How do you tell a story like the Transcontinental Race?
Every day I come to write about the TCR, I beat my head against this question. On the one hand, this race is one of the richest, most depthful and diverse stories a writer could hope to tell.
On the other hand, seeing the race through that lens – as a story to be told – renders it almost untellable.
A story has a handful of central characters. In TCRNo.7, there were 265 riders at the start line.
A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. This race may have begun in Burgas, but every rider’s journey to that startline has been months – if not years – in the making. As for an end... yes, there was a finisher’s party in Brest, but what about the 87 riders still on the road that night? What about the 95 already scratched?
A story has a plot. For a narrator to be any use, they need a narrative.
By its very nature, the Transcontinental Race resists any one narrative. The TCR isn’t a story, but a runaway train of subplots and storylines, a deluge of experiences, a sudden flood of roadside moments.
Forget about telling ‘the story’. It’s only in those moments that the TCR starts to make sense – so let’s revel in them instead.
Fiona, making it look easy
By now, we have all heard, read and talked about Fiona Kolbinger’s victory. Over the last 10 days, commentators from all corners of the sport have vaunted her achievement as a watershed moment for female riders within ultra-endurance.
And yet, TCRNo.7 was never really about what Fiona did. It was the way she did it.
We’ve already talked in these reports about Fiona’s piano-playing on Day 8 and the dizzying, reality-shifting magic of that moment. We’ve talked about Fiona, perched on her aero bars, sailing up the Col du Galibier like it wasn’t there.
But the defining image of this race is undoubtedly the smile; the ever-present, beaming and unbreaking smile of a rookie running away with it – and loving every moment.
Job Hendrickx, and what it means to race
By CP3, Job Hendrickx was in 5th place. But despite that high position, Job’s gaze was fixed firmly on his own ride – he wasn’t interested, he said, in changing his rhythm to pull back the riders above him. He was here to race only against himself.
By the time Job set out from CP4 in Le Bourg-d'Oisans, something had changed. A switch had flipped in Job’s mind, as he started to wonder what he could achieve should he tilt himself over the edge of his limit. Over the next few days, Job more than halved the time deficit between him and Fiona and Ben out in front.
When he arrived at the finish, you felt that Job finally understood the TCR. Holding up his newly stamped brevet card, he said: “I think for this, you need to suffer and for the last two days I have very much suffered.”
Easy does it
Riding the Transcontinental Race is hard. Riding it as a pair, it seems, has always been harder. Despite the obvious advantages of riding with a companion, it seems there is something about a race that pushes you to the edge of your individual limit that makes having a partner a weakness, rather than a strength.
In the past, many pairs have attempted to match their riding styles as closely as possible, in the hope of keeping conflict to a minimum.
This year’s pairs winners Emanuel Verde and Espen Utne Landgraff seem to have found the alternative. By their own admission, the Norwegian duo apparently didn’t know each other that well at all – they met on a club ride back home, and agreed to race together without giving it much thought.
It was an easy-going, relaxed approach that bled into all aspects of their ride – on the bike, Emanuel and Espen seemed remarkably at ease with both the race and with each other.
Perhaps, for pairs the solution is to relax into the struggle, rather than fight it.
When Tanja Hacker and Chris Herbert entered the final parcours on the night of Day 13, they were separated by just a single hour.
After 4,000km of brutally hard racing, their races came down to one final, rain-lashed duel in the dark, Tanja desperately defending her slim lead as Chris chased her down on the slick roads of the final approach into Brest.
Flying through a roundabout, Chris very nearly lost control. Under the dim, yellow glow of the streetlights, he pulled into a bus shelter to compose himself.
In the end, that was all it took.
Tanja finished 7 minutes ahead of him – 13 days of racing decided by one last lapse of nerve. In many ways, this moment was the Transcontinental Race in essence – harsh, and yet always fair.
It would be dishonest to write about the Transcontinental’s dizzying highs without also mentioning it’s punishing lows. Every rider in the TCR is haunted by the spectre of the scratch – the admission that this time, this year, the race demanded more than you were able to give.
For many riders, this is how their race ended – and their disappointment is as much part of the TCR story as winner’s joy.
Even as we celebrate the end of TCRNo.7, already the Transcontinental family must think about the race’s future. Seeing the race grow is exciting for all of us – but that excitement is tinged with apprehension.
Over the last seven editions, the TCR has benefited from being outside the limelight – the race has felt like something of a well-kept secret, and has been loved all the more dearly for it. As this race continues to grow, could we lose the precious, tight-knit family feel that has grown up around it?
The way this race is designed – on open roads, across the breadth of an entire continent – means that it has always belonged to anyone who wanted to make it their own. As more and more people stake their claim on the race, the TCR family must have a conversation about what makes it precious and what must be done to protect it.