The Transcontinental Race (TCR) is a bike race across Europe or perhaps more accurately, a voyage into the unknown mental and physical capabilities of oneself.
The rules are simple. Ride unsupported across Europe following your own route via four checkpoints before reaching the finish line. There’s no official cut-off time for this c.2,500 mile (4,000km) race but many riders aim to finish within 14 days to be a part of the finish line celebrations.
Following an ultra-distance cycle race is fascinating (and tiring!). Forget about the theatre of the Tour de France and the other so called ‘Grand Tours’. TCR is the real thing, very real, a vivid drama on a human scale, an adventure both relatable to most cyclists whilst being equally unfathomable.
I’ve been following the race closely from the comfort of my home, or dot watching as it’s known. I am a certified dotwatcher. Dot watching has filled my days and fuelled my imagination. I am in awe of these riders, enthralled to their endeavours, inspired by their journeys.
What is Dot watching?
To follow the GPS markers of crazy cyclists riding silly distances across the world in amazing times. You admire and envy the dots plotted on the map in equal measure, whilst also thanking your lucky stars you are not a dot.
The dots tell only a sliver of the story. Thanks to social media, many of the riders microblog their journeys during the rare moments they stop pedalling and find an internet connection. It’s a fascinating insight for the dotwatcher, one who has never attempted an adventure quite like these yet has experienced enough on the bike to empathise, dream and recoil at all they see.
The story unfolds
The race begins in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, home to the iconic and steep cobbled climb of the Muur from the Flanders Classic race. Sometimes just getting to the start line is an achievement in itself given the many months, or in some cases, years of preparation.
Many riders begin feeding their adventure addiction by dot watching just as I am. Intrigued and scared in equal measure, one year they sign up for the adventure of a lifetime thinking they know what they’re getting themselves into without knowing anything at all. Dot watching is a journey into the souls of others, not yourself.
Race entry successful, the hard work begins. I’d already been following the blogs and rides of two adventure seeking cyclists when I discovered they were friends and had entered TCR number 5 together as a pair, a race I’d begun following a year earlier. There could be no escape from my dotwatching fate.
I know neither Gavin nor Jo but have been sucked deeper into their world and the race ever since. The former’s monster rides and audaxes have embarrassed my Strava feed and opened my jaws for months, whilst the latter’s entertaining blogs on road.cc give a great insight into the scale of the challenge, particularly the mental side.
Just following their training and mental preparation for the Transcontinental Race has been exhausting!
The adventure begins
As the start line looms, so too does the nervous excitement, fear rearing its ugly head. Many questions, few answers. What if I’m not strong enough mentally and physically? What if my bike breaks or I fail to find food? Where will I sleep? How big are the snakes? How do you defend yourself against werewolves?
The rational and irrational become one, indistinguishable from one another, the question no longer of a race nor of when you cross the finish line, the focus simply, will I finish? Can I do this?
Following the Transcontinental Race
The race is firmly underway as I write, an armchair correspondent. I check the dots constantly every day, looking for those I feel I know by proxy, people I’ve never met and probably never will, yet am tied to invisibly through a remote sharing of their experience. This is electronic stalking and long distance worshipping.
Why is dot watching so fascinating? The journey the riders undertake is familiar yet impossible to comprehend. These riders are not professionals, they are not media trained, and many would scoff at the term ‘athlete’. They are just people who enjoy riding their bikes.
The TCR tracker shows you the position of every rider on the road, the race leader’s amazing progress, the pack in their wake, those who’ve not made it and have scratched (retired from the race), or the isolated dots miles from anywhere, forging their own route, their own stories. Technology serves not to alienate but to stoke the imagination.
The map brings the race into the palm of my hand, reducing the scope of the 2,500 mile race to a few centimetres, the dark shadows of mountains mere pixels in my palm. Zoom in and the enormity of the task comes into focus. A 3 millimetre gap between riders quickly becomes 300 miles.
Zoom further and open Streetview where you see the bus shelter at which the dot is probably stopped. The dot now becomes very human. They’re sleeping in that?!
I get the shivers just looking at the image of a concrete bus shelter, taken in daylight on a sunny day. The rider lies there uncomfortably in the middle of the night, alone, in the pouring rain. All they have to eat is the remains of a bag of M&Ms.
Zoom beyond the map
The tracking map gives you an insight into the riders routes and their progress but not their stories. Social media brings the dots to life. Stories unfold, uncensored thanks to tiredness, fear, relief and exhilaration. Sometimes all emotions in one post.
Below are some of my favourite tweets from this year’s race, which together tell the story from this dotwatcher’s perspective. This a document of the dotwatcher more than the rider, for these snippets cannot possibly tell the story of the riders or reach the depths of their emotions. These posts are merely sentences within a paragraph within a chapter within a novel.
The story of the Transcontinental Race
Long before the race begins, the riders begin riding distances you’d question in a car.
Then comes the cash investment. Riding a bike can be cheap. Spending money to allay your fears less so.
Mapping and routing is half the battle. Free to choose your own route via four mandatory checkpoints means days and days studying maps and Google Streetview. Is the route paved, where will I sleep, where will I eat? I love routing but my head hurts thinking about the logistics of TCR.
As the event nears, riders begin packing and kit lists flood the internet. Every item on the kit list has been agonised over for months. A balance between comfort and minimising the weight penalty of additional items. Toothbrushes are chopped in half and anything not deemed essential left at home. Goodbye deodorant!
Before long the riders begin sharing their bike porn pictures, bikes weighed down with bike packing bags. Proud parents showing off their newborn.
As the day nears, riders face up to the emotional and physical rollercoaster ahead. Doubt and panic occupy their days, a heady cocktail of fear and excitement.
The race finally begins on the famous Belgian cobbles of Muur van Geraardsbergen. Lanterns light the steep cobbled climb before the riders enter a world of darkness and ride through the opening night. The start is a welcome relief to many. Fears, nerves and excitement dissipate once the legs begin pumping and riders do what they do best. Ride.
Dotwatchers are just as excited as the riders. The beauty of this race is its unpredictability. There is no predefined route and every rider has a very different idea of the best route to the first checkpoint.
Food is a big theme as riders struggle to replace calories and avoid the dreaded bonk. Following the race quickly becomes a guide of how not to eat healthily as the riders try but fail to find nutritious calories. There’s no salads, no fruits, no vegetables, only pizza, ice cream and cake. Food is energy, no more.
Most riders will gorge not knowing when their next meal may be, much to the confusion of waiters when one person orders enough food for three people. Hot food of any variety is a luxury. I have no idea what the pink thing on the plate below could be and I never want to find out.
Not that eating crap food can’t be enjoyable. One of my favourite photos of a rider. Just look at the joy on Oliver’s face!
Amongst my favourite food images is the random food item strapped to tri-bars with bungee cord. An ingenious storage solution, not to mention motivation, the food forever dangling in front of your nose. You know it doesn’t last long.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the beauty of the world the riders pass through. The adventure is as much to discover the world as it to discover themselves.
Where there is beauty and light, there is darkness and tragedy. The long distance cycling community has been shaken recently by two high-profile deaths of competitors, including Mike Hall, the founder and organiser of the Transcontinental Race. His life inspired so many and his tragic death left riders questioning the sport they love.
The news of Frank Simon’s fatal accident on the very first night of this year’s race struck like a lightening bolt. A collective gasp, many questions. Numb.
To continue or to stop? A question many asked and found difficult to answer. Some chose to ride no more. Others chose to ride on, for misfortune can strike at any time, anywhere. Paradoxically, for some cycling is an escape from the many questions they face. Sometimes the best way to honour the lost is to finish their journey for them.
Sleep is either hard to come by or kept to a minimum, depending on your approach to the race.
Riders are never truly alone. The dotwatchers know where you sleep!
Being tired and riding great distances is rarely a good idea. Stay safe my beautiful little dots.
The riders are not only battling themselves and other competitors. Mother nature likes to play too. All cyclists know the discomfort of riding in the rain. TCR takes this to another level with no change of kit and no place to sleep after a soaking? Hmmm.
Rain is almost the easy part. A heatwave strikes southern Europe during the race and riders must endure temperatures up to 46 Celsius.
The route you masterminded many months earlier from the comfort of your armchair no longer looks so perfect. You want to cry. The few rules of the Transcontinental Race mean no outside help. Dotwatchers must keep quiet, like film crews on wildlife documentaries they cannot intervene in the scenes before them no matter what suffering they witness.
Dotwatchers get excited when they see a lamb wander from the flock. A lone dot forging its own way in the world. What on earth are they up to? Crazy or genius? We must know.
Not all diversions are tactical. Some riders like to entertain. TCR maybe a chance to reflect and return wiser. It’s also a chance to get in touch with an earlier version of ourselves.
Before long the effort begins to tell. First on the non-human machines. Mechanical. Gah.
Inevitably the ride also begins to take its toll on the human machines too. The riders’ bodies creak and crack. They begin falling apart.
It’s very easy to forget this is a race. For many it isn’t. Riders and dotwatchers alike. Sometimes it’s enough just to know your dot is still moving. Your daughter, son, husband, wife, friend.
Dotwatchers keep a close eye on the leaders. Who needs TV when you have the exciting prospect of two dots meeting?
The riders may be competitors, but they are friends first.
Nothing is unusual in an extraordinary race.
Days pass, lifetimes for the riders spending up to 20 consecutive hours in the saddle. As riders thin out on the road, so too do their social media updates. The real battle has begun and every ounce of mental and physical energy is focused only on finishing.
For some, it is all too much and the heartbreaking ‘Scratched’ tweet is fired into the sky like a cannot shot. One more down. One week into the race and 25% of riders have scratched. For some it’s physical, some mental. Others just commonsense.
The dots of the scratched remain on the map in the last place they stopped, transparent ghosts of adventures past, memorials to amazing achievements.
After just under nine days the race end nears for the leaders. TCR no 5 has enjoyed a close battle between two good friends, James Hayden and Bjorn Lenhard. At times they’ve been within metres of one another and when they meet after many a mile they are not rivals but friends.
And yes, this is a race for some, not just a bike tour. The determination and dedication of the leaders is awe-inspiring. Their achievements many years in the making.
It’s hard to imagine the suffering of the riders but this picture of the winner gives you some idea after riding through the final night on a 600km session with no sleep. Soooo tired.
With James Hayden and his dot inching nearer to the finish, I got way too excited watching a dot slowly move up the final mountain towards the finish. Refresh, refresh, refresh. Look at that dot go! Yet somehow this was more exciting than any sprint finish on the Tour de France (note to organisers – some simple live footage of the winner would be appreciated next year, a mobile phone will do!). Many congratulations James, winner of the Transcontinental Race 2017.
For these riders, the superhumans, the race is over and they’re able to enjoy a well-earned beer after 2,500 miles in an incredible 9 days. Wow.
For others the adventure continues. Yet no matter the finishing time nor the route taken, each rider leaves a different person with memories that will last a lifetime.
Only one rider officially wins the Transcontinental Race but dotwatchers know this isn’t true. All riders, whether they finish or not, deserve a massive medal. And the tastiest beer of their lives!
A huge thank you to the riders for sharing glimpses into what is an amazing and incomprehensible achievement. Returning to a ‘new normal’ life must be very difficult but I hope you enjoy sleeping in your own bed, eating vegetables again and no doubt reliving the adventure of a life time. Respect.
And let’s not forget the rider’s still out on the open road. Support them now, every little cheer, virtual or not, helps them to the finish line.
How to follow the Transcontinental Race and become a Dotwatcher
Get dot watching! Two options:
- Official Transcontinental race tracking site
- Free Route tracking map – the mobile friendly site used by those in the know. [Transcontinental Race 2018 updated tracker link here]
Like the look of an image taken on the route? Check out this great map plotting TCR Instagram images. Amazing.
Join the Facebook group where you’ll find more detailed commentary from riders and dotwatchers.
Of you go. Find a comfortable chair, sit back and be amazed! Enjoy, cheer and support. And be warned, you will become addicted!