How two women from Sheffield took to their bikes and became queens of self-reliance on a 2,500-mile two-wheeled expedition from Belgium to Greece
The first ever women’s pair to finish the fearsome Transcontinental Cycle race are two Sheffielders who can now laugh about the challenges involved in: “a long and beautifully hard bicycle race for masters of self-reliance,” as founder Mike Hall called the 2,500 mile race across Europe.
That is, no support, no official route, and carrying all your own kit from Belgium to Greece via Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia and whatever other countries you meet on the way.
The day Julie Bullen and Ang Walker particularly remember was at the beginning of their journey across Romania, already well over half way.
There are lots of dogs in Romania, said Ang, and they don’t like bikes.
“We started going through a village when it was still pitch black in the morning. We could hear woofing, and then our bike headlights picked up four or five pairs of eyes,” she chuckled.
“And then they’re on you, trying to bite your feet. So you pedal like mad, and eventually they get bored and stop chasing. At that time of day they’re all wide awake and want their breakfast, and you must look like a tasty morsel.”
“We ended up running a gauntlet like that in every village,” said Julie.
There were many great moments on last year’s Transcontinental, said the two unassuming athletes.
Venice to the Dolomites, for example, or the German Alps, or the Greek Orthodox monasteries perched on the rocks of Meteora. And the ‘dot watchers’, the cycling fans following each rider’s GPS signal on the route map, who’d come out to support the cyclists en route.
Both women had cycled long distances before, across Australia and the USA in Julie’s case, while Ang had competed in the legendary Paris-Brest-Paris race in 2015. But the Transcontinental’s challenges make it “probably the most high profile adventure race in the world,” said Ang.
“We knew we weren’t going to enjoy all of it. But we wanted to enjoy some of it.”
Less enjoyable were the nights with four hours of sleep followed by 5am starts to avoid traffic and maximise riding time between checkpoints, or the 31 miles of ascent, or the idyllic rural road they’d found on the map which the Serbian building boom had turned into a 30 mile motorway construction site. And almost as scary as the Romanian dogs were the lorries on many Eastern European main roads.
“Drivers aren’t used to seeing people on long distance rides and they have no understanding of how much space you need,” said Ang. “They’d cut you up without meaning to, waving and smiling as they went past.”
So on the crucial day in Romania, Julie and Ang had a choice of inches-away lorries or dozens of hungry hounds as they headed towards the 50 mile long Transfăgărășan mountain pass, declared by Jeremy Clarkson to be ‘the best road in the world.’
It was a low moment, and after just outpacing a St Bernard-sized dog and its friends galloping down a hill like cinematic Apaches chasing a wagon train, Julie and Ang were on the verge of heading home.
Until they met the Romanian dog whisperer.
“He came up to us outside a supermarket in a small town called Mediaș, and said: ‘Hello Julie and Angela.
“I’m Flavius, and I’ve been following your dots. I’d like to accompany you across my city.’”
Flavius, it turned out, knew how to deal with dogs when cycle touring: he told Ang and Julie to slow down, look them in the eye and shout: ‘No!” if a dog showed signs of approaching.
“It was amazing,” said Ang.
“Instead of chasing you, they’d just look startled.”
It wasn’t quite plain sailing from then on, but after a few more 150 mile cycling days, Julie and Ang arrived at the finish line in 19 days, 21 hours and 5 minutes.
Now Ang is back working as cycling project manager at Sheffield’s Recycle Bikes, and winning top place and other accolades on South Yorkshire’s Love to Ride programme. “Wherever I am, riding a bike just puts a smile on my face,” she said.
And Julie reckons plenty of other women could do what she and Ang achieved. “Women my age in their 50s do doubt themselves, about what they’re capable of. But I think you’re more resilient and more determined as you get older. I’d say don’t limit yourself. As long as you do the training, and you’re physically right, you can do something like this.”
Registrations for this year’s Transcontinental have just opened: www.transcontinental.cc