Fiona Kolbinger, the 24-year-old cancer researcher from Germany, has taken victory in the seventh edition of the Transcontinental Race. She arrived in Brest, France just ten days, and two hours after leaving Burgas in Bulgaria – yes, you read that correctly, Bulgaria.
That’s a staggering distance of about 2,485 miles, or 4,000 kilometres, in just ten days. She didn’t take the shortest route, either. The race route is free for each rider to determine on their own, but with four mandatory checkpoints which they must all pass through. This means that the riders will all cover roughly the same distance but may take very different routes. Some opting for more, but flatter miles, and others taking shortcuts through tough terrain – even over gravel. The Transcontinental is as much about route planning as it is about pedalling.
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Fiona Kolbinger has won TCRNo.7 in a time of 10 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes. But as always with Fiona, those numbers only tell half the story. For the rest, you have to look at how she rode. She has raced TCRNo.7 on her own time and at her own pace – never chasing, simply outlasting every other competitor. For the first 9 days of racing, Fiona never looked anywhere close to her limit, the first cracks only beginning to show on the final push through the dark. “Last night,” she said, “was too long, too dark and too grim.” And yet, she admits at the finish “…I think I could have gone harder”. Fiona is not the first woman to excel in the world of ultra-endurance cycling, and while having our first female winner is a landmark moment for the Transcontinental Race, it is not the remarkable part of this story. What is remarkable is that she won the TCR as a rookie, in her first-ever ultra distance bike race and without ever really breaking a sweat. #TCRNo7 @apidura @kinesisbikes_uk @pedaledjapan @fizikofficial 📷 @angusung 📃 @jack_enright_lives
Kolbinger took the win through a combination of great planning and a simply unbeatable level of endurance. She rode on average 400km a day, often riding deep into the night, but the victory surprised even her.
“I am so, so, surprised to win. Even now. When I was coming into the race I thought that maybe I could go for the women’s podium, but I never thought I could win the whole race,” she said. Although she wasn’t content with just beating the next best rider by 120 miles. “I think I could have gone harder. I could have slept less.”
Some might say, ‘so what?’, to the fact that a woman has won the Transcontinental. After all, women have proven more than once before that in ultra-endurance sport they can compete with and beat the men. Just ask Lael Wilcox, winner of the Trans Am bike race in 2016! That’s to say nothing of ultra-runner, Jasmin Paris, who won an ultra-marathon called the Spine Race, blowing away a mixed field of men and women on the 268-mile mega-course. Just the thought of that much running makes our shins hurt.
As former Transcontinental rider and ultra-expert, Grace Lambert-Smith, put it on her blog, “I’ve known a woman could win this race […] It was a case of when, not if.”
So if it was inevitable, why does this win matter?
Well for starters, it’s got everyone talking about ultra-racing – and women in ultra-racing, in particular – so straight away we can only see that as a good thing. have you ever seen a race like the Transcontinental on the BBC or ITV news websites before?
Representation also really matters, so for others thinking of entering, Kolbinger represents a real example of a woman taking victory in the most prestigious bikepacking race in Europe, possibly the world. Don’t be surprised if the number of women on the start line in 2020 is considerably higher than the 40 (out of 240) that rolled over the whitewash this year in Burgas.
Words by Tom Owen