TCR No.5 - Part 1
Calm before the storm
I'm in Ghent and I finally feel my body and mind relax as I tuck into a meatball stuffed with rich ragu sauce, washed down with a tangy local beer. I'm over the first hurdle; I've negotiated some potentially tricky transport issues and got myself and my bike to Belgium. I've got a whole evening to relax before I head to neighbouring Geraardsbergen the following morning for the start of the Transcontinental Race No.5. TCR is a single stage, unsupported bicycle race across 4000km of Europe from Belgium to Greece via 4 checkpoints, taking riders to Germany, Italy, Slovkia and Romania on the way.
I first heard about the race last year while on a bus travelling to the start of the HLC (a similar event in Isreal, only offroad). I loved the unsupported format of that race, but the off road part annoyed me, so TCR sounded like the perfect balance, and once the idea had been planted, it gradually took hold and I knew I was going to have to do it. I applied for one of the coveted places and around Christmas discovered I'd been successful - I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. 8 months later in a hostel room in Ghent the night before the race, I'm erring towards cry.
I've been motivated and excited about the race through over 30 weeks of intensive training but now it's an imminent reality I'm laying in bed unable to sleep, feeling scared and completely un-excited. And I'm worrying about the fact I'm not excited. Do I even like doing this stuff? Doubts and fears plague a fitful night of half sleep, compounded by a single mosquito which comes free with the room. It's a relief when morning comes and I can get out on my bike.
As I manoeuvre my fully laden bike out of the hostel entrance, struggling with its extra weight and bulk, it feels strange to be re-acquainted with my carbon steed for the first time in what feels like weeks after a rest period following all that hard training. The weight of what is to come makes the 25mile ride to Geraardsbergen seem longer and harder than it actually is. As I gradually adjust to cycling abroad (remembering to stay on the right of the road, lots of bike lanes, weird junction shapes, strange road signs) I'm aware that I'm still not excited. I'm focused and not panicking but I'm very uneasy and it all feels like a chore. The thought that later this same day I'll be starting the actual race is bizarre, but it will be a relief - I just want to get it started now. It's the waiting around that's eating me up.
Fantasy becomes reality
I arrive in Geraardsbergen expecting to find a town heaving with cyclists, but don't see any other riders until right outside the race HQ. As I roll into the courtyard the first thing I see is 2 Brixton Cycles jerseys – a comforting taste of home. As soon as I step inside the hall the atmosphere is like a warm hug that sends a blanket of calm over me. Hushed excitement and focus. I feel somehow instantly at home, Spotting the familiar faces of Anna and Lionel Bob helps - I'd met them at Mike Hall's memorial weekend in Wales. Working out how to fill the time before the race started had been stressing me out, but I quickly realise the registration process is going to take up all the dead time in the day so I settle in and wait for my number to be called. Gradually I find some familiar faces that I've met over the past few months at various events: Jenny Tough, Mostyn from The Racing Collective, Aaron & Jane, Adrian, Tim France. Everyone has the same potent mix of nervous anticipation.
Slowly I work through the various stages of registration, receiving my TCR cap. It's curious that you're given the closest thing to a trophy at the start of the race, and it generates the first real tingle of excitement. Phew! I briefly say hi to Anna the race director, and as I wait I spot characters I know from watching films of past TCRs: Camille MacMillan the bohemian photographer, Jacapo and Julianna, Emily Chappel, James Hayden and Kristof Allagaert. It's surreal to see all these characters in real life, in one room. It's small scale and friendly yet I'm sitting next to Bjorn Lennard (who would finish 2nd) upstairs in Pasta Al Dente an hour before the race starts, and outside chatting to Mathais Dalgas with his red aero carbon Canyon, who told me he was going for the win and who would end up finishing 5th. Julianna takes us through a thorough rider briefing and we watch some footage of the late, great Mike Hall musing on the spirit and philosophy of ultra endurance cycling. It's an inspiring and moving detail.
There's just time for another tub of pasta and a coffee on the town square with Aaron, where the cafe owner shares his love of Eddie Merkx and tells us how proud he is of his town's illustrious cycling heritage. The old town square starts to fill up with bikes, with hi-vis yellow everywhere you look. There's good music pumping from the TCR tent in the corner and a real atmosphere starts to develop, buzzing with nervous excitement. I soak it all up. I do a lap of the crowd and climb up a staircase to get an aerial view for some footage. I feel relaxed and relieved it's nearly happening. Our little group suddenly realise we're standing right where the race will start, so we move closer to the back!
The mayor is the perfect character to lead the proceedings and he's on top form, bellowing across the square to corall 300 riders into order. Anna says a few emotional words followed by a minute's silence in respect for Mike. His mum Pat insists on a minute of loud noise – more Mike's style! As the locals light their torches and head up the Muur, the throng of riders nervously await the countdown. The mayor takes a breath, shouts, rings his bell and riders all start filing out of one corner of the square. I pull my right leg up for the first of thousands of pedal strokes. Push off, but something's wrong, I'm not moving. My rear mech has jammed. Bikes are swarming around me, queuing behind me. Shit. Unclip. Be quick. What's wrong? I randomly push and pull the mech and it works. Clip back in. Push off. I'm moving. Phew!
We're straight onto cobbles, moving slowly as everyone filters into an orderly procession. I find a rhythm and relax, I try to take it all in. Suddenly there's a loud crash. I look back and see one of my water bottles rolling down the cobbled hill illuminated by the headlights swerving to avoid it. I swiftly dismount, lean the bike at the side of the road and retrieve the bottle. It must have been bounced out of its cage by the cobbles. As some riders joke about my bad start I flashback to the HLC last year where exactly the same thing happened at the start. 2 problems in the first 5 minutes – is this how the race would continue?!
(If only I knew!)
We're out of the town now, on a silky smooth gentle descent and once the adrenaline of the frantic start wears off, I notice the calm silence that has descended on the bunch. It's a beautiful, vivid moment that I know I'm going to remember. The cloud of blinking red lights morphs to the shape of the road ahead as we enter the town again for our ascent of the Muur. Crowds appear lining the streets, shouting encouragement. “Go 135!” “Good luck 135!” It's just a number but the recognition and sentiment become heightened in the moment. The cobbles return as the gradient ramps up and soon we're funnelled almost into single file, grinding to a halt with people frantically unclipping and jumping off their bikes. Someone falls off right in front of me. It's like a war scene. Locals line the street 3 deep and closing in like a TDF mountain finish, except in complete darkness with flaming torches. I can feel the heat of the flames lick my face. The chapel comes into view, we're at the top. Now we're racing. A fleeting view of lights down below. Discs squeal as we descend down the other side and we arrive at a junction and the first decision of the race: left or right? It's a 50/50 split and the bunch of riders around me is instantly halved. This process repeats itself over the next few hours as we cruise through the cool night air across the flat landscape, until I'm alone with a thin line of red tail lights sparsely dotted along the road ahead.
Inhale, then a long sigh. It feels like the first breath I've taken since leaving the town square, and I settle in for a long night. This is a moment on a ride that I cherish. There's a cosiness and security perhaps borne from long childhood car journeys. My brain grapples to break the night up into manageable sections to make the distance and time understandable. 2 x 3hr chunks to get me to sunrise. The same again and I'm well into Saturday. My plan is to ride through to Saturday night. 24 hours is the target. Soon I'm completely alone on a thin strip of tarmac crossing a field. I stop for the first time and look up at a star filled sky. I look behind me into total darkness.
I ride through small villages all through the night and eventually run out of water. I complulsively start scrutinising every house for taps. Large, vintage taps are a common sight on Belgian houses but it takes one dismal attempt to realise they are purely ornamental. The search continues. I finally top up my bottle from a hose pipe at 3am, convinced the house owners would wake up and find me. I get away with it. I don't see anyone until about 6am when I merge onto a road that's obviously a popular TCR route. Suddenly there's that line of red dots spread out to the horizon. Race mode clicks as I realise I can reel these guys in on the gentle climbs we're rolling over. I get sucked into overtaking each rider in turn but it's a stupid waste of energy. After an hour of effort and a few scalps, I stop for a wee and they all ride past me again. Pointless. I make a mental note to keep a steady pace and not worry about everyone else.
Pastry & Caffeine
I'm battling drowsiness but I know if I can make it to sunrise I'll be ok. The sun comes up and I instantly need to sleep. Damn, it's not meant to work like that! I fight it for as long as I can then dive off into a clearing for a 10 minute power nap. It does the trick but now I'm craving coffee. An hour later I found a boulangerie packed to the rafters with sweet smelling pastries and sure enough...coffee. I order more than is reasonable and stuff my face in a shady spot outside. A few TCR riders fly past, I feel sorry for them, they're missing out. Soon one of them stops, it's Grace Lambert Smith – I recognise her from Instagram. She joins me for a coffee and we exchange what will become the standard TCR chat. I fill up my bottles and reluctantly tear myself away from the cafe.
As the day wears on it gets hot. A succession of towns and border crossing becomes a confusing blur until I'm approaching Saarbrucken – a town I remember targeting as the end of my first leg, somewhere to find a hotel and congratulate myself for a long ride. Real life TCR feels different and now it's become a quick stop-off for a nap before pushing on to get 300 miles on the clock. As I approach the town I come across another rider and again a normally dormant competitive streak surfaces and I'm trying to drop him on every climb. I manage to on a long uphill drag but he gets back to me eventually. The duel does a good job of raising my pace but it's probably not wise in 35 degree heat after riding for 18 hours. I have a nap in the town next to the river, then muster the discipline to push myself back onto the road and into the heat. As the sun starts its descent the temperatures start to cool and riding becomes easier. I love the period between day and night, a quiet stillness seems to descend over everything, it's a unique atmosphere. I'm determined to hit my 24 hour and 300 mile targets and the ever changing road is kind to me, turning into perfectly smooth tarmac all the way to Germany. The border crossing is busy and dangerous on a big, dark road. A town presents itself as the perfect distance to complete my 300 but when I arrive it's a semi-industrial dump and I'm too late to check into any hotels. I scare an Asian couple relaxing in their pub – they're not expecting anyone to show up at this time of night, let alone a lycra-clad foreigner. They don't have any rooms. I hit the road again, exhausted and resigned to finding somewhere to pitch my tent. Small urban patches of grass are considered and dismissed until I hit the edge of town and find the spot, I know instinctively when it's right. Tucked away behind two rows of trees on one side, and a wheat field on the other. I quickly pitch the tent, climb in and pass out.
Be More Frank
I wake up the next morning feeling like someone has taken a baseball bat to my legs during the night. Then I check my phone and find out a TCR rider, Frank Simons had been killed during the first night. It's a shock and I spend a long time packing up my kit and getting on the bike. I'm moving in slow motion, my brain churning to adapt to this new frame of reference. I conclude that it's a tragic loss and seems like a worrying trend in these events but in honesty it's nothing to do with the race, it could happen any time anywhere. I don't know the guy so don't feel truly affected. I understood and had fully come to terms with the risks before entering, so nothing's changed. I climb aboard and hit the cycle path. I'm moving at less than 10mph (I'd expect about 17 on this flat section), and it's not just to do with the emotional impact of the morning's news. My legs physically won't move any faster. Welcome to the TCR.
It's another beautiful day and the sun is in full force by the time my legs start working again. The scenery and architecture starts to have the feel of the mountains, it's exciting. There's a proper climb coming up and I stop at a cafe at the foot of the slope to indulge in a breakfast of pastries and coffee. I'm in my element! Bottles filled and I'm on the climb – my natural habitat as a cyclist. For some reason my physiology seems to suit climbing, so there's nowhere I feel more at home than settling in for a nice long ascent. I find my rhythm and enjoy the ride, the thunderous sound of a cascading river close to the road.
Checkpoint 1 is tantalisingly close – just around the corner, but the mountains slow my progress and the heat is punishing. When I'm riding I generate my own cooling breeze but when I stop I have to dive into shade quickly. I drag myself over the ascents and through winding valleys until CP1 appears on my GPS screen. I enter the town and head for the parcours (a mandatory section of the route - always a big climb) - I want to get the hard bit done first. It's a short, steep climb which I have to myself, save a couple of TCR riders heading back down to the checkpoint. There are messages of support chalked onto the road which results in an instant increase in pace, and soon I arrive at the castle as the sky darkens and thunder rolls around in the distance. I get a tourist to take a photo then have an awkward conundrum as I have to get someone else to take a better one without him realising. Photography dilemma negotiated, I start my descent, taking a bit of a scenic route down into the town. Soon I spot a typically understated Transcontinental sign outside a hotel and head round the back to find a sun soaked garden complete with burbling stream, swinging chair and knackered cyclists strewn about everywhere. A quaint summerhouse serves as a TCR office and I get my brevet card stamped, learning I've arrived in around 60th place. I'm very happy with that as my target is to finish higher than my cap number (135).
Geraardsbergen - CP1 (Schloss Lichtenstein)
375 miles | 22,300ft ascent | 41h 28m