At 21:59 pm on the 28 July 2017, I was sat on the saddle of my bike in the market square in Geerardsbergen, Belgium. One minute later I was racing my bike up a famous steep cobbled path called the Muur of Geraardsbergen hoping to complete challenge of a lifetime!
My name is Daniel Brayson, and most of the time I perform lab experiments at King’s College London, investigating the causes of a heart muscle disease called cardiomyopathy. By nature I am a restless individual and being confined to the lab environment, while a worthy cause, can lead me to become, well… restless! I like the notion of travel and adventure and have always considered myself an active individual. It was these traits which led me to take on the Transcontinental Race.
A self-supported race across Europe
The Transcontinental Race is the most notable of many emerging self-supported ultra-endurance cycle races. It traverses Europe from west to east, eating up 3500 – 4000 km depending on the route, which is never the same from one year to the next. It begins in Geraardsbergen in Flemish Belgium, finishing in previous years in Canakkale, Turkey and more recently at the UNESCO site of the ancient monasteries of Meteora, Greece.
The race is a series of checkpoints between which the route taken is the decision of the rider. As well as endurance fitness, this race tests mapping and planning skills: it is a survival race rather than a mere bike race, orienteering on two wheels if you will, which for many is part of the appeal.
Unlike stage racing with a daily start and finish time (i.e. the Tour de France), when the clock starts in the Transcontinental Race, it does not stop until you cross the finish line. It is at the discretion of the rider to decide when and where to stop, eat and sleep and is completely self-supported. One can use commercial outlets to buy supplies and even stay in hotels, as they are available to all other riders. However, the use of support teams, stopping at international friends’ houses en-route, or posting supplies to various points along your route, is strictly forbidden. All of these factors increase the logistical complexity of the race and it means that anything one may lack in physical fitness could well be compensated for with experience and know-how. Again, for many, this is part of the appeal.
A physical and psychological challenge
Riders are subjected to a unique set of demands and conditions during such races. Physically, increasing levels of fatigue may seem like an obvious hurdle to success, but experiencing this on the backdrop of having to think about your nutritional, rest and sleep requirements is also psychologically demanding. Environmental challenges such as extreme temperatures – hot days and cold nights – add to the demands, as does topography: climbing mountain roads is a challenge, but even more so above 2000 metres where oxygen starts to become sparse! Needless to say, that as a scientist I viewed these challenging demands as an exciting opportunity to try to observe and quantify the effect these have on the body in the field. So I did…
A physiological case study
Inspired by famous historical proponents of field and self-experimentation such as Griffith Pugh, who conducted field work into altitude physiology, discovering the secrets that put the first man on the summit of Everest, and Barry Marshall, who fed himself bacteria to prove the origins of stomach ulcers (and won a Nobel prize), I armed myself with a few lightweight gadgets before heading to the starting line of the 2017 Transcontinental Race.
The gadgets I had stowed away included a small device to measure sugar and fat from blood samples taken from pricking my finger, and a pulse oximeter, a device that clips onto the end of one’s finger to measure the percentage saturation of oxygen in the blood. On my smartphone, I had downloaded a cognitive test called the Stroop Test, to assess mental fatigue. I also had a bike computer that recorded metrics like heart rate, distance, elevation climbed and environmental temperature.
To find out if I was able to finish the race, tune in to the next episodes where I’ll take a more detailed look at the impact of ultra-endurance racing on my physiology!
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