7 minute read

Trepidation and warm hearts on the TCR 07

Sean King, a member of the Audax Club Bristol, knew he was in for a lonely ordeal when he entered the 2019 Transcontinental Race, but he was unprepared for the incredible highs – and terrible lows – when pitting himself against this notoriously tough bike ride…

The Dolomites, Italy – One of the highlights of TCR – crazy climbing and superb switchbacks

AFTER A DAY’S hard riding, as night began to fall, I found myself lost and alone in the remote and unforgiving Swiss hills – exhausted, cold and unable to find a bed for the night because my phone was kaput. It was most definitely the lowest point in my attempt to tackle the Transcontinental.

At this point an elderly local couple arrived, feeling forlorn and despondent, I turned to them for help. I asked for directions, and they just said: “Follow us”. They took me into their home, fed me, washed my clothes, gave me a beer and put me to bed. In the morning they left the house early, but gave me their house keys and told me to finish my breakfast… and just post the keys through the letter box. This is just one of the priceless memories of kindness and trust I experienced on what turned out to be a very hard but hugely rewarding cycling challenge.

A few years ago, I began to fill in the application form for the Transcontinental, but even the form was difficult. Then I fractured my ribs in a cycling accident, which combined to put me off the whole thing.

But late last year I decided it was time to try again. I needed a challenge. I thought, why not? If I don’t get in, no problem. If I do, then I don’t have to do it. Subsequently, in January 2019, an email arrived. I was in.

This is when fear and trepidation set in. I was excited… and nervous. Could someone like me actually do this? Luckily I

Slovenia… after torrential rain and thunderstorms – at last some respite

had the support of my family and friends, and before long I had a rough training schedule in place.

What is the Transcontinental Race?

❝They took me into their home, fed me, washed my clothes, gave me a beer and put me to bed

According to the website, it’s “the definitive self-supported bicycle race across Europe – a beautifully hard bicycle race, simple in design but complex in execution. Selfreliance, logistics, navigation and judgement burden racers’ minds as well as their physiques.” Did I mention it covers 4000km across the wilds of Europe?

In July 2019 I found myself in Burgas, Bulgaria. Suddenly everything was very real. A 6am start in a heatwave – and 220km to the first control point, which turned out to be the Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party.

Cycling through Bulgaria was a test. It was also a joy. I met so many friendly people. They were clearly wondering what was going on… all these crazy cyclists. But I knew I had to be on the ball, especially regarding hydration, eating what you could when you could and avoiding sunstroke.

I continued to ride late into the night, arriving at the control at around 12.45am. I couldn’t find the checkpoint to stamp my brevet card, so had to camp nearby. It was pretty damn cold, but the stars were magical. I discovered, waking early in the morning, that there were wild horses all

❝… sometimes crying with sheer joy at what I saw, or felt as my breath was taken away by the most stunning mountains or weather

Austria… more climbing but more sublime switchbacks – just having descended from mountains behind!

around me! But I’d reached the first checkpoint in time, and with the brevet card stamped, I set off again.

Daily life on the ride quickly settled into a rhythm of riding, eating, meeting people (locals and other racers) and having my mind blown by the most amazing scenery imaginable. Sometimes it would be very lonely and then, out of nowhere, another rider would pass and I’d shout, nod or do something, and then they’d be gone.

Most of the time the riding was an incredibly meditative. I’d been worried about the hours by myself but thank goodness, I enjoyed it – at least most of the time, sometimes crying with sheer joy at what I saw, or felt as my breath was taken away by the most stunning mountains or weather. There were so many physical highs and so much climbing involved, but it’s amazing how one’s body adapts, and day after day you can cycle pretty long distances.

I finally made it across Bulgaria and reached the Serbian border. That was a definite highlight. The feeling of crossing a whole country made me realise that this might be possible and I could finish the race. I carried on towards the next checkpoint in Serbia. Then Slovenia, Italy and Austria.

The Italian Dolomites were something else. I’ve never experienced anything like it – the ascents, and then the switchbacks, taking one or two hours to descend. Another stretch which was burned into my mind and body was ascending the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Pass (2509m) with approximately 30 hairpin bends; difficult with fresh legs, maybe impossible after days of cycling. The sense of achievement after reaching and descending and then having to cycle through the night to check-point three was immense.

However, this ascent will stay in my memory as one of the scariest points of my Transcontinental. The weather suddenly changed – dramatically. Mist and constant rain made the climb to the summit incredibly difficult. I was tired and a bit scared, but had to keep going. There was no other option. Remaining as calm as possible, and staying “in the moment” helped me get to the top.

I changed most of my clothes at the top tunnel, and was, by then, nearly hypothermic. I decided to get off the mountain as quickly as possible, not bothering with the usual Instagramfriendly photos. My phone had died anyway. I took that as a sign to keep moving.

Having a tracker meant that people were “dot watching” me. On a couple of occasions this led to brief encounters which helped boost my day. During a torrential downpour in Slovenia I passed a bar, and someone called out my name. It was a group of Slovenians who were following the race. And before entering Austria, two cyclists called my name and rode the 40km with me to the border. The sense of camaraderie and generous spirit on the road was something that really helped me keep going when times were tough.

Though we’d started in a Bulgarian heatwave, the subsequent weather was mixed, to say the least. We endured heavy rain, electrical storms, headwinds and sometimes sun. Did I finish? Well, no I didn’t. After 16 days of riding I decided to scratch in Lausanne, Switzerland. After nearly 3000km and a huge amount of climbing, and the fact that my phone was dead, I found the prospect of the rest of the journey rather daunting. Plus, a looming deadline meant it was going to be tight to reach Brest in north-west France in time. Also, I hadn’t been eating enough the last few days, so was getting progressively slower and more exhausted.

I didn’t finish but I did apply – and I did start, which was an achievement in itself. I was happy to have got as far as I did. Now, many weeks afterwards, the memories and thoughts that will stay with me forever seem like a priceless gift. The people I met in different countries, the roads travelled and my fellow riders made for a very special experience.

I learned a good deal about myself. Indeed, people say the Transcontinental is life-changing. I’d agree. Hats off to all the riders who took part – and the Transcontinental family of dot watchers, Sean dedicated his ride to the charity, Young Minds, for whom he was aiming to raise funds. Young Minds raises awareness about the vital importance of children and young people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health. It’s not too late to donate if you’ve been impressed by his endeavour. Go to www.justgiving.com/ fundraising/sean-king8.

You can view his Instagram at: _.seanking

Fairlight strael 2… bike checked and fully loaded ready to start – nervous!

and of course, the organisation itself.

Would I do again? Yes, definitely! The training took up a lot of time, and being away from home for over 16 days was hard. Then there were the hallucinations due to sleep deprivation. I’ve never been so cold, scared, happy or lonely… or felt so alive.

Kit Grid done… all bike gear ready – next, pack up and box up bike ready for flight to Bulgaria