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A Transcontinentall Tale

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VecchioJo’s Transcontinental race doesn’t go to plan

Let's get this out of the way right at the start, we didn't make it.

Somewhere on yet another long draggy climb, on a cold miserable grey rainy day where I’d wear my winter gloves if I could have been arsed to get them out of the handlebar bag when we stopped for vending-machine coffee with the consistency and slight aftertaste of soup, in a forest somewhere in Slovakia my Transcontinental team mate Gavin glances across at me inconsequentially and in that look, that briefest of moments, I know it's all over. I slow up for a while, give him some space, and then gently pedal back up to him, put my hand on his back and say that we should get him to that nice warm bed, a treat we had promised ourselves earlier after a few hard days in the saddle. Nothing more is said but the relief seems to take the weight off our bikes and we maybe pedal a little faster. We turn off the road up to a posh hotel and have hot chocolates, asking first if we’re allowed in damp, cold and smelly, and then fall down the hill to Poprad to warmth, bath, food and a bed. I have only ever DNFed one race before in my life, that was as a Pair too, that felt ok. 

The Transcontinental, 4000kms or so from Belgium to Greece, five checkpoints to hit within a set time, choose your own route between them where anything goes aside from a few banned roads that are deemed too dangerous to cycle along by the organisers. Some of the roads you’ll pedal along will feel quite treacherous enough as it is. We set off from Geraardsbergen at 2200 on a Friday after a speech from the town’s mayor and a minute’s silence in tribute to Mike Hall, the Transcontinental race founder who was killed whilst competing in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race earlier this year. Then there is a minute’s raucous noise. A lap of the town and 300 or so riders head up the infamous cobbled climb of the Muur that tonight is lined with a cheering flaming-torch holding crowd and we're off into the dark and across a Continent. Try not to let that screw with your head too much. Before long Gavin and I turn right as everyone else wheels left and we’re suddenly into the thick lonely night with just one other rider who has chosen the same road as us. 

Swerve laughing round a hedgehog.

The first part of our route sees us head due south into France before slowly veering east towards Stuttgart, it's a deliberately longer but flatter route than everyone else who seem to be taking the shorter but hillier way, mostly across the Ardennes. I've been to the Ardennes before, they're unpleasantly lumpy. I'll happily avoid them and Gavin 's navigation reflects this, it certainly provides some entertainment to those dot-watchers following our progress via the GPS trackers that are attached to our bikes, once we’re told how to get ours working. We’re on a humourously different road to everyone else and well away from the massed dots of fellow competitors, we have a plan. For unplanned reasons it doesn’t turn out.

It's impossible to write down all that happens on the Transcontinental, just like riding the race it's simply too much to grasp the thing as a whole, you have to break it up into manageable chunks, and as such the TCR comes back as brief moments in time, forgotten memories, specific snapshots in a very very long and often very boring film. That first night we ride through a town with a massive rave going on somewhere, have a quick nap in a church porch and carry on till dawn where we nap again waiting for either the small town boulangerie or mini-supermarket to open. Buns for breakfast, carry on for a bit longer to another boulangerie for a second breakfast of dough based snacks. A phone sneakily charged via a plug in the corner. Pain lard.

This pretty sets the tone for the rest of the race - ride, ride, eat, pedal, nap, pedal, eat, pedal, eat, ride, ride, nap, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It is during one of these naps that the atmosphere of the Transcontinental suddenly changes with the death of competitor Frank Simons in a hit and run incident on the first day. We wake from a mid-afternoon bucolic snooze in a field to the news and it sends powerful shock waves through the scattered peloton. Some riders scratch from the race immediately, unable to cope with the rash of deaths in ultra distance racing, it's just a bike ride and not worth the risks. Others continue to race but take the prettier way, using smaller roads and bike lanes whilst some stop racing altogether and just meander in the general direction of the Control Points, riding for the experience and stopping off for ice creams along the way. Gavin and I keep riding because it's all we know what to do, and in my mind I feel safe, not to belittle the tragedy but I had more close calls in the 3 miles I rode to Sainsbury's and back the day before I left for the race than we've had in the last 200kms or so through Europe.

There's s stop at a supermarket for late lunch, hunkered on the step in the shade from the heat of the day, then another stop round the back of another supermarche with caged budgies outside sometime about teatime and a lot of straight roads into headwinds in between. Progress is not particularly swift and we're slipping behind our schedule, the aim was to stop the other side of Metz for the night but the last kilometres of the day while the light dies are frustratingly pedestrian as Gavin's legs just can't keep up with the itinerary or the long never-ending uphill drags on our ‘flat’ route. We limp into town, grab burgers while a girl in a red dress keeps looking at me and it’s not because I’m gorgeous. We will soon get used to people glancing at us funny as we dip into civilisation dirty, scruffy, haggard and smelly. Gavin is proper exhausted, the last few days have been pretty stress-filled and his head is full of phlegm ensuring he continually hacks up green snot, victim of a low-level cold that he didn’t know he had, and so he volunteers to pay for a night in a cheap hotel of the French out-of-town kind to try and recover in some sort of comfort. Brioche stuffed with cheese and chorizo for second supper.

The next day follows a similar theme of not really getting anywhere very fast, this bit of Europe into Germany rolls by via long straight headwindy roads in increasing heat, we again sit outside shops and petrol stations for most meals but treat ourselves to a proper sit-down lunch that sucks at already wasted time. My right Achilles tendon has started to really hurt, a common injury in this sort of thing; no matter how much training you do nothing can really prepare you for the hours and miles in the saddle that the Transcontinental requires and bits of your body that you’ve never had a problem with before will start to protest, like the sore bit downstairs tucked deep in the hinge that’s making itself saddle-awkwardly known. Hands too start to hurt, ends of fingers tingle in the Cyclist’s Palsy that affects every long-distance cyclist. I pass the time by finding new and exciting ways to pedal to ease the various pains. Further entertainment comes late in the afternoon climbing out of Strasbourg on what looked like a small lump on the map but is in reality a harsh 8km climb with 18% bits in, welcome to the Transcontinental where all the planning in the world can’t save you. You can only research all of the roads in Europe so much and most Transcon riders would come across similarly unexpected route choice fails; unwelcome steep hills, and most frequently roads that are just gravel tracks, or often worse resulting in time consuming punctures and/or tedious cleat-eating walking. Arrange to meet Gav at the top, find out that this is the time of day this steep twisty hill is where the locals like to test their high performance German cars, get caught in a thunderstorm towards the top and hide under a Continental inner-tube booth to wait it out. Carry along on shiny soaked roads and stretch all of my clothes on in the porch of a wooden shelter, which does little to counter the shivering speed wobbles I get on the next descent. Late meal in some town, bivvy in a school, in a bike shed. Up early, ride into the dawn.

Long downhill, peak flipped up, aero tuck, spinning out, lots of cranes. Happycry. McDonalds at the bottom. Air-conditioning. Chocolate milk-shake headache.

When every day is a ride of some proportion and worthy of enough words in itself it's a waste of writing and reading to try and describe everything even if I could remember it all and fit it into the right slot in the timeline. At some point in the morning we winch our way up the Transcontinental parcours of Schloss Lichtenstein and then back down again to make Check Point One with minutes to spare. Abuse the remnants of the hotel’s breakfast buffet after a significant amount of Transcontinental riders have made a dent and carry on through Germany after tackling the steepest bike lane in the world and get overtaken by old-age pensioners on e-bikes.

A blonde girl in a long flowy vermillion dress walking barefoot up the road reading a book. Did you just see that? Yes.

Undulating roads through boundless cornfields, fizzy apple juice, kebabs for supper, then the woman in the petrol station where we’re buying crap food for breakfast who got quite excited and gave us some Haribo after hearing our story. We camp in a barn just off the main road, a few hours sleep before heading out just as dawn breaks again, and before what would normally be breakfast (buns on a wall outside a bakery) we’re in Austria. Austria, one deliberate angry side-swipe into the gutter and two on-coming cars forcing me into the weeds.

Today brings with it the first of the proper climbing, bookended by the Hahntennjoch and the Timmelsjoch, climbs that don’t even make it into the Top Twenty of Great Cycling Climbs but are worthy of a place, if not a nicely designed t-shirt, because they’re significantly hard. And that’s even without two big days of riding in your legs, on loaded bikes. Both climbs are characterised by long false flat approaches before the proper climb even starts, the lead up to the latter, climbing interminably up the valley, will take a large part of the afternoon. But both offer significant rewards in their descents though, the Hahntennjoch drops away from a little stall selling drinks to an AC/DC soundtrack fast through a gravel moonscape, with enough speed to overtake motorbikes, and the offside of the Timmelsjoch where it becomes Italian and the Passo Del Rombo is one of the longest and most spectacular descents I’ve ever done, period, and we fair old race down it.

Dropping through a tunnel that’s long, cold and dripping damp only making me that little bit more tiredly chilly to come out the other side into a soft wall of warmth and a sudden view of the descent to come. Laughing.

We slip into Merano under cover of darkness where the town is having a big old night out and the place is absolutely rammed, everybody is on the streets, bad cover bands are playing loudly. Culture. Shock. Crowds. Full restaurants. It’s too much. “LET’S JUST GET AWAY FROM ALL THIS BLOODY NOISE AND FIND SOME FOOD”. Pizza and half a calzone, save the other half for breakfast, high-tail it out of town on the bike path and find somewhere to sleep under a flyover in-between piles of wooden palettes and an orchard.

It doesn’t take long for the Transcontinental to be mainly about food. Browse any of the competitor’s social media feeds and you’ll see mostly pictures of food, interspersed with pictures of views, and tired shoes. Gavin has done a great job of researching where we might get sustenance along the way, there isn't the all consuming 24hr consumer culture we rely on in the U.K. so there isn't a shop in every village and a coffee place on every corner, even if there is it may be shut. You grab any food you can when you can from a cafe, restaurant, shop or petrol station and eat some while stuffing the rest of it in pockets or strapping it to the bike, aero-bars are surprisingly good food racks, and carrying on. You stop being fussy pretty quickly too, McDonalds become heavens instead of a circle of hell, they’re cheap and reliable with toilets and wi-fi, it doesn't really matter what you mush in your mouth as long as it's calories. I eat a lump of fatty cured pork as big as your fist in four mouthfuls, it’s wonderful. We have beer and Fanta and an M&Ms/peanut mix as a late supper one night. When you’re not riding it’s a constant whirl of coffee, fizzy drinks, ice-creams and food you’d normally avoid. I stoop to having half a pizza from a box left on top of a bin for breakfast, I don’t care, it gets me up Monte Grappa.

Dawn smudges along the bike paths heading towards a planned proper breakfast in Trento and despite me riding slower than I would do to pootle into town at home Gavin is languishing behind. This is getting annoying now. So far this has been a nice touring holiday with uncomfortable accommodation, this has in no way been a race. I know that Gavin isn’t feeling on top form because of his snuffles but even so we have been coasting along so far with no real feeling of actually wanting to get to Greece. We haven’t both trained hard for a year for this sort of crap, cruising along, hands on top of the bars with straight arms enjoying the view, freewheeling down hills, we are fannying about. We said we’d race this. We are currently not. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency towards forwards movement. This is not how to do the Transcontinental if you want to make the time cuts, all the wasted minutes soon add up to hours which very quickly turn to days. I know Gavin knows how to do this, I have seen him, he has improved massively as a rider over the past months and this isn’t that Gavin, this is the old Touring Gavin. It’s like someone has tinkered with his engine management system and he’s on limp home mode. This is rapidly becoming a waste of an entire year, a year of training, sacrifice and effort, being tired, falling asleep in food, waking up on the sofa. Not going out, not having another beer, going out when you didn’t want to. All those logged miles now just junk miles. Fussake.

Riding as a Pair has its plusses and minuses. I’ve done enough Pairs racing to have experienced the benefits and when it can go horribly horribly wrong. For starters it helps if you’re of a similar fitness and you definitely need to be on the same page when it comes to what you aim to achieve out of the event. I thought we were both of these. More specifically riding the Transcontinental as a couple it’s nice to know that there’s someone there should things go wrong, it’s a comfort blanket, especially in the dark hours, both physically and mentally. We’ve said that neither of us have the balls to do this solo quite now and we’re relying on each other. But riding as a Pair can suck time, faff and mechanicals can both increase exponentially, and popping in to get food can take twice as long as one person looks after the bikes whilst the other scampers the aisles, a situation a solo rider would just hastily lock their bike up or simply bring their bike into the shop and smile sweetly. That’s harder to do as a pair. Then there are the great benefits of drafting, which is something solo competitors aren’t allowed to do on the Transcon, be that of other riders or any vehicles, this makes for an interesting dynamic should you come across another TCR-er on the road and there’s an awkward gap that needs to be maintained at all times. But there’s been ridiculously little of that teamwork between us and currently this 262 Pairs isn’t working, at all.

I stop at a junction and Gavin rides straight past me, turns left and dismounts to sit against an old railway station wall, head in hands. He is obviously in tears. He can’t do this, his body isn’t working. We detour a little off course to a petrol station for coffee and a bun. We’re in Italy now so it’s good coffee. In very few words we agree to get Gavin to CP2, decide what to do from there and see if he can ride himself into the race. We squander further time by taking the safe but absurdly meandering bike path into Trento where we stop at a Spar and the most complicated convoluted supermarket we’ve been in for proper breakfast and supplies. Soon after on an inconsequential but steep street on the way out of town the wheels finally fall off this bit of the Transcontinental for us when Gavin stops astride his bike in that way that can only suggest that he is comprehensively broken. There is silence, there are few words. Again. There is more silence. Phones are tapped and the journey to CP2 is re-routed the flatter way and we winch and swear our way out of town into the heat. 

The rest of the day is spent unceremoniously getting to Control Point 2 situated at the base of Monte Grappa. It’s relatively easy going along bike paths that follow a river downstream and thanks to frequent stops and the restorative effects of Fanta, cans of ice-tea and stopping to take our shoes off to stand in a cooling river for a few minutes Gavin rallies and we make it to CP2 with even fewer minutes to spare than we did at CP1. Just getting by in such a manner is not the way I saw this unfolding. We posh bivvy here on the concrete roof of the campsite building, have a shower, wash clothes and nip next door for a pizza supper before planning to climb Monte Grappa early morning before it gets too hot.

The heat over the last few days has been crushing us and the rest of the TCR racers, with temperatures breaking records and nudging up towards the 40’s. A weather warning has been issued in the UK to those that might be traveling here for their holibobs, information that people are keen to pass on to us. Yes, we know, we are melting in the middle of it it. Our jerseys are crusted white in sweat and shorts are an off-grey in the stuff and there is nothing to do but get used to the disgusting grime as it accumulates over the days. Gloves are foul with sun-dried snot, skin starts to crisp, the café owner that fills our bidons with water then tops them up with ice and then puts them in the ice-cream freezer is our hero for the afternoon. We stand in the fridge sections of petrol stations for longer than might be necessary, with the doors open. Pedaling into the evening when temperatures drop to the milder 30’s is a blessed relief.

Chatting to the Nigerian/American at the pizza truck who offered to order for me because my Italian accent was so bad. The broken English conversation about where we’ve been and where we’re going. €5 for the best ever pizza. In a car park.

Get hopelessly lost and grumpy looking for a route around a banned road, sleep on a narrow bench next to a bike path after scoping out several abandoned stations, coffee and piadina for breakfast, into Austria. People look different. Rooves change again. Lidl. More heat, more stops for drinks. Where are we? What day is it? Where do we have to get to? How far is it? Can I have another ice-cream? Klippitztörl, another unknown climb that will kick your arse. Stop halfway for food to counter the faintybonk. Screaming downhill, theme tune to “633 Squadron”, cheeky climb, another endless main road drag uphill, fast long downhill into a headwind, scary tunnel that leads to silently screaming “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die” all the way through. Hide in a kebab shop for most of the evening while it buckets down outside making a river of the road. Things get a little weird. Things get a little weirder when we sleep inside a pizza parlour.

Up and into the dark again, and we’ve decided to make a concerted push to CP3 in the High Tatras of Slovakia, if we can’t get there before the time limit then at least we can get there on the same day. Somewhere we’ve stopped dealing in kilometres and instead talk in countries. Push on. Warning lights are flashing all over my body this morning but I’m not listening. Stop for a shit coffee, grab enormous and heavy cakes in a street market, eat one, cram one in pocket. Nap on a bench by a petrol station, pick up a wheel-sucking roadie on a climb. Battle commences. It's not until we’re marauding across the northern reaches of Austria aiming for Slovakia that we start firing on all engines and begin working as a team, we should have been doing this since day one, it’s probably too late now, but even now there are misfires and we splutter along sections for far too long. Bratislava, a spray-painted line on the bike-path to let us know we’re in a different country, stop for hot food, stop again in a Tesco Express and stock up on snacks for the long night ahead. Strap bags ugly to bike and self. Leave town on fast frightening dark almost motorway roads, what the fucking fuck are we doing? More internal screaming. Onto blacker roads with shit tarmac where the white kerb line starts to strobe as my eyes stop working. I need to rest. Sit on a step somewhere and fall asleep for snatched minutes after a brief conversation with an old lady that isn’t there. Wake up, carry on. I hate this, why are we doing this, what has happened that we need to do this, carry on full of hate and anger, there is no choice but to carry on. Sleep on the benches outside a McDonalds. Carry on. More hate. Pass out on the grass on the edge of yet another petrol station that’s surprisingly busy for 3am. What are we doing? Another vending machine coffee.

We are finally nudging into what the Transcontinental is all about if you want to finish within the time limit and treat it as a race. It is about hardship and pushing yourself to keep going, no matter how fast that may be, always move forward. This is tough, several long strides outside of your comfort zone, it’s meant to hurt, everyone is doing their best just to get by no matter where they are in the race. There is little comfort to be had. It’s a race, it’s not meant to be fun. For every moment of high and photogenic viewpoint there are ten times as many tedious boring bits and shit struggle. For every sweet downhill switchback there is another vanishing point straight road into a headwind, each twisty country road has its counterpoint in hugging the white line of a main road as cars and trucks roar by, each one a gentle wincing of the left shoulder.

A flock of birds that flies either side of me before landing in the wheat fields.

It becomes a blur of time and distance, both of which have become meaningless, just keep pedaling, eat when you can, stop when you have to. Too many petrol stations and bus shelters. Peanuts, back pocket sausage, 7-day croissants. A vegetable would be nice. Crunchy. The well-tanned and aged rotund man stood akimbo in the electric blue thong waiting for the football that’s just bounced across the road in front of me as I struggle with strangely wavey tarmac. Slovakia is fast roads through fields. Sat in a petrol station again, tired in the corner to a Mexican Wave of funny looks as the heavens open and there is no alternative but to head out into stair-rod rain. Wide road, wet road, thundering traffic, another constant easy gradient climb up a valley. I bang through a square-edged puddle that tests both my wheels and undercarriage but it is Gavin that punctures not much later. Hide in another petrol station. More coffee and snacks. It’s a bit desperate.

As we ride into the dusk once more I halt next to somewhere on the edge of town that has lights on and might serve food. Gavin stops next to me and we sit on the concrete, we are both shattered, we can’t do this. There is still a long enough way to go to CP3 and to carry on would be both foolhardy and dangerous. We have sensible heads and whilst sharing the emergency Snickers bar decide to stop for now, there is a throwaway yet sharply poignant comment that almost passes unnoticed in the dark that I will always want to race whilst Gavin will always be happy to stop and enjoy the scenery and we search town for any old restaurant to eat in, decipher a menu, this will do. Talk to a group of Spanish cyclists on the next table about our stupidity, go to McDonalds for pudding, sleep behind some blue storage containers after dismissing a supermarket shopping trolley shelter as a little exposed. Scruffle awake, coffee in yet another bloody petrol station, cursory clean of the bikes with the windscreen washing bucket water and squeegee, the assistant couldn’t give a toss. Back to last night’s McDonalds for three breakfasts and out again into the cold drizzly miserable day where in a short while on a nowhere point on a road we’d abandon the race.

To get this point from CP2 we have covered 950km in three and a half days with no sleeps longer than 2.5hrs, and while that might be the kind of schedule that those at the pointy end might consider normal it has taken us to the limit. Already struggling thanks to his cold Gavin has comprehensively emptied his tanks. From here on in we need to be right on our game, we have done the easy bit of Europe so far and carrying on would see us turn down through the more, um, interesting part of the route into Romania, Bulgaria and Greece where the roads get worse, driving standards plummet, civilization becomes sparser and less civil and there’s the well documented threat of feral dogs that like thrill of the chase and taste of cyclists. To continue forwards into all of this at such a low ebb would be foolhardy. This is not a simple or spur of the moment decision for Gavin to make with all that has gone before; a year of training, sacrifice and effort, being tired, falling asleep in food, waking up on the sofa. All of those logged miles, all of the discussions and the planning. It is a terrible hard lingering half-life reluctant gut-wrenching throwing in of the towel. It hurts.

I could have struck out on my own but to casually thank Gavin for all the route research and GPX files and pedal off would be a little bit of a dick move, and to be fair something I could have done from, ooooh, Monday. My Pairs partner has guided me halfway across Europe and I’m well aware that any day the tables could have been turned and I would be the one having a torrid time and Gavin would be the one waiting. It is what it is, greater people than us have had these sorts of adventures scuppered by unexpected illness and other unplanned incidents. More important than any of this is that we agreed to do this race together, we have trained together, we have planned this together and we have shared tiredness together, so we will finish together. I am also exhausted from trying to keep the wheels on this moving forward.

We spend a day in Poprad, disappointed, relieved, resting and mainly eating before heading back up to CP3 just to tick it off and say we did it and then gently riding through the Tatras Mountains to Krakow and flying home. Once upon a time riding from Poprad to Krakow just to catch a plane would have seemed ridiculous, now it just seems normal, so there is that. We laugh, we get an idea of what things might have been like further on down the road when things suddenly get edgy towards the Polish border as a group of kids try to block the road, we have lunch in a place that plays brass band music via loudspeakers throughout the town, we end up pushing our bikes along a muddy rutted puddly logging road through a forest, we eat a lot of Magnums, they’re about 20p in Poland. We have seen incredible things, we have shared experiences, we have fallen in love with Europe, we have had a proper adventure.

While I will always be disappointed that we didn’t finish, both of us will, and there will always be a persistent gnawing ire at this we have both learnt a lot of things, we will both do better next time, and there will be next time, (whisper it) most likely as solo riders. I have made my peace with what happened, I had made my peace long before it happened, and Gavin and I are still friends, I think. So in many respects we actually did make it.

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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