On Tuesday 6th August after 10 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes of riding her bike 4129km, Fiona Kolbinger arrived in Brest ahead of 40 other women and 200 men to win the Transcontinental Race. You probably heard about it in the news: the BBC front page, Radio 4, CNN, The Guardian – I could go on. The media coverage in the hours after has been nothing short of incredible.
For those unaware, the Transcontinental Race has been an annual race since 2013 when just 31 adventure-seekers mounted their bicycles in London on a self-supported quest to Istanbul. The format of the race has been largely unchanged since its humble beginnings save for the addition of two extra controls.
The first winner was a Belgian rider called Kristof Allegaert. He went on to become a household name in ultra-endurance racing and is often considered the rider to beat. In the same year, Juliana Buhring was the first and only woman over the finish line a few days later. In a similar ilk, she has gone on to set world records and win other races.
Lael Wilcox is an American rider from Anchorage. Her tales of the 2016 Trans Am Bike Race bring back exciting memories for dotwatchers and fellow endurance wannabes. Her tussle with Steffan Streich eventually led her to the overall win of a race that spans the USA. She’s yet to challenge herself on a Transcontinental Race.
In the same year that Lael won, Sarah Hammond made her mark on the industry. A wrong turn put her down the leaderboard eventually finishing 6th but in the years that followed, she found her real passion on the dusty red roads of her native Australia. Sarah is the only woman to have won a race that so far no man has won: Race to the Rock.
In other endurance sports we’ve seen women outrun the men. Jasmin Paris recently won a 268-mile ultra-marathon called The Spine Race surpassing the course record by an almighty 12 hours. As well as looking after herself, she also managed to breastfeed her daughter throughout the ordeal. Nicky Spinks is another fell runner who could reel off a list of records and overall wins ahead of the men.
I won’t go into the science of women out-performing men over long distances – you can do that yourself as there’s plenty of literature on that subject – but what we saw over the course of the last two weeks was what we all knew would happen eventually.
Road cycling is one of the most accessible forms of cycling in my experience and I’ve dabbled in a few. The road network is familiar to everyone: pedestrians walk beside it, buses stop along it, cars zip around it and trams intersect with it. We see roads all the time and know where they go within our locales. Therefore, if you pick up a bike you’re likely to find some roads on which to ride fairly quickly and you don’t need a special bike or technical kit to do so.
As a result of more women getting on bikes and realising their potential, the Transcontinental has experienced growing numbers of women taking part.
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Women are mentally tough and physically superior over long distances so one of them had to win it eventually, right?
I received a tip-off about Fiona a few weeks ahead of the start from a Twitter acquaintance. He shared her Strava profile with me and I was immediately amazed at her stats. In the weeks leading up to the event, she had completed her Paris-Brest-Paris qualifying super randonneur series with eye-watering pace. A 600 with just five hours off the bike, a 400 with just 1.5hours out the saddle. I was in awe having compared those rides with my own.
As the race began, a steady stream of dots left Burgas for Bulgaria and while Fiona was always at the pointy end of the bunch, it wasn’t until she reached Serbia that she made her mark. Anonymous compared to a lot of the other frontrunners, she quietly carved her way through Europe between mandatory route sections and elevated control points and left everyone else in her wake.
I’ve always cheered women on from the sidelines and even from my own saddle (I lined up for TCR in 2015 though never made it to Meteora) and I’ve known a woman could win this race based on the endurance performances of Lael, Sarah, Jasmin and Nicky. It was a case of when, not if.
She averaged 24kmph in spite of the 40,000m of climbing along her route over a period of over 242 hours turning the pedals.
Fiona has captured not only the headlines of mainstream media for her enduring feat but the minds of so many women and girls deciding whether to ride a bike for the first time or to consider themselves a contender for a race like Transcontinental.
We now know that a woman can win this race outright. Maybe the young girl sitting quietly at the back of a classroom somewhere will jump on a bike and start training. Maybe the first-time mum getting her fitness back will spin all the plates in order that she lines up at the start of a future edition of an ultra-endurance race. Maybe the girl who tried and failed in years gone by will channel her frustration by realising that she too could be at the pointy end of a race if she tries hard enough.
That’s The Fiona Effect.
Feature image photo credit: Ben Briffett