Nearly two weeks have passed since 3,500km, three-week cycling circus of the Tour de France has passed. While it perhaps unfairly overshadows other grand tours (Italy, Spain) it never fails to capture the imagination. I watched the final kilometres of penultimate stage through my fingers, convinced that Ion Izagirre Insausti was going to aquaplane off the road as he raced downhill to the finish line. But for me, apart from some daring attacks (particularly in crosswinds) by Chris Froome, the battle for the general classification was mainly a squabble over the minor places, with riders for some reason unable to look away from their powermeters long enough to get the jump on Froome. Not that I’d be able to, mind.
I’ve been thinking for a while that the stage endings of the Tour, and of all pro races look the same, bland, advertising, moved from one place to the next and erected again. Why not get creative about it? Why the same questions for the riders after every stage? “Yes it was hard, but you know, I had good sensations, I thought I’d attack, and….”, oh hell, just insert this image, of every sports interview ever:
But here we are. Last week, I noticed that a former Brussels Big Brackets clubmate of mine, Carlos Mazon, was off to the Transcontinental Cycle Race, and a photographer of my acquaintance, Camille MacMillan was back in the saddle as official photographer. I’d known about the TCR, but hadn’t followed it before.
The bicycle, I believe is an instrument that lends itself well surrealism and humour, a situation exploited by the likes of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and the works of Alfred Jarry. Any bike race is an exercise in absurdity – something captured by Jarry in his The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race and in his novel Supermale, which describes a 10,000 mile bicycle race between a steam tram carrying spectators and five-man bicycle.
The Transcontinental continues this spirit of madness, and eschews the nationalism of “Tours” and instead taking the riders through multiple countries from Europe to Asia.
Starting on the Mur de Geraardsbergen, in Belgium, the Transcontinental is a ONE-stage unsupported race, with the finish line in Gallipoli, Turkey. There is no fixed route, instead a series of checkpoints, and some mandatory roads that all riders must pass through on a the 4,000 or kilometre ride. Riders spend months figuring out logistics and choosing their routes, and they carry only what they can fit on their bike. They do not ride as a peloton – riders may go days without seeing another racer as they wind their way up over 2000m Alpine passes. The one who wins is likely the one who can survive on very little sleep – the clock doesn’t stop when riders sleep. Some opt for hotels now and then, but all are carrying what they need to sleep in a ditch somewhere along the way. The riders are young, old, female, male. None of them are getting paid for this.
The race started last Friday night, 29 July. I’m writing this on the morning Monday, August 8th. The race winner, Kristof Allegaert from Belgium is the only person to yet reach the finish line – and covered the 3827km to Turkey 8 days, 15 hours and 2 minutes, average 478km per day on his steel Jaegher bicycle. Sleeping very little while crossing France, Switzerland, Italy, and taking an inland route through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, to the fourth checkpoint in Montenegro, before continuing through Bulgaria to the finish Allergaert climbed 83,295m. That’s like cycling up up Mount Everest every day from a week. From sea level.
After coming Croatia’s coast, Carlos is now heading for the Greek-Turkish border, tailing the UK’s Neil Phillips, who has already crossed. Carlos’s GPS has died, and he’s working from maps and his phone. Didn’t stop him from taking a sneaky shortcut on a gravel road between Bosnia and Montenegro though.
— The Transcontinental (@transconrace) August 6, 2016
Behind them there’s a long trail of riders, reaching right back to the French-Swiss border. Some of them fought their way through a freak storm in Macedonia over the weekend, which killed 21 people. Rider 66, Frank van der Sman had his steel forks break. So he stopped at a garage and welded them back together, echoing the exploits of Eugène Christophe in the 1913 Tour de France. Many riders have “scratched” from the race, having given into to exhaustion or illness. Richi Fox posted a photo to her Instagram account from inside an ambulance, after pulling out in Italy with dehydration. In 4th place right now, is James Hayden, who took to the bed for two days with a chest infection after arriving in Clermont Ferrand, and has since managed to overtake nearly everyone has be bounced back. How do I know all this? Because all of the riders have GPS tracking, and you can follow them on Trackleaders (warning, may be addictive). You can also watch the daily videos uploaded by Francis Cade and follow the riders posting to Twitter via the hastag #tcrno4 and this Twitter list, along with the daily blog.
But this isn’t all about racing, or facts and statistics. There’s laugh-out-loud stories, there’s sad stories (people “scratching” from the race because of injuries), people getting lost, eating piles of junk food, and one rider (Oliver Wolf, from Austria, rider 50, who managed to 1) get drunk with Champagne farmer, 2) get taken in and fed by a family and 3) hook up with a waitress in a hotel before he’d even finished crossing France!
It’ll be some time before all the riders arrive in Turkey. In the meantime, the adventures continue with riders relying on McDonald’s opening times, and sleeping in hedges:
I thought nobody could see me taking a nap, but a truckdriver called the cops; he thought I had an accident. There goes my nap. #TCRNo4
— Johanna Schrijft (@JohannaSchrijft) August 2, 2016
Taking desperate measures:
— hippy (@firsthippy) July 31, 2016
Living the good life:
— Darren Franks (@darrenfranks) August 2, 2016
Meanwhile, Darren’s rear end is not too happy, and has started its own twitter account, embarking in a lengthy exchange with its owner.
@darrenfranks WTF is going on?
— Darren’s Arse (@DarrensArse) August 2, 2016
The leading woman, Emily Chappell in the race, has like many others, navigated themselves onto offroad routes (on a racing bike) but still manages to stay enthusiastic:
— Emily Chappell (@emilychappell) August 3, 2016
— Jack Thurston (@jackthurston) August 6, 2016
And if you’re still looking for more – watch the 1-hour documentary about last year’s race:
Interview with winner Kristoff:
Interview with 2nd placed Neil:
Interview with 3rd placed Carlos:
Interview with Emily Chappell, first woman.