The Transcontinental – one of the most extreme cycle races on Earth Joshua Cunningham explores the history of one of the toughest cycling events, and how it is being revolutionised by new technology

During the early afternoon last Sunday, Kristof Allegaert, a 42-year-old secondary school teacher from Kortrijk in Belgium, cycled into a port town on the Asian shores of the Marmara Sea in Turkey. He had ridden 3,762km through 12 countries and cycled between 16 and 23 hours a day to arrive there after 8 days, 15 hours and 2 minutes on his bike. It was a feat that crowned him the winner of the 2016 Transcontinental, one of the most extreme but basic endurance races on the planet. There aren’t many rules, just ten in fact, but they can be condensed down into one general idea: cycle across Europe, unsupported, as quickly as possible.

It is an undertaking that requires a rare mix of mental and physical fortitude, exhaustive planning, luck and a semi-masochistic desire to race in one of the most primitive, and yet in some ways contemporary, sporting events today.

At 10pm on Friday 29th July 216 riders massed by moonlight in the cobbled streets of Geraardsbergen in Belgium before setting off into the night and the darkness of the unknown continent before them. Their routes, meticulously planned in the months leading up to the event, were only governed by four obligatory checkpoints – the Puy de Dome in France, Furka pass in Switzerland, Passo Giau in Italy and Durmitor in Montenegro – with the finish in Çanakkale in Turkey.

The Transcontinental

With no third party support permitted (rule number two), riders must take complete responsibility for their race, from the buying of food and the upkeep of their bikes to decisions on sleeping arrangements, luggage and navigation. The format seems to transcend what most people’s idea of a bicycle race is, drawing as it does on aspects of both physical and mental endeavour, survival instinct and practical nous. As Camille McMillan, one of the race’s official photographers, asked in a film made about the 2015 edition, “are they even athletes? I don’t know.”

This kind of incomprehension is similar to the reception that the Tour de France received in its fledgling years, following its launch in 1903 by the newspaper L’Auto. The format of these early editions, with stages in excess of 400km and riders racing for up to 19 hours at a time, is remarkably similar to the statistics of those racing in The Transcontinental today, as demonstrated by Allegaert’s recent victory.

The Transcontinental

But as well as the route, there appears to be an ethos shared between the organisers of the 1903 Tour and those of The Transcontinental, whereby the contestants must be self-supported. It might seem curious today, in an age of team cars, spare bikes and domestiques in the pro ranks but when the Tour de France first began it was considered paramount that a rider received no external help.

“Out on the road The Transcontinental harks back to the fabled early days of road racing,” says Jack Thurston, presenter of The Bike Show podcast and a keen follower of the race since its inception in 2012. “Eugene Christophe would be right at home on The Transcontinental.”

The Transcontinental

Indeed, one of the most popular anecdotes from the Tour is that of Christophe, who was penalised in 1913 for allowing a boy to pump the bellows as he fixed his bike in a blacksmith’s, having walked off the Col du Tourmalet in the French Pyrenees, where it had broken.

Fast forward to 2015 and stories of Transcontinental rider Ultan Coyle walking down off of the Strada dell’Assietta climb in Italy, in search of a bike shop and a place to sleep after his bike had succumbed to its unpaved track, seem like a worthy modern day equivalent. It was just one catastrophe of many that contestants throughout the field have to deal with on the road to Turkey but the fact Coyle went on to finish 4th that year is nonetheless impressive.

The Transcontinental

“The way you follow the race certainly has parallels with the early days of the Grand Tours, when no-one really knew what was happening,” says James Fairbank of Rapha, one of many cycling brands currently advocating for more adventurous forms of bike riding.

“The people reporting on those early races had creative license to invent legends and, like The Transcontinental, there were so many uncontrollable variables that led to extraordinary stories.”

The Transcontinental

But while the race itself is played out on the open roads of Europe, through the lonely and mostly untold experiences of its competitors, battling against themselves as much as each other, now the story is being conveyed live and unadulterated through the internet.

A major part of the race’s coverage is the live GPS tracking system which follows the journeys of each individual rider, as well as predicts possible routes, and therefore distances and times, to the next checkpoint, creating an animated and dynamic leaderboard.

The Transcontinental

“The trackers help you figure out how the race is unfolding, who’s moving up the field, who’s having trouble, where people are taking wrong turns,” says Thurston. “By using the tracker maps together with Google Streetview you can really put yourself in the rider’s position. It’s just wonderful fun.”

As well as the tracking system there is the activity on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, with riders updating their position, describing their experiences and telling the story of the race in a way that provides the sort of engagement and connection that’s simply impossible in most sporting contests. “Their tweets are like tiny telegrams from the road,” Thurston adds, tipping his hat to the races of a bygone era.

The Transcontinental

But as well as drawing similarities with the past, Thurston feels there is a distinction to be made, using photos of The Transcontinental to explain. “The images are far easier to identify with [than photos of pro racing]. Riding alone through a beautiful landscape, struggling against exhaustion and hunger, trying to find food and drink, sleeping out overnight in a hedge, arriving encrusted in sweat and mud. They are extreme versions of what an ordinary cyclist might experience, but far closer than the images from the professional peloton.”

Fairbank appears to agree as he tries to explain the race’s appeal. “Perhaps it goes back to the connection you have with the riders, the human aspect of it. That’s what’s compelling. It’s almost that the riding and the bikes aren’t particularly important, instead it’s the profound personal insight provided by the participants on social media, juxtaposed with the paucity of ‘conventional’ coverage. You’re forced to fill in the gaps.”

Indeed, it is this ability to fuse the nostalgia of the past with the excitement of the future that The Transcontinental seems to have established; the product being a bicycle race, writing a multifaceted definition of adventure as it makes its way across Europe, connecting the screens of bike computers with computer screens thousands of kilometres away, telling enough of the story to grab our attention, but withholding enough to keep us hooked.

Words: Joshua Cunningham
Photography: Camille McMillan

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