The Transcontinental is a self supported bicycle race across Europe. This year the race started in Belgium and finished in Greece and the competitors had to make their way to 4 check points along the way in Germany, Italy, Slovakia and Romania. Each person had to plan their own route and fend for themselves for food, water and mechanical mishaps. While some choose to stay indoors in hotels, others traveled with bivvy bags and slept on roadsides for a few hours a night to maximise time out on the road. It really is a true adventure and this week we’ve been lucky enough to catch up with Rory McCarron from Leigh Day Cycling who, on his first attempt, completed the race in an impressive fifth place.
How did it feel to cross that finish line?
I felt total relief to finish. I loved the race for the first 6-7 days but not long after entering Romania the heat and the roads became unbearable and I really started to struggle mentally and physically. It’s funny because the last few days you are so close to the end but I found that the hardest bit. I got so many messages when I was about 50km away from the finish congratulating me. I think it took about 4 hours from there. The slowest 50km of my life! I heard that someone scratched 200 or 300km from the finish, well within the time to make the finishers’ party because their head wasn’t in it anymore.
What’s the first thing you did when you finished?
I kissed and hugged my (now!) fiancée, Lucy. Then had an orange Fanta, quickly followed by a beer… then a shower (but I couldn’t wash properly as I’d lost the sensation in my hands).
This was your first TCR and you came 5th overall. A phenomenal achievement for a rookie… does this mean you will be back next year?
I swore that I’ll never do it again. It’s now two weeks since I finished and the psychological and physical pain has started to drift away a bit. James Hayden (this year’s winner) was telling me I need to come back again and give it a proper shot. He couldn’t believe I was staying in hotels with 5/6 hours sleep and having slap up meals and that people who finished behind me were going to be really annoyed about that. I promised Lucy that I’ll never do it again and I need to remember this. I have a few other things that I’d like to do and I really want to get back to riding with friends again. The training was very lonely at times and hard on Lucy.
Did you have a strategy and did you stick to it?
Yes, I broke each day down and I had a route saved for each day. I planned for 12 days and had 12 routes on my Garmin which was conservative based on my training and what I knew I was capable of. I knew that slowly I would start chipping into each route as the days went by so I would eventually be looking at 11 days or 12 days if things didn’t work out as well as I planned. I had factored in time off the bike for food and drinks as well as sleeping at night. When I heard that Frank had died I promised Lucy and myself that I wouldn’t take any stupid risks, which included no riding at night. I stopped at 9/10pm every night, ate well and rested. My cycling club starts their club rides at 5:45am every morning and it takes me about 45 minutes to get there, so I’m used to getting up and riding in the early hours of the morning when the roads are at their quietest. This all worked well until I couldn’t find a hotel in Romania after CP4 and I started to think irrationally and then the race kicked off with a few days to go and it all went out the window.
What was your average speed?
As far as I understand my average moving speed was about 24kph which was faster than some that finished higher than me. I knew I wouldn’t be riding for as long as most people in the race so I had to ride faster when I was on the bike. All the way along the race I would open a gap up on others during the day then stop at night. I would wake up in the morning to find out they had ridden for another 3/4 hours or so and overtaken me late at night. We bunny hopped each other for days.
And daily distance?
Approximately 350/360km per day. Some more, some less. I had a bad day to CP4 where I only covered 295km, but I did climb over 8,000 meters which was nearly the same ascent as Everest. That was a really tough day in the saddle.
How much sleep did you get each day? And where did you sleep?
I slept for about 5/6hours a night. Day one I rode through the night but then I hotelled nearly every night until they were all booked up in Romania after CP4. I ended up in a really dodgy town, sleeping in a shop front and making a bed out of chairs. I only slept for about two hours due to numerous people coming by and waking me up, dogs barking, cars wheel spinning and Romanian music being played by people passing. It was really scary actually. On the last night I was in a race with 4 others to the finish so I slept on the side of the road up a mountain in Macedonia in a gravel gutter. It was awful, but I was so tired I would have slept anywhere. Ironically there was a picnic bench 20 yards away and a 24hour petrol station with lush grass outside half a mile up the road. I had no data roaming to find this out. I only slept for two hours for the last 36 hours which was really tough given the heat and pain killers I was taking.
What were your eating habits like on the road?
I had steak and chips twice. Double pizza followed by ice cream in Italy. I actually tried to eat as healthily as possible other than that but the further east we got in Europe the more difficult that became. I managed to find a luxury breakfast in some town in Slovakia with great coffee. I ate a lot of fruit. Every hotel I stayed in didn’t have breakfast ready at 4am so I’d have to rely on 7 day croissants from the petrol stations. I got food poisoning 2 days before the end in Serbia. I took two Imodium and barely ate to the finish. I was really sick by the end and still haven’t recovered properly yet.
What kept you going in the dark moments?
Knowing that Lucy was waiting for me at the end. Her parents were also there but they were leaving to go back home on day 11. I didn’t tell anyone but I bought a ring before I left, wore it round my neck for the race and planned to propose to her in Meteora, but I needed to speak to her father first. I was up against it time wise to be able to speak to him. Luckily I made it and all was good. I think he took pity on me. Lucy also made me a playlist on my iPod which I didn’t listen to until I started. It was quite funny listening to some of the songs she chose.
Oh and so many people, including friends and family who don’t even like cycling sending me amazing messages of support. That was really cool.
What was the high point?
There were quite a few actually. I really enjoyed the start. I ended up being right at the back of the race up the Muur so that I could enjoy the whole atmosphere which was crazy. 2/3 people deep with lanterns and beers cheering you on was great. I also chatted to loads of other riders and wished them luck. I met loads of dot watchers on the road too, in Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania. One guy, Flavius, in Romania was so pleased that I was the first rider to pass through his town, Medias that came and met me with a sign he made saying Go Rory! (Attached). I met a really old cycling buddy of mine at the Grappa which was also really nice too. I haven’t seen him for years and we used to cycle together loads before he moved with his wife and kids to the Dolomites.
Double pizza in Italy. I love pizza and it was really good!
Also meeting Frank Simons’ son who came to the finishers party. It literally brought tears to my eyes as it was such a brave thing for him to do. I was really pleased to talk to him.
And any real low points?
I had really bad pressure sores from day 3. They were actually so bad I thought I was going to scratch by day 4. I even put my spare pair of bibs on my saddle for extra support. I ended up using compeed that you use for blisters on your feet and loads of pain killers which isn’t the best as these make you dozy. It seemed to work though.
Getting chased by packs of dogs in Romania. People joked about this happening but it really did. I nearly crashed into an oncoming car trying to sprint away from some.
Photo taken by Camille McMillan
How did you train for something as big as TCR?
I’ve done a lot of miles for the last few years but nothing can really prepare you for riding for 10-14 days non-stop… unless you do the TCR previously. I did a few multidays of riding, which got me used to getting up and riding again after a big day before. I also did an Everest which was good prep.
What kit did you take with you? Is there anything you’d change next time?
2 pairs of bibs and one jersey. Lightweight Gilet, rain jacket and hardshell jacket. Waterproof arm and leg warmers. Two pairs of socks. I couldn’t exactly say I lucked out on the weather as it was so hot, it was like cycling in an oven at 45 degrees but when I got to Slovakia I looked ahead and realised I didn’t need all the kit I had. I ended up posting a box full of kit home. I ditched my sleeping bag and emergency bivvy too just leaving me with a silk liner, the kit I was in and a waterproof jacket which was enough. I had loads of other things too should something happen. I had literally planned for everything. I ended up ditching loads of stuff on that mountain in that garage in Macedonia. It’s funny because when I finished I heard stories of people snapping cables, running out of tubes or tyre boots and breaking cleats. If they’d have known, it was all up there next to a bin at that 24 hour garage.
Were you happy with your route? Did it change along the way to what you had planned?
I had planned my route meticulously. I am constantly paranoid about getting lost when riding so I think my training versus route planning was 50/50. One issue was in Serbia/Macedonia where I was coming to a boarder crossing and the army stopped me on a smaller road and told me I couldn’t continue. They ushered me onto a really busy main road which I wasn’t comfortable with but they said this was the only way to cross the boarder. I don’t know if I’ll get a time penalty for that but if I do I’ll have hunt down that officer.
Based on your finish line photo, we are curious to know if you found some time to wash along the way?!
Funnily enough I pretty much had a shower every night to treat my saddle sores. Wearing a light jersey was a good choice in principle because of the sun but I didn’t factor in how dirty it would get. I actually look a real mess at the end because I snapped my hanger on the very last climb and had to pull my rear mech out of the rear wheel and fix the whole bike. 4,000km of cycling without a cleaning your bike was always going to be messy.
Long distance cycle races are becoming ever more popular however this year the sport has been clouded by grief after the loss of Mike Hall (founder of TCR) and Frank Simons (tragically killed on day one the TCR05). Would you do a race like this again, and what advice would you give to those who are nervous about taking part in future events as a result?
Yes the loss of both and of Eric Fischbein in the Trans Am is an absolute tragedy. Mike was a pioneer of long-distance racing and this really shook the cycling world when he passed away as it makes it ever so real that this could happen to such an experienced cyclist. When I heard of Franks death I really considered scratching too because of what had already happened. I know Lucy was a nervous wreck about me doing the TCR in the first place and this really didn’t help her nerves at all. I had to keep telling myself that I cycle everyday in London and around the UK on some of the busiest roads in the world and I was just, if not more likely to be involved in a incident there than I was riding on the roads in Europe. I have to say that for most of the time I felt quite safe in Europe other than the odd busy road. I also refused to cycle in the dark at night.
I would say to anyone thinking of doing something like this is to families yourself with cycling in foreign countries, even if that’s for a few days. What really helped me was using google street view to plan my route. Look at the roads and see if they look cycle friendly or whether there are alternatives routes to take.
I don’t plan to do the TCR again. In an ideal world I would like to as I think I could definitely go faster and use the experience from this one, but it would be hard to beat 5th and I would be really disappointed if I didn’t. I really want to explore the UK and Ireland more so I think I’ll focus on that for next few years. I was actually looking at Mark Beaumont’s North Coast 500 ride in Scotland the other day on Strava. I won’t aim to beat his time as 36 hours is very punchy, but the route looks amazing.
Can you summarise the TCR in 5 words?
Transcontimental, brutal, exhausting, exhilarating, beautiful.
Why should someone reading this do TCR?
It’s a life changing experience. You go through a whole range of emotions from feeling on top of the world to feeling totally drained. You learn life skills that you never knew you had and really understand what your body and mind is capable of. You pass some of the most beautiful places in the world. Funnily enough I went through some really hard and poverty stricken places which were also beautiful in their own special way. You’re on your own in the race but during that time everyone is creating their own stories at the same time. I only realised this post the race when you sit down and talk about it with other riders. They call it the TCR family which I’m slowly understanding.
What’s up next?
I suppose getting married, I’m pretty excited about that actually. I’m looking forward to spending time with Lucy as she’s been through a lot; before, during (she told me it was the worst 10 days of her life) and after the race. Getting back to riding regular club rides with mates again.
Rory took out Yellow Jersey Travel Insurance to cover this trip. We have special rates for our bicycle insurance and cycle travel insurance for TCR competitors, please get in touch if you would like more information.