If you’ve been ‘dot-watching’ the live tracker for this year’s Transcontinental race, you may have noticed a certain number 66 leading the way through much of the last nine days – that cap (and now the leader's cap) belongs to Fiona Kolbinger, who triumphed over not just the 40-strong female contingent, but also the overall standings in what is reportedly her first ultra-cycling event of this nature.
*This article has been updated since Kolbinger's victory was confirmed on Tuesday 6th August
Transcontinental Race no.7 2019 – a beginner’s guide
The Transcon is a self-supported jaunt across Europe founded by the late ultra-cyclist Mike Hall in 2013, and in its seventh edition will total around 4000km depending on the route participants take. The clock doesn't stop between checkpoints, meaning those at the sharp end of the race sleep sparingly, often in a bivvy at the side of the road if it's not quick or convenient to make a hotel stop. Our own Jo Burt, who was forced to ‘scratch’ after 950km in the 2017 edition, describes it like this: “It is about hardship and pushing yourself to keep going, no matter how fast that may be, always move forward. This is tough, several long strides outside of your comfort zone, it’s meant to hurt, everyone is doing their best just to get by no matter where they are in the race. There is little comfort to be had. It’s a race, it’s not meant to be fun. For every moment of high and photogenic viewpoint there are ten times as many tedious boring bits and shit struggle.”
The toughness of the event and its prestige has meant previous editions have been won by experienced ultra-cyclists for the most part: Kristof Allegaert, also a Red Bull Trans Siberian Extreme winner, has been victorious on three occasions, and James Hayden went on to win back-to-back Transcons in 2017 and 2018 after finishing fourth in the 2016 race.
This year’s winner is an entirely different proposition – not only has Transcon now got its first female overall winner, but Fiona Kolbinger is also a debutant with no documented experience in self-supported ultra cycling events. When we reached out to Transcon for more information, they simply told us: “our sources are as limited as yours.”
Those sources so far are a short bio on the German Cancer Research Centre website, which confirms Kolbinger is a medical student in the Paediatric Oncology unit. Then there is her Strava account, which appears to have been used pretty infrequently up until 27th of July 2019, when Kolbinger began documenting her remarkable Transcon efforts. A Google search also reveals that Kolbinger competed for the Eppelheim Poseidon triathlon club, with a small bio saying she was born in 1995.
She is known personally by Björn Lenhard, this year’s pre-race favourite to win, who was forced to scratch on day three due to excruciating saddle sores. Rather than sulk off home, our most promising source of further info on Kolbinger is now manning the race checkpoints instead, while encouraging his former rivals to the finish line in the port city of Brest in northwestern France. The day three race report from Transcontinental says Lenhard and Kolbinger are both from Dresden, and trained together before the event. Lenhard said: “Fiona is so strong, she really is. What’s more, she is a complete rider. Yes, you need to be strong but in this race you have to be able to think, to plan, to fix your bike if you have to.
“She is also one of the strongest climbers in this race, much faster than me.''
Accompanying Lenhard is Martin Thomas, who is following this year's Transcon with event sponsor Fizik. He caught up with Kolbinger at the third checkpoint: "I'm completely in awe. She's increased her lead, having climbed 5000 metres over 160km late last night and early this morning. She reached the third checkpoint at least two hours ahead of her nearest rival, then she casually mentioned that she's never cycled in the Alps before and that this is her first race. Ever. And she's really nice and modest and self-effacing. There's a killer beneath that amiable surface though, and it might well see her become the first female Transcon winner. I certainly hope so."
The daily race reports on the Transcontinental website have featured various candid snaps of Kolbinger, who despite suffering the effects of the harsh summer sun appears to have been chipper throughout (for the camera at least) considering the huge number of miles in her legs; none more so than at checkpoint four on day eight, when rather than slumping into an exhausted heap she treated volunteers and hotel guests to a piano performance: “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.”
Riding a Canyon Endurace with Di2 shifters on the aerobars (which also makes her the first to win the Transcon on a carbon bike) and a relatively sparse kit ensemble considering the length of the race - often photographed riding with inner tubes draped around her shoulder to save kit bag space - Kolbinger's Strava uploads reveal an average distance of around 400km a day. She reportedly managed on around four hours sleep a night, and her time in the saddle ranged from 15 up to almost 18 hours. The biggest effort came on day four, where she covered 475km at a staggering average speed of 26.9km/h.
As many of her rivals scratched early on in the race, Kolbinger was out in front with just Ben Davies from Bristol being her only real threat over the last six days before she cemented her victory. There was reportedly as little as 20km between them at some points in the Alps, and strong climber Davies was expected to close the gap in the high mountains; it never happened, and as the roads flattened out and the route approached central France, Kolbinger had managed to fend off the threat and actually extended her lead greatly, with Davies still over 150km behind when she reached the finish line.
Should we even be surprised that Kolbinger won? There is plenty of research and past evidence from ultra-distance events to suggest her lack of experience rather than gender is more surprising. A 2013 study into the peak performances of Swiss Cycling Marathon participants shown that women tend to close the gender gap over men in longer cycling distance races. Various studies suggest numerous potential reasons for this, such as women being more resistant to muscle fatigue, being able to derive more energy from fat than men (particularly useful in longer races) and females having a better ability to pace than male counterparts. A 2012 study of Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc runners shown that female participants appeared to have a greater fatigue resistance ability over very long efforts compared to men.
Female overall winners of ultra-running races are well documented, a notable example being Pam Reed's overall victories at the 2002 and 2003 editions of the 135 mile Badwater ultramarathon. More recently, fell runner Jasmin Paris won the 2019 Spine Race, a 268 mile route along the Pennine Way, in 83 hours 12 minutes - she was not only the overall winner, but also smashed Eoin Keith's previous course record by a whole 12 hours. In ultra-cycling, Lael Wilcox won the 2016 edition of the Trans Am Bike Race, passing Steffen Streich in the final day to finish in 18 days and ten minutes.
With just one woman lining up for the first edition of the Transcon back in 2013 and 40 participating this year, the lack of a previous female winner at Transcon and other ultra events could point more towards factors that aren't related to physical ability – the more women compete, the greater chance a woman wins the race – but there are numerous potential barriers to this. Sport England identified fear of judgement, not feeling 'good enough' and a lack of confidence as reasons why more women don't take up cycling; not that any of this even nearly applies to Fiona Kolbinger, who by riding 4,000km alone across Europe and beating 250 other competitors in the process has the potential to inspire women to cycle as much as any corporate campaign ever could.
"We should not be surprised at (Fiona's performance) all", says James Hayden: "Ultra endurance races come down to mental fortitude and women are seriously tough. There's no doubt some of the biggest feats recently have come from women; Jasmin Paris comes to mind.
“I think it was a question of when not if a woman would win, we have just been waiting for the right woman. And I hope it will empower women out there to reach further, increase participation rates and pushing the sport to a new level.”
As she stormed towards Brest in the early hours of the morning, Kolbinger's victory was confirmed on Tuesday 6th August, winning in a time of ten days, two hours and 48 minutes. In a tweet posted shortly after she crossed the finishing line, Transcon summed up her performance for the ages as this:
"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 bike race and without ever really breaking a sweat."
Lead image: AngusSung.co.uk for Transcontinental.cc
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