Bjorn Lenhard, an accomplished ultra-distance cyclist, entered the Transcontinental Race for the third time in 2018. The event, approximately 3800 kilometres long, is non-stop and unsupported, and crosses Europe via just four checkpoints. It took Bjorn 10 days and 36 minutes to cover the distance.
TCR 2018 ran in a zig-zag pattern from Geraardsbergen in Belgium to Meteroa in Greece, setting off south to Austria on one side of the Alps, then crossing to Slovenia (just across the border from Italy) on the other side. Next it went north to Poland (just over the border from Czech) and then south to Bosnia, before a final run down to Greece. Cyclists must decide on their own route between checkpoints and canny road choice can make all the difference. It is reckoned that competitors covered approximately 4000km and ascended some 35-40,000 metres in all. As an unsupported race riders cannot receive outside support, resupply or lodgings that are unavailable to other competitors.
In 2017 Bjorn Lenhard placed second in the Transcontinental Race. He would love to have improved on this, but in the way of these races, as well as some pieces of good luck, he had two major problems and in 2018 he placed third. Here he talks through the ups and downs of his race.
For more information about the Transcontinental Race, see their website here. Photographs courtesy Camille McMillan and Max Libertine. Björn Lenhard has been a brand ambassador for Canyon Bikes, Apidura and 7Mesh clothing since 2018
What was Transcontinental 2018 like?
Bjorn Lenhard: It’s a really tough race anyway, but the Transcontinental 2018 was much cooler than last year, when it got to 45 degrees in the day. This time it only reached 35, which is still warm but manageable, though it got cold in the mountains. The level of the competition was about the same as in previous years.
Were you as prepared as you needed to be?
I think so. I didn’t suffer as much as I have in previous years. The only time I really suffered in this year’s event was mentally, first in Czech and then when I was in Bosnia, where I ended up on an unsafe road and I had to ride an additional 200 kilometres to get back onto a usable road.
I had the usual minor problems. I got some chafing, though actually that wasn’t too bad. I should have stretched a bit more before going to sleep. I have been to a physio this year and this has really helped me to get over a problem with my back. Finally I ended up with no feeling in my fingers and toes, but that’s usual. It will return to normal around Christmas. It’s funny how your body manages to hold it all together during the event, but then as soon as you finish a race things everything falls to bits.
What was the race organisation like?
Perfect. They did a great job with everything. It’s important for riders to know there is a good structure behind them in a race like this. Last year, after the death of Mike Hall in Australia, they were a bit worried. This year it was great. Registration was smooth and we went through our bike-checks in about 45 minutes.
Obviously we don’t expect much of a fanfare at the end of the race as we all arrive at such different times. They keep it small and simple. I finished at about midnight and there were just a couple of people at the bar.
How did your race go?
It took me two or three days before I really got into the race, but in fact the first two checkpoints, down to the Alps, were fine. I got three hours’ sleep each night.
I hit my first big problem between Checkpoint 2 and 3. I found myself on a Czech road where there should have been a hard shoulder but there wasn’t - it was really busy and basically too dangerous. I had to choose another road and then I got caught up with roadworks and it all began to go wrong. I ran out of water and food and I had no Czech money to buy anything - I carry just Euros and a credit card. I really suffered.
I couldn’t think straight any more and I was absolutely at my end. I made the decision to stop and I slept for 10 hours. The result was that Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3 took two days and I probably lost six or seven hours. Also, I was only about 200km away from home in Dresden. I considered throwing the race in – staying for a few days to watch the other competitors come through CP3 and then just cycling home - but I couldn’t do it. After that I had a little problem with a rear tyre near Checkpoint 4, but I was lucky and it was sorted out very quickly.
In Bosnia I hit my second big problem. I chose a road marked on google maps which turned out to be gravel after about 25 kilometres. It was already dark but I kept going for a bit, asking about the surface of the road wherever I could, but nobody could speak any German. I climbed to 1200 metres and it got really cold. In the end I had to turn around and return to the village, then head for another road, which turned out to be closed. And then the next road, down to Sarajevo, that was far too busy with traffic. I did about 200 extra kilometres and that really hurt.
What of Sleep and Nutrition?
I slept between three and five hours a night. It’s unpredictable, and it doesn’t necessarily depend on what happened the day before. Sometimes I set the alarm for four hours and I wake up early and I feel strong enough to get back on the bike. Other times I try to get up and I need another hour before I can get going again.
I didn’t have a problem with food. I found all I needed in petrol stations. Of course it’s nice to have some fresh fruit, but in the end I visited only one supermarket during the whole race.
My discipline was pretty good. I didn’t waste much time while I was out there. I ate on the bike a lot and I didn’t stop much either. It gets harder towards the end of the race and of course when things are going against you, then it is definitely harder to keep good discipline – drinking and eating properly.
What were the good moments?
There was a really nice moment when I was forced to stop in Bosnia. I was in a restaurant, chatting to the people there and it felt great after my problems. The other fantastic moment was to see the scenery around CP4 near Sarajevo. That was spectacular.
What did you learn?
There were just a few things. I will carry a bit more foreign currency after my problem in Czech and I will carry a spare valve after my problem at CP3. I will also carry a bit more food with me in future.