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 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.

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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.

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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 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 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.