Transcontinental Race 2016
I think it was March this year when Andy asked me if I wanted to take part in the TCR. His brother had had to pull out and the offer of ‘4,000km and 50,000m of climbing in under 2 weeks’ seemed too good to resist. I didn’t really know anything about the race but it sounded like a fun challenge that would provide an exciting alternative to racing which I’d done for a couple of years. I also felt it would provide the perfect opportunity, through Instagram, to keep Andy’s fiancée guessing about his sexuality and feelings towards me.
Months ticked by and I’d tell people I was cycling to Turkey. Occasionally something would pop up on social media and I’d read about kit but I think we were definitely in the ‘wing it’ category of riders. With a month to go we decided we’d better read the manual and start thinking about routes and kit. Spreadsheets were created and we started to plan our trip using a combination of Strava, Google and the TCR Facebook page (this was scary because people had clearly been planning for months, including German pair 226 who got stuck in a Bosnian minefield – 6 months guys!). Striking the balance between safety, surface, distance and climbing was key but we were always aware that this would be the best we could do from a PC and we would likely have to change our routes on the move – more on that later.
In terms of an overall plan we just said we’d sleep under a roof every night and see how we were getting on. If we got one week in and we were doing ok we would try and win the pairs competition. We both race so we felt confident we’d be ok physically but there was still a big unknown about recovery and how our bodies were going to cope with the distance day in day out. I think if you pace it right you should feel more or less the same at the start and end of a ride and you could still do a decent effort if you had to. We got this right and some days we’d kick on up the last climb of the day and both get nosebleeds.
Big thanks to all the people who I borrowed gear from and who helped along the way!
Time moving: 141hours 45mins
Avg speed: 27kmph
Calories burned: 89,908
I race with Neil Phillips but I hadn’t realised he’d taken part and won the pairs in 2015. He was a great source of info for kit advice and last minute questions as the race approached (thanks Neil).
I used my race bike but I got a fork with an uncut steerer (thanks Joel) to take some strain off my back (I’m 182cm and ride a 51cm frame). I’d done a 400km ride on it with the shorter fork and it seemed ok. The full bike and kit with 1.9 litres of water weighed 13.5kg.
Bike: BMC Team Machine SLR01 – fast and comfortable.
Aerobars: Stylistic shocker but amazing (thanks Ol). I’d tried them twice before TCR and they hurt my shoulders but after the first three days the position felt fine. You just go much faster for the same effort. Charles, our club mate, opted not to ride with these and it cost him a lot of effort early on – he eventually had a set fitted just before the Alps and was justifiably razzed on social media.
Wheelset: Front: Chris King on H Plus Son Archetype. Rear PowerTap on H Plus Son Archetype – I used a PowerTap rear hub which is heavy but having power was really useful as I had no idea about pacing rides of this distance. If I did anything like this again I’d use discs – you shred through rim pads in the wet and alpine descents are a bit sketchy when you’re tired and your hands hurt. And discs look cool and it gives me an n+1 excuse.
Gearing: 52-36 with 11-32 – Dura Ace chainset with Ultegra rear mech – Perfect. Some climbs had good stretches of 18% and one mad village in Italy was 20%+ but apart from that this worked fine.
Tyres: Schwalbe One 700×25 – Great. Two punctures – one after the horrible Montenegro border off-roading and another from glass after a Croatian party. Grippy and fast.
Bags – Wildcat frame and saddle bag (thanks Joel) – these were amazing. Very light and efficient and a change from Apidura which everyone had. Love me I’m different.
Lights: Exposure Sirius (thanks JP) and Lezyne Zecto Rear – would have chosen a better rear light but linked to this I would definitely use a dynamo hub in future. The option to charge all of your gear through the day and run the lights off it at night reduces faff. Some people did have issues using a dynamo so you need to have a back up but generally speaking I think this is a must have, particularly if you plan to ride all night.
Bottles – 2 x Elite MaxiCorsa 950ml – fine – no need for more than this – even in the 40 degree heat.
Battery pack – Amazon Basics 10,000 mAh – best £15 you can spend for a trip like this. Great capacity – worked flawlessly.
Garmin – Garmin 810 (thanks JP) with Garmin 500 for backup. Used TCX routes so just following a line rather than turn by turn. To be fair this was my only option as every time I loaded the Garmin I got a message saying there were no maps on it (thanks JP). Andy used an amazing app called MapOut which was incredible as it enables you to download full maps but only around your route (unlike Google which requires 100’s of MB for large blocks). Andy was chief navigator and he did an awesome job – this suited me because I was tired.
Jersey – Rapha – great. We tried on a few others beforehand and they cost the same as Rapha but the quality was poor. You can knock Rapha all you like but it’s good!
Shorts – Giordana – Normally so good but the stitching on the pad ripped which gave me anal woes.
Socks – 2 x Rapha – I lost one pair quite early on and really missed the freshness. Sounds precious but these things add up!
Arm warmers – Endura merino – definitely take merino and not just sleeves – it got cold!
Knee warmers – Endura – I was fine but if you run cold I would take full legs.
Gilet – Rapha windproof gilet and down gilet (thanks Joel). Both essential – particularly on freezing descents.
Waterproof – GoreTex – brilliant – it coped with all but the absolute worst.
Gloves – Castelli windproof (thanks Leo) – Most people wore mitts – I wore these full gloves once and they got soaked – I probably wouldn’t take gloves again as I think if your core is warm your hands will be fine.
Shoe covers – Endura FS260 – Nothing would have coped with the weather we had – these were fine. Most people suffered with some form of trench foot – 7 days on I still can’t feel my toes.
Off the bike I wore running shorts, flip flops and a t-shirt – Hardly London Fashion Week but when all you want to do is order a pizza and get on wifi you just don’t care. Mesh in the shorts annoyed me – slept naked much to Andy’s delight, could see disappointment in his eyes when we got two single beds.
Andy made strange noises when sleeping – mix of snoring and arousal – note to self – ask Emma if this happens with her or is it just me.
Tools and misc
I think we got this about right. Thankfully we didn’t use everything but I think it was all essential for emergencies. We got a larger pump which could do 90psi which was a good move.
Portable speaker – X-mini WE – essential – we had some great times going up mountains and I think people loved it when they heard Cyndi Lauper behind them.
Café lock, 3 x inner tubes, 2 x tyre boots, chain tool, spare link, 1 x gear cable, 1 x brake cable, 4 x spare spokes, pump, spoke key. Patches, 4 x CR2032 batteries, mech hanger, chain lube,
Insect repellent – Wouldn’t take this again
Chamois crème and sudocreme – life saving combo – Andy applied it to the bits I couldn’t reach.
Lip balm – essential but still got cracked lips.
Toothpaste and toothbrush – essential
Travel wash – essential for our vibes – guessing most people didn’t bother with this. Ha.
Ibuprofen – essential. Andy had some prescription stuff too which I took if he told me to. On reflection this was probably lithium.
Generally smooth – we probably wasted some time in France riding by canals but it was beautiful and quiet. We eventually got into a pattern of taking the most direct route (probably because we were surprised to be the first pair to CP1 and then fancied winning). The two major mishaps I can think of were in Croatia and Bosnia – it was annoying but there was no blame and we just accepted that we had to crack on and get back on track.
Some people completed the whole thing solo without listening to music which to me is crazy. I’d say the majority of solo riders we met were the archetypal ‘lone wolf’. ‘God you’re doing the pairs, good luck with that’. ‘You have to wait every time he wants to take a shit’. ‘Don’t you get annoyed with him holding you up?’. This seemed bonkers to us and I guess it’s why things worked so well as we were very much on the same page in terms of the pairs/solo thing.
On a day to day basis I think these beliefs were reinforced because typically we’d catch a solo rider, with our mini speaker blasting out an 80’s party banger, hand out some Haribo, exchange stories and ride for a few minutes and then ride off. Riders were often weaving over the road, unable to answer questions and it just looked like they were having a shit time. Seeing us ride off probably sucked and my respect for people who do this solo is massive. Matt Falconer, Dan Fisher and Frank the Tank were consistently chipper and it was great to see these guys. Always a smile and a funny tale to tell. Frank snapped his steel fork and had to have it welded by a Croatian mechanic – badass!
Generally the guys doing the race were awesome. Interesting characters and no bravado which was refreshing. It was great to hang out with people and have a few days in Turkey afterwards – if you’re ever in Canakkale please visit the Sardine café – it’s the best 6 Lira you’ll ever spend (£1.50) and also the Hamam – a Turkish bath where you pay old dudes to dehydrate you then beat you up – dreams can come true.
Everyone had to deal with it but it was certainly unseasonal. From sweltering heat in Croatia and Greece to freezing, pouring rain in Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro it made you appreciate the good times. Nothing like that feeling of a sack of water in your bib crotch – like a sausage floating in a tepid swimming pool.
When I had my Rabies jabs I thought it was a bit overkill, I’ve never been chased or bitten by a dog and I’m on a bike, I’m invincible! Or so I thought – in the hall at the start we saw a guy who showed us a couple of chunks out of his leg – he’d been bitten in Tuscany a couple of months before and I think this made it real for me.
The first time it happened I was surprised at a) how worrying it is b) how fast dogs are. It only happened at night when you had a good 12 hours in the legs. If you’re lucky you hear a bark, or the sound of a chain but occasionally you just get the mad scamper of some raging hell beast. And you fully have to sprint – my power files show 10s over 1,000w (shitting my pants) and only then do the woofers start to fatigue. Afterwards your body screams, all the little niggles become one big pile of agony which wasn’t great for morale. One time we sprinted across traffic on to a motorway – it was dangerous-ish but when you’re tired and the teeth are snapping you just want to get away. Matt Falconer did the thing no one does and stopped and gave a dog a Twix – respect.
A bat flew into me in Bosnia. It hurt where I’d had a collarbone break but I was just happy it didn’t hit my mouth – I bet bats stink. I met some nice cats along the way and saw a few dead dogs with their tongues hanging out which always made me laugh for some reason.
Swiss drivers suck. Aggressive boy racer types who sit on their gear knobs for kicks. Everyone else was pretty cool so fuck you Switzerland.
In Kosovo there were loads of marriage convoys – kids would hang out of cars and high five us which made me feel like Che Guevara.
On a side note a Croatian teen administered the hardest high five I’ve ever received.
I’d never ridden in the ‘proper’ mountains and they really were beautiful. Furkapass was probably my favourite but Passo di Giau for breakfast was wonderful. I expect Durmitor was absolutely stunning but the weather was dire and I spent most of it wondering what kind of coffin Andy would like to be buried in (he was really cold).
We also heard a rider had been bitten by a snake on Durmitor and carried on. He was a Finnish tough guy and we thought maximum respect. It actually turned out he’d had a pinch flat (commonly referred to as a snake bite) so that was actually a really boring story.
We also had a very odd near death moment in Croatia. A river on our left, rocks on our right. I’d made a joke about the Bosnian Beyonce (a stunner we kept seeing on a poster) and then we saw a little rock falling down the mountain as we approached. This one fell in the road and then we saw a BIG ROCK the size of a suitcase coming down. I had to sprint to get in front of it and it went between us. If it hit me it would have hurt/broken my bike. If it hit 60kg Andy it would have been a one way ticket to a messy repatriation. Nervous laughter followed.
We ate so much pizza. It’s safe, ubiquitous, quick and delicious. We killed the hotel breakfasts and could make enough sandwiches to last most of the day. One wannabe Night Manager made us feel awkward about piling our plates but I left a terse review on BOOKING.COM BOOKING.YEAH, shorted the hotel with my CHINA SPECIAL USB adapter and took about 64 madeleines so I think I know who’s winning. Haribo were also incredible – so much variety, so much sugar. If I was feeling low I would just finish an entire bag of gummy bears and feel a million dollars before having a major sugar crash and calling Andy names. We drank lots of Fanta and Coke at stops and coffee is a wonder drug – 4 espressos would keep you going for a few hours but I’d often have to calm Andy down as he was as high as a kite and would come up with an unreasonable amount of plans/ideas/suggestions in a really short amount of time. Apparently this is called ‘Boyding’.
Generally fine. Both Achilles hurt a hell of a lot but after a few days it seemed normal and the body proved remarkable at coping. I’m sure it’s a different story sleeping for 30 mins at a time, again, total respect to the solo dudes who do it ‘properly’. WE SLEPT OUTSIDE TWICE GUYS!
I wasn’t worried about this. I suspect most of my friends thought I would struggle because they know I’m crackers and a bit manic but I never thought about scratching. Andy was great and we helped each other through the ups and downs. I’m probably more tolerant after spending two weeks with someone but Andy can tell you more about what a nightmare I am. Joe Todd finished for the second year in a row and he’s 20 which is amazing. If I’d done this when I was 20 I’d have been trafficked.
The border crossing at Montenegro – sleeping under a doormat that smelt of dog shit in the pissing rain for 90 mins and then riding an almost unrideable path to an local/illegal border crossing and making it through. We knew some people had taken 5 hours and some people had been escorted back by police and taken the 200km alternative. It was a big moment and gliding through into Montenegro at sunrise felt so beautiful – until I punctured. This 3 hours was the embodiment of the whole race. No ecstasy without pain etc.
I also like to think my hybrid impression of Dave Brailsford and Jimmy Savile and endless puerile jokes kept Andy fresh.
Skopje was also great, We had a fantastic meal while a bike shop repaired a snapped cable (internal routing thanks very much).
One day I wanted to push on to Rijeka – we’d whizzed out of Italy and we still had some light but Andy wasn’t keen. I was fully raging about this but took the decision as a pair. I think this took me about 16 hours to get over (a lot of headphone time) and I think Andy was worried I was going to scratch but I was just thinking about how I could snap his bike and fire bomb his family. I think this was just the competitive side of me wanting to get a good lead while the weather was nice – probably a good life lesson.
Italy – people, food, architecture, mountains, style, VIBE.
I’ve missed lots here I know I have but ultimately it was an incredible adventure and Mike, Anna and the team have created something amazing. We’ve raised over £5,000 for Wheels for Wellbeing doing something we love and after winning the pairs the obvious question is will we give it a go in the solo category. I don’t think I could go 11 days without talking nonsense or telling bad jokes and Andy would certainly struggle without such a charismatic partner by his side..
Ask me again in 3 months…