On a dark and miserable evening, sometime in 2016, I could be found sitting in the Rapha clubhouse listening to the amazing cyclist, Emily Chappell as she regaled the audience with tales of sleep deprivation, mountain climbs and racing through the night on the Transcontinental Race (TCR) from Belgium to Greece. I remember turning to the woman next to me and remarking, “that’s just amazing, I have no idea how she does it” and in the next breath, “I’m way too old and far too late to the game”…
Two years later I found myself standing alongside 250 racers in the registration line for the 2018 TCR. I bumped into James Hayden, two times winner of the TCR, as we waited in line to have our bikes checked. I remember he looked at me and said, “Do you mind, but can I ask how old you are?” I had to laugh… he must have heard me talking to that woman in my head! The answer; I guess I’m old enough to know better and young enough to still want to try.
I took the whole two years to prepare for this race. Upon arriving home from that talk at Rapha I downloaded the TCR race manual for the coming year and as I skimmed over the pages reading the details of the race, my heart sank. With dismay I closed the handbook, realising that this was way bigger and scarier than anything I had done before and I couldn’t believe that I was even thinking about it. I believe I have been gifted with my fair share of grit and determination but I lacked the confidence and experience to realistically compete. I just couldn’t see myself in the race so I put the manual away, but I made a pact with myself; If I entered the 2017 London-Edinburgh-London Audax (LEL) and completed the event during the allotted time I would reread that race manual and think about entering the TCR.
The training for LEL was intense compared with the adventures I’d been on before. Structured training saw me qualifying with a series of 200km, 300km, 400km, and 600km audax just to earn a place on the start line. LEL is probably worthy of a blog in its own right and I do it little justice with such a short reference here, however in this story I’m just proud to be able to say that I successfully crossed the finish line in the allotted time, cycling 1,400km within 116hrs. So once I’d rested I logged back into the TCR website and downloaded the manual, allowing myself a tiny grin of newfound self-confidence.
I found the entry process for TCR to be at least as stressful as any of my A level exams. It took me two weeks to fill in the application form and answer all the questions the organisers had set. Even before you are awarded a place in the race you have to know how to feed yourself in remote lands, where to find water, how to navigate to a specific GPS point and know, in-depth, all the rules of the race. The actual application form is a well-crafted document with situational questions designed to make the racer think about the challenges and acknowledge the enormity of the race. Whilst the entry process was mentally challenging, the preparation for the race itself was even more intense.
There was so much to plan for in the TCR logistically and route wise that in February I decided I needed some help with my training. I am a very capable route planner, but I am no cycle coach so I enlisted the help of John Hampshire, to train and have me fit and ready for the race. Many hours were spent on the road. There were some long back to back days interspersed with high-intensity intervals designed to build speed. To improve my map skills I would ride into towns like Ashford, get myself lost and then navigate home on the fly. Mental training was also important and I would complete endless ‘What if’ questions. The idea is to think of all the things that could go wrong and come up with a solution or a plan of action to ensure personal safety and resolve the problem. It made me laugh to re-read my answers; “What if you have your bike nicked?” Answer? “SERIOUSLY LOSE THE PLOT for five minutes, book into a hotel, sleep and then go home” – probably fairly accurate!
The TCR is a self-guided race, but it features four compulsory control points (CPs) which also have a section of set parcours before the control. A parcours, literally means a “combatants course” and can be a stretch of single track road or a mountain climb – on the TCR it usually meant a gravelly, 10-17% singletrack mountain climb. The option of routes available to ride between CPs is endless and it comes down to choosing roads that suit your riding style and strengths – as a rookie, I didn’t consider this quite as seriously as I should have and I crafted a route that saw me climb through the Alps no less than three times.
Having said that, it’s really hard to map a route over a distant land when you don’t know the terrain or road systems. I swear Google Maps must have thought I was having an affair with their little orange man as we were spending hours together walking every inch of my proposed route. This proved entertaining during the race whilst travelling along a quiet lane in some strange place and thinking to myself, “I’ve been here before”! My final route would see me riding from Belgium, through France, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and into Greece.
As the day of the race approached my mood plummeted and I withdrew into a silent, dark world of roads, mountains and wild dogs. I visualised positive outcomes, stunning scenery, and friendly pets but most of the time I was simply frozen with anticipatory anxiety. The morning of the race dawned and the process of registration, bike checks, and cap collection began. As I navigated my way through all the checks my stomach began to tighten – had I really prepared for everything? There was one moment of sheer panic when I decided I hadn’t actually studied the highway code for all the countries and had no clue as to what was a motorway and what was a cycle-friendly road!
I’d prepared myself enough to realise that what I did or did not know was totally irrelevant, it was simply too late to change anything before the start of the race. The grand depart for the TCR includes a neutralised lap at 25kph around the Flemish market place of Geraadsbergen before racing up the famous cobbled climb of the Muur to Kapelmur. I had never seen this climb before so that morning, in an attempt to dispel my nerves, I walked the parcours up to the top. This climb was a challenge in its own right and I am not sure the recce did anything to reassure me, but it was now time to set aside the nerves, clip into my pedals and begin the race. So at 10 pm on the night of July 29th, it was a massive relief to finally take my position on the start-line and watch as the old fashioned town became animated with the glow of 250 red tail lights and the sound of over-enthusiastic chatter from friends and family.
This quickly became a memorable calm before the storm as my worries were rendered forgotten and, fueled on adrenaline, we were all released to surge en-masse up the Muur. There is actual footage of the start of this race and if you listen closely you will hear the signature war cry “Whoo Haaaa-Whoo Haaaa” of racer #TCRNo6cap127. Standing up out of the saddle and powering over the cobbles, I hauled myself and my 20kg loaded bike into the night and realised, this is it, this is what I have been training for these two long years. This is going to be the ride of my life…
Photos by Sheila and Charles Woollam
Sheila picked up a bicycle nine years ago and rode the Camino from Canterbury to Santiago de Compostella. That’s quite a first ride but since then she’s ridden unsupported around Iceland, from Tunbridge Wells to Budapest, completed the London-Edinburgh-London event and competed in the 2018 Transcontinental, riding 4,202km / 39,352m in 21 days. 2019 saw Sheila winning the long route in the Race around the Netherlands, and after a few weeks of rest, Sheila competed in the Pan Celtic Race around Scotland, Ireland and Wales placing 2nd Solo Female on the long route. What’s next? Watch this space for updates! #TCRNo6cap127 #RATNCapNo88
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