The Transcontinental Race: The King of Endurance Racing in Europe

By Martin Atanasov

Back when it started, the Tour de France was a race of resilience. It was one man, one bike, and one road. There were no teammates and no 3,000-member crew to ensure you would get to the finish line. There were only 6 stages with an average length of 400 km. They were a true test of the rider’s dedication, endurance and psychology. Today, the spirit of this ground-breaking race is kept in a new, even longer race – the Transcontinental.

The race

The Transcontinental Race (TCR) is an ultra-endurance race across Europe. It was established in 2013 by the late Mike Hall – one of the biggest names in ultra-distance cycling. The goal is to finish the 4,000-km race in a maximum of two weeks by relying only on yourself and whatever you are bringing along with you: only you, your bike, and the open road. There are four checkpoints across the map of Europe through which riders must pass. The route itself is all up to the riders. At all times, the riders have a tracking device with them and are followed closely by the event organisers. This is mainly for security reasons and prevents anyone from cheating by taking an alternative transportation method. After all, this is a competition, and anyone should stick to pedalling.

Statistically, only 50% of all contestants will finish this ultra race, while around 25% will manage to do it in the two-week frame. After all, if you want to stick to the schedule, you should be able to ride around 285 km every day for two weeks straight. Needless to say, that’s not something anyone can do. Therefore, only trained riders with high experience in long-distance cycling will finish this race.

The rules

The rules are kept to a minimum. In fact, there are only ten of them that each rider must follow, and it’s mostly to keep them safe.

  1. Ride from start to finish via listed controls. This one is pretty self-explanatory.
  2. No third-party support, resupply or lodgings. This means you can only rely on what you are bringing with you and on publicly accessible support like bike repair shops, hotels, and restaurants. However, you can also rely on your social skills and ask some random person for help. The only thing you shouldn’t do is have specially organised support along the way.
  3. No drafting, except on the wheel of other riders. Drafting behind a car or a truck will give you some pretty good boost but it’s highly dangerous and not in the spirit of the race.
  4. All forward travel must be self-powered. This means that if you hitch a ride with a random person or use the train to go to a town to fix your bike, you need to go back and then pedal your way back to where you were.
  5. Travel by ferries only on approved routes. Once again, pretty self-explanatory.
  6. All riders must maintain evidence of their ride. Or to put it into more understandable terms: you should keep the tracker on you at all times.
  7. Inactivity for more than two days will disqualify you. This will trigger a team of volunteers to check out the tracker’s location and see whether there weren’t any accidents.
  8. No insurance, no helmet, no lights will disqualify you.
  9. Riders must know and obey local traffic laws.
  10. Ride in the spirit of self-reliance and equal opportunity – or to put it simply, ride by yourself, respect other participants and don’t cheat.

The start

The race is back on this year after missing two because of Covid-19. It will take the riders through 14 countries from the fabled cobbles of the Muur van Geraardsbergen in Western Belgium to the edge of Europe in the Black Sea coastal city of Burgas in Bulgaria. The start will take place on July 24 at 10:00 pm but the city will be hustling and bustling throughout the day. The small Belgian town creates an extraordinary atmosphere worth visiting on launch day, even if you won’t be riding the 4,000-km race.

First checkpoint

The first stop is about 800 km away in the cosy little Czech town of Krupka. Along the way, riders will go through the picturesque fields of the Netherlands and Germany and will have to battle through 2,300 m of elevation, which for 800 km is not that challenging at first glance. But when you realise you have only four days to get there, you can finally understand that this race is not for newbies. Although the highest point along the way is not that formidable (880 m), the ride takes a huge toll on your body, especially on the first day. Therefore, most veterans advise not to give it your all during the first couple of days, and while all participants could cover the 800-km distance in about a day and a half, they often take their time to have the energy for the more difficult stages of the race.

Along the way, all riders will pass through the picturesque historical town of Děčín (good luck reading that if you are not Czech). The small town on the mighty Elbe river quietly reminisces of the magnificent Bohemian times when this was one of the most important trade routes. The Děčín castle, built by the Bohemian dukes back in the 10th century, stands as a guard on top of a rocky outcrop reminding passers-by of the Bohemian might back in the days.

Finally, riders will get to the cosy but breathtaking town of Krupka.

Second stop

The second stop is high in the Italian Alps and is one of the most torturous stretches, notorious for its fast-changing weather conditions – Passo di Gavia. The historical pass was once used by Venetian merchants to conduct trade in the north and by various military powers for strategic defence during the two world wars. A beautiful lake called Lago Bianco (the White Lake) lies at the summit.

The second checkpoint is around 750 km from the first one but it’s far more challenging. The highest point is at 2,620 m with several tough climbs before it. This checkpoint will be open for four days, after which there will be no one to meet you there, so you will have to find an alternative method to return your tracker.

Third stop

The third control point will be again at the Durmitor National Park in Montenegro this year. Returning riders may remember it from the 2016 race. The park is located high in the Dinaric Alps with several high summits above 2,500 m. Luckily for the riders, they won’t have to climb them. The highest point they will go over is 1,900 m above sea level. Along the way, there are dozens of glacial lakes, and those who prefer to sleep in tents over the long journey should know that the night temperatures fall drastically, even during the summer months. However, the sight is simply breathtaking.

Only the toughest riders would have remained in the race by that point. With over 2,000 km and more than two Everests of elevations in their legs, this checkpoint is only the halfway mark of the whole journey. The ride to it is about 1,150 km from the second checkpoint. The checkpoint will be open for six days only.

Fourth stop

After the Durmitor National Park, you will head northeast, and through Serbia, you will reach the world-famous Transalpina road in Romania. The southern Carpathian pass is featured on countless cards, magnets and other souvenirs and is considered among the most stunning in the world. However, the route takes just one part of this asphalt paradise, and a sharp turn will take you to the far lesser-known but just as beautiful Drumul Strategic. This will put another 700 km in your legs with nearly 2,000 m of elevation. The checkpoint there will remain open for eight days, so if you have the time, make sure to take some great pictures for Instagram.

The Grand Finale

The grand finale is on August 8 near the Black Sea shore on the Bulgarian Riviera. The fourth biggest city in Bulgaria, Burgas, will host this year’s finale. The city hosted the 2019 start, so returning riders already know of the locals’ hospitality and the amazing food offered there.

From the 4th checkpoint, it’s roughly 700 km and crossing the Danube. Due to safety reasons, all ‘E’ roads in Romania will be prohibited, so all crossings will be done by ferries. After you set foot, or better yet, wheel in Bulgaria, you will face one huge obstacle before the finish line in Burgas – the Balkan Mountain. The mountain is certainly not as high as the Alps, Dinars or Carpathians but after 3,500 km, the steep slopes will make you hurt. A pro tip will be to avoid the Shipka passing, since it has enormous traffic both by cars and trucks, and it’s one of the highest on the mountain. Also, the mountain becomes significantly less steep the further east you are. Just bear in mind that riding a bike on highways in Bulgaria is forbidden, and 3rd class roads are typically a bit worse than the moon’s surface, so it’s best to avoid them as well.

Join TCR for the ultimate test of your endurance

The TCR is not a joke. This is a race where you can get hurt if you are not careful. You don’t have support, and you are self-reliant, so know your limits, know when to quit. Most importantly, if you are not a regular rider and haven’t done a century yet, it’s best to skip this year’s edition and train hard for next year. But once you are ready, the Transcontinental race is undoubtedly an experience of a lifetime.