Transcontinental Race: Finishing in a heatwave called Lucifer

by Simone Giuliani


This year’s Transcontinental Race is drawing to a close. The last checkpoint in the race across Europe is shut and the tail end of the field is now racing to make it to the final destination of Meteora, Greece for the traditional finisher’s party.

There’s always a multitude of stories to be told at the end of a self-supported ultra-endurance race. From the phenomenal effort of winner James Hayden who made it to the finish line first, to the riders who fought to make it as far as they could but had to scratch before the end.

This year, too, it was a particularly brutal year of racing, not that it is ever easy to ride around 4,000 kilometres on a bike as quickly as possible. Not long after the riders left from the start line in Belgium they faced the worst possible news, that a fellow rider, Frank Simons, had died. Then, after the mental challenge that presented, they had their resolve further tested by an intense heatwave – so fierce it attracted the nickname Lucifer.

The scratched list grew and according to the tracking data only around 120 of the 285 riders that started out made it to checkpoint 4 before it closed. We are yet to see how many of those can go on to make it to the finish line.

It’s also been a marathon effort for the Transcontinental team who have been working through the night not just to man the checkpoints, but also to document the journey of this first Transcontinental since the death of founder and organiser Mike Hall. We put together a gallery of the early stages of the race last week and here we share some more of the stunning images and videos the team’s since captured, to help bring you the stories from the road during the 2017 Transcontinental Race.

The first to Meteora

The race that started on the the cobbles of the Muur van Geraardsbergen in Belgium, was finishing in an equally picturesque destination amid the monasteries of Meteora, Greece. However, there was little time to soak in the scenery for the first racers, who no doubt by this point could think of no better view than the back of their closed eyelids.

In just eight days, 23 hours and 14 minutes, British rider James Hayden became the winner of the fifth Transcontinental Race — a case of third time lucky.

Hayden went out hard in his first Transcontinental race in 2015, setting a cracking pace to the initial checkpoint at Mont Ventoux to arrive in first place, but Shermer’s neck ultimately bought a halt to his dash across Europe. The second time around a chest infection stopped him in his tracks on day two, but despite having to take a 36 hour break he went on to chase back to the top end of the field and finish in fourth place.

This year Hayden came in as the favourite, and while something always goes wrong in endurance racing, this time there was nothing thrown in his path that stopped him in his tracks. He continued at an unrelenting pace, with a moving average of around 27 kilometres an hour, in the harsh conditions.

 

The first female

It was the biggest women’s field the Transcontinental had ever seen, with 30 lining up this year. It’s a far cry from that first year when Juliana Buhring, who was helping organise the race this year, was the only female. Among the women’s field was last year’s first female over the line, Emily Chappel, but it was clear early she wasn’t going to be out the front again this year. Things just didn’t fall her way and the heat took a heavy toll.

Melissa Pritchard, however, seemed to revel in the conditions. While she was no stranger to long stretches on the bike – being an extremely experienced touring cyclist – it is her first self-supported ultra-endurance race. It would be fair to say the committed teacher has a knack for it. Pritchard was the first female finisher, coming into the line after 13 days, 1 hour and 31 minutes. The next woman out on the road is Karen Tostee who, at the time of writing, has crossed into Greece and is about 160 kilometres from the finish line.

Stories from the road

Yes, there is the incredible effort of the lead riders in this race, but every single rider who makes it to the end has achieved something extraordinary … and so have many of those who have had to scratch along the way. One day of racing often sees the riders covering distances most wouldn’t even contemplate doing as a one-off ride, let alone stringing together on consecutive days.

That’s why we are also bringing you some of the stories of those further back in the field, some from those who made it and others who didn’t.

The race media crew caught up with University lecturer Ian Walker at checkpoint 3, finding out in the process that he’d sleep just about anywhere.

Walker managed to reach the finish in just under 13 days.

Another rider who rolled into Meteora just hours after Walker was Timothy France, after a frightening experience out on the road (and yes we believe that he fortunately prioritised getting checked out by a doctor before continuing on).

 

However, the list of those who don’t make it this year is shaping up to be far bigger than the finishers list. Not only were there the usual reasons for a high attrition rate – the toll such a demanding ride takes on the body and mind – but the death of Frank Simons early in the race made it hard for some to go on and caused others to be more cautious about how far they were prepared to push their limits. Throw in a heatwave and it gets even tougher.

One rider who made the hard decision to pull the plug was Australian Rishi Fox. It was her second attempt at the Transcontinental, her first last year saw her battling in the heat so badly that she ended up in hospital. Going back a second time increased her level of determination and she prepared diligently, but then the one condition that she just knew her body couldn’t overcome, no matter what the preparation, was thrown at her – the vicious heatwave.

 

“After getting heat exhaustion and dehydration last year I didn’t want to repeat the same and ride without my full cognitive abilities,” Fox told CyclingTips. “Three days in a row over 40ºC and I decided not to continue as further east it was even hotter and I didn’t deem it safe. It was a hard decision to make as my legs felt fine and I felt great riding. But after Frank’s death I promised my family not to take undue risks, so I had to stop.”

Another rider on the long scratch list who went on for eight days, Jennifer Tough, tells her story of the highs and lows of the race in the video below.

However, many riders found that being on the scratch list didn’t mean the end of the adventure; just perhaps the beginning of another.

 

#tcrno5cap215 signing out of #tcrno5 xxx …. At some point last night chasing the CP4 cut off I strained a thigh muscle sprinting from one of many dog encounters. I tried resting it but couldn’t carry on so decided to get a hotel and try a days recovery. I hobbled back to Medias but found no hotels or hostels, just a couple of cops that kept moving me on. Hobbling to the next town instead of recovering didn’t help so somewhere on that baking hot broken road to CP4 I realised it wasn’t to be. I’d made it to within 4 hours of the checkpoint…. The adventure doesn’t end though it just changes into something different. I hitched a lift in a truck, one of those huge beasts of the road that have been buzzing us during the night and making us ride a tiny white line of melted tarmac all the way from Italy. My driver Tito was the loveliest guy, somehow we communicated OK and he dropped me at a train station down the road from Fargaras, even managing to pass #tcrno5cap231 on the way and give him an encouraging toot and shout out the window. I spent the day hanging out with the family living near the station who charged my phone and hosed me down on the platform! A different adventure and one I perhaps might not have seen on the bike… … This whole thing has been an incredible experience and I wouldn’t change a single thing not even the tough bits. Thanks everyone for all the support and words of encouragement, sharing it has been a real privilege. Good luck to all you crazies still out there, see you on the road another time. ??

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You can find plenty more stories, photos and videos from this year’s Transcontinental on the race website, YouTube and Facebook pages.

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