Apologies in advance… this was written quickly and the photos are no good… Hopefully it’s still interesting and/or useful to future TCR competitors!
TCRNo7 didn’t look like the most exciting edition on paper. Beyond the direction reversal, the biggest challenge looked to be a bit of gravel – otherwise, it was a pretty straight line across Europe… On closer inspection, as the date drew nearer and I spent more time on the route, the gravel proved to be a bit of a red herring and the climbing and overall distance was much higher than I’d expected. By the time the start rolled around, my route looked far longer and had much more climbing than when I’d first started sketching it out.
The first day began well – I sat myself at the front like an entitled plonker and used the police escort as a good excuse to warm up my legs by flicking up and down the gears to shake the last of the flight out and ensure I was ready for when it inevitably got a bit smashy when the escort pulled off.
Sure enough, it strung out quickly as the lead group absolutely hammered the climbs after the neutralised section. I was keen not to go too deep, so kept the leaders in sight, but didn’t chase. I alternated between being at the back of the front group and at the head of a little gruppetto behind (and worked hard on silencing the little voice in my brain telling me to drop the hammer).
As we hit the rough stuff, all bets were off. Suddenly several riders were nursing their bikes cautiously over the rutted terrain while others, like me, pushed hard and found ourselves in our element. Somewhere on this section I lost one of my saddle-mounted bottle cages… presumably at the point where I bunny hopped a drainage ditch to overtake another rider and almost stacked it.
Rejoining the road, there was a grate with the holes aligned with our direction of travel and easily big enough to swallow a wheel. There wasn’t an obvious way to cross beyond bunny hopping and hoping for the best, slowing right down and trying to stay on the solid bits… or my approach of just smashing through and trusting in the combined power on 28mm tyres and a tubeless rim. I hit the second of these grates shortly after overtaking Stephane Ouija, who caught up to comment on my reckless crossing and questioned whether my wheel would be OK. I’ve put it through worse, of course it would… Gotta be able to trust your kit!
As the day warmed up, I started to struggle. I was holding the power I expected to hold comfortably for the next 24 hours+, but feeling weak. I stopped at every fountain en-route to soak myself and my UV sleeves in cold water. I should have just removed the sodding sleeves. It just kept getting hotter. Soon I was forced to stop at a petrol station for a good 15 mins to recover in the shade. I dropped out of the top 10. I kept plugging away until the first major climb up to the Buzludzha Monument, where I finally came undone.
I stopped every 5 minutes or so. My head was on fire, my body was broken. I couldn’t summon the ability to turn the pedals. The lowest point was sitting in a bombed-out shelter ¾ of the way up and realising after 5 minutes I was sat right next to a pile of shit and toilet paper. I didn’t really care.
Sheer force of will got me to the monument and past the checkpoint. I stopped at a roadside shop and took around an hour to recover, running into Matt Falconer, who talked some sense into me. By this point I was probably around 40th on the road and still panicking about losing places. I forced my tired body back onto the bike and pushed into the evening.
With the heat of the day gone, I was making progress… slowly, but progress is progress. Late in the evening, I hit some ‘surprise gravel’ and watched another rider stack it into a hedge. My only lighting was my dynamo, so in order to see, I just had to keep my foot down and plough through. It was a bit unnerving and I decided I’d look for somewhere to get some sleep and sort myself out instead of risking more epic skidz through the night.
I found a luxurious bus shelter and set out my sleeping bag. In retrospect, finding a good bivvy spot was a terrible idea. We were on the mandatory parcours and there was a large field behind me. I was woken regularly by people recognising my prime bivvvy spot’s appeal and loudly expressing disappointment it was already taken.
By around 3-4am I’d had enough and got back on the bike. I changed my shorts and proceeded not to notice when my other shorts fell off my saddle pack, where I’d left them to dry. I was barely crawling, inching slowly forward until I found an open petrol station and took an hour or two to collect myself (and catch up with my colleague, Jonathan, who was also riding).
I’d thrown up a couple of times in the night and my head was now clear enough I was able to recognise that the heat was doing me in and I should ditch the sleeves. With some food in my belly, well hydrated and much cooler without the stupid sleeves, I started feeling myself again. I reeled in a lot of riders up the next climb and could feel the power gently coming back. I was taking enough scalps to keep my head on straight and avoid getting too disheartened about my race essentially being over on the first day.
As I was making my way around Sofia, I was caught by another rider and we had a brief chat. She was planning to ride 300km/day for the first week or so and then try to ride longer days toward the end – riding within herself and hoping to surprise herself at the end. It sounds stupid, but it wasn’t until I heard her plans that it finally sunk in that I was still well on track for the finishers party and had plenty of time to get my act together. I stopped feeling guilty about the fact I was going to finish the day on just 250km and concentrated instead on getting some good rest and an early start the next day.
I had a bit of a pizza party in the hotel restaurant with three other riders and headed to bed before it was even dark. I was worrying a bit about the state of my backside, but only had the one pair of shorts, so gave them a wash and did my best to dry them out.
I was back on the road by 3am, with soaking bib shorts (despite wrapping them in a towel and running them under the hair dryer). There was no one on the roads and I was treated to a spectacular lighting display over toward the direction of the border.
A few hours later, I was stopped by border security in a small non-descript Bulgarian town. No interest in chat, just a moody look at my passport, a long pause and an “OK”.
I pushed on into the mountain mist and enjoyed the quiet and solitude. Eventually, I hit the border and once again showed my passport… once again to a moody Bulgarian and then an even moodier Serb. Evidently, I was the only one enjoying this cold, misty morning on the border.
Immediately over the border the vibe was very different. More rural, more dogs, more grey. I stopped at the town at the base of Besna Kobila and tracked down a cash machine. Faced with options from about 5,000-500,000 of the local currency, I cursed my stupidity in not checking the exchange rate (particularly in a country where I wouldn’t be using any data for fear of charges). Luckily, Jenny Tough and another rider pulled up and a bit of group think resulted in me getting what turned out to be exactly the right amount of money to see me through Serbia.
I grabbed a quick snack and pushed on. Quickly the pavement gave way to mud. It was well brushed and pretty easy to ride. After a while, I passed through a town and saw a huddle of riders in a tea shop, with their bikes outside. I kept pushing. The track got a bit rougher and every so often there’d be a rider nursing their way around pot holes or fixing a puncture at the side of the road. I kept pushing. Finally popping out over the top, the vista across Serbia was incredible. Looking left, I could see the weather station we were supposed to head for… it was a LONG way up.
Eventually the road swung left. The gradient was pretty insane. One of those roads where they put ruts in the concrete to assist with grip. At least it was paved. That soon changed. The road came to an abrupt end and a bit of doubletrack darted off to the right. It was rideable, but much rougher than the rest of the ascent. A couple of rises on this track were just a bit too steep and a bit too loose and I had to hop off and push.
Eventually the path became loose rocks and scree and the going got even tougher. I think everyone I saw at this point got off to push. And it was a LONG push. One guy jumped back on for the occasional section, but it was easier just to give in and keep pushing. I did wonder at one point whether the bike technically had to get to the top or just me and the tracker… then quickly decided that really wasn’t in the spirit.
Once at the top, there was nothing to do but bomb back down and head for the checkpoint. Most riders were nursing their way down the loose rocks, but once again I trusted in the tyres and wheels and just let rip. God it was fun.
Back on pavement, the descent was long and shallow… not quite steep enough for freewheeling to result in much speed, but shallow enough you didn’t really have to push. About 1/3rd of the way down was a crew re-dressing the road. They signalled for me to ride slowly but didn’t seem too bothered at me heading through. The surface dressing was sticking to my tyres though and I was getting worried about the potential for a blowout. The surface dressing stuck on the tyres lasted pretty much until the Croatian border!
At the checkpoint, I enquired about food and was told “just ask inside” by the volunteers and “No. No food” by the staff… so I just jumped on the bike and headed back off. Luckily, Serbia has ‘bars’ every few km that stock snacks and soft drinks. In fact, Serbia was probably the easiest country to find supplies in of the whole race. Petrol stations carried a huge variety and most bars were pretty much minimarkets too.
I kept my head down and rode up the country alongside the motorway. The roads were quiet and although it was wet, the weather was pretty benign. After one particularly heavy downpour, I came across a lorry jack-knifed across the road. There was just enough room for me to squeeze by, but no other traffic and the next few hours were spent in almost complete solitude.
Late in the evening, I saw a red light ahead on the road and slowly reeled in Stephane Ouija, who was moving slowly and weaving across the road. I mentioned that I was stopping at a MacDonald’s just ahead and he decided to join me… lucky for me, because I was back in ‘race’ mode and thinking about riding though the night (which I was in no state to do), whereas he spotted the 24hr hotel just over the road… with rooms for about a fiver. I was on 440km for the day already, it was a no brainer.
As we went to check in, Stephane found that his bike lock was stuck to his bike. I felt for him, but there was nothing I could do. In the morning, he was still fiddling with it. I don’t know how he sorted it, but he must have found a way.
I woke up early, changed the battery in my power meter (while a group of stray dogs puppy-piled on top of me) and rode off into the sunrise. The road into Belgrade was beautiful, but the ‘three little ramps’ turned out to be pretty intense and the traffic was building rapidly as I got nearer the city. By the outskirts, it was pretty sketchy and I found myself pulling over regularly to get my head back on straight.
In retrospect, going through Belgrade wasn’t particularly wise.
I reached Croatia by late afternoon and made my way to Vukovar for a pizza. By this point my backside was starting to feel all kinds of awful and I stupidly chose an extremely spicy pizza in a very warm pizzeria. The pizza was amazing, but I felt pretty out of sorts by the time I got back on my bike.
Heading off into the night, it became clear that this end of Croatia just sucks. Flat, straight, boring roads and impatient, shitty drivers. Passing Osjek (on a 2 lane road with a low traffic count), I was getting so much abuse (beeping, shouting) from passing drivers that I diverted into the town for some peace and quiet.
In the town, I was beeped the second I used anything other than a cycle path… and their definition of a cycle path was a 6 inch wide strip of pavement with some paint on it. It was utterly shit and totally ruined my mood for the day.
As the evening turned to night, I decided to book into a hotel and try to sort my backside out. I was starting to struggle to sit down and ended up riding the full 60km to the hotel stood up. Harder than it sounds on an absolutely pan flat road.
The hotel owner was awesome – another very cheap room and he taught me how to get out of the building without him around to open up for me.
Putting my shorts back on the next morning, it was clear there was something wrong. There was a golf ball growing out of my left arse cheek and it was absolutely red raw. I’d been using some reskin and plasters up until this point, but it was just too tender for me to put anything like that near it anymore. I’d packed a small amount of chamois cream, so I stuck it all down my shorts and slowly started rolling off toward the next town.
It was slow progress and I totally lost my sense of humour. I’d had a backpack on with some emergency food that I never got around to eating… that got binned. My jersey got shoved in a pack and I rode in just a baselayer and shorts. I really didn’t care what I looked like anymore – if I was going to cope with the pain in my arse, I was going to get as comfortable as possible everywhere else.
Most people elected to cut through the north corner of Slovenia up to Klagenfurt, whereas I decided to head right across the full length of Slovenia. I’ve been there before and I know they do excellent cycle paths and well-behaved drivers.
Nearing the border, the scenery started getting pretty again… and hilly… and the drivers chilled out. As I pulled up to the border, the guard took one look at me, burst out laughing and waved me through. It was totally fair, I looked absurd.
By early evening I was making my way over a big climb near the heart of Slovenia. I was still in a lot of pain and feeling pretty much done for the day, so started looking for hotels. I realised I’d made a big mistake. Slovenia doesn’t really do hotels. It does guest houses and the types of place that close their reception at 10pm and don’t open again until 7am. With the state of my backside, I wasn’t going to forgo a shower and some proper sleep, so I had to bury myself to cross the mountain range and make it down to the town at the bottom before the cheapest guest house closed.
It was very posh, but luckily the girl at the desk took pity on me. “You can take your bike to the room if you want. Here, let me show you the code to the back door so you can leave when you’re ready”. There was no way I was taking my bike up the grand staircase into what looked like the master bedroom of a country estate! She even snuck me a collection of pastries from the kitchen. Slovenia was the right choice after all!
The following morning was another slow start. My backside was absolute agony and I just couldn’t find the right combination of chamois cream and position on the bike. Eventually, I decided to lower the nose of my saddle pretty drastically and suddenly there was a single position I could sit in without feeling like I was being stabbed in the arse.
I kept thinking Slovenia might be the place where I could finally get some headphones (mine died on the first day), but it wasn’t to be and I ended up just blaring music from my phone speakers while charging up the bike path to Kranjska Gora. The bike path was the highlight of the TCR. Traffic free bliss for around 100km into Italy with soul classics blaring out.
I rolled down to Tolmezzo and took a LONG break from the midday sun. It was brutal down in the valley and I was feeling pretty rough. It wasn’t until I realised how expensive accommodation would be if I didn’t get a move on that I packed up and headed for Cortina D’Ampezzo.
Despite being a very posh and expensive looking place, I’d managed to find a single room for a price I could just about afford. I stopped by a pizzeria and managed to get a discount by offering to have takeout rather than sit amongst their normal, well-heeled clientele. I ate my two pizzas on a bench in the main square and watched a policeman slowly circle me 5 times at a distance. The hotel was another lock in situation, so I took the time to administer to my backside and have a lie in.
The next day was the big one. Not even 240km, but over 7,500m of climbing! It started with a long climb up the back of the Valporolo (sorry, no idea what the climb was). It was pissing it down and by the top I was absolutely frozen. The descent was horrific. My hands were so cold I worried I’d miss the brakes and I shivered into Corvara, where I hid out of the rain in front of a SPAR for a good hour trying to get warm.
I chatted to a few other riders and watched them all head off up the parcours. I wasn’t getting much warmer sitting there and the weather wasn’t improving, so there was nothing for it. I’d built the Gardena up in my head, but in truth it’s a very gentle climb and nowhere near as long as what I’d already climbed that morning. Before I knew it, I was at the top and the sun had come out.
I stayed dry for the descent and started enjoying myself again – even when I hit the next steep climb and the drags that followed. It was tough going, but bright and warm, and the scenery was beautiful. It was a beautifully chosen piece of parcours.
I remembered seeing some absurd gradients around Bolzano, so nonchalantly assumed I must be on the worst of it already. It was pretty steep after all…
After a brief stop in Bolzano, I learned what steep really is.
I managed about 50m of the climb before my front wheel lifted and I had to jump off the bike. It was so steep I couldn’t get traction in my cycling shoes, so I took them off and started the long push to the top. The asphalt was rough and made a mess of my feet. The wet had already done a number on them and I was in agony for the rest of the day.
After the worst of the steep section, I got back on the bike and slowly bimbled my way through storm after storm, following the road toward the next valley. It was never so unpleasant as to be totally unenjoyable, but it certainly wasn’t the best afternoon I’ve ever had on the bike.
Luckily, the weather had cleared up again by Merano, and it was just a downhill run to the base of the Timmelsjoch. I decided I’d get there and take a call on what to do. I was acutely aware I’d not ridden very far today, but could also see that I was still near the front of the field, so there was no need for heroics.
At the bottom of the Timmelsjoch, I checked the forecast and decided I’d rather try to get over the climb than sit around in a hotel until morning. It was already dark, but the base of the climb was pretty inoffensive and I was making good progress. Higher up the slopes, passing through a tunnel, a car came past blaring his horn and I worried I was in for abuse, making an ‘illegal’ crossing after the road was closed.
There was no further abuse, however, and the closed barrier on the road was small and easily avoided. I kept pedalling into thin air, wondering how much further this climb could possibly last. It was getting colder and the wind was really picking up. On the upper hairpins of the climb, progress became slow on the hairpins into the wind and shockingly fast with the wind behind me. Finally, I reached a border control point and stopped to put on some warm layers. It was absolutely freezing, but there was nowhere to shelter or hide for the night. I put on every item of clothing I own and wrapped my sleeping bag around me.
On the descent, it was too cold to pedal. I just held on and shuddered, hoping for the best. Finally I spotted a phone booth by the side of the road and climbed inside to get warm. It was far too small to sleep in, but it was helping me defrost enough to come up with a plan. All the hotels seemed to be closed (it was about 2-3am), so I was definitely going to have to bivvy… and I’d rather do that further down.
I made it as far as Solden, where I found a large petrol station just outside of the town. There was a seating area out front and a sign for a toilet. I tried the toilet door, but it was locked. Oh well. I laid out two chairs and set up a makeshift bed. I was disturbed twice in the early morning by deliveries, but no one seemed in the least bit put out to see a cyclist in a sleeping bag outside. By the time I’d had breakfast, I’d also found out the toilet door was not locked. It was coin operated. The toilet was large, clean and very warm… to say I was annoyed would be an understatement.
I slowly rode down to the next checkpoint and then lost about 2 hours absentmindedly trying to repair my suspension stem (which was completely loose) and threading one of the bolt holes on my aerobars. By the time I’d fixed it, I was pretty much out of steam for the day already and slowly plodded my way into Switzerland via the quiet mountain road.
I was determined to spend as little time in Switzerland as possible – it’s bloody expensive! But ended up buying a pizza near the border because it was getting late and I was completely out of supplies. I had a chat with another racer over dinner and we set off for Italy a few minutes apart.
It turned out to be a long old ride to the border and I was still pretty low on steam. I didn’t want to get frozen solid again, so was keeping the pressure on to get to the descent before it got too late… but didn’t expect to get much further than the bottom of the mountain.
It wasn’t actually too bad. I stopped outside what seemed to be a fire station part way down, then got the dozies in one of the towns near the bottom and had a snooze in a bus stop… only to be awoken by someone driving past and leaning on their horn. I finally found a quiet petrol station and tucked myself out of sight. Somehow, I was found by the police, who moved me on… but were very friendly and helpful.
I woke up starving and struggled to find any food until a few villages later, where I sat outside a store for 30mins waiting for it to open. The road down the side of Lake Como was truly awful. Narrow roads, rammed with traffic (both cars and cyclists) and the beauty of the area was totally lost on me. I was relieved to reach the end of the lake road and head out onto then plains.
Only the planes had mosquitos on them. Big buggers. If you stopped for more than 5 seconds, you got eaten to death. Supplies were also still hard to come by. In some places, even water was a struggle, and I ended up making use of a garden hose at one point.
It never quite got to dire straights, but the entire day felt risky on the supplies front. Evidently, I hadn’t cracked Italy.
Annoyingly, I also seemed to be allergic to something – perhaps he mosquitos? I woke up with a fat lip in the morning and was covered in welts by the evening. I was rather losing the will by the time evening rolled around, but then my route headed into the mountains and the scenery helped give me a lift.
Rather than head up Mont Cernis in the dark, I decided to find a hotel. The hotel was incredible, but another lock in situation. Given the amount of climbing I was heading for the following day, I tried to sweet talk my way into an early exit, but they stood firm. You’re here until 7.30.
I was on the road by 7.40 and feeling surprisingly good after my first proper night’s sleep in a couple of days. Mont Cernis is fairly benign and the weather was good. By the time I had dropped down to the first town, I was feeling very good about things. I stocked up on supplies and bombed off down the road, happy to be following a route I’ve ridden before and know well.
The joy was short lived as a few km later the road was closed while they were blasting rocks on the mountain above. The detour wasn’t entirely clear and annoyingly, while I’d had to go all the way down to get instructions, the three riders behind simply watched what I did and followed. Even more annoyingly, two of them were riding together every time I saw them during the day… not the spirit, guys!
The Telepraphe has always felt like a relatively small climb and I made it over with no drama. Rather than stop in Valloire, I decided to simply continue up the Galibier. I was feeling good and even pacing an e-bike at times! I live for views like this and kept pushing on, happy in my own little world. Before I knew it, I was bombing down the back of the Galibier and headed for the gravel climb up the back of Alpe d’Huez.
It was punchy at the bottom, far worse than anything the Telegraphe or Galibier had offered up. Or maybe I was just tired or hungry. The gravel section was totally benign, but beautiful. It didn’t half drag on though! By the time I was dropping down the infamous hairpins, it was already getting dark.
I had a quick stop at the checkpoint, but decided to push on. I wanted to be out of the mountains and it was getting too late to do the last part of the parcours safely. I pushed on as hard as I could, but it was pitch black by the time I was back down onto the road to Grenoble.
In the dark, the busy road was boring and my motivation plummeted. Grenoble felt like it was taking forever to appear and I was worried everything would be shut by the time I got there. Fortunately, MacDonald’s was still open and I stocked up on food before finding a 24hr hotel.
Nothing about the following day, apart from an awesome tunnel in Lyon, really stands out. I’d routed badly though. Lots of climbing. I chose a ‘pretty’ route because I didn’t want to be bored shitless cycling across the vast emptiness of rural France. It worked, but it definitely wasn’t the fastest option. I made use of every Macdonald’s I came across and just kept plugging away.
Later in the day, I started having some issues with getting the dozies after I ate. No matter what I did, eating food resulted in needing to lie down for 30 mins. This put me behind schedule and I ended up missing out on finding anywhere to have a sensible kip. In the end, I settled on a bandstand near a truck stop.
Stupidly, the first thing I did when I woke up was eat a burger I’d hidden in my back pocket the night before. Instantly, I was tired again. I made it as far as a small village with a public loo, where I was able to lock myself in and have a good sleep.
A little further down the road, I bumped into Matt again and we shared war stories. We leapfrogged each other over the next few kms until I got the dozies again and had a lie down, letting Matt build up an unassailable lead. I kept pushing as far as Angers and then decided to get a hotel room for the night. I was definitely going to finish the following day and I wasn’t really worried about how many hours there ended up being on top of the 12 days.
The next day was another boring plod across the vast empty nothingness of France. There were a few dots fairly close together, but it was clear I was going to roll in ahead of most of my nearest competitors without too much trouble and catching those ahead was unlikely.
Indeed, on the run in to Brest, Tanja was about 30 mins ahead down the road and Darren made the mistake of jokingly telling me to sprint. I got the gap down to about 5 minutes or so, but then the heavens opened and it simply became too dangerous to do anything more than roll gently into town. The road surface was like a mirror and I had a close call with a roundabout that had completely disappeared in the rain. I stopped in a bus shelter and waited for the weather to ease a little, before setting off for the final checkpoint.
Finally it was over, some 12 days and (almost) 18 hours after it started.