I have so much to say about my experience of taking part in the Transcontinental Race that I figured it would be easier to give the subject its own page, or even set of pages. A lot happened out there in the 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes that it took Julie and I to get to the finish line and I think it’s likely to take me a while to get it all down, so this is very much a work in progress.
I’ll write it in sections and will keep updating it as the weeks go on so do keep popping back from time to time if you’re interested in finding out how we faired.
Looking back on the start now it seems crazy that we were so overly-concerned about getting up the Muur. A friend of mine recently suggested that all the fuss talked about getting up this infamous cobbled climb gives riders something to focus on in order to take their mind off the enormity of the rest of the task they’re all about to embark upon. In hindsight I’d say that’s probably true.
The day before the start we’d both ridden up it twice, once without our kit on just to test it out and then one more time fully-loaded just so that we knew we could. This way, even if we got held up and ended up putting our feet down in the chaos of a mass start, we could still say we did it fully-loaded at least once.
A 10pm race start gave us both plenty of time to think about what we were about to spend the next two-and-a-bit weeks doing – maybe a bit too much time. I’d tried to get my head down for a couple of hours in the afternoon before the pre-race briefing but the nerves and excitement made it pretty difficult.
The Start: Geraardsbergen – 10pm, Friday 28th July
By the time we arrive at the town square at 9.15pm quite a few riders and their friends and families are already congregating. The bars around the square are full and there is a real sense of anticipation in the air. As the square continues to fill up with riders we have our photo taken to capture the moment while we we’re still clean.
After a speech from the town’s mayor and a minute’s silence in tribute to the late Mike Hall, Patricia – Mike’s mum – takes to the stage and asks the crowd to make a minute of noise instead for Mike as that’s what he would have preferred to hear. Over 300 riders, their friends, families and locals erupt into raucous applause before beginning the countdown to our 10pm start.
We start with a lap of the town before tackling the cobbled climb of the Muur which is lined with a cheering crowd carrying flaming torches to send us on our way. The atmosphere is electric and in stark contrast to the darkness that we all spill into upon reaching the top of the climb. Within minutes the 300 or so riders disperse into the night and Julie and I quickly find ourselves alone on a quiet Belgian road calming one another down and settling into a rhythm – it’s all a bit surreal.
Nerves and excitement keeps us alert and awake for the first hour or so but cycling at night is quite hard work mentally. With no view to look at or point of reference to observe it often feels like I’m cycling much faster than I actually am. I find that I need to concentrate much more as, even with a decent front light, it’s trickier to see rough road surfaces and potholes and the extra focus required tires me further. Breaking long stretches of road up with a town every now and then is useful at night as the streets are usually well-lit and there’s something more interesting to look at for a few minutes which helps to drag us out of the monotony of the dark and wake us up a bit.
Many riders choose to cycle through the first night without sleeping in order to get a good start. We’d discussed this beforehand and both decided that we’d function better long-term by getting into a regular pattern of starting out early each day, aiming to ride between 220 to 250 km (depending on the terrain) and then calling it a day once the light started to fade. With this in mind, earlier in the day we’d booked ourselves into a cheap ‘Formula 1’ style motel 100 km into the route. This would help break up the long stretch of darkness and help us to quickly get into our routine from the start of our first full day.
We arrive at our very basic hotel stop at around 2am and I’m practically asleep before my head even hits the pillow. The alarm on my phone wakes us two and a half hours later – a sound that we’re both going to become very familiar with over the next couple of weeks. The sun is just about starting to rise and our first full TCR day lay ahead of us.