Race Report | Day 5

Into the mountains, above the clouds

The Transcontinental Race is nothing if not selective. Never mind winning it – for many, just completing the course is the victory in itself. 

Even so, TCRNo.7 has felt like one of the most gruelling in years. First, pre-race favourite Björn Lenhard scratched early on the morning of Day 3. By the afternoon of Day 5, the new race leader Jonathan Rankin had followed suit. Having covered 1900km in a little over 5 days, Jonathan pulled in to assess his options at a train station in Steinfeld, Austria. After an hour of agonising, he finally made his decision. 

Passo Gardena, South Tyrol. Photo: Angus Sung©

Passo Gardena, South Tyrol. Photo: Angus Sung©

In his sign-off email to Race Director, Anna Haslock, the Scot explained his decision with typically dour understatement.  

‘I’m scratching. Feet have started to disintegrate for lack of a better description. It’s been a pleasure.’

We can’t know for certain, but from Jonathan’s description, this sounds like ‘hot spots’ – excruciating pain on the soles of your feet that is well-known to endurance cyclists. 

Very quickly, this race is becoming a case of last man standing. Although, a certain cap #66 seems to have other ideas. 

Transcontinental No.7 race leader Fiona Kolbinger on the Gardena Pass in the Dolomites of the South Tyrol. Photo: Angus Sung©

Transcontinental No.7 race leader Fiona Kolbinger on the Gardena Pass in the Dolomites of the South Tyrol. Photo: Angus Sung©

At the time of writing, Fiona Kolbinger is the rider out in front, leading the race up into the mountains of the CP3 parcours. Already, she has crested the Passo Gardena and now she is making her way towards the imposing challenge of the Timmelsjoch. Her nearest challengers are around 20km down the road but after those two pursuants lie a swathe of clear tarmac at least 80 kilometres long. The way she has dismantled the field over the last five days has been nothing short of remarkable.

Fiona Kolbinger. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona rides like a metronome. Every day since Burgas, it’s been the same – 19 hours on, 5 hours off, her routine endlessly rolling forward, the turn of her cranks like the ticking of an unceasing clock. She is grinding her chasers into submission. 

But she is not in Brest yet. A little way down the road, on the lower slopes of the CP3 parcours is cap #10 Ben Davies, doggedly hanging to her tail. Yesterday, Ben had complained of saddle sores and, after Björn Lenhard’s scratch for the same reason, it felt like his number could be up. 

Fiona Kolbinger tests her climbing legs on the Passo Garden. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger tests her climbing legs on the Passo Garden. Photo: Angus Sung©

But on the morning of Day 5, Ben was determined to continue his pursuit. Listening to him speak on the slopes the Passo Gardena, it was remarkable how relaxed he sounded – out of all the riders in this year’s TCR, Ben seems least affected by the race’s psychological ordeal. 

Ben Davies, #TCRNo5 vet on the Passo Gardena

Ben Davies, #TCRNo5 vet on the Passo Gardena

He is also one of the lightest. Riding a lightweight carbon fibre Cervelo and carrying very little luggage, Ben is a rider who could do some real damage in the high mountains. Tonight, the race entered his terrain. 

Behind him, Sam Thomas is also far from out of this race. Having placed 33rd in TCRNo.6, the rider is bringing his experience to bear on the sharp end of this race and is looking in solid condition heading into the second half


The Passo Gardena, also known as the Grödnerjoch (German) or Jëuf de Frea (Ladin). Photo: Angus Sung©

The Passo Gardena, also known as the Grödnerjoch (German) or Jëuf de Frea (Ladin). Photo: Angus Sung©

A little way down the road in the race’s mid-pack, the race’s second-placed woman is putting in another strong ride. Tanja Hacker, who placed 18th in last year’s Trans Am Bike Race, currently sits in around 15th place on GC. Just behind her, the race’s best-placed pairs are holding onto their lead. Quietly and without much fuss, Michal Durec (cap #249a) and Zlatima Petrova (cap #249b) are riding themselves towards pairs victory. 

The Timmelsjoch / Passo del Rombo. Photo: Angus Sung©

The Timmelsjoch / Passo del Rombo. Photo: Angus Sung©

On the night of Day 5, the racer leaders enter the mountains. Ahead of them, the looming challenge of Timmelsjoch dominates the skyline. Peaking at 2060 metres high, this climb will take riders into more rarified air, high above the cloudline.

By the end of Day 6, we will know the shape of the race to come. 

Jack Enright is the TCRNo.7 Race Reporter. 

Race Report | Day 4

The sweet science 

Over its first three days,  TCRNo.7 has often felt like a drag race. By the end of Day 4, it had started to look more like a boxing match. Four days of punishment – across all terrains and in all conditions – were beginning to wreak their toll, on minds as well as bodies. 

Control Point 2 closed at 9am on the morning of Day 4. At Hotel Inn Zormaris-M, riders were strewn across every surface that could support a body – on benches, beneath restaurant tables, on seats in the hotel lobby. Weary as they were, these riders could at least enjoy the warm satisfaction of having made the cut-off time. As hard as it had been, they were still in this race. 

Riders rest their eyes at CP2. Photo: JamesRobertson©

Riders rest their eyes at CP2. Photo: JamesRobertson©

But as TCR volunteers began to pack away CP2, new arrivals were still pulling up the hotel gates. Some of them missed the cut-off time by a matter of minutes. They would still be allowed to ride on and should they reach the finish line in Brest they’d register a finish time – but from now on, they ride outside the GC competition. 

Photo: JamesRobertson©

Photo: JamesRobertson©

For Alina Kilian (cap #53), it was a bitter pill to swallow. Alina had been riding solidly through the night a bid to reach CP2 in time, scaling the mountain of Besna Kobila and making her descent just as the night sky began fading into grey. After a long, cold and hard ride in the dark, to miss the Control Point was a kick in the teeth. 

Denmark’s René Hinnum (cap #237) was another to miss out by moments. His quiet disappointment might have been subdued, but it was clear he felt it hard. 

Far, far up the road, the leading riders of TCRNo.7 were locked in a three-way battle for the lead. After barely four hours of sleep, Jonathan Rankin (cap #15) went about reasserting his authority on the race with a mammoth push through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. At the time of writing, he is crossing the border into Austria to begin the long run in towards CP3. 

Behind him, Fiona Kolbinger (cap #66) was digging in, determined not to be shaken off. Her march northwards has often felt relentless, and still she gives very little sign of easing the pace. 

Late in the day came reports that third-placed rider Ben Davies (cap #10) was suffering from saddle sores. In a bid to let some air to the wound, he had foregone his cycling bibs for a pair of red football shorts and was pushing on through the pain.

Ben Davies #TCRNo7cap10 Photo: JamesRobertson©

Ben Davies #TCRNo7cap10 Photo: JamesRobertson©

Given Björn Lenhard’s early scratch, Ben’s issue is surprising. Both are experienced endurance racers and their set-ups have been dialled to perfection - for them both to come unstuck with saddle sore issues is unusual. We can only guess that the extreme heat of the first two days is to blame, and only time will tell if more of the front-runners will fall victim. 

Grödner joch / Passo Gardena, Südtirol. Photo: AngusSung©

Grödner joch / Passo Gardena, Südtirol. Photo: AngusSung©

If this year’s TCR is feeling a little like a boxing match, it is down to more than just the physical punishment. Like the middle rounds of a bout between tiring fighters, the run-in to the mountains is a tactical game of cat and mouse where every exertion must be measured against potential reward. Come the end, it’s likely to be the rider who races smart – as well as hard – that is still standing. 

Race Report | Day 3

On a race as chaotic as the TCR, it pays to keep things simple – so first things first.

On the morning of Race Day 3, Björn Lenhard scratched from TCRNo.7. Sitting over an omelette and bitter Serbian coffee in the sunny hotel courtyard at CP2, he confessed the struggles of the previous day.

First came the saddle sores. When Björn arrived on Day 2, his saddle was already topped with an extra, self-made chamois constructed on the roadside out of sanitary towels. At the time, he had brushed off concerns – at that time, he was intent on pushing on through the pain.

Björn’s make-shift sanity towel chamois.

Björn’s make-shift sanity towel chamois.

That wasp sting on the ear that prompted his return to CP2 seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Those saddle sores were too serious to ignore, and he felt dizzy and disorientated. By the morning of Day 3, the pain had made his decision for him.

“It's impossible to keep on riding, it really is.” he shrugs through his omelette. “This doesn't heal in just another day or two, so...”. Björn isn’t the type to say it, but to have his hopes wiped out – after a whole year of preparation and training – must be crushing.

Björn’s scratch is an unexpected twist to TCRNo.7 – but this morning all the talk around CP2 was about Fiona Kolbinger. Last night, she launched an audacious attack north – riding straight through the night and right past a sleeping Jonathan Rankin to steal the race lead.

Fiona Kolbinger arrives at CP2.

Fiona Kolbinger arrives at CP2.

Björn and Fiona share the same hometown of Dresden, Germany, and in the months leading up to TCRNo.7, the two spent some time together to train and prepare. Speaking to Björn, it’s clear he’s unsurprised by her show of strength. “Fiona is so strong, she really is. What’s more, she is a complete rider. Yes, you need to be strong but in this race you have to be able to think, to plan, to fix your bike if you have to.”

Björn congratulates Fiona as she arrives at CP2.

Björn congratulates Fiona as she arrives at CP2.

“She is also one of the strongest climbers in this race, much faster than me,'' he insists. “If she can make it to the mountains…”. His voice trails away.

For now, the race lead belongs to Fiona – but there is no shortage of riders chasing her down. With no mandatory parcours between here and the Dolomites, the mammoth run-in towards CP3 will be a major test of a rider’s routing ability.

Jonathan Rankin’s dot is currently arcing northwest as he begins to ‘cut the corner’ round the Adriatic sea and take back some time on Fiona Kolbinger, who has taken her race north. Fiona might have stolen a march, but now Jonathan is riding on a full night’s rest – and over the coming days, that difference will tell.

Fiona_CP2_tubes_JamesRobertsonPhoto.jpg

Hanging over all of this is the mystery of Kosma Szafraniak (cap #159). Kosma was the third rider to arrive at CP2, but having mounted his tracker incorrectly at the race start, no one can pin down his exact location. All we know for sure is that he is already pushing north and – having placed well at this year’s Race Through Poland – is in very impressive form.

Back at CP2, more riders from the midpack are trickling through the door and with them come their stories from the road. Marcus Silwer (cap #228) has been riding the last 30km with his phone tucked inside a sack of rice to try in an attempt to revive it. Michal Durec (cap #249a) spent the night sleeping with two stray kittens nestled on his chest for warmth.

Out on the parcours itself we find Jenny Tough (cap #230). Stopping outside an out-of-season ski lodge after a cold night on the mountain, she is pulling together her morale. “My hands are kind of cramped, but it’s been beautiful… I was really, really enjoying it until I looked down and remembered there's a mileage obligation to finish this race and I'm doing nine kilometres an hour. That's not really going to cut it.”

Yet Jenny has always insisted that riding a bike isn’t her strong suit – that she’s much better at hanging on, and surviving. And as this race becomes more and more a test of endurance rather than speed, that strength will surely begin to tell. After plunging her head beneath an ice-cold tap, she remounts her bike and pushes on.

Jenny Tough cools off under a roadside fountain.

Jenny Tough cools off under a roadside fountain.

Meanwhile, Chris Thomas has cause to feel particularly hard done by. Having successfully survived the gravel parcours unscathed, he immediately double punctured on a pothole on the road leading to CP2. Just a few hours later, and that same road had been resurfaced with fresh, gleaming tarmac. Only the Transcontinental Race tells jokes as dark as that.

Fresh tarmac on the road to CP2.

Fresh tarmac on the road to CP2.

One Dresden native scratches – and another takes the lead. It makes you wonder just what they put in the water up there.