Doug Migden’s 2015 Transcontinental Race

Dangerous behavior
1

I first learned about Doug Migden’s Transcontinental Race (TCR) project last September during a ride with Seattle Randonneurs Joe Platzner, Vincent Muoneke, and Mark Thomas. During the miles between breakfast and beers, Joe talked me through examples of the Seattle Rando’s “big tent” and how one of their tribe had just completed a crazy–even by rando standards–ultra race in Europe.

Earlier this year I had a chance to meet Doug in person, and he filled me in on the details of his adventure.

TCR - 1 of 20

About the TCR
Still in its youth–2016 will be the fourth year for this event–the TCR is a point-to-point race in Europe that covers thousands of miles. No drafting or support is allowed. Racers can purchase goods and services along the way but otherwise they are completely on their own. Race details change from year to year. In 2015, the TCR started at midnight on July 25 on the cobbles of the Muur of Geraardsbergen, Belgium, and finished in Istanbul along the Bosphorous. There were four checkpoints/parcours en route:

1. the top of Mont Ventoux, France,
2. the Strada dell’ Assietta, which is 40 km of high mountain gravel in Italy,
3. Vukovar in northeastern Croatia; and
4. the top of Mount Lovćen in Montenegro.

Racers could choose their route between checkpoints with a few exceptions, particularly on the final approach to Istanbul.

Doug's complete route from Belgium to Istanbul along the Bosphorus.
Doug’s complete route from Belgium to Istanbul along the Bosphorus.

In 2015 there were 172 TCR starters and 89 official finishers, for a scratch rate of 48%. Doug’s route traversed approximately 4,400 km (2,734 miles) with over 130,00 ft. of climbing in 18 days 13 hours 31 minutes. He averaged 147 miles per day. The 2015 first place finisher, Josh Ibbett, completed the race in an amazing 9 days 23 hours 54 minutes. The final finisher arrived in 34 days 1 hour 22 minutes. There is no time limit: this event is so difficult that if you finish you win!

Detail of the first half of Doug's route.
Detail of the first half of Doug’s route.

The TCR was full of great scenery, challenging climbs, nice people, interesting culture, big trucks, and mean dogs in packs giving chase in the night. Doug raced through 12 countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey) and crossed 11 borders. TCR racers carry SPOT satellite trackers and are monitored on Trackleaders.

Detail of the second half of Doug's route.
Detail of the second half of Doug’s route.

About Doug
Doug, 58 at the 2015 TCR start, has been cycling seriously since 1995. He started randonneuring in 2010, and his first brevet was an ambitious 600 km. In 2011 he finished the 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris and got hooked on the long distance events. In 2012, Doug completed the 1600 km Miglia Italia where he was the lanterne rouge finishing in 134 hours and 37 minutes, a mere 23 minutes short of the 135 hour time limit. The 2012 Miglia Italia was unusually difficult, partially due to a heat wave that swept through Italy with temperatures up to 114 F. Doug thinks he was in over his head experience and ability-wise at the Miglia. He only managed a total of 9 hours sleep in 6 nights and seemed to be one of the few without a GPS. Nonetheless, finishing the Miglia was a threshold event that gave him the confidence to try even more ambitious adventures. In 2014, 2015, and 2016 he completed the Giro Ciclistico delle Repubbliche Marinare (GDRM), a 2200 km Italian event, which is his all-time favorite brevet.

There were three riders on the 2014 GDRM who did the TCR later that year, and their accounts piqued Doug’s interest.

In November 2014 the registration period for the 2015 Transcontinental Race opened for just four hours before the organizer closed it down due to overwhelming interest. 350 applications were received for 250 spots and Doug was lucky enough to get a place.

Doug’s goals were simple: ride all the way to Istanbul, and finish the race. Doug was clueless about what he was really getting himself into; but why not give it a go?

Practicalities: Gear
Bike:
Calfee Tetra Adventure with SRAM Red 10 spd except for a SRAM Rival rear derailleur, 50/34 x 11-32 gearing, TRP Spyre mech. disc brakes with SwissStop 15s pads, 32 h HED Belgium Plus rims, SONdelux dynamo front hub and DT Swiss 240S Rear hub. Continental Grand Prix Four Seasons 28 mm tires. Shimano XTR M9000 SPD mountain bike pedals.

Bags:
Handlebar bag custom made by local sewing genius Carol Douglas, large Apidura saddlebag, Revelate Designs Gas Tank front top tube bag and Jerrycan rear top tube bag.

Electronics:
Garmin Edge 1000 GPS x 2, iPhone x 2, and Sinewave Revolution USB charging device. Schmidt Edelux II dynamo front light, PDW Aether Demon USB charging rear lights x 2, and one Planet Bike AAA battery rear light. The Sinewave Revolution USB charging device was an indispensable source of power.

Clothing:
Voler FS Pro jersey x 2, Assos H. Mille half shorts x 2, Voler Genesis LS jersey x 1, Voler wind vest, Voler wind jacket, Showers Pass Elite Pro rain jacket, Nathan mesh reflective vest, Patagonia down sweater. Two pair of lightweight socks and one pair of wool socks which were never used. Zoot Icefill arm coolers and brand x regular arm warmers. Capo knee skins and brands x knee warmers. Shimano XC90 Mountain bike shoes.

Doug took two bivy sacks. One was super lightweight but not waterproof, and one SOL emergency bivy made of space blanket-like material. Neither bivy was ever used but he will bring both to TCR 4 this year.

Doug’s bike ready for the TCR.
Doug’s bike ready for the TCR.

Practicalities: Costs
Airfare:
Seattle to Brussels and Istanbul back to Seattle: 60,000 United award miles plus tax and fees.

Food:
Approximately $600 not including pre- and post-ride pig-outs.

Lodging:
Approximately. $600 not including pre- and post-ride hotels. Doug stayed in hotels/motels about 50% of the time.

Here is what Doug had to say about the 2015 Transcontinental Race:
*****
Training:
My TCR training started on Winter Solstice 2014, when I did the overnight Seattle Randonneurs’ Solstice 200 km immediately followed by the day Solstice 200 km, for a total of 400 km, on the shortest day of the year. Many long training days and events followed, including 28 one-hundred milers with 10,000 ft. of climbing day rides from my house, a Super Randonneur ACP 600 km with 10,000 meters of climbing in triple digit temps in Oregon, and the Giro Ciclistico delle Repubbliche Marinare 2200 km brevet in Italy.

The Race
Start to Checkpoint 1
Muur of Geraardsbergen to Mont Ventoux

Midnight, July 25, 2015. The moment of truth. 172 of us started the race on the Muur of Geraardsbergen (Kapelmuur), Flanders. This a very short classic cobbles climb, previously used on the Tour of Flanders, with an average gradient of 9.3% and a max of 19.8%. Although I was hopeful, I really had no clue if I would make it all the way to Istanbul. However, for now the focus was getting to the first checkpoint, almost 1000 km south of the start–the summit of Mont Ventoux in southern France.

Doug at the start.
Doug at the start.

I rode all through the first night entering France the next morning. That first day was windy and rainy, giving way to clearer skies the second night when I tried to sleep for a few hours on the side of the road. Rain returned for the third night when I checked into a hotel in Arnay-le-Duc, France for my first race shower and bed (in three days) as well as a nice dinner. I thought I could get away with about 4 hours of sleep and checked out at midnight, but paid for it the next night.

In France I was mostly on smaller “D” roads going through lots of flat and rolling countryside prior to Mont Ventoux. My route also went through a few moderate-sized towns. Throughout the race it was best to avoid cities, because of traffic and route finding challenges. I was particularly happy to go around rather than through Lyon.

The third night out was the night before ascending Ventoux. I mistakenly thought I could ride through the night, not realizing how much sleep I had already missed and how difficult the next day would be. The “drowsies” started in as I approached Ventoux. More than once I tried to take a roadside nap but could not fall asleep. At least it didn’t rain.

I had previously summited Ventoux via both difficult routes (Bédoin and Malaucene) in one day. My recollection was that it was difficult but not over the top hard. Much to my chagrin, this time I found ascending Ventoux to be brutal. There is a huge difference between climbing Ventoux going light while well rested, and doing it sleep deprived while carrying a load, almost 1000 km into an unsupported race across Europe. When going up Ventoux my GPS was spitting out consistent 10 to 13% grade for more than a few miles. However, on the plus side, the adrenaline required to get up the darn thing kept me awake.

I reached the first checkpoint on top of Ventoux at 09:28 on the fourth day; pretty much in the middle of the pack. Fortunately, the summit candy stand was open because I was completely out of gas and needed to refuel my body.

Descending Ventoux was a nightmare. I could not stay awake and the descent was very steep. On-the-bike micro naps were threatening serious injury or more. It was quite frightening then, and thinking about it now makes me shudder. I didn’t crash so maybe the cycling gods were with me. Finally, I stopped and took a nap on the side of the road. There was no other choice.

Further down the mountain, I stayed at a bed and breakfast in Sault. Alain Pontoire, the B & B owner, is an artist. He later made a painting of me climbing Ventoux. Unfortunately I slipped on my bike shoe cleats and fell down a flight of stairs in his B & B. My sacrum and pelvis got banged up badly and I was one hurting cowboy for the next three weeks.

The painting of Doug climbing Ventoux.
The painting of Doug climbing Ventoux.

At this point I needed sleep more than food. I showered, slept for five or six hours, ate dinner and once again hit the road in the middle of the night.

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2
Ventoux to Sestriere, Italy and the Assietta parcour

Pinch flat on the Assietta.
Pinch flat on the Assietta.

Heading out of Sault I was treated to a beautiful 25 km moonlit descent. However, there was then about 15,000 ft of climbing to get through the next 210 km to the second checkpoint in Sestriere, Italy. Needless to say, getting to Sestriere was not easy. I took a short nap at a petrol station and café somewhere near the Italian border and arrived at the Hotel Cristallo check-in in Sestriere, Italy at about 4:30 in the afternoon of race day #4. The next 40 km would be on the Strada dell’Assietta, a required parcour of high mountain gravel. Yes, this would be mountain biking with a road bike-and no, I did not have any mountain biking skills. I think this section created the most pre race anxiety for TCR racers. What size tires would we need? How big were the rocks? Would it snow?

All things considered, I decided to spend the night at the hotel and get an early start the next morning rather than risk tackling this beast at night, particularly since the evening weather forecast was not good. The control volunteers also said it had been taking 6 to 8 hours for many racers ahead of me to complete the 40 km of gravel.

Near the end of the Asssietta.
Near the end of the Asssietta.

On the Assietta there was plenty of steep stuff with many 10% bits and at least one piece of 15% grade both going up and down. Since it was gravel and my road biking technical skills are not great -not to mention my lousy mountain biking skills, it would be fair to say the Assietta was quite the challenge. But I made it through without falling, riding all but about 50 meters (which I walked), and with only one flat. This was a front tire pinch flat at a beautiful spot on a gorgeous day and it was my only puncture on the entire TCR, so I certainly can’t complain. Ultan Coyle, the 4th place finisher, who was on a time trial bike, allegedly shredded his tires and walked 10-20 k of the Assietta. Another racer claimed 9 punctures plus 1 sidewall cut on this stretch.

Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3
Strada dell’Assietta to Vukovar in northeastern Croatia

Doug slept here part of one night curled up next to his front wheel waiting out a storm after doing the Assietta. It was the finest of Italian concrete bedding.
Doug slept here part of one night curled up next to his front wheel waiting out a storm after doing the Assietta. It was the finest of Italian concrete bedding.

I was relieved that both my bike and I survived the Italian gravel section. The next 1100 km included large flat sections along the Po River Valley of Italy, some hilly sections in Slovenia, and a final 300 km of mostly flat road before arriving at the third checkpoint in war torn Vukovar, Croatia.

Storks in Croatia
Storks in Croatia

After leaving the Assietta, I spent the next three nights and days heading east out of Italy before entering Slovenia and Eastern Europe. I slept part of one night in a hotel in Mantua, Italy and parts of the other two nights outside on slabs of concrete with a roof overhead. This was followed by a partial night’s sleep on a bench at a restaurant in Slovenia before riding straight through for the next 27 hours or so on a 400 km plus push to Vukovar in the far northeast corner of Croatia.

I felt as if I was part wild animal, part primitive man, and part wanna-be bike racer. Yes, it was a bit bizarre; however, it was an amazing experience, which was worth any hardship. Despite the fact that this was a solo, unsupported, and often lonely venture, I was impressed by how nice people were along the way. It must be something about being a little guy on a bike without much gear trying to do something big, which endeared TCR racers to the locals along the route.

Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4
Vukovar to Mount Lovćen in Montenegro

I arrived at the third checkpoint–the Hotel Lav–in Croatia early in the morning of the 10th day. So far I had ridden at least 2400 km through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. Up to this point I did not feel like any of the roads I had been on were exceptionally dangerous but everyone did not share this thought. My race time was okay but not great. The gravel slowed me down more than other racers and my sacrum was pretty sore. Nonetheless, I had avoided any disasters and I was pleased that I was able to do a marathon single push for the last 400 km to Vukovar. Plus the food and rest in a real bed at the Hotel Lav was quite nice. It was much better than a slab of concrete or a hard bench for sleeping, not to mention the petrol station junk food on which I had been surviving.

Although I was over half way done, the heart of the Balkans awaited. The road from checkpoint three to Istanbul would be a different kind of beast. After sleeping for a few hours and eating lunch I felt fairly good and decided to head off towards Bosnia while it was still daylight. My route went from Croatia into Serbia and then through Bosnia heading south to Mount Lovćen in Montenegro, which was the fourth and final checkpoint.

The part of Serbia I rode through seemed bleak in all respects. In all fairness I was only in Serbia for less than 45 km, but there was a starkness to this land and its populace which seemed to make it an unhappy place. There also appeared to be an excess number of randomly placed police cars. Despite this air of despondency the Serbian people were very kind.

Twilight in Serbia was an eerie time on a lonely rural road. Then, in darkness, everything changed very fast. One minute it was just me with zero traffic and then I approached the border with Bosnia. There were many trucks backed up on the side of the road and loads of people walking around. At first I thought this was just a very busy major border crossing but as I approached the border a guard told me the border was closed for 24 hrs in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the end of the war. I say what? I was in a race so this could not be. I had to get through, right? Not a chance. Its not like crashing through the border crossing was an option, unless I felt like getting arrested or shot or something like that. This is how the TCR works though. Its not some one dimensional–speed is everything–bike race: It’s real life, too. Unpredictable, sometimes messy. Like a grand symphony with highs and lows.

The good news was that the border guard, who spoke some English, told me there was only about 2 1/2 hours left in the 24 hour border closure period. He took me under his wing and said I could sit on a rickety wooden crate on the side of their building. However, he said I was not allowed to sleep. There was also a small store at the border so I bought some ice cream and Serbian junk food and fueled up before taking my seat on the crate.

The key to getting in fast mileage on the TCR is time in the saddle. Riders are going zero miles per hour when stopped; it’s an obvious but often forgotten fact. The whole thing should be an endless succession of ride, eat, sleep but “real life” can interfere like it was doing while I was stuck at the Serbia/Bosnia border. I ate but could not ride or sleep because they would not let me. So I sat on that crate doing nothing on a dark hot night. And yes I did fall asleep. Again and again. And the guards would wake me up again and again saying I could not sleep there because it was against the rules. At least they were nice about it and didn’t arrest me. Finally my friend, the guard who spoke English, said the border had reopened and I could cross into Bosnia. It had been about 3 hours of idleness but they did let me through before just about everyone else. I’ll never forget the memory of me on my small bike in the midst of these many very large trucks stuck at a Balkan border crossing in the dark. It felt like a scene in a spy movie.

Church in Bosnia on a lonely night.
Church in Bosnia on a lonely night.

And so I entered Bosnia in darkness. At this point signs of civilization were sparse, but not too long after crossing the border I came across a solitary church in the middle of nowhere. The church was white and very well lit up against pitch-dark surroundings. It was so peaceful at that moment. Perhaps it was a lonely time too but for me the solitude was never overwhelming. Miles after passing by this unforgettable church I started to get tired and came across a roadside store, closed for the night, with a bench out front and an awning overhead. This would be my bed for a few hours until daylight came.

When I woke up at daybreak an elderly Bosnian woman was clambering about next to me. She looked at me and I looked at her and she went about her business getting ready to open up for the day. I might have said “dobro jutro,” which is “good morning” in Bosnian, but can’t remember. Otherwise there was no verbal communication but I think she could tell I was just some guy on a journey by bike and that I was harmless. I presume the lady owned the store and also lived there but I really don’t know. Perhaps it was presumptuous or rude or something similar for me to just park myself on someone’s property like that; however, the TCR was, in large part, an undomesticated endeavor. Animals trying to survive don’t tend to knock on doors or ask questions and so this was how I also behaved. To be honest I was just too exhausted and focused on my goal of finishing the TCR to give it much thought. Perhaps at some point in the journey TCR racers become so focused on getting to Istanbul that they rely more on intuition rather than cognition to achieve the goal.

Heading south in Bosnia. Serbia is just across the bridge.
Heading south in Bosnia. Serbia is just across the bridge.

As I was getting ready to leave the storefront, the local bread man drove up and delivered the store’s daily bread supply. He looked at me and my bike and handed me three fresh baked loaves. I guess he just gave them to me because I looked hungry. Nothing was said other than my thank you. This act of kindness epitomized the behavior of almost every local I met on the race.

My route through Bosnia headed toward the fourth and final checkpoint at Mount Lovćen in Montenegro. I took a route south, which was east of Sarajevo and I was happy to avoid the big city–or so I thought–until some hard and very hot climbing began. It was then that I began seeing Olympic rings on road signs while making some big and long ascents.
Surprise! It didn’t take me long to figure it out, though: Sarajevo Winter Olympics 1984.

Winter Olympics = skiing = mountains = hard climbing on a bike. It was really difficult, but by the time I got into the middle of those big climbs there was no going back. After climbing for a very long time in what seemed like brutal heat I reached a tiny store in a small mountain village. It was the size of a small bedroom with electricity but no running water.

Like many of my other food stops throughout the race there was plenty of junk food, as well as ice cream, but not much of anything else. The junk food thing was getting old but at least we were unlikely to get food poisoning from such highly processed fare. Ice cream seemed to be surprisingly good fuel as well. I’m an emergency physician by trade and I once had a patient with a swallowing disorder who told me he ate nothing but ice cream (supplemented by vitamins) for seven years. At the time I found this hard to believe but now I get it.

Unfortunately the store was only part way up this brutal climb. I remember asking the shopkeeper how far to the top and he told me 50 km. I was incredulous and started arguing with him that this was not possible. Maybe he meant 5 km or 15 km but he kept on insisting it would be 50 km to the top. I was in denial and not quite being a jerk but it was close. I just could not fathom 50 km more of climbing in that heat. Fortunately I reached the pass ahead in about 10 km. The temperature also dropped substantially so things were looking up.

Its hard to recount all that transpired on the TCR. Some of the many memories are a blur. As such, I’m trying my best to tell the tale correctly but precision might be lacking. However, there were a few other events in Bosnia which stand out in my mind.

At some point after getting through the Olympic venue area I was riding in twilight on a long stretch of lonely road when I saw two cyclists coming toward me heading north. As they approached I noticed their bikes and bags looked like those of TCR racers. In fact, they were TCR racers who were competing in the TCR as a pair. For the first time, TCR 3 allowed for both solo and pairs competition. These two guys knew my name because they had been following me via Trackleaders, the satellite system used with SPOT tracking devices to follow our progress and keep us honest. So why were they heading north while I was going south? TCR rules required racers to get to Istanbul via all four checkpoints but the checkpoints did not have to be reached in order. Also, as a carry over from the first two TCR race editions there was a ferry across the Adriatic from Italy to Croatia which was allowed; however, the timing and potential delays related to the ferry schedule did not necessarily confer an advantage for those taking the boat. Neither Josh Ibbett, the winner, or the other TCR3 podium finishers took a ferry option but many of the other fast finishers did. I wanted to ride the whole way so a ferry was never something I considered.

Those who took the ferry went from the second checkpoint in Italy, across the Adriatic to Croatia, and then went to checkpoint 4 in Montenegro before heading north to checkpoint 3 in Vukovar, Croatia. They then scooted across Serbia to Bulgaria before entering Turkey. This seemed like a flatter and therefore faster race route as compared to a completely land route. Clever, yes?

So this pair of racers–Davidson Kingan and Robin Borstmayer–had already been to CP3 and were heading north to CP4 in Vukovar, Croatia when we crossed paths. After not seeing any other racers since leaving CP3 a few days earlier, it was quite unexpected but nice to run into them in the middle of Bosnia. We chatted for a few minutes and then headed off in opposite directions.

Somewhere in the latter part of my route through Bosnia I rode past a woman selling berries and jam and some sort of homemade fruit drink on the side of the road. She was on the opposite side of the street and did not look happy. If I had to guess it was simply an impoverished look but I really don’t know. It was cloudy and late afternoon or early evening. After passing by her I turned around, went back and gave her a US twenty dollar bill. I told her I thought she looked unhappy, that maybe the twenty dollars would make her feel better, and that I wasn’t feeling so great myself, so giving her this money would at least make me feel better. She was glad to be given the money although she was also perplexed that I didn’t want anything in exchange. I did not need food at that moment and nothing she was selling appealed to me. I explained to her that twenty dollars was likely to be good money even though she would have to exchange it and therefore lose some value. I had euros but was not certain about my supply so American money was what she was given. (As a side note, many racers relied on ATMs but I preferred carrying a bunch of euros to keep things simple). I then went on my way down the road toward Montenegro. We were both happier.

Like many of my 11 eleven border crossings, I entered Montenegro in darkness. The nighttime conversations with customs officials were almost always interesting and they usually had the time and desire to chat to this odd American racing his bike solo and unsupported from Belgium to Istanbul in the wee hours of the night. Most of the border folks either spoke some English or had a colleague they could access for translation. We discussed everything from politics to smoking and health. If I was crossing into a new country at night I was usually very tired and wanted to rest at the border for a few minutes, and the border agents seemed to know this was the case without it being said. After crossing into Montenegro I was eager to get to Kotor Bay on the Adriatic and then ascend to the fourth and final checkpoint before Istanbul, which was the top of Mount Lovćen. This would be my last huge miles long climb but there would still be plenty of ascending remaining, particularly in Albania.

Looking down on Kotor Bay, Montenegro and the Adriatic from checkpoint 4.
Looking down on Kotor Bay, Montenegro and the Adriatic from checkpoint 4.

I arrived in Kotor Bay at daybreak after riding all night. Kotor Bay appeared to be pretty upscale and I was ready for a nice hotel but when no lodging popped up directly on the route I decided to stop at a café where I had a not very tasty pizza and a couple hour nap with my head down on the restaurant table. The pizza might have been lousy but the staff was great and they let this filthy Transcontinental racer fall asleep at their table. As such, I was definitely not complaining.

The morning ascent to Checkpoint 4 was uneventful except for the steady climbing with some bits greater than 10%. The checkpoint itself was about 2/3 of the way up Mount Lovćen but the required race parcours had us ascend to Jezerski, one of two summits, where the mausoleum of the famous Prince-Bishop Njegoś is located. The Lovćen climb was plenty hard, particularly with TCR luggage attached to the bike. However, at this point in the game the difficulty was dwarfed by my desire to finish the race.

Checkpoint 4 to Finish
Mount Lovćen to Istanbul along the Bosphorus

I reached the fourth and final checkpoint thirteen days and 10 hours after the start. From Checkpoint 4 my route went to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, where I slept in a hotel on the near edge of town until about midnight and then rode through the city in the very early morning to avoid traffic.

The finish in Istanbul was now only a “mere” 1300 km or so down the road. At this point, I was getting worn out and things were getting harder on the one hand, but there were no more checkpoints or famous epic climbs to conquer. So on the other hand there was this psychological boost from being able to taste the finish line. Or so I thought; until I encountered challenges like big trucks pushing me off the road in the run-up to Istanbul and packs of mean dogs giving chase in the night. Oh well.

From Montenegro I went through Albania, Macedonia, and Greece prior to entering Turkey.

Before the race start I had been warned about horrid traffic in Tirana, Albania and advised to head east on Albania SH 46 about 50 km south of Shkodër and north of Tirana. This recommended route went through Burrell into some remote mountains before entering Macedonia near Debar. There wasn’t bad traffic but there was plenty of very hot remote climbing on some narrow and otherwise less than stellar roads.

At this point I had done over 3000 km and I didn’t find the 110 F temps on 7% grade pothole-filled roads appealing. It was adventurous, though. The scenery was great and the local village people were super nice. The heat was such that I stopped at every bar or café for hydration. In my opinion, the frequent stops were needed because serious heat-related illness was a real possibility, and I had no idea when my next opportunity for water would come.

Remote Albania.
Remote Albania.

The mountainous part of Albania was my Mars. If I got into trouble there I was screwed and not even sure how I would get out, let alone finish the race. I’ll never forget one scene in these parts. I was climbing a steep grade on a narrow and dusty road in triple digit temps. I was going up slowly in the heat towards a sharp hairpin turn when I saw a large truck heading down in my direction. There was a cow on the corner of the hairpin turn in front of me and a Mercedes Benz or BMW (I don’t recall which) going way too fast and passing the truck, also in my direction. The smart thing to do would have been for me to pull over and stop until the truck and car passed but I was tired and not thinking straight. Plus I did not want to lose momentum while climbing in the extreme heat. So instead of being smart and stopping, I kept going while envisioning the truck and/or speeding car hitting that sharp corner and spooking the cow so that it pushed me into the truck just as I was riding by. This would have been a perfect storm, game over, moment. The speeding car was as oblivious as that cow but the truck driver, who saw me and was being careful, anticipated the same scene as I and took great care to avoid an accident. It sounds sort of odd but I kind of bonded with these truckers. The truck drivers were just little guys, like me, frequently driving big and old trucks with crappy transmissions on bad roads. It was not unusual for Eastern European truck drivers to give a honk of concern, way before reaching me, just to let me know they were coming. I was struck at how different this was as compared to many US trucks, whereby they honk at close range, to angrily tell cyclists to get off the road.

Before the race, TCR veterans said success required the power to do a 40 kph 200 meter sprint if a dog went after us. It was also said that as soon as racers entered Eastern Europe they were 100 % certain to encounter packs of dogs giving chase at night and in the early AM, but not during the rest of daytime. This is allegedly because the dogs are lazy and would rather lounge around in the shade during the hot daytime hours.

After making it through Western Europe, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania, I remember thinking how great it was that I had not had any dog encounters. At the time I was beginning to think I might make it all the way to Istanbul without a serious dog chase. However, things changed in Macedonia when just after sunrise, and without any warning, a small pack of canines went after me. Fortunately I escaped without injury to body or mind. Then in the middle of my first of three nights riding through Greece a pack of fairly big dogs came out of nowhere and surrounded me. It was pitch black and I don’t recall seeing much except for what seemed like six or eight sets of glistening white canine teeth and dog eyes fixed on me. I sprinted away with all my might and at the same time the F words were coming out of my mouth as loud and fast and furiously as is humanly possible. This was fight or flight at its finest. It was so scary. I felt lucky to make it out of there in one piece.

I had numerous other dog encounters in Greece and Turkey, none of which were won by the dogs. Not everyone was so fortunate though. Ashley Sharp, the TCR3 tenth place finisher, was bitten in Turkey. Ashley later said the numerous post-exposure rabies shots he received were definitely not a good time. Some TCR racers think the dogs are all bark and no bite–that they simply want you out of their territory. This might be true much of the time but Ashley’s experience disproves this maxim from being absolute.

Dog encounters aside, racing through Greece was a great experience. The Greek people were friendly and I had a few very nice Greek seafood meals, which were hard earned at that stage of the game. Riding alongside the Aegean Sea was an added bonus.

Greece
Greece

My route in Greece went through the heart of Thessaloniki, the second largest Greek city with a population of more than one million. There was a good route that bypassed the city but I did not figure this out until it was too late to modify my Garmin GPS files. I’m a tech Luddite and my navigational comfort zone was almost completely within the confines of the Garmin Edge 1000, and I did not want to stray from the preloaded files. So I decided to chance going into and out of Thessaloniki in the middle of the night to avoid traffic. The strategy worked perfectly. Even roadways in very big cities are mostly asleep at night.

My last night in a bed was in Xanthi, Greece. After unsuccessfully trying to sleep in a roadside bus shelter, I temporarily gave up on feral behavior and pulled into a hotel. I only had about 450 km or so left, so I thought it best to get 4 or 5 hours of horizontal sleep in a real bed before making a final push to Istanbul.

The next day I reached my 11th and final border and crossed into Turkey. If I could beat the heat, the semis, and the never-ending stream of dogs giving chase, I would make it to Istanbul and finish the TCR. I sent the following emails and photos to friends and family shortly before and after entering Turkey:

August 11, 3:02 PM
Anticipate late arrival into Istanbul tomorrow. Trying to juggle fighting off packs of dogs at night versus Garmin spitting out 110 F today during daylight. Almost in Turkey. Here now at blue dot. 345 km left.

The blue dot showed Doug'm location: Almost in Turkey!
The blue dot showed Doug’s location: Almost in Turkey!

August 11, 6:39 PM
In Turkey now.

Finally in Turkey!
Finally in Turkey!

Now it really is Istanbul or bust. Under 300 km to go. Tailwinds at the moment. Let’s see how far I get tonight. I guess Turkish dogs will get a crack at me. I’ve lost my voice from yelling at the Greek dogs. I tell you what- the F words were coming out about as fast and loud as is possible when I was staring at nothing but canine – up to 6 or 8 sets (of chompers) – surrounding me in the dark.

On my final night out I sent this email to two friends and one of my nephews:

August 12, just after midnight

Just sending this to you three. I don’t want to scare anybody else…

The good news is I only have 213 km left. It’s a little after midnight. Big-time construction on parts of this major Turk highway I’m on. I had those canine buddies come at me a couple times on the right with semis on the left. Not fun but I haven’t crapped my pants yet.

I guess its part of the adventure.

I have three flashing tail lights on now. I think I can do this, but never a dull moment.

The final push had me riding over 250 miles, with only about 45 minutes sleep while sitting upright in a chair outside a petrol station. Normally such sleep deprivation at the end of a 4000 km plus unsupported race would be extremely dangerous, and stupid. Although I certainly can’t argue this approach was safe, I was so pumped up with adrenaline flowing in anticipation of the finish, that I was much more awake than would ordinarily be expected.

My final sunrise, 5:34 AM on August 12th, which was my 19th day in the race, looked like this:

TCR - 18 of 20

It’s an image I will never forget. At this point I finally realized I would finish the Transcontinental Race.

In the early afternoon of the 19th day I made it to Istanbul and the finish line. My official distance and time was 4400 km in 18 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes. I placed 65th amongst 75 solo male finishers. The one and only female finisher and 13 other non-solo male finishers also finished before me. As per the official results, 83 scratched out of 172 starters. The racer who finished just before me was 3 years older and the one who finished just behind me was 25 years younger. It was hard for all of us.

Here is a photo of me with my bike at the finish:

At the finish.
At the finish.

In retrospect, I’m not sure the trucks or dogs were really as bad as my emails suggest. Nonetheless, in many ways the Transcontinental Race was perhaps the biggest challenge I have ever faced.

Doug's completed brevet card.
Doug’s completed brevet card.

I can’t say enough good things about Mike Hall and Anna Haslock, the TCR organizers, as well as the other racers and all of the wonderful locals I met on this incredible journey.

*****
The 2016 Transcontinental Race begins at 10 PM on July 29 (Belgium time). Racers can be followed via Trackleaders. Doug will be lined up again and yes, he knows its crazy!
*****
Doug would like to give special thanks to:

Diane (for putting up with me doing this)
All my family and friends
Seattle International Randonneurs
Calfee Design
Wright Brothers Cycle Works
Sinewave Cycles
Voler
Ciclofachiro
Bob Brudvik
Wrench Bicycle Workshop
Davidson and Kullaway
Métier Racing and Coffee
Branford Bikes
Cascade Bicycle Studio

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