So spring has arrived (feeling like summer), and I’m about to begin the first race of the year. In previous years for me it’s been all about the Transcontinental Race, a 4,000 km self supported bike packing race from one side of Europe to the other. I would normally just be thinking about more training, planning, and general preparation for the TCR around this time of year. To mix things up a bit this time around I’ve thrown my hat into some off road riding and the Italy Divide. I’m not setting any expectations for the race other than to enjoy it as much as possible, and finish with time to enjoy a few days in Verona before flying home. The race starts on Wednesday 25th April at 19:30 hrs.
What is the Italy Divide?
A 935 km off road/gravel/mountain bike race from the Colosseum Rome, to the north shore of Lake Garda. The route for this ride is quite special, taking gravel and single track roads and paths up through the spine of Italy, through Tuscany, across the Po Valley to Verona, up and over the Lessinia national park area and Monte Baldo, finishing on the shores of Lake Garda in Torbole.
Yes! Italy has endless miles of gravel roads, from the hard packed white roads of the Strade Bianche, through to rough, coarse gravel back and farm roads criss crossing the countryside. There will be some sealed road as the route leaves Rome, and will take in some iconic locations moving through towns like Sienna, Florence, Bologna and Verona, but there’ll also be some fairly technical single track trails in the hills and mountains.
I’ve not got a lot of experience with off road, so this will be a bit out of my comfort zone, but have recently spend a bit of time on some local trails, as well as completing a couple of gravel events in the UK, the Sunday Echappee and the Dirty Reiver, both 200km with the later completed the weekend before the race.
At the end of the day, I wanted to try something a bit different in a familiar format and country that was away from the traffic. Basically, a holiday adventure!
The race starts on Wednesday evening, 25th April at 7.30pm CEST (8.30pm BST)
You can also follow me on social media on twitter & instagram where I’ll be looking to share photos and updates along the way. Feel free to get in touch and wish me luck, but remember, this is a race so no outside assistance, thank you!
I set off, enjoying the cool air and fast road and made good time. Just before Bitola, the dubious sandwich I’d had a couple hours earlier was confirmed dodgy. I made a dash into the loos, and while there checked the tracker on my phone and spotted #80 Nelson was stopped just ahead in Bitola, and hadn’t moved in a while. 6th place wasn’t too far away, and with a bit of renewed nervous and excited energy, I moved onto the border.
It seemed to take an age to get through passport control, but once rolling I started upping my pace trying to put a bit of a gap between me and Nelson. #187 Rory was a little too far ahead, but it was exciting to be in a bit of a race to the finish line.
It was 10 am and already 29 Degrees, and I was low on water. I spotted a service station just off my route, and made a dash for some supplies. They only had coke and water, and didn’t take cards for such a small amount, but thankfully after a bit of fishing around in my jersey pockets, I found the last of my Euros. 3 water bottles (NO GAS!) and two cokes for €2 – half my budget for the day.
Topped up I pushed on, finding I was checking the tracker for movement frequently. I’d managed to get about a 15-20 km gap on Nelson, but #131 Robert was also closing in about another 15 km behind. It was hard to judge as I imagined our routes would differ. These sorts of distances are nothing in a race like this, and it was a strange feeling to be pushing virtually full gas after 3,800 km and 10 days. Since leaving Bulgaria the morning before, I’d moved from 10th to 6th. I was buzzing 🙂
I made two more quick pit stops, one for sunscreen (yay! they accept cards!) as I’d run out the day before in Serbia, and another for some water and coke using the last of my Euros. The roads didn’t always match up with the route in these parts, as there were a number of new ones that didn’t show up on the Wahoo. I put my faith in the ELEMNT and fate, and pushed on.
There were a number of incredibly fun and fast descents. Full aero tuck race mode initiated in the hope that I’d make up some time for my slow climbing speeds. Knowing that the finish parcours of Meteora would likely mean Nelson and Robert would gain some ground when I got to them. At one point while checking the tracker on my phone while on a climb, I looked up to find myself heading for a foot high kerb. I somehow managed to bunny hop onto the pavement before having a strong word with myself about making sure I get to the finish, rather than worry about where everyone else is. All I needed to do was keep going and finish; it’s all I could do, all I could control and silly mistakes and sheer bad luck were probably the only two things that could work against me.
After crossing a short bridge over a lake, I turned up onto the first of the 4 or 5 climbs I had left before the finish. Checking the tracker was a mute point now as the sun was overhead and incredibly bright – I couldn’t see a thing on the screen. That same sunshine was almost the undoing of me. There was a slight tailwind following me up, meaning there was dead air, and the temperature here peaked at about 47 Deg C. My heart rate was going mental in complaint. I put my cap on under my helmet, doused in water in a vain attempt to try and keep my head cool and the sun off it. It was brutal. I remembered from a trip to Sardinia earlier in the year on a really hot and steep climb, where focusing and slowing my breathing allowed me to bring my heart rate under control. A technique specific to hot climbs. It was not quite as effective here, but it certainly helped me get it under control.
As focused as my breathing may have been, some part of me became quite confused. For some reason, with about 60 km to go, I thought that I was already on the parcours for the finish. This was compounded as I came to the small town at the top, where the road became a very loose and rocky gravel track. In my mind I had a wry grin, thinking this had Mike Hall’s cunning plan written all over it. If the sunshine wasn’t so bright I’d be able to see that it was another 40 km to the start of the last finish parcours climb.
“…the road became a very loose and rocky gravel track. In my mind I had a wry grin, thinking this had Mike Hall’s cunning plan written all over it”
Once I was onto tarmac, I relaxed and dropped off the pace significantly. There were 4 more climbs, each fairly significant especially in this heat. On top of this, my water had either been drunk, poured over my head, or evaporated in the heat. I was thirsty.
On a climb up to the town of Elati, I honestly thought I was going to pass out. In the square of the town was the most magical sight – I had found a bar. I had no money, so hoped they’d allow me some tap water. I must have been an absolute state and could barely string words together; “w-w-w-waaatteeerr, please…”, or something equally as pathetic sounding. I’m sure the barman recognised my plight quite quickly, and ushered me to a sink behind the bar. I drank a lot of water in a short space of time, and also put my head under the tap to cool down.
The temperature here had peaked on my Wahoo at 49 degrees C. Maybe it was from when parked outside the bar, but it felt about right. I’m certain I was suffering from heat stroke at this point, and was glad to find a table in the shade to compose myself, cool down and re-hydrate. I knew I couldn’t hang around for long, so took the opportunity for one last refill before setting off.
The next 20 km aren’t clear, but following the tracker I could see #12 Nelson had taken a completely different route. For some reason, coupled with the thought that I was already on the parcours, I thought that he’d skipped it and was heading straight for Meteora. Very confused. I remember at one point checking the tracker with two climbs to go and seeing he was less than 10 km behind me. It kind of made me wonder if the tracking sites had been slow to update and he was now right behind me… this was in fact partially true. My dithering, heat exhaustion and slow climbing meant Nelson had made some big gains. He was also on a route to the last climb with significantly less climbing in.
I was still somewhat oblivious to this. I actually went straight past the turning for the last climb by a few hundred meters. I had virtually nothing left. I was on my own for the lower slopes, with the exception of about a hundred flies determined to get into my eyes. While swatting them at one point I knocked my sunglasses out of my helmet onto the road, so had to stop to pick them up. Getting going again was not easy. It was steep, and a real struggle to clip back in and get momentum.
Not long afterwards, Camille McMillan and Jacopo pulled up alongside in a car, chatting and taking photos. I was suffering big time, with steep roads, dead air with another tail wind, and hundreds of flies buzzing around my face. Seeing them gave me a bit of a lift, but it faded as soon as I realised their expectations may have been for me to move a bit quicker.
By now water was almost out, but the finish wasn’t far so just kept turning the pedals as best I could. My lower back was getting tight from the steep gradient, and I was moving very slowly. I recall passing Bjorn’s girlfriend who said she’d come out to see Nelson and I. I believe I said I didn’t think Nelson was doing the parcours today… My mind was not clear, as I’d have normally made the small leap that it would mean Nelson was basically right behind me.
I was so relieved to get to the top. I stopped by a sign that must have been the ‘summit’ sign and took a couple of photos and selfies. The way my head was hanging shows how much I was suffering.
I decided to just get it over with and started to head off, only to come around the corner to find Jacopo and Camille in a car park. I rolled over to say hello. I was broken, and just happy to see some familiar faces. I slumped over the bars, taking a moment to recover a little. I swigged the last of my now warm water, while Camille snapped away.
The next thing I know I see Nelson sailing past with a cheeky wave. I was a little mortified, but I was still clinging onto the hope that he’d only done ‘part of the parcours’… Yeah, I know… I’ll remember Camille’s words just then as clear as day… “You’re not going to let him get away with that, are you?!”, but only after he got ‘The Photo’ of the pass. #93 Geoffroy came bombing past as well, having finished about 24 hours before, was now equipped with a moped. I could have done with one of them!
I duly gave chase, and after a 3 second sprint from the car park, I knew the game was up. I had absolutely nothing left to give. I gainfully tried to make time up on the descent, but with the fatigue I’d lost all skill in descending and cornering and there were also a couple or reverses.
Little did I know, dot watchers had gone mad watching the race for 6th & 7th. I’d joked many times about keeping dotwatchers entertained. I think this was job done!
I decided to focus on just getting down in one piece, and was kind of grateful to bump into a dot watcher on the way down. It meant I had someone to talk to, although I’m not clear on how much sense I was making, nor entirely sure what was discussed.
Into town, and through to the edge and the finish at Hotel Divani. I’d half expected to be in tears and really emotional at the finish. I had been at a few points along the way, feeling really low, sad, thinking of Mike and Frank. In the end, I was genuinely just so happy to be over and done with riding my bike, and being cheered in by a handful of veterans and riders friends and family, and the volunteers at the finish I had a huge smile on my face.
I was quite broken at the finish. I was handed a beer, and kindly given a Gyros pitta, which was the most amazing thing I’d eaten. Ever. Thanks Flo! It would be the first of about 100 I’d eat over the following 5 days.
I could barely hold my head up properly, and after the second beer I was feeling quite pissed and ready to sleep. Only problem was, I needed to find a room!
If there’s one thing that stands out about the Transcontinental Race for me, is that even with spending the best part of 11 days on your own riding your bike, you have the feeling are constantly part of something bigger. Chance encounters and a passing conversation or hello with fellow riders, the unbridled enthusiasm and friendliness of checkpoint staff and volunteers, the occasional dot watcher who’s waited out seemingly in the middle of nowhere in 40 degree heat to catch you passing for 5 minutes or so. And finally, the camaraderie, friendship, stories, many many beers & meals, and mutual respect of other riders and friends and family at the finish. You can guarantee there’ll always be someone wanting to go for ice cream, a second, third, fourth lunch, a beer or few at the finish location of the TCR. The gathering at the finish with beers bought and shared generously; welcoming new finishers with beer, applause and hugs – it’s a natural, primal need for most racers, friends and family. It’s a great atmosphere, and a highlight.
All the food, beer, ice cream, shops and hotels in abundance. Meteora has everything you need post race.
A few of us headed over to a nearby mountain lake for a bit of a swim thanks to a tip from Geoffroy, taking the opportunity to explore a little and have a go at being a tourist. The whole surrounding area is worth an explore, if there’s time it’s worth hiring a car or motorbike (very cheaply) from one of the local car hires.
After a couple of days in Meteora of not doing very much at all, I felt the urge to go and explore the amazing Meteora Monasteries. This did mean going for a bike ride, but I was quite glad to spin the legs, despite the heat of the day. I intend to explore the actual monasteries if I get back there again, but without wanting to leave the bike unattended outside them I skipped it.
Ride for #172 Frank Simons
It was really important that we did something to remember Frank Simons, who tragically died early in the race. Frank’s son, Job Simons had travelled from Canada to the finish in Meteora. After a few words in the centre of town, taking a moment to remember Frank, we took a short ride around the outside of Meteora with a police escort. There was a big turnout, and was nice to have a ride and short chat with Job.
The finishers party is an essential part of the TCR, and the main target for most racers. A time to look back at the race, celebrate all the finishers, those who were still out on the road, and those who couldn’t make it. It was also important to thank all of the volunteers, dot watchers and everyone involved in the race. There’s so much that goes into making this race happen, especially so this year with the late decision to go ahead and make it a race that Mike would have been proud of, and I’m certain that he was.
There’s so much thanks to give to everyone involved with this race, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I have so much thanks to give everyone involved. This race, and the last have given me an opportunity to do something so far removed from normal life that at times in my life I could never have dreamed possible. Life changing possibly doesn’t really cover it. For Mike, Anna, Juliana, Rory, Pat, Russell, Mike’s family, all the checkpoint staff and volunteers, all the dot watchers, riders, friends and family. Big thanks to EVERYONE involved for making this an amazing race, and one that I believe Mike would have been proud.
It was great to see so many finishers and riders who had made their way to the finish after scratching. There were a number of race veterans as well, Vasiliki Voutzali, and Rose McGovern amongst others to share beer and stories of the road with.
The day after the party, I carried this bastard of a box down to the bus station. From there, it was a bus to the main bus terminal hub in Trikala, before changing to another bus headed for Athens. I’d had the foresight to use my avios points to buy a business class return ticket back to London, meaning I spent the best part of 2 hours in the business class lounge eating and drinking for free, followed by the comfiest and most relaxed flight back.
My good friend, Rob kindly picked me and the bike up from Heathrow. I had a suspicion that the guys and girls back at G!RO were planning another welcome home party, but wasn’t sure as it was nearly 11pm by the time I was nearing home. Rob is terrible at keeping a secret, and broke straight away. As it was so late, the welcome home was at a local curry house in Esher. This was perfect – beer and a curry with friends. I was pretty shattered, but really happy to be back with everyone who’d supported me and followed my dot. Lots of stories to share.
For me, it doesn’t really change too much, but in the official results there were a number of penalties applied to riders ahead of me. This meant that I was promoted to 5th place, due to both Rory & Nelson incurring a 3 hour penalty. It just goes to show how close the racing was after 4,000 km and 11 days.
Breakfast was inside the hotel restaurant from 8, so I set my alarm. I was up at 7 on my clock and breakfast was already being served. Stephane and I had two fairly amazing breakfast plates with cheese, eggs and some meat, bread, olives and maybe some fruit too. At this time I was a little confused as to why breakfast was so early, but didn’t ask too many questions… (it’ll take me to the finish to realise the time zone had changed +1 hour…).
The last couple of days had been tough, and looking back at the tracker both Stephane and I didn’t hurry to get going. It was gone 9am (actually 10am? not sure!) before I headed out just ahead of him.
I packed up and headed down the hill. I’d hoped for a bit more of a free wheel down, but there were a few false flats and reverses that slowed me down. Again, I’d set off without making sure I’d enough food and water, but managed to find a small cafe who were able to sort me out with some chocolate, coke and some water. As I headed further down the hill, there were more and more cars heading up to the mountain, or trying to park up by the lake. It was the weekend, and a holiday weekend in Romania, so it became crazy busy as I moved further down.
I was aiming for a bike shop in a town at the bottom of the hill to re-stock up on spare tubes. This was timely, as rolling into the entrance of one tunnel I dropped into a pothole of doom and caught a pinch flat. Nerves were starting again… I put in the patched tube, thankful it was early, temperatures were still cool and it held well. There were a number of bike shop options in Pitesti, but managed to find Velomax cycles just off my route who sorted me out with some suitable spare tubes. I bought 3 hoping I’d not need any.
It was getting warm now. 44 deg C. I found a service station with ice-cream and some more food and drink around the corner before heading on. The roads were pretty good. A nice change, but it was really hot. For about the next 4 hours I was stopping every hour or so, switching out water, eating ice cream, some food, and then going again. The wind wasn’t ideal and was a bit of a grind.
I’d been keeping an eye on the tracker, and Stephane had gone a slightly different route with rougher roads, but had made good time and got ahead of me. I could see #131 Robert was also ahead, and both seemed to be increasing the gap. I was trying to push on but the gap seemed to keep on growing. Early in the afternoon I resigned myself to getting a hotel for the night. Mainly down to the fact that I’d not had a shower since Bratislava and really craved some basic comfort.
I booked a room in Vidin, Bulgaria and made that my target for the night. After being delayed chatting at a service station after sunset, I made it across the border and to the hotel just after midnight (or so I thought.. I’d still not ‘clocked’ the time zone change). After a bit of time trying to sort out paying so I could check out at 5 am, I managed to have my long needed shower, washed out some salt from my bibs, and got my head down.
I overslept, and was up at 6am (actually 7…), and out the door in the pre-dawn light. It was quite cool, and looked like it’d rain, and it did for a bit, but only light drizzle. It was only a short 50km to Serbia, but if felt like really good progress.
I’d not had breakfast, so was happy to find a service station in Knjazevac where I had a good feast and stocked up my supplies so I had backup food. It was about 650km to go, and had one eye on riding through to the finish.
I spotted #23 Mathias Dalgas stopped in Nis, who turned out to be awaiting a wheel repair. I stopped in the town for a wonderful McDonalds, then pushed on towards the Macedonian border passing him and moving into 9th place. As I moved towards the border, I was closing in on Stephane in 8th. I bumped into him briefly before the border. #131 & 7th, Robert was not too far ahead, but my route turned off away from the motorway border crossing and up over a climb on a rural national park area into Macedonia. It was a really strange area, with the town just before the climb up to the border appeared to have hundreds of ‘missing person’ posters up everywhere. I was thinking of stopping, but thought better of it, swiftly navigating through the town and onto the climb.
Through the border, and onto the most horrific road surface in the world. It seems someone had dropped stones into some tarmac and didn’t bother with a roller to smooth it all out. It was an old tired road, and horrific to ride a bike on. The one memory and defining feature of Macedonia that I’ve got from two TCR’s is really really shit roads.
Thankfully, although it seemed to, it didn’t last forever. I came out of the descent into a small village getting ready for some sort of festival. Before long, I found my way onto a main road and into the edge of the town of Kumanovo. The road was busy, I was hungry and managed to get a little lost searching for a service station that served more than coke and water.
Bottles topped, I picked my way through some tiny back roads to get back onto my route and head south towards Veles. Finally, the roads were quieting with the late evening, and I was making some decent time. My goal was still to push through the night, but as is always the way with long days and riding at night, I was getting tired. I’m quite good at noticing when I need to stop and rest, but I also know that I normally don’t need to rest for long. A short 15-30 minute cat nap has the effect (for me) of shaking off the fatigue. Unless you’re aware of how your body responds, I wouldn’t recommend this – everyone is different.
I’d pulled over the side of the road just before Sveti Nikole and sat in the layby and closed my eyes for a short while. I nodded off and woke after maybe about 15 minutes, checking the tracker. It seems I’d passed both #12 & #131 about 5km back, and it appeared that both were stopped for the night. I was now in 7th place, and with it some new energy. I figured it was time to put some distance in. With 400 km to go, I started rolling down some quick roads and was really having fun.
I was now in 7th place, and with it some new energy. I figured it was time to put some distance in. With 400 km to go, I started rolling down some quick roads and was really having fun.
I made great time all the way down to Veles, and a little beyond, slowing only when the road started turning up on the way to Prilep. This was a 25 km climb at around 4%. It took me around two and a half hours, with two snooze stops totalling about an hour. It was a slow and tedious climb, and was something of a struggle with the fatigue. At one point I pulled out some jaffa cakes to help restore some energy only to discover, to my horror that they were cherry flavoured dark chocolate jaffa cakes. I was mortified. Not a huge fan of cherry or dark chocolate. I had a try and my fears were confirmed – disgusting. I packed them away and reverted to my old friends, 7 Days croissants.
It was nearly 5am when I made it to the top, and was followed by a terrific fast descent down to Prilep, where I found a bright, fully stocked service station. Coffee, a particularly dubious sandwich, crisps, ice cream, coke, water, and some more 7 Days for the pocket. The sun was coming up, and although it had chilled overnight I could feel the day was starting to warm already.
Looking on the tracker, I could see that #80 Nelson Trees and #187 Rory McCarron weren’t too far ahead, but moving. They were targets that I figured I could put a bit of pressure on by making a bit of ground up. I expected they’d both had some sleep and were fresher, but it was worth having a go. 260 km to Meteora. Things were going to be close.
I slept fairly well at the back of the petrol station, woken at around 3.30am by a delivery driver dropping off some fresh (!) 7 days croissants, I imagined. He gave me a quizzical look, I waved and he went about his day. Being disturbed, I was reluctant to try to sleep more so figured I’d decamp and get rolling, aiming to get ahead of the heat wave before it kicked into the day. I also checked the tracker, now very interested where everyone around me was, with both 131 Robert Carlier and 12 Stephane having moved ahead in the night, but were showing as stopped.
I’d stopped the night before on a hill, which meant starting the day descending. After one more short climb, I was again descending all the way down to the town of Presov, where hunger made the decision to grab some breakfast easy. I got a good mix of food, including my first 7 Days croissant of the trip. I always made a point of getting some fruit juice in the mornings, in an attempt to get some good nutrients over the servo junk food that was everything else. I’d been mixing Berocca and hydration tablets in my bidon, but these were turning to dust in the tube and was keen to keep vitamins, electrolytes and hydration in check. The day was going to get hot, so this was going to be important.
After Presov, I went west to go around what I thought would be busy roads, and found even busier ones. The first two hours after Presov was probably one of the most stressful of the trip until then, with heavy traffic in both directions meant having to hug the dual carriageways hard shoulder, which often would just turn into a single white line with little room.
Traffic passing was giving some space, but without really slowing down. I figured I had to just get my head down, and focus on getting to some smaller quieter roads that I knew were ahead.
I’d decided to use my backup Wahoo today, one that I’d been using for the past year but had gone a little mental on a very wet ride from London to Bristol the weekend before the TCR. I think some of the moisture that had been giving problems tracking elevation was causing problems with it in the heat, and was constantly dropping GPS. First problem I’ve ever had with a Wahoo recording a ride, so in order to ensure I stayed on my mapping track I stopped to switch back to the fully charged new unit. Better safe than sorry!
The rest of the morning was something of a struggle. My quest to avoid busy roads and some climbing had seen me lose some ground on #12 & #131, and I was start/stop through the rest of Slovakia. The heat, some saddle sores, and confidence in my route was getting to my head a bit. On top of this, every time I stopped for water I ended up coming away with fizzy water. Buying water in this part of the world is a minefield. 90% of water is fizzy, with some variance or other in natural, carbonated, light, full gas, and a hundred different flavours. All I wanted was some cold fresh still water. The disappointment is immense, as pointed out by others on twitter.
It seemed to take an age to get to the Hungarian border, with the building heat, fatigue and a bit of headwind. This continued into Hungary. I was also increasingly frustrated by my water heating up, becoming hot and not pleasant to drink.
Finding somewhere to buy water was fairly sparse on my route, but I discovered some blue stand pipes. I reasoned that the water was probably not really for drinking so just made the most of a street side shower and cool down wash. I came across some kids messing with a hose at one point, and as I was approaching I urgently gestured for them to spray me with water – I think they’d have done it anyway for fun, either way it was great to get to cool down albeit briefly.
I stopped 4 or 5 times, and it wasn’t until searching for ice-cream at the 5th stop did I realise that the country has its own currency. I’d been paying (over the odds) for ice cream and fizzy water in Euros. The change they spent 20 minute working out the currency conversion for was still in my pocket when I got to the Romanian border, and would remain there for the rest of the trip.
I stopped for a meal at a hotel as soon as I crossed passport checks. Food was a priority, and took the opportunity to order a plate of spag bol and a portion of chips (the hardest thing to communicate ever, at the time) from the bemused waitress. Must have been a bit of a sight – I’d collected two days of road grime and was struggling to communicate.
Fueled and with water topped up, it was time to get some kays done before the night closed in and I would need to find somewhere to sleep. After the confusion of currency in Hungary, I made a point of searching out the nearest cash machine. Maps.me is great for this sort of thing.
It’d been a tough day, and Romania wasn’t quite welcoming. The evening was drawing in, and I found myself being chased by dogs, harassed by close passes, and roads in something of a state. I felt I wasn’t making enough ground, despite closing in on a 380 km day, the battle of the heat and general fatigue was making me quite grumpy. I think the Wahoo only showing 250km (with another 125 km done on the backup), might have contributed, but I’m not sure. Shortly before midnight (… or so I thought..) I arrived at the town of Zalāu and started hunting for a hotel. I was a bit fed-up, had a sweat on from being over tired, and wanted to get clean and sleep. It’s quite incredible the polarised switch of emotions you can feel, as when I checked the tracker I realised I’d almost caught #12 Stephane, who appeared to be sleeping on the other side of town. I suddenly realised I’d made better progress than thought so kept plugging on.
Straight after the town was a long steady climb in the pitch black darkness. My dynamo light didn’t do so well with rolling slowly so dimmed down, and this always makes me feel a bit sleepy. I pushed on, and finally managed to get over the top.
I carried on for a while, now searching for somewhere to bivvy. This side of the hill felt much colder. Part of me was relieved, but another regretted not bivvying on the warmer side. I eventually found what appeared to be an abandoned service station, found a spot around the side and set up camp.
I can’t have been asleep for more than two hours. It got really cold, and I was forced to get up and keep moving. It was a rough early morning, cold, waiting for the sun to come up. I was having trouble turning the legs and staying seated with some saddle sores complaining, so shortly after sunrise I found a village store where I bought a whole load of random food and drink, finally getting a couple of bottles of still water.
I spent some time looking at the tracker, the road ahead, and set my goal for the day – Checkpoint 4! There was a road banned between me and CP4 due to it being particularly busy and deemed dangerous. I wasn’t really bothered as I’d already routed around it, so it kind of benefited me more than anything, with others having to take a slightly slower, lumpier detour.
Yet again, the heat kicked into the day early and I’d only been moving an hour or so when I pulled into a service station in Cluj-Napoca. I stocked up on better food, found some more fruit juice, ice-cream, and rolled.. maybe 500 metres before I caught a flat. I fixed it quickly, and started up a long hill out of town. Turns out I’d not fixed it properly, Half way up the busy road out of the town, the rear tyre went down again. There was nowhere to stop safely on the hill so I pushed on rolling up the hill on the flat for about 2 km. With the flat fixed, I discovered the long slow climb meant not enough charge for the Wahoo, which had run out and powered off. Not quite how I was hoping to start today!
The roads got no better after I fixed my flat, but I was set on grinding out the KM’s, keen to make ground to CP4. To be honest they got worse. Heavy traffic, narrow hard shoulder that would often suddenly disappear, poor road surface and several dead animals (mostly dogs) flattened out on the road.
At one point I had to stop under a tree to take shelter from the heat, only to find that the 50 or so sparrows in the tree rained bird poo down on me to force me to move on. Did that mean I was lucky?
I finally turned south off the busy road, onto a quieter back route. I was happy to moving in the right direction, but it appeared that #12 Stephane had passed me while I was searching for ice cream. I didn’t think I was going to catch him, and found another service station and topped up on ice cream, cooler water (still!), some chocolate and crisps. As I was feasting outside I spotted Stephane ride past – somehow passed him.
I set off only to discover my rear had got another flat. Not going my way today! I came equipped with ‘only’ 3 spare tubes, I was a little concerned. Patches are notoriously bad at holding in high temperatures, but made sure I found the hole on this flat and patched it, ready in case of further punctures. I worked through the whole tyre and noticed a small bit of wire – what looked like a bit of tyre beading.
Tyre pumped up I was back on my way again. After an hour or so I came to a small town where I bumped into Stephane yet again and had a service station forecourt buffet. I was feeling good – confidence restored in my tyres, #16 Ian To was also stopped in the town, and didn’t look like to be going anywhere soon following a tough couple of days. I ate quickly, not wasting much time in dispensing with a large amount of food before setting off ahead of Stephane. He passed me yet again about 30 minutes down the road, but that was to be expected due to the rolling terrain.
The afternoon was starting to cool with evening approaching, and it looked like I’d be climbing a mountain in the dark again. This time of day is prime for dog chases. I rounded a corner taking in the lovely green rolling countryside when I spot a pack of 7 or 8 dogs. These dogs were organised. 2 or 3 of the faster dogs charged ahead while the bigger slower ones went straight for me. It’s amazing where the sprint comes from, the big kick of adrenaline got me past the initial chase, then the dogs that had pushed ahead swooped in to try to have a go. Another burst of pace from somewhere and I managed to get away.
I caught up with Stephane yet again, chatting to some locals who were partying. I said hello and pushed on, knowing he’d pass me again before long. The road out of town was possibly the worst yet, and that is saying something. A tired old concrete road littered with potholes. Rolling off this onto the main road was absolute heaven!
Stephane had passed me, and stopped at a service station. I joined him, grabbing some supplies. Daylight was slipping away, and I was keen to push onward. I wish I’d stopped for some proper food, but didn’t want to waste too much time. The looming mountain needed conquering.
Stephane passed me yet again… was getting a little tedious now, wishing I was 20 kgs lighter. I knew it’d take me a while to get up the mountain, but it was a heck of a grind. The sun set on the approach, and the roads were thankfully quiet in the direction I was heading. All the traffic was coming down the mountain, thankfully. I was glad of the evening ascent, I got the impression that the road would be manic on weekends daytime..
I spent a long time climbing, needing to stop a few times to stretch out my back that was getting tight from the constant climbing pressure. That and the previous 2,800 km had taken a toll, and keeping going in the dark was a struggle. I eventually made it to the entrance to the tunnel at the top just as the last tourist shop was closing. I managed to bag some coke, sprite, water, 7 days croissants, cup of raspberries and some sweets. Must have been the most business they’d seen at that time of night for a long time!
I smashed the coke, sprite and a croissant, then headed down the hill towards the checkpoint hotel. The road was pretty awful and my hands were suffering, but was really keen to get off the bike and sleep.
I was greeted by the checkpoint staff waving flags, flashing lights and cheering in the road. Glad they did, as in my quest to rush down the mountain I’d probably have sailed past them! The CP volunteers and Apidura staff were welcoming and such a sight for sore eyes. I got my card stamped and chatted while scoffing the raspberries and various bits of food I had, cleaned up in the hotel bathroom, then set up the bivvy. Stephane had laid claim to the wendy house so I pitched on the ground, choosing to use my foil blanket for extra warmth in the mountain night air.
Having arrived at the hotel in Bratislava at around 4 pm, I had all afternoon and evening to relax before deciding my next move. The hotel was right next door to a McDonald’s and a shopping centre with a food court. I had a long bath, washed my bibs and base layer and headed downstairs to explore in my hotel slippers, off bike shorts and t-shirt.
It was a scorching afternoon, and was quite glad at my decision to stop for the afternoon and night, but had a nagging feeling a top 10 finish in the race was slipping away from me. I’d stopped in around 8th – 10th place. I popped into McDonald’s for a bounty McFlurry (amazing!), and headed into the shopping centre to find the food court. I feasted on some Chinese food – lots of rice and noodles, before heading back to the hotel for an early night.
I needed the rest, time off the bike to help my knees relax and soak up the Voltarol. When I was heading here, part of my mind was thinking this might be where I would scratch, but before going to sleep I reasoned as long as I could still turn the pedals, I had no good excuse to stop. Plus, after the 1,800 km to this place, I was fairly set in my mind about keeping going. I was less stressed about aiming for a top ten finish now, the focus was about easing back into the race and ensuring a finish without trashing my knees again.
Back On It
Turns out I was still restless. I was up and out of the hotel by 2.45 am, and onto the empty Slovakian roads. It was painful to see all the ground I had made the previous night had been lost, but I was reinvigorated with some quality time off the bike and a good 4 hours in the cool dawn to make some ground up to stay in touch with the top 10, still in around 12th spot.
I made good time very quiet roads, stopping shortly after sunrise in a service station to scoff some sandwiches, coke and ice cream – a perfect breakfast?! It turned out that a number of my planned roads were motorways, so I spent quite a lot of time detouring around them and planning the re-routing.
I eventually figured that others would be having the same problems, and through checking the tracking site free route, I was able to see where other riders ahead of me also had the same issues, so solving some of the trickier re-routes was a little easier by following some of their tracks. I stopped for an early lunch in Zvolen, finding the magical golden arches at the edge of town. The day had warmed up considerably, and the hint of the heatwave gripping southeastern Europe was beginning to bite the day so I was grateful of the familiar aircon, cool water, coke, big macs, nuggets and bounty McFlurry.
I’d barely got going again, when at the town of Banská Bystrica, my planned route was once again a motorway with no obvious way to route around it. I stopped in a service station to rehydrate, fuel up and plan way around. Scanning other riders routes proved interesting. Rider 146 abandoned the road and headed south, ultimately to go all the way around, a detour of at least a hundred km’s or more. Using a mix of mapping apps and free route, I found a path along the river until the road turned from motorway into legal road.
Next up was a pass over the Low Tatras in order to access the next valley, and the CP3 parcours up to Horsky Hotel Dom. The name the ‘Low Tatras’ is a bit of a lie really. It a fairly significant climb, topping out at around 1265m (est.), it was quite challenging in the heat of the day. I had to pull over into the shade early on, and took a moment to air my feet which were starting to show signs of hot feet. This is possibly the best way I’ve found to manage this issue, and whenever I stopped I take the chance to free my toes.
At the top I stopped quickly to take some coke on board, added one to the pocket and topped up the water bottles. After a really fast and fun descent, I was starting to see the High Tatras grow on the horizon. The afternoon had clouded over slightly, and the day was beginning to cool. I could see CP3 was in reach and was hoping to make it by sunset. I was really starting to enjoy the day!
A quick check of the tracker showed that #12, Stephane Ouaja was closing in. Coincidentally, we both arrived at the TCR No. 4 CP3 Hotel (Aleghe) at the same time last year, it seems we’d be likely to do the same. The roads were rolling, and after a quick hello and chat Stephane pushed on, able to ease up the hills being lighter and with a bit more energy.
CP3 – The High Tatras
Stephane must have stopped at a service station, as just before turning up to the parcours I passed him again. By now I had my phone playing tunes, the sun was setting, and I was in a happy place. I was back into 10th place (still a long way to go though), and my knees were no longer complaining. The CP3 road surface was rough and steep, but that didn’t matter at that moment. I was smiling and had Gramatik pumping on the phone. A happy place.
By now I had my phone playing tunes, the sun was setting, and I was in a happy place. I was back into 10th place (still a long way to go though), and my knees were no longer complaining.
Part way up the climb a car pulled up alongside, with Juliana Buhring, race director, who I’d not seen since the first night at CP1. It was so nice to have a chat and brought the race back into focus. She also mentioned there was a buffet waiting at the hotel, which gave me an extra spring in my step – I’d only had the can of coke to get me through the last stretch to CP3 and was getting hungry!
After a short chat, they headed on up to the checkpoint leaving me to grind out the last few km. It was great to see Robert Carlier #131 coming down, always nice to bump into a familiar face and say hello. These were some rough roads so I made a note of it, conscious that I’d need to descend this in the dark soon after. Would be a sketchy descent for sure.
I was welcomed into the checkpoint with Juliana jogging beside me for the last bit of motivation, and was a definite highlight of the race. I got my stamp, finding myself in 10th place. This was a bit of a surprise considering the time off I’d had yesterday, but had made really good progress. I was really happy after a great day on the bike.
I found the buffet and started piling up my plate with absolutely everything without a clue what any of it was. I think I did make a slight effort to take fresh veg and fruit as well, but I was really hungry and it was all good stuff. I was joined by Juliana, James Robertson and Stephane, chatting all things TCR, discussing possible race strategies, the field ahead and what was possible with the days remaining. Stephane was convinced I was playing mind games, but I was still in the frame of mind of focusing on finishing over race position, but he was convinced I was playing him. I suggested he could have 10th place for the price of a beer in Meteora.
After a bit of faff, re-stocked water bottles (it tasted weird, but was fresh from the mountain apparently), and rolled off down the hill. Stephane had left a little earlier to cement his top 10 position, but with a fair part of 2,000 km to go, it wasn’t going to make much difference.
The descent was super sketchy, lots of potholes and melted road meant for very slow progress. It was a glorious evening, with the lights of Poprad shimmering below, and with the one remaining checkpoint ahead, there was plenty left to play for. I was feeling pretty good, thinking I could make some good ground.
I noticed on the tracker, that Stephane had stopped at the bottom of the CP3 parcours. I figured he’d found a bush to bivvy in for the night, but it turned out he’d caught a flat on the way down. After coming off the steep descent, the road became fast and I flew down to town of Poprad, making excellent time on empty roads. I decided to put a few KM’s in between us before finding somewhere to bivvy for a few hours, but after a short time I found myself on a steady climb feeling sleepy. I’d been up since 2am so it’s not surprising, so pulled into a closed petrol station, set up my bivvy out of the way and got my head down.
I had a relatively good night sleep at the checkpoint in Honau at the foot of the Schloss Lichtenstein Castle, albeit only about 4 hours. There were a few comings and goings in the night, but I needed some sleep and was happy to wait until dawn to get moving. It was chilly when I woke up, but it was a really nice morning with the stream bubbling away next to the hotel garden where I’d bivvied up.
I ate what was left of the pizza and packed up my gear, being careful not to wake the fabulous volunteers snoozing in the gazebo. I was still half asleep, and my urge to get moving meant I’d forgotten to bother about getting water and breakfast in the Hotel. Quite a few riders had stopped in overnight and was also quite keen to get out ahead.
Within no time, I was on the CP1 parcours, a fairly short climb up to the castle. It was early and my legs had barely woken up, so was climbing nice and slowly. About a quarter the way up, James passed by dancing up like a mountain goat. I felt no urge to chase him down, wished him well on the ride and got on with my own thing.
A quick selfie at the top, and I rolled down headed towards Austria and some of my favourite riding of this years TCR. The roads were perfect; empty rolling countryside, and it was building up to be a beautiful sunny day.
I remembered some great advice for finding water in rural France, so decided to see if it applied to Germany as well. After an hour or so of wondering if there were any villages in Germany, I stumbled across the perfect candidate. I’d found a church with a graveyard complete with the outside tap for watering flowers on the graves perfect to fill my bottles. Result.
The route wasn’t particularly flat, and had a number of fairly steep lanes to navigate, so it wasn’t the fastest way to Austria, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It did mean that I was burning energy that I didn’t have, but eventually I managed to find a boulanger in a small town called Biberach, where I had a couple of sandwiches, water, coffee, coke and croissants. Basically filling up for the rest of the day.
After refueling, I packed the croissants into my back pocket and got my head down for the day. The sun came out, and made for a perfect days ride at first. By early afternoon the day was scorching with temperatures hitting the mid to late 30’s C. I was so happy to come across the most amazing spring in the town of Oy. A large obelisk of rock with water pouring out of the top. A quick wash with my head under the spring, and I was ready to push onto the border.
For the most part I had some more lovely empty roads to follow, but near the lovely town of ‘Wank’ I found myself back on a main trunk road and using the bike path along side it. I followed this path on and off all the way to the Austrian border, where I rolled over a bridge and it ended abruptly. The Austrians hadn’t managed to build their side!
Entering Austria was where the real climbing would start. I spent a long time riding towards a horizon that was slowly getting larger and larger, and looked quite spectacular. The first climb was the Fern pass. Bumper to bumper with cars. It was chaos. I followed the road passing most of the traffic until I found the cause of it all, some sort of festival. The traffic didn’t really relent so I headed off onto a bike path to get away from it all.
I followed this for some time, and while checking social media on this quiet empty road, I chanced to look up to spy a car that was flying towards me at speed. It didn’t slow down, but I managed to swerve off the side of the path to get out of the way. There were a few more to follow, all likely locals taking shortcuts around the bumper to bumper traffic on the Fernpass.
Thankfully, the car traffic led off into a road tunnel, and I followed the near empty road over the rest of the Fernpass to Nassereith. By now I was starving, originally planning to eat in the valley leading up to the Timmelsjoch pass, I found a McDonalds in Imst, after one of the most fun and fast descents in a while. Cars, motorbikes and motor homes all cheering me as they went pass. At least that’s what I think.
After an enormous feast, I pushed on towards the valley. I chanced to look over my shoulder to see the most threatening sky… The storm couldn’t have arrived at a worse time. The Timmelsjoch pass is up to 2,500 meters, and the road leading up from the valley to the summit is around 60km, plus a long descent to Merano meant it would be a 5 hour minimum. Not what you want to do as the sun is setting behind a ferocious thunder storm.
I’d literally turned onto the valley road when the rain started, so turned back a couple hundred meters to a petrol station for shelter. I knew right away, that was my days riding done. 250km was far below my intended target, but I figured I would make the most of an early finish and focus on an early start the next morning. I booked a room in a town up the valley and made my way up as the rain had started clearing. The hotel was perfect, with a Chinese all you can eat buffet restaurant across the road. Unfortunately, after washing my bibs and laying down for a moment on the bed I was lights out in an instant and failed to get any dinner!
My alarm work me just before 2am, and was kitted up and rolling by 2.10am. The Timmelsjoch is a really tough climb, and not one I would recommend to anyone, especially if they’ve not had any supper the night before, or any breakfast that morning. Not only is it a really long climb, in the dark it’s fairly uninteresting.. but the worst thing is the profile and gradient for the last 12-15km. It took me 55km and 4 hours to summit. Really slow. Really hard. The sun had come up, and it was small consolation that the views looking down to Italy were quite stunning.
The descent down into Italy was great fun. The views were spectacular; endless switchbacks with about 18 tunnels. I had to stop half way down to change my brake pads that had worn out. Top tip – even if there’s some bite left, get fresh pads for the TCR!
I stopped at a grocery near Merano and finally had my breakfast at around 9 am. I was glad it had finally warmed up after a fairly chilly descent. I took my time to eat, drink and restock my food and water supplies before heading further down the valley. I’d lost a lot of ground overnight to other racers with the stop and taking on the Timmelsjoch while others were taking the easier, but busier Brenner pass to the east.
I found the roads down towards Trento a little tedious, but really scenic. A mix of quiet roads to Bolzano that I remembered from TCR No. 4, with long winding bike paths that would end suddenly next to a busy road. I found myself on the SS12 just before Lavis, and had to pull off the road as it felt really dangerous. I ended up rerouting up a windy twisty, and quite steep hill to get a village road to avoid it. It wound down into Lavis eventually, where I found a cafe for some ice cream, coke and a bit of shelter from the sun.
The only way to get past this town was to find a small town bridge a way of course, to ensure I avoided the SS12. It was a bit of a faff, but after the previous experience and as there was a portion of it that was banned, I felt it was a worthwhile detour.
Shortly after the stop I bumped into another cyclist on a really nice gravel tourer with just a handlebar bag. We chatted briefly at a set of lights before moving off… it hadn’t occurred to me that this was another TCR rider, he had next to no kit! At the next lights I noticed he had a Spot tracker on his handlebars. Turns out it was #131 Robert Carlier, a TCR veteran from 2015. It turned out his garmin had failed and was navigating on a mix of paper maps and a phone strapped to the handlebars. We both rode together for a bit on and off, both getting a little lost trying to find a route around the SS12 past Trento, then we came across possibly one of the most horrific little climbs, easily a steady 30%’er for a few hundred meters in the peak heat of the day. I managed to get up it without stopping, but nearly lost balance a number of times. Robert came unclipped at one point, but soon managed to get going again. We both agreed it was one of the worst climbs we’d ever done… That might change before the end of the day!
Shortly after we separated when Robert pulled over for some water. We would criss cross our tracks for the rest of the day.
I stopped at a cafe for some pizza, more ice cream and some coke as I was getting a bit wrecked. The route was all over the place, part meandering roads, part bike paths. At one point I came across a railway crossing that had just had fresh tarmac laid and was closed. I hid under a tree while the workmen who’d just finished removed the barriers. Hot day!
I drank a lot of water, stopping only when really necessary, and would regret not stopping for a proper feed before the end of the day.
My route went all the way down to Bassano del Grappa, before heading up to the checkpoint start location at the foot of the checkpoint 2 parcours, Monte Grappa. I was greeted by some very cheerful folks at the checkpoint, who were super happy and very welcoming. I managed a quick shower (using my base layer as a towel… not as bad as it sounded), before bumping into Stephane Ouija, #12. We had a quick catch up before I headed off to get some sugar drinks before tackling the climb. I scoffed some crisps to get some salts back in, topped up my bottles and was keen to push up the hill.
I nearly had to push the bike up a number of times. The early start, the Timmelsjoch, the hot day and short sharp climbs without a proper lunch meant I was running low. It was early evening, the light was fading, and I was really keen to complete the climb before the sun set. It’s a really tough climb, and does not relent. The guys from Pedal Ed were on hand, primarily to photo Stephane who is sponsored by Pedal Ed. They followed us both up the climb taking some fairly epic shots in the fading evening light. The finish of the parcours was at the Rifugio Bassano, a restaurant that was unfortunately now closed. The route went past the Sacario del Monte Grappa, a monument and tomb to 12,615 soldiers. It is a special and poignant place.
I was super hungry after the long climb up Monte Grappa, light was fading and was getting a little chilly. After a short chat with the Pedal Ed guys & Stephane, I layered up, said goodbyes then headed down the hill. It was super steep, and wasn’t all down hill. In fact, a considerable ‘reverse’ got in the way of speeding down the hill and left me peeling off a number of the layers as the hard work climbing again made me overheat.
I eventually found myself at the bottom of the long, twisty and a little bit sketchy descent, and into a small town where I was able to find a pizzeria at around 9.30pm. I should have ordered two, but made up for it with another ice cream dessert.
I was keen to make a little time up, so decided to try and push on to make the most of the quiet roads at night. A lot of folks feel it’s more dangerous at night. I’m not convinced. Traffic is much lighter, more visible, and as long as you are well lit and with reflectives, so are you. All said, I soon felt the long day starting to catch up with me so decided to look for a bivvy spot. I settled in for the night in an old churchyard at the edge of a town to get a few hours sleep.
I managed to get a some decent kip, but my body woke me well before my alarm with the need for a number 2. I’ve never wild pooped before, but I was busting and had to go. TCR diet makes this a difficult process, but I was very satisfied with lightening the load despite stepping in my own poo.
I cleaned up thoroughly, packed up my bivvy and headed off making really good time on the flat roads. I set off around 4.30 am, and was going well until just after dawn when I started bonking so stopped for coffee and croissants, but still wasn’t right. I pushed on anyway, and found myself riding into a headwind. By now the roads were getting busier, and I was again starting to question if I should be on the road. I pulled off onto a side street to assess the route. It was maybe only a couple of km’s before my route turned off, but I could see a route through some back roads, so followed them to avoid the busy traffic. It was ultimately futile, and would do this a few more times through the morning. It gets frustrating and added to my further lack of enjoyment of Italian roads.
I was also struggling for energy, so headed for a small town. It was on top of a hill, perhaps the only in the area, but I needed a break from the busy roads. I sat down in the square, took off my shoes and socks to liberate my feet and sat there for a while watching the town go about its morning business. I wasn’t thinking of scratching but I was at quite a low point. Stopping is a good way to recover energy, and think about the next move. Looking at the map I could see this last stretch of main road wouldn’t last long before it turned into a prohibitive section where I would be able to turn off onto a gravel detour. I dug deep, found a little bit of motivation and went on my way, only to stop briefly at a fountain as I was leaving the town.
The gravel road was in a wonderful valley, meandering alongside a wide river where many locals were already out in the early afternoon using many of the pools and river bed as a beach. My route would follow this river up through a gorge, heading towards Austria. I had a quick stop for a snack and some coke and ice cream in a small town when I joined back onto sealed roads, before what I had hoped was a short climb. It turned out to be a long, hot and in places quite steep. It was around here I started getting a few messages. At times you can get lost in the race, occasionally feel like you’re all alone, then you get a tweet telling you ‘Phenominal work you’re doing! You’ve got this!’ .
The mental boost I got from this tweet out of the blue was better than that stuff Lance said he didn’t take. I also got a number of texts and WhatsApp messages. Seems the dot watchers had got a little concerned by a tweet about some suffering early on, and I was enormously grateful for the encouragement.
After pushing over the climb I found a small town and yet another pizzeria. This wasn’t the fastest pizza place in Italy, but I really needed the refuel so was happy to wait and hide a little bit more from the baking day. It was getting hotter and hotter..
The last few hours in Italy was spent on a bike path winding up towards the border with Austria. It was incredibly hot, but there were a number of tunnels on the bike path which were blissful havens from the heat, super fresh, cool tunnels that just as you were about to feel cold, thrust you back into the hot afternoon.
Once into Austria I made a quick pitstop for water, snacks and some more ice cream, as well as a chance to liberate my hot feet. What I should have done about now is loaded the next route file on my Wahoo, as the one I had loaded would send me about 15 km away from where I wanted to be. A minor frustration, and once I’d worked out a way back to my route, I was back on course in no time. If you plot overlapping route files, make sure they follow the same route!
This part of Austria was dotted with lakes that were popular with the locals enjoying some watersports and sunshine. I made another stop next to a lake to stock up on food, drink and water ahead of a bit of a push overnight. I didn’t really know what I would find ahead so prepared as best I could.
I had a really pleasant afternoon winding through the Austrian hills, but soon came to realise that many of the riders ahead had chosen very different routes to mine. I became convinced my route was no good so looked at re-routing to follow. Then it sort of dawned on me… Who cares what everyone else is doing, this is MY adventure! I threw caution to the wind and headed towards my scheduled mountain pass to finish off the day.
I started climbing the Klippitzterol at around sunset. I was running low on water so stopped in at a hotel in ‘Lölling’ (lol) for some water, and chatted with the bemused barman about my journey and plans for the evening. I was very tempted to stop and have a good meal, beer and room for the night, but was super motivated to push on.
The road was completely empty, with maybe one or two cars passing on the way up. The sound of crickets filled the air, along with the noises from me and my bike. It’s a decent climb, at 1,642m I felt it was quite achievable, however I hadn’t really looked at how steep it was. In the dark, with the moon and crickets for company, it was hard work to keep pushing up the steep incline. Then it happened. It still freaks me out a bit now. I was really struggling. Then in unison, ALL the crickets stopped. Every single hair on my body stood on end with instant goosebumps… I imagined response to silenced crickets meaning some sort of predator was close… I wondered what was out there? Was it me, something in the forest, or was it something beyond that? Spooky!
Then in unison, ALL the crickets stopped. Every single hair on my body stood on end with instant goosebumps..
I’ve no clue what caused it, but the adrenaline rush and the focus it brought was intense. It helped me keep going to the top of the climb. The fatigue may have helped, but I found myself able to imagine the same thing happening and my body gave the same reaction – goose bumps and hair standing on end all over – and a little shot of adrenaline. I didn’t want to overdo it and risk an adrenaline crash and the inevitable fatigue.
At the top I had a quick selfie, added some warm clothes and started the descent. About 15 km of near arrow straight road with maybe one hairpin. I’ve never travelled 15 km so fast on a bike – was an absolutely buzzing descent.
At the bottom, I realise there’s one more hill to go for the night, a long draggy 2%’er. I notice on the tracker that I was on track to overtake two other riders by taking this route, and I was super happy with myself. I maybe got a little carried away and thought up a plan to keep pushing through the night to Slovakia, mainly as I am really enjoying the empty roads. It was only 10.30pm and I was a little confused as to where everyone was.
Over the top, I was flying downhill again, averaging around 65-70 kph when at the last minute I notice a turn off the road on the Wahoo to avoid a banned tunnel. I very nearly flew straight threw it! I continued to make the most of the gradual downhill for another hour or so before fatigue starts to set in. I knew I needed to find somewhere to bivvy, and managed to find a small lay-by to camp in for a few hours.
I could have done with a couple more hours rest, but really wanted to keep moving and maintain this lead I’d created. Silly really as it was no lead at all and there was over 2,000 km to go, but you don’t always think straight in situations like this. I’d applied some Voltarol to my knees, which were still a little sore from the last 4 long days and steep climbs. I made it through to dawn and a small town bakery for some breakfast. I was in a bit of a mess and in need of a shower and proper rest. I promised myself that I would make my way to Bratislava and take a hotel. I booked the nicest one I could find, half expecting that due to my knees I might need to scratch there.
I pushed on through the dawn light, on roads that were hillier than I was expecting until I finally came out of the valley and on the the plains headed towards the Slovakian border. These roads got a little hectic, and was a little uncomfortable riding on them, but there was little choice to re-route here so I carried on for a bit. It was getting hot as well, and I was getting fatigued so when I spotted a small monument at the side of the road I decided to pull over and have a short nap. I was there for maybe 20 minutes before a friend called my phone to see how I was doing. It hadn’t occurred to me how it might look to dot watchers where I’d stopped on the side of what appeared to be a really busy 4 lane road for a nap.
I carried on snoozing for a few more minutes then decided I’d best crack on before I’d have my mum and sister calling to see how I was doing… I’ll choose my snooze locations better next time!
It wasn’t that long before I spied the magical Golden Arches of a McDonalds where I had a big lunch with #131 Robert who was already finishing up his first course of chicken nuggets. We were following a very similar route and it was nice to have someone to talk to for the first time since Monte Grappa (that I could understand..).
It seemed to take forever to get to the border, and I would stop another couple of times for snacks, water and ice cream. A lot of the roads that you would expect to be quiet empty country lanes had a continuous stream of HGV’s. I have no idea where they were coming from or where they were going, but it made for uncomfortable riding.
One last climb and I was rolling down a hill towards the border and Bratislava. I bumped into a really friendly dot watcher who rode with me all the way to town. We chatted, and I think I gave an interview for his vlog – see below. It was the first dot watcher I’d met on the race and was really good to chat, however I was super keen to get to my hotel and get clean, fed and to sleep so we said our goodbyes and I made my way through to the hotel.
Finally found the video – can’t seem to make out a word I say though!
This was a really short day, especially considering I started at 3 am, and it was now only 5 pm. But I really needed the rest. My knees were suffering so I would make the most and recoup some energy before pushing on the following morning.
I was buzzing after rolling over the top of the Muur. Feeling some of the heat from the blazing torches and people cheering is an amazing experience. It’s not long before you’re following red blinking dots down the road. It is kind of surreal.
I managed to make it over the top of the Muur in around 20th position. That wasn’t really that important in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly helped narrow the focus and get on with the job, but most importantly allowed me to navigate the Muur without holdups. As I picked up my route and settled things calmed down really quickly, but I was making the most of being ‘warmed up’ from the Muur and started pushing on. I had lots of targets up the road so started easing up and passing them. I recall going past both Bjorn and James, shortly after both of them powered past. I hadn’t slowed down but they’d be going easy initially, before putting the gas on. It was a really fast start, with a few of the big names pushing hard early on. I kind of got swept up in it and joined in.
Feeling some of the heat from the blazing torches and people cheering is an amazing experience
I was expecting to be spending lots of time on empty roads in the countryside, but with my routing this year I’d been much more direct and chosen more major roads that were considerably faster. At one point though, the road I was on turned from a 2 lane single carriageway into a 4 lane dual carriageway. There were no signs or indication it was a motorway, so I kept going for a short while. I became concerned with how safe it was, and if it was even a legal road, so I looked to detour around to my next turn. I found a lovely country lane with some inevitable rolling hills, and was back on route within about 20 mins. I dropped a quick WhatsApp to Race control to let them know, just in case I’d been on a road I shouldn’t. I’ve since had a look and still can’t tell either way.
This would be a bit of a theme for my race. I would constantly find myself on busy roads that I was genuinely unsure if they were permitted. It adds considerably to the stress, not knowing if you’re breaking some rules, and ultimately wasting time finding ways around.
Just after dawn, I found myself feeling really quite fatigued. I knew that once the sun would come up I would feel much fresher, but I decided to stop on the side of the road for a quick sit down and power nap. I’d ridden over 200 km in 8 hours without stopping so it was needed. I can’t have been there for much more than 10 minutes, when I saw Andy Sallnow #134 and another rider pass. I maybe had another moment or two of trying to snooze, but I’d already managed to shake the fatigue off. I jumped (grudgingly swung a leg over..) back on the bike.
5km down the road in Arlon, just before the border with Luxembourg, I found a boulangerie where another rider #94 Matt Kimber stopped for a break. I ordered up coffee, croissants and an apple turnover and made for the bathroom.
While using the facilities another pair arrived and by the time I’d rushed down the baked goods, another few were arriving. They must have done some good business from TCR riders that morning.
I’d managed to get out ahead of Matt, who I had been leapfrogging a few times in the early dawn and was taking a nap. Freshly fueled, with at least some de-fatigue time, I was motivated to push on a bit. I think the next 20km must have been downhill or with a tailwind, but either way I felt I was flying along, and made good time to Luxembourg. A short rest and a bit of food might have been the key bit.
The roads there were something else, so smooth and gently rolling. I was really enjoying myself. This lasted right up until the next French border where just before I’d routed down a cobbled descent, a small price to pay.
Needless to say my route was quite weird. I crossed the river and into France for the second time, but it wasn’t long before I made the German border and was winding through bike paths in forests heading towards France for the third and final time.
By 2pm I was feeling quite tired again so decided to take another stop under some trees to shake the fatigue. It was here that I first heard some news about something happening to another rider, with some speculation about it being a TCR rider. This made snoozing difficult, and with no confirmation I was just hoping it was nothing serious. As I couldn’t rest, I pushed on again for another hour or so. Tiredness and thoughts plagued my mind, and with the heat I decided to stop again, this time in a village where I checked my phone to find I received an email notifying that we had lost Frank Simons, rider #172.
I wasn’t sure what to do with myself at this point. With fatigue high, and the heat making it tough going, I stayed there for a while thinking things through. I hadn’t met Frank, but felt a connection through the family of the TCR, and this left me feeling quite sad. I was also unsure how I felt about racing, and whether I should continue. I tried to snooze, but with everything running through my mind it wasn’t possible. I decided to make my way to CP1, sleep on it, and see if I wanted to carry on.
I set off, and within minutes had bumped into James Hayden. I always like to say hello, so pulled along side to chat, and also to have someone to talk to about Frank. He’d not had the news and was in a bit of shock when I told him.
We rode together for a short while, chatting. I needed to be on my own to process the news, and I suspect James did too. We were riding at a similar pace and not really separating so I decided to stop at a kebab shop for some calories.
The next part of the ride was my least favourite. I found myself on various urban roads, some busy, through lots of towns and mixing a lot with traffic, or criss crossing the road trying as best as possible to follow really poor bike paths. This was completely different to my experience in TCR No. 4, where I spent almost all the time in the empty countryside or in the quiet mountains.
Once into Germany, after making my seventh border crossing of the day, things eased up a little. I recall riding through a town and up this ludicrously steep hill and into the forest and countryside beyond. I was annoyed by the climb, cursing my routing skills yet again, but it was actually fairly pleasant. The day was cooling down, the temperature easing and the sun setting while riding through a relatively quiet forest.
I was starting to get hungry again, and chanced upon a small pizzeria where I bumped into Ian To #16. We had a chat while eating pizza, discussing the news of Frank, and the merits of continuing. There was the question that came up again – is all this worth the risks involved? I didn’t know the answer, and is a lot to process in such a short space of time while being part of it all.
Ian was keen to push on to the Checkpoint where he’d make his choice about continuing. I really wanted to do the same and get some sleep. I finished up my massive bottle of coke, saved half the pizza, and drank the rest of the ice cream (it was still warm out). With water bottles topped up from the town spring outside, half a pizza strapped to my saddle bag, I pushed on into the fading light.
Darkness stirred some of the fatigue again, but I felt I had plenty of energy, and managed the last few hundred km’s of the day with some decent speed in spite of a bit of climbing involved. I somehow managed to get to Checkpoint 1 ahead of Ian through some miracle of route planning. I was welcomed in by some familiar faces which I genuinely wasn’t expecting. It was great to catch up with Daniel Fisher, #133 from TCR No. 4 – we battled all through Greece for 11th & 12th last year. Also, Joe Todd was there, several volunteers and Juliana Buhring with her welcoming hugs. We had a chat, and by now I’d made my mind up – I would continue the race. It’s what I had trained for and worked towards for so long, I felt it wouldn’t be right to stop when I was still physically and mentally capable. Also, I had arrived around 12.30am in 7th place, and was super happy to be a good position. It felt wrong to not make the most of a really good first days ride.
Some people often comment about how lonely it can be riding the TCR, and wonder how do I manage. There is the great sense of community in the TCR, a feeling of being part of something bigger which gives me a feeling of never really being alone.
There is the great sense of community in the TCR, a feeling of being part of something bigger which gives you a feeling of never really being alone.
It was great to chat and catch up with everyone, but I was so tired. I had a quick clean up and change in the toilets of the hotel, which was now closed up for the evening, and set up my bivvy by the river with a couple other riders.
Having completed the TCR just one year previous, you would have thought I would have been much more prepared second time around. I basically left a load of stuff to the last minute and ended up panicking right up until midnight on the day before travelling to Brussels. Work was really busy in the last few days and I ended up having to work Arizona time for some of that week.
As much as there was last minute packing, I’d actually done a good job of lining everything up ahead of time. My route was in a much better shape. My kit was, and has mostly been ready to go since coming back from a week bike packing around Sardinia in May. I’d somehow managed to add significantly more stuff to the bike this year though.
I did exactly the same as last year – Eurostar across on Thursday, night in Brussels, spin over to Geraardsbergen in the morning for Registration and pasta. I was fortunate to be in a hotel with several other riders so had some company on the ride across, with Scott #131 and Eric #119.
This was a little slower this year, in part due to new process for checking kit etc. and in part due to the increased field – 280 starters, up around 60 from last year. It was a great chance to catch up with friends and some previous years vets, meet new people and generally relax. Relaxing was tough though. All you want to do is just get going.
Losing Mike in the Indy Pac in March hit everyone so hard, and the team did an incredible job putting the race together at such short notice. During the briefing there was as you would expect an extra emphasis on safety, but also some insight on the rules of the TCR from some videos Mike put together earlier this year. It was strange to have Mike still give the briefing. There are some lovely words here by Juliana Buhring on why it was so important for this race to go ahead: https://cyclingtips.com/2017/09/keeping-mike-halls-legacy-alive-transcontinental-needed-continue/
Stocking & Fueling up
A good friend from Belgium, along with his family met with me in the square and we shared a few cokes, coffees and nervous looks. Thimothy has been able to come to both starts, but then heads over to England the following day for Ride London. He kindly took a bag of things that I deemed not required (couldn’t fit into the bags…!), as he would be stopping by G!RO while he was over there. I’m terrible at throwing things away, and saved having to post it.
I stocked up at the local supermarket on water, haribo, some snacks and some coke. I just needed enough food to get me through the night, and stopped off in the strangest restaurant/diner for a chicken burger and chips.
Last year the start was buzzing with anticipation and excitement. It was the same this year, but with remembering Mike with a minutes silence and a raucous applause and cheer, there was a tinge of sadness. This somehow made my nerves bubble quite a bit, but that is to be expected with something like the TCR.
After some lovely words from Anna and Pat, we were counting down to the start with the Mayor setting us off for a neutral lap of the town before the assault of the Muur. I’d made a point of being much closer to the front this year. Although it makes little real difference over the course of an 4,000km race, I was keen to be at ahead of the crowd so as not to get held up.
As we rolled around the town I was super nervous, hoping not to stack it before we even started. I spotted a few friends from last year, said hello and wished them a good race. It helped me settle a bit.
Then came the Muur. I really don’t remember last year’s run up the Muur. I’d visited Geraardsbergen in April when there for the Ronde, but this time it seemed much tougher. My HR was red lining early doors, as I pushed over the bridge up the hill and back into the market square. I decided to ease off a bit so as not to blow up, and found a nice rhythm.
Thimothy was just by the restaurant after the steep bit just before the top, I spotted him on the way up and gave a wave (see the video below!). The climb up through the crowds with the flaming torches is something special.
So soon afterwards, the crowds are behind you and you are on the way. Only 4,000 km to go.
Action For Kids has been helping transform the lives of young people with physical and learning disabilities, across the country, since 1991, through the provision of mobility equipment, learning, training and support. This is a fantastic charity, and your donation can make a big difference!
Dot Watching – what is that?!
Dot watching is how you follow me on the Transcontinental Race. There is no TV coverage, no radio, but there is a better way… Each rider in the race has their own satellite tracker assigned to them, which can be followed on a tracking site in the form of a dot on a map, but you can also interact with me and other riders on social media. No assistance can be provided though, but words of encouragement are welcome! Some more info below, but you can really get immersed in the race this way…
How to follow me – Rules of Engagement
First thing to mention is that this is a solo self supported race, where any form of outside assistance is not permitted. Any communication with me on the road must not be assistance. “Keep going, you’re doing great” is just fine, but any information about other riders positions, my position or similar is not allowed unless the same information is provided to all the other racers.
One of the most interesting things with the dot watching is using the many different resources on the internet to follow progress. Watch the tracking site seeing where a rider stops, then zooming in on Google Street Maps to have a look what is there, look on weather sites to see the conditions they are facing, then check social media to see what they’re saying. A truly unique way to get an insight into the race!
There are 300 entrants to the TCR No. 5, so there are plenty of others to follow. In fact, there are so many other stories out there to get hooked on, it would be a shame to just follow my dot! Get involved, get tweeting and chatting with the dot watching community.