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

Race Report | Day 7

In the pack

In concept, the Transcontinental Race is a straightforward idea – it’s a bike race, from one side of Europe to the other. First one to the finish wins.

In reality, seeing the TCR as just a race is hopelessly simplistic. A race is a two-tone story centred around winners and losers – when it’s over, the winners are vaunted. The losers are resigned to the anonymous scrapheap of the not-quite-good-enough.

The Transcontinental Race might be simple in sporting terms but in an event as challenging as this – where simply finishing is a victory in itself – there is far more at play than simply winning or losing.

The TCR is not just a race, but a spectacle – endlessly diverse and vividly textured with every conceivable peak and trough of human experience. No matter where it sits in the standings, each and every TCR journey is worth celebrating.

On Day 7, race leader Fiona Kolbinger continued her westward push through Switzerland and into France with Ben Davies close behind. Tonight, one of the two official race vehicles (CC2) will set off in pursuit.

Until then, CP3 is alive with riders from the chasing pack – and they all have stories to tell.

Volunteers at CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Volunteers at CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Late last night, at the end of Day 6, the volunteers at Control Point 3 were huddled under an awning, watching the dot of Sam Thomas edge closer. Having crested the Timmelsjoch that afternoon, he could enjoy the long, free-flowing descent into the valley below.

But soon, a storm was sweeping up the valley floor. As the rainfall intensified, Sam’s dot slowed, slowed further, and then finally stopped for the night outside a hotel a couple of towns over.

When Sam finally made the Control Point early on the morning of Day 7, he looked more ghost than man. He walked unsteadily, gilet hanging loose over his thin shoulders, and when he spoke it was slow and slurred.

Sam Thomas, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Sam Thomas, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Sitting down for the hotel breakfast, he looked like a man in need of coffee. Unluckily for him, he couldn’t stomach one.

“I ate a donner kebab yesterday and I think there was something wrong with it,” he said. “Now my stomach feels really bad. I can’t keep anything down.”

Tired as he was, he was still able to laugh about the vicious gradients of the CP3 parcours.

“I was stood in front of my bike, leaning backwards, pulling it up the slope. Even walking it, my legs were hurting!”.

Refuelling at Pettneu. Photo: Angus Sun©

Refuelling at Pettneu. Photo: Angus Sun©

Arriving a few hours later is Job Hendrickx (cap #240). Every year, one of the most intriguing things about the TCR challenge is the unique approach each rider brings with them to the start line, and Job is no different.

Job Hendrickx, #TCRNo7cap240. Photo: Angus Sung ©

Job Hendrickx, #TCRNo7cap240. Photo: Angus Sung ©

On the face of it, he seems to be cut from the same cloth as James Hayden – methodical in his preparation, meticulous in the execution, every detail planned for and taken care of. Job rides every day with a close eye on his power meter, tapping out his own pace and measuring out his efforts day-by-day.

Job Hendrickx leaving in CP3. Photo: Angus Sung©

Job Hendrickx leaving in CP3. Photo: Angus Sung©

That similarity with Hayden finishes with the end goal. Job might well be sitting in 5th place, but has absolutely no interest in the GC. Talking to Job over his bowl of pasta, he seems a rider totally at ease in himself – for him, the TCR is less about beating other riders home, but building a performance he can be proud of as an individual. He’s here to ride his own race, and in his own time.

Pawel Pulawski and Job Hendrickx at CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Pawel Pulawski and Job Hendrickx at CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Arriving at the same time as Job is Pawel Pulawski (cap #160). From the sounds of it, Pawel has had a night from hell – he was caught in the same rainstorm as Sam Thomas, but he was still ascending the Timmelsjoch when it struck and spent the night shivering in a rickety mountainside hut. He’s also managed to lose two mobile phones, dropping one over the gravel section in Bulgaria and leaving the second outside a Serbian petrol station.

Pawel Pulawski (cap #160). Photo: Angus Sung©

Pawel Pulawski (cap #160). Photo: Angus Sung©

You would never guess all that though – at Control Point 3, Pawel has a smile for everyone.

Shortly behind Job and Pawel comes David Schuster (cap #112). Every rider in the TCR has their own unique motivations, but David’s are particularly strong. His wife is expecting a baby in two weeks – the sooner he gets to Brest, the sooner he can be with her in Paris.

David Schuster (cap #112), CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

David Schuster (cap #112), CP3, Pettneu, Austria. Photo: Angus Sung©

Down on the CP3 parcours, second-placed Tanja Hacker (cap #222) is pressing on grimly through the mid-pack.

Tanja Hacker on the CP3 Parcours. Photo: James Robertson©

Tanja Hacker on the CP3 Parcours. Photo: James Robertson©

Her legs are burnt red raw from the sun and in an attempt to protect them she has fashioned some homemade bandages out of plastic wrappers and tape. In spite of this, Tanja is in good spirits and not even the 30% hairpins out of Bolzano can dampen them.

Tanja Hacker protects legs against the sun.

Tanja Hacker protects legs against the sun.

Tanja has her lead for now, but Stina Svensson (cap #216) is by no means giving up the chase. Stina has only been cycling for three years after previously specialising in ultra-running but seems to have found a natural affinity for the bike. After serious mechanical issues derailed the early part of her race, Stina is back on the road and now averaging a fast 300km a day, despite getting at least twice the sleep of the average TCR rider.

At the time of writing, Fiona Kolbinger is stretching out her lead – and yet here’s one number worth remembering. At Control Point 3, the first 10 riders were separated by just 27 hours. In the context of the Transcontinental Race, that is just one bad mechanical, one routing nightmare or one bout of illness.

If Fiona falters, the pack is waiting.

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.