Life is slow in Meteora. Balearic low tempo house floats from the bar at Pub 38. The locals stroll by and smile at us in our uniform cycling caps and bad sun tan lines like garters on our legs. As Aug. 8 rolled around there was only one rider who could start to relax though. Winner James Hayden, cap 1, was all charm, buoyant chivalry and totally transfixed by the dots. The race for second place was tense.
In the early hours of the morning Björn Lenhard, cap 2, was ahead but when he stopped to rest just after Tirana in Albania there were three who pushed on. When Björn stirred at 04:00 Matthew Falconer in cap 5, Alexandre Le Roux in cap 186 and Rene Bonn, 158 were all right on his tail.
A decisive moment came at the Albanian town of Elbasan when Björn chose to take a more westerly route on the SH71 near Valamara mountain while Matthew Falconer and the rest of the chasing pack went east and skirted around the edge of Lake Ohrid.
Björn’s route was 20km longer and peppered with rocks and when the routes rejoined just south of the lake, Matthew’s road spat him out ahead of Björn and Alexandre Le Roux was within a whisker of giving Björn the slip.
Could Björn catch up with Matthew? Could the front pack sustain their effort? The tension was ramping up and Twitter went into overdrive with support for Matthew ‘birdman’ Falconer.
“COME ON @B1RDMN !!! You’ve got this!!!! 1hr 15m predicted finish.... GO MATT GOOOOOOO!” - @Annelovesthegym
“There's basically only a single path to the finish for Falconer #TCRno6cap5, Lenhard #TCRno6cap2, and Le Roux #TCRno6cap186. All within 30km of each other. It's not about routing now; it's pure cycle racing! Will a ~4000km race come to a sprint for silver‽ #TCRno6” - @GrumpyGrimpeur
Matthew looked to have clinched the ride and we waited in the street, watching dots, pacing the pavement and staring up the road. We waited and every now and then jumped up when a scooter turned the corner, until finally we saw the birdman.
We cheered and a grin swept his face. “I came off 2km from the end,” he said. On the descent into Meteora a rock was lying in the road and he caught it on the way down. ‘Bang’ went his tyres and he was thrown from the bike. Both tyres punctured, he scrambled to fit new tubes whilst looking over his shoulder to check if Björn was coming through to overtake him. He finished the job and Björn still wasn’t in sight so he rolled down the hill, tyres half inflated, a bruised and courageous hero taking second place at 22:12 local time [GMT +3].
His phone was like a light show as the congratulations came flashing in: “@B1RDMN TAKE A BOW 2nd place in the @transconrace. I’m so unbelievably happy and proud of you! Chapeau you absolute legend #TCRNO6.” - @chrishallrides
Before Björn arrived race coordinator Juliana Buhring had to make good on a promise she made him after his disaster on the way to control point 3 to buy him a chocolate milk. When he reached the finish at 23:37 local time he slurped it down in one.
He said: “Mentally, this TCR has been the hardest but physically this one has been the easiest.” We weren’t sure we’d be saying the same after riding an extra 200km due to routing issues but thanked Björn for a making this year’s TCR a thrill of a race and a rollercoaster of emotion. Be sure to listen to our Moments of Despair podcast to hear more from him.
James Hayden said: “If there's a spirit of the race award (I'll petition for one) Björn has earnt it 5 times over. Displayed true grit and humility over and over. What a gent and what a racer. Chapeau Björn.”
Just after midnight cap 186 Alexandre Le Roux took fourth place in an outfit rivalling Stephane Ouaja and James Jinks for most rock ‘n’ roll look as he rolled in with his jersey wide open to show off his black polka dot vest and amber neck beads.
He was followed by René Bonn, cap 158, at 05:12. Rene rode the TCR last year but had to scratch on day three. He said this year had been a dream.
“It was weird. I was feeling less and less tired as the days went by. I came to the race quite tired out because I was working on the harvest at our family farm but I just started to feel better until the last day, which was really hard,” he said.
He advocated the slow burn approach to ultra racing: “On day one my power meter showed I was doing 300 watts on a climb and people passed me. I think I was in 40th or 50th place at the start. I didn’t really increase my pace but the people in front just kept falling behind.”
Cap 98 Josh Cunningham started the Transcontinental Race with a knee injury and his ambition was simply to finish. His tennis ball massages along the route kept his ailments at bay and he put in a hard final push to land himself sixth place in the race, arriving at a more civilised 07:45 to the sound of cheers down the street.
Cap 143 Martin Temmen came in seventh at 09:10 and cap 214 Mohamed El Alami was eighth at 11:32. Both men hid their exhaustion well, chattering away all chipper about the beautiful lake and downhills of their journeys through Montenegro. Martin, like many of the riders, had lost some feeling in his fingers due to the pressure on the nerves in the palm of his hand over days of holding his handlebars. He didn’t seem too perplexed about it though, other than the issues it caused shifting gears.
While we welcomed the finishers into Meteora, 660km away at Control Point 4 it was a busy night on the parcours with nine riders vying for positions 20 to 29. One of those was cap 114 Ben Snoddin who came 28th in TCRNo.5 and was looking to improve in this year.
At first light he slung his leg over his bike and would have been feeling thankful for his wide 32c tyres but it seems even those best prepared for this parcours are shown little mercy. Ben had a mechanical and was left walking on the stony path.
We’re suggesting the Bosnia and Herzegovinian government installs a swear jar halfway up the Bjelasnica mountain as a funding strategy after the volume of profanity the climb has been subjected to. You can order your copy of our insults vocabulary guide in case you want some inspiration from our riders on the harshest ways to swear at a Bosnian mountain. Be warned though, it’s a little big to carry on an ultra race.
‘Hippy’ wearing cap 142 cussed enough to fill a few pages all by himself. “I'm like f.......g shell shocked, I don't even know what to do now”. Famous for his Twitter outbursts, seeing Hippy in the flesh was quite spectacular said Apidura’s George Huxford. “He almost lost his voice from shouting at the gravel.”
Facing the parcours next was Ede Harrison, cap 179. She reached the hotel at Control Point 4 last night and slept on the floor of the bar in the hotel. On the way there she was chased by dogs in the night that forced her to sprint up hills while feeling their heaving breath and hearing their barks at her heels. It seems there’s no fazing ‘mountain goat’ Ede though as she set off stoically to conquer the parcours this morning.
We look forward to welcoming Thomas Dupin, cap 157, Jonathan Rankin, 253b and Christoph Fuhrbach, 146, to Meteora next. To all our dotty pedallers, ride strong, true and we look forward to more valiant entertainment tomorrow. Allez allez.