(Updated 9.1.2020 at 20:05)
Disclaimer: Opinions here are my own and should not be mistaken to be anything else. I am not affiliated with the Transcontinental race or related organizations and I am organizing cycling events of my own.
I don’t know how many people read their T-shirts. Considering what kind of T-shirts people usually wear, I think very few do. Hence I don’t know how many have noticed the words ’Autonomy, Integrity, History, Ecology, Creativity, Technology, Community’ in the back of the TcrNo7 T-shirt. The words, excluding ecology and creativity, were first noted in the back of TcrNo5 T-shirt and, for what I know, haven’t been seen elsewhere.
The words are meant to describe the race, each theme being part of what makes it the whole. I’ve participated all the seven races so far. In this post I will try to describe what these words mean to me and why they matter to the Transcontinental race and all unsupported events. I will focus on issues around Rule 2, no 3rd party support, and autonomy. I will not include names in the examples, as I often don’t remember or know them, but some of you may be able to figure them out anyways. I also assume that anyone reading this has some kind of basic idea of what the Tcr is. A bare minimum would be the Transcontinental’s official videos describing race, spirit of the race and rule 2. Enjoy.
Values of the Transcontinental race…
Autonomy is unsupported is self-sufficient is … There are many ways to describe what it means. As all related events are unique, there is no gold standard of what autonomy means in each event, but Transcontinental makes it pretty easy. Everything during the event must happen as if there was no event and you didn’t have any friends or acquintances. Including any support from individuals who are there, either real life or online, because of the event.
Why it matters is first and foremost equal opportunity between participants. Conditions, like weather or shop opening hours, end up being different for everyone. Everyone has to manage them on their own. When I end up in the grey area, I ask myself, would this happen, if there wasn’t a race? It has taken years to teach my friends, parents and, to some extent, online followers to not share information with me. Still it is often hard to decide whether the subtle extra information affects riding or not. Same goes with support between riders on the road. As we’ll see in the 2nd part there is often fine line between ”not supporting” and ”not being a dick”.
It is hard to understand autonomy if you’ve never being under the conditions of a unsupported race. As described in the Mike’s videos the thing is having to take the time and mental burden of doing the decisions on your own. If you have others do even a tiny bit of that, you arn’t really being autonomous. Equal opportunity is the same for 1st, last and everyone in between. While you are racing, if literally anything from friends, followers or other participants affects your decision, you are not really being autonomous. That distinction tells apart a nice bike tour across Europe and the Transcontinental race.
Integrity is two-fold and matters to those following the race. First it is integrity on behalf of the Lost dot as the organizer. Being consistent with the founding principles of the race and the rules. Each edition of the race has been and will be different, but followers of the race should have an idea of what they are really looking at. The hard part is that the integrity is first and foremost enforced by the participants themself. Past, present and future participants should be able to jump in to any edition and it would always be the same.
That of course isn’t possible as many factors change over the years. Important factors are the number of participants and of followers. The race has reached wider, and ever more enthusiastic, audience. Hence it is often hard to avoid roadside followers from affecting the ride. Even harder part is the number of participants. It is sometimes literally impossible to not have others affect your riding. This year’s (#tcrno7) start was the worst with the long parkours in the beginning. Someone up front was navigating and rest were following. While crowded roads and parkours are nice to those who prefer the tinder on bikes part of the race, it is a far cry from first edition in 2013. I saw another participant in three occasions in 13 days.
Not casting doubt of support between riders is the basis of the integrity of the race now that roads are often getting crowded. In addition to asking yourself, if information you receive affects your decisions, a participant should play a secret agent in a secret mission. When they meet other riders on the road, they should consider can what I say possibly affect decisions of another participant or they risk failing the secret mission. This naturally also matters online, but it is significantly harder to manage in real life on the ’not being a dick’ vs. ’not supporting’ axis.
History is an integral part of the Transcontinental race. It is reaching the adventure of ”original” bike racing like few things have done in decades. The big thing is that is as real as it gets. You make the route and nothing is there just because of you, except the few rare controls. I have always been interested in history and geography, but actually going there and seeing things has made everything a lot more concrete.
The controls have taken participants to a wide range cultural heritage. From the starting point of the very first Tour de France to war-torn Vukovar water tower to Buzludzha monument to Meteora to famous climbs of grand tours. And to anything between them. It is a rare experience these days, as most people just appear to, and disapper from, airports, train station and highways, to really see every step in between. Which happened to be the only to travel just less than two centuries ago.
The Transcontinental is quite different from most pre-Transcontinental events. In one end the events have just tried to be more and more extreme or exclusive. In the other end is the so called bicycle racing where a well polished human engine is put on a well polished bicycle to ride for 60 to 300 minutes as fast as they can. The Tcr embraces an era where the question was what the bicycle-rider symbiosis is capable of, rather than making it do something stupid.
Ecology is hard to distinguish from the bicycle. It is the most efficient way of moving people around and I assume people are willing to move around. Hence it is rather important that they do it with a bicycle. Initial response when someone hears of the Transcontinental for the first time is some combination of crazy and impossible. Yet more you look at it, the more it looks like normal people on normal bicycles doing normal things. The ”normal” just happens to be something most have never encounterd.
Another part of ecology is a reminder to the participants of the race to not litter. Something more easily said than done, but at least it is good put as much effort to it as feasibly possible. A bare minimum would be that rider has a ’trashcan’ for litter they generate on the bike. My track record from this year was at least one water bottle and three croissant paperbags lost.
Creativity is something that flourishes with the tabula rasa kind of rules of the Transcontinental. In addition to routing and equipment there are the known unknowns and unknown unknowns that need some creativity when they are encountered.
Simply by looking at the equipment you can tell that there is plenty of creativity involved. There are few things that would be either too expensive or too hard to obtain for the participants of the race. Yet everyone has something different from the other in their bicycle and gear. Be it something you take or something you don’t, there is creativity involved.
Route making is where creativity, and lack of, really flourishes. Poor planning leads to need of even more creativity as participant doesn’t really know what to expect.
More experience riders fare better, but they still face the situations that need to be improvised. Be it filling a flat tire with cut t-shirt, hiking over a mountain, sleeping in a graveyard or picking food from a tree, they are the times where you tell apart those are taking the beaten path and those are doing parkour (the sport) across Europe.
Technology has big impact to the Transcontinental. First and foremost it wouldn’t exist in its current form without navigation satellites and satellite trackers. Also the race is a serious test to all the equipment used.
I use a wide definition of technology, from wear to gear. Everything from shoe covers to lights to navigators to bags to tires, is being put to test like they’ve never seen before. As there is no concensus of what equipment works best, looking at the finish line of the Transcontinental gives you some clues of what might work. The machines, often old, are ridden without proper care for longer distance than some others might ride in a year.
If you look at the first few editions of the Transcontinental they were literally Garmin shit storms. From broken cables and connectors to crashing routing and dead units. Then, and still today, the best performing devices are the non-cycling ones, but cycling units have gotten significantly better and people, including me, have learnt to use them better. Less than a decade later the batteries last longer, touchscreen kind of perform in rain, routes don’t really have a maximum distance and so on.
I’ve used to say that there are three kind of bicycle rides. Short, long and very long. They differ from each other so that for a long one I pack a razor and for a very long one I pack nail clippers. So if some gear lasts a typical Transcontinental race, it is likely to last any shorter ride too. And if it has issues during a Transcontinental, someone has to get back to the drawing board. Then hopefully next year is better. For the Transcontinental race participants and for everyone.
Community sums up everything above. Nothing of this would matter if none heard of it. Participants on the road being ambassadors of self-supported long distance riding putting themself and their equipment to test. Followers taking a good look at what works and what doesn’t. And eventually everyone getting new insights of what might work for them when riding a bike. Even those were just watching the race, not participating.
One event that I will always remember is finisher’s party in Istanbul after the very first Transcontinental race. There were five of us chatting how the race went. We ended up in discussion of whether you take the helmet off when you sleep or not. After I while I realized that I’m definitely in the right place with the right people as none had laughed. There are few places where five random people can have a chat about the subject without anyone laughing. The finisher’s party is one.
I’m personally happy that the general attitude doesn’t embrace the race aspect any more than it does. Like none of these ”values” literally embrace competition. As competition gets more serious it usually brings out the worst sides any person. The real competition is beating the road without the road beating you. Beat the road, not others. Not crossing limits, but working hard, for two weeks alone in the world, trying to stay within your limits.
… and how we cheat
I will again remind that anything here is my personal opinions and experiences and should not be mistaken as actual Transcontinental race rules. My aim is point out issues I’ve seen and done during the races I’ve participated. If you read the above parts about autonomy and integrity, you’ll likely be able to follow my examples. Here is anyways a reminder. Nothing I do during the race should be affected by followers or participants and nothing I do should affect other participants.
Before I go any further I’d like to add that there are two obvious exceptions. Safety on route and looking after other’s bike during stops. If there is something official or relevant information about safety on route, such as organizers having announced a road being banned, it is good to let other participants know. Also if you end up in the same place with another participant it is safe to expect others to look after your gear during stops, but not to ask or expect them to wait for you.
I hope that others can share their experiences too and most importantly I hope next year will be better. I’ve more or less wanted to write about this since 2016, but hoped the issues covered would get better, but they never do.
These are cases where participants, and sometimes followers, either by accident or deliberately try to affect other’s riding or make others save their time or mental burden. I try to explain exactly what happened and why it matters. The main issue here is that the mid pack rides on crowded roads are expected to have the same conditions as those who are alone in the lead or are far behind. Giving that opportunity to everyone goes down to each individual participant and their behaviour.
I will start with a rather simple and innocent example from McD. There were a bunch of us eating at the first McD of the route. Participants were coming and going. I ordered food and we chatted how everyone was doing. After finishing the meal I took out the garbage and planned to go to toilet. Restaurant had a code lock in the toilet door and the code was printed in the receipt. I went to another rider to ask for the code and went to toilet.
Now this is obviously a case where you could say ’but that doesn’t matter’. I could’ve this, I could’ve that, I could’ve whatever. Yet what literally happened was I asked another participant for the code. Something that wouldn’t have been available, if there weren’t the race, something that wouldn’t have been equally available to all participants. Of course there were other people present with the code or I could’ve just dug me receipt from trashcan. Nevertheless what happened was I most likely saved a few seconds.
Now ceteris paribus consider these seconds when I ride my lungs out trying to make to Lidl before closing time in Tolmezzo a couple of days later. I ran in through the exit as the enterance was already closed and had less than a minute to pick food for the next night. These few seconds affect your riding, and more potential occasion there are, harder it gets to not benefit from them.
This is a clear example where both I should’ve not asked the participant for the code and where he’d really had to try to hard to ’not be a dick’ and to not give me the code.
I had ridden a long day from Hungary and as I didn’t have data package for Bosnia, I had booked a hotel in Banja Luka while still in Croatia. As there are a few roads through Bosnia to Bjelašnica, everyone was again concentrated on those few roads. Somewhere along to road I was chatting with another participant the usual how is it going discussion and I said I had booked a hotel in Banja Luka. He had had the same idea and thought it was a good idea to follow me to my hotel. As there was only the one road it was hard to not follow one another. I had a short stop and so did he. I had another stop shortly after and said I wouldn’t continue until he’s gone. He left off a little later and I only saw his tail light thereafter until I turned to my hotel.
This was, to me, a very rare occasion where another rider clearly tried to benefit from my choices. For anyone who has read the rules it should be obvious that was not allowed, but apparently that is not the case for everyone. When participants are packed to same areas it always casts some doubt of support. It is important for each participant to be aware of the rules or there is a major risk to the integrity of the race.
The grey area here is when is it allowed to stop where others are stopping. Again the ”did it affect my choices” question is important. Did you stop at a restaurant because you wanted to stop at restaurant or because you saw a familiar bicycle outside? Did someone make the choice for you or did you do it on your own? What if it literally was the only option available? And once again what matters is the equal opportunity. Would you really have done the same choice alone?
There is one case where I would personally accept ”support” that is unlikely to benefit either rider. If both independently are at a hotel reception at the same time they can share a room to save costs. If the discussion takes place anywhere else, it is against the rules. If even a bit in you thinks that you’ll stop because you see another rider has stopped and not because you want to stop, then continue and think of the race.
As is often the case, it is better to stop at the first place, if you don’t know whether there is a second one. That was the case in Gabrovo in the first evening of #tcrno7. A few of us briefly stopped for coffee at a small restaurant on the outskirts of the town. We had the typical chat of how it’s going, weather, hills and so on. As we were on the parkour there was little to hide of the route. I was scrolling through the route on my phone and mostly checking the climbs. Another participants asks whether we should expect more places with services during the night. I responded it is possible, but you should check for yourself.
This is just one example of endless similar discussions you end up in when meeting others. I could easily list tens of conversations where I’ve later pondered whether they really were helping and often they were.
The main challenge with these conversations is that they would be completely fine before and after the race, and with anybody else, but discussions between participants should stay in the secret agent mode. It is hard to maintain and even harder if everyone isn’t acting accordingly.
The 2nd control, Strada Assiette, started from Sestriere and apparently the people at the market were very enthusiastic about it. They literally had a staff member to make sure those with caps were cutting the line at the cashier. Me and another rider there were trying to tell that they can’t give us any special treatment, but everyone, including other customers, were pushing us back to the road.
There is little you can do about over enthusiastic outsiders. There are a few nice ways to avoid the support. Yet this kind of support is unlikely to be equally available to all participants.
There are occasions when it is not reasonable to try to avoid this kind of support. Yet one thing should be clear. Never ask for it. Skipping line, asking to skip in line or trying to rush people because ”you are racing” is just not ok.
Sun was setting and I was off the crowded E-road in Serbia. I stopped at the outskirts of Požega in a small market where a group of locals were drinking beer. I went in and bought some food to eat there and some more for the night. As I was sitting on the porch eating, the men were, as is always the case in those small rural towns, very interested of what I was doing and where I was going.
The ones who knew english were more sober and the more drunk were talkative and only spoke serbo-croatian. After a while they wanted to ’sponsor’ me a can of Coca cola. They also insisted to teach me say ’хвала’ instead of ’спасибо’ that I intuitively replied. I took the can and continued.
This was another case literally from the Mike’s videos. It is quite ok to receive support when it is of little value, doesn’t really help, I could’ve bought it on my own and most importantly would’ve been very akward to decline.
Are there any limits to reading online information during the race? For example I could’ve done more homework regarding Bjelašnica in #tcrno6, but it definitely affected my schedule that I read the Tcr’s official race updates about what it was going to be like.
Some riders have been using Trackleaders to follow other people’s route when they had trouble with their own planned route. This is something that definitely affects your riding and also isn’t, even logically, available to fastest riders.
In #tcrno2 a follower sent me message about weather forecast at Gavia. After descending from 0C degrees in Stelvio to +5C degrees in Bormio, I was definitely going to check the forecast anyways. I also read that followers on finnish cycling forum had been discussing the same matter, but the comments were not meant for me. What really happened here? I did reroute to Aprica, but did the message affect my riding? It definitely was part of what convinced me to avoid Gavia even though it would’ve meant just a little snow on ground, but I had just been freezing enough.
This issue is a bit more complicated than it initially sounds as it casts doubt. Just like arriving and leaving a hotel at the same time with another rider. What if someone casually discusses race information, but knows I will be reading it? Do they give me support? What if it really is something significant? How would followers know I did the choice myself and not because someone had suggested it?
Private information is even more an issue to first timer participants and due to new followers of the race. I did take me roughly 3 years until I stopped getting questionable updates from friends. Also I was constantly getting woken up by my parents calling me worried when the dot had stopped. Nowadays they are just happy when the dot stops as I’m finally sleeping. Newcomers should take some time before the race to explain their friends and family that sharing race information isn’t goodwill, but potentially ruining the race for everyone.
As I was riding down the CP4 parkour from Galibier I saw a dotwatching friend and another participant chatting on the road side. I stopped to say ’hi’ and chat for a while. Shortly after we were in the ’what next’ part of the chat. I said I was going to look for shop to get food before climb to Huez. Friend replied that only shop in town is a short way back across the street and there probably wouldn’t be anything else until the crossing to Huez.
I didn’t turn back, because that would’ve obviously been a case were ride is being affected by someone there because of the race. Without the encountering the friend I wouldn’t have stopped, I wouldn’t have asked anyone and definitely wouldn’t have turned back. But I can’t really tell if it affected my riding that I knew there was a place to stop at the crossing before the climb. I did stop there and I would’ve done it anyways, but knowing it did reduce the mental burden of looking around and spending time looking for options.
Now it is very complicated to meet a friend for the first time in a year and going ’mm-umm well you have to look for the shop on your own’ instead of just telling where it is. Both should’ve been more careful about not asking and not telling. After an ’accident’ you should try to consider whether it affected your choices and act accordingly.
I met another participant on the road and discussion soon went to remaining 1000 km across France to Brest. He asked, if I was also going through Lyon and whether it was going to be hilly. He definitely had the basic idea of what it was going to be like, but anyways I simply answered ’I guess so’.
I had a route through Loire valley and I was expecting 2 noteworthy uphills for next 600 km. I don’t think it would’ve made a difference, but telling my route could’ve encouraged him to stop and consider the options. As happened in the next example.
At the Cp3 in High Tatras I was having a break recovering and eating. Once again I ended up in a conversation about future plans and routes with others. I said I have a route planned through Ukraine. Another participant had gone through the region before and said that they had to be transported over border by motor vehicle, which naturally wouldn’t be allowed in Tcr rules.
I had checked the border procedures at home. Way in would definitely be ok as it was a pedestrian crossing, but I started to question the way out. It is kind of complicated to figure out that part from official information. Even if crossing by bike was allowed, it might mean motor transport across border zone. Next confirmed pedestrian crossing out of the country would be another 100 km east and across a mountain range.
This is a case where information I’ve received during the race from another participant has most significantly affected my riding. I stopped to a gas station in Poprad for nearly two hours to consider my options and eventually chose to ride without a planned route for 400 km via Hungary to Baia Mare.
I likely would’ve stopped to double check the opening times before continuing to the border, but it is highly unlikely that I would’ve started double checking the border procedures without the discussion I’d had with another participant a few hours earlier. If the discussion hadn’t been with another participant, it would’ve been just fine, but in these conditions I should’ve self reported the issue.
I had met another rider at Tolmezzo and we’d ridden together for maybe 15 minutes. Our speed was roughly the same, it was a quiet at night and it was nice to meet another rider after nearly 4 lonely days since the morning after Cp2 in Vranje. The road ahead was closed for road works. He stopped and I immeditially continued out of the roundabout. He yelled if the main road is allowed for cycling. I didn’t answer. We met shortly there after as there are exactly 2 roads in the valley and the other was closed.
Meeting other riders on the road is always complicated. Others are more likely to slow you down than help you, and chatting with them for a short while is definitely ok as long as we don’t share information that we would otherwise have to dig out ourself.
It gets complicated when you start sharing the mental burden of navigating. When you see another rider turning, you will either turn along or at least check your navigator if you should turn. If they weren’t there you might not. In spirit of the rules the least you can do when riding with another participant is sticking to your planned route no matter how stupid it is. Even if it means meeting the other 200 meters later. At least don’t consider others as your guiding spirit and follow them without reading the map. Even during the parkours.
A big question, along with the acts of participants and followers, is of course acts of the staff at the controls. They have even more pressure pondering what is and isn’t supporting participants.
I think that sharing information at controls is quite ok, but organizing anything isn’t. Others may disagree. For example you can ask staff if rider x has arrived instead of checking the tracker. Or you can ask where the head of the race is. Participants can ask if staff knows where a shop, restaurant or whatever is. But staff can’t do anything that participants are expected to do themself. Such as booking you a hotel, moving your bike or filling your water bottles.
Main thing with the controls is, once again, equal opportunity. Staff should discuss with each other that they are consistent with anything they do and that everyone gets equal treatment. What exactly staff does can be anything, as long as it is consistent.
I’ve bugged other riders in several occasions about wearing a helmet (I don’t personally like the rule, but its a rule nevertheless), wearing a reflective vest at night and switching on the tail light (these rules I like). There are no excuses while your in the Tcr. Just keep them on.
And drafting is not allowed, ever. There was surprisingly lot of intentional wheel sucking in the start parkour of the #tcrno7.
For the third time in this rather long article I remind that these are my thoughts about the rules. Not the rules. I do hope this leads to more discussion on how participants, and followers, should act on the road. Examples here are what I think the rules are based on 7 races, 7 race manuals and 7 years of discussion with people about what the race is.
The race is a unique experience of showing your capability of riding across Europe without assistance to your peers and to the world. Good luck to anyone participating and give everyone a fair chance to do it.