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.

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 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.