The spirit of the race is a commitment to autonomy and self-reliance and the integrity to uphold the values of equality and fairplay in order to truthfully test an endeavour. With only ten rules to guide them, our riders must understand and commit to riding a genuinely unsupported race without private resupply or dedicated outside assistance.
In 2016 Mike Hall set the speed record for the Tour Divide. Shortly after the finish he spoke to Neil Beltchenko of Bikepacker and had this to say about the future of the race and the sport in general:
“One of the great things about the TDR is not only the abilities but also the humility of those who ride it and the mutual respect that goes on between racers. I have nothing but respect for those who I have come up against and have had very kind, thoughtful and meaningful words back from riders like Josh, Craig, Jesse and Jefe, all of which I hold in the highest esteem. Despite whatever commentary might be shared online by spectators we are really in a contract of integrity with our peers and it’s only them who have really been there who know the nuances of what is involved, so their thoughts and words mean a lot to me especially. I found the Trans Am particularly exciting this year. Not many egos have been spared there and with not just one but two women going the distance at a hell of a pace, it shows it’s no fluke and why people should be excited about unsupported racing, because it is really as level and accessible a playing field as you are likely to see. Long may TDR and bikepacking races be a stage for this and long may the principles of self-reliance and integrity hold strong.”
In 2015 Mike conducted some research on what ‘unsupported’ meant to our riders. The original blog post remains available here. We have taken some information from that post to remind riders what our founder Mike Hall had to say on the matter.
Easy, doing it on your own without any help right? Well the more one explores the concept, the less black and white it appears. Just like everything in life, it’s a little bit more complicated than that…
Take for example meeting a stranger on your travels. They offer you a drink or they talk about the local area, the roads, the traffic or the weather. Such a meeting could have negative, zero, or positive effects on one’s race. Refusal to engage or accept their generosity could offend however, time spent chatting is time not on the bike. It’s a valuable travelling experience but to the racer it could be seen as time wasted. On the other hand the timing of a glass of water, a meal or nugget of information could also be pivotal. First hand knowledge of the nature of the local geology, road closures, weather patterns or services could also prove to be acutely invaluable if the circumstances dictate.
To a large extent it is down to the individual rider’s aptitude to make the best decisions and balance the cost vs benefit of time off the bike for learning about the forward conditions or sustaining themselves with beneficial rest and nutrition. This resourcefulness is the mark of the experienced and able adventure cyclist and individual distinctions denote an individual’s style of racing.
Where though does the line lie between acceptance of and reliance on the kindness of others? When does self sufficiency give way to the solicitation of assistance and when do we agree that two styles diverge enough that one offers a competitive advantage and what effect that might have on this form of cycle racing? Where, if anywhere, should the rule book give hard answers? For it is the character of the race and the sport as to whether common practice, culture and etiquette might assert enough influence on the actions of riders and followers, or whether race regulation must intervene. In short, where can we rely on riders understanding the ‘spirit of the race’ and where must we intervene with hard rules?
Back in 2015 we took the opportunity to find out the current state of understanding amongst TCR applicants with application questions similar to those riders must answer now. The questionnaire had one major mandate, to promote thought and discussion on the nuances of unsupported travel. The questions were posed to riders under two main premises, though these clearly overlap:
What is “Private Resupply?” and what is “Dedicated Outside Assistance?”
The rules state that “equipment and supplies must be carried or found at commercial services”. These are methods of re-supply that are open to all competitors. If a racer has access to services and supplies that any other rider arriving at the same time in the same circumstances would most likely not have, then this is Private Resupply. It is the supply of equipment that is specifically for one rider at the exclusion of others and it is prohibited. Therefore we ask what constitutes Private Resupply?
1. A support vehicle with food and drink.
This is the obvious differentiator between supported and unsupported to get us started. We might consider this our “Control Question”. There’s a clue in the question; “support vehicle” is not unsupported in anyone’s book. There’s no question about this one, this is most definitely private resupply and it's against the rules.
2. Stopping off at my house to get spare parts.
This is another one that should be rather obvious, there is nothing more Private Resupply than stopping at your own house. Some may consider that without an on-road support vehicle then the ride is unsupported and anything else is fair game and it would surely be tempting for those who live along the route to pop in for a cup of tea. With the best will in the world though no-one is going to open their house to serve all the riders equally. Race organisers makes an explicit judgement here, any rider going home during the race may as well stay there. It’s totally against the rules, as is staying there or sleeping in the garden. Race organisers will have to live with the fact that some riders will know many of the roads and routes along the way, while others won’t. This is the benefit of experience and gaining experience is not against the rules.
3. Stopping off at my friend’s house to get spare parts
If it’s a location and relationship which is not available to all the other riders then it's explicitly against the rules to take any resupply, services or accommodation there. Even friends meeting you at public locations is private re-supply if they bring with them any supplies or equipment or perform any service for you of any kind. It doesn’t have to be a private location to count as Private Resupply.
4. Stopping off at a bike shop to get spare parts.
Totally OK this one and not Private Resupply, it's what bike shops are for. If it's a legitimate commercial business and you are not receiving any special treatment then it's all good.
5. Stopping off at my friend’s bike shop after hours to get spare parts.
The issue here is not that it’s your friend’s shop, if they are open to everyone then they are open to you too. What’s not OK is if they are open to you when they are not open to everyone else. Sometimes bike shops along the route of well known unsupported bike races (such as the Tour Divide for example) will go to extra lengths to service racers by giving them food and water and helping with accommodation or by extending opening hours. This is OK to an extent but they must provide the same service to all racers, not just the leaders or friends of the shop. In the case of the Transcontinental Race or Trans Pyrenees Race, we would always suggest that any bike shops who are aware of the passing of the race or knowingly serving our riders to make contact with the race, especially if they intend to extend their services outside of their normal operation. We would hope that bike shops would like to join us in promoting a fair race by being in good communication with race admin and so that race organisers can help riders in need discover them.
6. Getting a bottle of water from a stranger.
This is a more ambiguous proposition and one which divides riders opinions. On the whole it would be OK to accept such an offer. Other races, often off-road wilderness based events, might call this “Trail Magic” as it is essentially an unsolicited offer which is based mainly in fortune and usually deemed OK to receive. If the rider and offering party have no prior knowledge of each other or their meeting then it's legit. If a rider is in dire need of water it would, as a last resort and having exhausted all reasonable commercial and natural sources, seek water from private individuals. However riders shouldn’t make a habit of begging for aid in this way and should not access private property uninvited. The Transcontinental/Trans Pyrenees Race is not a wilderness race; water is plentiful along the route and it is the rider’s responsibility to maintain a good supply from legitimate sources.
7. Stopping for a meal with a local family.
The important thing here is that riders do not invite themselves or solicit such a gift, or that they do not have any prior knowledge of the meeting or the people. If it is a happenchance meeting and a kind offer we wouldn’t like to see racers pass up such an opportunity, but likely it won’t be the most expedient way to eat, so not a good habit for the front runners. It may also draw claims of foul play if it does look too good to be true so be careful with this one and if a GC position is what you want, maybe keep this one for touring.
8. Staying with local people I just met.
Race organisers would advise that racers don’t view local people as a standard accommodation resource. However this would not be expressly against the rules and as such could be accepted if offered provided it is completely unsolicited and not pre-arranged. You may be asked to prove it was legit if a race result hangs in the balance or there is a complaint made. Often such arrangements don’t gift themselves to the racer’s schedule and you may end up staying longer than you anticipated or finishing the days riding earlier. If truth be told it's best avoided, unless you are just out for adventure and to have fun.
9. Sending myself a package to a hotel
In many unsupported races sending yourself an equipment drop is seen to be OK, but the condition is usually that you should only send it to an official post office. Sending a package to a hotel means you must have already pre-arranged accommodation, or at least an arrangement to pick it up, even if you weren’t going to stay there. Forward booking of such services is generally frowned upon as, if a racer were to have an inexhaustible budget, then they could send many packages to many hotels and have the pick and choose of what they pick up. This would change the landscape of the challenge significantly and be the preserve of the very well financed. As we puts the accessibility of the race as one of its priorities it is important to us that there is not a means by which the race can become a war of resources. Also the Transcontinental/Trans Pyrenees is not the longest or remotest race out there, you should be able to find what you need most places. If you have a bespoke ‘thingy-ma-bob’ that needs special parts, maybe think about if you really need it or can you make do with what everyone else has access to. If you can’t live without it, is the race really for you? Most bike related things are readily available until you leave Italy and sending packages to any places further East can be a bit hit and miss in terms of delivery and often incur large duties. Race organisers makes the judgement that shipping of supplies is not within the rules. Temporary storage or jettison of major equipment and supplies is also prohibited. Any exceptions to this are at the express permission of the race director.
The rules state “no outside support” is permitted but what constitutes outside support or ‘dedicated outside assistance’?. This, as we mentioned before, overlaps with Private Resupply to some degree but deals more with intangible services and information than it does with equipment and nourishment. Previous editions of the Transcontinental have shown that the understanding of this by riders has been something of a grey area and some equipment sharing, phone-a-friend navigation and hotel room booking has been known to occur. Whilst some riders may have had a degree of dependency on each other, others flew totally solo. With the introduction of the pairs category we can be firmer with what we regard as assistance, yet riders can still look out for the safety of one-another without having to drop out of the race altogether.
On the whole riders should approach the race as if they were taking a completely solo trip across Europe, as if there were no race, as if there were no other riders and as if there were no contact with the people at home. In short they should do things for themselves.
1. Another rider lending me their pump.
You may not of think it as assistance dedicated to one particular rider from outside of the race nevertheless sharing equipment is a no-no in self-supported races including the Transcontinental and Trans Pyrenees Races. Each rider must come equipped for their own race and not be reliant on others. They must prepare as if they were completing the task entirely on their own and no-one else were taking part in the ride, only then are they truly self supported. This applies to the sharing of information as it does the sharing of tools, clothing and food, including navigation. Pairs act as a unit so can share everything within the pair but not outside of it.
2. Getting directions from a stranger.
Again this should be approached as if you were riding across Europe entirely on your own, with no other riders going at the same time and no-one at home knowing that you were going either. In this situation there would still be local people around that you could ask for directions. Local people giving you directions is seen as a local resource that is legitimate to get information from. It's not a very quick, efficient or reliable means of navigation though and with language barriers thrown into the mix it's not going to be a substitute for a well planned route but it is acceptable to stop and ask for directions within the rules of self-sufficiency.
3. Getting my bike fixed at a bike shop.
Getting your bike fixed at a local bike shop is totally legit and not dedicated outside assistance since it's a commercial service available to all. Finding the bike shop however is something you must do for yourself and you must not call home for help. You can use the internet, ask locally, pick up on other’s publicly available feeds or those from the race which might give you a clues but you should be doing the information gathering yourself from publicly available resources and not have someone doing the work for you.
4. Calling ahead (during the race) to book a hotel.
When the race clock starts, calling ahead to book accommodation is legitimate. Booking out accommodation in advance of the race however may deny other racers a bed for the night which is subsequently not used by those who book it. This is a matter of racer etiquette rather than outright rule and is in the interests of equal opportunity for all riders. The correct etiquette is that riders should not make multiple bookings* and be confident of making good on all bookings. With the exception of singular bookings within 24hrs of the start bookings should be made whilst the race clock is running. Note: This does not apply to booking a hotel room for the race start.
*Multiple bookings means more than one per solo rider per night or more than two per pair per night.
5. My friend at home/partner booking me into a hotel.
Our position is clear on this one; you do things for yourself. Next!
6. Calling my friends/family for directions when I am lost.
Also clearly outside assistance. If you are on the telephone calling for help, you’re doing it wrong. To all family and friends who get the call saying “I’m lost” the correct reply is “get unlost” – they’ll thank you for it one day.
7. Calling friends and family to let them know you are OK.
Of course people at home will be concerned about you. The trackers have a canny ability to make people worry like mad, even when there’s nothing wrong. You could go away for 2 weeks and not give them any idea of where you are going and they might not bat an eyelid but as soon as there is a little dot to watch and it stops moving, even the calmest follower gets excited. You should definitely keep in touch with all who care about you at home.
8. Calling friends and family to get updates on other riders.
This is outside assistance. People at home feeding you information about the status of the race is like having your own race manager, giving you information that you didn’t find for yourself and other riders cannot be receiving.
9. Checking the tracker and social media
So long as you are doing the research yourself from sources in the public domain, it's all legit.
10. Using an approved ferry route.
Easy one this, not pedalling but not outside assistance either and totally fine. Bear in mind in some editions ferries may be of no use to you whatsoever. Ferries are there where permitted to allow for more route options. They will rarely make for a shorter ride.
11. Book accommodation online for the evening.
So long as the establishment is commercially available, you make the booking yourself and it's done on race clock (or for use within 24hrs) then there’s no trouble. The technology used to book makes no difference.
A final word on penalties and safety.
Safety and wellbeing and are a prerequisite to a successful race. A rider’s safety and wellbeing should always come above race position. When a rider find themselves in a position where their safety and wellbeing are compromised to the extent that they feel they must resort to rule breaking or dubious means of obtaining services or supplies, it is important they realise that they have already failed within the context of the race. The correct course of action then is to look after their safety first and accept their race position has been lost, ideally contacting the race organisers to let us know. Race organisers asks that racers make good judgements and report truthfully and accurately on the outcomes such that mistakes can be learned from, actions can be understood and their ride can be judged on its merits regardless of its place in the GC. Minor infractions carry minor penalties and, as race organisers cannot accurately judge intent, are approached as mistakes. Any updates on this position will be communicated in Race Manual updates.
Bonne Route, Ride Safe.