August 20, 2018
by James Kirk
I’ve been riding bicycles since the age of five, eventually developing into competitive road racing by the time I was in my early twenties. With the realisation that racing bikes wasn’t going to pay the bills, work and life soon took over and cycling became more of an enjoyable hobby, although during that time I did undertake a couple of tough multi-day unsupported rides with my good friend Henry.
Four years ago a positive change of work circumstances brought about a move from Bristol to Ledbury which at the age of 37 reignited my desire to ride more competitively once again, and so I’ve spent the last three years road racing once again. However, I’ve always been stronger in ultra-endurance activities as opposed to two or three hour road races so I looked to broaden my cycling horizons. I’d heard of Mike Hall through various forms of media over recent years, he was one of the world leading ultra endurance cycling athletes, as well as the mastermind behind the creation of what is now the definitive self-supported bicycle race, the Transcontinental Race (TCR). Sadly Mike was killed last year taking part in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race but his legacy now thrives in the TCR.
Perhaps I’d set my sights a little high but I’d now targeted TCR as my first real venture into endurance racing. The rules are simple, the clock starts at 2200hr in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, and stops when you cross the finish line in Meteora, Greece, some 4,000km later having visited the four checkpoints (CP), accessed by short parcours (small mandatory sections of either road or gravel, but usually places of historical significance accessed via ferociously steep and high climbs).
After a rigorous and highly over subscribed application process I was delighted to have been selected as one of 350 entrants. Sure enough panic now ensued as I tried to find time to refine my three key planning elements; bike, clothes, and route between CPs. I’m quite handy at plotting and navigating routes, and although this took well over 40 hours to prepare I was confident I had a good route between CPs. Veloshop in Hereford, UK, prepared for me an outstanding Alchemy Eros titanium frameset that I slowly fitted out with various bags and electrical items that I know would confidently see me to the end, so all that was left was the bit I was most nervous about, preparing my body for sustained and extended periods of riding. 18+ hours a day in the saddle means my contact areas had to be perfect; the titanium Alchemy Eros with electric gears and hydraulic disc brakes would minimise the impact to by fingers, wrists, arms, and shoulders, leading to what I think is probably the single most important physical aspect of riding 4,000km in just 12 days, the shorts and saddle combination.
I’d read some good reviews in the months leading up my TCR about Pactimo cycle clothing, specifically the bib shorts designed for extended periods in the saddle so I bought a pair of Pactimo Summit Stratos (12-Hour) Bibs to try during my long training rides, along with the Ascent Aero Jersey. Due to work commitments I only really managed a couple of 200 mile rides, with minimal back-to-back days on the bike. However, for these shorter rides the comfort on the bike was brilliant with no signs of saddle sore development or other aching body parts, I would have no idea how it would be over back-to-back 200+ miles days for 12 days.
Race day arrived and at 2200hr on Sunday 29 July I, along with 250 other racers, set off up the famous 19% incline cobbles to the Muur that signifies the start of the journey to Greece. Riding out into the Belgian night with the buzz from 1000’s of Geraardsbergen onlookers was fantastic, but as the adrenaline subsided I set into my steady rhythm that would see me cover around 300 miles in that first day. This is not as far as I had aimed to go that day but with minimal sleep the two previous nights for various reasons I needed to stop and recover.
At 0400 the next day I set off with the aim to reach CP1 (480 miles from the start) by early evening. The heat through France was ferocious and would set the theme for the majority of the race with temperatures regularly touching 40 degrees C, however with 18 litres of water consumed that day and a 3,000ft climb finale I reached CP1 in Gaschurn on schedule.
After a short rest in a nearby hotel I set off again at 0400 up the famous Bielerhohe Pass as part of the mandatory parlours section to reach the summit (6,500ft) at day break. From here my route took me down to Innsbruck and then South into Italy before sneaking back into Austria and then over the mountainous border in Slovenia where riders were greeted with the next Parcours section to CP2 (771 miles). The mandatory section here involved an incredibly steep 11.5km climb to Slovenia’s highest road summit, Mangart, again over 6,000ft, and then retrace steps to the base of another horrifically hot, steep, and long climb back over into Austria.
Once I’d reached the flatter lands of Austria my route headed North East to Vienna where I unrolled my bivvy gear and caught some quality sleep before getting up at 0300 for a minimal traffic passage through the city. CP3 was located in the Karkonosze (Giant Mountain), part of the Sudetes mountain range bordering Poland and the Czech Republic. Starting in Podgórzyn, Poland, we had to take the road over the Karkonoszka Pass, to Spindleruv Mlyn in Czech Republic.
Boasted to be the steepest climb in Poland, this fearsome climb was originally intended as a service road to aid the construction of a set of switchbacks - which was then abandoned, leaving only a line of ragged tarmac whose gradient reaches 28% in places. I arrived at the base of this CP3 climb around midnight on day 6, feeling tired I once again got my sleeping bag out and got some good rest.
At first light I scaled the mighty climb (with a 500 metre walk at the 28% section since it was just more efficient) and arrived at CP3 (1,270 miles) in time for a cracking egg and meat breakfast at the nearby summit cafe. It was cold and wet up there so I quickly moved on and then set off on the long, hot, and unforgiving passage to CP4.
From the Czech Republic my route took me back in Austria, right across the flat lands of Hungary and Croatia, and then into the what continued to be the inferno of Bosnia. The heat was almost unbearable during these days but I just thought that if I was finding it tough then so would the other competitors. With the ever increasing difficulties of the mandatory parcours sections CP4 would not disappoint. Not only was the CP (1,930 miles) at the top of a stunning 4,000ft climb, the mandatory section was then coarse gravel for another 2,000ft in elevation to the Bjelašnica peak, a derelict Soviet ski lift that overlooks the city of Sarajevo.
With the sun starting to set I left the final CP and headed for the Montenegro border, stopping just short to make use of a roadside guesthouse for a few hours sleep and good recovery. The lightweight bivvy kit I carried is exceptional for quick, no faff sleeping but I do get better sleep and recovery using hotels. It is for this reason I chose to split my sleeping fifty fifty between sleeping rough and hotels throughout the race. The final push for the finish line in Meteora, Greece was once again executed in searing heat throughout Montenegro and Albania but I made it to the finish line in just over 12 days, and this was despite getting a double puncture in Albania caused by hitting a deep pothole late at night when very tired, and then trying to source a spare inner tube in a local town the next day.
Once the elation of crossing the line subsided and I’d consumed my own bodyweight in food two things really stood out; firstly my overall position of being just outside the top twenty was fantastic and more than I could have hoped for in my first attempt at endurance racing.
Secondly, the condition of my body, yes I was immensely tired but to arrive without a single saddle sore or painful rubbing in those contact areas was astonishing, especially given the heat through Central Europe. I am absolutely convinced that the comfort I experienced on the bike during those twelve days was a significant factor to my overall position and ability to ride for such extended hours. I’ve experienced the desperation of saddle sores and pain in years gone by and it can really play on your mind and certainly affects performance.
I have a huge amount of gratitude towards Pactimo for producing a set of bib shorts and jersey (I only took one set for the trip) that absolutely contributed to my success.
Bring on The Transcontinental Race No7!
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July 20, 2018 7 Comments
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