Transcontinental No.6 2018; My Story

Introduction

2018 was a whirlwind, an incredible year. From getting married to cementing my position in the ultra-endurance cycling world. Thanks to the support of my wife Isabelle, LJ Partnership, Fairlight and Rapha I was able to train more than ever, and it showed. From the week in Mallorca after I finished my university exams, to the month at altitude in Livigno, just before The Transcontinental  Race start. I have no doubt; I arrived at The Transcontinental No.6 in the absolute shape of my life.

I was on another level when I left the Alps in mid-July. I was so caught up in the moment I forgot to stop and just consider where I’d got my body too. Riding all three sides of Passo Stelvio, in 6 hours is no joke (strava). My coach Ric Stern had pushed me hard and the rewards were plain. Thanks to living at 1,850m for 4 weeks, my haematocrit (the volume % of red blood cells) went from 44.5% to 49%.

Arriving on the start line for the race, I was calm. I’d won before, I knew what it would take to do it again and I was ready. I was in a great mental space and just raring to get racing. I wanted to prove I wasn’t a one hit wonder, that I had what it takes.

Transcontinental No.6 2018, Day 1

 

Day 1

In 2017 I’d decided to take it easy up the Muur, not to waste energy and show off. In 2018 something came over me, when a few racers pushed on through the town I couldn’t hold back. I sat on the wheels until we began climbing the Muur proper and then I hit it. Full gas. I didn’t bother to look back. I knew I was clear of the half dozen people I’d been surfing. I was wearing cap number 1 and I intended to prove from the start of the race I deserved that number. I’m no short effort hill climbing specialist, but I gave it my all. I set a new 1 minute power best, as I pushed up the climb through the roar of spectators. From the Market Square to the crest by the Chapel was about 4m12s and took me 450 Watts normalised (NP), enough for 2,032 position on the strava segment. Do remember, I had a loaded up bike! The fastest ever TCR rider up the Muur is the seriously powerfully Geoffory Dussault in 3m50s. I caught a final glimpse of Isabelle and my other family and crested the top of the climb, so quick I caught Race Director Anna off guard when I came flying around the corner. I took another right turn and I was alone, off into the darkness.

At the start (James Robertson)

It’s easy to get emotionally and consequently physically caught up in the excitement during the first night. As a veteran I know the race is not won at the beginning but you can waste enough energy to lose it. I was laughing because I was moving along well, with 250W NP for the first hour and people were passing me. Given my threshold was around 370W, 250W was sustainable for me. However, that level of power would be unsustainable for most. It’s a race of 4,000km, so emptying yourself on that first night is not advised.

I settled in for the night, as tarmac passed underneath. The weather was mild with clear skies. If conditions are good, then ride. In previous years I’ve stopped on the first night to sleep, just for an hour or two. When tiredness overcomes there is not much point fighting it, so just rest. I’m not sure why, but for some reason, as the sun began to break through I realised that I’d ridden through the night. All told I did a stint of nearly 10 hours in the saddle before I pulled over to relieve myself. I was in the zone.

As night turned to day and the hours wore on, I hadn’t seen anyone around. I could only hope I was out front because I don’t waste my time checking the tracker. It’s not my intention anymore to lead the race from the start, but it’s nice to know I’m in the mix. In the late afternoon as I cruised along in the pleasant heat I approached a cross roads. The lights were red so I came to a stop. As I waited, I took a sip from my drink, then I looked up I see a rider appear from the junction to my left. Of course, it was mighty strong Bjorn Lenhard. What a coincidence! The light turned green and I pushed on to catch up with him.

We compared numbers for the first stint, I’d ridden a few kilometres less but climbed more. This might be a race but there is always time to slow down with a fellow rider and show respect. Soon after we got together, we hit another cross roads, Bjorn went straight on and I veered right. I can only assume he was taking the extra kilometres again, as I was soon climbing solid gradients. Off into dusk and onto my hotel on Lake Constance.

Analysis

Strava

Day 1 was ‘bigger’ than most peoples big training weeks, with 23 hours cycling and 13,500 calories. That’s nearly a weeks worth of calories for a standard male. 

 

 

Transcontinental No.6 2018; Day 2

 

Day 2

I awoke feeling refreshed, I had 650km in my legs but I’d also had 5 hours sleep. I know Christoph Strasser, multiple RAAM winner, can survive on almost no sleep but in unsupported racing I’ve found it instrumental to my performance, perhaps I’m just not as tough.  I started the day with a large breakfast. The Ibis on the banks of Lake Constance had been welcoming hosts, with food waiting when I arrived and more food ready for me before I left. That made the 120 euro I’d paid for 5 hours sleep slight softer. Food is my fuel and I would need a lot of it to cover the road ahead, I must eat constantly, if you’re hungry, it’s too late. As a result of stopping for so long, I was far from the head of the race but with 3,300km still to go, there was plenty of time to get back to the front. And I have learnt to race conservatively in the opening days.

This second day, Tuesday July 31, would take me into Austria and through Checkpoint 1, the Bielenhorn pass. Which meant a small matter of 1,500m climbing. Thankfully the gradient was never above 9% and the mountain slipped underneath my wheels with little effort. What goes up must come down and the descent was fantastic. Fast flowing and seemingly endless. Like in 2017, the optimum route into Italy was the Brenner Pass, not a road you’d want to ride once, let alone twice. It’s busy, being one of the main passes and lacks all the beautiful scenery, there is a good motorway however people take the mountain road to avoid the toll. So you end up on a twisty mountain road, with lots of caravans and tourists.  Made worse by the fact my digestive system got the worst of me and I had to pull over quickly to ‘Take 5’.

Bielenhorn (James Hayden)

As I descended into Italy I passed the hotel where I’d escaped a ferocious summer storm and stopped for dinner with fellow racer Geoffory Dussault in 2017. No time or need to stop this year. The sun was shining. I pushed on well into the evening, I’d booked a hotel in Lienz and arrived around midnight. I’d been left a feast (at my request) in my room. I ate half of it half before bed, the other half on awaking a few hours later. You’ll being to see a pattern in my days, ride hard, rest well, repeat.

Analysis

Strava

Day 2 and I was feeling the effects of fatigue already. My normalised power NP had dropped form 200W to 177W. Given it was only 16 hours of riding, I started around dawn and finished well before dusk, I only burnt 8500 calories. Or 1.2 kg worth of body fat. If the km covered were lower today, you can plainly see on the map above that I was passing directly though the Alps, tough going.

 

Transcontinental No.6 2018; Day 3

Day 3

Today started well and only got better. I had plenty of food to eat before setting off from the hotel, well before dawn. To ice the cake, the espresso machine behind the bar had been left on. Without hesitation I hopped over the counter and knocked myself up two doubles, quattro, just how a solid day on the bike should be started.

Today would be Checkpoint 2, Mangart Skardasko. I was seriously excited for this one, I knew it was going to be mind blowingly beautiful and knee blowingly hard.

The elevation gain for the day, just over 6,000m tells the tale; up, up and up. The gradient for the second climb on the parcours was a relentless 15%. I love climbing and I was in my element today.

Mangart Skardasko (Camille Mcmillan)

I rode and rode, today was perhaps one of the biggest shifts I put in during the race. I kept riding until around 1am. Again, I’d booked a hotel, there wasn’t much choice around the time and location where I wanted to stop, but I’d found a small guest house. I’d called ahead and Franz had assured me he’d be there late and it would be no issue. The small town was dead when I rolled though, I found the hotel easily, the lights were on.

I knocked on the door and rung the bell, but nothing. I tried again, then again. I kept trying for a full 20 minutes, Franz wasn’t answering his phone. The situation was going bad, I had no food left and I’d not eaten for a few hours. I’d run a risk on this hotel and I was caught short. If I couldn’t get in and get food, I wouldn’t be able to make it much further. Just as I was about to give up and move on, I decided to check around the back; nothing there. This was really not good at all. As  I came back around the other side of the hotel, I saw a small widow higher up, which was ajar. I stuck my head in and saw an older chap asleep in his chair, this wasn’t a bedroom but a service room. So, I tried my luck, ‘FRANZ’ I shouted. Startled from his sleep, a bit nervous he looked around, on spotting me at the window he broke into a huge smile, ‘James!’. Franz couldn’t have been nicer, I was a bit later than I’d said and he’d fallen asleep waiting up for me. I was in bed in no time, wolfing down 2 litres of milk and a whole box of cereal. Franz was brilliant, and I was lucky. I had a close call which could have cost me plenty.

Analysis

Strava

 

 

 

 

Transcontinental No.6 2018; Day 4

Day 4

A second box of cereal for breakfast and I was off. Chasing the smell of Checkpoint 3. It wasn’t my intention to get all the way there today, just to get within touching distance. However, in this race nothing goes as you’d plan. Flexibility is key. So, when I stopped for 8 slices of pizza in Czechia in the later afternoon, I thought I’d have a quick look at the tracker. Until now I’d been once again chasing Bjorn, never far off his tail. However, for some reason late in the afternoon he’d stopped and I’d passed him on the road. I was again leading the Transcontinental Race. And before we’d reached the 3rd checkpoint. I was in charge and in the driving seat.

As the expression goes, strike while the iron is hot. This was my moment to hit the race with everything I had. I was in the lead and I needed to put time and road between Bjorn and I, to snap the elastic between us. I knew as I sat there, eating more pizza than should be humanly possible, I would be riding into the dawn. I would complete Checkpoint 3 and make the turn south. Then it was a run for the finish.

I’d been thinking about checkpoint 3 a lot in the planning phase, when I put 70 hours into route research and choice. The parcours was from a town on the north side of the mountain range, up to the summit. When I looked at it on a map it immediately occurred to me to go up the south face, descend the parcours and then climb back up. Mental torture but efficient. I looked at going east and west but the numbers clearly made the ‘up and over’ option the best. So there I was at 2 am, descending a 30% gradient with potholes all over the place, knowing I’d have to climb back up.  It’s not always about being the fittest or strongest, but the smartest and best prepared.

 

I felt bad for the checkpoint volunteers as I finally reached the summit at around 4am! It was freezing cold and deserted. I stayed only long enough to get my brevet card stamped. I wrapped up in my jacket, pulled my buff over my face and descended, I was heading south and the race was mine.  I’d been here before, I knew what it would take and I had it.

Riding south after stamping my brevet at CP3.(James Robertson)

Analysis 

Strava

20 hours of riding, a long day and well into the early hours of the next. The tale is also of very little stopped time in today’s ride, as with any day I aim to minimise stopped time, wasted time. However today I really worked hard to be on the bike at all times, the ride time is 23 hours.

Power is slipping with normalised below 170W for the first time. Fatigue is setting in.

Transcontinental No.6 2018; Day 5

Day 5

On paper, Day 5 should have been easy, a near pancake flat ride south, through Czechia and into Hungary. My memories are faint, with flat roads come boring riding. Hours stuck in the same position just toiling away in an aerodynamic tuck, trying to make progress.

The start of the day still sticks out in my mind, it was quite surreal. The hotel I’d booked was all that was available, a 4 star resort in the mountains. Little did I know it was peak school holiday season and the place was rammed. Normally I’m up and gone way before even the staff are awake, however as I was late to bed, I was late to rise. I ended up having breakfast a little before 9am, with the rest of the hotel. Families and grandparents, there was me in my stinking lycra kit looking like I’d seen better days. I can’t imagine what the other guests thought. But who cares, the food was plentiful and I stuffed my belly as well as my pockets.

Much like in professional grand tours you get transition days between the mountains. Today would be such a day. Nothing special, just get aero and crack the miles out on sore legs. However, previous efforts were catching up. Two huge days of climbing, ending with Day 4, which had been brutal. Over 22,000m of climbing’ that’s from sea level to the top of Everest twice, plus half way again.  I’d squeezed everything I had out to crack the race open and establish my lead. Not long after lunch I found myself feeling completely knackered. I pulled over on a quiet road and ducked off into the adjacent field. 20 minutes later I was ready to go again. I’d slept like a log and felt refreshed. The regenerative power of a quick nap, quite amazing.

Lunch in Czech (James Hayden)

As the day wore on my fatigue built further. I’d booked a hotel in Mosonmagyarovar not far across the Austrian-Hungarian border. Once it became dark, it got cold, or at least I got cold. I was now running a big calorie deficit and my body had gone catabolic. When this happens, I find it impossible to get warm. The hotel seemed to get no nearer. Around midnight I stopped at a small bar and bought a few litres of coke and some crisps. I felt better for a short while. But not long after I just had to stop and sleep, another 20 minutes. I could not keep my eyes open and I knew the nap would make me quicker. All the while I’d been napping an old friend of my fathers had been hunting me down on the road, from my tracker location. He lived in Vienna and the poor sod had been out at 2am driving around in circles trying to find me while I slept! He did manage to track me down once I was back on the road, and I pulled over to say hello, it transpired he’d been out since 11am trying to find me. Eventually I arrived at the hotel in the early hours. As I’d ridden into Mosonmagyarovar I spotted a 24 hour McDonald’s. Sheer delight. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I’d just hit the lottery at 2am. I bought enough food for a big family and I had a feast before going to bed.

Analysis

Strava

A short day, only 16 hours. You can see the fatigue really setting in with normalised power down to 140 Watts. My body was paying the price for the previous 2 days, and the big push yesterday. Today was flat so even though power was terrible speed was reasonable at 25.4 km/h average, thanks to the aero position on my tri-bars.

 

 

 

Transcontinental No.6 2018; Day 6

Day 6

If Day 5 had been a transition stage, today was more of the same. If this were a grand tour it would be the day to turn off. With the pundits scratching around for anything to say as another bland town passes by and little action happens as the riders recover. In 384km I climbed a total of 977m, 2.5m per kilometre, nothing, pancake flat. Cycling in Hungary can be hard at times, with tough laws on cyclists and forced use of bike paths that can twist and turn.  This becomes very frustrating, you loose your rhythm and focus not to mention speed. I can zone out into an almost state of zen when riding along and so each time I’m forced to think and navigate around a weird bike path change I break out of this trance. Thankfully the extra effort I’d put into researching my route here paid off and I had pretty smooth sailing, with no untoward deviations. Unlike in 2017, I didn’t come across any dug up roads and didn’t have to push my bike through sand! As a youth I’d lived in Hungary, so I passed through a few places I remembered. For example, we’d been to Székesfehérvár to see the total solar eclipse on August 11, 1999, almost exactly 19 years earlier.

I had a vision that I’d be out of Hungary today, it would be a push but a nice mental milestone to make. I didn’t want to spend all day pedalling and still end up in the same country. (Apologies to ultra veterans from Trans America or India Pacific!) Progress was not exactly rapid because my body was still protesting so my power was low. Nevertheless, thanks to the flat roads, in the early hours of the next morning I crossed into Croatia.

I don’t remember much of note from the day. Even if there were, it would pale into insignificance when compared with what happened when I arrive at my hotel in Vinkovici. I arrived late, around 2 am. I’d been pushing hard, having set myself a stretch target. I was knackered and in need of food. To her credit the lady at reception quickly whipped me up 2 boxes of cereal and 4 litres of milk. She said I could leave my bike just there at the front of reception and she’d watch it. Some people might baulk at this, however I’m a trusting person and boy, was also very tired. I just couldn’t be bothered to squeeze the bike into the lift. It seemed such a waste of energy. I’ve never carried a bike lock on the race, I never stop for long enough to bother locking it.

A smooth road, Hungry (James Hayden)

My room was on the first floor, 103. She said out the lift, turn right and it was the first door on the right. So, up in the lift (I’m not walking up the stairs), out the door, right and right, ah she’s left the door open for me, how kind. I barge in, turn the light on and throw my stuff down. Suddenly it dawns on me there is a completely naked couple on the bed, no sheets. What are these people doing in my room! Oh crap, it’s not my room, reverse reverse. I get out and close the door, check my key and the door number. God knows what had gone wrong in translation of the directions, but my room was to the left. I settled into my room and hoped for the best, thankfully they’d clearly been just drunk and passed out. No storm would have raised them.

Analysis 

Strava

A really short day, due to a late start, well into mid morning. My body is really feeling the fatigue today, with normalised power down to a minuscule 120 Watts, on a normal day I’d struggle to ride that slow, it would be impossible. Day 6 was probably my worst and hardest day on the bike physically, my body was not willing to comply and it was mind over body to keep the pedals turning.

 

 

Transcontinental No.6 2018; Day 7

Day 7

Today would bring the biggest challenge of the race. The gravel parcours of the climb to Bjelasnica in Bosnia. I’d spend a lot of time researching this climb and had failed to definitely answer this simple question: ‘Was it even possible to climb up there on a road bike with 32mm tyres?’ I’d gone as far as messaging people on the Strava segment. I was told by one helpful chap it would be fine, a bit rough going but fine, it later transpired he’d ridden up on a mountain bike! When it was 16km gravel in 4000km overall, I was not willing to compromise my tyre choice for only 16km.

I had again started the day quite late, around 8am. Progress was pretty good, into Bosnia and towards Sarajevo. I love cycling in Bosnia, it’s a very beautiful country. All day I was homing in on the climb and I knew this was a big test. Although I had a 12 hour lead on Bjorn I knew if something went seriously wrong on the gravel parcours I could lose it all. This was the final hurdle before the straight run to the finish.

I arrived at the checkpoint 4 hotel in the late afternoon, which was in the mountain resort and at the bottom of the parcours. I didn’t mess about and got going up the climb straight away. It was still light but I knew the sun would go down early. The start of the climb was really rough, thankfully this was due to a construction site and it soon eased up. The rock gave way to smooth gravel. Not long out of the town I was nearly run over by a family of quad bikes blasting down the mountain. The road opened up as I headed out of the wood and into the open space, above the tree line. The road looped around the base of the mountain and not long after, the smooth gravel turned to broken rock. The going went from hard to impossible and I found the answer to my simple question. It wasn’t possible to ride all the way and I was reduced to a very frustrating walk at a few points. I knew walking would take so much longer than cycling, so I fought getting off my bike as much as I could, willing the tyres over rocks they had no place to be. The climb was 8km long and I only walked 100 metres.

I made it to the top, the going had been, frankly, just about impossible. I’d only made it up by cycling due to my complete iron stubbornness and strength. What a reward though, the light was magical, sunset was just on the horizon. I remember TCR photographer, Camille McMillan, asking me if he had time to change his lens to get a photo, I laughed ‘not a chance!’ and was off descending.

I didn’t want to try this in the dark and I knew that getting down would be just as big a battle as going up. I took the descent like it was ice, really slowly. But even my extreme caution was not enough as I suffered a puncture, I worked double time to get it repaired. I did not want to be stuck up on the mountain in the dark, the descent was dangerous enough in the light. Camille rounded the corner in his car, jumped out and got the photo. I was suffering. He had me both walking and now fixing my puncture. I was human after all.

Walking up checkpoint 4 (Camille Mcmillan)

The rest of the descent was smooth and I made it back down to the hotel in good time. The climb had destroyed me after a tough day and I knew I needed to rest, I got a hotel room and ordered 2 portions of dinner. As I waited for my food to arrive, I ate 2 portions of local Bosnian cake, perfect.

There are moments to push on, and moments to hold back. I needed a good feed and sleep. I could afford both, I put myself 24 hours ahead of the next competitor. I had time to spend, the race was mine.

Analysis

Day 7 on strava

Parcours on strava

My shortest day, I started in daylight and ended in daylight, unheard of for me. Normalised power (NP) was back up, helped by the effort climbing checkpoint 4. From Sarajevo I spend 2h30m climbing up to the top of checkpoint 4, 1450m elevation gain over 25km, with an NP of 209 Watts. The 9km parcours at checkpoint 4 took 1 hours itself, at 235W NP.

 

 

 

Transcontinental No.6 2018; Day 8

Day 8

I was out the hotel door way before dawn with 5 hours sleep in me, the finish was in sight with only 800km to go. I felt strong and ready. I intended to go all the way, to race through to the finish. At this point I now had 24 hours on second place. There was nothing pushing me but my internal fires.

Out of Bosnia and into Montenegro, past Pluzine, remembering the base of Durmitor from Transcontinental No. 4 in 2016. I passed the Mratinje Dam which creates a beautiful turquoise reservoir, I stopped here at a terrible petrol station for lunch. Not for the petrol station food, or sore legs but for the amazing view. I stayed for longer than I should have, but there was no rush, I could enjoy the ride. In the afternoon heat I leant my bike up outside of a petrol station to get a coffee and food. For some reason I leant it on the non-drive train side out, the zip to access the bag and fill my bladder is on the drive side. I was being lazy. As I sat down to drink and eat, I looked over at my bicycle. My heart sank. The front tyre had a 2cm gash and a huge portion of the inner tube was sticking out. God knows how long this had been there. I’d checked the bike over for damage before going to bed. Anyway, mercifully it hadn’t popped. I don’t carry a spare tyre, so instead of worrying I just did as I had planned. I pulled the tyre off, unwound some Gorilla tape from my pump and stuck some on the inside of the tyre. Then I refitted the tube and inflated it. The pressure from inside would seal the tape solid and prevent the tear opening wider. I place another strip of tape on the outside for some extra protection. Gorilla tape sticks like glue (unsurprisingly) and it will repair all sorts of things. The issue was fixed and I’d wasted no time.

Tyre blow out, Macedonia

Around Podgorica and into Albania. The change between the two countries is stark. Within just a few kilometres after the border I’d seen a Hummer, a Lamborghini and donkeys pulling carts. It’s a country of division, the poor and the rich. I like it though and the hospitality and kindness of Albanian people is incredible. The cycling wouldn’t be much fun because the only way through meant passing through the busy capital city, Tirana. In addition, Albania is not the most lawful place and road rules are completely disregarded. For example, (it seems) it’s not considered a genuine overtake unless you are three cars abreast, with oncoming traffic.

At some point in the afternoon I’d had a talk with myself. I had nothing left to prove. I was going to win the race now, I knew it. I had no need to punish myself and ride the full 800km straight to the finish. I knew I could if I had to, but I didn’t need to prove that to anyone. I would stop just outside Tirana and sleep in a hotel for 5 hours, before making the final push, I’d enjoy it. I would savour the final day.

Thankfully, stress of bad roads and drivers aside, I made it to Tirana in the early hours as planned. I’d thought this would be a good idea because the roads would be quiet. I couldn’t have been more wrong; the place was absolutely buzzing. But I could not stop to join the party.

Analysis

Strava

A bland day from a figures wise. Power was low (as expected) I put a reasonable 16 hour shift in, and did some reasonable climbing of 3071m gain. Any other time these figures would be crazy, but here on the 8th day of The Transcontinental Race, they’re mediocre, ordinary, expected.

 

 

Transcontinental No.6 2018; Day 9

Day 9

After only 3 hours sleep, the amount I’d been sustaining myself on daily, my alarm went off, I was 24 hours in the lead with under 400km to go. So I rolled over, turned the alarm off and reset it for 2 hours later. I didn’t want to get out of bed and I felt I deserved a few more hours. Perhaps not the racers mentality, but I was not in a hurry. I could make 2 hours back up on the road, with not stopping and pushing those pedals harder. Don’t confuse my extra 2 hours for laziness, or arrogance. I was in pain, my arse, my legs, my body ached from covering 3600km in 8 days. I’m no cyborg and I suffer just like anyone, perhaps I just shut it out better.

Thankfully I had a whole box of chocolate cereal and 2 litres of milk to start the day. The mini market next to the hotel was open at 1am when I’d arrived, so I had food for the road. I wasn’t intending on stopping anytime soon, truthfully I’d try not to stop until Meteora, Greece. I left the hotel and pedalled up the road, no sooner had I covered 500m than I came to a police road block at a roundabout. They military police looked at me with complete confusion and waved me through. As I rolled passed the car stuck on the roundabout, I saw the bullet holes all down the side. A shooting drive by. Albania. Things picked up from here as I climbed the twisting road to Bërzhitë, the sun began to rise, the mist cleared and the warmth entered my bones. There’s no better feeling on a tired and battered body than the sun warming cold muscles and aching bones.

With a beautiful climb comes a great descent. Thanks to the new motorway this was the quietest road I’d ridden in thousands of kilometres. Sadly the next climb was no such fun, the local contractors had dug up a thin strip on the side of the tarmac to fit a new cable, failing to properly fill it. This left a 5cm wide trench around 5cm deep, deadly to a cyclist. Cue a few hours of pure concentration to ensure my wheel did not enter the trench as cars and lorries whizzed by. This torture was made worse by the gift of a nail through my tyre and into my rim. With numb hands it took me longer than it should have to pull it from the rim, having gone all the way through. The process was further lengthened by my need to run behind a bush and deal with digestion issues. Consuming 10,000 calories of petrol station food daily is not good for you. Hungry from the manual labour of removing the nail, before crossing the border I stopped for about the only food I could find in Bilisht, a kebab, thankfully the portions of chips were huge and I had several, throwing away the kebab. Topped up I pushed for the border and into Greece.

Nail through the rim, Albania.

As soon as I had my passport back a wave of euphoria crossed over me, 200km to go. I hit the pedals as hard as I could for as long as I could. The pace was ferocious, well as ferocious as you can ride after 3800km in 9 days! Sadly things came to an abrupt halt as I completely bonked, truthfully I’d been bonked for days, but I really ran out of puff. With some luck not long after I came into a town, 6 ice creams and several colas later I was rejuvenated and ready to hit the final 80km. I think this poor sweet Greek ladies shop became a TCR racers oasis, I know several people stopped there including the pair of Nico and Chas.

I was in my element and loving it. Never before have I enjoyed the final day, but this year I couldn’t be happier. Time was dragging and I willed it to be over, but I was having fun pushing those pedals as I covered ground. The sun was shining and I was going to be a back to back winner.

I had wanted to crest the climb to Meteora at sunset, and really enjoy it’s beauty in the warm glow of a final sun, sadly I hadn’t quite got my timing right and I arrived in darkness. The price I paid for those extra 2 hours in bed!

Analysis

Strava

179 Watts NP. The best since day one, I wasn’t hanging about and I was pushing those pedals as hard as I could. A blistering (!) 25.1kmph, perhaps fair with the 4652m climbed, it’s not flat run in to the finish. If you weren’t knackered from the previous days, the final one will really push you. The run in to Meteora is brutal.

 

 

Overall Analysis

A speed v time plot blow (trackleaders.com) shows the consistency I ride with. Ride hard, sleep. I’m no cyborg and I need to rest and sleep.

 

 

 

The finish

The Transcontinental Race doesn’t finish when you climb off (or in some cases fall off) your bike in Meteora. The finish line is the beginning of the next phase of the whole race experience. Waiting at the finish line for riders to come in. Sleeping for hours on end. Huge breakfasts that go on and on. The steadily building community of finishers. The stories of the road shared over Greek Gyros (like a chicken and salad sandwich in a pitta), beer, ice creams and coffee. It’s no rumour that TCR racers have eaten the local gelateria empty! I will admit to having helped significantly, my daily ration of ice cream always needed 2 tubs and each had at least three scoops. But the gelato king award goes to Matt Falconer.

For my own finish, it was in the late evening, the sun had set but the town was alive. I was in a rush because this year Isabelle would be there for the first time since TCRNo3 in Istanbul, when I had to scratch with a couple of days to go. I had to take a plane to the finish. TCRNo6 was the first time I had the confidence in myself to ask her to come and I said to arrive no later than early evening Monday. In the end I arrived 24 hours later having slightly overestimated my ability!

My prize, a kiss form my wife Isabelle at the finish (James Robertson)

I’d been to Meteora before so I knew where I was going. I descended the long sweeping curves down  from the clifftop monasteries at speed. In town, there was a final gentle downhill coast to the excellent Pub 38 who were hosting the finish. I caught them by surprise. Suddenly it was over and after almost 9 days, I stopped pedalling and had a big hug from Isabelle.

Both physically and mentally, I’d made it, all the way there, again.  A great surprise, my sister Maddie had flown out from her diving job on the Cote d’Azur. My parents Tamsin and Chris had actually signed up as volunteers and my Mum would stamp my brevet card. To have them both there was a fitting end to an exceptional race for Chris had started me cycling when I turned 20, in 2011. We sat down outside the pub and I ate two Gyros straight off.

Juliana Behring (ultra cycling legend and Race Coordinator) and James Robertson (one of two exceptional photographers who have created the images of the race in 2018) were there too. There was a group on the next table along the pavement who were Greek cyclists and dot-watchers who had specially come to see the finish. One of their friends was in the race. There was also a German dot-watcher who had ridden his bicycle from Germany to be at the finish. He ended up helping out as a volunteer. Also the special Vicky from Pub 38 who helped anyone who needed anything, a true host.

This year I managed to sink a good few beers and get to the hotel before I passed out. Thankfully for Isabelle I was not in too bad a state, a long shower and I was nearly human. I slept for a long time, awaking just before breakfast ended. For the first time in four races my body was not broken. In 2015 I had Shermer’s Neck. In 2016 I rode the final 300km with a partial tear in my hamstring. In 2017 I had a busted Achilles and knee. This time I finished feeling good and my body moved as it should. Having said that, I was beyond tired; fatigue glued me to the floor. I hadn’t slept more than 3hours a night on average, in 9 days, not to mention the 4,000km travelled.

After breakfast I checked the tracker for the first time in a few days. This time, not as a racer, but as a dot-watcher. I love to race but I also love racing. The battle between Matthew Falconer and Bjorn Lenhard had been ferocious. Matthew had pushed on through the night, not stopping. He was charging for the finish and 2nd place. I knew how he felt, I’d done the same in 2017, 40 hours straight at the end of 4,000km is beyond hard. I figured he’d arrive a little before midnight. With the rest of the day to spare, I went back to bed.

Matthew arrived late, having been a bit delayed after suffering a high speed fall on the final descent. He turned up bloody but in strong spirits. To the delight of the 20 or so people there, he did an impressive back wheel skid stop, staggered and fell off the bike (being handily caught by someone), then downed a 500ml beer in one long draft. Then he did another. A stellar performance, both on the bike and with the beer. My sister spent an hour cleaning and dressing the crash burns on his hip, elbow and hands.

Bjorn arrived the next morning, with as big a smile as ever. If there is an award for tenacity it would be for him; never one to give up, never one to let spirits drop. First or last, for Bjorn he just loves the ride. No doubt he’ll be back to win.

I can give praise to each and every rider I cheered in at the finish. I shook many hands and gave many hugs. I have deep respect for anyone who lines up on the start, let alone who finishes. Alexandre Le Roux finished an hour after Bjorn. Bike packing explorer and writer Josh Cunningham came soon after having scratched in 2017. He’d trained reasonably well, though not as much as he’d have liked. He said he’d learnt the lessons and finished in an impressive 5th place. A young German farmer, Rene Bonn, who had built his own aero carbon fibre luggage system, finished in sixth position at 4 in the morning. There were just two people to cheer him in but crucially they had saved a double Gyros with 2 bottles of cold beer.

Christoph Fuhrbach always impresses me, with his cool demeanour and trademark sandals. I’ve since found out that he’s ridden round the world and set an unofficial German cycling record by climbing 17,600m in 24 hours. He had perhaps the most unusual and joyous arrival. He rides for a catholic charity and a small group of nuns at a convent in South Albania (just 4 hours drive from Meteora) had become enthusiastic dotwatchers.  To recognise his achievement in finishing 11th, all the nuns turned up to greet him. The juxtaposition between his raggedness and their serene natures was magnificent.

As the days flowed by, the trickle of finishing riders grew to a stream. Chief grumbler Stuart Birnie, (aka @firsthippy) came in on Day 12, depriving his twitter followers of a steady string of complaints. On Day 13 the winner of the women’s race, novice Ede Harrison, finished. I think it would be fair to say that she surprised herself and surpassed her own expectations. She found new depths of grit and will power to finish 42nd overall, a great ride. No doubt, she’ll return as a veteran and go from strength to strength.

The laughs, the back slapping and the joy. Tales from the road swapped and shared. The finish is the real joy of the race. A connection with kindred spirits. A bond forced strong through sweat and suffering.

It was a pleasure to be able to spend time and build relationships with so many great people. James Robertson and I again spent an afternoon blasting around on a rented scooter, catching riders as they came in. After not being at the finish in 2017, Anna Haslock (Race Director) arrived and I was able to spend meaningful time with her. Camille McMillan (Race photographer) and I once again shot the breeze about projects, plans and life. Juliana kept everyone in line and supplied with drinks and food, always smiling and happy, her charisma is transcendent.

The party was a loud and happy evening. Something else that was special for me; at last, in his fourth attempt, my friend Doug Migden from the States had made it. Always a finisher, he’s a veteran of the race who had never previously got to the finish in time for the party. He was the first TCR rider I had ever met four years earlier when I was a novice. He was eating with a bunch of Italian cyclists in the Italian restaurant in Geraardsbergen. He memorably advised me to keep a hotel shower cap in my luggage to put on under my helmet if it rained. Sorry Doug – I never did follow that particular piece of advice!

Isabelle and I spent some quality time together, finally. In recent months I had so often either been out on my bike or away training. For us, just a few weeks before our wedding, this was a really treasured period of time together. It was crowned by watching an incredible sunset over Meteora, a magical and meaningful moment, now a special memory.

For those that made it to Meteora, the memories will burn bright for years to come. For those that didn’t, I hope the internal fire grows and they will return to conquer their demons. The journey is worth the toil.

 

You can view some fantastic photos from the finish, and read more on the race in the Transcontinental race report.

 

Christoph and the nuns  (James Robertson)

 

Thanks to Camille and James for letting me use their beautiful photos to bring my words to life.