This is it, my first taste of the event that is the endgame of all this effort, blood, sweat an tears. But this time around, I had the opportunity to take part in the Transcontinental race No.4 as a volunteer at a checkpoint rather than as a competitor and (spoiler alert) I am very glad I did not get place on this year’s race!
Becoming a volunteer at TCR04 was a consolation for not getting a starting place. Starting places for the gruelling unsupported bicycle race from Belgium to Turkey are allocated on the basis of a detailed application which gives first preference to veterans from previous years and those entries with facinating backstories, the remaining places are given away in a ballot. Sadly I was unsuccessful for the 2016 edition of the event but that did mean Igot a nice email from the lovely Anna (co organiser) explaining the various volunteering opportunities and alluding to the idea that as a volunteer, entry to the follow year’s event would be easier. So I offeredmy services to volunteer at Checkpoint 2 of the race, which would be in Grindelwald in Switzerland.
What better way to achieve two important milestones in my preparation for the real race, I would make the not insignificant journey from Stuttgart to CP2 by bike to push my endurance and route planning andd also spend time at the checkpoint talking to riders and soaking up their experiences.
My duty would last just a day and a half at the checkpoint, waiting around with a couple of other volunteers to catch the riders as they come through, day and night, to stamp their brevet card and record their time. So this gave me the chance to plan a couple of days riding either side of the checkpoint duty to cover the approx. 400km from Stuttgart. As part of the extensive and detailed application that I had unsuccessfully completed for race I had to make a rough route plan for the race,basically to answer some questions which would prove I know what a monstrous undertaking the race is. Although all that planning was for nought regarding the race itself, it did stand me in good stead for planning a route and equipment to make the journey to the checkpoint, and as I was to experience myself and hear from the competitors, planning is everything.
There is a wealth of information to be found on the web about ‘bikepacking’ in general and also a number of blogs from TCR veterans (a topic for another short blog I think).It was from this research that I made a few key decisions which are also typical of the ethos of bikepacking. Firstly, as navigation, to use a GPS which is robust and long lasting, a typical solution is a trekking GPS from Garmin with replaceable AA batteries, the logic being that they are long lasting and you can always simply replace them on the way rather than first searching for a socket and then waiting while it recharges. I plumped for a popular model, the Garmin eTrex30. For luggage, I had already learnt that it is not advisable to carry a rucksack, it is far more comfortable to have your body free of excess weight and load the bikeframe instead. Since I am aiming for speed then small and lightweight is the name of the game and although there are a number of brands on the market the most widely used (or at least the one with the most effective marketing) is Apidura . In the photo above you can see my bike with a few of their bags, the bags are not cheap but I can say so far that they are certainly fit for purpose, and if you are planning to buy any yourself then I would offer the following advice. Don’t buy too big a saddlepack since this will tend to waggle about when you get out of the saddle and take advantage of Apiduras fast customer service response to get a second opinion on which size of framebag to buy.
With my bike loaded and a route to Grindelwald loaded onto my shiny new Garmin I set out with a plan to cycle there over 1.5 days and, as luck would have it, meet up with another volunteer on the way. Through some discussions with other volunteers we found out that we would be heading the same way and agreed to cycle the last 200km together up from south Germany into Switzerland. The ride to and from the checkpoint would in some small way be my own transcontinental experience.
Setting off from Stuttgart on Sunday evening, I made the first 75km (strava link) up onto the Schwaebisch Alb to the first hotel in Gammertingen, no bivvying or camping on this trip despite that trying to be in the spirit of transcontinental I wasn’t ready to give up all my comfort quite yet. Stayed the night in a classic small town german hotel which consisted of a old main building and a rather larger concrete 80 extension with the main rooms. Treated myself to a big schnitzel dinner with a couple of alcohol free weiss beers *germans swear by its health giving properties, although I am still doubtful, nevertheless it tastes good and half convinces your brain you are having a real beer).
Next morning after a leisurely breakfast (not very TCR as I now know) the target was 100km in the morning to meet the other checkpoint volunteer (strava link). Having met up with my newly found travelling companion, John Love, another Brit living in Germany, we set out to make it to out over night accommodation in Interlaken, which lay 200km away from our meeting point in Stockach. This turned out to be a little bit further than we could manage given out relatively late starting time, and that neither of us has suitable lighting for riding at night. Valuable TCR lesson number one learnt, be realistic about how far you can ride and be prepared to ride at night with good lights. However, as we slowly realised during the course of the days riding that we would not reach Interlake, another TCR skill was called into play, ‘plan adaptation in the face of unforeseen events’ (even though we should have known we wouldn’t manage 300km in a day before sundown).
First alternative plan was to still reach our planned accommodation that night by taking a train from Luzern to Interlaken, but that proved to be an unrealistic only because the station ticket office was closed when we made it there, but it looked to be expensive and time consuming, so we made a plan B, find somewhere to sleep in Luzern and get up early enough the next day to still arrive in Grindelwald in time for our duty to start. Booking.com gave us the simplest and fastest way to find reasonably priced accommodation, and despite this being a last minute booking in Switzerland in high summer season we found a room for just 60EUR, one click later (using the fast free train station wifi btw) the room was booked and we headed over to our hotel, a converted jail!
After good feed at a local curry restaurant and a short sleep we were up before dawn to make our way to Grindelwald. Cue another lesson best learnt before embarking on TCR, the vagaries of navigating with Garmin devices, and probably most other GPS devices, although my experience outside the Garmin product portfolio is limited. John and I ver quickly noticed that we had vastly different routes to get to Grindelwald, we both had Garmin eTrex devices, I had the 30 model and John the 10. I had a pre designed track stored on my garmin whereas John had a live programmed route which seemed to want to send us the opposite direction out of Luzern to mine. In the end we decided to follow mine since it was at least in the right general compass direction. Up and over the relatively modest Brunigpass (1008m) before a leisurely ride along the banks of the Brienzersee lake towards Interlaken and the climb from their to Grindelwald.
It was on the climb up to Grindelwald that we came across our first genuine TCR rider, cap no16 and Kinesis supported rider Philip Schwedthelm (I have done my best to remember all the interesting people I have come across on this trip, but sometimes my forgetful memory has got the best of me, gladly in this case my mind has served me well). Luckily he was in good spirits, having slept in a hotel the night before and we chatted as we climbed up at leisurely pace. I was already impressed that someone who had been cycling since the previous Friday evening (it was now Tuesday morning remember) was quite so chatty and was climbing with such ease. In fact in the end, he pushed on as John and I took our time, we were not racing after all.
Having never cycled in the Alps (or any other proper mountain range for that matter) I was becoming more and more in awe of the surroundings, and by the time we arrived in Grindelwald, I was besotted, the seed of the idea to endeavour to come back in the following year for TCR was already growing. The scenery had already taken my breath away far more than during previous visits to the alps, on skiing and motorbiking holidays, the more you struggle for a view the more you appreciate it.
Finally to the heart of the matter, volunteering at the checkpoint, after a brief and slightly haphazard run through of our duties from the previous set of volunteers, who were preparing to leave, and the lovely Anna, as race manager and representative of the race management. Pretty simply really, racers come (with forewarning if you follow their GPS trackers online) you note the time that they arrived, stamp and fill their card for CP2 and thats that for the formalities. The only mildly complicated thing it keep track of ‘race time’ as opposed to real time, meaning that the important time to be noted i the log and on the brevet card is the elapsed time since the start, this is all that matters.
The great thing about volunteering was that the formalities are so minor that between the 4 volunteers (3 newbies and one lady who decided to stay over from her session covering the CP from the start) we could easily cover the workload even at the most busy times leaving plenty of time to chat with the racers, picking up tips and stories as well as generally soaking up the atmosphere and camaraderie. The first riders who arrived after my duty started were clearly more concerned with TCR as a race than a tour, constant questions about their position in the race, disappointment or elation when comparing their position at CP2 with that from CP1. Most looked relatively fresh and in control of the situation. My respect rose, they had ridden for days and mainly looked like they were out for a long weekend ride. A few did look a little worse for wear, and some of the wobbly dismounts betrayed the fatigue that they felt. Outward appearances could not be trusted in this race, being a capable TCR rider wasnt something you could see, most looked fit, but not olympian fit, I struggled to find a common visible trait that linked the riders. All I could notice was a certain confidence and calmness that these riders at the front(ish) end of the race emanated, the later riders seemed less and less sure of themselves and their own capability. Which is the cause and which is the effect remained to be seen, but it did seem to me, if you want to get through this race, you do need to at least believe that you can, come what may.
Riders came and riders went, a wide array of bikes and set ups were laid out along the railings allowing us volunteers to inspect and note interesting details. Everyone had their own unique style, either borne out of experience, research, guesswork or on the case of Nathan Jones, founder of Trans Am bike Race, necessity after having his original bike stolen in the US shortly before departure.
Many riders stayed at the checkpoint for quite a while, probably enjoying the company after hours and days alone on the road, and some free wifi for catching up with friends family and social media posts. Much coffee was ordered, the hotel toilet got a pretty rough time I think, improvised washing in the sink and the other obvious usage. Most riders were not that chatty, whether by nature or from race fatigue, but a few really relished the company of the checkpoint, such as the ever chatty Oliver Wolf, aka the Pedalist, who promptly ordered and beer and lit up a cigarette upon arriving at the checkpoint.
So far so good, slowly but surely I was thinking to myself that taking part in TCR the following year was not just a dream but with reasonable fitness, decent kit and good planning it was possible. Until I saw a rider pitch up in the early ours of the morning looking like death (sadly I cant remember his name, apologies), he had arrived in good time, but had clearly pushed himself very hard to do so, riding well past the point where his body had told him to stop, resulting in a little tumble crossing railtracks on the way up to Grindelwald. He explained, in a delirious way, that he was a marine, and that this was the toughest thing he had done. This was the first racer I had seen who was approaching rock bottom, motivation gone and his body drained of energy and impulse. He crashed on the sofa in the lobby of the hotel and slept a few hours until the hotel reception was manned again at which point he paid to use the breakfast buffet, take a shower and wash his clothes. Slowly but surely this shell of a man reclaimed his humanity and looked ready to carry on with the race, a little tiredness and hunger wasnt going to stop him. Eventually, with clean kit and a full belly he was ready to ride on, he mounted his steed rolled a couple of meters and then at the first pedal stroke, crack!, the derailleur cracked off. Closer inspection revealed that the carbon frame had cracked where the derailleur hanger mounted, probably a result of the previous night’s fall. His regenerated confidence drained from his face, I really felt for him, lady luck was not smiling upon him. But, to his immense credit, he merely asked where the nearest bike shop was and finding out there were a couple in town he walked with his broken bike down the road, determined that this would not be the end and I understood more deeply what the race could throw at you and the fortitude required to persevere.
Although the close contact and banter with the wide variety of TCR riders was eye opening, inspiring and thought provoking, it wasn’t really until our duty at the checkpoint was complete that my enthusiasm for TCR was truly sealed. It may well have helped that the final riders to pass through the checkpoint were in such a state, that they all inadvertently give me the feeling that I could manage it too, at least as far as CP2 (a similar motivation led me to dive head first into triathlon a few months earlier) but what really sealed the deal was riding the compulsory CP2 parcours which all the riders had had to do subsequent passing us in Grindelwald. The parcour consisted of a 90km route taking in 3 serious climbs and passes, Grosse Scheidegg, Grimselpass and Furka pass. Before leaving Stuttgart I had planned to ride the parcours and then onto Zurich in one day then barrel back to Stuttgart the day after, a plan borne out of naivety more that anything else, but nothing ventured nothing gained as they say, and if I was serious about doing TCR then pushing myself had to be part and parcel. Luckily Marc was game to ride as far as the top of Furka pass with me and then we would part ways and he would meet his family (to get driven back home, which I would later be rather jealous of). So having closed the checkpoint as per the race rules at 10pm on Wednesday and seeing the last intrepid racers come through within the official cutoff time (not a hard cut off, but the effective limit of the race duration at that point) the volunteer team chatted into the night, also with a racer who unfortunately had to scratch to due a knee problem, Tim Beicht. Although his luck did not seem to be great on TCR, after he told us that the year before he had been hit by a car in Turkey shortly before the end, he has since gone onto complete the Transatlanticway on a fixie, a sign of the unfailing perseverance of many members of the ultra endurance community. We all eventually called it a night, since we were all planning to leave early in the morning and pedal off in various directions.
A clear and chilly morning greeted us the next day as Mark and I made our way through the still sleeping town, bar the bakers and a scattering of TCR riders groggily going in the same direction. First up, Grosse Scheidegg, the car free climb heading north east out of the town, I say car free, but this does not mean automobile free, local tractors and the infamous swiss Postbus are allowed to use it. I had been ignorant of the Post bus until the previous day when one of the rides told me that I had better be listening out for them since they generally toot their horn and expect you to get out of the way, an issue more pertinent on a quiet single track road like the climb out of Grindelwald. Up we climbed, quickly learning first hand what sort of mind Mike Hall has when picking the checkpoints and parcours for his race, although the surroundings are stunning, the climb was gruelling. I had not thought about the gearing on my bike when setting out from Stuttgart, but I soon realised that 34T chain ring and 28T on the cassette were not enough for my skinny legs to get me up the 10% plus gradient of the road. Mental note, be careful about the gradient, not just the height of climbs. Stopping and starting all the way up, including a brief chat with a tractor driver who was curious why so many cyclists had been riding up his local road in the previous days, we eventually reached the top out of the shadow of the valley walls into the warming morning sun. Granted I was sweating pretty heavily by this point, but the warmth was welcome while taking in the views, the air and the silence that only a morning climb in the mountains can deliver, yet another fortification of my resolve to pursue endurance cycling further. Onwards and downwards we cycled into the valley and towards the gentle beginning of Grimselpass.
Where Scheidegg had revealed it’s character early with steepness, Grimsel was a less combative and more welcoming, probably helped that we were warmed up now, the sun was shining and the road was wider and smoother. We climbed Grimsel with no incident and made a brief stop at the top for the second coffee of the day, we werent racing after all and could afford to enjoy the day, with half an eye on the clock since I wanted to reach Zurich that evening.
Confidence was building, as was the traffic, a sneaking thought was growing in the back of my mind, would I be enjoying this quite as much if was in the TCR itself and had ridden for 3/4 days to get here? Seeing other riders on the way up to Furkapass and casually chatting to them in such monumental surroundings convinced me that, yes, one can suffer and enjoy the race simultaneously. Again it struck me that most riders in the race radiated a striking calmness that seemed to be an essential trait in dealing with the trials and tribulations of the ride. The weather was good, so no reason for complaining there, but 3 big passes back to back would surely be enough for many weekend riders to cry into their bidons after having already completed hundreds of kilometers on minimal sleep, not to mention the thousands of kilometers still to be ridden before reaching the finish line, but TCR riders were cut from a different cloth. Would I be up to the task?