I’m not a big fan of blow-by-blow accounts. They can be pretty tedious and unless you’re a better writer than me they don’t really convey the feelings and sights of a big day on a bike. So this post is more for my benefit than to read by others: an aide memoire for what happened on a daily basis so I can free up a bit of space in the memory banks and put all the photos in one place as well as the audio updates I gave to friends and family.
Day 1: Sunday 29 July – Geraardsbergen to Charleroi Aiport
69km / 322m / Strava
A long lie in to try and bank sleep then the formalities of registration. I didn’t reallse the bike check would involve checking my hi viz so I had to go back to the hotel for it. Then a day of waiting around. Like other riders I was nervous and everyone is keen to talk to allay their fears. Back to De Spiraal for the rider briefing which doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already then more hanging around at the square. Eat a pizza then it’s off at 10pm for a loop around town then up the Muur and the race has started. A quick check of the route and I’m following a trail of red lights into the Belgian night. Everyone is on the same road at first but a few lights start diving off in different directions. I pass a big party in a marquee then it’s my turn to diverge and I’m on my own, occasionally seeing other riders. Drunks still in the beautiful square at Nivelles. Finally, I head to an Ibis Budget hotel at Charleroi airport after about 70km. I’d toyed with my plan for the first night all through the day swinging between returning to my hotel in Geraardsbergen and pushing on through the night. Losing a few hours riding at the start seemed like a bad idea but I didn’t want to get sleep deprived. This was my compromises. I was excited to learn they did breakfast from 4:30am.
Day 2: Monday 30 July – Charleroi Airport to Metz
243km / 2,889m / Strava
Up early for breakfast and on the road for 6am. Passed through scuzzy Charleroi before rush hour then it was onto Belgian roads that were never quite flat. I dip into France to cross the Meuse in the beautiful town of Givet with its Vauban-era fortifications and grab some pastries. Wooded Ardennes climbs and I start encountering other dots and stop for an early lunch with Dermot and Stefan at La Ferme de Sanglochons (which has a ham museum) a litte before Neufchâteau. Then it’s keep on plodding as the heat rachets up. Out of Belgium, into Luxembourg stopping to buy ice cream and haribo crocodiles and industrial Thionville with its Tower of Fleas. I then make a slight route change and jump on the bike path along to the Moselle which is flat and well-surfaced. I struggle to catch a French lady on a mountain bike with a kid in a seat on the back. She’s strong. As I start leaving the outskirts of Metz I have to take a decision. I’d hoped to do another 50km or so but the hotel I’d targeted no longer shows rooms on Booking.com so I decide to stop in Metz. I end up at a Formule 1 hotel in an industrial park. On the upside it’s cheap, there’s an Lidl nearby to stock up on things for breakfast and I can order in pizza for dinner.
Day 3: Tuesday 31 July – Metz to Weizen
308km / 3,264m / Strava
On the road early again after a Lidl breakfast and into the hills of Lorraine. Today’s aim was to get across to the Rhine Valley, down to Freiburg and a good way through the Black Forest towards Lake Constance. The early morning light makes the landscape look beautiful and the temperatures are good. I know from the day before I need to keep hydrated and my bottles topped up. I soon start catching dots and making regular stops including excellent pastries in Fénétrange and Phlasbourg (twinned with Leominster a town in England I know well), and a farm shop on the edge of Strasbourg. Many other riders decide to go straight from Strasbourg to Konstanz but instead I start following the Rhine south after a rather slow lunch in Duttlenheim (yep, it’s French!). At a bakery in Rust (now in Germany) I decide to change my plan when I’m advised my route through the Black Forest will be horribly busy. Instead I take a long steady climb on a pleasant road to Sankt Peter where I stop for dinner and tell the Gasthof I’m aiming for I will probably be late. More climbing follows as the sun begins to set but finally from Bonnsdorf it’s all downhill to Weizen and bed.
Day 4: Wednesday 1 August – Weizen to Partenen
200km / 1,898m / Strava
The first major reroute of the TCR. I’d planned to keep going through Germany to Konstanz before crossing in Switzerland and following the Bodensee and the rivers flowing into to CP1. Instead I kept going downhill and cut into Switzerland earlier near Schaffhausen saving me a bit of climbing. I started a little later than the days before to take advantage of breakfast and got rolling. The route worked well and I even made a slight detour to take in the magnificent Rheinfall (by some measure Europe’s largest waterfall). Quick stops for bretzels and ice cream and I kept trucking meeting quite a few dots along the way. I crossed into Austria after 136km and immediately stopped for schnitzel for lunch. Steady climbing up valley roads with a howling tailwind then started – as everyone funnelled towards the checkpoint I met more and more dots and at about 6pm I reached CP1. I didn’t linger long as I wanted to get over the parcours and a good way towards Innsbruck. However just I was leaving I heard claps of thunder and a few heavy raindrops fell. I dived into a pizza parlour and checked to the forecast: rain until about 2am. Instead of pressing on I found a hotel and got an early night. I later learned of the miserable conditions those who did make the climb faced and in retrospect it was the right call.
Day 5: Thursday 2 August – Partenen to Toblach
Stopping early the day before lost me some of the buffer I’d been building so I got on the road at 5:30am to try and get some of it back. The Silvretta-Hochalpenstraße is a magnificent but little-known climb. Not that high, not that steep but just beautiful with hairpin stacked on top of hairpin to get to the top. I soon caught up with Alan who I’d met on TINAT about six weeks earlier. We cruised up meeting a few other riders who had sheltered from the storm in the buildings on the way up. After some photos, I said goodbye to Alan at the top and descended quickly to Ischgl for breakfast in a bakery where I met two riders warming up after a night on the mountain. I kept going and it was here where I made a mistake. A few of the tunnels on the descent were banned in the race manual though bikes were allowed through. I had in my head that all the banned tunnels were on the way up so just charged straight on through. In my view they were quite safe as I could freewheel through at over 40kph and there was little traffic. But the rules are the rules. Slightly pissed off I carried on down the Inn valley. Moslty on the main road but occassionally tempted by the bike path which would invariably veer off adding distance and climbing. A quick supermarket stop and I was in the outskirts of Innsbruck where I regretted my route: rather than take the main road up the Brennertal I chose the one on the east side which was quieter but much, much steeper. Somewhere along it my Wahoo froze so I switched to my Garmin and carried on up to the Brenner Pass where I’d last been 20 years ago. It was quickly down the other side and into Italy where tempting bike paths kept causing trouble. Just north of Brixen I turned east along the Pustertal. Much had been made of the SS49 being a risky road so I took the bikepath which was utterly tedious, adding distance and climbing on an energy-sapping surface. Somewhere near Bruneck I gave up and hopped on the SS49 which turned out to be fine if you exclude the rain and hammered along to Toblach and my hotel where I got pizza and could charge my Di2 gearing in the bike room.
Day 6: Friday 3 August – Toblach to Bovec
205km / 3,592m / Strava
As with CP1 my aim was to get up-and-over CP2 in a day. It started well, Toblach was at the top of a pass so the first 100km or so were downhill following the Drau river and keeping up a good pace. I stopped for a quick bite before climbing into the Gitschtal via a horribly steep pass. I dropped down to Hermagor for a lovely lunch of gnocchi then followd the Gailtal to Armoldstein – a bit further than I should have done adding climbing, distance and time on busy roads. I then started climbing. First into Italy, meeting a few fellow dots at a gas station and then more steeply into Slovenia. A small bar just over the border offered drinks and ice cream – I don’t know what was in them because I felt really strong climbing up Mangart to the start of the CP2 parcours overtaking a number of other riders. The climb itself was beautful as the mountains turned golden towards the end of the day. The road is remarkable too weaving up the mountain through switchbacks and tunnels and even passing over itself at one point. I reached the top and put on a jacket and descended to Bovec where the control hotel was. It wasn’t late and my legs were OK but again there were thunderclaps so I decided to stop and leave the Vršič Pass for the next day.
Day 7: Saturday 4 August – Bovec to Bad Ischl
275km / 5,330m / Strava
Another early start after a bad night’s sleep in a noisy, hot dorm; but it turned out to be the best day of the whole TCR. The first order of business was the Vršič Pass which was punchy but steady on the way up and intermittently cobbled on the way down (WTF?!). Then the Wurzenpass to get back into Austria via a horribly surfaced descent. I wasted about an hour looking for a bike shop in Villach because my brakes were rubbing to find nothing was open because the town was in full festival mode with the locals dressed up in dirndls and lederhosen. I then went #rebeldot: with most riders heading east, I turned northwest back up the Drau valley almost looping back to where I had been yesterday. I stopped in Spital for a toastie and some tiramisu then started some lovely riding. First I followed the Lieser River gaining height gradually while the traffic sped past on an autobahn on viaducts way above me. I veered away from the autobahn as it went through tunnel climbing the brutal Katschberg with 3km at 12% instead before dropping into the beutiful Murrtal and Taurachtal. I span past Mautendorf Castle than started up the Tauernpass where the Beatles filmed Help! A rollicking descent was blunted lower down by a headwind before I climbed once again to Sankt Martin where I stopped for schnitzel and strudel. Another descent and last, sixth pass (Paß Gschütt) and then downhill all the way to Bad Ischl and a rather blingy hotel for the night.
Day 8: Sunday 5 August – Bad Ischl to Hluboká nad Vlatavou
223km / 1,995m / Strava
Until now I’d been riding well and feeling OK. Day 8 was when things started getting tougher despite being a much easier day than the one before. It started well with a breakfast buffet and a gentle downhill following the banks of beautiful lakes and rivers, but as I left the mountains it just got hard. Fatigue from the days before was a factor and my backside was starting to hurt but the mental grind of an event like the TCR was beginning to take its toll. I plugged on crossing the Danube for the first time. Northwest of Linz there was a range of hills I had to climb and they were just big enough to push the air up and turn threatening clouds into a downpour so I hid in a bus shelter and promptly slept for the 30 minutes. With the rain abating I pushed on struggling to muster enthusiasm for the climb to the Czech border. Here I followed a beautiful river and wished I could join the crowds floating down in canoes and rafts swigging beer and relaxing. Instead I pushed onto the mind-blowing gem of a city of Český Krumlov for dinner and reassesed my plans. I’d hoped to do near 300km but that wasn’t feasible so I recalibrated and booked a hotel about 45km down the road for the night.
Day 9: Monday 6 August – Hluboká nad Vlatavou to Špindlerův Mlýn
248km / 2,411m / Strava
I woke up and decided my route was wrong. Rather going round into Poland to climb the parcours I’d seen quite a few riders had climbed from the Czech side and then dropped down to the start in Poland. Doing the same I could ride on quieter roads and save some distance so over breakfast I rerouted. It went well in the main, pootling along quiet Czech roads (albeit with occassionally awful tarmac) mostly through small country towns with some lovely cities for mid-morning cake (Tábor) and lunch (Kolín) and lenghty phonecall home along the way. Things were hot (as it had been everyday) as I neared Vrchlabí I worried about running out of water only to be saved by a gas station. It’s around here that I started seeing riders in large numbers headed to or from CP3 (mostly the later) with lots of good natured cheering of one another whichever direction they were headed in. After a late start I got in late with no time for dinner other than my last stroopwaffels and some haribo.
Day 10: Tuesday 7 August – Špindlerův Mlýn to Hradec Králové
126km / 1,710m / Strava
The first order of the day was to polish off CP3. A gentle climb took me to its top and I gazed out across Poland. A few riders were topping out having stopped at the bottom on the Polish side the day before and they all told me how awful it was. Joy. I dropped down the parcours which was steep and rough, took a slight wrong turn but easily looped back its start and began climbing. It was vertiginous and awful but I’m very pleased to say I didn’t put a foot down – super-low gearing is the business. At the top, I checked in, had breakfast and then took stock. It was about 1,000km to CP4 and I had four-and-a-half days which seemed pretty manageable. I was feeling tired so decided to give myself a rest day helped with the knowledge I was facing a strong southerly. So I rolled south following the upper tracts of the Elbe, taking it easy, stopping for lunch, through Jaroměř (filled with hard rockers in town for Brutal Assault) and got off my bike at about 3pm in Hradec Králové another beautiful Czech city I’d never heard of. An afternoon nap, a big dinner and early night and I hoped I was ready for tomorrow.
Day 11: Wednesday 8 August – Hradec Králové to Hainburg an der Donau
285km / 1,772m / Strava
This should have been an easy day making headway south. However, it was hot (30C average!), the roads were busy and wind blew into my face all day. It was quite good going through Pardubice and Chrudim then I hit an area of hills – nothing big but they slowed me down. My willpower began to be sapped and as I neared the Austrian border I found myself on bigger and bigger roads and I nearly snapped, sweat rolling down my face as large trucks rolled past inches away. Grim. I looked at various alternative routes but realized all they would do is add distance, climbing and possibly gravel so I plugged on. The first bit into Austria stayed bad but when a motorway took away most of the traffic things looked up. It was getting later in the day and temperatures and the wind were dropping too. It was then that I caught up with Dario who I’d met at CP2 and we decied to stop at an Aldi (aka Hofer) just outside Zistersdorf for dinner. A chat and company made so much difference and then we headed our separate ways. I’d set a target of getting across the Danube which was another 60km or so. Refreshed by company, food and the heat going out of the day I had a strong end after a torrid middle of the day. I reached my target and a lovely hotel in converted cloisters and got my head down.
Day 12: Thursday 9 August – Hainburg an der Donau to Héviz
182km / 814m / Strava
The day the wheels nearly came off. Hungary has a bad rep for cyclists and this day made me concur. It’s not really the country’s fault that this part is flat as a pancake meaning roads are straight; nor that there was a headwind, it was scorching hot and I had saddle sores coming on. But the tarmac was awful, towns were an awkaward distance apart and there was nowhere to rest out of the heat (I tried sleeping in a ditch briefly). I rode as best as I could but motivation was lacking despite an excellent Spotify playlist compiled on the hoof by my friends (the first time I resorted to music on the trip). I’d hoped to do about 80km more but made the calculation that it wasn’t worth the mental or physical stress and winds were due to be lower the next day. So I stopped, ate and hoped I could recover for another day.
Day 13: Friday 10 August – Héviz to Banja Luka
293km / 1,614m / Strava
My earliest start of the TCR as I wanted to get within 200km of CP4 by the end of the day and knew the flatness would be running out soon. The first 120km were more Hungarian monotony before I crossed into Croatia, forgetting they were outside Schengen and noting the border was the river Drava whose source is in Toblach where I’d stayed a week earlier – there must have been an easier route to get here! My spirits lifted as in Croatia. Maybe it was that the roads weren’t straight or flat or appallingly surfaced, maybe it was the amazing ice cream in Virovitica, or perhaps ticking off another country felt like progress. I rolled through Daruvar which looked like a nice place to visit and Lipik where I saw my first bullet-riddled buildings of the trip. A number of dots were convening on the border-crossing at Gradinska to enter Bosnia and I sped past several kilometres of traffic jam to cross over and leave the EU. Just out of town Matthieu was celebrating his birthday with Thomas at a gas station and a few other dots joined us. A busy road headed to Banja Luka with the locals partying at bars along the way. I was too tired and focussed on getting to Banja Luka to think about the danger but in retrospect it was pretty hairy. By now my butt hurt badly and my wrists too from too much riding out of the saddle relieve pressure. Getting to Banja Luka felt like a huge achievement and as soon as I saw a hotel I piled in and slept.
Day 14: Saturday 11 August – Banja Luka to Bjelašnica
199km / 2,965m / Strava
I had until 10pm to get to the checkpoint hotel and I’d had to reroute having learned my planned path was near-impassable gravel which had caused a number of riders to turn back. It started with pizza for breakfast, good coffee (something I found throughout Bosnia) and a quietish road rising gently along a river valley. I turned off and found myself in a procession of dots headed for the checkpoint as various routes converged on a shared desitnation. The riding was great with stunning scenery and two good passes. Talking to fellow riders really lifted my spirits after days of riding solo. A few of us clubbed together and shared lunch in Turbe alongside Nik an avid dotwatcher who was keen to meet riders. 30km of horrific riding on busy roads then followed until I turned off the main road to Sarajevo. I was making good time and hoped to ride the parcours that evening but at the foot of the climb a thunderstorm hit. Three of us sheltered from the rain in a cafe then climbed up arrriving to tales of horror about the parcours. With poor visibility and more rain threatening and night near dinner and bed seemed like the best option. I had already booked a room but offered the spare bed and the floor space to other riders who readily accepted the offer.
Day 15: Sunday 12 August – Bjelašnica to Nikšić
205km / 2,662m / Strava
We’d left the door open and woke up and noticed (eventually) an extra body in the room – a rider who had been taken to hospital the night before and would scratch that morning. I wasn’t scratching though so the first thing I had to do was complete the parcours. I rode about 3km and then the gradient picked up and the gravel got coarser and I decided to switch shoes and walk. A few riders swapped riding and walking but in the end we all got to the top at about the same time, all in a chilly mist meaning we missed out on the spectacular views. I swapped back into my cycling shoes and gingerly descended thankful when I reached the hotel again without punctures and in time for breakfast. Going 16km had taken nearly three hours meaning a long distance was out of the question for the rest of the day but I hoped to finish in time for the party on Tuesday so pushed on. What followed was a spectacular day of riding with a solid bunch that helped each other cover the distance. We descended one deep, wooded valley up over a pass then down a gorge, stopped for lunch then kept climbing along the Driva Valley. A ramshackle border crossing into Montenegro followed with a dubious bridege and unbelievably the scenery got better with road cut into and through cliff faces high above the river. The climbing was steady and the light turned a weird orange as the setting sun reflected off the moisture in the air. At about 8pm we reached the top of the road then started descending reaching Nikšić after a quick dinner and shortly before midnight.
Day 16: Monday 13 August – Nikšić to Elbasan
276km / 2,622m / Strava
Three of us rolled out of Nikšić early after the heaviest, deep-fried, cheese-filled pastries ever. For the first time, two pairs of shorts on as extra padding for my tender backside. The route started on quiet roads where the biggest fear was meeting a herd of goats, then we rolled onto the main road to Podgorica which was kinda busy but kinda downhill so kinda OK. There was no conscious decision to ride together but I think we all knew how testing it would be mentally to do anything else. So we pressed on along a wide road to the Albanian border with little traffic. The border was crossed with little fuss and a brand, spanking new road took us to Koplik where we got some Lek and ate pizza. All the stories about Europe’s luxury cars ending up in Albania are true – that or there a lot of Brits, Italians and Germans on holiday… The road remained good to Shkodër and then started getting busy. An aside: we stopped for drinks at a gas station and I’m looking for a bin, an Albanian guy says in perfect English, “don’t bother, in Albania just through it on the ground.” Back roads to avoid the highway to Tirana but when we meet it again we stop for pizza. The main road didn’t look too bad and was straighter so we went that way until it briefly became a motorway. A bit of back roads and touch of gravel and it was back on the main road through the outskirts of Tirana. Not the most beautiful or orderly of capitals and slightly crazy driving but we worked our way through via a gas station espresso stop. More back roads then the main road to Elbasan looking up to the lofty Petrela Castle. At first busy and winding which wasn’t much fun then the main road went through a tunnel and we went upwards in the evening quiet. Suddenly we spot riders ahead and chase to catch Dario and Svenja. Five us ride to the top and have dinner. Then it’s downhill to Elbasan and bed.
Day 17: Tuesday 14 August – Elbasan to Meteora
320km / 3,515m / Strava
As the crow flies it was about 200km to the finish. About 50% further by my planned route. In theory doable in a day but I had no idea what my body could do. A gentle climb along a beautiful valley to Prrenjas to start. Nice and easy and a good pace. A few pastries then a proper climb bringing views over Lake Ohrid and a Swedish cyclotourist slowly wending his way to Australia. A sweeping descent and we were on the banks of the lake. This is probably the first time I’d felt like I might make it and the lake had always been one of the places I’d wanted to see – a deep azure blue surrounded by mountains. My main disappointment was not having time to stop and swim. They are working on the road and someone has driven a digger up a 30-degree sandy slope and is excavating above themselves. Madness. A quick stop in Podgorec for more pastries then a climb and into a poorer, more desolate part of Albania but with an austere beauty to the landscape. A long straight road to Bilisht the last town in Albania and a lunch of Pringles and chocolate. There’s a queue at the Greek boder but cyclists aren’t a threat and we are waved through. The landscape is the same but the contrast is amazing: no litter, good tarmac, courteous drivers, signs about bears and wolves, no people because in Greece it’s not viable to scratch a living here anymore. It also means it’s 40km without gas stations or restaurants so a stop in Maniaki for coffee and a first dinner of Baby Bels and Mars Bars and doubts about finishing today creep in.
The roads from here are quiet as Greece goes to sleep. Never flat, following the motorway. A shocking number of fur shops by Lake Kastoria. On the outskirts of towns you get wary of dogs: will they just bark impotently or will they chase. All the same the miles are ticking down. It’s late when we get to Grevena and there are only about 65km to go but it makes sense to fuel up so we stop at pizzeria. It’s not amazing but it tastes so good and the boss is super generous – free drinks, chips and a dessert pizza – the kindness of strangers throughout this trip will stick with me.
Outside of town we pass a rider who has punctured and seems out of it with lack of sleep and stress. We offer help but they refuse. There are two good sized climbs between Grevena and the finish and in the dark they pass slowly as you can’t judge speed, gradient or distance to the top. The first is dispatched fairly easily but the second is nastier. A party of Greek revellers cheers us at the bottom – I guess they’ve seen a few riders go through – then we get chased by dogs as the road ramps up and recovering is hard. A few tunes help the miles pass and eventually, finally we are at the top and it’s downhill to the finish. In the dark you can’t see what we’ve been told are stunning views but all I want to do is finish.
Twenty minutes later it’s over. Roll in, stamp brevet card, hugs, congratulations, beer then off to a hotel. It feels weird a huge adventure is over but the end feels slightly hollow. I’ve done it and my reward is getting to stop.
The next day is strange. I don’t have to get on bike, I don’t have to ride but I do have things to do. The bike shop in town has boxes so I pack my bike up and my friend Ian who has come up from Athens puts it in his car to take home. We have lunch with a few other riders and share stories then Ian heads off and I gravitate back to the finish. I want to see the remaining dots come in and stay there until the checkpoint closes and the race is officially over, not that that stops the riders still out there from pedalling. Each rider coming in is greeted with applause and hugs and love. Seeing the others roll in and seeing what it means to them to be greeted by others have been through the same test brings home some of the enormity of the TCR. Some cry, some cheer, some sink to the ground in relief and some curse the names of the organisers. But between us all there is a bond which is truly special.