“In the early days of bicycle racing there was a time when plucky riders took on long hard races alone with no team cars and soigneurs to look after them. They were hardy and desperate men who ate what they could find, slept when they could and rode all day. They weren’t professional athletes or men of means, they were mavericks, vagabonds and adventurers who picked up a bicycle and went to seek their fortune.”
— Transcontinental organisers
It is this spirit of adventure and self-discovery that the organisers of the Transcontinental hope to revive, with their gruelling, one-stage race across Europe. Taking only what they can carry, the Transcontinental tasks riders with an unsupported sprint across much of the continent, from Flanders in Belgium to Istanbul in Turkey, covering more than 4,000km.
“It’s totally different to the events of the professional cycling calendar. There are a similar amount of racers, and a familiar mass start, but after that there are no more comparisons,” says Camille McMillan, the professional photographer that followed this year’s edition of the Transcontinental, documenting the event. “ It’s more akin to a bike race of 100 years ago, or a British time trial without the village hall.”
Now in its third year, the race can take anything from seven to more than 17 days to complete. Four checkpoints force participants over some of Europe’s fiercest mountain passes, including the barren and windswept slopes of Mont Ventoux, and the infamous, unmade roads of Colle delle Finestre. The path you take between these giants, however, is your own.
In professional cycling, the French refer to racing against the clock as: contre la montre – “against the watch.” Traditionally short and sharp stages of a race, the time trials that this borrowed phrase describe occupy a very different territory to the extreme challenge of endurance posed by the Transcontinental. For those racing to Turkey, the clock never stops. As well as riding, both sleeping and eating form part of the race, so riders must ask themselves: how long do I really need to rest?
For Camille, chasing the race across borders was a considerable contrast to his usual cycling photography jobs. “You get so much down time during the Transcontinental, and then a flurry of activity. On a one-day Classic, or when you’re shooting a stage race, as a photographer you’re going full tilt nearly all the time. It’s certainly slower than the pros, with perhaps less adrenalin, but, to be corny, it’s more mindful.
“In pro tour races you will have some banter with riders while they’re racing, but nothing like the story telling that comes with the Transcontinental. Often, when a racer sees the Moto or the race car, they would want to chat. Riders that were solo found the road a solitary place, so they were eager to talk to someone. There is no PR gloss or spin, just people looking to learn something, and temporarily escape from the ‘normal’.”
Despite the final control point officially closing on 10th August, 17 days after the race began in Belgium, riders continued to arrive in Istanbul days later, determined to complete their individual challenges. Many will finish later than hoped, but to complete the journey at all is surely reward enough to push on. Tales of bad crashes and illness abound, further proof of the grit and determination required to take part in an event of this scale. “I don’t know why they do it,” says Camille. “That’s part of the attraction for me. Why would you do it? Some are simply flexing their muscles, but I think a big part of it is the adventure and the camaraderie you find in an event like this. It’s real.”
Battling a mouth infection, slashed tyres with multiple punctures, and even a collision with a taxi, Ultan Coyle (pictured above), designer at Rapha, reached the final checkpoint after just 11 days, 10 hours and 47 minutes. Ultan’s monumental effort earned him fourth place, out of a field containing 175 hopeful starters.
“You often hear racers saying that they left a part of themselves on the road after an event. One rider I photographed, Samuel Becuwe, was wrecked at the Lovćen checkpoint, sat atop a mountain in southwestern Montenegro. The heat was eating him. Every one of them must have left something out there, but I think there will have been an exchange for what they left. I’m sure much was learned, and many more of their stories are still to be told.”