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 11

First one home

Brest is a small port city nestled on France’s western coast. Staring out over a large bay of water that flows out into the Celtic Sea, it is a city placed precariously atop the farthest corner of western Europe.

This morning – the eleventh morning of TCRNo.7 – heavy, grey clouds hung over Brest’s heavier, greyer houses. On the beachfront, the water lies motionless but for the half-hearted splash of an occasional lapping wave.

In that early, post-dawn light, the white-washed streets of Brest were empty – except for the lone figure of Fiona Kolbinger, who slowly rolled into a hostel carpark to win the seventh Transcontinental Race.

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It must be an odd way to finish a race, and especially a race such as this. Considering the continent-spanning journey that a TCR rider experiences over the course of their ride, freewheeling down into a still-sleeping fishing town must feel like a strangely muted finale. 

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Step inside the door. Hand over the brevet card – and done. 4,000km of riding, finished with the gentle tap of stamp on paper. Whoever knew that winning the Transcontinental Race could be such an understated affair.

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But while the moment might feel understated, everyone standing around that Control Point desk understood the significance of Fiona’s ride. Strong female riders have never been a rarity at the TCR and – in the context of the wider ultra-distance scene where women often outperform their male counterparts – perhaps a female victory has really been long overdue. But that doesn’t make her victory any less significant, or any less needed.

And yet, TCRNo.7 has not only been a blessing, but also a warning.  

Fiona’s ride has been incredible to watch. Whether it was seizing the race lead in Austria, edging her gap wider in the Alps, or her relentless drive to the finish in western France, her performance has grown more remarkable day after day. It has garnered attention from all across the world and in the dotwatching community, she inspires total adulation. 

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But as each day of TCRNo.7 passed by, the heard time and time again that for Fiona, this adulation was becoming overwhelming. As early on in the race as Switzerland, she was stopped or approached by over 40 people during the course of a single day – all while still racing against the clock and on the edge of her physical and mental endurance. While most of these wellwishers had good intentions, some of them quite obviously crossed a line. This is not how the TCR was intended to be raced.

The Transcontinental Race was created for the riders, and for the riders alone. They do not race for our entertainment or our gratification. The TCR is designed to be a personal journey, completed solo, to give riders a taste of true adventure that would otherwise not be available. The more that spectators impose themselves on the riders – no matter how good their intentions – the less possible that adventure becomes. 

If TCR family really loves its riders, the best thing it can do is let them race. 



Race Report | Day 8

By the time Fiona Kolbinger arrived at Control Point 4, she’d been riding for seven and a half days.

In that time, she’d slept just 26 hours. That works out at about four hours a night, and most of that sleep took place in a bivvy bag on the side of the road.

Earlier that morning, she had scaled the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, and just a few hours later was rolling into Control Point 4 in the charming French market town of Le Bourg-d’Oisans. By the time she stepped off her bike beside the stone steps of Hotel Milan, she had two and a half thousand kilometres in her legs.

Fiona Kolbinger picks up some breakfast before taking on the CP4 Parcours. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger picks up some breakfast before taking on the CP4 Parcours. Photo: Angus Sung©

By now, she’s supposed to be tired.

Instead, she’s sitting at the piano in the hotel lobby, treating the Control Point to a rendition of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. In the crowded doorway, the volunteers of CP4 look on in hushed awe. This isn’t quite what a Control Point arrival is meant to look like.

Fiona entertains a crowd at the Control Point 4 at Hotel de Milan in Bourg d'Oisans.

Fiona entertains a crowd at the Control Point 4 at Hotel de Milan in Bourg d'Oisans.

The first time we caught sight of Fiona on Day 8 was on the lower slopes of the Galibier. A truly fearsome mountain, the Galibier has been the centrepiece of countless Tours de France – 17km long at an average of 7.1%, it’s a climb that weaves endlessly upwards to its skyscraping peak at over 2,600 metres.

Fiona cruises along roads painted with names of Tour de France riders. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona cruises along roads painted with names of Tour de France riders. Photo: Angus Sung©

But never mind all that – Fiona is coasting up on her TT bars whilst tucking into some pastries. As she passes, she cracks a joke about talking with her mouth full.

“I do have table manners, you know. But I’m not at the table right now.”

Fiona Kolbinger offers a pastry on the Col du Galibier. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger offers a pastry on the Col du Galibier. Photo: Angus Sung©

Even with an intermission for a piano recital, Fiona doesn’t tarry long at CP4. She’s got to keep moving, she says, because cap #10 Ben Davies is still hot on her tail. Nevermind that she might have stretched out her slender lead – this is still one of the closest finishes in the TCR’s seven-year history.

Ben Davies on the gravel roads of Route du Col de Sarenne towards Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

Ben Davies on the gravel roads of Route du Col de Sarenne towards Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Angus Sung©

At the time of writing, Ben is yet to reach Hotel Milan – he is still making his ascent of Alpe d’Huez on the CP4 parcours. The Alpe is yet another mountain straight from the pages of Tour de France history, but during TCRNo.7 it presents the riders with a new challenge. Instead of the famous tarmac switchbacks of Tour legend, the CP4 parcours take the riders up its lesser-known southern approach via a narrow farmer’s track.

A little further back in the field, other riders are facing down challenges of their own. Earlier this morning, Alexandre Le Roux (cap #4) was caught up in a collision with a car in Switzerland. While he got away with just a sore elbow, his bike wasn’t as lucky. But just a few hours later, Alexandre has rented a bike from a nearby shop and is already pressing on with his race.

The Scherers embrace one another after an emotional day in the Tyrol. Photo: James Robertson©

The Scherers embrace one another after an emotional day in the Tyrol. Photo: James Robertson©

Alexandre isn’t the only rider struggling in mountains. Stood at the top of the Passo Gardena are Thomas and Petra Scherer (caps #248a and #248b), locked in an embrace, both of them weeping. Climbing the Passo Gardena is both an immense challenge and a huge achievement, and it seems for both Thomas and Petra that the moment is too much to contain.

Petra Scherer reflects on her accomplishments. Photo: James Robertson©

Petra Scherer reflects on her accomplishments. Photo: James Robertson©

The Transcontinental Race always showcases its fair share of idiosyncratic kit options, but Simon Grieu (cap #146) is surely unique in his choice of shorts. Sporting a pair of washed out denim cut-offs, Grieu insists he is saddle-sore free – perhaps some of the race leaders should be taking note.

Simon Grieu sports crispy tan lines with unconventional denim shorts. Photo: James Robertson©

Simon Grieu sports crispy tan lines with unconventional denim shorts. Photo: James Robertson©

Back in the art deco lobby of the Hotel Milan, listening to Fiona reel off numbers from the Lion King soundtrack, it is impossible to escape a distinct sense of the surreal.

Fiona Kolbinger performs at Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

Fiona Kolbinger performs at Hotel de Milan. Photo: Angus Sung©

TCR winners aren’t supposed to play the piano mid-race. They’re not supposed to have the time, let alone the mental reserves. And yet here was Fiona, hands dancing over the ivory keys, winning TCRNo.7. It was a moment that felt dislocated from reality, like a Wes Anderson film wrapped in an overly lucid dream.

And yet, if you could capture the mood of this race in any one moment, it would undoubtedly be this one. Fiona has spent the last eight days quietly rearranging what we might accept as realistic, and this moment feels like just more of the same.

Jack Enright the is Transcontinental Race No.7 reporter

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 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.