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.