Feature - TCRNo6 in deepest Castellón

Cycling in Spain CV-223, Eslida - Aín, Castellón, Spain

Alicante-based Belgian Seb Nolens, or #TCRNo6cap54 as he's known to his nearest and dearest, will join @300 other participants to take on the challenge of the Transcontinental Race Nº6 at the end of July: @4000 km of distance and @40,000 metres of vertical climbing between Belgium and Greece, a full-on, two-week grinder up mountain passes, through distant valleys, often in sweltering heat and along gravel roads and asphalt. Lots and lots of asphalt. We talk to him to find out what lies behind his decision to put himself through such an extreme test.

The Long and Winding Road

What would you, fond lector, consider a “long” bike ride?

50 km? Most people with an acceptable degree of form and the ability to ride a bike can cover 50 km without too many problems and, with a bit of regular training, even 100 km should be within most able-bodied people’s reach.

160 km? Now, that's a bit of a leap, an increase of note, and a distance that in all likelihood takes us into the realm of the regular cycling practitioner. It's not a distance one would ride by accident.

200 km? A distance which requires a considerable amount of prepartion, and many hours in the saddle, to cover, and one which is probably beyond most people’s capacity and/or imagination and/or definition of pleasureable way to spend the day.

So what about +250 km? In layman's terms, that something akin to the distance separating the cities of Alicante and Castellón. It would be difficult to imagine anyone beyond a die-hard roadie or a randonneur putting their hand up for a jaunt of such length.

And how about +250 km every day, for two and a half weeks? 10, 12, 14+ hours a day in the saddle, come rain or shine? Surely, the preserve of the flahute alone.

Which is somewhat fitting, as that’s exactly the challenge which Seb Nolens, a Belgian resident in Alicante, has set himself, when next month he takes on the Transcontinental Race Nº6 (2018), which starts in Belgium and finishes 4000 km later in Greece.

Founded in 2013 by the late long-distance cyclist Mike Hall, the Transcontinental Race is considered by many to be the definitive self-supported, ultra-distance bicycle race across Europe. For the more competitive among its participants, it is a beautifully hard bicycle race. For others, the objective is simply to cover the route within the established time limit.

Being “self-supported” means that drafting behind other riders or receiving any form of support from other racers, friends or family is not allowed; the riders must purchase all food, accommodation, repairs, etc., and anything else they need from the commercial outlets which they encounter along the way and which are equally available to all participants.

So basically, you’re on your own from Belgium all the way to Greece, the living embodiment of Fair Play and Rule Nº. 5 on wheels.

We spent a day with Seb out and about on his bike in the province of Castellón as he clocked up the training kilometres in preparation for his upcoming challenge, and he was good enough to answer our questions as we sought to find out just why someone would consider such a tremendous feat, and how one would go about getting ready for it.

Cycling in Spain. Bar Cooperativa Agrícola San Ambrosio in Aín, Castellón
Seb Nolens, taking a well-earned break at Bar Cooperativa Agrícola San Ambrosio in Aín, Castellón

So Seb, tell us a bit about yourself: What is your background? Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Hasselt, north-east of Belgium, as the oldest son in a family of four. My father was a dentist, my mother stayed at home to take care of the children. We grew up in a beautiful villa in the green suburbs, with a huge garden to play in. We spoke French in-house, and Dutch at school, a bilingual reality that sometimes gave funny situations, and sometimes felt like being isolated.

Did you practice a lot of sport when you were young?
I would say a “normal” amount, up until the age of 12, when I went to boarding school. A lot of sports were obligatory there and I became good at running, swimming and cycling. Not the top of the class, but top 10% more or less, right behind the legends. And then when I was 18 I trained properly and won the school triathlon. That was the first confirmation that I wasn’t so far behind.

Did you start cycling at any early age? Do you come from a family of cyclists?
I started cycling at a pretty young age (4-6 years old) and considered it as a tool for independence right away. In Hasselt, children get a new bike for their Communion (6 yo) and their Confirmation of Faith (12 yo), and many kids would go to school with this bike. We were living 5km from school, but I insisted to do the same. The first time I was allowed to commute, my parents and siblings would follow me with the car all the way. It lasted two more years before they let me repeat. Since then, I took the bike every now and then to go to school. There are no really keen cyclists in my family. In general my environment did not promote adventure or risk-taking. I think something inside of me wanted to wake them up and amaze them.

Were you ever tempted to participate in bike racing when you were younger?
No, never even thought of it. I’m more into cycling to travel than for pure competition.

Cycling in Valencia - Alcudia de Veo, Castellón, Spain
CV-223, Alcudia de Veo, Castellón

Where have those travels on your bike taken you so far?
After exploring the local area when I was young, my first big journey was from Belgium all the way to Rome. It was an eye-opening experience. I decided then that I would spend my time to traveling like this, and not give my money to useless material things. That was followed by rides from Belgium to Lisbon, Brittany, Ireland, Morocco, Finland, Berlin, Nice, Krakow and Dubrovnik. I now have a kind of “web” linking Belgium to almost all regions of Europe.

Have you found a lot of differences between riding in one place or another? Where have you most enjoyed riding your bike? What is it that you most enjoy about riding your bike? Has that changed over time?
I take the places as they come, and try not to judge them. There are big differences in infrastructure, patience of car drivers and respect. But in general I think of Europe like a big Disneyland where cyclists can travel with relatively little danger. Europeans are welcoming, calm and smart people. I felt it much more challenging to cycle through Morocco.
My favourite place to ride, so far, is the lake area of Italy. Lake Como, Lake Lugano, the Dolomites… I’m a keen climber, so these areas have the perfect combination of factors for me: an interesting geography, lush vegetation, cool climate, excellent food, exotic language. When I’m on my bike, I most enjoy the homeless feeling. Every day I sleep in a new place, and I don’t know what it’s going to be. I eat when I want, I can go left or right, up or down.
I usually like to cycle at my own pace, with no time pressure. This has changed lately, and I have made my trips faster and more efficient. After the TCR I’d like to do some trips where I can enjoy myself a bit more, talk to more people, visit places.

Tell us a little bit about what were you doing before you moved to Spain?
I was working at the Brussels tourism office, convincing associations and companies to organise their congress in Brussels.

Cycling in Valencia. Puerto de la Nevera, Sierra de Espadán, Castellón
Puerto de la Nevera, CV-215, Sierra de Espadán, Castellón

And how long have you been living in Spain?
A bit longer than one year now (arrived 26th of June 2017). I’ve lived in Madrid for 5 months in 2006 as well.

What was it that brought you to Spain?
I got a job opportunity at the EUIPO (European Union Intellectual Property Office) in Alicante. Deloitte hires external consultants for all kinds of jobs here. So when you speak many languages and have a decent office track record, there are chances to be chosen. The Brussels adventure came to an end, and we felt that this was the next page.

How have you found living in Spain so far? Is it as you expected?
Nice! Relaxed in general, excellent life quality and friendly people. With a big BUT for administration issues…...

I think you may rest safe in the knowledge that you are not alone in this aspect....

How have you found cycling in Spain, and where have you cycled in Spain? In your experience, what advantages does Spain offer to cyclists?
Many people told me about dangerous drivers, but so far I must say that hasn’t been my impression. I used to commute in Brussels, and there were more hazardous situations there. More frustrations, more cars, buses, trams… In Alicante, except in the centre, there is a lot of space, roads are straight, and the gradient is predictable. When a road goes up, it goes up for 5km. The Alicante area has the obvious advantage to offer a dry, sunny climate almost all year. The roads are of good quality. And you can climb from sea level to 1000m in 50km. The perfect conditions to train when it’s still cold in the north of Europe.
Another advantage I’d mention, is the signage on famous climbs that’s been put in place this year. Every km it says your elevation and the average steepness of the next chunk.
Looking at Spain, the mountainous terrain is still an important factor, and so is the climate in many areas. There is such SPACE here, that you are motivated to ride further. So far, I’ve followed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coastline almost completely (just missed Galicia and Huelva-Cadiz). I’ve cycled around all the main cities of Andalucia, in and around Madrid, the Sierra de Guadarrama, Cuenca. And finally I’ve explored the provinces of Alicante, Valencia and Murcia in depth.

Cycling in Valencia, Aín, Sierra de Espadán, Castellón, Spain
CV-223, Aín, Sierra de Espadán, Castellón

So moving on to the Transcontinental Race: 4000 kilometres and 35,000 metres of vertical climbing in a little over two weeks. Without any outside help or support. Belgium to Greece, via the Alps and Poland. In the middle of the summer…. . It’s not the kind of event that most people would consider as a fun way to spend their holidays. What was it that first attracted your interest?
Which way to Greece? Once underway, participants are free to choose their own route, although they must pass through several fixed checkpoints, the locations of which are changed for each edition. How much time they dedicate to riding, resting and refueling depends on each rider’s strategy and reserves. In addition to the route’s distance and the extreme heat often experienced in central Europe in the summer, during this year’s event the participants will have to tackle a total altitude gain of around 35,000 metres. The art of “Dot Watching” The real-time locations of the participants in the Transcontinental Race are monitored using GPS satellite-based tracker devices fitted to their bikes, which enable their positions to be uploaded to the Internet so that friends, family and observers, known as “dot-watchers”, can follow their progress as they log up the kilometres racing across the continent. Volunteer "dot watchers" follow each rider’s position and report any suspected rule violations (e.g., riders who seem to be riding together for long periods, or people riding on prohibited roads) to the race organizers. Rider locations are broadcast on maps such as TrackLeaders and Free Route and can be accessed through transcontinental.cc. Official reports and videos are posted online, and many participants post updates on social media. In first place, the almost mystical pictures, quotes and the sense of community. And it was accessible. I mean, I’ll never swim in the same race as Michael Phelps, or drive on a circuit with Fernando Alonso. But I can participate in the TCR together with legends of previous editions and still end not too far behind them. This is my best go at competing with the world’s very best athletes in my discipline.

And, following this initial interest, what was it that finally tipped the scales and led you to take the decision to sign up and participate in the TCR?
“Dot watching” for two years, and reading these people’s stories. They are amateurs, just like me. If they can, so can I.

How has your decision to participate in the TCR been met by other cyclists in the area? Indeed, are there other cyclists in the area who understand and support your decision to participate in the TCR?
Most cyclists I know see this as another level. Most will never try a TCR, even if they like participating in Brevets and Audax rides. I do know one guy who is seriously considering it, and he does have the level.

So would you say that this type of ultra-distance cycling popular among Spanish cyclists?
From my experience, yes. Spanish cyclists are hugely competitive. I regret that cycling is not more popular as a daily means of transportation, like in Holland. But once on their bikes, the Spanish pedal the shit out of themselves and try to beat their club mates on the strong climbs.
I had the opportunity to participate in three BRM Brevets in Alicante (200, 300 and 400km), and there I found the typical friendly atmosphere that I knew from Belgium. These people are used to participating in the Brevets held in Murcia, Jaen, Valencia etc… .In Summer they go to Luchon and are dreaming of Paris - Brest - Paris 2019. We are talking here about a small community of 100 cyclists per edition. Some take this as a race and abandon once there is rain, or a mechanical problem.

What steps does a potential competitor have to take to be able to participate in the Transcontinental?
First, you have to get selected. From 800 candidates, there are only 300 riders selected. Being non-British or a woman helps (all women get selected). The selection procedure includes a list of questions about the race, the route, your expectations, etc. Social media are also checked.

To what degree are you subject to medical supervision during your preparation for the event?
When I feel abnormally tired or ill, I go to the doctor, like everybody else would. A doctor advised me to take some supplements, to catch up with the lost minerals and vitamins. I take them every day and feel fine.

Do you train with a heart monitor and/or a power meter?
No. My training is rather artisanal. I alternate long and short rides, and try everything that the TCR will throw at me: a climb to 2000m, some very long overnights, loads of climbing, some gravel, and recovery.

What sort of bicycle is required for such an event? What sort of bicycle do you ride?
Your bike has to feel like home for two weeks. Remove every reason to descend from the saddle more than needed. Your bike should be fast, but also comfortable. Many riders use steel and titanium frames, and larger types of tyres (up to 40mm in width). But a carbon frame can be an excellent choice, too. You shouldn't try any new equipment for the first time in TCR. Test everything before.

Cycling in Valencia. Steel Jaegher frame
Seb Nolens' steel Jaegher

I will be riding a steel frame from Belgian brand Jaegher, and it feels like a good choice. Mavic wheels, SRAM Red gears, Brooks C19 saddle, Fizik handlebar with Lizzardskin tape, Aerobars from T3 from Profile Design, Wahoo ELEMNT, PedalEd frame bags etc...

Riders typically opt for road bikes equipped with small bikes bags stuffed with a minimal amount of gear and supplies, plus a good navigation device and good lighting. Recumbents and tandems are not allowed.

Are we talking about very expensive bicycles? Does the Transcontinental demand particular technical requirements in terms of bicycles?
Yes, rather expensive. It's not obligatory to buy all new material, and you could reuse things that you already own. I'd budget my material at 10.000 € altogether, but it could have been a lot less expensive with a common carbon frame and less upmarket gear.
The Transcontinental Race organisers only ask us to use bicycles that look like bicycles, without an engine. There are no technical requisites. If you think you can ride it on a folding bike or a fixie, it's up to you! TCR inspects each bicycle on the day of departure, to make sure everything is legit.

What do you know about the other competitors in the Transcontinental? Are you in contact with them? Do you see them as companions, or as rivals?
They're a bunch of very inspiring people. Some have a really high level and train almost like professionals. Others are just doing it for fun. The common factor is a certain sense of fair play, adventure and helpfulness. I'm following almost all of them on Instagram, and interact a lot with them. There is a couple of riders in Murcia that I have to meet somewhere in July. I see the other participants mostly as companions. I think my best moments will be meeting them at the start, the end and during the race.

Cycling in Valencia, Santuario de la Cueva Santa, Castellón, Spain
CV-245, Santuario de la Cueva Santa, Castellón

To what extent have you planned your route for the Transcontinental, and to what extent will you improvise?
I have planned all the route on RideWithGPS, and will have it on my Wahoo device at all times. But I keep this as a guideline, not as a strict law. In fact, I'll not use turn-by-turn indications, but just read the map on my device. I'd be glad to improvise here and there, except in the mountains. There, it's vital to follow the good valleys.

There are a lot of kilometres to be covered each day to make the time-cut, whichever way you look at it. Do you plan to ride much during the night to keep on schedule?
I actually don't like riding during the night, so I'll avoid it when I can. But this is about getting in as many hours as possible, and that will probably include night rides. I'm not a very fast rider (24-25 km/h average), so I need to ride long days at my quiet pace.

You are not allowed external assistance during the event, so you will have to take supplies, clothes, spares with you, and/or locate them during the event. What will you take with you initially?
Two bibs, two shirts (one warm, one cool), a waterproof jacket, arm and leg warmers, a wool jersey, two power banks, two pairs of lights, a camera and/or a GoPro, slippers, sunglasses, sleeping bag and mat, some vitamins, toothbrush, suncream and a nail cutter. And food for the first night. I ride with regular sneakers and a 1.5-litre water bottle. I probably forget to mention many things.

You are out there for days on end, focussed on covering an enormous amount of kilometres per day. Where will you sleep?
Partly in empty sheds and at people's places. And partly in hostels along the way. I need a good sleep and a shower every now and then, even if that makes me lose time in the short term.

CV-245, Santuario de la Cueva Santa, Castellón, Valencia Region
CV-245, Santuario de la Cueva Santa, Castellón

Sleeping en route
Some riders bring bivvy bags and inflatable camping mats so that they can sleep outdoors, while others may opt for occasional nights in a hotel or hostal in order to be able to rest up, shower, eat and carry out repairs before carrying on. It is prohibited, however, to reserve any accommodation more than 24 hours in advance: everything must be resolved en route.

What will you eat during the event?
On long rides, I generally have short breaks with yoghurts, candy bars, coffee, soft drinks and lots of water. For proper meals, pizzas are the easier choice, but I love to enjoy local gastronomy and meat. That's even one of the reasons why I travel. So I'll stop and eat at a restaurant every now and then for a solid meal. Otherwise, gas stations are my allies. They're easy to find, they open almost 24/7, and they offer fresh drinks with no detour.

What do you expect to be your greatest challenge during the event? The distance? The daily recovery? The climbing?
I'm afraid of my recovery capacity. I can ride 400 km on one day. But the next day I'm a mess. I'll need to see how my body reacts to repeated long distances. Long distances don't scare me, and I'm fine with climbing, as long as I have eaten something recently.

Do you have a target time for finishing the event?
I'm aiming at 14 days, 270km per day. If something goes wrong or I'm just too tired, I'll be happy to make it for the finisher's party, 17 days, 230km per day.

Cycling in Spain, Alcublas, Valencia
CV-245, Alcublas, Valencia

Final Classification
The event’s traditional Finish Party will be held at the end of the 16th day after the start, while the deadline for arrival at the finish and eligibility for a place in the general classification results is the 17th day.

What physical consequences do you expect to experience during the event? And after the event?
Probably palsy in the two shorter fingers, sore neck, digestion problems and sleep deprivation. After the event, I'll need to watch what I eat to get back to life gradually. And find myself a new aim, because otherwise I'll fall in a kind of dip.

How important a part do you think the mental aspect will play during the event?
I'm in it for the long run, and I'm in peace with myself. I know that I'm going to suffer and I'll try to tune the maximum amount of suffering per day so I stay motivated to go on. I'd boldly say, today, that only a physical issue or a severe mechanical can keep me from arriving in Meteora.

It's a huge effort. How much time do you expect you will need to recover from the event?
I reckon on 4 weeks for a total physical recovery. During that time I need to keep the legs moving and stay busy doing things I love.

Cycling in Spain, Alcublas, Valencia
CV-245, Alcublas, Valencia

As part of your participation in the event, you are raising funds for charity. What exactly does this involve, which charities did you choose, and why?
I chose to raise funds for the World Bicycle Relief. They are a well-known and serious association doing field work in several African countries. Their aim is simple: changing lives with bicycles. In 10 years, they have already given more than 300.000 bicycles! They offer the gift of mobility and independence, and that's exactly why I love cycling. Thanks to the bicycles, students in rural areas can attend school, farmers can bring their harvest to the market and health workers can visit more patients. I hope that with my ride I can contribute to giving mobility to people who don't have it.

Are there any other events of this kind that you would like to participate in?
I'll see that once I've finished the TCR. The race aspect is not my favourite one, but I want to give it a try. After the race, I'll just keep on riding my bike to cool places and enjoy it there. And if I hear of a race with a concept that appeals to me, I'll try to register.

What other future goals would you like to set yourself, beyond cycling?
I'm very committed to bike mobility and environmental issues. I would want to contribute to bringing more people on the bike, especially in countries that still consider it as a sports vehicle. Apart from that, I would like to do something in bicycle tourism. Create guided routes, mix them with gastronomy, architecture, culture, music. Or manage a bicycle hotel in a mountainous area. And go back to the essence of life. Simple contacts, walks through nature and more time for thinking.

Cycling in Valencia. Pinet, Spain

If you'd like to help in funding Sebastien race to Greece whilst providing bicycles for students in rural Africa, head over to his GoFundMe page: The Power of Bicycles - SebiCicleta

And if you'd like to further follow Seb's adventures in his build up to the Transcontinental Race, and during the Transcontinental Race itself, you'll find him over at Instagram: Sebicicleta

The Transcontinental Race No.6 (2018)

The Transcontinental Race  (TCR) Logo

Geraardsbergen, Belgium - Meteora Monasteries, Greece

2420 miles (3,895km)

Start: Sunday 29th July at 10:00 (CET)

Route Closure: Wednesday 15th August at 23:00 (EET)

The Transcontinental Race: Website

The Transcontinental Race: Facebook page

The Transcontinental Race: Instagram

TrackLeaders: Website

Free Route: Website

Bicycles, Flanders and cobbles. A most fitting way to start such an event.

The event starts at 10 pm on Sunday 29th July in the town square at Geraardsbergen, Belgium. Before the expected presence of large, cheering crowds, the @350 strong-field will set off on a couple of laps of the town before taking on the famous steep, cobbled climb of Muur van Geraardsbergen, also known as Kapelmuur, Muur-Kapelmuur or simply Muur, known to cycle racing fans the world over as a key point on the route of the Tour Flanders “Monument” race.

Once the field reaches the church at the top of the climb, the race officially begins and the riders are free to set off towards their distant destination at their own pace and following the roads of their choice.


There are four checkpoints which the riders must pass through along the route, as can be seen on the following, simplified map:

Each rider will carry a “brevet card” that must be stamped at each checkpoint as proof of their arrival, and the opening and closing of manned checkpoints is based on riders completing approximately 250km per day of riding.

The first checkpoint, located at over 2000 metres above sea level, is on the Bielerhöhe Pass in the Austrian Alps, the final part of which is a toll road with very little traffic.

The second checkpoint starts on the highest road in Slovenia, at Mangart Sedlo, close to the Italian border. From the summit, the riders will descend to the Soca Valley before climbing the Vrśić Pass.

The route then heads north to the third checkpoint, located on the very steep, unpaved Karkonosze Pass in Poland.

After descending back down into the Czech Republic the riders will set their sights on the fourth and final checkpoint, located way down south at Bjelašnica, one of the mountains above Sarajevo, Bosnia. This climb also features unpaved and gravel sections.

With the four checkpoints out of the way, the riders will be free to find the quickest route to the finish in Meteora, Greece.

The Rules

There is a set of 10 minimal rules which focus on riders being self-sufficient (unsupported) and using reasonably-comparable equipment. In order to keep things as simple as possible, everything not covered by these rules is hopefully covered by the implicitly-understood principles of self-supported bike racing. Each rider carries a copy of the rules in their brevet card, and they are also included in the race manual.

1. Riders must ride from the start point to the finish point and visit all mandatory controls en-route.
2. 3rd party support is prohibited. All food, drink and equipment must be carried by the rider or acquired en-route.
3. Drafting is prohibited.
4. All forward land travel must be human powered.
5. Ferries are permitted for expedient coast to coast travel, by approval of the Race Director.
6. Riders are responsible for maintaining geographical verification and evidence thereof.
7. 2+ days of inactivity without contact will be deemed a scratch.
8. No Helmet, No Insurance, No Ride.
9. It is the rider’s responsibility to know and observe local laws.
10. Riders must act in the spirit of self sufficiency and equal opportunity for all racers.

Michael Dixon

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