lessons from the road
What a difference a year makes
Last year I took on the Transcontinental Race for the first time. Looking back it went spectacularly badly (read about it here). So many things went wrong including catastrophic electronic failures, constant mechanical issues, severe overuse injuries, even a deer strike which left my front wheel in tatters. The problems piled up until I ran out of time and was forced to scratch in Macedonia, only around a day away from finishing. I had unfinished business with the TCR - I knew I could fix everything I could control and resolved to come back in 2018 for another stab.
This time I finished the race in 13 days 20 hours, with virtually nothing going wrong. Instead of telling the story of the race, this time I'll lay out what I changed from last year in the hope I can pass on some of the experience I've gained to new aspiring TCR riders...
A lot about my setup from last year worked, so I was scared to change it. Although I had a new bike this year I used my old saddle, shoes and gloves – all the contact points.
Last year my bike caused me numerous problems which cost a lot of time and ultimately led to me scratching from the race. This time round I had a new bike custom built by Rob at Quirk Cycles and equipped with a SRAM 1x groupset which eliminates the need for a front mech making it impossible to have any front mech problems! Last time I was caught out by components reaching the end of their life unexpectedly. My bike was bought second hand so I had no idea how old the groupset was - as it happened, it was all just about to fail! This time round I knew everything was brand new, and I'd specced my bike with the knowledge of what's needed for a TCR. Needless to say the bike performed perfectly, if you need a machine to get you places fast, in comfort...get in touch with Mr Quirk.
Last year my electronics suffered water ingress meaning I could no longer charge from the dynamo. While I kept the same dynamo, this year I switched to an Igaro electronics system and treated myself to a switch so I could easily switch between my light and charging devices. The switch had the added benefit of making me feel like I was Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon switching to auxiliary power.
Water damage was a big problem for me last year and eventually my iPhone also succumbed.
This year i came armed with a new waterproof phone, eliminating this issue.
Last year I hadn't thought about the need to charge multiple devices at the same time, meaning I had to stop to buy extra adaptors which added weight and bulk to my kit. This year I had the masterstroke of acquiring a European plug with 3 individual USB outputs. I complemented this with 3 short length USB cords, and each one could charge either a micro USB (most of my kit including Wahoo Bolt) ...or my iPhone.
Last year I took an ultra lightweight tent so that I could guarantee myself shelter no matter where I was. In reality, the times a storm came in I really needed proper shelter for myself and the bike, I may as well have just had a bivvy. In TCR no5 the electronics on my bike sustained water damage as I was happily sheltering in my tent, oblivious to the pummelling my poor exposed bike was taking. So this year I took a minimal bivvy bag, packing my inflatable mat and sleeping bag inside for rapid deployment and packing – a much better setup. If I had to reduce this kit further I can imagine just taking the mat and ditching the bivvy and sleeping bag, relying on warm clothes to tide me through the short sleeps I needed.
No5 vs No6 - A difference in training
Last year I followed a rigorous regime of 350km / week for the 7 months leading up to the race. I supplemented this with regular indoor 90 minute endurance sessions at Athlete Lab and 150+ km big rides every weekend – even through the January snow.
This year I took a much more relaxed approach to training; in January my bike was firmly confined to the house while I started running regularly to gently increase my fitness after a pretty dramatic post-TCR hiatus. Gradually by March I'd started training on the indoor spin bikes at H2 Soho using the Stages Flight system under the laid back tutelage of Simon.
It was at least March before I even got back on my bike and I had no idea whether all the theoretical indoor training was actually doing anything. I booked May off work completely for cycling – this would be the test. Trans Devon (400km), Normandicat (900km) and the NC500 route in Scotland (800km) quickly got me up to speed and knocked me into shape. After this shakedown I was pretty confident I'd got back to somewhere near the fitness level I was at last year. A work trip to California threatened to disrupt the final months of training but ended up as a great hot weather training camp as I managed to borrow a XC bike to thrash around the gravel tracks surrounding L.A. These rides not only exposed me to a lot of long climbs but also acted as perfect preparation for the CP4 gravel section.
Drowsiness / blood sugar level
A big problem in TCR no5 – I would eat something and have a blood sugar spike then a corresponding crash, leaving me so sleepy I needed a recovery nap to continue. This time I avoided sugar as much as possible. The allure of an ice cold Coke was still irresistible but this time I chose Coke Light and tried as much as possible to replace sugary pastries and carbs with whole foods like cheese, yoghurt and meat. Salami was particularly successful as for some reason the act of chewing magically kept me awake when drowsiness struck. Avoiding the blood sugar crashes proved pretty succesful - I felt I had much more control over my energy than last year, and I could go for much longer stints without becoming sleepy. The next level would be to switch to a ketogenic diet where the body adapts completely to run on fat rather than carbs.
Last year as I ramped up my training I started to develop a pain deep in my right glute. As the race progressed, the injury deteriorated and by the time I scratched after 15 days I could barely walk. When I got back to London I went to see a physio who spent a long time silently watching me walk up and down before giving me two simple stretches to do. This would fix it, she assured me. The stretches were for a completely different part of my body so as a medical layman I was skeptical, but sure enough after a couple of weeks working on my hip flexors, the pain in my glute had completely disappeared. I've been keeping up the stretches pretty much every day since and I made sure I was stretching throughout the race too. I finished with absolutely no glute pain whatsoever. I'm genuinely impressed that something so simple could be so effective.
By the end of TCR No5 my right had was virtually useless. I couldn't write, simply retrieving anything from my pocket was a tortuous process and I was a liability in any kind of Asian restaurant. 15 days of ulnar nerve abuse and gear shifting had left me with what TCR vets endearingly call 'cyclists palsy' - fingers clamped in a claw-like grip with no strength left to do anything useful. It took months for the nerve damage to heal. I blamed the problems on my knackered 105 shifters, reasoning that they were unduly stiff, but this time around sure enough I find myself with the same problem. I suspect it might be a core strength / bike position issue and that electronic shifting could also help solve the problem but I still don't have any real evidence or knowledge about the subject. Answers on a postcard please!
In 2017 there were some banned roads that made planning a path through certain sections really tricky. As a result my approach to route planning was a lot more thorough in general; I invested many hours, starting in January and applying the finishing touches in the weeks before the start.
This time around it all seemed a lot easier and I threw together my route quickly about a month before the start without too much fuss. I planned to refine my route, working out which roads were illegal to create alternative options, but never really got round to it. I was happy with the decisions I made on the broad strokes of my route, but my lackadaisical approach came back to bite me when I found myself trying to navigate through cities – especially in Hungary where it seems every useful road is banned to cyclists and the alternative cycle lanes they sometimes provide can abruptly end, sometimes resulting in frustrating re-traced kilometres. More than I'd like to I found myself blankly staring at Google Maps scratching my head while better prepared riders sailed past.
One of the few things that went wrong this year was embarassingly self-imposed; I was cruising along happily at the end of the first day when my Wahoo suddenly flashed red, warning me it was running out of space and that I would have to delete some maps. (I still have no idea why it would do this). I had the option of USA or Europe and for reasons I still haven't been able to fathom I chose Europe. All my European maps were promptly deleted, leaving me with just a line on a blank screen to follow. Fortunately I'd learned from my experiences last year and packed a backup Garmin eTrex. I used this up until CP3 when I managed to get the maps back on the Wahoo.
I felt much more relaxed before the race. I'd booked an AirBnB in Geraardsbergen, and I knew the ropes of registration from last year which made for a much more relaxed pre-race experience. The experience wasn't as all-consuming as last year, I wasn't as obsessed in the months leading up to the race which meant I was more chilled to the point of apathy which meant it took a while to get into the race. The first night was a struggle as a result as I didn't have the reserves of adrenaline to drive me on, and it wasn't until 24hrs in that I started to feel the race get its claws into me.
Consistent with last year, I experienced some effects of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. In the weird dream space between waking and sleeping states I would find myself part of an audience, or support team, observing myself as a separate person. We would provide commentary or advice from a distance as this helpless traveller pressed on oblivious to his viewers. Once, after a quick bus shelter bivvy session, I perceived myself as a female TV show subject, with a presenter providing a running commentary on the controversial subject of bivvying and pressing me for insights on my particular technique as I tried to pack my saddle bag.
Another time in the early hours on the country lanes of the Czech Republic, I found myself accompanying an imaginary African politician and being forced to confront and accommodate his dubious political views – which acted as an unwelcome distraction from the real issue of a rubbing front disc which had been hampering my progress for several kilometres, completely undetected.
My brain won't let go
This happened last year and it's happening again...I wake up in the middle of the night convinced the race is not over. I'm in an Albanian hotel room and I panic as I realise I need to get back on my bike and get back on the road. How could I have wasted so much time? I'm so behind my schedule! It takes a while for me to piece together the evidence that I'm in my own bedroom (that cupboard door handle looks awfully familiar) and eventually I convince myself that the race ended over a week ago and I don't have to worry.