RACE REPORT | DAY 13

“Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!’

So screamed Octave Lapize as he rode passed the organisers of the 1910 Tour de France. That day, the Tour took on a fearsome 326km stage that featured seven brutal cols on unsealed roads. It translates as “you are murderers! Yes, murderers!” but it has always sounded much better in the original French.

Listening to Stephane Ouaja at the finish of TCRNo.7, it was hard not to be reminded of Lapize’s outburst. Just after midnight on the night Day 12, Stephane took 10th place in the race and sealed his fifth straight finish in the Transcontinental Race – but that night he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. 

Stephane_Ouaja_arrival_Angus_Sung_Photo.jpg


“I found it very, very hard this year. I was suffering every day. In other years, I always enjoy the views, I enjoy the climbing. But this year I was just pushing on the pedals. The parcours this year were…”. He shakes his head, searching for the word. “…they were monstrous.”

“I don’t think I’m coming back next year. I need a break from the TCR.”

Later, I relate the story to Race Coordinator Rory Kemper, who smiles. “He says that every year. And every year he’s the first to apply”. 

Theo_Daniel_Brest_AngusSungPhoto.jpg

Arriving just a few hours before Stephane was Theo Daniel – a fellow Frenchman, who seemed far more upbeat about his race. In broken but excitable English, he cheerfully reenacts a slapstick scene from the last night of his TCR adventure.

After searching high and low for a warm place to spend the night, Theo had eventually settled down in a bank foyer that housed a few out-of-hours ATMs. Near midnight, he stepped outside to check tracker locations – as he did so, the automatic doors slid shut behind him, leaving his bike and kit locked inside. 

Theo_Daniel_AngusSungPhoto.jpg

The process of getting them back again – which involved phone calls to the police, a foiled lock-picking attempt and the assistance of a bemused passerby – sounded like something out of Fawlty Towers

Arriving a couple of hours after Stephane is Daniel Nash. This is Daniel’s second TCR and after placing 54th last year, to take 11th in TCRNo.7 is a huge leap up the standings. For Daniel, however, the finish feels slightly more bittersweet. 

“It’s kind of a tricky result, actually. Because now I know I’ll want to come back next year, to try and break the top ten.”

Over the last couple of days, Daniel has been locked in a tight contest with Stephane for the final top ten spot. Having resisted the temptation to check the GPS trackers for most of the race, Daniel finally cracked during the last few days – when he did, he realised a top ten place was in reach and started to ride longer and longer hours. Ultimately, he wasn’t sure if his plan succeeded. 

“I tried to go through the night and it didn’t really work. I just ended up lying down a few times and eventually, you’re just wasting time. But it was a fair race. I finished where I deserved.”  

The next morning, on the 13th day of racing, the air over Brest is slick with hanging rain. The Plage du Moulin Blanc – the sandy beach that had seemed so bright and inviting in yesterday’s sun – is now as grey as wet concrete. Through the curtain of mist, Sam Thomas rolls in to take 12th place. 

Sam_Thomas_Brest_AngusSungPhoto.jpg

The last time we saw Sam was all the way back in Austria at CP3. Back then, he looked like a husk of a man, suffering badly with food poisoning after a dodgy kebab. For him, his 12th place is also more than just a little bittersweet  – before he got sick, he was looking very strong and holding onto a decent buffer in third.

“Yeah, I got food poisoning and I never really recovered from it. Which was a shame, because I was feeling strong it was all going pretty well. After that, I just had no energy, nothing in my legs.”

Sam_Thomas_Brest_AngusSungPhoto.jpg

Waiting for him Sam at the finish is his father – a man who seems to have had his fill of dotwatching for this year. 

“I”m just relieved. My daughter was doing North Cape-Nice, and now this. I’m never watching another dot again”. 

Chris_Thomas_Sam_Thomas_AngusSungPhoto.jpg

While the finish point in Brest is slowly filling up with the gentle chatter of tales swapped and experiences shared, there are still many, many more riders out on the road. One of them is second-placed woman Tanja Hacker who, after battling through a state of near-sunstroke earlier in the race, is now entering the final parcours. Her race this year has been a triumph of perseverance – no matter what obstacles presented themselves, Tanja overcame with them without fuss.

 20km outside Brest, Hannes Gruebner is also closing in on the finish.

BREST_ANGUS_SUNG_PHOTO.jpg

The morning’s haze has left the road slick with rain, but Hannes is absolutely flying – tucked down low on his aero bars, he is pinning every corner of the flowing, undulating run to the finish. Over the road splash, he shouts to the car.  

BREST_ANGUS_SUNG_PHOTO.jpg

“I don’t know if there’s someone behind me or someone in front… I’m just gonna go all the way to the finish.”

As it turns out, the rider he’s lost is behind him. Matthew Falconer came into TCRNo.7 as one of the race favourites, but this year things just haven’t gone his way.

Matthew_Falconer_Angus_Sung_Photo.jpg

No matter – Matthew is riding into Brest with a smile. Octave Lapize, eat your heart out. 

Race Report | Day 6

Before the elastic snaps

On the evening of Day 5, the Öztal Alps loomed large over TCRNo.7.

The high mountains are an examination that you can’t escape. Nevermind aero bars, gritting your teeth, ‘riding into your rhythm’ – when the tarmac tilts upwards into the high mountain passes, there is no hiding place. Falter here and time tumbles through your fingers like sand through an hourglass.

James_Robertson_Timmelsjoch.jpg

As Fiona Kolbinger entered the CP3 parcours near the end of Day 5, she was holding a slim, two-hour advantage over second-placed Ben Davies. Could she defend it? Or would her challenge falter under the harsh, unyielding scrutiny of nearly 5,000 metres of vertical ascent?

By the time Fiona pulled into the Control Point 3 at 2:30pm CET, she hadn’t defended her lead. She had extended it – stretching that slim two-hour advantage to nearer four.

Climbing off her bike in the courtyard of Hotel Gasthof zur Traube, the first thing you noticed about Fiona was the sunburn. Over the race’s first few days, the harsh Balkan sun had been unrelenting and even now, the skin around her face and legs was a deep, raw red.

Fiona Kolbinger arrives at #TCRNo7 after 2000km of racing. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger arrives at #TCRNo7 after 2000km of racing. Photo: Angus Sung©

The second thing you notice is her totally unflappable demeanour. Six days on the bike, 2,000km in the legs, and Fiona is relaxed, unflustered, smiling broadly at the CP3 volunteers and talking freely about the previous parcours.

Fiona Kolbinger catches up with Björn Lenhard at CP3 in Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger catches up with Björn Lenhard at CP3 in Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

In particular, she remembered the narrow, single-lane climb out of Bolzano that she faced late the previous night – while only 2.2km in length, the climb features two leg-breaking hairpins at a gradient of 30%. Shaking her head, Fiona admits that she was pushing her bike up this section.

After spending the night in a Merano hotel, she tackled the long, sky-scraping climb of the Timmelsjoch in the fresh dawn light. In a few hours, she had crested the mountain pass and could look out over its westward face into Austria. Beneath her, the jet black tarmac unspooled into the valley floor.

Fiona Kolbinger leaves CP3 with a 50km lead on Ben Davies. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger leaves CP3 with a 50km lead on Ben Davies. Photo: Angus Sung©

Four hours after Fiona’s departure, Ben Davies (cap #10) was pulling up at CP3. Ever since the race rolled out of Burgas six days ago, Ben has shown himself a resolute and determined rider - always smiling, always happy to talk. Today, that natural brightness seemed to have dulled – Ben looked tired, slow on his feet. Counting out cash for a new battery for his tracker, his fingers seemed to fumble on the notes.

Ben Davies arrives at CP3 in Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Ben Davies arrives at CP3 in Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Over the last two days, Fiona has slept for nearly 13 hours. In that time, Ben has managed only 7. With such a long distance left in this year’s race, you hope he’s not sailing too close to the wind with his rest.

Ben_Davies_CP3_TCRNo7_AngusSungPhoto.jpg

After taking the race relatively easy early on, Sam Thomas (cap #20) has maintained a slow but steady forward push and has now entrenched himself in third position. Ascending the Timmelsjoch on the afternoon of Day 6, Sam struck a weary and yet determined figure – wrestling his bike up the gradients, head sagging over every pedal stroke.

Sam Thomas tackles the Passo Gardena. Photo: Angus Sung©

Sam Thomas tackles the Passo Gardena. Photo: Angus Sung©

Behind the first three riders on the road, this year’s Transcontinental Race has massed into a chaotic fight for position. At the time of writing, there are 13 racers thronged on the CP3 parcours. Amongst them is last year’s second-place rider, Matthew Falconer (cap #2). Matthew has always been a rider that grows into the race, and this year is no different. As the race gets harder, expect Matthew to get stronger.

In the pairs competition, Rachel Batt (cap #247a) and Tom Stewart (cap #247b) seem to have had their brave challenge dented. After facing block headwinds on their exit from Serbia, the pair seem to have fallen behind the early pace they set themselves out of Burgas. Ahead of them, Michal Durec (cap #249a) and Zlatimira Petrova (cap #249b) maintain their steady forward march.

Fiona Kolbinger wears the CP3 leader’s cap. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger wears the CP3 leader’s cap. Photo: Angus Sung©

So far, Fiona Kolbinger has looked unflappable – but she is now riding into uncharted territory. This is Fiona’s first real bike race and, remarkable as that is, it means the chasing field is full of riders who understand more intimately what awaits them in the final days.

This race is far from over.

Jack Enright is the TCRNo.7 Race 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.

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.

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.

Pantheon of the fallen anti fascists.jpg

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.

ControlPoint1TCRNo7.jpg

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.

Passo Gardena.jpg

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.

Rider_Registration_Burgas.jpg

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.

bikecheck_burgas.jpg

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.