Ten minutes with… Transcontinental 2017 winner James Hayden

Our new Q&A series kicks off with an insight into the ultra-distance racing scene

In just shy of nine days, British rider James Hayden rode 3,650km across Europe, spending the equivalent of six days, 23 hours in the saddle to win the fifth Transcontinental race – a gruelling, sleep-deprived feat of endurance, battling extreme heat, fatigue and nomadic stamina.

The brainchild of the late Mike Hall, this year’s Transcontinental race took place from Flanders, Belgium, to Meteora, Greece, and was the first to be run since the Yorkshireman’s death during the inaugural IndyPac race in March.

Mike’s friends and family stepped in to organise the event, with Hayden admitting pre-race it would be a ‘bittersweet experience’ but promising to honour Hall. TCR is a self-supported race with no set course, though riders must visit four ‘controls’ en-route, this year in Germany (Schloss Lichtenstein, Swabia), Italy (Monte Grappa, Treviso),  Slovakia (High Tatras) and Romania (Transfăgărășan mountain pass), ensuring a variety of meandering routes through some of Europe’s toughest terrain.

James Hayden won Transcontinental 2017 (Pic: Lian Van Leeuwen)

Unfortunately more tragedy struck during the event, when a Dutch competitor, Frank Simons, died after a hit-and-run collision with a car, just 82km into his ride. But after organisers opted to continue with the event, in accordance with Simons’ wife’s wishes, it was Hayden, on his Fairlight Strael, who claimed victory in Meteora.

For the first installment of our new Q&A series, Ten minutes with…, we caught up with Hayden to find out just what it takes to win Transcontinental.

RoadCyclingUK: Congratulations James, it was some ride. How would you summarise this year’s race?

James Hayden: Mixed emotions – I used the phrase bittersweet before the event, and that’s how it was. Obviously Mike was missing and that was a huge hole in the event. And then with the passing of Frank Simons on the first day, that was disastrous – an absolute tragedy – but then the race itself was run amazingly by the people that stepped in. There are too many people to name, and they put on a really good race.

“The passing of Frank Simons on the first day was disastrous – an absolute tragedy – but then the race itself was run amazingly by the people that stepped in”

There seems a real sense of camaraderie among ultra-distance cyclists. How has Mike’s death – and Frank’s – affected that?

It’s quite a niche thing [ultra-endurance cycling]. It’s a community, rather than just a group of people. It’s a real community and everyone knows everyone, more or less. Because it’s so hard, you know what other people go through.

There’s so much respect between racers, and so much admiration for one another, so when tragedy strikes, and it’s quite a small community, it brings everyone closer together.

What impact did Mike’s death have on your preparations and motivation for the event?

I was motivated to do the event justice and honour Mike. It’s his race, so what else do I do but turn up to his race and do my best?

This year’s race was the first to be held since founder Mike Hall’s death earlier in the year (Pic: James Robertson)

What is that draws you to ultra-distance cycling?

Several things – I like to see places, and go to new places and obviously this does that. I also really like to race my bicycle, I’m really competitive and I have a lot of energy and it’s a good way to tire me out really.

What are the biggest challenges you face on the road? A lot of people mention the loneliness…

It’s interesting that people say that. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced really. I’m quite happy by myself and I don’t get lonely really. I think the biggest challenge depends on who you are, and what point you are at – whether it’s your fifth race or your first race, or whether you are at the end of the race or the start.

James Hayden insists loneliness is not something he experiences during ultra-racing events (Pic: Camille Mcmillan)

At the start you are nervous and excited, but when you set off the reality of what you have taken on sinks in. You just have a moment where you’re like ‘crap, this is monumental’ but then you have the first night and you settle into it and it becomes quite exciting. But then you have the daily issues from then on – when I am going to get food, where am I going to sleep, what’s the weather going to be like.

As you become more experienced, the issues become less and less, because you have dealt with them before so you know how to deal with everything.

“You have to learn to be flexible and fluid out of the road. If you’ve got a tailwind, don’t go to sleep”

How much of what you do on the road – eating, sleeping – is planned beforehand, and how much is it a case of winging it?

It’s an interesting question. Some people try to plan everything to the nth degree and you often find they are people who haven’t done the race before. It’s their way of dealing with the scale of the challenge.

Having a set plan can be detrimental, so the key is fluidity (Pic: James Robertson)

But for me, I’ve learned from experience that things like a little rainstorm can knock your distance off by 50-100km in one day. If you’ve got a set plan where you have to be here or there, it becomes unobtainable and that can cause a lot of stress.

I do look along my route at where things are, but really you’re always going to be able to find something so I plan a bit and I do research, but I don’t have a fixed plan. You have to learn to be flexible and fluid out of the road. If you’ve got a tailwind, don’t go to sleep. Things like that.

James Hayden, Transcontinental, descent, pic - Camille Mcmillan
Transcontinental, descent, hairpins, mountain, pic - Camille Mcmillan
Transcontinental, scenery, panorama, ski lift, pic - Anna Haslock

Ultra-distance racing has quite a cult following now. Do you feel that when you are out racing?

For me, I get quite a few – and I know other people get a lot too – of ‘dot watchers’. People who are watching the tracker, following our GPS and then they’ll appear at the side of the road and give you a clap and a cheer at the side of the road.

Monte Grappa and Slovakia’s Tatras Mountains the highlights of this year’s race, according to James (Pic: James Hayden)

It feels amazing and that’s really cool when that happens. I guess that does go with the following of the races. As the race grows, the more people know about it, the more people come out to support you – it’s really cool.

“The checkpoints are always amazing – as they’re supposed to be – but Montegrappa and the Tatras Mountains in Slovakia were just breathtaking”

What high points stand out from this year’s race?

The entire thing in all honesty. I love racing, and the whole race is just really enjoyable to me. But Monte Grappa was absolutely incredible. The checkpoints are always amazing – as they’re supposed to be – but Montegrappa and the Tatras Mountains in Slovakia were just breathtaking.

And taking the opposite view, were there any low points or moments when the self-doubt crept in?

Not really. The last day for me is horrific. By that point, you’re trying to get everything out that you can, you don’t want to finish with any energy left because you want to get there as quickly as possible, but at the same time you still have to get there.

You still have 400km to go but your body is starting to shut down, you are so tired and wrecked. You want to arrive at the finish line done, completely spent, so the last day is horrific. You just want it to be over but it’s so stressful.

James insists there were no points when the self-doubts creeped in (Pic: Camille Mcmillan)

I had Bjorn Lenhard chasing me and knew if anything goes wrong, he’s going to be on top of me and quickly ahead. You can lose six hours like that, it’s so simple.

The last day is really tough, mentally and physically, and also because you know the end is so close it just drags, so long. It’s not a low point, but it’s a tough point. But I think having finished last year, and it having been hard, I knew what to expect. I was able to draw on that experience, and I knew how it would end.

I was going to ask that – how different was this year’s race, as a more experienced rider, compared to the first time you did Transcontinental?

It allows you to go faster. Obviously experience counts for everything in life. The more you learn, the more you should be able to improve. If you don’t learn those lessons, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, you aren’t going to get better.

Having won this year, James’ plan is to return next year and defend his title (Pic: James Hayden)

Let’s talk tech now – you rode the Fairlight Strael, a bike we also included in the 2017 RCUK 100. Why did you choose the Strael?

I rode a Fairlight last year and I really, really enjoyed the bike. I thought it was great and did everything I needed. I also really like the guys behind Fairlight – Dom and Jon, they’re really nice people. I like them, I like the brand so I wanted to ride it again this year.

We improved on a few things, like kit choices and setup on the bike, but mostly everything was the same as last year because it worked really well. I have custom wheels, a power meter, that sort of thing, but the frame itself is what you can buy off their website.

James Hayden, Transcontinental, ultra riding, endurance, cafe, pic - James Robertson
James Hayden, Transcontinental, pic - James Robertson

You have spoken of the importance of kit choice before now, too. What riding kit did you take with you?

I take two pairs of bib shorts and one jersey, and that works for me. I try and wash the shorts every day, and then halfway through the race I’ll change the bib shorts because they become stretched and aren’t as comfortable any more.

People ask me, ‘What kit do you use?’ and ‘What gear do you have?’ and in honesty, I only choose what I’m taking with me on the day of the race.

James Hayden’s Fairlight Strael for the 2017 Transcontinental Race (Pic: James Hayden)

It’s the normal stuff that everyone will take, but it’s such a personal thing – to base your decision on anyone else shows a lack of experience.

How did you plan your route? How much work goes into choosing the ‘right’ route?

A 100 hours of my time! I added it up and it’s like four weeks of a full-time job. If you don’t have a good route – or a perfect route – you won’t be able to win. You have to the right route, there is no way around it. People come every year and probably don’t spend enough time planning the route, choose some really bad roads and lose a lot of time.

How is the current ultra-distance scene evolving?

It’s growing, it’s getting more popular, there are more races popping up, and that will continue to happen. There are lots of other people really invested in it.

James believes the future of ultra-distance racing is in safe hands, despite the death of Mike Hall (Pic: James Robertson)

It’s just going to keep growing basically, and hopefully it keeps going in the right direction and stays true to how it started.

And what’s next for you? You said this time last year that your plan was to win the Transcontinental and then defend it. You’ve done the first part of that, so…

Yeah, the second part of that! But for two reasons, first I consider myself quite an honourable person so if you win something, for me, you have to come back and defend it because it’s the honourable thing to do.

“I just love Transcontinental. Winning, losing, just finishing, for me is enough. I just want to keep racing this race”

And then also because I just love this race. Winning, losing, just finishing, for me is enough. I just want to keep racing this race.

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