Six days into the race, the tempo is beginning to slow. The riders have spent hours in 37 degree heat and the parcours have taken their toll. The cobbled switchback bends snatch at speed and bite with punctures on the way up to the Mangart saddle at Control Point 2 and rising to Control Point 3 is no less an endeavour. A steep gradient and crumbling concrete all the way to the top.
But it could be the climb to Control Point 4 that causes the cracks to appear. It’s all gravel and with the number of miles the riders have put in their tyres we could see a hillside strewn with riders wrestling to repair punctures. When race coordinator Juliana Buhring and former first place in the women’s field Emily Chappell did a reconnaissance ride they both got flats.
The headline going into Aug. 2 was “Where’s Bjorn?”. Having led the race, it was a surprise when he came in just after 14:00, almost 12 hours after we first saw James Hayden. His past 48 hours had been nightmarish.
Struggling to find good roads, he zig-zagged his way north, rejecting roads with no hard shoulder and re-routing to smaller lanes. But too often they stopped abruptly or in one case descended into untraversable roadworks and he was forced to go back to the roads he was trying to avoid. Time ticked away, a headwind whipped up and he churned on. The heat rose and he ran out of food. When he went to buy supplies in Czechia, his card was refused and his Euros weren’t accepted. It was the lowest moment in all his days of racing, he said.
Finally reaching the parcours, Bjorn’s tubeless tyre was slashed by a rock. Walking up to control his shoulders were low, he braved a smile but his dejection was palpable. He had no rush left. But as he recounted his story over a pint of milk, two Sprites and two slices of cake he managed to laugh at himself despite his emotions appearing on a knife-edge.
Now he had to try to fix his tubeless wheel. He wrenched free the seal of the tyre from the rim and poured the tubeless liquid sealant into a bowl. He had another tyre and tried to pump it hard enough that it would form an airtight seal on the rim. But it wasn’t working. Then, by some miracle, Bjorn found the hotel caretaker and in the middle of nowhere Bjorn had his hands on a compressor.
Fingers trembling, he seated the tyre and then pulled it away from the rim to pour the sealant in from the bowl and blasted the air back in.
With a grin edged with disbelief, he turned and lifted his fixed tubeless wheel in the air in triumph. Seeing Juliana, he seemed near to tears of laughter at the ridiculousness of the situation. Our hearts were high in our chest as we watched him roll out.
Just behind the front two of James Hayden and Bjorn Lenhard, the rest of the top ten is largely made up of TCR veterans who are riding hard and using their experience to make smart decisions on when to rest and refuel.
One of those is Stephane Ouaja, cap 12 in third place. Bjorn passed him as Stephane was on his way up to the control and they stopped for a hug and chat. He rode up, rather unfavourably critiqued the blueberry cake that Bjorn had eaten double helpings of and then dropped down the hill to climb back up the parcours.
Later, as dark had drawn in cap 146 Christoph Fuhrbach arrived. He had been on the brink of scratching because of trouble with his knee. But, after a night’s rest he was feeling better and set off towards Control Point 4 as the morning sun was growing warm. Next in was Martin Temmen in cap 143. Martin, cap 5 Matthew Falconer and James Hayden are the only riders to so far claim they didn’t get off to walk on the parcours.
After Martin, three arrived at once at 01:03. Rene Bonn in cap 158, Thomas Dupin in cap 157 and Alexandre Bourgeonnier in cap 148.
There’s much discussion about the best route to reach the start of the ascent. Riders are approaching from Czechia but as the parcours requires they ascend the Polish side of the mountain they must choose whether to ride 20km around the mountain or to climb it from the Czech side, drop down the other side and then back up the Polish side. Some food for thought, Thomas Dupin decided to go around the route and judging by his tracking data he gained time on his rivals taking this option. He arrived at the same time Rene and Alexandre but had been further back.
Coming in ninth and tenth were Mohamed El Alami at 01:23 and John Sherlock at 08:16.
At lunchtime on Aug. 4 we were expecting to see James Craven 253A and Jonathan Rankin 253B come round the bend to the Odrodzenie guesthouse. The pair had planned to arrive at the control point on Aug. 3 but James’s pace was dragged down by a suspected chest infection and they spent the night in a hotel close by. Finally, the orange jersey of Jonathan Rankin came into view but James wasn’t with him. He had stayed at the hotel.
In order to have his brevet card stamped, Jonathan’s decision was made for him. The pair would have to split. This means Jonathan will ride on aiming for a finisher’s place, but he will no longer be eligible for a place in the general classification. The question now is whether James will be able to carry on too.
Meanwhile at the front among the women is cap 179 Ede Harrison. At time of writing was in Kaplice, 240km from Control Point 3.
As riders arrived at Control Point 2, so did the stories. In cap 14, Simon Hayward’s carbon wheels warped with the heat and he was forced to scratch. The pair of 259A Luca Somm and 259B Oliver Bieri came through chirpy and chipper, still laughing their way across the continent.
Elsewhere, cap 125 Sergey Shulubin rivalled Isobel Jobling for most luxurious bivvy spot, sitting down for a peruse at a bus shelter with a shelf full of books.
Cap 63 Karolina Maciejewska went for all out luxury, bagging a night in what she described as a palace with chandeliers and soft furnishings everywhere. She said she feels like she has already won. She's ecstatic with her ride so far and has far exceeded anything she thought she could do.
Finally, we say a sorry goodbye to cap 160 Arjan Zwanenburg who scratched after suffering unimaginable bad luck when his dynamo light, chain, derailleur and spokes took a hit on the first night of riding. After finding a bike shop and waiting hours for a mechanic to get him back on the road he set his navigation and off he went, only to find he’d ridden back to Geraardsbergen.
His race was dogged with disaster and he has bowed out with our sympathy. For a full account of his ride read his post on the Transcontinental Race Facebook group