From North Cape to Tarifa, 7 384 km from the northernmost point of Europe. Mostly on small roads, passing the remote Lapland, the whole country and the city I live in. Continuing through the Baltics, Poland, well the whole Europe, Alps, Pyrenees and Sierra Nevada. Too good to pass.
It would be the inaugural edition of the race. While it’s a set route, right in the middle of Europe, no-one actually knew how it would be, how long it would take and what it means to ride this route at a race pace. All the more exiting.
While the start was almost in Finland, where I live, it was still about 1 500 km from my home, so I haven’t actually been there too often. But I did know what it’s like and how it is to ride through Finland, as I’d also done Ruska, the ride across Finland the previous year. And I knew that even though it had been exceptionally warm and dry for the three weeks before the race, the weather during and before Midsummer weekend is usually completely awful for being summer. So I put mudguards on my bike and took rain trousers, long johns and thick wool socks.
The nights might be chilly south of Finland too. Also In Transcontinental Races the nights have been cold until you get over the Alps. But then, it would get hotter and hotter towards Tarifa. Very different from what I’m used to in Finland. However, I’d been fine in the previous year’s heat wave Lucifer in the Balkans, so I figured it should be fine. I like warm weather.
My dad offered to give me a lift to the start, it would be a nice holiday road trip for him too, he said. Great, relaxing way to travel, visit family along the way to the north and I’d also see some of the route close to the start. While the north looks pretty flat on a map, Norway really isn’t. Beautiful it is, and bare.
It’s always interesting to see who others show up for a ride, guessing what kind of riders they are, do they know what they are doing. And do I? The atmosphere is warm, in the face of a common challenge, but of course a bit nervous too. This time, the start would be at midnight, but the sun would still shine from a clear sky, this far north. The wind was very much present, but mostly from a decent angle. We arrived there before the bus used by most, but there was Piero, who had ridden there from Alta airport, a couple hundred kilometers, and Javier, sleeping next to his singlespeed.
Soon the others arrived, the last fiddling was done, dinner was eaten, and registration took place. Andy said a few words about the race and then it was time to head off. I had planned to sleep some more before the start, but it was time to get on the bike already. And I had slept late in the morning. Enough of that, time to get on with it.
Start at midnight with the sun at my back
We start from the North Cape tourist center, with a decent pace. A few riders pass me soon, but it doesn’t matter. Get in to the rhythm, be efficient but don’t push too much. There wouldn’t be anything to stop at during the night and only a couple spots during the day. The place to stop at for the first sleep is rather obvious for the fast-ish riders. I had looked up a hut in the woods, maintained by Metsähallitus (a department that would be called something like Forest Management in English) close to that village. I even took a lighter with me to make fire, but it had been too rainy and I wanted to dry out. I picked the camping ground and rented a small cabin to sleep in for a few hours. It was still pretty early, but it was such a long way to the next town, that I wouldn’t get a room there at that time.
Riding around Finland is what I’ve done a lot, so it was easy to get in to the routine, ride long days, stop only a couple of times a day. It was mostly raining and was somewhat cold, but I knew that. The first actually familiar road was one I’d used in the Ruska too. I stopped at a grill I’d seen before, and there wondering where I’d sleep that night, I remembered a hut I’d slept at during Ruska. It was in front of a grocery store surrounded by forest, meant for the customers, maybe three hours from where I was, right on the route. Perfect.
The more south I got the more familiar it got. It felt easy as it was what I’m used to and also, for once in a big race like this, I was in a country that speaks Finnish. It made it feel kind of not as big as the race is, though at other points there were actually locals cheering me on, which made it feel pretty special.
Riding at my own pace, efficiently but very carefully, I happened to be the first one in Helsinki, which is where the first checkpoint was, where the ferry to Estonia would leave, and also where I live at. The route actually crossed with my usual commute. It took about four and half days to get that far, a few hours more than I’d spent in Ruska, indeed on a rather similar route and distance. It was great to be the first one there, and also seeing some familiar faces. A couple of my friends met me there just outside of the city to ride with me/ behind me to the checkpoint. They stayed quiet at the back when I took a wrong turn off the route, just like they should of course. Soon there were others too, that would welcome most if not all of the racers to the city. A quick mandatory selfie at the checkpoint, then the ferry tickets for a boat I had planned to be on, in time to have a breakfast in Helsinki before leaving. The checkpoints of this race are just locations along the route where you take a selfie at, there’s nobody to welcome you and no other formalities to do. I did actually expect the media car to maybe be there, but it turned out I was faster than the Tesla that was still hundreds of kilometers behind trying to find a plug to charge from, which I found amusing. It was strange to be there, with friends in a familiar café, in the middle of a huge race that had kind of just began. It didn’t really matter how fast one had been before that, as most of it was still ahead.
I slept for the ferry ride and arrived in Estonia a few hours before Steffen. The area was still somewhat familiar, as was the wet and cold weather. The route continued to favor the small roads and in some parts of the Baltics that means gravel or sand. In the rain it’s kind of muddy and soft, slow. The route is the same for everyone though, so compared to a free route event like the TCR, it doesn’t really matter. As everyone will face the same challenges, it slows down all of them too. Kind of worrying to put a bike through that still, as you can wear out parts you need for the remaining 5 000 km too.
I slept in Pärnu, indoors because of the rain, and so did Steffen. Kai didn’t sleep that night, he rode through to catch us after he’d had a shorter day earlier. I saw both of them during the morning and again in Latvia just before Riga. We rode through the city with all three in sight, as you can’t really make a difference in one way or the other in the traffic. After Riga I slowed my pace down to make a gap between us and soon I’d see them having a stop, while I continued. We saw each other again that night on a slow gravel road, and would continue to meet during the next few days. I stopped to sleep on a bus stop, while they continued to a hotel in the next town. As I opened my saddlebag on the bench, I saw that my trousers were missing. Must have dropped those two hours earlier as I grabbed my reflective vest from the bag while riding. No point in riding for hours to look for the black trousers from the side of the road, so I settled to just hope it wouldn’t rain much anymore.
Getting to Poland
The weather started to get dryer and warmer indeed. Around the Polish border the terrain started to be hillier. I saw Kai and Steffen occasionally, they seemed to ride slightly faster than I did, but somehow I passed them every once in a while. Probably because I mostly slept outdoors, so I didn’t lose time arranging a hotel. They were racing so close to each other that usually when I saw one of them, I could also see the other.
My GPS lost it, and I spent a while trying to make sense of it, restarting and switching memory cards. Unnecessarily, as I had a spare device with me, but I would’ve liked to use that first one because it has a better screen.
The border was crossed on a tiny road between fields. The first town in Poland was tiny too, with old wooden houses. I bought snacks and had a chat with a lovely old lady, who was carrying two big grocery bags that seemed to hold enough stuff for a longer trip than the one I was on.
I feel like I have a built in power limit that stops me from destroying myself. While the level of discomfort I feel comfortable with might be higher than for someone else and compared to what it previously has been for myself, the limit is clear. I don’t believe I’d be much faster if I overstepped it though, as I have teased the limit enough to know I’d break myself soon if don’t go by it. Thinking of this still leaves me amazed with the way Kai rides. He seemed to go all out, riding himself into the ground, then stopping to pick up the pieces for a while, during a race, and then he does the same again.
Finding a place to sleep is always interesting on a trip like this. I prefer to sleep outdoors and I like the freedom it gives, no need to plan much, just stop and get cozy. But after spending a few nights out and this far into the race, I wanted to get a shower again and wash my clothes. It would have been easier to stop at a bigger town earlier, but wanting to ride for longer that day, I ended up in a small village in the Polish countryside. I hoped there must be a hotel of some kind, though the place seemed smaller than I expected. I stopped on the street passing through the village, there were people sitting in front of a pub and a man walking. Standing in the middle of the street, I loudly inquired for a hotel somewhere, the question directed at anyone, hoping someone would answer. The guy walking from the pub pointed at the building behind me, saying something about the second floor, I think. The building didn’t look like a hotel, but there were stairs to a door to the second floor. I thanked him and went to find out.
There were two dudes, about my age, sitting in a kitchen, watching football, lifting dumbbells. I asked if the place was a hotel and explained I want to stay for the night. They didn’t speak much English and my pronunciation probably wasn’t too clear either, but they understood and said they’d get the house owner. They went to knock on a door, and then another door. Someone opened, a man with colourful tattoos and a black sleeveless shirt. The three discussed in Polish for a while, looking at me. The place looked like an apartment, there was no reception desk, and the only thing to hint the place offered commercial accommodation were the golden numbers on some of the doors. This all didn’t look very promising and I was getting ready to try to explain I’d be happy to leave somewhere else, if this isn’t OK, I just wanted to find a hotel. They told me again they’d get the house owner and knocked on a door. Soon, a fourth man opened. He spoke a few more words of English, was very co-operative and just like that, he gave me a key to a room. He’d make the bed for me while I showered.
The facilities weren’t too glamorous, the toilet seat didn’t flush. I saw a valve on the pipe going to the toilet, and assumed the tank was leaking, so it was closed. I opened the valve enough to fill the tank and indeed it did flush. A meaningless detail, but it was nice to see I still wasn’t too exhausted to be sharp.
After the quickest shower and laundry, I was in a bed. My bike was indoors too. I had paid for the night. And it was only about 17 minutes since I’d stopped on that street. I doubt this place is on booking.com, but if it is, I should give it a good review, as the service was great, location perfect for me and it was cheap too.
In the countryside, you can often find luxurious bus stops to camp in, if you like. Kind of like small cabins, even, and shelters of all kinds. In the mountains they are often found in great peaceful places, provided it’s not too high to be warm. Though you can also find ones in tiny villages of a few houses, that all have a dog barking at every sound. Every one of them will take their turn at barking every time they hear you move in the bivy or grab food.
I was halfway through the race, on the edge of the mountains. I had ridden for about as far as I ever had in one go, for the length of a TCR in distance and soon in days too. Another length of a TCR still ahead. I felt mostly good physically and I was enjoying the ride, but three weeks is a long time to live racing. Mostly good, meaning I was otherwise great, but had started to have saddle sores a while ago, riding the flat part of the route in the rain, and now I had some weird sensations in my ankle or Achilles tendon. The feeling was on the tendon, but didn’t really feel it was in it, like it had felt when I hurt the tendon years ago. And I hadn’t had problems with it since. Shit. So all I could do was to try to find a solution. The options I had were a good break to let it rest, and change my fit on the bike.
I had had problems with my shoes before the trip, I broke my old favorite shoes in TCR in the previous year and had been trying several different ones since. Eventually I found a pair that I felt comfortable to race with, but that was only just before the start, so this was kind of the setup ride for them. You usually need to fiddle with the cleat position for a while with new shoes. These had thinner soles too, affecting the saddle height. I moved the cleats three times on the side of the road and called it a day early, after the initial climb to the Alps. It was on a road I’d been on before. I found a cheap b&b in Tujetsch and got two takeaway pizzas from the next door restaurant. The Achilles wasn’t my only problem: I had remedied the threat of saddle sores with a blister plaster. That was a bloody bad idea. This was the low point of my race, if there ever was one.
Having a phone plan that allowed me to use internet also when there wasn’t Wifi, during a race, was new to me. I was more connected with the dot watchers and people back home. That connection usually was me describing roads and food, but it kept me more aware of what was happening elsewhere and how people saw the race. It made the days easier in a way, but somehow I also didn’t get into that calm mental state I’ve previously experienced during a big trip. Being alone with my thoughts gives my brain an opportunity to go through things and organize. I can remember things I didn’t know I had memorized, follow old conversations like on film and find new perspectives. Especially on the stretches that have less things to observe, during a long climb or at dark. This connection to the outside world kept me busy enough to not go that deep this time. Though whether you find that meditation retreat kind of place or not, it’s wonderful, in the current world, to be in a situation where you only need to think about the basics and everything you do should work towards one simple goal, moving forward. And enjoying the views and the exercise while you’re at it.
After sleeping for as long as felt necessary, a surprise was waiting. I felt nothing in my ankle and my skin seemed to have healed a lot too. Back on the saddle, with caution.
The Alps are spectacular. I had missed riding there and I’d see some of the highest passes, ones I hadn’t seen before. Life was good. I kept a decent pace again. Col du L’Iseran was beautiful at dawn. There was still snow and one ski slope was in use. There was almost no-one on the road. I descended with my down jacket on. I saw marmots on these high Alps.
Later the same day I climbed Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier. Those were crowded, lots of road cyclists. It was fun to race them up the hill.
Steffen and Kai were getting a bit out of reach, but I didn’t stress about what they were doing much. I’d do my thing as well as I could, as fast as I could while making sure I wouldn’t risk not getting there.
Galibier was a selfie checkpoint too, and the next one awaited soon, in a bigger scale at least, after the descend in Nice. The road down from Galibier goes through La Grave, which is where Andy lives, so one can expect him to want to show us all the best back roads and most spectacular places. I had a lunch, something quick from a small grocery store and ate it on the pavement. There was Wifi too, so I could recharge my prepaid mobile data account, that had run dry during the night in Switzerland.
Towards the coast
Sure enough, there was still another challenge before Nice, a cycling route, more suitable for mountain bikes, on the base of an old railway line. I think the route is called Trans Ubaye, a longer mountain bike route that this is a part of. I heard the rails were never built, but the gravel path and the tunnels had been there for decades. Several short tunnels and a long one, several kilometers, that began with water streaming on the whole width of the floor in the opposite direction for hundreds of meters. It wasn’t deep and it was ridable, though the rock base was rough and you couldn’t see the surface. My shoe went under water only once. Not your usual road cycling, but the place was stunning, and we were there for an adventure, so why not.
I had mostly been riding in solitude, and in contrast the stretch after Nice was a strange place to be in an ultra-race. The beach boulevard, night clubs and expensive hotels one after the other. The plan was to ride it after sunset, assuming it would get quieter, but it stayed pretty hectic. After some time I did get onto a part of the road that was empty, after midnight. I slept on the cliffs, by the Mediterranean, gazing at the stars for a minute, before falling asleep.
The next day went through a natural park with not much but nice views. Great riding. This was one of the parts I had been expecting the most, southern France and then the Pyrenees. While the road to Andorra had it’s share of traffic, it was nice to look at. And a demanding climb to the top of the pass, the next checkpoint. Passing through Andorra is all a big downhill, quick.
The route through Spain continued to use mostly small country roads. I was prepared, but it was still a bit surprising how sparse the services were on a lot of the route in central and southern Europe. The area is densely populated, but often the services are only along the bigger roads and for some parts we went just past the towns too, not through, so you’d have to make a detour to resupply. I mostly refused to do that, so I had to carry more food and fill my bottles from village fountains and taps from graveyards. Graveyards were a peaceful place to sleep at too. Much more so than a bus stop hut in a village, where all the dogs started barking every time I turned on the bench. Though a mountain side olive grove might have been my favorite.
Spain was amazing, but kind of monotonous at the same time. Interrupted by tricky little patches of gravel roads, used mostly by goats it seemed, here and there, like in the countries before it. Something like 250-300 km of gravel all together. Small villages and towns, olive trees and hilly terrain. Long, but not too long distances in the middle of nowhere until you get to the next town. Teruel was different though, they had a bullfighting fiesta of some sort. I’d thought it would be a good plan to ride through the town before finding a place to sleep at, after midnight, when it’s not too busy. Well, there were thousands of people on the streets. No food though, only alcohol. The route makes a loop on the alleys of the city center. A memorable experience, walking my bike through, wearing the reflective vest and a lamp on my helmet, among the crowd dressed formally in white, with red scarfs around their neck.
Then there was Pico del Veleta. That wasn’t like anything else. It’s not just high, but it also starts from a relatively low altitude of a few hundred meters. The climb takes several hours, and after the gate at about 2 600 m it gets rough. Holes start to appear on the tarmac, soon it’s all gravel, getting coarser as you climb. The air gets thinner. There’s snow on the sides and melt water running down the road. The wind, at least at dawn, when I thought it would be a nicely cool time to climb, was hilarious. Riding into headwind on the winding road, would leave you standing still on a pedal with your whole weight, with 34/34 gear. When you’ve finally dragged your bike to the top of the pile of rocks, be careful placing your bike against the monument, as the wind might throw it over the edge, no matter how much it weighs. It would be a long walk to get it.
It all downhill from here, right?
After finding your way down, the rest of the route is rather simple, but don’t be fooled to think it’s easy. It’s not flat, instead some of the road goes up a wall, but with the euphoria you get from approaching the finish of a race like this, it doesn’t matter. Just roll over the famous bridge of Ronda, through Los Angeles and whatever there is, then in no time you’re arriving in Tarifa. You can see Africa from the coast road when you’re close enough. Andy was there on his bike and camera to welcome me, on the last descend towards the city. I didn’t hold back but just let it fly to the surfer city and to the finish line on the beach. Just like that, I crossed the continent from north to south. Kai and Steffen were there waiting for me, with beer, having finished their phenomenal rides a good while before me.
Tarifa is a great place for a finish, small town, kind of like a surfing theme park. A big beach, many restaurants, hotels, ice cream, places to find cheap clothes, though you’ll end up looking like a surfer. We enjoyed a week there, welcoming the next finishers and visited Morocco with a ferry too.
The route of NCT is quite an ensemble. While in a way, the countries it passes through are not that different, functionally or culturally, they still are. The weather had at least 30°C between the highest and the lowest temperature. Loads of rain and a lot of hot dry days. The roads are everything from hiking trails and tiny country roads with no traffic to some big cities and bits of bigger roads. Mostly the theme is to select small roads with little traffic. Back roads are preferred and it would be good for touring. Lots to see such as loops in small gobbled towns, historic locations and some of the biggest climbs in the continent. Having mostly done rides where I’ve planned the route myself before, it was different to follow a ready made route, that took different roads than I probably would have chosen myself. But with everyone riding the same route, you’ll just have to settle with the fact that you will all tackle the same difficulties and that it’s part of the thing. And I don’t mind a challenge, quite the opposite I’d say.
I finished third, after 23 days 15 hours and 4 minutes. I slept indoors for 6 or 7 nights. That’s a lot more than on my previous rides, but roughly as planned, to stay comfortable after the northern rain and with this many days on bike, you’ll need to wash a few times. I had one puncture and one pinch flat denting a rim. I added oil to the chain maybe seven times. The same chain, brake pads and tyres were still fine, though of course worn, at the finish.
If you’re going to do this ride, make sure you know what you’re getting in to.