RACE REPORT | DAY 10

Heartbreak Hotel

On Sunday evenings, the Hotel de Milan is a peaceful place. While out on the streets of Bourg-d'Oisans, where a handful of holidaying families idle from one patisserie to the next, on Day 9 of TCRNo.7 all that disturbed the hotel was a trickle of weary cyclists making their way through Control Point 4. 

First came Kosma Szafrania, the Polish rider who lingered at the CP for just minutes. Sitting down on the hotel patio, Kosma quietly phoned ahead to a hotel in Grenoble, filled his water bottle from the spring in the town square and then quickly remounted his bike.

Kosma Szafrania cruises away after stamping his brevet card at CP4. Photo: Angus Sung©

Kosma Szafrania cruises away after stamping his brevet card at CP4. Photo: Angus Sung©

Just minutes after Kosma’s had done the same, it was Chris Thomas (cap #18) passing his brevet card across the Control Point desk.

“You and Anna have concocted the evilest race in history,” he said, sagging down into a plastic chair beside race organiser Rory Kemper. He shook his head. “The rain in Austria… Did you organise that too?”.

The Transcontinental Race Brevet Card, a small but very important part of the race. Photo: Angus Sung©

The Transcontinental Race Brevet Card, a small but very important part of the race. Photo: Angus Sung©

“I didn’t bring any warm clothes with me. Didn’t think I’d need them. Top of the Timmelsjoch, I had to get two men to wrap me up in my sleeping bag. I rode down looking like the bloody Michelin Man.”  

“Seriously though, everyone was pissing me off that day. I was looking at the tracker, thinking ‘why are you doing this? Why are you still riding in this rain? That means I have to ride!’”. 

Coffees and cokes - cycling essentials. Photo: Angus Sung©

Coffees and cokes - cycling essentials. Photo: Angus Sung©

Shortly, Chris headed to the bar in search of a triple espresso and a glass of coke. After a sign language run-in with the Hotel de Milan’s stubbornly French waitress, he returned with a tray laden with 3 double espressos and 3 individual glasses of coke – not a million miles away, in fairness to her.

Chris Thomas arrives at CP4 desk. Photo: Angus Sung©

Chris Thomas arrives at CP4 desk. Photo: Angus Sung©

Chris’s arms and neck were mottled red with blisters – the mark of repeated sunburn – and turning up the palms of his hands you could see the thick, red welts left by ten days on the handlebars. Gloves, he said, were a luxury he couldn’t afford. “They slow you down too much. Every time you get on the bike, faffing with your little gloves, taking them off for every coffee… Nah, too much time”. 

The next rider through the control was Pawel Pulawski, the bike messenger from Poland (cap no.160). At the Control Point, Pawel looked fit, lean and impressively at ease. 

Pawel Pulawski refuels at the bar of Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Pawel Pulawski refuels at the bar of Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Already this race, Pawel had lost two phones and the third one he bought to replace them had already broken – although, at CP4, he still had it tucked into his bib shorts. “It’s my alarm clock,” he explained.

Heartbreakingly for Pawel, his impressive ride at TCRNo.7 would not last much longer. The next morning, on Day 10, Pawel came off his bike whilst riding along a bike path near Grenoble – incredible bad luck given that there was no vehicle involved at all. Later that day, he would be taken to hospital for surgery on his broken leg. 

Another rider facing dark moments on Day 10 was Sam Thomas (cap #20). Sam, who had held to third place so bravely back in Austria, has suffered badly over the last few days. After a bout of food poisoning he has been consistently unlucky with mechanical problems and the mental fatigue seems to have taken a toll. “For me, the low points are never the riding itself but in other things happening outside your control. Yesterday morning, I was actually crying on the phone to my girlfriend.” 

He smiled. “I felt amazing afterwards, though.”

CP4 Parcours, the gravel tracks of the backside of Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

CP4 Parcours, the gravel tracks of the backside of Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

As he spoke, Fiona Kolbinger was riding in the far west of France and rapidly closing in on the finish line in Brest. For all his efforts, it seemed that Ben Davies would have to settle for second-place on GC. 

The riders of TCRNo.7 are strewn from one side of the continent to the other, scattered across the valleys and mountains, highways and backroads of six different countries. Over the last 10 days, the race – like a panting, clattering accordion – has heaved itself apart from front to back. From tomorrow, the dots start coming back together. 

Jack Enright is the Transcontinental Race No.7 Reporter

Race Report | Day 8

By the time Fiona Kolbinger arrived at Control Point 4, she’d been riding for seven and a half days.

In that time, she’d slept just 26 hours. That works out at about four hours a night, and most of that sleep took place in a bivvy bag on the side of the road.

Earlier that morning, she had scaled the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, and just a few hours later was rolling into Control Point 4 in the charming French market town of Le Bourg-d’Oisans. By the time she stepped off her bike beside the stone steps of Hotel Milan, she had two and a half thousand kilometres in her legs.

Fiona Kolbinger picks up some breakfast before taking on the CP4 Parcours. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger picks up some breakfast before taking on the CP4 Parcours. Photo: Angus Sung©

By now, she’s supposed to be tired.

Instead, she’s sitting at the piano in the hotel lobby, treating the Control Point to a rendition of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. In the crowded doorway, the volunteers of CP4 look on in hushed awe. This isn’t quite what a Control Point arrival is meant to look like.

Fiona entertains a crowd at the Control Point 4 at Hotel de Milan in Bourg d'Oisans.

Fiona entertains a crowd at the Control Point 4 at Hotel de Milan in Bourg d'Oisans.

The first time we caught sight of Fiona on Day 8 was on the lower slopes of the Galibier. A truly fearsome mountain, the Galibier has been the centrepiece of countless Tours de France – 17km long at an average of 7.1%, it’s a climb that weaves endlessly upwards to its skyscraping peak at over 2,600 metres.

Fiona cruises along roads painted with names of Tour de France riders. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona cruises along roads painted with names of Tour de France riders. Photo: Angus Sung©

But never mind all that – Fiona is coasting up on her TT bars whilst tucking into some pastries. As she passes, she cracks a joke about talking with her mouth full.

“I do have table manners, you know. But I’m not at the table right now.”

Fiona Kolbinger offers a pastry on the Col du Galibier. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger offers a pastry on the Col du Galibier. Photo: Angus Sung©

Even with an intermission for a piano recital, Fiona doesn’t tarry long at CP4. She’s got to keep moving, she says, because cap #10 Ben Davies is still hot on her tail. Nevermind that she might have stretched out her slender lead – this is still one of the closest finishes in the TCR’s seven-year history.

Ben Davies on the gravel roads of Route du Col de Sarenne towards Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

Ben Davies on the gravel roads of Route du Col de Sarenne towards Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

At the time of writing, Ben is yet to reach Hotel Milan – he is still making his ascent of Alpe d’Huez on the CP4 parcours. The Alpe is yet another mountain straight from the pages of Tour de France history, but during TCRNo.7 it presents the riders with a new challenge. Instead of the famous tarmac switchbacks of Tour legend, the CP4 parcours take the riders up its lesser-known southern approach via a narrow farmer’s track.

A little further back in the field, other riders are facing down challenges of their own. Earlier this morning, Alexandre Le Roux (cap #4) was caught up in a collision with a car in Switzerland. While he got away with just a sore elbow, his bike wasn’t as lucky. But just a few hours later, Alexandre has rented a bike from a nearby shop and is already pressing on with his race.

The Scherers embrace one another after an emotional day in the Tyrol. Photo: James Robertson©

The Scherers embrace one another after an emotional day in the Tyrol. Photo: James Robertson©

Alexandre isn’t the only rider struggling in mountains. Stood at the top of the Passo Gardena are Thomas and Petra Scherer (caps #248a and #248b), locked in an embrace, both of them weeping. Climbing the Passo Gardena is both an immense challenge and a huge achievement, and it seems for both Thomas and Petra that the moment is too much to contain.

Petra Scherer reflects on her accomplishments. Photo: James Robertson©

Petra Scherer reflects on her accomplishments. Photo: James Robertson©

The Transcontinental Race always showcases its fair share of idiosyncratic kit options, but Simon Grieu (cap #146) is surely unique in his choice of shorts. Sporting a pair of washed out denim cut-offs, Grieu insists he is saddle-sore free – perhaps some of the race leaders should be taking note.

Simon Grieu sports crispy tan lines with unconventional denim shorts. Photo: James Robertson©

Simon Grieu sports crispy tan lines with unconventional denim shorts. Photo: James Robertson©

Back in the art deco lobby of the Hotel Milan, listening to Fiona reel off numbers from the Lion King soundtrack, it is impossible to escape a distinct sense of the surreal.

Fiona Kolbinger performs at Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger performs at Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

TCR winners aren’t supposed to play the piano mid-race. They’re not supposed to have the time, let alone the mental reserves. And yet here was Fiona, hands dancing over the ivory keys, winning TCRNo.7. It was a moment that felt dislocated from reality, like a Wes Anderson film wrapped in an overly lucid dream.

And yet, if you could capture the mood of this race in any one moment, it would undoubtedly be this one. Fiona has spent the last eight days quietly rearranging what we might accept as realistic, and this moment feels like just more of the same.

Jack Enright the is Transcontinental Race No.7 reporter

Race Report | Day 6

Before the elastic snaps

On the evening of Day 5, the Öztal Alps loomed large over TCRNo.7.

The high mountains are an examination that you can’t escape. Nevermind aero bars, gritting your teeth, ‘riding into your rhythm’ – when the tarmac tilts upwards into the high mountain passes, there is no hiding place. Falter here and time tumbles through your fingers like sand through an hourglass.

James_Robertson_Timmelsjoch.jpg

As Fiona Kolbinger entered the CP3 parcours near the end of Day 5, she was holding a slim, two-hour advantage over second-placed Ben Davies. Could she defend it? Or would her challenge falter under the harsh, unyielding scrutiny of nearly 5,000 metres of vertical ascent?

By the time Fiona pulled into the Control Point 3 at 2:30pm CET, she hadn’t defended her lead. She had extended it – stretching that slim two-hour advantage to nearer four.

Climbing off her bike in the courtyard of Hotel Gasthof zur Traube, the first thing you noticed about Fiona was the sunburn. Over the race’s first few days, the harsh Balkan sun had been unrelenting and even now, the skin around her face and legs was a deep, raw red.

Fiona Kolbinger arrives at #TCRNo7 after 2000km of racing. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger arrives at #TCRNo7 after 2000km of racing. Photo: Angus Sung©

The second thing you notice is her totally unflappable demeanour. Six days on the bike, 2,000km in the legs, and Fiona is relaxed, unflustered, smiling broadly at the CP3 volunteers and talking freely about the previous parcours.

Fiona Kolbinger catches up with Björn Lenhard at CP3 in Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger catches up with Björn Lenhard at CP3 in Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

In particular, she remembered the narrow, single-lane climb out of Bolzano that she faced late the previous night – while only 2.2km in length, the climb features two leg-breaking hairpins at a gradient of 30%. Shaking her head, Fiona admits that she was pushing her bike up this section.

After spending the night in a Merano hotel, she tackled the long, sky-scraping climb of the Timmelsjoch in the fresh dawn light. In a few hours, she had crested the mountain pass and could look out over its westward face into Austria. Beneath her, the jet black tarmac unspooled into the valley floor.

Fiona Kolbinger leaves CP3 with a 50km lead on Ben Davies. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger leaves CP3 with a 50km lead on Ben Davies. Photo: Angus Sung©

Four hours after Fiona’s departure, Ben Davies (cap #10) was pulling up at CP3. Ever since the race rolled out of Burgas six days ago, Ben has shown himself a resolute and determined rider - always smiling, always happy to talk. Today, that natural brightness seemed to have dulled – Ben looked tired, slow on his feet. Counting out cash for a new battery for his tracker, his fingers seemed to fumble on the notes.

Ben Davies arrives at CP3 in Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Ben Davies arrives at CP3 in Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Over the last two days, Fiona has slept for nearly 13 hours. In that time, Ben has managed only 7. With such a long distance left in this year’s race, you hope he’s not sailing too close to the wind with his rest.

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After taking the race relatively easy early on, Sam Thomas (cap #20) has maintained a slow but steady forward push and has now entrenched himself in third position. Ascending the Timmelsjoch on the afternoon of Day 6, Sam struck a weary and yet determined figure – wrestling his bike up the gradients, head sagging over every pedal stroke.

Sam Thomas tackles the Passo Gardena. Photo: Angus Sung©

Sam Thomas tackles the Passo Gardena. Photo: Angus Sung©

Behind the first three riders on the road, this year’s Transcontinental Race has massed into a chaotic fight for position. At the time of writing, there are 13 racers thronged on the CP3 parcours. Amongst them is last year’s second-place rider, Matthew Falconer (cap #2). Matthew has always been a rider that grows into the race, and this year is no different. As the race gets harder, expect Matthew to get stronger.

In the pairs competition, Rachel Batt (cap #247a) and Tom Stewart (cap #247b) seem to have had their brave challenge dented. After facing block headwinds on their exit from Serbia, the pair seem to have fallen behind the early pace they set themselves out of Burgas. Ahead of them, Michal Durec (cap #249a) and Zlatimira Petrova (cap #249b) maintain their steady forward march.

Fiona Kolbinger wears the CP3 leader’s cap. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger wears the CP3 leader’s cap. Photo: Angus Sung©

So far, Fiona Kolbinger has looked unflappable – but she is now riding into uncharted territory. This is Fiona’s first real bike race and, remarkable as that is, it means the chasing field is full of riders who understand more intimately what awaits them in the final days.

This race is far from over.

Jack Enright is the TCRNo.7 Race Reporter.