The Transcontinental Race: a Supreme Bike Riding Test


, by Max Leonard

Transcontinental Race 2023. Photograph by: Liz Seabrook

From cycling’s heartland in Belgium to the very eastern edge of Europe: the Transcontinental Race takes riders across a continent and defines a style of racing.

When the first edition of the Transcontinental Race was run in 2013, there was nothing else like it: TCR riders are strictly self-supported, and, aside from the need to pass through certain checkpoints and mandatory parcours (what Strava users might understand as mandatory segments), and to avoid using certain dangerous roads, there are no other rules. It was a new way of bike racing.

TCR riders are on their own. There are no roadside spectators, not even an organised route – between the parcours and the checkpoints they navigate for themselves – and must, if they need anything at all, either carry it or buy it from shops like anybody else. And, between start and finish, the clock never stops.

It’s a supreme test of bike riding, taking riders to some of the most fabled roads in cycling and into the wilderness of little-traversed mountains and gravel roads. It’s also a masterclass of self-sufficiency: resting, resupply, route planning, bike maintenance and self care all play a major part in success.

No racer will thrive without mastery of all these disciplines. The minimum distance over all the editions is around 3,500km / 2,200 miles, and the winner generally takes nine days - give or take a few hours. Each edition is followed by thousands and thousands of “dotwatchers”, who scrutinise the competitors online in real time via their GPS trackers, and piece together their stories from social media. So it also pioneered a new way of following and consuming bike racing.

The race principles are expressed in the five watch words defined by Mike Hall, its founder: integrity, autonomy, community, history and technology.

This year was TCRno9. It kicked off on 23 July in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, and saw competitors ride the famous Kapelmuur (Mur de Grammont) as they embarked on their 4,000km / 2,400 mile odyssey to Thessaloniki on the Aegean coast in Greek Macedonia.

Checkpoints in between were in Livigno in Italy, then Zgornje Jezersko in Slovenia, Peshkopi in Albania, and the historic site of Meteora in Greece’s Pindus Mountains, “only” 470km / 295 miles from the finish line.

Around these checkpoints were parcours that forced the riders to tackle huge climbs, such as the San Bernardino and Splugen Passes, and to decide whether their legs – and their equipment – were up to certain gravel and off-road short cuts that might possibly save them time.

350 riders of 47 nationalities set off from Geraardsbergen in a storm, and the bad weather did not let up through the Alps, with temperatures not far above freezing on many of the passes. “Day 3: Shivering on a mountain. Left again when it was dry after 3 hours of sleep,” wrote one rider, Tim De Witte, on his Strava activity description. De Witte would come third overall in the GC and first place in the Green Classification, which rewards riders who commit not to fly to and from the race. “A lot of climbing and not too warm. The rain around Maloja made it really hard.” By day 7, De Witte was stuck on “Horrible Albanian roads”, covering 373km / 231 miles on “the worst gravel roads imaginable with an old cobble stone road with half of the cobbles missing and the gaps filled with stones the size of eggs”.

By this point, the conditions the riders faced were dramatically different, with temperatures reaching towards 40 ºC. “The Transcontinental has really been two races,” said Rodrigue Lombard, who finished in 36th place. “You have the Alps with the cold temperatures, then the Balkans and Eastern Europe with the heat and the rugged roads.”

From the outset, last year’s winner, Austrian rider Christoph Strasser, showed that he was the racer to beat. With very little sleep he rode on at a furious pace, almost neck and neck with rider no.3, Robin Gemperle, until the Greek border, at which point Strasser definitively distanced his rival and took the win.

Transcontinental Race 2023. Photograph by: Liz Seabrook

He covered the 3,950 km / 2,454 miles in 8 days, 16 hours, 30 minutes total, riding for 84% of that time and covering an average daily distance of 454km / 282 miles. By contrast, the last rider to finish within the GC cut-off time, James Vernon, reached the finish line in almost exactly 15 days, riding for 60% of that time and with an average daily distance of 264km / 164 miles – no mean feat to come 125th! The first pair, Gereon Tewes and Sherry Cardona, finished 18th and 19th, and the first female rider, Jaimi Wilson, placed 28th. In 2019 – which was raced from east to west – a female rider, Fiona Kolbinger, took the win, the first time that a woman has won the race outright.

The TCR celebrates its 10th edition next year (it did not run for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic); in that time many other ultra-endurance, self-supported, bikepacking races have sprung up around the world, but it’s fair to say that, where there are roads involved, the Transcontinental remains the reference event.

For now, the last finishers have rolled into Thessaloniki and rolled back out again. The saddle sores are healing, and the pain replaced by great memories of an epic journey. And, undoubtedly, some of this year’s most competitive riders are analysing their performance and planning for greater success next year. Meanwhile, the race organisers are doing a recon on next year’s checkpoints and parcours as they head back home. Roll on 2024!

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