We Catch Up With TCR Organizer Mike Hall To Talk Turkey.
Brooks has nailed its colours to the mast this year in support of a large number of cycling related events. The Cycle Messenger World Championships, the European Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships and L’Eroica are just a few of the celebrations of the Two Wheeled and Human Powered in 2013 that we’ve provided with sponsorship, prizes, and help in the shape of willing bodies on the ground.
But one of the most captivating and rewarding so far has been the first ever installment of the Transcontinental Race, an unsupported competitive ride from London to Istanbul which took place over a fortnight early in August.
Conceived by last year’s WCR Grand Tour winner Mike Hall, it was designed as a race across the European continent that should quickly separate riders both from the metaphorical apron strings and each other. Unsurprising then, that he enlisted the help of renowned apron-string-cutters The Adventurists.
Together they formulated a race which, beyond the obvious, made only a few simple demands of its riders – pick your own route, remember to grab a sandwich at that next petrol station, and get the head down wherever you like, as long as it’s not in the back of a support vehicle.
And say lots of prayers to the Puncture Gods.
With the dust settling on this year’s race, we managed to talk to Mike about how things went, how things are going, and how the TCR is shaping up for a second run in 2014.
What kind of cycling backgrounds, if any, would be particularly well suited to a ride like the TCR?
I think any cycling background really – so long as there’s been a decent bit of saddle time in the lead up – We had all kinds of riders this year from hardened Randonneurs and world cyclists through ex-cycle messengers to rowers and those who had never ridden much more than a hundred miles before, a real mixed bag. It was the mentality though that stood out the most among the riders. there were no egos at all and a lot of people turned up with minimal preparation and just took things as they came. Others needed very little excuse to go completely feral and wander about in the mountains. They were the favourites of a lot of riders and had the biggest grins at the end. Colin Woof was a rider who impressed a lot of people – his friends had a whip-round for the entry fee and signed him up after he said he was game but didn’t have the cash to spare. One of the other riders told me they’d met him early on with just a few paper maps and using his old flip-phone as a distance gauge, apparently the scale on his map meant he needed to ride two and a half times the length of his unfolded phone each day to finish in time. Of course he completely missed the first control, but he didn’t care. We didn’t hear from him for ages but he’d been having a whale of a time. He arrived in Istanbul at 4:30 a.m. after getting multiple punctures and ripping up his T-shirt and stuffing it in his tyre. I gave him a tube and he went off to find a place to hide away and sleep.
Did you and/or other members of the organizing team ride any of the more or less unavoidable stretches of the route between London and Istanbul in advance of this year’s race?
Not really, part of the fun was seeing where the riders would go. I had ridden some similar roads on my way to Ankara on the World Cycle Race, so I knew what they were in for, and of course we knew they couldn’t avoid some spectacular riding in the Alps, just getting to the Stelvio.
We understand next year’s route won’t be identical to 2013′s in terms of its checkpoints.
No it won’t. The main idea of the race is that each year is totally unique and the route finding and logistical challenge is always fresh. There’s no record hunting, each year is its own beast, you race the conditions and the people that show up and one can’t simply fine tune the fastest ride from last year. Of course it’ll keep getting harder, the better people do. It keeps it entertaining for us too, as organizers. This year we travelled back through Europe after the race and found a corker of a new Control. I can tell you that the Stelvio will remain for 2014. There’s something to be said for having Controls in for a couple of years at a time, because we meet people there who get excited about the race and want us to go back, so it’s lots easier to return, but also it’s very tempting just to completely change everything and do something no-one expects. That the controls are decided on a whim of a single individual gives the race a certain character, you can be as evil or as inspiring as you like. It’s not a job for a committee and it’s fun to try different things, like this year we allowed ferries. It was a case of why not? – see what happens, see what people do. There will be a few minor controls, though, non-manned ones to tweak some of the routes in certain places – like we found a great route into Istanbul which avoids the big crazy roads, but no-one would ride; it’s a little out of the way and needs some extra navigation, but we want people to see how nice the riding can be round there.
Money no object, and a guarantee in advance of nothing breaking to find a replacement for, what would your ultimate TCR bike roughly look like?
Probably a lot like a road bike to be honest, and spend the extra money on some good clothing and a light bivvy bag arrangement. The lighter your kit, the lighter your bike and wheels can be, and when you only have a few kilos of kit in a soft seat back or just bed-roll strapped to the handlebars, you simply don’t need a load carrying bike. I do wonder what the aerodynamic gains can be over a ride like this but then I quite like the idea of keeping adding climbs until all the aerobars disappear. It’ll be fun to see what innovations develop and how people’s bike set-ups develop to meet the demands of the event.
You famously survived on little else but cheeseburgers during your tilt at the circumnavigation record. What kind of feeding and drinking do you need to be doing in the TCR? Early? Late? Planned? Opportunistic?
A certain amount of opportunism is required – some riders found cheese shops open in the middle of the night – others deliberated over whether to buy watermelons from the street traders in Bulgaria and how to carry them. It’s usually a case of find what you can where you can and, if you want to be winning, where the places are that serve fast. Eating things that you want to eat is important too – quite often the things that are more nutritious are not appealing after 2 weeks on the road and it doesn’t matter what you eat, just that you get the calories in somehow. By that time your metabolism is in overdrive and you’ll exploit the energy in whatever you throw down your neck. I think of it like the difference between an open fire – which is your kind of normal state – where you need to eat the things that burn well – and a furnace. When you’re five days in your stomach is like the latter – put anything in there and it just burns.
The winner this year didn’t do much sleeping. Would it be possible to smell the flowers, have the odd lie-in and still reach Istanbul inside the cut-off?
Sure – Mikko who won the Spirit of the Race award (something we make more valuable than the winner’s prize) took 800 photos on his way and had one of the most interesting, scenic and lengthy routes, he didn’t sleep too much either, mind.
Do you have a list of minimum technical specifications that you require of a rider’s TCR bike? Could somebody attempt to leave London under your auspices next year on a brakeless fixed, for example?
We kind of cross these bridges when we come to them, really, but I think you have to say “no” to the things that are glaringly obvious where someone can get hurt, or that give the impression that you are actively encouraging people to do something dangerous. We don’t want to put too many restrictions in and I’d love to see someone try it as much as the next person but it’s a case of drawing the line between allowing people to go have an adventure with no safety net and actively promoting more risk, being negligent or glorifying the danger. I think at least one emergency brake would be wise, of course you don’t have to use it. Maybe we can devise some kind of wax seal so we can tell if a rider had used it. That’d be a challenge. That aside, I’d like to see this as a bicycle race, for bicycles – maybe not the kind of race where you do something wacky to add an extra challenge or stand out from the crowd. There are events for that, this maybe isn’t one.
Brooks was thrilled to be involved as a sponsor of this year’s TCR. Roll on 2014!
What sort of (nice or nasty) surprises did this year’s race throw up for you?
We launched quite late last year, so I was really pleasantly surprised with the level of interest, and by the amount of demand for a 2014 event. Following the race was stressful – we got about as much sleep as the riders, maybe less, as we wanted to be at the controls when each one came in. This was our undoing a bit in Istanbul as we couldn’t be there all the time and getting across the city could be a nightmare at times and unfortunately we missed a couple of the guys rolling in, but we can make life so much easier for ourselves next time quite easily. Yes, Kristof was really moving too – I was a little surprised. Before the race I was saying that 7-ish days would be a great target but no-one would do it first time out. The way the event immediately struck a chord with people and the excitement about the format was a huge boost to the team.
TCR is quite a challenge, but perhaps a realistically achievable one. In comparison, for example, to the time and organizational investments required of a circumnavigation, it’s a race you could build your summer holidays around. How much work would a complete novice to distance riding need to do in advance of taking part. Or, at what (if any) level of experience ability or conditioning would you discourage individuals from signing up?
I wouldn’t like to put people off based on what they have and haven’t done, its mainly a question of aptitude and attitude, rather than ability; sometimes the questions can be telling, enough. We would aim to attract the type of people who live by the consequences of the things they do and know what they are getting themselves into. If someone were to ask a lot of questions about what is provided at the controls and can they have this, that and the other at the end waiting for them, or ask you how you are going to get their bike home for them, or why not, they might be the ones you’d gently steer towards something else.
Tracking technology enabled us to keep tabs on the progress of all of this year’s participants, and quite a few posted pictures and regular bulletins from the road via Twitter and Facebook throughout. This makes the TCR a potentially really interesting event to follow online. With this in mind, are there any special media contingencies for coping with an expanded field next time out?
Yes we are looking at the latest Gen3 SPOT devices which track at a much more frequent time interval – these are much better for tarmac events where bends in the road and the faster pace give bigger errors on the distances traveled. There will always be a discrepancy between point to point distances and what the rider is doing on the road and it’s not always a good thing to be too accurate or up to the minute, but the tracking should only get better. They are also more user friendly, so we should see higher tracking rates. One thing that did limit us this time too was that we were serving the event and the media from the same vehicle. For a larger field another vehicle will let the cameraman be independent and go off to find the riders instead of sticking close to the controls.
You’re no stranger to endurance cycling yourself. Any trips in the pipeline?
I’ll be doing some kind of big race next year for sure – I have a fire again for it after the Divide. It would be cool to set the record for the Divide properly but it would be more a box ticking I think after this year, so maybe it’s more important that some good racers show, that’s what made it good this year. Otherwise we have started getting word out about another race in the US – the Trans Am – and doing something in connection with the TCR to really get unsupported racing happening and talked about, so it might be good to give that a crack. I almost like the fact that I officially have no records to my name. I have been having some thoughts about another record that isn’t officially recognised, but only thoughts.
It looked liked most riders were traveling very light, and we had the impression that some of the nastier weather conditions, for example, caught a few by surprise. What kit absolutely has to be in your bags setting off?
I like to have a proper waterproof layer. Windproofs are nice enough in the dry but they are useless once you are soaked through. Pretty much everything else you can compromise on slightly, but being wet is just trouble, whatever the season.