Racing the Transcontinental Race No.4
The Transcontinental and other ultra-distance races like it have changed the way we think about bikes. For a long time, customers were sold on things that were ‘just what the pros ride’, effectively ignoring the types of riding most people actually found themselves doing. In the past few years however things have changed, spurred on by the versatile ‘do-it-all’ machines that excel in the world of ultra racing. Here, Rob Quirk tells us about his first-hand experiences of racing the TCR and how they ultimately informed the design of the Durmitor model.
It’s night and I’m riding through a most beautiful national park: rolling green hills stretching off into the distance, the sunset casting twilight hues across the sky while I climb up into the mountains. I’m competing in the Transcontinental Race, currently meandering my way through the Durmitor National Park in Montenegro, the fourth parcour of the race. I pass someone on the climb and he tells me I’m a strong climber - one of many firsts during this race. I roll the bike around a corner and my dynamo light illuminates a wild white horse just standing there in the middle of the road. It’s an unforgettable experience. This night is one that has stayed with me ever since and is where the name of Quirk Cycles’ first model, the Durmitor originates.
The start of an unforgettable night
Looking back to Plužine from the ascent up Durmitor, the fourth parcour of the race
Let’s step back a few years. I’d first heard of the Transcontinental Race, a self-supported race across Europe, on its second edition back in 2014. The TCR introduced me to the idea of ultra-distance racing and bikepacking – I was in no way ready to ride it then, but saw the TCR as the perfect event to test theories on frame and geometry design. In 2016, the same year Quirk Cycles launched, I entered the fourth edition.
I had a lot of doubts on the start line in Geraardsbergen, but one thing I had faith in was the bike. It was a stable, long-wheelbase frame capable of comfortable mile-munching and with sure handling that wouldn’t be affected by the extra weight of bikepacking bags. The anticipation was overwhelming; it was time to put everything to the test.
The TCR sets a challenge beyond how fast one can ride – it’s a true test of your ability to plan, to resupply and to keep going. It’s a real examination, not just of you but also of your bike – can it handle mile after mile of riding, regardless of road surface and weather, and not let you down when you’re so tired the last thing you need is a mechanical?
It was a shock to the system at first – 500km on the first day – and I was sitting in the bottom third of the race before I hit the Swiss Alps and the second checkpoint ahead of the Furkapass. Waking up in the shadow of the Eiger something clicked in me – my struggles through France were behind me and the mountains were ahead of me. This was the point when I realised I was going to complete this race, despite it being my first time riding in mountains, where the third checkpoint lay, deep in the Dolomites.
Passo di Giau is famous for its brutally steep slopes but before I could attempt this third parcour I had to get there, and I had a choice: ride across the Swiss Alps and into the Dolomiti, or drop onto the plains of northern Italy, hit some flat roads and then cut back in to the checkpoint. I’m no climber, weighing about 83kg at the time, but the bike easily carried me over the mountain route I chose. I just found I could click on through on it, ticking off the miles and the peaks. The bike was proving itself capable of anything asked of it.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. The TCR has a well-deserved reputation as one of the toughest events there is. It’s not about how far or fast you can ride, but how deep you can go. When you take a knock, can you pick yourself up? When every fibre of your soul is screaming out for you to stop, can you keep going?
One day in the Dolomites, where it just rained and rained, and then rained some more, epitomised this. My navigation device died and I got completely soaked through, losing all my body heat. It was the coldest I’ve ever been. I was pretty close to getting hypothermia, so I checked into a hotel. I just stood in the shower, water burning hot but not raising my body temperature. I ended up in all my clothes, in bed, with the hairdryer for a good few hours, just trying to get heat back into my body.
The checkpoint was closing that night at midnight, but it’s 9.30pm and here I am 50km away, the wrong side of the San Pellegrino pass. I’m pretty much resigned to not making it.
15 minutes later I’ve changed my mind.
“Fuck it, I’m gonna go for it.” I said out loud.
And I did – I just went for it. Ran out of the hotel, grabbed my bike from the garage and rode over the San Pellegrino pass. The descent, in the dark and wind and with some late-summer snow on the ground was tough going but once again the bike showed its colours, the stable handling, disc brakes and wide tyres inspiring confidence. When I got to the checkpoint it was the happiest I’ve ever felt, and that’s when the race changed for me. “Right, I can do this,” I thought. The bike was ready for this; it was just waiting for me to catch up.
Time-trialling down the Croatian coast, progress was good and steady, and through the Balkans I picked up about 50 places. This is where most riders started to crack, blowing up and scratching from the race, but I just rolled on, going from the bottom third to the top 20%. Sat in the TT bars the miles clicked by, the bike taking me where I needed to go.
We even found the strength for a little friendly competition with an Australian rider called Ben May. I had no illusions that I would win the TCR, but the beauty of the event is that you can find little challenges along the way to keep you going, races within the race. It’s pretty rare to really duel with someone though, you don’t really see other riders, and don’t feel like you’re head-to-head very much in the TCR. We’d been leapfrogging each other for a while and the film crew who were following him pulled up to me at a Kosovan petrol station and happened to mention that he really wanted to beat me. There’s a jolt in my head as I compute this, the race so far had only been against the clock and myself.
“Well, best get back on my bike then,” I thought. The next day I pushed on through to Greece, covering 405km to within striking distance of the finish. Ben was a steady 30km behind but if I had another day like today I could get this race done. Over-sleeping and letting him pass me again with 180km to go, I woke, screaming, “Shit! Fuuuck! It’s 6am and he’s 40km ahead of me!”
Dashing out of the hotel and into time-trial mode, I push hard across the border into Turkey. The miles tick by and still no sign of him. I start to lose hope but eventually on the horizon I see two riders. I zoom by, wave.
50km to go, and I’ve run out of food. Dashing into a petrol station I grab a coffee, a coke and a Red Bull and down them all. Ben’s passed me again but this time I know where he is. Passing him again I can see he doesn’t have the beans to chase. Sitting on the ferry to the finish line at Çanakkale I breathe a sigh of relief when it finally pulls out with a ‘Toooot!’ with Ben just 1km away from the port.
3800km later, one well earned beer
Dirty, tired and exhausted after 14 days in the saddle
In the end I finished TCR No.4 in 49th position. I’d ridden more than 3,800km across Europe and climbed over 46,000m. My jersey, which used to hug my arms, was now flapping in the wind, and my legs had grown to twice the size. The bike had proven itself at every turn in the hardest event I’d ever ridden.
The bike I rode became the basis of the Quirk all-road model, which has evolved into the Durmitor. It’s been through a few iterations since then, but most of the essential design elements remain unchanged. One minor modification has been to create a shorter trail to liven up the handling and steering for a more responsive ride. In essence it is still the same bike I rode the TCR on – the design just worked. This race set Quirk Cycles on the path it’s on now, focusing on multi-surface endurance bikes, designed around the conditions you might experience in similar events.
Races like the TCR have created a turning point in the consciousness of the bike industry. Instead of customers being sold equipment that professionals use, people have started to ask for bikes that suit how they ride. Not everyone wants to do straight up racing and that’s where adventure bikes come in. It’s not just about how fast you can go, but other skills – planning, endurance, carrying your own gear. Quirk make solid, versatile machines that permit you to do that and in each edition of the TCR since there’s been a Quirk bike on the start line.