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September 11, 2015 2 comments

Confessions of a Dot-Watcher

Correspondence Events Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling
By Jack Thurston
Confessions of a Dot-Watcher
The moment it flashed up in my Twitter timeline I knew this photograph of Alexandre Bourgeonnier would be a defining image of this year's Transcontinental Race. [caption id="attachment_15280" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Emotion at the finish (Photograph by James Robertson)"][/caption] The exhausted rider in tears, his face caked with the dirt and sweat of the long, hot days and the dark, lonely nights, held tight in his wife's embrace. Her arms are wrapped around her husband and in her left hand is clasped the smartphone that she has been staring at for the past eleven days, eight hours and thirty minutes, watching the race tracker page as a legion of numbered orange dots creeps slowly from one end of Europe to the other. In case you've never heard of the Transcontinental (and it's fair to admit, most people haven't), it's a non-stop bike race from Geraardsbergen in Belgium to Istanbul in Turkey, taking in some of the highest mountain roads in Europe. It's a test of both endurance and self-sufficiency. Riders must carry what they need with them or find it on the roadside, fix their own mechanicals and navigate their way across five mountain ranges and ten international borders, languages changing every day. With no televised or newspaper coverage, following the Transcontinental as a spectator is also something of a do-it-yourself affair. As I had last year, I quickly fell under the spell of the orange dots, each one representing a single rider, updated every three minutes. At midnight one night the barren slopes of Mont Ventoux were littered with two dozen of dots and I found myself trying to conjure the eerie, desolate scene in my mind's eye. [caption id="attachment_15281" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Midnight on Mont Ventoux, busy with Transcontinental riders"][/caption] I'd check the dots again first thing in the morning, measuring my own night's sleep in a warm, comfortable bed, against the progress the riders had made pedalling through the darkness. I'd zoom in on a single rider, switching from map view to satellite imagery to Google Streetview and back again to figure out exactly which road they were riding along. If a rider I was following stopped for more than a few minutes I'd begin to wonder why. Was there a serious problem? Or were they just having a pizza? [caption id="attachment_15282" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Ultan Coyle ate here? "][/caption] As well as watching the dots there were the riders' Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds to monitor. Here tiny telegrams from the road would appear, along with the occasional hastily snapped photograph. Sometimes they'd reply to my questions and tweets of encouragement. The dots could speak! The race organisers, following the race by car were not always fully appraised of what was happening everywhere in the race but shared what information they could as riders passed through the four checkpoints. Leading the early part of the race across France was James Hayden, a young rider who only took up bike racing three years ago and had never entered a race longer than 100 miles. Not only was James first up Mont Ventoux he was live tweeting as he rode. By the Italian Alps four riders had pulled away from the main field: James in the lead, last year's second place Josh Ibbett in second, former UK 24 hour time trial champion Ultan Coyle in third and Frenchman Alexandre Bourgeonnier in fourth. [caption id="attachment_15287" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Evil Genius: Transcontinental Race organiser Mike Hall (Photograph by Camille McMillan)"][/caption] Last year, when I spoke to race organiser Mike Hall about the Transcontinental, he could barely conceal a sadistic pleasure at the inclusion of the Strada Dell' Assiette in this year's race. Besides making the race harder, the logic behind adding 40km of rough tracks in the high Italian Alps to the route was to tip the balance against the time trial specialists. It had exactly the desired effect, shredding Ultan's tyres and reducing him to walking his sleek racing machine off the mountain as Alexandre Bourgeonnier sailed by. [caption id="attachment_15286" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Strada Dell'Assiette. Photograph by Camille McMillan"][/caption] With no official race commentary, spectators had to come up with their own theories about what was happening. Why were some riders heading off course, down into the middle of Italy? Of course! They were heading for Ancona, and the ferry to across the Adriatic to Split. Instantly someone else on Twitter would look up the ferry timetable and try to figure out who was on course to catch the one sailing that day and who would be left kicking their heels and cursing their luck. On the long drag across the Po Valley of Northern Italy, James and Josh pulled away from the rest, James's lead yo-yo'd around the 60km mark and sleep deprivation soon began to play its part. At first, James's sleep strategy was mere 20 minute naps but by Italy he had added a 90 minute night-time sleep. To save weight and keep moving he carried no sleeping gear, finding shelter as and when he could. He later revealed that on one freezing night in the Croatian mountains he had crawled into cubby hole behind a petrol station vending machine and rested in the warmth the machine was generating. This is not something that happens at the Tour de France. Meanwhile Josh, who had packed a bivvy bag and was taking slightly longer sleep breaks of around three hours a night, was confident his plan would work: "I knew he [James] hadn’t slept properly yet and knew that his leading gap was essentially time that I had been asleep. In my mind I was already in a race winning position and all I needed to do was wait until James cracked and I was going to do everything I could to accelerate the process." In the end, it happened sooner than Josh expected. James had developed a mysterious condition known as 'Shermer's Neck', a curse of ultra-endurance bike racers. After a night's rest James not only got back on his bike but began to eat away at Josh's lead. With James riding hard and a navigational slip by Josh, the gap fell from nearly 200km to less than 5km (if you're really sad - like me - then you can watch an 'action replay' of their close encounter over here). Sadly for James, it wasn't to be and his bad neck forced him to abandoned the race. This left Josh with the task of holding it together alone across Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and western Turkey: a distance of around 1200km that took him just over 70 hours. It would be an extraordinary performance under any circumstances but positively superhuman given the lumpy terrain, the poor roads, the headwinds and the miles already in his legs and Josh proved himself a worthy winner, finishing in just under ten days. For a while it looked as though the race for second place was developing into a thriller as time trial specialist Ultan led the chase and second place Alexandre began to falter. But Ultan experienced yet more bad luck in the form of a crash with a taxi in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and lost time as he had his buckled front wheel repaired. Though he came close to quitting with just 100km to go, Alexandre managed to hang on to second, reaching Istanbul just an hour ahead of Tomas Navratil in third. [caption id="attachment_15285" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Podium of the Transcontinental Race 2015. Photograph by Camille McMillan"][/caption] Over the next ten days between eighty and ninety riders made it to Istanbul, fewer than half of the number who set out. The high rate of attrition that makes the Transcontinental one of the toughest challenges in cycling and turns every finisher into a hero. And every rider, whether or not they finished, returned home with their own memories of a unique and unforgettable bicycle adventure. [caption id="attachment_15288" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="A group of early finishers in Istanbul (Photograph by Camille McMillan)"][/caption] It's far removed from the slick, televised, hermetically sealed world of professional bike racing and the appeal of the Transcontinental is that it's so different from an ordinary bike race. There's the sheer scale of the endeavour, the Corinthian spirit in which it's raced, the dedication and good humour of the riders and the huge amount of fun to be found trying to figure out even the very basic facts of what is going on. It's a bizarre, horrifying and strangely compelling spectacle, that unfolds in slow motion and can only be fully understood days or even weeks later: exactly how I imagine the early editions of the Tour de France to have been. I can't wait until the dots are on the move again in 2016. [caption id="attachment_15292" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Photograph by Camille McMillan"][/caption]
Wow! The first photo is amazing, it shows that this race is really exhaustive (all in one single photo). I admire cyclists who finished this race. They are real hero for me. A lot of people gained there fantastic memories for the rest of their life and it's beautiful.
shotgym May 23, 2016 at 7:07 PM
Great article Jack. Comparing the experiences of Ultan and Leo, two colleagues of mine, became an office obsession. As you point out, the Transcontinental is as bike racing was. As such it is a welcome anthesis to the coverage-saturated World of the professional peloton.

Congratulations to all: organisers and riders.
james May 23, 2016 at 7:07 PM