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TCR09 – A Rider Perspective

TCR09 – A Rider Perspective

The Transcontinental is a single stage race in which the clock never stops. Riders plan, research and navigate their own course and choose when and where to rest. They will take only what they can carry and consume only what they can find. Four mandatory control points guide their route and ensure a healthy amount of climbing to reach some of cycling’s most beautiful and historic monuments. Each year TCR riders cover around 4,000km to reach the finish line – it's an incredible adventure. 

Story and Photos by Saz Harris

The Prep (or lack thereof)

Seven months ago I merrily put in an application for the TCR, buoyed on by friends and figuring I wouldn’t get in anyway. Little did I know that women and non-binary people were guaranteed entry, and that I’d just signed myself up for one of the hardest self-supported cycling events in the world, despite having never done one before. Sure, I’d done a lot of cycling and even dabbled in bike packing, but nothing that would require me to plan a route and carry all my stuff, with absolutely no outside help!

I would say that over the next few months I carefully crafted a training plan,meticulously detailed my route, and weighed every last item that I was going to take, but that would be a total lie. Instead, I cycled a few audaxes, raced All Points North, learnt a little about what not to do, and was still tweaking my route just days before I left. Before I knew it, my overly-loaded bike and I were on the starting line in Belgium, with nearly 4,000 spiky kilometres between us and the finish line in Greece.

The Start

The race began at 10PM with the cobbled climb of the Muur, lit by the flickering flames of spectator-wielded torches and slick with the afternoon’s torrential rain. It was a surreal and magical way to start, hearing the shouts of encouragement as we ascended one of Flanders’ famous climbs and headed into the night.

The first night was peppered with other riders, all following vaguely the same route through Belgium and France, twisting in and out of small villages and farmland. There’s always a strange, dream-like quality to cycling through the night, and when a family of wild boar crossed the road in front of me I wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t a hallucination (it wasn’t; I have GoPro footage to prove it’s real and not a strange, sleep-deprived vision!).

Rain & Retribution

The rain became an unwelcome companion over the next few days, forcing me to seek shelter in cosy French boulangeries, bus stops, and abandoned buildings overnight. One particularly soggy night I slept in a church, laying my dripping clothes over the pews and wondering how sacrilegious I was being.

Over the next few days I got a puncture, broke my pump, dropped my bike on its derailleur and had to detour via a bike shop, and contaminated my brakes so badly that they screamed every time I touched them, so I guess I got my answer.

Hills, Hills and more Hills...

The journey to checkpoint one, some 1000km, crossed France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy and what felt like all of their formidable climbs. I’d been rehabbing a knee injury coming into the race, so I worried about aggravating it on the relentless hills, and struggled with the weight of my bike as I navigated one 20% gradient after another. My knees held up, much to my relief, but one of my ankles started to swell painfully. I swung wildly between teary frustration at how slow I was going (and therefore whether I'd even make the checkpoint within the cut-off time), and awed disbelief at the majesty of the alps.

The increasing altitude also brought the freezing cold. One memorable night I stopped at a covered bus shelter, hoping to grab a nap before ascending yet another peak, only to find four cyclists already squashed inside and another hopefully scanning the outskirts. I chose a slightly less-sheltered bus shelter opposite, and shivered through a couple of hours huddled in all of my clothes and paltry silk liner, before deciding that cycling sleep deprived would be far warmer that whatever I was attempting to do there.

I made it to CP1 in time, and treated myself to a proper dinner and night in the hotel. It was nice to chat with other riders and laugh at what we were choosing to do for fun, seemingly complaining non-stop about how tired and sore we were, but relishing it nonetheless.

One Last Downpour

The night in the hotel refreshed me somewhat, as did my decision to leave CP1 the gravel route, rather than face yet another road climb. I started said gravel at night, enjoying the peace and adrenaline zing from the slight terror of what lurked in the woods, hauling my bike along crumbling hillside paths and through idyllic grass valleys.

It was a relatively short trip to CP2 in Slovenia, just over 500km of lush landscapes and beautiful bike paths, and I really loved this part of the journey. The parcours after CP2 was lined with small dragon statues and carved wooden drinking troughs, which felt delightfully whimsical in the pink sunset. Of course, the rain had one last hurrah and I woke the next day to the ominous rumble of thunder, sounding scarily close to the truck bed I'd slept in that night. It was only after hearing the other rider who’d sought shelter in the same farm outbuilding leave that I was convinced to rise, and I was again struck by the absurdity of what I was choosing to do for fun.

Finally Some Sun

The European heatwave I’d been warned about finally appeared in Croatia. The temperature soared into the mid-thirties and I began to regret wishing for the sun so fervently. Croatia and subsequent Bosnia felt a little bit cursed; upon crossing the border into Croatia something flew into my mouth and stung, leaving me with a massively swollen lip and a mild concern about anaphylaxis. In Bosnia, I was chased by dogs for the first time, initially trying to out-cycle them until one grabbed hold of my wheel. Stopping turned out to be the best option, as they quickly got bored of me once I was stationary, and soon I felt merely exasperated, rather than terrified, whenever barking started up in the distance.

From Bosnia onto Montenegro, the heat persisted. I began stopping more during the day, and ice cream and chocolate shakes became my main sources of nutrition. It was great fun cycling through countries that were relatively unknown to me, especially once the setting sun turned the warm air golden. Crossing into Albania felt glorious, surrounded by silhouetted mountains and music wafting from outdoor parties and bars. It helped that hotels were relatively cheap in this part of the world, and I was gaining expertise in convincing hoteliers, via google translate, to let my bike into the room with me and therefore gain slightly more sleep. It was especially funny to enter a hotel, covered in sweat and stinking to high heaven, and meet another rider in a similar state, though somewhat less funny to still have to decline predatory men offering me their room when a hotel was full (and I’d shaved off all my hair before this race, so I was dirty, smelly, and basically bald! What more does one have to do to be left alone!).

Cycling to CP3 was my favourite part of the whole race. The roads were mostly the fun kind of gravel and when I inevitably took a wrong turn, locals would come up to smile and look at my bike, and we’d chat in our two separate languages. Alongside sleek cars, the roads were dotted with cows, heavily-laden horses, and people riding rusty bicycles. My route hugged a bright turquoise lake and, though I longed to throw myself in, I was absolutely thriving. CP3 was full of good chat and good food and, despite getting sunburnt through my sun cream so badly that my skin was blistering, I was feeling pretty damn good for having cycled over 2500km in ten days.

Wait... Too Much Sun!

Alas, this confidence was short-lived. The CP3 parcours was looming: a daunting 40km stretch with 1000m of climbing over challenging terrain, and a warning to hydrate well beforehand. I’d figured it would maybe take four hours to do, so when I started in the late afternoon there would be plenty of time to finish before dark. What an underestimation!

It was 41 degrees celsius when I started that awful, dusty climb and my thirst felt insatiable. The unrelenting heat and lack of shade drained all my energy, and I ended up slowly walking every single one of those 1000 metres of elevation, sweating profusely while fellow cyclists seemingly sailed past. I guzzled water from every bubbling stream I could find, totally forgoing any purification process regardless of how dirty it looked (one bottle-full tasted distinctly muddy, but I figured that was a problem I’d deal with later). As the day waned and the temperatures cooled, new concerns became apparent: I’d forgotten to eat regularly, as my bike computer was programmed to remind me by distance rather than time, and I was still going to be navigating this remote parcours in the dark, something I’d desperately wanted to avoid. The situation took its inevitable toll on my ability to stay upright, and once I skidded to a stop I lay trapped under my bike for a full five minutes, having a small emotional breakdown and a good cry. It was honestly some of the worst cycling I’ve ever done, and it felt even more devastating for how brilliant I’d felt just that morning.

Some six hours later, I finally descended from that unforgiving parcours, my limbs trembling from hunger and head muzzy from stress. I stopped at the first motel I saw, wanting at least some small comfort after such a mentally and physically taxing day, and collapsed in a heap, not even bothering with dinner or a proper shower in my desperation to be unconscious.

Beginning of the End

I never really recovered from CP3. I woke up the next morning feeling terrible and had no appetite for the pre-filled croissants that had become my staple breakfast, nor for any of the other limited options in the gas stations en route. I forced myself to eat something, and tried to regain some energy with copious fizzy drinks and milkshakes, but to little effect. The sun continued to blaze down, and my fatigue grew heavier. The route dipped into North Macedonia, a country I’d been excited to visit, but I honestly can’t remember much. At one point I slipped out of consciousness and came to hanging halfway across a metal barrier that separated the cycle path from the road. Thankfully no cars were coming as I struggled to relieve the pressure of my bike pressing my leg into the sharp curve of metal, and engage my core enough to haul myself back over to safety.

I knew I needed to stop for a proper meal and a rest, but this was easier said than done. I was running out of cash, most places wouldn’t take card, and ATM’s were few and far between. I eventually found a Gyro place that would approximate a meal for the 5EUR I had left in my wallet, and tried to wait out the blazing midday heat in the hopes that a cooler evening would bring easier cycling.

Attempting to cycle through the evening and night turned out to be a herculean task. The darkness felt disorienting and my poor overwhelmed mind found it increasingly challenging to navigate the road ahead. My mouth was constantly dry no matter how much I drank, and the thought of food made me nauseous. I managed 200km and stopped for a quick nap on an abandoned market stall, only to wake up feeling dizzy and sick several hours later.

When I finally started cycling again every tiny incline felt too steep to pedal up, but dismounting to walk made my head whirl. My lips and fingers felt numb, my ears were ringing, and I was stopping to nap every couple of kilometres. I heard other riders pushing past, sometimes stopping for a quick chat, where I’d rally and then berate myself for being so overdramatic. When stationary, I’d appreciate the landscape; the lush greens of the mountains and rich reds of the earth. Feel grateful that I was here, even if I felt terrible. Told myself I could go as slowly as I liked, as long as I kept going. But when I sat yet again on the side of the road for a rest, having covered just 14km in a whole morning, and some roadside offered their assistance, those assurances fell away. We balanced my bike in the boot of an old sedan, drove to a nearby hotel, and I reluctantly accepted that my Transcontinental Race was over.

Unfinished Business

To say my TCR experience ended unexpectedly is a massive understatement. I knew it would be enormously difficult (generally <50% of riders make it to the finisher’s party!), but I didn’t expect to be so broken by it. Nearly 3000km into the journey and only 700km from the finish, quitting felt like a devastating failure. It was my first ever unfinished race, and it’s taken me a long time to process. But now, over two months out, I’m proud of what I achieved. It was a race that pushed me way out of my comfort zone, through incredible countries, and taught me invaluable lessons about both ultra racing and myself. I’m in absolute awe of all the people who finished, and all the fellow scratchers I commiserated with along the way. The support from everyone has been incredible, and reminded me what an absolute joy it is to be part of the cycling community. It certainly hasn’t put me off ultra cycling, and has left me with unfinished business. I’ll be back to finish a TCR one year!

(though I’ve promised my dad I won’t attempt it again until after I finish med school. So watch this space for about four years. And then 2027 will be my year! Hopefully.)

Stats & Gear

Total distance: 2915.10km
Total elevation: ~30,400m
Average distance per day: 260.12km
Average hours moving per day: 14h50
Bike: Kinesis G2 aka "Mushy Peas"
Wheels: Sector R26 Disc Wheelset
Tyres: Goodyear Connector Ultimate 700 x 40c
Bags: Apidura, Straightcut design
Lights: Lezyne Macro Drive1300XXL, Lezyne Strip Drive 300, Exposure Race MK15
Computer: Garmin Edge 830

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