The following posts reflect 24 days of life on the road during the 2015 Transcontinental bike race. Most content was authored by iPhone while eating in family-run restaurants, pacing along cobblestone streets, sitting on boulders, beating the heat in cafés, waiting in line at bakeries, reclining on hotel beds, ordering kebabs, resting alongside the road, and occasionally, while pedaling on my bike. In some places I’ve filled in details that came to mind in the weeks following the race.
Posts are ordered chronologically, from race start to race finish.
The past few days of R&R have afforded the opportunity to reflect a bit on the Transcontinental, and consider why one might decide to do it, or something like it.
Even for a diehard cyclist, the TCR has a format unlike any extended bike tour. 200 cyclists, around 2,800 miles and 100,000+ vertical feet, through 10 countries, entirely solo and unsupported, no rest days between start and finish, and little time to immerse yourself in the local surroundings that can make for the most rewarding part of traveling. I’ve come to decide that its attraction comes from an ideal shared by this active community of 2,000 current, past, and future race participants. All seek a form of adventure and self-reliance that is purer than can be found in the familiarity and convenience of daily life, and the luxuries and good company of a typical vacation. In short, all are driven to push personal limits, physically as well as emotionally, to arrive at some new level of self-understanding.
Whatever you’d call this type of experience, the solo bike race format is interesting because even when you avoid catastrophic failures, small things continually go wrong and you have nothing to do except solve each problem as it arises, by yourself, with the constraint of time ensuring you don’t languish in self-defeat for too long before picking yourself up and finding a new way to address an issue: replacing a critical piece of gear you lost/broke, fixing a mechanical malfunction in a country without bike shops, correcting navigational errors when the road you’ve been following for 10 miles turns to grass and gravel, getting hydrated when you find yourself stuck on a mountain in between towns and out of water, surviving the night when you’re alone in Bosnia being chased by stray dogs. And then there’s the challenge of simply riding over difficult terrain for days on end in the face of growing fatigue.
But the Transcontinental certainly isn’t all grime and suffering. For every low point there are five high, whether you’re summiting a mountain, coming upon a stunning view, discovering a doorway older than the U.S. that seems to have a story to tell, fortuitously receiving a USB charger from a friend you met five minutes earlier, or enjoying one of the best meals of your life at a family-run restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Turkey. (This year’s TCR winner Josh Ibbett called the Transcontinental an adventure thinly veiled as a race. Based on my caloric intake, I’d call it thinly veiled culinary tourism.) The TCR was the dream vacation because there was so much to enjoy, but even the low points conferred lessons in the process.
The Transcontinental might not be for everyone, and adventures in the outdoors might not be either. But I think everyone has some idea of an experience that strikes them as inherently intriguing yet terrifying – terrifying because the chance of failure is high, and terrifying because it can be uncomfortable to learn about yourself. (Not everything turns out to be so positive when you’re being pushed to your limits.) Whatever those experiences might be, let’s encourage each other to lock on to these bold ideas as they form, without letting fear and self-doubt override. Life is too short to hold out in the comfort and safety of ordinary day-to-day experience. I already have an idea for my next adventure, though it will take awhile to formulate, and then to plan and execute. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to following yours, whatever they may be. 🙂
I attempted to log daily ride data in Strava during the early days of the TCR, but the burden of keeping my iPhone charged at all times was too great. In the future I would consider putting more effort into recording rides in the Garmin, or using a minimalistic battery-efficient device like a CatEye just for recording detailed ride stats. From carrying out a retrospective on my route, I do have summary statistics for the whole race, added below.
Trip total: 2,712 miles, 124,958 vertical feet in 24 days
Daily average: 113 miles and 5,206 vertical feet (5.6x Hawk Hills)/day
Longest distance in 24 hours: 191 miles
Segment: Slovenska Bistrica, Slovenia to Osijek, Croatia
Reasons: Feeling great after a full night’s rest at an inn, not too hot, many hours of cool flat night riding across Croatia)
Shortest distance in 24 hours: 63 miles
Segment: Bay of Kotor, up Mt. Lovcen, to Podgorica Montenegro
Excuses: Too many photo opportunities, rainstorm, accumulated fatigue
Even after a day of recovery, endorphins are still rushing, which has helped counteract some of the soreness and discomforts from such a prolonged effort on the bike. The final day of riding was the hardest of the trip, as I started it running on empty after the hundred miles from the night before. With only a few hours sleep, I still had 70 miles to go on the hilly roads leading into Istanbul. This time it was every challenging variable I’d seen throughout the trip all thrown in one last time: heavy traffic coupled with a culture of reckless driving, trucks, dust and pollution, no shoulders, rough road surfaces riddled with potholes, stray dogs, headwinds, extreme heat, and steep climbs. But no good video game would end without a final boss to vanquish, and neither would the Transcontinental.
As the final day wore on and the hours since my planned morning arrival tallied higher, I found myself beside the road on a number of occasions wondering in between gulps of water whether I’d make it to the finish. The final route led around the northern perimeter of Istanbul and through the Belgrade Forest before dropping down to the Bosphorus for one last three mile stretch of urban waterfront to the finish at the Rumeli Hisari fortress. Eyes stinging from sweat and sunscreen, I had to admit the chances of making it weren’t good. I was low on energy, my legs were jello, and the sun was falling lower in the sky by the minute. We’d been warned to avoid riding through the forest after dark since that’s when the dogs come out and I still had a ways to go to get there.
As dusk settled, I finally entered the forest and temperatures began to fall. Dogs lazed beside the road but didn’t seem to pay much attention. Then I came upon a particularly vicious looking mutt whose eyes locked on to the gears of my bike as though the kill instinct would flip at any instant and his gnarly paws would fly into a flurry of frenzied barking. The hunt would be on. But as his lip lifted into a snarl, I shouted NO! like you would if disciplining your pooch from across a dog park. Maybe it’s because he was only a few feet away and the noise took him by surprise, or perhaps he just wasn’t used to being beta male, but he started so hard, all four paws left the ground. I felt pretty sorry for the pup, and it renewed me with new confidence that I’d make it through the forest without regretting I hadn’t been vaccinated for rabies. The ride was on.
At a certain point of grinding through Belgrade Forest it becomes clear that you’ve topped out of the climb, and the bike begins to roll downhill as you coast lower and lower down to city streets. While checking some final directions I ran into a friendly local cyclist and we spoke for a moment about the Transcontinental and my route. It became clear that the finish was just a short ways down the road, and a few minutes later I was emptied out onto the waterfront. Still in shock that I’d arrived at the Bosphorus, I handed my iPhone to the first tourist I saw for a quick photo (see last post). Thankfully, the fading light did well to conceal the grime plastered to me from four days of riding without a shower.
Finishing the Transcontinental was a moment to remember, and I enjoyed a fine dinner afterwards to celebrate, but the real reward was sleep. With little regard to the amenities or price, I booked a room at the closest waterfront hotel and took a lengthy shower before slumping into bed. After ten hours of rest I awoke to peel myself off the mattress and, battling brutal soreness, don my cycling kit one last time. Having shipped out any civilian clothing at the start of the race due to space/weight constraints on the bike, this was all I had to wear. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to sink-wash my jersey the night before and hang it out the window to dry, so this was far less unpleasant than it could have been. Still, almost too sore to walk, I had the interesting challenge of pedaling downtown to buy myself a pair of clothes and shoes.
After searching around for awhile I was approached by one of the many locals staring at me clacking up a cobblestone street in spandex. He asked in kinder words what the hell I was doing walking around the back alleys of Istanbul wearing bike shoes and was amused enough by the story that he stopped some locals passing by and asked them in Turkish where I might find a good clothing store. They directed me to Kotten, which is sort of like the Turkish Express Men, and I picked up the cheapest shirt-pants-sandals combo that would also meet my basic standards for fashion. The moment I stepped back into civilian clothing was the true end of the trip for me, a moment of mixed emotions but ultimately a deep sense of reward over tackling something I really wasn’t sure I’d be able to do, and learning quite a bit about myself and the world in the process.
One of six towers on the well preserved Rumeli Hisari fortress
Cleaned up and wearing clothes for the first time in 24 days. Do I look Turkish? Perhaps you’d say yes if you could see my stylish new sandals.
I still have no idea how this guy found me online knowing only my first name but he managed to tag me on Insta.
It appeared my bike box would not fit into the cab to the airport, but with three swift punches, my cabbie made it happen.