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Rolling with the Punches

Story by STRAVA September 6th, 2016

The Transcontinental (TCR) is a nonstop race across continental Europe from Belgium to Turkey. Racer/photographer George Marshall took on the TCR to see if he could make it to Asia. This is his adventure.

“My race partner scratched after three days. My Garmin crashed on day four. My sunglasses were blown off my face and flew off a cliff in a gale on the Croatian coast. I went through two front tyres. I destroyed my phone climbing the Grindelwald. My phone network cancelled my replacement phone when I was searching for a hotel in Kosovo. I got lost in the alps and had to walk 5km down a steep hiking path in pitch black. I had six flats. I tore my glute sprinting from stray dogs. I fell asleep on the bike twice. It’s an ordeal, not a bike race. You’re rolling with the punches.” –George Marshall

George Marshall

The Race

Either completely alone or as a pair, riders navigate their own 3,500–4,000km route via four mountaintop checkpoints to the shores of Asia. Now in its fourth year, the 2016 edition was widely regarded as the toughest yet, with significantly more climbing than previous years that even the most acrophobic of route planning couldn’t avoid.

Furka Pass - Switzerland
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Albula Pass - Switzerland
Durmitor - Montenegro
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Each day riders face endless mountains – geographical, physical and emotional. All must be climbed and conquered if they are to make it to Turkey. It is not a race for the faint hearted or the needy. Some racers go for days without a shower, sleeping on the roadside in waterproof bivi bags, sometimes high up at altitude in near freezing conditions (although this is best avoided, as all kit must be carried, so luxuries such as a warm sleeping bag are often left at home). Sleeping arrangements are down to the individual. Some sleep on the roadside every night. Other riders opt for minimal luggage and “credit card it” across Europe’s hotels, which is lighter on the climbs, but comes with the associated risk of being caught out in the cold far from a hotel.

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Ride 300–500km, climb mountains, cross borders, get lost, break your bike, fix your bike, sleep in a hedge for an hour and repeat for weeks until you hit Asia.

It is the onslaught of daily challenges that distinguishes the TCR from other races. The diverse demands of the race is perfectly mirrored by the mixed bag of competitors it attracts. The TCR sets highly trained ex-pros against hairy legged adventurers, and everything between. Strong legs and aerodynamics help, but are less of an advantage if you’re pedalling in the wrong direction, or worse yet, broken down in rural Kosovo, 200km from a bike shop. NB: Few Kosovan bike shops stock 700c tubes, let alone Di2 cables.

Jeff Liu - TCR participant
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Dog attacks and sleep deprivation aside, the Transcontinental rewards the few that finish with the achievement and experience of a lifetime. For every low moment there is an epic high, be it the sense of contentment of descending through the divine jagged peaks of the Italian Dolomites at sunset, or the overall decluttering of the mind, every numbing thought from petty insurance renewal notices to global problems are all removed by the primary need to keep pedalling.

Innertkirchen - Switzerland
Furka Pass - Switzerland
Grosse Scheidegg - Switzerland
Durmitor - Montenegro

not just for kudos

The TCR is based on the concept of the original Tour de France, where riders rode 18 or more hours a day and support was strictly forbidden. Use of modern GPS tracker systems removes the temptation of taking a train or other underhand methods to gain advantage that were rife in the original Tours.

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“On the third day, my race partner scratched due to injury. We’d ridden 800km. I phoned my girlfriend before I set to complete the race alone. My heart sank when she asked how much further I had to go… 3,000km.” –George Marshall

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At night before a checkpoint, the roads are lined with competitors sleeping rough. Every empty barn, bus stop, fruit-seller stall, picnic bench, play ground and lay-by is turned into a “no frills” hotel for the night.

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Climbing into the night to reach CP 2

The race passes 12 or more countries, depending on each rider’s route. The global map seems to shrink as competitors cross countries like stepping stones with giant 350km daily steps. The distance is so vast – language, climate, landscape change daily.

The longest of days

eat, eat, eat

“My daily diet looked like a banquet prepared for a 10-year-old’s birthday party. Each day I consumed a year’s supply of ice cream, countless bags of sweets, six litres of Coke, multiple tubes of Pringles—good for replacing salts—and enough caffeine to wake the dead. My teeth screamed louder than my legs on some days.” –George Marshall

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Roller coaster

From singing your heart out whilst descending through the stunning scenery of the Italian Dolomites to having an emotional breakdown on a Greek highway in 44ºc heat after getting four flat tyres after your rim tape melted, riders experience epic highs and lows in equal measure and often in quick succession. Each day is a roller coaster of fortune and emotions.

Col de Ceyssat - France
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This year’s winner, Kristoff Allegaert, finished in just under nine days, stopping for less than two hours a day. In contrast, some riders spent an entire month on the road, arriving weeks after Kristoff. Just finishing the race is an accomplishment. In 2015, 70% of starters did not finish. In 2016, 38% were forced to scratch somewhere along the way.

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Fellow finisher Anton Lindberg

“The Transcontinental was an ordeal of crawling lows and euphoric highs. Finishing gave me a new sense of achievement I will hold onto for decades to come.” –George Marshall

Huge thanks to organisers Mike and Anna, all the race staff and volunteers.

Footnote: Copy by George Marshall. Photos by George Marshall. Adventure by George Marshall