"No prize, just a stamp on a brevet card" Fiona Kolbinger on winning the TCR, and hidden talents

In the summer of 2019, Fiona Kolbinger became the first female winner of the Transcontinental Race, completing the 4000km event in just 10 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes. She spoke to Rouleur about what it took to get there

What has cycling brought to your life?

A sense of distance. I think differently about it compared to ten years ago: when I see a globe, I find a point and think ‘how could I get there by bike? What would be a nice route?’ The second big thing is many, many friends. The long distance community is special, very welcoming and friendly. It’s a bunch of exceptional people: they sit on a bike for days and days, and what do they get in the end? No prize, just a stamp on a brevet card. Who does that? 

What is your first memory of riding a bike?

Riding a red bike, I must have been four. My family lives close to the forest, pretty much out in nature, and we did a lot of cycling tours when I was a kid. Back then, I always had the smallest bike, the shortest legs and was never the fastest because of my older brother.

You’re a trainee surgeon. How has your journey through the world of medicine been?

My parents are both doctors, a neurologist and psychiatrist, who have a practise together. They talk a lot about it, always positively, and I was always interested in the human body. The first week of medical school, we started off with anatomy class in which you dissect a human body. I never loved anything so much, I found it spectacular – to see how the heart works, all the organs in the abdomen. Already at that point, I thought about going in the direction of surgery. 

Related: The Column – Why Fiona Kolbinger's victory in the Transcontinental Race matters

And that’s where I am now, in my second year of surgical training [at Heidelberg], which actually started right after the [2019] Transcontinental Race. It’s exhausting, but it can be really rewarding as well. Because you quickly see whether what you did was a success: in surgery, you have a patient in pain with, say, appendicitis, you remove the appendix, they are pain free within a day and they go home, ideally.  

What is your hidden talent?

I'm pretty good at memorising poems. I could still give you ten with six stanzas or so that I had to learn in school, off by heart. 

What were your highest and lowest points during your victorious 2019 Transcontinental Race?

The highest point was reaching the first control point 250 kilometres from the start line. It was basically like a time-trial there, everyone on the same hilly, hot route in Bulgaria. I had a really good time, I loved the landscape. When I got there, the TCR podcast guy, Tom Bonnett, told me I was in fifth position. I couldn’t believe it; it motivated me so much, the rest of the day I was flying. I realised I was good at this and could be competitive.

As for lowpoints, probably the second day when I crossed from Bulgaria to Serbia. I crashed into a border barrier, while not concentrating for a second. I was thankful nothing was damaged on the bike or me, but the guards didn’t want to let me go because the barrier was bent. They didn’t speak English, I don’t speak Serbian. I sat there for 45 minutes, trying to tell them I was on a race and needed to continue. In the end, they bent it back into place and let me go. I was close to tears because I thought my race was done. 

How did you feel when you finished and won the TCR?

The finish was at a youth hostel in Brest [a north-western city in France]. I saw 30 journalists outside it, but then they closed the front door and guided me in through the back, away from them. And they gave me that [last] stamp, a hug, took two photos and then they left me alone. That’s how those races end, and I love it that way. It’s not a fanfare finish. There is no red carpet, there is no prize, really. It's more like coming home to a family. And I was super exhausted, I just wanted to sleep and eat!

What’s your favourite food?

Any Italian food: pizza or pasta in any form.  

What adventures are on your bucket list?

My job doesn’t allow for huge adventures. But I'm interested in getting to know new places and I would really like to cycle in two continents: Asia and South America, places like Japan, Iran, Chile and Argentina, which look beautiful. 

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I would also be lying if I said I've never thought about cycling around the world. That would be for a record attempt. But not in the next few years, with work obligations, the need for training, route planning: it’s a huge amount of work. Maybe I’ll do it at some point.

Complete this sentence: happiness is…

Very generally, plans that work out better than expected – or just work out, if you don’t expect it. And I get happy when I see sunsets and sunrises on the bike, riding into the morning or the night. That’s the beginning of an adventure for me. 

This article first appeared in Rouleur 107, available to purchase here

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