The Transcontinental: A Beginners’ Guide to Ultra-Distance Racing (25/08/2019)

I first heard about the Transcontinental Race in March, 2015. I was a couple of months into my first ever long bike ride and was staying in the Czech Republic while crossing Europe. That ride would end up being a three year cycle around the world, but I had no idea things would escalate to such an extent at the time. My Couchsurfing host in Prague, Thomas, was training for the 3rd TCR and he rode with me the next day out of town. The race sounded mental. Here’s a quote from my 5th blog post on this site:

“He thought it would be a good opportunity to squeeze in some training for his upcoming challenge this summer – ‘The Transcontinental Race’ – a crazy bicycle race from Flanders, Belgium to Istanbul, Turkey. I asked him how quickly he was expecting to complete the distance, expecting the answer to be a number of weeks, but his reply was about 10 days! He was aiming to travel over 300km a day, more than 3 times what I average. Suddenly my ‘big trip’ seemed pathetic in comparison.”

That world of cycling felt alien to me. The speed, Lycra, the training – none of this was stuff I dealt with and although the TCR captured my imagination, I quickly dismissed it as an event for lunatics and forgot all about it. Thomas came third that summer. 

Entering Czech Republic – country no. 8

Fast forward almost exactly two years, and I’m in Australia. I had completed my ride across Europe, continued through the Caucuses and the Middle East, headed up through the ‘Stans’ of Central Asia, all the way across China and South East Asia. I’d island hopped across the Indonesian archipelago and cycled across Australia, from Darwin to Melbourne. I had 35,000km under my belt and I was skint. I was working in a farm in Queensland, saving up so that I could continue around the world.

That was when Mike Hall was killed in a car accident during the 2017 Indian Pacific Wheel Race. Mike Hall was a legend in the scene; he’d won iconic bikepacking races like the Trans-Am & the Tour Divide and held the record for the fastest cycle around the world. In 2013, he founded the Transcontinental Race which has gone on to become one of the best-known ultra-endurance events in the calendar. 

The Indian Pacific Wheel Race is essentially the Australian TCR equivalent. It is a 5,500km single stage race from Freemantle to Sydney. When Mike was hit, he was less than 500km from the finish line. The news made headlines that extended far beyond the ultra-distance scene and I remember reading about it in Australian news. I still didn’t know much or care particularly about these races, but by this point I felt a little like I was overlapping with the endurance cyclists. 

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My ‘home’ in Australia

In the US, I met more people who were interested in the ultra-scene. I often felt like I was treated as part of that community, which I always felt was a little unfair. I was fit, yes, but I was hardly in the same calibre of athlete as these people. I cycled slowly, stopped frequently, took days off and had always had plenty of sleep. During the more boring stretches in the US and Australia I often rode 8 hours a day averaging between 100-150km – but this was still nothing like the 300km that Thomas had planned on averaging in the TCR. 

I cycled along sections of the Trans America Trail in the US that summer, not long after the Trans Am Bike Race had taken place. That race is even longer – 6,800km. I remember seeing notes about it in a cafe or bike shop somewhere in Kansas. 

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Following the Trans Am bike route through Kansas

When I pedalled down the UK that winter to wrap up my trip, I met more cyclists who were into lightweight bikepacking. I stayed with Andy via Warmshowers near Sheffield and we had dinner with some of his long-distance cycling pals. These included a chap who’d rode in London-Edinburgh-London and Angie Walker who’d taken part in the previous year’s TCR (she’ll be back in the next blog too). I still thought all this ultra-endurance malarkey sounded stupid, but I was far more interested than I had been a couple of years prior. 

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Crossing the Peak District in winter, towards Sheffield

When I arrived back in London I started working as a bike courier. I can think of a handful of couriers who have competed (and done well) in long distance races. I continued using the steel Dawes Super Galaxy I rode around the world on, but it was falling apart. Rather than spend money on fixing it up, I left it to rust in the garden and bought a carbon road bike. I picked up a Boardman Team Carbon for £450 on Gumtree, which has been my commuter bike ever since. I’d never cycled a carbon bike before and it was fast. I was suddenly dropping off far more parcels a day, zooming around Central London with ease. 

Further and faster

A few months later I started working at Apidura. Apidura make lightweight, rackless bikepacking luggage. They also sponsor the TCR and support a number of athletes at the top end of the ultra-distance cycling scene (including the late Mike Hall). This was a slippery slope. I started hanging out with ‘proper’ cyclists, bought clip in shoes, started wearing Lycra and actually began riding for fun and fitness – not just to get around for cheap or to earn money delivering parcels. 

Three of my colleagues took part in the TCR last year. I still thought the race sounded silly, and wondered why anyone would want to use all their holiday on such a masochistic trip. I heard so many off-putting stories about endurance races – people battling fatigue and falling asleep while cycling, unable to ride thanks to bleeding saddle sores, and even losing the ability to hold their own necks up. Yet, the curiosity was growing inside me. 

In May I did my first ever 300km ride, an audax from Raynes Park in SW London. The longest I’d ever cycled in a day was 185km. I rode with my colleague Greg who was training for the TCR. I couldn’t keep up with him, but I did finish in 16 hours. I was wrecked. My legs were in agony and I could barely get up the stairs at home. The idea of doing that distance day in-day out seemed impossible. 

I knew a few people racing that summer and found dotwatching was addictive. I started following more bikepacking races in the same way and kept wondering if I’d be able to do one myself. I was intrigued by both the physical strength – being fit enough to ride for so many hours everyday, but also the mental strength – being disciplined and motivated enough to continue every morning. Neither are easy and I have a lot of respect for people who finish these events. 

Long story short, curiosity got the better of me and a few months later I applied to take part in TCR no.7. It felt a little like the universe was pulling me into it and now seemed like the time to try. I’d never do it otherwise. I had support from work, a network of people around who could give me advice and for the first time ever – the race was running east to west. We’d finish in Brest, so getting home would be easy (ish).

On the boat, during a 24 hour ride from London to Paris
Heading for Paris…

I always had a base-level of fitness after riding around the world. Even though I didn’t do much riding over winter, my commute is 25km each day which is better than nothing. I didn’t bother training until spring, and started picking up the miles around 4 months before the race.

I started doing longer rides again and with more regularity as we neared the race. I’ve never trained for anything before, and there was no real routine to my efforts but from around 3 months to the race this is generally what I got up to:

Commuting is about 125km a week. That’s the absolute minimum. I have flexible Wednesday mornings at work, so I’d get a punchy ride in every week. I usually did a 70km loop around Westerham in Kent, which included 1,000m of climbing. Then, at the weekend I’d usually get at least 100 miles in. I aimed to do a long ride between 200km-300km and the more of these I did the easier I found them. I could bang out 200km and still go to the pub in the evening. I wouldn’t last very long after a drink, but I was getting better and my legs would still be functioning the next day. 

John O’Groats in November 2017
Lands End in June 2019

In the last couple of months I tried to do some more back-to-back weekends. These were great practise, but it was harder to find time for these. To squeeze in a 560km to Lands End, I did 80km after work on Friday, 300km on Saturday and 180km on Sunday, camping along the way and catching the 6pm train from Penzance. Home around 1am Monday morning and in the office 8 hours later. I also did a 600km to Wales and back along this audax route, starting at 6pm on Friday and arriving home around 48 hours later. That’s the whole weekend gone. 

The last ‘biggie’ I did was for the Dunwich Dynamo, an annual overnight ride from London to Dunwich. I arrived at around 6am, turned around and cycled home. That was a 360km ride without sleep (the longest I’ve ever done). It was the first time I’ve felt sleep deprivation like that on a bike, powered through and used my second wind to get another long sections done. 

On top of this, I started going to the gym 4 times a week on my lunch break. I did a bit of strengthening on shoulders and upper back – not enough that you would notice (I definitely have a cyclist’s body), but I think this was helpful in the race. It helps to have a little upper body strength when you are spending so many hours in one position. I spent at least 2 days on cardio and did 2 sessions on the gym bike. There was zero-science to my approach, I just found an interval setting that I could just maintain at 100RPM for 20 minutes. I’d also did leg weights one day a week to build some muscle. This meant I had my gentle commute, hill training on Wednesday morning, 2 high-intensity sessions in the gym and one longer ride (6hrs+) at the weekend. 

Pit-stop on my ride down to Cornwall

I had to be a little careful with all this riding. The problem I developed with my left knee during our ride in Oman persisted over the following months. It kept flaring up and then subsiding, even troubling me during my commute at times. I decided to get a bike fit a couple of months before the race. Bike fits are expensive. The guy I used came to my flat and set up a jig in my living room. I was worried that my bike was a tad too large for me, but by switching the stem to very short one I’d already addressed that issue. We adjusted my saddle height slightly and moved it slightly back so my centre of gravity was more balanced. We pushed the cleats a little further back to the base of my foot and added an arch support. Was all this helpful? Who knows. If I’d pulled out of the TCR due to injury, I’d tell you it was a waste of £200 – but I didn’t. I had plenty of problems with my legs during the race, but weirdly, no issues with my left knee. I think it was probably a good investment. Spending that many hours locked into one position without break puts a lot of strain on your body. These things aren’t as important when you are touring in flats. 

Taken on holiday in Spain over Easter. Rented bike for the day and did a 100 mile loop in the Pyrenees.

If you’re not familiar with the TCR, this is how it works. Fortunately, it’s quite simple to explain. You all start together at the same time. This year kick off was 6am in Burgas, Bulgaria and there were around 275 starters. The clock doesn’t stop until you reach the finish line. This makes it quite different to a multi-stage event, as being able to ride on very little sleep is a major advantage. 

Testing out new cockpit set ups

There are 4 checkpoints along the way, each of these has a ‘cut-off’ time and is accompanied by mandatory ‘parcours’. In TCR no.7, the start parcours would take participants straight into the mountains via a long gravel section. This would quickly separate the field as the route progressed to Checkpoint 1. CP1 was not far from the start, around 350km into the race at Budlhaza Monument up in the mountains. CP2 was in Serbia, and the end of 50km gravel section over the mountain Besna Kobila. The off-road sections mean there is no ‘perfect’ bike for the TCR. Do you take wider tyres for the gravel sections, sacrificing speed on the tarmac? Do you take recessed mountain bike cleats for the un-rideable sections or commit to road cleats? 

CP3 was in the Dolomites, with a long 165km section incorporating 5,000m of climbing. Finally, CP4 was in the French Alps, taking riders up Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and up Alpe d’Huez via a gravel track. Finally, there were 70km parcours to the finish line. There was nothing challenging about this section, it was simply a nod to the Paris-Brest-Paris randonneur, which takes place every 4 years. One of the oldest long-distance cycling events in the world, it is an event that has inspired races like the TCR. This year, the PBP took place just a couple of weeks after the TCR and we would ride the same 70km into Brest. 

Getting used to sleeping in the bivvy again…

Between the checkpoints, you decide on your own route. This adds another dimension to the race, because good-planning can make a huge difference. I hated making my own route. It took hours and felt like extra homework to be getting done after being at work. I like route planning when I’m going somewhere exciting, for example, in Oman – when I was trying to find roads off-the-beaten-track in stunning places with only satellite imagery to provide clues on which roads were sealed. For the TCR I ignored every beautiful option and always chose the most direct, flattest route – even if this meant sitting on a busy trunk road for miles on end. 

Fortunately I’ve had plenty of practise route-making the last few years. I won’t bore you with a detailed breakdown of the process, but he’s a quick summary. I’d use both Ride With GPS and Komoot to plot a bike route between where one mandatory section finished and where the next started. I’d toggle between both bike and car when possible in RWG, but because you can select ‘avoid highways’ I generally relied on the car version. I’d write down the total distance and elevation gain of each section and then fiddle with the route, trying to reduce the numbers. I’d leave the terrain shading on over the map, and explore options of avoiding hilly sections and following rivers. I’d then asses the difference in climbing vs distance and make a decision on which I thought would be fastest (or best for my legs). 

Once I was happy with my route, I’d then load them into Route Check. On this platform you can overlay the GPX with Strava’s heatmap – so you can see where other cyclists ride in the area. This is helpful for identifying the dirt roads that people avoid and for spotting the roads that are illegal to ride on. Finally, I’d check as much as possible with Google Street View, particularly to see if tunnels were legal for bikes. Boring stuff. On some occasions there is an obvious ‘best way’, but on other sections it is more subjective. 

Let’s wrap this up by talking about gear. Ultra-distance people love talking about gear…

This is was my set up for the race:

As mentioned above, the bike is a 53cm Boardman Team Carbon which I picked up second hand for £450. It retailed for about a grand when it came out in 2016, making it an entry-level carbon road bike. The frame is light, but the spec is basic – cheap wheels, Tiagra groupset and Tektro brakes. 

I put a lot of mileage on that thing, so needed to change a lot of the components for the race. Most of these I switched like-for-like, rather than upgrading (as the race was bankrupting me anyway). I left the same Tektro R540 brake calipers on even though they are rubbish but did add some new Swiss Stop pads for the race. I swapped the rear cassette for a bigger 11-34t and added a larger Tiagra long cage derailleur that could handle the bigger cog. I should say a big thanks to George for helping (/doing this for) me. Installing a derailleur is where I start getting a little out of my mechanical depth. 

Final set up for the TCR

I bought some second hand Profile Design T3 aerobars a couple of months before the race to get used to riding on the bars. I also replaced the wheels as the rims were worn and bought Mavic Aksiums. I bought new Continental 5000 tyres shortly before the race. 28mm was a squeeze in the rear but it just worked. I hoped this would help on the rough stuff during the race. 

As for kit? It’s rather convenient that I work for a company that makes the best bikepacking kit on the market! I had a Racing Handlebar Pack under the aerobars, within which I stored a Patagonia raincoat (expensive, but great investment), 700ml water bottle, 2 spare tubes and had plenty of extra space for food. I had a Backcountry Food Pouch 1.2L+ either side of the stem; the left one had another spare tube, a massage ball and extra space for snacks. The left side one had all my toiletries: Sudocream and talcum powder for my bum, suncream, toothpaste, wet wipes, hayfever stuff (antihistamine pills, nasal spray and eye drops – I get it bad!), Gaviscon tablets for heartburn (an issue when I spend long hours on the aerobars) and caffeine pills. 

I had an Expedition Full Frame Pack 7.5L for the bulk of my kit. In the bottom compartment I had a very cheap synthetic down jacket (fine for summer), Decathlon arm warmers and an extra pair of socks. In the main compartment I had cheap Mountain Warehouse bivvy bag, Decathlon half-length mat, 2 x Zendure 10,000mah powerbanks (these are great because they have through-charge), a 2-port USB plug and cables to charge stuff. There’s a small pocket within which I used to carry my passport, emergency cash and spare cards. In the thin left side compartment I had a toothbrush, tyre levels, allen keys, brevet card and wallet.

I had a Racing Top Tube Pack with spare sunglasses lenses (great having a clear one for night riding – especially with bugs and hayfever), old iPhone (with music and as a spare GPS) and headphones. 

At the back I had a Racing Saddle Pack 7L with my sleeping bag (again, just a cheap summer one from Decathlon) and a spare pair of bibs. I used a Woho Stabilizer to mount 2 extra cages either side of the saddle pack – I found it best to use cheap alloy cages (that you can bend) with Voile straps to make sure my 2 extra 700ml bottles were secure. 

Being seen was important and I covered my bike in reflective tape. I invested in an Exposure Strada 1200 front light (which was painfully expensive even though it was second hand) and had a second Cateye Volt front & rear light on my helmet. At the rear, I also had a Lezyne Strip Drive on the saddle pack and a little Cateye light on the right seat stay. I didn’t fancy getting run over.

Finally, for navigation I primarily used a Garmin eTrex, mounted on my aerobars above the Exposure light. I had a Decathlon phone holder further back, and used my Motorola phone as a second GPS (mostly with maps.me – as I did when cycling around the world). In the unlikely case that these would both fail, I also had the old iPhone with my route loaded onto MapOut (one of my preferred apps, but only works on IOS). 

I was happy with the set up. I thought I had invested well in the important stuff, and bought cheap stuff for the bits that didn’t matter quite so much. You can spend a fortune trying to save weight on all of your gear – and I didn’t have a fortune to spend. The amount I spent getting ready for and competing in this race seems bonkers compared to how I scrimped riding around the world. I definitely had more than I needed – the chaps out front of the race carry a few kilos less, but this was an amount of kit I was comfortable with. Besides, I’m used to touring on steel bikes with heavy loads – any bike that weighs less than 20kg (which mine did, even with water) feels light to me. 

I’ll tell you about the race in the next one…

 

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