In Geraardsbergen’s Market Square in Belgium the riders of Transcontinental No.6 gathered together, apprehension growing, excitement rising as they waited to start at 10pm.
Transcontinental veteran and 3rd place finisher, Jonas Goy, diffused some of the tension. Up on stage, he pulled out a ring for last year’s fastest woman, Melissa Pritchard, who rocked with happiness as she held their baby in her arms.
A minute’s silence for those lost and a minute’s noise too and it was time for the bell to ring out. The click of riders clipping-in resounded around the square. They rode a neutralised loop and then the crowd ran to line the sides of the Muur - the cobbled climb out of the town - to watch the riders begin the first kilometer of the 4000 to come.
It was James Hayden who came past first, head low and forward as he pushed round the sharpest corner where fans were clambering to cheer the riders on.
As they crested the top, the pack began to fan out. While a handful opted to head North East into Brussels and then down via Liege, the majority opted for the N55 towards the Ardennes with a few navigating further south into France.
Three and a half hours later, cap 43 Jurgen Knupe was just starting in Geraardsbergen after problems with his flight from Munich - his bike and kit were stuck in customs, forcing him to wait there and then rope in a friend to drive him 800km to reach the start.
At the front, the riders split off just before the Belgian town of Habay. Cap number 2, Bjorn Lenhard, took the N18 further south into France while Craig Bachelor, cap 197, led in front of cap number 1, James Hayden, as they went into Luxembourg.
Before the race Craig Bachelor said he first heard about the TCR in mid-2016 and was immediately obsessed but was diagnosed with Mononucleosis, which gave him symptoms of chronic fatigue for the next year. When they subsided, he said “I’m training to win the race of my life".
As the front four neared Metz in the North East France, they were only a kilometre apart from one another, with James Hayden just ahead of Craig Bachelor and Bjorn Lenhard on a different route slightly to the west and Bernd Paul just behind them.
As they neared Strasbourg, the riders were forced together over the Saverne pass. At the Rhine river at Offenburg they were on three different routes but as Control Car 1 stopped to catch a glimpse of them all four routes intersected and the riders were spat out across each other’s paths and Bjorn sped in front.
Pulling over expecting to see Bjorn fly by, Control Car 1 saw Bernd Paul come out of nowhere - flying along the 33 cycle path. He wasn’t showing on the map and race co-ordinator Juliana Buhring shouted after him: “Where’s your tracker?”.
He had been tracking until Obrick in France where he came off the bike and must have said goodbye to his tracker in the tumble. Juliana assigned him a new tracker and secured it properly to his bike.
While it was intense out the front, close behind there was some serious riding being laid down from Stéphane Ouaja wearing cap 12, Thomas Dupin in cap 457, and Christoph Furhbach 146.
As it drew towards midnight on Monday, Ede Harrison [corrected from earlier] was the fastest woman as she neared Tuttlingen, while in the pairs, 253A and 253B James Craven and Jonathan Rankin were in the lead, closely followed by Johanna Jahnke, cap 255A, with cap 255B, Marion Dziwnik.
At the front, the lead riders were approaching Lake Constance close to Liechtenstein on the German - Austria border.
Bernd Paul was ahead with Bjorn hard at his heels as they rode around the lake 100km away from CP1.
James Hayden stopped for a rest as he reached Lake Constance. Craig Bachelor carried on along a cycle path but the cap 197 came off his bike after clipping a traffic cone and is now in hospital with a chipped femur bone. His race is over. No vehicles were involved and fortunately fellow racer Stéphane Mehdi Ouaja, cap 12, was just behind him and called an ambulance to ensure he was in good hands before carrying on.
Craig has been in touch with his family who are mid-flight out to join him. We wish him a speedy recovery.
As we write this report, riders are coming into Control Point 1. It was just gone 6.30am when Bernd Paul rolled in in first place. Just less than an hour later Stéphane Ouaja arrived with Bjorn Lenhard 15 minutes behind. After his sleep, cap 1 James Hayden, set off fast to reach Control 1 at 10am and didn’t hang around. He was one of the fastest out of the CP1 so far.