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Race across Europe: Riding the Transcontinental

In-depth
6 Aug 2019
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In the early hours of Tuesday 6th August, German cancer researcher Fiona Kolbinger became the first woman to win the Transcontinental Road Race.

She became the first female to do so. It was also her first every ultra-endurance race, further underlying the extent of her achievements.

Two years ago, former Cyclist staffer and good friend Joshua Cunningham attempted the Transcon. Here is his story...

Words Joshua Cunningham Photography James Robertson

The path ahead of me is lit solely by the beam from my headtorch. I try to thread my front wheel through the maze of rocks and logs that litter the farm track, but I struggle to stay upright.

It’s almost midnight and I’m somewhere between the Slovak border and the city of Miskolc in northern Hungary in the closing stages of an 18-hour stint in the saddle.

I had to abandon my planned route after spotting a ‘No Cycling’ sign, and now I’m navigating through 20km of wilderness to get back on track without a time penalty while trying to rid myself of the frustration caused by a double puncture suffered a few minutes ago.

Eventually I rejoin the road network and continue on for a few kilometres to the outskirts of Miskolc. Exhausted, I drag my bike off the road at a secluded spot between a railway line and an industrial estate, take off my cap (number 98) and gulp down a couple of crumpled sandwiches.

A quick check of the race’s GPS tracking hub shows me to be one of few riders still active, and I climb satisfied into my bivi bag before lying down in the waste-strewn scrubland.

After four hours of disturbed sleep I get going again, and soon come across another ‘No Cycling’ road sign. Through the darkness I spot a bike leant up against a small wooden bus stop at the side of the road.

It’s sporting the telltale accoutrements of tri bars and bikepacking luggage, and extending out of the tiny shelter are two feet attached to lycra-clad legs, splayed apart on the floor.

‘Finally we meet, rider 84,’ I think to myself, and feel satisfied about having caught up with the competitor I’d been jockeying for position with the previous day.

It’s now a little past 4am, and I ride on through the low-lying mist and deserted villages of rural Hungary, the light of a full moon painting the landscape deep shades of blue and grey.

The still of the night is broken only by the rhythmic clicking of my chain. Ahead I can just make out the first light of morning as it emerges on the eastern horizon, and so another day on The Transcontinental begins. 

Far-reaching idea

The Transcontinental, for those not familiar with it, is an unsupported bike race across Europe. The route changes every year, and 2017’s edition is from Belgium to Greece, with checkpoints in Germany, Italy, Slovakia and Romania.

There are few rules: you must pass through each checkpoint but otherwise the route is up to you, and you must ride it unsupported. Rule 10 sums it up pretty well: ‘Ride in the spirit of self-reliance and equal opportunity.’

As race founder Mike Hall once said, it’s an event ‘where a rider can simply pick up a bike, shake hands at the start line and race thousands of miles for the pure satisfaction of sport.’

Unsupported ultra-racing really began to command interest after the inaugural Transcontinental Race was held in 2013.

For years there had been the Tour Divide, an off-road, semi-official race tracing the 4,400km Rocky Mountain Divide route, and the Race Across America, a heavily commercialised event contested by riders with vast support crews.

Then in 2012 came the World Cycle Race, which was an unsupported bike race around the world won by Mike Hall.

But it wasn’t until the following year, when Hall organised and launched the first Transcontinental that the discipline gained real traction.

One of the riders in that inaugural edition was Juliana Buhring, who in the same year that Hall won the World Cycle Race had set the record for the fastest female circumnavigation.

‘After I got back from cycling the world I met up with Mike,’ she says. ‘We became friends and when he decided to start the TCR [Transcontinental], he invited me to participate. I’d never raced before but he said, “You’ve been around the world; how hard can it be?”

‘I was the only woman in the race, made it to the finish in 12 days, and became well and truly hooked on bikepacking ultra-races.’

Buhring wasn’t alone. Over the next four years the niche sport of unsupported, ultra-distance bike racing grew exponentially, turning into a movement that Hall’s race – and he himself – became the pre-eminent leader of.

This new style of racing was real, unpredictable, honest, tough, and best of all it was open to anybody who fancied a go at it.  

‘It’s now exploding everywhere,’ says Buhring, and with new races popping up around the world, from the Trans Atlantic Way in Ireland, to the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia and Trans Am in the USA, that description is hard to fault.

‘Humans thrive on a challenge, which these races offer in spades, and the format is accessible and affordable in a way that makes them open to anyone who wants to try, not just people with big backing and sponsorship,’ she adds.

In a tragic twist of fate, at the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race in March 2017 Mike Hall, in action at the event and battling for the win alongside three-time Transcontinental Race winner Kristof Allegaert, was involved in a fatal road collision.

The cycling world reeled, and in the wake of Hall’s death the future of the Transcontinental was understandably thrown into doubt, but an organising committee was set up to ensure it went ahead.

‘Many saw this year’s edition as a tribute to the man who had inspired all of us to ride our bikes and go on adventures,’ says Buhring, who is now race director.

‘His death brought home the risk of riding, but also the reasons why we ride. This was the spirit that Mike had given to the TCR: stepping away from our day-to-day lives, doing something extraordinary, having an adventure and pushing ourselves further than we normally would to discover more about our fears, strengths and weaknesses and grow as individuals.’

Grand depart

It’s 28th July 2017, and I’m one of 300 riders who set off into the night from the Muur Van Geraardsbergen in Belgium, cheered on by hundreds of torch-bearing, flag-waving locals.

Heart pumping, legs turning, mind racing, at first I find it hard to resist chasing the wheels of those pushing the pace on the Muur. Within minutes of cresting the climb, riders begin to turn off, following the routes they have spent the past year agonising over.

After the initial excitement, I eventually settle into a rhythm, always in sight of the rear light of a rider in front. It isn’t until the small hours of the morning, around 2am, in the heart of the Ardennes, that I eventually find myself alone.

It’s a feeling I’ll come to know well.

Over the next 20 hours I barely get off my bike. I navigate through Belgium, in and out of Luxembourg, across a bit of France and into the Black Forest of Germany.

In the first day alone I cover 500km, almost doubling my previous longest-ever ride.

According to my GPS tracker I’m in the top 20 riders and I’m tempted to push on, but I force myself to stop and rest.

‘Don’t go out all guns blazing,’ I’d been told by George Marshall, a Cyclist photographer and previous finisher of the race. His words come back to me now and I give myself a full six hours of recuperation before setting off again.

I’m excited, energised and ready for whatever the rest of Europe has in store, such that by the time I get my brevet card stamped at the second checkpoint control at the foot of Monte Grappa in northern Italy I’m up to 12th place.

After spending four hours sleeping at the control point I ascend the Grappa in pre-dawn twilight, arriving at the summit at the exact moment the sun’s lower edge breaks free of the horizon.

It’s a magical sight, but one that I can’t allow to interfere with the merciless schedule, so I quickly make my way down to the flat expanses of northern Italy and the burning 40°C plains of Eastern Europe beyond it.

Only later will I learn that several people dropped out of the race after attempting the Monte Grappa in the full heat of the day. My pre-dawn ascent was a smart move.

Indeed, my occasional glances at social media feeds and tracking data suggest that many riders are starting to suffer.

As I climb back over the Alps into Austria, the skin starts to come away from my undercarriage, soon necessitating the use of sanitary towels in my chamois.

Eastern Europe is in the grip of a heatwave, making every pedal stroke harder, and now I’m beginning to worry about my chosen route.

The third checkpoint lies 1,000km away in the High Tatras mountains bordering Slovakia and Poland, and when I look at the GPS tracking map that displays everyone’s locations, I’m the only ‘dot’ for miles around.

Convinced I’ve gone wrong, I ride harder so as not to lose time. I’m breaking my own rules for how to tackle the ride, going too fast, not resting enough and definitly not drinking enough to account for the 40°C heat on the Great Hungarian Plain. It soon catches up with me.

For the first time in the race I feel unwell, and take an unscheduled stop for a few hours under a tree. The rest is welcome but the damage is done.

As I continue onwards for the next few days across Hungary and Slovakia my physical and mental states decline at an equal rate. By the time I reach Romania, I’ve cracked. 

The descent

‘It was interesting to observe how each rider dealt with the difficulties,’ Buhring will tell me later on. ‘Those who were in it for the wrong reasons, who brought their egos along or came with unrealistic expectations of themselves and the race, suffered most when the going got rough.’

I don’t know how much everyone else is suffering, but over the next few days I will visit some pretty dark places mentally.

Have I overestimated myself? Have I brought my ego along? I’ve certainly discovered that the race is harder than I ever imagined it would be.

My enthusiasm has gone. Now I can’t stand the solitude of my own thoughts. The scenery means nothing to me.

I don’t want to race, I don’t care about rider 50 up ahead, or rider 203 coming up fast behind. I can’t remember why on Earth I wanted to come here in the first place. But I keep riding.

At 6pm I’ve had enough, so I stop and check in to a hotel. I have a big feed, a beer and sleep in a proper bed. At 2am I wake up and everything has changed. I realise that the emotional pit I’ve been in for the past 48 hours is exactly what I came for. This is the mental and physical test I signed up to take.

All of a sudden my weight is lifted, I collect my bike and pedal off into the darkness of a Romanian night.

The route is muddy and potholed, dogs snap at my ankles and my whole body aches from the hours in the saddle, but my motivation has returned. And remarkably I have somehow kept a hold of my top-20 position. I smile. The race is very much on. 

End of the line

In the end, I don’t make it to the finish in Meteora. My positivity may have resurfaced, but sadly 350km later so does an old knee injury.

I nurse it for two days to the final checkpoint, but to no avail. I can’t continue, and eventually I have to come to terms with that truth and pull out of the race.

At the time I’m crushed, but in retrospect I have come to realise that I got out of the Transcontinental what I hoped and knew it would offer.

I’ve pushed myself to my limit, and now have a good idea of how that limit can be raised.

That alone is an experience worth fighting for.


Josh's route across Europe

 

Preparing for an ultra race

Words Joshua Cunningham Photography James Robertson

Bike fit

One of the most important factors in preparing for a 4,000km bike race is your position on the bike.

When you’re spending 15 hours-plus in the saddle every day, and running your body into a state of huge fatigue, the toll from a poor position could prove pivotal.

From injuries that are the result of undue stresses, to saddle sores, and everything in between, there is a lot that can be done to minimise the chance of a bad position ruining your ride. 

I was set up at Cyclefit, which has two studio facilities – in London and Manchester.

Founders Phil and Julian are well known as pioneers in the bike fitting field, and their expertise was entirely necessary to fit me, and my iffy knee, with my bike.

Employing a philosophy of ‘bring the bike to the body; not the body to the bike’, and the motion technology available in their studio, Phil corrected my somewhat slanted position with just a few tweaks (the pressure map fitted to my saddle told us so).

After having endured months of pain and weakness in my knee, I was soon back on the bike and ready to start training for the race itself. 

Strength conditioning

In many ways, having strong legs is a given if you’re riding your bike lots and training for a 4,000km bike race, and its for this reason that you should consider paying as much – if not more – attention to other areas too.

Your legs might well be able to ride 300km-plus every day, but if your body isn’t trained as well, then it could be well be the thing to fail.

Core exercises, dynamic strength exercises, and a good stretching routine can all be used ensure your body maintains its form in a state of fatigue, and stop the chance of overuse injuries flaring up.

I was under the watchful eye of Six Physio to correct previous injuries, and prepare my body for the TCR. 

Bike and kit

Throughout my preparation, and for the race itself, I rode a Genesis Datum 30.

It’s the raciest offering in the brand’s ever-increasing stable of adventure-themed bikes, with just the right balance between speed and comfort.

I used it for everything from chain gang rides and intervals, to bikepacking trips around Morocco in the preceding months.

Spending time on the bike and getting used to your position on it is essential when preparing for an ultra race, making this ‘do-it-all’ a perfect choice. 

For luggage, I used Apidura’s Expedition bikepacking range, and opted for a Saddle Pack 14L – where I kept my sleeping gear and down jacket.

I used a Frame Pack 4.5L, to store tools, spares and hygiene stuff. Then, in a Top Tube Pack Extended, I kept my phone and lip balm, while a Food Pouch was used to store bars for snacks.

Working out what to pack, and where to pack it, is a process that can only be achieved with experience, trial and error, so be sure to test your setup thoroughly.

Having well-ordered luggage is key to efficiency – and therefore speed. 

Josh's transcontinental kit:

Bike 
• Genesis Datum 30
• Continental GP4000S II 25mm tyres
• Profile Design T3 Plus tri bars
• SP Dynamo Hub
• Exposure Revo Dynamo front light
• Busch & Müller current converter

Cockpit 
• Garmin eTrex 30
• Basic Cateye speedo
• Apidura Food Pouch (between tri bars)

Apidura Top Tube Pack 
• Phone
• iPod & headphones
• Camera
• Helmet-mounted light when not in use
• Swiss Army Knife

Apidura Frame Pack Dry 
• Brevet card
• Legwarmers
• Armwarmers
• Electrolyte tablets
• Emergency gels x2
• Battery pack
• iPhone cable
• Micro USB cable for charging lights
• Small roll of duct tape
• Zip ties
• Inner tubes
• Spare cleat
• Chain lube
• Sun cream
• Dry bag with cash
• Bank cards x2
• Passport
• Spare gear cable
• Toothbrush head (with a sawn-off handle)
• Toothpaste

Tool keg 
• Inner tube
• Multitool with chain breaker
• Puncture repair patches
• Spare brake pads

Apidura Saddle Pack Dry 
• Down jacket
• Sleeping bag
• Bivi bag
• Lightweight inflatable mattress
• Buff
• Gilet
• Hi-vis rain cape

For Apidura bags see apidura.com