Taking an early morning Eurostar may not have been the best preparation for a race that was to start at midnight. It could have given me the opportunity to sleep in the afternoon if everything went to plan. I was a little worried that the issues with immigrants had been causing delays but this didn’t affect me and the train arrived in Brussels on time. I had planned my route from the station to Geraardsbergen in similar fashion to the route to Turkey. I wanted to avoid main roads and this would give me a last minute test to ensure my navigation system was working and that I could have confidence my planning was up to scratch.
En route I met two other entrants from Scotland and one of them had a carbon Diverge. Of course, being of bike nerd, I was particularly interested that he was using a different wheelset so interrogated him to find out how he’d overcome the hub sizing issues. He’d modified the 135mm DT Swiss spacer and was using a DT Swiss 350 hub. The conversation was rolling along as well as our wheels were turning. We were all excited about the event so it was nice that they decided to follow my lead and join me on the route I’d set out for myself. It turned out to be quite pleasant. Barely any traffic, good road surfaces, only one hill of note and a strange steel hog?? roast like thing. Sorry, I don’t know any more about it as we were approaching a descent and decided to whizz down it instead of stopping and gazing further at this bizarre construction. Anyway here’s a picture I found off the web. It’s along the Congobergstraat, Galmaarden if you decide you would like to see it for yourself.
On reaching Geraardsbergen I went straight to the registration site even though I needn’t have done since I’d completed this in London the previous evening. It was nice, however, to see all the other entrants and their bicycles all lined up in the hall. I was keen to get some food so decided to look for a supermarket and stock up. After touring the town and, of course, a ride up the great Muur itself and got some food and rode back down to the Dender riverside and found some other cyclists sitting on a bench. I asked if I could join them to which they warmly responded and we chatted. This is where I met Stephen Ouja. He’s a cycle courier from Paris and he told me about his plan. It was incredibly audacious and really not something I’d have considered to be an option. He was to cycle to Ancona, get the ferry over to Split and cycle on to CP4 before then riding on to CP3. He said the route from CP3 to Istanbul was not only more direct, but flatter too. The Manual states that the checkpoints could be completed in any order but I still hadn’t thought they should be switched about like this. Now not only did he propose this incredible plan but he said he would be completing the Transcontinental on a singlespeed fixie! Wow, unbelievable I said. Immediately I liked this guy and had huge respect for him. I wasn’t wondering whether he would complete the race or not I just was in complete awe that he should even think of attempting it. I hoped he would and on top I hoped he’d win.
It was a long wait to midnight. The crowds were milling around the start line. I was desperately trying to order some spaghetti from the pub but it never arrived and I gave up in the end. Some of the riders were lying on the ground either trying to catch up on some sleep or just simply to rest. I tried but there was no way I was going to get any sleep with all the movement around me. I heard one comment from a passer-by who was looking at my bike. “That’s going to get ripped to shreds”, he said to his friend. And you would know, I thought. I wasn’t going to let negativities enter my mind, not now. This was a time to celebrate and enjoy the moment. Don’t think about the distance. What happens will happen and was always destined to happen. I’ll rely on my preparation and any experience I already have and fate….well there’s nothing we can do about that is there.
I was interviewed by the local TV station. I’m not sure whether they even used the footage. I tend to be a bit camera shy but the girl asked me some questions and then asked if she could interview me on camera. When she asked me whether I was scared of climbing the great Muur of Geraardsbergen I said I wasn’t. I’m not sure if this was the response she was expecting or even hoping for but she did look slightly disappointed with my response. The thing is I’d already climbed it twice today and it was dry and, well, quite an easy climb. This is Belgium after all and there aren’t many climbs here so perhaps the Belgians think it’s quite intimidating. The Muur has featured in some famous races. I certainly understand how it’s characteristics would change dramatically in the wet. I said something along those lines too.
The interviewer asked what the Transcontinental Race was. In the end I’m pretty sure I bored her, especially when I was umming and erring, trying to remember where this bloody race would take us! There’s some footage taken from another camera angle below. That’s me at the start of the video and I was very, very nervous. I’ll also let the rest of the video do the talking as it shows the start of the race. I started probably around twenty rows back. I’m pretty sure the crowds must have gone all the way to the bottom of the hill but I wanted to avoid a walk up the Muur and get fairly close to the lead out vehicle. I didn’t have any particular strategy other than to get a nice clean start, avoid any crashes and over bunching and just get on my way…autonomously.
In the end I got a little excited especially once I caught a glimpse of the lead out vehicle up ahead. I was thinking about the crowds on the Muur. It’d be a shame if all they saw were a load of cyclists walking or taking their time in order to save energy for the mammoth task ahead and so I started to pedal a little faster to catch up with the lead out vehicle. I wasn’t directly behind it but just as it pulled over that was it. Power down! I wheeled towards the climb and up, up, up!! Overtaking riders as I went. This is easy I thought. Cyclists were going backwards. I knew to get the smoother left hand side of the cobbled Muur. As it got steeper someone was in my line and I was catching him fast. He began to zig zag and I just found a gap without disrupting my pace. People were clapping. I felt like a pro…a shit pro but whatever it felt good. As I reached the summit and began my descent there were no cyclists around me. A clear run I thought and I commenced my route for real and off into the night alone.
Rider 114 (that’s me) into the lead!
I wasn’t to see this tweet until the two days after but it did make me chuckle. I seriously hadn’t intended to be the first out. I was soon caught. In fact when you’re first out all the faster riders, clearly caught in the crowds, will soon overtake. I tried to remain calm and not panic. This is a very long race after all.
Later on that morning rain began to fall and the wind picked up. Well that didn’t take long I thought. It was about 06:00hrs when I thought I should catch some sleep. The cyclists that I’d seen all seemed stronger and were either pulling away or overtaking me. I found a spot in a forest to bivvy. The rain was falling pretty hard and the trees were swaying high above me but I was so tired I could sleep anywhere. I leant my bike against some logs, set my alarm for two hours, crawled into my bag and slept without using the sleeping bag or inflated mat.
I got enough rest and reluctantly crawled out of my uncomfortable bivvy still damp but warm. Now that I’d had some rest I intended to get some distance in. It was after all the same day as we’d started so there was still time to achieve the 200 mile a day target I’d set myself. Firstly, I would need some food and found a shop with a bench seat nearby. Perfect.
Later on that day, just after some kid thought it would be funny to speed through a field upwind of me on his quad bike and make me eat dust, not once but twice as he turned back to repeat the fun he was having, I encountered my first routing error.
No bikes beyond this point. This wasn’t too much of a problem as it was only a short section of the D944 and I was able to circumnavigate and then get back on track a few miles on. I was hoping this wouldn’t happen too frequently as, although my planning was reasonable, I wasn’t overly meticulous but with any trip like this some routing mishaps were to be inevitable.
Trying to get through Châlons-en-Champagne was proving awkward. I was trying to look for some food and saw a Pizza takeaway. Perfect I thought and standing outside was another TCR rider. I pulled over but last orders had been served. The cyclist, an American, kindly offered me a slice. We had a quick chat and he didn’t seem too happy with the route and the long continuous slogs down the N44 alongside some some fast traffic. Brief respite could be found by cycling through villages but these small detours would then end up back on the N44. The American told me that a few cyclists had been thrown off the main road by some police during the night. I hadn’t been told to come off the road by any police and hadn’t seen any signs saying bicycles weren’t allowed. From this point on I would have to navigate on the fly to avoid the main road. I found myself a Mcdonalds and made slow progress after a taking wrong turns here and there. At least until Vitry-le-François. From there on I began to make good progress as I was back on track. Until I found a Lidl and stocked up on some supplies. The queue in here was long and I became agitated. This was a race after all and I was stopping to frequently now. The heat had cranked up a notch but after this point I had to push on and get some rhythm.
I really enjoyed this first day. In the evening I had my music playing through my phone loud speaker, everything was charging so I had unlimited power so long as I kept cycling. An incentive if ever there was to keep pedalling. It was great winding round the quiet back lanes as I began my circumnavigation of Dijon. There was a long, steep ascent that I recall. Yeah this is Dijon. I had an image of the profile in my head, recalling how I’d tried to flatten this route out on the mapping site. I was climbing this ascent in the dark. This is always the best time to ride any big climb. It’s cool and you can’t see any false summits that can dent morale. There were a few rustles in the woodland around me too. Probably wild boar I thought. I rode on. When I reached a flat point quite high up I decided to lay my bivvy down in a straw field. Just slightly out of view of the road but not completely. I had to duck whenever headlights approached as any driver would have been able to see the glow of my face.
So this, I thought was the end of my first day. 25hrs 22 mins and I’d completed 311 miles. 280 in 24 hours. I was feeling strong and happy and slept well.
My alarm buzzed. I woke up and saw a light approaching slowly but it was pretty bright. A cyclist sailed by. He’d seen me. This made me climb out of the bag. As I did a car approached and stopped, briefly, after I shouted out in French, “Je suis bien, pas du problem ici”. I assumed he thought I was in trouble. Best get on my bike quick I thought. Everything was covered in dew so I gave my gear a quick shakedown, packed up and rode on.
Early morning doesn’t give one much dietary choice. However the Boulangers are always open early and in Arc-sur-Tille I would pass one just as it opened. There were a queue of girls and boys waiting for the “Artisan”, no less, Boulanger to open. They quizzed me about my trip. I think I looked a bit ropey which made them even more eager to know what I was doing. A great opportunity for me to practise my French and they all kindly let me queue jump. With my pockets packed with a variety of pastries I waved au revoir and ate on the move.
One amusing memory I have of this morning as the sun began to rise were a number of Transcontinental riders walking out from behind bushes or out of woodlands or mounting their bicycles at the end of farm tracks and of bodies in sleeping bags curled up on various village benches. This would be a common theme for the first few days. I was surprised that, although I had planned my journey all on my own, how many cyclists had chosen similar roads. Clearly we had all been considering the profile of our journeys and it seemed the online mapping application had effectively chosen the Transcontinental route for us.
I was finding the pastries were giving me acid burn in my stomach. At least I think that’s what it was. They weren’t agreeing with me so I was keen to stock up on water and proper food and having found a shop I felt I was more on a bicycle tour than a race. I wasn’t thinking about time and began to linger. Might aswell enjoy the experience I thought. Why rush?
My next stop would be at a lovely little cafe where, now that the sun was high, I could hang my gear out to dry from the previous night and lose some of that additional wet weight.
As I did some TCR cyclists would pass by. Don’t panic, just enjoy the moment, I thought to myself. Couple of espressos, an orange juice, a macchiato and some left over food later I packed up and rode on. I was now thinking I should perhaps make some progress. Stop stopping.
I made good progress until I saw a sign for Mcdonalds in Meximieux. I’d had a hankering for some hot junk food for a while. I had to deviate off course and ride through a dodgy business estate to get to one but oh it was so worth it….the ice cream. From now on I would make sure I ate more ice cream whenever the chance arose. I felt a bit bloated after this but at least my craving was satisfied. Shut up stomach let’s go!
My route around Lyon was perhaps the finest bit of route planning of my trip. I wanted to avoid getting sucked into big towns or cities. Knowing Lyon could be quite dodgy I was very keen to avoid it. I was riding well at this point and it wasn’t until I had circumnavigated the city that I was aware that I had even passed it. This was a huge morale boost. The distance I’d ridden, and although I felt strong and hadn’t really pushed myself too much, just seemed way beyond my expectations. I had an image of Lyon on the map and the Rhône Valley beyond. All flat now until Mt Ventoux I thought….awesome.
It was late afternoon when I reached Portes-lès-Valence. A car with about four youths passed slowly by and one in the front had his window wide open and was leaning out looking at my bike. He continued to as the car stopped at some traffic lights. I decided rather than to pull alongside them I would stop a few cars back in the queue. I wasn’t keen on this attention in a large town at this time of night. I’d heard about a Transcontinental rider’s bike being stolen in one of the previous editions so wanted to keep a low profile and pass through these towns as quickly as possible. As the car pulled slowly away they pulled over. I had no choice than to ride past. They pulled out again and drove by very slowly. I didn’t like this at all. Aware they could have Trackleaders up on their phones so could monitor mine and other cyclists whereabouts I turned off my tracker and quickly turned off the main road. I took a detour round some back roads before rejoining the main road towards the end of the town, then turned my tracker back on. Maybe I was being paranoid but safety had to be a priority. The car hadn’t caught up with me so all was good. I breathed a sigh of relief.
My next bivvy would end up in a vinyard. The problem with vinyards is I wasn’t sure how well they would be guarded. I didn’t want to venture too deep in case I alarmed the farmer so I slept near the entrance which was unfortunately illuminated by a nearby house. The sleep could have been better but was sufficient for me to recharge. The next leg would involve a pretty big hill.
Keen to get on with the next big stage and to my first checkpoint I rode on and in Suze-La-Rousse I would find a very tired looking Stephane Ouaja (the fixie cyclist). He didn’t seem to think he could continue. I think I gave him encouraging words, rode on and then took a wrong turn. Later on that day I caught up with him, not even aware he had passed me in that short time I’d deviated off route. I was surprised he’d made it this far in the same time as me but then the riding was fairly flat so even on a fixie not too much of a problem. Even less so here, in Provence, the countryside is extremely flat and of course in the distance was the shadow of Mont Ventoux pulling me towards it’s base.
From a personal perspective this would be perhaps the best day that I’ve ever had on a bicycle. Not necessarily the most enjoyable but the most fulfilling. I’d never cycled up an iconic mountain before. Well not since my teens when I stopped just shy of the top whilst waiting for my friend. That was in the Auvergne. Of course I’ve watched the Tour de France but never really read up about Mont Ventoux. I knew we had to cycle up it so I would have to just ride it plain and simple. I approached it with a sort of naivety and it was at Bédoin that I began seeing quite a couple more TCR riders. The time was around 07:30, I would have preferred to be at Bédoin at least an hour earlier as now the temperature was picking up.
Fully aware I had to get this parcour correct as I didn’t want to do a Kristoff and cycle up a mountain twice, I dawdled around the start point checking and rechecking I was on track. Then I climbed. Nice and steady, on and on and on. A couple of cyclists went past me. Don’t look at them, I thought to myself, just keep your own pace. Wow this mountain was incessant. I was determined not to stop. When the incline ramps up so far into the climb itself is not an on-bike experience I’d ever been through before. It was incredible. I was however passing cyclists. Some looked at my frame bags and gave me words of encouragement which spurred me on further. A woman speeding down the mountain shouted “Allez, allez!” which again gave me extra energy. A cyclist slowly passed me and I would use him as a carrot. We were all having a shared experience, torturing ourselves, testing our bodies and seeing if we had the mettle to defeat this mountain. If the gradient wasn’t enough the road was to take a sharp left and now the trees were far below I turned straight into a headwind. I laughed and thought that wasn’t going to stop me. I was actually getting some kind of masochistic thrill out of this. When I finally reached the summit approximately two hours later it was great to get my brevet card it’s first stamp. The guys asked if I’d had my photo taken. I said no but wasn’t too fussed about it. The summit was a little chilly and I wanted to get on with the ride especially when they told me I was in the top 20.
This was beginning to be a very hot day and there were some big climbs. I’d passed two TCR riders that had been sitting at a cafe. They’d noticed me and we waved but I decided to keep going. As I climbed up the next col I looked down as the road wound it’s way up and I could see that the pair had decided to leave, perhaps prompted by my presence, so I upped my pace a little bit. Despite the heat and the climbing I was feeling pretty comfortable. Another cyclist, a french lad who was geared up his team kit, a Marseille based cycling club, rode with me for a little while and his speed spurred me on. He wasn’t hanging about and I hadn’t told him I was riding the Transcontinental Race. I’m not sure whether he knew or not but he was surprised when I had told him I’d just ridden up Mont Ventoux. When he eventually turned off I was thankful for this brief companionship as I knew I’d covered more ground than I would have done on my own. When I arrived at a Casino in Laragne-Montéglin it was like reaching an oasis. Chocolate milk heaven, I’d been dying for some and I mixed that with an entire box of cereal. As I sat down I’d meet another racer from Leicester. He looked knackered and was complaining about his bum sores.
The riding was generally quite easy but the heat was pretty incredible, maybe in the mid 30s (that’s hot for an Englishman) so, when I saw a farm stool selling fruit on the side of the road I bought half a grapefruit and slurped my way through it. It was huge. A serious case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach but it looked delicious and was so refreshing. This really bloated me out.
In the heat of the afternoon I was feeling pretty tired so I thought it would be a good idea to have a nap. I found myself a little bus stop and lay down.
Trying to get some sleep when cars are driving past is never easy, especially at a junction. The engine noises were resonating round my little shelter as the cars accelerated away. Cars would pull up and people would slam doors and talk at the top of their voices. I was in a fairly remote place so it seemed like a good idea at the time. There comes a point when any attempt to sleep is counter productive. I just ended up laying there, not moving forward, not getting any deep sleep. Finally I gave up, thinking that people are overtaking me or pulling away, I gathered my senses, got up and rode on. I was in desperate need of a wake me up. Later on, on the approach into Chorges, a couple of espressos would help with that!
Later on that day, after having been buffeted by side winds as I crossed the bridge on the approach to Savines-le-Lac, I encountered another section where I couldn’t ride near La Clapière.
I had two choices. Each choice went either side of the valley but would involve a climb. I took the eastern side of the valley. Then further down the road from some reason I changed my mind thinking the other side would be easier. In the end as it turned out the road was quite pleasant. I wished I hadn’t dithered and there was a section of gravel road that I had to ride along but my bike seemed up to it. When I eventually rejoined the N94 there weren’t any signs indicating a bike couldn’t be ridden down this road from here so I took my chances. It was all down from here and I was flying. I’d ridden through the tiredness and this fast section into Saint-Clément-sur-Durance really made the adrenaline flow. However, by the time I got to Briançon the tiredness was returning, not aided by the 13% climb up the high street, it was getting late and I really needed somewhere to sleep. Not being able to see anywhere around me as it was so dark, when I found what looked to be like a lay-by I turned round and pulled up into it. It was actually a pretty nice place to sleep despite not knowing whether Freddy Kruger was hiding there or not. I didn’t care, I was way too tired.
Another three hour sleep, which was good because it at least meant that I was still feeling competitive, I began the early morning ride to the second checkpoint. I didn’t think what was coming when I woke up but the huge climb on the approach to Montgenèvre wasn’t expected. In hindsight I couldn’t have slept at a much better time. I was re-energised from my sleep and the entire section up to Sestrière was best taken in the morning before the sun was too high. Crossing the border into Italy made me feel really good. Despite another deviation from my planned route due to a tunnel that I couldn’t take my bike through, the alternative route was forgiving and very pleasant to ride. There were quite a few shorter tunnels that weren’t any problem now and the scenery was incredible. I’d stopped to take quite a few camera shots. It’s always tempting to carry on when there’s a nice descent but I didn’t know if I would return here so I wanted to capture this moment.
The steep climb up to Sestrière had me hankering for some food and on arrival at the second checkpoint of the race, at around 08:00 in the morning, I gorged what was left of the continental breakfast. There were quite a few riders here already who’d seemed to have cleaned out most of the good stuff. The hotel seemed to be struggling to keep up with the demands of these hungry cyclists. I had no clue what my position was. There was a screen set up with the Trackleaders website but I couldn’t spot no.114 (my number) at all so thought it best to get my belly full and some hot drink down me. It was whilst I was sitting down reflecting on where I’d been that I overheard that a number of cyclists were planning to take the ferry crossing from Ancona over to Albania. This option seemed really tempting to me at the time. A rest mid way through the race seemed alluring but there was no way I was going to change my plan as it could have caused unnecessary stress re-routing and gambling on whether I would make a ferry which I’d probably have to book in advance. I’d then have to figure out the ideal route from CP4 to CP3. That was way too much planning. So I left to begin the parcour along the Strada dell’Assietta.
The Strada dell’Assietta was an incredible section. Painfully slow due to the courseness of the surface. This wasn’t fine gravel, it was rough, very rough and had my 28c tyres on the limit. On my mountain bike I could have flown through this section but as it was I needed to make sure I, and my bike came out on the other side in one piece. Erring on the side of caution the descents had me feathering the brakes constantly. My eyes were fixed to the ground as I weaved my way round rocks that were likely to slice through my tyres. At 40km it doesn’t seem very long but at the speed I was riding it seemed to take forever. Additionally there would be a number of 4×4’s that would add to the challenge and as they approached in the opposite direction I would have to ensure they didn’t force me into a poor line. As they passed me dust would be thrown into the air adding to the stressful situation. The scenery however, was amazing and something I won’t forget in a hurry. I probably would have never ridden here had it not been for this race so although exhausted from concentration I had to look up and around me to admire the wonderful views.
I was incredibly relieved to make it to the end of the gravel section and I could have kissed my bike but this wasn’t the end of the parcour. Once I hit the lovely, smooth tarmac of La Strada delle Colle delle Finestre I pushed hard, adrenaline flowing, it was as if suddenly I had been unchained, the route wound up a very steep climb to the Colle delle Finestre. More summit, no time for pictures, to my dismay was another gravelled section. I couldn’t believe it. Not having read up about these old military roads I was unprepared for this second bit of gravelled tedium. When will this end, I thought to myself and was even wondering whether I had deviated from the parcour. Anyway down I went feathering the brakes and picking my line until eventually, and no I didn’t think finally, I reached tarmac and wow oh wow this bit was amazing. On a map the descent to Meana di Susa looks like someone has splayed their intestines out which may not sound very appealing but as a cyclist who’d never experienced a descent like this before it was pretty mind blowing. So many tight hairpins and such a smooth flowing surface allowed me to refine my braking technique into the turn and accelerating out as I’d never been able to do on a road bike before, repeatedly. When I reached the bottom I’ll freely admit the grin on my face was a little bit manic. I saw an old fella and asked him if there was any water nearby and he walked me over to a spring. “Perfecto”, I said, not being able to speak a word of italian. As I drank the chilled water I looked at my bike and gave it a wink. Yes I would probably have got a little bit intimate with it but I managed to restrain myself. We’d both conquered two military roads which, quite frankly, should never have been ridden on anything less than 2.3″ tyres. I made it without a single puncture, no breakages and my hands weren’t that sore either.