Midnight Reflections from the Transcontinental

July 24-August 5, 2022

From Transcontinental.cc : “The Transcontinental Race is the definitive self-supported bicycle race across Europe. From the cobbles of Flanders, to the shores of the Black Sea; via rock hewn tunnels, bald mountain tops, navigating pristine asphalt and rock strewn tracks, the Transcontinental will once again cross the European continent in its own unique style. Rider against rider, living by their wits alone, without caravan or entourage; guided by personal integrity, mutual respect and a collective commitment to equality. 

At the sharp end it is a beautifully hard bicycle race, simple in design but complex in execution: Factors of self-reliance, logistics, navigation and judgement burden racers’ minds as well as their physiques. The strongest excel and redefine what we think possible, while many experienced riders target only a finish. It’s no coincidence that the most prepared will succeed.” 

I completed the eighth edition of the Transcontinental in July-August, 2022: 4,000+ kilometres from Geraardsbergen, Belgium to Burgas, Bulgaria via checkpoints in Krupka, Czech Republic; Passo di Gavia in the Italian Alps; Durmitor National Park in Montenegro; and Drumul Strategic, Romania. As was expected, it was a wild ride. Read on for a random collection of thoughts (framed around the midnight hour) that by no means sums up my experience, but hopefully provides a glimpse into the adventure.

Brussels, Belgium: By midnight, I am roaring through Brussels. The fiery, jubilant send off up the cobbled Muur in Geraardsbergen already a distant memory. After a stretch of dark countryside, the night glows bright with streetlights, redlights, and taxicabs combing the city for late night fares. Fluorescent signs advertise kebab shops and convenience stores, whatever is open. I spent three nights in Brussels but tonight it’s different. I am not tucked into bed but questing eastward, chasing green lights though never losing sight of the snaking tram tracks that threaten to pitch me over the bars on the very first eve of the Transcontinental.

* * *

Outskirts of Eisenach, Germany: All day, I pedal. Quaint villages, patchworked pavement, rolling emerald hillsides. I stop for iced coffee, warm pastry, cold water. Leapfrogging riders and contemplating what kind of person has the audacity to sign up for such an outrageous challenge. When nightfall comes, I veer into the woods. Settle in my bikepackers’ nest of SOL bivvy, puffy jacket, and cotton shorts. Moist leaves fold beneath the crinkly bag as my eyes fall shut.

Shortly after, I’m startled awake by another TCR rider setting up camp not 10 metres away. Out of all the places one could pick—the entire German countryside—they choose here. I eavesdrop from the shadows as they unfurl a bivvy, rummage through bags. But one sounds overwhelms the others: the race clock ticking.

So I pack up, push off, and set out for CP1. 

* * *

Litoměřice, Czech Republic: Banging on the door of a hotel in Bohemia. Eventually, someone exits, and I swoop behind the wooden doors into the lobby. A few minutes sleuthing leads me to the night clerk, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer with a table of backpackers in the courtyard. Then in my room showering I discover a mighty tick buried in my armpit.

At a cafe in downtown Brussels, before the race, I met TCR vet Amy Lippe for coffee.

“You go feral after a few days,” she advised. “After that, you’re just a wild animal, on the road.”

Fifty hours in, and I am officially feral. Picking off parasites and scrubbing a salt-sweat-sunscreen rind from my limbs.

Munich, Germany: I roll through Munich in darkness. This was not my original plan, but an on-the-fly re-route. Looking back, my sightseeing spree marked the moment I went from scientist to poet, and began favouring whims of fancy over calculated, analytical thinking.

But how could I resist? 

Magnificent brick building adorned with arches and spires; couples sipping after-dinner drinks alfresco at small tables lining historic Ludwigstrasse. I’d visited Germany before, but avoided the cities. Despite the late-night tourist crowd, with few cars on the road downtown Munich still feels like a glorious secret. Once outside city limits, I slip into the trees to nestle down unnoticed among the leafy foliage. Tucked in like a mole. Goodnight, Bavaria. 

* * *

Umbrail Pass, Swiss-Italian border: I descend into mist, the lingering aftermath of a passing thunderstorm. Whiteknuckling the brakes, chest rocking with chill. The road loses 1,200 metres of elevation as it switchbacks down into Bormio, endless hairpin turns that I navigate in the slippery dark. Muscles taut as I brace for unexpected gusts of wind in visibility next to nil—I am inside the cloud. More afraid than I have been in awhile. A lone sodden figure greets me in the sheltered entrance of a tunnel—another TCR racer.

“My front light died,” he says, “and it’s too cold for my power bank to charge anything.” He cradles the powerbank to his chest, waiting for his own heat to warm it.

I wish him luck and continue my own cautious descent, strengthened by the realization that I am not alone on the mountain, nor is my hardship the greatest.

* * *

Valstagna, Italy: Sound asleep in a guest room above a noisy bar, some small town shouldering the Brenta River. Rain comes down in sheets outside my window, flooding basements and washing out roads. After another morning of navigational mishaps, ominous clouds rolled in. I spend the afternoon pedalling through torrential downpour—the road surface more closely resembling the river it snaked alongside every minute—praying for the water to let up. Awash in relief when my bike computer powered down and I was left with no choice but to stop, order a pizza, and recharge. 

I’m not a quitter, I told myself between mouthfuls of cheesy pepperoni. I’m just wretched at planning.

Which is worse?

Otočac, Croatia: A night receptionist makes me the biggest lumberjack sandwich of my life in the hotel’s industrial kitchen. We do not speak the same language. I list places I’ve been and cities I’ll be travelling through while he slaps mustard and mayo on half a loaf of French bread before layering three types of luncheon meat. Only the paramountcy of food hygiene keeps me from rubbing my irritated right eye—upstairs in my room I’ll wash my face and scrape the crusty, hardened gunk from the web of my lashes. The receptionist steps back to admire his creation, then piles on more cold cuts, lettuce, chopped tomato, and onion. I sneak in a squirt of hot sauce before he closes the bun, triumphant. 

We leave the kitchen for the lobby but before retreating to my room, the two of us embrace. His body burly and warm, like how I’d imagine a Canadian lumberjack. I wish I had the words to explain this, but instead I squint through my bloodshot eye and clutch the behemoth of a sandwich in two hands as I repeat my thanks, hoping my gratitude can cross the sea between us. 

* * *

Outskirts of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar’s bright city lights spill from the valley below, luminous man-made constellations to contrast the pitch-dark infinity above. I turn up my front beam and sink into the drops, relishing the descent’s effortless speed. After the unrelenting heat of the day, my limbs welcome the night breeze. 

This afternoon marked my departure from the Schengen Areas, a new currency, plus the loss of my cell’s data roaming. Indisputable evidence that despite my increasingly sluggish stop/go pace, I continue roving farther from the familiar. Farther from home. 

* * *

Prejipolje, Serbia: Inside a barren third-floor hotel room I wrangle charging cables and wall plugs. Bike computer, lights (front and rear), cell phone, and power banks—so many devices, so little time. Nothing plays nice: the wall plugs (cheap items I purchased to replace ones I lost in the Alps) only match with certain cables; the cables specific to particular devices. I waste precious down-time minutes pairing device to cable to plug, only to discover that nothing is actually charging. My matchmaking must begin anew.

“Why won’t anything fucking charge?” I wail. 

My family claims that I tend toward melodrama when I’m tired. 

Golubac, Serbia: I roll into Golubac too late to find lodging or food, a bag of peanuts in a jersey back pocket my only sustenance as I trace the flow of the Danube River east. Cheerful affirmations can no longer mask the mounting fatigue; bone-deep exhaustion manifests in a feeling of blankness—an empty mind. All day long, I felt hollow. As though witnessing Serbia’s rural countryside from an arm’s length: not travelling through the landscape, but viewing it from behind the lens of a retro ViewFinder.

Then, seemingly without cause, I snap back. Aches in my quads, shoulders, and neck suddenly make themselves known—the physical toll from yesterday’s breathtaking but punishing climb into Durmitor National Park and Montenegro’s subsequent rollers. But in the same breath as discomfort, my world comes to life. After hours of detachment I feel the hum of the road surface beneath my tires, the humidity in the air. To my left, a grandiose medieval castle on the shores of the Danube. Beyond the river, Romania. 

Beyond that, the finish.

* * *

Obârşia Lotrului, Romania: I arrive at CP4: Hotel Alpin as the clock strikes midnight. Fingers numb and lips reluctant to shape words after the freezing descent. I haul my rig into the reception and throw down my brevet card in some absurd bikepacker rendition of a mic drop: I’ve made it. 

The volunteers praise my effort, and I glow with a combination of pride, sunburn, and windburn—with the sheer energy of being, and inhabiting a body capable of summiting the lonely climbs of Transalpina after nightfall while outrunning snarling sheep dogs along the way. I truly did not think I would arrive, but I did. 

Minutes later, I am fast asleep on the restaurant floor.

* * *

Slatina, Romania: Night riding always sounds like a good plan: less traffic, comfortable temperatures. But the reality is rarely as ideal as it seems, especially in the Balkans where packs of dogs lie in wait on the outskirts of every village, ready to ambush from the shadows when you least expect it.

I am so tired. Bribes of chilled Fanta and ice cream worked in the day, but now I have nothing but this potholed backroad ruled by canine clans. With thousands of kilometres of fatigue in my legs, the act of outmaneuvering strays doesn’t get any easier—it’s never not scary. Heart hammering at the mere suggestion of claws on pavement. My voice hoarse from shouting. I’m unable to relax knowing that the next chase won’t be the last. 

On the other hand, if it weren’t for the dogs I might lack motivation to keep going at all.

* * *

Balkan Mountains, Bulgaria: I spend my final full day of the TCR on the brink of a meltdown: penduluming between chirpy optimism and exasperated frustration. By nightfall, I can no longer keep it together. Everything hurts—why do they make the roads so bumpy? I get off the bike at every opportunity only to berate myself afterwards:

Do you even want to finish?

Why bother signing up if you aren’t gonna race?

You waited two whole years just to give up on yourself?

The inner dialogue escalates until I am shouting. A two-headed dragon, one head demanding to know why I’m not trying, the other whimpering that I’m doing my very best. This is me, falling apart. On a gravel mountain road between sleepy villages—on the verge of crossing the European continent—I break. Let the bike coast to a stop then dismount to lay supine in the rubble. Chest heaving, face unnaturally hot.

Get it together, Hackinen.

Coming into the TCR, my fears hovered around busy roads, stray dogs, and devious thieves. In reality, the greater challenge has been spending nearly two weeks with myself, and getting closer to those hard-to-swallow truths that exist within me.

A breeze whisks the heat from my face and stirs tall grasses near my feet. I peel myself from the pavement. Shake out the legs.

Enough drama.

I saddle up and resume pedalling toward the Black Sea coast.

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