It’s about 8pm on the 13th day of the Transcontinental – a Friday night. I’ve just crossed into Bosnia, leaving the EU for the first time on the ride. It’s Matthieu’s birthday and I find him and Thomas sharing a beer at a gas station on the edge of Gradiška the scrubby border town with Croatia. Seeing fellow riders is a huge relief so I join them although I forego a beer. As we sit there, more riders come through stopping quickly or sitting down for a chat: Wim, Chris, Isobel, Gianluca. It’s what passes for a party on the TCR.
The days before had seen real lows. From the checkpoint in Slovenia, riders had been fanning out in different directions to the third on the Czech-Polish border and now their routes were beginning to converge again as we neared the fourth checkpoint at Bjelašnica mountain above scenario. I’d had little human contact, nasty saddle sores had developed on my butt and I’d been battling headwinds for the last 800km on rough and often busy roads. The will to keep pushing was low and strange things were happening to my body. I could feel my clothes were baggier from the weight I’d lost. Unexpectedly my wrists were hurting: as I’d adjusted my position to relieve my bum I was putting more weight through them and they were struggling to cope.
It’s hard to describe what a 4,000km race across Europe feels like: I’ve tried in a seprate post to set out each day and while it’s a good aide memoire for me it’s dull reading and doesn’t reflect the full enormity of the event. That moment in Gradiška perhaps the closest to a point where everything I feel about the Transcontinental came together at a single time.
Company of strangers
The most obvious part is the people. I wasn’t at the front of the race, I was with the riders just reaching the checkpoints as they closed. The people struggling to balance riding and sleeping and eating to achieve something audacious. They were an amazing group with camaraderie that transcended age, nationality, language and gender. We were engaged in a common struggle and no matter how much we talked to those back home, nobody could relate to what we are doing as much as those on the road alongside us. I wanted to see them finish and they wanted the same for me.
I’d learned through Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary that while I often choose solitude, I’m not so good when it’s imposed on me. A day or two of riding on my own cleanses my soul and I can happily pedal all day long. On the flat roads to CP3 and from there to CP4, plugging into a headwind on my own, riding became a chore and I found myself obsessively watching my bike computer as the miles ticked down painfully slowly. From Gradiška onwards most of us followed the same route to the finish and there were few moments from there on I spent alone. Riding along with others transformed the ride. There were people to share highs and lows and plans with and suddenly the riding became pleasurable again. So it’s my fellow TCR-ers that I have to thank for getting to Greece and for teaching me something about my need for company.
A last note on people. As I write 12 days after I reached Meteora, Lionel and Neil are still out there. I keep finding myself drawn to the map, willing their dots onwards, awed by their tenacity and proud to have been part of the same story. I told a small part of the story through my #facestodots posts on Instagram but one year I’d like to go back and say more about the strivers, strugglers and inspirers further back in the field.
A sense of place
The Croatian side of the border lies in a town called Stara Gradiška. In World War II it was the site of a notorious concentration and extermination camp run by the Croatian regime. I’d never heard of the place until I started plotting route. It’s just one of example of how planning and riding the TCR taught me so much more about my continent.
Sadly much of what I learned was about its violent and brutal history and the lasting legacy of division. Riding through Alsace the place names are all German but it speaks French, looks French, feels French; by contrast Sud Tirol was ceded to the Italians at about the same time as Alsace was incorporated into France but it remains German-speaking and Austrian-looking. In the Czech republic many of the beautiful cities had large German and Jewish populations which are no more though their churches and synagogues remain.
Hardest for me to comprehend though was Bosnia. At the pace of a bicycle you can’t miss the buildings riddled with bullet holes but it was more than that. I learned that in the late 1980s about 20% of the population of Banja Luka was Muslim; today it is less than 5%. All the mosques in the town were pulled down during the conflict in the early 1990s. That was barely 25 years ago and as you move around the slightly chaotic but stable city you see the 40, 50, 60 year olds and I found the questions coming: what did you know? What did you do?
The geographical discovery wasn’t all gruesome history. Time and time again I found myself riding through stunning scenery and remarkable cities I simply hadn’t heard of as well as getting to know places that were already in my consciousness even if I’d never been. I now have a long list of places I’d like to visit and if I say so myself some quite good photos.
Gradiška marked the return to the mountains on a route that was far from flat. I crossed the hills of the Ardennes, the Black Forest, various parts of the Alps, skirted around the Dolomites, dipped a toe into the Sudeten mountains and traversed the Dinaric and Pindus mountains (nope, hadn’t heard of the last two either). There was some spectacular riding. Three places I’d pick out…
1. Checkpoint 2 was at Mangart Sedlo and is just one of the most amazing roads I’ve ridden, high in what’s basically an extension of the Dolmites. Surrounded my vertiginous granite walls the road winds up steeply through tunnels and switchbacks even crossing over itself. I was fortunate enough to get there as the day was ending and the light was turning golden. Magical.
2. Heading from CP2 to CP3 I took a more westerly route than most that took me through the Tauern moutains and Salzkammergut regions of Austria. Alpine pastures, towering peaks and later on stunning lakes. Plus I passed through Bad Ischl where Emperor Franz Ferdinand declared war on Serbia in July 1914 starting World War I…
3. Southern Bosnia and Montenegro are lands of mountains and valleys and my route followed the rivers to avoid climbing. The road up the Piva Valley rivals any I have ridden. Hacked into the mountain side through cuttings and tunnels it criss-crossed a cobalt blue river then hugs a lake behind a dam before climbing into the hills.
The border at Gradiška is a river (the Sava) and rivers defined my route too. Following a river was often a good way to avoid climbing but when I rode perpenidicular to rivers I cursed. At the start of my ride I encountered some of Europe’s biggest rivers that have long been tamed for navigation: the Meuse, Moselle and the Rhine. As I moved east I met rivers earlier in their lives: the Drau / Drava, the Danube and the Elbe.
I also encountered some rivers on multiple occassions. I first touched the Rhine just south of Strasbourg before cutting off a huge leap by climbing through the Black Forest and meeting it again at the Rheinfall where it exits Lake Constance. On the fifth night I stayed at the source of the Drau a major tributary of the Danube. Six days later I encountered it again (now called the Drava) as the boundary between Hungary and Croatia. I crossed the Danube three times.
Risk and luck
I rode from Gradiška to Banja Luka at night. The road was narrow, busy and without a shoulder. Standards of driving in Bosnia aren’t great. It didn’t feel safe but it was what I needed to do and it was something ready for with a bright rear light, reflective shoes to catch headlights and by taking an assertive position on the road.
Looking back I realise how much of the TCR was about managing risk. I choose the roads and route to get the right balance between climbing, traffic and progress.
I took the kit I thought was right and would allow me to manage the circumstances that could arise. As it turned out there was lots I didn’t use: I had no punctures, no mechanicals, it barely rained and it was hot, hot, hot. Yet I wouldn’t have left much behind because on a different occassion things could have been very different (I’ve updated my kit post for a review of my choices if you are interested).
The risk was also in terms of your body and how you ride. How far do you go each day? How much sleep do you get? Do you stop now for food or water or do you take the chance there will be something just down the road? Each rider has to walk their own tightrope to make the finish in time or to their target. A small issue can knock you of course. For me that meant going fast and sleeping more. I never let my water bottles run dry (in fact I carried one, untouched from Geraardsbergen to Meteora as I always kept it in reserve but never needed to touch it).
Those around me often rode much longer days than me, sleeping less and not stopping for peoper meals. The drive and determination to finish was astonishing but I’m not sure it was safe and overall I’m not sure the risk balance is in the right place for the TCR. It pushes people to extremes and that means danger. You get banned from using safe, legal tunnels in Austria yet you are obliged to play with the traffic in the Balkans. I met riders who had crashed, been hit by cars or were barely lucid through who felt the need to push on.
I guess that leads to the question that always gets asked after something like this – and one I can’t tie to Gradiška – would I do it again?
For me the answer is no.
There were massive highlights and I learned a lot about myself but that is outweighed by a number of things. The first is the risk I spoke about. I finished but I was on the knife edge. It wouldn’t have taken much to have fallen behind or ended up in an unsafe place. I was prepared but I also feel I got lucky and I don’t want to run that gauntlet again.
Second is the commitment. It’s three weeks off work and the whole year beforehand was focussed on the event. It wasn’t cheap either. My costs and preparation would be less if I did it again as I now know what is needed but it still hugely skews everything in your life and I don’t want to be unbalanced.
Last is the impact on family and friends. Along with my fellow riders they got me through with the their support before and during the event mostly through a lively WhatsApp group. Overall I think they enjoyed following my race but I know the excitement was often muted by concern especially when I rode late into the night. It would be unfair to put them through that again.
So as I say no. That won’t stop me bikepacking or taking on challenges but they need to take less time and push the boundaries a little less.