No Sleep Till Bern

Words by: Pete Harrington

It sounds like a scene from a Wes Anderson film. At precisely 10:10 am on September 2nd, 2020, the Swiss Ultracycling Challenge begins, with participants pushing off from railway stations across Switzerland to pedal as quickly as possible through all 26 cantons (regions, essentially) en route to the finish line in Bern’s Bundesplatz. The first rider to arrive wins.

UPDATE: Fiona rode 850km in just 34 hours to take the win. Congratulations Fiona!

On the face of it, a simple challenge. But on closer inspection, the cunning Swiss have wrapped a maths problem inside a bike race. With no fixed route, placing well means pedalling the bare minimum of miles and climbing metres, while still passing through every region in the country. For scientist, TCR champion, and 7mesh ambassador Fiona Kolbinger, it’s a dream ride.

“I’m cooking while we’re talking, sorry!” admits Fiona, laughing amidst the clang of pots and pans as we connect to talk about her upcoming ride. Surely a good sign for the multi-tasking to come? “Haha yes, but I might cry in a minute because I’m chopping onions!”

Noted. How did she get involved with the race? “Well, this year’s TCR was cancelled, as was an event that I had lined up in May, a 1500km race in Poland,” she answers. “It would have been a nice early TCR test quite close to my home here in Dresden.” A search for new races and getaways followed until a friend told her about the Swiss Ultracycling Challenge. “It’s a free route – which means you plan your own route rather than following a predetermined course,” she explains. “And I’m totally into maps – and maths! And it’s quite a mathematical problem: how do you pass through all 26 regions in the most efficient way possible? For example, do you map a route with more climbing if it means less overall kilometers? Or something totally different?”

During the race, the riders will be tracked with their own satellite tracker, a la TCR (endurance fans call this craze ‘Dotwatching’), alongside a slightly slower, but no less reliable method – the mail. “Oh, yes, this is so amazing!” Fiona says excitedly. “To prove passage, each rider must mail a postcard from every region, which is then stamped by the canton as it travels through their mail network, proving you were there to post it!” Cycling has just found its own version of Slow TV.

But that’s not all the race has up its sleeve. “It’s super COVID-proof because there is no fixed start point,” she explains. “As long as you start at 10:10 at a train station somewhere in Switzerland, the rest is up to you. The riders will probably only ever see each other waving from a distance at the finish line in Bern!” And where, might we ask, is Fiona starting from? “Super secret”, she says amid an onion sniffle. No clues? “Well, ok. I’ve already changed my start location three times. One was to cut the route down by just two kilometres,” she admits with a laugh. “I may have got a little bit obsessed. But when you look at the map of Switzerland, there are really only two likely starting points. And I’m starting at one of those!”

After her superstar performance at 2019’s Transcontinental, Fiona is no stranger to mastering the intricacies of routes, regulations and organisation. So come Wednesday, how far will she be pedalling? “Well, after many, many changes, I have got my route down to,” – a pause for emphasis here – “significantly under 1000 km.”

Hurried mental calculations. Done in one? “Exactly. I’m not planning to sleep, and aim to ride through one night, which I hope will get me to the finish line,” she says. “No sleep till Bern!”

The race starts Swiss time, September 2nd. Follow Fiona and the other participants here.