TCR, three little letters that carried such a weight of expectation in my mind for the last year, and now, post race, carry a multitude of memories and feelings from an experience (to call it merely a race seems deeply disingenuous now, even experience doesn’t seem to do it justice) that will stay with me for a lifetime.
The Transcontinental Race, or TCR, is an event devised by the late Mike Hall to give a taste of the self supported biking experience that he himself lived through on his round the world record attempt and other adventures. In 2017 the race turns 5 years old and is brutally simple in concept and ethos, but as I learned in preparation, participating and recovering, nuanced, complex and downright mind bending it execution.
Although the seed of the idea to take part in TCR was sown back in 2015 as I first registered for a start place, which was unsuccessful but led to an equally rewarding and much safer learning experience of volunteering at a checkpoint in the 2016 edition, TCRno4. While volunteering I learned a great deal about the race and how the riders go about completing it, and equally importantly, what can lead to the deeply undesirable exit from the race, namely scratching. Besides the experience a secondary benefit was a priority in the registration process for the following years race, so with this in mind I filed my application and duly received my place at the start of 2017
As time of reckoning was fast approaching, a day that I have looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure in an endless cycle since I first that sinking sense of elation
that I had a start place in the 2017 edition of the transcontinental race TCRno5. To draw a crude, hamfisted comparison, I also recently married my beautiful wife Safak, a mere couple of weeks ago we tied the knot, although cant really compare the starting of life together with the one you love with 2 weeks of self enforced masochism, although the more jaded older readers may jest about it, the feeling in the pit of my stomach was now eerily similar. You know you want to do it, you chose to do this, you know
it will enrich your life but anticipating and making those first steps sends your emotions on a rollercoaster. what makes the transcontinental a fundamentally different experience is the solo and unsupported nature of it (at least for those not taking part in a pair).
Maybe I should think of it as a test, just like those days when you waited out side the exam room at school or uni, you are pretty sure you have done enough, but you cant help shaking the feeling that the soon to be revealed questions may completely flummox you and there will be noone to help you. Probably the best description of all came from the founder himself, consider the TCR an experiment, not something to succeed or fail but a process of exploration and learning, that way you gain whatever the outcome. And therein lies the challenge and the appeal, I will be essentially alone on a journey against time, and tide to traverse the continent with nothing but my preparation, bike, kit and wits to rely on, (and probably credit card and a large amount of mobile internet). Should I cross the finish line in Meteroa as planned before the end of the 15th of August then I will have undertaken and completed a significant individual effort that should inform my attitude and approach to all subsequent events that life throws at me. At least outside of TCR one does not need to do that alone.
Just applying for the TCR is enough to put people off the idea of participating, no doubt the intention of the questionnaire that one is faced with during the online application. All questions seem to whisper to your rational mind ‘Are you really really sure you want to do this?’. The application asked me such teasers as how long my route my be, how many meters of climbing would be entailed and where one might eat in at midnight in Poprad, Slovakia. If you don’t allow the minefield of questions in the application to put you off the idea altogether, then your application will be accepted (assuming you also didnt answer the questions with such ignorance that the organisers consider your application to be not serious) and the wait for the selection can begin. How the final rider list is chosen seems to have been a thing of mystery and, dare I say it, controversy, in recent years, prompting a deeper explanation from the organisers with a view to more transparency.
Thankfully I came through the entry process and could set about preparing my mind body and kit for the challenge to come. First port of call, and no surprise to followers of the race and readers of blogs (I guess that means you :)) is the wealth of online blogs, race reports, videos and the like from racers, veterans, followers and organisers. Two sites stood out for me by virtue of the number of times I went back to consult them in times of doubt and confusion.
The TCR race manual should be the bible for anyone thinking about racing, it may not cover the subtler aspects of the race but it does have the rules (brutally simple) and all the details of how the race works, things you absolutely have to know about and do. It is all very well reading your hundreth blog and saving yourself a few grams or watts on your rig, but if you dont bring the right paperwork to the registration then you aren’t getting past the start line. Furthermore, the manual is not a directive containing a cold list of regulations, it is a manual with plenty of space dedicated to the meaning behind the way the race is run and why it is in your interest to keep on the right side of what is stipulated. TCR is after all not the Tour de France, the UCI is not scrutinising your every move and keeping you on the straight and narrow. So I studied and studied the manual, all the blogs and online resources I could get my hands on. I could glean a great deal from this , but the often the author would resort to the old adage of trying the options out for yourself and finding what works best for you. So that was what I set out to do, on my road to the start line.
Fitness wise I was already a member of a local triathlon club, and was carless so, regular training sessions and an unavoidable 20km round trip commute took care of my base fitness, something that I think any prospective endurance race cyclist neglects at their peril, I had enough things to worry about without my fitness being one of them. The biggest unknown and worry for me was repeated long distance days in the saddle, getting the kit to my liking and knowing that nothing funky was going to happen to my body and brain (or ass!), I wanted to get all that as much under control as possible, and having got my basic kit assembled (see the sister blog to this one here), I set out planning a few big rides in the months running up to the start with the aim of unearthing gremlins, building confidence and finding my limits where possible.
To that end, I embarked on a number of multiday rides (300km plus), a few of which are described below. The first significant training ride was with fellow TCR newbie, John Love, aka TCRNo5 Cap no138. Starting in his adopted hometown of Berlin and riding through the highest mountains on the way, and the north of Germany, the Harz region, we planned to reach Essen, where my fiancee was living. Route was planned to take between 2 and 2.5 days so John had enough time to travel back to Berlin by Flixbus (cheapest way to get body and bike around Germany, but fast and cheerful it ain’t)
the wind was in our face the whole time (the plethora of windfarms in that area should have tipped us off to this)
- Berlin to Essen: 14 April 2017 , planned: 575.5 km +3604 meters
As you may have noticed, from the summary stats above, the ride did not go to plan, route abandoned after a total of just 344km of the planned 575km, not an auspicious start, but in the world of endurance cycling I still classed this as a valuable learning experience. Although the route on day 1 has been quite flat, the wind was in our face the whole time (the plethora of windfarms in that area should have tipped us off to this), our fuelling and break strategy was random and counterproductive, stopping too much in the first half and then making over long stints to try and make up time later. Our route finding and map reading steadily improved over the course of this short trip, as well as ‘on the fly’ decision making, such as when we realised we would not reach the hostel we planned on day 1 or that we would not make Essen in reasonable time and needed to hop onto a train. Just rerouting off our original plan in order to catch a train to Essen was a learning experience itself. It felt like (bear with me, I’m an engineer so my metaphors can be a little laboured) solving a complex algebra equation with multiple unknowns. Which train station should we head for? The closest would mean the most expensive train, further away would mean cheaper, and more kms under our wheels, but did we have the energy and a high enough average speed to make the train we wanted? Then add on top choosing some new roads which offered speed but without too much traffic or even roads where we can’t ride. On the plus side, kit, bike (not my TCR bike yet) and body help up well, through wind, rain and shine. As a first significant training step to the startline of TCR it was disappointing on paper, but I was wiser for it and started planning the next one….
This time I would stick closer to home, making a 400km look starting and finishing at my door in Esslingen, near Stuttgart. As I was fortunate enough that TCRNo5 CP1 was just south of Stuttgart I decided to take advantage and ride about 100km of the 400km loop on my planned TCR route, two birds with one stone, what could go wrong?!
the hustle and bustle was left behind on the valley floor and after the perfect sunset in the vineyards I entered the forest and darkness
- Stuttgart roundtrip: 20th May 2017 400km
- Achieved: 374km 23km/h avg. moving time 16h17m, total time 22h38m
First long solo ride, and with the intention of riding through the night to arrive back at home the sunday morning having set off at around 0900 on saturday. All sunshine and the joys of spring to start with, full of confidence, I could do this, having learnt so much from the last botched attempt, this would be easier. and so it turned out to be until late afternoon, when the realisation of a long a lonely nightime ride approached. Not having done many rides at night, read nothing that went on past 11pm, the thought seemed daunting at the time and strangely ominous. As sun set I was approaching the Palatinate forest west of the Rhine valley, the hustle and bustle was left behind on the valley floor and after the perfect sunset in the vineyards I entered the forest and darkness. Maybe it says more about me that when left with my own thoughts and no distractions that my mind wanders and imagines all sorts of things emanating from the darkness. After the initial anxiousness had passed, I have to say that I began to enjoy the peacefulness of the more remote roads and stillness of the forest. It can as a mild shock some hours later when I emerged from the forest into the bright neon lights of a McDonalds to grab some food before they shut, and to make a mental note of their opening times since they would lie on my TCR route. This is going swimmingly, I thought, passing the Rhine and entering Karlsruhe gave the reassuring sense that I was slowly coming back into familiar territory and would be roughly on schedule for the planned ETA, I even felt I could take a break and catch some sleep until, BANG, PSSST, first puncture on the outskirts of the city. 1 hour of tired head, frustrated fingers and a stubbornly tight tyre, and some choice cursing for the few passersby to hear enjoy. Skip the sleep stop I figured, once I was rolling again, now with a newfound obsession for road debris, hoping to avoid a second struggle with a flat. Passing the revellers in Pforzheim as they leave the clubs staggering home via kebab shops was like being an alien zoologist, in the same time and place as these people but apart and distant at the same time, it made me grateful to leave the city and pass the forests and countryside on the home leg to Stuttgart, the end was in sight. Sadly, the end of my endurance was also approaching, as the sun rose, the temperature seemed to continue to drop and I felt colder and weaker. Looking back the temperature had been steadily dropping from over 20C at midnight to around 4C at dawn, and this was compounding my fatigue. another lesson learned, just because the end is in sight does not mean that you can simply push on through and stop listening to your body. In the end, my tiredness got the better of me and I jumped on the the Sbahn at the fist station I found on the outskirts of Stuttgart, saving me 25km and allowing me to warm up, I must have shivered for almost the whole time, even after I was in the train. But, chin up, chalk it down to more experience and plan the next one, no-one said it was going to be easy!
There may not be too many advantages of a long distance relationship, but at this time I was living in Stuttgart and my Fiancee in Essen. The distance between the two cities normally meant travelling by train a lot, but on a few occasions when time allowed, it made for a great, and useful training ride. I had previously, also as part of TCR training ridden the 300km from Mainz to Essen along the Rhine valley but this time I wanted to do it in the opposite direction, not only as a longer ride but also as research whether the the longer flatter Rhine valley route was a viable alternative as a route from the start of TCRNo5 to CP1.
I was in a valley, with a river on the left and hills on the right, not much navigation needed you might think
- Essen to Stuttgart: 4th June 2017 427km +2200m
- Achieved: 427km 24.7km/h avg. moving time 17h18m, total time 23h25m
In the spirit of getting the most out of the few long rides I was doing, I planned to start this one at 2200, emulating the start of TCR. How would I feel setting off in the dark , finding places to fuel up at night and possibly riding through the night and day back to home? Critically, this would also be the final, and most thorough, shakedown of the new bike and all the kit I planned to take, down the order in which things would be packed in the saddle bag. A successful completion of the ride would be a confidence boosting rubber stamp on the training and preparation so far. For someone who is usually early to bed, starting a ride at the time I would normally be hitting the pillow was a challenge in itself, but foregoing sleep is part and parcel of TCR, so off I rode into the night and the unknown (with a well planned route :). Flat, boring, industry and cities were my environs for the first stint until I hit the Rhine valley proper. I had decided to follow the cycle route on the west side of the valley. Roads (and rails) follow the river on both banks, and since it could be busy, even at night, and there is a poorly understood and implemented law in Germany that cyclists should always use cycle paths where available, I had decided the cycle path would be my route. Of course this made the navigating simultaneously harder and easier. I was in a valley, with a river on the left and hills on the right, not much navigation needed you might think, the cycle path was well signposted, but often changed direction through towns, jumped up onto the road for a while and dived back down to the river, keeping your wits about you was more important than following the road alone. In contrast to my previous night riding through forests, the valley was alive at night, far more than I expected. The big transport barges and cruise boats crawling along the river and, more curious, groups of fishermen lining the bank, I was barely alone on the way. I was making good time, so I decided to get some more practice sleeping rough, I found myself a bench on the cycleway directly on the riverbank, climbed into my bivvy and grabbed a couple of hours sleep before sunrise. Slowly I was getting used to being outside and comfortable sleeping al fresco. Not feeling particularly refreshed but nonetheless pleased with the progress and practice, I carried on and enjoyed the peace of the romantic Rhine valley in the early morning light. I left the valley before midday and the crowds arrived, so I could join the back roads cross country to Mannheim and on to Stuttgart. By this time I was developing a feeling or at least a strategy for how far and how hard to ride before taking a break. It was mostly feeling, and seeing and I knew the route vaguely it gave me confidence to know that there would or wouldn’t be somewhere to stop after xkm when I know I would need some calories and a sit down. Breaking down the journey into chunk between food, and the lack of foul weather meant I arrived at home just as I planned and in a condition that meant I didn’t want to crawl into a hole. This had been a valuable confidence building ride, and I slept well knowing things were coming together nicely. One more crucial long ride and I would be ready for the start, a dry run of my finalised TCR first leg, Geraardbergen to CP1.
‘Why of course, what a lovely idea’ she replied, I wait one week to make it look like an unrelated thought, ‘what if I bring the bike and I could cycle back to Stuttgart?’
- Ghent to Geraardsbergen to Stuttgart: 16th June 2017
- Achieved:611km 24.5km/h avg. moving time 25h, total time 37h
My long suffering Fiancee had never been to Ghent or Bruges in Belgium, ‘Shall we go?’ I suggested, ‘Why of course, what a lovely idea’ she replied, I wait one week to make it look like an unrelated thought, ‘what if I bring the bike and I could cycle back to Stuttgart?’ , I wont recount the remainder of the conversation, but let’s say that in the end we agreed I could do it and I didn’t become single. Needless to say the time in beautifully quaint Ghent with my better half was lovely and memorable and put me in a great mood for tackling the ride that would simulate the TCR itself. Leaving Ghent around 1100 I headed to Geraardsbergen to climb the Muur and cross the same cobbles that would be under my tyres a few weeks later. At least this time I could take it easy and enjoy the daylight to appreciate the Belgian lanes, and try to partially commit the route to my visual memory, I thought it would be beneficial to not get lost on the first night of TCR, so a few visual cues would serve me well in the race. Progress was swift and devoid of bad weather and Belgium was enjoyable despite the ugliness of Charleroi, most of which I passed from the comfort of a green cycle path, but otherwise is a total blot on the landscape that I am happy I would avoid under cover of darkness in the race. In the early evening, still feeling strong and with around 150km behind me, I started calculating at what time I might be at this stage during the race, and what roadside shelter could I use for a quick power nap, which *spoiler alert* did turn out to be time well spent. On this ride, however, I made it to Luxembourg by the time I was thinking about sleep, as a passed through the city I stopped at a McDonalds, again. I’m still not sure how people in Luxembourg decide which language to speak to people since they have so many on offer, but on this occasion they decided to sidestep all the one I have half a grasp of, or maybe I was so tired my linguistic skills left me completely, but a good feed and on I went just outside the city limits to catch some sleep in a field, I felt on this occasion, and I repeated the process many times since, that a big feed, followed by a short ride and then sleep was an effective way for me to take on calories and give my body the best chance of recovery in the short periods I gave it. Too big a meal would make me sleepy, but on this occasion that was just what I needed. Despite a few local boy racers tearing down the road through the night to a local casino I got some good sleep and felt ready circa 5am to hit the road again. I was enjoying myself, and felt in the TCR spirit, passing Schengen, of Visa fame and feeling truly European in this confluence corner of the union, by breakfast I had left Luxembourg, dipped into France to pick up breakfast at a lovely patisserie with german and french customers and was sitting under a tree tucking into a few pastries, this was what I had been looking for, and TCR was going to be a fantastic if it offered just a few of these moments along the way. By this time I was back on german soil and in my lingual and cultural comfort zone again, so I could focus on making sure the route was optimised, remembering important landmarks, food stops, 24hr garages etc, and fine tuning my kit and garmin reading skills, happy to say things were coming along nicely. Soon enough I joined the route I had ridden back in May and then I really knew I was on the home stretch, and a second wind filled my sails as a cruised home feeling pretty chuffed how well everything had went. But also with the nagging feeling that I may be deviating from the statistical norm here and experiencing an uncharacteristically good patch, maybe all my bad punctures would come in the race, the B10 road I used that had been under repair would be closed next time, all manner of dark thoughts circled the feeling of accomplishment, but good I thought, I should stay on my toes, who knows what is around the next corner and there is always something to improve. Like realising when I got back home that bib short hygiene is more important than I thought, best pack some antibacterial wet wipes for TCR….
With the bulk of my training and preparation behind me, what better way to taper after all that hard work then get married to my dear fiancee, go on honeymoon to Italy, and maybe drive cross the Alps on the same roads that would form part of my TCR route to CP2 a month later……