Right, let’s get straight into it. The 7th Transcontinental Race kicked off at 6am on the 27th July in Burgas, on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria. I was nervous, but mostly just excited to get started. I’d accepted my place at the very start of the year, so I’d had half a year to get prepared. I’d spent so much time thinking about the TCR, and most of that time was spent wondering whether or not I’d be able to reach the finish line within 16 days. I was desperate to make it, but very aware that less than half the field usually finishes within the timeframe despite the race attracting a strong crowd.
The race prep caused me a lot of stress as the start drew nearer. I spent a lot of time doubting myself and worrying that I’d have to ‘scratch’ early on. When I trained, I was convinced I wasn’t doing enough and when I wasn’t training I scolded myself for being lazy. I felt guilty staying out late having that extra pint on a Friday night and even worse when I was too hungover to ride on Saturday morning.
By the time the TCR actually began I was well rested. I tapered-off my riding before the race (partly due to injury concerns over my left knee) and I’d spent two days in Burgas sitting around before the start, napping and drinking cheap beer. I managed to get a good a few hours sleep before my alarm sounded at 5am and my legs felt good when we started riding.
The beginning felt like an audax. There were around 275 starters, all with reflective vests on and bright lights that didn’t really need to be on now that dawn was breaking. We had a police escort for the first 15km, before turning onto country lanes. People kept a quick pace, but that wasn’t surprising given the excitement.
Before long we reached the first gravel section, which was longer and rougher than I expected. I quite like riding rigid bikes bikes on that kind of farmland double-track but it wasn’t that fun so early on. I really didn’t fancy getting a puncture and was relieved when we returned to tarmac, having overtaken around a dozen people fixing flats.
The parcours lead us straight into the mountains – an effective way of splitting the field. It was a tough way to start in that heat. Checkpoint 1 at Budlhaza Monument was early on in the race, at around 270km in. You could see the monument from the bottom of the mountains and it was an impressive sight, almost 1,000m higher than the road at the bottom of the hills. It probably took a couple of hours climbing to get up to it. I’m not sure what position I was at the checkpoint. It didn’t matter that early on in the race, but I was probably middle of the field. I dropped down the north side of the mountain, bought dinner in a supermarket in Gabrovo before riding on as the sun set.
It was nice to be riding somewhere new after all those boring loops around the south of England this summer. It was also nice to be back in Bulgaria – I have fond memories of cycling there in 2015, my first proper taste of mountain riding was in the Bulgarian Rhodope range. It was funny to think that it took me 4 months to cross Europe in 2015 – now I was trying to do it in 2 weeks!
I had to get used to cycling in the dark. It’s something I’ve never liked doing but at least now I had a bright enough light to feel comfortable doing it. The bright light was fortunate – it saved me from hitting the deer that jumped out of the bushes without warning. I slammed on my brakes and missed it by about a foot. I decided that was a sign I should start looking for somewhere to sleep. Every bus stop seemed to be occupied by another TCR participant who’d already called it a night. I’m not sure why ultra-distance racers love bus stops (aka ‘audax hotels’) – it was an amusing sight. I spotted an abandoned building beside the road, lifted in my bike through an empty window and set an alarm for 5 hours later.
No one in the TCR carries a tent, they’re too heavy and take too long to erect. Some participants choose to sleep in hotels, many sleep outside the whole time with just a waterproof bivvy bag for protection from the elements. I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to convince myself that I like bivvying. I don’t. Give me my tent any day. But on the TCR it wasn’t really an issue – when you’re tired enough you’ll sleep anywhere.
In previous years the TCR has started in the evening, so most riders go through the first night and day before sleeping. This year we began in the morning. Most people – like myself – stopped the first night, but the guys out front powered through. Some went through the first night and next day before having a proper sleep. I called it a day at a sensible time, aware that it could be a costly mistake to get carried away. It was already the most I’d ever ascended in one day. Had it not been for the Dunwich Dynamo (and back) a few weeks before the race, it would also have been my longest day in both hours and distance ever.
I woke up at 4.30am, popped a Pro Plus, packed up my stuff and hit the road, eating a banana and packaged croissant for breakfast while riding. At around 7.30am I passed my colleague Chris (cap 219) sat outside a petrol station with Monster energy drink and a cig. I was surprised to see him, as his initial plan had been to go through the first night. He didn’t look too fresh. He’d had a heat stroke the first day and been throwing up during the night.
We were still on a mandatory section and there were plenty of other riders about. The next climb was tough and Chris overtook me on the way up. I didn’t see him again. The parcours finished at the Arch of Freedom monument, around 1,500m above sea level. From there it was a free route to Serbia, so I stayed on the main road leading into Sofia and rode straight through the Bulgarian capital. Plenty of people tried to avoid the city, but this meant long detours. I cycled through Sofia on my RTW and don’t remember it being that bad – and it wasn’t. Besides, I quite like cycling through cities. It was hectic getting out the other side on a narrow road with heavy traffic but I still reckon it was a good shout.
Rain was forecast, so I was lucky to find a shelter behind a church on the quiet road leading to the Serbian border. I rolled out my mat just as it started chucking it down. I was slowing drifting off when I heard a noise and saw a flicker in my direction. There was no engine sound and I quickly realised it was another cyclist. I was annoyed at having been disturbed, but said a polite hello to whoever it was. It was raining, so they were probably also feeling lucky to have found the shelter. It was a woman, and her accent sounded French. I woke up at around 4.30am to the sound of her vomiting. “Are you OK?” I called over? “Yes, it’s alright” she replied. “I think it’s from the heat, or maybe the period pains”. It didn’t sound very good. I have no idea who it was. I packed up my stuff and hit the road.
My legs were starting to hurt. I was making good progress and I didn’t feel too fatigued, but my legs were very sore in the mornings. This wasn’t that surprising – I’d already clocked 30 hours in the saddle and ascended a lot. I crossed the border and began the long climb up Besna Kobila towards CP2. My legs didn’t enjoy it, but they loosened over the morning and I was keen to get most of the climbing done before it got hot.
This was going to be one of the tougher parcours, as it was mostly gravel up the mountain and with limited options for resupply. It was a long climb, but the worst was at the very end. The road was so rough and steep that we all had to walk for around a mile. I realised I had a puncture on this final section. I began to walk with it flat up the mountain, but the rocks were so big I worried I’d damage my tyre’s sidewall, so I patched it up and continued my hike.
Getting down was tough, as my feet were now starting to really hurt as well. They were burning on the souls, just above where the cleats were positioned. I think ‘hot foot’ is quite common in these races. This eventually went away, but caused me a lot of pain and discomfort during the first few days.
At the bottom of the descent was CP2, where I was surprised to learn that I was in the top 70. I knew I’d been riding well, but hadn’t been checking Trackleaders at all. The checkpoint was a hotel, and I stopped for a quick lunch. The first couple of days had caught up with me and I was feeling wrecked. There were people around me with names I recognised from the internet – experienced ultra-distance cyclists, who’d competed in (and done well) in other races. I felt weird. My eyes were bloodshot and my face looked aged. For the first time I wobbled slightly. Should I slow down? This was my first ever race – was I getting carried away?
I splashed myself with water and got back on the bike. The next section would be easy – it was a long free-route section across a flat part of Europe. If I could knock off another couple hundred kilometres on the flat, I’d treat myself to a night in a hotel – and I did precisely that.
I’d cycled with a chap earlier in the day who was staying in hotels every night. Lots of people have a similar tactic, but I’d planned on staying outside as much as possible (for financial reasons, more than anything else). He told me he’d stopped the first couple of nights in places that cost €20, and it occurred to me that if I was going to sleep inside I might as well do it now while accommodation was cheap. It would be a different story in the Alps. I found a motel with a room for about €20 that night. I washed my clothes in the shower, and rolled them up between towels that I slept on so that they’d be dry in the morning. I oiled my chain, massaged my legs and slept for at least 5 hours.
The next couple of days were frustrating. I’d been expecting an easy ride across the flat but I should have known that it may be deceiving. The winds weren’t that bad, but nor were they helpful and the storm that soaked me that afternoon wasn’t appreciated. One minute it was mid 30s Celsius and the next I was drenched, a pattern that repeated itself quite a few times throughout the fortnight. It was no surprise that people were scratching with saddle sores and my arse was starting to really hurt.
People have quite different methods for dealing with saddle issues over such long rides. The problem is that you need to spend a lot of hours in one set up for the ‘trouble areas’ to materialise and show themselves. I cycled around the world on a Brooks B17, without a chamois pad for most of it. That wouldn’t be a good idea on a race like this – spending more than double the amount of hours per day in the saddle. I chose not to use chamois cream (I’ve never used it) but instead carried Sudocream to soothe the sores and prevent infection. I relied on talcum powder (as I did cycling around the world) to keep things dry and I had 2 pairs of bib shorts. Some riders only carry one, but by having an extra you can make sure you put on a dry pair after washing the other or getting wet. I had some of Decathlon’s ‘high end’ bib shorts (although still cheap by bib-short standards) and some hand-me down Altura bibs. I ended up using the latter primarily as they were more padded.
As well the arse hurting, my neck was also causing me concern. The muscles on the left side were sore and I was constantly having to rotate my neck to stretch it out. I was never too worried about it during the neck, but I’d freaked myself out by researching Schermer’s Neck and was terrified about getting the condition myself with all those long hours on the tri-bars.
It was a boring ride through dull landscapes. Cycling straight through Belgrade was a mistake – what a chaotic city! I’d planned on camping out that evening, but the mosquitoes were horrendous. I stopped at one point as I neared the Croatian border and found myself in a cloud of them. There was no way I could get a good night’s sleep outside with all these. I found a hotel still open in a small town and found a nice room for £8. £8! Why wasn’t I doing this every night?
I spent most of the next day crossing Croatia. I cycled that part of the country when I last rode across Europe and it was as dull as I remember it being. Previously, I’d actually found some nice country lanes to ride, but for the TCR I just sat on a busy trunk road straight across the plains. It was awfully busy. There was no hard shoulder and the Croatians are awful drivers. The sun was relentless and I had heat rash all over my back. At least this was a new pain that distracted me from everything else that was hurting.
I remember Croatia being the first place I encountered aggressive dogs and being pretty traumatised by them in 2015. The dogs weren’t that bad on the TCR, they often come up in conversation but I imagine the people complaining about them have never cycled in countries where dogs are an issue. If you think they are bad in Eastern Europe, don’t bother cycling in Central Asia. If you try to out run them, then it’s your own fault you when you get bitten. They were an issue when cycling at night. There’s nothing worse than a pack of dogs charging out onto the road when it is pitch black, and this was the main reason I disliked cycling in the dark while east of the Alps.
There were more thunderstorms forecast that night. Flashes of lightning lit up the light sky as I rode into Slovenia. The wind was behind me so I booked a hostel bed in Ptuj and blitzed the last 50km to town. I grabbed food in McDonalds just before it closed at 11pm and watched the rain through the window. I was wrecked.
This is where I got sick. Looking back, I think I was pretty ill the next couple of days. Something in my stomach wasn’t happy – I had bad cramps throughout the day and had diarrhoea. Not really the most convenient time for it. Perhaps I ate something dodgy…
I had quite a lot of digestion problems during the TCR. In hindsight, I wonder if this was to do with the disgusting about of caffeine I was consuming via energy drinks, coffee and Pro Plus everyday. I didn’t know that caffeine is bad for digestion. But I knew this would be a problem from my long training rides, having had indigestion and heartburn during the big days out. When you digest food normally, the food is moved through the digestive system by gastric mobility. When cycling, these digestive muscles are called off duty and the system can go a little pear-shaped. This is why the acid reflux begins and causes heartburn.
The food poisoning now was something different. It was frustrating. It made me feel weak and lethargic but I refused to feel sorry for myself and only shortened my days slightly. It was probably the frequent toilet stops that slowed me down. If only I’d bought some Imodium!
I took a wrong turn that afternoon and found myself on a section of road that turned into a motorway as we neared a tunnel. Damn. This was definitely a road I shouldn’t have been on. Route planning had been a little tricky for Austria due to the lack of Street View, and I must have thought this was a legal tunnel while plotting my route. Traffic was far too fast moving in the tunnel. It wasn’t long, but I got up onto the pavement and cycled along the side of it. The tunnel was well-lit, I was very visible and I wasn’t actually on the road. I’d let the race organisers know that I’d accidentally ended up on an illegal road when I was out the other side.
I had to ride a short section of the road on the other side before I could turn off onto a village road. Just before I reached the turn off, a police car overtook me with its lights flashing. Fuck. The copper jumped out and looked quite red in the face. He shouted something in German and I apologised for not understanding. “This is autostrasse!”. “Yes, I know and I’m awfully sorry. It was an accident and I’m about to leave the highway”. He scowled and asked for my passport. Apparently two drivers had called the police about me! Jobsworths. Do the Austrians have nothing better to do with their time? I rolled my eyes, handed the passport over and he slowly flicked through the various visas I’ve picked up over the years. “Look mate, I really must get on. I said I’m sorry so can you please just give my passport back?” “You need to pay a fine now.” Brilliant. “How much?” “20 Euros”.
I should have just coughed up right away, but I was aware how much the race was already costing me. It didn’t seem fair, so I told him I didn’t have any cash. Instead I asked “Do you take card?”, knowing full well he wouldn’t. “No money?” Hmm. “OK we have to go back to the town”. Realising that my calling his bluff was looking likely to fail, and that I might end up having to waste an hour or two backtracking, I changed my tune. “Hold on a sec, let me just double check again.” “Oh wait, I do actually have some cash in here!” What a surprise – I just so happened to have a wad of notes in my wallet all along!
He let me go once I’d coughed up and I re-routed onto the village lanes. Again, more storms that evening. I was soaked as I started climbing towards the Italian border. I was feeling ill and resigned myself to a hotel after struggling to find a sheltered spot to bivvy. It would be expensive, but worth it to stay dry and try to recover from this stomach bug. I asked in one hotel, but it was full. “The next hotel is 20km uphill”. I didn’t have the energy for that. “I don’t suppose you have anywhere I can just get my head down for a few hours kip?” The clerk shook his head. “Ok, this is a weird question. But can you think of anywhere close to here that is sheltered? I really just want somewhere dry to sleep for a bit. I’m in a race, you see”. He replied with a ‘no’ and mumbled something about police, but then seemed to have an idea…
“Actually there are some tennis courts on the other side of the railway. There’s a club house at the back – maybe you can sleep in there”. The spot was perfect, hidden away from sight and passing traffic. I rolled my matt out and fell asleep as the rain crashed down on the club-house roof.
I’d had a bad time in Austria, so I was happy to be in Italy even if my stomach was still playing up. It seemed unfair that I was weakened by illness, but I forced myself to keep moving and resisted the desire for self-pity. I wasn’t eating enough for the amount of calories I was burning, but everything I ate just made my stomach cramp even more.
I’d reached the parcours leading up to CP3. These were brutal. All of it was on sealed roads, but the section would include nearly 6,000m climbing over 170km.
I arrived in Corvara in time for lunch. The field had dispersed, but I was still bumping into a few other cyclists everyday. 3 or 4 of us gathered outside the supermarket in town and were joined by a couple of dotwatchers. These were the first dotwatchers I met, people who’d been following the race from their computer screen and then come out to see us ride past in real life. It’s a funny side of the ultra-distance world.
I’ve never cycled in the Alps before. Last time I rode across Europe I stayed far away from the mountains because I didn’t think I’d be able to get over them. Now, on a carbon bike without too many bags, the climbing was a piece of piss. The Dolomites were truly stunning – what an amazing corner of the continent! Passo Gardena was an easy climb and the descent was extraordinary. I honestly didn’t know roads like that existed in Europe. It went on and on for miles, from the 2,136m pass, down through picturesque touristy villages and into Valle Isarco at the bottom.
It was a pity I was still ill. I’d been doing a good job of reaching toilets in time, but on the next climb I wasn’t quite so lucky. I had to jump over a fence and have a shit at the side of the road. The cramps were still bad. This compulsory section was exhausting, capped by a devilishly steep gradient leaving Merano and another long walk. I think that may have been the steepest sealed road I’ve ever tried to cycle.
This was more than double the most I’d ever ascended in a day previously. I was still feeling weak, but a little better by the evening. I found a hotel in Bolzano at around 11.30pm, carried my bike into the room, whipped my clothes off and passed out. I was starving and I’d run out of food, so was planning on popping back out to find something to eat, but I was too tired. When I’ve been touring in the past, I’ve often found it hard to sleep when I’ve been really hungry, but that wasn’t an issue on the TCR. No matter how hungry I was, I was always more tired.
In the morning I began my assault on Timmelsjoch pass. It was an incredible climb and I was glad to be doing it in daylight. It was a ‘proper’ Alpine pass – like the ones I see on TV. Smooth roads, gentle gradients and endless switchbacks. At the top a sign welcomed me back into Austria. I could have sworn I was supposed to be entering Switzerland. I checked Google Maps – all was OK and I was on course. I just had no idea which countries were where anymore.
I experienced a weird (and very concerning) thing on these big descents. As soon as I stopped pedalling, relaxed my body and started to free-wheel I’d begin to fall asleep. This was particularly bad when I rested on my aerobars, which is even worse – as there aren’t any brakes on those. I’d finish a long climb, start the ‘fun part’ of the mountain – ie. the big descent’ – but find myself nodding off, even when flying at 70km/h. Needless to say, this wasn’t safe. But even when I tried as hard as I could, I simply couldn’t stay awake.
It was disconcerting and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I’ve since spoken to other riders who’ve done events like this. Most don’t suffer from the same issue, but I’m certainly not the only one who has problems with this. On multiple occasions, including the descent from Timmelsjoch, I had to stop what I was doing and sleep for 10 mins before it felt safe to continue the descent.
I was finally starting to feel like I’d shaken the sick-bug. I reached Checkpoint 3 and discovered that I was 37th. Wow! I thought I’d been going slow with the illness, but clearly a lot of others had been slower than me in the mountains. I suspect that a lot had taken longer breaks when the storms hit. I’d been too busy thinking about my diarrhoea to pay much attention to the storms. Don’t get me wrong, they’d been pretty scary – the previous afternoon I’d had to take shelter in a dairy farm because the lightning was was right over my head – but a little rain never hurt anyone. Touring through such extreme weather in the past has toughened me up and I’m quite happy riding through long periods of heavy rain if I really have to.
Between CP3&4 there were a few different routing options. If you had the legs, there was a direct route through the mountains that featured a lot of climbing. For those who fancied a respite from the climbing, there was a slightly longer option through Switzerland. I went for the ‘medium’ option and headed for Switzerland. I’d have a gentle climb to begin with, and then a big descent from Sankt Moritz to Lake Como. It would then be a long flat section across the north of Italy, before a big climb over Mount Cernis into France.
The ride into Switzerland seemed like a good call. The road was quiet and what I saw of the scenery looked nice. As soon as the sun set the temperature dropped. I realised that my plan to get down from the mountains was over-optimistic and ended up bivvying at the side of the road at around 2,000m above sea level. My God it was cold.
I think that’s enough a half-way round up! Will leave things there, freezing at night high up in the Swiss Alps and finish the rest off the ride in Part 2….