Transcontinental Race (TCR) – one of the youngest events on the bicycle map of Europe. The adventure of TCR started only five years ago in 2013 and was inaugurated by late Mike Hall. The fifth edition of the race was a special one as originator’s death preceded the event which called TCR into question. This year’s event started in Geraardsbergen, Belgium and finished in Meteora, Greece, going through checkpoints in Germany, Italy, Slovakia and Romania, the route took all in all 4300 km. As the organizers describe it: At the sharp end it is a beautifully hard bicycle race, simple in design but complex in execution. The rider is on his/her own through thousands of kilometers cycling for days. An event where not everyone gets in, out of 1000 applicants around 300 got the chance, 120 finished. Cap No.118 was the lucky one, Zygmunt Kulczyna finished the race.
28th July, Geraardsbergen, 9.55 pm, the race is about to start, what do you feel?
I start to cry as I just realize what I got myself into and tears go down. Till that moment I wasn’t fully aware of what is awaiting, I trained a lot, long distance up to hundreds of kilometers but when I saw all those people, it hit me. Despite great atmosphere I said to myself: ok it’s about to begin. On one hand I was excited, on the other I started to panic a bit, I felt lost, I didn’t know what will happen during next two weeks, I have never accepted such a challenge before, day by day on a saddle for fourteen days, you ride for 15-20 hours, you sleep for 3-4 hours. After a few days your body starts to get exhausted and you make mistakes. Sleep-deprived, annoyed and I realized all that just a few minutes before standing with my girlfriend on the start line. We can talk about it in positive manner, beautiful challenge, Belgium-Greece, 4300 km but in fact it’s tears almost every day, gnashing the teeth, clenching them and moving forward.
How your cycling adventure started? What motivated you to take part in TCR05?
I was looking for motivation, the bike was on my mind for a while and I wanted to travel and to challenge myself so that was the perfect combination. In summer 2015 I rode with my girlfriend, from Silesia to Croatia, initially 1000 km, which was quite a funny adventure, we took 12-year-old bikes, packed first things on hand and with 250 euro in the pocket we decided to go, which turned out to be a great expedition. expedition. In the meantime we realized it’s too wonderful to end the trip, thus after reaching
Sibenik we decided to move towards Venice and come back home through Alps, 45 days, no paid accommodation, life adventure. Today I laugh about it because we looked funny and it didn’t even cross my mind that I will do TCR. As I was crossing Alps this summer, I counted in my mind five spots where we spent a night back in 2015, the distance I did during one day. On the way back home, in Brno, our host showed me Josh Ibbett – winner of 2015, he made 400 km a day while we struggled to make around 100 km, a huge contrast. That was a moment when I said wow and I realized you can do that better and faster, so that’s when it has started.
Was it more race or challenge for you?
Both, either you do something well or not at all, so my point was not only to finish but also to get some decent place in the ranking. I have never ridden professionally, the first road bike I bought in December 2015 more or less 1,5 year before the race which shocked people. Given only the date of purchase it seemed more like a challenge, a need of self-realization, something big and cool, out of the box.
What did you want to achieve by participation in this event?
I have some aims in my life and I had a vision that this can help me in the future. I started to get interested in the cycling brand especially that I work in it at the moment and it helps me to build the position. It’s an opportunity to develop yourself, there are tough moments in life but what I experienced there it’s hard to express because a man is fighting with himself. You decide to suffer on your own, everyone does, it doesn’t matter if you finish in 10, 14 days, one girl finished it after 28 days and she proved to herself she can do that. On my counter I got 49 000 meters of ascent which is like climbing Everest 5 times.
What were your moments of doubt? How did you fight it?
They happen a lot, a friend who finished it laughed when I wrote him that I had two situations that I was really about to go back, he asked me then how often it really happened that I wanted to resign and he got the point, it’s basically everyday that you think about it. All the little things cause mental sorrow and discomfort, you never know if some little silly thing won’t make you resign from the race. To resign is a difficult decision, you sacrifice a lot of your time, funds and privacy and then something happens and you need to choose health or finishing the race, in these moments we don’t think clearly. In Austria and Slovakia I had my 24 hours of tears and sorrow. A very unfortunate chain of accidents: broken mattress, GPS, one of the phones died, charging issues, got two punctures one by one, waterproof bag’s zipper damaged, no other place where to store those things, going through the tunnel my front wheel got into trough, which was dangerous as there is dynamo hub producing energy, it went down to its half scratching spokes which creates a danger of breaking one of them. All that makes you irritated – one of the moments when you say I want to go home and you start to cry. It cut my wings, I started to doubt myself. I already made up my mind, I was supposed to come back. In Slovakia I wasn’t far from home, my parents started to convince me that I should return and then the stubborn part of me clicked in, the second phone started to work, it started to rain so the temperature finally went down, the race was on. In Serbia, only 500 km before the finish line I wanted to make an irrational decision to drop the race. Going uphill I was going kilometer by kilometer more pushing the bike than riding it. My girlfriend was already looking for a ticket for me, I sat for most of the day at the petrol station but I was lucky enough, there were no connections from Serbia so after all, the best way was to go ahead.
How did you prepare technically?
I built the bike so it fits the race, I picked element by element, I bought separately the frame, equipment, wheels which was quite challenging. There can be racers that have not a clue about how a bike is constructed because they have people for that but not in case of TCR. I was satisfied as to quality and price.
What was the biggest challenge?
You change country every day or day and a half, changing currencies, products, languages, road signs; crossing countries is linked with multiple complications. I got a very serious issue with my knees, screaming out of pain. The most troublesome were open wounds from the saddle that in the temperature of 40 degrees in the shadow, sweating all the time doesn’t heal well and caused a lot of pain. When you cannot bare sitting on the saddle, the question arises whether to continue or not. The worst moments were when I was alone, in the middle of nowhere in Romania, knowing that there are ten bears somewhere around me and any time they can jump on the road, knowing that in a bit I will go through the village so the dogs will chase me etc. Meeting other people energized me, I like going uphill, and the monotony kills me a bit when it is too flat and long – boring. The weather was challenging, during summer heat wave when your body refuses to obey. Many of racers while climbing Monte Grappa (1500 meters of ascent) got sunstroke. It’s one of the most difficult mountains to reach on a bike as its inclinations are between 8-14%, sometimes it was better to push the bike instead to ride it. I remember that day, I started to shiver, cold sweating, that was a signal to get off the bike and rest, even though there was no time for that as I was supposed to be at the checkpoint till the end of the day, so by stopping you risk being unclassified. When the temperature goes above your body temperature the danger of overheating is high.
Was it very competitive environment? This race is not money-oriented, is it visible? How hard was the recruitment process?
Recruitment process was quite difficult, more and more people apply every year. They choose people also based on their previous projects, challenges, motivation. Application includes questions checking how can you manage challenging situations as well as logistics of the race. It’s not competitive society, rather the opposite, as Mike said while explaining the rules, basically: don’t be a dick. There are quite a lot of moments that people help each other even though they shouldn’t, the competition is within the first 30 racers, for me as I reached it quite late the point was to finish. A lot of people are not even cyclists; they are entrepreneurs, people building careers in corporations who want to fulfill themselves in other fields. Some of them are quite crazy and bite off more than they can chew. Mike Hall wanted to keep this atmosphere of fighting yourself and participants identify with that so there is quite a magical atmosphere there. I have met many people from different sport environments judo as I used to train MMA etc. but this is different level of endurance, challenge and mental resistance. There is no gratification at the end so the biggest achievement is to reach finish line; everyone that crosses it is a winner.
How did the death of one of the participants affected you?
It all sounds positive and nice when you talk about the event but it’s also dangerous. Europe – third hour of race, drunk truck driver hits Frank Simons, he died on the spot. USA – participant dies hit by car. Australia – TCR’s creator Mike Hall hit by truck driver dies at the end of March. 3 races, 3 deaths, it doesn’t sound encouraging. As the time never stops everyone chooses the most time-efficient way, you try to find balance between safety and the speed of covering the distance. You cross drunk truck drivers and mad men. Then it’s matter of you making a bad choice, I remember very well a situation in Macedonia, I passed Kumanovo, almost 4000 km on the counter, you know that soon enough you will reach the finish line and you can rest, you are exhausted, I was really close to making a mistake, I took some mountain road, the only option to go across mountains, my gut told me that something is wrong, half of the cars were big trucks, very narrow road without a wayside, I pulled over and approached one locals. He asked me if I know what they call this road, the answer was: death road. I changed my route and had fun with off-road, it was worth it to lose hours but save life. The other thing is statistics and human mistake. It’s not about lack of skills of drivers but lack of imagination, they simply drive too fast, the roads are narrow, it’s careless, bad infrastructure makes it dangerous. At the end, close to the finish I was really in a hurry, I wanted to be classified, I had around 14 km to go so as I counted in order to manage I would have to go with average speed of 40km/h. My speeding almost got me to hit a horse when I was coming out of the turn.
Do you have any lessons that you took from this event?
Quite a cliché. During the journey I kept on repeating over and over that after worse moments always come better ones, such an obvious but true thing. There were moments when I was in huge pain, lost and bleeding when I didn’t want to go anymore, I just wanted to cry. Another cliché, do not give up, there are lots of those moments, you get to know yourself better, it does not exactly change you, it’s more like a test. It can be applied not only for sport but also for other parts of our life, whether it’s relationship, professional life etc. It is a challenge that can give more sense to your life or take some out of it. Why? Mike Hall after one of the races said that when he got back from it he got 3-months depression because once you start to do something out of the scheme, something more extraordinary, there are fireworks, applause and then you suddenly get back to the reality, back to work, prosaic reality. I guess I experienced something similar, there is some lack of fulfillment, you want more, everything seems too ordinary, it can get a bit destructive. The question is how you will use it?
What should be the profile of participants, which character features are useful?
You need to be able to manage very difficult moments, because even though your body is well-prepared, psychically you may not manage. Probably some racers of Tour de France wouldn’t be able to finish this one as it requires different preparation. Before the race I was nervous, I had trouble to sleep so I asked my girlfriend for advice and she told me just to be as stubborn as always. It helps plus an experience in bike-touring, people who want to win at any expense are crossed out due to safety reasons. Physical condition makes only 30% of the success, technical preparation, logistics another 30%, your ability to clench the teeth and deprive yourself from little pleasures 30% more and 10% of luck.
How does it feel to finish?
Hmmm, they gave me a beer, small one, 0,3l after a few sips I was already drunk. I was fulfilled but I’m not sure if I realized that it was the end. All that hit me a day later when I started to feel the effects of hours spent on the bike, I wasn’t able to move my fingers, my body reacted in weird manner, I couldn’t fall asleep during the night for next two weeks, catching naps during the day. At the end, I supposed they could even hear me from Trikala in Meteora, dozen km further away as I was screaming while going uphill. They told me that they thought it was impossible to move so fast and kept on checking tracker all the time. They expected me around 1 and 2 but I was so motivated that I ended up there at midnight.
Would you do it again?
Gladly but I cannot say. Rory McCarron took part in TCR for the first time this year and he finished at 5th position which means he has a huge potential but if you manage once it doesn’t mean you will make it again. He could win in next edition but he said he doesn’t want to do that again, at the finish line he actually got engaged, for him family life was more important. The time and the sacrifice, that’s a lot of work that you put into. I feel non-fulfillment as I didn’t manage to finish in satisfying time.
Did your previous experience in competitions and sports help?
I was well-prepared in physical manner and just the mere fact of training your whole life makes you physically ready in complex way to make your body sustain this effort, it regenerates quicker, it can take more. I trained martial arts so I know what it means to go through pain, also scouting helped me to train resourcefulness, overcoming fears and experiencing discomfort.
What cycling means to you? Addiction?
Looking to the right, I can see 4 bikes hanging on the wall so I guess yes, it’s really important thing in my life, I do not want to earn my living like that, it is my hobby and a way for self-fulfilment. I spent a lot of time on it, what I like about it is the fact that I can grab a bike with my girlfriend, go 150 kilometres, outside London, have a trip, sleep by the lake. I think that the bike is for me an excuse to look for more challenges, a mix of mental and physical challenge which makes it quite creative.