Bent border gates and swing sleeps: Chatting with Transcontinental winner Fiona Kolbinger
Who is Fiona Kolbinger?
The internet provides a bit of information, like that she is a 24-year old German cancer researcher who rode across Europe in 10 days. But that doesn’t seem like enough about a woman who just completed one of the most incredible feats in cycling.
We caught up with Fiona to hear her story. We wanted to know how she came to race the Transcontinental, and how she won it. From crashing into a Serbian border barrier to sleeping on a swing set, it was anything but smooth sailing.
CyclingTips: After a few Google searches, I still don’t know much about you. Can you tell us more about your background?
Kolbinger: There has been a lot of confusion who I actually am and what I’m doing as a profession. I’m 24 years old and I just finished medical school in the beginning of May. I’m just about to take my first job as a doctor; I will start as a surgeon in training on the first of September. I’m an MD in principle.
Many articles have called you a “cancer researcher.”
I’m a young cancer researcher, and I’m about to start training as a surgeon in Dresden. During the last couple of years, I have been working at the German Cancer Research Center in my pediatric oncology research group. I did some medical research for my doctoral thesis and I’ve worked on a drug development project in pediatric oncology.
Have you been riding or racing long?
I have done some endurance sports already, but I only started cycling somewhere between three and five years ago. Five years ago I got a touring bike, so I did some touring. I cycled from Heidelberg to Stockholm which is about 1700 kilometers. I did that in 12 days. So that was with a full setup and was really the beginning. I was completely unprepared.
A year later, I did a similar tour with a similar setup for England. At that point, a friend asked me to join her triathlon club. That was actually when I got my first racing bike. I got my first very, very cheap [bike.] It was 200 Euros, second hand, 12 kilo aluminum racing bike in 2016. Then I started realizing that I liked the longer distances.
How did you first hear about the Transcontinental Race?
Someone had told me about the TCR [at London-Edinburgh-London]. After I got home, the TCRNo.5 was still on, so I was actually practicing time so I could follow back what the riders had done. I was really impressed by the route, the entire event, how it was organized and the character of it. Then I also followed TCRNo.6.
This year it just fit really well because I knew I would have a big enough break between finishing medical school in May and starting work in late summer. There’s much more than just riding your bike to prepare for such a race; there’s also getting the setup right and making a good route. This year was just a good time point in my life to do that.
What do you enjoy about these longer, ultra-endurance races?
What drives me is some kind of childish curiosity, maybe. I have always been very curious about how the world looks. I was always really excited about how the view was from the top of the next mountain or how another country looks like. I’d never been to Croatia, to Slovenia, to Serbia. That was all new to me and I really love cycling in new places. That was really giving me a lot of motivation. I just really loved cycling. This was enough of a motivation.
So after spending two years following the Transcontinental Race, what were your expectations going into your race this year?
That’s really hard to say. For me, it’s really, really surprising to end up winning the Transcontinental Race. I had trained together with [another rider] who had been very successful on TCRNo.5 and TCRNo.6. He told me that I’m a pretty strong rider and that I could really go for the podium.
Is that what you were aiming for?
That was actually my plan or my ambition for the race when I was at the starting line in Burgas.
How quickly did that change?
It completely changed during the race as soon as I learned that I was really in the leading pack which happened at the first control point I believe. On the first day I reached the control they asked me, “Do you actually know how many people have been here before you?” I was like, “Well, maybe 20 or so,” because I had the feeling that I was pretty high up in the rankings, but I had never expected to be number six, which I was. Then I went onto the second control that I reached the next day. I came in fourth and left as the third rider. At that point I realized that really, the other guys are also not faster than I am, that I could just give it a go and try and see what happens if I just pedal hard.
How did you prepare for the race, training-wise, or even mentally? I looked around on your Strava and saw you had some pretty big days in there earlier this Spring. It looks like you were putting in some long miles and a lot of climbing.
I started planning my route about two months before the start and I think I had a good route in the end. I didn’t do any structured training. I just really like riding my bike and that was what I did. There’s really a great long-distance community [in Dresden], which was really beneficial for my TCR preparation. There are a lot of people doing long-distance rides, so I just joined them.
I didn’t really expect to end up this successful. Maybe next year I will prepare a bit differently because I know now that I am one of the competitors for the top 10 placers. But I feel like I really had a lot of fun cycling this Spring and enjoyed it. This is something I don’t want to lose.
What advantages do you think you had in the Transcontinental?
I’m a pretty organized person. That was a bit of an advantage for the rest stops for example, on the TCR. I always managed to keep my stops pretty short. I ate most of my meals at supermarkets or … actually, I ate them on the bike. I just bought them in supermarkets. Before I entered the supermarket, I would have a list in my mind to tick off. I would run in and get some bananas, some sandwiches, whatever I had in my head. Then I would go out, pack it all into my jersey pockets and rush off and eat it on the bike. That’s maybe the kind of discipline that translates on the bike. I think I’m just really organized and know what I want.
I read that you would ride for 19 hours, then sleep for five. Did you keep a structured sleeping schedule?
You have that tracker with you that always tells your location and how quickly you move. I think that 19 hours on and five hours off is actually what people read from my tracking page, so that’s true. I didn’t really have that plan in my mind. I planned to sleep every night. I had a pretty good pattern of going to sleep at some point between 12:00 AM and 2:00 AM in the morning and then waking up about three to four hours later. I didn’t want to ride through the night because I thought the race was just too long to do that at an early time point. I only did that, I think, the last night when I knew I wanted to finish and get it done.
Where would you say was the most unusual place that you slept?
I have two spots. There was one in Murano. I had just been on the third parcour which was really hilly and I came down from a completely non-illuminated parcour street into Murano. I knew that actually would have preferred to sleep in a hotel; I was pretty cold. I saw that sign saying “Hotel,” and I just went into that yard and then I saw … The hotel was closed. But I saw a swing in the garden. I decided that this was the perfect place. I was awoken by the person delivering bakery goods in the morning for that hotel. I didn’t serve myself on those baked rolls, but I just had a really good sleep on that swing.
The second place that I would mention is the third to last night. It was somewhere in southern France and I really had a hard time finding shelter. I just decided to ride into a village that was right next to my track. I saw a nice entrance of a house and I thought, “Yeah, let’s just lie down here. It’s so dry. It won’t rain this night.” It was a private house but I just decided that I will be gone by the time they wake up. I rolled up my sleeping bag, laid down, and fell asleep pretty quickly.
About an hour later I was woken by a lady who turned up. She was really shocked to see a young woman sleeping on her doorstep. My French is very limited and she didn’t speak any German or English, so it was really hard to explain to her what I’m doing. I think she was really close to calling an ambulance or the police or something because I must have looked a bit disoriented. I even showed her the leaders’ page, the TCR home page and explained to her that I am actually the leading rider.
In the end, she just accepted me laying there. She even offered me some food which I also had to refuse because of the race rules that you can’t take any outside assistance, which was pretty hard for her because she just wanted to be nice.
When you are in a race where you are riding 19 hours at a time, what does your nutrition look like?
Because you burn so much energy you just need to refuel. I think most riders will end up eating a lot of sweets and a lot of high-calorie crap food. Of course, that also applied for me. I must have eaten about 50 Snickers bars. I couldn’t eat them anymore. I tried to eat a lot at supermarkets because they had a lot of healthy options. I would eat a lot of bananas and sandwiches, I would drink chocolate milk.
Our readers really want to know, what bike did you ride and how did you have your bike set up?
I was on a Canyon Endurace CF SL; I actually bought it for the TCR. Before I had not used disc brakes or electronic shifting. Given the fact that I was planning to start training as a surgeon, I just wanted to take really good care of my hands and not to have them get numb at any point, which worked out in the end. That was just really important to me, to have the aero bars and spend as much time on them as possible. I also got the aero bar shifters so the DH was really a good decision and the disc brakes as well.
Do you do a lot of your own bike maintenance?
As with all technical details of your bike, you should be able to fix it yourself. If anyone asks me about what they should get on their bikes, I would say get the best bike but really be able to fix it. That’s actually why I didn’t go for tubeless tires. I thought tubeless might be a good idea, but I just didn’t have enough time to try it out extensively. At the time that the TCR started, I was not able to fit the tubeless tire or get it on. I still think that it was probably the better choice or the choice that might have given me less punctures.
What kind of gear did you carry with you?
I had a trunk bag, seat post bag and a top tube bag. In the top tube bag I had all my electronics, so a power bank for example, or the cables for the electronic shifting like the electronic shifting charger and phone charger, just that kind of stuff.
Then in the handlebar bag, I had my spare clothes. I didn’t carry any spare shorts or a jersey. I carried a rain jacket, arm warmers, and leg warmers. Oh, long gloves that I didn’t use though.
Then I had a small backpack with me in the trunk bag and the hygiene stuff. I carried wet wipes, a toothbrush, toothpaste. Actually, that was pretty much it. Then I had … oh yeah, chamois cream, which is very important of course.
In the seat post bag I had my spares. That was a tire, four tubes and then just all my mechanic stuff. I had a multi-tool, I had some cable ties, some patches, and tire levers. I didn’t use a lot of it. Just the sleeping bag.
Did you suffer any major mechanicals during the race?
On the second day, I punctured three tires on the parcour which is something I expected because I was not running tubeless tires; I was just not used to them. It was just really big stones in a gradient. In the mountain, it was a hiking trail that we were sent up on that parcour. I wanted to go with something that I can control. That was also why I carried four spare tubes.
I crashed twice. The first crash happened when I crossed from Bulgaria into Serbia. There was another rider at the border that was already on the Serbian side and they had an extra border barrier and that rider was standing right next to it. I was turning my head to the right side and waving at the rider and I didn’t see that barrier coming up so I just crashed into it. I went under the barrier and it took me quite some time to get away because the barrier was bent.
You bent the barrier?!
They took my ID card and didn’t let me go for half an hour because I damaged Serbian property. I was like, “I’m in a race. I need to carry on. I’m really in the top group. I need to carry on now.” In the end, they actually bent the barrier back and tried it out a couple of times and were okay with it. I’m actually excited to see what happens when I come home and if I have any mail from Serbia.
The second [crash] was just in the parcour when I couldn’t clip out quickly enough, so I just fell to the side. That was actually it for the entire TCR. I only had three punctures and I had to reset my Di2 once, the electronic shifting that was in front, but really nothing severe. It was all good.
What was your last day like in the TCNo.7?
When I started my last day, the 10th day, I had about 525 kilometers left which is a distance I knew I could do in one stretch because I had cycled those distances before. I really had to push through the night which is something I didn’t wish for the morning before. I started off, cycled and cycled and cycled and that was actually one of the hardest days on the bike.
I just rode the night and it was all dark around me, which is something I hadn’t encountered in the race before, which made it really hard. Then I ran out of food, which was also not helping. At 6:00 AM sharp [when the bakeries opened], I entered a bakery and bought everything I could get.
It was just really, really tough because [of the] weather and it was really cold at night. I really started shivering at some point. I had an hour of sleep and I woke up freezing cold. Then my phone ran out of battery and I couldn’t recharge it because my power bank was empty too. It was just an accumulation of bad circumstances in the end.
It was just time to finish.
What was it like to roll in and be the first woman, the first rider, to finish the TCNo.7?
I rolled in and maybe some people expected the finish to be a large thing, people greeting the winner or a big scene, but it’s a pretty small finish regarding that you have done such a long distance. I wouldn’t have wanted it any differently, to be honest. To me, it really felt less like … I don’t know, a victorious, triumphal, roll-in. It was rather like coming home to a family. This TCR community is really warm and welcoming and I felt at home even though I’m doing it for the first time. That’s the character of the race. This is how I like it. That was the finish. I got my stamp, they took my tracker, and then I just headed off to the hotel to get a good sleep really. I loved it like that.
Now that the event is over and you’ve had time to process it, how has it been afterwards?
It has been quite busy. There has been a lot of media requests, but really it has been okay. The [TCR] team has been very helpful to organize all the requests. I’m pretty relaxed to be honest. I’m sleeping a lot and eating a lot. I’ve already been on a couple of bike rides. Yeah, I’m feeling really good. Yeah, that’s it.
What is next for you? Are you doing any other upcoming races? Will we see you back at TCRNo.8?
I’ll be doing the Paris-Brest-Paris. You cycle from Paris, to Brest, which is where I am right now, and back. It’s one of the oldest bike events in the world. It happens every four years and there are about 5000 cyclists from all over the world taking part. France has a huge cycling tradition. Some people describe it as a gigantic party, a party around cycling. This is something I have been wanting to experience for a long time. Afterwards, I’m just returning home, starting to work, and then come Autumn, Winter and into next year I think the only thing that’s on my list is the TCR really.
Of course, there might be some other events coming up, but I haven’t thought about many of them yet.