We’re kicking off a new series of interviews with figures in the world of elite cycling, in partnership with purveyors of fine cycling kit Milltag. First up is James Hayden, who, riding for Fairlight Cycles in Milltag gear, finished fourth in this year’s Transcontinental Race (photography by James Robertson).
The Transcontinental Race, or ‘TCR’, is an ultra-distance cycling race that spans the breadth of Europe, around 4,000km. It usually begins in the U.K. or Belgium, and ends in Turkey, the gateway to Asia. Riders can travel by any route of their choosing, but they must pass through a series of pre-established checkpoints — which frequently take them over some of the continent’s most famous and most formidable mountain climbs. Now in its fourth year, the race is increasing in popularity on an annual basis both in terms of active participants as well as spectatorship. This year it was won for the third time by Belgium’s Kristof Allegaert in an astonishing time of 8 days, 15 hours, and 2 minutes.
British rider James Hayden has raced the past two editions, and this year finished in fourth, in 10 days, 5 hours, and 31 minutes — an especially strong time given that he suffered major setbacks . He deviated massively from his own time schedule at the first checkpoint when he was hit by a chest infection, costing him over 36 hours. However, deciding he was fit enough to ride, he pushed on, and surged back into contention. He was also hit by an unlucky mechanical in the late stages of the race, but, although it cost him a good deal more time, he still managed to battle on for fourth place. In recognition of this extraordinary comeback, James was awarded the race’s coveted combativity award. We caught up with James a few days after his return to the U.K., and asked him about the race, the culture of cycling, and the lonely life of the ultra-distance cyclist.
Marmeladrome: Congratulations on the result, it’s extremely strong, especially when you take into account the huge time lost to illness, as well as that mechanical towards the end. What happened there? How much time do you think you lost?
James Hayden: Thanks! Yeh… I lost around seven hours from when it happened, maybe a touch more. What happened was, the glue on the rim tape of the wheel, for some reason, had melted, so the tape had pushed to one side and had exposed the holes to the spokes… so I was getting flats whenever I went over bumps, and I couldn’t work out why. I used all my inner tubes thinking it was just punctures, a bad run, but when I ran out of inner tubes, I thought “this isn’t right”. I was sat by the side of the road wondering what to do, so I took everything apart in complete darkness, with a torch in my mouth, and then I noticed the rim tape. I was out of tape, out of inner tubes, I had a flat, there was nothing I could do. I had to find a bike shop, but I didn’t even have a phone on me (that’s another story!). All of a sudden, a police car arrived. I was by the side of quite a busy road, and someone had called the police. There were three of them, and the one in charge was a really keen cyclist — he was totally cool! He showed me photos on his phone of him on his bike, and he was asking loads of questions about the race. They ended up giving me a lift to a bike shop, maybe 8 miles away. It was 4.30am and it opened at 9am, so the police suggested I could sleep there and I’d be fine, and they left it at that. When the shop opened, the owner was great. He threw my bike in a stand, he stripped it down and sorted it while I sat there. He was a racer himself, and he’s a friend of [ultra-distance racer] Steffan Streich, and another friend of his was an audax rider. He called up his friend, his friend came round, and it was like a party in the shop! They were taking photos of me, chatting away, it was great. They sent me on my way with loads of tubes and a puncture repair kit, but from there, because of the rules of the TCR, I had to ride eight miles back to the point where I’d been picked up by the police — where I’d stopped cycling. I continued back from there, and I was on my way.
M: That story really says something about the spirit of the race. Without obsessing too much about it, do you think you could have…
JH: If you’re going to ask if I could have won, well, ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’! At that point I felt I was racing for second place, and I felt I could have it or could have had a good run for it… but ‘coulda woulda shoulda’ isn’t something I’m bothered by. It’s one of those things, it’s part of the race. It happens to everyone, but mine just happened really close to the finish! You just deal with it. It happens to everyone, from the best, to the worst, to everyone in between. Think of Richie Porte, the most unlucky guy in the world! But mechanicals do happen to everyone in these kinds of races, and the real thing that won me the combativity award was spending over 36 hours at checkpoint one with a chest infection, before racing back into contention.
M: Yes, you raced from a long way back and still ended up in fourth, a hugely impressive ride. Without giving too much away, can you offer some insight into the tactics of your race?
JH: I’ll say this: you’ve got to race your own race, or you’ll never succeed. You saw a lot of people this year who tried to race Kristof’s race, tried to keep up with him at the beginning. Nearly all of them cracked. And he kept going, because he was racing his own race, and they were trying to race his race. Race your own race. That’s the free tip!
M: You said you weren’t racing with a phone? Was that because you were trying to avoid following your competitors on the live tracker?
JH: I broke my phone on the second day. I dropped it, the screen smashed. But it was a bit of a blessing really! I had a plan, and that involved not checking the tracker. At the same time, you can’t resist temptation. But there were no distractions for me. I couldn’t take photos and stuff, but then I was there to race. Dropping it was the best thing I’ve ever done! I won’t take a phone next year.
M: Besides the phone, were there any moments when you felt there was something you were missing? Were there any things you wish you’d taken along?
JH: No, and that’s experience. I’ve done the race before, and I’ve been on some long, hard tours in cold wet places, and I know what I need to get through anything. There’s nothing I missed, and nothing I didn’t use. However, I don’t try to pare anything down to the absolute minimum, that can be a mistake. I have to ride through conditions that other people might not; in the cold, on long descents. So I take more than some people would. It’s better to have a few things and not need them than need them and not have them. If you need something and you don’t have it, then it’s probably going to be a pretty bad situation.
M: Can I ask you about your clothing? One of our writers was keen to know how often you wash the stuff!
JH: Haha! Yeh… whenever you can! Or when you’ve had enough of it. Some will wash every day, some will change shorts every day. I don’t really have that luxury because I’m not stopping. I rode the first day and then I washed the kit because I was stopping in a hotel. From there it was… five days? I didn’t even take my shoes off for those five days. And then I washed, and then it was two and a half days till the finish, and I washed there. I didn’t take the kit off for five days, nor the shoes. I slept in them the whole time. So it’s important that it’s good kit! There’s a few things that are the most important in order that you are able to do that kind of mileage. You’ve got your contact points on the bicycle — saddle, where your hands are, and your feet. They’re the most important. But then right after that, almost equally important, is the kit that you’re wearing. If your kit isn’t comfy or the kit doesn’t work, you’re not going to be able to cycle. If your chamois isn’t comfy you’re gonna get saddle sores. Nearly everyone gets them, but I had none. No saddle sores, no problems. That’s testament to two things: one, the set up I have, the bike, the saddle. But two: the kit itself, the way it fits, the quality, the way the shorts sit on you, heat management, that kind of thing. It was five days of not taking it off, not washing, so it was very important!
M: I think one of the things that most strikes people who have never taken on something like this is how lonely it can seem; you spend days at a time in solitude, out on empty roads after or before everyone else is in bed. What goes through your head when you’re out there for hours on end? Do you ever just think ‘why am I doing this’?
JH: Yeah! Yeah… ‘why the hell am I doing this?’. I do get that in training, but not so much during the race. I described it last year like this: when I was young, I liked partying and all those things. And when you go to a really good party, and a really good song goes off, it’s a song you love, you’ve got your friends around you, you’re pretty drunk — it’s the best moment. You feel invigorated, you don’t want that moment to end… you’re at your party. Well, the race is like that for me when it starts. I’ve spent all year training for this, I’m at my party, I’m going to have fun, and race the hell out of my bike. You’re just excited. That’s the good part. But when you’re out training, it’s a slog. But you get on with it, you know? It’s a mental battle. This kind of racing, this is what I do. It’s what I was made to do, and it’s what I’m good at. I’ve always wanted to see what I’m capable of, and I’ve found something that allows me to do that. Last year’s race was the first time I’ve ever felt mentally and physically broken, and actually found my limit.
M: Let’s talk about that, the idea of pushing your body beyond its limits. How does the race change the way you experience your own body? And how does it change the way you experience food? Can you still take pleasure in eating during it?
JH: No, no. You lose the pleasure in food. I try to eat different things during the race. If you stick with one thing, you’re going to get sick of it and hate it. You’ve got to try to vary your diet. And you’ve got to eat what’s available. In Italy, it’s good pizza. But in Kosovo and Macedonia it can be less good. I think I lived off Snickers for a day while I was in Kosovo. Snickers and Coke. Lots of Coke. Coke’s one thing you don’t get bored of. I mean Coca-Cola of course, and not the other kind! It’s got caffeine, it’s got sugar, it gives you a little buzz. But food, yeah, it becomes pretty unattractive after a while, and you’re eating so much of it you’re just going to feel sick, so you just try to eat different things basically. I’m burning, on the biggest days, 13,000-14,000 calories. You can’t eat that much, you can manage maybe 6,000 a day before you can’t eat any more. So you’re losing weight, all the time. I started the race purposefully overweight. Yesterday I went into the supermarket and tried to carry a basket of food. I had to hold it with two hands, and put it down for a rest — I’d lost that much muscle off my upper body. My body won’t eat muscle off my legs, because it needs them, so it starts eating my upper body. I used to, before the race, do a lot of strength training exercises. All of that’s gone, off my shoulders, and my chest and back. I’ve lost a huge amount of muscle.
M: With the talk of your body eating itself, you make it sound like it’s a competition against yourself, or your mind versus your body.
JH: Well, it is definitely an eating competition, because if you don’t eat you won’t be able to pedal. So you have to keep stuffing food in yourself. You sit down for a meal, I mean, everyone eats differently, some people eat on their bike all the time, little amounts all the time. I got into a rhythm of three big square meals a day, and eating on the bike all the time. I ride a bit harder and put down a bit more power than most people, which means I need to eat a bit more because I’m burning more. But yeah, when you sit down for a meal, I’m not eating one meal, I’m eating a meal for two. You stop at a McDonalds and order two extra large meals, two burgers, two fries, two milkshakes. So, you know, it’s disgusting! (laughs)
M: It sounds as though you’re functioning at the point where the amount you’re eating is no longer sustainable, where the relation between your body and its fuel is becoming destructive.
JH: It’s what you need to do to survive. And ultimately, it is unsustainable. So you know, I paced myself so that when I reached the end I couldn’t go on. If I have anything left at the end, then I haven’t tried hard enough. Some people turn up at the finish looking pretty good and they just ride off on their bikes, and I just think ‘they could’ve got here quicker’. (laughs)
M: Something that strikes me about the Transcontinental Race is the unique sense of place that it must give you. That you’re not just travelling through landscape, but you’re measuring it with your body, which is perhaps another way in which it changes your conception of your body as well as of the world around you.
JH: There are so few people who have finished this race and races like it, that it’s a very elite club to be a member of. And it’s the ultimate way, in my opinion, to experience the continent and the countries. There’s a quote I like from Hemingway: ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.’ When you cycle across Europe, you actually understand the ups and the downs, mentally and physically, of what it takes to cross continents. And you travel in one day through three different countries, and you see three different places, three different cultures, three different types of people. And it’s because you’re not in a car, you’re on a bicycle, you’re open to the elements. You take the back-roads, and you see things people don’t see because they sit in the car with the radio on in their incubated environment, and they don’t see it or feel it. They just take the motorway and miss these things.
M: Yes, it seems sometimes like that experience of landscape might be something we have lost, or are losing. That, because we no longer power our own modes of travel, we are less able to be in touch with the places we visit.
JH: That’s it. You’re having to pedal up the hills. You feel it. You have to make that effort. You use your energy to cross that place.
M: The race is billed as a return to the good old days of professional cycling, but, without wanting to sound too aggrandizing about it, you make it sound like it also takes you back to something deeper in cultural history.
JH: It is about history, and the places that the race always goes through. Some of the ultra races just go place to place, or here to there, but this race is really about experiencing the dramatic events that have shaped Europe. Last year the race went through Vukovar in Croatia, where the Croatian independence war was fought. This year we finished in Çanakkale, which is where a key first world war battle happened. It’s not a coincidence that we go through these places. That’s Mike [Hall, race director] taking us to these dramatic places that have shaped Europe, and the world, and we experience that.
M: It’s like you’re tracing a historical map.
JH: Yeah it is. Through Kosovo, through Macedonia, into Turkey, Greece, through these borders where the current issues are going on. You’re really seeing these things that people are reading about. And they don’t always understand them, but you’ve been there and you’ve seen it, and you’ve met these people that people read about, that they judge, but you actually know.
M: It does seem to me that you could look at the recent Transcontinental Race and see a strange symmetry with current events. There’s the recent political tensions in Turkey, but also the refugee crisis, which is almost the opposite movement across Europe. There seems to be something significant about that aspect of the race.
JH: It is. It’s exactly the opposite route. I feel sort of privileged that I am able to cycle this route, and to meet these people, and to see these cultures. The hospitality we experience in those countries, on this race, makes you sad for the hospitably we offer here, because they have time for you, they’re kind, they’re giving, caring — unlike us, here. We don’t have time, we’re sharp, we’re not willing to help strangers off the road, you wouldn’t invite a stranger into your home for dinner, but that’s what happens out there. When I was in Turkey, I had problems with my legs so I needed to go to a pharmacy. I walked for a while into one pharmacy but they didn’t have what I wanted. So he sent me to another pharmacy, but they also didn’t have what I wanted. The guy didn’t speak very good English, he started explaining where this third pharmacy was, but I didn’t really understand. So he took my hand and led me to this pharmacy around the corner, a different one, not his. He had a conversation with the guy there in Turkish, explaining what I was after, but they didn’t have it. Then a doctor appeared, as it was opposite a hospital and they used this pharmacy for supplies. And he spoke English, and opened a conversation with me about what the problem was and what I needed. We were there for a while, and when I found what I needed he asked if I wanted a coffee. So we sat outside the shop with a coffee and spoke for half an hour, and he introduced me to all his friends that were there. Where else does this happen?
M: It’s that sort of unified spirit, across Europe, that the race seems to symbolize.
JH: Yes. The experiences you have go beyond just racing a bike. It is a tangent off the bike race, but for people who are thinking about doing it, it’s not just about the race. It’s about everything else that will happen to you, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.
M: A cultural experience?
JH: A life experience.
M: That seems to be a large part of the increasing popularity of the race. It’s designed to harken back to the ‘romance’ of the glory days of professional cycling, when grand tours were won as much by lone long-distant breakaway riders as they were by well-drilled teams.
JH: Yeah, the more years that go by, the more people get interested in this thing, because they can’t understand how people can do this… they’re in awe of it. The Tour’s amazing, but people can’t always connect to that. People connect to this race because it’s ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But pro cyclists are extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. They can’t relate to that, but they can relate to the Transcontinental.
M: Is part of that increase in popularity due to the change in pro racing? As it becomes more uniform and we see teams like Sky dominate the racing and dictate the pace, it might seem more predictable, with less opportunism and old-school spirit.
JH: Peter Sagan would argue that point with you! But I can see why people would think that. If you look into it, and you really know pro racing, it’s not boring. There’s so much there, there’s so much going on, though I can understand why people might think it’s a bit more sterile nowadays. It’s that question of what you can connect to. In the ‘90s, the ‘80s, you could maybe connect to it more, these people looked like you, they were a bit more like you, and the races were a bit more normal, but now it’s… well, it’s amazing, I think racing nowadays is great. I think Sky have brought so much to cycling. They’ve made everyone step their game up. Because of that, racing’s gone to another level in the past few years.
M: But there’s still a definite difference between these sorts of ultra distance races and the pros?
JH: Yes, it’s a chasm, they’re polar opposites. A lot of people that might be disenchanted with pro racing are becoming more enchanted with this kind of unsupported long-distance racing. It has that purity, that honesty, and the ‘Romance’ that pro racing might be lacking. People can really engage with that.
M: Are there things that would threaten what you call the ‘purity’ of the TCR? Like for example TV coverage; would that make it too sanitized?
JH: Good question. Some people have had a poke at me because I’m sponsored to do this. And they say it’s not the spirit of it, but I think that’s rubbish really. ‘You have to work a 9 to 5 job, pay your own way to be able to do it’. It’s rubbish. The race itself is sponsored, and has always been sponsored. I think it’s a question of Mike finding a balance and toeing a line between keeping the race ‘pure’ and also growing the race and making it popular.
M: One of the purist elements of the race is that it is quite dangerous, and there are elements of danger in any event where people encourage themselves or feel encouraged to push their limits.
JH: Everyone makes their own choices, it’s as safe or as dangerous as you want it to be. It’s no more dangerous than anything else. You know, look at road racing, but, also, look at anything. Walk down the street, you could die of any number of things. If it is dangerous, it’s because people are making poorer choices. That’s kind of me defending the race. Someone else was interviewing me about the race, and I felt that they kind of wanted to paint it as this crazy, mad thing. And in the end I got irritated with them, because they didn’t want to see the joy in experience that people have riding it, they just wanted to see a crazy experience. M: It’s like all forms of elite cycling, it’s a whole range of experiences, of racing, of places, of people, of cultures. JH: Yes. You learn a lot about yourself doing it. It will change you as a person, it will make you grow as a person. The life experience it will give you is huge. You couldn’t put a price on it.
M: We want to know, though, if there is anything about cycling culture you don’t get on with? One of our writers, Andy, takes particular exception when other cyclists try to tell him about their expensive groupsets.
JH: Elitism. That’s it. “I’m better than you are” attitudes, you know. “I’m not gonna talk to you”. To be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time with other cyclists. I go out by myself, I train by myself, I race by myself. I’m a member of a cycling club, I do races, but for me, I don’t take a part in the parts of cycling culture I don’t relate to. I do my own thing, generally. That’s why it works for me, this race, because it’s about you, one person. Some people call that sad, some people call me a loner, and there are nice cyclists out there. But, it’s like anything really. One thing that I think might sum it up is this: when I’m out on my bicycle, however I’m dressed, on whatever bike I’m on, whatever I’m doing, if I see another cyclist, whatever bicycle, whatever person — I wave. It’s about respect. When you ride a motorbike, you nod, you nod at everyone. It’s someone else doing something you like to do as well, you can connect. But there are people who ignore you, who won’t wave, won’t make eye-contact, nothing. Sometimes they’ll wave if you’re on a road bike, but not if you’re on a touring bike or whatever. As if they’re better than you, on their carbon race bikes. That’s just it.
M: James, before we go, what’s the next big goal?
JH: Next year’s Transcontinental! Win it, and then come back and defend it. That’s the next two years. Maybe three, maybe four. As long as it takes!