Brighton local rider, Gavin Peacock is preparing for his 2nd attempt at one of the worlds toughest Bikepacking races, The Transcontinental. Here he gives us an insight into what he learnt from his 2017 experience, what he thinks of the 2019 race route and some great tips for your Bikepacking adventures.
You’re riding again in this year’s Transcon, can you tell us a little about your scratch from the 2017 event and what you have learnt from it?
We scratched (I was in the pairs category with Jo Burt) in the High Tatras mountains in Slovakia on day 9 I think it was. I’d been low-level ill in the first few days and had used up all my reserves and really struggling on a cold, wet morning. It was a horrible decision to make I felt like I was letting Jo down. Also for myself, I didn’t want to give up but I had nothing left at that point in time. However, if I had been solo there’s a good chance I would have scratched a few days before. It took time to come to terms with and I didn’t want to ride with other people much for a few months afterwards. So one thing I’ve learned is there are pros and cons to pairs, and I’m not sure I’d race pairs again. Absolutely nothing to do with Jo, there are very few people I’d even consider pairing with, but simply that it adds pressure, which you have to balance with the additional support, someone to talk to, laugh with, etc. I’d probably feel much different had we finished. Having said that it was an incredible experience, otherwise I wouldn’t be giving it another go.
Training for something so big must be daunting. How do you fit in the miles?
I work 10 miles from home and commuting by bike gives me road and off-road options so getting in the miles is relatively simple. With multiple options and office flexi-time, it’s easy to extend the 10 miles to 20, 30 or 40.
However, another thing I’ve learned from 2017 – don’t overtrain. In hindsight I think I did that in 2017, hence being a bit rundown in the run up to the race. I did a lot of audaxes and big rides in the first half of 2017 and possibly peaked a bit early. This time I’m doing less training and tending to do it in shorter rides, and just a couple of audaxes. I will be racing the 900km Normandicat in France at the end of May though, to remind myself of what it’s like to ride all day and sleep in bus stops.
Having done a lot of multi-day riding since the Transcon – last year I rode across France twice, had a week touring in the Dolomites, and rode 1300km from Brighton to Copenhagen in 5 and a half days – it’s less daunting than last time. I know I can do riding day in day out, plan routes, find food, etc. I hardly rode in the 5 weeks before I left for Copenhagen and wasn’t feeling strong. I was worried a 300km day followed by five 200km days was pushing it. What I found is I rode into fitness in the first couple of days. I think it’s probably better to turn up a bit undertrained and refreshed, as you can ride into a big ride, but if you turn up overtrained you’re not going to ride out of tiredness.
How else do you look after your body and mind whilst preparing for the race?
This is definitely easier this time around. Last time it was all unknown and scary. This time I have a lot more experience, both of the race and bikepacking in general. I have all the kit I need so I don’t need to worry about that stuff. Being as prepared as possible takes the stress out of it for me. I plan my routes meticulously, using Google Maps and Streetview to research roads as much as possible, and where I can get food every 50km or so. I even go as far as making a list of places where I know I can get food and water, and hotels are available, which I carry with me. That way if I have to re-route because of a closed road, and have no 3G to get a map on my phone, I can follow signposts to the next place name on the list. Also if I run out of food or water in the middle of nowhere if I know I can get something 20km down the road it reduces the stress of “When the hell am I going to find water!” The Transcon is still a big undertaking but if I’ve planned as much as I can then hopefully nothing goes wrong but if it does I’m better placed to cope with it because I’m not worrying about other stuff.
Body wise as well as riding I try to swim once a week and do a bit of pilates. I find this helps with flexibility and core strength, which makes being on a bike all day long more comfortable which helps avoid physical tiredness. Nearer the race start, I’ll get as much rest and sleep as I can.
The spot trackers are great for us to watch everyone and see how the race develops. How is it racing across countries with everyone knowing where you are?
One thing I wasn’t aware of until taking part is that people dot watching will come out and find you on the road. A guy in Austria stopped us for a quick chat and take our photo because he’d been following the race. Someone else said hello on a cycle path in Bratislava as they recognized us. People will also send messages via social media, both friends and people you’ve never met. This is one of the great things about the race. Last time we used Twitter and Instagram as we went and the feedback and conversations we had with people were incredible. When I was close to scratching in Italy a few days before we finally pulled out of the race the messages from people were a massive boost. It reminded me that people invest a lot in the people taking part. I sensed this from following the race previous years but when you’re in the middle of it you realise how important a part of the event this is. Having said that you can lose time by getting sucked into the virtual world so this time I’ll limit myself to using Instagram once a day.
Tell us a bit about riding into the night and looking for somewhere to sleep?
Generally, I start thinking about it before I get too tired and really need to stop. It may take a little while to find somewhere suitable to sleep if bivvying or wild camping. It will depend on your level of confidence and comfort requirements where you’ll sleep. However in my experience, if you’re tired enough you’ll sleep anywhere. Riding across France one time I was so tired I simply crashed out in the corner of a field just off the road. I was behind a hedge so out of sight, passed out within seconds of lying down, and woke up at sunrise. On the Transcon, we slept in a bike shed outside a sports centre, behind a shipping container around the back of a supermarket, on a bench in a picnic area on an Italian cycle path.
When I’m bikepacking I also use cheap hotels. I have booking.com and Air BnB apps on my phone which helps locate places. I can plan each night based on how I’m feeling and how far I think I can, or want to, ride. I also sometimes book hotels in advance for certain nights so I have a goal to reach, that can help with motivation. A proper bed and shower can make a massive difference to how you’ll feel the next day. You can also wash your kit. I plan to use hotels more in this year’s Transcon.
If I’m using hotels I’ll stop earlier to make the most of the bed. If I’m bivvying then I’ll tend to ride later but I try to find somewhere to sleep by midnight, 1 am at the latest. I know from 24-hour mountain bike racing and audaxing that I’m just not very good between 1 and 3 am, my brain stops functioning properly and I make silly mistakes. I love riding through dawn so I try to get back on the road before sunrise, watch the sun come up and the world come alive, and then find a massive breakfast and a strong coffee.
Do you have any tips for being efficient when unpacking your overnight kit and repacking it in the morning?
I keep all my sleeping kit in a dry bag attached to my handlebars. For the summer it consists of a bivvy bag, an inflatable sleeping mat, silk sleeping bag liner, merino t-shirt, and a down jacket. I can simply pull it all out and unroll it and ready to sleep in a few minutes. The next morning I can roll it all backup and repack it in a matter of minutes too. I use a down jacket rather than a sleeping bag simply as a sleeping bag only has one use, whereas a down jacket is more useful. In summer the sleeping bag liner is sufficient for warmth and adds a bit of luxury for next to nothing weight wise.
The TCR takes you through some spectacular places. Do you get a sense of the people and the culture from different regions or does it become a bit of a blur?
For me, this is a really important part of the experience. It’s not just a case of staring at your stem and getting from A to B as quickly as possible. Obviously, it’s a race so that’s part of it, but being on a bike is different from travelling by car or train. You’re not separated from the environment you’re in, you’re part of it. You’re well aware of the culture around you and the people, you’re interacting with them every time you stop to eat – which is a lot! – and food is a great way to experience different cultures.
Riding a bike puts you in the landscape and the speed at which you travel is fast enough to see changes in the landscape in a relatively short amount of time but not so fast that you don’t get to see the details. Even when you’re tired it doesn’t really become a blur, in some ways your senses become more heightened to certain things.
A big Part of adventuring can be meeting local people, are there any moments that stand out from TCR 2017?
The most obvious one was the night we ended up sleeping in an Italian restaurant somewhere in Austria. We’d had a long day starting out in Italy, and covered a chunk of Austria, including a 1600 metre mountain pass. We had planned to stop for some food about 8 pm then ride until about 2 am, get a couple of hours kip, and then crack on to CP3 before it closed a day and a half later. Our friend George was also racing that year and, relatively speaking, just up the road so hoped to catch up with him at CP3. We stopped at a kebab shop in a town called Zeltweg. Whilst we were eating a huge electrical storm started so we decided to wait for it to pass. In that time we’d started talking to the locals and the owner, explained the race, and showed them the tracker. I managed to pass out and start snoring at some point. It was still raining when I woke up (I’m not sure how long I’d been asleep) and the owner said we could sleep in the shop and help ourselves to drinks from the fridge. He could give us his number so we could phone him in the morning to let us out. We considered it but decided we needed to carry on riding. He gave us his number and told us to call him if we got stuck or changed our minds. We left about midnight, past his usual closing time, thanking him and his wife for their hospitality. Jo still hadn’t had any sleep so as we rode out of town we scoped around for somewhere to kip. We spotted an Italian restaurant with a covered veranda which looked perfect. We rode over and as we were unpacking our sleeping kit the door opened and a guy asked us what we were doing. We explained and he said you can’t sleep here, and we thought ‘oh no’, but then he added we would have to sleep indoors. I explained we were only going to sleep for a couple of hours and leave very early and he explained we could just pull the door behind us and it would lock itself. So we ended up sleeping on the restaurant floor, but he dragged a mattress down for one of us and said we could make another bed out of the cushions on the seats. And he also pointed to the fridge and said we could help ourselves to drinks. Then he disappeared back to bed and left us.
Can you have a nutritional plan for a race like the TCR or is it more a matter of eating what you can and when you can?!
I eat whatever I fancy whenever I can! I try to make sure I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner around the times I normally would. I find that if I keep some kind of structure on the day with meals I don’t get problems with digestion, which can affect some people on long rides. I just happen to intersperse those meals with a lot ofsnacking…and maybe an extra meal! Between meals, I tend to eat a little and often. As I mentioned the food is a really good way to experience the places you’re in. However sometimes when you’re tired well-known chains can be good, for example, MacDonald’s is quick, the menu is easy to understand, the toilets are clean, and there’s free wifi. To save time I buy more food than I need so I have food to carry. Order two takeaway pizzas, not one. Always carry spare food just in case. If I’m wild camping or bivvying I’ll make sure I’ve got something for first thing in the morning as it’s likely it’ll be a couple of hours before you find an open café and coffee.
What are your thoughts on the TCR 2019 route?
It looks interesting this year, running east to west, from the Black Sea coast to the Atlantic coast. That was one of the reasons for deciding to enter again. There’s the possibility it might be a bit easier mentally travelling in that direction, effectively riding home. It’s still attempting to ride 4000km in two weeks so it’s not going to be easy but the unknown part, Eastern Europe, is in the first part of the race whilst I’m feeling fresher. As I tire I’m into countries I have more experience of – Austria, Italy and France. It’s riding into the known. Almost the last quarter of the race is in France and I’ve ridden in France a lot, I have a good understanding of the road system, when shops are closed, what food I like, so hopefully I won’t have so much to think about when inevitably I’m exhausted. That’s how it looks on paper at least, the reality could be very different! My main concern is that a lot of the ride could be into headwinds, particularly the French part.
And finally, do you have a few tips for anybody planning their first multi-day Bikepacking trip?
You don’t have to start big and you don’t have to sleep in a field. Maybe you have friends or family that live 70 or 80 miles away, ride to them, have pizza and beer, ride home the next day. Get a train to somewhere 150 miles away and ride home over a couple of days, use Air B’n’B or Warmshowers. Bivvying can be good, and it’s lovely to wake up to the dawn chorus and sunrise. If you’ve not done it before then just ride somewhere local after work and back the next morning. You soon get to know what works for you and can start planning bigger trips. I spend a lot of time route planning. If you’ve got a good understanding of where you’re going and how to get there it frees the mind to allow it to wander and accept things that’ll happen along the way.
SPONSORS: Reilly Cycleworks is my only sponsor this year.
Photos: Gavins own, Jo Burt and Jonty Tacon
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