RACE REPORT | DAY 12

Local heroes 

Close – but for the third time, no cigar. 

As Ben Davies rolled down the race finish on the evening of Day 11, it was his third year of wondering ‘what if?’. Two years ago, in TCRNo.5, Ben placed 44th. Last year he had climbed to tenth place even though a serious routing mishap nearly derailed his race. This year, to come in second and barely 12 hours down on the winner – virtually a photo finish by TCR standards  – must have felt agonisingly close.

Although you wouldn’t have guessed that, watching him arrive. Today – just like every day of this race – Ben is all smiles. 

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What’s more, he seems more than at peace with his second place. “It’s pretty cool. I’ve worked so hard this year and to come second... yeah, I’m really chuffed actually.”

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We didn’t have to wait long for this year’s podium to be completed. Just a couple of hours later, the young Dutchman Job Hendrickx is locked in an embrace with his waiting family. 

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Job has been one of the most intriguing characters of TCRNo.7. At every Control Point of the race, he would invariably arrive looking relaxed, cheerful and almost implausibly fresh – somehow, even his cycling shoes managed to remain gleaming white from Burgas to Brest. 

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Back in Austria at CP3, Job had explained that he wasn’t riding for the GC – that he was sleeping lots, riding within himself and keeping his own pace. 

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But by CP4 in Le Bourg d’Oisans, when that pace had taken him all the way into the top five, his mindset changed – he decided to pull out all the stops and chase the leaders hard to the finish.

It almost paid off. At CP4, Fiona Kolbinger held a lead over Job of nearly 23 hours. By the finish line in Brest, Job had cut that lead down to just 13 – a quite remarkable turnaround that very nearly pushed him in front of Ben on GC.

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“I’m quite happy I started focussing on the GC actually,” said Job, “because I was worried at CP4 that I would arrive at the finish in the same state, feeling fresh.” 

He holds up his brevet card. “I think that would have left me wondering if I had suffered enough to deserve this. I think for this, you need to suffer and for the last two days I have very much suffered.”

The next morning, on Day 12 of TCRNo.7, Brest sits enveloped by a bank of thick, Atlantic cloud. As the sun rises higher in the sky, a few fragments of sunshine begin to peek through the cloud cover – in that weak morning glow, David Schuster arrives to claim 4th place

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The Transcontinental is always full of stories, but David’s is one of the most charming of this year’s race. His wife is expecting a baby in a little over a week – his race to the finish has also been a race back to her side in Paris. 

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Understandably, he wasn’t hang around for long either. “In one hour, I’ll be on the train,” he promises. 

He might have taken 4th place, but David’s ride has been far from plain sailing. Under his arm warmers, David’s skin is an angry, blistered red – he rode up the exposed face of the Galibier when the sun was at its highest and this morning he is still paying for it. 

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Later that day, Chris Thomas also finished his Transcontinental adventure. Having placed 18th in TCRNo.6, Chris rode an accomplished race this year – the third rider to Control Point 2 and rarely slipping out of the top five, he always looked set for a high placing. His fifth place is a just reward for a fine ride.

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When asked what had changed between his two TCR attempts, Chris’ answer was surprisingly simple. “A GPS computer, actually”. As it turns out, Chris rode most of TCRNo.6 using paper maps as his guide after his Garmin failed in the first few days. “Yeah, the new computer was great. Saved me about 400km I reckon.” 

He was slightly less effusive about some gravel parcours on this year’s race. “I don’t mind the gravel when it means everyone is lugging their bike up the hill. But I didn’t like it when it meant I had to actually be good at bike handling,” he laughed. “Then I was just shipping time”.  

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Finishing not even an hour after Chris is the most warmly welcomed rider of TCRNo.7 – Alexandre le Roux, this year’s régional de l’étape or ‘hometown rider’. Born and raised here in Brittany, he was cheered into the finish by a large welcoming party of family and friends, many of them sporting the iconic stripes of Brittany. 

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In sixth place, Alexandre might not have improved on his ranking from TCRNo.6, but his ride has been one of the bravest of this year’s edition. When his own bike was broken beyond repair in a collision with a car, he had all the excuses he needed to quietly scratch and return home. Instead,  he rented a bike from a local shop and carried on to finish what might well be one of the toughest and most selective editions of the TCR to date.

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His display of tenacity, determination and grit is an incredible tribute the Transcontinental and the spirit in which it is intended to be raced. 

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.

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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.