The Transcontinental

Are you sitting comfortably? If so this could be a problem. Perhaps you’re reading this at home or at work, maybe on a train or while waiting in an airport? Chances are you’d prefer to be out on your bike and better still imagine if you had nothing else to do today but pedal hard across France and Switzerland during the height of summer.

That’s what hundreds of riders are doing in The Transcontinental race at the moment. This isn’t a pro race on the UCI calendar, in fact it’s almost the opposite and this is what makes it fascinating.

The Transcontinental is simple: a start in Geraardsbergen in Belgium by the Kapelmuur and then ride to Çanakkale in Turkey via four checkpoints, Clermont-Ferrand, the Furkapass and the Passo di Giau, and Durmitor in Montenegro. And that’s it, the route is up to participants and those who make it to the finish are expected to cover about 3,800km but judging by the livetracking of the routes some have already adopted a scenic route. One participant even started heading north out of Geraardsbergen before grasping they were probably going the wrong way.

There are few rules, in fact they’re so simple they can be listed here in one go:

1. Riders must ride from the start point to the finish point and visit all mandatory controls en-route.
2. 3rd party support is prohibited. All food, drink and equipment must be carried by the rider or acquired en-route.
3. Drafting is prohibited.
4. All forward land travel must be human powered.
5. Ferries are permitted for expedient coast to coast travel, by approval of the Race Director.
6. Riders are responsible for maintaining positional updates and evidence thereof.
7. 2+ days of inactivity without contact will be deemed a scratch.
8. No Helmet, No Insurance, No Ride.
9. It is the rider’s responsibility to know and observe local laws.
10. Riders must act in the spirit of self sufficiency and equal opportunity for all racers.

That’s it, no chapters of PDFs with sub-clauses although as we’ll return to in a moment these rules may not stay so simple for ever.

What’s alluring is the freedom, not just the simplicity of the rules above but the choice of route, the decision of when to sleep and so on. It’s a race but there’s no broom wagon, only generous time limits to reach each checkpoint so there’s plenty of time for those wanting to make a tour of it. Those at the front are putting in impressive sporting performance.

The chart above shows current leader Kristoff Allegaert’s time and speed via the tracking website at pixel time. As you can see he’s putting in shifts over 20 hours and regularly moving at 30km/h on hilly roads on a bike loaded with spares and camping equipment. All competitors carry a GPS tracker so that their progress can be followed and to help ensure nobody takes the train or hitches a ride in a car.

Apart from the tracker and those 10 rules there’s an “anything goes” attitude to other elements. There’s no marked route nor feed stations. Some unfold a sleeping bag and sleep outdoors, others check into hotels; some manage without a change of kit, others pack fresh clothes. The same for eating, riders are posting pictures bags of sweets, cans of Coke, burgers and pizzas ` plenty. Cheap calories but people seem to take what they can find and often it’s because service stations and McDonalds are both roadside and open, something not that’s not always the case across a lot of Europe. Take today where many bakeries are closed in France as it’s a Monday and in Switzerland it’s the national holiday meaning many closures too. It’s a far cry from the pro races where a thirsty rider only needs to lift their arm in the air to summon a team car and get bottles handed up from an icebox.

It seems reminiscent of the inaugural Tour de France in 1903 with its 400km stages and pioneer format, an adventure and a test as much as race. It’s also a celebration of distance. The earliest bike races were often created to show just what could be achieved on a bicycle, to promote the strength and reliability of particular brands. The Transcontinental sees some participants riding 400km in a day (actually day and night) with usually no more than three or four hours of sleep and repeating for days on end. Extreme? You bet. But if you’re thinking “how do they manage that?” then it’s like the general public today who look at the Tour de France, Milan-Sanremo or this week’s Tour of Utah and wonder the same about 200km stages over mountains in the summer heat, just as unthinkable to most. The men’s road race remains the longest event in the upcoming Olympics and by some way. This is still one of pro cycling’s unique selling points, that no sport is as hard and something worth reflecting on as TV demands ever shorter, more intense stages.

On day 11, I rode 276km and climbed 4,070m in Bosnia and Montenegro. My moving time was 12 hours and 54 minutes. For 11 hours and 44 minutes (91%), my heart rate was below 110bpm. My maximum was a ridiculously low 123bpm
– Alain Rumpf, via cyclingtips

The longer the worse it is for TV? Perhaps and the Transcontinental wouldn’t make great live TV. Most media coverage of is via a race blog, photos via the usual social media channels from participants and a tracking website where you can follow the blue dots across Europe. TV would never work for this race given it’s just lone riders pedalling across the countryside. Video has its part but after editing, there’s a good documentary on last year’s race:

Just as a regular pro cycling race is so much more than a physiological test thanks to tactics, a long distance event like this and other “ultra” riders are as much about logistics and coping strategies: what to eat, where and how to sleep and so on. Do you take that big flat road or the shortcut over a mountain pass? Can you hold the same position on the bike for half a day?

You wonder for the future of The Transcontinental. Those simple rules? The more the event grows, the more money it’ll attract and the more structured it’ll become. Look at triathlon where the Ironman grew out of a challenge among friends into a multinational corporation today. For now it’s strictly amateur and all the more refreshing for it.

A departure from the usual pro cycling topic but this is an interesting event – just one of several similar races – and also because of the way it seems to evoke the pioneering spirit of adventure which was essential to events like the Tour de France. If you wondered what it was like to follow those races a century ago then tracking the Transcontinental today might be a contemporary equivalent. In the space of a century pro cycling has transformed itself into a major sport but it’s also become highly coded and formatted as today’s carefully planned team transfers attest with their careful timing and attributed quotes.

The Transcontinental’s endurance and logistics make this a hard effort but to each their own pace. Still sitting comfortably or would you prefer to be on your way to the next checkpoint?

56 thoughts on “The Transcontinental”

    • Funnily enough, Mike Hall, who won that race and still holds the record time, is also the Race Director of the Transcontinental Race.

  1. It seems such a shame that all sports and events more towards a more commercial position. Sanitising the raw emotion and ideal of sport.

    I hope the transcontinental puts this of for as long as possible and reamins true to the amature philosophy.

  2. I have been dot-watching regolary since friday – good stuff
    There is another documentery which is called something like “melons, trucks and angry dogs” which is worth a watch altough it might be indirect “big bike brand” comercial it captured my attention.

  3. Great write-up as always and a nice contrast with the pro circuit.

    The embedded documentary is well worth a watch – completely gripping. Unfortunately the two main protagonists from that are , Josh Ibbett has scratched with back injury and James Hayden is soldiering on with a chest infection…

    Kristoff Allegaert is a nutter – he didn’t defend his title (he won the first two editions) last year as it was too easy – instead he preferred to do this:

    Hugely impressive…

    • One of the guys doing the Trans-Siberian Extreme in that video is top Russian team pursuiter Ivan Kovalev?! A bit longer than 4 minutes I should think.

  4. Thanks for stepping away from your normal routine and covering such a great event. You have the best blog in pro cycling and the most incitefull comments. I think the growth of events like this and the Tour Devide are a direct result to the farse that pro cycling has become. The performances just aren’t believable and it’s hard to spend 11 months looking forward to the Tour only too watch one team ride at the front and smother everyone else for 3000 K. Boring.
    I’m 50 years old and have been riding and racing since I started in BMX at the age of six but I will turn my back on pro cycling the second they catch a top rider with a motor in they’re bike.

  5. What an awesome event, almost like an Audax on steroids! Perhaps not the best description however. It does seem a bit more sponsored this year with some big names pitching in. For anyone else interested, Jack Thurston did a great feature on the Bike Show pod on this race. Apologies if I’m not allowed to plug that, please remove if that’s the case!

  6. I wonder how many of these riders are pro riders. The likes of Josh Ibbett and Neil Philips seem to have quite a lot of sponsorship but is it just that or are the front runners paid to take part in these races?

    • I’m not sure about Josh but Neil’s definitely not a paid Pro. A strong second Cat racer, he completed the Transcontinental with a partner last year and has just finished a PhD in soil science.

      In terms of the other people I know in the race: Ultan Coyle’s a designer at Rapha, George Marshall’s a photographer, Frank van der Sman is a graphic designer and Emily Chappell is an ex-courier turned author. There are a few London club cyclists in the field too. There’s plenty of long-distance pedigree at the pointy end (three of the racers have ridden more than 500 miles in a 24TT) but the unfiltered stories from the road are what makes this event , for me. No filtered message, normal characters doing something extraordinary.

      • Josh Ibbet is Brand Manager for Hunt Bike Wheels, so he’s only promoting the own company I think. As a part of the bicycle industry he surely has some good connections to other companies helping him out with a ride or other accessories.

        • Thanks guys, that’s interesting to find out. I agree that the stories are fascinating and have been a hooked “dot watcher” since they set off on Friday.

        • Josh, and I’m sure all the other competitors, is definitely not paid to do this or any other ultra event. Best he can hope for is a good amount of holiday leeway from his employer.

  7. Many riders on TCR 2016 have chosen to come through the little town I live in Burgundy today and yesterday. With my daughter I have been able to meet about 25 of these amazing people. They are united in a number of ways… A rich odour (!)… A great thirst for water… A deep hunger… Most of all though, in spite of their varying stages of exhaustion, they are relentlessly happy. An inspiring experience to meet these people and we will be out tomorrow to cheer on the last 50 riders. I also love the pro sport and have followed the cyclists for years. Heroes they are as well. But… This it ain’t.

  8. Not really considered a “race” in any official sense besides the trophies given out to the fastest time, Paris-Brest-Paris also worth mentioning as probably the oldest of its kind.

    • Very famous but the terrain just seems less alluring with flat to rolling terrain. A big challenge and a historic and cherished event but the upstart idea of riding across the Alps and beyond grabbed the imagination here.

  9. The tcr is already massively over subscribed, with over half the entrants not getting a place. It’s grown from 38 riders on the first event, to 90, then 170 last year. I think it was capped at 250ish this year, ( with dropouts before the start dropping the numbers on the line)

    It’s a doable race for a keen rider, (ie if you can ride 180k then you can train for this). Back to back 200k rides at the weekends, throw in the odd 300k ride….

    On the other hand I’ve been broken all year since tcr#3, and am only now getting my mojo back. Many others are going really well this year

  10. With no support–along the route or even at the check-in points, which look to be cafes or restaurants–and very little structure as to the route, it seems like this “race” is very little different from someone just getting on the bike and riding from Belgium to Turkey on one’s own. For heaven’s sake, they don’t even close off the traffic, and there’s no security in the remote mountains. Has anyone ever been killed or seriously injured doing this “race?” If you abandon, then you’re left on your own to find a way back home. Looks like a very gimmicky way for the organizers to get sponsors–especially onerous when they haven’t really organized much. The requirement, “no insurance, no ride,” says it all.

    • That’s a little unfair. Mike Hall and the team put in a huge organisational effort before and during the race. I raced in 2015 and signed up knowing the deal from day 1. The self supported nature of the race is well known, and is quite liberating.

    • For me that’s part of the attraction: to make your own way without having police to close off the roads, without a following car stocked with food and spares etc so you’re reliant on yourself to reach the checkpoints.

    • Security? It’s not a race its a ride.

      I just rode Italy north->South in 17 days.

      No closed roads.
      no security (exept from a few stones in my pockets to chase of big hungry watch dogs).
      book a hotel onroute.
      eat and drik what you find (i south italy arround august 1st plan your water needs and somtimes you’l take a calculated risk and gamble that you can find a fontaine or a water source at 800-1200m,.navigate and decide weather to do a 20km climb or add 50km with lessor climbs to avoid it.

      Thats called touring and people on the continent have been dooing it since before i was born – ive been doing it since 2010 an the rides tends to get longer amd add climbing each year.

      • Touring? Brilliant.

        Look at the race leaders – Kristoff has 160km left to go. That’s approximately 4000km in just over 8 days. That’s more than the TDF in one third of the time.

        If you know of any bicycle tourers who can put in 300 miles a day I’d sure like to see them in a “real race”.

  11. This is rocking and the riders are legends.

    Made the laugh at the comment above

    “For heaven’s sake, they don’t even close off the traffic, and there’s no security in the remote mountains.”

    …………don’t think he/she gets the concept.

  12. jeez, after wading through the bile of the LA Confidential comments section I just had to come back here to calm down… it’s like coming up to the surface and being able to breath again… more articles like this pls Inrng!

  13. One of the toughest things in the race is handling riding in unfamiliar circumstances. I melted down in Sarajevo, and also had to get off the road a couple of times in albania. It was me melting down, not the road conditions or traffic

  14. For those of you who want to try a baby version of it, come and check out the two-day long-distance race we’re organizing in western Switzerland, the Brevet du Couraillon! 4 checkpoints, +300km, +4000m elevation gain and a great party at the end. Check it out on our website, facebook ( and instagram (@brevetcouraillon)

  15. Are there any books from previous riders of the TCR out there? This is fascinating stuff, imagine the loneliness one must drift towards pedaling through the high alps on a cold night…excellent event which surely lends itself to books, combining the adventure and love of the bike.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention Inrng

    • Look at the TCR site and you’ll find blogs by riders from previous races. I lost about 3 days when I discovered them – I’d finish reading one person’s heroic tale of their race, and then immediately start another. Lots of different approaches, some serious, some for fun, some in groups, some individual – but everyone was inspirational and made me want to get out and ride my bike through the long and lonely night to a mythical checkpoint that would have meaning to me and me alone, before setting off on the return leg!

      Enjoy them all ???

  16. I’m following the race since de Muur, with Çanakkale in sight, we’ll be finally there tonight.
    If you’re interested, we are publishing a few short tales and a lot of pics and vids on pedaled social networks ( and, if you are interestend in updates. It has been an amazing adventure, soon we’ll release some more complete publications.

    Thanks a lot to Inrng for such a great article, as always

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