Transcontinental (TCR) is this: a unsupported bike race from London to Istanbul via 3 check points. One in Paris, one at the Stelvio pass in the Italian Alps, one at the top of Mount Lovcen in Montenegro. Apart from these points and the approaches to them, there is no set route.
The race rules are:
- Riders must ride from the start point to the finish point and visit all mandatory controls en-route.
- 3rd party support is prohibited. All food, drink and equipment must be carried by the rider or acquired en-route.
- Drafting is prohibited.
- All forward land travel must be human powered.
- Ferries are permitted for expedient coast to coast travel, by approval of the Race Director.
- Riders are responsible for maintaining positional updates and evidence thereof.
- More than 3 days of inactivity without contact will be deemed a scratch.
- No Helmet, No Insurance, No Ride.
- It is the rider’s responsibility to know and observe local laws.
- Riders must act in the spirit of self sufficiency and equal opportunity for all racers.
Kit, food and drink, route finding, places to stop and sleep, rescue or solving mechanical problems – each rider is expected to be able to have or find everything they need.
I entered this madcap chicanery just over 2 weeks out from the start date of 9 August.
Earlier in 2014 I’d taken part in couple of fairly daft events; the 4321 Challenge, a self-organised completion of the Three Peaks, cycling in between, in a wonderful team of 4 (http://4321challenge.org/) and the Mille Cymru Audax, a 1000k continuous cycling event around every hill in Wales (http://www.millecymru.com/). I highly recommend them both.
Lots of cycling, sleep deprivation, having lovely adventures. Each one pushing further than I’d been before continuous endurance event terms, and epic in their own right. In previous years I’d done lots of more conventional, reasonably long (or extravagantly long, depending on your point of view) events but not that much over-night stuff, and usually with luxuries like aid stations, cheering supporters, that kind of thing. Barely had Mille Cymru sunk in when a conspiratorial friend pushed two things in my direction; TransAm and TCR. Unsupported bike racing across the US, or across Europe. Initially it was America which grabbed me, as the most loopy country in the world, yet very beautiful. This year’s race had already happened however, leaving me with the possibility of signing up to TCR at the last minute. No training time, plenty to sort out and not much time to do it. I was moved towards it, got that ‘I’m a bit scared of this’ feeling, though I was intimidated by the practical considerations and for 3 or 4 days didn’t commit whilst all the thoughts of logisticis whirred round my head: time off work, which bike, what kit, route ideas, flights home, blah blah blah. Following a brief period of deciding to ride the length of the UK instead just for fun, the ‘movement towards’ was too strong. A couple of comments along “why wouldn’t you do this?” lines and I was in.
All this time I didn’t think once about the physical demands of cycling around 200 miles a day for anywhere from 10-14 days. I just ticked that off as possible, then put time in to everything else like routes, kit and so on. Sensible? Perhaps.
I did feel I had to throw some money at this thing to get kit ready in time, so went after bike luggage from apidura, a new bomb-proof rear wheel, a few other bike spares. Most other things I already had, though I was also very grateful to Johnno Williams of the Las Vegas Institute of Sport for the loan of some even-more-lightweight sleeping equipment and a couple of light bike locks. As ever, my incredible sponsors Strada Cycles were ready with advice and mechanical help to get my bike ready. I faffed with kit, read up what other riders were taking, faffed some more, played with Garmin and RideWithGPS A LOT, looked at maps and packed, unpacked and re-packed. The time limitation was helpful looking back, as I didn’t have that long to make decisions. The event facebook group was 50% really helpful and 50% nerves-inducing. Gareth Baines of South Bristol Road Club was very generous in helping me start to sort a route, though as it turns out I’m glad I didn’t follow his own, which seemed to be 3,500k of mtb trails, Via Ferrata and free-climbing.
I didn’t in the end have time for any decent test-riding with carrying all the kit, and definitely no opportunity for what I’d call training. I knew some people had been preparing for this over a year. I had to be content that I had at least some experience in managing sleep deprivation and endurance cycling, that I was reasonably fit and perhaps more importantly robust, not carrying any known injuries.
The event briefing in East London on a Thursday night was low key and useful – great to know that lots of other people were also quietly confident, whilst at the same time feeling badly out of their depth. I found out that I had been aiming for completely the wrong café, on the wrong side of Paris, as checkpoint one. Frustration one avoided!
Saturday morning 9 Auguts, 7am, and I’m on Westminster bridge in glorious sunshine. All clean and tidy, rested, luggage packed just so, bike gleaming and gears silent. No real idea what I was getting into. I had no nervousness at all – pre-race nerves are something I let go of a long time ago (if you’re interested I can teach you how!). I feel what I’d call an ‘anxiety’ that I want the event to be fun, I want to enjoy myself, I don’t want to have to deal with things like busted wheels or getting badly lost or injured. But the ‘butterfly stomach’ thing I had years ago when in triathlon or bike racing – none of that. It was a beautiful morning. My Aunt Judy had come up from Maidstone to see me off, I think she was perhaps surprised by the total lack of fanfare, of how laid back everything was. We took a few photos, had a chat about this and that and then it was time to line up on the bridge. The allocated numbers on the floor only went up to 98, and being last-man-in at number 101, I just hung around at the back – so much so I almost didn’t get hold of a Brevet card.
We rolled out on the 8th stroke of Big Ben following the two race cars to Elephant and Castle. It all felt a bit chaotic as 100 cyclists took over the road and then after a mile or so suddenly separated in 3 different directions chasing various ferries to France. I tootled along the A2, in and out of a few loose groups and through the traffic. This first day felt a bit pressurised as I’d booked onto a 2pm ferry and wanted to make sure I got there. I wasn’t really comfortable with using GPS effectively yet, so did a bit of Garmin following, used road signs, followed my nose on and off the A2 as it got busier. I ended up riding with a guy called Henri, we compared routes and decided to stick together as far as Dover. We found some decent cycle paths and apart from a puncture (my only one of the whole trip, as it turns out) in Chatham it was plain sailing. It was good to be off and cycling, to be making progress, and to be ‘in it’. I rolled into Dover about 1pm, a bit over-heated probably, and met up with maybe 20 others. We were put on the boat first (first on, last off….) so a decent meal with Henri later, I headed for a snooze.
France and Switzerland
At Calais everyone pretty much separated as far as I could tell, certainly I was on my own quickly and off into a warm evening – heading into the unknown. I had no real idea how fast I’d travel, how I’d feel, where I’d get to that first night. It was easy riding though, undulating through mostly-empty countryside. I rode with a couple of people for a few miles here and there as we approached Abbeville and then Beauvais. By about 11pm I was enjoying the night ride but was ready for some sleep, so I found a quiet-looking layby and sorted my first bivvy. Though it was warm when I stopped, by about 4am it had got pretty cold and I was struggling to stay asleep. Eventually I got up and packed up and was back on the road about 4.30 as it started to get light. I was feeling very lethargic and grumpy, and that second day approaching Paris I found hard work. It was probably the effect of not eating and drinking well enough on the first day, some poor sleep and perhaps the scale of the challenge starting to dawn on me.
By the time I hit Paris it was pretty wet, and my route seemed like it went through every traffic light in the world. Very slow. Eventually on getting to Montgeron it had dried a little and I was pleased to check off control 1, but I was feeling really battered, no energy. I followed a few other riders to the nearest McDonalds and troughed some food, then rolled off again in the direction of Troyes. Long, mostly flat hours later I got into the catherdral town of Troyes about 10pm, feeling like I really needed some TLC and hoping to find a cheap hotel. Error one was to head to the expensive town centre, and after much searching the best I could do was a 90 euro Ibis – not exactly in keeping with the spirit of adventure, but it would have to do. And I did sleep well for about 5 hours.
Off on the road again by 5.30 I was feeling much restored and had time as I headed to Chaumont to think about managing the event. I’d already re-learnt things I knew – only a fed and hydrated body can pedal, and only a fed and hydrated brain will feel good. I was feeling good on the bike, enjoying the countryside and generally having a good time.
The cycling from Troyes through Chaumont and on to Basel was really enjoyable, with a few more hills as I headed towards the Voges mountains, good weather and a mix of fast and quiet roads. I hit Basel as the moon was rising on a still, warm night and though I was tired it had been a great day. I went for another hotel in Basel as I was planning a long ride to get right into and possibly through the alps the next day. Rolling out the next morning towards Zurich on some great cycle paths and fast, flat roads again felt great, though the pattern of slow warm ups, sleepy, slightly cranky mornings and more awake afternoons and evenings was already set. As the alps started to appear I bumped into another couple of TCR riders, who had seen some weather forecasts for a lot of rain around Davos and who were starting to plan stops to avoid cycling in bad weather at night.
Climbing the 40-odd K up to Davos at the end of a long day was something of a challenge as the route switched from nice gentle road climbing to rough tracks and had a few disappearing tricks which seemed to need crossings of railway lines. It was dark and just beginning to rain by the time I hit Davos around 9pm, so it was another hotel night for me – so far I’d been treating myself! Overall I felt reasonable at this point, though was accumulating tiredness and learning that while I was used to feeling ropey for maybe half an hour or so on other events, for this one that feeling could last for hours, but then vanish quite quickly. Terrain, temperature, drinking, eating, sleep rhythms – all were interacting in not entirely-predictable ways. It was becoming obvious that as the event went on, the ups and downs would probably become more extreme, and need to manage food and drink particularly would become more acute.
Waking up at 5am from a deep sleep but not feeling rested, it was raining hard outside. In some ways it was lucky I didn’t really know what was coming. I rolled out bleary-eyed and immediately started the long, steady climb up the Fluellapasse. The rain was not massively heavy, and it wasn’t too cold, but it was constant and got colder as I climbed out of the trees. I don’t know how long I went up for, it felt like hours, and by the time I hit the pass I was already worried about getting really cold, and handling the descent. I wrapped up as best I could and headed down, slowly to avoid windchill, but within about half a mile I was shivering and couldn’t control it for more than a few seconds at a time. The next half hour or so just got worse and worse as I shivered, shook, sang and cursed my way slowly down for eternity. Most of the time it was about as much as I could manage to stay upright. The roads were glassy, the rain was heavy, I was scared and couldn’t control the bike, with rim-brakes pretty much ceasing to function, as were my hands and arms. I heard a faint ‘hey!’ as I passed a bus shelter but couldn’t slow to see who it was, I assumed another TCR rider. I was getting pretty scared by this time, convinced I was going to fall badly or freeze or both. Unmitigated misery and definitely no fun whatsoever.
By the time I hit the bottom in a small town I was shaking all over uncontrollably, and rolled in through the first open door I could find, which turned out to be some kind of botox clinic. I’m pretty sure you can’t eat botox so I knew I had to move on – a small hotel over the road looked open so I headed in there. At this point I was only interested in about the next 10 minutes of life, which had to include food and getting warm. I found a shower and a bed and hid for a couple of hours, slowly returning to life and starting to wonder what to do next. The rain was still heavy and I knew I had another long climb and descent to complete, even before the Stelvio. The notion of completing 300ks that day had evaporated, I was at about 40k done and was seriously considering binning the entire day. I stayed in bed for another couple of hours listening to the persistent rain, and finally out of the window the cloud started to lighten a little. By 1pm, with a check of about 8 different weather forecasts, it looked like I might have a window of better weather to get to Prato at the foot of the Stelvio. I stuck my wet kit back on, wearing pretty much everything I had, and headed back out.
Italy and the Dalmatian coast
The next section to Prato in Italy was by comparison a breeze for the most part, with some rain but generally easing and some nice fast roads. Another long descent was still miserably cold and sketchy, but not quite as shaky as the first of the day and as I got into Prato about 5pm I had decided that was enough adventure and I’d stay the night, aiming for a pre-dawn Stelvio attack.
Pizza had become a reliable friend already on TCR – normally quick, full of calories, cheap. I found a ‘Hercules’ pizza in town, got in the dry and troughed it. After 20 minutes I started to feel more like a human being and thought about what to do next. This was a good turning point in the whole event: how to balance to need to manage a long event which meant getting at least some quality sleep, with the spirit of the race which is just to head on into the unknown and damn the consequences. Eventually I came down on the side of adventure, and started up the Stelvio about 6pm. I knew there was a control at the top but had no idea about a place to sleep, or food, or anything else. I didn’t really know how tired I was, how long it would take or how I would feel, what the weather would do. Was I being brave or just daft? Did it matter? Off I went.
Stelvio was emotional. It was long, wet, starting to get dark, and as the hairpin countdown started (all 48 of them) I had to deploy all sorts of mental games just to keep going. By the last couple of Ks I was really crawling in my 12-25 gear. I wobbled into the control about 9pm, feeling pretty spaced out. I was ready to sleep anywhere except on my bike. Sam who was staffing the control asked me how I was doing, and I was already a bit choked up. I remember him saying, very gently “mate – there are beds. There’s food. There’s a fire” and I just dissolved into tears.
Recovering my British reserve after about 5 minutes I got back on plan and shovelled in food, washed kit, got to sleep. I needed a long sleep by now and I got it, probably 6 hours. I was feeling even more in awe of what I had heard about people like Mike Hall, Kristoff Allegaert, the people who win these things and survive on repeated days of stopping for maybe 2 or 3 hours in 24. Unbelievable.
There were quite a few riders around by the next morning, and more arriving, all having hit the bad weather at various points. The day was starting dry but cloudy, the roads were wet but it looked like the worst weather was over. I picked my way down Stelvio, cold hands and feet but feeling a bit more awake. Heading out of Prato and towards Balsano and eventually Treviso was a great day’s ride, coming down from the Alps, out of the bad weather and looking forward to a warmer and hopefully faster section across Northern Italy. There was a bit of climbing heading East but some amazing scenery and the day passed quite quickly. I bumped into Paul Alderson in the late afternoon and we rode out on some great cycle paths, hitting Treviso about 10 at night for a McDonalds. Paul decided to push on into the night, I stayed at Treviso and went for a 4.30 start instead, aiming to get into Croatia the next day and start the Dalmatian coast, which would be mentally represent the half-way point.
The next morning across Northern Italy and to Trieste was, honestly, possibly the dullest riding I think I’ve ever done. Flat, continuous road, no route choices, nothing to look at and with legs that really didn’t feel anything other than sluggish, I just rested on the tri-bars for what felt like forever, counting down every kilometre. I was very tempted to get the headphones out but I’d promised myself that I wanted to experience every moment, no matter what was going on, so I resisted. Climbing out of Trieste and on towards the Slovenian border I felt the first of what would be some increasingly frustrating and apparently random knee pains which would come and go, shift to different places, sometimes disappear altogether for hours and then other times bring me to a crying, horrible halt and make me believe I would have to quit. I was reasonably sure at the time that I wasn’t injured, just dealing with real tightness and things being pulled out of place, but it was really annoying to be anxious about pain. I had to climb off a couple of times and just lie down till the pain went, then stretch, loosen up and try again. The rain had started again and by mid-afternoon was torrential, but it stayed warm so it was quite enjoyable in an ‘abandon hope’ sort of way. Coming through Rijeka was a big marker for me as it was the start of the Dalmatian coast, Northern Europe done, and somewhere around half-way in terms of distance.
The first morning out of Rijeka was – until then – the worst period of struggle I’d ever had in anything physical, bike or otherwise. It’s quite tricky to remember it fully now – which I’m not too upset about! – but it was horrendous at the time. 3 hours of solid headwind (which is called the ‘Bora’, I discovered afterwards), long climbing and legs that were so painful I was gasping. I was battling all this along with the increasing thought that this might be game over. At times I could barely complete 5 or 10 metres without stabbing pain, I was going uphill at maybe 3mph. Various stops, more stretching, getting back on, getting off. This was not fun.
By late morning the wind had slackened off slightly and I stopped for a proper feed. As the road levelled out slightly into undulations rather than hills, my legs started to feel a little loser. I was pretty convinced by now that I was dealing with tightness in my quads, probably brought on by (surprise surprise) excessive cycling, and specifically the long, flat TT section into Trieste the day before. So stretching, changing position, thinking about the muscles I wanted to recruit was the order of the day. I also played a little with saddle height and position, something I’d normally avoid as it can solve one problem only to cause another one. Luckily something certainly started to work, and the rest of the afternoon and evening went smoothly, the coastline was beautiful and after a nap at about 4pm I felt good enough to ride into the night, stopping just short of Split at 2am for a couple of hours bivvy. The next morning I was dehydrated, hungry and tired but the feelings were more ‘familiar’ and my legs though very tired were no longer painful. There was a nice easy warm up thismorning along some lovely coast roads, and this was the first period were I felt really emotional about the whole thing, randomly crying, laughing, feeling nothing, feeling everything. It felt like my brain had reached some kind of stage of acceptance of what I was doing, had understood the challenge and what it would take to manage it, and was now just jettisoning things, sorting out thoughts and feelings into what was useful and what was just BrainFart, letting out a load of stuff.
The road on to Dubrovnik I found quite pressurised. It started to get very hot, the road was big and fast with lots of traffic and some long climbs which were never quite made up for by the descents. A bit of sleep deprivation was definitely creeping in too, and on leaving Dubrovnik in the early evening I was only really able to think as far as the end of the day. I stopped in a cheap hostel just short of the Montenegrin border, with CP3 perhaps 40k away. I’d made some good progress in 24 hours in terms of distance, but felt I’d been hit pretty hard physically and emotionally. I had been riding on my own for a long period now and was feeling the isolation a bit, as well as some totally self-generated pressure when thinking about whether I was still on track to finish in 14 days.
Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia
Another pre-dawn start towards Kotor and the climb to Mount Lovcen and the pain was back. I could just about spin my legs on the flat roads but couldn’t put any power through my left leg. The road to Kotor was beautiful, the weather amazing but I was getting overwhelmed with how bad my legs felt. Starting the climb up to CP3 I just focussed on the next 2-300m section, tried to be as efficient as I could and reduce the pain. By the time I got to the hairpins on the way up I was having to stop every second bend to let the pain subside. I seem to remember a false-flat before the road went up again, and as the gradient increased so did the pain. It felt deep, deep in the bone above my left knee, like something was tearing apart in there. I started to have to stop, somehow get off, wait a minute or so, pedal another 50 metres, repeat. I was in tears, the whole possibility of getting to Istanbul was evaporating. Eventually I couldn’t pedal at all and walked about a mile in stages, fortunately near the top by now, and then was able to free wheel down to the checkpoint. I could barely stand, I was thinking of stress fractures, torn muscles, how and where I could abandon. I was desperate.
At CP3 Gareth (from Bristol) was tucking into lunch with his ride buddy Lee. I sat down, baffled and confused, ordered some food and just tried not to think for a while. Having eaten and drunk I just managed a little more stretching, which was itself intensely painful, and decided I had to carry on, hoping a long descent down to the next town might somehow help. I had no real plan, no real idea what was going on, how I was going to keep making progress. Off I went.
I still don’t really know how it worked but the rest of the day was pain-free. Down out of the Montenegrin hills, over the border and into Albania, I was just feeling normally tired, the legs were functioning. A brief nap under a disused lorry trailer to beat the worst of the heat and I was soon into the empty, smooth, slightly eerie roads of Northern Albania. It was beautiful with hills and mountains in the distance on either side, quite fast and as it cooled down I felt better and decided to ride reasonably late, finally coming to a halt for a bivvy about 11pm. I slept reasonably well for a couple of hours, then it started to get colder and I wasted probably another hour just trying to convince myself I was warm enough to sleep. Eventually I gave up though I really just wanted more kip, got up and started off. As the sky started to get light I turned east and began to climb into the hills, up the deserted Matit river valley. I had the place to myself and though the going was slow with some dodgy roads, I was still moving and was rewarded with some amazing views as I hit a plateau just before the town of Burrell. After some incredibly good coffee and making friends somehow with a group of taxi drivers, I headed off to Bulquize, slightly fearful of what looked like about 30k climbing in well over 30-degree heat before a descent down to Macedonia. Riding through Albania was hard, hot and very hilly but it was stunning and everyone smiled back. The whole place felt like it was in some state of suspended animation, a place without purpose, that just was. Or maybe that’s the state I had now got to.
It was somewhere around this time that I began to realise some kind of paradox was at the heart of TCR. I was alone – completely. Totally self-reliant. No help, no guidance, no support. But I was also one of nearly 100 people doing the same thing. So as well as splendid isolation, there was a complete community. I had to invent the community bit in my head, as I didn’t really know fully what everyone else was going through. However I was sure that in each of us being completely alone, we were also together.
Eventually starting down towards the border with Macedonia I had a good lunch stop, met a bear in a cage and a very friendly Albanian family who were fascinated by what I was up to (which we established after a phone-call to an English speaking family member who could translate). It got hotter again as the valley levelled out and I got into Macedonia and headed for the town of Debar. From here according to my route I had one reasonably long, steady climb before finally heading out of the hills and into Northern Greece, by which time the mountains would all be behind me and the ‘final stretch’ would be in sight. I had another quick lie down around 3 pm and then started an easy, long climb, still very hot, on some kind of road into a national park. I was quite enjoying it when coming the other way I saw Paul, who I’d ridden with back in Italy. Coming to halt he let me know that the road just turned into a rocky track a short way ahead, and that he’d established via a helpful local that it would be a very very long walk to keep going this way – the only option being to retrace 15k to Debar and find another exit out of the mountains. I think having two of us there made the news easier to take, on my own I might have thrown something of a strop. With not much said we descended all the way back down, retraced some really dodgy road surfaces to Debar and headed south. Luckily the road was good from here and we both felt reasonable, if a bit annoyed to have wasted 30k.
The evening ride down through Bitola and on to Ohrid was an easy one, though it had been a long 48 hours for both of us and we agreed to stop for a hotel night and an early start the next day. The brilliantly named Montenegrin Inn was home for a 5 hour kip and a big feed. The next morning, without a GPS route planned, we were relying just on maps and hadn’t really expected quite so much climbing, spending nearly the first two hours steadily gaining height. We made our way towards and through the Greek border where things were initially a little more flat, though we quickly picked up a really killer headwind. It seemed the rest of today would be a mix of hills, heat, headwinds in varying proportions and taking turns to batter us. This first morning in to Greece was just pure slog, no let up. Stopping meant heating up, keeping going was relentless. Mid-afternoon saw us reach Edessa for a big feed and a very quick snooze in a park, then a great late afternoon ride to Thessaloniki which was mostly downhill or flat, fast road for about 80k. We’d agreed to ride into the night as the ‘400k to go’ mark would then come up the next day. By 1am I was really flagging on an unchanging, gently up-and-down road past two invisible lakes, and my leg was also tightening up. We got to sleep around 2am, me in a tiny outbuilding with a couple of recently-shed snake skins for company, Paul in the field outside. Neither of us slept well, being too hot or cold or just sore.
By dawn we were off again, with a nice downhill roll-out and no headwind. By breakfast time we had hit the coast road in Greece as things got hotter we were into another dead slog, big empty roads, tired legs, lack of energy and just ticking off Kms. We split the rest of the day into 50k sections, just about able to deal with the notion of that distance as it got hotter still, the riding stayed mostly flat and we just plodded our way along. Another short nap in Komontini and we were off towards Alexandropouli as things cooled down. A very long, steady climb as it got dark really hit my left knee hard, my leg felt like it was solid, I couldn’t develop any power and was really struggling. On reaching the town I was tired, in pain, and had to have another lie down around 10pm. Paul was back awake after about 20 minutes but I felt I had to get a little more sleep, and when I woke again with a really sore knee at about 1am I felt the only option was to get going, to at least try to loosen the thing up, to make some forward progress. Paul was getting some better Zs at this point so we agreed I would push on – I expected to be moving very very slowly indeed and I’d see him on the road. After a mile or two of only just being able to turn the pedal over, my leg started to loosen up a little and with many stretch-stops I was eventually pedalling quite well after an hour or so. I kept on, reaching the Turkish border at 3am. From here I reckoned I had about 300k to go, which on non-mountainous roads and without too much headwind meant I was starting just to think I could finish by that evening.
That final morning was hard – really hard – but in a more conventional way. I had some pretty awful chaffing, my legs were battered, I was sleepy and it was incredibly hot, but the intense pain had gone and I just kept turning the pedals. By lunchtime I’d had to ditch the bibshorts, go for my ‘casual’ shorts and stick a gauze patch over some really painful areas. I moved back from agony to bearable, and just before descending to Terkirdag, met up with Paul again. We had a good lunch stop, and kept going into the full heat of the day. We were both keen to finish that night, whatever it took, and as we made progress along the coast we finally picked up a slight tail wind and knocked off 60k with ease.
The final section to the finish meant we had to head away from the coast and some dangerous roads to approach Istanbul from the North. Pretty much everyone, it seems, had underestimated how far this last effort would be and how long it would take. Being so close to the end, 70k or so, seemed such an easy ride compared to what we’d done to get here. It was anything but – the end of 48 hours with negligible sleep, on top of nearly two-weeks of deprivation, and probably a lack of concentration on eating and drinking meant that this final 3 or 4 hours were for me the most endless of the whole ride. It didn’t help that the majority was on really big, fast roads around a quarrying area and those lorries get pretty scary when you’re exhausted. Eventually starting to descend down to Istanbul was a great feeling, though it was still another hour of really having no idea where I was before eventually I hit the Bosphorus for the final 8ks or so along the river to the finish.
I don’t remember that much of actually finishing – I’d expected to be very emotional, probably crying, but I think I’d gone through everything I had, was so tired and sleep-deprived I just shut down pretty much. I know there were other people there but I don’t really remember, there was no feeling of relief, almost no emotion. I felt like I’d left everything I had out on the road. An omelette and a beer came from somewhere and a bit of faff with booking.com to find a hotel, some taxi negotiation and I was soon in a shower and passed out about 2am.
What does it all mean
I still don’t really know what to make of TCR. ‘Was it fun?’, I’m asked “did you enjoy it?” and I don’t know how to answer. I know it was harder than I could have imagined, or rather there were moments, sometimes hours, where it was pain, not tiredness, which was so unexpectedly severe I didn’t know what to do. There were dull hours. There were views so beautiful that I didn’t know what to think and just cried. I felt alive and dead sometimes within the same 10 minutes. I loved being on my own, and then I was intensely lonely. I wanted to ride with other people, and wanted to be there solo. I wanted it to be over, and didn’t know what to do when it was.
I’m glad I did it. Some days I took the easy option, paid to sleep somewhere good, ate well. Other days I was into the unknown with no plan and was rewarded. I’m not sure I learnt anything I hadn’t thought of, but concepts, ideas that I had believed in got more evidence. There are no borders. There is so much more that joins people together than separates them. The world is a huge, limitlessly beautiful place and adventures and perfection are everywhere. People do and say the most wonderful things for each other. Not everyone and not all the time, but it’s there. We are all doing our best with what we know.
I thought sometimes about the point of it, in a world where there is so much horror as well as so much beauty. I didn’t have a conclusion to how it’s possible for one human being to have the opportunity to be on an adventure like this, while another cowers in a basement in Gaza. I still don’t know how that works. I had some fleeting thought about all of us being on some kind of path, sometimes choosing what happens and sometimes being at the mercy of other choices, and just doing our best when we can. I didn’t find any great meaning but also knew that, if there is meaning to be found, it’s not in an easy place, it’s not somewhere I’ve been already. It will be over the edge, in the unfamiliar, it will be in the place where I might fear to go, even just a little, and where the unexpected happens. That’s where the good stuff lives.
Mostly though, I just rode my bicycle and felt, as I always do, like a truly fortunate human being.