Photography James Robertson
My 2017 TransAtlantic Way (TAW) journey was much harder, and different, than I had ever imagined it would be.
In the race’s inaugural edition last year, there were no expectations. And, as there were just thirty riders, there was a lot less to think about too, so although I directed the race, I also raced in it. This year, with the 82 riders we had on the start line, it was completely different. It meant that, while I was still on my bike following the race, I wasn’t racing. And, while it was a much tougher event to put on, I knew that as long as I tried and worked hard, then everything would come out in the wash. Luckily, it did, and I saw the whole thing as a huge success.
Through reading some of the riders’ blogs that have begun surfacing since the race, it seems as if – upon finishing – a lot of them have opened up a bit about it. They’ve spoken about the TAW as an experience rather than a bicycle race, and I can really empathise having been a racer in the past, so I’m so glad that it has been able to offer that experience to people.
Throughout the whole race, the thing that hit me most was the lasting effects of Mike Hall’s death. During the race briefing, I’d mentioned to the riders, many of whom had hoped to meet Mike [who, before his accident on the Indian Pacific Wheel Race had also signed up to compete] that they’d meet him out on the road, while they were suffering on the climbs, or during the nights when they were cold, hungry and tired.
I hadn’t been prepared for meeting him myself on a daily, even hourly, basis. He was a constant presence, and I know that I’m not the only one who would have had that experience. “What would Mike have done?” I’d ask myself. “How would Mike have reacted? Would he approve of this or that?”
For every problem I encountered organising the TAW, I’m sure Mike would have had a similar one on the Transcontinental. So there was definitely a need of approval, or respect, or something that I was searching for.
The fear of something happening to one of the riders was constantly present, and the relief I felt when each one came home safely was immense. I would just immediately want to give them a hug. Mike’s death has changed the goal posts. Not for the riders – we’ve always known and understood that ultra-racing can be dangerous. But it’s changed it for the friends, families, wives, children, and all the devoted dot-watchers. They, like me, are all a little bit more concerned when a dot stops than they were before.
I’d lectured the riders about safety at the beginning of the race, because we can’t afford to have any more deaths. Everyone is going to be watching, I said. We have a responsibility. We need these races to go safely this year. Then the news came.
“Rider hit in TransAm [an ultra-race in the USA that is held at the same time as the TAW].”
We still had another 15 or so riders out for another night and a day, and I became terrified that one of them was going to get knocked down. The will and drive left me. I questioned motives. I thought that maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.
We had a minute’s silence under the oak tree at the finish for Eric Fishbein [the rider who was hit, and died from his injuries, at the TransAm], and watched the mayfly as they danced through the air in the last rays of sun.
I spoke to one of the riders that was there with me and said “Maybe we shouldn’t be racing”. But he replied saying that we should – that if I myself didn’t go ahead with the race next year, someone else would. “People will ride, people will race,” he said. “It will carry on with or without you.”
Up until then, I had been unsure of my plans for next year, but everyone was saying that the race had been a success, and questions were being asked as to what was going to happen to the race in the future.
I had been thinking that maybe I’d keep it small and exclusive, but now the balance has been tipped in favour of more, not less. More struggles, more adventure, more incredible experiences, more despair, more laughter and tears. And, above all, change and growth in every rider, bar none.
When it started in 2016, the original plan for the race was to be a kind of light version of the Transcontinental. But the winner, Bjoern [a veteran of both events] told me after the finish that it was the hardest ride he’d ever done – and with just 46 finishers and 36 scratches, I can believe it.
Certainly, the wind and the rain contributed. For the first three days, we had a truly epic headwind the whole way, which accounted for most of the scratches up to that point. As well as the climbs of course, the flats – and even the descents – became a struggle, and I heard many accounts of riders having to pedal hard downhill just to keep moving.
I’ve heard from a lot of riders that often the only thing that stopped them from scratching was a kind gesture or word from a stranger, and that the local Irish were amazing, with countless stories of kindness and generosity. People came out in the middle of the night – in the middle of nowhere – with lanterns to cheer and clap riders on. Free food, lodgings and bike repairs were all offered when they found out what the riders were going through.
Bjoern Lenhard and Bernd Paul gave us a great race for first and second place, and the top ten as a whole was a fiercely fought contest. But the thing that stood out for me most was just how hard everyone tried. I remember on the first night, at the first checkpoint at Peace Bridge in Derry, I spoke to a lot of first time riders who’d never done anything like the event before. Those were my favourite riders, as I knew they were in for a life changing experience.
Imagine: It’s wet, it’s dark, it’s 11pm. There’s really nothing past Derry – it’s the start of the Wild Atlantic Way. I’m thinking, “Ok, most are going to stop and rest here”. But they all rode on, into the complete unknown of the night, soaking wet and exhausted, to bivvy out behind stone walls and sleep on beaches. I actually think Mike Sheldrake spent the night sleeping in an upturned feeding trough that he found on a farm – and you can’t get more TAW than that.
Read ‘The TransAtlantic Way: Ultra-Racing in Ireland’s Wild West‘ or visit transatlanticway.com to learn more about the event.