Trials and tribulations
By the time Ben Davies arrived at CP4 on the evening of Day 8, the sun had long since set. It might have still illuminated the rolling fields of central France but here, in the small town of Bourg-d'Oisans, the mountains dominate every horizon. To the west, the towering, sheer rock face of the Prégentil casts a deep shadow.
In the failing light, Ben looked cheerful yet physically spent. Through the double swing-doors of the Hotel Milan, a warm bed beckoned.
But Ben knew that even then Fiona Kolbinger was still out on the road, stretching out her lead. As night drew in, Ben remounted his bike and pushed on into the darkness, his front light tracing a lonely, weaving path up the steep cliff-edge road of Hameau du Creux.
When the CP4 volunteers awoke on Day 9, Bourg-d'Oisans was dozing in a warm Sunday morning slumber – and yet over the ridgeline, those two leaders were already contesting their 900km time trial across France’s central plains. For Ben and Fiona, the climbing is largely over. Now, they are locked in a flat out race to the finish.
By lunch, CP4 had seen its third rider come and go – the young Dutchman Job Hendrickx. When Job had arrived at CP3 back in Austria on Day 7 it had been striking how relaxed he seemed, and two days later not much had changed. Job looked almost implausibly fresh – his kit was clean, his eyes were bright and his head seemed remarkably clear.
Asked whether he planned to stop for lunch, he declined with a shrug. “I might as well keep going. My legs are warm now anyway, so...”.
Following in Ben’s wake, up through the tunnels of Hameau du Creux, Job began to whistle himself a song. For a rider so determined to race to his own tune, it seemed a fitting departure.
Not far behind him was David Schuster, another rider who has looked impressively strong so far. Earlier that day on his ascent of the Galibier, David had overtaken more than a few riders – nevermind being weighed down by both his luggage and eight full days of fatigue.
For some riders a little further down the pack, things aren’t going as smoothly. Last night in Austria, Norbert Wortberg (cap #91) had successfully bested the Timmelsjoch but was finding it impossible to find a place to spend the night. Sensing the desperation in Norbert’s voice, one hotel owner offered to let him sleep in his sauna. It was certainly one of the more unusual bivvy spots from TCRNo.7, but at least he wasn’t out in the rain.
This wasn’t the first time Norbert has been saved by the kindness of a stranger. Whilst struggling with mechanical issues back in Serbia, Norbert arrived late at a bike shop in desperate need of help with his malfunctioning shifter. The mechanic worked on his bike far past closing and late into the night and when he had finally finished his work, he would accept no payment.
Also at CP3 is cap #97, Anna Petters, who has a malfunctioning front mech – now, she has to change gear a little more manually. If things were difficult enough, Anna has just ridden through the night to make it to the CP in time – last year she missed the CP3 cut-off, and she was determined not to let that happen again.
Another rider with a story to tell is Shinichi Chubachi (cap #105). Shinichi a quiet, softly-spoken cyclist from Tokyo who tells his story in a murmured, slightly halting English. For him, the last couple of days have been an ordeal. Yesterday, he was feeling so cold and sick that he was riding in every piece of clothing he had, including a foil emergency blanket wrapped around his torso. Riding through the bright and sunny CP3 parcours in northern Italy and passing local cyclists in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt, Shinichi’s determination faltered.
Sitting on the side of the road, he was passed by several other TCR riders, all of whom paused to give a word of encouragement. Eventually, he says, “something clicked in my head”. Shinichi knew that he had to carry on.
But he also knew the road over the Timmelsjoch closed at 8pm. If he was going to make it, he’d have to ride hard. Shinichi pressed desperately up the mountain, heaving himself from one hairpin to the next, determined to reach the summit that night and continue his journey west. Somehow, he made it through.
As he rolled out of CP3, he left with one final thought: “I learned a lot about science from teachers, but I learned a lot more here on this tour.”
Jack Enright the is Transcontinental Race No.7 reporter. Additional reporting and photography for Day 9 by Thomas Hoffman.