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

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.