I caught up with Grace Lambert-Smith who took part in the the 5th edition of the TransContinental Race.
For those who are unaware this a self-supported race from Geraardsbergen, Belgium and finishes in Meteora, Greece. However there are 4 checkpoints riders need pass which are in Germany, Italy,Slovakia and Romania and then heading to Greece for the finish.
A rough idea of the route looks like this
James Hayden was the overall winner of this race, finishing in just 8 days, 23 hours and 14 minutes.
At over 4,000km this is an incredible task and no small feat, to say the least. 285 set out to start this race with over 30 females, the most this race had seen.
According to the tracking around 120 of the 285 riders made checkpoint 4 by the times it closed.
If this race isn’t tough enough as it is, this year the riders had to put up with a heatwave called Lucifer making most places at least 10 degrees hotter than usual.
“I didn’t do the race to fall out of love with cycling.”
Here is what Grace had to say
How many miles a day roughly were you averaging?
In total I covered around 1700km in a week of cycling so that’s an average of around 240km per day. Having said that, some days were more productive than others for example I did 350km by pulling an all-nighter through Austria/Italy.
I can imagine it wasn’t an easy decision, so what was it which ultimately made you scratch from the race?
In short, I stopped enjoying it. The heat was too much and I couldn’t cover the distances I needed to in the time I had left to make the checkpoint cut off times. I lost motivation once I realised this and I figured if I wasn’t having fun, that was the time to call it a day. I didn’t do the race to fall out of love with cycling.
Where about’s were you when you made the decision?
I’d just woken up from bivvying outside a fire station in a really small village in Austria (just out of Klagenfurt) and realised that the day ahead would be as awful as the day I’d just done. I called my friend to get his advice and to just talk to someone about the decision. I made it about 50km into that day’s riding and I knew it was over. My friend El Jaskowska was an hour or so behind me along the same road and she called me to tell me she was scratching too despite our decisions being entirely independent of each other. We met up, emailed race HQ and continued a little bit together before getting the train to Bratislava that night.
What bike did you use for the TCR?
I used my Giant Propel. It’s entirely inappropriate for audaxing and long distance touring but I absolutely love that bike and ultimately didn’t have the money to get a whole new setup. I got new wheels with a dynamo and an 11-32T rear cassette and added dynamo lights and a USB charger. I put aerobars on my bike to allow for another hand position while riding. I also added some finishing touches like new bar tape and reflective tape on my seat stays.
The logistics side of things, getting your bike over with all your kit, how did you manage that?
Thankfully Eurostar offers bike transportation whereby you don’t have to dismantle your bike or put it in a box which makes it easier for trips like this in that I didn’t have to source or dispose of a box at either end. All I had to do was remove all my bags and anything that might fall off en route and leave it with them until I got to Brussels. From there I rode to Geraardsbergen which was about 50km – a nice little warm up if you will!
Roughly how much was it costing per day on supplies and to cover the thing?
I took around 200 euros in cash and about 850 on my Monzo card. I think I spent most of my money on food: you eat a lot doing rides like this! And drinking too: coffee in the morning, endless cans of Fanta and Coke as well as bottled water at petrol stations to refill bottles. The rest went on Hotel rooms, which weren’t too cheap in Germany, Austria and Italy so I ended up spending a couple of hundred there on nights I didn’t want to bivvy.
What was the most important piece of kit you had with you?
Short of pointing out the obvious like comfortable bib shorts, I’d say my flip flops! I ended up walking a large chunk of Monte Grappa so I probably saved myself a new set of cleats by wearing my flip flops. I ended up losing one later on in my ride which I’m still annoyed about!
What was it like training for something like this around a job, and how did you train?
I work a standard Monday to Friday full-time job with no special privileges given to me for something like this so training took up the majority of my weekends and once we got lighter evenings, those too. I did a lot of audaxes (resulting in my Super Randonneur award) and a few multi-day trips both solo and with friends: rode to the other side of Snowdonia with my friend, went down to my Auntie’s 250km away for a chippy tea one night and rode back the next day, rode from London to Copenhagen with another friend. Prior to training for this event I’d never camped before so I slept under the stars in the Peak District so I knew how to bivvy. I had to practice with my aerobars a fair bit to get used to them and find what position worked best for me over longer distances.
What was the best part of the TCR?
The views…definitely the views. I’ve seen some pretty incredible sights thanks to TCR and it’s inspired me to keep doing more lightweight touring so I can continue to see great things. You never forget your first Alpine sunset with beautiful pink skies. I remember in Germany when I was about 50km from CP1, I turned a corner and had a little cry because the view was so beautiful. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and the road I was on gently downhill therefore allowing me to soak it all in.
…and the worst?
Monte Grappa parcours was easily the worst climb I’ve ever had to do. I’d arrived at CP2 around 6am, got some breakfast and began the climb about 8am and already the temperature was soaring. There were 28 switchbacks to get up and they gradually became more and more exposed to the sun and my water bottles were emptying more and more with each pedal stroke. I eventually got to the top some hours later and just wanted to cry. It was the worst I’d felt in a long time and if someone had’ve asked me if I wanted to scratch, I’d have willingly given them my brevet card then and there.
For anyone looking to get into bikepacking what tips would you give?
DO IT NOW! It’s a lot of fun and gives you a massive sense of achievement and independence. If you’re nervous about going it alone, drag a friend along – adventures are better shared anyway. If you haven’t bivvied before, start with practicing closer to home so that you’re not too far from safety if you need it. Always stop and smell the roses and enjoy where you are at that moment. Beg, steal and borrow your kit from friends when starting out. Lightweight kit can be expensive so ask around and I’m sure you’ll find others who’ll lend you kit for a weekend.
Would you do this again?
I don’t think racing is for me. I prefer to ride on my terms rather than under time pressure.
Grace mentioned that racing was never the priority for this in a tweet during the TCR and I can imagine that is with most other riders too, it’s about the adventure and experience we get with cycling.
I’m glad to see that Grace hasn’t fell out of love with cycling and is still keen to do some more bike packing on her own terms, which is how it should be! She also said that she likes to cycle with friends and share her adventures and with the TCR being self-supported (includes no drafting) it meant that riding with friends proved difficult.
Grace provided constant updates on how the race was going and as a result, lead to some funny tweets. Here are some of my favourites:
— Grace Lambert-Smith (@thisisgrace) August 1, 2017
5 guys at a petrol station dressed in full lederhosen and me stood 5m away in all my #TCRNo5 glory. Not sure who looks weirder.
— Grace Lambert-Smith (@thisisgrace) August 3, 2017
Things I’ve lost in the last 24H: the will to ride up mountains, insulated gilet and a flip flop. The former I’m alright with now.
— Grace Lambert-Smith (@thisisgrace) August 3, 2017
— Grace Lambert-Smith (@thisisgrace) August 2, 2017
— Grace Lambert-Smith (@thisisgrace) July 31, 2017