Registration for TCR No.6 opened a week last Friday. As this year’s applicants register to race, now’s the time to make the decision on whether to ride solo or ride as a pair.
I hope that we see a few more all-female pairs in the line-up this year. Julie and I were the second all-female pair to enter the TCR and, currently, the only to finish together. At just under 20 days, we finished out of time to get an official pairs placing so it would be great to see an all-female pair making it to the finish together in time for the finisher’s party this year.
I’m surprised that there aren’t more all-female pairs entrants but I wonder if the very nature of the event means that only very single-minded, independent women would even consider it and, therefore, would prefer to compete as a solo rider.
We both get asked a lot about our decision to race as a pair and whether either of us would do it solo next time around. Prior to taking part, my answer would’ve been an emphatic ‘yes’, but after now experiencing the race as a pair and understanding all that it involves, my answer to that question is a more cautious ‘I think so’.
After competing as a pair with Julie, to be honest, I can’t imagine not competing with her. It would feel very strange to go back out there and do it all again without the other half of my pair.
We were lucky that pairing up worked for us. Only 11 of the 29 pairs who started TCR No.5 made it to the finish line together so I’m sure that if you asked that same question to many pairs entrants who finished without the other half of their pair, or didn’t finish at all, they would most likely state that next time they’re definitely going to race solo. A few riders have already documented their experience as a pair on social media, like Alex Bystrov, who honestly and openly discusses his experience on the TCR Facebook group and his plan to apply as a solo rider this time around.
There’s often speculation about how fast the ultimate pair could potentially ride due to the hypothetical advantages of working together as a team and drafting one another but the results, so far, speak for themselves. Racing in a pair has as many pros as cons to consider:
Companionship and support
Someone who totally gets what you’re going through because they’re going through it too
Someone to moderate your mood and crazy thoughts of despair (yes, you will definitely have these)
Someone to draft when you’re absolutely knackered
Potential to share planning, equipment and skill sets
Twice as much could potentially go wrong
Everything takes twice as long to do
You can waste time being distracted by one another unless you’re really focused
You can only go as fast as your slowest rider
Synchronisation of sleep and eating patterns (or lack of it)
You might end up hating the sight of one another and ruin your friendship
So, as some of last year’s pairs choose to go it solo this time around and many more prospective pairs are weighing up the odds, I thought I share my thoughts on how Julie and I planned as a pair, how it worked for us and some things to consider if you’re thinking of pairing up.
Make sure you are both very clear about your goals – you need to want the same outcome
You have to be really honest about this. If you really fancy yourself as a contender then ride solo because you’ll have a higher chance of getting to the finish line if you only have yourself to worry about.
Julie and I were fairly realistic and knew from our experience of riding other long distance events that, on a fully-loaded bike, riding solo, we’d still only be good for riding up to 300km days consecutively and would both need to have some rest every night. To be up there with a chance of making it to the finisher’s party we’d need to be covering this distance every day for 14 days.
Allowing for mistakes and unforeseen circumstances, we planned to start off with a couple of 300km days with the option to drop down to 250km days for the rest of the event. This would hopefully bring us home some time around the 16-day mark – after the finisher’s party but before the official close of events. We took advice from two-time TCR finisher Jayne Wadsworth and decided to aim for time in the saddle every day (based around aiming to get 6 hours sleep a night) rather than distance covered but it still helps you to know how much ground you think you’d expect to cover in the time.
So, with that in mind, we had many discussions about how much we would be prepared to stretch that goal of 16 days if it all started to go wrong. Where would we draw the line? Do we decide to scratch if we realise that we are way off-target or do we continue to the bitter end no matter what? After all, some riders have taken over 30 days to complete the event in the past.
Our parameters were set by my annual leave allowance at work. I get 28 days and seven of those were already accounted for so our overall time limit, including getting to the event and home again, was 21 days plus the two weekends in between. That gave us around 22 days to play with. At the time when we were making those plans, 22 days seemed like a lot more time than we actually needed so it didn’t worry us unduly. Most importantly, we were both in favour of keeping going to the end, even if we knew we’d be out of time for an official place, but while we were training I don’t think either of us expected to be in that position. We really believed we could do it in 16 days.
However, as our finish time highlights, we overran our target by almost four days, and believe me, when you see those days slipping away from you while you’re out on the road without a hope of clawing much time back, you have to keep reevaluating the whole point of what you’re doing. Neither of us are quitters and at 48 and 52 we are pretty self-aware, but the TCR has the potential to test that self-awareness to the max. You’ll feel like a failure and once those feelings of self-doubt start to penetrate your brain it’s harder to fight them when your rational thinking and decision making is suffering at the hands of tiredness.
Quite a few solo riders scratch when they realise that they’re not going to finish in their goal time and lose the motivation to continue. I think that being in a pair prevented this from happening for us.
Knowing that Julie wanted to keep going to the finish, no matter what, helped me deal with some very dark moods and lack of motivation as I saw that 16-day finish plan slowly slip away from us over the course of the first week. I wasn’t just doing this for myself, I was doing it for my partner too and Julie was still determined to get to the finish line so I had to stop feeling demotivated, give myself a talking to and get on with it. We both felt like this a number of times at different points in the ride but thankfully not at the same time (except for our ‘dog day’ in Romania). Being jointly responsible for someone else’s success or failure was definitely a motivating factor for me rather than a burden.
Prior to racing, we also had to have a frank discussion about what would happen if one of us couldn’t complete due to either a mechanical or physical issue, whether one of us would continue solo if that situation arose and if we were both ok about that.
In terms of mechanical issues, as a bike mechanic, aside from a major frame or wheel failure, I’m confident that I could tackle most repairs, at least well enough to get us to a bike shop. If the the bike was repairable then a day out to get it fixed would be something that we were both prepared to do together.
Sickness that involved just resting for a day, or taking it easy, was also something that we were prepared to ride out together, however if we suffered an injury that prevented one of us from continuing, even after rest, then providing that the injured party was safe and able to travel home alone, we agreed that we would be happy for the other to continue as a solo rider. Realistically though, neither of us could categorically say how we would feel about that until put in that position.
Thankfully, we were never put in that position. Although my heatstroke was pretty intense on a couple of occasions, after an earlier-than-planned finish on a couple of days, with a few hours rest I was always good to ride again the following morning. We just adjusted our schedule in order to do more riding before dawn.
Make sure you’re evenly matched physically and mentally and learn about how each of you behaves both on and off the bike.
You can only really do this by putting in the hours training together in the months running up to the event. Julie and I ride together at home a lot and we’d been away on holiday together so we knew that we could stand to be in each other’s company for longer than a day or two but we still didn’t know how each other would behave when pushed to our limits of tiredness and stress.
We have both been in the company of cyclists who have a total behaviour meltdown when they reach their limits and it’s not nice to be around. We really wanted to make sure that wasn’t going to happen to us so we practised with audaxes and long, multi-day rides together – 400’s in the pouring rain, 600’s, back to back 300’s with nights in the bivvy. We learned how each other functioned in times of tiredness, cold and hunger. The TCR will provide you both with enough of it’s own surprises so you don’t need to give each other any further surprises along the way.
On average we are pretty evenly matched on the bike. I would say generally that Julie is a bit faster than me on the flat and I’m a bit faster than her on the climbs, but there were times when I’d be off the front on a flat section and others where she’d be at a summit waiting for me. We also both peak at different times – I’m strong early on, then have a dip after lunch and get stronger again in the early evening. In comparison Julie starts off steady and builds so that she is probably at her strongest mid-afternoon when I’m ready for an afternoon nap! That’s just how it is, but knowing this about your partner – and accepting it long before you’re both stood in a square in Belgium waiting for the off – will save you a lot of unnecessary frustration when, at times, you’re wondering why your partner is pedalling off into the distance while you can barely turn your cranks.
You will have days when one of you feels utterly rubbish and one of you feels strong, but if you’re evenly matched, then most likely, at some point before you arrive at the finish, those roles will be reversed and you’ll be the one bringing up the rear instead. When you’re a team, you’re only as strong as your slower half and you need to be accepting of this fact. You don’t have to cycle together all of the time but hopefully by the time you’ve finished doing training rides together you’ll understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses enough to know when one of you is having a bad spell.
Also think about the weight of your kit and bikes. It doesn’t matter how evenly matched you are if one of you is riding a bike that weighs 15kg and the other is riding with 25kgs. That extra 10kg is going to slow you down, especially when you get to a climb. Our loaded bikes had a difference of just 500g. We also had the same gear ratios so were as evenly matched as possible.
Plan the route together and check it together
Trust me, even if one of you is naturally a better route planner, sit down together and make joint decisions about the route – all of it. That way, when it all goes tits-up and the road you chose months earlier from the comfort of your living room disappears and you end up walking and pushing your bike for 16 kilometres, you are BOTH responsible. We had a lot of conversations that started with “Bloody hell, how on earth did we manage to pick such a crap road?!” Now imagine if only one of you was responsible for picking that crap road? Resentment can build pretty quickly when you add in a bit of heat stroke and sleep deprivation and agreeing on your route together will prevent this from happening.
Learn to think like a unit, not an individual
You both need to think for the both of you – all the decisions you make along the way must be made with two of you in mind so it’s vital that you keep communicating throughout. The whole race is one huge problem-solving exercise and you need to find those solutions together. We became pretty good at this and by the second week we were literally thinking each other’s thoughts and finishing each other’s sentences. We joked about it at the time but it only stands to reason that when you’re both focused on the same goal, doing the same activity, then you’re probably going to be thinking the same limited range of thoughts.
If you’re in a relationship make sure your significant other is completely on-board if they’re not your race partner
Of course this applies to solo racers as well as pairs but when you’re in a pair you’re about to spend a whole lot of time with another person who isn’t your other half. For a fixed time period your race partner is about to become the most important person in your life and this can sometimes be a bit of a challenge for the other most important person in your life.
Not only are you never around because you’re out doing bonkers, long training rides every weekend, but you’re also spending a lot of your non-riding spare time planning and organising with your race partner too. When you’re not with them, you’re probably talking about them. This race has the potential to take over your life and the lives of those close to you in the run-up to the main event. Irrational feelings of jealousy and neglect can creep into the most solid of relationships if you don’t attend to it and this is even harder to manage if your significant other isn’t 100% behind both you and your pair.
No race is worth the price of a friendship
My other half, Ken, told me a couple of times during the run-up to the race that he thought racing as a pair was a bad idea and was worried it would ruin mine and Julie’s friendship because we both have such strong characters, but I think that we both understood the potential for that to happen and took steps to prevent it.
In truth, Julie and I barely had a cross word for 20 days, actually 25 days if you count the time spent together getting to the race and home again. That’s not to say that we didn’t annoy each other a bit at times, of course we did, but we didn’t dwell on it and it’s very important not to. Spending 25 days together, every single minute of the day, without a break could test even the strongest of marriages, never mind a friendship.
We became good at recognising the trigger points. We realised fairly early on that we started to get tetchy with one another when cycling late into the night. That was also the time that we made most of our mistakes so we just decided to stop pedalling once it started to get dark and find a place to get our heads down, opting for pre-dawn starts rather than long, dark nights. The extra miles gained by cycling at night wasn’t worth the risk to the bond that we’d formed.
Remember, try to keep it all in perspective. No matter how much you get wrapped up in it all – and you will – it is just a bike race at the end of the day.