Race Report | Day 3

On a race as chaotic as the TCR, it pays to keep things simple – so first things first.

On the morning of Race Day 3, Björn Lenhard scratched from TCRNo.7. Sitting over an omelette and bitter Serbian coffee in the sunny hotel courtyard at CP2, he confessed the struggles of the previous day.

First came the saddle sores. When Björn arrived on Day 2, his saddle was already topped with an extra, self-made chamois constructed on the roadside out of sanitary towels. At the time, he had brushed off concerns – at that time, he was intent on pushing on through the pain.

Björn’s make-shift sanity towel chamois.

Björn’s make-shift sanity towel chamois.

That wasp sting on the ear that prompted his return to CP2 seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Those saddle sores were too serious to ignore, and he felt dizzy and disorientated. By the morning of Day 3, the pain had made his decision for him.

“It's impossible to keep on riding, it really is.” he shrugs through his omelette. “This doesn't heal in just another day or two, so...”. Björn isn’t the type to say it, but to have his hopes wiped out – after a whole year of preparation and training – must be crushing.

Björn’s scratch is an unexpected twist to TCRNo.7 – but this morning all the talk around CP2 was about Fiona Kolbinger. Last night, she launched an audacious attack north – riding straight through the night and right past a sleeping Jonathan Rankin to steal the race lead.

Fiona Kolbinger arrives at CP2.

Fiona Kolbinger arrives at CP2.

Björn and Fiona share the same hometown of Dresden, Germany, and in the months leading up to TCRNo.7, the two spent some time together to train and prepare. Speaking to Björn, it’s clear he’s unsurprised by her show of strength. “Fiona is so strong, she really is. What’s more, she is a complete rider. Yes, you need to be strong but in this race you have to be able to think, to plan, to fix your bike if you have to.”

Björn congratulates Fiona as she arrives at CP2.

Björn congratulates Fiona as she arrives at CP2.

“She is also one of the strongest climbers in this race, much faster than me,'' he insists. “If she can make it to the mountains…”. His voice trails away.

For now, the race lead belongs to Fiona – but there is no shortage of riders chasing her down. With no mandatory parcours between here and the Dolomites, the mammoth run-in towards CP3 will be a major test of a rider’s routing ability.

Jonathan Rankin’s dot is currently arcing northwest as he begins to ‘cut the corner’ round the Adriatic sea and take back some time on Fiona Kolbinger, who has taken her race north. Fiona might have stolen a march, but now Jonathan is riding on a full night’s rest – and over the coming days, that difference will tell.

Fiona_CP2_tubes_JamesRobertsonPhoto.jpg

Hanging over all of this is the mystery of Kosma Szafraniak (cap #159). Kosma was the third rider to arrive at CP2, but having mounted his tracker incorrectly at the race start, no one can pin down his exact location. All we know for sure is that he is already pushing north and – having placed well at this year’s Race Through Poland – is in very impressive form.

Back at CP2, more riders from the midpack are trickling through the door and with them come their stories from the road. Marcus Silwer (cap #228) has been riding the last 30km with his phone tucked inside a sack of rice to try in an attempt to revive it. Michal Durec (cap #249a) spent the night sleeping with two stray kittens nestled on his chest for warmth.

Out on the parcours itself we find Jenny Tough (cap #230). Stopping outside an out-of-season ski lodge after a cold night on the mountain, she is pulling together her morale. “My hands are kind of cramped, but it’s been beautiful… I was really, really enjoying it until I looked down and remembered there's a mileage obligation to finish this race and I'm doing nine kilometres an hour. That's not really going to cut it.”

Yet Jenny has always insisted that riding a bike isn’t her strong suit – that she’s much better at hanging on, and surviving. And as this race becomes more and more a test of endurance rather than speed, that strength will surely begin to tell. After plunging her head beneath an ice-cold tap, she remounts her bike and pushes on.

Jenny Tough cools off under a roadside fountain.

Jenny Tough cools off under a roadside fountain.

Meanwhile, Chris Thomas has cause to feel particularly hard done by. Having successfully survived the gravel parcours unscathed, he immediately double punctured on a pothole on the road leading to CP2. Just a few hours later, and that same road had been resurfaced with fresh, gleaming tarmac. Only the Transcontinental Race tells jokes as dark as that.

Fresh tarmac on the road to CP2.

Fresh tarmac on the road to CP2.

One Dresden native scratches – and another takes the lead. It makes you wonder just what they put in the water up there.

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.