The Transcontinental Race
Preparing to ride 4000km
The surge in self-supported, ultra distance bike racing events in recent years has certainly brought the discipline to a wider audience and although still far from mainstream, there’s one event that perhaps garners more interest than the rest - The Transcontinental Race. This non-stop 4,000km journey across Europe requires riders to travel unsupported, decide where or when to sleep, find their own food and deal with their own mechanicals, as well as dodge the odd feral dog or brown bear.
Why is the race so interesting?
Intrigue in these long races may lie in the baffling willingness of riders to put themselves through significant levels of suffering or perhaps there’s vicarious satisfaction and inspiration to be had in seeing others ride non-stop through many countries and to watch the race develop through social media or the Live Tracking. For those watching it becomes an addiction, tracking the live position of riders as they move from one country to the next, threading their way through mountain ranges and seeing the unique routes unfold. For those riding the event becomes an all-consuming obsession, from the point of deciding to enter, the miles of training, the route planning and the anticipation and nerves that start to take hold as the race approaches.
Far from one-upmanship, or the need to acquire kudos and bragging rights, the ultra bike racing scene and culture is unique. It’s mellow, laid-back and supportive. Although you can plan meticulously for your perfect race, with such vast distances and so many variables at play you have to be adaptable, flexible and self-reliant, and you can’t throw in the towel at the first sign of trouble. But that’s not to say that kit selection is lackadaisical. Hell, no. Gaining trust in your kit and getting the comfort and feel just how you want it for multiple days in the saddle requires extensive research, testing and knowledge. “Carry everything you need and nothing you don’t”, tends to be the mantra.
The race format
The race format is pretty simple. All riders start together and ride via their own pre-planned routes to the finish point. There are several checkpoints along the way that each rider must visit, including short sections of compulsory road, known as ‘Parcours’, that again each rider must follow. Other rules include no drafting (unless riding in a pair), no use of private lodgings or gaining planned assistance along the route. Above all else it is important that riders understand the meaning of self-reliance and undertake the ride in the correct spirit, purchasing, obtaining and using only what is fairly available to all other riders.
The first question I’m asked when someone learns that I’m riding the Transcontinental Race is, “how do you train for that?” In short, I don’t know. Like most things relating to this race, there is no formula. You can read everything there is to read about how others have prepared, and that may reveal some great tips, but when it comes to learning about how your body and mind respond to long days of riding you should only rely on your own experiences and feedback. I put as much emphasis on training my mind to think positively about the ride as I do in preparing my body to deal with the stresses. If I feel fit, and I believe that I’m fit then I should perform well.
Common sense dictates that the race will favour those who are best prepared, and that doesn’t just relate to being fit on the bike. To plan a route through nine countries that best suits your ability, avoids dangerous or unrideable roads, understands the local traffic laws, is short without being too hilly and within which you know all the places to find food, water, supplies and accommodation takes time. And then you need to have a Plan B and C. If your Plan A starts to dwindle then morale plays a big part in success and you need to be capable of accepting an alternative. Days of bad weather, a stiff headwind, mechanical problems or even route issues if you arrive to find a road you had planned to use has been dug up, can all cause delay and that will have a knock-on effect to this day and the next.
Race strategy and route planning are closely guarded (it’s a race, after all). Many riders choose the flexibility of bivvying whilst others prefer to target having a bed each night. Some riders carry spare clothes, others don’t. Some riders choose shorter routes with more hills and others go longer and flatter. With so much to think about it’s much more important to focus on your own gameplan than to worry about what others might be doing.
What bike to use
Although the route is largely a free-for-all, some delicious sections, pre-planned by the organisers, are compulsory for each competitor. These generally throw down the odd curveball that makes everyone think twice about bike choice and doubt their kit options. I had a few self-imposed prerequisite requirements for my bike.
Firstly, comfort and compliance. The ride has to feel fast, but without an aggressive geometry that made me feel like an inflexible contortionist. And it would need to offer relief from the 4000km worth of vibrations and potentially rough road surfaces.
Secondly, disc brakes and electronic gears. Whilst there is a risk that if electronic gears fail I could be left roadside with a very awkward mechanical problem, I decided that it was outweighed by the relief that my hands would feel if they only have to nudge a button, rather than hoick a full lever. Having been in a situation in the Alps where my hands were so cold that I couldn’t tell if I was holding the handlebars, let alone pulling the brakes, this feels like a necessary luxury.
Thirdly, tyre clearance. As expected we will be tackling the occasional section of gravel, so to offer me a touch more comfort on the road and more control where it will be unsurfaced it has to take at least a 28mm tyre, although I didn’t want something so wide that my speed on the road would start to feel compromised.
The complete bike
With that all considered, I have decided to ride the Specialized S-Works Roubaix, which features the Pave seatpost for improved compliance at the rear and the Future Shock hydraulic front suspension that will hopefully offer relief to the hands, shoulders and back. It’ll take a tyre width up to 33mm, although I have chosen 28mm Continental GatorHardshell, and the SRAM eTap AXS groupset should keep the gears shifting sweetly. I’ve also attached some Profile Design 45/25c aero bars that will allow me to be more efficient along the flat, with additional spacers to help mitigate stress on my neck, as well as offering relief to the nerves in my hands.
The bike has several features that enhance comfort which has given me the option to choose a tyre that offers a bit more protection from punctures, whilst perhaps compromising slightly on rolling resistance.
Carrying everything you require for a race that could last two weeks requires significant thought. Personally, I’m a bit fastidious about keeping the bike free from clutter, so all of my kit will be carried in an Apidura saddle bag, racing frame bag and top tube bag, with a food pouch at the front for on-the-go snacking. I’ll be navigating using a Garmin 520 and my lights are powered by a Son dynamo in the front hub that also attaches to a battery pack for keeping other electronics charged during the day. My tool selection is basic but should give me the flexibility to deal with most situations on the roadside. A Vel Air Flow mini pump attaches neatly to the VEL Carbon-I bottle cages and I also have a VEL 17-piece multi-tool that includes a chain breaker.
Why do it?
The reality is that I can do all the planning, have the bike set up exactly how I want and feel like I have a good grasp of the route, but once we start rolling out of Bourgas in eastern Bulgaria and head west, bound for the French town of Brest, with its rich randonneuring heritage, anything could happen. Recently Europe has been sweltering in a heatwave, the Alps will have different weather in every valley, France could feature a relentless headwind or I could puncture ten times on the first day (although that would be unfortunate). On an event that requires as much planning as this, there is respect due for those who simply make it to the start line and every milestone passed after that is a bonus.
Why do I want to do it? I tend to shy away from cliches about “finding the limits of endurance” or “pushing myself to see how far I could go”. It’s a race, so I’m in it to race, but when it comes to the reasoning behind putting myself through this kind of experience, I don’t see it as a need to explore the definitions of suffering or “epic”. I just like riding my bike, especially in new places, and this race gives me the opportunity to ride on roads, to see views and experience places that I might never have the chance to otherwise.
Follow the race
Race start: Saturday 27th July 6:00am
Start location: Bourgas, Bulgaria
Finish location: Brest, France
Total distance: (approx.) 4,000km
Total elevation gain: (approx.) 40,000m+
Follow the race live: www.transcontinental.cc