The eighth Transcontinental race told by one of its protagonists
“This is gonna be the last time I’ll do something so silly!”
It’s the statement I always repeat like a mantra during the weeks before a big bikepacking race. It’s a fact – no one believes me anymore!
The Transcontinental Race (TCR) is one of the hardest bikepacking challenges in the world. Showing up at the starting line means that you have guts and that you’re a bit crazy as well. It’s not common at all to participate since after registering you have to be selected among more than 500 riders.
This 8th edition of the famous 4,200-K unsupported bicycle race was actually my second experience, since I already rode TCRNo6. This in fact confirms that I am a liar and I cannot really stop looking with enthusiasm at these kinds of events. Am I addicted to type-two fun? Maybe!
What I changed, compared to my first TCR (which was my first bikepacking race ever!), is the approach I have to the whole thing – which now is way more relaxed than four years ago. So here it is, the story of my crazy ride during Transcontinental Race number 8.
Geraardsbergen was vibrant and I didn’t feel like missing any of those nice and positive occasions to share a nice moment with other riders: meeting Kristof Allegaert and Fiona Kolbinger (TCR previous editions winners) was inspiring, but also sharing moments with old and new friends was something great and way useful to relax and lower the tension due to the imminent start of the race. The atmosphere was amazing, as all the riders were creating it with their great vibes.
At 10pm the race started. Hundreds of ambitious cyclists and I tackled the Muur van Geraardsbergen, surrounded by the incredible atmosphere made by the locals and various supporters. The Muur was surrounded by people with fire torches in their hands. The noise made by the amazing crowd gave me great energy as I started to push hard from the beginning. It was a sleepless night! Luckily, I could share some sporadic moments with Andrea de Gruttola and Ulrich Bartholmoes, making the ride a bit less monotonous. Some nice tailwinds helped me to reach the German borders quite smoothly. Close to Cologne, a supportive dotwatcher chased me for a couple of kilometers. A selfie picture was mandatory as he was such a nice guy!
The German day went on quite fluently, and in the evening I crossed my friend Andrew right before a huge storm. Fifteen minutes earlier he said it was probably not going to rain … pff, Andrew the weatherman.
The next day, after a restoring night at a hotel, I finished crossing the first German part and finally reach the Czech Republic – heading to checkpoint number 1: Krupka. Obtaining the first stamp on my brevet card was quite a relief, but nevertheless I decided to tackle the rest of the parcour before having a proper stop. It took me from the evening to the very night to complete the mountainous Czech section, but from my perspective it was a good idea to ride on until the flatlands in order to not have annoying climbs in the morning. I could barely sleep
on my bivvy since I still had good energy and my body wasn’t too tired. I started cycling really early in the morning heading to Germany again: Munich was my next stop!
I picked a fast route that was partially quite stressful due to the amount of cars and trucks driving on it, but after half-a-day I finally crossed the German border and started riding through secondary roads. I decided to call it a day when I booked a room close to the Munich airport. But, that meant three more hours of riding. It was a nice moment to catch Meaghan Hakinen and share a few kilometers and a little chat with her!
Having a hotel room I was able to regroup and get rest – even if I started riding again quite early (it was still dark out). I reached Munich with the sunrise and crossed Wolfratshausen for breakfast where I met my friend and dotwatcher Sandra Shuberth! Sharing some words with her put me in a great mood, so I started pushing to checkpoint two with the aim of trying to reach it before the night. Fernpass was a bit annoying due to road traffic, but crossing Resia Lake was more than exciting! The surrounding area was simply stunning and it got even better while climbing Umbrail Pass! At the top of Umbrail, I flew down to Bormio where I had some food right before starting the climb that took me to CP2: Passo Gavia.
I decided to stop at CP2 for a while. The initial reason was because it was pouring rain, but then I met my friends Michael, Tom, and Chris, and I felt like spending some time chatting with them. After some food shared with Sebastian Breuer and a power nap where I got framed by Chiara Redaschi, I decided to start riding again. I tackled Passo Gavia around 1am when the rain was almost over. The climb was not steep but quite steady. It was pitch black and my headlight was showing me only a small portion of the road. A few small drops were still falling from the sky. The sensation was nice and mesmerizing. Finally, I reached the top. Again, it was dark, and I could only try to remember how the beautiful Alpine pass looked.
After a quick and freezing downhill, I reached Ponte di Legno where I tackled Tonale, the next climb. The day started slowly with a stunning sunrise in Val di Sole and a huge breakfast at the first bar that David Mixell and I could find open. There were some truck drivers that asked us a few questions about where we were headed. I spare you the answers when they discovered that we were going to cycle for 4,000 kilometers … they just couldn’t believe us!
Val di Non and then Valsugana: riding in Italy gave me amazing vibes. In Caldonazzo, my friend Stefano caught me and later on Marco and Enrica were there cheering and taking pictures. After a power nap on my favorite spot along the Brenta River, I started tackling the route really hard: it was my playground after all! Alessandro, Andrea and Griso caught me on route. It was so nice to have a crowd cheering me in such an unexpected way! That gave me great motivation, and I rode non-stop to the Slovenian border where a big rain storm started and made me think about stopping for a few hours.
Slovenia was short, and the roads were still wet and the air was freezing until the sun came up. The wind wasn’t cold but there was a lot of humidity after three hours of rain. Croatia welcomed me with a big line of cars at the border! I overtook the tourists without any hesitation since I was actually racing. It was a cloudy morning and I could make good
progress even if I stopped in Crikvenica for food and a swim (yeah I decided sea water could be good for restoring my body after a hard time in the saddle). The Croatian day turned out to be quite long and tiring, and some wind and a bit of rain didn’t really help to make fast progress. So, I decided to book a hotel and leave early the next morning.
That was the perfect plan. The next day the temperature was good with clear blue skies. I rode along a river until I entered Bosnia and Herzegovina in the afternoon. Bosnia is lovely and it welcomed me with dozens of fig trees – that’s why I often stopped in that first section. I crossed Mostar on purpose, but that wasn’t really the best idea. But, at least I could see the city center of this nice town. Right after Mostar, I had to climb a really tough section. The temperature was surprisingly hot and the road didn’t have any shade. On the climb I reached a plateau which became a very green and luxurious valley. On my planned route I knew that I was crossing the border between Bosnia and Montenegro through the mountains, but that turned out to be one of the best moments of my TCR since the road was so quiet and the surrounding hilly area was simply mesmerizing! Sunset helped light-up the scene to be even more epic as I crossed the border and started descending through Pluzine Valley in Montenegro. The Durmitor massif was blasted by the last rays of sun and I felt like he was speaking to me saying: “Hurry up or it will be dark soon and you will miss all the views!”
I crossed the checkpoint at the bottom of Durmitor at last light and started climbing when it was getting dark. The fatigue made me climb quite slow, since the gradient was fairly steady and steep. Robert Webb easily caught me and we shared a few kilometers of the parcour together. I probably had a lack of sleep and lucidity because I suddenly started feeling very tired and having quick but quite disturbing hallucinations. Luckily the climb was over and with my spare water I refreshed my eyes in order to be prepared for the long and cold descent. A petrol station with a 24-hour bar saved us. Later, Robert decided to go on while I stopped at a safe and warm bivvy spot for a couple hours.
The next morning, the route brought me to Serbia. My phone had no connection so I couldn’t use the internet … only petrol stations actually have good WiFi. My Serbian day was characterized by busy and fast main roads where I could maintain a good average speed. But, at the same time, I had to stop several times to recover from the big stress due to the huge traffic. I didn’t use my aerobars at all in Serbia.
I booked a hotel, but the road was in such bad condition that it took me an hour to ride the last 15-K. Again, hallucinations, and I found myself riding zigzag on a pitch black Serbian countryside road. When I finally reached the hotel, I had a nice, recovering sleep.
Surprisingly, after that town, the surrounding area was really quiet with wide secondary roads and wide open fields, touristy rural villages, and finally the amazing Danube with a nice and fast road following its banks. I admit that the Serbian side of the Danube was probably one of the sections I enjoyed most. It reminded me of the areas around Italian lakes (even if Danube is a river). It was incredibly quiet and I probably crossed a total of 10 cars in 50 kilometers!
Then I entered Romania, crossing the river by a huge bridge. Everything changed radically … not necessarily in a bad way, but I have to admit that Romania has one unique
look! I enjoyed the approach to CP4 and the area near the Transalpina road is quite remote and the few villages you encounter are welcoming. David and I tackled the climb to CP4 at last light, and since we both had a very similar pace we rode most of the way together. CP4 was in a valley so we had to descend before getting our stamp.
We arrived quite late and spent 30 minutes chatting about ferry boat times (the one to take us from Romania to Bulgaria). We discovered that our math was totally optimistic and we had to give a good push in order to catch the first ferry in the morning – 24-hours later. When I got up, I left CP4 tackling the climb that leads to “Drumul Strategic” – a 40-K gravel/MTB trail that crosses the Carpathian Mountains.
This parcour was not easy, but I had a lot of fun riding it since I’m really into gravel trails. The downhill was never-ending and it cost me two punctures that I tried to repair quickly. After I reached the tarmac I stopped on the main road and tried to sort out my stuff, mostly repairing the tubes with adhesive patches. My aim was to reach the Danube before the next morning in order to catch the first ferry boat. The adventure in this Romanian section wasn’t missing since I snapped my chain on a ridiculously steep climb. Heat, tiredness, and stressful roads made me stop earlier than I thought to have a few hours of sleep at a hotel in the town of Pitesti.
Before getting the boat to Bulgaria I stopped at a petrol station. I had everything with me – food, water, Cola, energy, and a strong will to smash the last 300-K. The only thing I was missing was a spare tube and the only shop I crossed before the ferry was closed! It was six of us crossing the river at this time, ideally the 10th to 15th-place finishers. After arriving in Bulgaria and showing our passports the chase started!
Following the fastest guy for 150-K was fun … until my rear shifter cable snapped! No big deal, I just put zip ties on and rode “double speed” for 50-K. Otherwise, I had a spare cable if the situation would have been too rough. But hey, bad luck comes all at once: my rear tire deflated! The patch was no longer holding air. So, I repaired, rode 15-K, and deflated again. I did this “repair / ride 10-K” operation four times! I was gently accepting this situation until I encountered 4-K of bumpy road and my last patch deflated. I walked a few hundred meters feeling a bit lost and empty as my adrenaline was getting low.
I started asking people, offering money in exchange for a ride to Burgas. There was nothing useful in the surrounding area and every shop I stopped to ask for spare parts had nothing for me. I found two young and nice guys who drove me to my hotel. Then I walked to the finish line just to advise volunteers of the situation. I felt even more empty. It was like a zombie walk from one of those George Romero’s movies. Rory was there and without hesitation he tried to “wake me up” by suggesting to fix my bike the next day and then ride back to the last position I stopped … 85-K away from Burgas with 100-K to go on top. But, first I needed a good and restful sleep to clear my mind.
Hard times, what to do?
Leaving it like this, blaming the bad luck and the lack of resources in these regions?
Fix the bike and start riding again trying to restart the engine and give my body some extra pain?
I can’t remember the amount of messages I received, but for sure I must thank some of my friends for giving me the motivation to go on and restart the adventure. After fixing the bike on my own (yes, the bike shop didn’t help much), I started heading to Partizani – what a cool name – the village where I stopped riding. The 85-K to that point was horrible but somehow I started feeling the “spark” again. When I turned my bike back, it felt like nothing bad happened and the motivation to ride the next 100-K was very strong again. And finally the Black Sea, this time by bike, this time with an amazing sunset. Almost all my friends were there and even if my general feeling was a bit compromised by the previous situation, I could feel joy and a big sense of accomplishment.
The Transcontinental Race is one of the hardest sport challenges on earth. Everyone who finishes is a winner. No matter what happens during the 4,000 kilometers, there is no room for bitter feelings!
Words: Bruno Ferraro
Images: Alessio Soggetti / Tomas Montes / Charlotte Gamus / James Robertson / Sam Dugon / Chiara Redaschi
Location: Belgium, Bulgaria and everything in between, 10 September 2022