THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RACE
Inspired by Jon Day’s concept of “cyclogeography”, this mini-series, published to coincide with the 2017 Tour de France, features writing that uses the bike to explore literature, landscape, history, and myth.
By Ricky Egan
It’s about the eigth
I have just sat down to write about my experiences during the Transcontinental Race and I had to Google how to spell eighth: I was writing down “eigth” missing an h which could be the beginning of the word “hotel”, the hotel I arrived at on day seven in Senj, Croatia…
I had been looking forward to the Adriatic Coast for quite a while, a warm blue elixir for the mountains that had preceded it. I had bivvied the previous night in a field by the side of a long flat road on a vast plain of long flat roads called the Po Valley in the north of Italy. I had been feeling strong and considered riding all night, with a tailwind and a quiet fortitude the Alps and Dolomites had carved in my soul. However my front light died just as I had been getting sleepy anyway so I pulled up by the side of the road. After seven days of riding the fatigue had turned me into a fatalist so I stopped right by the ride of the road in plain view, if someone wants to steal my bike or murder me then so be it, who am I in the cosmic scheme of things to meddle. And speaking of cosmic there was not a single cloud in the sky and about 657,256,212,016 stars watching with me staring back through my bug net, something unspoken between us interrupted only by sleep. A couple.
It was a pretty decent sleep of about three hours and I woke up Eiger to go on. I had the final cheeseburger of the six I had bought yesterday for my breakfast. McDonald’s burgers are so full of shit that they actually can keep for a couple of days and are a pretty good mix of carbohydrate, fat and protein to keep you going, they taste pretty good too. A garden needs manure I tell myself as it sits in my stomach. I’m riding again and feeling the chill that floods everything in light’s absence. It’s a different feeling early in the morning however, this is pre-warmth, the heat of the day is coming and it is hopeful; not the mournful, nostalgic chill the beginning of night brings, the death knell of a day.
A couple of hours pass and I’m out of water and looking for a proper breakfast, it’s about 6am now and approaching Monfalcone when I pass what looks like a bar, people sitting outside chatting and it’s got an energy I want some of before I start another day in earnest. I can’t read Italian but I think the place must be called Perfect, bustling with customers even at 6am, two women with wonderful hair are dishing out coffees and cigarettes, dancing quickly to the music of espresso cups, spoons and hissing water. As people go in and out they greet each other like they haven’t seen each other in thirty years, I get some stares but I’ve dropped self-consciousness about three days ago along with about 2kg of stuff I didn’t need. I approach the counter and I’m served by the owner, I think this by the wisdom she exudes. She doesn’t even flinch at my dirty, increasingly slimy cycling jersey and lycra shorts, I bet she’s seen it all. There are shelves full of incredible looking pastries and baguettes and as I point out to the ones I want she sings the names in Italian to me, and what a beautiful song they make! I sit outside with my buffet of lyrics and sip my coffee in the new sun. I’m almost at Trieste which is right on the border with Slovenia, country number five of the race and let myself feel the satisfaction of progress.
I’m riding again and I can feel the comforting pressure of two ham and cheese baguettes in my jersey pockets, my legs are good and I will eat up some k’s today I’m sure. The road signs now quote place names in Italian and Slovenian, I’m getting close. I start to see signs for Prosecco/Prosek and miss home thinking of friends. I feel them right next to me, I think to myself or maybe speak to myself, it’s the same thing when you’re alone, “guys look, it’s PROSECCO!”, I’m really laughing and we’re all really there. Except, they’re not and I’m not, instead I’m cycling a kilometre to the west of it and this isn’t a tour it’s a race so I continue on to the Slovenian border. Not the first moment of dissociation during this and it’s not the last.
This is my first proper border crossing so it’s a complete novelty, there is a queue of bored cars back from it and I cycle past them, right to the front. A hand beckons me from out of a window and I ride up and produce my passport. I’ve never crossed a border outside of an airport. I don’t believe in the idea of borders at all really and nationality is pretend but I feel as if Elizabeth Windsor herself has jumped out of my passport and told Luka the borderman “he’s alright mate”.
I’m in Slovenia! My Garmin says I have some climbing to do but I don’t mind too much because then I’ll be descending to the Adriatic. However Nature does mind, she went to her cupboard and the shelf marked ‘Wind’ and pulled out a lot of it. Wind is the strongest adversary on a bike, it’s invisible and it doesn’t want you. A mountain pass will stand challenging and still before you offering a simple task of getting over it, shaking your hand with a descent afterwards. But it wants you. The rain is wet and cold but doesn’t really hinder progress, it wants to turn your bike into a squeaking grinding pulp but it couldn’t really care less about you. The WIND however is a bastard. It wants you off the road, it wants to shut down all your senses, drying your eyes and nose and throat, roaring in your ears “STOP RIGHT NOW GIVE UP, YOU’RE ON A FLAT ROAD AND YOU’RE HARDLY MOVING WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? ARE YOU WEAK?” This wind is Slovenian and I don’t speak Slovenian and I’m just over halfway through the Transcontinental, dropping sensibility about two days ago so I cycle on at about ten kilometres an hour less speed than the effort in my legs should be producing. And then a thin blue line appears on top of the horizon, widening as I move separating earth and sky, “hello Adriatic”. Flying down the descent, stopping briefly to get a photo I approach the city of Rijeka, which I’m unsure how to pronounce so I call it Ricky.
The wind is getting worse and worse however and it’s dried my eyes out so much I’m having trouble seeing, every time I open my eyes they start to water, spraying light across my retina so everything looks like blazing fire. I stop for a while next to a waterfall and eat a baguette and some Haribo watching two kids try and kick a ball to each other but the spiteful wind just blowing it away. I know I shouldn’t waste much time just sitting doing nothing so I get back on my bike and keep going, straight into the gusts. They are absolutely ferocious, cycling around Glasgow the wind is often pretty strong and I felt I had a decent resolve against its tantrums but this was pure rage. Later I found out apparently the gusts were over 100mph, a modern Tour de France stage would be cancelled in these conditions but not this, this is the Tour de France circa 1910, my goal is to finish and attend the finishers party. That’s it. Survive it.
Once upon a time I studied Astrophysics at university and I learned about the theory of relativity. One of its main ideas is that from two different accelerating positions (frames of reference) two observations, i.e. experiences, of the same phenomena can be different. I often think of this when people drive by a cyclist, their frame of reference is inside their car, travelling at 60mph by the extension of their ankle on the accelerator pedal, the laboratory is the Adriatic coast road, they experience the resistance of the wind differently, shielded in their car, dampening the anxiety that comes when it dies down and you know a gust is coming but not from what angle. They are not in the cyclists’ frame of reference which is on the bike. The sight of a cyclist moving at 5mph on a flat road wobbling side to side trying not to fall off a cliff whilst at the same time trying to not to turn into heavy tourist traffic. That sight might be confusing to a driver in the front seat with the radio on and when someone is confused they can react. They don’t understand what the problem is because they are experiencing it differently so they get defensive. Why is this cyclist they might wonder, this squishy marriage of flesh and bone spoiling the chorus of this Steely Dan track I am enjoying. If I have to slow down I’m going to arrive at Dubrovnik 30 seconds later than I should which will ruin everything so I’m just going to drive right past them at speed. I’ll also blast my horn right next them to let them know the hassle they’ve caused me. That is reference point A, and there is a frame for every letter of the alphabet and every other alphabet driving right behind them.
My survival instincts have kicked in teaching me that when the road goes around an inlet to expect the strongest gusts, so every time I see the road turn left around a corner, my heart sinks and I brace myself for the fury. At one of these inlets I meet a couple of riders who have stopped to take shelter from the wind. A rider is reconsidering his route, planning on going back the way and going inland, mentally I can’t handle the thought of going backwards. The TCR geographically has lots of ups and downs but for each raising and lowering of altitude there are the mental oscillations too. I’m emotionally below sea level on this road, drowning, thinking about what the hell I’m doing and the irony that I had actually been looking forward to this part. Going backwards though is unthinkable so I continue on. After about ten kilometres that felt like a million the situation is still threatening and I feel frightened. I have 25 kilometres of this still to go, fight or flight is kicking in and I see a road off of this hell. I choose flight, flying like an eagle onto it stopping to check my Garmin hoping it might be an alternative route and to eat a chocolate bar.
I have to piss and when I go to take a piss I realise I’m standing right next to the corpse of a deer. I had been thinking about how to describe how tough this part of the race was and there it was in the grass.
The Garmin tells me that the road goes nowhere and to start fighting. So I’m back on the road approaching another inlet steeling myself, it arrives and it is like no wind that I have ever experienced. It stops me dead like a deer in the grass and I have to get off the bike. Except when I get off the bike the wind is blowing me off my feet, and my bike is sailing like a kite behind me. Outraged I start walking the bike, the race is just less than 4000km long but it can seem infinite at these moments, wondering how I am going to be able to cross a continent like this because this wind will never stop and this road will never end. But everything ends, and a few hours later I’m rolling into Senj, the wind has dried my eyes out completely and they are watering intensely. Or maybe I’m just crying. I find a restaurant and collapse into a chair, I’m drained mentally. I’m defeated and the day is over for me. The rider I bumped into, Josh (who I’d bump into on the road all the way to the end and I would end up considering a friend like so many other riders I met along the way) who was thinking of turning back had decided to battle on and rolls in a few moments later. He’s exhilarated, full of adrenalin, “that was such a rush!” he cheers to describe his experience, his frame of reference. Nice one, Einstein.
I ate a meal and decided to find the letter h for hotel. The first hotelier says to me that he has no rooms but his dad has an apartment he can rent me a room in, he can pick me up in a van and drive me there. The weight of possibilities that entails is too much for my legs to hold up, I just want to sleep safe and sound and I say thanks but no thanks. I cycle around looking for another place, once you acknowledge your fatigue it overcomes you completely and it’s difficult to even think. I cycle around a roundabout three times unable to decide which exit to take and a man is waving at me, I stop and he asks me if I need a room, I can stay with him. I politely decline his offer and I eventually find the letter h from my typo three pages earlier. The Hotel Libra: my star sign. Cosmos, are you out tonight?
But anyway maybe it’s not the eigth. Maybe I meant to type the Eiger. ‘e’ and ‘r’ are just to the left of ‘t’ and ‘h’ on my keyboard. Or the ‘e’ and ‘r’ are just before the ‘t’ and ‘h’ if we visualise the narrative moving left to right like words on a western page. Could that be what I mean? If the TCR is the navigation by bike across a continent then surely writing about it is the navigation of my fingers across the keyboard? Maybe the t and h belong to Thun…
Day 4 had been a big day for me, starting in France I wanted to get as close to checkpoint 2 as possible by it’s end. Located in Grindelwald, Switzerland in the shade of the Eiger it would be the beginning of the mountains; I had never seen a mountain proper and I was looking forward to the spectacle.
I made it as far as Bern and decided to stop there. I hadn’t stayed in a hotel yet and three hundred plus kilometres made me feel like this was the night to try it. I got a decent sleep but woke up still feeling pretty heavy. I hung around the hotel for the buffet breakfast, hanging out with the business folks in my lycra and bare feet. Oh how I love a hotel buffet breakfast sneaking a mandatory lunch of ham sandwiches out with me. I set off and was stunned by how beautiful Bern was. Having arrived at night, the darkness kept it a secret. Now it was a beautiful sunny day and I was enjoying being in a new country in a new light. That didn’t stop me feeling heavy though, and also my bike was making a worrying clicking noise with each turn of the pedals. It was coming from the bottom bracket and I knew this wasn’t good, a quick check on my phone told me that there was a bike shop on my route to Lake Thun which I decided I’ll stop at.
I rode out of town and, in all their majesty, the mountains! They look like they’re in a different definition to the rest of the surroundings. I didn’t pay much attention in optics at university but it seems that the light coming from the mountains travels through the air differently. I’m short sighted and I lost my glasses somewhere in France but they still look so sharp. The view handed back my breath and I found my daily rhythm again, although still feeling heavy. I was starting to worry about missing the bike shop when all of a sudden it was just there next to me, my spirits lifted when I saw it, I’m not a superstitious person but it feels like an extra force at work when things just appear like that, as they so often do.
I pulled into the shop worried about my bike and how precarious actually finishing the race is, the effect a small piece of carbon or aluminium has on crossing a continent. Entering I got the slightly puzzled stare that my grubby clothes and body was attracting I was still getting used to (still some days until self-consciousness would be dropped), explained my situation and next thing I know I have a coffee in my right hand, muffin in my left hand, my bike is on the work-stand answering all the staff’s enthusiastic questions. I told them about the online tracker, each rider having a GPS unit that transmits their whereabouts at all times so family and friends know you’re safe and moving.
The leader of the race, Kristoff Allegaert, is already about 4 countries in front of me and they’re all aghast at how he could be that quick. Determination is how he can be that quick, but I’m determined also, and the rider who will finish last and end the race is determined also. Determination is the same for everyone I’d say, it just travels at different speeds, Kristoff will finish in under 9 days and I will finish in just under 15 but how determined we are and how we experience the race can’t be quantified I don’t think. Numbers can be applied to our average speed, our time spent riding, time spent not riding, kilometres travelled and ultimately our position in the race, but we can’t put numbers on how we respond to it mentally and physically. Someone who gets up on Monday morning and decides to start exercising, walking round the park and jogging for thirty seconds every few minutes feels as determined as a TCR rider. Thirty seconds breathing hard is the seed from which the possibility of a transcontinental blossoms. It’s just a question of time and scale; the seeds that I’ve sown have had quite a lot of time to germinate which means I’ve now got a garden full of Alps to traverse.
I cycle down into Thun from the bike shop, the warm glow from the sun in the blue sky is now matched internally by my feelings after the help in the bike shop. The ride through Thun and towards Grindelwald is beautiful, the lake is a stunning blue green, and every now and then some of it has been segregated into public swimming areas. I imagine myself lying motionless on one of the jetties, but the aim of the game is motion and I continue on.
I’m running out of energy trying to find words to describe the mountains, there is a scornful voice saying that you should be able to describe something better than that. There is something in those mountains that you’re not bringing back. You feel it in your heart and it sort of makes you want to cry but you were always oversensitive. You should be able to describe them with better words than an “in all their majesty” cliché. It’s the middle of September and you still haven’t been able to write an account of your experience, what’s taking you so long? What’s taken you so long? Is this too hard for you?
The game’s aim is motion and I’m riding uphill out of Grindelwald onto the Grosse Scheidegg, thinking maybe this is too hard for me, the steepest climb I’ve ever ridden up. It’s the middle of the day and the description of the scene “in the shade of the Eiger” has broken, offering no relief because it’s just an image and because the sun is high in the sky burning straight down. Hanging around for the breakfast buffet in Bern has pushed my schedule ~ there is no schedule the schedule is leave Gerardsbergen arrive Canakkale for the finishers party ~ back a little and has taught me to try not to time big efforts right in the middle of the day, something I forgot about a week later in Bosnia. It really is beautiful though, my phone is out of charge which means no photos just memory in words. It’s winding itself straight up the side of the mountain at a constant pitch, it’s a small single track road with an ok surface. The rhythm of the climb is punctuated by tourist buses which sound their horns when passing through hairpins to let anyone know to get the hell out of their way because they’re not stopping. The horns are amplified by the mountains exponentially and the horns are also a comedic. “DOO DOO DO DO DOO DOOOOOOOOO”. The climb is so steep that it’s almost impossible to clip back into my pedal once unclipped to stop and get started again. I adopt a plan of track standing at the side of the road in the little dirt gutter. It means the buses pass so close if I stuck my tongue out I could lick the Alp dust off them but I can’t get it through my gritted teeth. Every now and again there is a trough full of water with a tap running freely into it, I tell myself that is water straight from the heart of the mountain, the life source of the Alps themselves and if I guzzle from this spring I will fly up this climb. I tell myself this at three more similar troughs up the hill. Also near the top there is a herd of mountain cows being droved down. I have to unclip this time cause they’re all over the place including in my gutter. A cacophony of bells ring like a church at noon, I’ve been praying all the way up the hill in the heat so maybe this is a sign. A cow stands before me and looks right in to my eyes, time for your confession. I pet it like a dog. Ten minutes later I’m at the top and there a few other riders there too, we have a laugh together not really sure what we’re doing “I think it’s just a 3000km descent to Turkey now”.
A descent is a climb in reverse so I’m snaking my way down through the trees and hairpins with gravity. Five days of holding the handlebars is beginning to take its toll on my hands, pulling the brakes is difficult but tourists in cars are veering round blind corners in the middle of the road so I have to go even slower, meaning pulling the brakes harder which makes my hands ache more. I swoop round a final corner finding myself in the valley road. I feel like I’ve climbed into a ring and a bell has rung, mountains now rise around me on all sides.
This is the situation for the next couple of days, but my immediate need is food. I know there is a hotel up the road a bit which involves a bit of climbing so I head off. Grosse Scheidegg has done my legs no favours and they feel dense. I have no energy. I’m finished. I want to lie next to the road and sleep for a billion years, to fossilise. I pass another rider taking a break. One of a French pair who I’d become friends with on the road, smoking a cigarette! That cheers me up a bit and next thing I’m at the restaurant heaped in a chair. I order two main courses which take two hours to arrive. Two other riders arrive and join me, a Czech and a German. Florian the German, describes to me the eerie feeling I’m getting; the air feels strange, there isn’t so much of a wind as the air is restless and the climate has changed. I’m in the mouth of the mountains and their breath is warm and moist. The sweat from Grosse Scheidegg isn’t evaporating from my body and my jersey is still soaked. He says in German it’s called Föhn. That feels onomatopoeic, soft vowel sounds breathing down the mountain.
They booked themselves into a room when they arrived but I tell them I plan to go on. They look at me ominously. I understand completely their expressions but I’m in self-denial, I’ve only ridden 140km today. With the creeping dark comes insecurity too, I don’t know the mountains at all and I’m unsure about riding into them in the dark. I go inside to pay the waitress and out of my mouth tumbles “do you have a room?”
“You’re in luck” she says, “We have one left”. Maybe this, on my shortest day, is a sign.
Should you have taken the room? A guilty 5am rise, too early for the hotel buffet, there’s an alternative early menu though.
- Grimselpass 2165m
- Furkapass 2436m
- Oberalpass 2046m
- Albula Pass 2315m
- Passo San Pellegrino 1918m
- Passo Giau 2236m
Not to mention numerous burps below 2000m in between courses. Drinks? How about rainwater, a whole day’s worth. All those mountain passes would have given you heartburn was it not for being at the summit of course 5. Passo San Pellegrino 1918m at half past midnight, with every single piece of saturated clothing you have on. Your Garmin says it’s 0 degrees and your lights are fading, you’re fading. Once again you think what kind of fossil could I be? You think you’re an anxious person but the mountain will let you know. You think too much.
At the bottom of the San Pellegrino pass I actually thought I was going to die. I have never felt my mortality like that. I wasn’t thinking straight when I started the climb and thought the third checkpoint was just at the bottom. Descending in the dark with nothing but my front light was giving me tunnel vision and it lit up a sign at the bottom saying Alleghe 9km. Cue panic attack. I searched frantically for a hotel. I managed to do some sort of interpretive terror dance for a local who didn’t speak English and she understood and directed me to the hotel to which I cycled round to where the sign said it’s closed, shit. The Transcontinental is a beast and if I had a time machine at that moment I could have transported forward 9 days I would have been sat at the finishers party listening to stories of hardship from a whole bunch of other riders, warm in the Turkish sun which I’ll tell you about in another part.
But at that moment, I stuck my thumb out to try and hitch a lift to the checkpoint from a van that was driving up the road. That’s a violation of the rules, I could probably have been disqualified for that. But I am frightened. I mean, I was frightened. I mean fear is the thing that everybody has to negotiate with for themselves, I was in the village in mountains in the dark and I was scared. The narrative of “adventure cycling” and “bikepacking” and the “ultra-endurance athlete” is scattered with words like, “brave” and “battle” and “demons”, but when you’re alone and in the dark you’re just human. The words come later. Or maybe I was just stupid.
The van drove straight past, maybe the tears made my eyes light up and they thought I was some glowing eye monster. In lycra. Or maybe I think it was some sort of nudge from a higher power, a gentle push. Like a tailwind in the dead of night. Don’t give up Ricky. Try try, try, try, try, try.
In the hotel lobby, all rooms full. A French rider, Thierry, is fully dressed and about to head up Passo Giau at half one in the morning. This race is crazy I think to myself. He gives me the keys to his room with a weary smile. This race is so kind I think to myself. The sun will return tomorrow and I will know something about myself I never did. I will get there.
Now I’m back where I started in the Po Valley. I said the words would come later, “carved” and “fortitude”.