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 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 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.