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 10

Heartbreak Hotel

On Sunday evenings, the Hotel de Milan is a peaceful place. While out on the streets of Bourg-d'Oisans, where a handful of holidaying families idle from one patisserie to the next, on Day 9 of TCRNo.7 all that disturbed the hotel was a trickle of weary cyclists making their way through Control Point 4. 

First came Kosma Szafrania, the Polish rider who lingered at the CP for just minutes. Sitting down on the hotel patio, Kosma quietly phoned ahead to a hotel in Grenoble, filled his water bottle from the spring in the town square and then quickly remounted his bike.

Kosma Szafrania cruises away after stamping his brevet card at CP4. Photo: Angus Sung©

Kosma Szafrania cruises away after stamping his brevet card at CP4. Photo: Angus Sung©

Just minutes after Kosma’s had done the same, it was Chris Thomas (cap #18) passing his brevet card across the Control Point desk.

“You and Anna have concocted the evilest race in history,” he said, sagging down into a plastic chair beside race organiser Rory Kemper. He shook his head. “The rain in Austria… Did you organise that too?”.

The Transcontinental Race Brevet Card, a small but very important part of the race. Photo: Angus Sung©

The Transcontinental Race Brevet Card, a small but very important part of the race. Photo: Angus Sung©

“I didn’t bring any warm clothes with me. Didn’t think I’d need them. Top of the Timmelsjoch, I had to get two men to wrap me up in my sleeping bag. I rode down looking like the bloody Michelin Man.”  

“Seriously though, everyone was pissing me off that day. I was looking at the tracker, thinking ‘why are you doing this? Why are you still riding in this rain? That means I have to ride!’”. 

Coffees and cokes - cycling essentials. Photo: Angus Sung©

Coffees and cokes - cycling essentials. Photo: Angus Sung©

Shortly, Chris headed to the bar in search of a triple espresso and a glass of coke. After a sign language run-in with the Hotel de Milan’s stubbornly French waitress, he returned with a tray laden with 3 double espressos and 3 individual glasses of coke – not a million miles away, in fairness to her.

Chris Thomas arrives at CP4 desk. Photo: Angus Sung©

Chris Thomas arrives at CP4 desk. Photo: Angus Sung©

Chris’s arms and neck were mottled red with blisters – the mark of repeated sunburn – and turning up the palms of his hands you could see the thick, red welts left by ten days on the handlebars. Gloves, he said, were a luxury he couldn’t afford. “They slow you down too much. Every time you get on the bike, faffing with your little gloves, taking them off for every coffee… Nah, too much time”. 

The next rider through the control was Pawel Pulawski, the bike messenger from Poland (cap no.160). At the Control Point, Pawel looked fit, lean and impressively at ease. 

Pawel Pulawski refuels at the bar of Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Pawel Pulawski refuels at the bar of Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Already this race, Pawel had lost two phones and the third one he bought to replace them had already broken – although, at CP4, he still had it tucked into his bib shorts. “It’s my alarm clock,” he explained.

Heartbreakingly for Pawel, his impressive ride at TCRNo.7 would not last much longer. The next morning, on Day 10, Pawel came off his bike whilst riding along a bike path near Grenoble – incredible bad luck given that there was no vehicle involved at all. Later that day, he would be taken to hospital for surgery on his broken leg. 

Another rider facing dark moments on Day 10 was Sam Thomas (cap #20). Sam, who had held to third place so bravely back in Austria, has suffered badly over the last few days. After a bout of food poisoning he has been consistently unlucky with mechanical problems and the mental fatigue seems to have taken a toll. “For me, the low points are never the riding itself but in other things happening outside your control. Yesterday morning, I was actually crying on the phone to my girlfriend.” 

He smiled. “I felt amazing afterwards, though.”

CP4 Parcours, the gravel tracks of the backside of Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

CP4 Parcours, the gravel tracks of the backside of Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

As he spoke, Fiona Kolbinger was riding in the far west of France and rapidly closing in on the finish line in Brest. For all his efforts, it seemed that Ben Davies would have to settle for second-place on GC. 

The riders of TCRNo.7 are strewn from one side of the continent to the other, scattered across the valleys and mountains, highways and backroads of six different countries. Over the last 10 days, the race – like a panting, clattering accordion – has heaved itself apart from front to back. From tomorrow, the dots start coming back together. 

Jack Enright is the Transcontinental Race No.7 Reporter

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 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.