How to win bike races the James Hayden way. The Transcontinental

The Power of Recovery: What it takes to win the Transcontinental Race

By James Hayden

Last year I wrote a blog post on what it takes to finish The Transcontinental Race. This year, I am lucky enough to write about what it takes to win. Whether you’re a dot watcher or a fellow racer, I hope you enjoyed it. I really had a great time; I just love to race my bike, full out.

Finding my limit: TCRNo4 (2016) was tougher than TCRNo5 (2017)

Putting to one side the 36 hours of enforced rest that I had in 2016, due to my allergic asthma, last year I went a lot deeper. I slept less and suffered more physical degradation.

The difference? Racing in 2015 and 2016 allowed me to find my limit, which was the greatest possible effort that I could do. In ultra endurance racing, that limit doesn’t last a few seconds or even minutes. It can last for hours. Finding it involved severe suffering. That experience gave me the skills to be more efficient and successful. In 2017 I looked after myself well. This year I rested, sleeping mostly in hotel beds. Having a shower. Having breakfast. I recovered.

Two things I have learnt about my limit:

1.     It’s not a fixed point. It has changed. Each year I’ve moved forward a bit, allowing me to go deeper and faster

2.     I must never exceed my limit. As soon as I put a pedal stroke over that line, my racing becomes unsustainable and things go wrong. I must stay on the safe side.

My limit is the most brutal place I ever go and the pain is continuous. My limit is a place that needs more mental than physical strength to withstand the desire to quit. I know my body can tolerate the suffering and keep me going.

Getting ready to race

With all of that in mind, I’ve found looking at the 2017 stats to be interesting. As I did last year, I’ll break it down into days. They’re not comparable, they’re when I stopped and started, depending on conditions. My analysis will look at facts, with some racing context.

For reference, I think my threshold was around 350-360W at the start, though I didn’t test it. About the same as 2016. However, just a couple of weeks before the race, while in the final week of my training camp in Italy I did 340W for 40min at 2000m altitude. I was already tired and I was pretty lean (around 73kg, though I don’t bother to weigh myself). I also had a significant advantage because I had been working with Ric Stern at RST Coaching all year.

I’ll give a little mention of ‘Chronic Training Load’ (CTL)[1], which I’ve decided is not that relevant for me. I know how I feel at certain CTL numbers so I can translate that. However, the model doesn’t work well with ultra endurance cycling because there are so many other environmental factors, so comparing numbers is misleading. Let’s just say that I wanted to start the race fresh. I wanted to feel like a kid the night before Christmas, eager to just get on my bicycle and race. 

Day 1: Belgium, France, Germany

The first day is always a big one and starts at 10pm. My plan was to push on, riding through to Checkpoint 1 without a stop, a distance of 625km. However, I did stop to sleep because I got a puncture and it irritated me. I also felt a bit tired so I changed my plan and I pulled into an ‘Audax hotel’ (=bus stop) and slept for 1h30, just what I needed. It kept me strong.

Into the first full day on Sunday and things started well until the afternoon when I started to have some asthma issues. If you’re interested, I’ve written a separate post about my allergic asthma and what it’s like to deal with[2].

Then I found out about Frank Simons’ passing. It wasn’t a good day, either physically or mentally so I decided to stop and have a long sleep when I got to the hotel at Checkpoint 1, Schloss Lichtenstein. I wanted to allow my breathing to settle and my mind to calm.

The mental impact of what happened on Day 1 is something I do want to talk more about, in the right time and place.


cycling power data day 1













I ‘earnt’ 725 TSS[3], this is around what most active recreational cyclists would earn in a week.

I burnt 13,537 calories. A large pizza (14”/35cm) is around 2,300 calories, so that’s a six stack.

Although my power may look good, for me it was a bit low, which was due to my breathing issues which meant I couldn’t pedal strongly in the afternoon. These issues meant I was also lacking in motivation. Elevation: 5,356m, this was the highest figure in the race, for just over a 24h period. With no real climbs, it shows just rolling the terrain was; up, down and up again, all day. 

Day 2: Germany, Austria, Italy

The effects of this first real night of recovery turned out to be important.

I woke feeling good, I’d slept well, my breathing had settled and my mind was clear. It turned out that this would be the end of my breathing difficulties until I finished the race in Greece.

My motivation was back as well. I’d worked all year for this and I wasn’t ready to give up cycling yet, I’d race on.

Today was a short day because when I went over the Brenner Pass into Italy, it was raining hard. As I began to descend it became torrential, with thunder and lightning, a real summer mountain storm. Both on safety grounds and to look after my body I stopped early at 8pm, finding a hotel for a good long sleep where I was pleased to find that top Canadian ultra racer, Geoffroy Dussault was already there.

Incidentally, when I looked at Geoffroy’s final figures, I was really amazed. His average speed was 28 kph while mine was 25.7 kph. He also rode 15 hours less than I did. He finished 4th. Luckily for me, he likes his sleep. Unluckily for him, he had a crash and wheel problems. 


Transcontinental Cycling power data day 2 .png













By far my shortest day in the race, and possibly in any of my three TCRs, only 12h 42m pedalling.

I delivered a consistent average speed and did some reasonable climbing.

Still, there was a reasonable 3,352m of climbing in the near 13hours, so it was a hilly day which included two classic Austrian climbs, the Fern (1,200m) and Brenner (1,370m) Passes.

Day 3: Italy, Slovenia

A really good day, built on a foundation of 5 hours sleep, from 10pm to 3am. I set off at the same time as Geoffroy. He flew off down the road, as he does, while I plodded along at my steady pace.

Even with all the rest time I had taken on the first two nights, I still arrived 4th at Checkpoint 2, Monte Grappa. I was looking after myself and felt very rested but still near the front of the race, a good sign. I then pushed across Italy and on into Slovenia, riding until 1am, a good day indeed.

Before stopping for sleep in another hotel, I crossed a 1000m climb in Slovenia. It was the last ‘decent’ climb for a while and I had decided it would be better to get it done before sleeping than after. It helped that I was feeling good and the weather was fine. There was no need to stop earlier and then face the climb the next morning with stiff legs.


Transcontinental cycle power data day 3.png













Riding time: 18 hours. It’s not possible to ride much more in an unsupported race, so this is a solid day.

Max temperature: 38 degrees Celsius, which peaked was while I was climbing Monte Grappa! The maximum for this Tuesday was up 8 degrees when compared with Day 1. The heatwave that was dubbed ‘Lucifer’ by the press across Europe was beginning to take a grip.

Cadence: At 84rpm, this number is lower than normal, due to the long and gruelling 10% climb of Monte Grappa.

Although the day was hotter, with more climbing and 150km longer than Day 2, my average speed was consistent.

I lost 1h30 minutes today because I had 2 punctures and needed to find and buy more inner-tubes.

Day 4: Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia

 Crossing the flatlands of South-Central Europe, thankfully the climbs were done for a while. Today was about getting into and through Hungary.

I was a little tired because yesterday had been hard. I felt there was no point pushing on across this flat country so I just made steady progress.

I stopped early, around 11pm and at a 5* hotel, just over the border in Slovakia. I needed a good rest and this was the place, no point pushing into the early hours for little reward.

I was starting to love the recovery.


Transcontinental cycle power data day 4.png

















Ride time: 16h, shorter than previous two days due to starting later (05.10am) and finishing earlier. I was still riding all day and made a decent distance.

Power: I was tired today, so average power was easily the lowest so far at 123W. Speed was good because I was on the flat.

Temperature: 39 degrees C, Lucifer is coming closer.

Average Speed: 27.4kph. Even feeling tired, this was good for a long day and above average though there was still nearly 2,000m climbing.

Part 2 can be found here

[1] Fitness (CTL) is an exponentially weighted average of your last 42 days of training stress scores (TSS) and reflects the training you have done over roughly the last 3 months.


[3] Training Stress Score, a composite number that considers both intensity and duration. It’s not about how far or how long. The harder you work, the higher the score.

Races, Results, CoachingRichard Stern