Credit: Tim de Witte

Brno Expat Interviews: Ultra-Cyclist Tim de Witte

Tim de Witte is a rather special member of the Brno expat community. He’s a Belgian engineer with a quite adventurous hobby: last year he won the bronze medal in the Transcontinental race, one of the biggest and most prestigious ultra-cycling competitions in the world. This week, Brno Daily had the opportunity to sit and chat with the high performance athlete and bike enthusiast to discuss some interesting aspects of his sport, and he shared with us some of his perspectives regarding the cycling culture here in Brno. 

BD: How did you get into the cycling world?

I come originally from Flanders (Belgium), which is somewhat the land of cycling. There are plenty of local races all the time. At a young age I started biking to school, and later my dad bought me an old steel bike, on which I started racing and joined the local team. I started going more and more into ultra-cycling (>500 km races) around 2017.

Where have you cycled?

In many European countries, but also in few countries outside of Europe. All my races so far have been in Europe, but in the future, I’d love to compete in the USA and maybe Africa and Asia.

All different countries have their charms. In the Balkans there are worse and less cycling friendly roads in comparison to Germany and Austria, but they make up for it with the nature and the atmosphere. Montenegro and Bosnia are beautiful countries. Of course the Alps are also stunning, but they require some more effort. From Romania I think of its remote areas in the middle of the night. It was very special to be there alone, far from everyone, but at the same time scary as you know you can always encounter a bear. I’ve seen and been to many places you would otherwise never pass or know of. I recall this one mountain I was climbing in Albania during sunrise. It was a magical experience. 

Are you into one specific style of cycling or have you tried different styles?

Yes, of course. I used city bikes to go to school as a student. I’ve cycled on racing bikes, gravel bikes, mountain bikes and I even own a tandem bike. I did probably every kind of biking except for BMX. 

What’s the most enjoyable part of a route?

When you’re out all by yourself in nature, riding an epic race, you feel alive, unlike when you are working all day behind a screen. You also get to know yourself very well and get to know where your limits are, sometimes the hard way. It can be burning hot or freezing cold, or you crash. But it is all part of the race and you get a lot of satisfaction out of it at the end. 

It’s a hard sport; after a long race I am really physically and mentally worn for a few weeks after. For that reason I do only three or four races a year. On the other hand, it is absolutely worth it while it’s going on, and especially afterwards when you think back about the adventure you experienced. And of course it is also a way to prove yourself. 

“When you’re out all by yourself in nature, riding an epic race, you feel alive, unlike when you are working all day behind a screen.” Credit: Tim de Witte.

What do you think about the whole time when climbing a mountain or racing such long distances?

I think mostly about the race and what’s ahead. I think of where or what I will eat, when will I stop, where will I find supplies… Should I change my route? Do I have enough water? How will I get through that hard section the fastest? Where and if I will sleep that night? Of course you also sometimes talk to yourself and struggle to keep going after so many hills and kilometres and the lack of sleep. For that reason mental strength is very important in this sport.

Which is stronger for you at the end of the day, your inner or your outer motivators?

I would say the inner ones, since I do it mainly for myself. I feel like I was born to do this. 

But the recognition is pleasant too. People talk about it. During a race people can follow your tracker in real time. My colleagues, friends or family check on my live location regularly and wonder what it looks like there, why am I stopping…They all say it is very addictive. 

I also like sharing my stories and hope they might inspire other people. I sometimes give  advice to friends who would like to do some similar adventure or race.

Could you recall your experience of the Transcontinental race?

Yes, but it is for sure a long story. I remember most of the race, from a to z. Or from Brussels to Thessaloniki in this case. Last year was the second time I did that race. It is one of the most prestigious ultra races in the world. My whole adventure lasted nine days and 3,800km, and I finished third. The time gaps between the different arrivals tend to be very big, especially at the head of the race. I was about 17 hours behind the winner and I had a bonus of almost six hours on the next rider. But in the end, finishing is already a great achievement. Only about one third of the 300 starters reached the finish line.  

In the Transcontinental Race there are four compulsory checkpoints with their corresponding compulsory parcours. They are usually set on crazy mountains or in completely remote sites where only shepherds normally come. You plan your own route in between them, but often you are indirectly forced to ride through very mountainous areas. Last year the first checkpoint was in the Swiss Alps and the second in the Slovenian Alps. Later on, we had to pass through remote areas of Albania and Greece.  

Any outside assistance is forbidden and you can only use services that are publicly available. You are also not allowed to book anything more than 24 hours ahead. So planning your sleeping places in advance is not allowed. Not that you have the luxury to sleep inside or even in a bed every night if you want to do well in these races. You really need to balance your riding and resting time. I often sleep in bus stops or at the entrance of a public building. Sometimes you have to ride through the night. 

It is also very challenging to eat and drink enough, and be able to keep your body fuelled. Your stomach starts to protest if you want to eat too many sugary things all the time. For that reason, people sometimes say that ultra-racing often resembles more of an eating competition. You need to be quite stubborn, selfish, self-confident and self-reliant, and you need to be able to spend days on end on your bike, with just a few kilograms of luggage. You become quite feral after a few days.

My experience in the Transcontinental Race is also full of little anecdotes. It would be fair to say that the hardest moments are those you remember best, but treasure the most afterwards. I was surprised by the freezing cold rain in the Alps during a late July night. A few days later I was being boiled alive in Greece battling my way around a mountain in no man’s land, up to the point of a mental breakdown. I remember even falling asleep for a few seconds as I was pedalling too. It was literally living to the limit, both physically and mentally. It is just you against the race, you rely completely on yourself and your bike. But as mentioned before, the great satisfaction and the treats nature gives you along the way make up for a lot. 

It is also really a gentleman’s sport. There is no prize, it is a matter of self challenge, however some competitors do get disqualified when breaking a rule. It is for instance not allowed to draft another rider in most races. At the end of the race, most riders stay a few days to relive their adventure together and have a little party.

How demanding is it to be in the best shape for your sport? Are you constantly training? Do you have different types of training?

Obviously, I ride my bike a lot during the year. In 2023 I had over 21,000km on the counter. I ride five to six times during the week, alternating between an easy and a harder ride of one to two hours during the week and a longer ride mostly at the weekend. Then I for instance cycle to Budapest and back in a weekend, or I cycle home to Belgium in a few days. Tomorrow I’m going for a 200 km ride, a trip to Zlin and back. 

I am not a big fan of hitting the gym, but I do have my own set of strength and stability exercises. They help me both on and off the bike.

It is important to mention that there is no perfect body type for (ultra)cycling. Bigger people have an advantage on the flats, lighter racers on climbs. Often it is a fair mixed competition for both men and women, because it is not just a physical sport, but planning, strategy and mental strength are as important. 

Are you currently preparing for a long race?

I am now training for the “Unknown Race”. This one is very interesting. It starts each year in a different European city. You only know where the start and finish point is, and only an hour before the actual race you get to know the coordinates of the first checkpoint. This year there will be about four checkpoints, and if you plan your route wisely, a loop of about 1,000km should bring you back to the starting point in Vienna.

Later this year I will probably do the Race Across Czechia and the Transcontinental Race again, for which I am already preparing my gear and my routing.

“It is just you against the race, you rely completely on yourself and your bike.” Credit: Tim de Witte.

What, in your opinion, makes a cyclist pro?

Getting paid for it makes you a pro, I believe. In ultra-cycling there are no full time pro riders (yet). But often top riders have sponsors. The main differences with normal road racing are of course the longer distances, but also that there is not a whole team behind you. When you are a professional road cyclist, your only job is to ride and follow the directions of the team; when you are an ultra cyclist, you are a ‘one-man-team’, taking care of the logistics, catering, routing… 

How do you finance all of your equipment and career? 

Lots of savings, to be honest, and taking good care of my material. I know how to maintain my bike. My race bike is designed keeping functionality and longevity in mind. Learning how to do it myself makes everything a lot cheaper and it allows you to fix your bike in races when you are in the middle of nowhere. But it is not a cheap hobby. 

I could try to get some sponsorship like many of my competitors, but at the moment I prefer not to, because then they often want you to go on social media, become an influencer or an ambassador for their brand and promote their products. I am kind of a dinosaur in that regard. I only want to use material in which I really believe and which I can trust fully during a race. 

Are you scared a possible injury might affect your personal life?

Yes, but I try to always be very careful. I’m one of the slower descenders, in fact. I lose hours in descending times. Some people rush, but then you hear they crashed. Were they unlucky, or were they just taking way too many risks? I was never a crazy rider. However, you can’t avoid accidents. 

I had a few really bad experiences and I’m not actively looking for any more. I have been injured because someone opened their car door abruptly. One night in a race here in the Czech Republic, I was alone in the forest when suddenly I saw an animal head popping up at the side of the road. Before I knew it, I was run over by a big male deer, crashed and broke my collar bone. There was no telephone signal, so I had to crawl out of the forest all by myself to call an ambulance at 4am. The deer was probably ok… in case anyone is wondering. 

In some countries not only the wildlife, but also the traffic can be very dangerous and trucks sometimes force you off the road. And then there is also the problem of stray dogs, which are a cyclist’s worst nightmare. Especially Romania gives me bad feelings in this regard. Over time I have learnt a few tricks to handle them, but I will never feel completely safe when they appear.

Do you consider cycling to be an extreme sport?

Absolutely, especially ultra-cycling. 

Why are you based in Brno?

I came here because my girlfriend is Czech. We lived in Prague for a couple years, but a few years back we decided to settle here. 

Do you have any comments on the cycling culture here in Brno or in the Czech Republic?

Besides mountain biking, cycling is not that big in the Czech Republic, it seems to me. But the country is overall a great place to cycle, if you are not afraid of a few climbs here and there.

In the city centre of Brno I see many issues for cyclists, however. Mainly because the city was in fact never built for cars. And, given the ever-increasing size of cars, it seems that over the years cars are also less and less built for the city. 

I am also sometimes wondering why so many streets in the city centre need to have car traffic in both directions, if there is a parallel street for hundreds of metres just a block away. But what bothers me the most as a cyclist and resident is the eternal sea of parked cars. One could say that the Brno residential parking system is in fact a very cheap way to allow the storage of huge pieces of private property (but only cars!) on the public domain. This makes it hard to organise safe traffic for all modes of transportation. On Lidicka, for instance, they recently painted cycling tracks on the road. Seems like a great idea, but it is always obstructed by double parked or waiting cars, making things even more dangerous than before. Or cars just park for a whole weekend on the pavement. I have never seen any car getting a fine for it, even if you can see tens of parking infringements in just a five-minute period.

In my opinion, solving safer traffic for cyclists, pedestrians and cars in Brno starts with solving the parking problem, rather than with throwing some paint on the ground. I know that people like to have their cars close to them and that there are a lot of people living in a small area, and not a lot of parking spots, but I just do not know if the cheap privilege of storing your car on public domain should be one of the many advantages of living in the city centre. I can imagine that, if you block a huge amount of public space for private objects that do not move 95% of the time, and you have so many two-way streets, it is hard to provide good cycling paths and smooth traffic, or provide enough space for unloading docks for shops and short term parking spots for visitors. 

What would you recommend to cyclists interested in doing the Brno-Bratislava-Vienna track?

Sure, go ahead, take the challenge! The track is quite easy, as it is relatively flat. I think it is a good start for cyclists that want to try and go for longer rides. But do not underestimate it and be sure to take enough supplies. 

What would you advise to a person who is willing to learn how to cycle but is scared of trying again or for the first time?

I would not start cycling at random in the city, unless it is for practical reasons like when going to work or school. Try, as a beginner, to go out of the city. Cycling outside the city and off the big roads is wonderful. The Czech countryside is beautiful and there are a lot of forests, views and nice hills to climb. There is not a lot of traffic in most places, so it is very enjoyable and safe. 

I would recommend new cyclists in Brno to go North, towards Adamov or even Blansko, rather than South along the Svratka where the cycling path is sometimes too busy with pedestrians that do not always pay attention. The path along the river is quite flat and the scenery there is amazing.

How can our readers follow your cycling? 

On the cycling app Strava I put some summaries and highlights of my races, and I share some of my training routes. Of course you can also follow all races online or on Dotwatcher, where you can see my dot moving on the map, hopefully reaching the finish line first! 

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