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 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.