Stubborn as a Rule: Fiona Kolbinger on Her Challenging TCRNO8

WORDS BY
Pete Harrington

After a two-year hiatus, the Transcontinental made a highly-anticipated return to the racing calendar this summer. And with a route that reversed TCRNo7’s east to west direction, the hardy participants pushed off from Geraardsbergen in Belgium on Sunday, July 24th, with the aim of reaching the finish line on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast in the fastest time. Among them was reigning TCR champion and 7mesh ambassador Fiona Kolbinger, a thoughtful and tenacious racer who rocked the wider sporting world when she beat all comers to win the 2019 edition of what is generally regarded as the hardest self-supported bike race in the world. Between her demanding work schedule as a surgeon and time on the bike, we recently caught up with the Dresden Flyer to hear how this year’s race went down.

Hey Fiona, great to see you again – it’s been a minute. How are you doing?

Thanks, Pete. Always great to catch up with 7mesh! I’ve been back from Transcontinental for a month, and it’s been calm. I haven’t spent much time on the bike, to be honest.

Considering the race you had, I don’t blame you. But leaving issues and hiccups to the side for a moment, how did this Transcontinental differ from your win in 2019’s edition?

I was expecting myself to be fit, but I didn’t know what was coming. And I knew that the field would be incredibly strong. So let’s put it that way: this year, I cycled significantly more distance every day than in 2019 when I won the thing!

Was that the nature of the course or just how it worked this time?

No, no. The course was more challenging than in 2019, I would say. And despite that, although I rode more miles each day than in 2019, this time, it didn’t put me first but eighth. That says a lot about how strong the competition was this time round.

Once you started, did you settle in pretty quickly?

I think I settled in pretty well and pretty quickly. Naturally, it was completely different from 2019’s edition because this year, we were racing west to east rather than east to west. So I spent a lot of time in Germany in the first few days, because the race started in Belgium and then we crossed Germany from west to east. And I was feeling good; everything was going to plan. For example, I saw some people going super fast in the beginning but I held my steady rhythm. I wasn’t in a very high position for the first few days, but I continuously climbed up the classification until the first checkpoint. And I think I was in 10th position or something at the first checkpoint. So that was very much what I expected.

Classic hare and the tortoise tactics, Fiona! Where was the first checkpoint?

Haha, yes. The first checkpoint was after 800 kilometres in the Czech Republic, on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic.

Smooth sailing, but I believe the first hurdle wasn’t far away, right?

Yes indeed. The first real challenge was when I was robbed while sleeping in a half-pipe in a skate park.

That sucks, to say the least. What happened?

It was a shitty combination of a poor choice of sleeping spot and other factors. I had planned a bit in advance for the first two nights or so where I would sleep because you can foresee how much elevation and what the profile will be like, which means that in the beginning, you can still plan where you’re going to stay. So I had a town in the Czech Republic in mind where I wanted to sleep, and when I got there, it was about 11:00 PM, so it was time to go to bed. And I thought, no, I’m in the place I planned to go to bed, so I’ll go into the centre. The city had a skate park in the middle, with a bit of light. And I thought it wouldn’t be the worst place to sleep because these half-pipes are dry, and while bikepacking, you’re always looking for a sleeping spot on solid ground. And also, I usually try to be somewhere, not in the middle of a city, because there are too many people, but somewhere where there would be people around if anything happened.

On paper, it sounds like a decent spot to sleep.

Yes and no. When I was putting my stuff down, people were walking on a footpath close by. Nobody was skating there, but people could see me from the path, which is not ideal because if someone wants to get up to no good, I’m pretty visible. Anyway, I put my sleeping bag on the half -pipe and fell asleep. I had also locked my bike to it because I’m a heavy sleeper and wouldn’t necessarily wake up if someone started moving my bike.

“The first real challenge was when I was robbed while sleeping in a half-pipe.”

So my spot wasn’t ideal, but I also made another poor choice. Stupidly, I piled my clothes up next to me rather than pushing them down into my sleeping bag as I usually do. And, of course, I still had everything in my jersey pockets from the day’s riding, including food, chewing gum, headphones, my purse, credit cards, ID, and maybe 100 euros in cash or something. My all-important TCR tracker wasn’t in my jersey, but it was in a relatively accessible bag on my bike.,

I fell asleep, but before too long, the temperature must have dropped because I woke up. I started tapping on my phone, and from the screen’s light, I caught someone to one side running at full speed away from me. I was still a bit foggy from sleep, but I thought it was very strange that someone would be running so close to me in the middle of the night. And then I sat up because I had been lying until then, and I realised that the person was a thief. My things were strewn everywhere, and my jersey was all but empty.

So you disturbed them whilst they were in the act?

Yeah, I think so. I think so. Of course, then I asked myself what I should do, right? It’s Tuesday morning, 1:00 AM, in the middle of the Czech Republic, and I’ve just been robbed.

That’s a hurdle, alright.

Yes, you could say that. Luckily, I still had my phone and immediately blocked my credit cards via the banking app. So this was pure luck that I still had my phone. And then I just got my stuff together and thought about what I should do next. I mean, it’s shit, but I was still in the race, and I didn’t want to quit. So I thought for a bit and came to the conclusion that as long as I had PayPal on my phone, there might be some way of getting money or just getting to the finish. Luckily, I also had my passport, so even though my ID card was stolen, I could still cross borders without a hassle.

I pondered all of this for a few minutes while standing next to a road, and then all of a sudden, a police car appeared. I waved, they stopped, and I told them the story, and they were like, “Oh, you need to report that to the local police.” And I was like, “Huh? It’s the middle of the night. Will someone be there at a police office?” They went, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Someone is there. They have a night shift.” So I went to this police office, and the big problem was they didn’t speak any English or the guy spoke a bit of English, but just enough to communicate and get what happened.

A very, very long story short, what followed was like something from a Monty Python sketch. Communication problems, bureaucracy, a 30km cycle away from the town only to come back for a multi-stage Tour de Garbage Bins in the area of the skatepark when my tracker pinged my phone with its location – it was a frustrating night. And I never did find that tracker. I think the thief must have dumped it on their way out of the park.

Holy hell.

Exactly. But don’t forget, I have an obligation to track my ride. So I contacted the TCR team, and they directed me to an app which could track my phone. So after a few hours, I had a functional tracker. But I still didn’t have my credit card, and I had zero cash money. And at this point, it became existential because you need so much food on the bike. I had a bit of food, but I was really worried because I couldn’t go to an ATM, I only had PayPal, and that was it. So I spent the next day asking people if I could buy money from them using PayPal!

I can imagine how that went down.

It was not fun. The big problem was that nobody had PayPal. I crossed back from the Czech Republic into Germany, and although I was lucky to be in a country where I spoke the language, the region I was in consisted solely of people who had never heard of PayPal. And it wasn’t just the trade; it was what I was doing and why – why I needed so much money! There were many cultural barriers.

This hurdle is getting awfully big.

Too big. But gradually and at great cost to my overall time, I managed to trade enough money to be able to carry on with the ride.

Side question: Have you always been this resilient??

I am very stubborn, yes. I’ve always been that way. And also, in the moment, it didn’t feel so hard. Looking back, I learned a lot, let’s put it like that. But at the time, it felt like the logical next solution to try and try once again. I would’ve only stopped if I had run out of food and not managed to find anything.

You must have felt very relieved when you eventually started putting miles down again without having these existential worries.

To be honest, it was mixed feelings because once I started thinking about the whole event, I realised that sleeping outside can be dangerous. Until then, I had only had good experiences. Many people had asked me before these races or in interviews if I was ever scared of sleeping outside alone. And I always said, “No, I’ve never had anything bad happen. And that’s why I am not scared,” and that was the truth. But the more I started thinking about what happened on the half-pipe, the more I realised that this was not the worst-case scenario. It did feel quite hard. It’s such a strange feeling, thinking about someone going through your stuff while you’re sleeping and what might have happened. I didn’t know who this was, what kind of person, but if they hadn’t found my purse, would they have attacked me? I don’t know.

You were fortunate.

There were other scenarios that could have happened, and I don’t know if all of these scenarios would’ve ended in me being able to continue this race. And that showed me for the first time in my life that I’m vulnerable in this situation and that things can go wrong. And also, statistically thinking this through, how many nights have I slept outside in my life, maybe 15 or 20, and now one time went really wrong. So if there is a 5% chance of something bad happening, do I want this? And that was the big question for me. So the next night, I slept in a hotel and the night after, I slept in a hotel. And yeah, I felt like a bit of my experience was taken from me that night because I was not as, let’s say, naive or fearless again regarding sleeping outside.

Given the potential risks, why not always sleep indoors?

I really like sleeping outside. I can sleep well, and I like being in nature. Also, I think time is the biggest point in favour of sleeping outside because you can be very quick when you only have to put down your sleeping bag and fall asleep. It typically takes me maybe 10 minutes from bike to being asleep in my sleeping bag. And this is very hard for me in a hotel.

One hurdle down, how many to go?

One big one. The gravel in Romania.

Could you walk me through what happened?

Well, there was a section of the parcours that the organisers had referred to as gravel. But to be honest, it was beyond anything a gravel bike is capable of. It was only fit for mountain bikes, and that’s being kind.

At this point, you were past the Trans-Alpine checkpoint, I believe?

Correct. I was in Romania, riding some rather spectacular Alpine-like mountain paths. It’s very beautiful, and the weather was great. The tricky section we’re talking about was about 40 to 45 kilometres long. Of course, I had checked the route before, and I knew this was very much off-road, with lots of rocks. It seemed more like a hiking path than a bike road.

The section was 40km long, mostly downhill, with some uphill in the middle. I knew that I would be very slow and would probably need four or five hours to ride it. And with the sunset at around 9:30 PM, I figured I needed to enter this before, let’s say, 5:00 or 6:00 PM to make it in daylight. In the end, I entered the parcours at 6:30, so I knew from the beginning that I would do the last stretch in the night.

“It felt like the logical next solution to try and try once again. I would’ve only stopped if I had run out of food and not managed to find anything.”

As I rode, it became darker and darker. And actually, the first two-thirds were really nice. I had heard from the seven guys that had passed before me that they found it unrideable and that everybody had had a crash or a mechanical. So I was aware that it could be difficult, but I thought, “Ha, it’s very, very beautiful actually.” But then the last, let’s say, five kilometres – a fraction of the whole parcours – was in a dry river bed. It was downhill, completely dark, and there were maybe 40, 50 centimetres deep ridges in the earthy ground. To be clear, these were trenches! It was impossible to ride it, but in the dark, with only a head torch and dynamo bike light, I realised that too late.

Christoph Strasser, who went on to win the TCR, had visited and ridden this area before the race, so he knew that the last part was not rideable and that it would be safer to get off your bike and push for the last five kilometres. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this, and I tried riding over these ridges and then slipped into one and got up again. I got up and tried riding between the ridges again, and again I tripped into one, except this time my bike fell upside down, destroying one of the aero bar shifters in the process. As you can imagine, I was angry at this point because I just found it stupid and dangerous that such a section was included in the race. I’m in the front group. I have a lot of experience, yet a silly and unnecessary danger has stopped me in my tracks. If I can’t manage it, what about the far less experienced people coming behind me, riders who will be even more tired than I am, with fewer mental and physical resources to be able to deal with any potential problems?

It sounds like a course designed for a reaction, not rideability.

It was maybe not the best idea to include this mandatory section. Anyway, another long story short, my Di2 was broken, so after much wrangling, I was left with no choice but to ride the remaining distance single speed.

How far did you have to go?

I had 600-something kilometres left. It was a real struggle, but I pressed on. I don’t even remember deciding to keep going. I just knew I had to finish. First, though, I needed to sleep, and luckily there was a hostel at the end of the trail. In the morning, I got up and rode 330km to catch the ferry from Romania into Bulgaria, making it with 20 minutes to spare. The rest of the ride went without a hitch, and I arrived at the Black Sea town of Burgas in 8th position overall.

I feel like your ride this year was in many ways more impressive than in 2019, despite not getting the win this time.

This time was more challenging; I had more problems to cope with. The last edition was cycling with little sleep across the continent, interspersed with some navigation issues. But the TCR comes with navigation issues; you always have them somehow because you can’t plan on everything. But this time, it was more a question of perseverance and being stubborn enough to keep going, despite shit happening. And I don’t know; it was also a bit of a different situation because I knew that people were expecting something from me as the current TCR champion. But I wasn’t expecting to win at all. I’ve been working so much, and I hadn’t been training as much as I would have liked to. But still, I know that I have a track record of doing well, despite little preparation.

Your finishing time was extraordinarily close to the winner.

Yes, I had great legs throughout, despite the problems. But in the world of TCR, that’s racing, as unfair as it feels. Let’s see what next year brings!

Three cheers to that. Thanks for your time, Fiona – be safe.

Thanks, Pete, you too.

Wild and Safe

If there’s one takeaway from Fiona’s story, it’s that bikepacking can be a risky business. Sleeping outdoors presents a level of exposure that we’re far removed from in our everyday lives. And when we do venture into the wilds, the very feeling of freedom that we seek can mask the very real dangers that being outside can present. However, there are things we can all do to minimise the risk, so in the interests of safety and sleeping soundly, we’ve compiled a few resources that we hope prove useful the next time you head into the backcountry.

Push Bike Girl – Wild Camping Safety Tips

Wild Camping – 10 Tips for Wild Camping