Inside the ten days, two hours it took Fiona Kolbinger to ride across Europe

by Sarah Lukas

“…I think I could have gone harder.”

After 4000km, 10 days, 2 hours, and 48 minutes, a few monumental climbs, and all across the continent of Europe, these were the words that 24-year-old German Fiona Kolbinger said after winning the seventh edition of the Transcontinental Race. Beginning in Burgas, Bulgaria and spanning over the potential of ten countries, Kolbinger arrived in Brest, France on a grey morning, over 10 hours ahead of the next finisher, making history to become the first woman to have ever won the Transcontinental Race.

Photographers Angus Sung and James Robertson were along for the ride.

In her first ultra-endurance race, Kolbinger, a cancer researcher, made her presence known after arriving at CP2 on day two in third place overall, even after having punctured three times, and crashing twice.

Kolbinger did not come into Transcontinental as a favourite. Maybe she should have: Her Strava shares training rides that covered climbed 17,500 feet (5,300m) to 23,000 feet (7,000m) in one go, collecting quite a few QOMs along the way.

But her solid early position was only the beginning of Kolbinger’s story, as she set the pace for the whole field heading into day three. She continued onward through the night, taking her first lead of the race. Björn Lenhard had dropped out due to saddle sores, and second place Jonathan Rankin was fast asleep.

Little sleep and fewer amenities of modern life. Clean up where you can. When Lenhard had arrived in first position at CP2, the bibs came straight off so that he could wash them and do some maintenance on his saddle sores. Unfortunately, the sores were much too bad to continue on.

The Transcontinental Race does not follow a specified race route. Riders are to navigate to each checkpoint on their own, which are strategically placed to help shape the race.

Heading into the Dolomites, Kolbinger maintained a 19 hours on, 5 hours off routine. Somewhere along the way, she lost the lead, but race reports collectively noted that her pace did not weaken. The new leader, Rankin, was unable to continue on with the race having excruciating pain and issues with the soles of his feet.

Kolbinger rode back into the lead. She pushed into the mountains, including Passo Gardena and Timmelsjoch, and if she hadn’t done so already, proving herself as a force to be reckoned with. Some grades were over 30% where she had to push her bike. As she began 5,000 meters of vertical ascent, Kolbinger had a two-hour lead over Ben Davies, and as she entered CP3, Kolbinger had showcased her climbing abilities and extended her lead to almost four hours.

By Day 8 Kolbinger had journeyed over the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier, and Alpe d’Huez. She had arrived at CP4 and slept only 26 hours since the start, much of which was spent on the side of the road. Riders were showing up to Control Points blistered and battered from the elements of the last 2,500km. Many were using any materials to add extra padding to their saddle, or create makeshift bandages to protect their skin from the sun. Kolbinger’s skin was red and raw, her energy and spirit undampened. Photos of her circulated as she sat at a piano in the hotel lobby and played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, but with no time to waste was back on the bike pushing onward towards Brest. This surreal moment captivated many following the event.

With the climbing behind her, Kolbinger began the final push into Brest, France. Ten days and two hours after she’d set off, she became the winner of the Transcontinental Race, and in doing so, made history.

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