Reflections on the TCR...
The Transcontinental Race is characterised by grit, grind, heady highs and awesome life lessons. Here, Tom Owen uncovers the pivotal moments for four inspirational participants...
The Transcontinental Race is an almighty undertaking. Thousands of kilometres from a start point in Belgium to somewhere usually in the depths of southern Europe. Competitors must ride the whole thing unsupported, using only what they can carry, find or buy along the route. In a world where sandwiches are routinely described as epic, this epic undertaking is truly deserving of the word.
There are four designated checkpoints, but the route between them is up to each rider to define. This year the checkpoints were in Germany, Italy, Slovakia and Romania, with around 3,500km of riding to connect them all and reach the finish in Greece.
This year saw more women than ever enter ‘the Transcon’, including some Casquette columnists. Among them: past winner Emily Chappell, plus TCR rookies Grace Lambert-Smith and Eleanor Jaskowska. We spoke to these three intrepid women, as well as race winner, Melissa Pritchard, to uncover the highs, lows and life lessons this awe-inspiring race gifted them.
Melissa Pritchard has been riding a bike very far for a long time, but hadn’t entered the Transcontinental before. Her winning time was 13 days, one hour and 29 minutes.
After the first night of riding I arrived in Luxembourg and felt great after pedalling through the night. I kept going throughout the second day, maybe sleeping half an hour and still felt good after the first 24 hours. I managed to pedal 530km. Those first 24 hours gave me a confidence boost that helped motivate me to continue to ride strong.
Ironically, I would say the low point came just after that, when I received news that there had been a fatal accident involving one of the participants.
All of a sudden, everything changed. I remember looking at the spot tracker and it seemed those who had already arrived at CP1 (checkpoint 1) were staying the night there, as if everyone was deciding to scratch. I didn't know what to do, and thankfully I was so tired I fell asleep immediately. In the morning I saw that all had left CP1 and continued, except Jonas, my boyfriend, who was also competing in the race. I was motivated to continue to ride and talk with him to see how he felt. Frank Simons’ death was an unpleasant and all-too-close reminder of the risks we take as cyclists.
Even though this accident could have happened anywhere, the fact that it happened in the TCR definitely shook my confidence and made me second-guess my choice to compete. Fortunately, I'm too darn stubborn to stop doing something I've held as a goal for a long time. My boyfriend was really upset about the accident and it took away his desire to race. He'd arrived at CP1 in second place and had waited for me for 13 hours to see that I was OK. I wasn't going to let him quit, so I tried to give him the best pep talk I could to motivate him to continue.
After I hopped back on my bike, I realised that I was exhausted – more emotionally than physically – from the events that occurred at CP1 and it took a while to regain my focus and get back in my groove. Jonas, in the meantime, found his and passed about 20 riders on his way to CP2, arriving second again. As you can imagine, that also lifted my spirits!
The big thing you learnt
During the race, I couldn't believe how well my body responded to the constant physical effort and exhaustion. Yes, I had aches and pains and times where I couldn't keep my eyes open and had to pull over and stop, but I was amazed with the resilience of the human body. Every time I hopped back on the bike after a short pause or a ‘night's sleep’ - which was never more than four hours - I thought my body would resist and protest, but it didn't! When you are really determined to do something, you find a way!
I already feel a bit of an emptiness; more of a mental emptiness than anything else. I didn't realise how much time, energy and thought I had put into the TCR, until now, when it’s over. I've got plenty of hobbies, so that isn't a problem, but without training for the TCR it's like I've lost a good friend or a family member, and I'm a bit beside myself without them. I miss the travel part of cycling. I think I would like to explore bikepacking more and I have a trip to Oman planned for Christmas. After that, we'll see. I'm going to try to take advantage of the autumn weather to get in some short weekend trips as well.
Emily Chappell, Casquette columnist and winner of TCR no4, returned to the race as defending champion this year. She didn't finish, but started plotting next year's route instead...
The high was probably woman after woman coming up to me at the start and telling me it was The Adventure Syndicate [an organisation Chappell runs alongside fellow female endurance riders], that helped get her to the start line... and then running into a lot of them on the road.
Realising I couldn't handle being constantly watched and everyone knowing where I was.
The big thing I learned
That getting a couple of dozen women to the start line felt a lot better than getting just one woman to the finish line last year.
I'm going over to the dark side and joining the TCR organising team. We're currently driving back across Europe, scouting checkpoints for 2018's race.
Eleanor Jaskowska was beaten by the heat in Austria on her way between the second and third checkpoints in the race. It was her first attempt at an ‘ultra’...
The high of the race was reaching the Alps the first time around. I’d had a really slow and sluggish morning, and around lunchtime I noticed that I was no longer riding through German fields of maize – and was instead surrounded by alpine meadows. Something weird happened to my legs and they switched personality from tired and reluctant to strong and invincible. I was climbing like superwoman, barely getting out of breath, my legs lapping it up. I’ve never felt like that before or since.
Having a fellow rider killed in the race is a worst-case scenario that you never expect to happen, yet it’s happened in three major races across three continents this year. Frank’s passing didn’t really hit me to begin with, but it altered my mindset, making me feel much more aware of how vulnerable I was as a cyclist.
Another low point that stands out was climbing Monte Grappa. I’d wanted to make the checkpoint at night, giving me the opportunity to climb the parcours early in the morning before the high heat of the day. Alas, the steep climb out of Trento finished me off and I didn’t have enough awake points to carry me there. I ended up arriving at CP2 late morning, stamped my brevet card and chugged as much water as I could before turning back around and hitting the climb.
I stopped once in the shade to try and cool off and grab my breath. I got back to it, but it was probably half an hour before I had to stop again. At one point I just got off my bike and sat under a tree to cry. It was so hot. There weren’t any taps or obvious places to fill up on water, so I was rationing my three bidons. I was empty, using every bit of energy I had to move myself forwards up this mountain in the crippling heat. I took off my jersey, thinking it might be cooler and used an emergency energy gel. The switchbacks had ended and the climbing was steeper. I got off my bike and decided walking was a better option. Sweaty, exhausted, in my bib shorts and sports bra, pushing my bike in exhaustion – but not yet in defeat – the race photographer zooms past on a scooter and stops to take my photo. They really know how to capture a girl’s good side! The gradient eased off and I re-mounted my bike, only to dismount again. I took my second - and last - emergency gel. Eventually, after about four hours, I got to the top and promptly bought myself a beer from the cafe. I couldn’t press on with the race. I had to stop to let myself recover.
The image below is of me (right) and Grace (left) after we both scratched. Deciding to scratch was really hard but it made me realise it isn't the getting to Meteora that counts but the journey. I've met amazing people through this race, and they'll be with me for life.
The big thing you learnt
At the start of 2017, I hadn’t ridden 100 miles in one ride. I’ve learned that I’m capable of a whole lot when I put my mind to it. I’ve also learned that the crippling pressure and anxiety of a two-week race isn’t for me. I love adventure, but I want to do it on my own terms, without sleep deprivation and busy roads.
I’m taking my riding off road. You’ll find me playing in the mud with my new knobbly tyres.
Grace Lambert-Smith, like Eleanor and Melissa, was riding in her first Transcon and, despite the struggle, discovered self-belief...
There were a lot of highs: riding through the Vosges, Italian bike paths, Austrian mountains, to name a few.
Suffering the sweltering heat, every single day. Between midday and 3pm was the worst.
The big thing you learnt
Even though I scratched, it's taught me to believe in my own abilities. I still managed to get to Austria – the second time – without getting lost or anything going wrong. I'm not too bad at route planning in foreign countries or rerouting on the fly, and that's a skill that can't be learned any way other than doing it.
I'm going to do more off-road and off-bike stuff. I still love road cycling, but I love being outdoors, especially being in the hills and mountains with your friends, a picnic and a tent.