This is a week in which, more than ever, we need a positive story to think about and tell. The tragic death of Lotto Soudal rider Bjorg Lambrecht was the worst kind of reminder of the risks our sporting heroes take, and how human they all are.
It also reminded us of how much love there is in cycling. The outpouring of affection, from all across the sport for Bjorg, for his family, friends, for everyone at Lotto Soudal and those who had ever ridden with him.
Love, also, for cycling. This is not a rich business. There are easier ways to make a living, for all of us. We do it out of love. Which is why, whether we knew him or not, we feel so deeply and painfully the untimely death of a young cyclist, doing what he excelled at and loved. It was far too short but from what we know of him, Bjorg Lambrecht lived his best life.
Love, too, is why Fiona Kolbinger’s victory in the 4,000-kilometre Transcontinental Race cannot help but lift our spirits, even in this dark week.
And it’s why, even though this ultra endurance stuff is a bit beyond our remit, I’ve been granted special dispensation from my superiors to talk about it. Just this once. Because Kolbinger’s achievement, leading the pack from the Bulgarian start town of Burgas to the finish in Brest, is one that needs to be broadcast from every digital street corner.
Besides, you feel Henri Desgrange would have had a lot of time for the Transcontinental. It is, in many ways, truer to his original vision of the Tour de France than the Grande Boucle’s contemporary incarnation, albeit with a few technological twists.
The rules are very much in the Desgrange spirit: no third party support is permitted (though that doesn’t quite mean the participants have to hold the bellows themselves); only human powered forward overland travel; “Ride in the spirit of self reliance and equal opportunity”. It barely needs saying that it’s seriously bloody hard. Simply getting to the finish is a monumental mission. Plenty of participants abandon, which Desgrange would have approved of, and there’s no shame in that. The risk of it happening adds an extra, ever-present layer of tension.
There are, of course, no live TV pictures. To follow it we have relied on dotwatching, social media and elegantly written (by Rouleur alumnus Jack Enright, no less) daily reports from the race. With tales of daring, doggedness and difficulty, it’s journalism not dissimilar to how it would have been a century ago. Are the missives entirely factual and completely accurate? Who knows. Has a little artistic licence perhaps gone into their composition? I hope so. I like the story as it unfolded in my head.
More gripping even than the daily despatches, however, has been the GPS tracking. With respect to the Tour de Wallonie, nothing has held my attention in the post-Tour lull like that little blue bubble with a Transcontinental racer’s number in it. It is, I’m sure, a product of multiple mighty feats of human endeavour, but from a user perspective it’s incredibly simple. Just an arrow, showing you where on the European landmass each competitor is. By yesterday morning there were still riders stretched all the way to Slovenia.
That Kolbinger is the first woman to win the Transcontinental is a point worth making but it is not worth lingering over. Her sex is at most a reminder, should you require it – though you shouldn’t – of how strong women are, of what women can endure. Kolbinger (along with the 39 other female participants) follows in the tyre tracks of many predecessors who have put to the sword the suggestion that women are in any way “the weaker sex”.
Marguerite Wilson, this week’s Hall of Fame endorsee, was one of the earliest, but it’s a long list. This is just what women do.
No, it was the way Kolbinger seemed to go about her endeavour, at 24 years old, in her first ever race, that captured our imagination. Steady progress, never faltering, ever onwards.
If you can find a shot of her from the last ten days without a smile on her face we might cry “Photoshop” or “fake news”. After half the time at half that pace – and twice as much sleep – we’d have just been crying.
She rode entirely on her own terms. We too often speak of a noble form of suffering in this sport yet self-sacrifice did not appear to be at the centre, or fuel much, if any, of Kolbinger’s riding. She must be competitive though, surely? She must have wanted to win. Maybe, but you wouldn’t know how much that mattered. What we do know is that she was stronger than everyone else and could ride further for longer.
On Sunday, 2500 kilometres into the race and two days from the finish, Kolbinger arrived at Checkpoint 4, the Hotel Milan in the French Alpine town of Le Bourg-d’Oisans. No single moment better summed up her race. Presented with the opportunity-slash-obligation to rest, most would have headed upstairs for a kip. Instead, the first thing Kolbinger did was sit down at the lobby’s upright piano and treat the room to a rendition of the Lion Sleeps Tonight.
She hadn’t even bothered to take her cycling shoes off.