Q&A: Neil Phillips on racing the Transcontinental

Watch the Transcontinental's Neil Phillips interview upon completion of the race, above

By Graham Hutson

Neil Phillips was the first Briton to cross the finish line on the Transcontinental race, completing the  3,696km route from Belgium to Turkey in nine days, 17 hours and 43 minutes. Here the 30-year-old Rapha ambassador takes some time out from eating everything in sight to explain what it feels like to race across continental Europe and how it affects the body and mind.

Describe your feelings having completed the ride.

So emotional when arriving at the ferry, the result didn't matter, it was just the achievement of finishing. Knowing that your body can eventually recover, totally indescribable as there was so much going on in my head.

How do you feel towards your bike (Genesis Datum) at this precise moment? Love or do you hate the sight of it?

Love it, it worked perfectly. I don't want to ride any bike for a week though. Let the legs and bum recover. 

How much have you eaten since you stopped riding?

Non-stop eating, especially breakfast, buffet at the hotel has been full-time sittings. Think they might charge us extra when we leave ...

What were your eating habits while on the road? Did you take gels or energy drink? They weigh a lot ...

I don’t think anyone comes away without some small ailment. It is not a sign of weakness, anything can happen when you push yourself that hard.

The first day I had some sports specific food in my supplies but typically it's just what ever you find along the way. Lots of croissants, cereal bars, coke and ice cream. Try to pick up bananas and fruit when passing shops that had them. You need to try and stay a little healthy but the diet generally gets ignored by most racers, who just eat whatever is easiest.

What do you think the biggest misconception is for people undertaking the Transcontinental for the first time?

That it can be a holiday. Yes you can enjoy it but it's a challenge like no other. The time alone, events along the way, the suffering your body goes through. I don't think anyone comes away without some small ailment. It is not a sign of weakness, anything can happen when you push yourself that hard.

What was your biggest fear?

At the time being caught in the storm that devastated Skopje [forcing many riders to abandon] and riding for cover in a hotel. That or the [packs of] dogs at night in Greece. My last night of riding throughout and I was being chased. Not sure they would actually bite but didn't want to test it.

Were there any times when you seriously considered scratching (abandoning)?

Never seriously but when tired, hurting and on rubbish road or when things weren't working out I did wonder whether it was all worth it. And of course it is.

Was there anything you wish you had packed?

I didn't take gloves, I never ride with mitts but in the mountains a pair of long fingered gloves may have helped one morning, when I was descending a pass at 4.30am.

Anything you wish you hadn’t?

Possibly my USB charger as I didn't use it this year due to a change in charging tactics.  But it was invaluable last year. It's only small though.

Any packing tips for people thinking of doing the Transcontinental?

They really need to be developed over your training. Understanding what you actually need and when. A frame bag is great for bits you need during the day, keep things organised and the saddle bag packed in an order that both fills it efficiently but also in order when you might need it. No point stuffing your  rain jacket at the bottom ...

Were you happy with the route you picked? How long were you planning it?

Overall I was. There were a couple of errors but I think there always are. I didn't spend as long as I wanted just reviewing the route on evenings and weekends throughout the year and could have checked it over more. 

What were your considerations when planning the route? Did you try to avoid busy roads or make sure you remained close to places you could stock up on food, for instance?

Unfortunately to race it, busy roads are sometimes a must. They are the most direct and as you move through the Balkans they are the best paved, or even the only ones paved at all. Just trying to balance a short but not too mountainous route is important.

Do you encounter many other competitors on the road?

Surprisingly yes. The further back you are, the more you see but even near the front I saw someone once a day.

What was your average speed?

Officially just over 15km/hr but actual moving speed was approx 25.5 km/hr.

What distance did you cover in an average day?

Between 310km and 400km on average I think, but the first and last days were big, 635km and 730km.

Did you get much sleep?

I had the tactic to rest more and ride faster, so typically got four or five hours sleep. 

Is sleep over or underrated on a trip such as this?

It is a huge part of how well you can perform. I should have cut mine back by 30-60 minutes a day to maybe try and be more competitive to Kristoff [Allegaert, race winner], but there were other areas where his experience took him out in front. But I feel lots of riders maybe tried to go without sleep and it slowed down their moving speed. Huge balancing act for each individual.

How often would you stop in a day?

I would stop for lunch and dinner for 30-60 minutes depending on efficiency, then try and have a short water/snack break at least every two or three hours.

What part of the body becomes sore first?

This year the legs and knees, so much climbing took its toll. But the bum obviously takes its fair share of wear and tear. People struggle lots with their hands as well, I was lucky.

Do you struggle to take a shit while out there?

Not really other than [dealing with] the antiquated toilet system of holes in floors in parts of Europe. Not a place to be in bibs, cleats and thighs that have cycled a long way. You always carry some emergency loo roll though, just in case. 

How do you keep your devices charged?

This year with a power bank that would do about five charges. Then top everything up on arrival to a cafe/restaurant and the power bank when in hotels. Worked well this year.   

Do you worry about getting robbed?

It always plays on your mind. Especially as you move east.  But everyone is always friendly and you just have to be careful. 

When did you start training?

I'm always training and actually this year most of my training was based around my road racing. But it's worth getting out early testing things and your body. If you haven't done the distances before, start building up to them. 

How else did you prepare other than riding?

Well outside of the usual weekend riding, I try and prep for riding at night. The mind changes, you become tired easily. Also a few bivvy bag sessions to get used to sleeping outside. 

Was there a mountain you thought would beat you?

Not really although there were a few that gave me a good kicking. The climb out of Mostar was long, not too steep but 42 degree heat and no shade. That zapped you. Check point four, Dermator, was hard on the legs being pretty steep and well into the race so the fatigue levels were high. 

What’s the next challenge?

Not sure, reflect and get back to road racing. Maybe there won't be a big challenge for a year or two but just to get more road points and race at a better standard.

While the lead riders have finished, the bulk of riders remain on their bikes. You can follow them via Trackleaders.  

For more information on the Transcontinental visit http://www.transcontinental.cc/ or follow the Twitter feed here https://twitter.com/transconrace

For pics of the race follow the Instagram feeds of James RobertsonCamille McMillan and the Transcontinental