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Europe by bike - Rory McCarron's Transcontinental Cycle Race

The Transcontinental is an annual, fully self-supported, ultra-distance cycling race across Europe. It’s one of the world's toughest ultra-endurance races which this year started in Belgium and finished in Greece covering in excess of 4000km.
 

The Start

It’s the 27th July and I meet Lucy, my girlfriend, in London near her work for one last lunch before taking the Eurostar to Belgium where my first Transcontinental Race (TCR) will begin.

She is as nervous and worried about the ride as I am but I can’t show it, I promise her everything is going to be OK. “Just don’t take stupid risks” she keeps repeating.

Saying goodbye is hard, like it is the last time we would ever see each other. I make my way by tube to St Pancras and bump into two or three other cyclists on the Eurostar, all carrying their adventure bike packing kit ready for the TCR.

We have the usual sizing-up chats about previous times they’d done the race, pre-race preparation and expected times to complete the race. This makes me even more nervous, being a rookie when others were doing it for their second or third time and know what to expect, whilst this is both the greatest adventure of my life and a trip into the unknown for me.

When we get to Brussels the chat turns to the best route to Geraardsbergen, the Belgian town where the TCR will start tomorrow night.

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Chapel of Our Lady of the Oudenberg built in 1724 - top of the Muur de Geraardsbergen

I declare that I am getting the train rather than cycling the 24 miles, I am met with astonished looks that make me feel very uncomfortable and make me wonder whether they're wondering how I ever got a place in this race.

All I am thinking of is the 4000km ride I am going to start tomorrow so as they cycle off I wait for my connecting train, and rest my legs and whole body ahead of the ride.

Two hours later I’m checked into my hotel and sitting down in front of a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese that the hotel owner insisted I have, “I know what cyclists want” he tells me and he does.

I am in Flanders, the region of Belgium in which cycling is more religion than sport, and the hotel is full of cycling memorabilia.

The owner proudly announces that ‘loads of teams’ come and stay at the hotel when the early season classics take place in April each year.

These include the Tour of Flanders (which he insists I call by its ‘proper’ name the Ronde van Vlaanderen) and the Paris Roubaix. Two epic one-day races over the cobbles and climbs of that harsh but beautiful region.

I can’t think of a better place to spend the night ahead of the TCR. I am just about half way through my spaghetti when one of the guys from the Eurostar arrives and he’s pretty annoyed that; one, he had got lost en route and two, that I, the train traveller, hadn’t even earned my dinner.

However, he comes and sits with me as he is presented with his pasta and we chat about the TCR, before he checks in properly.

The next day, Friday 28th July, registration opens at 10:00am. I arrive at 9:45am hoping that I will be the first to register so that I can have some time to relax.

When I get there, there are already 50 equally nervous-looking cyclists already queuing.

After around an hour, I am signed up and now comes the tracker fitting, which will provide people across the world with my exact position throughout the race.

‘Dot-watching’ I am told became an obsession in the Leigh Day office throughout the race as the new technology could give people up-to-the-minute information on my ride.

I also have to go through a bike check, which I fail due to a rubbing brake pad and my dynamo not working. Great start Rory! But it could have been worse - given the fact I had serviced the bike myself.

I go to the side of the road and fix dynamo and brakes (pictured) and I pass with much relief and not a little embarrassment.

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photo: James Robertson 

It is now around midday and the briefing for the race will be at 5:00pm, I look to book myself into a hotel.

Whilst it sounds crazy, as it was only going to be for a matter of hours, it feels like 95 Euros well spent if I can rest and relax whilst the whole town is littered with cyclists riding up and down the streets and hanging out in cafes aimlessly not knowing what to do with themselves.

Unfortunately, quite a few other cyclists have the same idea and I find myself again at the back of a checking-in queue.

Within the queue, one particular Australian loudly decides to set out to psych everyone else out. Talking about the best routes, why you should avoid certain terrain and certain kit you should definitely have. This really doesn’t help anyone.

I get chatting to another rider in reception who had a nice Condor Cycles bike. He asks me what bike I am riding to which he replies he had heard of horror stories of the frame snapping spontaneously on my make of bike.

There seems to be a lot of mind games being played amongst this band of long-distance rouleurs.

Once in my room nerves take over and I only manage about an hour of intermittent dozing before the briefing.

The Briefing

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photo: James Robertson

The briefing consists of a rule check for everyone, emphasising the rules of no outside assistance, that all riders must sign-in at each of the four checkpoints along the route and to be safe.

Nothing brings that last point home more than a short emotional speech from the organiser of this year's race Anna, the wife of Mike Hall, the founder and a former Director of the TCR, who was killed last year racing in Australia.

It’s about 9:00pm and I make my way to the square where the race starts. The square is full of 280 cyclists, families, friends and locals who come out to cheer off the race.

Mike’s mother is there and she gives one last emotional speech about her son and the legacy of the race. We then observe a minutes’ silence in Mike's memory.

I sit in the square with two guys I know from Regents Park in a café at the back of the square whilst everyone else squeezes into the pen trying to edge towards the front.

At 10:00pm the mayor of the town finally rings his bell emphatically to mark the start. This is it, all the months spent on route planning, bike changes, kit…there was no going back now.

Then we're off on a neutralised lap of the town, a 2km steady ride before the race start proper. I try to embrace the atmosphere as much as possible, calming myself down.

The race begins up the Muur van Geraardsbergen, a short but horrifically steep cobbled climb out of the village, famous from its inclusion in the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

The word Muur translates as ‘wall’ into English which is probably the best description of such a climb.

It is lined all the way up three-people deep with spectators holding lit lanterns and beers, cheering us all on. As we get to the steepest part, the pace slows dramatically and people get off their bikes in front of me.

The race grinds to a halt and I have to unclip my pedals and walk. I think to myself - please don’t let anyone take that photo…the only image of me on the Muur can’t be me walking the bike!

Footage of the riders starting up the Muur 

I manage to get back on and climb the final part pushing my way past riders who insisted on walking. At the top, I bump into Daniel and others from Brixton Cycles. I stop to chat and gave him a hug.

I know that it is probably the last time I will see them and wish them luck, then head out of Geraardsbergen on my own, into the night.

To be continued...

Thanks to James Robertson for the main photograph of Rory and photos where credited within the blog. www.jamesrobertsonphotography.co.uk

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