Two hours til midnight

With two hours til the midnight start here in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, my Transcontinental steed is ready. Just a minute ago the auditorium here was buzzing with chatter as racers exchanged ambiguous clues about their race strategies and re-packed their bikes one last time. Then, possibly following the cue of some elite rider, 100+ racers have laid out on the floor seeking a few minutes of shut-eye before heading up the town’s steep cobblestone hill to the starting line. Just minutes ago, it was all clamor and bustle. Now you could hear a spoke drop. With considerable more reason to stress than the more seasoned riders, I think I’ll fiddle with my bike a little longer. Rest can wait.

Interested in tracking my progress in the hours and days ahead? Follow dot #134 on If I’m much ahead or behind the middle of the pack, it’s because I’ve accidentally cheated or something has gone wrong… Either way, send good vibes 🙂

Fully loaded
My Transcontinental steed, fully loaded. Hours of packing and re-packing will pay off when (if?) I make it over the first hill. Fortunately, Belgium is pretty flat.

The race begins

The Transcontinental begins with a neutralized lap around the town of Geraardsbergen, Belgium. Riders can’t pass an official’s moped until the lap is complete so there’s no reason to race just quite yet. All 200 racers start and finish the lap on a steep cobblestoned hill, known as the Muur, that rises over the town. Moments after topping the hill for the second time, racers accelerate and peel off in different directions to begin their routes across Europe.

The start of the third edition of the Transcontinental was an occasion for the small Flemish village of Geraardsbergen. Perhaps because of the prominent role its Muur played in the Tour de Flanders over the decades, bike race spectating is simply part of the town’s DNA. Even though the Transcontinental began at midnight, crowds of townspeople joined racers’ loved-ones, with torches ablaze, to take part in a new kind of cycling spectacle.

At the starting line, racers fiddled with their gear and fidgeted beside their bikes. It was strange to think that as many as one of every two riders around me wouldn’t make it to the finish, due to fatigue, illness, accidents, mechanical breakdowns, medical conditions, and any number of other reasons, physical and emotional. After hundreds of hours of preparation and all the sacrifices made just to get to the starting line, all I could hope for was to avoid any major mishaps on the first night. The rest would just have to be taken in stride. Anyway, there were more pressing matters at hand. For starters, how do you pace yourself in the first moments of a race across a continent?

To a cyclist about to set off from Belgium for Istanbul, uncertainty lies in the darkness ahead, but so does adventure. The town mayor said some words, the clock struck midnight, and with the chime of a bell we took off into the night…

Belgium: Early hours of the race

The first night of the race saw tension from weeks of frenzied preparation melt away as tires moved from the Muur’s uneven cobblestones to smooth tarmac leading south. Within minutes of jostling up the Muur with hundreds of fellow riders, I found myself alone, riding through sleepy Belgian towns, following the flickering lights of a few cyclists several thousand feet ahead.

Using a GPS unit was still new for me, and I slowed to check my bearings as it led me out off town streets onto a small paved path running alongside a canal. I pedaled through the night, guided by the canal through fields and forest, with only my bike’s headlight to resist the enveloping darkness. Unfamiliar surroundings meant every rustle on the periphery kept my imagination busy. There was little else to occupy me besides gazing at the spotlight my bike cast on the path ahead, occasionally illuminating the ghostly figure of a sleeping swan floating across the water.

An hour passed and the canal continued on. With no signs of other riders, I began to grow restless and stopped to check on my progress – 25 miles and counting. Shortly after, my route diverged from the canal and led down a countryside road that devolved into gravel, and then a trail strewn with rocks, roots, and fallen branches. Before I could palm my forehead in frustration, bike lights bobbled around the corner and three fellow racers approached, remarking that the trail was completely blocked ahead. Navigation tools can get a bit confused by international borders. We’d run up against the northern edge of France.

As quickly as we met, at 2:40 a.m. on a trail in the middle of the Belgian countryside, our unlikely peloton broke off as each rider chose a different strategy for re-routing into France. After spending hours riding alone in the dark, even an interaction as brief as this provided an enormous boost, and the fact that others were facing similar predicaments in the first miles of a 2,500+ mile race was hugely validating. At least I was heading in the right direction.

The border itself was nondescript, but subtle differences like the style of street signs offered a sense of familiarity, thanks to a semester of studying abroad in France eight years earlier. After threatening rain for many hours, the clouds finally opened up, and the roads of french countryside towns glistened under streetlights. The light rain continued and early race adrenaline began to fade. I became cognizant of feeling increasingly cold and weary. Many of the more experienced riders were opting to ride straight through the first night, only breaking for rest the night after the first full day. But since I was already susceptible to making any number of rookie mistakes, I’d decided the least I could do would be to get some rest on the first night – a worthy investment towards better decision-making over the first 48 hours.

As the miles wore on, my eyes darted across the road looking for small nooks where I could get a few hours rest. My bivy lacked full waterproofing so finding some kind of shelter was a must. In time I came across a McDonalds, and after setting up my bivy beneath the overhang between its playplace and front entrance, I fell asleep within several minutes, shortly after 4 a.m., completely unaware of any apprehensions I once had about sleeping outdoors in a foreign country.

France: First three days

Salut! Three and a half days of cycling has gotten me to the outskirts of Lyon, averaging 140 miles a day, through pastoral landscapes battered by wind, down canal banks in the rain, over single-track across farm fields, down forest trails fit for a mountain bike. So far I’ve slept under the overhang of a McDonalds, in two inns, and alongside a riverbank.

The majority of towns I’ve passed through are eerily quiet provincial villages in the countryside. Folks clearly live there but you rarely see anyone out and about. Windows remain shuttered with lights out. You feel a definite sense of loneliness when this is your only contact with civilization while riding through countryside all day. It’s been a relief to pull into some of the larger more happening towns like Reims, Langres and Chalon-sur-Saône (shown later in the video below). Because I have a lot of time on my hands out here, I’ve invented a new game where I guess what amenities will be available in a town based on the font size of its name in Google Maps.

Despite the solitude, I have a huge soft spot for France. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the landscapes and cuisine, as well as the chance to put my (questionable) French language skills to use.

Early learnings:

-Every several minutes spent route-tweaking before the race saves hours of time during the race: Navigational issues plagued me day 1 and 2 as part of my route led me on gravel roads and trails unfit for a road bike. Since then the Garmin and I have made amends, finding improved ways to collaborate moving forward.

-Eat more calories: I’m slowly learning how to find enough food despite limited hours of most grocery stores and restaurants. (Note to self: stores close at noon on Sundays, so stock up.) In the first two days I was only eating a pastry or two when I woke up, but I’ve learned energy is sustained far better throughout the day with a heartier breakfast from a grocery store – 2 yogurts, 1-2 pieces of fruit, orange juice, carbs (biscuits, bread, pastries, etc.)

-Take the gear you want to bring on a bike trip, remove half, then remove half of what’s left… then remove half of that: Yesterday I shipped out three pounds of gear that I previously thought were essential, but now just seem heavy. These included the only pair of non-cycling clothes and shoes (sandals) I’d brought along – a symbolic move as well a strategic one. We’ve got miles to cover!

-Investing in reliable gear pays off: Despite the early abuse, my gear has held up surprisingly well so far – a testament to the benefits of tens of hours spent researching bike bags, rims, wheel building etc. A mechanical issue at this early stage in the race might have ended it all.

Sightings of interest:

-Belgian hedgehog roadkill, flattened into weirdly artistic spikey pancakes (multiple sightings)

-“Pizza Americain”, a thin personal pizza with the contents of a bowl of chili delicately drizzled over it, topped with cornichons — easily the least American type of pickle. An absolute culinary and cultural aberration. Entirely delicious. (single sighting)

-Young French truck driver unapologetically wearing denim overalls (single sighting)

-Canals on canals on canals… like bridges for one canal to run over another… confusing concept, I know. Assuming the French are just doing this to show off. See Canals video, below. (three sightings)

-Roomba lawnmower tending to a farmer’s yard with nobody in sight. Seriously, how do we not have these yet, America? On second thought, we’re really not responsible enough to use these without incurring tens of casualties a year, finding ways to weaponize them, etc. Ok. Well done, FTC.

More updates, ramblings, and sightings to come! À plus…

Proper form demonstrated. Hydrate safely out there!



Getting un-lost:

Canals = wind protection + flat terrain:

New friends:

French horses are well known to take at least three baths a day (see traditional horse tub at left). They spend the remainder of their time discussing existential humanism over café noirs and cigarettes.
Night 3's resting place
Waterfront views where I hunkered down to sleep in the town of Sauniere on the third night. My tent has no poles but it’s water resistant, keeps bugs out, and only weighs a few ounces.