, it was now a two horse race to the finish and one of the horses still needed to sleep!
That night I treated myself to a hotel near the Slovenian border, more by luck than judgement it must be said. It was approaching bed time and I happened to pass a large hotel on the edge of town. On the off chance I staggered in looking for a room much to the bemusement of the night porter, especially when I told him that I would be leaving again at 3:30 am. There was space though so I settled in and slept deeply, enjoying comfortable bed, a lack of mosquitoes and my first shower and kit wash of the race.
By 3:30 am I was up and riding again. Today was a big day in my mind, time for my big push. I knew that I had stopped too much in northern Italy so my game plan was to keep the pressure on James for the next couple of days. I knew he hadn’t slept properly yet and knew that his leading gap was essentially time that I had been asleep, in my mind I was already in a race winning position and all I needed to do was wait until James cracked and I was going to do everything I could to accelerate the process.
Slovenia was wonderful to cycle through. The roads were smooth, the drivers considerate and the service stations stocked with good food and wifi. The terrain was also more to my liking; nice steady big ring climbs and gently rolling roads. The temperature had dropped and I felt as though my body was firing on all cylinders. Concentration was key today, no soft pedaling, no wrong turns, no day dreaming, no sitting up out of the aero position just pure focus on forward momentum. The plan almost went perfectly, a small detour around a road where cycling was banned the only mishap. I crossed the Croatian border in the early evening, the day had disappeared in what seemed like a few hours as my concept of time was distorted. A quick check a few hours previously had shown James to be at the border of Croatia so I was confident that my focus was paying off and that the gap was closing.
Vukovar was now in my sights and my plan was to keep the pressure on all the way to the checkpoint located there. I figured that James would reach the checkpoint before me but I really wanted him to see me. I wanted him to see me pull in as he left the check point so that he was running scared and under pressure. I knew that I could crack him in the mountains, I just needed to be in range to attack and so I pushed on into the Croatian sunset.