Into the mountains – Transcontinental No7

Breakaway loves an adventure, we love the experience of packing up your bags, fiddling with your bike and of course stuffing as many snacks as you can into an Apidura bag before the bungee cord no longer snaps back. We love to make our own adventures and we love to follow others. 

For the last 7 years now there has been an annual adventure taking place in the form of an unsupported bike race across Europe, a big adventure I guess you can say. Perhaps one only really had by those brave, adventurous and crazy enough to undertake it. 

The history of the Transcontinental is steeped with extraordinary suffering and extreme endurance to say the least. As the brainchild of the legendary Mike Hall the Transcontinental is a race of very few rules but one very strong spirit “The Spirit of the race”.

Riders must make their way across Europe tackling set parcours via specific checkpoints along the way. It’s at these checkpoints riders receive the coveted stamp on their official brevet card and get a chance to touch base with the world around them outside their solitary existence on the road.

Over the last few years we’ve watched the race unfold as have so many via the now pastime of Dot watching, this is where spectators can follow a riders progress across the race via their small satellite tracker beaming back coordinates to the dot watcher site. It’s addictive, and along with the constant stream of in race content provided by the TCR team you’re immersed in the race. If you follow closely enough you are witness to the riders pain, suffering and joy all via the Instagram stories generated by the race team, sponsors and the riders themselves. 

Fascinated by this kind of racing and the stories that unfold from it we thought we’d make our own adventure and travel down to the mountains of Austria, Switzerland and France for a look at this year’s race.  We also wanted to free ourselves of the constraints that often come from commissioned work, we wanted to simply shoot for our own joy and pleasure without a commercial responsibility.

“… whatever commentary might be shared online by spectators we are really in a contract of integrity with our peers and it’s only those who have really been there who know the nuances of what is involved…”

Joined by fellow photographer and Breakaway compatriot Ben Briffett we set off late Tuesday night and motored down in Ben’s car straight through France then Germany and onto Austria, and our first camp and checkpoint 3 of the race. With the dot watcher site, our source of entertainment, on constant refresh we began plotting how we could sneak a peek of the race leaders. In the hours we’d been travelling the race was unfolding in dramatic fashion as it often does. Shortly after catching a glimpse of Bjorn Lenhards derrière on an Instagram story followed by the breaking news he’d abandoned the race shortly after leaving checkpoint 2 due to saddle sores Fiona Kolbinger was now the race leader!

Come Wednesday morning we had what consisted of a plan, find Fiona, take some pictures and see her arrive at checkpoint 3. We knew this would likely be the only time we’d get to do so, with her blistering pace she was covering so much ground between Ben’s flapping around and our need to edit our shot’s.

Checkpoint 3 was situated in the small town of Pettneu am Arlberg this being after the parcour between Corvara and Sölden, Austria. After checking the tracker and seeing Fiona was already on the run into town we jumped into the car and headed directly for her last position. 

As spectators to the riders own adventures we knew this would be very different from the circus that follows a grand tour or spring classic and something we were wanting to respect.

The Transcontinental team work extremely hard to support the riders across many countries, from volunteers to race directors everyone plays a crucial part in this race and we can only imagine the extreme stress and pressure on each and everyone as it unfolds. The presence of an unknown entity on the road amongst this operation can’t be an easy one for any organisation to manage let alone a small team so it was important for us to experience the race as our own adventure but one that respected its spirit.

Fiona powered down the road right in front of us, unaware at this point of our presence it was refreshing to see her beaming smile simply expressed for her own self, not the camera or those whom might be watching. 

Turning around and heading up the road in front of her position we took the opportunity to take some pictures and shout “Allez” with this she shouted back her thanks and waved. This was incredible, we’d travelled hundreds of miles and been met with a massive smile! From our own experience suffering on a bike and working with athletes at the top of their sport having got the shot and the memories we moved on swiftly so not to become a buzzing in their ear. 

The checkpoint was firmly in Fiona’s sights now and this would be the ideal opportunity to grab a few last shots. 

Joined by the Transcontinental team and several other Dotwatchers we waited for Fiona to ride into town, in her own unique style. Met by both her training partner and former competitor Bjorn with open arms she accepted yet another race leaders cap!

During the race the TCR team put up regular race reports and even podcasts, which of course we listened to during our miles on the road for our extra dot watcher fix. Fiona happily sat with her lunch chatting along with the TCR team and those around her. You might consider her to be fulfilling her media duties much like that you’d come to see of Froome in the month of July.

No sooner had Fiona ridden off up the road our attention was turning to her chasers.

Over the next few days we moved around the Timmelsjoch with our cameras in our laps and jumping out at every opportunity we’d shot glimpses of a riders smile, waves and with our shouts of encouragement they pass us by one by one. 

The riders of the TCR could surely tell tales of greater suffering than our meal time pasta dilemmas and our lack of carrier bag shopping experiences but that’s what we love about the TCR it’s an adventure for all those who race it, on a bicycle as a volunteer or as a couple of photographers taking time away from the day to day Breakaway experience. 

Moving on from Austria we headed across Switzerland and onto the French Alps. Ben knew this area pretty well and was able to rattle the names of villages off with ease. Glued to the passenger seat I just held on as he enjoyed the twists and turns of L’Alpe d’Huez. At times we’d see the familiar face of riders from down the road, they nod, smile and ride on. Sharing a brief moment of familiarization before refocusing on the road ahead. 

The mountains are simply incredible no matter what angle you look upon them, place a rider in the frame and you place the cherry on top. We were here to experience the Transcontinental but also the mountains, the valleys and the life around it. Over the next few days as riders made their way into the parcours between Valloire and Ornon via the lesser-known gravel road of L’Alpe d’Huez we’d experience all of this. 

Fiona now firmly in the lead, according to her tracker she was well up the road and we’d not see her again except for the stories unfolding via the TCR’s own Instagram feed. The feed is pretty much 24/7 during the race and dot watchers can undertake Netflix like binges. With Checkpoint sponsors also adding to this you can be forgiven for becoming immersed. 

On the road it’s a different experience, the sheer expanse of land the TCR covers doesn’t offer the frenzy of say the Tour, with only checkpoints generally accessible to most. Being on the road, we felt a sense of what this race offers to those taking part, it’s consuming and with it generates a mighty adventure within.

As we enjoyed our time in the mountains, hopping from campsite to campsite Fiona was motoring towards the final checkpoint and a magnificent win. We woke up on the final morning to friends, colleagues and a multitude of media outlets sharing her story. Having listened carefully as she spoke back at CP3, doing so with such character we knew exactly how she would have rolled into that final checkpoint in Brest. Smiling.

You will often see the phrase “Be more Mike” adorning the top tube of an adventurers bike or a hashtag in an Instagram post. Yet It’s easy to watch this race one refresh at a time sitting at home or at your desk. You would be forgiven to think with its ever-growing popularity and sponsor involvement it will surely grow and with it possibly lessen the adventure and solitude it offers to those on the road, but from one dot watcher to another lets just… #BEMOREMIKE

Note: Breakaway received no outside contribution to the execution or our adventure but does however acknowledge the exposure it may have gained from the TCR audience. We have supplied imagery to event sponsors only with no financial gain.

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