Starting in Belgium and finishing in Turkey, participants must pass through four checkpoints on their way to the Asian border – including the Puy du Dome in France’s Massif Central and the Furka Pass in Switzerland – but the route between these points is entirely their own. As well as being completely self-sufficient, taking only what they can carry, riders have the added challenge of sustaining themselves on the road.
“You never know how your body is going to react – sleeping rough, eating crap junk food, being constantly exposed to the elements,” says Neil. “Looking at the amount of people that scratch [do not finish], it would be easy to cast them off as being unprepared, that they’d bitten off more than they can chew, but it doesn’t take much to force you out of the race. You’re pushing your body to its limits.”
Neil, who won the event’s pairs category last year in 14 days, returned to the race with a vengeance – spurred on by the desire to see how much faster he could go solo. “Last year I signed up with my friend Tim. We rode well together, but I finished knowing I could have gone a lot faster. I just didn’t know how fast.”
How do you prepare for an event that demands 350km of riding per day, with little sleep and no support, while racing against the clock? For Neil, it wasn’t long days in the saddle as you’d expect. “Last year I put in a lot of big rides to make sure I could physically handle the distances, but this year I’ve been mostly racing and race training – intervals, threshold, working on my maximum efforts. It’s meant that I’ve been able to ride faster and sleep more, so even though some riders stopped less, I could catch them in the morning.”
Alongside great distances, the Transcontinental forces its riders through some of the harshest and most remote cycling terrain imaginable. Pair this with relentless climbs, gale-force headwinds, and the ever-present threat of attack from wild dogs, and the feat of completing a race like this seems all the greater. “Ahead of the final day I had James Hayden on my tail coming out of the final checkpoint, so I had to ride through Greece at night to keep ahead of him. I took an A road that ran towards Alexandroupoli and in the first hour I must have been chased three times by packs of dogs. I realised I’d opened a bit of a gap so tried to sleep on the side of the road for two hours, but the thought of dogs wasn’t far from my mind.”
The race is not televised, nor are there regular news reports on the day’s action, so following the riders’ progress requires a certain level of imagination. The one piece of equipment they are provided with from the organisers is a GPS tracker. Displayed online for all to see, this dot on a map offers an addictive visual leader board for one of the toughest amateur events in the world. But for the riders themselves, a constant stream of their exact location can be a mixed blessing. “Someone could be watching you at any moment, and know exactly where I’m sleeping, where I’m eating, or where I am on the road,” says Neil. “It can make you feel quite secure, but it’s worrying that anyone could be watching with malice.”
Participation in extreme endurance events is growing. For some, it’s the simple draw of adventure and discovering your limits. For others, it’s a chance at glory on a stage unlike any other. This year, rider numbers in the American equivalent of the Transcontinental, the Trans Am Bike Race, grew three-fold, and more than 900 people registered an interest in taking on the Transcontinental – many of which had taken part in the race before. While Neil hasn’t written off riding it again in the future, he admits he might allow himself a couple of years’ rest.
Rapha designer Ultan Coyle, who first attempted the race last year and finished fourth in a field of 175, has finished in sixth place. At the time of writing, three other Rapha Ambassadors, George Marshall, Emily Chappell, and Frank van der Sman, are also making their way to the finish line.
Designed for Distance
Wearing final samples of next year’s Rapha Brevet range, which is inspired by long-distance riding, Neil put the collection to the test in the environment it was designed to excel in. “There’s nothing worse for your morale in an event like this than putting on a jersey and being repulsed by the smell – but the Brevet Lightweight Jersey stayed fresh, and I didn’t have to wash it once. It also has great pockets for carrying a lot of food and supplies. The quick-drying Brevet Bibs were ideal, too, as I could wash them when I stopped and be confident that they’d be ready to go in the morning.”