The Transcontinental bike race starts in Belgium this evening with last year’s winner Josh Ibbett among the favourites to arrive first in Canakkale, Turkey.
If the Transcontinental is a new one on you, riders pick their own route across Europe but they have to check in at several control points along the way. The clock never stops until they reach the finish.
We caught up with Josh just before he left for the start.
How has your preparation for Transcontinental No.4 gone?
Well, it wasn’t ideal that I got bitten by a dog while doing the Tuscany Trail in the first week of June. It was the start of my build up to the Transcontinental in terms of endurance training and it was one of my target events for the year. I was leading by three hours and was pretty much at the top of the last big climb so it was more or less downhill from there to the finish, but this dog bit me and that was that!
Ouch! How bad an injury was it?
I was in a bit of a pain and I couldn’t have been in a more remote place, really. It was a 45 minute trip to hospital.
I had four puncture wounds in my leg. One of them was quite deep in the back of my calf, so I had five stitches in one hole and two in another, and I had another wound that they couldn’t stitch so it just had to heal up on its own.
I had nothing with me because I was racing really light. I had no clothes or anything, and my leg seized up.
Thankfully the race organisers came and found me in hospital, sorted me out and got me back to the airport. I came home in a wheelchair.
How long were you off the bike?
Only about 10 days. The problem was that I’d been bandaged up and stitched and I couldn’t put any weight on my leg.
As soon as I got the bandage off, got some movement and started to get some weight on it I got mobile again pretty quickly. I just had a big hole in the back of my leg so I just needed to be careful for a while.
Did it put a massive dent in your Transcontinental preparation?
It was annoying because I didn’t win the Tuscany Trail race which, barring disaster, I probably would have.
In terms of my form, I don’t think it had too much of an effect because I’d have needed a week to 10 days to recover from the race anyway. Although it wasn’t ideal, I don’t think I lost an awful lot and the race was a massive 33 hour effort, so I had about a week and a half’s training in one hit anyway.
Then I started doing my long rides to build up for the Transcontinental. My leg was a little tight and it has given me a few Achilles problems but I can stretch it out now so it should be fine.
How much of an advantage is it that this is your third Transcontinental and that you won last year?
It’ll help loads. Fitness accounts for maybe 50-60% of the package that you need to do well in the Transcontinental. In 2014, I was as fit as I was last year, maybe even a little bit fitter, and that was the year Kristof Allegaert won it.
When I was riding well and not making mistakes, not getting lost, not having a mental breakdown, I was riding as fast as Kristof if not a little faster. However, I made errors and ultimately he finished a day-and-a-half or two days ahead of me because he was so consistent. That comes down to experience.
Last year I learnt from my mistakes. I made a pre-race planning error and ended up on a track instead of a road, but while I was out there I was consistent, and that’s what counts really.
Going into it this time, I have two years’ experience behind me and that should mean I’ll be more consistent.
How much of a game plan do you formulate before the start and how much of it is down to decisions you make on the fly?
You can plan to a certain extent. I like to plan a rough schedule for the day. I’ll try to keep some sort of routine in terms of sleeping and eating. It might have to change because in certain places you might not be able to buy food so easily, but I like to keep some kind of structure so that it’s not too disorganised.
Things will crop up. There could be a closed road, for instance, and then you’ll have to think on your feet and find your way around it. You just have to deal with things like that. It’s part of the race and keeping a level head and solving these problems without panicking is another key skill.
Presumably that gets more difficult as the race goes on and you get more tired?
Exactly. It’s all about management. Being really fit is going to help but you need to be disciplined. You can be fit but if you go out really hard in the first two days you’re going to pay for it later on.
You need to not stop too much, you need to be able to deal with the heat and the cold. You’re going to be really fatigued and having emotional lows and highs, but you have to try to override them with your head.
A lot of the guys who do well wouldn’t necessarily win a local road race but they have a lot of experience. They know how to look after themselves. It’s about managing everything.
If you’re running out of water, for instance, and you don’t know when you can next fill up, you can’t just glug it down, you need to manage it. It’s the same with food and sleep and everything else. Sometimes you just have to tell yourself to go to bed because you’re so tired and it would be detrimental to your safety and performance to carry on.
Tracking technology means it’s possible to know where competitors are in the Transcontinental. How much do you focus on what they’re doing?
I try not to worry about it too much because I can only go as fast as I can go. If someone is riding flat out, it’s not like a road race where I can bridge a gap and just sit there because you’ll pay for those efforts. I try to ignore everyone else and just float around in my own little world.
If it comes to the last few days and someone is nearby you can think about pushing yourself, but if you push yourself too hard too early you’ll ultimately pay for it.
How does the equipment you’re using compare to last year’s?
Last year I used the Mason Definition road bike and this year I’m on the new Mason Bokeh Ti.
I’ve done about 2000-3000 miles on the bike and the position is pretty much identical to last year. I used it for the Tuscany Trail and had it for a few weeks before that. The titanium saves weight and the bike is really comfortable.
The weight of the bike and all my equipment is down massively from around 14kg last year to under 12.5kg this time.
This year we’re spending a lot of time in the Alps and I know full well that it can be miserable there even in the summer. When your body is rundown and tired you need to keep warm, so I’ve altered my kit a little bit and I’m taking a few things that I didn’t take last year.
Equally, I’ve lost a few things as well. I have a bit of extra space in my bag because I’m not taking a down jacket, for instance, I can take some Torq Recovery sachets with me for the first few days. It’ll help me stay fresh before the Alps because that’s going to be an absolutely brutal section of the race. I’ve ridden a sector of it already and it was horrible.
Was that specific preparation for the Transcontinental?
I did a recce of the Swiss section a few weeks ago. I hope it rains in the Alps because I’ve spent the past two weeks training in the rain so I’m prepared for it.
I’ve ridden most of the Dolomites section so I know what to expect. I’ve been to the Stelvio Pass a couple of times before so I’m relatively familiar with it.
I just want to get the first section of the Transcontinental out of the way and get on with the cool new stuff I’ve not seen before.
How do recent political events in Turkey affect things?
We’re not finishing in Istanbul this time. The new finish is south of Galipoli in a place called Canakkale. Istanbul was getting far too busy with construction projects on the edge of the city so now we get to the Turkish border and go south.
However, there’s also an emergency finish in Greece, on the border with Turkey. If it all kicks off before the leaders get to the last checkpoint we’ll be told to go to this other finish line.
I’ve never been to Greece and it looks nice, and the route would force us to go through the mountains a bit more which would be more interesting than the long, flat roads to Istanbul.
What are your feelings going into the race?
I can only do what I can do. I’m so experienced at these things now that I know I can ride all day for multiple days and I can manage myself. Maybe I’ve not gained that little bit of fitness that I would have without the injury but I don’t think it’ll affect me too much. It’s not like a track race where that little bit of fitness will make all the difference.
There are a lot more variables here. I think that if I’m consistent and don’t make any mistakes I’ll be there or thereabouts at the finish. I’m prepared, I know what to expect. I have some tricks up my sleeve in terms of knowing what to do, what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep…
I think I’m looking forward to it. I just want to get the start out of the way and be out there riding on my own. The first thing I’m focusing on is getting to the finish and the racing comes second.
I’ll concentrate on myself and if people shoot off and race really hard early on, that’s fine by me. I can only do what I can do. I know what I need to do to get to the finish. If I crack about two miles from the finish line then I’ve paced it well!
For more info on the race go to www.transcontinental.cc
Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.