Saying no to riding the Transcontinental was way harder than saying yes to it.
Turning down a stupidly long bike ride that would see me tired, hungry, cold, wet and in some form of distress at least once, trying to pound out impossible miles whilst living off petrol station food and sleeping in bus shelters for a couple of weeks, somehow took a lot more thought and soul-searching than agreeing to do it previously.
It was actually the hardest and longest decision I’ve ever had to make about a bike ride. I clicked 'withdraw' on the entrance page on the Transcontinental website, and my heart desperately didn’t want to do it; but after a prolonged internal discussion that never really saw a standalone winner, my head eventually stole the argument. I first agreed to ride the Transcontinental a few years ago with my friend Gavin (check out his website), and it was a remarkably simple choice to make... although we’d had a few beers and were in a heightened emotional state, which may have helped.
The hard bit came afterwards with all the training and planning, and a thousand other things that this endurance race that zig-zags across Europe demands. Then there was the actual doing, which was in many ways quite easy because it’s just riding a bike (plus eating and snatched sleeping). Having to 'scratch' from that race remains one of the toughest and yet desperately straightforward things I’ve done too. The Transcontinental is an event that brings with it wave upon crashing wave of powerful emotions, and it’s quite tricky to explain it away rationally because it’s a ride that doesn’t stand up to normal logic.
After having to turn left and retreat from the Transcontinental, it became unfinished business for the both of us. I completed the TransAtlanticWay two years later to prove to myself that I could do this sort of thing without the support of a riding buddy. Gavin attempted the Transcontinental again, had a bit of a torrid time of it and was forced to come home early once more.
I was all prepped to ride the Transcontinental again last year, but that wasn't going to happen for obvious reasons. The entry was carried forward full of hope to this year, which is where the hovering finger of indecision comes in. Could I physically do it? Yes, and it would hurt. Would it feel right? Probably not, and definitely not as things stand right now. A lot would have to change and improve by the time the race start in France comes around at the end of July. A lot, and quickly.
The most important factor in the eventual reluctant decision not to participate is that I genuinely and unfortunately don’t think the race will be allowed to go ahead. A revised route has been announced that minimises the countries that riders will have to travel through, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. Even if it does, then a whole pile of new rules and restrictions will likely be in force to make progress stuttering, frustrating and ultimately prohibitive.
I’m not a doom monger by any means. I live in a world of cynical optimism, and while my hope is often seen soaring skylark-like, it is vulnerable to being shot out the sky by a reality strike. If this was just a normal bike ride it would be easy to be pragmatic and sack it off, but it’s much more than that. It’s an ugly gut-wrench to back down from something that’s occupied my head in some form or other for too many years, because it’s an event that quietly permeates most everything. The pre-planning takes as much effort as the actual race; if it’s not training it’s riding your bike more, or it’s route plotting. Then it’s researching and acquiring kit, and then some more route planning. And if it’s none of any of those, it’s making another list of things to do and eating enough before some more route-scouting, and seeing where the supermarket is in that tiny town in the mountains whilst you wait for the washing machine to finish with your bike clothes.
It’s all absorbing, but that isn’t to say that none of it can’t come in handy during any other long ride. All this accumulated effort and knowledge can always contribute somewhere along the line, but it’s not quite the same as heading steadily and steadfastly towards that eventual target, somewhere on the other side of an epic land mass.
I’ve made alternative plans, and then other plans, and then some different things to do instead to deal with various levels of what might be allowed, as we either tip-toe out of this situation, have to wade through another succession of constraints or just keep tumbling endlessly in the undertow. This is a lengthening list of hopeful ideas, and I’m already prepared to cross them out one by one with the disappointed pen. It’s just good to occupy the head with plans, possibilities and dragging dots across a map; although this perpetual looking forward only to keep pacing the cage is getting a little tiring, but life is ever thus. I miss that focus, I don’t like this drifting aimlessness.
It’s just a bike ride, there are more important things that matter right now.
It’s not just a bike ride.
There was a deadline for when to make this decision to opt out and get your deposit money back, and this was one of the more tangible and positive reasons to pull out. It’s been a year of cancelled everything, and I’ve already sunk enough money in abandoned and postponed events; so to divert that cash from something that might not happen and lose it forever into something that maybe could happen would make a lot of sense. Even if we’re only allowed to tentatively meander around our home countries by summer, then that money can buy a lot of roadside snacks. I have those spare plans to think about.
It would be tempting to see travelling across a continent as a celebration of new found freedoms after so much restriction. Bike racing has a tradition of promoting unity and peace, and it’s romantic to view it like this; but the flip side is even if we are allowed, it’s easy to see how it’s not ever going to be viewed that way by anyone else outside of our cycling bubble. I come from a position of only very tenuously being affected by the pandemic. My life has changed very little, it’s been an annoyance at best and no-one I know has been affected badly.
From my place of privilege it’s easy to think that it’ll be alright, and parading across several countries will be fine. It will be glorious, there will be people cheering on the exhausted road warriors from dusty pavements... but entire countries and populations have sacrificed themselves terribly to ensure safe passage through this last year, and to put myself through self-imposed hardship on a bike ride while so many others have had countless difficulties and deprivation thrust upon them seems a little insensitive in the slipstream of a pandemic. It displays a level of privilege that I’m uncomfortable with; and while I’m liberally wringing my hands, the whole of this style of bike racing could be seen as an rolling exhibition of privilege (but that’s an argument for another day).
Even being able to make this decision of whether to race or not shows a level of freedom denied to many, and it makes me feel awkward. You could argue that this kind of riding is by definition solitary, and interaction across a day can be very limited and so risks are minimal; less than you might experience in a single essential trip to the shops in ordinary life, but you’re still potentially a dot of uncertain influence through several countries. The consequences of a competitor coming down with the virus, no matter how remote they may be, don’t bear thinking about.
What hangs over all of this is the weight of personal responsibility and empathy. I’ve done my best to navigate through the last year cautiously and intelligently. I’ve both ignored the finger pointers and not been one of the finger pointers, and have tried to maintain a 'don’t be a dick' sensibility; which I think is a good general life rule anyway, and it is all of this which is pricking at my conscience.
It’s just a bike ride, you can go for a bike ride anywhere.
The roll out of vaccines has been far swifter than anticipated, and I’m already one jab in. Whether that means what passes for a normal life can return sooner is impossible to say, with mini waves of lockdown still flaring up all over the continent, so any hope that might have been blossoming in the spring sunshine might be turning a little frosty. If the Transcon does go ahead it’s going to be several serious levels harder for everybody involved; because aside from all of the logistics that usually surround this, and the months of route-planning that become routing errors on the road, mechanicals, shops shutting, weather, hills, lost gloves and a thousand other things that can go wrong, there will be the obstacle course of the new post-pandemic climate. It's likely there will be strict rules in place where you're travelling through, and then the fear of infection at a time when personal hygiene is not at its best, and the body is at a susceptibly low ebb.
A lot of this kind of riding is avoiding risk, be that in the planning beforehand or realising where and when it might occur en route. You recognise the risk and deal with it on the fly, and the current situation sees riders pedalling headlong down a dark valley of potential hazards. I would fully expect all Transcontinental riders to display a mandatory Covid passport at the start registration, and any border controls along the way. There’s also the added prospect for myself and other UK riders crossing into another country at three in the morning, and the official raising a cynical eyebrow at the passport’s country of origin to disappear into a back room to have a long discussion with their colleagues about our nation’s pandemic response, and possibly That Other Thing as well.
It’s just a bike ride, there are greater forces at work right now.
There will be other adventures closer to home. What this last year has taught me, and everyone I think, is that there is much wonder to be found within our own local areas, and you don’t have to go far to have experiences. Shenanigans afield will still be there, roads will meander to the same places. The mountains don’t move, the interactions with people and their lives that you briefly pass through will still be anecdotes to be recounted in the future.
After so much delay and constantly pressing pause on everything, I idly wonder if it’s going to be hard to regain enthusiasm for the rigours of the Transcontinental. Just being able to travel abroad will be enough without the need to race through it, and it will need to be experienced slowly and deliciously savoured. Being slightly sweaty outside a cafe with a European Fanta Orange and a sandwich with a suspicious filling; enjoying the simple joys of foreign travel would be enough right now.
It’s just a bike ride, it’s not about me.
There are deep emotions at play here, and that's why this decision was such a hard heart vs head struggle. If it was purely for emotional reasons I’d be right in and pawing at maps instead of over these words, sating my deep urge to do this and tick off that unfinished business once and for all. Totally pointless reasons of honour, some vague vain level of self-respect, and giving it my best shot just to say I did it; and if I did actually complete it, returning to give Gavin a massive hug and saying we don’t have to do anything like this ever again... although we both will and continue to because we like riding our bikes a long way, maybe just not racing them (although I actually do like a race, damn).
It is in writing these random sentences as a more rambling pros and cons list that seemed to have cemented my final decision, as every time there was a positive there was a nagging negative. It was that persistent whispering unease that tipped me to click 'no'. Do I ache once more for that long ride that will see me tired, hungry, cold, wet and in some form of distress at least once, trying to pound out impossible miles while living off petrol station food and sleeping in bus shelters? Good god yes, because it’s not just about that. These rides take me to amazing places, I bump into wonderful people that restore my faith in humanity. The daily conveyor belt of experiences and roller-coaster of emotions are both life changing and self improving.
It’s only a bike ride, but it’s so much more than just a bike ride. I will miss that.
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.