vendredi 28 juillet 2017

Trans Continental Race 2017

The Transcontinental Race, or TCR, is (or is supposed to be) a race across Europe, where cyclists must go through three to four control points along the way, but are left free of their route between the check points. The first two editions started from London and finished in Istanbul, then the start was moved to Grammont (Geraardsbergen) in Belgium, and this year, for the first time, the arrival was not in Turkey, but at the Meteora monasteries, in Greece. The check points included Lichtenstein Castle in Germany, Monte Grappa in Italy, Hotel Sliezky Dom in Slovakia and Pasul Balea in Romania. So with the start and arrival, there were 5 BIG out of 6 control points!

When this race appeared some years ago, my first feeling was that it was completely stupid, to cross Europe on highways as fast as possible, instead of visiting beautiful places on the quietest possible roads. Well, as years passed by, this race grew in importance and renown, at least in the little world of long-distance cyclists, and finally, having a bit forgotten my first opinion and letting me influenced by all the hype about this race, I registered for the 2017 edition.

The most difficult part of the race, once the check points are known, is to build a route, trying to find a compromise between a fast and a secure itinerary. I started this job seriously, building a first stage that turned out quite satisfactory on the ground, but after a while my natural laziness made me postpone a little the rest of the work. Suddenly, in the last day of March, came the brutal news that Mike Hall, the emblematic organizer of this race, had been killed in Australia, while riding a race similar to TCR. This terrible event appeared immediately as to provoke a cancelling of the TCR, and in fact we were left for months without notice. As I said, my feelings about the race were mitigated, I wasn’t not sure anymore, after my application had been selected, to still want to be on the start line, so I left things go, taking the assumption that the race would finally not take place.

So when the race was confirmed, less than a month before the start, I had to quickly finish my route, and building a route on the scale of a continent is a big task, as one can imagine. As a result many parts of my itinerary were made in a hurry, especially in the easternmost countries, and that worried me more and more, as the departure date approached.

Anyway I was in Grammont the day of the start. I went through registration procedures, bike check, riders briefing and so on. After the briefing, I had a nice meal in a Grammont restaurant with Maxime that I knew from the tour de l’Aude the year before, and Erwann, another rider. I spent the time remaining unpacking, re-packing and re-re-packing all my stuff, before we were finally sent away at 10 pm. We started by a little loop in the streets of Grammont, finishing by the famous Muur. At the top of the Muur was the real start of the race, where we were left on our own, free of our itinerary, night and day stops, etc.

The first night in Belgium was nice and quiet, a bit hillier in the end than I had expected. I went briefly through France in Givet then reentered Belgium. In the very morning I broke a spoke and had to ride 80 km before I could have it fixed in Luxembourg. Leaving Luxembourg for Germany, I rode along the Sarre, on a very nice cycle lane. I entered France again in Sarreguemines and went through very nice landscapes between this town and Haguenau. I crossed the Rhine and the French-German border in the beginning of the night and had just after my first night stop.

For my night stops, I had what is called a bivy bag, which is something like a big sleeping bag, but made with tent material. Therefore it is proof to rain, but very light and can be easily carried on a bike as there are no mats and pegs. I’ve never used much this gear since I bought it, but during TCR I found out it was really convenient: whenever I felt sleepy, I just had to find some place a bit hidden from the road and take out my bag to be at home.

The Sunday morning I began my first long climb, as I had to cross Black Forest. I arrived by noon at the first control point, Lichtenstein Castle, a nice little castle which overlooks the valley below. After the check point, I continued my way, which was to go through Germany, Austria and Italy, to the second control in Monte Grappa. I then experienced for the first time the riding along highways, as I rode towards Ravensburg and Bodensee. It was a very uncomfortable moment, but more were to come. I reached Bodensee and Austria by night and stopped for sleeping just before a storm, below a footbridge by the railway.

I spent very little time on the Austrian part of my route as it appeared obvious to me on the map. It seemed to go directly from Bregenz to Landeck where I had to turn south towards Italy. I just didn’t realize that there was a mountain range in the middle and that I had to pass over the Arlberg pass! So the climb after Bludenz appeared to me quite hard for what I had expected to be a gentle valley climb up to Landeck. And worst of all, I found out in Klosterle that due to works in the road tunnel, all the traffic was diverted to the road that I was supposed to take, and therefore it had been forbidden to bikes. It was an uninterrupted passing of cars and lorries, so it appeared impossible to me to continue on that road.

At first no alternate other than a detour of hundreds of kilometers appeared to me, then I saw that a nearly parallel pass existed a little south of where I was, and what’s more it was a BIG, Bielerhöhe! Paradoxically, this detour made me happy. I knew it would allow me to climb a BIG in a new country, Austria, and it delivered me also to the last concerns about the TCR classification I may have had by the time. Furthermore, as I was cycling among the switchbacks of the Silvretta, it reinforced my conviction that the cycling I like is climbing mountain passes in beautiful sceneries.

I was finally in Landeck where I started the climb to Reschen Pass (this one I knew it was there). I was by Reschensee at night, so I saw the famous campanile illuminated above the water. The following day I went down the Adige valley. I felt rather stupid to ride all the way on the monotonous cycle path in an intense heat while beautiful climbs expected me on each side of the valley.

As I was getting closer to Monte Grappa, I felt a bit worried about it, as I knew it was a long and steep climb. I had been riding day and night for four days now, I felt of course tired, and my bike was loaded with all my travel equipment. I felt that my 25-teeth cassette would be hard to carry up to Monte Grappa, so I was considering buying a larger one. I was lucky to find a 30-teeth one in Levico Terme, after having cycled along the nice Lago di Caldonazzo, and I sent the other one back home.

The second control in Semonzo, at the foot of Monte Grappa, was very long to arrive as it was the end of the day. It was located in a camping where I had a good meal, was able to wash my clothes and to sleep a little. The morning after I climbed Monte Grappa under a beautiful sun and was happy with my new cassette. After some severe ups and downs (and a little ride on a wrong road) I was back in the plain at Pederobba.

The following days I crossed the plains, riding along corn fields in Italy, Slovenia and Hungaria under an intense heat wave. The temperatures were around 40° all the time. I drank my two bottles in no time, so stopped very often in bars to fill, drink sparkling water, eat ice creams … After entering Slovenia, I had a long climb where I could have had good views above the valley below but was there at night. Leaving Ljubljana I struggled to find a cycling path to Domzale as my route was directed towards a highway forbidden to bikes. After Slovenska Bistrica I had to divert my route as I found myself again on a road where bikes were banned.

I entered Slovakia in Komarno. I rode on a highway, but with reasonable traffic and a large shoulder. But just after a crossing, traffic increased brutally while the shoulder disappeared. I couldn’t stand the traffic as lorries were passing me by so close, so I tried to find other roads. I took some little roads, which turned out to be very hilly and steep. I came back to my planned route hoping that road 66 would be better, but it was the same, so I diverted again as soon as I could.

I was then on a quiet road, but lightning in the distance began to worry me. It was late night so I started to look around for a shelter. I was then happy to find a 4-star hotel in the changing room of the Senohrad football ground. The day after was nice as I rode on normal roads and climbed my first ever Slovakian BIGs. First I went over non-BIG passes, TistyJavor and Pohansko, then I reached BIG Sedlo Čertovica, in the Lower Tatras, as I had to cross this mountain range to get to the third control point in hotel Slieszky Dom, another BIG.

As I said, I had bad times on Slovakian main roads, praying that it would overtake me far enough each time I heard a lorry coming from behind. At the check point, two things made this unease grow. First I learned that a rider had been killed in Belgium at the beginning of the race, and then we were told that the A1 road in Romania had been judged so insecure by the first racers that it had been banned subsequently by the organizers, and I had to build a new route on the fly from a map that was there at the control point. So, when I left Slieszky Dom, I felt very uncomfortable about the rest of the trip. I knew that my route included a road forbidden to bikes in Hungaria, as it was the only way to cross a river hundred kilometers around, and the A1 incident made me worry about what I would find later in Romanian roads and further.

During the following hours, my unease didn’t decrease, I couldn’t stand no more highways and began considering quitting the race each time I found myself on a busy stretch of road. I went nevertheless through nice places during this time, like Dedinky Lake in Slovakia, but when I found myself again in the Hungarian plain, I was ready to give up. Furthermore, the mythical dimension of the crossing of a continent of the TCR that had driven me since the start was beginning to fade away. I had already ridden 2500 km, 1500 km were left so less than some of the randonnées I did in the past. Continuing now appeared to me more and more as pedaling stupidly on and on along highways during a few days more.

So when my route went near a train station, Sajószentpéter-Piactér, I decided on a sudden impulse to stop my ride and turn back home with the train. It was a very little halt with no more than a platform along the rails. As I was getting to the station, a train arrived, but it was gone before I could get to it. Before I could decide what to think about that, another train arrived in the opposite direction and I jumped in it not knowing at all where it would take me. It happened that this train was going to Miskolc (the first one would have taken me back to Slovakia) where I was able to take a train to Budapest.

In Budapest my troubles were not over. The trains that would take me back home were all full for bike transportation and I didn’t know at all which alternate solution I could take. At the same time, for the first time of my trip, the weather was awful with a continual rain that I really didn’t have the courage to face on my bike, now that I had taken my decision to stop. As it was getting late, I decided to go to sleep and see the day after. But all the hotels around the station were completely full. Finally the 6th or 7th I tried had a room for me, phew!

After a good shower, I looked at my situation and decided that a solution would be to go by train to Sopron, close to the Austrian border and ride to Wiener-Neustadt to reach the Austrian rail network. So in the morning I went, still under the rain, to Budapest-Déli station. In Sopron I had a little ride under a sun happily returned, and in Wiener-Neustadt I could take a ticket to Milano, changing in Venezia and Verona. After Milano I couldn’t go further than Albenga that I reached by midnight. I had plenty of sleep in the trains all day long so I was able to continue to Nice by bike during the night, where I arrived at 5 am.

Despite the fact I decided not to continue to the end, I keep good memories of my TCR. I enjoyed being on my bike all the time, travelling on permanently changing countries and landscapes. When I try to think rationally, I come back to my initial opinion that riding like that along highways, with no other motivation than arriving, is no fun, but at the back of my head I still know that the initial goal has not been fulfilled, so I can’t help but thinking “But what if I prepare my route in a better way?”.

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