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 8

By the time Fiona Kolbinger arrived at Control Point 4, she’d been riding for seven and a half days.

In that time, she’d slept just 26 hours. That works out at about four hours a night, and most of that sleep took place in a bivvy bag on the side of the road.

Earlier that morning, she had scaled the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, and just a few hours later was rolling into Control Point 4 in the charming French market town of Le Bourg-d’Oisans. By the time she stepped off her bike beside the stone steps of Hotel Milan, she had two and a half thousand kilometres in her legs.

Fiona Kolbinger picks up some breakfast before taking on the CP4 Parcours. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger picks up some breakfast before taking on the CP4 Parcours. Photo: Angus Sung©

By now, she’s supposed to be tired.

Instead, she’s sitting at the piano in the hotel lobby, treating the Control Point to a rendition of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. In the crowded doorway, the volunteers of CP4 look on in hushed awe. This isn’t quite what a Control Point arrival is meant to look like.

Fiona entertains a crowd at the Control Point 4 at Hotel de Milan in Bourg d'Oisans.

Fiona entertains a crowd at the Control Point 4 at Hotel de Milan in Bourg d'Oisans.

The first time we caught sight of Fiona on Day 8 was on the lower slopes of the Galibier. A truly fearsome mountain, the Galibier has been the centrepiece of countless Tours de France – 17km long at an average of 7.1%, it’s a climb that weaves endlessly upwards to its skyscraping peak at over 2,600 metres.

Fiona cruises along roads painted with names of Tour de France riders. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona cruises along roads painted with names of Tour de France riders. Photo: Angus Sung©

But never mind all that – Fiona is coasting up on her TT bars whilst tucking into some pastries. As she passes, she cracks a joke about talking with her mouth full.

“I do have table manners, you know. But I’m not at the table right now.”

Fiona Kolbinger offers a pastry on the Col du Galibier. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger offers a pastry on the Col du Galibier. Photo: Angus Sung©

Even with an intermission for a piano recital, Fiona doesn’t tarry long at CP4. She’s got to keep moving, she says, because cap #10 Ben Davies is still hot on her tail. Nevermind that she might have stretched out her slender lead – this is still one of the closest finishes in the TCR’s seven-year history.

Ben Davies on the gravel roads of Route du Col de Sarenne towards Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

Ben Davies on the gravel roads of Route du Col de Sarenne towards Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

At the time of writing, Ben is yet to reach Hotel Milan – he is still making his ascent of Alpe d’Huez on the CP4 parcours. The Alpe is yet another mountain straight from the pages of Tour de France history, but during TCRNo.7 it presents the riders with a new challenge. Instead of the famous tarmac switchbacks of Tour legend, the CP4 parcours take the riders up its lesser-known southern approach via a narrow farmer’s track.

A little further back in the field, other riders are facing down challenges of their own. Earlier this morning, Alexandre Le Roux (cap #4) was caught up in a collision with a car in Switzerland. While he got away with just a sore elbow, his bike wasn’t as lucky. But just a few hours later, Alexandre has rented a bike from a nearby shop and is already pressing on with his race.

The Scherers embrace one another after an emotional day in the Tyrol. Photo: James Robertson©

The Scherers embrace one another after an emotional day in the Tyrol. Photo: James Robertson©

Alexandre isn’t the only rider struggling in mountains. Stood at the top of the Passo Gardena are Thomas and Petra Scherer (caps #248a and #248b), locked in an embrace, both of them weeping. Climbing the Passo Gardena is both an immense challenge and a huge achievement, and it seems for both Thomas and Petra that the moment is too much to contain.

Petra Scherer reflects on her accomplishments. Photo: James Robertson©

Petra Scherer reflects on her accomplishments. Photo: James Robertson©

The Transcontinental Race always showcases its fair share of idiosyncratic kit options, but Simon Grieu (cap #146) is surely unique in his choice of shorts. Sporting a pair of washed out denim cut-offs, Grieu insists he is saddle-sore free – perhaps some of the race leaders should be taking note.

Simon Grieu sports crispy tan lines with unconventional denim shorts. Photo: James Robertson©

Simon Grieu sports crispy tan lines with unconventional denim shorts. Photo: James Robertson©

Back in the art deco lobby of the Hotel Milan, listening to Fiona reel off numbers from the Lion King soundtrack, it is impossible to escape a distinct sense of the surreal.

Fiona Kolbinger performs at Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger performs at Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

TCR winners aren’t supposed to play the piano mid-race. They’re not supposed to have the time, let alone the mental reserves. And yet here was Fiona, hands dancing over the ivory keys, winning TCRNo.7. It was a moment that felt dislocated from reality, like a Wes Anderson film wrapped in an overly lucid dream.

And yet, if you could capture the mood of this race in any one moment, it would undoubtedly be this one. Fiona has spent the last eight days quietly rearranging what we might accept as realistic, and this moment feels like just more of the same.

Jack Enright the is Transcontinental Race No.7 reporter