Belgium to Bulgaria: Racing The Transcontinental

I reached the northern foothills of Bulgaria’s Balkan Mountains near midnight. Three miles back the pavement had disintegrated beneath me, every pebble under my road tires now sending a shockwave of pain.

After twelve days and over 2,500 miles in the saddle, my body was a ruin—my mind flayed. I was literally clawing my way through the dark, tugged forward by the knowledge that these low-lying mountains were the final hurdle between me and the Transcontinental’s Black Sea finish.

At this late stage, forward momentum was hindered not so much by the range of my headlight, but my body’s physical aversion toward movement. My molasses-slow pace, unfortunately, left me an easy target for the packs of stray dogs that pounced from the shadows.

When not under ambush, I fought to remain upright. Fatigued piled upon exhaustion, and in my thrashed state the dark inner thoughts that had been scorning my efforts all day found a foothold.

mountains in the transcontinental

What are you even doing here?

Getting off the bike at every opportunity—do you even want to finish?

You wasted two whole years thinking about this race just to give up now?

“I’m trying my best!” I countered aloud as my chest cracked open, ribcage heaving under the weight of emotion.

“You’re barely even moving,” my dark side fired back. “Just give up, already.”

A full-fledged shouting match ensued. Once the internal battle had sapped every remaining ounce of energy, I wobbled off the road to lay supine in the rubble. Unable to continue.

The Transcontinental Race

The Transcontinental is the definitive self-supported bicycle race across Europe. Created by legendary bikepacker Mike Hall, the approximately 2,500-mile race challenges participants on a self-navigating route that includes four checkpoints and mandatory parcours.

Guided by only ten rules, the ethos of the Transcontinental centers on self-sufficient competitive adventure. Because racers draft their own routes and start, finish, and checkpoint locations change from year to year, no two tracks are ever the same. 

2022 marked the return of the Transcontinental after three years of pandemic-related hiatus. The eighth edition saw riders depart from Geraardsbergen, Belgium, to cross Europe from west to east via checkpoints in Krupka, Czech Republic; Passo di Gavia in the Italian Alps; Durmitor National Park in Montenegro; and Drumul Strategic in Romania’s Parâng Mountains. It was no coincidence that most of the checkpoint entailed some combination of rugged terrain and high mountain passes. 

While the Transcontinental is renowned as a beautifully hard race, I somehow didn’t imagine it would take such a toll on me. Buoyed by successful outcomes in similarly ambitious events like the Trans Am Bike Race and NorthCape4000, I thought I was prepared for the rigours of the road. In addition to massive base mileage, I’d spend countless hours fine-tuning my gear choices. While I felt more prepared than ever, there was one area where I knew I fell short: route planning.

meaghan hackinen

Riding Thru The Night

After the fiery, jubilant send-off up the cobbled Muur in Geraardsbergen, my adrenaline remained sky high as I tunneled through dark countryside that first night in Belgium. Other than an interlude in Brussels—dodging tram lines and chatting with competitors at traffic lights—plus a detour once I arrived in the Netherlands to refill my bottles at a bar in Maastricht, I felt like a freight train charging through the infinite night.

The momentum continued until I crossed the German border at sunrise. Even into the latter part of the day as I pedalled through quaint villages and rolling emerald hillsides, stopping for cold drinks or carb-rich baked goods which I stuffed into jersey pockets for later. When my navigation unit crashed, I remained nonplussed, pausing momentarily to fire up my backup, intent on reaching that first checkpoint (CP1) in quick time. 

Thirty hours in, however, the freshness in my legs was fading. A glance at the race tracker revealed competitors flattening out the lumpy terrain by veering around hills or charting a more northern route.

Meanwhile, I was steamrolling right through the middle, scaling every climb in my path under the misguided belief that the fastest way between Point A and B could only be the shortest. By the time I reached CP1 in the Ore Mountains, I sorely regretted my ignorant route-planning. The punchy climbs between Czech villages along the parcours left me shattered when I flopped into a hostel bed, hours later than expected. 

Physical And Mental Struggles

From there, things spiralled quickly. Under pressure of competing and mounting fatigue, I slipped up, every ill-advised decision setting in motion a cascade of repercussions.

Losing my sunglasses led to a speck of debris lodged in my eye, which escalated into an oozing, painful infection that reduced my vision for days. Another time I re-routed on the fly to pedal through downtown Munich on midnight’s empty streets, but in the morning—still half-asleep—I accidently began navigating backwards toward my original route, racking up an additional fifty miles of sightseeing in Munich’s suburbs. 

The following day—after a cramped, damp sleep in a children’s playhouse in Bormio—I wound up on another unscripted detour: this time circling a lake in Italy after illegally pedalling through two highway tunnels, then looping back to take a safer route and avoid a penalty. In the meantime, Amrei Kuhne, a rookie racer from Germany and my closest female rival, zipped by. 

“You are such an idiot,” I repeated after each of these screw ups. 

That afternoon, the Italian sky darkened under portentous thunderheads. The bottom of my gut dropped out when I realized that both my unreliable navigation unit and my back-up were nearly out of battery, and I had no juice left in my power bank.

When the sky tore open to unleash a downpour of biblical proportions, I was left with no choice but to navigate on my iPhone. It wasn’t long before I threw in the towel to pull over at a bar and watch Amrei’s dot pull further ahead, waiting for my pizza.

Instead of charging my devices over dinner and carrying on, I checked into an upstairs room to get a good sleep. I hated myself for calling it quits so early while others continued, and berated my decision even as my head touched down on the pillow—the beginning of a toxic interior dialogue that would ramp up as the race carried on. 

Unlike my weepy eye, it’s not so easy to identify maladies of the mind. Even as I was experiencing it, I was unable to make sense of my deteriorating mental state. If only I’d been willing to extend some grace. To see that, despite my blunders, I was still outpacing all my previous efforts by a longshot, accumulating more distance and elevation in less time than ever before. 

meaghan selfie shot

The Highest Of Highs

Thankfully, the Transcontinental wasn’t all navigational mishaps, downpours, and negative self-talk. The unrelenting adventure kept me on my toes and wanting more.

When I didn’t wind up lost, I relished my experiences on Europe’s less-trafficked back roads: discovering wild horses on Croatian hillsides and Serbia’s picaresque farming communities on gravel double track. The highs—which oftentimes coincided with geographical highpoints—proved sufficient to carry me through the valleys of despair I found myself wallowing in.

From the heart-singing elation overlooking green folds of hillside at CP1 in Krupka, to the wild enchanting views on top of Passo di Gavia—at 8,599 feet, the highest pass in the Italian Alps. Despite accidentally ingesting not one, but two refreshing radler beers at CP3 in Pluzine (I mistook alcohol content for juice percentage, I swear!) I still relished my time in Montenegro’s Durmitor, the road zigzagging uphill through a series of incredible rough-hewn tunnels before arriving at a high plateau of jutting rock striations and rolling pasture.

But most memorable was ascending Romania’s Transalpina after sundown. At the end of another hard day (marked by frequent stops for ice cream) I was feeling low, frustrated by the busy roads, sweltering heat, and my own inability to cope.

But just as the sun dipped out of sight, I rallied. In the cool breeze, I inched up the climb—a miniscule dot on the sweeping road—my failing light barely illuminating the terrain ahead.

Yet in those quiet movements of the night, I finally felt at ease, and accepted my fate of tackling yet another mountain pass on dead-tired legs. During those hours climbing Transalpina en route to CP4, I felt stronger than ever. I felt unstoppable.  

Moving Forward

A similar shift toward acceptance coaxed me back on the bike that final night in the Balkan Mountains. Splayed out in the rubble after my meltdown, a stillness washed over me. No longer in motion, I tuned into the steady rhythm of my heart. A breeze whisked the heat from my face and stirred tall grasses surrounding my toppled bike. 

I was still not okay. I had confronted something dark within: a well of self-doubt and inner angst. On most days, the darkness remained contained.

But over the last two weeks it had spilled over, contaminating my inner psyche. Voicing harsh criticisms when what I needed most was a cheerleader—or a voice of reason.

I peeled myself from the pavement and shook out my legs. Only by moving forward would I get through this. So, I saddled up and set back out under the glimmering starlight. 

The Finish

I crossed the finish line of the Transcontinental at 3:51 am. Utterly spent and covered in snot, grime, and soda.

Instead of tucking into a well-deserved bed, I collapsed on the lawn of the Burgas Beach Resort inside my SOL bivy bag, surrounded by the dozen other finishers who couldn’t find a hotel room. It wasn’t until the following morning when I awoke to the sun’s first piercing rays that I finally saw the light enough to appreciate what I’d accomplished. It had taken me just over twelve days to cycle across the continent—and up until that moment on the grass, I didn’t really think I’d done anything special.

Though barely eight o’clock, already the nearby pathway saw a steady stream of holidaymakers en route to the beach. I couldn’t hole up inside my sweltering bivy much longer, but I needed a moment to let this achievement sink in.

My heart swelled with pride. I’d navigated from Belgium to Bulgaria on a route that I alone had pieced together.

Though I didn’t set any speed records, I finished 33rd of 250 starters, and rounded out the female podium as third across the line. As I gazed into an impeccably blue sky, I recognized myself as both a determined athlete and a fierce competitor. 

meaghan with the winner

But how come I couldn’t see those things in the thick of it? I flexed my feet as gritty bodies crinkled out of bivy bags around me. I’d lost touch with myself out there—couldn’t think clearly. In pushing my limits, I pushed away reason as well.

Perhaps if I had prioritized self-care—sleep, hygiene, nutritious food—I might have fared better. Or maybe if I’d slowed down enough to weigh my options, I could have avoided the rash decisions I’d later beat myself up about. 

Though it was too late for a re-do, I still had several days to kick around Burgas before the finishers’ party. Plenty of time to treat myself and indulge in everything I’d been deprived of: sleeping in, loafing around the beach, and swapping stories with fellow finishers in sidewalk cafes.

While I couldn’t alter the past, my downtime in the Bulgarian Riviera offered an opportunity to reconnect with the parts of myself I’d lost touch with as I raced across a continent, and consider what I’d need to do differently to maintain a healthier state of mind in the future.

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About The Author

HACKINEN headshot

Meaghan Hackinen is a bikepacker, writer and adventure seeker whose two-wheeled adventures have taken her from Haida Gwaii to Mexico’s high plateaus, across Canada and the United States, and from North Cape to Tarifa along some of Europe’s highest paved roads. Her debut travel memoir, South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels (NeWest Press, 2019) was a finalist for two Canadian book awards. You can find her exploring the back roads in British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley or on Instagram at @meaghanhackinen.

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