My Transcontinental race was 2510 miles long, 183,792 ft high , took me through 12 countries in 20 days. Rather than provide a beautifully scripted summary, for now I wanted to share my “Raw memoirs” the stand out moments thoughts and some of the images I captured along the way. This is a summary prepared initially for Primal Europe and is also available on their blog.
So, to start with, the Transcontinental is tough. Emotionally, physically and mentally, sheer stubbornness got me through. Riding my bike was the easy part, everything else (or rather lack of) was the problem. The latter referring to battery power, routes, food, beds, support.
Europe is vast, mountains are high, weather is variable, and towns are scarce. People are poor, People are kind, what is the value of money.
The race began with a cobbled climb of de Muur, surrounded by other riders and supporters holding flaming torches. Within minutes of summiting at the Kapel, the crowds had dispersed and I was riding alone in the Belgian countryside. For the next 20 days, I rode solo alone passing other riders only momentarily at check points or by chance when our routes crossed.
My race started fairly well, just about reaching CP1, Clermont Ferrand by Sunday night (well 4am Monday morning), managing 433 miles, 16964 feet of climbing in 54 hours. In hindsight, it seemed like a lot longer than 54 hours. I hadn’t slept Friday night, napped for an hour Saturday morning, stayed in a hotel Saturday night and decided not to stop again until CP1. As I arrived so late in Clermont Ferrand, there was nowhere/didn’t seem sensible to find a hotel to stay in, but I wasn’t brave enough to sleep rough in the town. So I waited until daybreak, had some breakfast and set off to climb the first parcours, Col De Ceyssat.
Climbing the Parcours was enjoyable, probably the longest climb of my life at that point. Descending was fast and fun. By the bottom, it was clear I was bonking and in a pretty bad way, needed to nap under a tree… the next few days moving across France the rolling French corn fields gradually became steeper as I rode into the Rhone Alps and towards Switzerland. The riding was pleasant, few cars and straight forward. Rural France seemed far more rural than I had remembered and it became increasingly difficult to find anywhere to buy food, let alone a new battery (I was having power issues), or sleep. I quickly learnt to stock up on food and drink at any opportunity. I also spent my first night sleeping under the stars, I was too tired to care. I had opted for a more direct route than many of the others, via Geneva, which I am glad of. Arriving in Geneva late I was exhausted, finding it hard to smile but a good nights sleep, breakfast and starting the day riding around the lake put me in good spirits. How could it not, its a stunning spot. I began climbing up from the lake before Lunch, climbing higher before descending into Interlaken then up once more to CP2, located in Grindelwald. This required riding along a MTB track in the dark. Learning from my mistake at CP1 I had booked a hotel room in advance, missed dinner though, ate some pringles.
CP2 meant parcours 2, comprised of Grosse Scheidegg, Grimsel Pass and the Furka Pass. I was lucky to climb these in good conditions and met a number of riders (TCR and others, along the way). Grosse Scheidegg I think was my favorite of the day, Grimsel Pass the hardest and Furka Pass the easiest. I possibly should have climbed the next pass that night but gave into the temptation of the promise of a hot meal and an early night.
The next few days the weather took a turn for the worse, cold wet and windy I started singing to myself on descents to keep concentration levels up. I’m not normally a singer but it was incredibly liberating. I also invested in Ski gloves and some new lights- both solid investments. Switzerland became more rugged, with a clear Italian influence. Most cars had bike racks and I got a lot of waves of encouragement. I began to climb the Albula Pass not long before dark, this rustic mountain road seemed mystical, twisting between the shadow of trees scattered across a harsh rock face along a gorge. It got darker, mist, windy wet and cold- I was shivering while ascending so was very relieved to find a mountain hostel to shelter in for the night. The next morning I could have been on top of the world as I ate a breakfast of coffee and toblerone before riding towards the Italian border.
The next day started with a final climb, followed by a morning of descents and easy riding through vineyards and along the Adige to Merano, inclusive of some fun, puncture free MTB trails. As I skirted Bolzano, the mountains loomed once more in the distance. At about 4pm I found my self at the foot of a big, long, steep, inclining tunnel, one I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me through and up so I sat down and had a bit of a cry, road side. I got through it (metaphorically and literally), encouraged on by a beautiful Sunset and stunning views. A few hours later I Stopped at an alpine hotel. Dropped bike (and me) down the hill to the entrance as I was too weak to hold. Too late for dinner again, so snacked on left overs from lunch in Merano
Day 9 was a tour of ski resorts on route to CP3, Alleghe. Stopped for a slight route modification to avoid cycling down what looked like a black ski run, another route modification to avoid a closed road. Listened to BBC world service podcast while I rode, feeling pretty emotional anyway I, shed some tears, appreciative of the freedom to be cycling in a beautiful, safe corner of the world. After a lunch stop at CP3 I began the 3rd parcourse, Passo Giau, I took it steady, the weather was perfect I remember it as a nice climb, fairly forgiving for the most par with stunning views. Met a few friendly faces along the way At the top, met an Italian family, they invited me for dinner and offered me a bed in their beautiful home. Amazing people, food and hospitality.
Day 10 Started in the Dolomites to the church bell of Selva Di Cadore, a final climb then a great few hours of descending followed by a few questionable bike paths (gravel, steps, a cave…)and then some awesome flat riding, straight roads, pretty towns, good coffee. Stopped in Trieste for dinner, met some friendly TCR faces. Had planned to ride to Slovenia before sleeping but went the wrong way, downhill out of Trieste. Thought head knew better than Garmin, it didn’t and took me through some “Scary” industrial estates before arriving in Muggia where my road was closed by police. At this point, I was tired and struggling to compute other route options so I opted for a hotel. Id had a solid Solid days riding but sad not to have made it to Slovenia
Day 11: -Frustrating start, couldn’t find the right road, unremarkable crossing into Slovenia, the signs stopped, traffic was less, valleys steeper, towns modest. Some poor navigational skills resulted in 2 extra climbs. I passed a child’s drawing of a fireman, in chalk on the road, then some firemen, then miles of shouldering woodland from a forest fire the night before. I was glad I hadn’t slept under one of those trees.
The Slovenia/Croatia Border was marked by a hut, guards, barriers and a barbwire fence.
Fast, straight (vertical?) descent into Croatia, it was hot, I was behind schedule, I stopped and moped for a bit. I was finding it hard going, disappointed to be so behind. Croatia’s rural roads are steep, and in some case unfinished, one such road left my feet and bike covered in concrete. Powered through to Rijeka, steady climb out accompanied by some serious self-talk for motivation: Quitting was not an option, wouldn’t achieve anything, what would be the point. Decided to ride through the night. Ridiculous cross winds on coast road, was glad for heavy bike/bags, came close to being blown off. It was also dark, busy road with a lot of lorries. Fun though- adrenaline riding! Fun stopped about midnight when a creepy van did a slow drive by, stopped slightly ahead in a dark lay by above Senj. It could have could have been innocent, also could have been threatening. I didn’t wait to find out, rode back into the town and found a hotel.
Started with a windy climb out of Senj into the uplands, vast open plains towards Bosnia. Houses were modest, few and far between, many marred with bullet holes. Crossing into Bosnia at Bihac, I rode up into the hills, past a sign warning of land mines. I climbed into a thick, wet fog, sharing the road in vast expanse of nothingness with VW vans and Trucks. Hours later approached a town where some locals took me to a pizzeria /bar next to a mosque, the owner had some rooms upstairs, he let me stay in. Probably not inline EU ISO regs, I slept perfectly. Friendly vibes, very different to home, I was definitely an outsider
Day 13 was more wet fog and vast open roads as I rode to Sarajevo. -~50% of houses in Bosnia appear to be homes, the rest empty, derelict many burnt out. People were slow to smile, seeming to be either farmers, Shepard’s, mechanics or a combination of all, utilizing traditional farming methods, old tractors, old cars. The towns were busy, chaotic, polluted. Sarajevo a combination of colorful and dull, modern and dated.
Day 14 started well with a good ride to Montenegrin border, past more desolate buildings and along a dirt track to the border control. Once in Montenegro the roads improved as did the scenery towards Pluzine. I passed some TCR bikes at the bottom of the parcours to CP4, not realizing I was going the wrong way- Garmin had froze, gained a hill, lost an hour.
The Parcours began by passing an old stone tunnel carved in the rock, preceding a beautiful climb to Durmitor. It was probably my favorite, it was also hard. I recommend you ride it, but allow more time. At the top it was barren and quickly got very cold, windy, dark. I started to descend to CP4 but because confused by the route and had lost faith in my Garmin/route. Confused, cold and scared of falling off the mountain/missing CP4, I stopped at the wrong place. Once in the hut I couldn’t make my self ride the last 6km to the town. Close to taking a lift. Took some brandy instead and stayed in a hut. Disappointed. Exhausted. Safe
Woke up in the hut, nice view. I was cold and stiff; Garmin, dead; Phone, almost dead; battery packs, empty. Rode the 6km to CP4, met a fellow TCR rider. I cried a little, we had breakfast together, compared stories. I stayed in town to charge devices, a few hours later Started riding, within minutes on a gravel track. U-turn, new route needed Pretty, still smiling, still pedaling -Body not responding, emotionally drained, caved into self pity. Stopped early, accepted I was going to miss the fishers party.
Breakfast with another TCR rider as we waited for the wet fog to lift, it didn’t. After a few hours riding fog cleared, revealing beautiful scenery along the started riding it did. Steady, steepening climb towards Montenegrin/Kosovo border culminating in a stunning descent between Montenegro and Kosovo. Too fun and too fast to take pictures, I recommend you ride it!
-Police looking out over modest camp between borders
Arrived into into Kosovo, the roads were a little bit crazy, almost as bad as London, got my first puncture. Had planned to ride through night, but when it got dark I wussed out, found motel, ate meat. Slept to the sound of wedding drums
Started riding in time to watch the sunrise over Pristina and take in the Kosovan rush hour, Kosovans know how to rock a car share! Decided I like Kosovo, even more so after a second breakfast of the best burger ever. Rode to the Macedonian border, then relaized Id lost my Garmin charger- wrote out some directions in my notebook. Got another puncture. Didn’t enjoy riding in Skopje, possibly worse than London. After a while, travelling south, Macedonia became beautiful, then it got dark. I met some police, they were in the bushes but friendly enough and directed me to a hotel
Macedonia was pretty special, I saw goats, donkeys, horse and carts, bikes and tractors. Met man collecting figs on a horse drawn cart, he gave me a fig. The “road” deteriorated to undulating, gravel/rocky track resulting in ~ 15km at walking pace.
I Crossed into Greece about midday, roads were better. It was very hot, I ran out of water and didn’t see any shops or garages for a long time. Struggled to find way on to the road to take me East. Lots of circles/u-turn. Stopped at garage at 18:00, as finishers party was starting Tough moment, gutted not to be there. Dinner/Lunch of Maxi Croissants and Coke. Pushed on, taking frustration out on the road. Stayed under a tree in a compound with a melon seller and his large extended family. They covered me in a blanket as I slept
LAST DAY- I HOPED
-Early start 4.30am up and over some bumps to Alexandroupolis for breakfast then on to the Turkish border, where Garmin stopped working, again. Luckily there aren’t many roads in Turkey, first a hot, windy busy motor way, then hill into a relentless head wind and finally the turn to Canakkale for the final sprint (well 60 km or so. At this point I felt invincible albeit with mixed emotions about approaching the finish- I didn’t want it to end and go back to normality. I also wanted a lie in. I almost got eaten by the big white dog at the tunnel, found out later I wasn’t the only one. I Arrived at Ecebat for the Canakkale ferry with 45 minutes to wait, time compose my thoughts. Arrived in Canakkale to a warm welcome of TCR finishers, most of whom I had met on route. We had done it!!!