My Transcontinental Story

The Transcontinental is one of the toughest ultra-endurance cycle races in the world and sees riders cross most of Europe. The race starts in Belgium, passes through mountain checkpoints in Austria, Slovenia, Poland and Bosnia then finally finishes in Greece. Riders plan their own route, race without outside assistance, carry their own kit and find their own sleep spots along the way. I was lucky enough to get a place in this year’s race as a pair and this is my story.

I spent the 8 months leading up to the race working on my fitness and cycling some long 200km-400km rides to test kit and get used to the miles. In the few months before the race I struggled with a knee injury and saddle sores but with physio and cream, I managed to recover enough to make it to the start line. I also spent hours carefully planning the route and working out my bike setup and which kit would help me most. I must have packed/unpacked around 10 times to make sure I had everything!

My bike setup

254 riders set off at 22:00 on a Sunday night in July to climb the cobbles of the Muir out of Geraardsbergen in Belgium. My partner Jonny and I rode till the early hours of the morning catching just a couple hours of sleep. Many riders cycle through the night and we thought our sleep had put us far behind in the pack. Feeling fresh the next day we quickly passed through France, Luxembourg and Germany and managed to overtake many other riders — somehow after day 1 we managed to become first pair and in the top 20 riders!

By day 2 we made it to Checkpoint 1. The classic alpine climb, the Beilerhöhe pass, had switchbacks that seemed to last forever but rewarded us with stunning views. We made good time and came into Checkpoint 1 in 13th and 14th place. Traditionally pairs are much slower than solo riders and TCR has only ever had one pair in the top 20 so we were quite surprised to be doing so well. The strategy and training was paying off. We managed to maintain the pace through the Alps and reached Checkpoint 2 in 10th and 11th place. Cycling through the incredible Slovenian mountains to Checkpoint 2 during sunset was a highlight of the race.

Checkpoint 2-– Mangart Česta, which leads up to the 2,072m Mangart saddle. The road is a classic, built by Russian prisoners during the First World War, with tunnels hacked out of the mountainside, numerous switchbacks, and gradients as steep as 25% descending towards Kranjska Gora.

Everything was going so well as we headed back through Austria and through the Czech Republic towards Poland until the afternoon of day 5. I thought the heat was getting to me as I was coughing and struggling to cycle. We decided to rest up early in a hotel and see how I felt in the morning. Following various x-ray and ECG tests, the Czech hospital suspected pneumonia and I advised Jonny to continue without me. Fortunately, after 2 days of rest, the illness passed and I decided to continue my journey.

My first day back after the rest was enthusiastic and with fresh(ish) legs I thought I could make up for lost time and catch up others. I rode fast, climbing to Checkpoint 3 in Poland in the early morning and back down through Czechia totalling a distance of 400km and 5000m elevation through the day.

The enthusiasm didn’t continue. The following couple of days were a struggle. My body was still not feeling 100% and 30km/h headwind through the flats of Hungary meant I was making slow progress. Furthermore, my knee injury had resurfaced and was agony. I wasn’t sure I would make the finish and was close to giving up.

Riding on my own had some benefits. I could stop for breaks whenever I needed and I was enjoying riding alongside others who weren’t as concerned with pushing hard to finish competitively. I was also having some interesting encounters, finding myself woken up in a supermarket car park when semi naked by a post woman at 3am, and another where my hotel was closed so I found myself staying in an Austrian woman’s spare room who didn’t speak a word of English. Probably the weirdest was being stuck in a thunderstorm under some shelter with 6 drunk shirtless Albanian men who also didn’t speak English but seemed to find me hilarious.

I had caught up some places by the time I reached Checkpoint 4 in Bosnia, moving up from around 100th to 50th place, however the gravel path parcours ruined my tires. I had 4 flats on the 20km gravel section and another 2 later in the day. I used most of my patches and tubes so I was forced to make a 50km detour to the nearest shop and get some replacements.

Checkpoint 4 — Bjelašnica; testing riders’ legs and skill as much as their choice of tyres. Possibly the most magnificent of Bosnia’s network of gravel roads, this parcours takes riders, via a series of steep and dusty hairpins, to an exposed summit with views of Sarajevo and the Dinaric Alps.
Photographer Camille Mcmillian followed me through the stunning Piva canyon in Montenegro

I faced other challenges as I rode through Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania. Not only was I struggling with mid-day heat of over 30 degrees, I had to deal with being chased by packs of wild dogs, and service stations with nothing but stale chocolate filled croissants.

The Final parcours through the magical setting of Meteora in Greece. Meteora is a spectacular and precarious site of six monastery complexes which survive from more than 20 built atop naturally formed stone pillars by Eastern Orthodox monks some time during the 14th century

With the end in sight, I pushed hard on the final stretch through Greece and managed to reach the finish line in 13 days 17 hours, the 47th person to cross the line.

I’ve followed the Transcontinental race for a few years, being drawn in by the self-sufficiency and mental resilience of riders and the sleep deprivation they endure. I admired the meticulous planning they put in before, and the tough conditions riders deal with during the race. I spent years wondering if I have what it takes to finish. It’s been a long journey but I did it. I cycled 4000km with 43000m of climbing in under two weeks. The race was an incredible experience and I’m over the moon to have crossed the finish line. Now to start planning the next adventure.

My Brevet card. Final time 13days 17hrs 21min
Finishing party with pairs first finisher Cap 256b Nico Deportago-Cabrera
Route & elevation profile

Instagram: @jamescraven11

Route stats:

Photos taken by James Robertson and Camille Mcmillian