“I am writing to you with a provisional email as the original one has been blocked in Morocco for security reasons.” The life of an ultra-endurance cyclist is one that doesn’t run smooth. That’s Marin de Saint-Exupéry, 25 years old. “I am French, born in Paris. But I moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, eight years ago,” he tells Rouleur from North Africa where he’s just about to set off on the Atlas Mountain Race.
We’ve pinned down the Frenchman understand the lure, pain and joy of riding on a bike, unsupported, for up to two weeks, in all weathers. The French-Suisse is on our radar because we wanted to know more specifically about the 4,000km-plus Transcontinental Race across Europe that, for many, is seen as the ultra-race. De Saint-Exupéry finished fourth at this year’s battle in 10 days and 34 minutes, in the process winning the 'Spirit of the Race' award for “exemplifying the patience and race spirit” that took him from 32nd at checkpoint one (CP1) to fourth overall. Austrian Christoph Strasser grabbed the honours in nine days and 14 hours. Fiona Koblinger, who became the first female overall winner in 2019, won the women’s category and came ninth overall. One-hundred-and-three riders finished – fewer than half who started.
Fiona Koblinger was the first overall winner of the Transcontinental (DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)
This year was the eighth running of TCR but first since 2019 after Covid wiped out the next two editions. It’s labelled the “definitive self-supported, ultra-endurance bicycle race” as not only do the riders have to carry their own equipment, they must also plot their own route between five control points and the associated parcours (mandatory sections). The Belgian town of Geraardsbergen hosted the start, as it had done for the previous four chapters. After negotiating the infamous cobbled Kapelmuur climb, the riders raced across Germany to the Czech border with CP1 in Krupka.
TCR’s renowned for its unavoidable mountainous parcours and it soon arrived in the form of the Alps and then the Dolomites. CP2 nestled at the peak of the Passo di Gavia, a regular on the Giro d’Italia calendar and, at 2,620m, the highest point of the TCR.
From there, de Saint-Exupéry and his contemporaries made their way towards the Balkans with CP3 located on the shores of Lake Piva in Pluzine. This was the second time the event had visited Lake Piva, the last in 2016, which would be founder Mike Hall’s final effort as race director. Tragically, the British ultra-endurance legend died almost instantly when he was struck from behind by a vehicle while competing in the 2017 3,500-mile race across Australia.
CP4 arrived in Romania after high-altitude efforts on the Transalpina. Each of the CPs has a ‘set parcours’ – a mandatory section riders must ride. The C4 set parcours sent riders off-road for a brutal 44km before C5, the finish in Burgas on the Black Sea.
The event has been described as both beautiful and brutal. “That’s about right,” says Marin de Saint-Exupéry. Here, we catch up with de Saint-Exupéry to see what it takes to cope with a very long fortnight on the saddle…
Tell us about your TCR 2022 adventure.
I finished well despite a really bad first day where I just felt sick. Thankfully, I managed to chase hard and cut back time. I did this despite needing a fair amount of sleep by TCR standards; I slept three to six hours each night. That’s essential and, I believe, in exchange I ride faster and have more focus. TCR is quite a long race so avoiding sleep deprivation is important. To avoid losing too much time I avoid hotels and only bivy. That saves time on checking in and showering.
What bike and other equipment did you use?
I had a steel road bike made by Cycles Ricca, a small bike shop in Switzerland. I used disc brakes, which are a must, and tubeless because they’re awesome. I only punctured once because of a thorn and I managed to plug it. They really helped on off-road parcours four where I could drop tyre pressure down to three bars despite having 30mm tyres.
De Saint-Exupéry's bike set up for the Transcontinental (Finley Newmark)
To bivy I had an extra-light inflatable mat and a bivy bag. I’m lucky to have awesome clothes thanks to my sponsor, Albion. This included a lightweight insulated jacket and a rain jacket. The goal is to keep it light! As for nutrition, that’s all about gas-station food – a nice mix of cookies, chips, sweets and sodas. Sandwiches are luxury!
The TCR essentials (Finley Newmark)
Was this the first time you raced TCR?
No, that was in 2017. I was 20 and a total rookie. A big lack of experience but I still managed to finish, on time, before the last racer, one hour before the time cut. I made a lot of mistakes, like drinking tap water in Bulgaria that obliged me to stop for 24 hours in a hostel to recover from sickness.
But I was hooked by the race and came back the following year where I learned from my mistakes and rode faster. It was especially rewarding as I rode a bike that I’d designed and built myself as part of my diploma project in industrial and product design. It had specific geometry, integrated bikepacking bags and a lot of nerdy details.
How many ultra-events have you completed?
Well, I first attempted an ultra at 19 but didn’t finish. I have completed those three TCRs plus the Trans Pyrenees, Silk Road Mountain Race, Hope 1000 and a few smaller events.
What’s been your hardest moment?
It’s difficult to pinpoint the hardest moment as you often push to the limit whatever the conditions. That said, one standout for being particularly brutal to my body came when riding from Switzerland to Kyrgyzstan to the start of the Silk Road Mountain Race. I rode 8,000km in two months, which proved more than a warm-up ahead of a 1,900km ultra.
Do you ride full-time or have to balance ultra-riding with a job?
I work as a bike messenger so I’m used to riding a lot but I also get out at the weekends. I’m also lucky to have sponsors, so I work much more in the winter and then take more time racing in summer.
De Saint-Exupéry does around 20 to 25 hours a week of training (Finley Newmark)
For the past year I’ve trained properly with the help of my coach [Sacha Mutuel]. There’s a lot of volume – around 20 to 25 hours a week on the bike. It’s mostly endurance with a little bit of intensity. I also worked on my technique during the winter via mountain biking, and enjoyed a bikepacking trip. With experience I know how my body works and I don’t feel the need to go out for really long rides during training, so never more than 10 hours.
What couldn’t you do without during an ultra-event?
A knife. I never used it during TCR but a knife is this first accessory that pops into my head when it comes to outdoor adventure and that’s what ultra-racing is – so a knife is a must have.
You’re in Marrakech for the Atlas Mountain Race. Tell us about it, please.
It’s a bike-packing race that’s 1,200km off-road in, as the name suggests, the Atlas Mountains. Things are remote here and the terrain can be rough. It’s a long journey for me as I chose to ride my bike from Switzerland to the start.The
A sandwich is a luxury at ultra-endurance events (Finley Newmark)
I took a ferry boat from Marseille to Tangier and then cycled down to Marrakech. Again, a serious warm-up! [Incredibly, Marin won the event just as we finished typing this profile in a race record three days, 18 hours and 14 minutes.]
Finally, what’s the appeal of ultra-cycling?
I believe ultra-cycling is a sport that faces the environmental challenge our society is facing. It offers great sporting competition with a relatively low impact while being a great advocacy for outdoors and cycling. It’s definitely something that strengthens my love for this sport.
Find out more about the Transcontinental Race at www.transcontinental.cc
Cover image: Finley Newmark