The Transcontinental race should have been a 2600 mile race across Europe. Sadly for me it came to an end after only 2000 miles. The race did not exactly get off to a great start, although I rode the first night from the midnight start strong and was at pace with the leaders into the first day. Around lunchtime I got sick, something I ate affected my tummy and I spent six hours being physically sick and not able to eat, constantly pulling over to be sick and having to stop for emergency toilet brakes, It was clear from watching the tracker I fell behind. Eventually into the afternoon I felt better was able to start eating, having stopped at a pharmacy and used my French to get some medication, Once I'd eaten I got angry. I had spent all year preparing for this and within the first 24 hours I've got sick, Great! I proceeded to ride real hard once again able to fuel myself and the chase backup to the front was on. In order to get back to the front of the race I chose to ride through the night only stopping for 2 20 minute sleep breaks, when the morning on the second day broke I was out again in front of the race and happy. Realising through the day it was possible to make Mt. Ventoux first, I felt compelled to stake my claim to this race, coming in as an unknown quality, to others and myself, by being the first TCR15 racer to summit the beast of Provence. I made it from Geraardsbergen to Mt. Ventoux in 1 day 15h 59m, not far off a record set by a certain Belgium beast, Kristof Allegaert!
Having descended of Mt. Ventoux I stopped for a 20 minute sleep break and a decent feed. Tonight the second full night of the race I was to push on to make the Italian Alps and the second checkpoint in Sestriere. I made it to the second checkpoint in the early hours of the third day, having had 2 further 20 minutes sleep breaks. I have decided I based on reading scientific articles that the optimum approach to sleeping was either frequent 20 minute power naps or one REM cycle of 90 minutes. I chose 20 the minute option as I found it worked well and when I would get tired quite simply just stop at the first convenient location, often at bus stops and crash out.
The second checkpoint was to be one of the hardest parcours of the race, that I passed. Involving a 25 mile gravel, more actually rock road ascending to 9000 feet from Sestriere. Although brutal, bone shaking and body destroying it was absolutely amazing with views to die for. I passed the section in decent time, deciding to be overly cautious in some areas in order to avoid punches, damage or other issues that cost time, of which I had none. Though in fact I did have one major issue, on the decent my disc brakes overheated. I only became aware of this when breaking into a corner and received absolutely no stopping power. I'm still not sure how i got around the hairpin. Having poured water over my discs to cool, the rest of the decent was slow and cautious. Having descended to Susa I once again stuff my face and slept for 20 minutes. Already by this point I was suffering a multitude of issues relating to cycling constantly.
Now in Italy the going was flat but the roads rough and the drivers crazy. Having pushed out through the mountains I was able to use this period for some recovery on the bicycle. Once again riding through the night however I stopped for a 90 minute sleep as part of that extra recovery which worked well. Still at no point was I feeling tired, I was just suffering from having been riding constantly. Once day broke on the second day in Italy the temperature soared and the going was tough. I struggled to push on in the heat even knowing that Josh was close behind. Due to the heat, both of my hands swelled up to twice their normal size, I tried to stop and run them under water but it was little help. As a result I also suffered nerve damage and lost feeling in both hands bar my thumbs. By now the race turned into a two man battle, with other close contenders having fallen to issues as we crossed the brutal Alps. My race plan of going hard from the start until people began to crack was working. Josh had come second last year so I knew he was to be a great adversary, and I was running scared. I thought that night Josh may ease off but he continued to push hard behind and so I pushed on into Slovenia and across another mountain range. At 3 AM I found myself descending in blanket fog in 3° with no real warm clothing. A mirage that was a petrol station appeared. Here I found a cupboard enclosing a vending machine, I climbed behind and stretched out in the warmth the machine created. I once again slept for 90 minutes as it was too cold out and I was wrapped in the warm.
As the sun started to rise I began to suffer from my neck issues that were to be the downfall of my race. When crossing Slovenia my pace slowed as I had to stop frequently to stretch out my neck and also to relieve my undercarriage from the blisters and bruising that I've gained from the harsh roads of Italy. I knew Josh was closing in on me but there was nothing I could do. As the day wore on and I crossed into Croatia I knew I had to stop and get proper rest to alleviate my neck. Later on in the day the muscles in my neck had stopped working completely so I was unable to hold my head. It would just fall down and I was unable to see where I was going. I stopped at a four star hotel, slept for 10 hours and awoke feeling better. Looking back maybe I was just kidding myself that I was better, but simply determined to push on and catch Josh who now had a seven hour lead.
That day I rode really hard. I ate on the bike, I did everything on the bike, barely stopping more than a few moments for supplies. At one point, when trying to pay for my food at a petrol station, I eventually got my money out my pocket, only to throw it all at the cashier, for I had no feeling in my hands and they were less than dextrous! For my commitment, I made time up on Josh when arriving at the third checkpoint in Vukovar, Croatia, though having neely been run over by lorries overtaking head on, forcing me off the road. Only stopping briefly to get my brevet card stamped, I was back on Josh's tail and heading into Bosnia.
I rode through Bosnia in the night which was like the wild west, at one point a dog chased me only to be run over by a car, not the only domestic animal I saw dead on the side of the road. As the day wore on, the agony in my neck became greater. Around lunchtime I stopped to try and rest my neck, as it was becoming too much. I connected to wifi and checked the tracker, to my amazement Josh was 2 miles up the same road, I understand he had taken roads not suitable for cycling, I had planned good roads and made fair progress, again riding hard. In a lot of suffering, I decided to rest for a while and order a big lunch because before I were to catch him I would need to build my energy and strength. I continued into the afternoon, hot on Josh's tail but not wanting to make the catch until the time was right, for I was suffering and we did still have 1000 miles to go. Into the last of the Bosnian mountains, my legs felt great and I tried to shut out the pain in my neck. As I descended down into Montenegro to the fourth checkpoint at Kotor doing speeds in excess of 50mph, half able to see, with numb hands in the darkness of night. I was pushing even my limits of safety. The nearer I got to Kotor, the more I had to stop as the pain was agonising. Finally I made it to Kotor where I saw a hospital, knowing I had to do something I went in to seek help. After a confused conversation with multiple hand gestures, I received a shot of something in my buttocks and was on my way, in hope of pain relief. Within a short period my neck had began to viciously throb and I was in a delirious drug infused state cycling around Kotor, eventually half passing out on a bench. Coming to my senses, I found a policeman and asked him where the nearest hotel was. More cycling in circles, I found a hotel and passed out for the night.
I eventually woke in the late morning to the beautiful views of Kotor Bay. Sadly they were all that was to beautiful about this day. Over breakfast Barney from the Transcontinental team arrived to interview me. At this point I was heartbroken, in agony and beat down. I'd come to race hard and find my limits, in that I had succeeded. I would change nothing that I did for it would have no effect on the disintegration of my neck muscles. At this point in the race, believe it or not, aches and pains aside I felt brilliant! My legs were strong and my mood happy. That morning at breakfast I was almost ready to scratch, for I race all out to win. I didn't start simply to finish, it was always win or nothing. My opportunity to win was gone. That said, during the day and on some reflection, I realised there was honour and merit in finishing. For even having spent 36 hours out of the race resting, I was still second. I decided I would spend the day resting and climb Mount Lovcen in the late afternoon. To testament of the fact that i felt great and the anger i had, i rode hard and made good time up the beautiful climb. At the checkpoint I decided to try and tape my neck to relieve the strain and to hold my head up. On reflection and advice from a friend at a later point, I should have wrapped a towel around my neck to act as a brace, hindsight is a great thing hey, maybe I would have finished. Sadly my tape didn't work and as i descended off Mount Lovcen and into Podgorica I realised my race was over.
As I descended the thoughts of the day collected in my head, as the pain from my neck did too. I came to race hard and I can be proud of my effort. I pushed myself to the limits of my ability, sadly my body giving out on me, I will go away and get physiotherapy on my neck and work out why it happened. This is my first race beyond the distance of any British road race. I pushed myself harder than ever before and revelled in the challenge. In the end I reflected that the pain from my neck, irrespective of long term damage made finishing the race a chore rather than the passion it was. I would rather walk away now and return to race harder, with passion stronger than ever before, than to fight to finish and risk loosing the love I have for racing. I'll be back, I now know I am built to ultra race.