It can take a long time to process something like the Transcontinental. You experience so much, and at such an intensity, that you get to the finish and don’t really know what’s hit you. At that point, you are mainly interested in beer; reflection on the event is limited to ‘bloody hell, I’ve done it’.
However, none of that excuses my tardiness in writing my report of the race!
Before I get on to that, I should say thank you to all the people who indulged my obsession, and sent messages of support and encouragement. The messages really helped when the going got tough, and made me feel a little less alone out there. Hopefully the race was a source of enjoyment rather than too much concern about my welfare..
Without further or do, here is my recollection of what happened, checkpoint-by-checkpoint.
(pre-)Start to Checkpoint 1 (France)
I’m one of the lucky ones: the start line of Transcontinental No4 was a mere 45km from my front door, or less than a couple of hours of gentle riding on very familiar roads. I’d arranged to meet a small peloton of other racers in Brussels to ride out to the start together on one of my regular routes. Small punctuality issues aside, the ride was great, and we got to the registration a little after 2pm to join the queue.
The familiarity of the start town, Geraaardsbergen, did absolutely nothing to calm my nerves. It was full of racers, most of whom I assumed would be better prepared and more experienced (at least over this kind of distance and format) than me in my rookie year.
I relaxed a bit once the neutralised lap around Geraardsbergen got underway. By the time we were on the steep, cobbled slopes of the Muur, I was moving up quite quickly past riders (never mind the fact that it was just a few hundred metres of a 4000km race) and so felt much better about things. A few close shaves with flaming torch-wielding fans later, I was up over the Muur and free to ride off into the night and racing to Turkey.
And so I did. I rode a mighty 13km, then went to bed.
Sleep strategy is a personal thing. The vast majority of riders rode much further than me that night; the fastest, most cyborg-like guys were aiming to reach checkpoint 1 in about 24 hours. My own plan was to stick to a regular sleep schedule, aiming to ride fast and recover well. I was skeptical about the benefits of going into a big sleep debt right at the start of such a long race, partly based on my experience in training where I felt generally rubbish after riding through the night. Applying my most rigorous pseudo-science, I also figured that the body responds well to regular cycles, and so would adapt better if I didn’t disrupt it. Typically I’d sleep about 4.5-5 hours a night, always in hotels. This meant I could shower and wash my kit (good for hygiene) and get good quality sleep, before starting early the next morning.
On the way out of Geraardsbergen, I was lucky enough to ride with my friend Chris (number 24), who bears a good deal of the blame for getting me interested in doing the race: I came to see the start of the previous edition with him, and found myself feeling rater envious of all the racers, and so spent the next couple of weeks avidly dot watching. The rest, as they say, is history. When I told him about my sleeping strategy, he did what any good racer would do and tried to convince me to abandon my carefully devised plan. I persisted, and we parted ways. I wouldn’t see him again until the finish…
When I woke on Saturday morning, I checked the tracker on my mobile: 209th place, out of some 230 starters. Better get moving.
That day turned out to be hard. By the afternoon I had difficulty breathing, and had rather a ‘wobble’ outside a supermarket around 4pm. I was concerned I might be getting some kind of chest infection, but resolved to keep on riding that evening and see how I felt the next day. I still managed to push out my second biggest day of the race, some 340km.
Fortunately, the next morning I felt fine again; I can only assume I had an allergy to some sort of pollen in that region of France. The ‘ride hard, rest hard’ strategy started to pay off, and I was gradually moving up through the field. Occasionally I’d pass someone snoozing by the roadside (muahaha); every now and then I’d actually catch someone on the road, have a quick chat, then get back into my rhythm and press on.
For a long distance cyclist, the French culinary experience is quite underwhelming. Nothing seems to be open at the right time, so supermarkets are the main source of food. That, and McDonald’s.
Early morning bakery stops almost make up for it, though. There you can stock up on a baguette or 2 for the day, as well as eat obscene amounts of pastry, and often get coffee too. The coffee is invariably bad, but tastes good all the same.
You can then follow this with hours of cruising on smooth, fast and fairly quiet D roads, more or less wherever you want to go: this was the story of my first couple of days of riding. Sunday lunch in a bus stop, followed b a quick coffee, water fill and chat with the locals in a bar (usual questions: where from? where to? how fast? how far? are you pro?) where the owner was keen to show me his polkda dot Tour de France jersey, before rolling on along the Loire valley, catching more riders and generally living the dream.
All this, combined with fresh legs and the excitement of starting to race, i could easily keep up with my schedule, and in fact pulled into CP1 ahead of time, arriving there on Sunday evening when I originally thought I’d arrive early Monday morning. The hotel was a hub of slightly nervous cycling energy, with riders debating whether or not to go up and do the parcours (the obligatory part of the route up to the Cole de Ceyssat, just below the volcanic summit of Puy de Dôme), trying to book rooms in the hotel, grabbing dinner etc. I had my plan already: I checked into the room I’d booked at lunch time, got dinner from the nearby McDo, and went to sleep. I’d tackle the climb up to Col de Ceyssat in the early morning.