One of the world’s most arduous ultra-distance events, the Transcontinental is an unsupported cycle race that saw competitors on the 2018 edition roll out of Geraardsbergen in Belgium on Saturday 28th July before crossing the finish line in Greece some 4 checkpoints and 3,900 km later.
So deciding to race across Europe on a Brompton might seem an unusual choice of bike for such a challenging feat of endurance. But ask Roger Seaton to recount his experience – he can list the individual weights of his equipment down to the gram – and you soon begin to appreciate his serious intent when entering such an extreme event.
Now back for a 7th edition with an East / West route, in his own words Roger describes the decisions that led to a second Transcontinental start line, the preparation required to race a bike across a continent and why – no matter what challenges lay ahead – he was intent on having as much fun as possible.
I rode throughout my teens; in and out of trails around London. Seeing where the bike could take me on casual trips with friends. Even years later never really losing that sense of adventure you get every time you set foot across your own doorstep. And thinking back to my first attempt at the Transcontinental during the summer of 2017, I suppose I was looking for a challenge; something on an epic scale.
Both riding regular bikes, I’d entered as a pair with a fellow Rapha Cycling Club member but to be honest I’d pretty much coerced him into doing it. He was very unsure as he’d never tried sleeping wild before. In my opinion a minor detail because you don’t need much experience to lie down on the ground after riding 250 km. If you’re tired, you’ll sleep. It’s that simple [smiles].
A week out of the start he’d decided to pull out but I still felt good so re-classified as solo. And then barely a day into the race I bumped into a fellow rider and he asked if I’d heard about Frank Simons who, as I soon found out, had tragically died following a hit and run incident shortly after the start in Geraardsbergen.
My family back home in the UK had learnt about this on Facebook and immediately tried to contact me. 17 or 18 missed calls later they finally got through but by that time my children in particular were increasingly concerned and upset. Especially as 6 weeks before the start of the race I was the victim of a hit and run driver myself when someone knocked me off my bike leaving me unconscious on the roadside with lacerations and broken ribs. The seriousness of these injuries preventing my doctor from signing me off to ride but fortunately not detering my dog’s vet from passing me fit [laughs].
After speaking over the phone I told them I’d think it over before calling the following morning. My daughter was still very tearful after a sleepless night so I decided then and there to scratch from the race. I’d lost my ability to focus entirely on myself and what I needed to do in order to complete such a mammoth undertaking. Not an easy decision as I was feeling great but it was the right thing to do and I don’t regret it. In my mind it’s only a bike race – a fun run – and if your journey isn’t a happy one then why would you do it?
When the 2018 edition was announced I decided to give it another go but this time riding a Brompton. To some maybe an unusual choice but it’s all about your frame of reference. A Brompton has smaller wheels but the geometry isn’t miles off a normal bike. And I wanted to ride the Transcontinental again but on my own terms. Yes, it’s a race, but I wanted to stop and smell the flowers along the way and the Brompton is a bike I always associate with maximum amounts of fun. Just as importantly my family felt the same way which helped alleviate any concerns left over from the previous year.
I use a Brompton every day as transport and CHPT3 – the company ex-professional cyclist David Millar and some friends founded after he retired from racing – had produced this pimped up and modified superlight version. I’d arranged to pick mine up from the Brompton Junction in Covent Garden and when I arrived David was there; chatting to the people who’d bought the first run of these bikes. I remember making this off the cuff remark that I was entering the Transcontinental again and, if I got a place, I was thinking of doing it on my new CHPT3 Brompton. He was very nice about it and suggested I get in touch if I got a place. So when my confirmation came through from the race organisers I sent David a message to let him know I was in and to ask if they were still interested. From there it went very quickly to full team support.
The individuals behind CHPT3 are super fun but my entry in the Transcontinental was treated with absolute seriousness to the extent that we immediately planned several long weekends away to put the bike and kit through its paces. Basically a series of big days – 250 km back to back – that included a fair bit of mixed surfaces as I’d already decided to vary my race route to make the riding more interesting.
The route planning is such a crucial part of your preparation. Make or break in some senses and the more time you spend on this aspect the better the ride experience. The checkpoints determine your general direction but it’s down to each individual competitor to plan from there. You’d think that cycle paths, for example, might seem appropriate but they can be very variable in surface and you need to constantly slow down to avoid other cyclists and pedestrians. But you wouldn’t want to travel the whole way on dual carriageways with trucks thundering past you day and night. And that’s before you factor in the ban on using tunnels and whether there are places to stop and refuel because on a big day you’re burning 11,000 calories. One thing I quickly discovered was that nearly all French cemeteries have a tap that you can use to refill your bidons.
Luggage was one of the easiest considerations when prepping the bike. Apidura’s seat bag fitted perfectly on the rear rack without any need for modifications and that’s all the storage I’d planned on taking. In terms of sleeping there’s two schools of thought. If you book hotels then it can be expensive and you need a fixed route which can be an added complication time-wise. But a hotel room means you can easily power up devices, wash your kit and generally have a good night’s sleep. I wanted a more fluid approach and didn’t start with any preconceived plans. If I was at a hotel at the right time and the right price then I’d take it. If not I was going to sleep rough.
Not including navigation, my kit came in at just under 2.5 kg. Very pared down but when your equipment is good then this allows you to make tough decisions in the sense of what not to pack. You take my CHPT3 1.21 jersey for example and the moment I’d opened a tin of mackerel and managed to tip the whole contents of oily tomato sauce all over me. I washed it out in a stream with some soap, it dried within minutes and didn’t even smell. Superb quality kit that will take a good beating yet still functions perfectly.
With the start day fast approaching I crossed over on the ferry from Hull and then rode the 110 km from Bruges to Geraardsbergen ready for the off. A useful distance to make sure everything was working in terms of both kit and rider [smiles]. I was feeling apprehensive that it would seem a little disrespectful to be rolling up on a Brompton but the reality was I meant business. As it turned out the reception I received was great and people were genuinely interested. Some, it must be said, thought it was absolutely crazy but the bike was clearly kitted out for adventure and the camaraderie I enjoyed with the CHPT3 team was such an important aspect. Constant messages to motivate and reassure me to such an extent that even David’s mum had texted to wish me good luck.
The race got under way at 22:00; a parade lap before immediately climbing the Muur and its 20% cobbled ramps. It’s very frenetic with all the riders charging ahead in the heat of the moment but the Brompton was just sensational. And one of the most profound experiences of the race was hearing people shout my name as I climbed – individuals I’d met the day before or who’d seen me on local news programmes – until you reach the top and it all quietens as the race itself gets underway. For 30 to 40 km you’re riding alongside the other competitors before, one by one, they gradually veer off to follow their own routes into the night.
The first few days went better than expected as I pretty much settled into a rhythm from the off; riding my own race. The Brompton felt fast and I just needed to keep on top of my hydration as it was very hot. And this also makes keeping clean one of the hardest things to manage as you sweat with a corresponding build-up of salt. One evening I’d pulled up in a forest and got my kit out ready to bed down but the moment the dew point changed all this dried salt became slimy. Not particularly pleasant as you climb into your bag [laughs].
For me, the secret was breaking the day down into manageable chunks; both physically but also mentally. At times the temperatures during the day were unbearably hot so why wouldn’t you sleep for a couple of hours after midday before making that time back later when it’s cooler? And I’d already decided not to bury my head in terms of counting off the kilometres. I swam in streams, stopped to take photographs of the amazing scenery and I’ve got quite a sweet tooth so if I passed an open patisserie… [smiles]
Approaching Checkpoint 1 I’d pulled in at a McDonald’s. Not my usual choice of restaurant but there’s power to charge your appliances, toilet facilities and WiFi. I’d checked the map before leaving but managed to end up on a really fast dual carriageway before backtracking down my alternate route that brought me to a 20 km gravel fire track through a forest. Serious off-road sections that would’ve been great on a mountain bike but were decidedly sketchy on my fully-laden Brompton. So there I was, roughly 8 hours outside my plan and having to ride all night through thunderstorms and torrential rain to get back on track; making the checkpoint with a good four hours to spare to receive my first stamp after roughly 800 km and 3 days of riding.
It was on the Silvretta-Hochalpenstraße with its 34 hairpin bends that I first heard an odd clunking sound that I assumed was just something touching or rubbing a wheel. I had a good look but couldn’t see anything amiss before noticing that even on the flat I was 2-3 kph down on my average pace and it was becoming harder and harder to pedal. Still not being able to work out what the issue was I decided to carry on but over the next 200 km the noise got considerably louder. I was in the Tyrolean Alps at this stage and the effort required to keep moving was just horrendous. So I phoned the CHPT3 guys for advice, we diagnosed a failure of the rear internally geared hub before realising that as I couldn’t retrofit a standard hub my race was over.
Obviously very disappointing and whether it’s unfinished business is yet to be decided. I still have faith in the Brompton as a valid choice of bike for this event if we can just overcome the issues with gearing. And I came away with wonderful memories of all the people I met: fellow competitors, the race organisers and those random individuals you encounter along the route. Then there’s the mountains, the breathtaking views; even the extremes of weather. That overnight effort to reach Checkpoint 1 fuelled on tinned ravioli with the road ahead briefly lit by each lightning strike. Little things like the message from home asking why I’d stopped before suggested I get moving again – they were dot watching and tracking my progress – that make you smile.
There’s a quote that I find particularly appealing that mirrors how I feel about my experiences on the Transcontinental: ‘Blessed are the curious as they shall have adventures’. Yes, I was very sorry to pull out but it’s not the end of the world and now there’s the next journey to plan.
All other images with kind permission of Roger Seaton