Ambassador Sean King on a life changing race across Europe
We choose our ambassadors because they are basically normal folk, just on the awesome side of normal!
A few years ago I started the application for the Transcontinental Race, but stalled – even the application itself was difficult and then two fractured ribs in a cycle/road traffic accident put me off. But late last year I decided to apply. I needed a challenge. I thought why not?! If I don’t get in – great! If I do, I don’t have to do.
Jan 2019 and an email arrived saying I was in. Fear and trepidation set in. I was excited. Nervous. Could someone like me do? However, with support from family and friends a rough training schedule was planned. Let’s go!
Backtracking slightly, what is the Transcontinental Race (TCR)? The Transcontinental Race is the definitive self-supported bicycle race across Europe. A beautifully hard bicycle race, simple in design but complex in execution. Self reliance, logistics, navigation and judgement burden racers’ minds as well as their physiques. Did I mention it covers 4000km across the wilds of Europe?
Fast forward to July 2019: Burgas, Bulgaria – everything got real with a 6am start in a heatwave, and 220km to reach the first Control Point of TCRNo7 The Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Cycling through Bulgaria was a test and a joy, meeting so many friendly people who must have wondered what was going on with all these cyclists racing was great! But logistically you had to be on the ball regarding hydration, eating what you could when you could and avoiding sunstroke!
Arriving around midnight with a huge hilly ascent, I decided to carry on in the dark – eventually reaching the monument around 12.45 in the morning. I couldn’t find the checkpoint to stamp my brevet card, so had to bivy near the monument – the stars were magical – and also pretty damn cold! Only finding out on the morning there were wild horses around me! Waking early with little sleep ( a common theme), first checkpoint reached in time, brevet card stamped and off I set again.
Daily life was quickly stripped down into riding, eating, meeting people (locals and other racers) and having your mind blown by the most amazing scenery imaginable. Sometimes it was very lonely and then out of nowhere another ride passed and you’d shout, nod or do something and then they’d be gone! Most of the times, riding was an incredibly meditative experience – I had been worried about hours by myself, but thank goodness, I enjoyed it (most of the time). Sometimes crying with sheer joy at what you saw, or felt as your breath was taken away by the most stunning mountains, sights, cars (thank you Serbia) roads or weather. There were so many physical highs and so much climbing involved, but was amazing how the body adapts and day after day you can cycle pretty long distances.
Finally crossing Bulgaria and reaching the Serbian border was a definite highlight. The feeling of crossing a country made you realise that this could be possible and you could finish the race. I carried on towards the next checkpoint in Serbia. Then Slovenia, Italy and Austria.
Once in Italy, the Dolomites were something else. I have never experienced anything like it, the ascents, and then the switchbacks, taking 1 or 2 hours to descend! Another stretch burnt into my mind and body was ascending the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Pass (2509m) with approx 30 hairpin bends; difficult with fresh legs, maybe impossible after days of cycling. The sense of achievement after reaching and descending and then having to cycle through the night to checkpoint 3 was immense.
However, this ascent will stay in my memory as one of the scariest points of TCR. The weather changed dramatically, mist and constant rain made the climb to the summit incredibly difficult. I was tired, scared, but had to keep going. There was no other option. But, trying to remain calm and stay in the present moment got me to the top. Changing most of my clothes at the top tunnel, by then nearly hypothermic, decided to get off the mountain as quickly as possible…and not taking Instagram friendly pics! (although my phone had died here, so maybe a sign to keep moving!)
As you have a tracker, people can ‘dotwatch’ and on a couple of occasions it led to brief encounters that boosted my day; a torrential downpour passing a bar in Slovenia, someone called out my name and it was a group of Slovenians who were following the race! Before entering Austria, two cyclists called my name and rode 40km before the border. The sense of shared camaraderie and generous spirit on the road was something that really helped me keep going when times were tough.
In Sargans, Switzerland, I had been cycling all day. My phone was kaput, so I couldn’t search local hotels… plus I’d made a routing error and realised I was going a very hilly way across Switzerland… I was tired, no, I was exhausted…it was getting dark. I asked an old couple which way was best to travel near Zurich to re-route… “follow me” they said, inviting me to stay at their house. They fed me, washed my clothes, gave me a beer and in the morning we talked and had breakfast. They were cycling themselves that day and left their house key! They left and trusted me to finish breakfast and then just post key in letterbox. What trust!
TCR No7 started hot, but lots of days were mixed – heavy rain, electrical storms, headwind and sometimes sun. Did I finish. Well, no I didn’t. After 16 days of riding I decided to finish or ‘scratch’ in Lausanne, Switzerland. After nearly 3000km and a huge amount of climbing - my phone dying a few days before made the rest of the journey slightly harder, plus a looming deadline meant it was getting tight to get to Brest, France in time. I also wasn’t eating enough the last few days, so was getting progressively slower and becoming exhausted. I didn’t finish but I did apply and I did start ( and that was an achievement in itself) and as I was raising money for Young Minds, was happy with where I’d got.
Now, a few weeks after, the memories and thoughts that will stay with me forever are priceless. The people met in different countries, roads travelled and other TCR riders make for a very special experience.
Would I do again? Yes! Did I get lost? Yes. But, had to get unlost! Will I do again? Training took up a lot of time, being away for over 16 days was hard. I forgot to mention the hallucinations due to sleep deprivation. I’ve never being so cold, scared, happy or lonely or felt so alive! I’m aiming to do something differernt next year – allegedly something more challenging. What am I doing I ask myself! – but it’s good to push yourself!
I learnt a lot about myself being away and some people say TCR is life changing. I’d agree. Chapeau to all riders past and present that took part, the TCR family of ‘dotwatchers’ and the organisation itself. With the next TCRNo8 application soon, look on the TCR website and apply! If not, follow the various ‘dots’ next year. Whatever you do – you won’t regret. If you have any other questions, happy to try and answer via insta DM.
Sean was raising money for Young Minds the charity which raises awareness about the vital importance of children and young people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health. It's not too late to donate if you've been impressed by his endeavour.
If you've been inspired yourself, you can sign up for the next TCR here, or just bookmark it to dotwatch yourself next time