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.

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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.

Race Report | Day 2

On Day 1 of TCRNo.7, Björn Lenhard lit the touchpaper of the race with a breakneck attack almost straight from the gun. By 15:27 CET, the German rider had already covered the 250 kilometres needed to reach Control Point 1. 

He didn’t slow down. Instead, he continued his relentless assault west right through into the night, stopping only for a couple of hours to bed down on the roadside near Sofia. On the morning of Day 2, he was confronted with a full 80km of gravel trails. Those trails led him over the Serbian mountain of Besna Kobila, a climb that reaches 1700 metres at its highest point. 

By 14:17 CET, Björn was having his brevet card stamped at CP2 in Hotel Inn Zormaris-M, near the town of Vranje. In a little over 33 hours, he had covered 750km. 

Björn Lenhard pulls on his second leader’s cap at Control Point 2.

Björn Lenhard pulls on his second leader’s cap at Control Point 2.

Soon afterwards, Björn was back on the road to further ram home his ever-growing advantage. He was in high spirits, and at that moment he seemed ominously strong.

Björn Lenhard leaves Control Point 2.

Björn Lenhard leaves Control Point 2.

And yet, barely an hour later Björn was back at CP2. Climbing out of a van, he walked back into the hotel saying he’d been stung on the ear by a wasp. Somehow, he no longer seemed the unflappable race leader – issues with the heat, saddle sores and the overnight cold that he had brushed off just an hour ago now seemed to worry him more seriously. Despite there being many hours of light left in the day, he decided to check into the hotel.

Björn checks into his room at CP2.

Björn checks into his room at CP2.

A couple of hours later and Jonathan Rankin (cap #15) had wiped out Björn’s hard-won lead, arriving at CP2 at just over 17:00 CET. Having realised Björn was still at the Control, he quickly refilled his bottles and wasted no time in getting back on the road.

Jonathan Rankin stares into the abyss and the abyss looks back in the toilets at CP2

Jonathan Rankin stares into the abyss and the abyss looks back in the toilets at CP2

At the time of writing, Jonathan Rankin is the new race leader.

Jonathan Rankin departs CP2.

Jonathan Rankin departs CP2.

But these two frontrunners are by no means the only riders in this race – behind them, a whole clutch of chasers are within striking distance of the lead. Arriving next into CP2 were Kosma Szafraniak (cap #159) and Fiona Kolbinger (cap #66), who has surely produced the most impressive ride of Day 2. Despite puncturing three times and crashing twice, Fiona is the first woman on the road and now holding her own in third place on GC. 

Fiona Kolbinger pulls on the women’s leader cap.

Fiona Kolbinger pulls on the women’s leader cap.

The highest ever GC placing by a woman in the TCR was Juliana Buhring in TCRNo.1, who placed 9th out of 21 finishers – if Fiona can continue her ride in this vein, she would be making TCR history.

In fifth position on the road, Ben Davies (cap #10) is shaping up to be another major contender for this year. Ben has unfinished business with the TCR – last year, a disastrous routing decision scuttled his chances of a podium place and he seems set on making amends.

Ben Davies - #TCRNo7cap10

Ben Davies - #TCRNo7cap10

A little way down the road, Matthew Falconer (cap #2) has produced a stubborn ride to put himself back in striking distance of the race lead. One of the pre-race favourites, Matthew suffered four punctures on Day 1 and now his hopes of a first win are held together by patches alone – yet he has remained stubbornly on the tails of the leading riders.

Meanwhile, Daniel Welch (cap #261a) and Mike Cannon (cap #261b) are the best-placed pairs riders in the competition. At the time of writing the duo are about 30km from the start of the CP2 parcours.

It’s impossible to ignore the impact on this year’s race of the heavy, stifling heat that grips much of eastern Europe. Many of the riders are passing through Control Points caked white with dried sweat, and these conditions are playing havoc with their bodies.

Jonathan Rankin arrives at CP2, his jersey stained with salty streaks.

Jonathan Rankin arrives at CP2, his jersey stained with salty streaks.

Bagoly Levente, who placed second in 2018’s Silk Road Mountain Race, yesterday complained of intense cramps in both legs, most likely due to depleted sodium reserves. Already, several riders have been forced to scratch.

The first two days of TCRNo.7 have felt almost like a drag race. Three stretches of mandatory parcours combined with the relative closeness of the first two Control Points has meant the early part of the race has favoured straight-line speed over race strategy.

Over the next few days, the race will become more tactical. The journey from Serbian foothills to the Dolomites of Italy is a long one, and the riders are now faced with decisions around both their route and their sleep. Soon, we will begin to see the full value of clear heads and calm minds when legs start to fail.

Race Report | Day 1

At 6am this morning, Central European Time, the Transcontinental Race began its seventh journey across Europe. Under a pastel pink morning sky, the 263 riders of TCRNo.7 rolled away from the Burgas shore and headed northwest up the long, straight city highway. Led by an escort of local police, the 5km neutralised start had a feeling of eerie calm – a mass peloton, soft-pedalling in the pre-dawn stillness.

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12 hours later that peloton had been comprehensively dismantled. The riders are now scattered across the Bulgarian countryside, edging their way across Europe – for the most part, totally alone.

At the time of writing, Björn Lenhard (cap #3) is the first rider on the road, holding onto a lead of some 20km over Jonathan Rankin with Chris Thomas tucked in a little further behind. 

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Björn is well-known at the TCR for his breakneck starts, and this year’s race has played out no differently. Early this morning, he broke free from the chasers with a stinging attack on the gravel track on the hills above Driankovets, utilising his background in mountain biking to escape across the rough dirt roads. 

Having won a gap, Björn then forced the pace for the rest of the day and was the first rider to crest the tough switchbacks up to Buzludzha peak. Standing 1,000 metres high, it is a hard grind up to the top –and what awaits them is worth the journey. 

Sitting atop the peak is the Buzludzha Monument – a hulking, communist-era mass of concrete that feels as if it has been transported here from another world. Perched high above the valley floor, the Monument dominates the skyline and this year, acts as Control Point 1 of TCRNo.7. 

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With his brevet card stamped, Björn wasted no more time at the Control. If he has come to TCRNo.7 with a plan to make others chase, then so far he has got his way. This year TCRNo7 have finally enacted Mike Hall’s idea to provide each CP leader with a coloured cap. Kindly  designed and made by our race partners PEdALED Björn left with the green cap it’s peak emblazoned with the legend ‘Leader’.

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30 minutes behind him came Jonathan Rankin (cap #15). His black jersey was stained white with salt marks, and yet at Buzludzha Peak he seemed settled and composed. Having downed a bottle of coke in a single gulp, he remounted his Fairlight and set off in pursuit. 

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Rankin was followed in quick succession by Chris Thomas (cap #18), Job Hendrickx (cap #240), Fiona Kolbinger (cap #66) and  David Schuster (cap #112). Arriving at CP1 as the first woman and in 5th place overall, Germany’s Fiona Kolbinger has had an impressive ride so far and is surely a name to follow over the course of the race. 

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It was telling that all the first riders to reach CP1 were riding on narrower, fully-slick road tyres. While those mandatory gravel parcours around the race start in Burgas certainly seemed to have tested the riders, so far it seems that committing to the fastest setup on the tarmac has paid dividends.

One rider who’s gamble turned out less fortunately was Matthew Falconer, (cap #2). Falconer is one of the pre-race favourites, but fell victim to three punctures early in the day and now finds himself some way back behind the early leaders – which is exactly where Björn wants to keep him. 

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Another rider who, unfortunately, has had a day to forget is cap #120, Fridtjof Harwardt. Having suffered from sunstroke in the days leading up to the race, Fridtjof was unfortunate enough to suffer two punctures in rapid succession within 20km of the start. Although he quickly climbed back on the bike, he is currently persevering nearer the back of the pack. 

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While many of the leading riders have already had their brevet cards stamped at CP1, tonight there is no lull to the racing. In the Transcontinental Race, the clock never stops – while some riders will bed down in hotels and bivvy bags for the night, many more will still be on the bike. Meanwhile, the most determined will push right through into Race Day 2, looking to take a lead that they can defend until Brest.

Race Report | Day 0

Every year since 2013, the riders of the Transcontinental Race have lined up somewhere in western Europe, facing east.

Set against the familiar, distinctly Western starting backdrops of London or Geraardsbergen, those races across the continent to Istanbul, Çanakkale or Meteora often felt like races into the unknown.

For a field of traditionally Anglophone riders, the push eastwards into ever more alien and unfamiliar territory mirrored the challenge of the race itself: a journey to the edge of your own limit, without ever knowing just what you’d discover.

For Transcontinental Race No.7, the pattern is reversed. Today, riders are assembling on the shores of The Black Sea in the Bulgarian city of Burgas. In the morning, they will strike out west to tackle the 4,000km that lie between them and the finish line in Brest.

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First, the riders must head inland. There, nestled within the central Balkan mountains and atop the historic Buzludzha peak, they will find the race’s first Control Point. Next, riders push further west out of Bulgaria and into the Serbian foothills. The roads here are a patchwork network of tarmac and gravel, and it is one of these high, winding dirt tracks that the riders must follow for 90 kilometres to find the town of Vranje and CP2.

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Those first two Control Points lie relatively close by TCR standards – over the first couple of days, it’s possible the race will feel bunched together. This will all change during the race’s middle section. CP3 lies in the Passo Gardena, the deep mountain pass that separates the Dolomites from the Ötztal Alps and to reach it even the fastest riders face some three days alone on the road. For many, it could be the race’s toughest stretch.

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After leaving the Dolomites behind, the race turns towards the Alps, and for one famous summit in particular. CP4 sits atop the iconic Alpe d’Huez - a spectacular mountaintop straight from the pages of Tour de France mythology. From there, the race enters it’s finishing straight – a final, last-gasp push westwards to the finish line in Brest, and the historic midway point of the Paris-Brest-Paris Audax.

And a reminder, if a reminder is needed – those five Control Points and the parcours leading up to them are the race’s only ‘set’ landmarks. For every other kilometre, the riders are on their own and must plan and navigate their own route.

For now, though, the riders of TCRNo.7 are milling around the pre-race area on the seafront in Burgas. James Hayden – winner of TCRNo.5 and 6 – might be notable in his absence, but the rest of last year’s podium are here. Both Matthew Falconer and Björn Lenhard look relaxed, ready and eager to begin. Jenny Tough, after great results in 2018’s Transatlantic Way and Silk Road Mountain Race, looks set for a serious tilt at the TCR. And so too Tanja Hacker, who placed 18th in last year’s Trans Am Bike Race.

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The atmosphere is more relaxed than previous registrations – this year’s race begins tomorrow morning, rather than later tonight – but there is still a sense of gathering anticipation. The riders are here, ready, but with no real idea of what lies in store.

It only takes a glance over the bikes moving through the mechanical checks to see what a diverse challenge this year’s race is. From skinny-tyred aero machines with carbon frames to rough-and-ready gravel bikes, every rider here has been forced to place their own bet on how their race might unfold.

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No bike race from one side of the continent could ever be predictable. A bike race like the Transcontinental – where the 10 rules insist on absolute self-reliance and self-direction – is even less so.

Yet it’s hard to remember an edition more alive with possibility. A once-familiar route has been turned on its head. The start list feels light on previous winners. And with much of Europe gripped by an unprecedented heatwave, the riders will be forced to confront a whole new set of challenges.

All of Europe’s a stage – and the stage is set.