“ There are many reasons to fall in love with travelling by bicycle, but for me it boils down to allowing me to see the ‘in between’ parts of countries. To use a cycling analogy, rather than just seeing the hubs I have been able to explore the spokes. It was on one of these spokes that I stumbled across the Transcontinental Race. I was cycling through the Balkans and happened to come across the 4th checkpoint, Mount Lovcen in the 3rd edition of the race. Hearing about it piqued my curiosity, and reading about it planted in my head the question – could I be good at that? ”
People often ask why I cycle, with the preconceived idea that I must love riding my bike. Thinking about this question has forced me to consider more deeply (with the benefit of hindsight and a great deal of post-rationalisation) what it is that I fundamentally enjoy and why I find myself in an apartment in Bulgaria at the start of The Transcontinental Race, an unsupported cycling race across Europe where the clock never stops. Firstly I love repetition… In the past this trait has led me to rowing, hitting golf balls, and most recently cycling. Although none of these things are unusual to enjoy, the way I end up enjoying them is. Taking golf as an example, 99% of the time I wasn’t out on the golf course in the sun finishing up the day with a Coke at the club house, I was, out of choice, hitting a couple hundred balls at the driving range trying to hit an old trampoline. There are a lot similarities between this and the way I choose to cycle. Of a weekend I’m not out in the countryside around Edinburgh, enjoying the wind in my beard and the beautiful scenery, I’m in the garage on the Watt Bike for five and a half hours eating a rice cake on the dot of every 20 minutes. The more I think about this, the crazier it seems, but why not do the things you enjoy!
Secondly, I love having a single obsession to occupy my brain. Sometimes it’s work, other times it’s reading a book, and once it was even book binding. Currently it’s the Transcontinental Race. The race has allowed me to obsess over a lot of things: how I train, what I eat and the route I will take. Thirdly, I love to physically push myself, to the point of suffering. Everything I know about suffering I learned from rowing. I’m tall, tall enough that people either love to tell me I’m tall, want to know how tall I am, or tell me what I should do with my height. Most frequently I’m told I should play basketball or row. Rowing gives an incredibly addictive mix of technique, power, endurance, teamwork and emotional highs and lows (and a lot of sitting down, which for someone of my stature is a big advantage). It’s not unusual for a ‘recreational’ rower to be at the boat club 4 or 5 mornings a week at 5:30am and then back again in the evening to feed the addiction. As a more-than-recreational rower, I spent the large majority of my spare time for 10 years in a boat or in the gym, mostly enjoying it, but often hating it. My rowing experience encouraged me to test myself to find my limits, and culminated in winning Henley Royal Regatta. After 10 years I had found my peak and was therefore ready to move on, but rowing has left me with an unusual tolerance for hard work and suffering, backed up by a strong belief that everything else will align in the end.
Fourthly, I am an explorer at heart. This probably started with a last minute decision to cycle across Europe with a few friends on bikes that were hastily bought on Ebay. 3 weeks later, we arrived in Vienna. Although my friends recently reminded me that this trip put them off cycling for life, for me it has meant that almost every holiday since then has been travelling by bicycle. There are many reasons to fall in love with travelling by bicycle, but for me it boils down to allowing me to see the ‘in between’ parts of countries. To use a cycling analogy, rather than just seeing the hubs I have been able to explore the spokes. It was on one of these spokes that I stumbled across the Transcontinental Race. I was cycling through the Balkans and happened to come across the 4th checkpoint, Mount Lovcen in the 3rd edition of the race. Hearing about it piqued my curiosity, and reading about it planted in my head the question ‘could I be good at that?’. What started as a question turned into a belief, and then an uncontrollable urge to answer the question.
After 2 failed applications to the race, I applied as part of a pair with my friend James Craven. Apart from the ride where we first heard about the race we probably hadn’t cycled together more than a couple of times. James was a quicker cyclist than me, but wanted to stop more, which made it my job to just try to keep up and minimise our stops! James also has an exceptional ability to ignore me when I’m grumpy, which is why I think our pairing worked so well. Unfortunately, just past half way through, James ended up in hospital with the last thing you expect when cycling through Europe in the summer: pneumonia. We made a difficult decision and split, leaving us both outside of general classification. I ‘raced’ to the finish and crossed the line 10th, while James spent 2 days resting and recovering before miraculously finishing the race in the top 50.
At the finish I was told you either feel ‘I loved this and want to do it again’ or ‘I hated this and never want to do it again’. I felt neither, and it took 6 weeks for me to feel like a normal human again. However, after recovering I felt that I still hadn’t proved to myself the belief that ‘I can be good at this’. With my mind made up, I had a conversation with my girlfriend, Clare, which went something like, ‘if I’m going to do this again, I will give it 100%’ to which Clare replied, ‘if that’s what makes you happy then I’m happy too’. She may have regretted those words once or twice since then…for instance when the Watt bike came on holiday with us at Christmas, or each morning she was woken up by me at the crack of dawn going to train. Training is the only major change I have made from last year to this year. Last year I was a weekend warrior. I was living in Tokyo which means that you have 100 km of cycling to get out of the city. When I had the chance I would cycle out on Friday night, bivi at the side of the road, cycle all day Saturday and make my way back into the city by Sunday
This year I did things very differently and applied lessons learned from rowing. I made a daily training plan and stuck to it religiously. I have been very lucky with no illness or injury, having only had a couple of failed sessions which have been down to a trial and error approach with my diet resulting in large calorie deficits. I train 7 days a week which, for anyone interested, is broken down into a recovery spin, 2 interval sessions (which I hate and dread with a passion), and a lot of time riding at 75% of functional threshold power. Averaged out it has been just over 840 TSS per week with some weeks of over 1250 TSS. I have seen almost every sunrise from September through to May, and I only started missing them when sunrise shifted to before 5am. Ultimately I have no idea if any of this will make a difference in the coming days, but at least I do know that I have done everything I can, and so has everyone close to me, to give it my best shot. Even if it turns out to make no difference at all, at least I will hopefully have answered the question ‘can I be good at this?’.