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The transcontinental wall

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At Geraardsbergen there’s a wall. Or rather, at Geraardsbergen there is THE wall, the only one that merits the definite article, as it has for a long time; an epithet that will last for who knows how long?
This is no ordinary wall: a wall that doesn’t divide, but transports and projects, a wall that pushes upwards towards a panorama that is low yet also high, at least relatively speaking. The wall of Geraardsbergen is not a vertical wall, even though it seems that way, and it is not made of bricks but of cobblestones, and is encircled by grass rather than barbed wire. This wall tells us stories that continue, whilst other walls cut stories short. The Muur of Geraardsbergen is a place that anyone who knows even a little bit about cycling will have heard of, but the story that begins along this kilometre of cobblestones at the end of July is less known, longer, and just as fascinating. It’s a story of crumbled walls, of barriers that fell as if they had never existed, and which should never have existed, in an idea of Europe that seems to be heading into the sunset. It is a story of resistance and knowledge, of challenging oneself, but also of challenging the fears that lead to the building of walls.

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PZeroVeloIt’s not accidental that the PEdALED Transcontinental Race starts right at a wall, or rather THE wall. It’s a choice that honours the history of cycling that today seems so distant from this type of adventure, but not so different in its origins, and it’s a choice that indicates a direction. “This experience helps break down walls and the fear of diversity, helps us to get to know ourselves and each other, and leads us to trade our experiences for whatever is offered to us by an area as vast as an entire continent”. These words were said to me last year by the founder of the Transcontinental Race, Mike Hall. If he had been here this year in the heart of Geraardsbergen for the start of the race, he would probably have expressed the same thoughts, but this time he wasn’t here, and won’t be. The Transcontinental Race No. 5 is going forward, but in a different and sad version. For the first time, Mike Hall will not be watching the race, as he died in Australia at the end of March, whilst himself taking part in a similar competition, the Indian Pacific Wheel Race.

He set out, as usual, to compete and to challenge records, but this time he didn’t return. His death, however, left a tangible mark on this extended community of extreme cyclists and creative spectators: inspiration. #BeMoreMike started trending rapidly in every continent. The only way to carry on in his path was to pedal, to look around, to get to know yourself and others, and to challenge yourself.

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Thus the Transcontinental went on, not without some difficulty, but as its founder would have wished. Not as a spiritual interpretation: he had expressed the wish to the course director, also his life partner, Anna Haslock, in one of those conversations that start with, “If anything happens…”. The Transcontinental resumed with an interim edition: along the itinerary planned by Mike Hall, but with a race run by a new team, extended to cover all the ideas and expertise that, until a few months ago, were the vision of a single person. It started again with the help of new volunteers and past participants to run it, changing names and faces, but not the spirit of the race.

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There are 235 individual competitors and 29 pairs: a surprising group of participants, not because of the number (which is closed), but due to their varied curriculums. Kristof Allegaert (‘The Machine’), winner of three editions out of four, is not taking part, and nor are any of the other medallists from past editions of the Transcontinental. Illuminated by torches and enthusiasm, the cyclists set off in the night from Geraardsbergen, headed for the first of four control points along the route. These are the only ‘control points’ in a race that leaves total freedom of choice to the riders regarding choice of roads, a choice that is usually made during nightly planning sessions over the preceding months. The first stamp on the brevet cards happens in Germany, after only 500 kilometres, and near Schloss Lichtenstein, a neogothic castle straight out of a Frankenstein movie. These are only the first climbs, but their function is to warm up the legs for the second control point, much tougher: Monte Grappa. A war ossuary and partisans’ refuge, as well as a place of showdowns during the Giro d’Italia, Monte Grappa features for the first time in the Transcontinental, with a climb from Semonzo, followed by a descent which takes the riders in an ample deviation towards the northeast. 

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The third stamp is in Slovakia, at TatranskáPoljanka, and one can imagine how amused Mike Hall must have been to discover this amazing setting. Eastern Europe is practically a cornerstone of this race, but the High Tatras are a previously unused chain, ideally situated for entering the Carpathians, which feature prominently in this year’s race. Before heading south, there is the iconic Transfăgărăşan Pass in Romania, along what many cyclists call ‘the most beautiful road in the world’. From there, 3,000 miles from the start, there is only the finishing line to reach, but it’s not exactly around the corner. After 4 finishing lines in Turkey, the Transcontinental No. 5 ends in Meteora, in Greece: an antique complex of ‘hanging’ monasteries, as its name suggests, and perhaps the one who chose this place as the finishing line will be looking down on the finish from up there.

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The folly of the PEdALED Transcontinental Race can be sensed immediately by reading the route and by looking at a globe. And yet, there is nothing foolish in this endeavour. The spirit of the race is more human than ever, and is the same driving force that has ever been a part of cycling, from its beginnings. This huge task has rules contained in ten lines, but they could well be summarised using only the last of these: “Ride in the spirit of self-reliance and equal opportunity”. The driving force behind Transcontinental is trust, towards yourself, towards your adversaries, and towards the different and new people you will encounter. Its significance is a ‘blind’ story, with spectators who have no images to see, the so-called ‘dotwatchers’ who follow the satellite blips that move on the map. It’s a narrative that reaches its target directly from the protagonists, from the #TCRNo5 on social media, and in discussion groups in nine different languages that unite this global community. They join up the dots for those who are following the dots. 

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The Transcontinental is a competition, a story, an adventure: for each and every one of us in differing percentages. It is an unending flow in which to immerse ourselves without slowing down at frontiers, walls, or when in doubt. Rather than the rules, it’s one of the FAQ answers that best describes the spirit of the race: “What happens if I get lost?” – “Find yourself”.

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