RACE REPORT | DAY 14

It’s blowing a gale on the morning of the 14th day of Transcontinental Race No.7. Rapacious white waves crash against coast. Brest is rendered sullen by a blanket of rain, while leaden skies dilute the Finistère port town to a palette of greys and browns. Across floors and benches the riders of the TCR lie in recovery. The Auberge de Jeunesse du Moulin Blanc is strewn with bodies. Some covered by blankets, others still clad in lycra, unable to summon the strength to disrobe.

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Last night, between midnight and six o’clock, five riders had their brevet cards stamped for the final time. 

David Brinkman, Samuli Mäkinen, Samuel Gerard, Grzegorz Rogoz and Nick Van Mead take places 24 through 28.

Once the top ten is decided, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the race is over. Those mid-pack are not so easily conned: The two Sams duke it out for minor placings; the Fin manages to sneak into 25th place, just twenty three minutes ahead of his French adversary.

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At around a quarter to nine, the finish line volunteers see something on the horizon, though they couldn’t agree on who or what it was. Some said it was a welty salad. Others, a frumpy tortoise. As the indecipherable figure approached the finish line, it becomes clear that it is Transcontinental Podcast favourite, Clayton Anderson. The Alabamian claims 30th place. 

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An hour later, Gail Brown arrives. She is the third woman to cross the line, grinning, wearing an inexplicably fresh demeanour, to record a time of 13 days, 5 hours and 1 Minute. The rain eases by midday and patches of sunlight begin to break through the clouds, slowly drying out shoes, socks and other miscellaneous bits of kit spread out across the main hall of the hostel. A subdued buzz fills the room - not just from the Apidura sewing machine re-attaching zips and re-sealing broken saddle bags - but from the riders regaling one another with stories from their respective races.

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It was point at this point Jonathan Kambskard-Bennett arrives. He made it to Brest in 13 days, 8 hours, and 8 minutes “…but I could have been faster.” he said.

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“I…well…I sort of cracked last night…I planned to go all night as I only had 170km to go but the rain was so bad that I ended up bivvying in a bus stop. I slept for 6 hours!” 

The Transcontinental debutant never expected to place as well as he did. “Last night, during the storm, I knew stopping would mean the difference between 25th and 35th place. At that point it didn’t matter. It’s my first ever race. When I started, my only goal was to finish. The desire to sleep was greater than the prospect of a better placing.”

Jonathan may not have had any previous racing experience but he had cycled around the world. He suggested this experience could have been a factor in a respectable first performance.

“I thought the race was going to be all about lycra, skinny tyres and aero bikes. In reality, to do well at the Transcontinental…you need a combination of luck and common sense. The more common sense you have…the more luck you have.”

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It’s not all good news, however. After suffering a mechanical near Loudeac, Daniel Welch scratched under 170km from Brest. He couldn’t get his bike fixed, get to the finish line…and get back home in time to start his new job.

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At five to seven that evening, Emanuel Verde and Espen Landgraff cross the finish line. The Norwegian Duo are the first registered pair to finish. The secret to their race? A bluetooth speaker. “That has got us through some difficult times” said Espen. 

Their playlist was stacked with everything from She Wolf by Shakira to the full discography of Steely Dan. For the darkest moments there was only one choice though- the Michael Boulton power ballad, Go the Distance.

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By Jonathan Rowe

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. 

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“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”. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.”

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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”. 

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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.

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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.  

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“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.

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

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 11

First one home

Brest is a small port city nestled on France’s western coast. Staring out over a large bay of water that flows out into the Celtic Sea, it is a city placed precariously atop the farthest corner of western Europe.

This morning – the eleventh morning of TCRNo.7 – heavy, grey clouds hung over Brest’s heavier, greyer houses. On the beachfront, the water lies motionless but for the half-hearted splash of an occasional lapping wave.

In that early, post-dawn light, the white-washed streets of Brest were empty – except for the lone figure of Fiona Kolbinger, who slowly rolled into a hostel carpark to win the seventh Transcontinental Race.

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It must be an odd way to finish a race, and especially a race such as this. Considering the continent-spanning journey that a TCR rider experiences over the course of their ride, freewheeling down into a still-sleeping fishing town must feel like a strangely muted finale. 

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Step inside the door. Hand over the brevet card – and done. 4,000km of riding, finished with the gentle tap of stamp on paper. Whoever knew that winning the Transcontinental Race could be such an understated affair.

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But while the moment might feel understated, everyone standing around that Control Point desk understood the significance of Fiona’s ride. Strong female riders have never been a rarity at the TCR and – in the context of the wider ultra-distance scene where women often outperform their male counterparts – perhaps a female victory has really been long overdue. But that doesn’t make her victory any less significant, or any less needed.

And yet, TCRNo.7 has not only been a blessing, but also a warning.  

Fiona’s ride has been incredible to watch. Whether it was seizing the race lead in Austria, edging her gap wider in the Alps, or her relentless drive to the finish in western France, her performance has grown more remarkable day after day. It has garnered attention from all across the world and in the dotwatching community, she inspires total adulation. 

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But as each day of TCRNo.7 passed by, the heard time and time again that for Fiona, this adulation was becoming overwhelming. As early on in the race as Switzerland, she was stopped or approached by over 40 people during the course of a single day – all while still racing against the clock and on the edge of her physical and mental endurance. While most of these wellwishers had good intentions, some of them quite obviously crossed a line. This is not how the TCR was intended to be raced.

The Transcontinental Race was created for the riders, and for the riders alone. They do not race for our entertainment or our gratification. The TCR is designed to be a personal journey, completed solo, to give riders a taste of true adventure that would otherwise not be available. The more that spectators impose themselves on the riders – no matter how good their intentions – the less possible that adventure becomes. 

If TCR family really loves its riders, the best thing it can do is let them race.