Cancer researcher becomes first woman to win 4,000km cycling race

Helen Pidd
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

A German cancer researcher has become the first woman to win one of the world’s toughest cycling races in her first ultra-distance event.

Fiona Kolbinger, 24, from Dresden, said she was “so surprised to win” the Transcontinental, which traverses 2,485 miles (4,000km) from Burgas in Bulgaria to Brest in France.

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She took 10 days, two hours and 48 minutes to complete the challenge, which included about 40,000 metres (131,000ft) of climbing.

Kolbinger was one of 265 riders to begin the seventh edition of the race, which was started in 2013 by the British long-distance cyclist Mike Hall, who was killed during a race in Australia in 2017.

Depending on their chosen route, participants can pass through Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, France, Italy, Kosovo, Serbia, Slovenia and Switzerland.

Riders are free to choose their own route, but must pass through four control points. Each checkpoint is accompanied by an obligatory specific challenge, from gravel tracks to high-altitude climbs and steep gradients.

These included climbing the 2,474-metre Timmelsjochpass in South Tyrol on the border between Italy and Austria, and traversing the 2,645-metre Col du Galibier, one of the highest paved passes in the French Alps.

Kolbinger, a medical student at the paediatric oncology unit at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, was one of 40 women to start the race.

“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 … I think I could have gone harder. I could have slept less,” she said at the finish line on Tuesday.

The clock does not stop after the riders set off from Burgas on 28 July. Competitors choose where, when and if they want to rest. Riders can only use what they take with them, or what they can find en route at commercially available services, and are not to accept help from friends or strangers.

The weather was extremely variable, organisers said: “To complete the course, they’ve cycled through temperatures of up to 37C [98.6F] and as low as just four degrees above freezing. They’ve suffered under the scorching sun, freezing rain, and rode through thunder and lightning.”

Though Kolbinger finished comfortably ahead of her nearest rival, Ben Davies, who was still on the road seven hours after she crossed the line, her overall time was not a record-breaker.

James Hayden, a Briton, finished last year’s race in eight days, 23 hours and 59 minutes, finishing 24 hours ahead of the second-placed rider. He also won the 2017 event and came fourth in 2016.

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