The impossible dream, spoken in a south-east London accent by Del Boy to his younger brother across countless episodes of the BBC hit TV series Only Fools and Horses. Something they’ll probably never attain, until of course almost by accident they actually do (albeit briefly). It’s pretty much how I feel about the Trans Continental as I sit at my PC watching all those dots edging their way across the map towards Turkey in this year’s edition. As much as I say to myself I’m going to be there next year, it seems just as far fetched as those words to Rodney.
First up, of course, you have to actually get a place – by no means a certainty with interest growing, and places limited to a couple of hundred riders. Assuming you are lucky enough, then the challenge really starts. As a race where no outside support of any kind is allowed, the logistics are considerably simpler than say RAAM – but simpler does not mean non existent. There is still the task of précising the kitchen-sink like list of kit down to just those essentials that will be used or needed (and can actually fit on your bike!). Once that is done, or more likely in parallel, is the task of mapping routes that will get you to the end via the mandatory checkpoints. Use of the plural ‘routes‘ there is not a typo – weather, road closure, mapped roads that don’t actually exist, your knees crying for flatter riding – all of these and more can mean that at any given moment, on the fly adjustments might be needed. Having routes is one thing, being able to stick to them is quite another. Rock solid navigation devices are essential, plus at least one or more backups. Endurance rides are pathological assassins of any and all forms of technology, and getting lost can mean literally hundreds of kilometres of unwanted detours.
Which brings us to the scary part – mentally and physically preparing for this gargantuan challenge. This year’s event has included brutal amounts of climbing, a gruelling succession of high mountain passes traversing the breadth of The Alps from East to West. As if that weren’t enough, the weather has been truly atrocious – torrential rain in the valleys, freezing temperatures and snow on the tops, and gale force winds along the Croatian coast just as riders thought the worst was behind them. What’s a little amazing is how many riders have finished, or are still going well – the scratch rate hasn’t reached anywhere near the levels the course and conditions would suggest.
Given all of the above, it might be hard to imagine oneself as part of that picture – but strangely, I find it isn’t. It’s only 280km or so a day right? We can do that if we take a steady and sensible pace, feed the body well, get a decent four or five hours sleep each day. Can’t we? But the reality is that, whilst those sorts of distance day-after-day are not unknown to me, the total distance is three times further than anything I’ve done before (LEL: 1428km, PBP: 1230km). Physically I was a wreck at the end of LEL – although we could put that down to lack of experience and preparation. At the end of PBP, I was in considerably better shape – sleep deprived from pushing too long on the last day, and with a very sore right knee, but overall I was in pretty good condition. But to now picture myself still with two-thirds of the ride left to do, and probably the toughest part at that, is a sobering thought.
It’s also too easy to say that endurance riding is more about mental strength than physical fitness. It is true, and I know I have that, so surely that’ll bridge the difference? But then you see the reports of blown achilles & knees, bronchial infections, gastric upsets, and levels of exhaustion that make it impossible to turn the pedals, or even stay upright on the bike. There’s just no way to diminish the onslaught this journey brings. But then why would you want too? Surely that is the very heart of the beast – where would the romance and adventure be without the lone battle of the rider against the odds? Where would be the victory if the outcome were certain? And there of course is the lure which has me trapped. Despite the seeming impossibility of this thing, I long to be on that journey. A journey not just across Europe, but deep down inside myself to learn what is there when everything else is stripped away.
There are various sites with great stories and photos of this year’s ride:
“What sort of race is this? … A race where you get so damp you need nuns to dry you out. Yes that’s right, nuns … And at the end, you’ll need a wheelchair”