Transcontinental Race: Team 255 – two women between myth and feasibility
Beautiful and brutal: the Transcontinental Race is the self-supported ultra-distance cycling race across Europe. Between myth and feasibility and in the midst of the hot summer of 2018, the first women's team masters the mighty ‘Race Across Europe’ within the time limit. Johanna Jahnke and Marion Dziwnik - Team 255 - in an interview about 15 days in the saddle, 4,000 kilometres, 35,000 vertical metres climbed and ‘proper’ challenges
Endless Alpine panorama – limestone peaks cutting into dark fir green. Eastern block architecture offers a contrast – cold concrete on sky blue. Dry farmland like short golden hair undulating endlessly. Then two cycling caps under neon yellow helmets – 255a and 255b That’s Johanna and Marion. They grin. These two are the first women’s team to rock the Transcontinental Race (TCR). And here is the story from one of them…
The Transcontinental Race
4,000 kilometres, 40,000 vertical metres in a maximum (!) of 16 days, across Europe, at one with your bike, against the clock. The Transcontinental Race, TCR for short, is one of the most demanding self-supported ultra-distance bike races in Europe. Since the first TCR in 2013, new myths arise every summer about this cool and mighty ‘Race Across Europe’.
“The Transcontinental Race is (…) a beautifully hard bicycle race, simple in design but complex in execution. Factors of self reliance, logistics, navigation and judgement burden racers’ minds as well as their physiques. (…) many experienced riders target only a finish.” TRANSCONTINENTAL TEAM
What began as a subculture brevet for around 30 men over forty with a perfectly normal yearning for heroic status, has grown to attracting around 300 long-distance fetishists from among the wildest cyclists and from all over the world in the summer of 2018. Only one woman took part in TCR No.1: Juliana Burhing. She rode the 3,400 km course in twelve days. The TCR was the brainchild of Mike Hall, the ultra-distance legend from the UK. He suffered a fatal crash in 2017 during a race in Australia, and lives on in the community in the hashtag #bemoremike.
“If I’d had to give an interview in the first few weeks,
it would have been very different!” MARION DZIWNIK
A good time
One Tuesday in December 2018: The phone rings. “Hi, it’s Marion!” She’s just cycled through the Hamburg “Shietwedder” to the university. This is where Marion, a fixed gear crit rider in her early 30s, teaches maths. The previous weekend – almost half a year after the TCR– Marion and Johanna had given their first joint presentation on the race. Marion says that now is the perfect moment for the call.
“If I’d had to give an interview in the first few weeks, it would have been very different! I was mentally exhausted. Not at all positive. Just the racing in itself leaves you in an extraordinary state. Yes. I needed some distance. I needed to recover mentally.” After a break during which both returned to caring for their neglected partners and families, the lecture was their first joint public review.
“When I registered for the TCR, I think at that point the furthest I’d ridden in one go was 200 km, once. It took me the whole day, and I was done in at the end of it!” MARION DZIWNIK
No. 255: One Team. Two Novices.
Team 255 – Johanna and Marion – had started with completely different motivations and backgrounds. It was Johanna who suggested registering. The two have known one another for many years from various fixed gear crits.
Marion was looking for a new physical challenge. “When I registered for the TCR, I think at that point the furthest I’d ridden in one go was 200 km, once. It took me the whole day, no kidding, and I was done in at the end of it!”
She wanted to conquer the race. “Bike-packing – multi-day, self-supported cycling tours with very little luggage – I’m familiar with that. That aspect of it wasn’t so important to me!”
Johanna on the other hand, was drawn by the magic of it: the ‘spirit of the race’. The former rugby national player, mother of two children and criterium rider was fascinated by riding without support and without backup.
Johanna devoured all the information she could find about self-supported ultra-distance races. She set about intensive preparation. Training for long distances was an important part of her preparation, but so was researching the appropriate road bike geometry, the appropriate gearing, the bike-packing setup of the bike, the personal mental challenge, the route planning …
“It’s night time. On a super narrow cobblestone pavement with a gradient of 25 percent, from one moment to the next, around 300 riders crowd onto the Kapelmuur. Plus luggage. The first people are already there. Someone loses something. It’s total chaos. You’re pumped full of adrenalin.” MARION DZIWNIK
Day X: No-one is alone on this first night
Geraardsbergen, 10 pm, July 29, 2018: “It’s night time. On a super narrow cobblestone pavement with a gradient of 25 percent, from one moment to the next, around 300 riders crowd onto the Kapelmuur. Plus luggage. The first people are already there. Someone loses something. It’s total chaos. You’re pumped full of adrenalin.” 300 people: everyone racing alone, and yet somehow all riding together. You’ll see one another at the checkpoints. Then go your separate ways again. You just don’t know – who will you see at the finish; who won’t be there? “That was the real highlight for me! I didn’t even know whether I’d survive the night!”
Three power naps. One crash.
Three 30-minute power naps after riding through the night, 420 km covered and 4,000 metres climbed on the first day: Team 255 powered their way crisply into the race, putting 1½ stages behind them. Then the second day puts a dampener on things. Both lose their concentration. Marion crashes. And there is nowhere for them to sleep in Switzerland. “We had to press on. 50 or so tough kilometres. After that, we settled into a rhythm a bit better.”
A day’s stage of the TCR is twice or three times as long as a stage on the Tour de France – but without any comfort or safety.
Self-organized racing means that the TCR riders put together their own route before the race, and plan their own individual way. The checkpoints are fixed at the time of application, eight months before the start, as well as the ten ‘keep it short and simple’ rules. Anyone breaking them is disqualified or given a time penalty.
Self-supported means that – regardless of what happens – you have to find a solution. Alone, and as quickly as possible. On a 4,000 km route, a fair few things can come at you: crashes, hailstorms, frozen fingers in the morning and searing heat in the afternoon, a broken bike, low water reserves and gnawing hunger – or even a pack of wild dogs?! To give some perspective: A day’s stage on the TCR is on average twice or three times as long as a stage on the Tour de France – but without any comfort or safety.
On the tracker 24/7
On accreditation for the race, all participants are given a tracker. It then records everything, 24 hours a day for 16 days. The famous TCR Dot-Watchers blog follows the riders, commenting and celebrating the crazy life of transcontinentalists on the road.
Re-planning and luggage
Only once did Team 255 have to spontaneously re-plan their route. “We ended up on a really stressful road in the Czech Republic: lorries and 30 cm-wide side lanes. After 20 km of that we rerouted and went over the mountain instead of along the straight road.”
Their misgivings over riding with luggage also quickly proved to be groundless. “My bike plus time trial attachment and water bottle holder weighed 9.5 kg; with luggage it was 13 kg. Add 3 kg of food and drink to that. Speaking of food: When I think of all the stuff we put away, it makes me feel ill.”
A whole pack of nuts: racing vegan and vegetarian
Johanna is a vegan. Marion is a vegetarian. Johanna took care of the shopping. Marion booked the hotels. “And our bodies always told us what they needed, and when. To start with it was nuts, then fresh food, at the finish I totally craved milk products. We had a really good flow.”
One of the rules of the TCR is that riders may only eat what they can obtain along the way. Most riders spend 14 days stuffing their faces with anything edible they can find along the way – even if that’s 13 doughnuts in one day. At least, that’s what they say.
On her test rides in advance of the TCR, Marion reveals, getting supplies didn’t exactly go smoothly. “In the Czech Republic, everywhere closes at 9 pm. We went to bed with growling stomachs. That’s no fun at all.” But the further south the pair rode on the TCR, the easier it became to fuel up. Restaurants open for longer than in the north!
“I was looking to push myself physically to the limit. But that never happened.
But the mental challenge just kept on growing…”
Eat. Sleep. Bike. Repeat.
“For the whole time, we lived only for the race. And I mean: ONLY for the race. I felt like it was hanging over me the whole time. It was constantly: eat quickly, don’t sleep too long, check the time – it was so punishing! I was looking to push myself physically to the limit. But that never happened. My body simply got used to the 300 km per day. It simply didn’t get any more strenuous. But the mental challenge just kept on growing…” However, Marion looks back on each of the four checkpoints as a highlight. In 2018, these were:
#1: Bielerhöhe Pass at 2032 m above sea level, Silvretta-Hochalpenstrasse / Austria
#2: Mangart Sedlo at 2027 m above sea level, Triglav National Park / Slovenia
#3: Karkonosze Pass at 1198 m above sea level / Poland
#4: Bielašnica Pass at 2023 m above sea level / Bosnia Herzegovina
“The climb to Mangart Cesta, the highest road in the Slovenian Alps in the Triglav National Park, was super impressive. We started off in deep forest. It was dark, gloomy, spooky … we just rode into the clouds. Then the trees became fewer and the vegetation was suddenly like on Mallorca. We continue. We hit high alpine terrain. There’s snow up there. We take a photo, pack up and coast back down. Beautiful!”
900 km before the finish at Checkpoint No.4 in Bielašnica / Bosnia, the enormous time pressure and stress became an issue for the pair. “I wanted to get the whole thing over quickly – Johanna was more considered!” Their compromise: more kilometres per day in the saddle – but less stress. The plan worked: On Day 15, Meteora, Greece, Team 255 puts a stamp in the last available field in the brevet book.
The whole race doesn’t have to be completely epic. You don’t have to sleep outside. You don’t have to be stuck completely exhausted in the saddle. If you don’t want that as a woman, you need a good plan!” MARION DZIWNIK
A good plan. A good flow. And the fear.
“Besides the stress, the lack of sleep was particularly hard. Just imagine, it’s morning. It’s cold. You’ve not slept much and now you’ve got to cycle up a mountain. I was always really grumpy in the mornings. What really helped me was the tape my boyfriend had made. He’d recorded a book as an audiobook for me – it brought me closer to him – I could switch off. But if I’d ridden the race with my boyfriend, we wouldn’t be together any more!”
Around two thirds of the riders who start the race are competing alone; one third ride as a team. It wasn’t clear to me before, but it’s much easier to do it alone.” If she ever competes in the race with Johanna again, she’d rather do it as a friendly challenge than looking out for one another as a team, with no rivalry.
“Riding alone, you have to find your own rhythm. It’s so important! And that’s an unbelievable challenge for a team. In a team, you always have to compromise with the weakest team member.” Marion adds that there was no question of starting as a solo rider. “We were much too afraid of such a new challenge – both of us!”
Twenty women. Two hundred and twenty-nine men.
Speaking of fear: “My theory is that the reason the number of women competing in the TCR has always been low is fear. Fear of the situation. Fear of eastern Europe, perhaps. Fear of the way men behave.” This is reflected in the TCR registration statistics. In 2018, the number of women was higher than ever before. Of the 249 registrations, twenty were women.
“The strength of the race lies in the fact that everything is in your own hands. We had a very structured approach. We never slept outdoors. We scheduled seven hours of sleep every night, and kept strictly to that. We had a good route. And: We found our rhythm as a team – despite our differing motivations! Our plan worked. No complications!”
“If I’d ridden the race with my boyfriend, we wouldn’t be together any more!” MARION DZIWNIK
The end of an era and new myths
With the first women’s team to complete the race (within the time limit) has the heroic era of the Transcontinental Race lost its magic? In a way, yes.
“The whole race doesn’t have to be completely epic. You don’t have to sleep outside. You don’t have to be stuck completely exhausted in the saddle. If you don’t want that as a woman, you just need a good plan!” Marion continues: “Besides, women have a physical advantage. Their fat metabolism is better designed for long distances. In the ultra distance races in the USA, women are already among the leaders!”
Taking a look into the future, in this case the current gender distribution of the registrations, according to race organizer Anna Haslock there has been the highest percentage of female registrations ever. 62 women have been accepted for 2019. That’s three times as many as started in 2018!
With their story, Team 255 – Johanna and Marion – have created a new mythology. Losing the magic doesn’t happen quite that easily. The Transcontinental is simply too spectacular, the checkpoints are too breathtaking, the stages too extreme, the fanbase too crazy and – solid planning notwithstanding – the Transcontinental is an absolutely massive bike race into the sheer unknown…
Johanna Jahnke, 35, from Hamburg, is a mother of two, former rugby national player and has been vegan for 18 years. In addition to her psychology studies she rides in international fixed-gear criterium races and loves exploring new countries on her bike.
You can listen to her enthuse with others from the world of cycling on her podcast Die Wundersame Fahrradwelt. Listen in!
Marion Dziwnik, 32, moved from Berlin to Hamburg in mid-2018 and works as a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Mathematics at the University of Hamburg.
She rides in national and international fixed gear criteriums for the Maloja Pushbikers Fem team, and discovered bike-packing just two years ago.
All photos were created under strictest Transcontinental Race requirements. The photographer is Sebastian Hofer / click.inspired