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 10

Heartbreak Hotel

On Sunday evenings, the Hotel de Milan is a peaceful place. While out on the streets of Bourg-d'Oisans, where a handful of holidaying families idle from one patisserie to the next, on Day 9 of TCRNo.7 all that disturbed the hotel was a trickle of weary cyclists making their way through Control Point 4. 

First came Kosma Szafrania, the Polish rider who lingered at the CP for just minutes. Sitting down on the hotel patio, Kosma quietly phoned ahead to a hotel in Grenoble, filled his water bottle from the spring in the town square and then quickly remounted his bike.

Kosma Szafrania cruises away after stamping his brevet card at CP4. Photo: Angus Sung©

Kosma Szafrania cruises away after stamping his brevet card at CP4. Photo: Angus Sung©

Just minutes after Kosma’s had done the same, it was Chris Thomas (cap #18) passing his brevet card across the Control Point desk.

“You and Anna have concocted the evilest race in history,” he said, sagging down into a plastic chair beside race organiser Rory Kemper. He shook his head. “The rain in Austria… Did you organise that too?”.

The Transcontinental Race Brevet Card, a small but very important part of the race. Photo: Angus Sung©

The Transcontinental Race Brevet Card, a small but very important part of the race. Photo: Angus Sung©

“I didn’t bring any warm clothes with me. Didn’t think I’d need them. Top of the Timmelsjoch, I had to get two men to wrap me up in my sleeping bag. I rode down looking like the bloody Michelin Man.”  

“Seriously though, everyone was pissing me off that day. I was looking at the tracker, thinking ‘why are you doing this? Why are you still riding in this rain? That means I have to ride!’”. 

Coffees and cokes - cycling essentials. Photo: Angus Sung©

Coffees and cokes - cycling essentials. Photo: Angus Sung©

Shortly, Chris headed to the bar in search of a triple espresso and a glass of coke. After a sign language run-in with the Hotel de Milan’s stubbornly French waitress, he returned with a tray laden with 3 double espressos and 3 individual glasses of coke – not a million miles away, in fairness to her.

Chris Thomas arrives at CP4 desk. Photo: Angus Sung©

Chris Thomas arrives at CP4 desk. Photo: Angus Sung©

Chris’s arms and neck were mottled red with blisters – the mark of repeated sunburn – and turning up the palms of his hands you could see the thick, red welts left by ten days on the handlebars. Gloves, he said, were a luxury he couldn’t afford. “They slow you down too much. Every time you get on the bike, faffing with your little gloves, taking them off for every coffee… Nah, too much time”. 

The next rider through the control was Pawel Pulawski, the bike messenger from Poland (cap no.160). At the Control Point, Pawel looked fit, lean and impressively at ease. 

Pawel Pulawski refuels at the bar of Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Pawel Pulawski refuels at the bar of Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Already this race, Pawel had lost two phones and the third one he bought to replace them had already broken – although, at CP4, he still had it tucked into his bib shorts. “It’s my alarm clock,” he explained.

Heartbreakingly for Pawel, his impressive ride at TCRNo.7 would not last much longer. The next morning, on Day 10, Pawel came off his bike whilst riding along a bike path near Grenoble – incredible bad luck given that there was no vehicle involved at all. Later that day, he would be taken to hospital for surgery on his broken leg. 

Another rider facing dark moments on Day 10 was Sam Thomas (cap #20). Sam, who had held to third place so bravely back in Austria, has suffered badly over the last few days. After a bout of food poisoning he has been consistently unlucky with mechanical problems and the mental fatigue seems to have taken a toll. “For me, the low points are never the riding itself but in other things happening outside your control. Yesterday morning, I was actually crying on the phone to my girlfriend.” 

He smiled. “I felt amazing afterwards, though.”

CP4 Parcours, the gravel tracks of the backside of Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

CP4 Parcours, the gravel tracks of the backside of Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

As he spoke, Fiona Kolbinger was riding in the far west of France and rapidly closing in on the finish line in Brest. For all his efforts, it seemed that Ben Davies would have to settle for second-place on GC. 

The riders of TCRNo.7 are strewn from one side of the continent to the other, scattered across the valleys and mountains, highways and backroads of six different countries. Over the last 10 days, the race – like a panting, clattering accordion – has heaved itself apart from front to back. From tomorrow, the dots start coming back together. 

Jack Enright is the Transcontinental Race No.7 Reporter