It’s just past four o’clock in the morning, and I’m cycling through the still, damp air of a summer night in Bosnia. I’m heading southeast from the Croatian border between the first valley folds of the Dinaric Alps. Peering down the road into the gloom, my eyes land on the silhouette of a hulking mass of rock up ahead.
The black of the mountainside is only faintly separated from the deep blue hues of night beyond. I begin to trace its outer edge up until it is engulfed in cloud and disappears from view. My eyes return dreamily to the lonely patch of asphalt lit up by my front light. I continue pedalling into the belly of the mountain. Twenty-four hours earlier, I was cycling through the endless expanse of the Great Hungarian Plain, which fell away from either side of the road as I advanced. The smell of dew-drenched summer grass washed over me as I emerged into the dawning day.
Twenty-four hours before that, I was lost somewhere on the outskirts of Brno in the Czech Republic. I tried to navigate a disorientating assemblage of highways, language barriers and sleep deprivation. Something like a week prior to that (the days have become a blur by this point), I had rolled out of the small town of Geraardsbergen in Belgium, along with 300 other cyclists. It was the start of the Transcontinental, a 4,000 km non-stop bicycle race across Europe.
The journey since has been an entangled web of people, places, spaces and time. This sporting event has no field, stadium or arena. The European continent is the setting, its topography is the challenge to be reckoned with. Somewhere between the blurred boundaries of self and landscape, history and geography, nature and culture, sport and life—we ride.
The rules of the Transcontinental are fairly straightforward: ride from one side of Europe to the other without any support that wouldn’t be available to any other rider. This means that using things like hotels, restaurants, Google Maps and bike shops is allowed, but calling up your mum for directions or sleeping at a friend’s house isn’t. Riders must plot their own route through the mandatory checkpoints, which in the race’s eight-year history have been held everywhere from Mont Ventoux in France to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro; the Silvretta-Hochalpenstraße in Austria to the Transfăgărășan in Romania.
Riders’ moves are tracked digitally via GPS units relaying live data from and to devices around the world. While it’s not strictly a rule, most riders try to complete the race as quickly as possible. Negotiating the balance between sleep, food, and progress, the fastest contestants cover almost 500 km a day, and finish in just over a week.
Travelling by bicycle across the continent, familiar views begin to dissolve. The slow but unrelenting progress takes riders through overlapping layers of culture, language, ethnicity, religion and history, drawing new connections into focus. Whether it is to stop and buy food, fix your bike at a local shop, ask for directions, or find somewhere to sleep, the rhythms of everyday life, from Belgium to Bosnia, become remarkably familiar. The ideals of sport are woven into the race’s very code of conduct. To succeed, participants must find commonality rather than difference, and build personal relationships that go beyond politics, nationality or language.
Entering the meditative trance induced by physical exertion, body and mind begin to tune into new sensibilities. It matters little that this event can last over two weeks; the clock doesn’t stop, and thereby neither does the momentum. As the kilometres go by, the pedal rotations enter the hundreds of thousands, and then the millions. The boundaries of time and space dissolve. The impatient clamour of day and the eerie peace of night lapse back and forth, bringing with them different scenes, characters, and states of mind.
Geography acts as a guide. Mountains are avoided at all costs in route-planning decisions, and the great rivers once again become markers of distance. The narrative of the journey links the Ardennes to the Alps, and the Danube to the Dinarides. The towns which lie between them are often overlooked in our hyperconnected world of motorways, air travel and mobile internet. Distant places are drawn together with bonds that would elude even close neighbours if the same journey were to be made by car, train or email.
For the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the experience of place is based on a symbiosis between the flesh of the body with the flesh of the world. By physically participating, we come to know the landscape—and it comes to know us. As cyclists, we experience this feeling from the evolving perspective of gradual, conditioned, and purposeful motion. As we roll through the landscape, we become part of it—and it becomes part of us. Dr Justin Spinney is a keen cyclist and human geographer at Cardiff University. He refers to this dynamic as kinaesthesia: “the way in which we create a place of sense, and a sense of place.”
Our movements shape our identity, and our sense of self is intimately tied to the places we dwell or move within. The Transcontinental isn’t simply a privileged way to experience the European continent. It is an empowering, connective and ultimately transformative experience.
I approach the top of the pass just as the murky depths of pre-dawn are starting to lift from the valley below. The first hint of sun begins to tease the surrounding rock faces with a warm glow of light. At the bottom, still lurking in the blue-grey mist, is Sarajevo—and breakfast— but I find myself pedalling slowly as I crest the col between the peaks. I want to revel in this moment of kinaesthetic wonder. No longer an ethereal mass lurking in the night, the Dinaric Alps come into relief, gaining in texture, colour and personality with every passing minute.
It may have taken me over a week to arrive here, but it has taken the rocks that over 200 million years. Formed from the compacted remains of a long-forgotten, distant seafloor during the Mesozoic era, the limestone of the Adriatic plate (as it is now known) was eventually forced into the European plate between 23 and 66 million years ago. It is still moving in the same direction, transforming the continent with forces that are as slow as they are powerful.
My participation in this landscape is as brief as the identities made and remade by the borders, nations, politics and ideologies that have defined Europe during its relatively short history, making ideas of origin appear somewhat absurd. Are these rocks European? Were they Yugoslav 30 years ago; Austro-Hungarian 100 years ago; Ottoman 500 years ago; Avar Khagan 1,500 years ago? Or have they just been rocks—and seas before that—all along?
To participate in landscape, as in sport, is to open the possibility of making new relations, or uncovering new identities and ideas. It is to contribute to connections which predate our arrival, and which will continue long into the future.
Riders of the Transcontinental have a rare opportunity to do something as big as cycling across a continent, while contextualising their experience within the much bigger journeys of history and time itself.