In early August, 10 days, two hours and 48 minutes after setting out from the start line in Burgas, Bulgaria, 24-year-old German Fiona Kolbinger rolled into Brest, France, to win the seventh edition of the Transcontinental Race, one of the world’s premier self-supported, ultra-endurance cycling competitions. Kolbinger didn’t just top the women’s category. She won the race outright, besting 225 men and 39 women along the way. In second place, Ben Davies finished nearly a half day behind Kolbinger.
“I was so surprised. Before the race, I never thought about winning,” Kolbinger says.
The Transcontinental was her first-ever endurance race, she explains, so she had no way of gauging how she would stack up. Her only measure came from Björn Lenhard, a two-time Transcon runner-up who Kolbinger met and rode with in her adoptive town of Dresden, Germany.
“We became really good friends and cycled together a lot. He told me that he thought the women’s podium was realistic, and that was my expectation going into that race. But never the overall.” She adds that, in hindsight, she thinks she could have ridden even faster. “In the moment, I didn’t feel I was pushing that hard. I was just going steady,” she says.
By winning one of the world’s toughest endurance cycling events, Kolbinger follows in the tracks of a small, but growing number of women. Recently, Alaskan Lael Wilcox pulled off a coup at the 2016 Trans Am Bike Race to win the 4,400-mile epic by just two hours. And in 2011, Lynda Wallenfels, a 24-Hour National Champion who trains some of the country’s top endurance mountain bike racers, outlasted the field to victory at the sixth edition of the Arizona Trail Race 300.
And it’s not just cycling. Women ultrarunners are also outpacing men, including Jasmin Paris’ record-shattering victory at the 268-mile Montane Spine Race in January and Courtney Dewalter’s 2017 overall victory at the Moab 200. And based on the research of Swiss sports scientist Beat Knechtle, women are faster than men at two of the world’s hardest ultra-distance swimming races, the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and the 20.1-mile Catalina Channel Swim. These results, and others like them, remain the exception. But as women rack up wins at endurance events, it’s easy to wonder how women are bridging the performance gap.
The most obvious answer lies in the democracy of endurance racing, where women line up side-by-side with men.
“Women will never beat men unless they get to race them,” says Lael Wilcox. She admits that it can be intimidating at first, but it’s equalizing. “It’s hard to look around and see all these super-fit guys and think, ‘I can win this.’ But now that I’ve done these races enough, I know it spreads out after a day or two, and then it’s all about my race and not anyone else. I definitely don’t look at it as men’s and women’s competition; I see it as an overall field.”
Being pitted against men was the first step in breaking down the gender gap. While a broad sample of world records show men’s performances consistently outpace women’s by around 10 percent, as more women enter mixed-gender endurance events this may change. As women athletes have demonstrated, the broad demands of endurance racing may reward more than simple physical superiority.
“In ultra-endurance sports, there are so many factors that determine the outcome of a race—physiology, mental skills, technique, nutrition, route finding, strategy—and when you consider all of those things, women stand a decent chance against men,” says 2018 24-Hour World Champion Kaitlyn Boyle, who has won ultra-bikepacking events such as the Coconino Stage Race and is among the fastest racers on routes like the AZT300.
At the soaked, muddy, frigid world championships in Fort William, Scotland, last year, Boyle favored smarts and calculation over flat-out pace to earn her title. She paused to warm up between laps when she was suffering and changed to dry kits when necessary, going fast when she had to but preserving her reserves so she could continue at pace while others fell away. “It persuaded me all over again that mental skills and strategy are just as determining or even more so than physical ability,” she says.
That was the case for Lynda Wallenfels in the 2011 AZT300, when record temperatures soared to over 100 degrees. As conditions took their toll on racers, Wallenfels stuck to her plan of going fast, but not too hard for the sizzling conditions, and eventually prevailed while others faltered. “It’s a common mistake to be distracted by keeping up with a faster competitor,” she says. “Some races are won through smart pacing and attrition of athletes who do not execute their own best race plan.”
The more women excel, the more energy gets put into them rising, too.
“Women are increasingly being included in exercise-science research and studies, which have historically only included men,” says Wallenfels, who trains some of the country’s top endurance racers through her business, LW Coaching. “This has led to increased understanding of gender differences and how to optimize training and performance for female athletes, which has opened up the opportunity for an increasing number of female athletes to rise to the top.”
Wilcox agrees that women’s lack of representation in sports relative to men partly accounts for the disparity in results. “I think you’d see women winning more often, except the field is so small,” she says. “Most of the time in these races, women are 5 percent of the field or less.”
During her 2016 victory at the Trans Am Bike Race, Wilcox was one of 11 women (of 66 racers) to line up. She rode almost the entire event behind other riders in the field, pacing carefully as the competition burned out or made mistakes. When the leader became disoriented from fatigue in the final 200 miles and mistakenly rode back the way he’d come, Wilcox caught him, dropped him, and went on to win by two hours. “You just never know what’s going to happen out there, so you have to ride your own race and make sure you’re doing your best,” Wilcox says.
That’s exactly what Kolbinger did at this year’s Transcontinental Race. Founded in 2013 by the late endurance racing legend Mike Hall, the TCR follows an unusual format that stipulates a start point, end point, and several checkpoints in between (four at this year’s edition), but allows racers to pick their route and ride when and how they like.
“The format makes it really exciting and interesting,” Kolbinger says. “It means the race is not only about speed and fitness, but also about strategy and choices and decisions.” Beyond that, riders must adhere to a strict self-support ethic, carrying everything they need and restocking only from public places.
Of the 10 countries through which she could have passed from Bulgaria to France, Kolbinger linked seven, averaging 19 hours in the saddle and just shy of 250 miles per day. She survived on four hours of sleep per night, usually on the roadside in a bivy sack. She lurked near the front of the race for the first few days, but when the leader succumbed to saddle sores on day three and the rider behind him quit due to foot pain a day later, Kolbinger took the lead and never looked back.
According to Strava, she covered 330 miles and 10,910 feet of climbing on her final day of the race. At the finish, she was delighted, but stunned to have won.
After some reflection, Kolbinger says that she probably should have had more confidence from the start. She went in knowing that 200-plus miles per day was realistic for her, which would have put her in the top ten of every previous edition of the race. And she has learned that the distance and the broad range of demands in ultra-endurance cycling levels the playing field. “Second and third place had a faster mean speed than me, but also more stoppage time,” she says. “I think I made good decisions throughout the race.”
But even now, with the win behind her, she still second guesses herself. “Somewhere down deep, I think I still feel that there’s a difference in men and women that can’t be crossed,” she says. “But I also think that the more that women win, the easier it is to forget that difference”
Watch More: Wilcox shares her journey on the Arizona Trail—800+miles of desert singletrack.