20,000 km on the Transcontinental Race
August 25th 2020
Doug Migden, an emergency physician by profession, is a long distance cyclist from Seattle, USA who has been riding in ultra distance events since 2010. He is one of only four people who have finished the Transcontinental Race five or more times (TCRs 3-7, 2015-9). He also completed the 5500 km Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Australia in 2017. Here he talks about his quintet of TCR experiences - totaling about 20,000 km.
Words: Doug Migden
Illustrations: Tom Probert
What’s so special about the TCR?
One of the things I love about the TCR is the odyssey component but at the same time it’s a bike race from Point A to Point B - across a culturally diverse Europe with four checkpoints en route, where the clock never stops, and you are totally on your own solo or as a pair without any support. You race day and night through small towns and big cities, into wild places with nothing for many miles, and up big mountain climbs. Often it’s too hot or cold or wet- or even snowing. Sometimes it’s hard to find food and a halfway decent place to sleep. The roads can be falling apart and empty or be dodgy with challenging traffic. In Eastern Europe it’s almost guaranteed that angry dogs will give chase in the night.
On my first TCR in 2015, it was unlike anything else I had ever done to line up at midnight on July 25th with 171 other cyclists at the top of the cobbled Muur of Geraardsbergen in Belgium, knowing the goal was to race over 4000 km across a continent, solo and without assistance, and hope to make it all the way to the finish in Turkey. That first TCR start in Belgium was a bit scary - next stop Istanbul on the Bosphorus - and it’s just you and your bike. But it’s also very exciting and the large dab of apprehension makes it even more so. There are a lot of unknowns ahead, things you can’t predict or fully prepare for despite your best efforts. And after five TCR finishes I still have uncertainties and make plenty of mistakes.
On the TCR, it’s as if you’re part wild animal, part primitive man, part Marco Polo, and part wannabe bike racer. It’s beautiful and hard not to be enthralled by the experience, even though there’s plenty of suffering. The TCR is an intense immersion into so many things life can throw at you - good and bad - and often at the same time. All condensed in a few weeks or so and mostly unencumbered by bureaucracy and other nonsense in the modern world.
TCRNo3 went from Geraardsbergen to Istanbul in 2015
My First TCR
TCRNo3 in 2015 was my longest and slowest, with a distance of about 4250 km and time of 18 days 14 hours; whereas, the winner finished in just under 10 days and the lanterne rouge arrived in 34 days. Eighty-nine of us made it to the end and 83 scratched. I definitely didn’t know what I was doing on that one but I was able to finish, which was probably due to being realistic about what I could achieve. I had a singular goal to make it to the end in Istanbul, regardless of how long it took.
The first of the twenty TCR checkpoints I’ve been to was on top of Mont Ventoux in the south of France, with the parcours taking us up the steep Bédoin route. As a side note, I should explain that for a given TCR each of the four required checkpoints, as well as the race start and finish, are usually accompanied by a stretch of required routing called parcours - ranging in length from a few kilometers to over 160 km. Other than the required parcours and checkpoints, riders choose their own route except for roads banned due to safety concerns.
I had previously cycled up Ventoux multiple times and had falsely assumed that doing it as part of TCRNo3 wouldn’t be too hard. However, there is a huge difference between climbing Ventoux on a day ride, and doing it sleep deprived with luggage after already going 1000 km from Belgium, as part of a 4000 km unsupported race across Europe. Nonetheless, I ended up doing fairly well going up Ventoux, but the descent was a different story.
Even though I didn’t have enough sleep prior to arriving at the base of Ventoux, it’s often not too difficult to stay awake on a big climb like that because you’re pumped up and the adrenaline is flowing when pedaling up a steep road to a checkpoint. After getting my brevet card stamped by a race volunteer at the top, I bought and swiftly devoured a large bag of sweets at the summit candy stand. Big mistake. Between the preexisting sleep deprivation, and metabolizing that huge bolus of sugar, I then found it impossible to stay awake while coasting downhill on the descent to Sault. The drowsiness was overwhelming, with one close-call which had me careening down the steep slope and across the road into the opposite lane. Yes, extreme sleep deprivation is crazy stupid and to be avoided at all costs. However, the problem is that it impairs judgement similar to drunk driving, so it’s easy not to appreciate the danger until it’s too late. Fortunately, I didn’t crash before finally realizing the need to stop and take a good roadside nap - or that would be the end of me. I truly fear sleep deprivation now. There is no glory in pushing the sleep envelope and no credible evidence that forgoing proper rest and cycling while barely awake results in a faster finish.
In Sault, I ate a decent dinner, showered, and slept for a few hours prior to getting started again before daylight. Unfortunately, that’s also where I slipped and fell down a dark stairwell in my B and B, landing hard on my backside. My posterior pelvis was seriously painful for about 2 1/2 weeks afterwards and maybe my sacrum was fractured, but I never had it imaged so we will never know for sure. The lesson to be learned from that one is to be extra careful going up and down stairs - particularly when you’re tired, carrying a loaded bike, and wearing bike shoes with slippery cleats.
Mike Hall, who created the TCR in 2013, placed the second TCRNo3 checkpoint in Sestriere, Italy with the associated parcours being the 40 km Strada dell’Assietta mountain bike road. The Assietta was a beautiful but serious piece of high mountain gravel and Mike’s way of nudging racers off of skinny tires. Those that rode on 23 mm rubber did so at their peril; one guy allegedly had nine tire punctures on just the Assietta.
After the CP2 parcours there was another section with over 1000 km - through Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia - to CP3 in the war torn town of Vukovar. My route then went south through Bosnia, with its lumpy terrain and heat, to the fourth checkpoint atop Mount Lovcen in Montenegro. The final stretch was over 1200 km through Albania, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey before finishing in Istanbul. Cycling through big cities on such a race should be avoided whenever possible, so rather than going on much busier roadways south through Tirana I took smaller roads northeast through a remote mountainous part of Albania. This choice worked out okay but these smaller streets were often in poor condition with steep grades and fewer opportunities to get food or water. Furthermore, the temperature got up to 110 F (43 C) in Albania, so I was thankful to survive that stretch.
TCRNo3 was also my first experience going from a relatively refined Western Europe into a much more “raw” Eastern Europe. Going from the West to the East has been a TCR high point and the solo adventure bike race perspective makes that transition even better.
I will never forget the final sunrise on that first TCR. It was in a somewhat rural area about 100 miles west of the finish and I had been riding for most of the night. I noticed the silhouette of a mosque and adjacent minaret as first daylight appeared in the east. At about the same time the night’s silence was interrupted by the sounds of early morning Muslim prayer and I envisioned a huge bustling city, once known as Constantinople, being just over the horizon. It was at that moment, after weeks in the saddle, when I finally realized I was going to finish the race. And then, later that day, it was truly euphoric to actually make it to the end in Istanbul - perhaps the most iconic crossroads on earth.
TCRNo4 in 2016
Do I Have a Favorite Race?
It's difficult to single out any of the five TCRs I’ve done as the best, but if forced to choose I’d likely pick No4 in 2016, which was the only one to finish in Asia. I should call it my agony and ecstasy race because it played out as a grand symphony with many highs and lows. From the Belgian start we headed south far into France and the first checkpoint in Clermont Ferrand, with the associated parcours going up the Col de Ceyssat. That year I went 660 km in the first two days, which was decent for me. Ideally I like to strive for 300 km per day for the first couple of days of the race, if weather and terrain allow, but it’s not always possible. This provides for an early mental boost and time cushion since things usually get harder down the road.
Unfortunately, I got quite sick with gastroenteritis on the third night out and ferocious diarrhea persisted for almost five days. My best guess is that the initial insult was a food-borne illness which later transitioned to an ischemic colitis due to the endurance nature of the race. I say this because there was a repetitive cycle of improvement followed by relapse, which might best be explained by the physiology of gut blood flow being diverted away from the gastrointestinal tract to extremity muscles during exercise. A sick gut is not going to heal well or fast if it’s not getting good blood flow for days on end due to constant intense exertion.
That first night of illness was the worst because it started suddenly in the dark in a part of rural France which was devoid of any services. No toilet or place to wash up is not much fun when you can’t keep any food or liquid in - and yes it was quite messy! I ended up running nearly on empty for hundreds of miles from CP2 in Grindelwald, Switzerland across the Alps and deep into Italy. However, there wasn’t any vomiting and I was able to drink liquids and absorb dextrose tablets sold in Swiss shops, despite not being able to process any other calories. This plus a bit of perseverance allowed me to push on. In hindsight I’m not sure how I pulled that one off but it taught me that the human engine can indeed run on fumes.
The 510 km mountain route between CP2 and the end of the CP3 parcours on top of Passo Giau in the Italian Dolomites had more climbing - at about 11,000 meters - than any other race section I’ve done. This was challenging to accomplish while ill; plus the total race elevation gain of about 42,000 meters was more than for any other TCR. Furthermore, the weather during much of the Alps traverse was especially bad with torrential rains, and a bunch of snow on top of the Albula Pass in Switzerland. Although it was hard to get through that stretch, the great scenery was more than worth the effort. I had never before been to the Dolomites and my first view of these beautiful mountains, as they peeked through the forest from the east, was another TCR sunrise I’ll never forget.
After climbing the Passo Giau there was a gorgeous late afternoon descent while heading southeast towards Slovenia. By now my gut was finally back to normal. Late that night I stopped to eat a few well earned pizzas and shower and sleep in a hotel in a small nondescript Italian town. The next day’s ride continued southeast through Slovenia to Croatia where I slept in a bus shelter on the southern outskirts of Rijeka, a seaport city on the Adriatic. My route then went inland to Bihać, Bosnia where a petrol station attendant named Amir allowed me to sleep inside his shop. He even went out of his way to put two wooden benches together to make me a bed. These simple and unexpected acts of generosity are one of the best things about the TCR. When someone like Amir meets a tired and hungry foreigner racing a bicycle across Europe, with nothing but a few bags of gear, there is an automatic affinity and desire to help. It’s as if they are saying bravo to the little guy just for showing up like that.
From Bihać I headed further south through Bosnia toward the final checkpoint in Montenegro. I remember feeling really good and almost giddy by the simplicity of it all - thinking that only on the Transcontinental Race can you find yourself climbing in the idyllic Dolomites one day and then a few days later you’re screaming down the M5 solo towards Sarajevo in the middle of the night, while being pushed by a monster tailwind and trying to beat an oncoming storm. However, that elation abruptly ended when I missed a turn in the middle of Sarajevo and found myself lost and riding down a very large motorway. The only reason I was able to promptly get out of that jam was because it was in the wee hours, when most of the human race is asleep, and there was no traffic. After navigating through Sarajevo, the storm finally caught up to me but I was able to bivouac under the awning of a small shop and not get too wet. This was my third night in a row sleeping rough in the Balkans.
The fourth and final TCRNo4 checkpoint parcours, the Durmitor in Montenegro, was almost my undoing. I headed out from Plužine in daylight but got caught up high after nightfall in an exposed landscape with no place to hide, in winds blowing me sideways, with driving rain and zero visibility. A Garmin failure there could’ve been catastrophic and this experience felt like the closest I’ve ever come to death on a bike. I foolishly didn’t see it coming because I failed to properly preview both the weather report and the mountainous route.
From Žabljak, Montenegro at the Durmitor parcours terminus, I then went through Kosovo, Macedonia, and Greece before crossing the final border into Turkey. Instead of going straight and east across to Istanbul, like the year before, this time the route went south on the Gallipoli Peninsula to Eceabat. From there it was a 20 minute ferry ride across the Dardanelles to Asia and a stellar finish in the Turkish tourist town of Canakkale.
TCRNo5 in 2017
TCRNo6 in 2018 took racers between Geraardsbergen and Meteora for the second time
In both 2017 and 2018 the TCR started in Geraardsbergen, Belgium and finished in Meteora, Greece. How similar or not were these two events?
Both races zigzagged north to south as well as west to east but otherwise the two were quite different. TCRNo5 in 2017 was sadly the first Transcontinental without its founder, Mike Hall, who was killed by a motor vehicle while competing in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Australia that spring. Mike was a great guy who cared about everyone on his race, including those in the middle and back of the pack as well as the front end. Of course this was horrible for Mike’s loved ones but the bikepacking community is fairly tight knit and his passing was also devastating for everyone else who knew and admired him. Under the circumstances, it was a huge achievement for Anna Haslock (Mike’s partner), Juliana Buhring, Rory Bear Kemper and others to assume the reins and pull off a great TCRNo5 - along with the support of Mike’s mother Pat and brother Russell.
Unfortunately, 2017 also saw a death on the TCR when Frank Simons was killed by a driver in Belgium on the first night out. It took a lot of fortitude for the organizers to not cancel the race after Frank’s death but his family thought he would have wanted it to continue. I’m thankful the organizers decided likewise but such decision-making is quite delicate, especially in this case because of Mike’s death earlier in the year.
Overall, TCRNo5 was a relatively solemn affair and, for me, a race of reflection. However, like the prior two Transcontinentals it was ultimately a fantastic experience - notwithstanding the year’s tragedies. The CP2 parcours went up the Monte Grappa, from Semonzo, in Italy. The 18 km climb, with an average grade of 8%, was plenty difficult due to high temperatures and fatigue. I only had a few hours sleep the night before, in an attempt to get up and over the top before the heat of the day became overwhelming. However, I failed to get it done before the afternoon inferno arrived and ended up getting cooked on that climb. Like on Ventoux two years before, the difficulty of these things is determined by the situation at hand. Many of these classic European climbs are demanding without being overwhelming on a day ride, but morph into a different beast when done as part of a TCR. 2017 was the first time the race would go through Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, with the third checkpoint being in the High Tatras and the fourth checkpoint taking us up the Transfagarasan Highway in Romania. It was great to venture into new countries but Romanian traffic conditions could be quite sketchy.
There was one experience on TCRNo5 in 2017 which epitomized how much context matters on these adventures. The third parcours climb of the Sliezsky Dom in Slovakia was about 7 km, averaging 10% grade on a tiny busted-up road through high alpine forest. It had been raining buckets most of the day but just before I arrived at the checkpoint hotel in late afternoon, the clouds parted for a mere 15 seconds or so, briefly showing off the stunning peaks of the High Tatras mixed with a tinge of baby blue sky. It was as if these huge granite beauties simply jumped out in front of me only to tease and hide again after a few blinks of the eye. As brief as it was, that was an unforgettable moment in large part because I had raced alone on a bike for over 2000 km to see it that way.
I remember the last 36 hrs of TCRNo5 quite well. The steep climb out of Serbia and into Macedonia was a tough one in the Balkan heat, with lousy tarmac on the descent. I pulled into Kumamovo, Macedonia just as a big storm was approaching and found a hotel tucked behind a petrol station - where I slept for four hours and then took off at 3 AM - hoping I could do the remaining 425 km to the finish in a big one day push. However, it ended up taking 27 hours.
At the time I was thinking this was likely going to be my last TCR; finishing out at the age of 60 on the last race designed by Mike Hall. I was feeling good so why not see if the old dog could still hunt. It turned out to be a great last day - until it wasn’t. Within that last 425 km there must’ve been at least 200 km of pristine cycling tailwind. The tailwind even kept going when my direction changed. It was unbelievably good and Mike’s presence was felt. With 100 km or so left I thought it would be easy peasy to the finish line. Then came the final wall of up-and-down, up-and-down, up-and-down. Steep stuff too. And of course since it was Mike’s final act there had to be dogs chasing. Not just one or two dogs. There must’ve been 25 or 30 dog chases during that last bit of climbing in the middle of the night. When they started to chase me up a 10% grade I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was sadistic and if Mike gave me the tailwind he was also throwing in this one last sufferfest with the steep stuff and angry dogs. Trust me – no caffeine needed to stay awake now. Being tormented by dogs was much more effective. For a brief second I even asked myself if anybody has ever scratched on a TCR with 20 km to go! Yep, for me, that final bit of terror was the lovely evil genius Mike Hall at his finest.
My dream scenario for TCRNo6 in 2018 was to win the Maglia Nera - the coveted black jersey which Mike Hall brought to the TCR from the post-WWII era of the Giro d’Italia. The TCR Maglia Nera goes to the last rider to complete the race before the finisher’s party ends, which in 2018 was 16 days after the start. It would not be impossible for me to win but the odds were not great, considering my prior best time was 16 days 6 hours in 2017.
In 2018 I went through 16 countries which was more than any of the prior three races - Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece. The organizers excelled on this one and the four TCRNo6 checkpoints with their associated parcours, were, as a set, the best of my five year experience. The difficulty of the third parcours to Karkonosze Pass in Poland and fourth parcours gravel ascent up Bjelašnica in Bosnia was such that these two were technically harder to ride in their entirety than any of the prIor thirteen checkpoint parcours I had done, resulting in my walking up the majority of both. However, for me, the difficulty of those challenges made for a better race. In particular, the ability of Bjelašnica gravel to shred one’s ego was very humbling and a good reality check for anyone feeling invincible.
Unfortunately, avoidable road traffic risks remain for cyclists in essentially all countries visited during these five years on the TCR. Give a human being a motorized vehicle and all of the sudden they think they are King Kong, without needing to be strong, smart, skilled, or most importantly caring about any other lives on the road - particularly someone on a bicycle. It’s markedly contrary to that other collective TCR experience, whereby riders are the recipients of so many acts of human kindness on the roadside. Humanity can and must do better. Not to be melodramatic, but after five finishes I am more convinced than ever that the Transcontinental Race should live on forever and never be “forced off the road.” This is an issue much larger than just a bike ride or race. It’s a bellwether about how people treat each other.
In 2018, I found Albania to be the worst in regard to motor vehicles; whereas, in 2017 Romania took that prize. In 2018 I had to choose between low traffic with crappy road surfaces in the remote mountains of northeastern Albania or dodging big city traffic by going further south through the Albanian capital of Tirana. The mountain route would be the same as what I did in 2015 and the thought of doing it again was quite unappealing. I didn’t see myself repeating that monster unless there wasn’t a viable alternative, and so in 2018 I reluctantly chose busier roads with big city traffic. I survived it but.....
I had been thoroughly forewarned about sketchy roads leading to Tirana, so it was a welcome surprise to encounter the perfect traffic jam as I approached the city on the SH2. Traffic was backed up for miles which allowed for riding unimpeded on the empty strip of tarmac to the right of this huge standstill. However, the bliss was short-lived and quickly replaced by big city traffic chaos, whereby the physics of mass in motion was mixed with the worst midday Monday attributes of human behavior. In other words, it was time to take a deep breath, hang on for dear life, and just keep pedaling.
On the plus side, I’ll never forget the local guy in his office shirt and long pants on his clunky commuter bike weaving in and out of traffic, crossing Tirana like a pro. Not wanting to squander opportunity, I followed him through the traffic congestion and made it across town in one piece despite two close encounters with large buses.
If I had to make a similar routing choice through Albania a third time, I think I would go out of my way to ride through Tirana in the dead of night and hope for empty roadways. The problem with this strategy is getting the timing right and in sync with your sleeping and eating needs. Time management, being flexible with one’s daily mileage plans, and not squandering opportunities such as tailwinds are a collective set of TCR skills worth honing. The TCR racer should primarily occupy their time with only three things - pedaling, sleeping, and eating. Although its a huge advantage to be able to eat at will while pedaling, many of us find this challenging.
The final parcours in both 2017 and 2018 took us through the Meteora UNESCO World Heritage Site with the finish itself being in the town of Kalambaka. The Greek Orthodox monasteries perched on top of towering rock formations were beautiful to see at the end of such a race, but in 2017 I missed out on the scenery due to finishing at 4 AM. Nonetheless, having escaped those dogs in one piece, I wasn’t complaining. In 2018, the late afternoon views on the fast 15 km descent to the end were spectacular. As a bonus, no dogs were chasing this time because they are lazy during the day.
TCRNo6 in 2018 was my fastest and most competitive race. I finished in 15 days 21 hours and placed 80th out of 223 solo starters. Not great but okay for a graybeard. Unfortunately, I didn’t win the black jersey because for once in my life I was too fast and arrived at the end just before the party started, rather than as the last rider to finish before the party ended. C’est la vie!
In 2019 the race went from east to west for the first time
Last year the Transcontinental Race went from east to west for the first time - starting in Burgas, Bulgaria on the Black Sea and finishing in Brest, France on the Atlantic Ocean. What was that like?
After starting in Western Europe the prior four years, it was a welcome change to race in the other direction and I enjoyed the Black Sea start. However, as a whole, TCRNo7 in 2019 was about two notches more difficult than all of the prior four races. I say this based on the basic route and arduous checkpoint parcours, rather than because of the east to west race direction or any personal challenges. It was simply an exceptionally demanding race. The TCRNo7 parcours, as a set, made TCRNo6 the year before look like child’s play. A number of top racers scratched on this one, so I was content to just finish and not be last - even though I was relatively slow. In 2019 there was a lot of gnarly gravel and the second and third checkpoint parcours were over the top in difficulty. The dirt and gravel Besna Kobila CP2 parcours in Serbia was extreme, especially on a road bike. The third CP parcours began with a very tame climb of Passo Gardena in the Italian Dolomites but then turned into some serious suffering as the route went into and out of Bolzano. The road into Bolzano was gorgeous and worth putting up with the steep parts which went up to 15%. However, I think the organizers were trying to crush us on the exit out of Bolzano to the north- with miles of road at 20% or steeper. There was a lot of walking on that bit and I was glad I did it in daylight and was wearing mountain bike rather than road cycling shoes. Just thinking about that part still makes my feet hurt. Pushing a bike with luggage up that grade in the middle of a 4150 km race was punishing, but it wasn’t raining or scorching hot so there actually wasn’t much to complain about. Overall, this was a very lengthy race with more gravel and many more parcours miles than any prior TCR. Also, from the final checkpoint, in Le Bourg-d’Oisans, France to the finish in Brest, it was a very long and rainy 1200 km through a big chunk of rural France.
The final section into Brest was an exciting way to finish an endurance race because it was the first time I had ever raced anyone in a flat-out sprint at the end - not to mention doing it when you have already put in over 4000 km. Fu Yiqun, from Beijing, and I had been crossing paths for a few thousand kilometers and when I left Carhaix, at the beginning of the final 77 km parcours, I thought he was behind me. However, Fu unexpectedly popped out of the brush on the roadside just as I was starting onto that last stretch. We were surprised to see each other and rather than being a nice guy and taking a few minutes to chat, I just headed full gas towards Brest and the Atlantic Ocean. I felt like a jerk for taking off like that but afterwards Fu, who finished about 30 minutes behind, told me I had inspired him. Those were kind words and I suspect Fu will beat me by a good day or two next time because he’s a strong rider who is almost 20 years younger, and I bet he learned a lot completing the toughest of TCRs.
The TCR rule that you ride by yourself appears to be antisocial. Is it?
Before I did my first TCR I thought this rule was a bad one and, in fact, Mike Hall and I exchanged a few words about it in the spring of 2015. But I think Mike’s vision on that issue was correct. In my book he got it just right with that rule. The reason I say this is that when you do something like these races across a continent solo and unsupported it forces you out of your comfort zone. You interact with the locals and the surrounding environment in an immersive kind of way without the security of having someone you know to hide behind. Riding with friends is great but in this situation they can be insulating from what’s going on around you. The best part of the TCR is the collective mash-up of all these things already mentioned - particularly when so many facets of life are juxtaposed within a serious bike race. The second best thing, is the myriad of wonderful human interactions with both the local people you meet along the way and other racers you cross paths with. It’s a bit counterintuitive because social interaction is not what first comes to mind when thinking about the TCR; however, I’ll definitely never forget how nice so many local people have been to me on this race. I’ve also formed everlasting bonds with other TCR riders from all over the world, some of whom I might have only met briefly on the road or at the finish. After surviving the TCR battlefield with these people you feel like they are your brothers and sisters for life.
A few more examples of local kindness
Food has been given to me in the Balkans a handful of times. Three loaves of bread in Bosnia, a yogurt from a food truck in rural Serbia - this sort of thing. Always unsolicited and sometimes it was handed to me without any exchange of words because someone just assumed I was hungry. These were situations open to all racers so there were no rules violations, and offers to pay were always refused. Not to be presumptuous, but I’m fairly certain those who gave me food were relatively poor in money. However, I also suspect their basic needs - including a roof over their head and food in their gut - were satisfied and, as such, their mindset was easily altruistic. They were able to give food to somebody like me who they thought needed it - a harmless and plain appearing soul who thinks he’s going to race a bike alone across a continent - so why not do so? It’s quite rudimentary, but it’s also unfortunate that many of us who are more affluent can easily lose sight of this - myself included.
In 2016, after descending the Albula Pass in the snow, I was wet and freezing my butt off and still quite ill with diarrhea, when I found a small Swiss hotel and restaurant to stop at for the night. I snuck into the restaurant just before closing and ordered a bowl of soup and some spaghetti but I was sick and not able to eat the pasta. I wanted more soup but the chef had gone home. The waitress, who saw me running back-and-forth to the toilet, could tell I was in trouble and so she took it upon herself to go into the kitchen to make me two more bowls of soup. It might seem like a small thing but I’ll always remember what she did for me.
Some things I do to stay safe on the road
I almost always ride with a front headlight on in daylight as well as at night and I use multiple flashing red taillights. Sometimes I even have three or four taillights turned on at the same time. I like to be all eyes and ears and never ride with earbuds. I don’t want to be distracted by music and like to be fully connected to the surrounding environment via sound as well as sight.
Safety and success in finishing these races go hand in hand. Willpower and perseverance need to be tempered with good judgment and being realistic about one’s physical ability. For example, in 2018 it was one thing for James Hayden, who has twice won the TCR, to go north up and over the steep Karkonosze Pass with a steeper descent into Poland to the start of the CP3 parcours - and then immediately turn around and go back south up the steeper side and over the same pass, on the required climb to the checkpoint. However, it was going to be a different and risky rodeo for an exhausted and weaker Doug Migden to try the same stunt. The champ’s shorter direct route from the south was much harder than the longer approach I took to the CP3 parcours start. I crossed the Czech border into Poland from the west, with gentler inclines and very good food in a small tourist town near the border. At the time I was tempted to try what James did but in hindsight I think his shorter, steeper, and more technical route north from the Czech Republic into Poland would have been too punishing and counterproductive.
Although I’m still learning, the more experience I get the more attention I pay to fatigue and avoiding sleep deprivation. I’m now content with being slower to the finish due to taking less risks shortchanging sleep. Caffeine intake can help to some degree but cheating sleep should be avoided as much as possible. I admire the elite ultra distance racers who get adequate rest, rather than the ones who don’t.
I’m also a believer in high viz./high contrast colors and reflective material on clothing, ankles, bike frames, cranks, and wheels.
Which countries are my favorite on the race?
Italy and Bosnia. I’ve done a fair amount of cycling in Italy, on both the TCR and other events. Italian riders are wonderful, the scenery is superb, and the food can’t be beat. There’s a reason all seven TCRs have been to Italy. It’s bellissimo!
Bosnia has been a substantial part of three of my TCRs. Riding there has a certain edge to it- a rawness perhaps- that is hard to describe but which is always challenging. Plus Bosnia is guaranteed to have serious mountains to tangle with.
Which view was the best?
Looking south from the Mangart Sedlo, Slovenia in the Julian Alps before sunset (pictured below). It was on TCRNo6 in 2018, at the start of the CP2 parcours. As an added bonus, the same parcours took me along the gorgeous Soča River shortly after daybreak the next day. The emerald green tinge and clarity of that mountain stream, illuminated by early morning light, was beyond stunning.
Mangart Sedlo, Julian Alps, Slovenia
Tips for avoiding dog bites
Most of the time I try to outride chasing dogs. Before my first race in 2015 the joke was that riders had to be able to do a 40 kph 200 meter sprint in order to finish unscathed . On my first TCR I did a lot of shouting, and I have a loud voice so this might have been helpful. The F words were definitely flowing fast and furiously when dogs chased me on TCRNo3. So much so that I completely lost my voice somewhere in the middle of Turkey and not being able to yell at mean dogs near the end of the race was downright scary. In 2016 I started carrying a loud emergency whistle, which is now always worn on a string around my neck, when riding in Eastern Europe. I’m not sure the whistle is very effective, although perhaps it buys me a few seconds since it sometimes seems to make the dogs hesitate at the start of their chase. Unfortunately, in my four years of using the whistle, I’ve only seen it stop one dog dead in its tracks. However, the whistle does work well in congested city traffic. Cars hate it but it definitely gets their attention. Also, using the whistle rather than shouting allows me to save my voice.
Last year I rode straight through the middle of Sofia, Bulgaria - population 1.3 million - in the dead of night. On the way out of town heading south, I was going through a ghetto like area and there were a lot of stray dogs chasing. In this case I could see them from far away so a chase was anticipated. For the first time I tried the approach whereby you get off the bike and slowly walk away from them while keeping your bike between the dogs and you. The theory being that the dogs only chase because you’re provoking them by riding fast. Getting off the bike and walking worked and the dogs backed off, but I doubt this strategy is foolproof. In the future I’ll use this technique again when I can size the dogs up before they get too close. However, I’m disinclined to try it when a snarling dog is almost on me before I’m aware of its presence.
A lot of racers are of the opinion that TCR dogs giving chase don’t really want a piece of you - that they just want you out of their territory. However, I’m aware of riders being bit by dogs on at least four of the last five TCRs. In one case the laceration went deep into leg muscle, resulting in that rider scratching in Romania.
What’s next for me?
I’m planning on doing the Transcontinental Race again next year. TCRNo8, which has been postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic, will provisionally start in Brest, France and finish in Burgas, Bulgaria. This will be the reverse of last year except for different checkpoints and parcours. I would still like to win the black jersey.
Albania 2018 after surviving Tirana, TCRNo6
© Doug Migden. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior permission from the author.