Sorry it's been late... here's part 1 - Leading up to the race

Brief intro
University and applying for jobs has got in the way and it has taken quite a while but finally here’s my Transcontinental 2016 story which took me from Geraardsbergen in Belgium 3755km south easterly across Europe to Çanakkale, Turkey.  Now I’m going to prerequisite this story by saying that it is probably not as exciting to read as last years account as I was a bit more prepared and things generally went a bit (a lot) smoother. There a fewer exciting anecdotes – no border guards told me to wash my face because I was too dirty to enter their country or kind Albanian families providing me with a feast and letting me sleep in their spare room.  On the other hand, I felt that I raced better and pushed myself harder and hopefully my account could prove helpful to people who are considering the race in the future.  Regardless of making fewer mistakes I still made loads and there are things I’d like to change if I did it for a 3rd time.  But anyway, I hope that you enjoy the read:

Signing up
Coming out of 2015 I had the ‘once is enough’ mentality however during the entire race.  The 2015 race had been brutal for me both physically and emotionally and the last day on the bike through Turkey itself had been one of the worst where the end was so close but the undulating hills and unrelenting headwind made it seem so far.  During the few days in Istanbul I moved from the ‘once is enough’ group to the ‘I’ll give it a look when the route is released’ group.  At the finisher’s party I was kindly awarded a special ‘Spirit of the Race’ prize, in the form of a white jersey, for being the youngest rider to compete in the race but whilst on the ride I hadn’t really considered it as a significant factor.  In the following weeks I received loads of messages of support and congratulations and people saying that I had ‘inspired them’.  In all honesty these kind of comments are definitely some of the main reasons for doing the race again, up until that point I don’t think I had done anything really that impressive that other people, aside from my family, were interested in.

I left Istanbul on the Sunday after the party and I began slowly writing my 2015 story and during the month or so that it took me to write I moved from the ‘I’ll give it a look when the route is released’ group to the ‘as long as there’s no Po Valley and Istanbul finish I’ll do it’ group.  I was obviously writing from some rose tinted spectacles but during the process all the bad moments seemed alright.  At some point in September or October the official results were released and I managed to move up a place and I somehow came 19th overall.  Personally I felt this was some sort of fluke.  At the first checkpoint I was 65th but during the race I had managed to creep up the places and I’m not entirely sure how really but my guess is that it was due to a very important chat with David Goldberg #38, an ultracycling vet, in Slovenia about how the key was not necessarily speed but instead time not spent riding. After that point I survived on a food that I could get quickly from petrol stations and I filled my jersey with as much Haribo and Coke as I could carry. 

In late September I started university and the Transcontinental and cycling got pushed to the back of my mind.  However, I got bored and I needed to set a goal and focus my efforts so I eventually moved to the ‘I’m definitely going to do it again’ group.  November came and the checkpoints were released – good news: no Po Valley and no long stretch in Turkey.  Lots of people started discussing the amount of climbing and I never really comprehended that until I actually got to the mountains.  I thought that people were just being melodramatic and it would only be a little hillier than last years – after all last year we had to go up Mont Ventoux.  I signed up and around Christmas luckily I was given a place.  Now it was time for 7 months of intensive training and meticulous planning… or something.

Training and preparation
From the end of the Transcontinental Race 2015 till the New Year my bike had lay depressingly dormant in my uni room.  The closest thing to exercise I had done was the occasional short walk to a lecture.   After I got the place I still had exams in January which I needed to focus on first before the preparation could start.  On January 23rd I weighed myself for the first time since the end of TCRno3 and the first 4 months at Uni had been bad – a diet consisting of pasta, kebabs and Sainsburys basics cider had taken its toll and I was now sitting at about 16kg heavier at around 78kg – that’s pretty close to one of those giant industrial sacks of flour!  Exams over the training commenced – but not on the bike.  Time was still limited and Bristol is a really wet and windy city so the bike lay in my bedroom gathering dust for some more time however I started running and gyming.  I initially enjoyed running as its way more accessible and convenient than cycling however it very successfully and nicely destroyed my knees.  However I managed to lose way over a stone.

During the training the other aspects of the race were going a lot better.  My route I was largely happy with as I was just sticking to main roads and I had a few alternative routes installed on my Garmin depending on conditions.  The kit was going a lot better too, my student loan had rolled so I decided to blow it on a dynamo wheelset, lights and charger.  It was less confusing this year and I pretty much had decided on my 2016 kitlist during the previous years race.  Still, though, an excel document was formed and I began contacting potential sponsors.  I got lucky this year and I got a reply from Tori at Apidura who kindly gave me a frame bag – which saved me loads of time with its ease of access. 

Andy Kelly at Bicycle Ambulance building my wheels

Andy Kelly at Bicycle Ambulance building my wheels

90% of the bike-set up thanks to Apidura and Bicycle Ambulance

90% of the bike-set up thanks to Apidura and Bicycle Ambulance

I decided that the best way to get on the bike and test out the kit would be to sign up to an event.  In January I had actually added an audax to my google calendar for every weekend up to the Transcontinental Race which I had a dream that I managed to attend.  However pretty much every time it came around I’d get a google calender alert to my phone and I’d find myself sitting in the pub at 11pm only a 5 or 6 hours I’d have to wake up to get to the audax.  You probably wouldn’t be surprised to find out that I failed to go to any of the audaxes that I had intended to but they always started at really anti-social hours and my student loan wouldn’t stretch to ridiculous UK train fair.  I did sign up to Anna and Mike’s Valleycat though which didn’t involve waking up at stupid o’clock.  Alarm set the earliest it had been in a good 5 months at about 10am saw me making my way to deep mid Wales.  The Valleycat was great fun and my kit held up, aside from my sleeping arrangements where I had to camp out in a public toilet after it dropped below zero where I stuffed my jersey in toilet paper and covered myself in full bin bags.  It was a very tough day and the Welsh hills took their toll on my knees.

Bike before the Valley Cat at Temple Meads

Bike before the Valley Cat at Temple Meads

After almost freezing to death in a public toilet, filling my clothes with toilet papers and covering myself in full rubbish bags I was greeted with this nice Welsh sunrise.  Kudos Wales

After almost freezing to death in a public toilet, filling my clothes with toilet papers and covering myself in full rubbish bags I was greeted with this nice Welsh sunrise.  Kudos Wales

The Valleycat was the last time I got on my bike before uni finished though.  The final term was spent wallowing in my own filth in my uni room away from direct sunlight eating kebabs, pizza and black coffee cramming a years worth of missed lectures into a month.  My exams finished and went surprisingly well and I stuck around in for a couple of weeks enjoying the fantastic weather in Bristol’s parks and beer gardens.  I got home to Cambridge on and went back to punting.  I always maintained that because punting is a physically demanding job that it was sort of training.  In late June as final training/kit testing I decided to cycle from Munich to Rome to meet the family, where you can read it about it below. Safe to say and very characteristically it was a disaster - I had loads of my stuff stolen including my Garmin so I was 700-800 in debt before the race started.

Crap weather in Germany

Crap weather in Germany

Cool clouds in Germany after the crap weather

Cool clouds in Germany after the crap weather

Sad looking on bloody Italian train - featuring new equipment

Sad looking on bloody Italian train - featuring new equipment

I got home from Sardinia and now had a month to work and save some money.  I worked 24 out of the 26 days I was home between a mixture of punting and mind numbing exam marking but despite this I was still starting the race in the red and having done very minimal training.  The final week came and mad Wiggle and Amazon ordering commenced.  I took my bike in for a final service just two days before I set off.  Unfortuneatly I wasn’t able to get a rear mech that was long enough for the new larger cassette that I had installed to deal with this year’s mountains so I was already starting the race on a semi bodged job. However I packed up my kit and dropped off my bike at St. Pancras the day before.  Suddenly at this point it all got very exciting and unlike last year I was sort of looking forward to it:  A pleasant hot two weeks cycling across Europe through some new and fantastic places with nothing to worry about - aside from the race of course.  However, with the excitement, came the nerves and sleepless nights where I began wondering about everything from punctures to Garmin failure to being crushed to death by a lorry

Obligatory kit pick

Obligatory kit pick

Final set-up, just days before.  Much thanks to Bicycle Ambulance who graciously accommodated me

Final set-up, just days before.  Much thanks to Bicycle Ambulance who graciously accommodated me

Leaving my house to begin

Leaving my house to begin

Heading to Belgium

The previous year I had not really considered getting to the race until about a week before and I maintain that the most stressful part of the entire race was getting to the startline – this year I had planned it properly.  In January I had booked an Airbnb in Geraardsbergen although we were actually moved to around 10km away which was a bit of a pain in the arse and meant that I couldn’t nip back and grab a quick nap.  The day before at about 10am my mum and I left Cambridge to begin our journey to Geraardsbergen.  The trip went very smoothly until we arrived in Brussels.  At the end of Eurostar I had a quick check of my personal possessions and I realized that I couldn’t find my passport.  At this point I poured everything out of my bag over the station floor – still no passport.  I began sweating and panicking.  I ran back to the train but unfortunately armed guards stopped me very quickly – I told them my dilemma and they had a search of the train to no avail.  This was turning into an oh fuck moment.  Losing my passport was pretty much the only thing that could completely stop the race, everything else could have been solved in Geraardsbergen or Brussels.  My phone battery then died and had to locate my mum who had gone through the main part of the station – she lent me her phone and I began calling St. Prancras to see if they had found anything however they said they would not know until tomorrow morning luckily if they did find it my aunt would be able to pick it up the passport and bring it as she was also coming to the start having thoroughly enjoyed watching the race in 2015.  At this point I started considering what I was going to do – I could get to the Croatian border without too much trouble although some hotels may turn up their nose at a UK driving license.  Could I officially scratch from the race and then just krusty through the undergrowth a few hundred metres away from the borders.  I had pretty much given up all hope when my mum revealed that she actually had my passport and that she had picked it up in the St Pancras waiting room when her motherly instincts had kicked in from the family holidays where us kids were unable to look after our own passports. 

Belgian beer time

Belgian beer time

Crisis averted I went and collected my bike where I bumped into Craig (met at the Valleycat) they were cycling to Geraardsbergen whilst we were being lazy and taking the train.  The rest of the journey was much easier and at one of the train changes we had 30 minutes spare so decided it would be the best time to start on the beers.  At about 6pm we arrived at the AirBnb around 10km south of Geraardsbergen and met Ana who was hosting us.  I left my bike in the back garden where another riders bike was already there – it was a Darren Richards who was a nice guy from Wales.  We went to the nearest village to get some food and discussed the race ahead of ourselves.  Then it was back to bed and to try and get some sleep.

The night I hadn’t slept well at all with perhaps only 4 or 5 hours in total.  Darren and I cycled into town to register where I met Nelson, Doug Migden and Leo Tong who was driving one of the official cars along with Francis Cade who produced some fantastic videos.  After the registration I met my mum for some breakfast in town and bought some supplies for the first night including a whole pile of sandwiches.  After an hour or so I headed back in order to set my bike up properly and I laid all of my food out neatly on a table and went upstairs to get my waterbottles… upon returning I found all of my sandwiches missing and instead a very happy dog munching on something. Classic start for me but it only gets worse.  At this point I realize I had left my key in the room.  The sweat started pouring as I realized my phone too was inside so I had nobody to call. So to get my key back first I started searching the bnb for a spare key – no luck.  Secondly I tried to climb up the wall – I’m no rock climber so no luck.  One of the rooms had a skylight so I managed to open that and climb onto the roof however the roof was a little too steep and slippery to take the risk so I decided against that.  I began trying to find a ladder – luckily at the back of the garden I found an aluminum ladder which I lugged round to the front of the house.  After setting it up and getting halfway up the BnB owner turned up and hastily opened the door for me.  Pretty stressed out now I tried to get some sleep but I was unable to. 

Dog who ate my lovely sandwiches

Dog who ate my lovely sandwiches

Me and Mum before I leave

Me and Mum before I leave

Darren and I heading off

Darren and I heading off

At about 5ish or so it was time for the pre-race briefing so Darren and I once againheaded back to Geraardsbergen.  I found James Hayden and sat together during the briefing after which I headed to a restaurant to get some dinner with my mum and aunt (who had to come to watch the start after being a fanatical dot-watcher in the previous year).  The food came out quite slowly (which didn't help with my nerves) but in the end it was very delicious, unfortunately I was pretty sleepy already so I quickly guzzled down three espressos and put on the skinsuit that I’d be wearing for the next 2 weeks.  I headed out to the market and met some more forumungers racers including Zooey Miller who had ridden the Transatlantic Way which is definitely on my to-do list, Stuart Birnie and James.  The flaming torches started to appear, the town crier and mayor came out and the Prodigy was turned on.  Before I knew we were off up the Muur to begin the race.

3 Espressos before I leave

3 Espressos before I leave