Cancer researcher Fiona Kolbinger becomes first woman to win cycling's Transcontinental Race

Damien Meyer, AFP | Fiona Kolbinger, 24, cycles near the Breton village of Teillay, France, on way her to victory in the Transcontinental Race on August 5, 2019.

German paediatric cancer researcher Fiona Kolbinger, 24, has won the Transcontinental Race, becoming the first woman to do so after cycling nearly 4,000km from Bulgaria to France unassisted in just 10 days, two hours and 48 minutes.


Kolbinger rolled into Brest, in northwestern France’s picturesque Brittany region, at 7:48am on Tuesday after pressing on through the night to the finish. She beat a field of 263 competitors, all but 40 of whom were men.

Completing a distance greater than that of the three-week-long Tour de France entirely unaided, the Heidelberg-based medical student crossed the finish line at a Brest youth hostel with about 10 curious bystanders on hand to witness the feat. It was Kolbinger’s maiden ultra-endurance race.

“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,” the Transcontinental Race posted on Instagram in declaring Kolbinger the winner.

“I am so, so surprised to win. Even now,” Kolbinger told the event’s website Tuesday morning. “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. “I think I could have gone harder. I could have slept less.”

Kolbinger’s fans, who could track the progress of the German rider represented by a moving dot across an online map of Europe, were no less effusive on social media, where “Fiona Kolbinger” was trending in Paris on Tuesday morning.

“I mean, totally smashed it. Amazing! Must be over 200km faster than her nearest rival,” cycling blogger Jack Kirby wrote of Kolbinger’s finish.

“Wow wow wow!!! She’s done it and by miles!!!!” tweeted fellow ultra-endurance cyclist Fiona Scott. “Such an incredible ride.”

Meanwhile, in an appraisal that hardly needs translation, Le Monde reporter Pierre Breteau declared, “Bref, la badasserie de Fiona Kolbinger est totale,” i.e., total bad-ass.

Rest optional

Riders set off from Burgas, Bulgaria, on July 27, choosing their own routes for an event said to harken back to a golden age of cycling in privileging navigation skills, self-reliance and resourcefulness. The clock is constantly ticking during the single-stage race. “Riders plan, research and navigate their own course and choose when, where and if to rest,” the Transcontinental Race’s website explains.

“They will take only what they can carry and consume only what they can find.”

There were four mandatory control points along the way, checkpoints competitors must ride through that include an obligatory stretch organisers map out for the racers. They included climbing the 2,474-metre Timmelsjoch, a mountain pass in the South Tyrol on the Italy-Austria border, and the 2,645-metre Col du Galibier, one of the usual suspects for Tour de France mountain stages in the French Alps.

To complete the race this year, riders had to pass through at least seven countries, depending on the selected route – with Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, France, Italy, Kosovo, Serbia, Slovenia and Switzerland among the possibilities.

Temperatures over the course of the race reached a high of 37°C and a low of 4°C, and riders didn’t stop for a bit of lightning.

Kolbinger, for her part, spent 15 to 17 hours a day in the saddle, sleeping an average of only four hours a night. Less than halfway into this year’s event, James Hayden, who won back-to-back Transcontinental Races in 2017 and 2018, tweeted: “For years we’ve waited, knowing it is possible. Finally and with a vengeance, Fiona Kolbinger has arrived. I’m rooting for her. Rockstar. What a time for our sport.”

Noting that Kolbinger had only a London-Edinburgh-London race under her belt before taking on the Transcontinental, French sports daily L’Équipe on Tuesday quoted a cyclist who accompanied Kolbinger on a training ride in Germany last year. “While I was struggling in the climbs, she was revising the characteristics of antibiotics for her exam, with a sheet of paper affixed to her waist pouch,” the unnamed training partner marvelled.

Kolbinger will have plenty of time to catch up on research, soak in her win or play piano. The Transcontinental Race’s second-placed finisher isn’t expected to reach Brest until Tuesday evening.

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