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 4

The sweet science 

Over its first three days,  TCRNo.7 has often felt like a drag race. By the end of Day 4, it had started to look more like a boxing match. Four days of punishment – across all terrains and in all conditions – were beginning to wreak their toll, on minds as well as bodies. 

Control Point 2 closed at 9am on the morning of Day 4. At Hotel Inn Zormaris-M, riders were strewn across every surface that could support a body – on benches, beneath restaurant tables, on seats in the hotel lobby. Weary as they were, these riders could at least enjoy the warm satisfaction of having made the cut-off time. As hard as it had been, they were still in this race. 

Riders rest their eyes at CP2. Photo: JamesRobertson©

Riders rest their eyes at CP2. Photo: JamesRobertson©

But as TCR volunteers began to pack away CP2, new arrivals were still pulling up the hotel gates. Some of them missed the cut-off time by a matter of minutes. They would still be allowed to ride on and should they reach the finish line in Brest they’d register a finish time – but from now on, they ride outside the GC competition. 

Photo: JamesRobertson©

Photo: JamesRobertson©

For Alina Kilian (cap #53), it was a bitter pill to swallow. Alina had been riding solidly through the night a bid to reach CP2 in time, scaling the mountain of Besna Kobila and making her descent just as the night sky began fading into grey. After a long, cold and hard ride in the dark, to miss the Control Point was a kick in the teeth. 

Denmark’s René Hinnum (cap #237) was another to miss out by moments. His quiet disappointment might have been subdued, but it was clear he felt it hard. 

Far, far up the road, the leading riders of TCRNo.7 were locked in a three-way battle for the lead. After barely four hours of sleep, Jonathan Rankin (cap #15) went about reasserting his authority on the race with a mammoth push through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. At the time of writing, he is crossing the border into Austria to begin the long run in towards CP3. 

Behind him, Fiona Kolbinger (cap #66) was digging in, determined not to be shaken off. Her march northwards has often felt relentless, and still she gives very little sign of easing the pace. 

Late in the day came reports that third-placed rider Ben Davies (cap #10) was suffering from saddle sores. In a bid to let some air to the wound, he had foregone his cycling bibs for a pair of red football shorts and was pushing on through the pain.

Ben Davies #TCRNo7cap10 Photo: JamesRobertson©

Ben Davies #TCRNo7cap10 Photo: JamesRobertson©

Given Björn Lenhard’s early scratch, Ben’s issue is surprising. Both are experienced endurance racers and their set-ups have been dialled to perfection - for them both to come unstuck with saddle sore issues is unusual. We can only guess that the extreme heat of the first two days is to blame, and only time will tell if more of the front-runners will fall victim. 

Grödner joch / Passo Gardena, Südtirol. Photo: AngusSung©

Grödner joch / Passo Gardena, Südtirol. Photo: AngusSung©

If this year’s TCR is feeling a little like a boxing match, it is down to more than just the physical punishment. Like the middle rounds of a bout between tiring fighters, the run-in to the mountains is a tactical game of cat and mouse where every exertion must be measured against potential reward. Come the end, it’s likely to be the rider who races smart – as well as hard – that is still standing. 

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.

Fiona_CP2_tubes_JamesRobertsonPhoto.jpg

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 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.

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.

TCRNo7_Start_Burgas_JamesRobertsonPhoto.jpg

 

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. 

TCRNo7Cap3_Bjorn.jpg

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. 

Monument_CP1.jpg

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’.

TCRNo7_cap_leader.jpg
TCRNo7_Bjorn_Anna_CP1.jpg

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. 

Jonathan_Rankin_CP1.jpg

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. 

TCRNo7_Fiona_CP1_jamesrobertson.jpg

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. 

TCRNo7_Matthew_Falconer_jamesrobertsonphoto.jpg

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. 

TCRNo7_cap120_Will_Armitage.jpg

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.