As the first female winner of the 4,000km Transcontinental Race, Fiona Kolbinger is breaking down gender barriers in cycling
Words Emma Cole Photography Stephan Floss, Angus Sung
‘I just like riding my bike,’ says Fiona Kolbinger, 26-year-old German ultra-racer and surgeon in training. Cyclist is asking her about her training plan, but it turns out there isn’t one.
She doesn’t follow any specific programme, let alone ride with a power meter, calculate her watts per kilo, or have a strict diet. She simply understands what does and doesn’t work for her.
‘It’s all about knowing yourself, your body and what you are doing,’ she says. ‘Long-distance cycling and being a surgeon have many things in common.
‘You need to be able to work long hours, concentrate and make reliable decisions on not much sleep.
‘You need to be able to go without food for a while and then be able to eat large amounts in one go.
‘Of course you need to be physically fit, you need to stay calm when it’s stressful and you need to know how and when to rest.’
She spends most of her time at University Hospital Dresden in Germany. Her goal is to be a surgical oncologist specialising in abdominal surgery, which means she works 14-hour days, often during the night, and when we speak she is on the intensive care unit. Her long working hours mean she often doesn’t have time to cycle.
‘At times like now, I usually start running a bit more. During the week it’s usually either running or short rides. I work a lot of weekends too but when I have a day off, I just sit on my bike.’
It doesn’t sound like the lifestyle of an elite athlete, so what makes her so good?
Rise of a rookie
Kolbinger burst onto the scene in 2019 as the first woman and the first rookie ever to win the Transcontinental Race (TCR), considered by many as the toughest ultra-distance cycling race in the world.
The race is completely self-supported and takes a different route across Europe each year, with riders obliged to sign in at several checkpoints along the way. In 2019 the Transcontinental was 4,000km from Burgas in Bulgaria to Brest in France, taking in more than 40,000m of climbing.
On the start line, Kolbinger was 24 years old, completely unknown and new to ultra-endurance cycling. Ten days, two hours, 48 minutes and a great many chocolate bars later, that all changed.
‘I thought the TCR was a once in a lifetime thing and then I turned out to be quite good at it,’ she says.
‘I knew I was doing well as I’d been leading the race for about five days. By the end I had lots of messages saying I had 5,000 followers on Strava, so I knew people were going a bit crazy about it all.
‘I didn’t really know what to expect when I set off,’ she adds. ‘I just rode my bike and ate whatever and whenever I could. I ate a lot of chocolate bars, maybe around 50 Snickers in the first two days. I think I have a quite resistant stomach and can eat a lot of junk food.
‘I slept anywhere that was definitely going to be dry. In Switzerland I once slept at the delivery entrance of a supermarket.
‘At about four in the morning the delivery truck arrived and I was lying at the entrance in my sleeping bag, without shorts on. The lights of this huge truck were just shining directly on me. Without saying anything, I got out of my sleeping bag, put on my cycling shorts and went on my way.’
The physical and mental toll on the riders who take on the race across Europe should not be underestimated, yet Kolbinger somehow made it look easy.
To sum up her performance, the organisers of the TCR said at the time, ‘Fiona is not the first woman to excel in the world of ultra-endurance cycling, and while having our first female winner is a landmark moment for the Transcontinental Race, it is not the remarkable part of this story.
‘What is remarkable is that she won the TCR as a rookie, in her first-ever bike race and without ever really breaking a sweat.’
In the spotlight
Immediately after Kolbinger’s victory, a media frenzy followed the young German’s extraordinary achievement.
It’s something she admits she wasn’t prepared for and found difficult to cope with. Thankfully, the TCR organisers helped manage the situation, handling more than 200 interview requests.
‘I hid away after winning,’ she says. ‘I didn’t go into the town a lot and only went to the finish line a couple of times as all the attention was really intense. When I look back now, I’m just so thankful for how professional and kind the organisers were.’
She found additional support in the close-knit ultra-endurance community: ‘It was a bit like coming home to family. There were finally people who understood me after days and days on the road. It was just really cool.’
Kolbinger’s new-found fame came to haunt her again shortly after the Transcontinental, when she took part in the 2019 edition of Paris-Brest-Paris. The 1,200km audax event played host to more than 5,000 cyclists from all over the world, and Kolbinger was a star attraction.
‘It wasn’t a great experience as everyone knew me. It was a pain because people were taking selfies with me without asking. I stood in the queue for registration with my cap in my face, trying to hide because I didn’t want to be approached by people.’
Celebrity status is something Kolbinger has made a concerted effort to avoid. She purposefully maintains a minimal social media presence and says she only works with brands she actually likes.
‘I was quite lucky that I didn’t have much social media at that time of the TCR. I had so many friend requests on Facebook from people I didn’t know, I found it all very strange,’ she says.
‘There’s a reason why I don’t like social media because it just makes you dependent and I have decided that I do not want that.
‘For me it is important to work with brands that I actually believe are great. I want to stay authentic so that when I say I really love a particular brand, I mean it.’
Kolbinger has a close affiliation with Apidura, which sponsored the TCR and whose bikepacking bags she rode with.
After the event the company asked her for feedback on their products, and with trademark honesty she said she would have liked a longer top tube bag, one which went from stem to saddle.
A few weeks later a prototype arrived in her post box and now a long top tube bag is part of Apidura’s range.
Making of an ultra-athlete
‘I know that a lot of what I am is my parents, and I’m super thankful to them for raising me the way they did,’ Kolbinger says of her upbringing.
‘They never limited me because of my gender or because of anything I couldn’t change. It was always a case of, “If you want to do something, then do it.” There weren’t ever any obstacles.’
And it wasn’t just her parents who instilled such a determined mindset.
‘My grandmother is also a huge inspiration. She lived with us and helped my parents raise three children. When we were younger she would take us on holiday and we would go hiking.
‘Now she’s 79, she’s still super-fit and she still cycles. If I’m as fit as she is at 79 then I will be happy.’
Growing up in Heidelberg, a southwestern German town known for its castle ruins, Kolbinger cycled 5km to school every day, but at first her focus was primarily on swimming, with a dash of running mixed in.
With two other siblings to compete with, Kolbinger eventually took off her competitive swimming cap and instead did her first half-marathon when she was 16, and then a marathon at 18.
In 2014 she decided to get a touring bike to visit her then boyfriend in Helsinki. She spent three months plotting her route on paper maps, using highlighters to guide her way. This 1,800km, 12-day trip marked the beginning of a love affair with spending days in the saddle.
‘That trip was how I discovered that I really like being outside on the bike, finding new places and seeing the landscape change.
‘What I always find quite amazing is that on a bike you can start somewhere, and you can end up somewhere else and it looks completely different to where you started. That is one thing I really enjoy about cycling.’
Her passion and talent for cycling, running and swimming soon converted into joining a triathlon club at university.
‘I arrived at a competition with my touring bike, and they all laughed at me and said I couldn’t ride it. I managed to borrow a road bike from a Vietnamese woman, but it was way too small for me, so I just put the seat up really high.
‘I must have looked so strange. But after a couple of triathlons I discovered I actually can’t swim.’
Kolbinger’s infectious smile widens: ‘At this point I had the bike, and I don’t really know why but I ended up doing really long distances on it.’
She’s referring to cycling from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 2015, riding 350km from Heidelberg to Lake Zurich in one go without a GPS device (something she says is ridiculous looking back), and her first Audax in 2017, London-Edinburgh-London.
Beyond the Transcontinental
Not one to rest on her laurels, in 2021 Kolbinger took on the notoriously brutal Two Volcano Sprint, then in its third year.
It is a 1,100km, self-supported, single-stage race in Italy, with more than 26,000m of elevation, where riders must get from Mount Etna in Sicily to Mount Vesuvius in Naples in less than five days.
‘I like hills and I think I’m quite good at them,’ she says, ‘but I knew I wasn’t going to win this race as I can’t cycle for two nights without sleeping. I slept for two hours, twice, and I don’t take caffeine pills or painkillers, so I don’t think I could have done any better.
‘The route was amazing. I think it was the most consistently beautiful fixed route that I’ve ever seen,’ she adds. ‘We visited the fifth-highest Jesus Christ statue, which has an 18-switchback climb. You get a really nice view of the Amalfi coast, but if you don’t want to torture yourself, don’t do it.
‘The TCR is like drinking half a bottle of wine for ten days in a row; the Two Volcano Sprint is like drinking two litres of vodka in one night. I was absolutely wrecked afterwards.’
For this year Kolbinger has her sights set on the Race Through Poland, a one-stage, 1,500km race that took place in May this year as well as the postponed TCR (it didn’t run in 2020 or 2021 owing to Covid).
‘With my work, I don’t have lots of time for big races so I have to choose them carefully. Those are the two races that I’m really looking forward to and my fingers are crossed that they both go ahead. The TCR route goes near where my parents live so I am really excited about it.
‘Cycling is still a hobby for me. It’s not my job so I don’t want to put pressure on myself. I just want to push my body to its limits.’
Finishing an ultra-race
‘It isn’t like the Tour de France – there isn’t a podium and no one is celebrating at the finish with champagne. It’s a bit different.
‘To be honest, sometimes the best finish is just hanging out with the event organisers and then getting a good sleep at a hotel.’
Being a surgeon
‘It’s a rewarding job because you can often help patients quickly and so see results not long after. For instance, if a patient has appendicitis, you can take out their appendix and then they are pain-free the next day.
‘I really prefer that over treating a hypertonic 80-year-old, giving them 18 tablets, but they’re still not happy with the result two months later.’
‘I broke my collarbone in January 2020 and a friend lent me a turbo trainer. I hated it. I mean, it’s exhausting but it’s not cycling.
‘Cycling is about getting somewhere, and I just hated sitting on a turbo going nowhere. I won’t be doing that again.’