Across Europe in a Fortnight: Rimas Grigenas

Ever since I heard about The Transcontinental I knew it was my kind of race. Organised by Mike Hall, a supreme endurance cyclist himself, and The Adventurists (a bonkers events outfit) it had to be one cracker of an event! Only – how do you prepare for such a race? You are on your own most of the way, no pre-arranged support or bag drops, you carry bike survival kit, food rations, your wardrobe for two weeks (not much of it), navigation aids – all has to be small and light enough so you can still “race” rather than “tour”. So, London to Istanbul – home to Asia. 3400km! How hard can it be to ride the distance in two weeks? Having taken part in long distance cycling events (audaxes or randonees – up to 1600km) before, I knew I could ride the distance (provided that everything went well), so filled out the entry form, clicked “Enter” and started looking forward to August with excitement.

Do I need a new bike for this race – probably not, my current audax bike will be fine for the job – very comfortable and fast enough. What distance can I cover per day? I was hoping to average 350km/day, given that previously I have averaged 480km/day on Paris-Brest-Paris 1200km ride, but there you’ve got food stops arranged (big time saver!) and shelter if you need it. Can I complete The Transcontinental in ten days then? Let’s see!

I have looked at the possible route (which was free to choose) several times, but in the end let the Bikeroutetoaster website draw the one for me two days before the race – there was no way to check out all the roads/surfaces suitable for cycling over such a vast distance. Then downloaded the route onto a Garmin GPS and also took a spare GPS unit with me just in case. With the bike set up for the challenge I was raring to go! Sunny morning on Westminster Bridge, few pre-ride photos taken before Big Ben tells it’s 8:00am and we’re off!

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Thirty riders have started the race, all heading towards Dover first to take a ferry across the channel. First 50-60km we rode together with Juliana and Iain, last few before Dover with Richard and Edward. 12:30pm at Dover, I was glad to persuade the ticket lady at the port to let me on 2pm ferry to Dunkirk (I had a flexible ticket, but all the places were already booked for that ferry). Soon other riders joined us, all looking forward to what lies ahead – I could sense the trepidation. Once off the ferry I reached for aerobars and rode 150km non-stop in 5h13m towards the first checkpoint in Geraardsbergen, Belgium. I learned Belgian drivers are not used to see cyclists on the road, so I was forced to take somewhat slower cycle-paths. I’ve gone past two bike shops (closed as it was Saturday evening) in Belgium – the only ones I’ve noticed in my entire trip! There was Transcontinental crew waiting at the checkpoint as well as Kristof who’s got there 20min ago. The kitchen at the restaurant agreed to prepare the last meal for me before they closed and with energy levels restored I decided to carry on instead of sleeping the first night. Saturday night is party time as I could see going through the towns and villages; our party however will be in two weeks time – and there’s still a long way to ride to take part. Eventually I had to stop for a 1hr nap on a chair of an outside cafe at 4am to keep going. French Ardennes hills have started to take their toll on my legs and 24hrs/415km since the start in London I stopped for a breakfast at the roadside (i.e. two sandwiches that I carried from the restaurant the night before). The temperature was rising rapidly into mid thirties and with no shade to hide in I was struggling more and more – overheating climbing up the hills as well as tired from the lack of sleep.

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Eventually the evening came and I had good few hours of riding through gently rolling French landscape. Next sleep stop was at midnight at Neufchatel, where slept for couple of hours in the park. I got quite cold at night and I had to go to the supermarket in the morning to get some leggings, cut the leg part off them and use as leg-warmers for the forthcoming nights. It was one of the best “usefulness-to-weight” ratio things to carry, the best being silver survival blanket which I used as my “accommodation” during night stops. However, even if it’s scorching hot during the day the mountain valleys get really cold and foggy at night (below 10 degrees Celsius), so I would wake up shivering after few hours and needed a lot of motivation to get going again – first few kilometres were very cold to ride with the wind chill! In the evening of day three I crossed the border town of Basel into lovely Switzerland and found my night stop on a temporary stage (scaffolding and wood planks) on the shore of Lake Zurich. Fantastic views and sounds of waves crashing into the shore have drowned me into a deep sleep and two hours later I woke up feeling great, would you believe it! It was a tough day ahead with 240km and 3800m of climbing in blazing sun. Picture-perfect mountain towns of Klosters and Davos, Fluela pass – the beauty of Swiss Alps, which your eyes appreciate, but legs are grumbling, if you are on a bike that is. This was my first time cycling in proper mountains… Another rider Mikko has caught me up briefly and it was great to bump into a fellow rider again.

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Smooth descent towards Prato Allo where the ascent to the second checkpoint will begin. It was 10pm and I decided to climb the famous mountain pass in the morning to appreciate the breathtaking views, the splendours that surround me. I was still ranking third in the race after 1200km and 85hrs (Kristof and Richard were quite far ahead), stopped at a cafe at Prato Allo for a snack and was soon joined by Matt and Mike Hall – happy to see familiar faces and catch up with things as I was not carrying smart phone to cut the weight!

The bed time came at midnight in the apple tree garden and I had a plan to get up at 3am and start ascending the Stelvio pass (2758m) – second highest in the Alps. However, I slept in and got up at 4:47am, hrrrrr! Immediately jumped on the bike and started ascending the mountain. I was careful though as without any breakfast I could bonk quite easily if I try too hard too early. There were a handful of raisins in my tri-bag which saw me through to the top, thankfully. The climb itself is gorgeous – I wish I could have a proper go at it with fresh legs! I spotted a Transcontinental Volvo waiting near the top and got adrenaline rush to attack the last few hairpins, ha ha! All good fun and thanks to Richard (Brandon-Cox) our photographer for the pictures!

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Got my brevet card signed and went down the same 48 hairpins that I’ve just cycled all the way up. Replenished my food supplies at a shop at the bottom of the climb and started my journey for the remaining 2200km. Will I see a familiar face again until I reach Istanbul?

The roads in Alpine valleys turned out to be extremely busy with lots of heavy machinery – lorries, cement mixers, tipper trucks, you name it – and not much space on the roads, I could have touched some of them with stretched-out arm when being overtaken. London in comparison, feels like a cycling paradise! Once the GPS route started taking me through the tunnels which are proper scary even when you walk on the pavement I decided not to risk it anymore and went to find the nearest alternative road. The problem was that I did not have a cycle path route/map in my GPS and had to rely on directions to the next town, which I wouldn’t know – I just needed to get to Austria, then Hungary etc. I realised I’m well and truly stuck in these valleys. The cycle paths are designed for touring/family type of cyclist, slow, sometimes with gravel, going through cobbled busy high streets of towns and winding their way left and right instead of going directly where I need to go. Hey ho. Got my rear tyre punctured on one of those paths (caused by a thorn), but it was the one and only puncture in the entire trip – can’t complain about that!

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^ sleep stop in South Tirol (on that wooden ramp)

In the end I’ve spent almost three days in South Tirol and Austria instead of planned two and thought I was way down the leader board, but to my surprise found out that I was sixth! Others might have struggled as well in 40 degrees heat, with navigation and nutrition challenges (although this does not apply to cycling machine Kristof who seemed to have the best tactics in addition to being super-strong rider!). There were many times when I would stop from exhaustion, go into supermarket, rest my back against the fridge for some time, grab and scoff a tub of ice cream/watermelon/milkshake, cool down a bit, then do the same in the next town after 10km – I would hardly call this a race.. However, knowing that my friends, family, colleagues at work, fellow cyclists etc. are seeing my location in real time and rooting for me has given strength to pick myself up and carry on time and time again. Well wishes go a long way and carry an immense power – a massive THANK YOU for all your support!!!

Riding through Austria I was stopped by a diligent policeman to be told I’m not allowed on this road as this is an “autostrada”. It looked the same as any other road (one lane each way) so I was a bit puzzled why I am not allowed here. “-You will have to pay a fine of 36 euros now” “-Can I have a warning instead?” “-No, I have logged it as a traffic offence and you must pay a fine now”. Money exchanged into a ticket, I was asked to go down a steep slope off the road (which I could only manage sliding on my bum), across a corn field and onto a parallel road, fair enough… Before leaving Austria I had yet to tackle the last major climb – Magdalensberg (road no.69) with the inclines reaching 15% and it felt like a hardest climb of the race.

I was relieved to reach Hungary for many reasons. The traffic was low, there were road signs telling bikes/tractors/horses are not allowed, but I could see locals riding their bikes, driving tractors therefore I thought I will blend in no problem. Good road surfaces, lots of places to get food (shops/csardas) – I was enjoying the trip again! I reached Lake Balaton around midnight and slept in a bus shelter until the early morning. The night was very windy, sky lit with lightning in the distance – it was the same weather front that caught other riders out in the Alps. Hungary was flat and not very big country so I reached the border of Romania by the evening. First passport control since Dover, but no problems there, although there was a long queue of lorries waiting. The streets of villages were scarcely lit in Romania, but full of life – children still playing outside at 10pm. The roads were good and temperature perfect and I wished I could carry on, but started to feel very sleepy and had to stop to sleep at around midnight. Found a place in one village near a creek and under a plum tree (hey dog – stop barking there!) and fell asleep as soon as I put my head down. I was woken up by bells. Opened my eyes – there’s a cow almost above me trying to carefully go around, then another and another, it could be eight of them. There was a farmer at the end herding them who mumbled something to me I mumbled something back still a bit confused if I’m dreaming this or not. I slept right next to a singletrack which they probably used to go up and down daily and were surprised to see an unusual shiny obstacle in their way (survival blanket that I had wrapped myself in). “A cow mangled my bike” – is that a good enough excuse for not finishing the race? Luckily the bike stayed safe on the other side and I was promptly on the road again. Got some local cash in Timisoara as well as stocked up with food for the day. The weather was hot around 40 degrees, tarmac bubbling, and I was just plodding along occasionally stopping for water at mini-markets or asking locals. There were some lovely hills along river Cerna and approaching river Danube. It was late Sunday evening by the time I reached a larger town Drobeta. Are there any shops open at this time? Lidl was shut, other shops were shut as well. I saw the directions to Carrefour hypermarket on lamp posts – please be open!.. Yesssss!! It was one of the best shopping stops where I could get good quality food and drink. Locals seemed amused by my grubby lycra outfit and clac-clac shoes though. After hearty feast the sleep took hold of me and I stopped at the park and slept for almost five hours – there was a stray dog sniffing around when I woke up, probably sensing the food that I had in my bag. Cleaned the cleats off clay and set off while it was still dark. Another scorching hot day through uncultivated fields ahead; it will hopefully get me to the bridge across Danube to Bulgaria. Except, as it turned out there was no bridge (as I have assumed), only a ferry that goes five times a day and I was extremely lucky to just make it to the last one by chance! Once through the border control of Nikopol in Bulgaria I was on my way, only the roads were not very cooperative – sharp craters and constant potholes one after and inside another – I thought I might just get off and walk. It took me 3.5hrs to cover 45km (it would normally take 1.5-2hrs)! Once on the E83 road, I could go fast again, but I felt I’m getting sleepy and it’s time to look for a rest stop. It happened by chance that I found myself lying in a field of thyme!.. Heavenly smell, I could clearly see Milky Way and there were August meteor showers on display – aroma therapy and fireworks by Mother Nature – mesmerizing! I was happy to live in that moment, grateful to be a part of it all!

Four hours later I was awake again and had to keep going – Istanbul was not too far away now! I had a pleasure to witness a shepherd and his two dogs herding a flock of sheep along the village – three of them working in harmony were controlling what must have been over a hundred sheep. Tried and tested method for hundreds of years. The day in Bulgaria was as hot as any other on this trip and I was still not acclimatised to such a punishment. There was a mountain range to be crossed, not too high though at 700m. I met a cycle tourist from Birmingham pushing his bike up the climb – he was also heading towards Istanbul. The road side sellers were offering big ripe juicy peaches and I stopped few times during the day to indulge myself, I appreciated invigorating succulent fruits as by then had been fed up with energy-dense food which was staple diet on this trip.

By the evening I was at the Turkish border – the last border control on this journey. The checks were more thorough here; I had to show the passport four times, but no problems to cross. Most staff was surprised about the lack of luggage on my bike, told that tourists usually carry big bags on their bikes. Well, I’m not exactly a “tourist” on this trip and had to get away carrying the bare minimum. After a quick briefing by a Bulgarian border lady (“It can be dangerous to cycle there, it’s a different culture!”) I set off into the last night of my race. The road was smooth but soon turned into a very coarse chip-seal surface, which has slowed me down dramatically. 23c tyres were clearly not up to the job there and I had to ride out of saddle most part of it (around 140km). I had a hope to carry on through the last night without sleep, but started to nod off and had to stop at the bus shelter to shut my eyes – only to be woken up by a very curious young chap who stopped his car and was trying to figure out what I’m doing here in the middle of the night. We couldn’t understand each other, but body language showed neither of us was looking for a conflict; we discussed something for about half an hour, shook hands and he drove off. I checked my GPS and realised if I push hard enough for seven hours I may reach 3300km mark by 8:00am GMT which would make the average 300km/day for 11 days – a nice round number. I gave it all – up and down the never ending hills and at 8am saw the odometer showing 3302km – yay! The last hundred kilometres to Istanbul was on busy highways, still under construction with thousands of yellow tipper trucks zooming past carrying soil and gravel, it seemed like a massive civil engineering project. Finally the minarets started appearing in the distance and the finish strait (ahem) was just around the corner. I was surprised to hear English words behind me while riding through Istanbul only to look back and found Mike and Richard who came to meet me and followed for the last few kilometres – thanks chaps! No opportunity to stop and wash my face from all the dust before the finish, ha ha (last proper wash being at the Romanian-Bulgarian border while waiting for the ferry..). I reached Rumeli Hisari on Wednesday afternoon; in sixth place and 11d 7h 21m after Big Ben sent us all off!

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Safe and sound (escaped all angry dogs chasing me), body feeling fine (if tired), no saddle sores, no numb fingers or other occupational injuries of long distance cyclist. I was pleased to stay off the caffeine and other stimulants throughout the entire trip (although the amount of sugar I consumed is mind-boggling). The bike was supremely reliable as well, not a single adjustment required, only had to lube the chain every 4-500km and fix one puncture – have I had it too easy?:rolleyes: The Transcontinental was a very different animal to anything I have done before – the most audacious ride so far, by far. You suddenly start seeing a typical long distance brevet as a fun ride after this monster ride. This shift in thinking is not good; it will come back to bite me hard one day (or night, in the rain, in the middle of nowhere stuck with broken down bike), ha ha!

Four months later when writing this report my memories of the race are still very vivid and I still catch myself processing the experiences, landscapes, my state of mind, interactions with people. Ten countries in eleven days have turned under the wheels of a humble bicycle – I call it a result!

Best of luck to fellow racers of 2013 in their future exploits and to all riders who signed up for The Transcontinental 2014 – you’re in for a treat! Bonne route!