Race Report | Day 7

In the pack

In concept, the Transcontinental Race is a straightforward idea – it’s a bike race, from one side of Europe to the other. First one to the finish wins.

In reality, seeing the TCR as just a race is hopelessly simplistic. A race is a two-tone story centred around winners and losers – when it’s over, the winners are vaunted. The losers are resigned to the anonymous scrapheap of the not-quite-good-enough.

The Transcontinental Race might be simple in sporting terms but in an event as challenging as this – where simply finishing is a victory in itself – there is far more at play than simply winning or losing.

The TCR is not just a race, but a spectacle – endlessly diverse and vividly textured with every conceivable peak and trough of human experience. No matter where it sits in the standings, each and every TCR journey is worth celebrating.

On Day 7, race leader Fiona Kolbinger continued her westward push through Switzerland and into France with Ben Davies close behind. Tonight, one of the two official race vehicles (CC2) will set off in pursuit.

Until then, CP3 is alive with riders from the chasing pack – and they all have stories to tell.

Volunteers at CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Volunteers at CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Late last night, at the end of Day 6, the volunteers at Control Point 3 were huddled under an awning, watching the dot of Sam Thomas edge closer. Having crested the Timmelsjoch that afternoon, he could enjoy the long, free-flowing descent into the valley below.

But soon, a storm was sweeping up the valley floor. As the rainfall intensified, Sam’s dot slowed, slowed further, and then finally stopped for the night outside a hotel a couple of towns over.

When Sam finally made the Control Point early on the morning of Day 7, he looked more ghost than man. He walked unsteadily, gilet hanging loose over his thin shoulders, and when he spoke it was slow and slurred.

Sam Thomas, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Sam Thomas, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Sitting down for the hotel breakfast, he looked like a man in need of coffee. Unluckily for him, he couldn’t stomach one.

“I ate a donner kebab yesterday and I think there was something wrong with it,” he said. “Now my stomach feels really bad. I can’t keep anything down.”

Tired as he was, he was still able to laugh about the vicious gradients of the CP3 parcours.

“I was stood in front of my bike, leaning backwards, pulling it up the slope. Even walking it, my legs were hurting!”.

Refuelling at Pettneu. Photo: Angus Sun©

Refuelling at Pettneu. Photo: Angus Sun©

Arriving a few hours later is Job Hendrickx (cap #240). Every year, one of the most intriguing things about the TCR challenge is the unique approach each rider brings with them to the start line, and Job is no different.

Job Hendrickx, #TCRNo7cap240. Photo: Angus Sung ©

Job Hendrickx, #TCRNo7cap240. Photo: Angus Sung ©

On the face of it, he seems to be cut from the same cloth as James Hayden – methodical in his preparation, meticulous in the execution, every detail planned for and taken care of. Job rides every day with a close eye on his power meter, tapping out his own pace and measuring out his efforts day-by-day.

Job Hendrickx leaving in CP3. Photo: Angus Sung©

Job Hendrickx leaving in CP3. Photo: Angus Sung©

That similarity with Hayden finishes with the end goal. Job might well be sitting in 5th place, but has absolutely no interest in the GC. Talking to Job over his bowl of pasta, he seems a rider totally at ease in himself – for him, the TCR is less about beating other riders home, but building a performance he can be proud of as an individual. He’s here to ride his own race, and in his own time.

Pawel Pulawski and Job Hendrickx at CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Pawel Pulawski and Job Hendrickx at CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Arriving at the same time as Job is Pawel Pulawski (cap #160). From the sounds of it, Pawel has had a night from hell – he was caught in the same rainstorm as Sam Thomas, but he was still ascending the Timmelsjoch when it struck and spent the night shivering in a rickety mountainside hut. He’s also managed to lose two mobile phones, dropping one over the gravel section in Bulgaria and leaving the second outside a Serbian petrol station.

Pawel Pulawski (cap #160). Photo: Angus Sung©

Pawel Pulawski (cap #160). Photo: Angus Sung©

You would never guess all that though – at Control Point 3, Pawel has a smile for everyone.

Shortly behind Job and Pawel comes David Schuster (cap #112). Every rider in the TCR has their own unique motivations, but David’s are particularly strong. His wife is expecting a baby in two weeks – the sooner he gets to Brest, the sooner he can be with her in Paris.

David Schuster (cap #112), CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

David Schuster (cap #112), CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Down on the CP3 parcours, second-placed Tanja Hacker (cap #222) is pressing on grimly through the mid-pack.

Tanja Hacker on the CP3 Parcours. Photo: James Robertson©

Tanja Hacker on the CP3 Parcours. Photo: James Robertson©

Her legs are burnt red raw from the sun and in an attempt to protect them she has fashioned some homemade bandages out of plastic wrappers and tape. In spite of this, Tanja is in good spirits and not even the 30% hairpins out of Bolzano can dampen them.

Tanja Hacker protects legs against the sun.

Tanja Hacker protects legs against the sun.

Tanja has her lead for now, but Stina Svensson (cap #216) is by no means giving up the chase. Stina has only been cycling for three years after previously specialising in ultra-running but seems to have found a natural affinity for the bike. After serious mechanical issues derailed the early part of her race, Stina is back on the road and now averaging a fast 300km a day, despite getting at least twice the sleep of the average TCR rider.

At the time of writing, Fiona Kolbinger is stretching out her lead – and yet here’s one number worth remembering. At Control Point 3, the first 10 riders were separated by just 27 hours. In the context of the Transcontinental Race, that is just one bad mechanical, one routing nightmare or one bout of illness.

If Fiona falters, the pack is waiting.

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.

Ben_Davies_CP3_TCRNo7_AngusSungPhoto.jpg

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.