Taking on the Transcontinental Race
How can a tiny fraction of a second separate a champion from defeat? I have always had a hard time understanding how you can determine an athlete’s skill based on standings separated by the blink of an eye — a final sprint between two or more cyclists that sometimes requires snapshots to be validated and really determine who got there first.
In my world, it is different. Nothing is decided in a handful of seconds, and this is exactly one of the aspects that I love most about bikepacking races. Sometimes there might be many hours — 12, or even 24 — between the first and second finishers in an ultra race, but it doesn’t damp the enthusiasm of spectators watching from home, so-called “dot-watchers”.
There is a whole range of variables that go into an athlete’s ability and dozens of external factors that determine who performs best during the race, and the longer the course is, the more these variables are interesting to observe.
In challenges such as Transcontinental Race, where you build the course almost entirely on your own, you can participate in what could be called the definitive challenge for those who love to test themselves in self-supported endurance cycling contests.
But it is necessary to distinguish the profile of participants and understand some essential differences. After some years of experience in bikepacking, I have come to distinguish two main categories: beginners who concentrate all their energy in finishing the course before the time is up to avoid finishing “out of the ranking”, and endurance experts or those who have top athletic preparation and therefore aim to finish the challenge in the least time possible.
In both cases, it is the mental aspect that makes the difference, followed by physical preparation and detailed study of the course. Under extreme fatigue, with the nervous system worn out from hours and hours in the saddle, even the tiniest hole can become critical for a cyclist’s morale. Lucidity falls drastically, nearly reaching a catatonic state. Glitches hide around every corner and are capable of ruining the hard work of even very strong riders who are often forced to withdraw from the race after having pedalled thousands of kilometres among the top 5 in the race.
I have always wanted to experience bikepacking to the fullest. Competitions have allowed me to try to overcome my limits, and especially my fears, entering the mental mechanism of “now I am in play” and therefore always pushing myself to go further. I have never thought I could beat certain “stars”, although with my more relaxed attitude, I have managed to earn a respectable place in the list of finishers at various European events.
Next year I will participate in my second Transcontinental Race. I am full of enthusiasm and training is proceeding at a constant pace despite the restrictions due to the situation. But how does one prepare to bike 4000 kilometres independently while attempting to cover an average of at least 300 kilometres a day?
The TCR is a challenge that starts from the moment you register for the event, where you have to pass a very tight selection. When you receive confirmation you have been chosen (in my case, two positive emails out of four tries), then you understand this is serious and it is time to begin preparing yourself, even though you are still months away from the starting day.
I don’t overlook anything. I start by choosing the best means and begin to pedal constantly with a setup that best resembles the one I will use for the race.
The bike and all its accessories will be an extension of our bodies for more than ten days, which means that the more confidence we have in the means and equipment, the less stressful their prolonged use will be during the day and at night.
Learning to minimize rest is as important as training the muscles to exert themselves as long as possible. Already knowing what to eat and knowing mathematically what to buy during a stop is decisive, because time dilates with tiredness and what seems like a minute may actually be ten. Everything that does not entail being in the saddle should become automatic, such as the actions we perform to prepare to sleep in a hotel or bivouacking. I train these reflexes to run the TCR.
I carefully map out the course and mark all the points of support that might be useful to avoid wasting time looking for them along the way. To a common mortal it may seem crazy, but at the end, if you lose even 45 minutes a day on trivialities, at the end of 12 days your overall time will have increased by nine hours, that is, nearly half a day in the saddle.
For me, it is very important to train all the muscles that support me while I’m pedalling: arms, shoulders, neck, and back. In this way, a strong muscular structure prevents pain that may become chronic and, beyond the final result, even prevent me from reaching the end of the course.
Many things are learned only in the field, and these are extremely subjective. Only after thousands of kilometres travelled under difficult conditions can you discover elements of your physique and mind that you had never before considered. I love thinking that for many, an experience like the Transcontinental Race may literally be revealing and change your view of many things, both personal and about life in general. Obviously, during all those hours pedalling, the mind travels with us, at times in parallel with our bodies and at other times towards other places in space and time. This is at once wonderful, but also difficult to face, because it makes us unexpectedly vulnerable.
This is why perhaps the most important training is what carries me to the starting day with the right attitude, my head free of difficult or negative thoughts, and the enthusiasm of someone who wants to go all the way.
I will be leaving at my back every uncertainty and fixing in my mind the goal of reaching the doors of Asia with a smile and the satisfaction of someone who has finished the Transcontinental Race!
Words: Bruno Ferraro
Images: Lucia Mottin
Location: Bassano del Grappa, Italy, 01 June 2021