The North Cape – Tarifa (NCT) race ran from the northernmost point in Europe in Norway, to the southernmost point in Spain. Spanning 13 countries, it is the longest bikepacking race one can do at 7,390 km with over 65,000 m of climbing. It took me 29:10:30 minutes for 10th place, an average of just over 250 km/day. It was an incredible adventure and I was pleased to participate in the inauguration of what deserves to become one of the top bikepacking races.
Snow graffiti on my way to the top of Pico du Veleta in Spain
The race was run in a number of stages, with five check points at key locations (usually the top of a big mountain to climb!). It says a lot that one can only properly visualize the route on Google Earth!
The race organizer Andi Buchs had set out not only to make a challenging race, but above all one which was VERY safe. I can count on one hand the number of times I felt I was on a dangerous road over the entire 7,390 km. And that is with fingers to spare.
This really set the race apart from others where the organizers either are not overly concerned about the traffic situations, or allow riders to select their own routes. It is simply impossible to know how safe a road is without being there on your bike, and Andi rode the entire route when planning the race. As a result, he sometimes took us off the beaten path (to be kind) but always with a good reason. For example, we are on a busy road heading into Riga Latvia with a good shoulder when we are taken off to a soft sandy unsealed road for about 60 km. Andi said this was done because the shoulder vanished and there were lots of trucks. I’ll take sand over road kill any day! Other race organizers should learn from this approach as it greatly reduces the risk to riders… and we’ve been losing too many of late.
We experienced the full range of conditions—from hot to cold; wet to arid; flat to mountainous. In fact, the ride has the greatest extreme elevations I’ve experienced, from 211 m below sea level in a tunnel in Norway to the top of Pico de Veleta (Europe’s highest paved road) in Spain at 3,390 m. Below is a sample of what we experienced.
Some observations on each country:
- Norway: Starting a race at midnight, in full daylight is a unique experience. It was June 20—the longest day of the year—and we had full light. Bizarre to be able to take a photo of my shadow cycling at 3 a.m. I saw reindeer and an arctic fox. The roads were, of course, empty for the first hours so we had our run of things. It was as if we were the only people in the world, cycling along this amazing coast. There were many tunnels, including one which took us 212 m below sea level for about 7 km. It was strange to descend into this dark cold tube knowing that you were under the ocean. Great acoustics for my Bluetooth music!
- Finland: Trees, lakes and amazing scenery. And mosquitoes. LOTS of them. Fortunately, I had a head net and spray so they really didn’t bother me, but without those I cannot imagine. As soon as you stopped you were enveloped by a cloud of mosquitoes. What struck me in Finland was the absence of people as I travelled the length of the country. Even when we were in settlements or passed houses, I hardly saw anyone (the other riders commented on this as well). One would think that with such a long winter they would make the most of sitting outside in summer (like the Danes and Germans do), but it was not the case (mosquitoes???). I had a great 444 km run into Helsinki and just made the ferry to Estonia. Mike Sheldrake and I enjoyed ‘comfort class’ where we had free nibbles and a couch to collapse on.
- Estonia: I had some mechanical problems with my drive train so my first stop in Tallinn was the City Bike Shop who helped sort it (more on the mechanicals later). Knowing I would be needing to take care of my bike, I had planned a rest day in Tallinn—needed it after the run into Helsinki. Good call as it took two visits to the shop to fix the bike. In between I enjoyed my cheap 4 star hotel which had a spa bath. My bike looked a bit out of place (see below). Tallinn’s old town is lovely, except the cobblestones are not ideal for bikes! It was also overrun with tourists from several cruise ships in the harbour. Quite the shock after several days of riding alone in Finland. Once out of Tallinn it was beautiful rolling countryside with sunshine and a tailwind—which lasted to Austria.
- Latvia: We entered Latvia along the Baltic coast which was interesting to see with the summer houses and resorts. Heading towards Riga we were taken off inland on a 60 km loop past farms before going through a plush suburb into Riga which was a huge city—but with bike paths. Hard to believe that one could traverse such a large city so safety! Unfortunately got a puncture (#2) during rush hour which was inconvenient. Riga is a lovely historical city that I would like to visit again—far less tourists than Tallinn! More rolling countryside, sunshine and a tail wind. Loving the ride!
- Lithuania: I had looked forward to Lithuania as I have a Lithuanian friend who had told me about it. We had a nasty 30+ km gravel road into the country where one could see the lines of the previous cyclists as they all sought a nicer ride in vain. It was just head down and put up with it. A few vehicles also passed covering us in dust so it was not a nice introduction. Once through that it was another beautiful place with rolling countryside—becoming more hilly as we went further west. There was also a huge number of churches and roadside shrines that were not present in Estonia and Lithuania. Another place I’d like to return to.
- Poland: Cycle paths are everywhere—even on relatively empty rural roads. It was great. The government clearly has a commitment to separating vehicles and cyclists, and many more were under construction. It was more of the same with farms and countryside. In one town there was a historical display on Polish independence which was really interesting. This whole region for hundreds of years had ‘fluid’ borders, and the EU really is such an achievement when one considers all the wars and suffering that has happened along the way. Had more mechanical problems so visited bike shops in Posnan who helped out. There was presentation that evening by a Polish rider who rode the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia which I did last year! Was tempted to stay, but the road beckoned.
- Czech: I really liked the Czech republic. Will definitely return for another visit one day. We passed through more lovely countryside and lots of old historical towns—many with abandoned buildings that I’m sure had stories to tell. We rode through this incredible old fortress town Terezin which was built starting in 1780. Fascinating to see the military engineering that they used. During World War 2 this was the site of Theresienstadt concentration camp and there was a large cemetery where people are buried—not just Jews but Christians and others who fought the Nazis.
- Germany: I love Bavaria and entering in the evening sunshine with the rolling green hills and tree covered mountains was a treat. The route cut across north of Munich—again on very quiet roads—and it was rural Germany at its best.
- Austria: Arrived in Bregenz Austria late at night for what was to be a half rest day. Still had mechanicals and had pre-arranged with a local bike shop for new tyres and drive train. Nice not to be worried about setting out early and doing the miles so I enjoyed sleeping in and riding along the lake. Took another two visits to sort the bike out but they were finally able to get it running almost perfectly. Another place I’d like to visit again—this trip really in introducing a ‘new’ Europe for me!
- Switzerland: Made the mistake of not resupplying in Austria so my first stop was a Carrifour Express where I spent $US35 on a surprisingly small amount of supplies. Welcome to Switzerland! Having said that, it is worth the cost to visit this country. It is probably my favourite place in Europe with the tidy farms, incredible scenery and great riding. We of course had to cross some mountain passes and the weather was a bit of a challenge at times, but I still enjoyed it. At one point I stopped in a bus stop for bite to eat when a major afternoon storm rolled in with thunder, lightening and rain bucketing down. God is good and I was glad to have shelter!
- Italy: Rode into Italy along Lake Maggiore which was illuminated in the afternoon light. Just magic. Such wealth … Got to Sesto Calende about 23:00 and was met by Gigi who was a ‘Dot Watcher’ and also an endurance rider—at 70! Was really special to meet him and I enjoyed the ice cream he bought me. Kept riding for another few hours. Lots of climbing the next day as the route took us through many small towns in the hills. Was joined by a road rider for a bit who was friends with a few of the other riders in the race. Nice to have the company. Eventually got to the huge climb up and over the ‘Little St. Bernard’ pass into France. Was really cold on the descent so glad I had my warm down jacket! Was fortunate to find a great hotel and food after a long day.
- France: There was two distinct aspects to France: before and after Nice. The ride to Nice was mountains. Lots of them. We first had to crest Val D’Isere at 2,711 m, then 110 km later Col du Galibier at 2,595 m. It was a long day. Fortunately, I met two Aussies on the way up Col du Telegraphe before Col du Galibier and we chatted all the way up which made the time pass quickly—and we passed a lot riders! Then for part of Col du Galibier Andi Buchs the race organizer joined me which was extra special. He explained to me a lot of his thinking behind the route selection. It was more mountains the next day was passed through Savines-le-Lac. Andi also had us follow an old railway line with huge tunnels, which a local said was not rideable on a road bike like mine. He had no idea what we’ve been through … Then it was out to Nice which was not nice. Got knocked off my bike by a van who ran a stop sign. No damage to the bike and only a cut to my leg. Was glad to head south out of town along the Cote d’Azur, although the wealth and opulence was obscene. The weather was really hot and the following day I had to stop early at Aix-la-Provence when the 38 C temperatures and humidity gave me a touch of heat stroke. Checked into a hotel and cooled down and slept before heading out at 22:00 for 341 km run towards Andorra. Met Javier at 06:00 who was bivying next to the trail. He had been robbed in Poland so I gave him 200 Euros to help get him to the finish.
- Andorra: Big climb from France to our next check point at 2,288 m. Was hot at the bottom and a foggy cold front moved in at the top so I could hardly see for much of the descent. The reward was a 50 km downhill through the country which—as far as I could see—was no more than a series of ski resorts and shopping centres. Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely with the tree clad mountains, but a bit too commercial for my liking. Having said that, several bike shops and I was able to get some more help there!
- Spain: The last country, and the sting in the tail. If I had to summarize Spain it would be with four words: heat, hills, headwinds and hunger. Incredibly beautiful, but also really challenging to ride—especially with some 6,000 km in your legs.
- Heat: While we had hot days before, Spain was unrelenting. It hit 42 degrees on my second to last day, and 41 the day before.
- Hills: The saying ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains’ is incorrect. There are no plains. Every day was a new set of challenges and hills to climb. Here are successive days of climbing: 3,037 m; 2,690 m; 3,108 m; 2,002 m; 2,868 m; 3,297 m; and 5,243 m to the finish. These were also seldom the long, relative gentle climbs of the Alps, but lung bursting 12%+ sharp climbs which with the heat left you a bit tired … Checkpoint 5 was at Pico du Veleta and I had major breathing problems on the way up to the top (3,390 m). Should probably have turned back but … Did me in and needed a rest to recover, on top of my prednisone and salbutamol!
- Headwinds: For two days we had massive headwinds. 50 km/h at times (see the weather below). At one point I was on a -4% grade and having to pedal really hard just to do 20 km/h. That sucked. Fortunately, a car passed with a trailer doing 30 km/h so I drafted them for a while (they even slowed on a hill for me when they dropped me!) but ratbag Andi took us off the route for a while so I had to go back to the grind. Another day I rode almost an hour at what was close to threshold power and only got 14 km. There is a reason why there are lots of windmills!
- Hunger: I never could work out the hours that shops/bars/etc. were open in Spain so ran out of food more times than I liked. I was blessed one evening when I got to the hotel at 23:15 and the kitchen was closed, but they took pity on my and made me some sandwiches. Javier who is Spanish definitely had home ground advantage!
That is just a flavor—my daily Facebook posts under htcltd has more if you are interested!
As with all races, in the 38 who were foolish enough to show up at the start line there were familiar and new faces. Pretty soon we broke into the natural ‘groups’ based on the distances we were covering. Steffan, Kai and Samuli were all doing about 350 km/day on average so were gone from the start; myself, Mike, Javier, Anisa, Claus and Morten were in the 250 km/day band, some faster, many slower. I spent most of the race riding alone, but when we would bump into other riders–or ride with them on and off for a time–it was always a treat.
It is one of the highlights of these races meeting new people and spending time with them. Or not. I rode on and off with Anisa Aubin the most, particularly in Spain. Anisa, Mike Sheldrake and I were battling for 8th to 10th after the mad singlespeeder Javier blew past us and got 7th place. They dropped me after Pico de Veleta when I had altitude problems and had to take a break before the final push to the end.
The photos below show some of my experiences. Details are in the captions.
Burning some 5000+ calories a day, food becomes a bit of an obsession during races. Being vegetarian, I find myself taking photos of food as it is such a treat to get a good meal. To help me along the way, I carry a piece of paper which says to the effect: “I am a vegetarian—no meat, chicken or fish—and really hungry…” Thanks to Google Translate, I had it in the language for each country we passed through and it came in useful, particularly in Spain.
Petrol station food from Switzerland–$US35!!!
I would say about 75% of the time it was not possible to get ‘real’ food, and lived on what was available from petrol stations or something similar. This is one reason why I drop about 5 kg in these races: I’m hungry a lot of the time. When one can get a proper meal, it is such a treat that I would inevitably take photos like below. My record was when I actually got three meals in a row! My main foods were: ice cream (record for this race was eight in one day; more would be gluttony), drinking yoghurt, and some form of bread. Not the healthiest nutrition to travel 7,390 km on!
Sleeping is always an adventure in these races. I travel with a sleeping bag, mat and bivy bag which means that I can quickly get set up for sleeping. It is all rolled into one so just unroll the bivy bag, inflate the air mattress, and climb in! There are others who take only a bivy bag and nothing else—the idea being if you wake up cold get on your bike and ride to warm up. That does not work for me as I know that being cold is one of the things that would take me out. I was really pleased to have my sleeping bag as some nights it was about 5 degrees and I was very cozy.
In the race I practiced was we call ‘stealth camping’. In other words, I’d sleep places where I was probably technically not allowed, and hope to get interrupted. My spots were sports fields (these are the best as there is nobody around at night and early morning), campgrounds (in Finland I bivied in the children’s play room), empty fields, etc. The most embarrassing was when I bivied in the entrance room to a sauna at a campground in Finland. I was actually someone’s suite called the ‘sauna’ suite. The police came but were very friendly in asking me to move on, and used their GPS to point me to a spot across the road.
The advantage of bivying is that you really do maximize your time cycling. Find a place on/near the route, drop, sleep, and get out early before anyone finds you. For this reason I had planned to mainly bivy but I had to change my plan when my concussion symptoms began to re-emerge: I needed to sleep properly. So whenever possible I grabbed a hotel room which www.booking.com was excellent. Unfortunately this often meant stopping my rides by 21:00 when is when check in usually closed, but the better rest made a huge difference in managing the concussion. It also meant I could regularly wash my clothes—Lis said she’d never seen me looking so clean in a race!
I’ve posed elsewhere the gear for my race and I’ve got things pretty well refined and there are only minor changes I would do for future races.
- Bike: I used my BMC GF01 which had served me well for the two Transcontinental Races and the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. I always start with new pedals, chain, cassette, and have a full service. I upgraded the bike to have Di2 electronic shifting which is a must for these long races: it keeps your hands from getting overworked. As mentioned above, I had real problems for the first time and ended up with visits to I think seven bike shops along the route, mostly for drivetrain issues. It was very strange as after about 1000 km the bike began to skip in the smallest three cassette rings, getting worse over time. Replacing the chain and cassette solved the problem, and in Bregenz Austria the bike shop also retuned the Di2, but the problem came back again. Very frustrating. I ran Schwalbe One tubeless tyres which worked great, but had to run tubes from Bregenz as it is really difficult to get tubeless to reseat with the wheels. Ended up with several punctures … and ran out tubes towards the end when I had a blow out and some failed patches. Finished the race on a flat tyre.
- Electronics: For the first race ever my Garmin 1000 did not fail on me! Such a novelty. The Sinewave Beacon light also worked flawlessly—both for light and the integrated USB conversion. With regard to the light, I rode with Anisa who had a SON Edelux light and we did some side-by-side comparisons. The Sinewave was orders of magnitude brighter. I used my Lupine Pico light several times, particularly on winding mountainous descents at night. It’s 6000 mAh battery was my backup battery which I used to recharge my cell phone (5+ times between recharges). This meant that when I got a room I would only worry about recharging the Lupine battery and charge everything else on the bike. Thanks to Andi Buchs for suggesting the Lupine!
- Communications: Having data was essential for the race. I used it to check the weather, book rooms, post a daily report to Facebook, and talk to Lis. I used the ‘Knowroaming’ SIM card adapter since New Zealand did not have good data plans. I had a 10 GB one month plan which was more than sufficient. Highly recommended for data—had a few problems with calls.
- I used Pactimo Stratos 12 h bib shorts for the race and they were fantastic. Combined with the ‘Re-Skin’ silicon patches which you put on your sit area, I had absolutely no problems whatsoever with my nether regions. It’s the ideal solution and much more comfortable than having chamois crème.
- My long sleeve Ground Effect riding shirt was also great. They did me a custom version with a full length zipper. Very helpful when having to relieve oneself!
- I had a new combination of waterproof breathable socks and Gore overboots which worked great at keeping my feet dry. Much better than my earlier use of Goretex socks. Having shoes that were larger than normal (45 wide vs 44) was also a good call as my feet always had room to move. The ‘bumps’ my podiatrist put in the middle of the inserts also worked brilliantly and I did not have any numb spots on my feet.
After 29:10:30 it was great to reach the finish line, but I felt like I wanted to keep riding! I was physically feeling great with no saddle sores, numbness, and I was not spent. Unfortunately, it was time to return to the real world. I was welcomed by Andi, Javier, Mike, Anisa and Steffan who had won the race. This was really special as too often we finish the races and there is nobody to share the experience with. Anisa and Steffan headed out that day and I had nice dinner at the beach with the others.
The next day I flew to Munich to head over to the Tyrol in Italy to join my wife for some hiking in the Alps and ‘recovery’ time before heading back to New Zealand. Had a bit of a disaster at the airport–as I was moving my bike, box and bags to get everything packed somebody stole my bike box! I ended up getting the bike ‘shrink wrapped’ which was less than desirable, but the bike made it to Italy. Our friend Rickie Cotter joined us which was special. We met at–and finished–the 2014 Transcontinental together and she’s now part of the family. Rickie and I decided we had to ride Stelvio Pass so that was an adventure, particularly because I broke my derailleur hanger about one-third of the way up. Being the sensible type I decided the best option was to convert the bike to a single speed and we finished the ride. If it was good enough for Javier it was good enough for me!
The NCT was an incredible adventure and thanks to Andi and the other riders for making it my best bikepacking experience ever. If you are considering a race, it should be at the top of your list: even just one of the sections. You will see amazing scenery, meet interesting people, and challenge yourself, while also being much safer than probably any other race. Well done Andi.