The Next Crazy Venture Beneath The SkiesEvents Sports Cycling Travel & Adventure Cycling
Cycle sport loves its history. There’s a romance to the historic races that date back to the time when bicycles really were the fastest things on the roads, races that have been contested by the greats of the sport in every generation. But how are new races born, new legends made?On the bright morning last August when 88 adventurous cyclists lined out across London’s Westminster Bridge and set off for Istanbul, I’d never even heard of the Transcontinental Race. But it turned out to be the most compelling bike race I watched all year. No matter that it's a race only its second year. No matter that it’s contested mostly by amateurs and doesn’t look anything like the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix. I fell for the Transcontinental because it's a daring and thoroughly modern take on how bike racing used to be back in the 'heroic' era. By putting the lost virtues of adventure and self-reliance back at the heart of a bike race, the Transcontinental is a breath of fresh air in the increasingly bland, commercialised world of modern cycle sport. At around 3,300 km the race is about the same distance as the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia. But it's raced non-stop and the winner of this year’s race finished in just under eight days. Impressive. It’s even more impressive when you consider that all the managers, team cars, mechanics, masseurs and personal chefs enjoyed by today’s professional peloton are strictly outlawed, along with outside help of any kind. Racers in the Transcontinental must carry all their own clothing and kit, fix their own mechanicals, find their own food and drink and make their own sleeping arrangements. For many this means grabbing a few hours each night in a heap on the roadside. Their race has three checkpoints between London and Istanbul but riders are left to plot their own routes and must navigate their own way. Just like bike races of the old days, the Transcontinental Race isn’t televised. I admit this presents a challenge if, like me, you wanted to follow the race as a spectator. But modern technology comes to the rescue. Each rider carries a satellite transponder and on the race website a live map showed each rider’s exact position, updated in real time. I must have hit refresh on that map dozens of times a day, watching see how gaps were opening up, figuring out whether it worked out better to cross the channel via Dover or Newhaven, to head south through Italy and take a ferry across the Adriatic or stick to a land route through Slovenia. I'd flip to Google Streetview to get a better sense of the road the riders were riding and the scenery they were passing through. I’d check Twitter for the racers’ own updates, and the photos and videos they were uploading. Soon I began sending encouraging messages to people I’d never met. At one moment I found myself shouting at the screen in desperation as Pippa Handley, leading the women’s race, made a wrong turn that sent her on a long, hilly detour into the Vosges mountains. ‘Why the hell is she going up there?’ I asked myself, ‘Quick! Somebody tell her! Is she losing her mind?’ “It’s a cross between an alley cat race and the earliest editions of Tour,” says Mike Hall, the man behind the Transcontinental Race and an accomplished ultra-endurance athlete who, in 2012, set a new record for cycling around the world. “After I won the round-the-world race I wanted to organise an event that gave a taste of what that race was like, but didn’t require people to commit to such a big project,” explains Hall. “Two weeks was the aim - that’s something you can do within your annual leave. I chose Istanbul because Easyjet had just started flying there and that made it more affordable to get back. Then, out of the blue, our main sponsor went bust and withdrew their funds. Brooks stepped in and saved the race. ” With a nod to cycling history, Hall placed the first of the Transcontinental Race’s three checkpoints in the Paris café where the very first Tour de France started in 1903. The Tour was devised by Henri Desgrange, himself a record-breaking cyclist, and Hall shares Desgrange’s relish for testing riders to the very limit of their abilities, both physical and mental. He also loves the variety of riders entering the Transcontinental, from the world’s best ultra-endurance cyclists to seasoned randonneurs and a few plucky cycle tourists. “The early Tour de France had a category for touriste-routiers, independent riders, and we latched onto that,” explains Hall, “This year we gave the Spirit of the Race award to a guy who showed up on the start line without an race entry, just in case their was a space. He was on an old Fuji steel touring bike, canti brakes and a quill stem. That was the point. You don’t need anything, just the audacity to go. We’ve priced race entry at the audax level, not the sportive level.” In a move that's pure Desgrange, Hall placed the second checkpoint at the summit of the Stelvio Pass in northern Italy, the fifth highest paved road in Europe. Not only that, but riders were required to make the harder, eastern ascent, the one with the 48 hairpins. Anyone who rode up the other way, and there were a handful who made the mistake, had to choose between disqualification or going all the way back down and re-climbing on the classic route, a gruelling, four hour round-trip. Naturally, the weather on the Stelvio was horrible. A pair of leading riders had chosen to save weight by not carrying a warm jacket and after warming themselves by the pizza oven at the café at the summit, made the shivering descent with newspapers up their jerseys and limbs wrapped in tin foil and cling-film. Every fan of the Tour de France knows the tale of how Eugène Christophe, leading the 1913 race on the descent from the Col du Tourmalet, broke his forks. Mindful of rules that forbade outside assistance, Christophe took the bike to a blacksmith’s forge and repaired the forks himself, though he didn’t escape a time penalty as Desgrange ruled he had benefitted from outside assistance in the form of the blacksmith’s boy who was working the bellows. It became one of Tour’s most celebrated stories and reflected the fact that bike racing was as much about adventure and ingenuity as speed and stamina. While there were plenty of broken spokes, mechanical reliability and road surfaces have improved since those days and nobody on the Transcontinental had to get out the brazing torch. Though the story quickly entered into Tour legend, at first Christophe had tried to conceal the mechanical failure. He knew it would embarrass Peugeot, his sponsor, who had supplied the machine. Then, just as now, bike companies used races to promote their products and today’s pro peloton rides the lightest, stiffest, most aerodynamic carbon fibre confections available. For all their virtues race bikes are not best-suited to real world cycling, where durability and comfortable all-day riding are more important than the pure speed of a disposable race bike. The Transcontinental is a perfect showcase for real world bikes, and in particular, a new sub-genre of bikes that combine aspects of the US gravel racing scene with offroad bike-packing. Specialized's AWOL, Genesis’s Croix de Fer and Kinesis’s Tripster ATR are just three examples of bikes that are more comfortable rides, are equipped with disc brakes to improve stopping power and allow clearance for bigger tyres and have mounting points for racks and mudguards, if required. “Comfort is really important,” says Hall. “You can take a lot of risks and use a road bike. It’s good to let the riders chose for themselves, the race becomes a testing ground. I don’t want to make too many rules, but we can influence things by putting a high gravel pass in there. That tilts things towards slightly wider tyres. I'm tempted to keep on adding climbs until I’ve weeded out all the tri-bars.” As a sporting contest, this year’s Transcontinental did start to lose interest once it became clear that nobody was going to catch Allegeart. The Belgian was well into Croatia before the second place ride had even crossed from Italy into Slovenia. “Gaps tend to grow towards the end, as people realise they aren’t going to make it,” confesses Hall. With Allegeart winning both this year and last year’s race, I asked Hall what if there was any hope for other riders. “I’ve thought about offering some training to bring the others up to his level. He’s just so well organised, so efficient with his time. Some of the younger riders will be there in a few years. Experience is important. I found that at this year’s Trans Am race, even though I was down on my fitness, I could rely on my experience.” For next year’s Transcontinental, besides hoping for a closer contest at the front of the race, Hall is looking to expand the field to around two hundred riders. In response to the debate over whether two people riding together constitutes ‘support’, there’ll be a new category for pairs entering together. He wants the riders to venture into wilder, more remote terrain and has moved both the start and the intermediary checkpoints accordingly. The start will be on the famed cobblestone farm tracks of Belgium, the first checkpoint will be on the bald summit of Mont Ventoux. The second checkpoint will be on the Strada dell’Assietta, requiring riders to ride a 40km section of alpine gravel track on the French-Italian border. The third checkpoint at Vukovar will draw racers away from the comfortable Croatian coastline onto more remote Balkan roads. The fourth and final checkpoint before Istanbul will once again be on Montenegro’s Mount Lovcen. Hall also has plans to make the race more exciting for spectators, perhaps by requiring riders to record short video diaries at each checkpoint that will be posted instantly on the web, providing more the way of live data and infographics and encouraging even greater interaction on social media. Could amateur races like the Transcontinental be an impetus for professional racing to rediscover its adventurous side? The L’Eroica vintage sportive was the inspiration for the Strade Bianche race that takes in the same unsurfaced tracks of Tuscan hills and is now an established event in the pro calendar. Bordeaux-Paris, at 560km an exceptionally long one-day race with motor pacing, was last raced in 1988. Might it be due for a revival? I asked how Hall would advise anyone tempted by the allure of a long distance adventure race like the Transcontinental, “I’d say start with an audax, that’s the blueprint for this kind of thing. It’s about self sufficiency.” Long may the Transcontinental, and races like it, continue putting the adventure and audacity back into bike racing. Applications for the Transcontinental Race 3 open for 150 solo riders and 50 pairs at 8pm GMT on November 7th.