Every year since 2013, the riders of the Transcontinental Race have lined up somewhere in western Europe, facing east.
Set against the familiar, distinctly Western starting backdrops of London or Geraardsbergen, those races across the continent to Istanbul, Çanakkale or Meteora often felt like races into the unknown.
For a field of traditionally Anglophone riders, the push eastwards into ever more alien and unfamiliar territory mirrored the challenge of the race itself: a journey to the edge of your own limit, without ever knowing just what you’d discover.
For Transcontinental Race No.7, the pattern is reversed. Today, riders are assembling on the shores of The Black Sea in the Bulgarian city of Burgas. In the morning, they will strike out west to tackle the 4,000km that lie between them and the finish line in Brest.
First, the riders must head inland. There, nestled within the central Balkan mountains and atop the historic Buzludzha peak, they will find the race’s first Control Point. Next, riders push further west out of Bulgaria and into the Serbian foothills. The roads here are a patchwork network of tarmac and gravel, and it is one of these high, winding dirt tracks that the riders must follow for 90 kilometres to find the town of Vranje and CP2.
Those first two Control Points lie relatively close by TCR standards – over the first couple of days, it’s possible the race will feel bunched together. This will all change during the race’s middle section. CP3 lies in the Passo Gardena, the deep mountain pass that separates the Dolomites from the Ötztal Alps and to reach it even the fastest riders face some three days alone on the road. For many, it could be the race’s toughest stretch.
After leaving the Dolomites behind, the race turns towards the Alps, and for one famous summit in particular. CP4 sits atop the iconic Alpe d’Huez - a spectacular mountaintop straight from the pages of Tour de France mythology. From there, the race enters it’s finishing straight – a final, last-gasp push westwards to the finish line in Brest, and the historic midway point of the Paris-Brest-Paris Audax.
And a reminder, if a reminder is needed – those five Control Points and the parcours leading up to them are the race’s only ‘set’ landmarks. For every other kilometre, the riders are on their own and must plan and navigate their own route.
For now, though, the riders of TCRNo.7 are milling around the pre-race area on the seafront in Burgas. James Hayden – winner of TCRNo.5 and 6 – might be notable in his absence, but the rest of last year’s podium are here. Both Matthew Falconer and Björn Lenhard look relaxed, ready and eager to begin. Jenny Tough, after great results in 2018’s Transatlantic Way and Silk Road Mountain Race, looks set for a serious tilt at the TCR. And so too Tanja Hacker, who placed 18th in last year’s Trans Am Bike Race.
The atmosphere is more relaxed than previous registrations – this year’s race begins tomorrow morning, rather than later tonight – but there is still a sense of gathering anticipation. The riders are here, ready, but with no real idea of what lies in store.
It only takes a glance over the bikes moving through the mechanical checks to see what a diverse challenge this year’s race is. From skinny-tyred aero machines with carbon frames to rough-and-ready gravel bikes, every rider here has been forced to place their own bet on how their race might unfold.
No bike race from one side of the continent could ever be predictable. A bike race like the Transcontinental – where the 10 rules insist on absolute self-reliance and self-direction – is even less so.
Yet it’s hard to remember an edition more alive with possibility. A once-familiar route has been turned on its head. The start list feels light on previous winners. And with much of Europe gripped by an unprecedented heatwave, the riders will be forced to confront a whole new set of challenges.
All of Europe’s a stage – and the stage is set.