Fiona Kolbinger, a 24-year-old with little experience in competitive cycling, took the world by surprise when she became the first female to win the ultra-endurance Transcontinental Race on August 6, 2019. The cancer researcher from Germany outrode 225 men and 39 women to complete the approximately 2,485 miles (4,000 km) race from Bulgaria to France in 10 days, two hours, and 48 minutes. Even more impressive, Kolbinger crossed the finish line almost 11 hours ahead of the second-place winner, Ben Davies of the United Kingdom.
"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," Kolbinger said. While the cyclist's resounding and unexpected victory wowed people worldwide, she is unimpressed. Despite resting an average of just four hours a night throughout the ten-day period, Kolbinger says, "I think I could have gone harder. I could have slept less."
Now in its seventh year, the Transcontinental Race was founded by the late British ultra-cyclist Mike Hall. The self-supporting race, reputed to be one of the hardest of its kind, challenges not only racers' biking skills and endurance, but also their route planning and time management prowess. “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.”
This means that once the clock began ticking for this year's competitors on July 27th, 2019, it didn't stop for any mandatory rest or eating breaks. Instead, the cyclists had to decide for themselves where, when, and how much they ate and slept. They also had to ride in temperatures that ranged from 39° F (4° C) to 98.6 ° F ( 37° C) and endure freezing rain, thunderstorms, and heat waves, with only the gear they were carrying to protect them from the elements.
Also, unlike other cycling competitions where the routes are carefully laid out, the Transcontinental Race requires contestants to chart their own course. The only requirement is to check in at four stops, located at various points along the way. To ensure all competitors undergo some of the same challenges, each checkpoint is followed, or preceded, by demanding terrain. This year, that meant riding up the steep 8,116-foot (2,474-meter) Timmelsjoch mountain pass between the Italian and Austrian border, and cycling across the Col du Galibier. With an elevation of 8,677 feet (2,645 meters), it is one of the highest paved paths in the French Alps.
The prestigious event's difficulty has meant that previous winners have all been experienced, well-known ultra-cyclists, like 2015 Red Bull Trans Siberian Extreme champion Kristof Allegaert, who won the Transcontinental Race in 2013, 2014, and 2016. Given that this was Kolbinger's first attempt at endurance racing, her victory stunned many. However, it did not surprise Björn Lenhard, who trained with her for the race in Dresden, Germany. The ultra-cyclist, who was this year's pre-race favorite to win before being forced to retire due to an injury, 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."
Though he does not personally know Kolbinger, James Hayden, a British endurance cyclist, who won the Transcontinental Race in 2017 and 2018, agrees. "We should not be surprised at [Fiona's performance] at all," he says. "Ultra-endurance races come down to mental fortitude and women are seriously tough. 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 push the sport to a new level." We sure hope he is right!