HERE’S THE THING about endurance junkies, the addiction doesn’t just go away.
Cavan man Simon Hutchinson is sick of being introduced by friends as ‘the man who did the round the world cycle’.
“You’re not going to be ignorant and say ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ because people are genuinely interested.”
Makes sense. But that was four years ago and Hutchinson has been on the lookout for another massive distance to satisfy the craving ever since. Emigrating, returning home and getting married were adventures in their own right, but all the while Hutchinson was keeping an eye out for a real challenge to push his legs into.
While working in Vancouver, he toyed with the idea of taking on the record time for cycling across the world’s second-largest country, or maybe following the Rockies from Canada down to Mexico. But it was an email newsletter from round-the-world racing pioneer Mike Hall that got his interest properly piqued.
“I thought, ‘ah no harm signing up for it.’ Didn’t tell the wife…” he says of the Transcontinental Cycling Race, which will take him from Geraardsbergen in Belgium to the Turkish town of Çanakkale.
Like the round the world race, the Transcontinental is a solo ride, so competitors are not permitted the aid of a team or helpers behind them. So when their body isn’t being put under extended periods of stress, the organisational side of their mind is busy too. And Hall has designed the cross-European run to be not only shorter, but much more compact and competitive than Simon’s last Epic Cycle.
“There were three steps to the application and we were actually vetted for a race, which is something I had never heard of before.
It was trying to push away people who were just going to dilly-dally through it, nice and handy. They want proper competitors, people who take it seriously, people who know what’s expected of them and to race accordingly.
“You have to have a few nuts loose in your head to want to do something like this. Putting yourself out there, sleeping in the wilderness and putting down as many miles as you possibly can in a day. You have to dedicate yourself.”
Hutchinson will be following in the tyre tracks of Dundalk’s Ultan Coyle who completed the gruelling journey in 11 days last year and has taken note of the trials of other racers too.
Perhaps the most concerning tale from the trail is that of James Hayden. While Coyle was suffering mechanical trouble, the Briton was setting the early pace, right up until Slovenia when his body cried no more. Hayden had developed a condition known as Shermer’s Neck where the rear neck muscles fail and the head becomes an unbearable weight.
Improbably, Hayden struggled on all the way to Podgorica, Montenegro, with his head anchored in the semi-upright state you can see above.
Most of us see Hayden’s fate and settle that inner debate with a ‘definitely not.’ Hutchinson simply takes the cautionary tale on board so that he can put it to use.
“That’s dedication, hats off to him. He was doing well enough and then just lost the muscles in his neck…
Suddenly I’m thinking ‘I’ve gotta be prepared for that. If I don’t have something ready to strap up then I won’t be fit to cycle’. I have to try and think of some way of rigging that up and bringing it with me or being able to make one on the road.”
It will be the latter. Because Hutchinson is aiming to decimate the weight of equipment he carried around the world. Four years ago, he was dragging over 50 kilos along. Now, in between sniffing out investment, sponsors and the optimum route across the Alps, Hutchinson is eyeing up an ultra-light bike that will help his load dwindle to as low as seven kilos.
“I’m looking forward to being at the start line and thinking ‘five months ago, I didn’t have a sponsor, didn’t have a bike, didn’t have this or that and just seeing how the power of determination gets you through.
“It got me through the last cycle and I know I have this well of pure stubbornness that I can draw upon. So as long as the chips fall in to place and I can get the gear and the bike sorted, then happy days.”
Long, insufferable happy days. When he finishes the race in August, Hutchinson’s aim is to have put down an average of 300 km per day. And on very mixed terrain too.
“On a good day, I’ll be happy enough with that — the first day I might get 400 done and the last day doesn’t look too bad, but everything in between is mountains, mountains, mountains.”
To help him achieve his goals, and get home to wife Nicola in one piece, Hutchinson is taking two big lessons from his notorious previous excursion. One for the body, one for the soul.
“I work at a physical job, but I’m working on building the legs back up at the gym.
“Last time I definitely felt my core strength was wanting. Everything comes from the core, so I’m doing circuits in the gym so that it’s not too boring.”
I want to feel strong on the bike and it’s my intention to do the training to do it.”
As for the mental side of things, his main learning curve centred around how his own difficulties – whether they be as simple as a missed turn, or a worrying spell in a far flung hospital – impact those closest to him.
“It’s good to keep note of your family and friends, not neglect them. I did get caught up in the last one and was a bit dismissive of a lot of things. Nic found it tough and I didn’t know the extent of that.
“I had already left home then, but mam and dad and my sisters still lost sleep. I didn’t realise the impact it was having at home. But I’m 100% more aware of that now and when I’m doing stuff I’m trying to be mindful of it.
“I know I signed up for the race without telling Nic, but we have had a good long chat about it. I wanted to sign up because I wanted to have the chance to say no to it. She came around to the idea and it’s great to have that support.
“Support is such a key aspect of it, because even though you’re doing it all on your own, if you don’t have people behind you you’re not going to succeed.”
So it’s full steam ahead for the starter’s gun on 30 July. Yet the drive and hunger for a challenge won’t end there.
“It’s definitely my intention to do something like this on an annual basis. I don’t want to just say, ‘ah, I’ve done a race…’
“I’d like to have more to talk about and more to aim for.”