Transcontinental Race 2018 #TCRN06
By Andrew Brown, posted 29 August 2018
The hardest thing you might ever do on a bike
Think of bike challenges. Think about your own battle to beat the specific hill; consider the goal of riding your first 100-miles. How about emulating Geraint Thomas. After all isn’t the Tour de France one of the toughest sporting events in the world. Before the climax in Paris the survivors will have travelled around 3,500km in 23-days across France, some 80-hours in the saddle.
It’s epic in scope and scale. But think again. On Sunday, 29 July, as the Geraint Thomas and Team Sky celebrated on the Champs Elysee a breed of rider related to, and yet, different from the professionals like Dumoulin, Froome and Alaphilippe, embarked on a 4,000km ride from Belgium to Greece. It is the Transcontinental Race.
It takes epic to a different level
The TCR owes its legend to that of Mike Hall. A pioneer of bike packing and ultra cycling racing, he founded the TCR and shaped it to become what is now its sixth iteration: #TCRN06. Hall won the inaugural World Cycle Race, inspired countless ultra cyclists but died tragically whilst competing in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in 2017. The 2018 #TCRN06 is the first organised without its founder. So what is it?
It’s racing at its purest form. You ride out from the Flemish city of Geraardsbergen on top of the Kapelmuur (think cobbles, and Spring Classics) and finish at the Meteora, Greece (think sunshine and severe gradients). In between there are four check points you must reach and sign in, in the format used by Audax events with a brevet card. In between you choose your own route. The ride is entirely self supported. There are only ten rules - the most important of which is the last: ride in the spirit of self reliance and equal opportunity.
TCR06, the 2018 edition, was the first one without founder Mike Hall. Hall was killed by car driver in the outskirts of Canberra, Australia, during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. In a world in which even saying 'the word legend is overused', is in fact overused, Hall was a shining example of legendary activity, being a normal bloke, and looking out for everyone on the roads. The TCR06 was ridden as a mighty and fitting tribute to it's founder.
For 2018, the bare details are:
Riders left Muur van Geraardsbergen at 10pm on the evening of Sunday the 29th July. 3800km later riders rolled into Meteora, Greece.
The winner was (again) James Hayden, in a time of 08d 22h 59m. The fastest woman was
Ede Harrison, in 13d 16h 32m, and the fastest pair were Charles Christiansen and Nico Deportago-Cabrera in a time 13d 20h 25m. As we publish this article rider Neil Matthews is still on course. The last man riding.
So, what is it like?
What qualities do you need? We talked to Jonny Gallimore in September 2017 a few weeks after he and his pair had completed TCRN05. They made it to the finish party, arriving at Meteora at 2pm - the party was at 8pm - having endured the Lucifer heatwave across central Europe.
Jonny bought his first road bike in 2012, found he loved riding but also found it easy.
“I was finishing everything quite comfortably and thought, what about the bigger challenges, the 200-mile events, like the South Downs Way. So I did them and loved it. Not being a true cyclist I didn’t know about audax, but I had seen the TCR and me and my girlfriend’s brother, Joe, thought why not. We entered to see what would happen.”
The furthest he’d ridden was 340km in a single day. So training consisted of multiple days (in the TCRN06 one rider completed almost 600 km in 36-hours with less than an hour’s rest).
“It’s actually harder to ride three days at 150km than a single day of 340km. So you don’t want to stop for long. But there’s not much chance to stop as it is a race with a target of 14 days. For us, going beyond four days was unknown territory. We got away with the bare minimum of training.”
Despite what Jonny says, it was clear he could physically handle it. But that’s not enough. The TCR organisers ask for more.
“They check what you think you’re letting yourself in for. They ask about previous events; how many kilometres you expect to ride and projected elevation. They even ask things like if you were in a specific town in Slovakia what would you expect to see.”
There’s an emphasis on safety too. Since Hall’s death and that of other riders certain roads have been banned. But everything is up to rider discretion. After all, it is unsupported and you choose your route. How?
“Strava heat maps, talking to other riders, reading up about past races and Google street maps basically. It takes a lot of research and planning. But there are no right or wrong answers, and no specific tool to use, although you would try to avoid main roads - but at the same time, we rode too much on gravel roads alongside some of the bigger routes we’d consciously avoided.”
That again is one of the core elements of the TCR. It is about riders being resilient. 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.”
“We were one bad day away from not attending the finish party. We were lucky. Partly because we were fitting training around normal life. On the lead up I suddenly realised my annual mileage was going to double. So, if I was going to do it again I’d train harder - using holiday times and weekends. In fact there was no dedicated training plan - I basically bought a new bike (a Genesis Datum with Continental 4000 tyres), rode it when I could and rocked up in Belgium. We were the Jamaican bobsleigh team of the TCR. But we didn’t crash.”
The target is to finish. Ideally within two weeks to attend the finish party. Many riders over shoot that deadline and no one cares. It is the journey that is the central element of the race. One rider in the TCRN05 finished almost three weeks behind. The stories emerging from these races are staggering. Search TCR online, seek out blogs and commentary and the tales of riders are what books are made of. We’ve listed some at the end of this piece.
TCRN06 already has its share of stories. Within 48-hours of the start riders had travelled over 1,000km; there was one severe injury; mechanicals and elaborate use of rubber bands to assist gear changes and one rider only reached the startline after retrieving his bike and kit from customs a day or so after everyone else set off.
Jonny argues that he got lucky, but if you are delayed or hit by injury, weather or simply get lost and your behind the 14-day target what do you do? Some riders were still moving 23, 24 days after the end of the TCRN05. How does that work?
“You can self certify, by taking a photograph, buying something and having a receipt with time and date or withdrawing money so there’s a time stamp. Some guys in other races were even later. But your GPS tracker is always collating the race data, so the organisers know where you are all of the time.”
Dots before your eyes
In fact, the role of dot watcher is intrinsic to the organisation and the supporters. We’d recommend logging on to track where people go and how many times they sample the food of athletes at McDonalds. But beware, it is obsessive.
“People poked fun at us for that, but let’s face it, McDonalds has clean toilets and power points for charging up phones, lights and GPS. And a lot of service stations across Europe have a McDonalds. It’s either that or a Lidl. The TCR is not a gourmet event.”
Jonny and Joe averaged a speed of 22 kmph each day, maybe riding 18 or 19 hours officially on the bike, but around 13 of those were actually moving. One of Jonny’s learning points is that lost four or five hours could have been used better. Another one is being more efficient about water and food stops - bringing larger water bottles and eating more sensibly.
No panniers for Jonny, he opted for bike packing, although riders at the TCR use all sorts of bikes and gear. There were full carbon aero, steel, and alloy and full on tourers with everything in between. They took a bivvy bag, sleeping mat (no sleeping bag) so they could rest up where they could and as they reached further East hotels were cheaper and they booked ahead during the day. Kit was minimal - just one of everything except for socks. Base layer, short sleeve jersey, hi vis gilet was required along with a helmet and lightweight waterproof jacket and an ultra light fleece jacket for cold nights. No gloves, which Jonny felt might have been a mistake. They took two inner tubes each - but used so many on the ride they lost count.
“Right from the beginning we were racing for ourselves. We had no illusions we were going to win, but we did want to make the finishers party. But as you push yourself hard, you don’t quite always realise just how tired you are. There were moments that you found yourself falling asleep on the handlebars or just wondering where the last 20km had gone.”
One of the most striking things about our conversation was his recollection of the pain. There was a lot. But you rode through it. Hands, saddle, legs all gave him pain. The heat was a major factor and he and Joe had a sense of themselves degrading. But he made the telling comment that throughout the TCR there was a general hardness - not as in tough riding mentality, but that everything was hard. The surface, the heat, the pressure of hands on bars. It was the cumulative effect of the pain - not anything specific. The little things add up over the 4,500km they rode in the 14 days. The pain was, frustratingly, worse when he was not on the bike. So, you just ride through it. Literally, it is about just ride the bike and not sleeping, not stopping too long.
Jonny and Joe finished, washed up and parked their bikes and immediately went into town to buy clean clothes for the party. And cardboard, so they could pack their bikes up ready for the coach journey to Athens airport. So, there was no time to rest and it took them six hours to do what he described as ‘admin.’ The party was good but they had to fly home the next morning - so everything was very much in a rush. Perhaps there is something to finishing another ten days behind the target schedule.
When I spoke to him it was a week after Jonny finished. He had not been out for ride. But he was clearly planning for the next challenge.
Winners of TCR 2017
James Hayden, around 3,650 kilometres at an average speed of 26.8 kilometres an hour, just under 9 days
Melissa Pritchard (#233) 13 days 1 hour and 29 minutes
First pair: Ian Tosh and Neil Lauder (#264) 13 days 19 hours and 8 minutes
Jonny and Joe’s statistics - 4,500km, finished 66th and did an average of 280 km a day.
Stories from the TCR
Josh Ibbett, 2015
Alain Rumpf, 2015
Emily Chappell, 2015
All credits: TCR06, 2018