With the British cold weather settling in we wanted to share some stories to get you thinking about what challenges you might be preparing for in 2018. The Transcontinental Race is a 4000km unsupported, single stage bike race across Europe, held in July to August each year. The route is outlined by 4 check points, and riders must plot their own course between them. This year saw the 5th edition of the race start as usual on the cobbled streets of Geraardsbergen in Belgium, this time finishing in Metora, Greece and passing through checkpoints in Germany, Italy, Slovakia and Romania on the way. Tom Probert was attempting the race for the first time this year, here is an insight into what life was like for two weeks on the TCR. Let us know if you’re tempted…
I found out I had secured a place on the race during the 2016 Christmas holiday – an email greeted with equal parts excitement and dread. Only 300 entry places are allocated from more than a thousand applicants, following a gruelling application process and randomised ballot. It was time to get down to some serious work: I had 7 months to attempt to become an ultra endurance athlete. I set about demolishing the remaining Christmas food and booze supplies, knowing there was some hard training ahead.
Starting out with freezing, dark January solo rides I gradually built up the distances I was covering from 130km to over 250km going into the spring. The Transkernow race by Rockets & Rascals in April was my first taste of riding through the night, covering 400km in two days, and The Racing Collective's Trans-Scotland Race served as the perfect final training ride. As if losing every single weekend of the year to this thing wasn't enough, I sacrificed at least two school nights a week to focused indoor training sessions at Athlete Lab, and then filled up the only free time I had left getting horribly sweaty in front of the TV on Zwift, or getting horribly sweaty in front of other people at Psycle. By the time I arrived at the start line in Geraardsbergen I was confident I'd done all I could physically, but I had no idea if it would be enough.
My bike was a carbon GT Grade, with custom wheels built by SBC Cycles and a sub-compact crankset to help haul a fully loaded bike up the hills. It was perfect in principal with comfy endurance geometry, dynamo hub, tubeless tyres and lower gear ratios, but ultimately it was the bike that would bring an end to my race.
I can't talk about the TCR without mentioning Mike Hall, the mastermind behind the race who was tragically killed in March 2017 while competing in the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race. At 10pm 300 riders had packed Geraardsbergen's town square, ready for the start. Mike's mum Pat and girlfriend Anna led an emotional tribute to Mike before the mayor bellowed a countdown and rung his bell to set us off into the night with Mike's memory to inspire us. The locals have really embraced the TCR and each year they line the narrow-cobbled climb up The Muur brandishing flaming torches and shouting encouragement as the riders leave the town. It's a surreal and intense experience that will live long in the memory.
My target distance each day was 180 miles (just short of 300km). Once the inevitable set-backs started piling up it became impossible to reach my target every day. After a while, even the concept of a 'day' became blurred as I had to ride straight through some nights to make up for lost time.
In a slightly controversial change, each checkpoint this year had a cut-off time for arrival after which you wouldn't qualify as an officially ranked finisher. Approaching Checkpoint 3, I found myself with just over 24 hours to cover over 500km. I formulated a plan and set hourly distance goals to hit, riding as fast as I could through the night, out of Hungary and across half of Slovakia. I deployed the entire back catalogue of The Streets as well as some motivational mixtapes put together by my DJ pal Jason to sing my way through drowsiness and into the early hours. I had to get to the checkpoint by 4pm and with the gradients ramping up and rain coming down it was going to be tight. I arrived at 2pm then realised the checkpoint was at the top of the parcours. Despair set in as after 26 hours of hard riding I realised I still might not make it. Luckily this was the shortest parcours of the TCR and an hour later I was sitting in the CP3 hotel with a celebratory pint, coming to terms with what had just happened.
The wildlife encountered en-route was as challenging as it was entertaining. Travelling through Romania, as soon as the sun went down, packs of dogs would emerge from the shadows to chase me, barking and snapping at my ankles.
Once I'd established that they weren't actually going to bite me I relaxed until I got a text from a fellow racer saying he'd had to scratch after being badly bitten by a dog. Suddenly I pictured every incoming mutt sinking his teeth into my (unvaccinated) calf! It was a relief when I left Romania and the dogs inexplicable became docile again.
Some riders had bigger problems to deal with – there were reports of a stand-off with a bear on the Transfagarasan. Wild tortoises crossing the road in Macedonia were a surreal highlight, while my most dramatic encounter came in the middle of the night in Hungary when a deer jumped straight into my bike, sending me flying and leaving an antler-shaped hole in my front wheel. Thankfully a friendly local stopped to arrange a taxi back to the nearest town, and it turned out his uncle owned the bike shop!
My race ended on a remote mountain track in Macedonia. As I pushed off to tackle one of the rare rideable sections of the climb, there was a horrible cracking sound as the pedal jarred and locked in place. I looked back at the rear cassette to see a mangled mess. The rear mech had sheared clean off the frame. All I could do was remove it completely, and push my bike for 5 hallucination-packed hours until I reached the summit then set up my tent under a buzzing electrical pylon and wait for daybreak.
In the morning, I coasted down the remaining 10 miles to Prilep where I had a decision to make: Find someone to repair the bike so I could ride the final 270km to the finish, or scratch and find transport across the border to meet my parents and get to the airport. I ran the numbers and realised I simply didn't have time to ride to the finish. Decision made.
I wasn't distraught at not finishing the race, I was satisfied with having given it my best shot. I proved to myself that I was physically and mentally up to the challenge and the experience I gained this year should cut out many of the delays so I can finish the race next year in the sort of time I now know I'm capable of.
I loved the whole experience and it's taking a long time to adjust back to normal life. For a full week after I was home, I woke up every night thinking I was still out on the course against the clock, confused that this Eastern European hotel room looked suspiciously like my bedroom at home! It will take months to regain full use of my right hand as 2 weeks of constant gear changing has left it seized in a claw shape. And I'm on a course of physio for a tendon issue in my upper glutes that made walking almost impossible towards the end of the race.
Despite all this, I'm hoping to be lining up in Geraardsbergen again next summer, ready to take on whatever crazy route Anna and her team can dream up. It's under my skin now, so it looks like I can kiss goodbye to my evenings and weekends for another year!