I am very new to the world of cycling. My first long trip was in 2016 when I rode around Iceland for 25 days, struggling every second of it but also it made me fall in love with the idea of covering large distances with my own effort.
The question is “WHY???”. I have been asked this so many times, almost every time I talk about this with someone outside of this little world of spokes, handlebars and saddles. They ask me, “Why would you put yourself through this? Pedal all day, every part of you is sore and then you camp in the end? How does this make any sense?”. I’ve always struggled to answer this question, because for me naturally the journey didn’t start with they “Why?” question, but with an idea. That has grown over the last two years into more than just exploration and this article is my attempt to answer in anticipation this future inquiry for those who want to know, but even more for myself. I do not know the clear answer as I am writing this first paragraph, but I hope to solidify it as I keep writing this post.
This year is the culmination of my “cycling career” if you wish. In November (2018) I applied for the Transcontinental race. Two months of anticipation ensued and then I received this:
I was in! The idea, the thing that entered my tiny conscious mind almost two years earlier, like a seed that is planted in fertile soil, had struggled and had driven me around through many actions and efforts to culminate in this moment. I was in, but in what? One thing was (and still is) certain – I can only imagine, but no matter the power of my imagination, the reality once the race begins will be completely different to anything I try to conceive. The other certain thing is – it will be the toughest challenge I have ever undertaken.
What is the Transcontinental race?
For those who don’t know what the Transcontinental race is, here is a brief version of it, but a quick Google search will give you a much more detailed idea from others that have written on the subject.
The Transcontinental is an unsupported, ultra-endurance cycling race across Europe. What that means is that you have no support from the race organisers. You are given 4 checkpoints at different locations in Europe, which you need to visit in order (before the respective cut off times for each expire) and make your own route to do so. Moreover, you cary the absolute minimum and go as fast as possible. Often riders sleep 4-5 hours per day, again often in just a bivvy bag on the side of the road (with the occasional hostel) to save time. The overall distance is around 4000km and the fastest finish it in just under 9 days (do the maths). It is often quoted as one of the toughest races of this type in the world, but if not, then certainly in Europe.
Where it begins?
An event like that does not begin when you are at the starting line. It begins the first time the idea comes in your head and then it is really solidified once you receive the confirmation email that you are in.
A lot of the race is actually beforehand, planning the route through tens of countries, thousands of kilometres, sleeping locations, food locations, dangers, country laws and potential hazards. Elevation vs flats, distance vs shortcuts. More than that, examining every tiny detail of your kit, because every gram, every little decision is magnified a thousand times during such distances and hours on the bike. You cannot take anything extra, and you definitely shouldn’t miss anything essential.
And then comes the training. The body must be conditioned to endure repetitive, long hours on the saddle in the heat of the middle of the summer day or the cold of the night in the alps. But most importantly is training the mind. Spending so much time on your own and living for the next turn, for the next food stop and the next sleep spot is exhausting, but mainly the doubt “Can I do it?”. As an inexperienced rider I hear all these things and try to consolidate them into useful information for myself. Most experienced riders say that the majority of the effort is mental, and it probably is, but for them the physical training is already less of a consideration because of their experience and then… there’s me. For me, everything is a consideration x 10.
The race begins very early on, and you race every day up to the starting point, because “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”. Waking every morning with the goal in mind, visualising it, reviewing over and over the options and the decisions you’ve made. Going religiously to train and prepare, looking for the smallest signs of weakness and trying to resolve them early on.
You race every day, every hour, every minute before you even begin to race.
Race versus touring
I have cycle toured and have camped, but this is different. When you ride on a tour, you take a leisurely pace, when you stop to eat, you take your time to savour the tastes and to soak up the environment. When you go to sleep you feel rewarded for the day out and savour the memories and the places you’ve seen.
However, when I think about racing, it is the opposite. Food stops are down to the minimum and must be planned well. The must be kept short and efficient. The food is to be enjoyed – yes, but mainly it is a fuel for you to get on the bike and to continue forward. Sleep is not a time to savour the moments of the day, but something you absolutely need so that you can re-charge and then get up and go. There is absolutely no time in your day you can afford to waste.
Even in my test rides, when I spend 10 hours or more on the bike, that time is not passive, my mind is not free. I watch for the next turn, for the cars around me, for the directions and making sure I control my energy, that I remember to eat and drink, to watch the bike for unusual noises.
By now, if you didn’t ask yourself the perpetual “Why?” you must be asking it. I do ask it myself sometimes, and that is precisely why I do it. I am thirsty for the challenge, to see “Can I do it?”. That same question and doubt that can sabotage you is also the driving force. This is not for pride and ego, it is not to show to someone else that you are simply stronger than them. I do crave that sometimes, but it is not what drives me personally. It will be the reason others do it, but I am there for one main reason – to race myself. I want to wake up every morning, to hear my winy little voice listing all the aches and to tell it to shut up, because something else is in order. I want to challenge my weaknesses, to conquer that voice of denial and worry, in order to liberate myself and believe that I can do it.
Do I need a race for that? Absolutely. No matter what I have tried, there has never been the same level of pressure of that impeding deadline when I will be at the start. There is not escape and hiding. You just, you must prepare or bear the consequences and I love that. I thrive on that pressure and decision-making high.
“Ok, but but, do you get an awesome prize if you win?” Nope. You just get to sit down as an equal with everyone else that gave everything they had and drink a beer and share awesome stories.
If you were to spend just a day reading thorough the forums of the event, you will see how amazing the spirit there is, how humble but excited the people are. They race each other and yet the more experienced ones give advice to the less so. How crazy is that? I am in awe of the comraderie and the culture shared between all these people from all sexes, countries and ages.
So why, again?
Because I want to re-build myself, to give everything I have and nothing to spare, so that I can respect myself and find that inner strength, so necessary to tackle every other challenge in life outside of this little racing world.
If I can plan with precision, with dedication and focus, every day for half a year, to train and go through pain and success, to wake up every day sleep deprived and hungry but to keep going, then how can I blame myself or doubt that I can’t.
I am a complete rookie, with no racing experience (never have I even done an audax yet), with even less cycling-specific experience, so I have nothing to lose but much to gain. And that is why.
There is always the possibility of not finishing for a list of reasons that is so long, no one would read it. And yet, as long as I put everything I have in and never give in to that little voice in my head I will win, even if just for myself.
Edit: I think this interview with James Hayden from TCRNo4 really hits a lot of the points I was trying to make here too: