After I sold my flat, I went straight out and ‘invested’ some of the equity in a bike that would be capable of seeing me through the 4,000kms. The TCR is an adventure. A magical experience where for a fleeting moment amateurs become pros. I’ve never been so followed in my life, with people following my dot on a map, as it ( I ) made the trip from Belgium to Turkey. Even my family, they used to come and watch me play basketball but they never fully understood why it meant so much to me to be to be able to dunk, that I would be willing to do 500 calf raises a night to improve my jump it. They gave me amazing support when I ran marathons and posted OK times, but it’s all a bit abstract for people. Cycling is the same; it’s for me, rather than anyone else. But when the TCR started they immediately took an interest. My mum turned me afterwards and said, “I had no idea what you were doing was such a big deal”, it’s because you can see it, it’s tangible. You’re going from point to point, and thanks to social media you can give people a bit of colour to what they’re seeing and show people the ups and downs of what you’re going through. When I got back my mum wanted to celebrate, and threw a party in Norwich where they live. To me, it seemed like just another step up from the other challenges I’d done, but to her it felt different. She bought me a pen with my TCR number on it; for whatever the reason the TCR really resonated with her, along with lots more of my friends and colleagues.
“There is such purpose behind the TCR. It’s binary, you either get there or you don’t.”
I finished 21st in 2016, and based on pure fitness levels alone, I felt I could have gotten into the top ten, or even top five, had I not made so many rookie errors. I got the bug and I had to do it again.
For two weeks after the race I would wake up in panic, thinking i was still in the race, and desperate to find my bike and get going again. During the event you don’t really feel it - the adrenalin numbs you from the duress of pounding yourself on the bike every day - but the memories, although rewarding, show there is a fair bit of stress you heap on yourself during the ride.
If at first you don’t succeed...
There is such purpose behind the TCR, it’s binary, you either get there or you don’t. Anyone who has raced the TCR feels it. I felt I couldn’t come home that year without finishing it, because it had loomed so large on our lives. Kristina, my girlfriend (now wife), felt this as keenly as anyone, but she definitely had to deal with me being ‘in the zone’ in the build up to the TCR. There were times I was so focussed about the race I was distant. I wasn’t always there.
My lowest point during the race in 2016 was from being caught in a storm between Bosnia to Montenegro, after I’d already made a few stupid errors (read routing unnecessarily over the Stelvio, and then having to go over it again when I descended off the wrong side). Staring down the barrel of having to walk your bike along a gravel road through the night in the pouring rain gave an odd mix of being totally demoralised yet excited. It makes you feel alive. I lost a few places, but I was there for the adventure.
In the 2015 race there was a guy who left his passport at the hotel from the night before, which meant a 100K round trip to get it back. These things happen to you at the TCR. You make a bad call, go right instead of left, and you find yourself losing 10 places. But it’s part of the adventure. There are going to be ups and downs to it. On the border of Montenegro, trying to get through this gravel path, in torrential rain. It was horrible. To add insult to injury, my dynamo then cut out meaning being reliant on finding charge points for my Garmin. I was in some trouble, but for whatever reason you don’t really care. It’s an almost out of body experience. I was still 1000k from finishing, but there was no way I was going to be deterred. You’re in a race mindset, so it’s easier to shake these things off.
So doing it again in 2017 was a no brainer. It was only when Mike Hall died, a man I had always considered immortal, did the risks of the race really dawn on me. Waking up to posts on Instagram saying “RIP Mike Hall” - it didn’t seem real. It did made me think differently about whether this was a course I should take.
None of us know the circumstances of his death, but it did make me think about what we’re all doing, that perhaps this part of the sport, still in its infancy, was in need of some more structure. Having said that, its lack of rules has always been a key appeal. I had secured my place in the race at that point, but I was questioning whether or not to take part. I rode up to Mike’s memorial in Harrogate. I’d met him a few times during the 2016 TCR and I wouldn’t say I knew him, but you get the impression of someone. He was just a really cool guy, who had created a community that hadn’t existed before him. I was inspired to find out more about him and pay tribute. Mike had given me self belief, and one of the greatest experiences of my life, so I wanted to pay my respects to him. I decided there that if the TCR went ahead, it would be a privilege to take part as a tribute to him, and the community he had brought together. Then tragedy struck again when Eric Fishburn died in the Trans Am. I was terrified to tell Kristina that someone else had died in one of these races. Doubts set in again, but my heart was set on racing.
“Once your head has made that decision there’s no turning back.”
Going into the TCR 2017 I looked at the positives. I knew a lot of the guys racing, training had been good and, buoyed by the support from my family, off we went. There was a moment within the first 50 meters of the race starting on the cobbled climb of the Muir where a guy darted in front of me on on. I thought, “This could be the end of my TCR.” I just avoided crashing, and that feeling of good fortune carried me through the night. I was feeling strong.
Through Luxembourg, into France, and then into Germany, the race was going well as I approached 18hrs of being on the road. Then as dusk was nearing, I saw the news that Frank Simons had died. I had never met the guy, but you feel connected to everyone racing. All being briefed in that small room with you at the start. Everyone has a cap, it’s a small community. The dangers of the TCR had never been more palpable.
The race organisers said they were making a call on whether the race would continue. Suddenly everything seemed trivial; it didn’t feel fitting tribute to me anymore. I worried about my family at home, what they must be feeling. Riding a bike at any time is carries risks, but Kristina and I were getting married in the Autumn, and this race suddenly seemed like an indulgence that I couldn’t justify putting my family though.
Although the TCR has definitely shaped me as a person, I didn’t want the TCR to be my Metier. I didn’t want my life to be defined by it to a point where I would overlook the the things that matter more to me. Full respect to everyone who made their own decision on whether or not to continue, but carrying on didn’t feel right to me. Someone had died and yet their dot was still on the radar.
“The reasons for doing the TCR were no longer valid for me.”
Once your head has made that decision there is no turning back. It’s the easiest thing in the world to carry on with something, once you’re on the path. The hardest thing about the TCR 2016 was signing up. Committing is hard. After that it’s just a case of directing yourself to the finish line. But after Frank’s death it didn’t make sense anymore. The reasons for doing the TCR were no longer valid for me. The year before it always felt like something really important to get to the end. Not anymore. Once Frank died, even though I didn’t know him, the enthusiasm that got me through 2016 with no doubt about making it to the end (however many times I would have ridden up the Stelvio) was gone. I didn’t have the momentum to get me to the first checkpoint.
Cycling is often talked about in terms of suffering — glorifying it even. Sometimes courage is knowing you need to stop. Every end has a start.